Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Humility: Essential for Preacher and Congregation

William Farley has written a wonderful article on "Preaching for Humility" over at Reformation 21. He contends that the Puritans understood the importance of humble preachers declaring God's truth to produce humility in their hearers. How different from much of what we see and hear in the contemporary church which seems to revel in producing spiritual celebrities.

One of the things Farley emphasized about the Puritans was their grasp of the depravity of the human heart. Both Scripture and experience have driven this home to me again and again. Coming to grips with our sinfulness militates against the tendency to pride. Understanding our sinfulness drives us to Christ in utter dependence upon His grace. This helps the preacher enter the pulpit in a spirit of humble dependence upon the Spirit of God rather than an air of self-confidence. Feeling a sense of his own sin, the preacher knows that anything eternally significant must come from the power of the Spirit and not from his magnetic personality or homiletical skill.

Oh, how I need this! How our pulpits in America need it! It is folly to think that proud preachers can be instruments to produce humble congregations. God's posture toward the proud is resistance. His posture toward the humble is grace (James 4:6). Farley quotes John Owen who said, "The man that understands the evil of his own heart, how vile it is, is the only useful, fruitful, and solidly believing and obedient person.”

Ministerial success which is built on the pride and fleshly efforts of the preacher (or the congregation for that matter) is not a blessing but a curse. Such "success" only serves to entrench us in self-congratulatory pride which cuts us off from real spiritual blessing. Let us pray that God will give us a true sense of ourselves and our need for Him.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Boundaries of Fellowship

Fellowship has been much on my mind of late. I am in the middle of a sermon series on fellowship. Our church is launching a fellowship group ministry to provide more small group interaction for our membership. Specific issues related to accountability within the leadership of our local Baptist association have caused me to reflect a great deal on fellowship beyond the local church context. Ed Young Jr., a high-profile Baptist pastor from Texas, is hosting Bishop T.D. Jakes as a keynote speaker at his Creative Church conference. Bishop Jakes holds to a less than orthodox view of the nature of God which denies the historic doctrine of the Trinity. This situation has clear implications regarding fellowship.

One of the thorny issues related to fellowship is how broad or how narrow we are to draw the boundaries of fellowship with others. Are there varying degrees of fellowship? Must Christians agree on all points of doctrine to declare they have fellowship? What doctrines are non-negotiable for defining the parameters of Christian fellowship? These are some of the questions which have been rolling around in my mind lately.

I have reached some initial (and probably obvious) conclusions on some of these questions. I confess I am still wrestling with other questions. Here are a few of my thoughts up to this point.

  • Theological error in connection with essential Christian doctrine prevents or destroys true fellowship. Paul mentions false teachers like Hymenaues and Philetus (2 Tim. 2:17) who wandered away from the truth by saying the resurrection had already occurred. John speaks about the antichrists who deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3). Indeed, John communicates to his readers a very clear Christology for the purpose of establishing a basis for fellowship (1 John 1:1-4). In 2 John 10-11 we are warned not to welcome those who are false teachers. Without agreement on basic Christian doctrine, there can be no true fellowship. I would include in this list of essentials such things as the Trinity, Deity and Humanity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection of Christ, inspiration of the Bible, visible return of Christ, future resurrection, eternal reward and punishment, etc. These are gospel issues. Note, I do not include peripheral doctrines such as the timing of the rapture as essential for fellowship.
  • Immorality and unethical conduct prevents or destroys true fellowship. Several instances in Scripture indicate that immorality or unethical conduct creates a breach in fellowship. The immoral man in 1 Corinthians 5 was to be expelled from the church until he repented. It appears that wrong belief and wrong behavior were behind Paul's action toward Hymaneaus and Alexander in 1 Timothy 1:19-20. In Titus 3:10, Paul tells us to warn a divisive person twice and then have nothing to do with them. The implication from such examples is that true fellowship rests not only on pure doctrine, but also on pure conduct. When a person's conduct becomes a shame to Christ and compromises the witness of the church, then true fellowship is compromised. Repentance is required for such fellowship to be restored.
  • Fellowship must not be destroyed by matters of personal preference in areas where Scripture neither commands nor forbids. In the church at Rome there were some disagreements over things like what Christians should eat and what days Christians should observe as "sacred days" (Romans 14). These differences threatened to tear apart the fellowship of the church. Paul gives them very clear guidelines for handling these matters. We are to accept one another (v. 1), refrain from passing judgment on each other (v. 1), refrain from putting stumbling-blocks in our brother's way (v. 13), and make every effort to pursue peace and mutual edification (v. 19). Differences over disputable matters are not to be allowed to destroy true fellowship. We are to give each other space to be guided by our consciences as we seek to bring our conscience under the authority of Christ (vv. 5-8).
  • Christian fellowship does not demand total agreement or complete cooperation on all points of doctrine and/or practice. In this context I am thinking of fellowship between believers of different denominational or local church backgrounds. For instance, a believer who was committed to infant baptism could not be a member of our Baptist congregation because of our differences regarding baptism. Though we may not belong to the same local church, we can still have basic fellowship together in Christ. Admittedly, this fellowship would not be as "tight" as the fellowship within our congregation. However, it would be wrong to allow our differences over baptism to totally obscure the common bond we have in Christ.

