Looking Forward to the City

Why do we, with Abraham, look with faith and hope and joy towards the city not made by man, but whose builder and maker is God?

There was a riot today in an overcrowded Indonesian prison. There’s a pandemic virus keeping a bunch of people stuck on a cruise boat that is offering free porn. My mom is in a hospital bed 2000 miles away. She sometimes forgets where she is and why she is there. My wife’s father has cancer, and he is 6000 miles away.

I woke up this morning with a toothache. A friend is going through a divorce. Another friend can’t lift his arm above his shoulder anymore – and never will again. My computer won’t stop updating. Muslims in Nigeria are persecuting Christians. Twitter exists.

I struggle against my own sin – still, after all these years!

My oldest son leaves for college in a few months, and the thought makes me cry. My basement often leaks in the Spring and that is only weeks away. Venezuelan money is almost worthless. Did you catch the Superbowl half-time show? I alternate between burning and under-cooking the food I grill. Human trafficking is still a thing.

Statistically, 8 Christians will be killed today for their faith. 4 others will be imprisoned. Nearly 2000 babies will be aborted. And it is only Wednesday. It is Wednesday! A socialist won another state primary yesterday. A popular Christian leader whom I used to like has gone Catholic.

People call good things bad and bad things good. A few big hotel chains decided not to allow Bibles placed in their rooms anymore. Many people twist the truth, and many more hate God, hate churches, and hate Christians. This world is not our home.

That is why.

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:37-39

Why Keep Harping on Grumbling? I mean, seriously…

rainIn the church where I serve as pastor, we’ve been talking quite a bit lately about grumbling. Not so much because there is a lot of grumbling (though I am sure we have our fair share) but because we preached through Exodus during the summer, and a few weeks ago we hit 1 Corinthians 10:10. And in those Scriptures, we encounter the sin of grumbling. And big-time warnings against it!

So what is grumbling and why all the fuss? BDAG defines the Greek word translated grumble as speaking in low tones of disapprobation or to complain against someone or to murmur. Merriam-Webster says it is a mutter of discontent.

Grumbling can be the natural and sinful response to pretty much anything we do not like or agree with.

Grumbling can be audible, or it can be an attitude in the heart. When it is vocalized, it is spoken in low, muted tones (literally or metaphorically) because grumblers don’t want everyone to know they are grumbling. It can be directed against a person, such as a spouse; or a group of people like a church. Grumbling is often against a situation or circumstance. We even grumble against God (honestly, I think all grumbling is ultimately against God, but I’ll leave that deep thought for another post)! Grumbling can be the natural and sinful response to pretty much anything we do not like or agree with.

The word comes up in the New Testament 11 times, and every time it is in a negative light. Here is a sample:

Philippians 2:14, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing…”

1 Corinthians 10:10, “nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.”

James 5:9, “do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged…”

1 Peter 4:9, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”

What, pray tell, is the big deal? Can’t we complain a little once in a while? Why such a sweeping – and repeated – prohibition against grumbling?

Here are three brief reasons for why we should view grumbling as the serious sin that it is, and run from it.

First, grumbling poses a real threat to the unity of a church. Of the 11 times the word grumbling occurs in the New Testament, at least 4 of them have to do, at least indirectly, with church unity (all the ones quoted above). Of course, maintaining unity has always been an issue in the church for many reasons. But one really quick method to directly harm unity is simply to grumble against one another and/or against the leadership.

Second, grumbling dims the light we are called to shine in this “crooked and perverse generation”. That is an implication from Philippians 2:14. Since doing all things without grumbling leads to shining as a light, it follows that grumbling dims that light. To put that another way: grumbling mutes the gospel. It is a very serious thing!

Third, grumbling demonstrates a lack of faith in God. In 1 Corinthians 10:10, the context points to Israel in the Wilderness “putting Christ to the test” by complaining against Moses and grumbling against God because of their situation, and the way God was providing for Israel. Instead of trusting God in their trails, they complained and muttered their discontent. Grumbling is the opposite of faith. In fact, it demonstrates a heart-level belief that God is doing something wrong in your life.

So, brothers and sisters, let us resolve to not be grumblers. For the unity of the church, for her testimony to this lost world and to show that we believe that God is good, let’s do all things without grumbling or disputing. 

3 Benefits of a Seminary Education

BookI had coffee this morning with a person getting ready to leave for seminary, and we discussed the pros and cons of his new undertaking. I shared three things in favor of obtaining a seminary education. I am sure there are more, but I am putting these out there for others who are thinking through whether they should go to seminary.

Of course, I should quickly disclaim that I don’t think that everyone in ministry must go to seminary or that one is necessarily at a disadvantage for not having a formal theological education. I know many faithful self-taught brothers and sisters serving Jesus all over the world just as they should. Some of my pastor-heroes were self-taught. So seminary isn’t a hard prerequisite for all vocational ministry.

