Church Outlaws

            My wife’s family loves Westerns.  In fact, the first time I went to Mary’s house the first thing I noticed was the rather large print of John Wayne above the TV.  So, as you can imagine, I’ve watched my share of gun-slinging cinema.  Probably the classic Western is one in which the band of outlaws comes into town every so often and shoots it up, drinking and carousing and having their way.  The town sheriff might have the authority as the law, but he can’t face the outlaws by himself.  In typical Western movie build-up, the final shoot-out of the film has the town folk convinced to quit hiding in their homes and businesses.  The outlaws come into town thinking they will have their way again, but this time the people are ready with rifles on their roof tops, and a plan to bring them down to size.  It works, and the town once again restores law and order, having found their courage to not only survive in the Old West, but to thrive.
            Christian pastors are some of the loneliest people on earth.  They’re that way because far too many congregations are like the old Western town folk.  They don’t have the gumption to stand up to the church outlaws.  So, they let their sheriff get shot in the street by the bad guys while they cower in fear behind the bar.
            No pastor can stand alone.  He/she needs the strong support of church members who will stand with that pastor when the outlaws ride into church on their high horse.  When individual church members have had their way with a congregation for too long, they use every trick in the book (even trying to use the Bible for their backup) to keep the status quo because the way things are keeps them in power.
            Make no mistake about it, keeping power is what the outlaws want.  They will appeal to the fact that:  they are charter members; they give more money than anybody else; they did a certain ministry for decades; they know what the congregation is really thinking and feeling; and, they’ve seen pastors come and go and they’re still there.  Therefore, you should always listen to them and do what they say.
            Never mind that the church outlaws have never led another person to Jesus Christ (even though they’ll tell you how to do it).  Never mind that they don’t read their Bibles (even though they’ll let you know how many thousands of sermons they’ve heard over the years).  Never mind that they don’t worship God as a lifestyle (even though they’ll fight to the end over what a worship service is supposed to be like).
            If you’re reading this right now, chances are that you are not one of the church outlaws.  That’s because church outlaws are never learners and growers in Christ – they are only power-brokers in the church system.  This is precisely why you need to support your local sheriff and get that rifle out and head for the roof top.  If you don’t, the outlaws will keep throwing their bluster and weight around to get what they want.  And what will get lost in it all is God’s kingdom getting extended to the people who need it the most, and God’s will done on earth, as it is done in heaven.
            What’s at stake is not only your church’s reputation, but your community’s need for Jesus Christ.  Church outlaws don’t need to hold your congregation hostage.  Conflict in and of itself is not bad – it’s how you go about it.  But leaving a pastor out in the street to be hung by the outlaw mob in the name of keeping the peace is very bad and is not at all becoming of a faithful follower of Christ.  Not to mention that God himself will take notice of it if we refuse to act.

 

            Seek out your pastor.  Listen well to him/her.  Hear their heart for the church, and for the community.  Ask them how you can help.  And determine to stand with them when the outlaws ride into town.

It’s Complicated

 
 
            You likely know what I’m referring to when I say “it’s complicated.”  It is a reference to relationships in all their, well, complexity.  Why we do what we do in relation to others; how we go about it; and, where it is all going is sometimes, even oftentimes, subject to us struggling to define a particular relationship or situation to another person as “it’s complicated.”
 
            When it comes to the church, nothing is quite as it seems.  Nice and apparently good people say some of the most off-the-wall and even mean-spirited things you would ever want to hear.  Conversely, some of the most gossiping and loose-tongued persons within the fellowship are so capable of doing amazingly good works that the only thing we can say with any confidence is that “it’s complicated.”
 
            There is a reason it’s complicated.  Sin, death, and hell rule over the human condition like a perpetual wet blanket.  Whenever we want to simplify situations and people by categorizing them into good people and bad people; whenever we have the propensity to place labels on others in order to keep things black and white; and, whenever we make gross generalizations about a group of people in sweeping blanket statements; then, we are severely underestimating the impact of humanity’s fall into sin (including our own) and have simplified a situation that is in reality rather complex.
 
