Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

WHAT GOD THINKS OF THE MODERN CHURCH

 

            Near the beginning of his controversial novel The Shack author Wm. Paul Young has his main character Mackenzie Phillips (Mack) complain that “. . .Sunday prayers and hymns were cutting it anymore, if they ever really had.  Cloistered spirituality seemed to change nothing in the lives of the people he knew . . . He was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs that don’t seem to make any real difference or affect any real changes” (The Shack, p. 66).  Most of us would probably have to acknowledge that there is more truth to this accusation than we would care to admit.

In many ways the condition of the modern American evangelical church resembles that of the church at Laodicea, described in Revelation 3:14-22.  Ancient Laodicea was a prosperous city, situated on a fertile plain in Asia Minor.  Located at an important crossroads, it was a center of trade and commerce.  But its material prosperity affected the spiritual life of the Christian church located there.  It was the infamous “lukewarm” church of the seven churches of Asia that were addressed in Revelation chapters two and three.

What is especially striking about this particular church is how different its perception of itself was from the way God saw it.  Their self-perception is summed up in verse 17: “You say ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing . . .’” (NKJV).  Material prosperity leads to a sense of self-sufficiency.  Outwardly they appeared to be doing very well – they had financial resources at their disposal and could pretty much do as they wanted.

But how very different was God’s perception of them!  “You . . . do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked . . .” Their material prosperity masked a spiritual poverty.  “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot . . .you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot” (vv. 15,16).  They were half-hearted Christians, content to go through the formalities of public worship, but not really devoted to Christ; precisely the kind of church life described by Young in his book.

And so it is with us today.  We have impressive looking buildings and institutions and “ministries” galore, but can scarcely bring ourselves to spend any meaningful time in prayer.  What passes for “worship” is hardly more than glorified entertainment.  We sit passively in the pews (or theater seats) and when the service is over we go our merry ways, scarcely giving any thought at all at how we may serve Christ in our daily lives.  We are all too prone to ethical compromise.  “ . . .these people draw near with their mouths / And honor Me with their lips, / But have removed their hearts far from Me, / And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men . . .” (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8).

The problem is that the modern American evangelical church is a holdover from the Victorian era.  The early nineteenth century was marked by genuine revival – the Second Great Awakening (the First Great Awakening had taken place in the 1740’s).  But during the Victorian era of the late nineteenth century it became quite popular and respectable to identify oneself as a Christian.  Being a Christian came to be equated with being a respectable middle-class American.  It was easy to attract an audience, and impressive looking church edifices were built, complete with stone masonry, stained glass windows, and carved wooden pulpits and pews.  But an institutionalized form of church life developed that was unhealthy.  The theology was watered down, the sermons were filled with sentimental commonplaces, and a variety of religious practices were developed – processionals, robed choirs, responsive readings – that had little to do with actual discipleship or developing the spiritual life.  In short, Protestant Christianity became an American civil religion – comforting, supportive of the standing order, but superficial.

And then the twentieth century arrived, along with the intellectual challenges of evolution and higher criticism.  The more affluent churches in the urban centers tried to change with the times, adopting a liberal theology.  The more conservative churches in the rural areas clung to the older ways.  But the surrounding culture continued to change and drift further and further away from its Judeo-Christian moorings.  First it was the denial of the supernatural, and then it was the abandonment of basic moral principles” the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.  Churches were faced with a painful dilemma: either conform to the changing mores of society or risk being marginalized and irrelevant.  The liberal churches caved in; the more conservative churches tried to keep the faith, although with many of the Victorian trappings.

But what does God think about all of this?  What He told the church at Laodicea in our text is striking: “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich: and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (v. 18).  What they needed was true wealth – spiritual wealth.  And the way He described it has an ominous ring to it – “gold refined in the fire.”  Gold is a precious metal, but it is refined or purified in the fire.  Likewise the Christian’s true spiritual worth is sometimes tested by the fire of persecution.  And this gold, the Lord says, must be “bought from Me.”  Genuine life must come from God himself – it is the fruit of the Spirit.  We cannot work it up ourselves.

Likewise the church at Laodicea was counselled to buy “white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.”  They were so utterly destitute of genuine godliness that they were spiritually “naked.”  They were the proverbial emperor with no clothes.  In Rev. 19:8 the bride of Christ (the church) is “arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”  God wants His people to live lives that are pleasing to Him; only then will we be attractive in His sight.

And then the church was advised to “anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.”  They were so spiritually blind that they could not see their own true spiritual condition.  What they needed was spiritual insight and discernment so that they would have a clear view of God’s will for their lives.

The Lord goes on to say, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.  There be zealous and repent” (v. 19).  If God truly loves us, what will He do to us when we are in this condition? What will He do to us now?  Our text says that He will “rebuke and chasten” us.  God loves us, but that means that He will not stand by idly while we wander into sin and apostasy.  A loving parent will discipline his children when they misbehave, because he wants what is best for them.  But the same token God may bring pain, suffering or hardship into our lives to awaken us, humble us, and make us feel our dependence upon Him, and thus restore full fellowship with Him.

What Christ tells the church next is nothing less than stunning: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (v. 20).  This verse is often taken out of context and given an evangelistic meaning.  But taken in its context Christ is standing outside of the church.  This, of course, is not where we would expect to find Him, and yet that is where He is all too often.  He has, in effect, been excluded from the life of the church, so used has it become to operating without Him.  But there may be a few within the church who are still listening to His voice, and to them He makes a promise: “I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  Even in the worst state of the church it is still possible for individual Christians to maintain a meaningful relationship with Christ.

