The way we show love to abusive leaders

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I’m generally not a fan of leadership conferences. While a lot of people really dig these sorts of events, they tend to not be my thing, either because they’re frustratingly free of mentions of Jesus, or they’re not terribly applicable for guys like me who don’t lead from the top.

This weekend one caught my eye, though. But it wasn’t because I was super-excited about the theme or anything like that. In fact, I had no idea it even existed until I learned of a surprise speaker delivering a message to the pastors in attendance. What caught my attention was this particular speaker was one who apparently remains unrepentant over a laundry list of misdeeds, including plagiarism, a domineering attitude and frequent use of abusive language.

That a church would grant an apparently unrepentant individual a position of authority—even as temporary a one as a conference speaker—is disturbing. And yet, for some reason, it’s altogether unsurprising.

And this, I think is what terrified me the most.

I wasn’t surprised.

Unfortunately, it seems to be all-too-common for Christians to allow those who have no business doing so—at least not according to any reasonable reading of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 2—to exercise an authority out of line with their character. I was reminded of this even as our pastor preached from 2 Corinthians 11 this weekend, as Paul, dripping with sarcasm, continues a full-frontal assault on the false teachers who’d lead this confused group of believers astray.

Thinking back on the message, and re-reading the passage, I was particularly struck by verses 19-21:

For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!

Does anyone else wince even a little when reading this?

Think about the people we listen to via podcasts and the blogs we frequent. Consider the Twitter feeds we follow and the books collecting dust on our shelves. Sadly, I suspect there are many names included there whose conduct would line up far more with what Paul describes than with that of an actual minister of the Word. People who take advantage and make slaves of us. People who put on airs—who have the appearance of godliness, but none of its power. Fakers, maligners of God’s word, if not in their words, then certainly in their conduct.

And what does Paul do here? He lovingly confronts the Corinthians with the deception. He is asking them, “Why do you put up with this evil? Why do you allow it to be done to you? Why do you welcome with open arms what ought to be purged from among you?”

Sometimes I wonder what Paul would say to us:

  • Would he rebuke us for allowing disqualified men to continue to speak and lead and have influence in the church?
  • Would he shudder to think that self-appointed men were taking on burdens for which they were not called nor gifted to bear?
  • Would he ask us why we would give cover for those who have abused God’s people for their own ends?

These are questions we need to be asking, whether we worship in healthy churches or (God forbid) in ones characterized by the behaviors Paul suggests in 2 Corinthians 11. And yet, it seems as though we are not.

Why?

Perhaps it’s because we are afraid to find out the answer. We value the gifts this or that person has, their sense of humor, their rhetorical flair… Yet, if their lives reveal them to be liars, or at a minimum those who do not practice what they preach, what business do they have being allowed to teach or influence anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances?

And worse, what does it say to those who suffer when we give them cover?

Does it reveal us to be people who are concerned with compassion and justice? Does it show us to be people concerned with the plight of the oppressed, the weary and those burdened by many sins?

We tolerate Jezebel, even as her victims cry out for justice.

Friends, this should never be.

The church is to be a place of great love and affection—for both perpetrators and victims of abuse. But how we express our love for the former is drastically different from how we do for the latter. When it comes to these phonies, we must acknowledge them for what they are: peddlers of God’s word. If a Christian leader refuses to acknowledge their sin, if they attempt to plead Jesus so as to exempt themselves from the need to ask forgiveness—we show love by saying “no.” We must not allow them a place to be heard until their business with Jesus and with those they have wronged has been dealt with. Only then can they be welcomed back as a brother or sister in Christ.

Just as we must never tolerate abusive behavior by a parent or a spouse—just as such evil should never be named among us—so too must evil of this sort never be allowed to gain a foothold. After all, an unrepentant Christian is no Christian at all. We know this is true, and it is well past time that we started acting like it.


Photo credit: Skley via photopin cc

Will we not declare this hope?

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One of the things that I really struggle with in communicating the truth of Christianity is making sure people understand there are no barriers to entry beyond one: Believing in Jesus. Recognizing our need for him. Trusting in his death to pay for our sins.

That’s it, the one barrier. For as Acts 2:21 says, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

And that “everyone” is important because it really does mean “everyone”. Everyone who genuinely believes, every one of those people—regardless of age, ethnicity, intelligence, gender, you name it—”shall be saved.” There’s no hesitation in these words of Scripture, nor should there be in us to declare them, for as Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote in Authentic Christianity, “Christianity is a message for all people.”

You will need to be very clever to understand the modern books about God, but thank God, you do not need to be clever to be a Christian. “The common people heard him gladly,” wrote Mark (12:37). “Not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called,” says the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 1:26). Rather, “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty …and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are” (vv. 27-28). There is a hope for all who realize their need and cry out to Him. (31)

All who realize their need and cry out to him have a great hope—a hope that stretches back beyond human existence to before the foundations of the world (Ephesians 1:4). Will we not declare it then?