            One of the problems we encounter in any group of people, including the church, is that there are two dimensions to sin, not just one.  Western Christians typically discern sin as intensely personal – as a verb in which we do or not do certain sinful acts.  And this is true. “All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).  Yet, if we stop there we are only seeing sin in one dimension.  Sin is also a power, a dominion under which all of humanity exists.  In other words, we might think of lower case “sin” as individual deeds of sinfulness; and, upper case “Sin” as a constant pervasive realm of evil that is continually oppressing us.  “Jews, as well as Gentiles, are ruled by Sin” (Romans 3:9).  So, then, sin resides both in the human heart and in human institutions.  Sin is both personal and systemic so that when we look at the complete landscape of the human condition in all of its foulness and degradation, it’s complicated, man.
 
            Sin is such a ubiquitous and pervasive reality that the Scriptures can say “No one is acceptable to God!  Not one of them understands or even searches for God… There isn’t one person who does right” (Romans 3:10-12).  This situation exists primarily because of the vast realm of Sin.  Therefore, when we turn to the answer to this terrible and egregious calamity of s(S)in, the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross, the atonement of Christ has taken care of it all – dismantled the dominion of Sin and taken away its power of death, as well as absorbed all personal guilt for individual human sins.
 
            Let’s bring this theological and anthropological understanding back into the church setting.  Praying for lost people and proclaiming salvation for individuals who have guilt over personal sins is a must.  But having people saved from guilty acts is not the whole story of your church.  If we fail to pray against the persistent problem of Sin as a realm and dominion, then Sin is going to come back and bite us because it is still there, still exerting its power.  Saving faith must turn into sanctifying faith in which people realize that the dominion of Sin must be continually overcome by applying Christ’s redemption to both personal and corporate life.  The late Dallas Willard used to say:  Grace is opposed to earning, but not opposed to effort. 
 

 

            People are enslaved to Sin.  They must be set free through the death of Christ by turning from sin and following Jesus, as well as putting a great deal of effort into forsaking the old masters of cultural obsessions and systemic compulsions of evil.  In short, we must become slaves to God’s righteousness in a great transference of allegiance.  “You gotta serve somebody,” said Bob Dylan.  And that somebody needs to be God and not Sin.  Oversimplifying sin will only get us in trouble.  Sin is terrible and complex.  Let’s make sure we are forsaking it in all of its sinister manifestations so that we might pursue God in all His goodness.

Romans 12:9-21

            A bit of historical context will give us a better appreciation for today’s New Testament lesson.  Within the ancient church at Rome were converts out of Judaism and paganism.  In other words, both Jew and Gentile worshiped together within one church.  These two groups of people had very different backgrounds.  So, even though they were both believers in Jesus, they had a tendency to look down on one another.  Because of this attitude, each group thought that the locus of authority with was with themselves, and not the other.  That is, who should call the shots in the church? 
 
            This ecclesiastical milieu is why Paul wrote his letter to the Romans; he wanted the entire church to rally and unify around the gospel, not in being Jew or Gentile.  Since they were both justified or made right by Jesus, they both needed to live up to true Christian living.  So, Paul gave some very pointed encouragement and exhortation of how both groups ought to be treating each other.  They are brothers and sisters in Christ.  Therefore each should love one another with genuine affection.  Jew should rejoice with Gentile, and Gentile should weep with Jew.  If things get out of hand, blessing ought to be the default response, not cursing.  Both Jew and Gentile must be willing to associate with each other, honor one another above themselves, and live peaceably with all.  There is to be no favoritism in contributing to the needs of all the saints, whether Jew or Gentile, and in showing hospitality.
 
            As we think about all of these various commands of Scripture together, one of the things we need to hear with great clarity is that the exhortations are to be carried-out without discrimination.  Various special interest groups within the church are not to simply lobby for their own needs, wants, and preferences.  There is to be a concern for the entirety of God’s people, whether we understand them well, or not.  This has profound implications for us, not only within our own local churches, but within the church universal.  Thinking deeply about such matters, and translating them into action, is a worthy cause for every believer and church.
 

 

            Loving God, you came not to only to save me and people like me, but to deliver all kinds of people from the power of sin.  Enable me to be genuine in my love for all people, no matter from what background.  May love be the glue that holds all believers in Jesus together.  Amen.