The aim of the modern evangelical church, then, should not be to revive  the American civil religion of the past; it ought to be to become authentic disciples of Jesus Christ – and that means going back to the first century and sitting, as it were, at His feet.  The answer is not to try to become more relevant; it is to become more spiritual.  It is not to become more accepted by the world; it is to become more conformed to the will of God.  The aim is not to become more like the world but to be lights shining in the darkness.  When the world looks at the church, it should not see a reflection of itself, but rather the image of Christ.  Only then can the church have the kind of testimony to the world that it ought to have.

THE SHACK: The Book and the Movie

 

Review:

The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity

Wm. Paul Young

Windblown Media, 2007

248 pp., pb.

 

Currently there is playing in movie theaters around the country the motion picture version of The Shack, a novel by Wm. Paul Young.  The book is largely a treatise on theology set in the form of a novel.  It has stirred controversy largely because the theology is unorthodox, to say the least.

The central figure in the book is Mackenzie Allen Phillips, or “Mack” as he is more generally known.  Mack experiences an unbearable tragedy when his youngest daughter Missy is murdered by a serial killer while on a camping trip.  Mack is overcome with grief and bitterness, until one day he receives a mysterious note in the mail inviting him to return to the shack in the woods near the place where Missy disappeared.  There he has an encounter with God, although not in the sense in which we would normally think of it.  And this is where the theological problems begin.

What Mack encounters in the shack are the members of the Trinity.  But God the Father is presented as an African American woman, generally referred to in the book as “Papa,” while the Holy Spirit is represented as a woman of Asian descent.  Jesus, however, is more accurately portrayed as a Middle Eastern male.

Strictly speaking, of course, God is neither male nor female.  But the Second Commandment’s prohibition against graven images is intended to prevent just such an attempt to portrait God in human form (Dt. 4:15-19,23,24).  Young, however, makes the various members of the Trinity out to be all too human – they are a bunch of chummy pals instead of an exalted Deity.

Much of what Young goes on to say in the book is a justifiable reaction against dead orthodoxy.  Church membership is a poor substitute for a real relationship with Christ, and knowing theology is not the same thing as knowing God himself.  But Young does not just reject dead orthodoxy; he rejects orthodoxy itself.  And instead of taking a fresh look at what the Bible actually says, he pretty much ignores the Bible altogether.  Young characterizes conservative theology as saying that “God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects” (pp. 65-66).

The main theme of the book is the age old question of how a good and loving God can allow evil into the universe.  To answer this question Young has recourse to the idea of human free will.  God is a God of love.  Love does not force or coerce anyone.  Evil is the result of man’s free will decisions.  At one point “Papa” tells Mack, “All evil flows from independence, and independence is your choice.  If I were simply to revoke all choices of independence, the world as you know it would cease to exist and love would have no meaning.  This world is not a playground where I keep all my children free from evil . . . If I take away the consequences of people’s choices, I destroy the possibility of love.  Love that is forced is not love at all” (p. 190).

Young insists that God calls us to have a personal relationship with Himself, and of course he is quite right on that.  But the basic flaw in Young’s argument is the assumption that love precludes the exercise of authority.  Young has Jesus telling Mack, “Have you noticed that even though you call me Lord and King, I have never really acted in that capacity with you? . . .To force my will on you . . .is exactly what love does not do . . .” (p. 145).  At another point Young has “Papa” telling Mack, “I am good, and I desire only what is best for you.  You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation or coercion, only through a relationship of love.  And I do love you” (p. 126).   “True love never forces” (p. 190).

This, in turn, leads Young to two patently unbiblical conclusions.  The first is that God has already forgiven the entire human race.  At one point in the book “Papa” tells Mack that through the death and resurrection of Christ “I am now fully reconciled to the world.”  Mack asks in disbelief, “The whole world?  You mean those that believe in you, right?”  Papa replies, “The whole world . . .I have done my part, totally, completely, finally.  It is not the nature of love to force a relationship but it is the nature of love to open the way” (p. 192).  At another point in the book Christ is pictured as saying that those who love Him come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but “I have no desire to make them Christian” (p. 182).  But the apostle John, who certainly knew the historical Jesus better than Wm. Young, said that personal faith in Christ was a necessary condition of salvation.  “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36; NKJV).  And faith in Christ ordinarily requires that we publicly identify ourselves with Him in baptism (Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:3,4; Gal. 3:26,27; I Pet. 3:21).

The other major problem with Young’s theology is his conclusion that in a genuine relationship with Christ there are no rules which one must obey.  Young has the Holy Spirit telling Mack, “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules” (p. 197).  “There is no mercy or grace in rules, not even for one mistake.  That’s why Jesus fulfilled all of it for you – so that it no longer has jurisdiction over you” (p. 202).  “In Jesus you are not under any law.  All things are lawful” (p. 203).  Then “Papa” adds, “Honey, I’ve never placed an expectation on you or anyone else” (p. 206).  But the real Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15; cf. vv. 21,23,24; 15:10).

A film adaption of a book, of course, will focus on action as opposed to dialogue, and as a result the film version of The Shack only briefly touches on the more controversial points of theology.  The film comes across as a deeply moving story of tragedy, love and redemption.  But beneath the surface are the more disturbing implications that are explicit in the book.