With that out of the way, here are three benefits I can see of a seminary education.

First, seminary helps a person become better acquainted with the theological conversation in the wider church. Seminary isn’t the only way to do this, but it sure helps and it is quicker too. One gets a birdseye view of the many issues, debates, and theological questions with which Christians have wrestled. One also becomes better equipped to discern the proper weight of the various theological issues that the church is dealing with, or has already.

Second, seminary helps a person become more precise in study. Of course, learning the biblical languages and hermeneutics and exegesis all greatly aid in the precision of Bible study (I think increased precision is the reason to study Greek and Hebrew). Also, in a general way, learning to weigh sources is super helpful to sharpen one’s theological study. Seminary pushes students in that direction.

Third, seminary helps a student understand how much he doesn’t know. We don’t realize how deep a lake is until we go swimming. Theology is more like an ocean than a lake, and seminary, if done rightly, helps us see how small and how close to the surface we are and how deep and vast the ocean really is. This is immensely helpful for one’s life-long pursuit of learning. It is also very humbling, which is a good thing.

As I said, seminary isn’t for everyone and it shouldn’t be required in all cases and for every context. What would my pastor-brothers in remote Asia do if it were? Seminary isn’t even an option for them. But here are three good reasons to consider seminary if you believe God is leading you into a life of vocational ministry.

Movie Review – American Gospel: Christ Alone

I’m usually not a fan of “Christian” movies. I am usually the opposite of a fan. So I’m surprising myself here. But after a few people recommended the movie, American Gospel: Christ Alone I decided to take 2 hours and give it a watch-see.

The trailer made me wonder if it was a “hit piece” on the prosperity gospel. I don’t think I would be too against something like that since I also abominate the prosperity gospel (borrowing some language from John Piper’s famous sermon clip). On more than one continent, I have witnessed the very real harm that that false teaching does to people.

However, a hit piece has some limitations. For one, those kinds of things usually preach only to the choir, as it were. They aren’t designed to convince the unconvinced. And only those who already agree will actually watch it. And, it would make it less crucial to me; why spend 2 hours of your life being said choir?

That was probably more than you wanted to know about my hesitation with this movie before watching it. But I am happy to say that this movie was nothing like I thought it might be. It was so well done! So good.

A few of the merits of this movie are:

  1.  A clear, powerful, biblically-saturated affirmation of the true gospel. This part made my heart sing!
  2. A gracious, clear, truthful, also biblically-saturated calling out of “other gospels”.
  3. A good word about how the Roman Catholic Church is wrong on the gospel, and why the call for a unity of sorts between Evangelicals and Catholics is short-sighted.
  4. A generous use of video clips of false teachers while they are teaching “other gospels” and false ideas.
  5. A helpful explanation of the dangers of these false gospels, loaded with rich personal testimony (e.g., from guys like Costi Hinn).
  6.  A helpful naming of names.

That last point causes a lot of well-meaning Christians to bristle. Every time I have dropped names of false teachers during a sermon I have received negative feedback (usually in the form of emails and text messages on the Monday after). And I understand: to some, it feels unkind to do that.

However, as a pastor, I think it is far more unkind to not warn people about false teachers. And besides, I can rest on the example of Scripture, where names were definitely named (see 1 Timothy 1:19-20 for e.g.). You can name a name in love.

This is a very good and helpful movie, and I hope many Christians will take the time to watch it. Watch it if you agree with the prosperity gospel. Watch it if you disagree. Watch it, even if you feel you have benefitted from some of the teachers it calls out. You will learn something, and I think you will be edified in the true gospel.

Rent it here from Amazon Prime.

Elder, Stop Calling Yourself a Board Member

This post is my plea against the lamentable trend of many church leaderships: elders who call themselves, and are called by the church, “board members”.  And just as bad are the elders collectively being referred to as a board of directors.

This is the language of the corporate world, not the church. Likely, it works fine for corporations and regular non-profit orgs. But for the church, not so much.

Part of the problem is that in borrowing the nomenclature we often borrow much more. Sometimes we borrow the mentality and the actual structures of the corporate world. Thus, there are supposedly elder-led churches that are not elder-led in a truly biblical way. They have a board of directors – the elders – and they have church officers: CEO = pastor, CFO= treasurer, etc. When the whole fish is swallowed, the board views itself primarily as a check and balance to the church officers. The officers do the work (shepherding, ministry of the word, etc.) while the board does the overseeing of the organization (church) and oversight of the officers. When a church is structured like that it looks just like every other non-profit organization out there.

Yet, the Bible presents a far better way. In the Bible, elders are THE shepherds and overseers of the church (Acts 20:28). They are not merely responsible for the organization and for the paid staff of a church, but for the souls of every member of the church (Hebrews 13:17).

