Hey, Christian! Leave that man alone! (pt. 1)

THE SCENARIO: During a time of congregational singing in a Sunday morning service a young man leaves his seat, makes his way to the front of the room, and kneels to pray. His praying appears passionate but not overly emotional.

QUESTION: What do you do?

ANSWER: Nothing—at least not immediately.

This scenario played itself out in one of our worship services recently. Two things came to mind upon further reflection, the first anecdotal the second pastoral.

First, gender differences play a (big) part in the way we respond to spiritual phenomena. More than one of our women commented on their desire to see someone (i.e. a man) go down to assist the young man. As the situation was unfolding, one of our women came and told me to “go put your arm around that man.” After the service another woman commented on how hard it was to watch the man kneeling alone as she resisted the urge to join him. At least one more wondered aloud (but not to me) why, being so close to the action, I would just sit there like a bump on a log.

Nothing like this was heard from the men. One of our men assisted the young penitent after a couple of minutes & another commented that God was evidently at work in the service but that was the extent of the masculine response.

Now it can be tempting to equate the feminine impulse to help with spiritual sensitivity. Conversely, we might label the unresponsive men as testosterone-laden dullards who wouldn’t recognize the Holy Spirit at work if He knocked them to the ground & made them bark.

But what if the women weren’t acting according to the Spirit but according to their nature? Maybe the women were just being women—showing empathy, sharing an experience, offering comfort, etc. In that case the typical woman would be no more or less spiritual in her yearnings than the typical man would be in his (supposed) aloofness. Further, if the reaction is “natural” mightn’t it also be wrong?

 

Disclaimer: The author understands that this post draws on gender stereotypes and that stereotypes are not universal laws. Not all women are equal in their emoting; not all men are equal in their cold, callous disregard of human feeling. The ruminations in this post belong to the author alone and should not be attributed to any church, denomination, or faith. –The Administrator

 

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Hangin’ out with Don

An interesting Q&A here with Donald Miller as he sheds more light on his voluntary excommunication & the flare-up that ensued when he blogged his confession. I thought the following segments were particularly instructive:

  1. 21:48-23:05 where DM acknowledges a valid critique concerning his current community & confesses another reason “normal” church was/is hard
  2. 29:18-32:35 where DM sketches his idea about a possible future project he calls “Story Church”
  3. 33:28-34:30 where DM is asked how he thinks about his story in light of the church’s story

Some of these are not like the other

I have no idea what the half-life of a blog post is these days but I’m sure we’ve already reached that point with Donald Miller’s farewell to the church. Even so, some good questions have been raised concerning the nature of the Church, her structure, and one’s connection to her.

A central concern in all of this seems to surround the definition of a “church.” Framed as a question “What counts as a church?” If that question remains answered then the rest of the discussion is pointless. Every man is left to do what is right in his own camera angles.

Church history is very helpful on this point. When Protestants began to break with the Roman Catholic Church they found it necessary to clearly articulate the biblical traits of a true church. After all, Christians were leaving what, at that time, was considered the church. How then was one to recognize a true church beyond the enculturated trappings and traditions of the day? Confessions were subsequently formulated in an attempt to clearly and simply outline the marks of a church. Two examples will suffice:

Now this church is the congregation of the saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered.

Augsburg Confession, art. VII (1530)

 

The marks, by which the true Church is known, are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin: in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto corrected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known from which no man has a right to separate himself.

Belgic Confession, art. XXIX (1561)

Following these two statements we might affirm the following:

1) a church exists as a gathering of saints (i.e. those who have been saved by faith in Jesus Christ)

2) a church exists where the gospel is taught/preached

3) a church exists where the sacraments (i.e. baptism & communion) are observed

4) a church exists where discipleship & discipline is practiced

Now there’s a lot that could be said about these marks and the associated implications–what it means to preach, who exercises discipline & how, chapter & verse support, etc.–but that’s a discussion for another time. For now it’s enough to maintain that the aforementioned traits provide something of a litmus test for all of our “this is (not) the church” pontificating.