In the final analysis Young has left us with a universe in which there is no final justice – in the end God punishes no one and forgives everyone, regardless of what they have done.  We are to forgive and not to judge because God forgives and does not judge.  Evil is an unavoidable consequence of man’s free will.  But the apostle Paul tells us that we are not to retaliate against those who have done us wrong precisely because God will judge.  “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give placed to wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19; quoting Dt. 32:35).

Young pretty much sets aside practically everything that the Bible says about God’s transcendence, sovereignty, holiness, justice and wrath, not to mention the Last Judgment and eternal punishment.  Yet our theology must be based on what the Bible actually says.  While we may be able to infer certain things about God from His creation, and while we possess within ourselves a certain knowledge of right and wrong, the only way we can really know about God is through the written revelation which He has given us.  He himself must tell us what He is like and what He expects from us.  We have no other way of knowing about His attributes or His will, let alone the plan of salvation.  Hence our theology must be based on a careful study of Scripture.  Anything else is pure fantasy and self-delusion.

Yes, it is certainly true that a genuine relationship with God is a relationship of love.  God loves us, and we are called upon to love Him with all our heart, soul and might.  And at the practical level salvation involves the Holy Spirit living within our hearts and transforming us from the inside out.  But it also remains true that in a genuine relationship with Christ He is our Lord and Master and we are His servants.  And to that end the Bible is filled with commandments and exhortations to obey God.

It is easy to see why so many people find The Shack appealing.  It comes across as an invitation to a warm, loving and forgiving relationship with God.  But it is a siren call into the mire of false teaching, and should be avoided by anyone desiring a genuine relationship with Christ.

 

 

THE SANCTITY OF HUMAN AUTHORITY

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Thomas Jefferson famously stated in the Declaration of Independence that “to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . .”  And most Americans sincerely believe that – they routinely drive over the speed limit when the cops are not watching.  The law, in and of itself, means nothing to them.  But is Jefferson’s statement really true?

In the limited sense in which Jefferson probably intended it, it undoubtedly is true.  Human governments are, after all, institutions created by human beings for the purpose of establishing law and order in society.  Society could not function without government of some sort.  And so it logically follows that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness.”

But that does not mean, however, that individuals are free to disobey the government any time they happen to feel like it.  A lawfully constituted government must be obeyed except in cases when it is acting immorally.  If everyone took the law into his own hands it would defeat the whole purpose of government and chaos would ensue.

Respect for authority begins in the home.  And so it is that when the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the church at Ephesus he had a special word of exhortation to the children of the congregation: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph. 6:1; NKJV).  He then goes on to point out that this is, in fact, one of the Ten Commandments: “Honor you father and mother” (v. 2; cf. Ex. 20:12; Dt. 5:16).

Paul says “for this is right” (v. 1).  When he says “right” he does not just mean that it is technically correct.  The Greek word that he uses (dikaion) is usually translated “righteous,” and means “morally right,” i.e., in accordance with God’s moral law.  The idea here is that there is a certain form of behavior expected from us as human beings.  We have a moral obligation to Someone outside of ourselves, and our actions must be brought into conformity with His moral law.  And part of our moral obligation is respect for duly constituted authority.

We are confronted with the issue at the age of two, when we throw our first temper tantrum.  We didn’t get what we wanted and we responded with an outburst of rage.  It is total depravity in its rawest form, and if left unchecked it will lead to a lifetime of ruinous, destructive behavior.  It is the very opposite of that love for neighbor that God requires from us as His creatures.

Paul points out that this is the first one of the Ten Commandments that has a promise attached to it: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth” (v. 3).  In its original context in Deuteronomy, the promise refers specifically to the land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, which God promised to bless if Israel remained faithful to Him (Dt. 11:8-17).  But there is also a broader sense in which human prosperity is tied to the soil, and is ultimately dependent upon God’s blessing on that soil.  We are the offspring of our parents, and a harvest is the produce of the land.  If we fail to honor our parents who brought us into the world, and upon whom we are dependent during our childhood years, we cannot expect the land to yield its fruit.  In this, as in other areas of life, we really do reap what we sow.

Respect for authority does not end at the parent – child relationship; it extends to other areas as well.  The apostle Peter could write: “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (I Pet. 2:13,14).  Paul himself could refer to the civil magistrate as “God’s minister to you for good,” and exhorted his readers to “be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Rom. 13:1-7).  Individual rulers, of course, are chosen by chosen by men, or at least come to power by human means.  But God is ultimately the Lord of history, and controls events through His providence; and thus the authorities can be said in some sense to be “appointed” by Him (NKJV) or “established” (NASV) or “instituted” (ESV) by Him.  Politicians may be dishonest, incompetent, or even corrupt, but society needs politicians nonetheless.  The alternative is rampant crime and chaos.  We are to respect and honor them for the office they hold; not necessarily their personal attributes.  When Barack Obama was in office, he was the President of all of us as Americans.  Now that Donald Trump holds the office he too is the President of all of us.  And both facts are true no matter what we may personally think of the views of either man.

What the Bible offers us, then, is a basically conservative social philosophy.  Yes, we are morally obligated to care for the disadvantaged in our society.  But we must respect and honor those who are in positions of authority.  Human society simply cannot function in the absence of authority structures needed to plan to organize tasks and maintain order.  We are ultimately accountable to our Creator for our actions, and He expects us to act responsibly in all our affairs.  “Rugged individualism is the essence of human arrogance, and is the opposite of Christian love.  It has no place among Christians.

