Monthly Archives: June 2015

Dear Church

Dear Church,

We, the Church, have always been called to be a peculiar community, different from our surrounding world; to be counter-cultural. For many years in the “Christian West”, this distinction was sometimes hard to see, though it has always been there. The church appeared to yield significant political power and cultural clout. It was, at one time, socially advantageous to self-identify as a Christian.

This reality has been changing for many years and last week’s Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage has brought the distinction between the ethical vision of the historic church and the ethical vision of the surrounding culture into stark relief.

The decision has many Christians wondering, “What next?” Our “political” task now has very little to do with the civil government (though political engagement still matters). Instead, we must now focus on the polis of the church, the distinct people of God; the people who swear allegiance to a kingdom that is not of this world and to a Ruler who is truly supreme. The Supreme Court decision is a reminder that we are called to be such a distinct community, a holy nation under the reign of God. Specifically, the decision reminds us that we are distinct in the following ways:

We have a distinct sexual ethic. Sex is not merely physical but holy and spiritual and is to be enjoyed within the bonds of marriage. It is self-giving and life-creating. Since God is the creator of sex, he has the right to make the rules and when we follow them it leads to human flourishing.

We have a distinct vision of marriage and family. Marriage is ordained by God as a holy one-flesh union between one man and one woman in life-long commitment. In the raising of children both father and mother are indispensable.

We have a distinct view of love. Love contains, but is not merely, kindness and pleasant feelings. Love is working for the good of the other in accordance with the will of God. Love is not abstract, but perfectly revealed in the atoning self-sacrifice of Jesus our Savior.

As a distinct community of faith, what are we called to be?

We are called to be a humble community. “Distinct” does not mean “superior.” We freely confess and mourn over the fact that we are broken in our sin. We are called by no merit of our own but only by the mercy of God. Having been shown mercy we must always speak from a position of mercy.

We are called to be a holy community. If we value sexuality in the way God defines it then we need to deal with sexual sin in our own midst, specifically pornography and divorce. If we value marriage we must work to strengthen our own marriages. If we value love we need to make sure that we show it to all people. We will never be perfect, but if we want the world to accept God’s way, we first need to make sure we are actually living it.

We are called to be a prophetic community. The prophets always first spoke to the people of God, calling them to covenant renewal. But they also had a word to the nations. They proclaimed God’s word, unpopular as it was, of sin, judgment, repentance, and salvation. This means we should be uncompromising in our convictions and not simply parrot back to our culture whatever its itching ears want to hear. The prophets remained true to the revealed word of God over and against the idolatry they were confronted with. We have the same task. As we speak, though, we must be careful to do so in love.

We are called to be a healing community. In our prophetic voice we call out sin as a doctor diagnosis a disease. Sin, in all its varied forms, is the disease plaguing the human race. But this disease has a cure. That cure is Jesus. In Jesus is healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In Jesus was can be freed from the condemnation of the law, the enslaving power of sin, and the fear of death. The church is the hospital and needs to continue to be for all people.

We are called to be a gospel-centered community. We are called first and foremost to proclaim the gospel; the saving message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We need to stay on point and not get overly caught up in the quarrels and controversies of the day. These matter, of course. Right now, as a pastor of a congregation, I must engage these controversies. But controversies of the age come and go. However, our central task of pointing the world to Christ is our aim in every cultural context.

We are called to be a hopeful community. We, more than any other people, have reason for hope. We do not hope in ourselves, or in the “march of progress,” or in political powers, but in God, the maker of heaven and earth. He will bring about perfect love and perfect justice and we the Church look forward to that day. This is a hope unique to the church and it is one we both rejoice in ourselves and rejoice to share with the world, to whom we have been called.

The Supreme Court decision may present some new challenges for the church but our task is what it has always been – trust God, pursue him fully, love our neighbors, and proclaim the hopeful and life-giving gospel of Jesus our Savior.

Who is Demetrius?

In Acts chapter 19, Luke tells the story of a man named Demetrius who opposed the preaching of the gospel. Demetrius was a silversmith in the city of Ephesus and he used his trade to make silver shrines of the goddess Artemis. He opposed the apostles preaching because their teaching had implications for his business. So Demetrius called together the other craftsmen and put the situation to them bluntly:

“You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the while province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods and all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshipped throughout the province of Asia and the whole world, will be robbed of her divinity.” (Acts 19:25-27, italics added)

Demetrius recruited allies in his opposition through two lines of reasoning. First, this will do damage to our bottom line! Second, our goddess will be dishonored! I have a feeling that the first argument won over his fellow craftsman and the second ones won over the crowd. The crowd was so stirred up with religious fervor that it couldn’t even organize itself to do any real harm to the two Christians it could find.

