Christianity 201

September 1, 2022

When Church Leaders Fall

There’s a passage in 1 Corinthians 9, where the Apostle Paul uses the analogy of the Christian life as running a race.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.

For a preacher or Christian education teacher, this passage offers the possibility of a number of ‘running a race’ or ‘Olympic competition’ sub-analogies, to the point that you’ve probably heard it several times. So it’s easy to overlook the verse with which the section concludes:

27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

It’s one of a few passages in scripture where it’s made clear that the onus is on Christian leaders to live by the highest standards. One that probably comes to mind for readers here is in James 3:1

Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly.

As we begin another month and enter the final third of the year, we’re already aware — and perhaps a bit numb — to the church leaders who have brought embarrassment to the global Church, and destroyed marriages and families and local congregations in the process.

There are however, certain checks and balances that all of us can put into place which will reduce the chances of moral failure, or loss of financial integrity.

The translations of verse 27 are insightful, particularly in terms of how they capture the consequences of failing to heed the warnings of Church history, spiritual mentors or older Christians:

  • I do this to be sure that I myself won’t be disqualified after preaching to others. (CEB)
  • Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified. (NLT)
  • I do this so that I won’t miss getting the prize myself after telling others about it. (ERV)
  • Otherwise I fear that after enlisting others for the race, I myself might be declared unfit and ordered to stand aside. (TLB)
  • so I won’t lose out after telling the good news to others. (CEV)
  • lest by any means, having preached to others — I myself may become disapproved. (YLT)
  • lest possibly, after I have been a herald to others, I should myself be rejected. (Weymouth)
  • so that, after I have preached [the gospel] to others, I myself will not somehow be disqualified [as unfit for service]. (AMP)
  • so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified. (NET)
  • lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. (KJV)

And yet… having read all these translations… what is the utmost desire of many Christians when someone has fallen? Often it’s a rush to see that person fully restored to ministry; a hurry to have them returned to the pulpit to continue, as the text says, “preaching to others.”

Maybe some people aren’t meant for public service, be it in ministry or political office, or entertainment. Or maybe the spotlight of public life has a corrupting effect. Or perhaps having power causes deterioration of good judgment.

As I write this, I look at my own life, and while I don’t see the overt sins to which others might succumb, I am aware of bad attitudes, or a lack of trust in God’s sovereignty over particular circumstances in my life right now. And then, as I sit at the keyboard to prepare and format a daily devotional — as I have for going on 12½ years — I genuinely fear the consequences of vs. 27; being disqualified, or rejected; of losing what Paul, in the passage which follows, calls “apostolic authority.”

Our closing verses today are from 2 Corinthians 13:

Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you[or ‘in you’]; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith.As you test yourselves, I hope you will recognize that we have not failed the test of apostolic authority.  (NLT)

 


Correction: In the original edition of the August 29th devotional, the name listed as the writer of the Echoes of Heart devotional blog was incorrect. We apologize for the error. Here’s a link to another great devotional from them, Warrior Words. “Think of our words as warriors we send out into the world.”

 

 

August 31, 2022

This Cultural Moment

“Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed.– Acts 13:36 (NIV)

I’m not sure if it was in their speaking or their writing, and I’m not sure if it was Mark Sayers or John Mark Comer who I first heard use the phrase “this cultural moment” in reference to the church being ready, willing and able to speak to the wider surrounding culture. What I do know is that the phrase has stuck with me.

A conversation is continually taking place among church leaders as to how we respond to the general direction of the society around us. Do not be mistaken. Some confuse this with speaking to specific issues that make up our headline news.

We do need to be aware of the world in which we live. Esther 1:13 is a great verse on this subject:

Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times. (NIV) He immediately consulted with his wise advisers, who knew all the Persian laws and customs, for he always asked their advice. (NLT)

But we have to be careful not to immerse ourselves in the minutiae of specific issues at the expense of (a) keeping the much larger cultural landscape in view and (b) being true to our calling as citizens of another world.

No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. 2 Timothy 2:4 (NASB)

Do you see the need for balance?

Paul — the very same Paul who wrote that advice to Timothy — also offers a textbook example of how we should be aware and in touch with the people around us when he delivers a famous speech (sermon) to a crowd gathered at the marketplace in Athens.

So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I see that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Acts 17:22-23a (NASB)

Did he write his speech weeks in advance? No, his remarks are prefaced with a remark concerning something he saw when he arrived in the city. He then uses that as a springboard for the point he wants to make. It’s brilliant. But it’s not something he could have done if he’d been whisked to a hotel in a limo with tinted windows, and hadn’t had time to look around.

He doesn’t have to immerse himself in their culture to have a conversational familiarity with it. And as such, he’s able to speak to their cultural moment…

…Years ago I remember attending an ordination service where the young man being ordained was encouraged in this very thing. He was told to be sure to have a newspaper subscription — before the internet — to which in hindsight he might have added, a local newspaper subscription and a national newspaper subscription. It’s important to stay in touch with our surrounding communities and our world.

Today there’s another way that “this cultural moment” might be used, and that’s in terms of the time and place that the church now finds itself. If a person is selective, I see no reason why they can’t have a Twitter account consisting of other Christian leaders and follow the issues which are important today to the modern Church, or the Evangelical movement, or whatever sector of the capital “C” Church is important to them.

Finally, “serving the purposes of God in His generation” means not trying to serve the Church and the people the Church serves as if it’s 50 years ago, or 150 years ago. The content of our message is unchanging: redemption through the cross of Christ. However the presentation of our message should reflect the cultural moment.

Let’s make it personal.

How are you serving the purposes of God in your generation?

 

 

August 22, 2022

As Ten Commandments Tablets Shatter

There’s a bad Sunday School joke that goes something like, “Who in the Bible broke all ten commandments?” The answer is Moses, when he returned from the mountain and exasperated over the sin of the people sent the tablets crashing to the ground.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

First of all, the giving of the commandments in a physical form does not mean that this is the first time God establishes moral and behavioral boundaries of the people of Israel. The website Life Hope and Truth states,

…The answer is found in a fascinating statement God made about Abraham, recorded in Genesis 26:5: “Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.”

This is significant because Abraham was born hundreds of years before Moses received the law on Mount Sinai!

In order for Abraham to obey God’s commandments, statutes and laws, he had to know what they were. This means that Abraham was taught the laws directly from God or from others (or possibly both). God was not giving Moses a brand-new law on Mount Sinai. He was merely giving a codified, or formal, version of His law so that it could be used to govern the emerging nation of Israel…

The article then goes on to illustrate instances of such laws existing prior to Moses.

Let’s pick up the store in Exodus 19 and Exodus 20

NIV.Ex.19.20 The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up 21 and the Lord said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. 22 Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.”  …

NIV.Ex.20.1 And God spoke all these words:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before[a] me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.  …

It’s verses 4-6, which we call the second commandment — see the post from last month where we break them up into commandment 2a and 2b — where we want to focus. It’s reiterated in verse 22

22 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: 23 Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.

Then, for nearly a dozen chapters, God gives Moses instructions for worship, and also some amplification of the “big ten” commandments given. But then he tells Moses it’s time “get down to earth” because there’s trouble stirring.

NIV.Ex.32.1  When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”…

…7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt…

…15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.

17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.”

18 Moses replied:

“It is not the sound of victory,
    it is not the sound of defeat;
    it is the sound of singing that I hear.”

19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain.

Moses returns to see the people breaking the second commandment which was cited above. And he is livid. In his anger and frustration he shatters the “big ten,” which we’re told God Himself engraved.

It’s a very Moses thing to do. In his anger he will later strike a rock he is told to simply speak to, and that particular act of anger costs him entry into the promised land.

But here’s my point.

Before I started writing this, I gave it the title, “As Ten Commandments Tablets Shatter.” I was thinking about Moses and what the people did in his absence. But I was also thinking about pastors and church leaders today.

Depending on whose statistics you read, in North America 1,200 or 1,500 pastors resign (quit) from ministry each month. While conservatives are busy arguing about women in ministry, it’s probably a good thing some of those women are in place, because the mostly-men pastoral workforce is abandoning ministry in droves.

