santa-claus

Santa Claus and Chrisitans

How should Christians handle Santa Claus?  Answering this question could start a fight…which I have no intention of doing.  I’m certain that your personal background shapes how you answer this question.

Personally, I really enjoy Christmas.  There are a lot of things I like about Christmas that really have little to do with Christmas Day.  I love Christmas Carols.  I’m not too embarrassed to admit that I look forward to rocking out to Elvis’ Blue Christmas for most of the year.  I love seeing colorful Christmas lights everywhere—the more the merrier!  I love decorating the Christmas tree.  I love seeing the lights on the tree.  Who doesn’t love seeing gifts under the tree?  I love my family’s tradition of Christmas Eve dinner, the opening of one Christmas gift, going to our church’s Christmas Eve Service, and ending the night by watching Elf (yes, you read that right).  I love the laughter and joy this season brings.

I share the previous paragraph with you so you know that I really do like this holiday.  I’m not opposed to having fun through imagination.  I’m not bunkered down teaching my kids that “Santa is just Satan spelled differently.”  However, I am very careful with how we’ve handled the issue of Santa Clause with our children and with my teaching at the church.

I love the imagination and creativity that God has given us.  I’m not looking for a history lesson on the origin of Santa Claus—I’ve already checked out his Wikipedia entry.  I’m fine with telling stories and having fun with creativity.  However, I don’t understand when parents push the line from fantasy or imagination to reality and outright deceit to their children.  I know, I know, that sounds really harsh.  I need to lighten up, right?

Have fun with your imagination.  I’m all for imagination.  I’m not suggesting that Santa can’t be a part of the Christian’s holiday plans.  God gave us creativity and imagination.  Use it, have fun with it.  Children have a special connection to the make believe that I wish I were better at reconnecting with as an adult.  I love that my kids help me tap into my inner child—my wife may not be as thrilled with this as I am.  Just leave Santa here.

Protect your children’s trust.  I have never lied to my kids about Santa.  They have always known that he is make believe, just like the tooth fairy, and any other make believe people.  I will not intentionally deceive my children for a number of reasons, but I want them to know that they can trust me no matter what.  There is nothing greater than anyone’s trust, especially your children’s.  Why would we jeopardize this trust by pitching something as truth when we ourselves know it’s just in fun?

Why this matters to me?  I’m a Christian.  I have a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe through Jesus Christ my Lord.  I didn’t come to know Christ until I was an adult and when I did, I came to understand the overwhelming historical evidence concerning His prophetic coming, His life, death, and resurrection.   In hindsight, I see that during my youth, I’d begun to lump Jesus with Santa Claus, the Boogey Man, and Tooth Fairy.  Jesus has nothing to do with fairy tales and I want no part in deceiving my children or confusing them about who Jesus is.  This is ultimately why I take the matter of Santa so seriously in my home.  We can get our pictures taken with Santa, threaten coal for gifts if they’re naughty, but let your kids know that it is all make believe.

For the skeptics out there, I encourage you to really investigate the gospel.  My prayer is that this would be the greatest Christmas of your life.  Jesus came and died for you so that you might find life in Him.  This grace of God is indescribable and is truly the greatest gift one can receive.  Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

is-calvinism-biblical

A Few Thoughts on Calvinism

Dear reader: the following article was impressive to me, so I decided to pass it on to you. I hope your love for and trust in the Lord increases as you read; that’s the effect it’s had on me. ~ Bill Holdridge

A Few Thoughts on Calvinism

By Pastor Doug Hileman

First Christian Church of Marysville, CA

In the churches I have attended through the years, Calvinism has been viewed with suspicion and even scorned (“Once saved, always saved.”)  Consequently I have never been exposed to more than a brief mention of the subjects of election and predestination in sermons or Bible studies conducted in a non-Calvinistic setting.  As these two doctrines are major recurring themes in the New Testament, I view their virtual dismissal by those of my persuasion as misguided censorship.  I suppose this should come as no surprise—once you have developed a loyalty to a doctrinal point of view you tend to lose a measure of objectivity—viewing any “opposing” texts or concepts through the filter of your own settled convictions.  This tendency cuts both ways, of course. Calvinists exhibit their own reluctance toward thoughtfully considering the other point of view; I think it is fair to say that within their ranks their own conclusions are rarely examined with fresh eyes.

My intention in writing these thoughts out is mostly to help me sort through my own frustration with the knee-jerk responses associated with this area of study.  Obviously, I do not write from a neutral position— I strongly disagree with Calvinistic teaching.  However, I have had good fellowship with a number of Calvinists, and have accepted that we will probably have to agree to disagree.  And so in my musings here, I really only intend to pursue a single question—why would an interpretation of scripture that seems to me to be so unreasonable have such a strong appeal to people who seem to be at least as reasonable as I am?

To begin, I consider the probability that there are motivations on both sides of the issue in addition to simple love of the truth.  From an insider’s point of view, it’s fairly easy to understand the lack of enthusiasm for Calvinism which is held by most non-Calvinists, as well as virtually all non-believers. Calvin’s view of predestination is a maddening thing to consider:  A view that says that in spite of the soul’s desire to be at peace with God, and to enter into a relationship with Him; no matter how willing one might be to fulfill whatever conditions are required of them to draw near to God and believe the gospel and thereby receive mercy; unless they are the object of a divine election that has no reference whatever to anything they might say, do, or believe, they are lost— without remedy, hopelessly and eternally.  Such teaching is acknowledged by Calvinists to be—“hard”.  James Black, a Calvinistic pastor from a previous generation authored a book that is a classic on the subject of preaching.  But along with some wonderful insights regarding the art of creating and delivering sermons, the book also provides some valuable insight into the mental workings of a faithful Calvinist.  I will have occasion to quote from Rev. Black a couple of times in these notes, first of all regarding the hardness of Calvinistic doctrine. 