What should the church expect as same-sex marriage moves forward?

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This probably is no shock to the Americans reading this, but Canadians don’t really get you.

We look across the border, and we marvel at the evil of your health care system (y’know, the one that has people seeing a doctor in emergency rooms within 15-20 minutes as opposed to eight hours or more.1 But, y’know, “free” health care, or something). We are confused by your political structure (because you actually vote for the head of your nation, which is just weird). And we are baffled at how you keep having these wild, open debates about controversial issues like same-sex marriage.

Most of us here in Canada don’t get what all the fuss is about. In fact, even as the US Supreme Court deliberates on whether or not to redefine marriage in America (with a decision expected to come near the end of June), and despite it being the major news story for months in some way, shape or form, it barely merits a mention here.

Heck, you can barely get a mention of the fact that Ontario’s former deputy education minister plead guilty to charges of child pornography possession (and claimed a number of other horrible things to his chatroom friends on the Interwebs)!

But I digress (ish).

We’re not the same

Here’s the thing: we’ve already been through what you’re going through in Canada. Except not. See, we’re not a society that really has a great deal of open discussion about issues. There’s often a great deal of fiery rhetoric thrown about within a session of parliament, but it’s rare when people get hot enough to actually demand open discussion in the public square (though it does happen on occasion).

But we’ve been where you are, America (or so we think). And as many supporters of same-sex marriage will tell you, our society hasn’t apparently fallen apart.

And yet, many of us are unaware of what we’ve lost.

In some cases this is because we’ve never really had it to begin with.

It’s helpful to remember that Canada’s political system—and, more importantly, our culture—is entirely different than yours. The differences between us are much greater than socialized healthcare, maple syrup and superfluous Us. And despite what some Americans say, we’re not Communists. But we are socialists (note the lower-case). We have a form of democracy, but we are also a “freedom from” culture. We gleefully bought into the secular experiment and its values of personal happiness and the accumulation of wealth. We have determined that big government is best, because when the government makes decisions for us, life is certainly a lot easier (even if it’s not better).

Which takes us back to same-sex marriage. When it was officially made law in 2005, there was some public debate, but very little. And all of it was inconsequential. The decision makers had already made up their minds on what they were going to do, and went ahead more or less unscathed.

This happened because they understood that the best way to make a radical change is not to jump in with both feet, but to make subtle shifts over a long period of time. You introduce them through backdoor channels and get people comfortable with them, so they don’t even notice (until someone actually mentions it) that they’ve redefined the nature of parenthood, for example. Canadian children no longer have “natural” parents, merely “legal” ones (something Dawn Stefanowicz helpfully points out here). And gender matters not.

Further, though our Charter of Rights2 continues to describe our fundamental freedoms as being

  1. freedom of conscience and religion;
  2. freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  3. freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  4. freedom of association,

the free exercise of these freedoms puts you at risk of prosecution. You can still state your belief about what marriage is or is not, at least according to the letter of the law—the law itself explicitly states this in clause 3, regarding religious marriage—but the spirit of the law is to squelch dissent, a position reinforced by a 2013 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada.

In other words, we are free to think what we want, and believe what we want… but it’s probably best to keep it to yourself.

How does it really affect the Canadian church at the moment?

And here’s what it’s meant for the church here, at least insofar as I’ve been able to see: evangelical pastors have been able to, at least to this point, conscientiously object to performing same-sex ceremonies. We have also, at least so far, been free to continue to teach what the Bible says about marriage and human sexuality, though technically I could be at risk for prosecution for simply having positively reviewed Kevin DeYoung’s latest book should someone feel that it represents hateful speech. There hasn’t been a great deal of witch hunting at this point.

To some degree, and in addition the aforementioned clause in the law, this is for at least two reasons:

First, many mainline denominations embraced homosexual unions long ago, so there was already a ready-made option for those seeking a religiously oriented ceremony, even if these denominations are all dying.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, evangelicals aren’t a much larger segment of the Canadian population than those identifying with the LGBTQ community. The best high-end estimates put us at around 10 percent of the population. Realistically, it’s probably about half that.

So we’re in an interesting spot. There’s not a ton of political pressure to make an example of us because there simply aren’t that many of us for it to really make a big difference. You can’t scare people into conforming when there are hardly any who need to be conformed. (Then there’s the whole passive aggressive thing that we don’t need to get into…)

In Canada, though, our charge is simple: we need to clearly communicate the truth of the Bible faithfully and winsomely, all the while prayerfully and willingly accepting the consequences of going against the prevailing cultural and political orthodoxy.