There are a number of reasons, but I’m sure one of them is frustration over the lack of spiritual dedication among the parishioners. Or, as Moses observed, a flagrant disregard for the will of God.

So figuratively, over a thousand each month are throwing the tablets up in the air and letting them crash to the ground while literally, they pack up of their church office library and dust off their resumés and begin to look for another career path.

Vocational ministry life can be frustrating. I write that even as a member of my immediate family prepares to enter into a greater level of vocational pastoral commitment. I am sure that like Moses, I would get exasperated by what I would see and would want to toss the tablets up in the air as well.

In North America, October is designated as “Pastor Appreciation Month,” however if people were serious about appreciating their pastor, they would, to use an archaic word, “harken” more to the things about the ways of God that he or she is trying to teach the congregation. Yes, they should live a certain way because it’s what God desires and what God requires, but there should also be a recognition that the very reason this person has been set apart for career ministry is to teach them such things with the expectation that they will follow.

Otherwise it’s all just empty words and meaningless worship.

Are there “ten commandments” violations that you see that would cause your pastor/rector/priest to want to toss the stone tablets in the air?


Related:

 

 

July 3, 2022

Letting Christ Be Seen

Throughout all the times we’ve borrowed material from writer Kevin Rogers, I really hope some of you have taken the time to become subscribers to his blog, The Orphan Age. It’s one of the best sources that we use here, and through social media — including re-posts by online friends — I’m always reminded of his newest articles and often click through. Kevin is a pastor in southwest Ontario, Canada.

Clicking the header which follows will take you to today’s devotional. While it’s written for fellow-pastors, there is application here for everyone.

When Preachers Get Out Of The Way

I apologize for any time that I have preached in ways to make myself look good or have tried to convince you through logic alone that I had the truth. If I have lulled you to sleep with my soothing voice and my words had no effect on you, please forgive me for thinking that it was important that you somehow owed me an audience.

The idea that preachers should be elevated to celebrity status is a temptation for both the pastor and his greatest fans. Paul started a church in the city of Corinth, a place where professional communicators were in demand.

Here’s an example of the showbiz side of philosophy and rhetoric.

A speech by the orator Favorinus (c. a.d. 80–150), who came from Arles in the south of France, is preserved in the corpus of speeches by his teacher Dio Chrysostom. Although the speech was delivered sometime after Paul’s day and in a period when the colony was becoming more Greek, it provides detail about the way in which orators addressed their audiences. After talking about the colorful and eminent visitors who had visited the city—including Arion, who was saved by a dolphin, Solon, the great lawgiver of the city of Athens, and the historian Herodotus—Favorinus recalled this about his second visit to the city:

You were so glad to see me that you did your best to get me to stay with you, but seeing that to be impossible, you did have a likeness made of me, and you took this and set it up in your Library, a front row seat as it were, where you felt it would most effectively stimulate the youth to persevere in the same pursuits as myself.[1]

Still today, there’s no mania like ego mania. When rappers brag about their status, wealth, sexual prowess, or clever way with words, it is entertainment. When preachers brag about their ministry and authority, it falls short of what God is looking for.

1 Corinthians 2:

1 And this was the way it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I didn’t come with fancy words or human wisdom. I preached to you the truth about God’s love. My goal while I was with you was to talk about only one thing. And that was Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. When I came to you, I was weak and very afraid and trembling all over. I didn’t preach my message with clever and compelling words. Instead, my preaching showed the Holy Spirit’s power. This was so that your faith would be based on God’s power. Your faith would not be based on human wisdom. (NIrV)

When I have preached effectively in my estimation, it is because Holy Spirit was hovering over listeners and whispering truths that they needed to hear more than my words. I have often had people tell me a message was meaningful and when asked to elaborate, they will tell me things that weren’t fully developed or just given a passing mention in the sermon. They are most affected by the things that I did not say. This is God’s power at work, not mine.

Paul was undoubtedly referring to his first journey to Corinth when the local church was established. The letter he now writes will address his pastoral perspective on all of the ways that these Jesus followers were struggling. It would appear that these Christians were wanting their preachers to be brilliant orators. Paul will now address that.

His first mission to Corinth was very focused. He communicated with one aim. The truth about God’s love in Jesus was all he cared about. For them to understand who Jesus is and the importance of his scandalous death meant everything.

Why was Paul coming in fear and trembling? Was it some medical condition or mental stress? Was preaching a trigger event that reminded him of the time he had the crowd throwing rocks to kill him or being flogged for preaching the gospel? Paul had been on the side of the oppressor and injured many of the early Christians. Now he was one and perhaps the irony was not lost on him.

Paul reminded the Corinthians of his aim. He wanted them to trust in God and not in the messenger God had sent. If Paul had depended on human wisdom and presented the plan of salvation as a philosophical system, then the Corinthians would have put their trust in an explanation. Because Paul declared the Word of God in the power of God, his converts put their faith in an experience: They knew God’s power at work in their own lives.[2]


[1] Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the New Testament ©2002

[2] NKJV Wiersbe Study Bible ©2021 by Thomas Nelson. All Rights Reserved


Note to C201 readers: Today Kevin is using the NIrV, a simplified version of the NIV which uses shorter sentences and a more limited vocabulary; ideal for children, and those for whom English is not their first language.

March 6, 2022

Seasons in the Life of Christ, and in My Life

CSB.Gal.3.1. You irrational Galatians! Who put a spell on you? Jesus Christ was put on display as crucified before your eyes! I just want to know this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the Law or by believing what you heard? Are you so irrational? After you started with the Spirit, are you now finishing up with your own human effort? Did you experience so much for nothing? I wonder if it really was for nothing. So does the one providing you with the Spirit and working miracles among you do this by you doing the works of the Law or by you believing what you heard?

 

While reading some of the notes in the NIV Study Bible, I came across a section — nested in the middle of Matthew 25 — which classifies the ministry years of Jesus into three one year phases or periods.

  1. Year of Inauguration
  2. Year of Popularity
  3. Year of Opposition

In our culture, we might describe it differently

  1. Breakout Year — Jesus is a new star on the horizon, up and coming; he’s trending on all media fronts; Pharisees start tracking him immediately though, with some concern.
  2. Jesus Goes Viral — Everywhere you go, someone is talking about him; popularity is at an all time high; if you have Bible software, just do a keyword search for “crowds.”
  3. Approval Rating Decline — Even close followers leave; the lighthearted teachings become ‘hard sayings’ and his sermon content talks about his death as though it’s something impending, and how we all need to ‘take up our cross.’

The section in the study Bible includes many key events, though it’s not a full harmony of events in Christ’s life; that follows later after John.

But as I read it, I couldn’t help think that for those of us who are Christ-followers, we follow him even in these phases. Our Christian lives begin full of the experience of grace, of sins forgiven;  full of zeal to tell others; and full of God’s purpose and plan in our lives finally crystalizing. We meet new people, learn new songs, and divest ourselves of a way of life that was heading to destruction.

But then as we settle in, we discover that following Christ is both easy — “My yoke is easy and My burden is light” — and challenging — Jesus talks about leaving possessions and family — at the same time.

Stuart Briscoe summed this up a little differently once in a little booklet, This is Exciting. It’s since been re-written as The Impossible Christian Life. His stages were:

  1. This is Exciting
  2. This is Difficult
  3. This is Impossible

But then he experiences a rejuvenation and enters a 4th stage,

       4.  This is Exciting

I would take this one step further and suggest that we experience ministry stages like this even on the micro level. For example, my sons both work in the summer at the Christian camp where my wife and I met. It’s a nine week commitment, that I would suggest divides into three week sections:

  1. Early weeks: Everyone is full of energy and spiritually charged up from staff training week.  Huge learning curve for first time staffers.
  2. Middle weeks: Work assignments become routine and nights of missed sleep start to add up. This is optimal ministry time, but the drive of the early weeks is sometimes missing, and it’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics and miss the Holy Spirit’s direction. (Smart directors will insert a staff training ‘booster shot’ in here at some point.)
  3. Final weeks: A few don’t make it this far; those that do continue to serve but are starting to think about returning to school in the fall; some interpersonal relationships start to break down; people show their true colors during these final three weeks. If the summer at camp is a marathon, these are the final miles.