“Our Scottish Calvinism may have been a hard, unbending, even logically cruel thing: but what gave the Calvinistic church its unfailing dignity and power was its prostrating sense of awe—wonder at the decrees and sovereignty of God and wonder at His unmerited mercy.”  (The Mystery of Preaching, pg. 130)

Again, I can easily understand why the average non-Calvinist shrinks back in apprehension from Calvin’s view of predestination, but I remain mystified by the behavior on the other side of the aisle:  what is it that compels Calvinists to embrace such a “logically cruel” notion, and reject out of hand the idea of full access to a salvation offered freely to all men?  Aside from their obvious answer—“That’s what the Bible teaches” (an answer I would contest)—I am inclined to look further than that.

Certainly there is an appeal to being one of the chosen ones, the “in” crowd so to speak.   But that does not seem to be the motivation behind the attraction, for Calvinists seem to be as humble regarding their own lackings as they are suitably awed by the glory of God. No, I feel the issue is more fundamental than that.   Lately, as strange as it might sound, I have begun to wonder if the awe-stricken worship referred to so often by Calvinists might be where the “hard and unbending” nature of this system has its roots.  I have heard and read professions of fear and awe from Calvinists many times before.  It is striking how much more frequently that type of sentiment is expressed in Calvinistic writings when compared with the works of others.  I had always assumed such statements were the spontaneous, personal expression of their reverence for God, and thought I would do well to learn from their example.  But through the years as I have read more of their material, I have begun to wonder if this is an acquired sensitivity, perceived to be obligatory;  not an affectation, but something along the lines of a theological tradition or culture, passed down from one generation to the next.  This mindset of fear and awe is not improper, of course—far from it.  But along with the teaching in Scripture to relate to God in that particular way, there are other biblical examples of individuals who had a degree of relaxed familiarity with God; not from presumption or disrespect, but of an “Abba Father” nature.  The “Calvinistic Awe” that James Black refers to smacks more of Sinai than of Zion.  The Israelites— including Moses himself— were certainly shaken by fear and awe of God at Sinai.  But that is not the pattern which we have been given to follow in this present age.  (Hebrews 12:18-24)  The view of God at the foot of Sinai contrasts dramatically with the perspective gained on the slopes of Zion.   And needless to say, so do the covenants they represent.

Consider the concept of God for a moment—what is God like?  Christian thinking in the first several centuries after the Apostolic Age leans very heavily on Greek philosophy, especially in regards to the nature of God in His perfection.  The view of God held by virtually all Christian leaders at that time mirrored the Platonic one.  As a perfect being, God was untouched by emotion, passion, or change.  Based on this assumption, one view of Christ developed as having a “compartmentalized” dual nature, because His divine nature would by definition be incapable of suffering.  With this non-Biblical model of divine nature at the headwaters, the understanding of everything downstream became subject to a nagging, polluting influence, which causes confusion to this day.

So what if, in a parallel fashion, Calvin embraced a narrow view of God; while ostensibly based on the Scriptures, it is a view that is inconsistent with the full revelation of God as recorded in the narrative of Scripture. For the picture he draws of God in the exercise of sovereign election seems to be one of unfeeling intellect—His is a merciful intelligence to be sure—but of a cold and detached sort.  For in Calvin’s estimation, all that really matters is God’s sovereignty expressed through His decrees.   The eternal bliss or misery of humanity are not really considered for their own sake, and are viewed only as a means to an end—to glorify God.  Now, when examined as individual components, each of the aforementioned concepts would be considered orthodox to most Christians. There is nothing of higher value than the glory of God, His sovereign will is the ultimate good, both heaven and hell will be used to demonstrate His glory, etc. But something is missing in the overall picture when we view these particular teachings in isolation from the narrative of scripture: the revelation that the Bible gives us of the personality of God. Calvin attempts to give something of the machinery but nothing of the heart; and Calvinism has a very mechanistic feel to it. Could it be that, having embraced a one-dimensional view of God as the whole, (in terms of election and predestination, at least) Calvin’s theology in all its “hard, unbending, cruel logic” is the inevitable outgrowth what seems to me to be theological tunnel vision?

There is much to be said regarding what might be termed “the reasonableness of God” in the Bible.  That emphasis seems to be entirely absent from the Calvinistic perspective.   God demonstrates this side of His nature rather frequently in His dealings with men, and appears to respond to their perceptions of justice, explaining Himself and even reasoning with them on occasion.  Some examples:

  • Cain, and his appeal that his punishment was too hard to bear. (Gen. 4:13-15)
  • Abraham, and his attempt to bargain for the lives of the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah. (Gen.18:20-33)
  • Moses, interceding for Israel when God wanted to destroy them and start over.  (Ex. 32:9-13) (This case is especially notable, as God exclaims to Moses at one point in the conversation, “Leave Me alone!”)
  • Jonah, pouting about God not destroying Nineveh, and God gently reasoning with him so he would see His perspective on the matter.  (Jonah 4:9-11)
  • And in the New Testament—The Gentile woman who came to Jesus and asked for deliverance for her demon possessed child.  Initially Jesus refused, but she won Him over with her reasoning.  (Matt. 15:22-28)
  • Throughout scripture, God is revealed as possessing a willingness to talk things over and reason things out.  He makes a distinct offer through Isaiah along these lines. (Is. 1:18)

