An Institution,or a Body? Conformed, or Transformed?

June 23, 2019

References:  Rom.12 and I Cor.12:12-27

Solomon raised a number of excellent and very significant questions in his recent message, regarding the function of a faithful brotherhood in our “modern”, multi-cultural society, all of which I would encourage us to explore carefully.  I hope you all kept the list of concerns that he provided, and that we can take a serious look at some of them together.   Far too often, it is easy to say “That is an excellent point/challenge”, and then go off and forget it in favor of “business as usual”.  That does not enhance our faithfulness.
Today, however, I intend to introduce a parallel question, that is related, but from a slightly different perspective:  “Can a church even become an institution of its surrounding society, and still faithfully represent Jesus?”  This question needs to be raised very deliberately and carefully by any group that intends to take faithfulness seriously and responsibly.

Such a question would not have been an issue at all in the first century church, where “Jesus is Lord” was the only “statement of faith” and where that statement alone frequently resulted in a death sentence.  “Institutionalization” is not an option for a persecuted minority.  It can only emerge from a position of power, or with the permission of people who wield power.

Jesus did not come to start – or to reform – a “religion”, or to establish an institution or a corporation.
Consequently, he never addressed the subject, except to rebuke James and John for their jockeying for positions of honor in his “cabinet” or “Board of Directors”.  “You know as well as I do, that is how the rulers of this world operate,” he explained, “BUT IT SHALL NOT BE THAT WAY AMONG YOU ALL!!!”  Jesus was intending to create something completely DIFFERENT!!

What constitutes the establishment of an institution”’?  It assumes at least four things, each of which is diametrically opposed to Jesus’ positions and principles.  Many, if not most institutions assume:
1. Power in or over (at least a segment of) society at large
2. The ability to make rules or demands of people who have NOT deliberately chosen to be subject to its control
3. Some external and easily defined means of judging who is “in” and who is “out”
4. Somebody (a person or group) “in charge”, to keep things running smoothly and under control.

This last necessitates the creation of a hierarchy, or chain of command:
1. To keep people in line, and to be sure that authority is properly delegated and exercised
2. To define and defend the status quo, and impose it upon everyone
3. To exclude or penalize offenders
4. To direct and regulate both offensive and defensive activity.

A primary concern of any corporate or institutional structure is its own survival and dominance.  This is the polar opposite of Jesus’ concern. There is no record anywhere of his being concerned about survival! You don’t need that if you are confident of resurrection!  The primary concern of his followers, likewise, was not survival, but faithfully to represent him.  Most of them did not survive very long.

The success/survival of an institution depends heavily upon the manipulative skills of its masters, in squashing any opposition, regulating the membership, and maintaining their own position of dominance.  Only from a majority position – a stance at the top of the food chain – is an institution capable of forcibly imposing its standards, not only upon its own adherents, but often upon society at large.  Only from a place of power can a group enforce by legislation what it may have simply failed to teach.  There is no place for any of this, or for coercion of any kind, in the Kingdom of Jesus!

Institutional attempts to define, analyze, and housebreak some sort of “Supreme Being”,  created in the image – or the imagination – of the hierarchy whose power depends upon it , are an exercise in futility, for one simple reason (besides the nonsensical assumption that such a “being” would be “supreme” at all, if it were so subject to the whims of its creators!).  That reason is simply that JESUS IS ALIVE!!!  He cannot be reduced to categories, activities, or principles invented by his own creatures!  He himself is superior to everyone and everything!  It is in Jesus that “all things exist/hold together!”(Col.1:16-17)  The most cursory perusal of the New Testament gospel accounts makes it obvious that Jesus had not the remotest intention of creating an institution! Instead, he chose to create a Body, which he carefully designed to continue the purpose of his own Incarnation – a word that literally derives from “becoming flesh” —  to reveal God’s true being and purpose to the world, by corporately and deliberately demonstrating his attitudes and his practice of life-giving, selfless service. If I may quote Brother Solomon again, “Jesus did not come to tell us what to think, but to show us how to live!  The subsequent functioning of the whole brotherhood, together, as the Body of Christ, is a major theme throughout all of the New Testament writings.

Most germane to the impossibility of an institutional option is Jesus’ explicit prohibition of any attempt to pattern the operation of the Kingdom after the methods and structures of the world, and its obsession with being “in charge”,  needing to regulate the opinions, behavior, or loyalty of its subjects, even though such methods may sometimes appear temporarily to be “successful”.  Paul understood that difference, writing in Romans 12 an eloquent description of the function of the Body, to folks who, living in the seat of the Empire, would have been well (and often painfully) acquainted  with the vagaries of the institutional system under which they suffered.  A Kingdom – a Body—whose only Head was the Lord in whose loving care they had learned to trust, was a prospect to be embraced with great delight and hope!

The value – indeed, the necessity—of the contribution of every faithful member  of the Body (even more specifically outlined in I Corinthians 12-14) was as unfamiliar in the first century as it is in the twenty-first!   This is a culture that does not exist among “the nations of the world” – then or now!  The culture of the Kingdom of Jesus involves a radical difference from ANY culture in the rest of the world – the primary reason being that EVERYONE IS ESSENTIAL!  If you don’t remember anything else that I say today, remember this:  YOU ARE IMPORTANT.  YOU ARE NECESSARY.  YOU ARE NEEDED, if the Body is to function as it should.   But what sort of culture is being advocated and cultivated, when so-called “church leadership” is carefully trained to function as CEO’s, CFO’s, and/or psychological counselors, whose purpose is to maintain, entertain, and regulate the activity of everyone in their assigned institution, rather than as enablers whose responsibility is to encourage and facilitate the unique and necessary contribution to the Body of every faithful person?  The enabler is a rare bird indeed.

I know a young man, deeply committed to the Lord and his ways, who was desirous of serving his people through a health initiative of a denomination to which he had related.  The leader of the project had known and appreciated his skill and faithfulness for a period of years, and requested that he be appointed for service.  That request, however, was denied by their denominational hierarchy, despite his excellent qualifications, simply because of the candidate’s conscientious refusal to sign a detailed “statement of doctrine” that included a number of assertions which, although amply footnoted with carefully arranged and edited “chapter and verse” references, went far beyond any ideas that could responsibly be derived from the New Testament.

Now, it is perfectly reasonable that enlistees in the service of the King be unequivocally committed to him personally, and to the way of life that he advocated and demonstrated.  But if you have carefully consulted Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament, it should be clear that Jesus on no occasion raised any theological or philosophical questions with those whom he called.  He asked only for personal loyalty and obedience.  There is no record of Jesus saying, “Peter, I’d like to borrow your boat, please …but by the way, first you need to sign this statement….”

In fact, most of the issues so adamantly insisted upon by avid “doctrine police” – and yes, by officials in the conference with which your group identifies! – deal with subjects which Jesus either chose not to address at all, or tackled head-on to correct popular misconceptions!  Here is a short list of a few of the “required beliefs” that would peremptorily exclude the Lord Jesus himself from the privilege of service or fellowship!  “Let’s start from the very beginning!”

Please note that I am NOT focusing on the truth or falsehood of any of these ideas:  I am only asking, “What did JESUS say?”