So when someone says they’re leaving the “traditional church” it makes a big difference whether the stress is on traditional or church. When you conflate the two in your manifesto no amount of nuance will save you from the ensuing disaster.

Back it up, Don!

Donald Miller has created some buzz with his most recent blog post in which he confesses not going to church much because (a) he doesn’t experience intimacy (with God) in a traditional worship service (b) a traditional lecture (i.e. sermon) doesn’t suit him as a kinesthetic learner (c) he’s discovered he connects with God by working.

Whatever your thoughts on Mr. Miller’s confession I found his explanations disappointing in the absence of biblical support–even more so considering his stated erudition. For the life of me I can’t understand why he wouldn’t buttress his revelation(s) with any number of relevant passages that come to mind:

Exodus 20:8-10  “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy in the way that suits you best.  9 “Six days the kinesthetic learners shall labor and connect with Me,  10 but the seventh day is a break  from the LORD your God; they shall not do any work for they have worshiped Me for six days…

Ezra 7:9-10  the good hand of his God was upon him.  10 For Ezra had set his heart to build his company and expand it, and to sell his product among the people.

John 17:17  “Sanctify them in their business; Their business philosophy is truth.

Hebrews 5:12  For by this time you have studied psychology and education reform long enough to know a traditional lecture isn’t for everyone and you have need to learn by doing the oracles of God, you have come to need kinesthetic learning.

Hebrews 10:24-25  let us consider how to stimulate our co-workers to love their work 25 not forsaking the assembly of the team, as is the habit of some, but laboring together; and all the more as you see the weekend drawing near.

1 Peter 2:2-5  like eager entrepreneurs, long for a fulfilling career, so that by having your hand on the plow you may grow in respect to salvation,  3 if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord who gave you your mission and your team.  4 And coming to Him as to a living cog which has been rejected by the owners, but is choice and precious in the sight of God,  5 you also, as little cogs, are being built up as a spiritual machine to offer up tangible goods and services acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 John 2:19  They went out from us because they were not really auditory learners; for if they had been auditory learners like us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that the church is all around us.

Agitators, subversion, & the Sunday service

A couple of weeks ago our church conducted a panel interview on a Sunday evening. The panel consisted of two couples who recently walked through some significant physical trials (actually, the trials aren’t really over for either couple). For nearly an hour we were privileged to hear fellow members bear witness to God’s faithfulness and goodness in miserable circumstances.

By all accounts the evening was very profitable. I was struck, however, by the report of a comment from an unidentified member–something like “I wish we could do this on Sunday morning.” Stodgy traditionalist that I am, I can’t seem to muster a visceral response in the absence of further testimony indicating subversive intent. [Make no mistake: proof or no proof, anyone who would suggest a change to the regularly scheduled Sunday morning program is subversive–and an agitator.] Even so, this isn’t the first time that someone has countenanced a Sunday morning makeover so I thought it might be helpful to tease this out a bit.

I assume that the thinking behind “I wish we could do this [i.e. extended personal testimonies] on Sunday morning” consists of two interrelated parts: (1) if we did this on Sun morning we would reach more people (2) if we did this on Sunday morning it would have a big impact on our church. It seems axiomatic that (2) is the key thought in all of this. After all, you wouldn’t really care about reaching more people unless you’re convinced the message would have a big impact.

But the assertion that an hour’s worth of personal testimony would have a big impact on the church is subjective and relative. Subjective because we measure “impact” or “effect” in so many different ways (laughter/tears, positive feedback, etc.); relative because almost anything can be big so long as you find something small to set beside it.

And that brings us to the real rub in all of this: to call something big you must call something else small. So how shall a church tag their activities (and their impact)? What practices in our corporate gatherings will we label “small” and what practices will we label “big”?

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to get married(?)

1 Corinthians 7:7, 27, 38 {ESV} I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another… 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife… 38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.