 

THE DUTY OF HUSBANDS TO THEIR WIVES

 

4.2.7

Anthony van Dyck:Family Portrait

 

 

As we have seen, God has placed husbands in a position of authority over their wives.  But does that mean that they are free to do whatever they please to their wives?  Not at all.  In fact, in some ways the burden that God places on the husbands is greater than the one He placed o the wives.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church . . .” (Eph. 5:25; NKJV).  The word “love” is agapate, the word used most often in the New Testament to describe a distinctly Christian type of love.  And here Paul specifically points to the example of Christ as a model of how husbands should love their wives.

And how did Christ love the church?  First of all, He “gave Himself up for her” (v. 25).  The word translated “gave” means to “hand over.”  So great was the love that Christ had for the church that He willingly surrendered His very life on her behalf.  But why did He do this?  What did He hope to accomplish by it?  “. . . that He might sanctify and cleanse her . . . that He might present to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (vv. 26,27).

In other words, Christ’s aim was the church’s well-being.  But the church’s well-being consists in holiness.  Christ does not allow the church to indulge in every sinful passion or lust.  Rather He desires what is in her genuine best interest.  He wants her to reach her full potential.  And so He does what is best for her, which is not necessarily the same thing as what she wants.

So when Scripture says that husbands ought to love their wives, it is not necessarily talking about a specifically romantic attraction – it does not necessarily mean that the husband is enamored with his wife’s beauty or charm.  Rather it means that he has such a care and concern for his wife and her well-being that he is willing to make any sacrifice necessary on her behalf.  He puts her well-being ahead of his own.

But then Paul gives another reason why husbands should love their wives.  “So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself” (v. 28).  Paul quotes Gen. 2:24: “and the two shall become one flesh.”  When a man and a woman get married, they are essentially becoming one person – “one flesh.”  This means that whatever happens to one of them affects the other as well.  This is why Paul could say “he who loves his wife loves himself.”

Paul then draws out the practical implication of this.  “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it . . .” (v. 29), or as we might more literally translate it, “feeds and warms it.”  We are sensitive to every bodily ache and pain.  We are quick to relieve the suffering by any means possible.  But that should be exactly our reaction whenever our wives are hurting.  We should feel their pain and seek to do something about it.  We should pamper our wives as ourselves!

And here again Paul points to the example of Christ and the church: “ . . .but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church.  For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones” (vv. 29,30).  Christ, of course, did this for us on the cross to atone for our sins.  But His ministry on our behalf did not end there.  He cares for us still.  He promised His disciples that He would answer prayer (John 14:13,14) and that He would send us another “Helper” (parakletos = a person called to someone’s aid, and advocate, intercessor), the Holy Spirit (John 14:16,17).  Christ gives the church spiritual gifts “for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:7-16).  Christ did not ascend to heaven and forget about us.  Rather, He continues to exercise a ministry on our behalf, guiding us, protecting us and strengthening us.  And He does all of this because He actively cares for us.  This, then, is the care that husbands should have for their wives.

As noted in our last blog post, Paul concludes by saying “Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (v. 33).  In marriage one gives up a lot – you give up your freedom and independence.  You assume a great responsibility, the responsibility of caring for a family.  God’s intention is that marriage would be a permanent, binding commitment between a man and a woman.  Most Americans today are not willing to make that sacrifice and that commitment.  That is why American family life is in shambles today.  We go into marriage for mainly selfish reasons, and then bail out when reality strikes home.

God knows what is best for human society.  We ignore His will at our own peril.  Marriage can be an enormously satisfying experience – if it is done God’s way!

THE DUTY OF WIVES TO THEIR HUSBANDS

 

4.2.7

Anthony van Dyck: Family Portrait

 

America has a marriage problem.  One out of every two marriages ends in divorce.  40% of all children are born out of wedlock.  The American family has clearly become dysfunctional.

Why can’t we make marriage work?  Part of the answer lies in feminism.  Radical feminists have attacked gender roles and put careers ahead of childbearing.  No-fault divorce fundamentally altered the character of marriage and destabilized the family.  But these are all symptoms of an underlying disease.  Our problem as Americans is that we are too narcissistic.  It is “me first” at the expense of everyone else.  And that mentality is a sure prescription for disaster in marriage.  Very few Americans, it seems, are willing to think in terms of the duties and responsibilities of marriage.

In Ephesians chapter 5 the apostle Paul address the subject of marriage.  In verses 22 through 24 he addresses the wives and in verses 25 through 32 he goes on to discuss the role and responsibilities of husbands.  He then concludes by saying “Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respect her husband” (v. 33; NKJV).

Paul compares marriage to the relationship between Christ and the church, and interestingly, in this passage, he spends nearly as much space talking about Christ and the church as he does about husbands and wives.  And so Paul begins by telling the wives, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (v. 22), and then goes on to explain why: “For the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is the head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body.  Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (vv. 23,24).

Here, of course, Paul is referring back to what he had said earlier about Christ and the church.  In chapter 1 he had explained that God the Father had placed Christ in a position of authority over the all things, “and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (1:22,23).  Here the relationship between Christ and the church is compared to the relationship between a head and the rest of the physical body.  The head contains the brain – it is the head that gives direction to the rest of the body.  But the head is also vitally connected with the body; it does not function apart from it.