  1. Creation. Neither the Old Testament nor the New (except for editorial footnotes added in the 19th and 20th centuries!) makes ANY statement regarding the “when, where, or how” of creation.  Everyone assumed that “God did it”.  Paul, in Eph.3:9 and Col.1:16, credits Jesus himself as the creator. Jesus himself uses the word only three times:  the discussion in Mt.19:4 and Mk.10:6 regarding the creation of male and female, and Mark’s version of the destruction of Jerusalem.   In the epistles, much more attention is given to the NEW creation, which begins with one’s identification with Christ, and HIS purposes. They didn’t reference the “old” creation at all!
  2. The “inerrancy” of both the Old and New Testaments. Repeatedly, Jesus made serious corrections to the OT – “You have heard it said…But I say unto you…” He consistently referred to “your Law”, and not once to “God’s Law”.  There are six such corrections in Matthew 5 alone, and many more scattered through the Gospel accounts. I would challenge you to count them!  Do you really want to say “Sorry, Jesus – our “doctrine” doesn’t allow that”?
  3. “Original sin”. This extremely prevalent idea is mentioned only once in the entire New Testament – and that was not by Jesus, but by his Pharisee opponents (Jn.6), as they scornfully rebuked a man Jesus had healed as having been “born in sin”. Even Paul, the hero of the “doctrine crowd”, spends the two first whole chapters of Romans, (the letter which folks most love to “cherry-pick” for “proof-texts”) establishing that the depraved condition of people was their deliberate choice, not their original condition.  Jesus himself never mentioned the issue at all.
  4. “Virgin birth”. This one at least is true, being asserted in both Matthew and Luke’s accounts, but Jesus himself never commented at all upon the circumstances of his birth. He repeatedly referred to God as “Father”, but plainly was not overly concerned with his own pedigree. None of the epistles mention it at all.
  5. “Penal Substitutionary Atonement”. This subject was never mentioned by Jesus. When repeatedly challenged on his right to forgive, neither he nor his challengers ever said anything about his death.  It was his identity with God that was – and is — the source of his authority to forgive, and also of the officials’ fury at him.
  6. The “fate” of nonbelievers. At the rare times when Jesus spoke of “eternal consequences” (Mt.25, Jn.5), they were predicated upon the behavior of the people in question. There is no reference to their theological opinions.
    The erroneous translation of the word “pistis“as “faith” – or “pisteuo” as “believe”, has spawned a lot of mistaken creativity.  A more accurate translation would be “faithfulness/loyalty/or trust”.
  7. Jesus’ promised return. Two things –and only two – are certain. 1. He IS coming, to assume his rightful role as King of Kings and Lord of Lords! And  2.  By his own testimony no one knows when that will happen.  Just as significant, and maybe more so, is his explicit warning NOT to follow people who pretend to know the details!

And those are just a few of the most obvious discrepancies.  I stopped at 7 because some folks get all excited about “numbers”, another thing that JESUS NEVER ADDRESSED.  But in light of that record, would the Lord Jesus himself be accepted as a “credentialed leader” in your church?  Very probably not!

Now, please don’t misunderstand.  This is not a call for a totally unregulated situation where everyone is blithely “doing his own thing” and “anything goes”. That would be just as destructive to a true Body as is the dominance of a single individual or group being “in charge”.  Notice the plethora of functions which Paul lists as “gifts” to the church in Romans, Corinthians, and Ephesians.  Not only do these NOT describe a controlling hierarchy, but EVERY SINGLE ASSIGNMENT is mentioned in the PLURAL.  It is only as “we all interact truthfully in love” (Eph.4:15) that we are enabled to “grow up” to perform our intended functions in /as the Body of Christ.

Just as the “institutional model” is dependent upon assumptions, so is the model of the Body.  A few very different principles include:
1. A voluntary association. The Body consists only of those who have freely chosen to participate.  It does NOT impose regulations upon society at large.
2. A deliberate, personal commitment, not to a list of propositions, but to a common purpose, faithfully to represent the presence of the Lord Jesus in the world.
3. A common standard against which to measure both personal and corporate goals, behavior and attitudes: those described and advocated by Jesus and his followers and recorded in the New Testament.
4. An overtly acknowledged willingness to be taught, corrected, and guided by the rest of the Body, with the New Testament as the only standard.

The operation of a Body is not efficient.  In fact, it can be downright messy.  Just look at a few of the things that had to be dealt with in I Cor.6, I Thes.4, II Thes.2, Heb.6, and many others, where moral, cultural, self-centered, or other issues had to be addressed and corrected.  An institution could cope with that sort of thing much more efficiently.  Just eliminate the offending parties.  “My way or the highway”.

But a Body does not amputate a member just because it is injured, or even one that causes an injury.  Only as a very last resort, after all else fails, must a person who refuses correction be excluded.    No institution can operate like that.  Its dominion and success, not to mention the prestige of its “masters”, are at stake!  Institutions depend on either clever human ingenuity and persuasiveness, or brute force and power.  The Body of Christ depends on nothing but the faithfulness of its members – and the power of God.

The life of the Lord Jesus will not flow through a Body whose fragments are all rushing off in different directions, taking their cues from some outstanding “leader” other than its rightful Head.  Neither will his life flow through a Body, most of whose parts are atrophied from disuse.

Until our fellowships are living examples of even former enemies being reconciled together by the resurrection power of God into a loving family

Until every brother and sister is enriched and encouraged by the ministry of every other brother and sister

Until we allow ourselves to be joined together, built together, grow together, into one Body, enhanced by every one of its diverse parts,
We will not, and can not, manifest the life of our Lord to the world that so desperately needs his presence.
We can never do this perfectly – but that is a sad and lame excuse for not trying.

It is long past time for faithful followers of the Lord Jesus to quit sniping at each other over their favorite theological constructs, and get about the business of accurately representing him to a world that so badly needs his touch.


Who is in charge in your church?

March 10, 2019

(A message delivered at our fellowship on March 10, 2019)

Through all the centuries since the first, groups that self-identify as “Christian” have developed many and varied ways of expressing  that identity.  For some, this has resulted in complex, multi-layered hierarchical systems to which all must submit.  For others, assent to detailed “statements of doctrine” or “confessions of faith” are required of adherents.  Some require a highly defined and strictly enforced code of conduct, life-style, or appearance.  And still others pride themselves on “not having rules”.  They do – often very rigid ones:  it’s just harder for an outsider to figure them out!  Virtually all of these are enforced by one or more individuals who are designated by various titles as being “in charge.”

What a contrast with the clear and simple instructions of the Lord whom they claim to represent, recorded in Mt.23:8-10:  “You all are not to be called “rabbi”, for you all have one Teacher and you are all brothers.  And don’t call anyone on earth “Father”, for your one Father is in heaven.  And don’t be called “leaders”, because your one Leader is the Christ!”  Kathegetes, “professor, guide, teacher”, is used only here, in the entire New Testament.  The King James translators called it “master” – which is usually their choice for 7 other, different Greek words, usually referring to a teacher, a supervisor, or the owner of a slave.

This instruction can be confusing to people who are used to competing for positions of power and influence.  We were once privileged to be part of a small group of followers of Jesus who took that admonition of his, very seriously.  It could be quite comical when each of us took a turn at the widely shared task of answering the phone.  More than once a caller would demand, “Please connect me with your minister (or pastor, or whatever his choice of “boss” titles happened to be)”.  It was necessary to ask, “Which one?”, because everyone had a different function!  The caller usually replied irritably, “I want to talk to the man who is in charge!”   “Well, that depends on your concern:  we all share different responsibilities!”  Sadly, the caller would occasionally slam down the phone, rather than make his request known to a person he perceived as “ONLY” the secretary!  He might have been talking to the very person he needed!
This sort of “organization” (loosely defined), was, however, completely in harmony with the history of that group, although we never saw it observed anywhere else.  In the mid 1700’s, when the Brethren came to “Penn’s Colony” as refugees, Ben Franklin asked them for a list of their officials, and a statement of their “doctrine”, in order to register them officially as a “church”.  Politely, but adamantly, they refused, with the statement, “We subscribe to no creed but the New Testament, and acknowledge no superior but our Lord, Jesus Christ!”  I will sign that statement any day – but no other!

Is this not exactly the sort of “organization” that Paul describes in Eph.4:7-16?  As is frequently the case, most English translators have ignored the very clear fact that there are two different words in v.7 and v.8, both of which they have rendered as “gifts”.  In v.7, Paul uses the word “ charis “  — more frequently (and accurately) translated “grace”, singular in form, which is indeed given individually “to each one”.  But for the specific, plural enablements or responsibilities in the brotherhood, he uses the more specific, plural word, “domata”, “gifts”. These are given TO the brotherhood, THROUGH each person!  From that point on in the passage, everything is expressed in the plural. Particular “gifts” are assigned by Jesus, and mediated through each person, to the entire group, in order “to make everyone complete”, to “grow up”, in order that the Body may function properly!  YOU DO NOT “HAVE” A GIFT.  YOU ARE a gift, to the brotherhood to which you are committed!  And you may have to serve different functions at different times, as need arises.

It would be an excellent exercise for any/every group of the Lord’s people to work together to discern from the New Testament the proper function of each of these folks who are God’s gifts to the Body.   It would be an easy project to do as a group, simply to identify the “jobs” called for, here and elsewhere in the New Testament, and the people and the qualifications needed, by examining together each use of each word or function, in the New Testament. We would be happy to facilitate such an effort.
Here is a brief, but very incomplete summary of the functions that are needed, in any – really every – congregation – including ours!  It should be fleshed-out by careful congregational study.

