Christian Word Games

Pastors face a temptation of preaching to the specks. Every pastor knows certain things that will rattle the cages and rally the troops. They are cards kept up the sleeve to be pulled out when an “amen!” or “‘atta boy” are needed. I tried to avoid those when I was pastoring. When the text I was preaching did mention the speck I tried to draw attention to the beam. Getting to the point: when the Bible spoke against homosexuality, I also tried to remind them what else was included in such a prohibition. And what was to be embraced in its stead.

Conservative Christians have done much to muzzle and belittle the authority of God’s word. On The Gospel Coalition Thomas Kidd has written that Christians “be charitable to those in the church (and outside the church) with whom we disagree on [the] most contentious topic [of the 6 days of creation].” The article follows what has become the standard conservative evangelical argument for not taking the days of Genesis 1 literally. Geology, silence of Scripture, no uniform church tradition, etc. all give reason to allow that the days of Genesis 1 are not 24 hour days.

No doubt, the same website will sooner or later post or link to an article about homosexuality and/or marriage and/or gender issues and quote Genesis 1:27 and 2:24:

 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

The argument will made having already surrendered any linguistic, logical, or exegetical high ground. If “there was evening and there was morning, the first day…there was evening and there was morning, the second day…there was evening and there was morning, the third day…there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day…there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day…there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day…” does not mean 6 24-hour days, how can you dogmatically argue that “male” and “female” refer to a human born with certain X and Y chromosomes?

If we have already surrendered the meaning of words to each other; on what grounds can we fight for their meaning against unbelievers?

Beginning Anew

Last night we held our first prayer meeting at the church I pastor. Not Bible Study and Prayer. Not even Prayer and Bible Study. Just prayer.

But we are not exactly flying blind. Before praying we took turns reading Psalm 32 aloud. For the prayer time I would again read 1-2 verses of the Psalm and then we would pray as those verses led us to. (See Learning to Pray through the Psalms.)

We still have mid-week Bible Study. This is just for prayer.

So what will happen because of this? What will be the result? I don’t know. Maybe nothing. Which is pretty much what has been going on the past four years.

But I’m praying the Lord make me a praying pastor. And that He makes our church a praying church. If that happens, we will at least have Him: which is the most we could look forward to.

Confessions of a failing pastor

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.

As a pastor, to a lesser extent- a much lesser extent- I share in this being “a spectacle.” One aspect of that is the public nature of my failings. Sure, like you, I can harbor my secret sins. But I do not have the luxury of coming to church, not saying anything to anyone, and leaving. When things are “going bad” at church, no one is blaming the janitor. No one is murmuring about the secretary. No one whispers about the nursery worker. For better or worse, whether you like it or not, the state of the church is a reflection of the pastor’s work. My failings are on display every week. People see my mistakes. People have been my mistakes. People know my failures.

But people have no idea of my failures. I have read the books, I have aced the classes. I know what a “good” pastor should do and be. I have read the books, I know what a “good” sermon should be and do. Have you seen my failures? You have not seen the half of them. Have you seen my failures? Be thankful you do not know their weight. I know what God expects. I know what Christ deserves. I know my failures, be glad you do not.

The Lord confronted me with some of my failures several months ago. I was leaving church and walking home. I was 8 steps out the door. I was at the edge of sidewalk ready to step onto the gravel parking lot.

“What if everyone at this church cared about it as much as you do?” (And by “as much” the Lord unmistakably intended “as little.”)

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

I felt like just getting in my car and driving until there was no more road to drive: and then driving a little more for good measure.

I am the problem.

I have failed at the most important job I have: magnifying a God who is worth loving with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. I have failed at leading people to fall in love with Christ.

I was in love with “the church.” Not so much with “this church.” I was in love with Hebrews 12:18-24. Not so much with Hebrews 12:14-17. I was in love with Revelation 4, 5, and 7. Not so much with Revelation 2 and 3. The “ideal and end” are a lot lovelier than the “here and now.”

Since that time, slowly, surely, painfully, the Lord has been pressing home a different passage.

