On Community – Shared Lives (Part 2)

“Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).

What a beautiful picture of the gospel!  Paul, Silas, and Timothy came to the Thessalonians promising not to compromise on the gospel message that was entrusted to them (v. 4).  They refused to fall into any doctrinal error (v. 3).  Their speech was not obsequious or motivated by personal gain.  However, in the midst of sharing their message the apostles made sure to share themselves.

In reflecting on this passage I have come to understand a few things about genuine Christian community:

1. Christian community is gospel-centered. Christian community involves more than just gospel information but it does not involve less.  There are plenty of groups to join if you want friends. You can find people that have similar interests (e.g., scrapbooking, MOPS, fantasy football).  Shared interests, however, do not reinforce gospel community.  The gospel breaks down external barriers.  A gospel community is not concerned with external uniformity, but internal unity (Phil. 2:12-13) centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Most people are concerned with finding persons that look, think, feel, and act like them.  People with similar interests and values will tend to confirm what you already believe.  A gospel community is not bound by age, race, or political preference.  A gospel community will challenge you to become like Christ rather than validate your own preferences.

“We often surround ourselves with the people we most want to live with, thus forming a club or clique, not a community. Anyone can form a club; it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community” (Philip Yancey)

2. Christian community is participatory. The information of the gospel was not enough; the apostles humbly participated in the lives of the Thessalonians.  It was not enough to teach a few truths about Christ, their genuine affection motivated participation.  Getting involved in someone’s life is messy.  It is easier to show up on Sunday morning, sing a few songs, smile and shake hands.  It is much more difficult to sit on someone’s couch and listen to their struggles.  It is uncomfortable to go to the hospital when someone is sick.  It is terribly inconvenient to give your money to someone who is in need.

And that brings us back to the gospel.  Think about how messy it was for Christ to become flesh, to endure temptation, and to experience pain.  Sharing your life with others provides the only context to genuinely articulate and, more importantly, demonstrate the gospel.

– Mark

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Radical Discipleship

This summer I am teaching through the gospel of Luke. Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of God is so radical compared to my concept of Christianity as hobby. Jesus’ words are haunting:

“Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters — even one’s one life! — can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple” (Lk. 14:26-27).

Many people followed Jesus (Lk. 14:25), some for selfish reasons. He was a wise teacher and he healed diseases. The large crowds loved Jesus as entertainer. Today many persons self-identify with Christianity for ulterior reasons: social value, political expediency, personal guilt, family tradition, and more. The crowds are not always genuine disciples.

A genuine follower of Jesus — a disciple — participates in every aspect of the life of Christ. As Paul says:

“I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it” (Phil. 3:10-11).

Being a follower of Christ is more than paying God off with a few minutes of Bible reading and prayer. Discipleship is more than a little doctrinal acumen. Discipleship is nothing less than giving every part of my life to the full service of Jesus (Lk. 14:33).

Am I cut out to be a follower of Christ? Do I want to suffer for the glory of God? Do my financial, relational, and temporal priorities reflect a life in which I have renounced all personal ambitions for the sake of the Kingdom of God?

Light Christianity — Great Taste, Less Filling

In evaluating my ministry with high school and middle school students I am continually depressed by their understanding of the Bible.  Many of these young adults have been going to church for years.  Most of them are self-professed Christians.  However, if I ask them to quote 5 verses from the Bible, I suspect few of them could.  Most of them could not give even a basic description of entire books of the Old Testament such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, or Judges (just to name a few).  I have come to the realization that the deficiency is more in the teaching of the church than the ability of the students.  Here are some reasons I think our young adults are largely Biblically illiterate.

1.  Emphasizing character traits more than Christ. In the desire to teach young adults morality we often miss Christ.  We treat the Bible like a playbook (sorry Joe Gibbs and Tony Dungy) and look for principles of successful living.  As a result we have considerate students who do not know Jesus.  We get to a passage such as Luke 4 (the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness) and teach students how they can use magical Bible bullets to defeat Satan while neglecting to mention how Jesus (the second Adam) passes the test where Adam failed.  We forget to show how Jesus’ time in the wilderness is a reversal of the Israelites’ failures in the wilderness (that is probably why all of Jesus’ quotations to the devil are from Deuteronomy 6 and 8).  The result of character overemphasis is the creation of virtuous pagans.

2.  Relying on literature about the Bible more than the Bible. My new goal in equipping gospel ministers is to free them from shiny Sunday School quarterlies.  If I am unable to explain “the gospel according to the Scriptures” then I cannot teach it.  I want to understand and articulate the gospel according to the Scriptures and use Bible helps only as a secondary study tool.  If we imply that the Bible is not sufficient and perspicuous (+3 points for a seminary word) then those we teach will feel ill-equipped to study it on their own.