  1. Apostles.
    Some of the references to apostles appear to be to the original (remaining) eleven disciples who had traveled with Jesus, but that is not an exclusive label. The literal meaning of the word refers to anyone, or anything, sent anywhere, for any reason! The verb form is used for everything from the “sending” of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, to Jesus promising to “send back” the donkey he borrowed for Palm Sunday! (Not exactly a symbol of elevated status!)  In Acts, and the epistles, the noun (personal) reference is frequently to the individuals who had initially introduced the message of Jesus to a particular group, so the fact  that they are  listed first is clearly chronological, not a matter of status.  Some of them shared a mediator role with “elders” at the Jerusalem Conference (Ac.15); others furnished support to new congregations by occasional visits, correcting errors or mediating disagreements. Apostles were usually itinerant, not identified with a single group or location, unlike the elders, with whom they frequently shared responsibility.
  2. Elders
    Elders are not mentioned in the Ephesians list, but the missionary apostles (like Timothy and Titus) were repeatedly encouraged to appoint trustworthy “elders” (always plural) in each congregation. The word “elder” (presbuter) appears in both genders. “Elders” are both male and female. Although traditional translators have often substituted “wives” for the feminine form of the word, there is no such distinction in the text. Translators have distorted the picture. The word simply means “old people”.  Elders were assigned advisory duties in each congregation, sometimes called upon to act as overseers, “shepherds” (the word that some translators changed to an “office” of “pastors,”), and teachers.
  3. Prophets
    These are also nearly always plural, although they may also “label” an individual who frequently and faithfully exercised that function, like Philip’s daughters (Ac.21:9), and Agabus (Ac.11:28 and 21:10). Their “job”, according to I Cor.14, is to “speak to people for edification, admonition, and encouragement.” They were entrusted to deliver a direct message from God for a particular situation: the relief of famine victims, warning of dangers, instructions for action, etc.
    This passage is often avoided because some people have problems with its secondary reference to the use of “tongues” – which, although worthy of serious attention, is beyond the scope of this study.  But ignoring the whole chapter because one aspect is occasionally abused, has robbed the church of a desperately needed resource.  After trying to correct what were probably genuine abuses among that particular group, Paul asserts plainly, (I Cor.14:31), “You can ALL prophesy in turn, in order that ALL may learn, and ALL may be encouraged!”   Are there any among us so mature, that we no longer need to learn and to be encouraged?
    Also overlooked is the admonition that when a prophet speaks, the rest are instructed to JUDGE whether the message is indeed from the Lord!  “Judging” is NOT a “nasty wordor a bad attitude, but a necessary safety precaution, entrusted to the whole Body of the faithful!  Prophecy is NOT a free-for-all, and judging it is NOT the job of someone designated as a “superior” or a “credentialed leader”.  Both are tasks assigned to the whole congregation of committed people.
  4. Evangelists
    You may be as surprised as I was to see that this word appears in the New Testament only three times! It is used here, and also of Timothy and Philip once each. It is a function, not a title, and refers to a “bearer of GOOD NEWS”. In the secular culture, it was used of a herald bringing news of a victory in a battle! There is absolutely NO New Testament connection to the “fire and brimstone” that carries that label in modern times.  Look it up!  Better yet, look at ALL the references to the word “gospel”!
  5. Shepherds and teachers
    These are primarily local. ALL ARE PLURAL, and all are functions of the elders.Notice that there are no “priests” on the list.  That designation belonged to the Old Covenant, not the New.  Priests, with a few exceptions, were antagonistic to Jesus and his message!  The proclamation of the Kingdom was – and IS– the responsibility of EVERY citizen!  In fact, Peter (I Pet.2:5 and 9) asserts that ALL of us who belong to Jesus comprise a “holy” and “royal” priesthood!
    The so-called “Great Commission”, Jesus’ parting instructions in Mt.28, although originally addressed to the eleven remaining disciples, have been subsequently expanded by his followers to include all the faithful – but they have been followed only PARTLY.   Jesus assigned them (us?) three tasks: to make disciples, to baptize, and to teach! Have you ever seen that fully in practice?  Check it out!  Jesus prescribed NO OFFICIAL POSITIONS as a prerequisite for ANY of his instructions! !  Why, then, do we assume that some things require “clergy” – a word that NEVER appears in the New Testament?
  6. Servants/deacons
    This word, diakonos, -e  , from which the English word “deacon” is derived, also occurs in both genders, and refers to ANY people rendering ANY kind of service to ANYONE, from preparing and serving a meal, to carrying a relief-offering to famine-stricken brethren.  New Testament references include Peter’s mother-in-law, the women who traveled with Jesus and his disciples “ministering to their needs”, the 7 appointees in Ac.6 looking out for the widows, as well as those mentioned in epistles: Timothy, Erastus, Epaphras, Steven’s household, Phoebe, Onesimus, Mary and Martha, and many others.

Every one of these categories includes far more (of both responsibilities and people!) than time allows in one session.  I would strongly encourage that we undertake a  very careful study in order to be sure that ALL OF THESE are sought, welcomed, included, and heeded in our fellowship – remembering the responsibility of the WHOLE BODY to “JUDGE”/evaluate each one’s work, to assure that we are led in faithfulness.

Please notice also that NONE OF THESE WERE “HIRED” for a job, from either inside or outside of any local group.

So who is – or ought to be – “in charge” here?
Hopefully, Jesus – through his Holy Spirit, speaking TO and THROUGH ALL OF US who are committed to carefully discerning and following his instructions!


The most neglected message of the Christmas season: “Fear not!”

December 23, 2018

This was presented to our fellowship this morning.

“Fear Not!”

The Most Neglected Message of the Season

It has long been customary, among churches that define themselves by the careful observance of “doctrines” to which their adherents are required to subscribe, to create an especially obligatory “sacred” atmosphere around certain “seasons” representing particular segments of their perceived history.  Other, less formal assemblies (who are just as concerned with being faithful) have chosen to emphasize some of these “seasons” or “feasts”, as they are called, and to minimize or ignore others.  And some, who do not enjoy – or who even take offense at – what they call “pageantry”, ignore it altogether. (Did you know, for example, that celebrating “Christmas” was illegal in Puritan New England?  They objected to the suffix, “-mas”, because it was derived from the Catholic observance of the “Mass”.)
It is difficult to find specific Scriptural instructions either for or against any of these positions, so I am not concerned this morning either to attack or to defend any of them.

The celebration of Christmas, supposedly the time of Jesus’ birth, is one of many groups’ favorites. Setting aside the strong probability that this actually happened in the spring, and not mid- winter at all, I do, however, find their choice of “words” to emphasize at this time of year quite seriously lacking.  One can easily wax eloquent about such ideas as “light, hope, faith, love, peace,” and other similarly idealistic topics – and none of these is “wrong”.  All are quite legitimate ideas to promote – at any season.

But I would prefer today to direct your attention to one of the most common admonitions, both by Jesus himself, and by the earlier “messengers”, both human and super-human, who announced his coming, but which is almost universally ignored by people who claim to represent him, and which I have never found on any list of “Advent” topics.

That message is “FEAR NOT!” – “Don’t be afraid!!!”  And is there any message that this sad world needs more than that?

Of all the imperatives in the New Testament, it may well be that this one stands in the sharpest contrast to the voices that constantly bombard our consciousness.  Economic, political, medical, social, and yes, even “religious” spokesmen, of every persuasion, assault their already apprehensive audiences with the same message:

 “Be afraid!  Be very afraid!”

Jesus, in contrast, as well as virtually all the supernatural participants in his recorded history, consistently greet despairing, worried or startled people with a reassuring, “Fear not!  DON’T be afraid!”

How have these encouraging words become so universally ignored among people who claim to represent Jesus? Indeed, the students at the “Christian” high school where Aaron taught years ago, overwhelmingly gave “fear of what would happen to me if I did not”, as their primary reason for committing themselves to the Lord!  And a fellow-teacher at that same school, who called himself an “evangelist”, questioned the validity of my own conversion when I said that I had never been “afraid of God,” or of meeting him!  This is not only tragic:  it is an exceedingly shameful misrepresentation of the One who commissioned us to share his “Good News”!  That, by the way, is the literal translation of both “evangel”(Greek) and “gospel” (an old English equivalent).