Marriage is frequently projected as “the norm” in today’s church (at least in Protestant circles). The assumption is that all good Christian men and women have been ordained to find their complementary other half, the resulting implication being that to remain without a spouse signals some lack or deficiency in the single person. Marriage books, studies, and seminars are prodigiously produced but finding some decent material on singleness or celibacy is like finding a few Arminians at a Piper conference–you’re pretty sure they’re out there but it ain’t gonna be easy to find them.

Where is the church that would take seriously Paul’s preference for celibacy in 1Corinthians 7?  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a pastor or teacher challenge young, single Christians to examine themselves to see if they might be gifted for celibacy or to consider the advantages of living single. Certainly we should be careful not to let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction. Paul may have preferred singleness for the sake of the gospel but he stopped short of discouraging marriage. Even so, I think there are a few things we might consider to better reflect the biblical perspective on singleness and marriage.

Churches might:

  1. Determine not to exclude single men when searching for a new pastor — if Jesus & Paul could be single why can’t our pastor(s)?
  2. Intentionally disciple single members in such a way that we communicate their equality as members and their unique opportunity for ministry. 
  3. Preach/teach that the ability to remain celibate is a gracious gift for some men and women. [The gift is the ability and/or desire for celibacy, not celibacy itself. The single whose desire for marriage remains unfulfilled probably shouldn’t be told that their singleness is a gift.]

Christian parents might:

  1. Pray that God would raise up their child(ren) to be happy in holiness more than happy in marriage.
  2. Consider that their child(ren) may be destined to produce spiritual children (rather than grandchildren) for God’s greater glory and their greater joy (1Cor 4:15; 3Jn1:4).
  3. Nurture their child(ren) to seek His kingdom before they consider searching for their counterpart. 
  4. Remind themselves that marriage is temporary but glorified singleness is for eternity (Mat 22:29-30). 

When a church is no church at all

We seem to have a real horror of being different. Hence all our attempts and endeavors to popularize the church and make it appeal to people….[But] the world expects the Christian to be different and looks to him for something different, and therein it shows an insight into life that regular church-goers often lack….If [a person] feels at home in any church without believing in Christ as personal Savior, then that church is no church at all, but a place of entertainment or a social club.

–D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones [Iain Murray, D. Martin Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years 1899-1939 (Banner of Truth 1982), 141-42.]

A gathering of 2 or 3: church, jury, or none of the above?

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” {Mat 18:20, ESV}

Moving through a study of 1 Corinthians, our adult Sunday school classes explored 1Cor 3:16-17 where Paul declares “you are God’s temple” and “if anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him”. One of the points that we tried to make in our study is that the “you” in vv16-17 is plural (in the Greek) which means the temple Paul has in mind is the church not the individual Christian. Seizing the moment to emphasize the significance of the local church the author of our Sunday school literature wrote:

Tragically, many Christians dismiss the importance of the local church. They argue from verses like Matt 18:20 that when two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, He is present; therefore, I don’t need to attend church. I can “have church” at home or at work if I am with at least one other believer. The only problem with this proof-text is that this verse is not talking about public worship; instead, it is dealing with church discipline.

This created a stir for at least one church member who read the paragraph as a denial of the long-held belief that 2 or 3 do, in fact, constitute a church. How should we think about this?

1) Two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name does constitute a church. The “2 or 3” expression is Jesus’ explanation as to why the church retains the authority to make binding judgments (18:17-18). Consequently, 2 or 3 gathered in Jesus’ name is a pithy way to allude to the church.

2) The point of Mat 18:20 is to show that the local church is authorized to exercise church discipline. Equating the role of the church (18:17-18) with the judgment of two or three (18:19-20) is a way to clarify that church discipline is binding for any church gathering regardless of the church’s size. Church discipline exercised by an assembly of 50 is just as authoritative as discipline enacted by an assembly of 5,000.

3) A church may not be less than a gathering of two or three but it is certainly more than that. In other words, the number of the gathering is not as important as the nature of the gathering (why have they assembled: to fish? to watch TV? to hear the Word? to share communion?). In this light we would need to go further and ask what it means for two/three Christians to gather “in My name”.

My conclusion: Two or three make a church except for when they don’t.