3.  Not modeling good Bible-study. When teaching I must not only communicate the truth of a meaningful passage of Scripture I must demonstrate good tools of Bible Study that can be reproduced in the lives of those I am teaching.  While I might not walk them through my hermeneutical method explicitly they should absorb a method of faithful exegesis.

4.  Unnecessarily low expectations. Each Christian is a fully capable minister of Christ.  Further, many of the adults in my church are more intelligent and educated than I.  The young adults in my student ministry spend their days studying Trigonometry, Latin, and Physics.  The people I teach are more than capable to grasp the things of God.  It is arrogant and incorrect to treat them as if they cannot understand the “deep” truths of Scripture.

I am still trying to work out the implications of these suggestions but my basic goals are to trust that the Bible is sufficient, clearly articulate the gospel, and focus on discipleship rather than entertainment in my model of ministry.  Jesus is compelling and relevant.  I must give students every opportunity to know, follow, and obey Jesus.

Am I a Fake?

When I was in high school we used to call people “posers” when they tried too hard to fit in.  If you wore Vans and dressed like a skater but couldn’t ride a skateboard, you were a “poser.”  Now that I look back on it, I realize that “poser” is just a different word for “hypocrite”  — someone who says one thing or looks one way, but in reality acts or thinks differently.

One of the biggest arguments non-Christians cite as a reason they do not want to attend a church is because it is full of “hypocrites.”  In many ways, I feel their pain.

I have noticed a great deal of spiritual pretentiousness in “Christian” groups.  There are usually spoken and unspoken expectations of what a Christian looks and acts like.  These expectations involve the way you dress, the way you talk, the music you enjoy, the books you read, and your political affiliation (to name a few).  People are continually shocked to learn that I despise listening to happy, shiny K-love and am not a Republican.  I am tired of kitschy, sentimental Christianity.  I want a Christianity that works in the “real world.”  A Christian is not someone who “looks” a certain way on the outside but, rather, someone whose heart has been transformed by Christ (2 Cor. 3:18).  Hypocrisy is a result of focusing too much on externals rather than focusing on the heart.

In my ministry with young adults, there is a temptation to breed the hypocrisy I so despise.  If I am concerned only with teaching them to behave well and not to love God I will teach them to ornately paint their coffins and never deal with the dead bones inside (Matt. 23:27).  If I only emphasize character traits (e.g., modesty, abstinence, honesty, commitment, etc.) and never deal with motivations and intentions then I will only teach them to look good on the outside.  If they love “good” more than they love God then they will go to hell “good” people.

For me this means that I need to model genuine Christian transformation (2 Cor. 5:17).  First, I do not need to play the part of a “good” Christian.  I must be honest about my struggles.  I cannot just imitate Christian vocabulary but must mean what I say.  If I say, “I’ll be praying for you,” then I need to actually pray for you!  Second, as Tim Keller says, I need to “repent not only for the things I do wrong but for the reasons I do right.”  Am I doing good out of a heart that loves God or am I just trying to justify myself (Luke 10:29).  Do I love and obey God as a means or as an end?

“Religious people love God to get things, gospel people love God to get God.”
— Tim Keller

Love the Lord with all your heart or mind? (part 1)

When I left for seminary I was warned that in the frenzy of schoolwork the first thing I would neglect was my “quiet time.”  This seemed odd to me since I was going to seminary to gain more tools to understand the Scriptures.  This dichotomy between “devotions” and “exegesis” has been continually reinforced by other pastors.  “Study something in your quiet time that you are not going to preach,” they tell me.  Really?  I am supposed to meditate on the word of God and not share that in my public teaching?

I think this dichotomy is seriously problematic.  On the one hand it can promote a shallow, pithy devotional reading of Scripture, out of context, for nuggets of “God promises.”  On the other hand it can promote a cold, intellectual scholarship that neglects a life of submission to the Word of God.  It seems essential to me to approach the text of Scripture with every tool to understand the original intention of the author with the aim of hearing and obeying the Word of God.  For me, it means that I must use what little proficiency I have worked so hard to attain in the original languages to better understand the text of Scripture.  The result is, however, not just more information but an encounter with the very words of God that convict, encourage, challenge, and commission me to be an agent of the gospel in every area of my life.

“Fight with every fiber of your being the common disjunction between “objective study” of Scripture and “devotional reading” of Scripture, between “critical reading” of the Bible and “devotional reading” of the Bible… Scripture remains Scripture, it is still the Word of God before which (as Isaiah reminds us) we are to tremble, the very words we are to revere, treasure, digest, meditate on, and hide in our hearts (minds?), whether we are reading the Bible at 5:30 AM at the start of a day, or preparing an assignment for an exegesis class at 10:00 PM. If we try to keep apart these alleged two ways of reading, then we will be irritated and troubled when our “devotions” are interrupted by a sudden stray reflection about a textual variant or the precise force of a Greek genitive; alternatively, we may be taken off guard when we are supposed to be preparing a paper or a sermon and suddenly find ourselves distracted by a glimpse of God’s greatness that is supposed to be reserved for our “devotions.” So when you read “devotionally,” keep your mind engaged; when you read “critically” (i.e., with more diligent and focused study, deploying a panoply of “tools”), never, ever, forget whose Word this is. The aim is never to become a master of the Word, but to be mastered by it.”