So let’s look at the New Testament!  That is still, as it always was our best source of information.

Before Jesus was even born, the message predominated:  Fear not!

Please read each of the indicated references as you come to them.

Gabriel’s message, to both Joseph (Mt.1:18-20)

and to Mary (Lk.1:26-32) began with the same admonition:  “Fear NOT!” “Don’t be afraid!”

To the elderly priest, Zachariah, in the temple, (Lk.1:9,11-13) it was the same.  This must have made a strong impression, because look, then, at that gentleman’s response (Lk.1:67, 72-75) at the birth of his own son, who was to be part of the plan! “Enabling God’s people to serve him WITHOUT FEAR!”

Later, the shepherds, frightened by the sudden apparition in their peaceful fields, got the same message (Lk.2:8-10)

During Jesus’ ministry, the same refrain keeps repeating – we will just pick a few of the many incidents:

Mk.4:35-40 – the storm at sea.
Another storm story appears in three of the gospels:  Mt.14, Mk.6, and Jn.6 – the account of Jesus, who, rather than taking a much-deserved nap, had been left behind, and came walking toward them on the water.  The disciples are terrified at the sight, but his greeting combines two of his “trademark” statements:  “Don’t be afraid” and “I AM.”  This latter phrase deserves a whole study of its own – suffice it here to say that it is Jesus’ common statement of his identity with the Father, using God’s Burning Bush statement to Moses, which was forbidden to ordinary people.

Luke chose to highlight a different encounter on the lake, one that contemporary “evangelists” would do well to imitate.    Lk.5:4-11 describes an “ordinary” fishing trip that turned out anything but ordinary!
Overwhelmed by the huge catch of fish, (Quite an extravagant “thanks for the use of your boat”!) Peter reacted in the way too many preachers expect (or demand) of their hearers:  “Leave me, Lord, I’m a no-good sinner!”  But far from pouncing on that “confession” and flogging him with it (notice:  that was Peter’s diagnosis, not the Lord’s), Jesus replied, more in keeping with his own consistent character, “Don’t be afraid”, Peter:  I have a job for you!”  What a gracious welcome!

Lk.8:49-54 – describes an interrupted “healing” trip, where the interruption did not prevent his ministry to either need.

Interestingly, all the accounts of Jesus’ Transfiguration, which understandably “spooked out” the watching disciples, also record the antidote for their fear:  “Listen to him!” (Mt.17:5-8).  If we listen / pay attention to Jesus, fear must take a permanent back seat!

Even when he is warning them about the very real dangers of their mission, the accounts in both Matthew and Luke are peppered with “don’t be afraid!

And as the amazed disciples stood in wonder staring at the empty tomb, the heavenly messenger had exactly the same message:  “Don’t be afraid!”  (Mt.28:1-10).

It is especially sad when people who trace their beginnings to the Swiss Brethren, one of the first of the Anabaptist groups,  (an original “back to the Bible” movement), fall for a “gospel” of threats and fear – which is no “gospel” at all!  The word means “GOOD news” in sixteenth century English.
A focus on fear is a MAJOR rejection of both the first century church’s attitude and the 16th century Anabaptist principles.  Those early brethren waded INTO fearful situations; they did not threaten others with doom!
Our spiritual ancestors willingly faced burning, drowning, exile, and all sorts of horrible treatment, BECAUSE they espoused a new definition of Christian faithfulness, which had no connection whatever to any dogmas compiled by hierarchical officials, be they ecclesiastical or political.

Several historical scholars have summarized this definition to include:

1. Discipleship. The classic statement was “No one can truly know Christ except he follow him in life.”
2. A voluntary (neither automatic nor hereditary) community, deliberately formed by committed adults
3. Study and interpretation of Scripture in the hands of the ENTIRE community (not the clergy: there was no clergy in the first century! “Clergy” was an artifact of the Constantinian alliance between “church and state” – which at the time were allied against those faithful brethren, as they also were in the 16th century.)
4.The priority of the New Testament, with the Old viewed as merely preparatory.

It was, in short, an effort to restore the New Testament Church – according to the pattern of Jesus’ first followers.

After a lengthy series of warnings about the very real perils of the life that he advocated – Jesus concluded with this admonition: (Lk.12:22),
Fear not, little flock:  it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom!”

Please notice something else about this and all of Jesus’ similar instructions: except for those specifically addressed to a particular individual, they are all given in the PLURAL, not singular.  Both fear and confidence are heavily influenced by one’s surroundings. Faithfulness is – and always was – intended to be a group effort, a mutual affair.  Jesus never advocated the introspection of the lonely hermit on a mountaintop.  He both practiced and preached the Kingdom in the messy context of real life.
And in this often very messy context, faithful representation of the Lord Jesus will always seek to alleviate, never to instill fear. Together, people can do a much better job of overcoming their fear, or, if necessary, enduring it.

This poor world has more than enough fear already.  An accurate presentation of “the Gospel” is the same today as it was to the terrified shepherds on the hillside so long ago:
Don’t be afraid!  I am bringing you GOOD NEWS!”

It is a message our world desperately needs. Proclaim it faithfully!

Let our celebration of Jesus this Christmas season – and always – echo his most-often repeated message”

“FEAR NOT!”

Thanks be to God!


“Why are you here?”

September 9, 2018

This is the message delivered at our small fellowship this morning.  I think it is relevant for a great many groups of the Lord’s followers.

“Why are you here?”

Readings:  Ephesians 4:9-16 and I Corinthians 12

This message grows out of a recent conversation in which a member of our group replied to the question, “When are you going to preach?” by responding that he was not sure he had anything much to say.  I took issue with that:  because I firmly believe that every one of us was put here on purpose.  Every one of you has been brought here for a reason:  because either you are, you know, you have, you understand, or you can do, learn  teach, or become something that the rest of us NEED, in order to function as the Lord intends that we should.

If we seriously call ourselves God’s people, we have work to do.  There is a hurting world to heal and comfort, a Kingdom to be built, realized, and shared, and this can only happen if “every part is working with the strength that God supplies.” 

One of the most common references to the church in the New Testament is “the Body of Christ.”  In addition to the passages already read, Paul wrote to the Colossian church that with Jesus as the Head, “all the Body, supplied through its joints and ligaments, and knit together, grows with a growth that comes from God.”  (Col.2:19). As you know, I do a lot of knitting.  And I know all too well what a mess I have if one stitch is dropped!  The whole thing is ruined!  With Jesus no longer physically present, this is the ONLY way he can be seen by the rest of the world.

The contribution of every part is essential to the growth and function of a body.  By far the most extensive treatment of this topic is found in I Cor.12, which should be the subject of a careful study of its own.  Our human bodies are intricately and carefully designed by their Creator.  Each part has a necessary role to play in order that the whole may function properly.  “You all, then, are the Body of Christ, and individually, you are parts of it.” (v.27). In fact, the choice to be joined to the Body of Christ should be the last individual act of a person’s life.  From then on, he is no longer a separate individual, but a part of a larger whole: the Body of Christ.  Alone, a hand, a foot, an eye, an ear, cannot survive long.  Neither can it fulfill its proper function without the contribution of the rest of the Body.    An individual part can’t even be in a proper relationship with the Head without the necessary connecting parts!  A finger is of no use unless it is attached to a hand, which itself must be attached to an arm, which is utterly dependent upon a shoulder – Were each individual part to be attached directly to the head, the result would not be a Body, but a monstrosity!  “Just Jesus and me” simply does not work.  Only together can God’s people become his presence in the world.

Some of the most detailed instructions in this regard occur in Ephesians 4.  Paul speaks of various functional persons having been given by God to the church:  apostles, prophets, teachers, etc.    He maintains that all of these exist for a single purpose:   “for work of service, and for building the Body of Christ.”  They are neither officials empowered to rule over the rest, nor employees hired to do all the “work of the church.”  They are simply members of the Body, entrusted with the responsibility to lead and facilitate the work of all the others!

Paul also illustrated the indispensability and mutual dependence of every part of the human body in I Cor.12, stressing that no part can claim greater value than another, nor divorce itself from its need for all the rest.   The members of the Body are intended to support, build up, and serve each other. The leadership functions are intended to help them learn to do that.  Notice that these leadership functions are “gifts” given to the church, not to individuals.