These are a few of my thoughts as I seek to develop a biblical understanding of fellowship. The points outlined above highlight the need for biblical discernment and maturity in practicing true fellowship. We must avoid drawing the boundaries too tightly or too broadly. Getting out of balance on either side is detrimental to the health and testimony of the church.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Confusion about the "E" Word

USA Today ran an interesting story about the identity of evangelicals. Read it here. The article raises an interesting question. What exactly does the term "evangelical" mean? Can it be salvaged? The article goes on to point out the diverse perspectives which have adopted the label "evangelical" to identify their ideology. This diversity has created a great deal of confusion about what an evangelical really is.

Evangelicals used to be defined by adherence to certain doctrines like the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture and the five solas of the reformation. Doctrines such as substitutionary atonement and the necessity of personal conversion once characterized the movement. Of course, evangelistic zeal was also part of the evangelical identity.

In contrast to this once consistent theological identity for evangelicals, George Barna provides statistical data which demonstrates the term has lost its meaning. According to Barna Research, 38% of Americans call themselves evangelical yet only 9% actually agree with key evangelical beliefs. In a survey of 4,014 adults nationwide, conducted over four months in 2006, "one out of every four self-identified evangelicals has not even accepted Christ as their savior," says George Barna. One is left to wonder if the term evangelical means much of anything these days.

Of course, a trip to the local (protestant/evangelical) Christian bookstore will probably be more eye-opening than any Barna poll data. One need only peruse the shelves to see that evangelicalism has become very, very broad. I was in such a store last week and could only lament the fact that truth and error were indiscriminately scattered among the shelves. The "theology" section of the bookstore was a lone set of shelves which, with one or two exceptions, contained a rather weak showing of solid theology or theologically oriented volumes. This is why I rarely go into Christian book stores any more. Too much Joel Osteen and not enough Jonathan Edwards; too much Joyce Meyer and not enough John Murray if you know what I mean.

Much like the bookstore, the term evangelical has become a mile wide and an inch deep. I am not certain if the theological famine in the bookstore is simply a symptom of the loss of evangelical identity or if it is part of the cause. Perhaps both are true. One thing seems obvious. Somewhere along the way theology became secondary to what it means to be an evangelical. The only way to recover this great word from its captivity in ambiguity is to get back to the theological moorings which made it a meaningful word to begin with.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Snow Daze

A winter storm packing 7-10 inches of snow clogged streets and made our church parking lot a disaster. After conversing with the elders, we decided that the prudent choice would be to cancel our Lord's Day services. We know some folks would have braved the weather and been present for corporate worship. We also knew that some folks would be vulnerable trying to get to church and get into the church over the treacherous roads and parking lot.

After a tasty brunch, our family gathered in the living room for a time of worship. We sang some songs together. We prayed together. We read Scripture together. We listened to a reading of a meditation on prayer by John Piper. We discussed the message and closed with prayer. It was a precious time of worship for us. I thank God for a wife and children who love Christ.