My point is this: much of the “hardness” in Calvinism seems to emanate from the unswerving reliance on the teaching in Romans 9 alone to absolutely define the nature of predestination and election, without reference to other passages of scripture.  This is where Paul is defending God’s right to make one person a vessel of mercy and another a vessel of destruction—any way He sees fit, no questions asked.  (Or no reasoning allowed, if you will.) And so the conclusion is drawn that everyone’s eternal destiny is determined on that basis alone.  Now pause for a moment and consider that there are several examples of biblical teaching that initially appear to be contradictory to other scriptures.  When two such views seem to be at odds with each other, we generally look for the balance between them.  As an example, the doctrine of the Trinity when viewed alongside the submission of the Son to the Father.  Or the view of justification by faith in Romans in conjunction with the same doctrine in James.  I submit that Romans 9 taken alone will give an imbalanced view of the workings of predestination and election.  Let me quote once again from James Black as he instructs his students on the function of isolation in preaching:

“In this connection may I add—do not be afraid of exaggeration.  Isolation of any kind is exaggeration: and when you isolate a text or subject from the whole coherent body of truth, you exaggerate it in the very process.  State your main truth, in the distinct and even limited aspect you have chosen, and trust to the correcting influence of your whole ministry.  There is nothing so futile as aiming at a foolish completeness.”   (The Mystery of Preaching, pg. 51)

In a nutshell, he says that examining one aspect of a doctrine in isolation may give a false impression of sorts (imbalance or over-emphasis), but you can and should supply the balance over the course of your ministry.  He says it is often quite impossible to give the whole picture within the framework of one solitary sermon.  This wonderful advice for preaching the Bible seems to be overlooked by Calvinists when it comes to interpreting it.  Rather than look for a balance between the teaching in Romans 9 and other portions of scripture that strongly indicate man’s free will and a universal opportunity to come to Christ, it seems to me that Calvinists firmly shut the door of further inquiry with these familiar words—“ But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? ” (Rom. 9:20) In doing so, they believe they contend for the faith, and take a firm stand in defense of God’s sovereignty and glory.  But I contend that Calvin taught a view of God that is not wholly biblical.  As a result he unwittingly ended up with a duality of his own—the God of love revealed to us in the Person of Christ, and the God of ancient mysterious “wisdom”, that predestined some to glory, and the rest to damnation.  This second side of God is not talked about openly, especially to non-believers.  It is a thought too terrible to consider at length. Martin Luther alluded to it, but did not like to ponder it himself. The Calvinists will never state the doctrine of election in all its stark reality to a congregation.  They will focus on hope.  On the “lighter side” of God, if you will.  But in the background, under the surface, in the darker corridors of theological imagination lurks this image of an inscrutable and severe Intelligence in eternity past who determined to cast millions and millions of humans into hell—why?— because it made sense to Him.

Calvinism has an overarching design to it—to “protect” the doctrine of God’s glory and sovereignty.  The urgency and zeal which Calvinists exhibit for this mission remind me of the man named Uzzah who lived in David’s day.  (II Sam. 6:1-19) The Ark of the Covenant was being transported on an oxcart on one occasion, when the cart hit a pothole and the Ark began to tip.  With the best of intentions, Uzzah reached up to steady it, and was struck dead instantly.  David “was afraid of God” that day, and immediately put a safe distance between himself and the Ark.  He later discovered through a study of the scriptures the reason for this God’s behavior—the Ark was being transported contrary to the pattern given by Moses, who taught that it was never to be touched by any man who was not a Levite.  Using the oxcart to transport the ark seemed logical enough, but it was a mimicry of the unbiblical method adopted by the Philistines when they returned the Ark to Israel just prior to this incident.

David’s fear on this occasion was based on what David perceived as unpredictable behavior on God’s part.  It is also significant that David was, “…angry because of the Lord’s outbreak against Uzzah.”   I don’t think it is stretching things to say that at that moment David thought God was unreasonable, and anger is a very logical reaction to unreasonableness. However, once David understood and practiced the teaching of scripture (I Chron. 15:1-15), God wasn’t so scary after all.  He understood God’s actions and intentions and felt safe enough to draw near again.  David began to worship with tremendous joy, and God’s presence at last came to rest in Zion.  One of the many lessons contained in this account is this: every time the church relies on the wisdom of the world to interact with God, it causes problems—in particular, problems with man’s perception of God. It seems to me that most of the difficulties Calvinists have with their interpretation of predestination and election have more to do with logic than with scripture.  They pose questions like, “If God doesn’t control all this absolutely, how can He really be considered sovereign?”  Or, “How could Christ die for someone and that person still end up lost? Wouldn’t that mean His death was in vain? Wouldn’t that mean that the purposes of God are subject to the will of man?”  Nevertheless, the Scripture seems pretty clear on these two points;  that God has given man a free will, and Christ died for the sins of the whole world. Logic notwithstanding.

Having shackled themselves with presuppositions that have no mandate in Scripture, Calvinists have embraced a system of theology that is neat, tidy, marvelously logical, and paradoxically, quite unreasonable.  They have fallen prey to the same temptation as the early Church Fathers—leading with logic rather than scripture.  As a consequence, they have ended up with a similar dilemma.  I must conclude that when Calvinism is embraced there is an unavoidable tendency to compartmentalize God.  He is eternally loving toward us, and eternally not towards the non-elect.  The contemplation of God’s love for the elect is cherished and gratefully viewed from every conceivable angle by Calvinists, as it should be.  His supposed lack of love for the non-elect, however, is stated flatly, and then for all intents and purposes, promptly ignored. This is understandable, because if Calvinistic theology is pursued relentlessly to its logical conclusion, the serious hindrances posed are inescapable (despite the denials of its adherents).  Calvinism produces a sense of hopelessness in potential converts; while seeking to defend the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, it holds forth a twisted, monstrous view of His heart toward mankind.  Christian workers are affected as well, for the good news of the gospel has been replaced with a formula that is fatalistic, logically reducing the efforts of the church for the evangelization of the world to little more than posturing.  All that work is to be done, it seems, to glorify God through obedience, but not really for any actual effect on the eternal destiny of others.  Here is the bottom line: if any effort of individual believers or the church can be said to the slightest degree to have any bearing whatever on the outcome in an individual’s response to God, then the whole system of thought erected to protect the sovereignty of God comes crashing down.  It seems to me therefore that to be a Calvinist one is forced to live in a “pretend” world.  You must pretend that your efforts actually make a difference, and you must pretend (at least in front of others) that everybody has a chance to be saved.  The whole system is so unnecessary, and so unnecessarily complicated, that I wonder why it has gained as much acceptance as it has. No doubt the attraction is “the security of the believer.” But that is a topic for another time.