The grammatical structure makes this abundantly clear.  Different individuals are “given” to the Body, in order that it may perform necessary functions.  A careful perusal of the end of the I Cor.12 passage makes it obvious that the list Paul provided does NOT represent a hierarchy as some groups assume, but most likely the chronological order of the supply of those functions.  Apostles, for example, were usually the ones who introduced Jesus and his Kingdom to a group.  Prophets then explained and expanded the message, and often suggested practical applications of it (the offering for famine relief, for example) , teachers guided and guarded the flock,  and equipped them for service in the many ways listed – not only to the group, but also to any people in need.

In neither the Ephesians nor the Corinthians passage are “gifts” represented as the possession of the persons exercising them.  Nowhere are they said to have become the “property” of the individuals concerned.  Contrary to popular assumptions, you do not “have” a “gift.” Nobody does.  You ARE a gift to the portion of Jesus’ Body with which you are associated!

There have, on numerous occasions in the history of “churches” and “Christian teaching,” been campaigns in which people are urged/encouraged to identify “their gift” and put it to use in some vague category of “service.”  “Which item on this list are you good at?” can be a very threatening – and exclusionary! — question.   It is usually an attempt to fill some sort of empty “slots” in a predetermined hierarchical structure, and to exclude anything and anyone not already on the agenda.  This is not a New Testament activity.  “Gifts” are elevated or disparaged according to the biases of the “leadership”.  Hapless souls are urged to choose among items on a codified list which is their “gift” as if it were a merit badge of some sort!   Such exercises miss the point completely.  The Biblical message is simply, that in a healthy Body, when a need arises, the Lord has a member of that Body available and empowered to minister to that need.  These are not status symbols, or permanent assignments: they are simply the wherewithal to get a job done!  If the Lord assigns a job outside the Body, He likewise provides one or more members with the ability to accomplish the task.  These empowerments should never be viewed as status symbols or diplomas!!  They are simply a delivery system to bring the power of God to bear upon the human situation!  None of the “gifts” suggest any outstanding merit on the part of the person entrusted to deliver them, any more than the postman is responsible for what you get in the mail!  The “gift” is from the Lord.  The one who receives the “gift” is the person who needed it!  Perhaps the person who delivered it is the “pony express”! Or maybe Fed-X or UPS.

Different individuals may serve different functions at different times.  There is a very good reason why all this discussion leads directly into Paul’s better-known dissertation about “love.”  That’s the only way it works!

The lists of “gifts” in the New Testament differ slightly, and none pretend to be exhaustive.  None of them have anything whatever to do with natural talents nor learned abilities.  They are no more and no less than the supernatural provision of God for the needs of his people.

The manifestation of the Spirit is given to/through each one for everyone’s benefit.”

We are each set in the Body for a particular purpose in the plan of God, for the good of all the members. The Spirit hands out the assignments.  We need only to be available.

Sadly, such usefulness is foreign to the experience of many, if not most, of the Lord’s people, who assume that a single individual needs to be “in charge.”  As in our human bodies, parts that are immobilized or unused eventually become unusable.  Weakness, disease, and even paralysis may result when a member gets no exercise in its intended work.  There are many members in the Body of Christ in dire need of intensive “physical therapy” if they are ever to function as their Lord intends.

There were no bench-warming spectators in the New Testament church.  “Church” was never intended to be a “spectator sport” where the vast majority are not participants but are reduced to being mere observers of a performance by a handful of professionals.  A congregation is NOT an audience! In fact, in the functioning Corinthian church, everyone had so much to contribute that some regulation was necessary, in order that that their contributions could be shared in an orderly manner.  The latter part of I Cor.14 provides a scenario for how this can work.

When the assembly comes together, EVERYONE is expected to bring “a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation” (v.26).  Instructions are very specific, making provision that everyone’s contribution may be heard. And do not forget (v.29), the admonition that those listening must “judge” what has been said!  Whenever a contribution of any kind is offered!

“For you can all prophesy, one at a time, in order that all may learn and all may be encouraged” (v.31).  Is there any one among us so mature, so complete, that he no longer needs to learn or to be encouraged?  And who is wise enough to predict from which brother or sister the needed lesson or encouragement might proceed?  The emphasis is on the Body’s need for the ministry of EVERY brother and sister!

Perhaps we should set aside an extended time to discern together what each of us has been placed here for!  In the New Testament church, responsibilities were assigned in many different ways.  Here is a quick overview of some of them.

Jesus, of course, personally chose twelve of his disciples, and later 70 more, to whom he delegated the responsibility to “preach the Kingdom” ahead of his own arrival (Lk.10:1).  After Pentecost, his methods were more varied.
Sometimes, as with the early (Ac.3 and 4) accounts of Peter and John, their assignment was simply a case of acting faithfully, when an opportunity arose, on the instructions they had been given years earlier (Lk.9:2, 10:9).

In Ac.6:1-6, the congregation perceived a need, and was instructed to suggest godly individuals to take care of it, who were then “appointed” by the apostles.  Interestingly, at least two of these quickly “outgrew” their original assignment, with Stephen (ch.7) becoming a powerful advocate for “the Way”, and subsequently being martyred, and Philip (ch.8) becoming an itinerant evangelist.
Philip’s case is interesting.  His trip to Samaria may (or may not) have been on his own initiative, but after his successful mission there (8:26), a messenger instructed him to head for the Gaza road, and (v.29) the Spirit directed him to the Ethiopian’s chariot, and then (39-40) even “carried him off” after the assignment was completed!  Perhaps in order to receive a “specific assignment” we need to be busy at the tasks we already perceive!

Ananias, on the other hand, (Ac.9:10-19) is introduced simply as “a certain disciple” – just one of the folks in Damascus.  But the Lord spoke to him directly, in a vision.  And although at first he argued about it, his obedience gifted all the rest of us, down through the centuries, with the ministry of Paul!  We never hear of Ananias again.  He just happened to be listening when the Lord needed to recruit someone.
Peter also was busy (Ac.10) when the Lord directed Cornelius (by means of a “messenger”) to send for him. (A very simple investigation reveals that “messenger” and “angel” are totally random translations of the same word).  Knowing that the assignment would give Peter cultural problems, the Spirit designed an object lesson, as well as explicit directions to respond to the summons.  Wisely, Peter included other brethren as witnesses, who aided in responsibly reporting to challengers, later.
Barnabas (Ac.11:22-26) was sent by the apostles to Antioch, to check out the gathering there.  He had already established a reputation for gracious faithfulness (4:36, 9:27).  He seems to have recruited Saul on his own initiative (v.25).
We are not told how Agabus (Ac.11:28, 21:10) became known as a prophet, but his word was taken seriously by the group at Antioch, who immediately organized famine relief.  Paul later refused his counsel, but his prophecy proved to be correct.

Then of course, there is Saul/Paul.  It is important to note that not all of his instructions were as dramatic as his Damascus Road encounter with Jesus (Ac.9).  I don’t know why so many folks seem to think that is the one that should be normative.  After he was committed to the Lord, it did not require such drastic measures to get his attention!  The congregation at Damascus (9:24-45) sheltered, accepted, and nurtured Saul, and helped him escape the city.  Barnabas enabled his acceptance by the other apostles (v.27). The Holy Spirit spoke to the prayer meeting in Antioch (Ac.13), to commission their first journey, and they were sent out by both the group (v.3) and the Spirit (v.4).  During the trips, however, the “leading” seems to have been more a matter of necessity!  When they were run out of one town, they went on to the next!  The account of the second journey is interesting.  The second trip was undertaken at Paul’s own initiative (Ac.15:36-41), and the Lord is neither blamed nor credited for the argument with Barnabas that resulted in their separation.
Wouldn’t you like to know how they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” to preach in Asia, and how “the spirit of Jesus would not allow” their next attempt, to Bithynia?  It was only after these frustrations, that Paul “saw a vision” and his group “concluded that God had called” them to Macedonia.  Interestingly, we are told that it was simply Paul’s annoyance (16:18) that precipitated the healing of the fortune-teller.  Later, another vision reassured him of the Lord’s protection in Corinth.