The role of the church, then, is to be subject to Christ.  He is the church’s Lord and Savior.  It is not for the church to decide for itself what it wants to do.  Our conscious aim must always be to please Christ – to do whatever He wants us to do.  The church is not a social club, and its aim should not be to pursue its own denominational distinctives.  Nor does it exist to make the pastor rich and famous.  Rather Christ himself should be at the center of everything that the church does.  We need to feel our dependence on Christ, to worship and adore Christ, to be subject to the will of Christ.  “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15) – not His suggestions, not His helpful advice, but His commandments.  If we refuse to do so, it is because we don’t really love Him.

Wives, then, are to “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22).  The husband, we are told, is the wife’s “head . . .as Christ also is the head of the church” (v. 23).  Marriage is an intimate, hopefully loving, relationship.  The husband is supposed to be the leader, the wife the follower.  She works under his direction.  She was created to be “a helper comparable to him” (Gen. 2:18), not his dictator or boss.

Paul concludes this section by saying, “Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respect her husband” (Eph. 5:33).  The wife is to honor her husband as one who is in authority over her.

A loving husband will appreciate his wife’s opinions on various matters.  But ultimately it is he who must make the final decision.  And if a husband and wife are still arguing and fighting over the matter the wife is simply not submitting to her husband as Scripture has commanded her to do.  And is this not why so many marriages fail?  Wives will fuss and nag over this and the other thing (“When momma ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy”), and fight to get their own way; but in the end they wind up destroying their marriages.  And then what have they gained?  Isn’t God’s way better?

TRUE WORSHIP

 

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David the psalmist giving thanks

 

What does it mean to worship God?  Different churches have different ideas on the subject.  Some have very elaborate formal liturgical “services.”   Some are more informal and emotionally expressive, with raised hands, shouting and hand clapping.  And in some churches nowadays the “worship service” is virtually a rock concert.  But what does God think about all of this?

The apostle Paul gives us a clue in Ephesians 5:18-21 (and in a parallel passage in Col. 3:14-17).  He tells the believers in Ephesus not to be drunk with wine, “but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (Eph. 5:18-20; NKJV).

To understand this passage it is necessary to know the context.  We today think we know what worship it, based on our own experience.  But the church experience of First Century Christians was very different from ours.  In fact, if we could go back in time to the First Century and sit in one of their meetings we would hardly recognize it.

For one thing, there were no church buildings per se.  There was no professional clergy, no choirs and organs, and no Sunday schools.  How did they manage to function, then?  “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2:46).  This suggests that First Century church life functioned on two levels.  First, there were large public gatherings where unbelievers might be present – this may be what is described in I Corinthians 14; and secondly there were smaller gatherings in private homes.  It is in these small home groups that the Lord’s Table was observed, perhaps on the model of the Jewish Passover meal (cf. I Cor. 11).  Thus church life tended to be less formal and more intimate that what we are accustomed to today.

What, then, does Paul say about worship?  First of all, it is fundamentally an act of praise directed towards God Himself.  The object is to be “giving thank always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . (Eph. 5:20).  A hymn should be a kind of prayer addressed to God, and when we gather for worship we should be consciously entering into the presence of God to praise Him and thank Him for all that He is and all that He has done.  Worship is not supposed to be a form of entertainment, in which the congregation sits passively in the pews and listens to someone else sing to them.  Rather, they are to be actively engaged in praising God.

But what should the congregation sing?  According to Paul it is “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (v. 19; cf. Col. 3:16).  Exactly how Paul meant to distinguish the three is not exactly clear.  However “psalms” certainly includes the psalms of the Old Testament.  But it is entirely possible that the “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” include songs with a specifically Christian content, and suggestions have been made that there are fragments of such hymns scattered throughout the New Testament (e.g., Eph. 5:14; Col. 1:15-20; I Tim 3:16 and II Tim. 2:11-13).  And it is even possible that some of the songs used in early Christian worship were ecstatic utterances immediately inspired by the Holy Spirit (cf. I Cor. 14:26).

The important thing, however, is that worshippers  should be singing from the heart, “singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (v. 19).  Too often we dishonor God through our listless, half-hearted “worship.”

“. . . these people draw near with their mouths

And honor Me with their lips,

But have removed their hearts far from Me,

And their fear toward Me is taught by the

commandment of men . . .”

(Isa. 29:13).

Rather, God expects us to “make a joyful shout to the Lord . . .” (Ps. 100:1).  When we worship, we should act like we are genuinely grateful for what God has done for us.  Sometimes we insult God through faint praise.

But most importantly, our worship should be driven by the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Eph. 5:18-21 forms a single sentence, and the main thought in the sentence is “be filled with the Spirit” – the main verb being “be filled” (v. 18); all the rest of the sentence elaborates on what it means to be “filled with the Spirit.”  In what way?  By “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”  Worship is supposed to a spiritual activity driven and motivated by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, giving us a sense of God’s awesome majesty, His unapproachable holiness, and His condescending love.

But what about musical style?  How should the music be performed?  We must be careful here – historically the church has employed everything from Gregorian chant to shaped-note hymns to rock bands.  Perhaps the biggest failure in both traditional and contemporary styles of worship is the lack of artistic expression.  Too often every song sounds alike.  The musicians sometimes act as if they were not thinking about what they are singing.  Christian music should reflect the whole range of Christian experience, and that should be reflected in the way the music is performed.  The music should express the content of the words.