It’s also easy for God to seem distant in those final weeks, or in the final season of whatever ministry task or vocational position you’re currently serving. This is where what Paul talked about as “running with endurance” kicks in.

It’s also important not to miss that before Jesus experienced years of what we called “breakout success” and “going viral,” he had another season of ministry, the time in the desert. This connects with yesterday’s discussion of Jeremiah 29:11; a verse where we so often miss the 70 years of testing that precede the times of prosperity.

What ministry are you involved in right now, and at what phase or season are you in ministry life?

What about your personal spiritual life? Are you new in faith or a seasoned veteran of following Christ? How does where you are affect the energy you have or the challenges you seem to face?


Here’s a link to another devotional which was based on the same booklet by Stuart Briscoe and gives you more of the flavor of his presentation. Click here.


Apology to regular readers: Unwittingly, about a third of the content (the reference to Stuart Briscoe’s booklet) in today’s devotional also was used in another devotional about six weeks ago. So no, you’re not having a déjà vu, you really did read that recently. Maybe God is trying to tell us all something.

January 23, 2022

Baby Steps: Carrying Out Christ’s Most Basic Command

Some will think today’s “baby steps” devotional isn’t very 201-ish. It’s more like 101, or pre-101. But over and over again this weekend it has been impressed on me that the pastors and leaders I’m watching or listening to online are concerned that the church in North America, Western Europe and Australia/New Zealand is missing out on Christ’s elementary teaching that we reflect love in all we do and say. Or to put it another way, our orthopraxy matters as much if not more than our orthodoxy. Especially in these times of dissension and division.

Matthew 7:22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Matthew 7 reminds us here that much of what passes for spiritual activity doesn’t ultimately guarantee us standing before God. I was thinking of this today in reference to a very familiar passage in I Corinthians 13. This is often referred to as “The Love Chapter” though it falls into the middle of a larger passage on spiritual gifts. The actual “Love is patient, love is kind…” section has more affinity with Paul’s teaching on the fruit of the spirit than it does with things he says elsewhere about Christian marriage. Someday in the future, I hope to walk up to Paul and say, “Hey, you know that stuff about how ‘love is patient, love is kind…;’ did you know that used that as part of our wedding ceremonies?” And he’s gonna be like, “Weddings? Wow! I didn’t see that coming.” But I digress.

The set-up to the classic love reading is three verses that are not as well known:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

The principle here applies to many other dynamics of the Christian life. Using the second part of verse 2 as an example:

  • if I have a faith that can move mountains, but lack humility, I am nothing.
  • if I have a faith that can move mountains, but am prone to anger, I am nothing.
  • if I have a faith that can move mountains, but ignore the marginalized, I am nothing.
  • if I have a faith that can move mountains, but cause controversy and division, I am nothing.
  • if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have stopped hungering and thirsting after God, I am nothing.

I can be so very spiritual in so many ways but also so very lacking spiritually. It’s interesting to look at the various ways these outward manifestations of great faith are articulated in different translations: (NIV unless indicated)

  • speak in the tongues of men or of angels
  • speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy (Message)
  • speak in different languages (NCV)
  • have the gift of prophecy
  • I have prophetic powers (the gift of interpreting the divine will and purpose) (Amp)
  • can fathom all mysteries
  • understood all of God’s secret plans (NLT)
  • understand all the secret things of God (NCV)
  • have the gift to speak what God has revealed (NOG*)
  • can fathom all knowledge
  • speak God’s Word … making everything plain as day (Message)
  • can move mountains
  • my faith is strong enough to scoop a mountain from its bedrock (The Voice)
  • give all I possess to the poor
  • give over my body to hardship
  • go to the stake to be burned as a martyr (Message)

[A more complete list of the supernatural gifts can be found in I Cor. 12: 8-10.]

The Voice Bible bookends this first section of chapter 13 with this commentary:

Gifts of the Spirit, which are intended to strengthen the church body, often divide the body because members of the church elevate those who possess the more visible gifts over those whose gifts function in the background. In fact, this is the very problem facing the Corinthians. So while talking about the importance and function of these gifts in chapters 12 and 14, Paul shifts his focus to the central role love plays in a believer’s life in chapter 13. Love is essential for the body to be unified and for members to work together. Members of the body that are very different, with little in common, are able to appreciate and even enjoy others because of the love that comes when a life is submitted to God.

Paul boils it all down for the believers in Corinth. Religious people often spend their time practicing rituals, projecting dogma, and going through routines that might look like Christianity on the outside but that lack the essential ingredient that brings all of it together—love! It is a loving God who birthed creation and now pursues a broken people in the most spectacular way. That same love must guide believers, so faith doesn’t appear to be meaningless noise.

Often, non-believers look at us and merely see religious people busy doing religious things; church people running to and fro with church activities. Or, more specific to today’s passage, they hear of spectacular miracles or visions or healings, but don’t see anything tangible manifested in how we live our daily lives in the neighborhood, the workplace, at the school committee meeting, or at family occasions.

Decades ago, in a book titled The Mark of the Christian, Francis Schaeffer exhorted, “Love — and the unity it attests to — is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.”

I’ll admit the third-to-last one in the list, giving all my money to the poor, sounds impressive, but even that can be done in the wrong way or with the wrong motives. (Flip back a few weeks to this devotional.)

In certain Christian quarters, supernatural gifts are treated as the gold standard of faith, but without humility or love, we come up empty; and all our co-workers, neighbors, or extended family see is a preoccupation with religious things that really don’t appeal to their felt needs.


*Names of God Bible, a 2011 edition from Baker Book House just added at Bible Gateway.

November 28, 2021

Ministry for All the Wrong Reasons

This is a part two to yesterday’s post.

We usually don’t continue a theme into a second day, but I felt there were a few more things that could be said about pursuing church growth at all costs, and doing ministry for the sake of having good optics online.

First, later in the day a verse came to me which should have been part of the discussion:

Proverbs 16:2

All a person’s ways seem pure to them,
but motives are weighed by the Lord. (NIV)

Because we just spent time in this verse two years ago in a piece titled Motivation Matters, I don’t want to spend a lot of time except to note that God is concerned with the why we do things as much as the what we do.

The apostle Paul saw this happening even back in his day. In Philippians 1 he wrote,

15 It’s true that some are preaching out of jealousy and rivalry. But others preach about Christ with pure motives. 16 They preach because they love me, for they know I have been appointed to defend the Good News. 17 Those others do not have pure motives as they preach about Christ. They preach with selfish ambition, not sincerely, intending to make my chains more painful to me. 18 But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice.

I think this is an important passage in our time because ministries do compete with each other, so let’s visit the same verses in The Message:

15-18 It’s true that some here preach Christ because with me out of the way, they think they’ll step right into the spotlight. But the others do it with the best heart in the world. One group is motivated by pure love, knowing that I am here defending the Message, wanting to help. The others, now that I’m out of the picture, are merely greedy, hoping to get something out of it for themselves. Their motives are bad. They see me as their competition, and so the worse it goes for me, the better—they think—for them. So how am I to respond? I’ve decided that I really don’t care about their motives, whether mixed, bad, or indifferent. Every time one of them opens his mouth, Christ is proclaimed, so I just cheer them on!

Paul was able to see the good that could come out of such proclamation, even when the motives were suspect. The grace he shows in this situation is remarkable. In I Cor. 4:4-5 he again says,

My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide.  So don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time—before the Lord returns. For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives. Then God will give to each one whatever praise is due. (NLT)

The last two sentences suggest that are reward will be based on the motives which drove our activities. (Someone has quipped, ‘There will be a lot of surprises in heaven,’ for reasons such as this.)

Although I don’t have a copy, earlier in the year I was intrigued by this book title: Rooting for Rivals: How Collaboration and Generosity Increase the Impact of Leaders, Charities, and Churches (Bethany House, 2018).

When the church growth movement is analyzed, it’s said that much of the growth that takes place is transfer growth, in other words, people moving from one church to another. (This isn’t always true of fresh church plants however, in which genuine overall growth can be measured.) Transfer growth means that church leaders are competing for the same people, the same bodies if I can use that term.