The Source of Conflict

 
 
A reality of the human experience is the ubiquitous presence of conflicts, quarrels, infighting, and animosities.  Although we might readily identify such situations at work, amongst extended family, or even while out shopping, the presence of conflict also exists within the church.  Every New Testament epistle we have was written to address some set of problems or circumstances which contributed to a breakdown in church fellowship.  In the epistle of James, we get a straightforward question asked of us:  “What causes fights and quarrels among you?”  The Apostle James did not get caught up in the presenting symptoms of verbal battles and animosities.  He went to the heart of the trouble (James 4:1-3). 
 
James said that the root of trouble is our desires that battle within us.  The word for “desire” that he used is the word from which we get our English word “hedonism.”  Hedonism is the belief and practice that pleasure is the chief good in life.  It is a consuming passion to satisfy personal wants, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to obtain those wants.  The early church was fighting because of their hedonistic practices.  Certain people wanted what they wanted and they would do whatever it took to get it.
 
            Selfish hedonistic pleasure-seeking is the disease that creates infighting and trouble.  In February 2009, a 27-year-old woman from Fort Pierce, Florida, walked into a McDonald’s restaurant and ordered a 10-piece McNuggets meal. The person behind the counter took the order and received payment. The McDonald’s employee then discovered that they were out of those bite-sized, warm, tasty McNuggets. The employee told the customer that the restaurant had run out of McNuggets, and she would have to get something else from the menu. The customer asked for her money back. The employee said all sales are final, and she could have a larger priced item from the menu if she wanted.  The customer got angry. She wanted McNuggets—not a Big Mac, not a McRib, not a Quarter Pounder. She hedonistically desired her McNuggets and, so, this was clearly an emergency, and she knew what to do in an emergency: she took out her cell phone and called 911. Apparently the 911 workers didn’t take her seriously because the McNuggets-loving woman called 911 three times to get help!  She never got her McNuggets that night, but she did later get a ticket from police for misusing 911.
 
Maybe McNuggets are not a weak point for you.  But something is, and a hedonistic pursuit of that thing can twist our perspective and skew our judgment. It can grow like a cancer in the Body of Christ.  It can make small things big and big things small. Will we do anything it takes to gain satisfaction?  A passage in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters has the Senior Devil giving his understudy, Wormwood, some advice:  “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God’s] ground.  I know we have won many a soul through pleasure.  All the same, it is God’s invention, not ours.  He made the desires; all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one.  All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced and get them to go after them in ways in which He has forbidden.  An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.”
 
James gave an alternative to no-holds-bar pursuit of hedonism.  He said that you do not have because you do not ask God.  And even then, if you still hold onto the hedonistic stance through prayer, you will not get what you ask for because you ask with wrong motives.  Prayer that is nothing more than cozying up to the world is simply spiritual adultery; it is talking to God, but having a spiritual mistress on the side to meet the needs that God does not seem to care about.
 

 

So, then, it must always be borne in mind that it is terribly easy to wander from the truth and go the way of indulging our hedonistic pleasures – even in the church.  Sometimes we need a reality check because God cares just as much about why we do what we do, and how we go about it, as he does the actual thing.  When we call people back to their senses and bring them back to godly well-ordered desires, remember this:  we save them from a multitude of sins.

Taking Sides?

 
 
            I have purposely avoided writing about the SCOTUS decision concerning same-sex marriage.  One reason is that it seems everybody and their brother has already written about it.  There are already many good, as well as just plain crazy blog posts and articles about it.  But the biggest reason I have steered clear of joining in the chorus of voices is that I have not wanted to have a label put on me of either pro or against, being pressed and mobilized for war against “the other.”
 
            We live in such a polarized political and religious climate that it seems all people want to know is what side you are on, as if reducing a group of people to a position is even healthy or reasonable, not to mention biblical. There is a lot of information and even more misinformation floating around concerning the implications for church ministry about political and judicial decisions that I am not even going to begin tackling it.  Instead, I am going to mention a different angle:  this incessant and constant need for war.  No, I am not talking about physical wars between nations.  I am talking about this continual impulse among churches and Christians to always be fighting about something.
 