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The Only Hope That’s Left

For many years, I have pondered and taught on the inevitable downward spiral that takes place within a culture that suppresses the truth about God. Romans 1:18-32 tells the story. It is social and spiritual devolution—it’s God giving people what they want. They want a life without Him, and He gives them over to their own desires.

Living in a culture like Romans 1 describes is difficult and painful. The greed, murders, and all kinds of evil wear people down. “Life” becomes increasingly unlivable. People don’t feel safe, loved, or optimistic about future prospects. It can become a grind to just get up out of bed and face each new day. It’s not a pretty picture.

Romans 1:18 says that this downward spiral is the present manifestation of God’s wrath. God is angry at ungodliness and unrighteousness and the effort to avoid and ignore truth.

How are Christians supposed to live in such a place? Let me offer a few suggestions, if I may:

  • We are not to become self-righteous, but rather brokenhearted and empathetic. Romans 2 describes the moralist, the one who thinks that because he is able to criticize the sins of Romans 1 he is somehow exempt from judgment himself. We can’t be that guy. We need to follow Jesus, the One who wept over Jerusalem and paid for the sins of the whole world. We need to be like the Father, who is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
  • We should engage the people living with us in this corrupt society, not withdraw from them. It would be easy, and is no doubt tempting—to isolate, move, disengage and remove ourselves entirely. But that would be a complete failure on our part to obey Jesus’ commands to be salt and light.
  • We should see the degradation of the culture as a great opportunity. The light of the gospel shines brightly in the darkness. The opportunity to be healed sounds wonderful in a hospital of sickness.

We really do need to be like Jesus. Jesus came as a missionary to this sin-laden planet. He was sent by His Father. He listened to His Father, He watched His Father, He obeyed His Father, He operated by the power and authority of His Father.

Now He turns to us and says, “As the Father sent Me, even so I send you.”

Therefore, we are sent by Jesus as missionaries. We are to listen to Him, watch Him, obey Him, and operate by His power and authority.

We’re the only hope that’s left. Christ in us is the hope of glory. There is no Plan B.

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Cemetery or Seminary?

In my spiritual journey God has used a number of things to shape me.  I think I accepted Christ at a Tuesday night Bible study that was at a Vineyard church.  From there I started attending Horizon, then to The Rock when Miles McPherson launched it, then to a little Mexican church in National City, then to help with an Evangelical Free Church, then I planted a church with my father-in-law that became Southern Baptist, to my current church which is Southern Baptist…this flyover covers about 17 years of my church life.  During the early years, 1996-2001, I traveled extensively as a Navy SEAL and would often find myself in different places on Sundays…I would always land at a Calvary Chapel because they were fairly consistent with their franchised product.  I know you guys are not a denomination, but nobody on the outside buys your claims. :)

As I was growing in the Lord and starting to sense God’s call, I wasn’t sure what the next step was or how I was to pursue this vague feeling inside.  I remember many of the pastors in Calvary Chapel bashing, or subtly making jabs against seminaries by referring to them as cemeteries.  I sort of found this funny because from the outside looking in it appeared as though many of the pastors didn’t have college degrees let alone any time at seminary.  Where was this attack coming from?  Why would they be critical of something they never actually participated in or completed?  Maybe it was a chip on their shoulder?  Maybe.  Maybe there was some truth in what they said?  Possibly.  I know that I may be treading on dangerous ground as the majority of the writers of this blog are Calvary Chapel guys.  I am the outsider, the black sheep of the group proudly waving my Southern Baptist colors…which feels weird as I don’t really feel connected deeply to this group, but I digress.

As God led me away from Calvary Chapel circles, I was exposed to a variety of very godly pastors who all had graduated from seminary.  Different seminaries all conservative, but with different flavors.  It was during this time that God’s call became very strong and my desire to study the Bible at a deeper level continued to grow, but I didn’t know how I could satisfy this as I was preparing to deploy to the Middle East.  Thankfully, I was informed of Moody Bible Institute’s distance learning program.  I immediately enrolled in a number of courses like “Old Testament Survey”, “New Testament Survey”, “Elements of Bible Study”, and “Advanced Bible Study Methods.” Oh, my soul was getting nourished in ways that I couldn’t have imagined.  I ended up completing a year’s worth of coursework through Moody’s program.  This whole experience opened up the door for me to complete my Bachelor’s in Biblical Studies and Master’s of Divinity degree through Southern California Seminary.  From there, I would go on and work on my Doctor of Ministry degree through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, but I withdrew from the program when I was “All but dissertation” because I felt like it was interfering with the present ministry I was called to.

I had a wonderful experience through Bible College and Seminary.  I would not be able to handle the Word of God as accurately as I do now without my training there.  I understand that not every seminary is created the same, but that doesn’t mean that all are bad and ineffective in training people. Here are a few reasons why I support and encourage men called to the ministry to go to seminary:

You will grow and mature through the process.  Seminary is challenging.  Juggling life with coursework is challenging in of itself, but a good seminary is going to forged you to be handle the ministry–whether you are preparing to enter or are already doing the work.  To hunker down and to do the work will shape you in your walk with God.  This difficult season in my life definitely prepared me for the rigors that pastoral ministry would bring.