But rivalry can also get to the point of bad-mouthing another organization without justification. The blurb for the book says,

Faith-based organizations are sometimes known for what we’re against—and all too often that includes being against each other. But amid growing distrust of religious institutions, Christ-centered nonprofits have a unique opportunity to link arms and collectively pursue a calling higher than any one organization’s agenda.

In today’s polarized world this comes as no surprise…

…Although I’ve looked at our opening verse many times, it was only today that I caught that it’s repeated at 21:2. Taking one last look, I noticed something at BibleHub.com that I’d also not seen before, the inclusion of the Brenton Septuagint Translation. Its rendering of 21:2 is:

Every man seems to himself righteous; but the Lord directs the hearts.

We can really deceive ourselves sometimes or decide that the end justifies the means. But God’s concern is always deeper.


Again, if you missed yesterday’s thoughts, click here.


Bonus article: It wasn’t the type of article we’d run here, but earlier in the week, Ruth Wilkinson’s conviction and courage converged and she ended up in a very foreign environment and made a new connection. Click here to read.

September 6, 2021

Terminology: Missionaries or Workers?

Today we’re back for a third time at Disciple All Nations. The author is teacher, administrator, pastor, missionary, researcher, college professor and writer Russ Mitchell. This first appeared in the spring of 2020, and clicking the header which follows will get you there. (For those of you in missions, there’s an excellent article there on June 15th you should check out.)

Is it Time to Put the Term “Missionary” to Rest?

Recently I read Amy Peterson’s book Dangerous Territory, which chronicles her two-year adventure as a Christian English Teacher in Asia, which she self-critically subtitles “my misguided quest to save the world.” Early on I was struck by Peterson’s aversion to the term missionary. She shares:

“Despite my sincere and passionate desire to change the world for God, I hated that term –missionary—for all the connotations and baggage trailing behind it. I dreaded being aligned with the long history of abuse that educated westerners commonly associated with “missions” – destruction of indigenous cultures in the name of Christ, introduction of foreign diseases, wars in the name of evangelism. …I was terrified that I might accidentally live into this horrific, ethnocentric, imperialistic tradition.” (pages 18-19)

Peterson’s remarks reminded me of research findings of the Student Volunteer Movement 2 (renamed Global Mission Mobilization Initiative in 2019). Through interviews with young people around the world they too discovered an aversion to the term “missionary” for many of the same reasons Peterson lists. In addition, young people either viewed missionaries as “super saints”  – a measure they could never attain – or as cultural misfits, something they never wanted to become. Sensing that the term “missionary” was a hindrance to mobilizing students for service, SMV2 championed “message bearer” as a replacement for “missionary.”

I have also noticed that sending organizations avoid the use of “missionary” for practical reasons.  As many work in limited access countries where local governments do welcome foreign Christians, the term “workers” is preferred. Here are two personal examples.

Earlier this year my wife and I led a group of students to Central Asia. Our local hosts warned us to never use the M word in any of our communications. Otherwise the security of the entire work could be jeopardized. Also a few years ago, when reviewing our sending organization’s website, I was shocked to discover that the term “missionary” was not to be found anywhere on our public website! Upon inquiry, I learned that this was intentional.

So, I wonder, it is time to put the term “missionary” to rest? And if so, what shall replace it?

I was nurtured in a theological tradition that championed calling biblical things by biblical terms. How does missionary” fare? First, nowhere in the scriptures does the term “missionary” occur. So, it is not a biblical term. “Missionary” comes from the Latin verb, missio, to send. This is a semantically equivalent to biblical term, “apostle”, which literally means “sent out one.” Theological considerations, however, commonly restrict the use of “apostle” to leaders in the first century church. It is prudent to not go down that path.

Is there biblical alternative to “apostle” or “missionary?”

I believe there is, and it is a term that already is finding broad usage: worker.

Jesus tells his followers in Luke 10:2 (NIV), “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Consider too the parallel passage in Matthew 9:38.)  Here we see an early instance of people being sent out into the harvest field and the term used is worker.

Paul in his letters refers to numerous people as “fellow workers” or “co-workers” among whom are Urbanus (Romans 16:9), Timothy (Romans 16:21), Titus (2 Corinthians 8:13), Philemon (Phm. 1) and Stephanus (1 Corinthians 16:16). In the case of Stephanas, we see an even broader use of the term: “Now I urge you, brothers—you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints— be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer (1 Corinthians 16:16 ESV). Also, when writing Timothy Paul also uses “worker” in a general sense. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV).

The term “worker” also eschews “super saint status.”  A saying of Jesus reminds us, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). “Workers,” then, are not super saints. They have only been obedient. They have done their duty.

What, then, are the advantages of the term “worker”?

  • It is a biblical term.
  • It has the connotation of being sent out by God.
  • It implies that one can rightly handle the “word of truth”
  • It shows that one is devoted to serving God’s people and is a trustworthy leader.
  • It already is used by sending organizations and churches with activity in limited access countries.
  • It is a humble term, that avoids the “super saint syndrome.”
  • It has none of the baggage associated with the term “missionary” that hinders mobilization

So, it seems prudent to lay the term “missionary” to rest and use the biblical term “worker” in its place. What do you think? Are there any other advantages or disadvantages to using the term “worker”?

 

August 12, 2021

Should Christians Watch the News?

If this were a century ago, the title would be, “Should Christians read the newspaper?” I also realize the phrase, “watch the news” implies the legacy television networks, whereas many of you get your current events through the internet, one way or another. Should Christians have a daily (or every other day) input of current events in their reading diet?

And I would answer with a resounding yes, which I recognize will indeed alienate some readers.

But this is 2021, post-Covid’s outbreak, and post-America’s federal election. Some people are simply “newsed out” while others debate the validity of certain media which disagree with their biases.

When the Sadducees came to Jesus in Matthew 16, it’s not immediately clear if they were asking for a miracle on the spot, some revelation of the divinity of Jesus, or, in the terms of which Jesus grants their request, some eschatological insight. He answers them,

NIV.Matt.16.2,3 He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

It’s an analogy to be sure, beginning with the idea that today we might express as “wet your finger and hold it up to see which way the wind is blowing.” But on a deeper level he’s saying there are signs and it’s incumbent on us to be able to interpret them. That implies knowing what’s going on in your community, your nation and your world.

Some people devour local news. It’s good to be invested in your community. I’ve seen pastors who have never bothered to listen to local radio or subscribe to the local paper. Within a few years they’re off to another community, and I suppose they consider themselves citizens of heaven first, and getting to know the nuances of their city, town or village simply not worth the investment.

But other people major on world developments and then go to extremes trying to do the interpretation. A large container ship gets stuck in a canal for several days, and it’s a sign we’re heading toward one world government, they say. Because a boat got stuck.

In my youth, I was taught that “a wise person keeps abreast of the times.” When I went to find this verse however, I could only locate this rendering in the original edition of The Living Bible:

TLB.Proverbs.24.3,4 Any enterprise is built by wise planning, becomes strong through common sense, and profits wonderfully by keeping abreast of the facts.

All that to consider a quotation from Karl Barth, with a short post which appeared in 2015 at the blog of Geoff Sinibaldo. Click the header appearing next to read it there.

On Barth, the Bible and the Newspaper

Most preachers know the quote attributed to famed theologian Karl Barth:

We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”

We have an inherent need to be relevant to our hearers. It is important to us as Christian leaders to both make the Bible come alive and speak to the real world concerns in which people live. The Bible and the newspaper balance those needs, but there is a cost. Sometimes we have such a desire to stay relevant we try to prove our relevancy by starting with the newspaper and working our way back to scripture and the tradition. Observation and revelation are not mutually exclusive, but they are not necessarily equal partners either. One interprets the other as a lens to read the other. It seems in our contemporary age where the church as a trusted institution and scripture as a trusted authority hold less sway with people, for well-founded and explicable reasons. As a result, we have inverted the relationship of revelation and observation, giving more weight to what we can see and experience with the hope that our faith might have something to say in response.

I recently discovered that the more accurate version of Barth’s quote is:

Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” (Time Magazine, May 1, 1966.)