            We have a culture war, worship wars, battles for the Bible, us versus them, taking sides.  It is as if the aisle down the middle of the church building was meant to perpetually divide Christians over issues.  Here in the United States, the fundamentalist/modernist controversy of one-hundred years ago solidified a strain of Christians who think it their duty and responsibility to always be fighting.  It is as if the Scopes Monkey Trial were still in session, with Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan still alive and contending for the hearts and minds of American Christians.  It is no wonder that hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers were written and composed in an era that was defined by churches demonizing one another as either liberal or conservative.
 
            Not much has changed.  We might live at the speed of light when it comes to innovations in technology and changes in philosophy, but we are still fighting the same old battles, believing that we must take sides.  But if we are going to stand up for something, let us contend for the faith and uphold the inherent image of God in all people in the way of mercy, purity, and peace-making (Matthew 5:7-9).  The manner and disposition of how churches and Christians address issues is not to be a war with winners and losers, with people who get their way and those who do not.
 
            When Timothy had to engage the culture and the church, the Apostle Paul gave him this advice: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.  Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly” (2 Timothy 2:15-16).  Timothy did not have a right to be obnoxious, spew angry vitriol, or develop a persecution complex; he had a responsibility to carefully, patiently, and graciously teach the Word of God and live the way of life he learned from his mentor Paul.
 

 

            War only detracts from what God wants to do in the way he wants it done.  There is an entire culture, society, and world in desperate need of the good news of forgiveness in Jesus Christ, and not the bad news that they are the wrong side of the culture war and need to adopt a set of either conservative principles or liberal agendas.  Instead, let us as churches and Christians proclaim the gospel of Jesus with tender-hearted compassion and with wise words and loving actions that are consistent with being people redeemed from the need to war over everything we don’t like.  God is Sovereign, and he is perfectly capable of asserting his own lordship over creation, the nations, and the church.  It is not our job to do it for him. 

How to Handle Opposing Views

 
 
There are as many opinions, convictions, and beliefs as there are people.  Whether it is at the workplace, in the family, or in the family of God, the church, the differences among us are legion.  In New Testament times, Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus were very different from one another, and did not understand each other.  
 
Even though the Jewish Christians had come to embrace Jesus, they did not abandon their two-thousand year history of being with God.  They still held to their food laws and special days.  The Jewish believers thought the Gentiles should be like them, and they wanted the Gentiles to begin holding to the same ritualistic behavior that they had done for centuries.  The Gentiles did not comply.  So, the Jewish believers passed judgment on them and condemned them for the lack of sensitivity to the things of God (Romans 14:1-12).
 
On the other hand, the Gentile believers felt no reason to have such rules and regulations concerning their Christian lives, and they ate what they pleased and saw no need to hold to special Jewish days.  They could not understand why the Jewish Christians were so stuck in their traditions, and so the Gentiles looked down on the Jews as hopelessly misguided.  It was a potentially explosive situation.
 
It may not be the first-century, but the church has struggled with this teaching for its long two-thousand year history.  In fact, every church I have served has had their particular issues of “disputable matters” that they felt so strongly about that it crowded Jesus out of the center.  In my first pastorate, education was the big issue.  Some believed in Christian schools as the only real way to educate their kids.  Some felt that home-schooling was the only way to go because of the rottenness of the culture.  Others thought that public education needed the light of Christians participating and sent their kids to the local schools.  The problem was that each group sincerely believed they were right and everyone else was wrong.  It was a potentially explosive situation.
 
            In another church I served, there were hard feelings about the place of men and women in the church who had been divorced and remarried.  In yet another church, the issue was about whether church members could drink alcohol or not.  And yet another church’s issue dealt with how we dress and what our attire is at church.  I still remember vividly one lady in that church talking with a woman who had just two weeks before given her life to Christ out of a life of prostitution.  The woman was wearing jeans and a t-shirt.  The church lady was giving her a lecture about how she should be dressing up for Jesus.  And the whole time I am thinking to myself:  “Lady, I’m not sure you are going to like the woman’s idea of dressing up for Jesus….”
 
Whenever we want to place “disputable matters” on people’s must-do list, then there will be trouble. 
 