You will be equipped in handling the Word of God.  I often am asked, “Did seminary really help you?” I laugh and respond with something like, “If I wasn’t in seminary, I would not have been digging, researching, and writing about topics that forced me deep within the Word on a daily basis.”  Seminary will sharpen and expand you knowledge and application of the Word of God.  There is no way around this, you cannot experience this demand on your own.  I have often heard, “Seminary is like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hydrant.”  This is so true!

You will be exposed to others schools of thought.  I can already hear some Calvary guys jumping on this point saying, “Ahh, you will be brainwashed and wander into bad doctrine!  Beware!”  An assumption of mine is that we are talking about a conservative, Bible believing and proclaiming seminary–which there are many.  Within this context you will rub shoulders and discuss biblical things from different vantage points.  This is iron sharpening iron in its truest sense.  For example, when I wrote my thesis on “The Christian and Combat” we brought in a pacifist, who deeply loves the Lord, to challenge my position.  I am better because of this experience of being exposed to other views within Bible believing Christianity.

You will develop deep friendships and broaden your network.  Outside of the coursework, I developed deep friendships with others in the ministry from a variety of denominations or non-denominations respectfully.  These friendships have been very meaningful and helpful to me in my service in the ministry at large.  I am thankful for these men that I can go to for support and outside consultation by men who are outside of my circle.

Concluding thoughts.  First, if you are debating going to seminary choose well.  The price is the least important factor.  Seek out graduates and examine the doctrinal position of the school.  If you don’t feel comfortable with this, ask someone who can guide you and give you wisdom for not all seminaries are created equal.  Second, if you haven’t been, or graduated from seminary, I would ask you to refrain from the bashing of them through subtle comments like letting “cemetery” slip out of your mouth when “seminary” was the intended word.  It makes one look like they have a chip on their shoulder for lacking something.  Of course one doesn’t need seminary to go to the ministry…we simply need to meet the requirements of 1 Timothy 3:1-7.  Finally, whatever your background, I encourage you to read, grow, and study intently as you lead the body of Christ.

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By Any Means Necessary

I have been thinking much lately about ministerial preference. What I mean by that is simply that every minister (and ministry) has a preference for ministry style. Some enjoy large churches the best. Some small churches. Some think church planting is the way to go. Others think church revitalization is the key. For some, multi-site campuses are the way to go. For some it is native missionaries. For others it is cross-cultural missions. For some, house churches and for others it is institutional churches. And on and on.

What I have come to appreciate is that the work of the kingdom is truly “by whatever means necessary”. What I mean by that is simple, that in the work of the kingdom we need to trust that the Living God will encourage and move in His church by diverse means. In the work of ministry, we should feel comfortable to trust that God can and will use whatever means necessary to get the job done.

I share this because oftentimes we spend so much energy and time fighting for our preference. I know that I have done a lot of that in my life. Please don’t get me wrong, it is very normal to believe strongly and champion your preference. But I think we need to be careful not to value our preference higher than another. The work of the kingdom is to important to invalidate another methodology just because it is not our preference.

Biblically speaking, Paul was called to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews. Paul moved cross culturally where many disciples stayed locally and served. Paul spoke to multitudes while Aquila and Priscilla seemed to do one on one ministry. What is common is that there was no competition. They worked together although uniquely, yet all for the same cause.

The more time I spend seeking God about the work of ministry in the 21st century, the more I find myself repenting of taking certain means off the table. The cause of God’s glory is too great to ‘thin the herd’ based on preference.

But these are just my humble thoughts. What do you think?

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Pastoral Ministry Practice #2

In John 17:4 Jesus refers to the work He has already accomplished.

I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.

Suffering a sacrificial death and rising in power were not the only assignments given to Jesus.   In John 17:6-13 He lists out the work He accomplished before going to the cross.   These verses serve as an outline of the pastoral ministry of Jesus Christ.  These verses set before us the four essential practices of pastoral ministry.  What Jesus exampled in His ministry and reviews in prayer here before His Father are the essence of being a shepherd to the flock of God.

The first essential work of pastoral ministry is given in 17:6 –

I manifested Your name to the men You gave Me out of the world.

The second essential work of pastoral ministry is given in 17:7-8

I gave them Your words…

Please note the order of the prayer of Jesus

Jesus says in v8 that He has given the disciples the Word of God, but He did so only after manifesting the Name of God, which means He demonstrated the character of God.  Word follows Name.  This order is so crucial that if you don’t follow it your ministry will ultimately be of no effect.  Gehazi had the staff of Elisha, but he did not have the heart or the power of Elisha.  The staff of Elisha without the mantle of Elisha was powerless to evoke even a stir from the dead child.  If you preach the Word of God without manifesting the Name of God your preaching will be dead.  We all know that it is easier to speak the Word of God than it is to manifest His Name – this is why there is more preaching of Christ than demonstration of Christ.  It is easier for me to tell you to love your neighbor than for me to love my neighbor.  Many have heard of the gospel from preachers who do not live the gospel.  The Word without the Name has driven many away from Christ.

I once lived down the street from a man with whom I became acquainted.  He learned that I was a pastor and began to tell me about his involvement years before in an evangelical church.  From singing in the choir to sometimes working with the youth, he contributed to the ministry and was blessed in return.  He went on to tell me about being in a casino in Reno and seeing a deacon from his church at the roulette wheel.  He couldn’t believe that a leader from his church would be gambling.  (It was OK for him, but not for the deacon – go figure!)  From that time on he hadn’t stepped into a church because he was so disillusioned and disappointed.  In his mind, the deacon was denying and defiling the Name.  Conservative theology wasn’t enough for him, he wanted to see the Name fleshed out in the leadership.  Along with the Truth preached he wanted to see the Life lived.  So many have been grievously wounded and deeply offended by a church with the Word without the Name.  So many have been turned away by the Truth not adorned with the Life.