In spite of our meaningful time of family worship, the interruption of our Sunday worship routine reminded me how much I love being with God's people on the Lord's Day. Here are some things I really missed.
  • I missed the joy of singing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs with the congregation.
  • I missed the corporate reading of God's Word by the congregation.
  • I missed standing before God's people to expound His Holy Word.
  • I missed greeting people in the foyer and sharing mutual encouragement.
  • I missed the church dinner and Lord's Supper service we had planned for Sunday evening.
  • I missed the fellowship of the Lord's people.

Some might think that a pastor would be glad to have a "day off" due to the weather. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed being with my family. However, I missed the highlight of my week which is gathering with God's people. Corporate worship is a major instrument the Spirit uses in our sanctification. We ought to miss it when we are not present.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Broadly Inclusive Alternative Baptist Movement? No Thanks

Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have teamed up to give us "The Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant." This convocation to be held on Jan.30-Feb. 1, 2008 will be a gathering of moderate Baptists who believe, in the words of Bill Underwood, "North America desperately needs a true Baptist witness." Carter and Clinton promise "an inclusive organization willing to debate openly on all issues." The former Presidents complained that Baptists have been seen as "negative" and "exclusionary."

I suppose that most Baptists are negative about things like adulterous affairs, partial-birth abortion, and alternative ways of salvation which make personal faith in Jesus Christ optional. I suppose most Baptists would tend to hold at arms distance those who countenance such things. I suppose most Baptists (certainly Southern Baptists) would tend to look negatively on those who do not confess the inerrancy and authority of the Bible.

What Carter and Clinton are pursuing is unity at the expense of truth. Moderate Baptists have always championed the idea of autonomy and "soul competency." They take a page out of historic Baptist identity and distort it to say that a person can believe whatever they please with no accountability. I think James Merritt answered this sentiment well in his address to the Southern Baptist Convention a few years ago. He said, "I believe in local church autonomy. I don't want any leader, agency, institution or convention giving orders to me or my congregation. But hear me, and hear me well. The ocean of church autonomy stops at the shore of biblical authority. Local autonomy without biblical authority becomes spiritual anarchy."

I don't want to be included in any movement which welcomes theological confusion and the accompanying ethical compromises that go with it. True unity must have a basis in truth. Where the authority of Scripture is diminished, the exclusivity of Jesus Christ is denied, and the gospel is distilled into social action, the church will lose its distinctiveness. No thank you Mr. President.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

When Puff Is Mistaken for Power

I finished reading The Forgotten Spurgeon by Iain Murray last week. What a great book! Murray looks at three major controversies during the ministry of Spurgeon and how Spurgeon's theology shaped his response to these controversies. It is a very instructive and inspiring book.

I want to share a couple of quotes from Spurgeon which struck me as quite relevant for our times.

The heaving of the masses under under newly invented excitements we are too apt to identify with the power of God...The tendency of the time is towards bigness, parade, show of power, as if these would surely accomplish what more regular agencies have failed to achieve.

It is a fact that thousands of persons live close to our notable sanctuaries and never dream of entering them. Even curiosity seems dulled. Why is this? Whence this distaste for the ordinary services of the sanctuary? I believe that the answer, in some measure, lies in a direction little suspected. There has been a growing pandering to sensationalism; and, as this wretched appetite increases in fury the more it is gratified, it is at last found to be impossible to meet its demands. Those who have introduced all sorts of attractions into their services have themselves to blame if people forsake their more sober teachings, and demand more and more of the noisy and the singular.

It sounds as though Spurgeon could have written these words about current trends which have taken over evangelicalism today. When Spurgeon spoke of "regular agencies" and "sober teachings," he was referring primarily to the straightforward preaching of God's Word. He understood that true conversion is not accomplished by enthusiasm or emotionalism. It is the product of the inner agency of the Spirit working in concert with the outward agency of the Word. True spiritual power comes from the gospel (Romans 1:16).

Spurgeon lived in a time when the preaching and teaching of the Bible was being abandoned and replaced by musical presentations, theatrical presentations, and other modern measures designed to get "decisions." Sound familiar? How sad when puff is substituted for true spiritual power. Spurgeon realized that forsaking the gospel and true evangelism for such measures would never produce true converts. Rather, it would produce experience junkies who quickly lose interest when this week's performance doesn't exceed last week's.