What is more, we will judge others who do not do as we do because we have the mistaken notion that our way of doing things is equal to the death and resurrection of Christ, as if not doing it our way will destroy the church.
 
 Is being right so important that we judge and condemn others who disagree with us?  
 
Here’s the deal:  we do not need to necessarily change our views on disputable matters; but we do need to change our attitude and our behavior toward those we disagree with.   
 
            For the Apostle Paul, the issues that divide Christians are very important, not because he championed one over the other, but because the church’s identitywas at stake.  For Paul, the really important question was this: 
 
Will the church be, at its center and core, a community of redeemed persons by the grace of God who center all their lives in the person and work of Jesus, or will the church be a community of opinionated individuals and groups all jockeying for power to have their way on how they think things should go?
 
            We need to use our freedom responsibly through basic human civility.  In a nation where we feel free to say whatever we want, we do.  In doing so, we elevate self-expression and our opinions over self-control and the mission of the church.  The need we have is for a “generous spaciousness” which allows room for us to discuss issues and disputable matters in an atmosphere of generosity, hospitality, and acceptance – seeking to first listen and understand before responding.  Our goal as Christians and followers of Jesus is not to win an argument or have our way; our goal is to uphold Jesus as Lord of everything and maintain our center in him, and him alone.  It is on this basis that we will be held accountable by God.  So, let us live wisely and well, knowing and pursuing Jesus with all heart, soul, mind, and strength.
 

 

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (Romans 15:7).

Church Conflict

 

 
 
            Conflict in inevitable.  Put a bunch of sinners together in one place (like in a church building), add a few grumpy old people and not a few know-it-alls and sit back and watch the fireworks happen.  I think every church is about one or two good fights away from being non-existent.  It’s a miracle that more congregations don’t call it quits every year, especially after their annual congregational meetings!  I myself have a long resume of handling ornery folks, family squabbles, and cantankerous curmudgeons that could make your head swim – or just get you down right angry.
 
            When we peek into the bible, the Apostle James is blunt about where the heart of conflict comes:  What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?  You want something but don’t get it.  You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want.  You quarrel and fight.  You do not have, because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. 
 
            All people have things they want and desire.  When those desires go unmet it can begin to be a burr in our saddle that leads to a lack of satisfaction.  The focus then becomes not my own heart but another person or people that are standing in the way of my desire.  Within the church we have expectations, whether they are reasonable or not.  If those expectations are not fulfilled, we ourselves feel unfulfilled.  Someone has to pay.  Thus, passive-aggressive behavior, sins of the tongue, and bitterness begin to consume us.
 
            Let me entertain a question:  Are your desires and expectations so important to you that they have become your idols?  In other words, is your happiness dependent upon what another person does or does not do?  If so, you have crossed over into that arena of idolatry and conflict is not far behind.  In his fine book on conflict, The Peacemaker, Ken Sande describes the progression of an idol.  Conflict, he says, begins with some kind of desire, and if it is unmet, moves to being a demand.  Our idolatrous demands usually lead to judging other people.  After all, if you really care about me you will meet my desires.  Finally, the progression ends in punishment, typically by simply withdrawing from a relationship with the intent of hurting another.
 
            The only legitimate and biblical answer to all this crud is grace.  Finding our true and lasting satisfaction in God alone is the only way to deal with the idols that we hanker to bow down to.  John Piper has said that “sin is what you do when you are not fully satisfied in God.”  Returning to the foot of the cross and receiving the grace of God’s forgiveness helps us to not only experience personal contentment, but frees us to give grace to the people for whom we think stand in the way of how we think things ought to be done.
 
            So, before we point the finger at another person let’s first take a good look at our own hearts.  
Before we jump to interpreting and misinterpreting another’s motives, let’s examine what is going on with our own desires.  A good place to start is looking in the mirror.  Maybe today is the day that you need to leave your religious offering on the altar and go reconcile with that person you have a problem with.  Or perhaps it has been too long since you cracked open your bible, and you need to be reminded again that it is the person who looks intently into God’s Word that experiences freedom and is blessed in what they do.
 
            May the peace of Christ overshadow us all as we seek grace in all things.