Honesty requires the conclusion that there are more questions than answers in the latest Acts account. After two years in Ephesus (19:21), Paul “set out in the Spirit” to go through Macedonia and Achaia to Jerusalem.  Both of those are in the opposite direction from Jerusalem.    He was warned of trouble by many brethren (20:22, 21:4, 21:10), but consistently rejected their counsel.  Yet later he took the advice (21:18-26) of the elders in Jerusalem, which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment.  Please note that in no case are any of these decisions attributed to “God’s will”!  It is presented simply as narrative.   Those who claim to explain it as “God’s plan” cannot draw any direct evidence from the New Testament.  It is clear, however, that the power of God was entirely adequate to use what may have been mistakes, or even just stubbornness on the part of his devoted servant Paul, for his good purposes. This should be an encouragement to us all!

Other disciples did allow themselves to be “led” by the counsel of brethren.  Paul recruited both Timothy (Ac.16:3), who was highly recommended by his home congregation, as an assistant and apprentice, and Silas, (Ac.15:40) who shared his second journey.
Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders” (Ac.14:3) in every new congregation, and urged Titus (Tit.1:5) to do likewise.
From Corinth, where he had met and worked with Aquila  and Priscilla (Ac.18:1-3), Paul took them along to Ephesus, (18:18), where they in turn corrected the teaching of Apollos, preparing him for more responsible service, to which the Ephesian brethren subsequently recommended him.

I know this is just a fly-by survey:  the point is, we are all in this game together!  And the Lord graciously manages to make use of our sometimes – or maybe often – bumbling efforts to be faithful.
So we must continually be asking, asking ourselves, and one another, “Why are you/we here?”

What do I need to learn from you or you from me?

What can we do or be together that none of us can do or be alone?

Let’s help each other, both to ask, and to answer, such questions in faithfulness!

 

 


Redemption: “Get-out-of-jail free”, or “Under New Management”?

April 8, 2018

The following was prepared for our small fellowship.  After its presentation, I was severely taken to task for failing to parrot some “doctrines” of a “statement of faith” advocated by a member.  I welcome any New Testament based comments.

Redemption:“Get out of Jail Free” or “Under New Management”?

In spite of the fact that the Easter season, and indeed, every Sunday!, is supposed to celebrate Jesus’ glorious triumph over death by his resurrection, and, as I have pointed out previously, his complete superiority over everything that once separated earnest worshipers from God, demonstrated by the destruction of the temple veil, far too many people still choose to focus most of their attention on self-flagellation for having supposedly “caused” his suffering and death –  often mistakenly calling it “redemption” – despite the fact that JESUS NEVER SAID THAT!  I would challenge anyone to find one single place where he did!  These are entirely separate concepts. The former (the definitive defeat of death and the opening of access to God) are well documented in the gospels and the epistles; and the latter (assuming personal, individual responsibility for causing Jesus’ suffering and death) is completely absent from both gospels and epistles.  I am not quite ready to join the “red-letter Christians” who accept only direct quotations of Jesus, but I do consider those to be of greater authority than anything else.

People exacerbate this problem by continually lamenting what they represent as the dreadful “cost” or “price” of their “redemption”, which they interpret to require yet another mournful excursion into their own “unworthiness” or “sinfulness”, for which the slightest infraction is assumed to “deserve” capital punishment!  I have yet to be shown a single culture in the whole world that imposes a death penalty for every misstep!

This was certainly NEVER the focus of either Jesus or any of the New Testament writers. I think, choosing the most charitable option, that its prevalence probably grows, at least in part, out of at the very least a gross misunderstanding, if not deliberate ignorance, of the original words connected with the concept of “redemption.”  It is my hope that, by considering this topic, we may recover (or discover) some of both the beautiful wonder and the serious responsibility that is implicit in the concept of “redemption”.

In order to do this, it is necessary to correct our understanding of several terms that have been seriously distorted by what passes for “Christian teaching”.
Let’s start with a common phrase that is frequently used of a person who exerts tremendous effort toward a goal – any goal.  When you hear that someone has “given his life” to the pursuit of a cure for a particular disease, do you assume that he died in the course of his work?
Or when an investigator lectures about the scientific, historical or archaeological discoveries to which he has “given his life” – Is he dead?
Then when Jesus clearly states (in Mt.20:28) that his own purpose “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom” is supposed to be a model for the service to one another that he expects of his followers (who at the time of that conversation were jockeying for positions of power and honor), why do you assume that he is referring to his death, instead of to his selfless life?  Context, as usual, is critical to the understanding of any statement.

Similar misunderstandings surround the word translated “redemption” and “ransom” (both of which are used by English translators, to represent the SAME Greek word). Although another word – the one commonly used for the ordinary commerce of buying and selling – occurs in a few places, the principal one is represented by both English translations. Classically, it refers primarily to the ransom of prisoners of war, who had been enslaved by a conquering nation (in this case, Rome), which was common practice in many ancient cultures.

Nobody in the first century had to ask the meaning of the word “slavery” or “slave”.  The concept was painfully familiar.  The word “doulos”, although often translated “servant”, almost always referred to slavery, regardless of whether it described one born into bondage, a person captured as a prisoner of war,  or a child sold by indigent parents.  Slaves were wholly owned possessions of their masters, even though some held positions of great responsibility, or were even officially adopted into the master’s family.  It was also not uncommon for a faithful slave to be set free, either by his master’s generosity, by having earned and purchased his freedom, or by having been “redeemed” or purchased by someone else.

Insight into the varied status and responsibilities of slaves is available throughout the New Testament: for example, notably,
Mt.8:9 – they do what they are told
Mt. 13:27 – they refer problems or uncertainty to the master, and receive instructions, which they are then expected to follow.

There are many others.  I highly recommend to you the exercise of scanning the gospels for other examples.  In doing so, remember that “servant” and “slave” represent the same original word.
Paul makes an eloquent case in Romans 6:16-20 that a person is a servant/slave to whomever or whatever he chooses to obey.  Autonomy is not an option: never was, never will be.

Under Roman law, a redeemed slave could not only gain his freedom, but could even acquire Roman citizenship, which gave him many legal rights and privileges not available to others.
People “redeemed” by Jesus are also eligible for citizenship in his Kingdom!  But sadly, not all accept that generous offer.

Please notice (and confirm by searching the New Testament) that neither slavery nor ransom from that condition has anything whatever to do with “offenses”! People convicted of wrongdoing were beaten, imprisoned, and sometimes executed, but not enslaved. Likewise, it has nothing to do with “sacrifice” – another word, incidentally, which JESUS NEVER USED in reference to himself or to anything he did.  Check it out – using a genuine translation, not a paraphrased version, of the New Testament.  The six uses of the word “sacrifice” in the gospels are never applied to Jesus, and the majority of the uses in the epistles refer to idol worship, or the formerly required Jewish temple rituals.

Notice also that “redemption”, also occasionally represented by the word for simple purchase, does NOT confer total autonomy!  Far from the much-trumpeted concept of escape from the consequences of bad behavior (the “Get out of Jail Free” card in your Monopoly game), “redemption” represents simply a change of ownership: no more and no less.

Here is the beginning of an impressive list of oppressors from which our Lord has “bought” or “redeemed” his people:
Gal.3:13 and 4:5 – the curse and bondage of the Law
Titus 2:14 – ALL lawlessness
1 Peter 1:18 – the empty /futile ways of our ancestors  (the only reference to “blood” – and that is connected to the Passover, the feast of freedom from bondage, and nothing else).
Ephesians 1:7 – our transgressions
Colossians 1:14 – our failures
and you can find many more.  Please note that the latter two, “transgressions” and “failures”, which many people prefer to lump together and label “sins”, (although the New Testament does not), are literally “taken away”, not simply overlooked, and certainly not “forgotten”.

Using slightly different vocabulary, Paul reminds the folks in Colossae, “He (God) has delivered (rescued) us from the power of darkness, and has transplanted us into the Kingdom of his beloved Son!” (1:13)

Those whom Jesus has “redeemed” have been graciously offered citizenship in his Kingdom!  But please remember that citizenship entails BOTH privilege and responsibility.
Paul’s reminder to the Romans, mentioned earlier, is still very much in effect:  we are servants/slaves to whatever power we choose to obey!!