This makes me a little less nervous than the popularized version of this quote.  We are not to give equal value to God’s word revealed and handed down through the generations and the daily word reported and experienced with the fresh voice of a journalist this morning. We don’t just read the newspaper and figure out what to do about it on our own. Nor do we keep our head in the book, and shut the doors to our churches and leave personal experience aside.  We need a contemporary voice and one of wisdom that scripture provides.  The preacher’s task (as is the task of every believer) is to connect the stories of God and God’s people with our own. Our story is interpreted in light of what we know about God, and what we know of God primarily comes be what is revealed. For Christians that revelation is given in Jesus; so that the themes of God walking alongside us, welcoming us, including us, forgiving us, healing us, raising us and sending us become the interpretive lens in which we engage the real world around us with all its corruption, pain, division, violence and suffering.

The ancient stories of the Bible are not out of touch with life filled with technology, travel and the influx of ideas. The truths told in those stories are just as relevant to our lives as they have been to former generations. Stories of jealousy, selfishness, greed, destruction and betrayal – can be ripped right from our own headlines today, and stories of compassion, forgiveness, sacrifice and faithfulness are needed now as much as ever before. The constant voice of scripture within those ancient texts is one of discernment – “Where is God in all of this and where is God leading us?” Those are not questions the newspaper asks, but one we can continue to ask as we read it.  We certainly could use that voice in our world and in our relationships today.  Martin Luther once reflected that Jesus only matters when he is Jesus, “for me.”  Faith is always a contemporary exercise revealed in the present. Our task is to pay attention – not just to the world around us; but to God’s story entering our own lives and experience so we can better engage our neighbors’ concerns and challenges. Barth’s reflection about the news and the Good news provides both wisdom and relevancy. We need both voices, and too often sacrifice wisdom for the sake of relevancy.

One more piece on relevancy is an honest confession: I don’t read newspapers; at least not in their printed versions.* I find they often offer one voice and/or perspective in a time where many voices compete for our attention and allegiance, and it is helpful to find a variety of thoughts on any given subject.  Yet I must also claim my own bias – and that is to see the world through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and take it from there.

So I offer this 21st century update, on what I think what Barth was trying to say:

“We must hold the Bible in one hand, and our hand-held device in other – filled with Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, blog subscriptions, news articles from a variety of sources and perspectives, societal studies, and local gossip. We must open our own experiences to reflection, and listen for God moments in the stories of others. We must look beyond our doors, books and screens, and spend some time in the real world, in our community among our neighbors and through our networks as we pay close attention to those voices too.

Yet at its heart, scripture still interprets them all, interprets us all, and brings us into God’s timeless truth again and again to us…right now.”


But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15)


*  I know it is a contradiction, but in our digital age I do still love the feel of a real paper book. For those who love the feel of a real newspaper, I understand that too.

August 5, 2021

Many, Many, Many Words

When I’m looking for articles to use here, I have to confess I do look for a certain length of each piece of writing. I don’t want to shortchange readers, and when I find something that’s only one- or two-hundred words, I usually dismiss it, no matter how insightful it might be. This isn’t Twitter, and I’m not composing memes here. I want to know that the writers put some effort into it.

I will admit that’s an incredibly superficial criterion.

There are people whose 200 word posts are formed out of the crucible of a life situation unimaginable to some of us. There’s a lot more to a devotional blog post than the words actually typed on a keyboard.

But I also want to give my readers good value for their money, even if Christianity 201 is always free!

A verse which came to mind was Matthew 6:7b

“…do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words…”
 (NIV)

God clearly isn’t interested in quantity.

(That brings us to 173 words so far… see the problem of being absorbed with numbers, data, stats?)

Contextually, Matthew 6:7 is about prayer, not the crafting of sermons, homilies, podcasts, YouTube videos, etc. The first part, verse 7a reads,

“And when you pray…”

But I do see a general principle here. We don’t have to be wordy when we talk to God (especially falling into the repeated use of the word ‘just’ or the phrase ‘Father God,’ as if we might forget who we’re speaking to, or he might stop listening), so why should we be verbose when we speak about God?

You’ve heard people say, “God doesn’t want your ability he needs your availability.” To that we could add, God doesn’t want you eloquency. (For the record, that’s not an actual word, but it fits the pattern. The word is eloquence.)

The English Standard Version uses the phrase, “heaping up empty phrases.”

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”

We do that. Especially in the Evangelical church where extemporaneous prayers are the norm, and more concise, crafted prayers are often looked down on, though that stereotype is changing, as many Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Charismatics are seeing the value of manuscripted prayers and classical prayers from previous centuries. (Again, for the record, there’s no such word as manuscripted, but hey, I was on a roll.)

Back in 2014, we quoted author Christopher Smith on this,

When he warns in the Sermon on the Mount against “heaping up empty phrases,” he’s specifically saying that we shouldn’t expect God to hear us and grant our requests based on how many words we’ve said—that is, how much time and energy we’ve put into saying long and repetitive prayers.  This is really a form of “works,” of trying to earn something from God by our own efforts.  Jesus directs us instead towards grace:  “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  What we receive from God in prayer is an expression of His love and goodness towards us, not our efforts.

Again, remembering that the context is prayer, I still think Smith has hit the nail on the head when it comes to a possible wider context, namely that any attempt to try to meet a minimum number of words, or preach for a preset number of minutes, or have our book contain a certain number of pages is just allowing us to fall into a works category; of believing our standing our acceptance before God is going to based on the length of our dissertation or sermon or book, instead of the depth.

At the end of the day, perhaps the wisest thing, the best thing, the most fruitful thing, and the most God-honoring thing you can do today might be to create a 20-words-or-less meme and post it on social media; rather than believe that God is impressed with your verbosity. (Surprise, that one actually is a word!)

Furthermore, your eloquence may not compare to those who don’t have the gift of public speaking, or those for whom English is a second language.

In Luke 18, we see that a six-word prayer by a tax collector leaves its speaker “justified before God” and not the Pharisee who majored in public speaking. Again, the context is prayer, but I see a wider context.

NIV.Luke.18.10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”


For those who do write, preach, teach, podcast, etc., here’s a 2017 article from our sister blog on learning to be concise: The Essential Art of Concision. (Yes, that one’s an actual word also!)

May 1, 2021

The Day the Grade Five Sunday School Teacher Taught Reincarnation

We begin with two scriptures:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly. ~James 3:1 NET

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! ~Matthew 18:6-7 NIV

I am reminded of a something that happened many years ago. The church secretary’s ten-year-old son announced at lunch that his Sunday School teacher believed in reincarnation. True story. There’s a family mealtime conversation for which I would love to have been a fly on the wall.

Needless to say, an investigation ensued, the child’s report was accurate, and the teacher was relieved of responsibilities.

I’ve probably shared this story about a dozen times in the twenty years since it happened, but only today did I ask myself, “I wonder if anybody ever set the woman straight?” Obviously, removing the teacher from the classroom was the first thing that needed to happen, but someone also needed to set her straight on why Christians don’t see themselves as having existed before in another form and then, at the end of this life, returning to earth in another life-form.

I would suspect that at the most elementary level, correction would entail some notion of the teaching that “It is appointed onto man once to die, and after that the judgement” Hebrews 9:27 KJV, italics added. A Christian theological understanding of man would assert that we don’t come back in some other form as taught in Spiritism or Hinduism.