How the church in North America moves forward

There isn’t a desire to challenge the standing law in Canada, not from the majority of the population nor from our government officials. Thus, same-sex marriage will not go away in Canada any time in the foreseeable future. And should it come to pass in America, and it seems all but inevitable that it will, it will likely be there to stay as well.

While that seems rather defeatist, consider what awaits on the other side. As strange as it is to say, this has the opportunity to be a refining tool. The creature comforts we’ve become so accustomed to will inevitably be stripped away from us. We should be preparing our friends and congregations for this reality. Tax exempt statuses will inevitably be withdrawn. Some pastors will likely face heavy fines or even jail time in the years ahead. In other words, the church in North America will suddenly start to look a lot more like the church in other nations hostile to Christianity.

But this should not be a deterrent to us in speaking the truth. We would all do well to remember Peter and John’s response to the Sanhedrin’s demand that they stop speaking about Jesus: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). And just as their trials bolstered their courage in the gospel, we must pray that the same will be true of us.

The gospel spread like wildfire in a world that was openly hostile to it. Perhaps it can again.

Three dangers of trying too hard to explain world events

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Whenever some sort of major event happens in the world—such as the devastation caused by an earthquake in Nepal or the destruction and social upheaval caused by rioting in Baltimore—Christians always want to offer an explanation. To say something to help people interpret these events, or offer something helpful as we seek to live life in the days that follow.

There’s a great deal of good that can come from articles of this nature, but—and I say this as someone who has written several of these in the past—but there are also great dangers from such things. Here are three:

1. We may appear to lack compassion. This is the easiest trap to fall into, particularly for theology nerds. But first, let me state the necessary positive: I believe it is absolutely essential to help people think biblically about what we see going on in the world and the trials we face. To help others develop even the most rudimentary theology of suffering. Honestly, had I not been compelled to do so in the months leading up to the miscarriage of our second child and my wife’s two subsequent brushes with death, I don’t know how I would have gotten out of bed each morning (and even then there were days when it was extraordinarily difficult).

But here’s the thing about a theology of suffering: even a basic understanding of how God uses trial and suffering leads to compassion for those who are suffering. It leads us to offer encouragement—not because these things caught God unawares, but because they are an opportunity for his people to demonstrate his love to those who most need it. In a counterintuitive way, trial and suffering can lead to increased trust and confidence in the Lord. And that’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

So that’s the positive. Here’s the danger: Although helping the suffering see their circumstances through the lens of God’s plan of redemption is a good thing, we must be careful to not to be so busy in our theologizing that we fail to communicate with compassion. When we look at the Baltimore riots, for example, we should readily acknowledge all the factors that lead to this situation, in so far as we are able. The actions of the rioters may be wrong, but the circumstances that made people feel as though this was their only option are equally so. Similarly, we should weep with and for the thousands upon thousands who’ve lost their lives and livelihoods because of the devastating earthquake in Nepal. Helping people see what God is doing—in our admittedly extremely limited understanding—should never be mistaken for some sort of mere intellectual exercise. And if that’s what it sounds like, we’re doing it wrong.

2. We risk being presumptuous. In the same way that we can be perceived as lacking compassion, we also risk being presumptuous in our understanding of what God is really doing. We should be extremely reticent to say this or that event was God’s judgment on any particular people group or nation, especially when this might be true only in the broadest sense—that is, the events we see taking place are the outworking of the curse, rather than a specific act of  divinely directed wrath.

Likewise, although we know that God does indeed ordain all things and works all things together for good according to his purposes, we don’t know how he does that. So we should be absolutely willing to say, “I don’t understand these events, but I know that God has a purpose in them.” And we should readily admit that one of the chief things these events should do is awaken a longing in us for the end of suffering, an end that will only come in the new heavens and the new earth, when Christ returns to make all things new and wipe away every tear from every eye. That we can say with confidence.

3. We risk impugning the motives of fellow believers. This is the final danger, and it is one that I often see Christians doing. A Christian minister recently tweeted that, rather than seeing people return to their false gods, his desire was for people in Nepal to come to know Christ, inspiring ire from both Christians and non-Christians alike. To be fair, his tweet could have been better phrased, but, substantially, the heart behind it and what appears in Suraj Kasula’s post at Desiring God is the same:

Most of the people hit by this tragedy in Nepal are Hindu. They blame their gods whenever disaster hits, and they will do the same again. The Hindu gods are untouched by suffering. By contrast, Jesus draws near and sympathizes with those who weep, because he knows human suffering and human tears. And as difficult as it is to imagine right now, the suffering Jesus Christ endured on the cross to pay for God’s wrath on behalf of sinners exceeds the sorrow of the whole nation of Nepal right now.

