The Church Playground

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At first glance, when you drive by any school at recess the whole thing looks like a bunch of random kids descending into chaos bordered by a fence to keep it all from spilling out into the streets.  But there’s much more going on than the quick peek tells you.  There are all kinds of petty little groups that make up the playground.  It kind of reminds me of church.

The Presbyterians head outside into recess and can’t believe the lack of order going on.  They try their darnedest to get some organized games happening, but the Baptists aren’t having it.  They’re too far separated from all the other kids to care about playing with any of them.  Besides, nobody is playing by the rules and if there’s one thing Baptists can’t stand is a lack of legalism.  The Pentecostals all seem completely oblivious to anything that’s going on.  They’re just having too much fun going as fast as they can on the merry-go-round to see that the Catholics are totally aghast at their lack of guilt feelings over hogging the equipment.

The little group of Episcopalians are lost in some funky inferiority complex and retreat into their liturgical games while the popular kids, the Non-denominational group, break out singing Chris Tomlin songs so loud that the Methodists go scrambling for their Book of Discipline to see what to do about it.  The Lutheran kids are so busy fighting each other about who is the true Lutheran that they can’t hear the non-denom kids anyway.  And the Reformed are those annoying kids who keep acting like the teacher instead of just enjoying being a kid on the playground.

There are two things about the church playground: the groups of kids don’t play very well together; and, the entire playground thinks it’s the only one in town.  They don’t realize there are other playgrounds with all kinds of other kids.

We live in a big world.  How we interact with that world is going to determine if the school gets shut down, with no more playground.  After all, what parent wants to send their kid to the school where nobody gets along with each other?

What’s more, how we interact with each other on the playground of Christianity says a lot about our view of God.  For far too many groups, God is the high and lofty Principal who’s only seen when something goes wrong, not realizing that he is really the encouraging teacher who’s daily in the classroom offering kind words and self-sacrifice that changes your life forever.

Instead of lamenting that Christendom has vanished from its grand position in society and that the moral fabric of our country is down the toilet along with the janitor’s cigarette butt, maybe we should stop giving the other kid a swirlie long enough to see that our bullying and belligerent ways are anything but the words and ways of Jesus to a world who needs spiritual care, not spiritual abuse.

I’d suggest we use our detention time to think about what we’ve done.

Remove the Negative Influence

 
 
“I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way, contrary to the teaching you have learned.  Keep away from them” (Romans 16:17, NIV).
 
            Almost every word used in this Bible verse is in the strongest possible language — 
–“Urge” has the force of “beg” (as in the blind man crying out and begging Jesus to heal him). 
–“Watch out” has the meaning of marking someone as if to keep constant eyes on them.
–“Divisions” are human created arbitrary lines (described in Galatians 5 as an act of the sinful nature). 
–“Obstacles” comes from a word in which we get our English word “scandal” (which is caused by judging another person, as in Romans 14:13 – “Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another.  Instead, make up your mind not to put any “scandal” in your brother’s way”). 
–“Keep away” is not simply a passive avoidance, but literally means to fling yourself away from a danger (think: Joseph running out of Potiphar’s house and away from the seductress wife).
 
            Here is my own translation:  I beg you, brothers and sisters, to identify people in the church who create man-made divisions and offensive scandals as if they were as important as the gospel.  Get yourselves as far away from such persons as you can.
 
            If this was a professional wrestling match, the Apostle Paul would be in a cage match against the Jewish Christian Bruiser who has been talking trash for months about the Gentile Christians.  In the church at Rome, there were actually three primary groups of people: 
1)      Gentile Christians who had come to faith in Christ from their pagan backgrounds and were delighting in their newfound change of life;
2)      Jewish Christians who had come to faith in Christ and liked their old religious traditions, but were willing to change in light of the church being established by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost;
3)      Jewish Christians who had made professions of faith in Christ, and not only wanted to keep their centuries old traditions of Judaism, but valued them to such a degree that they would preserve them at all costs.  In other words, their agenda was to make Jews of the Gentiles and they would do anything to make sure that happened, including using every ounce of influence, power, manipulation, and negativity they could to hold on to those traditions.
 
            Paul, as a Jewish Christian himself, trained in the ways of Judaism from his youth, clearly understood what they wanted and what was at stake.  Paul’s insistence throughout the book of Romans is to argue for the priority of the gospel, the good news that sinners find forgiveness based in grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ, apart from circumcision, Sabbath observance, Jewish liturgical traditions, feast days, and everything that went into making a good Jew a good Jew. 
 