About a year ago, I discovered something I had previously overlooked; namely, that in the various doctrines which join together to form a systematic theology (or as I prefer, a cohesive theology) there is a doctrine of man and for that the term used is anthropology, the same term we normally use to describe a particular discipline in the social sciences alongside things like psychology or sociology or philosophy. Perhaps you took ‘anthro’ in school but never thought of it in a doctrinal sense.In the list of branches of theology at Wikipedia, it’s listed as “Theological Anthropology”

  • Bible – the nature and means of its inspiration, etc.; including hermeneutics (the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts and the topic of Biblical law in Christianity)
  • Eschatology – the study of the last things, or end times. Covers subjects such as death and the afterlife, the end of history, the end of the world, the last judgment, the nature of hope and progress, etc.
  • Christology – the study of Jesus Christ, of his nature(s), and of the relationship between his divinity and humanity;
  • Creation myths
  • Divine providence – the study of sovereignty, superintendence, or agency of God over events in people’s lives and throughout history.
  • Ecclesiology (sometimes a subsection of missiology)—the study of the Christian Church, including the institutional structure, sacraments and practices (especially the worship of God) thereof
  • Mariology – area of theology concerned with Mary…
  • Missiology (sometimes a subsection of ecclesiology)—God’s will in the world, missions, evangelism, etc.
  • Pneumatology – the study of the Holy Spirit, sometimes also ‘geist’ as in Hegelianism and other philosophico-theological systems
  • Soteriology – the study of the nature and means of salvation. May include Hamartiology (the study of sin), Law and Gospel (the study of the relationship between Divine Law and Divine Grace, justification, sanctification
  • Theological anthropology – the study of humanity, especially as it relates to the divine
  • Theology Proper – the study of God’s attributes, nature, and relation to the world. May include:
    • Theodicy – attempts at reconciling the existence of evil and suffering in the world with the nature and justice of God
    • Apophatic theology – negative theology which seeks to describe God by negation (e.g., immutable, impassible ). It is the discussion of what God is not, or the investigation of how language about God breaks down (see the nature of God in Western theology). Apophatic theology often is contrasted with “Cataphatic theology.”

The Bible’s truth and Christianity’s orthodoxy is not comprised solely of doctrines about God, but also teachings about the nature of man and the world.

But we’re digressing from our Sunday School teacher.

For the record, I have however in my limited contact with this person over the years encouraged them along the lines of deeper Bible study. It grieves me to think that someone could be in church for so many years and hold to views that are so far from orthodox. However, there are times when spiritual confrontation is appropriate.

I’m not sure at this point that it would be helpful to revisit a 25-year old discussion, nor to reveal I was party to something that might have been considered confidential at the time. But I am reminded of this verse:

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness… (Galatians 6:1 NRSV)

Brothers and sisters, if someone in your group does something wrong, you who are spiritual should go to that person and gently help make him right again. (same vs. NCV)

The context is more overt sin and wrongdoing, but the principle is the same: To gently guide that person to the right path, using scripture. In a very, very early post here on Christianity 201, I looked at 2 Timothy 3:16 (the one that begins, “All scripture is inspired…”) and suggested the following paraphrase:

All scripture has its point of origin in God’s mind, and

■ shows us the path God would have us walk
■ highlights when and where we’ve gotten off the path
■ points the way back to the path
■ gives us the advice we need to keep from wandering off the path in future

The second point is most applicable here, but some remediation along the lines of the last point is important as well. Over the years I’ve seen that some people are simply “prone to wander.”

The chorus of the old hymn, “Brighten the Corner” describes this. While you might not fully understand all the nautical imagery, it’s easy to see the gist of the sentiment:

Brighten the corner where you are!
Brighten the corner where you are!
Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar;
Brighten the corner where you are!

Our responsibility is threefold:

  1. To identify (discern) false teaching
  2. To remove the person caught in error from public ministry
  3. To try to restore that person to sound doctrine

As to point #2: This is for their benefit (to avoid being under judgement, as in today’s opening verses) and to prevent them from causing “little ones”(which can be literal in terms of children, or figurative in terms of people new to the faith) to stumble

We brighten the corner by shining light where light is needed.


The person in the story still attends the same church and still serves in a somewhat lesser capacity. They are in regular contact with people who are well-versed on the truths of Christianity and I believe are able to hold unorthodox beliefs in check.\


Previously on Christianity 201:

March 27, 2021

Today’s Church Needs a Dose of Tov

One of the most talked-about books among pastors in the last 12 months has been A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and his daughter Laura Barringer. I would love to have posted an excerpt here, but instead decided to peruse various reviews to see what I could stitch together. For those who are concerned that this is a sales pitch to get you to buy a book, I assure you there is no link at the end for you to make a purchase, their publisher doesn’t send review copies to Canada so I did not receive a copy and C201 is not monetized in any way. Still, I feel the book worth mentioning, and if nothing else, you learned a new Hebrew word today!

What is Tov? For that I went to “And Sons” Magazine:

Tov is an almost ludicrously small but infinitely expansive Hebrew word. Today’s native English speakers may be vaguely familiar with tov only because of hearing the Jewish/Yiddish saying “Mazel Tov” (“Good Luck” in English), but it’s arguably one of the richest words out there. The explosive power in tov can be felt right from the beginning.

Tov first arrives on the scene in the creation story—the first story detailed in scripture. It’s the word God uses to describe what God sees after completing various acts of creation. God’s use of tov in Day 3 of creation does a spectacular job of unveiling for us what tov is.

“Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good [tov].” (Genesis 1:11–12 NRSV) …

…The difference between how modern society uses the word good and how God uses the word good is staggering. In our day and age, it’s not uncommon to hear good being used to describe a new craft beer or an entertaining sitcom or the latest pithy tweet by a celebrity. Scripture, on the other hand, is significantly choosier when it comes to applying the label “good” (tov) to something.

Let’s explore the story of Solomon receiving the gift of extraordinary wisdom and exercising it with the two-prostitutes-and-the-one-living-baby predicament. This story fleshes out what tov in action looks like. In the first part of 1 Kings 3:9, Solomon says to God, Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good [tov] and evil….”

What frequently gets translated as “an understanding mind” is לֵב שֹׁמֵע in Biblical Hebrew (pronounced “lev shomea”), which is “a hearing heart” if translated with simple literalness. The purpose behind God giving Solomon a hearing heart is so Solomon can govern God’s people and discern between good (tov) and evil…

I strongly encourage you to make that article your study for today, so much so, that here is the link again.

The book is designed, as I said at the outset, for church leaders. Reviewer Liam Thatcher writes,

This is a not a book designed to create scepticism about the church, or stir up division, but rather to call the church to be what it is meant to be: a safe and beautiful place of healing. A family.

The authors write,

‘This is a book about defending the redemptive value of the church while at the same time accepting the truth that broken and fallen people within the church – including pastors and other leaders – will sin, sometimes in shameful and damaging ways… Above all, this is a book of hope – about a better way, a way we’re calling the Circle of Tov (from the Hebrew word for good), and what it takes to form a culture of goodness in our churches that will resist abuses of power, promote healing, and eradicate the toxic fallout that infects so many Christian organisations’

A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, p7-8

He then includes one more citation from the book and ends with a point form outline of its major thrust. (You can sometimes gain some good thoughts just from studying a book’s table of contents!)

The Hebrew word tov means ‘goodness’ and appears more than 700 times in the OT. You could say that the Bible is the book of tov. In fact,

‘The word gospel could be translated as “the message of tov.” … The gospel is about God’s tov coming to us in Jesus, who is tov, and thus making us into agents of tov.’

A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, p94

A tov church will proactively:

  • Nurture empathy, and resist a narcissist’s culture (ch6)
  • Nurture grace, and resist a fear culture (ch7)
  • Put people first, and resist institution creep (ch8)
  • Tell the truth, resist false narratives, know Yom Kippur, and form a truth-telling culture (ch9)
  • Nurture justice, and resist the loyalty culture (ch10)
  • Nurture service, and resist the celebrity culture (ch11)
  • Nurture Christlikeness, and resist the leader culture (ch12)

The book was written to deal with the issue of toxicity in the church, and so much of its aims were prescriptive; this is a warning. Mary Stahl writes at CBE,

…For those who feel they are in a safe, healthy church community, it highlights any subtle messages that may be “warning signs” of negative aspects which may not be evident on the surface. It also gives a good summary of topics to study which can be introduced to a church if not already part of its culture. On the other hand, for those who feel they might be in a toxic church environment, the book outlines characteristics that will help put “words to feelings” for the messages that are being projected. The seven characteristics of a good/healthy church also can be used as a barometer for how any church is faring with actively pursuing goodness in its culture.

Read that last phrase again, “…how any church is fairing with actively pursuing goodness in its culture.” (italics added) May that be so.