A paid elder (aka, a pastor) is one and the same as a non-paid elder, except that he is able and responsible to devote much more of his time to church ministry. In my church, we use the terms vocational and non-vocational elders to distinguish between those who are elders with regular day jobs and those who are paid by the church so that they can serve the church full-time. All of the elders are equally charged with shepherding the flock. They are ALL equally responsible for the church, and responsible to one another, to the congregation and ultimately to the Lord.

If you are a church leader, think about 1 Peter 5:1-4. This is what you are called to as an elder:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

Are you shepherding the flock or delegating that to a paid pastor whom you oversee? Are you exercising spiritual oversight over the flock or only the church officers and the organization? You are called to be a shepherd, not an executive. So please, stop calling yourself a board member and start thinking of yourself as an elder. And churches would do well to drop the board-of-directors lingo and start fresh. If you need a good place to start, consider the New Testament. 😊

See also: Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5, James 5:15.

Ingredients: Just Add Love & Respect

Pastors (whether they like it or not) regularly have the privilege of helping people walk through difficult seasons in their marriages. Often, by the time a couple decides to see a pastor, things are quite bad. So I think I have heard and seen everything. In fact, I am considering writing a book on marriage called, “Creative Yet Totally Proven Ways to Quickly Wreck Your Marriage“. 🙂 I think it would sell well.

Of course, problems in marriages come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the needed behavioral changes to right a marriage. However, it is not an overstatement to say that most marital issues can be traced to a deficiency of two things: love and respect.

In Ephesians 5:22-33, the Apostle Paul gives clear guidelines for a healthy marriage. Verse 33 is the summary: “…Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” For a marriage to thrive, it must have love and respect.

Of course, men and women both need love and respect. And all of us should show both love and respect to our spouses. But the Apostle Paul indicates that there is a special significance in the husband’s responsibility to love his wife, and also the wife’s responsibility to respect her husband. I think that’s because men need, more than anything else, respect from their wives. And women need to be loved by their husbands above all.

A lot needs to be said, more than I can say here, about what real love is, and also how a wife can genuinely respect her husband. The point I want to make with this post is that those are the two main ingredients in a thriving marriage: love and respect. Husbands, love your wives. And wives, respect your husbands. In my experience, when both parties apply themselves to their respective responsibilities, their marriage begins to drastically improve.

A common mistake we make is to become concerned primarily with how our spouses fail at their responsibilities. But we are not responsible for how well or how poorly our spouses do at this. As we often tell our children: we are responsible for our own actions.

Thus, the solution to your marital issues, if you are going through a difficult season right now, probably has to do with love and respect. A great question to ask as you try to diagnose your problems is this: Am I doing what God requires of me in this marriage? How can I love my wife better and show her that I love her in ways that she will see and appreciate? Or, how can I respect my husband so that he knows that I am for him?

God created marriage, so it stands to reason that he knows exactly what is needed for a marriage to thrive. And, thankfully, he has shared that information with us. A healthy marriage, more than anything, needs love and respect.

The Good & Bad of Cultural Christianity

As a follower of Christ, one of the things I do every week is go with my family to church. The other day, as we were on our way to church, my wife noted the many other people that we were passing who were doing the same thing – heading to various churches. We live in a place where most people go to church and call themselves Christians. We are surrounded by a culture of Christianity.

It’s not that way everywhere. In Russia, for example, the opposite is true. 70+ years of having a secular worldview taught and imposed by the government has all but snuffed out the influence of Christianity. But not so here (for now, at least). Most people in this town still consider themselves Christians, even as they demonstrate varying levels of real commitment to Christ.

So is cultural Christianity a good thing or a bad thing? I think it’s both.

Christianity has significantly influenced our worldview which, in turn, has enhanced our social well-being. The reason Chadron has a low crime-rate and the reason that a stranded driver on the highway will likely find help from a kind passerby (who doesn’t just pass by), is due to the historic influence of Christianity in forming the western worldview. In a very real way, the values and moral standards of Christianity create human flourishing. So a culture of Christianity is good for a society.

But it can be perilous for one’s soul. That is because only genuine faith in Jesus reconciles us to God. The forms and values and culture of Christianity cannot do this. If our Christianity is only cultural, then it is empty. And worse, it breeds a profession of faith that is profoundly unhelpful: a person might look to his heritage and culture and say, “I’m a Christian.” but never actually follow Christ by faith.

Cultural Christianity is good for society because its values lead to human flourishing. We should be thankful that we live in this culture (it might not always be this way!). Even so, it can be dangerous for our souls, because our cultural environment could lead us to think that we are right with God by default – or that the Christian faith is merely a set of values. Yet, the only way for sinners (and that’s all of us) to be made right with God is through personal faith in Jesus, the one who paid our sin-debt on the cross. Christianity is more than culture – it is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

I pray that your faith is more than culture.

On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord’… And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you…’” – Jesus