Do not forget that redemption is much more than mere escape from negative things and circumstances! The deliverance described in Col. 1:13 is into the Kingdom of the Son of God!
It includes (Rom.3:24) being made (not merely “considered”) just (which is the same word that some folks call “righteous”), (Rom.8:24) being adopted as sons of God, and having been set apart as the possession of the Lord Jesus (I Cor.1:30 and Eph.1:14),by his seal of ownership, the Holy Spirit, who alone is able to make kingdom living possible for us mere mortals!  It’s about life – not “after you die”!

On a practical level, having been “bought” by our Master, it is reasonable to expect (I Cor.6:30) that we become eager to reflect honor upon him; (I Cor. 7:23) that we refuse to allow ourselves to become enslaved to anything or anyone else; and (II Peter 2:1) that we make every effort not to deny or discredit him in any way.  For all the “redeemed” there is one single assignment:  reflecting, however imperfectly, the whole personality of the One who has redeemed us.  Such an assignment assumes that our lives will be radically altered, in order to represent him correctly and faithfully!

This is a concept that is often ignored in groups today that label themselves “welcoming”.  It is perfectly true that all are indeed welcome, regardless of their previous situation or condition – but all must also be changed! Not a single aspect of our life is exempt!  We are under new management!
The question “Can you be a Christian if you –-?”
(fill in the blank with your currently preferred no-no) is totally irrelevant.

There exists no check-list of qualifications or requirements, after which we can relax. The re-direction of our lives is an assignment that lasts for our entire lifetime! If we choose to accept citizenship in Jesus’ Kingdom, as ransomed, redeemed people, we will NEVER outgrow our need for course-corrections!  Our whole life needs a total overhaul to conform to his ways.  It must be obviously and always “under new management”!

Even if this were “all there is”, the condition of those so “redeemed” would be glorious! But there is more! In Eph.1:4, the Holy Spirit is described as simply the “down-payment” on the inheritance of the folks redeemed from every nation and tongue, to enable our faithfulness until, with those gathered around his throne, we celebrate the final triumph of the King!  What a day that will be!

You may have noticed that there is one question that we have not addressed:  “To whom was the ransom owed or paid?”  This is neither oversight nor deliberate avoidance.  The reason for its lack is simple:  Although centuries of “theologians”, preachers, and teachers of many persuasions have adamantly (and often arrogantly) proclaimed the accuracy of their theories, The New Testament itself does not speak to that issue.  Since this is a New Testament study, I will not presume to do so, either.

Our attention can much more profitably be focused upon faithfully seeking to fulfill the purpose of the One who has redeemed us for himself!

He has graciously provided us with very clear instructions for that effort, the resource of the power of his Holy Spirit to teach and enable us, and the supportive companionship of each other, with whom to learn to demonstrate his style of living, “under new management!”

Thanks be to God!

 


Word Study introduction

January 22, 2018

This was presented to our fellowship on Jan.21, 2018, for the benefit of folks who were considering a word study class.  It is an enhanced combination of essays you may have seen on this site, but we thought some might find it useful.  It also includes a description of the classes themselves.

We are very fortunate to have many languages represented in our small fellowship.  We began with readings from Psalm 119 regarding the “word” of God, and then the first couple sentences from John 1 in each of the languages represented.  It was fascinating to learn  that “word” did not mean the same thing to all of them.  For some, it was simply information. For some, it applied only to speech.  For others it could be spoken or written.  For others, a specific message.  This alone was a strong message that understanding is essential!

Introduction to Word Study for GMF, Jan.21, 2018

You may have noticed that all of these have one thing in common: they all involve or imply COMMUNICATION!

From the very beginning, God has been trying to communicate with his people, even going so far as to apply “word” to himself! They needed instructions on how to handle the life that he had given them. They needed to get acquainted! In all the accounts of God’s calls to various individuals throughout history, a common theme has been to come out of the prevailing culture – some of which were very highly developed – and become a new people that would be peculiarly set apart for God’s purposes! It was only logical that this would require some instructions. Why is that such a strange concept for today’s church?

Characteristic is God’s statement about Abraham (who is believed to have come from Sumer – where writing may have been originally developed) in Genesis 18 – “I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord.” There were of course no written instructions at that time, and the results were spotty. But by the time Moses came along, principles were recorded, and expected to be taught and observed. The summary in Deuteronomy includes the admonition that every family was to teach its children every day. This was – and is – too serious a responsibility to be left to a few individuals. Everyone had to be involved.

As time went on, though, an ecclesiastical hierarchy took over many of the responsibilities that were initially supposed to belong to every person, and things disintegrated seriously. During the whole chaotic period of the Judges, not a single mention is made of “the word of the Lord.” There were a few good leaders, but they did not return God’s Word into the hands of the people, and reforms did not outlast the men who started them. The later historical books record many reform movements, but only four reached very far. In the reforms instituted by Josiah, Jehoshaphat, and Hezekiah, it is pointed out that Levites were sent throughout the kingdom to teach all the people the principles that had been neglected. These reform efforts lasted longer. Joash, however, the little-boy king, depended upon the priest Jehoiada for his instructions and his reforms fell apart as soon as his mentor died. Depending upon a single person, however faithful, is a recipe for disaster!

It is no accident that the Reformation came on the heels of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, which made the Bible accessible to many more people than previously. All the reformers began by comparing the institution they knew to the descriptions they saw in Scripture. They differed in how far they were willing to go to recover the original vision. This was the primary conflict between Zwingli and the Swiss Brethren in Zurich. Tyndale, Wycliffe and others gave their lives to making the message available to ALL. A couple centuries later, the Wesleyan revivals started in “lay”-led Bible classes. The term “lay” comes from the Greek “laos”, which simply means “people” – NOT “clergy”, which designation is not found a single time in the New Testament.

This, then, is the goal of Word Study: to put the Word of God into the hands of his ordinary people. That is the ONLY way that we will enjoy a renewed, revived and faithful church. We dare to believe that if ordinary folks who desire to be faithful above all else, have access to the wonders of that Word, wonderful things can happen again. Notice that in the Ps.119 readings, the suppliant asks to “understand” in order to obey.

Words are funny things. Although they are essential for communication, they can nevertheless confuse as much as they clarify. Words encompass far more than their “lexical meanings” – a term used by linguists to refer to formal dictionary definitions. Connotations, implications, and shades of meaning, differ widely, depending upon the perspectives of the speaker/writer and the hearer/reader, which may, or may not, be similar.

Our understanding of words is heavily dependent upon context. If I use the word “drive”, for example, how do you know if I am referring to operating a car – collecting funds – playing or watching golf or baseball – a very hard rain – hammering a nail – intense ambition – basic physical needs – a gadget on my computer – or a host of other things? English is particularly bad at that. Only context can give you a clue.

When one moves between languages, the situation becomes even more complicated. There is seldom a one-to-one correspondence between any two words in any two languages. If one tries to translate “literally”, how is he to choose among all these possible “meanings”?

Cultural convention, likewise, affects the “flavor” of what is understood by certain words. This varies over time. In the 1950’s, for example, the heyday of the McCarthy persecutions, “red” was no longer simply a color. It was a dangerous – even life-threatening – accusation!

Also, any currently spoken language is constantly changing. Consider as an example that is not theologically “loaded”, that in Elizabethan English, the word “quick” meant “alive”, and not “fast, sudden, or rapid”. “The quick and the dead”, therefore, meant “the living and the dead”, and not, as some would have it, “the two kinds of pedestrians in city traffic”!

All of these considerations and others come into play when applied to the study of Scripture. Over the years, many “definitions” or understandings have become codified into “doctrines” which have become in turn weapons in the battle for “orthodoxy”. Subsequent “translations”, (many of which are merely paraphrases, the writer’s opinion of what the text means, not what it says), assorted “Bible dictionaries”, and “chain references” have then incorporated these standardized understandings, without any reference whatever to the freight carried by the words and grammatical structures chosen by the original writers. Many “proofs” are derived entirely from English texts, without regard for their departure from the source documents. Accurate understanding depends upon trying to hear what was communicated to the first readers!

The basic principle of word study is simple linguistics: One learns best to understand the meaning of a word by observing every context in which it is used. That’s how you learned to talk! When your toddler is learning to talk, you don’t hand him a dictionary! You point, and demonstrate. You “show and tell.” That is also the best way to learn to understand any language!

Why does the first-hand understanding of the meaning of words matter? There are hosts of writers and speakers who are ready, willing, and eager to tell you what “the Bible says!” in order to add muscle to their particular interpretations of Scripture. There are all sort of footnotes, commentaries, dictionaries, and study guides, and literally hundreds of English translations and paraphrases. So why bother?