To that end, Michelle Van Loon quotes the authors,

Church culture matters. As we live in our culture and also into our culture, our culture begins to live in and into us. A good culture will shape us toward goodness; a toxic culture will shape us toward evil. Yes, we can resist and change the culture of a church, but resisting, at times, is like trying to slow down a hurricane

She was once a student of Scot McKnight, and in her own words she adds,

I was brought to tears more than once as I read their descriptions of tov culture, in part because my old scars still ache when I read words like these, and in part because I have tasted tov in enough other faith communities to know what Scot and Laura describe is not ivory-tower theory, but submission to the kingdom of God at work shaping and refining church culture.

Again, that last phrase, “…submission to the kingdom of God at work shaping and refining church culture.” (Italics added)

Ray Miller summarizes the practicalities of what the book calls “the circle of Tov.”

The circle of TOV nurtures empathy (a resistance to narcissistic culture), nurtures Grace (resists a fear based culture), puts people first (resists institutional creep), tells the truth (resists false narratives), nurtures justice (resists loyalty culture), nurtures service (resists celebrity culture), and all those habits nurtures Christlikeness (resists the leader culture).

January 31, 2021

The Roller Coaster Ride of Ministry and Missions

If you knew me many years ago, there was a period when I would always sign letters

I Corinthians 16-9

In my mind, I was hearing the KJV text from where I first learned it:

For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries.

Today, I would probably refer you to a more recent translation, such as the NLT:

There is a wide-open door for a great work here, although many oppose me.

If you think about, this is the format of every missionary, church, or parachurch organization fundraising letter or ministry report you’ve ever received.

→ The good news is: God is working in the lives of people, we are seeing results.
→ The bad news is: We face [financial/staffing/logistical/spiritual-warfare/etc.] challenges.

There’s always a challenge. Today in church, the guest speaker shared this:

The greatest challenge in life is not having a burden to carry.

That’s right, without some mountain to climb or river to cross, our lives would actually be rather boring. Certainly there would be no growth. I discussed that quotation with a friend after the service was over, and he said, “Yes, but that’s we all want. We want it to be easy.”

Matthew Henry writes:

Great success in the work of the gospel commonly creates many enemies. The devil opposes those most, and makes them most trouble, who most heartily and successfully set themselves to destroy his kingdom. There were many adversaries; and therefore the apostle determined to stay.

Some think he alludes in this passage to the custom of the Roman Circus, and the doors of it, at which the charioteers were to enter, as their antagonists did at the opposite doors. True courage is whetted by opposition; and it is no wonder that the Christian courage of the apostle should be animated by the zeal of his adversaries. They were bent to ruin him, and prevent the effect of his ministry at Ephesus; and should he at this time desert his station, and disgrace his character and doctrine?

No, the opposition of adversaries only animated his zeal. He was in nothing daunted by his adversaries; but the more they raged and opposed the more he exerted himself. Should such a man as he flee?

Note, Adversaries and opposition do not break the spirits of faithful and successful ministers, but only kindle their zeal, and inspire them with fresh courage.

I checked out a number of commentaries online for this verse, and ended up pulling out several of my print commentaries. One of the greatest insights came at the bottom of the page of the NIV Study Bible:

many who oppose me. Probably a reference to the pagan craftsman who made the silver shrines of Artemis and to the general populace whom they had stirred up (Acts 19:23-34).

Interesting that what appeared to be spiritual opposition was actually rooted in commerce; people who had a vested financial interest in maintaining commercial interests in a pagan form of worship. Think about Jesus and the money-changers in the temple:

NIV Matt. 21:12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.

I’ll let Eugene Peterson re-phrase the Acts reference above:

23-26 …a huge ruckus occurred over what was now being referred to as “the Way.” A certain silversmith, Demetrius, conducted a brisk trade in the manufacture of shrines to the goddess Artemis, employing a number of artisans in his business. He rounded up his workers and others similarly employed and said, “Men, you well know that we have a good thing going here—and you’ve seen how Paul has barged in and discredited what we’re doing by telling people that there’s no such thing as a god made with hands. A lot of people are going along with him, not only here in Ephesus but all through Asia province.

27 “Not only is our little business in danger of falling apart, but the temple of our famous goddess Artemis will certainly end up a pile of rubble as her glorious reputation fades to nothing. And this is no mere local matter—the whole world worships our Artemis!”

28-31 That set them off in a frenzy. They ran into the street yelling, “Great Artemis of the Ephesians! Great Artemis of the Ephesians!” They put the whole city in an uproar, stampeding into the stadium, and grabbing two of Paul’s associates on the way, the Macedonians Gaius and Aristarchus. Paul wanted to go in, too, but the disciples wouldn’t let him. Prominent religious leaders in the city who had become friendly to Paul concurred: “By no means go near that mob!”

32-34 Some were yelling one thing, some another. Most of them had no idea what was going on or why they were there. As the Jews pushed Alexander to the front to try to gain control, different factions clamored to get him on their side. But he brushed them off and quieted the mob with an impressive sweep of his arms. But the moment he opened his mouth and they knew he was a Jew, they shouted him down: “Great Artemis of the Ephesians! Great Artemis of the Ephesians!”—on and on and on, for over two hours.

Some people believe that finding the heart of many world and regional conflicts is simply a matter of “follow the money.” The point is that we don’t know and we don’t always see why people are so very bent on opposing us in ministry. Not to minimize Matthew Henry’s interpretation, it’s simply too easy to say, ‘It’s the Devil;’ or put things into some general spiritual warfare category. Maybe your devout faith and witness are simply “bad for business” for someone nearby.

…My opinion would be that where ministry is taking place many challenges and overt opposition will occur. If it’s not, maybe you’re doing it wrong.

Greater opportunities = Greater opposition.

But the good news is that most of the time the opposite is also true.

Greater opposition = Greater opportunities.

Romans 5:20b (KJV) says,

But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.

Ministry life involves both: Great opportunities for harvest and life change, and many who would rather keep the status quo.


Earlier today I launched a fundraising page at GoFundMe for an orphanage in Haiti that we’ve come to know over the past seven years. Our oldest son Chris has been on the ground there twice now and participates in their fundraising activities back home in Canada. If God has blessed you and you’d like to make a difference, I invite you to click through to the page and then consider any encouragement you can give through your donation.

November 28, 2020

Paul the Apostle Needed People to Support Him

Periodically I check the website A Life Overseas which is written for MKs (Missionaries Kids) and TCKs (Third Culture Kids; people for whom the word home doesn’t mean the place on their passport.)  We’ve shared content from that site here and at Thinking Out Loud. That’s where I found today’s article.

Craig Thompson and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to the United States. His blog, Clearing Customs, is an interesting mix of poetry, embedded music videos, and good writing. Click the header below to read this at A Life Overseas, or click the link at the end of the article to read a shorter version at Clearing Customs.

Paul and the Corbels of Member Care

There’s something in architecture called a corbel. Even if you’ve never heard the name before, you’re probably familiar with what it is. A corbel is a bracket, sometimes ornamental, that projects out from a wall, providing support to a structure above. It allows that structure to extend out to where it couldn’t on its own.

Cross-cultural workers are the kinds of people who want to reach out far from home, who dream of going where no one has gone before. They’re often pioneering spirits who’d even go it alone, if that’s what it took—empowered only by their calling and their grit, gristle, and God-given abilities. That’s how the Apostle Paul did it, right? If I were more like Paul, I’d rely on God more and on people less . . . right?

Yes, at times, Paul stressed his independence. In his letter to the Galatian churches, he affirmed that his role as an apostle came directly from Jesus, not from his association with the other apostles:

But when the one who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I could preach him among the Gentiles, I did not go to ask advice from any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me, but right away I departed to Arabia, and then returned to Damascus.

But Paul wasn’t a loner. He took partners with him on his missionary trips, and he also recognized the need for flesh-and-blood corbels to hold him up as he reached out, bearing the gospel. He valued the encouragement and comfort of others. He understood the importance of member care (pastoral care, nurture and development, tender care, that one safe friend).