            The Jewish Christian Bruisers felt justified in doing whatever they could to stand against a change in their traditions.  They tried to negatively influence everyone they could.  And if they could not get anywhere with Paul, they would go underground and be as subversive against him that they could.  But Paul remained consistent in all of the churches about the reality of God’s grace in Christ.
 
            Paul understood that negative people only create more negative people.  Which is why he said to Titus, after having talked to him about the priority of being justified by grace:  “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time.  After that, have nothing to do with him.  You may be sure that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).
 
            When a passion for power and tradition trumps a passion to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ, then that is a character issue.  Trying to create a surge of negativity against biblically-oriented, Spirit-directed change is demonic – and the real test of it is a constant stream of negativity that is secretive, remains in the shadows, relies on gossip and slander for its fuel, and hates being in the light.
 

 

            It takes two to tango.  Negativity cannot survive if there is no one to listen to it.  We are to stop being negative, and are to stop listening to negative people because it creates divisions and scandals.  If there are people who chronically have negative speech and can never seem to say anything good about someone or something in particular in the church, Paul says to stay away from them.  Have nothing to do with them.  Do not participate in the divisive speech.  Refuse it.  Rebuke it.  Redirect it.  Uninstall the negativity because God does not want us participating with evil.

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).

Christian Unity

 
 
The rallying cry of the church is the gospel, living and proclaiming the message of Christ’s cross instead of grouping ourselves around voices that cater to our personal preferences.  That is the message the Apostle Paul made clear to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 1:10-18).
 
            There are two pledges we need to make to God and to each other in the church of Jesus Christ:  1) I will be a unifying church member; and, 2) I will not let my church be about my preferences and desires.
 
            God desires for Christians to get along and to work together, and that cannot happen if all we want is what we want.  Jesus himself said to his disciples and to us as his followers:  “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).  Unity in the church and communicating the message of forgiveness and love through the cross can only happen when people seek to be gracious to each other so that a watching world can see the validity of Christ within us.
 
            Christians all have a responsibility as followers of Jesus to be a source of unity and not division.  Paul said to the church at Ephesus that all believers are to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).  Unity does not just happen; it must be pursued and be a common value of everyone in the church.  Paul said to the church of the Colossians that the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience are to be tied together with love, which binds them all together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:14).  To the church of the Philippians, Paul was equally straightforward by saying that we are to be like-minded, having the same love for each other that we have for Jesus, being united in spirit and purpose.  We are to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility we are to consider others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:1-4).  Unity is common theme in all of Paul’s letters, and he considered it as a top priority that all the churches uphold the cross of Christ and sacrifice anything less in order to communicate God’s love in Christ to others.
 
            The specific problem in the Corinthian church was their allegiance to different individuals, that is, playing the game of favorite preacher and pastor and grouping around how that particular pastor teaches and does ministry.  It is a classic case of church members saying to each other:  “That’s not how so and so did it!”  Following our pet preachers ends up in division because people then focus on the methodsof ministry rather than the substanceof the ministry itself:  the wondrous cross of Christ that saves us from our pettiness and transforms us into forgiven people who spread forgiveness and healing through cauterizing wounds and being peacemakers.  In other words, our primary loyalty is to be Christ and the message of the cross, and not to particular personalities or programs.
 
            The sin of the Corinthians was misguided loyalties, and the answer to wrong priorities is to have Jesus and the cross our central and guiding allegiance.  The Corinthian believers were emotionally tied to the pastor who baptized them and who was a significant force for good in their lives.  It is more than understandable to have a special relationship with the pastor who baptized your children, or taught you, or was there for you when you needed it most.  What is not okay, however, is following that pastor as if he/she is Jesus, and insisting that church be done the way my favorite preacher does it.  Christian unity means to agree with one another about the good news of Christ, and let everything else be a matter of lesser importance.  Can you live with that?
 
            Here is a sobering reality that has been true throughout church history and is no different today:  not everyone in every church is there to follow Jesus – and as long as that is a reality, there will be schisms, factions, cliques, divisions and disunity because the visible church always has a mix of righteous and unrighteous people within it concerned more about power politics than humbly following Jesus and spreading his message of forgiveness. 
 
Yet, also a reality is that sin in the church has been taken seriously throughout history as something that destroys its unity and purity.  It has only been in the last three-hundred years that sin has been viewed as something that is only personal, and a matter between the individual and God.  In the early churches believers desiring to repent of their sins would typically spend a period of time fasting and praying and then appear before the entire church to make a public confession.  I am not necessarily endorsing that method for us, but the message remains essential:  to agree with one another and make peace by stopping the bleeding and bringing healing to the community of the redeemed.  The power of Christianity is in the blood of Jesus to forgive sins, and not in trying to ensure things get done the way we think they ought to get done in the way our favorite people do them.
 