Truly, we are often the Church of No-Name.

Imagine that you are approached by a 300 lb. man who tells you that he has been on a diet for ten years.  He goes on to tell you that it is the best diet he has even been on and he just can’t say enough about it.  You ask a few questions and then finally ask how much he weighed before he began.  You figure that ten years ago he must have really been big to still be at 300 pounds today.  He tells you that ten years ago he weighed 310 pounds!  You quickly do the math and realize that he has lost only one pound a year in the last ten years.  You ask him again just to make sure you heard right and he confirms what he just said.  Well, to say the least, you are underwhelmed.  You immediately go from mildly interested to perplexed.  All of his talk, his rosy testimony, his enthusiastic endorsement have been erased by one simple fact – that to which he has been passionately committed to these past ten years has made no difference in his life – except maybe a bizarre emotional attachment to that which has not helped him.  How many in the pastoral ministry are like our 300 pound friend whose words carry no weight?  The glowing testimony doesn’t pass the test.

Incarnation and declaration are means of revelation.  The Name of God shows what God is like and the Word of God informs as to what God has done.  Declaration of the Word without incarnation of the Name insures poverty of ministry.  Do we need less Word of God?  No.  But we do need, and must have more Name of God.

Pastoral authority and personal credibility

You’ve been called into ministry and you have responded by becoming a serious student of Scripture, serving in various capacities in your church, and getting a solid education in the things of the ministry – theology, ministry, history, Biblical languages, administration, counseling, etc.  Your gifting and calling have been recognized and you have been encouraged numerous times by various people.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that call + preparation = authority.  This formula is short-sighted.

Your authority is the Word of God you preach, but your credibility is the Name of God you manifest!  We have to make a distinction between authority and credibility – Jesus did.  Consider His advice to the people about the Pharisees –

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.  Matthew 23:1-3

The Word of God has inherent authority, but authority was never meant to stand alone.  The authority of the message is to be accompanied by the credibility of the one who speaks it.  When authority is separated from credibility the power to persuade is eroded.  We can see this in the life of Lot.  Lot heard from the angels that God was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and that he was take his family and flee those cities.  He went and told his sins-in-law that the city was about to be judged for its wickedness and destroyed by the Lord.  Here’s how Genesis 19:14 reads:

Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, and said, “Up, get out of this place, for the LORD will destroy the city.” But he appeared to his sons-in-law to be jesting.

Lot’s life lacked spiritual credibility so much so that even though his message was true, it lacked spiritual authority and the ability to persuade.  He lived such an unspiritual life that when he does speak of spiritual things, his sons-in-law think that he’s joking around with them – they couldn’t take him seriously.  Is this not the condition of many within the church today?  The word we speak is drowned out by the life we live.  Our lack of credibility undermines the authority of the Word of God.  The world doesn’t see us living the Name and therefore doesn’t respond to us speaking the Word.  We are told that there is a crisis of authority today – in actuality, it is more a crisis of credibility. We are told that if we learn the Word, study the Word, polish the Word, preach the Word that the world will come.  Yes and no.  We haven’t clearly understood the scope of the challenge facing the church in the 21st century.  If those who claim to follow Jesus would truly do so, our message would gain a more respectful hearing.  It’s not so much that they don’t believe the message (and they don’t), but that they don’t believe us, the messengers!

The order of the ministry essentials that Jesus highlights in John 17 is so crucial – Name before Word.  And here’s why –

Like the legs which hang down from the lame, so is a proverb in the mouth of fools. Pr. 26:7 

A lack of credibility results in the loss of authority.

spiritual

Unspiritual Christianity

Today is one of those articles that I am going to try and say something that I don’t really know how to say. I really have struggled over the years to articulate this reality and find myself struggling today again to find the words to express something of value.

My pondering began with a simple question, “How is it possible for Christianity to be perceived as unspiritual?” The gospel is simply the Lordship of Jesus. When a person believes in Jesus, they are indwelt by the Spirit of God, the third person of the Blessed Trinity.There is no Christianity without the Spirit. Yet, as I look around the body of Christ, there seems to be way more examples of unspiritual Christianity then there are spiritual ones. Now when I speak about the need for Christianity to be spiritual, I mean “of the Spirit” in the simplest of terms. Not even necessarily the expression of spiritual giftings. I am talking about the basics of love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, patience, goodness and self control (Galatians 5:23). I am talking about lives that are lived out in the simplest aspects of agape love and service. I am talking about the ‘shalom’ of God being at work and being outworked through the body of Christ. Concepts such as agape, simplicity, service, unity and peace-making are in my mind.

As I survey much of the Christianity around today, I don’t see much of this. So I started to wonder why. Why is so much of Christianity look so little like the life of Jesus? I see much personal politics, attack-dog disagreements, sin cloaked in religion, bickering, jockeying for position, niches and cliches. It is so common for people to rise up in churches if they are charismatic or sychopantic rather than having a Jesus-formed character.

So I am going to list a few reasons why this may be the case. Instead of commenting on each of them, I will simply list them and let you all have fun with them.