Both want people to come to know Christ out of this tragedy. And isn’t this what we all want, really? It doesn’t diminish the realities of the trials people are facing, nor does it reduce the imperative to help those in their distress. Instead, it is a recognition of twin components of human life—our spiritual and physical needs. We should always help those in distress, but we should also be careful to consider the state of their souls. And likewise, we should be careful to avoid calling a fellow believer heartless and cruel when he or she does exactly that.

The answer to our worship problem

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One of the inescapable realities of human existence is we are all worshippers. We are always putting someone or something in the place of “ultimate” in our lives. And there’s no where where this is more easily seen in western culture than with celebrities.

We look at certain individuals, and we are in awe. We admire their talent; we enjoy the movies or TV shows or music in which they perform. We kind of wish we had their gifts (or at least their looks—remember “the Rachel”?). They promise to rescue us from the hell of our boredom with the ordinariness and obscurity of our own lives. We want to be known and important—and because that’s not going to happen for most of us, we are (somewhat) content to live vicariously through them. We read blogs or news sites that talk about new projects they’re involved with. But as time goes on, the boredom creeps back in. So the stories change from their work to their lives. And, voyeurism aside, we are enthralled, and our boredom is sent back into exile. But then it happens again: we start getting bored with the happy narrative. Soon, the tone of the reporting begins to change. We no longer have a happy picture of their lives:

  • We’re confronted with their revolving door relationships.
  • Then the ugly divorce.
  • Then the debilitating drug habit.

Before long, this person we so admired becomes a punch line. We mock and jeer as our would-be savior from our boredom is crucified. And once the spear has entered their side, we go off in search of our next savior.

This, in a nutshell, is what the Bible calls idolatry. It’s to take someone or something that isn’t God and worship him, her or it, despite these idols always over promising and under delivering. They simply cannot do what we ask of them. In idolizing celebrities, in treating them as being “more” than human, we are making them less. We dehumanize them, turning them into puppets and pawns to make us happy (or at least, help us forget about what’s going on in our own lives). And while they have power over our affections, they don’t control over our destiny. That’s the greatest lure of idolatry. We want to be the masters of our domain, and there is no fate but what we make. Ultimately, in worshipping people and things, we are kind of worshipping ourselves. Idolatry is all about us being in control of our own destinies. About being our own gods. All of us—every single person on the face of the earth, every person who has ever lived—are prone to doing this. And there isn’t a single person who is excluded from it.

This is where the message that the Bible contains is so important. It tells us of the problem of humanity—we worship the wrong things and we fail to worship the only one worth worshipping. And it shows us the lengths to which this God who created everything has gone to fix the problem. It tells us of how we were lured away from true worship by the promise of being like God in a way that we were never meant to (and could never actually be). It tells of how this world became the mess that it is even to this very day, as humanity pursued its own desires. As it chased after its sad substitutes for the fulfillment that only comes through our relationship with our Creator. And it tells us of how God, from the very beginning, perfectly planned the events of history to bring humanity back into relationship with him. And this plan all centered on a man named Jesus—a man who was also, somehow, God.

Jesus came into the world, born as we are (well, sort of) and lived as we do. Except not. See, the Bible makes some extraordinary claims about Jesus. It tells us that from before time began, he existed. It calls him the Word who was with God and was God. It tells us that this same Jesus’ mother became pregnant through a miracle (hence the “sort of” with being born as we are). He became hungry and tired. He probably got sick from time to time. But one thing we have no record of is Jesus ever doing or thinking anything wrong. Ever. Not even once. He never lied, stole, or dishonored his parents. He never mocked people behind their backs. He never once behaved hypocritically. When he looked at people, he always gave them the appreciation and respect they were due—never thinking too highly or too lowly of anyone. He taught thousands of men, women and children, and showed extraordinary compassion to them. He frustrated the religious leaders of his day, because he kept calling them hypocrites and liars. Despite being a celebrity, with an entourage numbering in the tens of thousands, he wasn’t interested in status and making a name for himself. He was a servant of all. The writers of the Bible tell us he performed incredible miracles—including healing the sick and raising the dead! He said things like believing in him was the only way anyone could have a relationship with God. More than that, he even claimed to be God. And for this, he was arrested, beaten and brutally murdered. But even the grave wasn’t enough to stop him, for it’s said that he rose from death just a few short days later and appeared to hundreds of people, as many as 500 at once!

In all he did and all he taught, Jesus showed us was what a life of true worship looks like, one that is devoted to the God who created us. A life that consistently denies our selfish desires to put us at the center of the universe, and instead forces much needed perspective back into our lives. And that perspective really comes when we figure out what to do with Jesus, because he is the answer to our worship problem. And because he is the answer to our worship problem, we have to do something with him.