And what about Christian rock music?  I want to be cautious here, but Christian music, if it is genuinely Christian, should reflect Christian values.  In other words, it should be marked by the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  If our music comes across to outsiders as “in-your-face” and “head-banging” it is conveying the wrong message.

To worship God, then, is to

“Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,

And into His courts with praise.

Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.

For the Lord is good;

His mercy is everlasting,]

And His truth endures to all generations.”

(Ps. 100:4,5).

THE SACREDNESS OF SEX

 

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Anthony Van Dyke: Family Portrait

 

In Ephesians 5:3 the apostle Paul addresses what is perhaps the most controversial issue facing the Christian church today: sex.  The United States Supreme Court has declared a constitutional right of same sex couples to marry each other (it is hard to imagine that the framers of the Constitution could have ever have conceived of such a thing); and now anyone who opposes same-sex marriage is accused of being a hate-monger.

What are Christians supposed to make of all of this?  What Paul tells us is this: “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints . . .” (Eph. 5:3; NKJV).  Here Paul is using the words “fornication” (porneia) and “uncleanness” very broadly to cover a whole range of illicit sexual activity.  In the Old Testament the Canaanites were condemned for a variety of sexual sins including incest, homosexuality and bestiality (Lev. 18:6-23).  The sins are called “abominations” (Lev. 18:23,27,29,30), the Canaanites were “defiled” because of them (v. 24), and therefore the land “vomited” them out (vv. 25,28).

But are not conservative Christians clinging to an outdated morality?  What is so wrong about having sex outside of marriage?  Or being homosexual?  None other than Jesus himself  explained the rationale behind sex and marriage.

According to Matthew 19:3 ff Jesus was approached by some rabbis who asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”  The question was a controversial one.  It involved a perplexing phrase in the only passage in the Torah dealing with the subject of divorce, Deuteronomy 24:1-4.  There it states that “when a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce . . .” (v. 1).  The question that agitated the rabbis of Jesus’ day was, what was meant by the phrase “some uncleanness”?  One school of thought put the emphasis on the word “uncleanness,” and argued that a man may divorce his wife only because of unchastity.  Another school of thought put the emphasis on the word “some” and argued that a man could divorce his wife for practically any reason – “even if she spoiled a dish for him” (Mishnah, Gittin 9:10).  And so the rabbis asked Jesus to weigh in on the question.

Jesus answered by going back to the account of creation in the Book of Genesis.  “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female’ . . .” (Matt. 19:4, quoting Gen. 1:27; 5:2).  Here two key points are made.  First of all, were “made” or “created” by God.  We did not come into existence by accident or through some blind, impersonal natural process, as atheists would have us to believe.  We were created by an intelligent Supreme Being for a specific reason and purpose.  His creative will defines our existence, and because of that life has meaning and purpose.  It also means that there are behavioral norms to which we must conform.

Secondly, gender differences are a part of the created order.  God “made them male and female.”  Granted, sometimes societies have engaged in needless stereotyping.  Women can be very strong, intelligent and capable.  But physical and psychological differences remain, and it is futile to ignore them.

But Jesus goes on and quotes another passage from Genesis.  “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matt. 19:5, quoting Gen. 2:24).  What is clearly in view here is a heterosexual marriage.

Jesus then goes on to draw His conclusion: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6).  Marriage was meant to be a permanent, binding commitment between a man and a woman.  Divorce, save for the cause of sexual misconduct, is out of the question.  Jesus, in effect, sided with the stricter school of interpretation.

If that, then, is what God intended for marriage to work, if follows that any kind of sexual activity outside of a heterosexual marriage defeats the whole purpose of marriage itself.  We are complex physical and emotional creatures.  Sex is more than just the physical act of copulation; it is an intimate relationship between two human beings.  Our emotions follow our hormones.  If we have sex without being married, we are having an intimate relationship without having made a commitment.  It is basically sex without love.  We are simply using that other person  for our own selfish pleasure.

And if we are married and have a sexual relationship with someone who is not our spouse, we have violated a commitment that we have already made.  The spouse has been betrayed and the marriage undermined as a result.  And the end result of all this sexual license is social chaos – children growing up in unstable, dysfunctional families.

When sins like these become commonplace and accepted in society, it is easy not to take them seriously. But Paul warns of the dire consequences of such behavior.  “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.  Therefore do not be partakers with them” (Eph. 5:5-7).  Society may change its standards, but God does not change His.  “We ought to obey God rather than me” (Acts 5:29).

What God intended in marriage is love and affection in a committed relationship, not casual or commercial sex, not self-gratification masquerading as “love.”  Ironically the modern “anything goes” approach to sex only serves to cheapen and degrade it.  Christians do not think that sex is somehow “dirty.”  Far from it; it is precisely because sex is sacred that it must be protected from anything that cheapens, trivializes, or demeans it.  “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13:4).

THE IMITATION OF CHRIST

The apostle Paul tells the Ephesians to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another” (Eph. 4:32; NKJV) and to “walk in love” (5:2).  These are all noble ideals, of course, but sometimes hard to put into actual practice.  Our natural instinct is to look out for ourselves and to retaliate when wronged.  To us it seems like a simple matter of justice.  And why should I go out of my way to do good to others?  I have enough of my own problems.

And yet Paul enjoins us to be kind and to forgive, and he underpins the exhortation by pointing to the example of Christ: “forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (4:32), and “walk in love, as Christ also loved us and gave Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling aroma” (5:2).  “God in Christ forgave you.”  The verb in the Greek (echarisato) suggests open-handed generosity – to forgive freely with no strings attached..  We were guilty sinners.  We fully deserved God’s wrath and condemnation.  Yet in Christ Jesus we have been forgiven – our guilt has been removed and we are accepted as perfectly righteous persons.