1) When information is king
2) When theology is not translated to the street level
3) Classic Self-salvation plans
4) Cultural Idolatry
5) A lack of any focus on spiritual formation (true biblical discipleship)
6) A western individualistic focus rather than community formation
7) Prayerlessness
8) The Curse of Affluence
9) The Influence of Business Practices upon Church Leadership
10) Tax-exempt status
11) Church as entertainment

small-vs-large

Big Church, Small Church = Same Church

As many of you know, I am a blogging veteran. It dawned on me recently that I have been blogging for over 10 years at this point. But is also interesting is that I find myself interacting on them less and less (although ironically, this article is on a blog). Why? Well because I have little bandwidth these days for incessant arguments. When I think about some of the most common arguments about church on blogs (whether ministry-minded blogs like CrossConnection or other Christian blogs), it is the church size preference argument. Most of the arguing, as I have thought about it, is actually from people who prefer smaller churches and then vilify larger churches. Although I don’t know of any larger church pastor starting a blog argument over church size, it is far to common to hear a mega church pastor speak down about a smaller church. I once stood in horror as a large church pastor asked a faithful brother of a smaller church, “How is your little work going?”. The work of God in salvation and in His people is never little. It is always huge.

But, for me, I feel that I have a unique vantage point on this because of how the Lord has led me. I have been involved pastorally in 4 churches (3 as the church-planter and senior pastor). The three churches I planted were turned over to other pastors with less than 100 people. Now I pastor a very large church. Here’s what I have learned. Simply stated, the church is the church. Whether large or small, the church is the people of God together in community. Every church is flawed in some way, yet being grown up into her head, Jesus. All churches have budget problems, building (or lack thereof) issues, committed members and folks who just come and go. On every level, the church is the church.

This was brought into stark focus for me recently as someone asked me how it was to teach at a large church. I said simply, it’s exactly the same, just more people hear the message at one time. I haven’t changed, the only difference is that now, if I look to the left or the right when I’m teaching, I’ll see myself amplified on jumbo screens (a terrifying sight). I still study the same, deliver it the same, pray that God uses it the same. After service, just like in a smaller body, some folks head for the doors and other folks want to spend time and talk. There are all the same people issues. In any church, large or small, most people have 10 truly close friends. That doesn’t change. A large church is not any less intimate than a smaller church. Why? Because intimacy is a heart issue not a size issue. Again, it’s all the same church.

So why do I write this? Well maybe it is my hope that people will be okay with simply stating their preference for church size and dynamics instead of seeking to justify the preference by vilifying the other side. I also say this because as a church planter and smaller church pastor, I also tried to vilify larger churches. It don’t think I did it maliciously. I did it naively. But my experience has taught me that the church is the church, no matter how many people are gathered together. We are all one big family in Jesus. I, for one, am grateful for that.

St-Paul-Preaching-in-Athens

PREACHING FOR DECISIONS

To Preach or Be Personable

As I survey the landscape of much of Christian ministry, it seems clear that the preferred evangelistic method of the day is to be relational, and missional.  For many, the days of preaching the gospel openly to a crowd (at church or anywhere) and calling for people to believe then and there isn’t effective or necessary.  Instead, people say what we need is to focus singularly on making long-term friendships with people who don’t know Jesus, and evangelize them through acts of service and conversation in the context of our friendship.

Let me be clear up front about the fact that I’m all for missional living!  I’m all for relational evangelism.  I’m all for organic witnessing.  But I think that our current obsession with the missional/relational approach to evangelism is only half of the portrait of biblical evangelism.  I believe that as we engage in the one-to-one relational evangelistic mission, we must not ignore or despise the place of preaching to crowds, and calling for decisions.  We need a both/and approach.

I come from a theological and philosophical background which promoted skepticism about calling people to respond to the gospel on the spot in a public way.  This is partly due to the abuses sometimes seen in the ministries of so-called evangelists.  But nut-jobs aside, I can remember hearing godly men give legitimate invitations to believe the gospel, and criticizing them.  I thought that it seemed like emotionalism, and lacking in emphasis on discipleship.

 Encountering Invitations in Acts

Today I give public invitations for people to believe the gospel and be saved every week at the church I serve.  I’m in a very different spot than I used to be on the issue of invitations.  What ultimately brought me to where I am today on this was surveying the points of appeal that are recorded in the Book of Acts.  As I set out to try and get a biblical perspective on invitations I had two questions: 1. Are on-the-spot invitations to believe biblical at all? 2. What is the primary thing offered to unbelievers for believing in Jesus in the appeals recorded in the Bible?

What I discovered in my survey of Acts were numerous points of appeal where the apostles called their hearers to respond to the gospel in faith right then and there.  Secondly, I discovered that the main benefit of believing in Jesus that the apostles offered to people publically was the forgiveness of sins.  It wasn’t a better life now or even a personal relationship with God (though of course the latter of these is not wrong).  The primary thing they promised people for believing in the gospel was forgiveness.  This makes sense considering Jesus’ declaration that the Holy Spirit is right now on a mission convicting the entire world of sin, and failure to believe in Christ. (See John 16:7-11)

A good example of this is seen in Acts 2:38 and 40: “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins; and you shall receive the promise of the Holy Spirit…And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying ‘Be saved from this perverse generation.’”

Peter believed in calling people to make an immediate, public profession of faith in Jesus.  He believed in having them demonstrate that profession of faith with action (baptism).  He offered forgiveness to all who heeded him.  He didn’t do so casually or briefly, but with many words exhorted them to be saved!  This same kind of process permeates the testimony of the book of Acts.  On your own time consider the following passages: Acts 2:38-40; 3:19 and 26; 10:42-43; 11:14 and 21; 13:38-39;14:21; 16:3-34; 17:30-34; 18:4-8; 19:4-5; 26:17-18 and 28-29; 28:23-24.