This is why so many people want to dismiss or discredit him. This is why some people pretend he never existed at all, and claim the story of Jesus was cobbled together from competing mythologies. This is why some try to say that the earliest writings of Christians didn’t include all of this Jesus is God talk; that this was something that was added later (what we might call the purple-monkey-dishwasher effect). This is why others still try to add him to a pantheon of little gods and goddesses, of spiritual teachers from whom they can pick and choose what they like and ignore the jagged bits. But I’ve got to be honest, having tried all of those, I can safely say they’re unsatisfying answers.

They don’t work.

There’s really only one honest answer to the question of what to do about Jesus, and that is to worship him as God. This is what Christians do, however much we falter: we worship Jesus because Jesus is the way God fixed our worship problem.

What is our greatest need?

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This weekend, as I prepared to teach the grades 4 and 5 kids in our church about Jesus cleansing the temple and righteous vs. unrighteous anger, I was reminded of the danger of simply telling them “don’t be angry,” or “be angry like Jesus.” There’s a trite, simplistic, or naive way to to teach about these complex issues. And the danger of teaching in such ways is that it doesn’t actually allow the gospel to shine through.

This is something I always try to remember when I’m teaching in children’s ministry: my goal isn’t to help kids become good, moral Christian-ish people. It’s to help them discover their greatest need. Our greatest need is to know God in Christ, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it so well in Authentic Christianity:

Do men and women need to be told about some kind of program that will give them better conditions? That is not our greatest need. Our greatest need is to know God. If we were all given a fortune, would that solve our problems? Would that solve our moral problems? Would that solve the problem of death? Would that solve the problem of eternity? Of course not. The message of Christianity is not about improving the world, but about changing people in spite of the world, preparing them for the glory that is yet to come. This Jesus is active and acting to that end, and He will go on until all the redeemed are gathered in, and then He will return, and the final judgement will take place, and His kingdom will stretch from shore to shore.

This is the great need, and more than that—it is what God has done to meet that great need. If our kids don’t hear this—and if their parents don’t hear it either–then we’ve kind of missed the point.

The Challenge of Contending (For the Church)

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My first article at For the Church:

Like all married couples, my wife and I occasionally express our disagreements with a certain unhelpful zeal… In other words, we fight. However important the issue might seem at the time, we have come to realize that our disputes are often over stupid or trivial things:

  • Was there an episode of the Ewoks cartoon with Storm Troopers? (Yes.)
  • In answer to the question, “What time is it?” is there a meaningful difference between “A little after three” and “3:07”? (Not really.)
  • If I go into another room to get something for my wife, is this actually helpful to her if she didn’t ask for my help? (Jury’s still out on this one.)

These are the kinds of deep, confounding issues that can arise in a marriage, right? No, these are the kinds of ultimately insignificant questions that we find ourselves squabbling over mainly so we can claim the title of Rightest Person in the Room.

For some, the idea of contending for the faith feels a little like this. Indeed, if the concerns voiced by some evangelicals—particularly those who label themselves “progressive”—were any indication, it seems as though we’re spending most of our time fighting over fairly insignificant issues while overlooking more important ones. And even when the debates are centered on important matters—such as abortion or the biblical view of marriage—some are so exhausted they’ve thrown up their hands and cried, “Can’t we all just get along?”

I understand this concern. There are many times I’ve felt like this, too, particularly as I look at how we conduct ourselves online. But you know what keeps me from giving up the fight? The Bible won’t let me. And just as the Bible won’t let me give up the fight, it’s changed how I fight.

Continue reading at For the Church.

Why I’m excited about For the Church

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Today’s an exciting day for my friends at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary: their new venture, For the Church, launches today! What’s even more exciting for me (from a purely selfish perspective) is that I get to be a part of it as a contributor.

Here’s why I’m particularly keen on this new site:

1. The vision. For the Church is all about  engaging, encouraging, and equipping the Church with gospel-centered resources that are pastoral, practical, and devotional:

This tone—being practical, pastoral and devotional–is really important, especially in a world where we have far too much bad news thrown at us, including from our fellow believers. I don’t know about you, but I get a little tired and depressed after reading 18 posts on the latest violation of Americans’ fundamental freedoms, or the continuing crisis in the Middle East. By no means should we stick our heads in the sand; but we do need to remember that if all we’re getting is this message—difficulty, trial, persecution, suffering—then we are going to be living our saddest life now.

We need fuel to face the bad news that constantly assails us. We need to encouraged in the gospel, and to be strengthened for what lies ahead. We need to inform our heads, yes, but we also need to strengthen our hearts. That’s For the Church is offering, and it’s something I am eager to read.