This passage had me thinking, who are the Demetrius’ of our world? I don’t know of anyone who makes or sells idols of Artemis, but there are plenty of false gods in our world, and some of them are followed with a religious fervor not unlike that of ancient pagan Rome.

Maybe to identify Demetrius we need to identify the idols. What do people worship above God? I can think of many possible idols (wealth, success, sex, entertainment, etc.) but if I were to point my finger at the chief idol of our time, I think that idol would be the god of “self.” It could go by many different names; self-actualization, self-autonomy, self-love, self-gratification. Whatever you call it this god stands in stark opposition to rule of Jesus the Messiah. It resists the authority of God and demands an authority of its own. Crowds will rise to its defense.

So who stands to gain financially from the worship of this god? I can think of a lot of possible power players: the entertainment industry, advertisers, certain churches, etc. That is not to say that these institutions/industries are necessarily opposed to the gospel or are necessarily idolatrous, but they can certainly fuel our idolatrous appetites and false worship.

But as I sought to uncover our societies Demetrius I had a more startling insight. It’s me. I’m Demetrius. Or at least my “old self” is Demetrius. Who threatens my true worship more, some outside institution or cultural force or my sin nature? If I’m honest I see the opposition within my own heart to the gospel. The gospel teaches me that “gods made by human hands are not gods at all” and yet the zealous idol maker resists, even though he knows it to be true. This is the flesh which much be crucified with Christ.

I heard it said once in a ministry context that “the biggest obstacle to your ministry won’t be others not doing what you want them to do, but you not doing what God wants you to do.” Ultimately, all the external opposition in Acts accomplished was the further expansion of the gospel throughout the world. The “nations conspire in vain” says the Psalmist and the early disciples agreed. Outside opposition from idol makers need not cause me to fear. But the idol maker in my own heart always threatens to undue me.

Haiti After the Earthquake

I just finished reading Paul Farmer’s Haiti After the Earthquake which provides first-hand accounts of the earthquake on January 12, 2010, and the hectic days immediately following the event. The book also examines Haiti’s troubled history and looks forward to the future of Haiti as it attempts to “build back better.”
Here are a few observations from the book:

1. I appreciated little glimpses of Farmer’s faith coming through. I really know nothing about his spiritual life but I loved how his apparent faith came through naturally and in a lot of small ways. It came through in his subtle phraseology (“by the grace of God” instead of “by good luck”) or a description of his daily routine (“I didn’t feel like doing my morning prayers so instead…”). Either way, I appreciated the non-preachy and natural expressions of faith.

2. Natural disasters aren’t purely natural. This point was stressed throughout the book. Yes, the earthquake was a “natural” occurrence, but the disproportionate impact that it caused was the result of many man-driven decisions. Haiti was especially vulnerable to the devastation of an earthquake because of its poor infrastructure, its acute poverty, and its weak government. It is especially vulnerable to hurricanes because of deforestation. It is especially vulnerable to cholera (which came to the country shortly after the earthquake) because of its poor health system. And these maladies have historical roots, both from within the country (such as a long series of coupes and corrupt governments) to outside the country (like a large debt imposed by France and American foreign policy that crippled the public sector). Whatever the precise reasons – and this is, in many ways, a partisan book – it’s clear that the devastation caused by the earthquake was, in many ways, an “unnatural” disaster.
If you want evidence for structural evil, Haiti’s history could be exhibit A.

3. The public sector (i.e., civil government) can be a source for good. One of Farmer’s more controversial arguments is that the aid system in Haiti is broken because, while there are more aid organizations in Haiti than anywhere else in the Hemisphere (maybe the world?) a very tiny percentage of that aid goes to the government. The reasons why are fairly understandable – the government is pretty ineffective. But this creates a problem because a government starved for resources will be ineffective and the cycle will continue. This completely ineffective government was one of the reasons why the earthquake was so devastating and rebuilding so slow.

4. The aid system is broken in Haiti. Despite the massive amount of aid pledged to Haiti both before and after the earthquake, only a small portion of it ever arrived. And of the aid that did arrive, much of it was used ineffectively. For example, aid organizations provide money to build homes in Haiti (a good thing) but hire expensive foreign contractors to do the work. If the work were done by Haiti contractors it would both provide work for Haitians, which is desperately needed, and would be much more cost effective. Additionally, the US had a long history of a food aid policy that give large incentives to American farmers to provide food for Haiti, which indirectly led to the depleted capacity of Haitian farmers to provide food for their own people. The result is that Haiti is even more dependent on foreign food and lacks its own production capacity to feed itself. The story of Haiti re-enforced what I watched in the “Poverty Cure” documentary.