When Paul finally met with the apostles in Jerusalem, Barnabas helped him by being his advocate, vouching for his dedication to Jesus. Later, Barnabas sought out Paul for his help in working with the church in Antioch, and the two were sent out by the church on Paul’s first missionary journey. It was during his trips and while he was a prisoner that Paul wrote his New Testament letters, often mentioning those who served to encourage him.

Near the end of his first letter to the church in Corinth, he wrote about “the household of Stephanus” (or Stephanas), who “devoted themselves to ministry for the saints,” and added,

I was glad about the arrival of Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus because they have supplied the fellowship with you that I lacked. For they refreshed my spirit and yours. So then, recognize people like this.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul told about how he even turned away from a God-sent opening for ministry because he needed to hear from Titus:

Now when I arrived in Troas to proclaim the gospel of Christ, even though the Lord had opened a door of opportunity for me, I had no relief in my spirit, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-bye to them and set out for Macedonia.

Then, in Macedonia,

our body had no rest at all, but we were troubled in every way—struggles from the outside, fears from within, But God, who encourages the downhearted, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus. We were encouraged not only by his arrival, but also by the encouragement you gave him, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your deep concern for me, so that I rejoiced more than ever.

While under house arrest in Rome, Paul wrote to Philemon, “I have had great joy and encouragement because of your love, for the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.” He went on to address the subject of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave who had run away, had come to Paul, and had become a Christian. Paul was sending him back to Philemon, not as a slave but as a brother in Christ, even though Paul wrote, “I wanted to keep him so that he could serve me in your place during my imprisonment for the sake of the gospel.” Paul also looked forward to spending time with Philemon in the future, telling him to “prepare a place for me to stay, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given back to you.

Still a prisoner, Paul wrote to the Colossians and the Philippians. He told those in Colossae that Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus (called Justus) were the only Jewish Christians still working with him, saying “they have been a comfort to me.” And to the Christians in Philippi, he told of his plans to send to them Epaphroditus, whom he described as

my brother, coworker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to me in my need. Indeed, he greatly missed all of you and was distressed because you heard that he had been ill. In fact he became so ill that he nearly died. But God showed mercy to him—and not to him only, but also to me—so that I would not have grief on top of grief. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you can rejoice and I can be free from anxiety. So welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, since it was because of the work of Christ that he almost died. He risked his life so that he could make up for your inability to serve me.

Later, imprisoned in a Roman dungeon, Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy, saying, “As I remember your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy,” and then,

May the Lord grant mercy to the family of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my imprisonment. But when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me. May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well all the ways he served me in Ephesus.

Alone, except for Luke, Paul told Timothy, “Make every effort to come to me soon,” requesting that he also bring Mark, because “he is a great help to me in ministry.” Paul even mentioned some items that he wanted (a care package?), asking Timothy to bring along a cloak that Paul had left in Troas, as well as his scrolls.

Even Paul needed member care, not just for the sake of his work, but also for his personal well-being. Or maybe we should say, given the hardships that he faced, especially Paul needed member care. He needed it, and he appreciated it. And if Paul needed it, so do today’s cross-cultural workers, every one.


A version of the post originally appeared in ClearingCustoms.net.

The Scriptures quoted are from the NET Bible® http://netbible.com copyright ©1996, 2019 used with permission from Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved)

Photo: Wikipedia (Creative Commons)

May 31, 2020

Currently, Where is Your Church Located?

Six months ago, we introduced you to Wes Barry, the pastor of Waypoint in North Carolina. It was the quotation at the beginning of today’s article which got my attention! Clicking the header below will take to this article at his website, where you can navigate to other helpful articles for church leaders.

The Church is Not Best Buy

The Church has not been closed; it is public worship that has been suspended.

I am reminded of one of my favorite stories about Dr. Halverson, the pastor of a large Presbyterian church in D.C.

One of the students asked, “Dr. Halverson, where is your church?” This seemed like a perfectly reasonable question to me, but Dr. Halverson looked quite perplexed and hesitated to answer. Then he glanced at his watch.

“Well, it’s three o’clock in Washington, D.C. The church I pastor is all over the city. It’s driving buses, serving meals in restaurants, having discussions in the Pentagon, deliberating in the Congress.” He knew exactly where his church was, and he went on and on with his lengthy listing.

Then he added, “Periodically, we get together at a building on Fourth Street, but we don’t spend much time there. We’re mostly in the city.”

A bomb went off in my head. All of my out-of-joint ideas about the church suddenly snapped into place. The church is people!

Jerry Cook, The Monday Morning Church, Howard Publishing Company, 2006, p. 12-13.

Though I do not have a practical solution to the issue of reopening, I want to challenge the church to consider how it needs to approach this next phase with a Biblical mindset not a consumeristic one.

Recently I came across the recommendations that churches should restart public worship with these protocols: staggered seating 6 feet apart and temperature scans as people come in while limiting capacity to 50 people. The politician recommending these measures then said, “The sick and vulnerable should not be allowed in church.”

Immediately, I was struck by how anathema that is to specifically why Jesus came into this world: “On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” Mark 2:17.

The sick and vulnerable should not be excluded from public worship–again I do not have a practical solution to this problem–but I am perturbed by this attitude that public worship should be “for me” while we exclude others. As the Christ Hymn reminds us, we should look “not to our own interests but to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:4). Even in public worship attendance, are you going for your sake or for the sake of the person sitting next to you?

Take for example the suggestion that worship be limited to 50 people. How is a church supposed to monitor that? Suppose you are number 47 in the parking lot are you going to out sprint ahead of that young family who is struggling to get their kid into the stroller? Suddenly church is only available for those who are on time and have their acts together. This, too, seems counter to Christ’s command that: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16).

Perhaps you would recommend that people could register online. Therefore, it excludes the marginalized who would not have internet access or those who are disorganized, depressed, and the ones so busy trying to keep their family afloat they cannot “register” to go to church. Jesus, however, did not wait for people to register online to be one of his disciples–He inserted Himself into their lives; He entered their homes: “When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.‘” Jesus tells Zacchaeus that He is coming over to Zacchaeus’ home because His mission was a rescue mission: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10).

Also I heard of one church that is assigning numbers to members alphabetically so that they can attend when it is their turn. While that is very effective for people on the list, what about the one not on a list? In fact, Jesus had a whole parable about rejoicing over that one:

Then Jesus told them this parable: “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the pasture and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders,comes home, and calls together his friends and neighbors to tell them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep!’ In the same way, I tell you that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who do not need to repent.” [Luke 15: 4-7]

So, as you prepare for worship, how can you make sure to leave room for the one who is missing?

There are two streams emerging in this drive for public worship. One is the desire for the community to gather again. It is a living out of the word “ecclesia.” This is the Greek word used to describe the church and means: “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place.” It is the bringing out into the public square what is being done in our personal homes. It is God calling us to publicly demonstrate what He is doing personally in our hearts. It is a longing for our private lives to engage with others in praise of God.

The longing and drive we feel for this is good. And this season of shutdown should be a season of lament. We are sad that we cannot get together. Lament is good because it shows what our hearts desire: we need to publicly demonstrate our faith. However, this desire is in response to what we are doing on our own terms, in our own homes, in our private worship. This longing is good, and this desire needs to be cultivated. Cultivating this attitude can forestall public worship, however, through intentional private worship and relational connection with one’s neighbors.

The other drive–and the main one in our American church–is the selling of religious commodities. Like Best Buy needing to reopen, the church has been so heavily built upon the production of Sunday worship that the shutdown has stalled our religious economy. This desire for public worship is because we have an anemic understanding of private worship and an individualistic nature of worship being done amidst a crowd; We want the Church to do it for us so we can spectate.

In speaking to a fellow church planter, I appreciated his attitude when he said, “We want to be the third to last church to reopen in our city.” His intentional and thoughtful delay will place the emphasis upon a continued lament for the loss of community. His philosophy of ministry has an emphasis upon community groups, so this phased approach to reopening will allow him to place the focus back upon the gathering of people in their homes.

This season hopefully will cause us to consider why do we publicly worship in the first place? How can we be the Ecclesia by bringing into the public square what God is doing in our private hearts?

As your church considers restarting public worship, I would challenge you to make sure you consider how can you include the sick and vulnerable into the community? How can the last and lost be first and found?

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