2. The contributors. MBTS has put together a phenomenal crew of writers for this site, including Brandon Smith, Michael Kelley, Joe Thorn, Erik Raymond… these are guys I enjoy learning from and folks whose writing makes me want to be a better one. That is pretty exciting to me—and I hope it will be to you, as well, especially if you’re an aspiring writer. Just as with preaching, you need to read a lot (and read a lot of different styles) to really find your own voice. Reading work from as diverse a group as For the Church’s contributors will go a long way.

3. Jared Wilson. I’m not gonna lie: Jared Wilson is one of the guys I most respect, both as a pastor and a writer. His writing has been consistently helpful to me (and he’s been kind enough to put up with periodic emails from a knucklehead like me for years). So, him asking me to contribute is not something I take lightly, and I’m grateful to be a part of the team.

So what will I be writing on? 

One of my first posts should be up on today called “The Challenge of Contending.” This is a post that gives a snapshot of how to contend for the faith without being contentious. Following that, I’ve got a new series that will be starting sometime in the near future based upon the things I wish I’d known as a new believer.

There’s lots more that I could say about this new endeavor, but for now, I hope you’ll join me in celebrating the exciting  the most important is to encourage you to check it out for yourself. Enjoy the first batch of articles, and be sure to add For the Church to your favorite feed reader today!

Earth Day, religious devotion and creation care

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The first time I heard about Earth Day was when it interrupted my Saturday morning cartoons. I was probably seven or eight at the time, and this particular weekend NBC decided to air one of their NBC All Star type shows. This one featured the Huxtable family talking about how we shouldn’t be taking long showers as it wastes water. This was a way we could take care of Planet Earth. Next, came the announcement at school: because we had to do our part to care for the planet, we’d be spending a couple hours on Earth Day cleaning up trash in the school yard and the surrounding neighborhood.

Things escalated from there: recycling clubs (yep, I’m old enough to remember when recycling was a new thing), more posters, more TV specials, Ferngully, and Captain Planet:

As a child, I was heavily exposed to the fear of global warming and acid rain. But it didn’t really change my life that much. Nor did it really seem to change the habits of anyone else I knew, either. But I did slowly see it starting to change how people wanted to present themselves. Though there was little overt pressure, people seemed to want to appear to be environmentally conscious, even if they didn’t really care all that much.

Because thinking about something is just as good as doing it, right?

But over the years, I noticed a change as the message shifted and the rhetoric took on a more overtly religious tone. The local coffee shops put up posters exposing the dangers of styrofoam cups and their continued existence over the next 1000 years in landfills (despite only having been invented in the 1940s). Garbage and recycling programs have escalated to require separate bagging of items—paper, plastic and metal, compost, and other (yet still crushed in the same bins in the pickup truck). Our government has even got in on the action, instituting environmental fees on your electronic products (a sure sign of environmentalism being mainstream). Earth is no longer the place we live, but “the mother of my mother,” and the use of fossil fuel is comparable to human slavery.

And then there’s the public schools. I’ll be honest, even though I noticed the changes in behavior, it didn’t really hit home until a few years ago, when my daughter came home from school with a handout that talked about how we were hurting the earth because we drove cars, and should really be using public transit or bicycles instead. This led to the following conversation:

Abigail: “We shouldn’t drive our car. We should take the bus.”

Me: “Okay… So, let me ask you something. Does your teacher take the bus to school?”

Abigail: “No.”

Me: “Does she ride a bike?”

Abigail: “No.”

Me: “So how does she get there?”

Abigail: “She drives.”

Me: “So does that mean your teacher is bad?”

Abigail: “No…”

Me: “So if your teacher isn’t bad for driving a car, then why are we bad for driving one?”

Abigail: *Lightbulb moment*


Now, obviously, I’m not going to declare we should all start driving gas-guzzlers to the arctic circle for a wild weekend of seal hunting. I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying don’t bother recycling (even if I question its efficacy at times). But as we come up to Earth Day and the increase in environmental messages and rhetoric, I want us to consider the question:

What does it really teach?

The more I consider it, the more I wonder if what it really teaches is that humanity is simultaneously the problem, and the solution. We are to be our own saviors, even as we lament our existence. Our world is overpopulated.1 We are consuming our resources at an unheard of rate and within the next 50-ish years, we’ll be running out of water, fossil fuels and possibly even air, as the doomsday prophesying goes. We’ve gotten ourselves into a horrible mess, and we are the only ones who can get ourselves out of it.

Notice the religious contours of this: there’s a state of perfection that’s been lost. There’s a problem to be resolved. And there’s a promised salvation from the problem we face. The problem, of course, is it all centers on us. It’s a religious system without God.

This sort of environmental hoobity-boobity is rooted in what Peter Jones would call Oneism—a radical rejection of the Creator/creation distinction. Because we ignore or outright reject the Creator—the one who created all things and supplies all our needs—the creation becomes the object of our worship. Thus, environmentalism becomes a matter of life and death.