— D. A. Carson, “The Scholar as Pastor”

Rethinking "Clergy/Laity" – Priesthood of Pastors? (pt. 5)

With the idea that professional Christians function as Christian priests comes an emphasis on the “office” of pastor.  You see this in Protestant churches with the frequent requirement that the pastor must baptize new believers and administer the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper/Communion.  There is a glorification of the office over the person.

When I read the New Testament, I see leadership titles (deacon, elder, pastor, etc.) as descriptive rather than prescriptive.  Merely because someone is ordained, has graduated from seminary, or  has received their magical “call to ministry” does not indicate they have the gifts to lead and shepherd a church body.  In fact, I know a man who is not even a member of a church who considers himself a pastor because he is ordained and came forward as a young man to surrender to “the ministry.”

“To say that a Wandering Levite who has no Flock is a Pastor, is as good sense as to say, that the man who has no Children is a Father, and that the man who has no Wife is a Husband.”

– Increase Mather, The Order of the Gospel

A pastor is someone who pastors!  A title, ordination, or seminary degree does not make someone a pastor (I can call myself an athlete but the sad fact is that in two years of junior high basketball I scored more points for the opposite team than for my own).  Education can give one tools to be a better pastor.  An ordination can publicly recognize one’s gifts to teach and lead.  The title “pastor” does not magically give someone gifts or leadership qualities that they did not already have.

Rethinking "Clergy/Laity" – Professional Christians and the Levitical Priesthood (pt. 4)

I recently visited the building where a local church regularly gathers.  In the lobby outside of their awkwardly named “sanctuary” was a plaque which read — “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’ (Ps. 122:1).”  Did I miss something?  This room with pews and hymnals (remember those?) is the temple of God?!  I hear this kind of language consistently infiltrating Protestant churches.

What about the New Testament?  The promise of the new covenant is that God will be among us (Ez. 37:27) — we are the temple (2 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 2:21)!

Not only have we equated the physical meeting place of the church with the Hebrew temple we have equated the leadership of the local church with the Levitical priesthood!  The Israelites had their professional ministers, so we must have ours.  Just like the Israelites we pay them to do the ministry.  As such, most of our Protestant churches are functionally Catholic.  The paid staff are the professional Christians.

We need to reclaim the priesthood of the believers.  As the book of Hebrews reminds us, we have one high priest — Christ.  Under that great high priest, all Christians are a part of the priesthood (1 Pt. 2:9-10).  As such, every person who has been united to God through faith in Christ should fulfill their ministry duties to “declare the praises of Him who called [them] out of darkness (1 Pt. 2:9).”

Rethinking "Clergy/Laity" – A Call to Ministry? (pt. 2)

As I write this I am looking at my “Certificate of Ordination.”  The ordination process was meaningful and memorable in my life.  As the church prayed for me (1 Tim. 4:11-14, 2 Tim. 1:3-7), it was an encouragement and affirmation of my gifts.  They recognized and supported my desire to teach the gospel and provide leadership to the church.

As I read the “Certificate of Ordination,” however, I am baffled.  It indicates that I, as a pastor, have received a “special calling” to the “gospel ministry.”  Ridiculous!  Every Christian is a minister of the gospel (2 Cor. 5:11-21).  There is no unique calling to “gospel ministry” for someone in a pastoral position.

There is not one NT reference in which the language of calling is used of anyone other than the apostles unless the calling is to salvation.  Not one pastor is referred to as having been called by God to ministry.  One should not therefore assume an analogy to exist between apostolic calling and ministerial office.
– Paul Harrison, “Pastoral Turnover and the Call to Preach”

It is disingenuous for pastors to complain that other church members do not do their share of ministry.  Congregants have been taught through the language and polity of most churches that they are not qualified, called, or capable for ministry, so they leave “gospel ministry” to the “professionals.”

Pastoral leadership must not be confused with gospel ministry.  There are no “professional Christians.”  As has been said,  “every member is a minister.”  Dr. Black often reminded me that he was not trying to abolish the clergy, but rather the laity!

“Every member ministry” is a wonderful catch-phrase, but the implications of genuinely embracing this sort of mentality will require shifts in leadership structure, allocation of church funds, and expectations of every church member.  Is my church ready to treat every member as a fully capable and called minister of the gospel of Christ?

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