But how was that possible?  If we are guilty there is no denying the fact.  The answer is that “Christ also loved us and gave Himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God” (5:2).  He “gave Himself.”  The verb here (paredoken) means to “hand over” or to “deliver up,” especially to a person or judgment.  Jesus was betrayed, tried and crucified.  But He did it voluntarily; He could have prevented it if He had wanted to, and yet He did it anyway.  And in so doing He was basically making Himself “an offering and a sacrifice to God.”  The imagery here is drawn from the Old Testament temple ritual in which various things would be brought to the temple and offered up on the altar.  In this way the thing offered was surrendered to God.  And the reason Christ offered Himself for us  is that He “loved us” – He had enough care and concern for us, guilty sinners that we were, that He was willing to lay down His very life on our behalf.  And according to our text, this was “a sweet-smelling aroma.”  We are told in the Book of Genesis that after the Flood Noah built an altar, sacrificed some animals, and burnt their carcasses on an altar.  “And the Lord smelled a soothing aroma” (Gen. 8:21).  And thus when Christ offered Himself up on the cross it was, figuratively speaking, “a sweet-smelling aroma” to God, something to which God took exquisite pleasure.

If, then, God has shown such grace and mercy towards us, what excuse do we have if we fail to show it towards those who have wronged us?  We are to “walk in love, as Christ also has loved us” (5:2).  We should show that same care and compassion, that same willingness to forgive, as did Christ.  It is the attitude here that counts.  We should be “kind to one another,” ready and willing to do good to each other.  We should be “tenderhearted” – we should feel real sympathy and compassion in our hearts for others.  And that in turn means that we will be “forgiving one another.”  No one is perfect, but we are to love them anyway.  The hurt may be real, be we seek the other’s redemption, not his punishment.

In this way we can be a living example of Christ’s own love.  People should be able to look at us and get an idea of Christ must have been like in His earthly ministry.  And in this way by our example the world is confronted with Christ.

 

TRUE WORSHIP

 

solomons_temple1

Model of Solomon’s Temple

What is worship?  And why do we do it at all?  In some traditional churches it is little more than a mere formality, or even second rate entertainment if a choir or soloist is involved.  In other churches it is a thinly disguised rock concert.  But what is worship really supposed to be like?

Psalm 100 gives us a brief but comprehensive view of true worship.  It is divided into two stanzas, and each stanza gives us both a “how” and a “why.”

The psalm begins by exhorting us to:

“Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!

Serve the Lord with gladness;

Come before His presence with singing.”

(vv. 1,2; NKJV)

The first thing to be noted is that true worship is directed toward God.  “Make a joyful shout to the Lord.”  Worship is not supposed to be a form of entertainment.  It is not a choir or soloist singing to the congregation; it is the congregation singing to God.  It is a means of expressing our love and devotion to Him.

Secondly, there ought to be a real sense of being in the very presence of God Himself when we worship.  We are to “come before His presence.”  It is not enough merely to be present in a church building.  It is our relationship with God Himself that counts.

Worship, moreover, is not to be a dull, mechanical exercise, a mere formality to be endured for the sake of tradition.  We are to “make a joyful shout,” “Serve (or worship) the Lord with gladness,” and “Come before His presence with singing,” or “a joyful cry,” as the word might be translated.  The idea here is that our worship ought to arise out of a sense of genuine joy (“gladness”) in our hearts.  God is not honored by grudging praise.  What He wants to see are people who are genuinely excited by having Him as their God.

But why should we bother?  What is the point?  The psalm goes on to tell us to

“Know that the Lord, He is God:

It was He who made us, and not we ourselves;

We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.”

(v. 3).

First of all, we are to understand that the Lord is God.  He is the Supreme Being, the Ruler of the universe.  Secondly, He is our Creator: “It was He who made us.”  We would not exist at all if He had not made us.  We owe our very existence to Him.

Furthermore, “We are His people.”  The ancient Israelites could say this because they were God’s chosen people with whom He had made a covenant.  Christians can say the same thing because they have been redeemed by the blood of Christ.  He bought us, therefore we are His.

But significantly we are “the sheep of His pasture.”  The word translated “pasture” more properly refers to the act of pasturing or shepherding.  God actively watches over us, protects us and provides for our needs, and for this we should be genuinely grateful.

The second stanza begins by exhorting us to

“Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,

And into His courts with praise.

Be thankful to Him, and bless his name.”

(v. 4)

What is pictured here, of course, is the ancient temple in Jerusalem, surrounded by courtyards and accessible through gates.  Three times a year, during the great Jewish feasts, worshippers would throng the temple courts to worship God.  And so we too are to engage in public worship, and “be thankful to Him, and bless His name.”

But why?

“For the Lord is good,

His mercy is everlasting,

And His truth endures to all generations.”

(v. 5)

What does it mean when it says that “the Lord is good”?  The verse goes on to explain.  God’s goodness consists of two basic character traits that are found in Him.  The first of these is “mercy,” or as it might better be translated “lovingkindness” (NASV) or “steadfast love” (ESV).  It is God’s kindness in bestowing favors and benefits on His creatures.  The second quality is “truth,” or as it might better be translated “faithfulness” (NASV, ESV).  This refers to God’s firm reliability, consistency and trustworthiness.  It is what enables us to trust in Him implicitly.