And this religious devotion is fundamentally what Christians must reject. We are not worshippers of the creation. We have dominion over it. Not to abuse, but to carefully use its resources as God’s image bearers—his representatives—in the creation. So what does this mean for us?

1. We don’t worship the earth. A Christian caring about the environment is a good thing. But we must reject anything that smacks of placing any created thing (including the planet) in a position it does not deserve.

2. We consume responsibly. As I’ve written elsewhere, while I’m skeptical that a styrofoam cup in a landfill will still exist in 15,000 years, I’m all for being responsible as a consumer. Don’t buy more than you need. Buy things that last. Just because you can be conspicuous in your consumption doesn’t mean you should be.

3. We trust the Lord to provide for all our needs. If God provides for us—if he makes it rain on the just and unjust alike—then we have nothing to fear. Ever. This means it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever run out of clean drinking water, or appropriate fuels, or lose the ability to produce food to eat. Our problems around these things really have more to do with distribution than actual shortages (even in the case of California).

As wonderful as the earth is, it does not deserve our devotion. There is only one who does, and that is our Creator, the maker of the heavens and earth. Caring for the environment is a good thing, but only if we understand it in relationship with the ultimate thing.


photo credit: Full Disk Image of Earth Captured August 24, 2011 via photopin (license)

What do true teachers do?

true-teacher

What do all faithful teachers have in common? What separates a good teacher from a bad one? And what do they actually do?

It’s easy to become confused about this. After all, there are plenty of speakers and teachers who are technically excellent. They are captivating personalities and incredibly gifted, yet they are a total train wreck.

Assuming the primary issue is understood—after all, the Scriptures place little emphasis on an individual’s abilities and focus almost entirely upon his conduct and character—there is really only one thing that determines if a teacher is a true one, a faithful one: how firmly he holds to Scripture. Martyn Lloyd-Jones made the point well in Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John:

The most important test is the conformity to scriptural teaching. “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God.” How do I know that this is a scriptural test? All I know about Him, I put up to the test of Scripture. Indeed, you get exactly the same thing in the sixth verse of 1 John 4 where John says, speaking of himself and the other apostles, “We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.” The first thing to ask about a man who claims to be filled with the Spirit and to be an unusual teacher is, does his teaching conform to Scripture? Is it in conformity with the apostolic message? Does he base it all upon this Word? Is he willing to submit to it? That is the great test.

Your ability to teach matters, make no mistake. But what’s more important than your ability that you hold fast to the Scriptures. That you grab hold and never let go, no matter how tempting it may be (or how popular it may make you). Pastors, bloggers, conference speakers and authors should always be the first to say, “Do not simply take my word for it. Check the Scriptures—listen to them above me.” He doesn’t encourage closing the book, nor turning off your brain. He doesn’t imply infallibility in his ministry. He is subordinate to the Word of God. He conforms and submits to it.

That’s what a true teacher does.

What teaches us the preciousness of the Creator?

A little while ago, I started a new periodic series called “Going beyond inspirational gobbledygook.” Much of what’s offered to us as inspirational quotes (and much of what we see shared on social media) is little more than sub-biblical nonsense (or worse), so I wanted something for the rest of us—something that encourages us personally, but also truly inspires others in the gospel.

While occasionally, these will be original quotes, often they will come from saints older and wiser than me. Today’s  comes from Charles Spurgeon, from his sermon, “Order and Argument in Prayer”:

precious-creator

(Be sure to save and share this image with your friends!)

And just for fun, here’s some additional context for this quote:

My brethren, nothing teaches us so much the preciousness of the Creator as when we learn the emptiness of all besides. When you have been pierced through and through with the sentence, “Cursed is he that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm,” then will you suck unutterable sweetness from the divine assurance, “Blessed is he that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is.” Turning away with bitter scorn from earth’s hives, where you found no honey, but many sharp stings, you will rejoice in him whose faithful word is sweeter than honey or the honeycomb.

Got a quote you’d like to see in this series? Let me know in the comments!

3 favorite teaching moments from #TGC15

tgc15

From April 13-15, 2015, around six thousand Christian men and women came together in Orlando, Florida, for The Gospel Coalition’s 2015 National Conference, to consider the new heavens and the new earth. Yesterday, I shared three personal reflections on the conference, and today, I wanted to share a few of the standout moments from the plenary sessions:

1. John Piper on Christians as radical truth-tellers. As Piper applied his texts, Isaiah 11 and Isaiah 65 (the whole message was terrific), he declared that Jesus is “calling us to be people of radical truthfulness. To not make judgments on appearances, but on truth.… We are to be radically truth-driven Messiah people.”

His key example? Ghostwriting among Christian authors:

“If you write something, put your name on it! If you didn’t don’t put your name on it! If someone wrote it with you, put both names on it. We do not use the ways of the world to write a book or win a soul!”