5. Farmer’s negative predictions pretty much came true. Near the end of the book Farmer offers positive and negative predictions of what Haiti might look like in five years. The book was completed one year after the earthquake and this year, 2015, is five years after the earthquake. So I decided to look up Haiti. Was it closer to Farmer’s optimistic predictions or his pessimistic predictions? Unfortunately it’s the latter. The same problems that plagued Haiti before the earthquake continue to do so after.

6. There’s still hope. Paul Farmer (at the time of writing this book) lived in Rwanda, another country which suffered a terribly traumatic event. Despite the obvious dissimilarities (earthquake vs. genocide) the book focuses a lot on the similarities. Rwanda, despite its many challenges, has been able to turn the corner – or so it appears, at least for now. If there was hope for Rwanda, there is, by God’s grace, hope for Haiti.

The Gospel, the Church, and Racial Reconciliation

As yet another example of racism makes the headlines, we in the Church need to seriously consider our role as those who proclaim the gospel. I’m sure a much longer post would be better, but please bear with me in my attempt at brevity.

Creation: Racial reconciliation starts with an understanding of man’s place in creation. All people are made in the image of God and share a common humanity.

Fall: Our sin, which separates us from God, also separates us from each other. The first sin recorded after Adam and Eve took the fruit was Cain’s murder of Abel. If mankind so easily sins against even his brother, it should not surprise us that he should sin against “the other.” Racism is a result of sin, and it should break our hearts. It’s to our shame (especially as white people) if we cover over the sin of racism as it confronts us.

Redemption: God calls us to be a redeemed humanity, to turn from our sin and hatred, and to love and care for our brothers. Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” ought to know no racial boundaries.

The Reconciled Community; the Church: The Church ought to be the model for racial reconciliation. This is true, first, because the Church confesses its obedience to love God and to love neighbor. Second, this is true because of what Jesus has done for us. When we are saved through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are reconciled both to God and to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We share not only a common humanity (creation) but a common new humanity (redemption). We are one in Christ and this unity transcends issues of race, gender, and class (Gal 3:28). Those differences aren’t obliterated, but they form no barrier to separate the church in its new humanity. The “Invisible Universal Church” spans race, culture, class, language, station in life, etc. It’s an evidence of the work of the gospel when the local visible church does, too.

Consummation: John gives us a vision of heaven when he writes in Revelation 7:9 “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” What a beautiful vision of heaven, first because of our worship of Jesus the Lamb, and second because of our unity in that worship. As we pray, “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” we are wise to remember this vision of heaven, and to pray for its actualization on earth.

10 Characteristics of a Gospel-Produced Church

When we in evangelical circles (especially Baptist) think about the question “What does the preaching of the gospel produce?” we tend to think of it primarily in terms of individual decisions to follow Jesus. This is, of course, a perfectly proper way to answer that question. When Peter preached his first sermon at Pentecost we see that about 3,000 individuals accepted Peter’s call, repented, and were baptized. By the work of the Holy Spirit the preaching of the gospel led to 3,000 new converts to Christianity (see Acts 2:41).

However, it is also worth noting that the preaching of the gospel didn’t just produce individual Christians. It produced (and produces) a church, a community of believers. It is not only true that 3,000 souls accepted, repented, and were baptized. The text also says that they “were added to their number that day.” What follows is a description of this budding community.

I am preparing to teach on Acts 2:42-47 and its “parallel passage” in 4:32:45. From these two passages I have compiled a list of ten characteristics of a gospel-produced church. This is by no means a complete list – a lot would need to be added. Nor, do I think, was it Luke’s intent to list exactly ten characteristics. Nevertheless, I do think these 10 characteristics are true to the text, and true characteristics of a gospel-produced and gospel-driven church.