Moreover these attributes are “everlasting” and endure “to all generations.”  Everything we experience here on earth is subject to change, and is therefore unreliable: “here today, gone tomorrow.”  But above it all is God, eternal and unchanging.  We can count on Him to be the same forever.

What all of this means is that we do not live in a universe governed by chance and blind, purposeless natural processes.  Rather it is ruled by God, an infinite but personal Supreme Being.  Nor is He some malevolent despot in the sky, but a God whose designs are benevolent and whose word can be trusted.  For us this makes all the difference between glorious hope and the utter despair of those without God.

That hope should be reflected in our worship.  We should consciously enter into God’s presence and lift up our voices to praise Him.  And our praise ought to flow from hearts that are genuinely filled with love for God and joy over all that He has done for us.  To Him be the glory!

 

WHY SMALL GROUP BIBLE STUDIES

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East Troupsburg Baptist Church, Troupsburg, NY

 

Today we think we know what a church is – an organization that owns a building and hires a pastor who comes in from the outside to run things.  The church puts on a variety of programs and activities, and on Sunday mornings gathers together in the building to go through a formal routine which involves a brief prayer, some congregational singing and “special music,” and a message from the pastor.  In the more traditional churches there might be a choir wearing special robes, responsive Scripture readings, and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or Apostles’ Creed.  And then everyone goes home, enjoys their Sunday dinner, and gets on with the rest of life.

It may come a shock, therefore, that that is not how the church in the New Testament operated at all.  First of all, there were no church buildings.  How, then, you ask, did they gather for worship?  “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart . . .” (Acts 2:46; NKJV).  The primitive church apparently operated on two levels: on the one level was the entire Christian community of a given metropolitan area – the church at Corinth or Ephesus, for example – and then there were smaller groups that met in individual homes – the church that met in Priscilla’s and Aquila’s house, for example (Rom. 16:3-5; I Cor. 16:19).

Moreover, a church in the New Testament was not under the control of a single pastor, or “senior pastor.”   The church was not his personal domain to govern as he wished.  Rather churches in the New Testament were under the oversight of boards of elders, spiritually mature men who were chosen from within the congregation.

But must we imitate the New Testament church today?  That was then, and now is now.  We live in the Twenty-First Century, not the First.

The answer is yes and no.  Just because something was done then does not necessarily mean it must be done now.  But it must always be remembered that Christ is the Head of the church; our aim must always be to please Him.  The real question, then, is how did Christ intend for the church to operate?

In answering that question we must distinguish between passages of Scripture that are prescriptive and those that are merely descriptive.  Just because we are told in the Book of Acts that a church did something 2,000 years ago does not mean that we have to do that today.  But the prescriptive passages, passages that command us to do something, are binding on us today.  They tell us how the church is supposed to operate.

The first thing to consider, then, is the general nature of the church itself.  It is not primarily a legally incorporated organization that owns property, nor is it a mere social club.  Rather, it is “the communion of the saints,” a group of born-again believers bound together by the common bond of the Holy Spirit in a kind of mystical union with Christ himself.  The church, in fact, is referred to in the New Testament as “the body of Christ” (Rom. 12:4-8; Eph. 4:11-16) or as a kind of building or temple (Eph. 2:19-22: I Pet. 2:5).  This is a mystical bond that transcends ethic and cultural boundaries (Gal. 3:26-29).  And the Scripture makes it clear that each member of the body has a spiritual gift and a corresponding role to play within the body (I Cor. 12:14-30: Eph. 4:7-16; I Pet. 4:10,11).  That means that if a church is functioning properly all of its members should be actively involved in the work of ministry.

The next thing to be considered is the responsibility that the members of the church have towards each other.  The most basic responsibility, of course, is to love one another, and this is mentioned in numerous passages throughout the New Testament.  But what does that mean in actual practice?  First of all, it means that all the members must be zealous to preserve the unity of the church (Eph. 4:1-4; Col. 3:14,15).  That in turn means that decisions are to be made by consensus (Rom. 12:16; 15:5,6; I Cor. 1:10; Phil. 1:27; 2:1-4; I Pet. 3:8,9).  We are to submit to each other (Eph. 5:21), and bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). We should seek to build up one another (Rom. 14:19; I Thess. 5:11).

But how is this to be accomplished?  First of all, we are to admonish one another (Rom. 15:14); and pray for one another (Eph. 6:18) and with each other (Matt. 18:19,20).  We are to speak to one another “in psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs” ((Eph. 5:18,19; Col. 3:16).  We are to provide financial aid to those in need ((Rom. 12:13; I Tim. 6:17-19; I Jn. 3:14-18), and we are to restore those overtaken in sin (Gal. 6:1).

What all of this requires is that we meet together on a regular basis.  “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:24,25).  And Christ himself has promised that “where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).*

What all of this virtually requires is some sort of small group interaction, in which believers have the opportunity to know each other on a personal level and interact with each other.  It is also significant that most of these exhortations are addressed to entire churches, but the elders are practically never mentioned by name.  The spiritual life of the church is the responsibility of all of its members and each one must do his part.  In my experience the spiritually healthier churches supplement the Sunday morning service with some sort of small group interaction in which committed disciples study the Bible together and pray together.  This is as Christ intended it to be.

 

*It is significant that He says “in My name.”  It is not to be primarily in a denomination’s name ((I Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17).