2. Keller on what a circumcised heart is. “When the Bible talks about the heart it’s the control center of the whole being. Hearts put their trust in something. They face things. … The thing your heart looks to is what you think about when you don’t have anything to think about. What the heart wants, the mind finds reasonable, the emotions find desirable.”

And this is why God commands us to have circumcized hearts. This, external sign of being obedient to the law of God. Circumcision of the heart, he said, “means that the innermost will wants to do those things. Our pleasure and our duty are the same. What you ought to do and what you want to do are the same things.”

But it’s the illustration he gives about why God commands that particularly intimate part of the body be involved in physical circumcision that got me. It’s to remind us of the grossness, the vileness of sin.

3. Ligon Duncan on why the “not yet” matters right now. Most Christians are familiar with the idea of the already/not yet, or the now and not yet of reality. The gospel has present affects, but has future implications. And yet, so many people seem to think that if you pay too much attention to the “not yet” you’re good for nothing right now. As he preached on Romans 8:16-25, Duncan politely called bunk on this idea. “There are a lot of people who say if you care about the ‘not yet’, you won’t care about ‘now’, and you’ll be escapist in your view of the Christian life. But the Bible says that the ‘now’ matters forever, and ‘forever’ matters right now.

You must have your eye on that future hope. If you’re just hoping in the now, you’re not hoping as Paul is telling you to hope. The reformed doctrine of justification in grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone ended slavery in the British empire. We’ve been told our doctrine isn’t “social” enough. We need to modify it to make it more social. No.

It is the doctrine of justification in grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone that caused Wilberforce and his coworkers to expend their last breath to set captives free! You can’t live now unless your hope is in the not yet. The now is so overwhelming, if you really look at it, you can’t survive without the not yet.1

(Sadly there’s no clip of this available, but it was great.)

Were you at TGC15 or watching the livestream? What was a top moment for you?

The primary (and peculiar) task of the Church

business-of-church

Why does the church exist? Is it to clothe the naked, feed the sick, liberate the oppressed? Is it wrong for churches to do this? Not at all; in fact, it is quite good and necessary to our Christian witness. But they’re not the main thing.

As Martyn Lloyd-Jones argues in Preaching and Preachers, those things are good, but they are symptoms of a greater problem. A sin problem. The problem of being separated from God. And so, it falls upon the church to bring people into a right relationship with God. He explains:

It has come into the Church and it is influencing the thinking of many in the Church—this notion that the business of the Church is to make people happy, or to integrate their lives, or to relieve their circumstances and improve their conditions. My whole case it that to do that is just to palliate the symptoms, to give temporary ease, and that it does not get beyond that.

I am not saying that it is a bad thing to palliate symptoms; it is not, and it is obviously right and good to do so. But I am constrained to say this, that though to palliate symptoms, or to relieve them, is not bad in and of itself, it can be bad, it can have a bad influence, and a bad effect, from the standpoint of the biblical understanding of man and his needs. It can become harmful in this way, that by palliating the symptoms you can conceal the real disease. . . .

The business of the Church, and the business of preaching—and she alone can do this—is to isolate the radical problems and to deal with them in a radical manner. This is specialist work, it is the peculiar task of the Church. The church is not one of a number of agencies, she is not in competition with the cults, she is not in competition with other religions, she is not in competition with the psychologists or any other agency, political or social or whatever it may chance to be.

The church is a special and a specialist institution and this is a work that she alone can perform. (30-32, formatting mine)

You can’t justify its existence

sin-exists

You have to wonder: why on earth are people so intent on proving Genesis 1-3 untrue? Why do so many want to cast doubt on these early chapters’ credibility as being true? Why do we want to dismiss them as mere fairy tales or mythology?

Because they reveal the truth of the human condition—and how sin came into our lives.

We don’t like these chapters because they leave us with little doubt about the chief problem of humanity. But we want to change that—we don’t want to say it is disobedience to our Creator, or that we chose to believe a lie over the truth. Instead, we convince ourselves that our real problem is ignorance.

But in doing so, we are lying to ourselves. But, as Herman Bavinck explains, lying about sin, trying to justify its existence, is always a losing proposition:

Sin started with lying (John 8:44); it is based on illusion, an untrue picture, an imagined good that was not good. In its origin, therefore, it was a folly and an absurdity. It does not have an origin in the true sense of the word, only a beginning. Satan has, therefore, not incorrectly been called an “irony of all logic.” The impossibility of explaining the origin of sin, therefore, must not be understood as an excuse, a refuge for ignorance. Rather, it should be said openly and clearly: we are here at the boundaries of our knowledge. Sin exists, but it will never be able to justify its existence. It is unlawful and irrational. (Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3, 69–70)