            Thom Rainer is a nationally recognized church researcher.  In a survey of churches in membership decline, he found several common dominant behavior patterns that emerged.  Here are a few of them, and they all bring some form of disunity:
  1. Worship wars.  One or more factions in the church want the music just the way they like it.  Any deviation is met with anger and complaining.
  2. Viewing the preservation and protection of the church building as one of the highest priorities, above the church members’ spiritual growth and maturity.
  3. Particular programs are held in such high regard that, even if they are not effective, the church keeps doing them.
  4. Attitudes of entitlement.  A sense of deserving special treatment and attention.
  5. Greater concern about change than the gospel.  Rainer says, “Almost any noticeable changes in the church evoke the ire of many; but those same passions are not evident about participating in the work of the gospel to change lives.”
  6. Evangelistic apathy.  Very few members share their faith on a regular basis; they are more concerned for their own needs, and not so much of those outside the church.
One of the jobs of church leadership is to make sure that there is unity around the things that are most important to God.  Christian unity is not built on trying to keep everyone happy; it is built on the good news of Jesus Christ.  Paul said that the cross of Christ is more important than anything else, no matter how important we think that “something” may be.  Christians must unite around the gospel.  All the practical and important stuff of human life must be shaped and governed by the cross of Jesus, because that is where God’s power saved the world and where true hope lies for everyone. 
 

 

            Paul did not demand that all Christians be identical.  Instead, he invited us to identify with Jesus Christ first and last.  We all need God’s will done in our lives more than we need our preferences realized.  If that seems foolish, then let’s embrace foolishness because the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but the power of God for those who believe.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Theology That Makes a Difference

 
 
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Corinthians 13:14).  Every Sunday I have the privilege of proclaiming this wonderful benediction at the end of the worship service.  As believers in Jesus Christ, we do not serve a generic God, but acknowledge that all three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit, exist together eternally.  This is important because our identity as Christians is wrapped up in God as the Trinity.  Our worship, our life together, and our mission are based in the understanding of the triune God.
 
In the Apostle Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthian church, his focus was on addressing the continuing problem of special interest groups creating divisions and factions within the church.  He wanted the congregation to know that such behavior is inconsistent with who God is.  Paul zeroed in on the fact that God in Christ has brought reconciliation not only between God and people, but between one another in the church.  So, Paul’s point in ending his epistle with this benediction was to promote reconciliation and unity within the church.  Grace, love, and fellowship are available to God’s people.  Just as there is unity and harmony within God himself, there is to be unity and harmony in the church.  Unity will be a practical reality only when the church receives grace, love, and fellowship and then chooses to give it to one another.
 
Our triune God wants us to not just know what these blessings are, but to experience them.  A Trinitarian understanding of God is not simply a doctrine to believe, but a powerful reality to be lived!  The virtues of grace, love, and fellowship are blessings to be received and blessings that are to be liberally thrown back out to people.  In this way God is glorified through his people.
 
God has created us in his image.  That image is the image of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The way our triune God relates within himself in perfect love and fellowship is to be reflected in our own human relationships with one another.
 
Here are some implications of the Trinity for our relationships in the church and the world:
  1. We will regard everyone in the church as an equal.  People are people, period.  When we start referring to them other than that name of “person” we distance ourselves from them, i.e. “someone should do something” is the ultimate act of misnaming and removal from being active in people’s lives.
  2. We will have concern for other churches besides our own local church or ministry.  We will share our resources and help each other accomplish the mission of God.  Grace, love, and fellowship ought to happen between churches and ministries who share the common theological doctrine of the Trinity.
  3. We will treat each family member as important, i.e. avoiding terms like “black sheep” or being so upset that one doesn’t talk for years with a family member.  The same goes for the family of God.  God in Christ has reconciled us with the Spirit, helping us to make it a reality in our human relationships so that we really have no excuse to hold a grudge.
  4. We will treat all human beings with respect, dignity, and value, rather than with suspicion or for what they can do for us.

 

The unselfish love of the members of the Trinity spills over into love for God’s creatures, and, so, this received love ought to overflow into the lives of others.  This is precisely how God is glorified.  This is to be what we celebrate, and what we practice.  This is theology that makes a difference.  Soli Deo Gloria!