 Objections to Decisions

For various reasons people object to any kind of public appeal to immediately believe in the gospel.  For some their reason is theological.  I’ve heard some from strict Calvinistic backgrounds object to such an appeal on the basis that it is God who makes the decision.  If you believe a person has to be born-again before they believe, there’s no cause for passionate appeals to respond to Jesus right now!  God will take care of their response in His time, so just relax.  They believe it to be miss-leading to tell people to believe.  In response I’d point out that Peter disagrees, if you consider his appeal in Acts 2 alone.  Whatever theology drove him there, he was perfectly content to make passionate, persuasive pleas for people to believe in Jesus right now for salvation, and get baptized.

Others object to appeals for decisions on the basis of emotionalism.  To be sure, some evangelists are simply able to stir emotions and get professions whether they preach the gospel or not.  But this doesn’t mean its wrong to be emotional when you preach the real gospel.  I would contend that if you believe people will spend eternity in hell without trusting in Christ, you’d better be a little passionate and emotional when you call them to faith!  If you’re not, I wonder where your hearts at, and how much you believe the gospel you preach.  I heard Pastor Pedro Garcia tell a story about a question he was asked at the end of an evangelistic service he preached.   At the closing of the service a man inquired, “Are you always this passionate when you call people to receive Christ?”  What was Pedro’s emblazoned response?  “How can we not be!”  Some of us need to ask that question.

 Objections to Common Methods

Still others are bothered by methods utilized to give people a chance to express faith in Christ publically.  We’ve all heard the “Now with every head bowed and every eye closed, if you want to receive Christ just raise your hand up, and I’ll pray for you” approach.  I used to criticize it heavily, and others like it.  Now I even use it sometimes.  Why?  The truth is that the most biblical way to call people to faith in the gospel is to call them to believe, and then call them to demonstrate that belief by getting baptized right away.

As a church meeting in a school, our baptismal is an inflatable portable hot tub originally designed for camping!  So I can’t call people to believe and get baptized at every service.  When we do baptisms we do them open invitation style, and its always beautiful to see how God uniquely blesses the call to believe and be baptized with conversions.  On the other weeks, I figure that giving people some practical way to respond is better than giving them none.  So sometimes I ask them to raise their hands as a symbol of appeal for God to save them in light of the gospel.  Sometimes we just invite them to come pray with us after the service if God’s spoken to their heart.  I find God blesses the offering of a variety of opportunities for people to publically express the faith of their hearts.  What I know is we see people come to Christ in our services when we give them practical ways to express faith way more often than we did when we weren’t offering methods like this.  It also helps us see who God’s been working in so we can follow-up with them.

The funny thing I’ve found is that most who criticize people who use methods other than baptism to immediately demonstrate new faith in Christ don’t call for immediate decisions followed by baptism either.  They don’t really call for belief at all.  When you consider the biblical record, to me, the burden of proof is on them.

How About You?

Do you ever make an appeal for an immediate response of faith to the gospel?  Why or why not?  What practical methods do you use to encourage people to demonstrate their heart’s response of faith to the gospel?  Do you think your theology or practice in this area promotes or hinders you and your church from experiencing the blessing of seeing people come to faith in Jesus the moment they hear the gospel?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

 

 

past_future

The Historical Problems with Preterism

I am more familiar with Preterism than I care to be. I will be frank in that I believe it is one of the biggest false doctrines in the church today. If you don’t know what Preterism is let me give it to you in a nutshell:

Pretersim:

The belief that all prophecies in Matthew 24-25 and Revelation 6-18 were fulfilled prior to 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Army. The period commencing after this event is known as the Church Age or Millennial Reign.

We won’t even get into the literal or figurative definition of Millennial (Thousand year) Reign. Let me also preface this with the suggestion if you don’t have wade into the knowledge of Preterism then don’t. In my opinion it is a complete waste of time. I was drug into this debate when I had a rogue employee who was causing grief in several churches over his zealousness for this topic.

The position that I want to discuss is the historical issues that plague Preterism. Most scholars agree that the Book of Revelation was written between 88 and 92 AD. Preterists argue that John wrote Revelation during the reign of Nero in the 60’s AD and not during Domitian’s reign (81-89 AD).

The question I want to present to you today is: “What was the age of the Apostle John when he walked with Jesus?” This gives us a key how old John was in 60 AD and 80 AD. You see John was old and frail when he wrote Revelation and his epistles. Stories have people carrying him into churches because he couldn’t walk. One has to be advanced in years to be in that state. (It is true injuries could’ve have caused that but no where is it mentioned that he suffered that and that he was the only disciple not to die a martyrs death but from old age)

Let’s look at an obscure passage to help us determine John’s age:

Matt 17:27 However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel.Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”

This is an interesting scene that is usually over looked but it points out some important cultural things about John’s age. The first thing we see is that only Jesus and Peter pay the tax. What about the other disciples? Was Peter alone with Jesus? Jesus wasn’t alone with Peter but only Peter and Jesus had to pay the tax because they were of age. You only paid a temple tax when you were over twenty years old. So this shows us that of the disciples who were present (likely Peter, James, and John) the rest of them were under the age of twenty. This would fall in line with how old disciples were who followed Rabbi’s during that time. Grown men with families did not follow Rabbis. Teenage boys who showed promise in the Torah followed renowned Rabbis.

If that is the case then John is probably between sixteen and eighteen at this time, which was likely 32 AD. If this is the case then John would’ve only been at most fifty years old in 64 AD and probably not the old man who is ready to die of natural causes. If you have him penning the book in 88 AD then he would be close to seventy five years old and more likely to be old and frail from all of the travels and the attempted boiling in a vat of oil.

So you see there is a history problem with Preterism based on the age of John when he walked with Jesus. He just wasn’t old enough in 60 AD to exhibit the characteristics that history attributes to him in his old age, couple that with the fact that there is no mention of Nero persecuting Christians outside of Rome and you have some major obstacles to overcome to prove this theory.