  1. Made up of followers of Jesus. The “they” in 2:42 is “those who accepted [Peter’s] message and were baptized” in 2:41. This should probably go without saying but church membership is for those who have already committed themselves to the Lord. At our church this is also one of the reasons we require baptism before church membership.
  2. Devoted to the apostle’s teaching. What follows in 2:42 is a list of four things which the early church devoted themselves to. The first is “the apostle’s teaching.” What was the apostle’s teaching? I can only imagine it was all about the life of Jesus, but I’m sure there was a heavy dose of the Old Testament in there, too. In other words, the early church were a people of the Word; living and written.
  3. Devoted to “communion.” The next two in the list are “fellowship” and “the breaking of bread.” Some commentators see this as simply referring to sharing common meals. Others as a specific reference to the Lord’s Supper. A third group sees these two ideas as combined in the New Testament. I tend to agree with this third group. The “Lord’s Supper,” as it is often called, has another name: Communion. It is called Communion because there is a strong “community” aspect to the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. We are reconciled to God through Jesus’ death and we are also reconciled to one another. We are united to Christ through his death, and as a direct result we are united with the rest of the Body of Christ. The fellowship which the early church was devoted to was not just small talk, but a deep and abiding unity.
  4. Devoted to prayer. The final in the list states that the early church was devoted “to prayer.” Indeed, prayer is one of the major themes of Acts. One of the primary reasons why the seven deacons were chosen was to free up the apostles for time in prayer.
  5. Filled with awe. 2:43 states that “everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.” “Everyone” here might refer to people even outside the church, but it certainly also refers to those within it. I don’t think this only applies to the early church. I may not experience miracles on the scale of the early church, but I still have plenty of reason to be filled with awe for the power of God.
  6. Devoted to one another. Verse 44 states that “all the believers were together and had everything in common.” What follows is a description of the generosity that marked the early church (see point #7) but I have separated this characteristic out because I believe that the generosity described next, and more fully in 4:32-35 was the fruit of something more fundamental in the community – love, unity, and mutual devotion. Before describing the believers’ generosity, 4:32 states that “all the believers were one in heart and mind.” This points to both their unity of faith and their deep devotion to one another.
  7. Marked by generosity. From this devotion sprang generosity. “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” and “no one claimed that of their possessions was their own, but shared everything they had.” Indeed, this generosity was seen as evidence of the power of God in their midst: “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them” (4:33b-34a). This passage can be somewhat controversial, but needlessly so. I want to caution against two extremes. The first extreme would be to say that this description of the early church has no bearing on us for today. The argument states that they were in a unique scenario and believed, erroneously, that Christ’s return would happen any moment. The second extreme would come from those who believe that the church in Acts lays out some kind of communal church life that should be carried out through all generations and situations. I think both extremes misunderstand the descriptive nature of Acts. The church was in a unique cultural and historical situation, of course, but the values they exhibited – unity, devotion, and generosity – are meant to be carried out in every cultural setting.
  8. Met for regular worship. Verse 46 states that the church met together daily in them temple courts and in one another’s homes. These meetings were not just for the purpose of fellowship, but of worship. I’m not sure if the “daily” aspect of worship needs to continue, but certainly regular participation in corporate worship ought to be the norm.
  9. Praised God with sincere hearts. This worship was carried out “with glad and sincere hearts” and resulted in the disciples praising God. Musical worship from a sincere heart (Paul and Silas are found singing a hymn in prison) is a mark of a gospel-produced church.
  10. Produced visible fruit. Finally we are told that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The church saw visible fruit and that fruit was daily conversions and baptisms into the church. We need to be cautious here. Gospel-fruit takes many forms and it comes in different seasons. Sometimes fruit is conversions or church growth. Sometimes it is a community of love (see the fruit of the Spirit). In chapter 4 the fruit of the power of God is generosity. After the disciple’s pray the fruit of the power of God is boldness in proclaiming the gospel. We can’t control the form of the fruit, nor its season, nor can we predict it. However, I am confident that the gospel produces fruit and a church that is alive with the gospel will see that fruit. It may not be a promise, but this principle holds for everything living: “living things grow.”

After I put together this list I put together to assessments. The first is a church assessment. Is our church a gospel produced church?

  • Are we made up of followers of Jesus?
  • Are we devoted to the word of God?
  • Are we devoted to fellowship and the Lord’s Supper?
  • Are we devoted to prayer?
  • Are we filled with awe for the power of God?
  • Are we devoted to unity in the body of Christ?
  • Are we marked by generosity?
  • Do we meet regularly for worship?
  • Do we praise God with sincere hearts?
  • Is there identifiable fruit coming from our ministry?

The second assessment is a personal assessment. Do I have the characteristics of a gospel-produced believer?

  • Am I a follower of Jesus?
  • Am I devoted to the word of God?
  • Am I devoted to fellowship and the Lord’s Supper?
  • Am I devoted to prayer?
  • Am I filled with awe for the power of God?
  • Am I devoted to unity in the body of Christ?
  • Am I generous with my material resources?
  • Do I commit to regular corporate worship?
  • Do I praise God with a sincere heart?
  • Is there visible fruit in my life?

Both these lists are convicting to me, though in different ways. I invite you to examine yourself.