 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

The Lord has been taking my narrow, constrained, hard heart and healing it the only way he knows how: by smashing it to smithereens.

I have been a failure. I have decided that if I am going to fail, I am at least going to fail trying. I do not know if it is too late. I do not know if I have built a bridge too far…or burned a bridge too short. But at least I care now. I do not know if it is too late to lead other people to care too.

I am not too fond of the frequent tears. I am not comfortable with my wife and children wondering about my well-being. I am not sure about the cost of caring.

But the Lord has been pressing upon me the anxiety for “this church.” To what end? Hopefully to the end of:

 …as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. I have spoken freely to you; my heart is wide open. I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in my heart, to die together and to live together.

I do not know what the future will bring. I do not know the end of this. Did the Lord allow me to be a pastor just to convince me that I shouldn’t be? It very well may be. Until He makes that clear, I am pledging to do all I can to keep my heart on his anvil.

There might be hope yet.


Helmut Thielicke on the Seduction of Truth

Truth seduces us very easily into a kind of joy of possession: I have comprehended this and that, learned it, understood it. Knowledge is power. I am therefore more than the other man who does not know this and that. I have greater possibilities and also greater temptations. Anyone who deals with truth—as we theologians certainly do—succumb all too easily to the psychology of the possessor. But love is the opposite of the will to possess. It is self giving. It boasteth not itself, but humbleth itself. . . . This disdain is a real spiritual disease. It lies in the conflict between truth and love. This conflict is precisely the disease of theologians.

Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1962), 16, 17.

A Little Exercise is a book that should probably be required reading for every Bible college student and should certainly be required for every seminary student.

One thing I appreciated about my time in Bible college was the requirement to be involved in a local church ministry. This at least provided an opportunity to hinder the outbreak of the disease Thielicke discusses. It is certainly possible to be learning Monday through Friday and be an arrogant, pompous, know-it-all while serving on Sunday. But the great thing about 6 year olds is that they are not too easily impressed with all of your theological learnin’. I am thankful that I was not allowed to just go off and sit in judgment of some pastor who spent 70 hours caring for a flock and didn’t have the same three weeks I did to come up with an exegetical outline of Ezekiel 25.

“Knowledge is power.” Which is why it is so dangerous. Men like power and some find that knowledge is their best avenue to gaining it. These men are the most dangerous of the power-hungry. They seek to control people not through brute force—which can always be overcome by bruter force—but through a more insidious control of mind and will. Men like Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Jack Schaap tread the winepress of destruction with far greater effectiveness than any despot. Their body counts may be lower, but that is only because their victims live even while dead.

And you see how easily it is to put off this threat. Thielicke is not talking about cult leaders and despots. He is talking about pastors and professors. He is talking about men who love truth. But who love it too much. So here, if anywhere, is where all truth ceases to be God’s truth. When my grasp of the truth becomes the clutching of a bludgeon I have lost the very truth I pursue. For the wisdom from above is first peaceable…

A question for pastors, treasurers, financial secretaries, etc.: Why does your church have a savings account?

My opinion of church business meetings vacillates somewhere between complete disinterest and abject abhorrence. When I was younger and knew everything, I wondered why the church I went to had so much money in accounts doing nothing but gaining interest. (It should be noted that, according to Jesus at least, this is only the next to the worst thing that can be done with money- Matt. 25; Luke 19). Now that I am older and know considerably less, I often wonder the same thing. Why do we have so much money in “savings” accounts? A man much wiser put forth the question far more eloquently than I can:

…it was far better to preserve souls than gold for the Lord. For He Who sent the apostles without gold also brought together the churches without gold. The Church has gold, not to store up, but to lay out, and to spend on those who need. What necessity is there to guard what is of no good? Do we not know how much gold and silver the Assyrians took out of the temple of the Lord? Is it not much better that the priests should melt it down for the sustenance of the poor, if other supplies fail, than that a sacrilegious enemy should carry it off and defile it? Would not the Lord Himself say: Why didst thou suffer so many needy to die of hunger? Surely thou hadst gold? Thou shouldst have given them sustenance. Why are so many captives brought on the slave market, and why are so many unredeemed left to be slain by the enemy? It had been better to preserve living vessels than gold ones.

Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy, 2.28.137

Why do we have savings accounts when there are souls that need to be saved? I am not sure the Lord is going to be too impressed with our rainy day funds on the Day of His appearing.

Gregory of Nazianzus: Prophet of Fundamentalism?

We have opened to all not the gates of righteousness, but, doors of railing and partisan arrogance; and the first place among us is given, not to one who in the fear of God refrains from even an idle word, but to him who can revile his neighbor most fluently, whether explicitly, or by covert allusion; who rolls beneath his tongue mischief and iniquity, or to speak more accurately, the poison of asps.

We observe each other’s sins, not to bewail them, but to make them subjects of reproach, not to heal them, but to aggravate them, and excuse our own evil deeds by the wounds of our neighbors.  Bad and good men are distinguished not according to personal character, but by their disagreement or friendship with ourselves.  We praise one day what we revile the next, denunciation at the hands of others is a passport to our admiration; so magnanimous are we in our viciousness, that everything is frankly forgiven to impiety.

Gregory of Nazianzus, In Defence of His Flight To Pontus 79-80

Wilhelmus a Brakel Commentary on James 3:1

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers,
for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

How dreadful will this investigation and interrogation be for many overseers! How pitiful and dreadful will be the sentence that will be pronounced upon them! If only they had never been born and had never been an overseer! What will it be to perish due to one’s own sins, and then also to be burdened by so many souls! They will see you in the last judgment and rise up against you, saying, “You knew very well that I was ignorant, and that I lived in sin. If you had looked after me—had warned, rebuked, instructed, and led me in the way of salvation—I would have been saved. Look, however, you unfaithful minister, you unfaithful elder, I am now going lost! Let God require my blood from your hand, and deal with you as a wicked and lazy servant!”

Wilhelmus á Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service II, 155.

A word to reformed evangelicals looking for a church

Who is this article for? More than likely it is not for a Presbyterian or Reformed Christian. Your denominational ties most likely make an article like this irrelevant. Rather, this article is aimed at those evangelicals- Baptist, Pentecostal, Missionary, Methodist, Wesleyan, etc.- who have discovered through one way or another the “doctrines of grace.” You have begun the journey of rejecting man-centered worship and embarked on the “God-entranced vision of all things.” And now, for whatever reason, you are looking for a church. Here are some things to consider.

Remember the semper  

More than likely you are familiar with the five solas of the reformation.[1] But are you aware of their close cousin semper reformanda? Semper reformanda means, “always being reformed.” What does this mean? Strictly speaking there is no such thing as a “reformed” church because the work of Scripture never ceases. There are only “reforming” churches. Are you looking for a perfect church? One that has everything just right? You will not find it.

Be bold

The work of the Reformation was not achieved by consumers, but by doers. Men like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin et al were not used because they were looking for a church that was just right. They were used by the Lord because they went about making a church that was faithful to the Word. As Teddy Roosevelt said,

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”[2]

In looking for a reformed church you are simply following the contemporary consumer culture. Might the Lord have something more for you? Will you not rather commit yourself to long, hard, dirty work of reforming the church? Do you see what a church is or what it might become? It is easy to sit back and criticize everything that is lacking. The noble task is to work for perfection.

Be patient

The letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 offer fascinating material. There are several churches with crippling moral and doctrinal errors. Yet within those churches is a faithful remnant. Christ’s word to them is illuminating. He does not tell them to leave. He does not tell them to start a new church. He does not tell them to look for a better church. Such people are told to “hold fast”[3] and to continue to “walk worthy”[4] of the Lord. The work will never be done. There will always be more to be done. But above all you must remember one thing: it is the work that Christ has pledged to accomplish himself.[5] He will do the work. He offers you the privilege of joining him in it.

[1] Sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria

[2] “Citizenship in a Republic,” Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

[3] 2:24-25

[4] 3:4

[5] Ephesians 5:25-27