I heard a friend say in a sermon, "What you win people with is what you win them to." I think Spurgeon would heartily agree.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Stop Attending Church

Go over to Nine Marks and read the very provocative article by Greg Gilbert entitled Wanted: Plotting and Provoking Church Members. This article sparked my thinking about church attendance. I began to wonder if the phrase "church attendance" is a legitimate way to speak about our responsibility to God and to each other as believers.

The oft-quoted text about "church attendance" is Hebrews 10:25 which reads as follows:

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the day approaching.

Of course, as Gilbert points out in his article, this verse is in a context which includes other directives such as "let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds." The idea is that believers are to meet together to encourage each other, even provoke each other, toward love and good deeds. So, going to church is not for the purpose of checking our "church attendance" box on our weekly spiritual scorecard.

I wholeheartedly believe that the New Testament presents going to church as essential rather than optional. Some people were neglecting meeting together and the writer to the Hebrews insists that believers must not do this. I do not want to alleviate any responsibility someone might feel about going to church. To the contrary, I would encourage that sense of responsibility. Yet, it seems clear that going to church is much more than just attending. It is participating. It is interacting with other believers for the purpose of spurring one another on in our life with Jesus. As the Day of Christ's return gets nearer, we ought to step up the intensity of our encouragement. I cannot predict any dates for Christ's coming, but it is getting nearer all the time. So, we must be serious about the business of encouraging each other. This is much more than passive "attendance." It is active participation.

As a pastor, this challenges me to think harder about how we plan our worship gatherings. Are we including any context in which this kind of encouragement may occur? How can we plan a worship service in which believers have the opportunity to encourage and provoke each other spiritually? Admittedly, this is lacking in most of our worship gatherings on Sunday. Of course, I would like to point out that we have a format on Wednesday night which is much more conducive to the kind of interaction described in Hebrews 10:24-25. It is a time for sharing, prayer, discussion of biblical texts, and dialogue.

Perhaps it is time to rethink our attitudes toward "church attendance?" If you find yourself a passive spectator at church with little or no interaction with other Christians, then your attendance is certainly not the kind envisioned in Hebrews 10. It is critical that we raise the bar and move toward the kind of "meeting together" that produces encouragement and stirs us to good deeds for the glory of Christ.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Dear Pat, Please Keep Your Revelations to Yourself

Thank you Pat Robertson for making evangelicals look like idiots again. I listend to Bill O'Reilly laugh at the news of Robertson's newest "revelation" yesterday. Apparently, God told Pat that there would be some sort of massive terrorist attack in 2007 with the potential loss of millions of lives. This is the same guy who said a tsunami would hit American shores in 2006. This is the same guy who said God punished Ariel Sharon with a stroke for giving Palestinians control of Israeli lands. I have a few problems with Pat and his "revelations."

First, if God is really giving him these predictions, why not be specific. Doesn't God know exactly where the terrorists will attack and what methods they will use? It would sure help our Homeland Security department to know these things. If Pat has a "batphone" to the Lord, why withhold such critical details from the revelation?

Second, the test of a true prophet in Scripture is 100% accuracy. Deuteronomy 18:20-22 says that the test of a true prophet is whether his prophecies come true. If they do not come true then the Lord has not spoken it. Pat fails this test outright. By biblical standards, he is a false prophet.

Third, the whole idea of ongoing "revelation" from God is bogus. God has spoken clearly and finally in His Word (2Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-21). The mystical approach to God's will which abandons the clear statements of the Bible for "inner impressions" or "words of knowledge" is a slap in the face to the sufficiency of Scripture. As Moses told the people in Deuteronomy 29:29, "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever; that we may observe all the words of this law." What God wants us to focus on are the revealed words of Scripture. We can trust Him with the secret and unrevealed things.

When we abandon the clear Word of God revealed to us in Scripture for other forms of revelation we expose ourselves to subjectivism and deception. Claims to extra-biblical revelation all share the same root problem whether it is words of knowledge, horoscopes, new gospels, or prophetic predictions. They ask us to trust something other than God's revealed Word to discover His will. The magic eight ball-mood ring approach to finding God's will is sinful and damaging to the church.

Pat, do us all a favor and stop giving the enemies of the Lord ammunition to use against us. Don't go beyond what is written.