Well, which of those are you going to believe? They do NOT all carry the same message! Whom do you trust to choose your path, when all these “authorities” do not agree? Some differences are minor, but some are very serious. How do you evaluate what you hear or read? DO you evaluate it? Does it really require a “leader”, be he scholar, pastor, minister, deacon, bishop, or whatever other honorific title with a string of fancy degrees that a person claims, to understand the Lord’s instructions for his people?

As our good brother Paul pointed out, when God chose to call out people for himself, “he did not choose the wise and learned” but very ordinary folks. In fact, depending which historian you listen to, anywhere from 70 to 90% of the members of the New Testament church were enslaved political prisoners from Roman conquests in many areas, many of whom were probably illiterate! Yet they spread Jesus’ message throughout the known world! They created a brotherhood that changed the world, and the lives of everyone they touched!

So why study words? The process of word study, and even the original Greek language, are neither ends in themselves, nor weapons with which to clobber anyone who espouses other views. They are simply tools which may be used to better understand “the wealth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” that is made available to his people in Jesus Christ. They are directions for our journey – the GPS, if you will, for the Kingdom!

Why study words?
The purpose is
NOT to pontificate, prove, or insist upon a particular “doctrine”
NOT as an intellectual exercise to inflate our egos
NOT to find answers to all of our questions.

But it DOES/will
– aid in discernment of what is and is not trustworthy scholarship, commentary, or instructions
– enrich our appreciation of all that we are offered in Christ
– enable our obedience to our Lord, as it increases our understanding.

It will definitely rattle many people’s comfortable cages. No one can honestly face the New Testament without having his preconceived notions challenged.
None of us is big enough, or smart enough, to understand and encompass all of the Lord’s truth. We need each other’s insight and encouragement.
Remember that it is HIS – the LORD’S —  opinion that matters – not ours.

Keep these assumptions in mind:
1. God INTENDS – has always intended – to reveal himself. He has never tried to be obscure. That’s why “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” in the first place!

2. The New Testament was written for ordinary people. You and I are just as ordinary as they were.

3. We have Jesus’ word that “If anyone wants to do the Father’s will, he will know…..” That’s the ONLY “prerequisite” for success in the study. But it is non-negotiable.

4. Rightly used, the New Testament itself is its own best commentary.

5. The only genuine “expert” is your brother or sister who has spent many years working at being faithful to the Lord.

If you would like to learn this approach to Biblical study, we would enjoy making it available.


Leadership in the New Testament Church

September 19, 2017

This was a message prepared for a small group of the Lord’s people whose insightful and careful leader is being lost to retirement and other volunteer work.  The group is seeking direction.  There is denominational pressure toward “standard” patterns, but some are concerned that the New Testament- style we have been choosing could be lost in such a situation.  Perhaps it will be helpful to others who are in a similar dilemma.

Leadership in the Church

Many, if not most of us have chosen to be at GMF precisely because it is NOT like other “church” groups that we have encountered. We need to keep this in mind as we discuss and attempt to discern “What now?” as Jim and Ruth have felt led to move on. Who we are, and who we choose to become, will both affect and be affected by that decision.

It is fairly easy, for example, to observe whether the primary loyalty of a group is to a “kingdom of this world” or the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus, if, as soon as you walk in the door, you observe that an idolatrous national symbol adorns their “center of worship.”
It is similarly easy to discern a group’s “definition of church” by the titles and the deference accorded to their “leadership”. When well-meaning people responded to the news that we were “looking for a church” with an enthusiastic “Oh, you should come listen to our preacher (or minister, or pastor, or bishop, or choir, or worship team)”, we knew immediately that we would NOT find the fellowship we were seeking there. An “audience” at a “performance” is not our definition of “church.”

When, years after a couple of earlier abortive visits, we visited GMF again, we saw something quite different, and very rare. We saw a group trying to function as a brotherhood. And for better or worse, here we are.

More than 60 years ago, I had been attracted to a small group at college who were trying to become a brotherhood informed by and copied after the New Testament. It has been a long and often futile effort. I have never understood why folks who say they follow Jesus pay so little attention to the only source of reliable information about his instructions! Seems like that should be a no-brainer! It is only in the New Testament that we can find any reliable record of the transformation of a wildly diverse assortment of people into the “Body of Christ” – the Kingdom of God!

These folks knew they had become involved in a drastically different new life. Teaching was crucial, in order to learn how this new life was to operate. Fellowship, the sharing of their lives, provided the context for practical experience in Kingdom living. “Wonders and signs” accompanied the message, but the greatest wonder of all was the transformation of those thousands of individuals into a cohesive brotherhood.

Recently, Jim has done a beautiful job of describing some of the challenges of becoming the Body that the Lord intends for his people. In fact, the decision to be joined to the Body of Christ should be the last individual decision of a person’s life! From then on, he is no longer a single individual, but a part of a larger whole, a member of the Body. Alone, a hand, a foot, an eye, an ear, can neither survive, nor fulfill its intended purpose. It can’t even be properly related to the Head, without the necessary connecting parts! A finger is of no use unless it is connected to a hand, which is utterly dependent upon an arm, and thence to a shoulder — were each individual part connected directly to the head, the result would not be a body, but a monstrosity! “Just Jesus and me” does not work! Only together can his people become an extension of his presence in the world. Stanley Hauerwas posed a crucial question: “Can we so order our life together that the world might look at us and know that God has been busily at work?”

Probably the most detailed instructions in this regard are in Paul’s letter to Ephesus. He speaks of various functional persons being given to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers — PLEASE NOTICE THAT THESE ARE ALL PLURAL!!! – for the purpose of “equipping the saints (that’s everybody, folks!) for works of service!!!” THESE ARE NOT OFFICIALS who do all the work or give orders to the others. They are ENABLERS, who teach and create opportunities for the rest, properly to represent their Lord in the world! (Jim has accepted this responsibility as skillfully as anyone I have ever seen! But there is only one of him. The church needs many, many more.)

This is the context in which the various “spiritual gifts” are found, and in which they are intended to function. That is another subject that we should study carefully, but there is not time today. For our present purpose, the message is simply that in a healthy Body, whenever a need arises, the Lord has a member of that Body available and empowered to minister to that need. If the Lord assigns a job outside the Body, he likewise provides one or more members with the ability to accomplish that task. These empowerments are not diplomas, titles, or status symbols, and certainly not hired positions; they are simply the wherewithal to get a job done. They constitute a delivery system, bringing the power of God to bear upon the human situation.

The life of the Lord Jesus will not flow through a Body whose fragments are all rushing off in different directions, taking their cues from some flamboyant “leader” other than the Head. His life will not flow through a body whose parts are atrophied from disuse. The Body will grow, mature, and become what the Lord intends only when all its parts are working TOGETHER, sharing with one another all that he has entrusted or revealed to each of them. EVERYONE IS INDISPENSABLE, if we learn rightly to “discern the Body.”

Is it necessary to assume, then, with all the Biblical emphasis on the contribution of every member, that no leadership in the conventional sense is needed, required or welcome in the Body of Christ? By no means! Leadership has not been eliminated: it has simply been redefined. True, there are no positions of dominance, prestige or power in a faithful Body. But there are many needs for leadership on the part of those who see their task as simply fulfilling one of many functions and not as a position of status or domination.

This orientation of the Kingdom, of course, was as diametrically opposed to the prevailing cultures of the first century as it is those of our own.

The Jewish and pagan religious systems had a surprising amount of common ground. In both, the ordinary person was denied the privilege to approach his god directly. The office of a priest-intermediary was required. After all, one had to be frightfully careful: a mistake could offend the deity, and result in disaster. People were familiar with the Old Testament stories of death and disaster coming upon those who dared to come too close. Pagan priests also held a tight rein on their constituencies. They ruled by dint of their esoteric knowledge and trickery shared only with their own initiates.

The gods had to be appeased, and only the priests knew how to mollify them. We saw in an earlier study how in the Jewish temple, a heavy veil was used to exclude ordinary folks from the presence of God, and how that veil of separation was utterly destroyed at the moment of Jesus’ death. For citizens of Jesus’ Kingdom, THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY once and forever!

Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus has chosen to speak TO and THROUGH ALL of his people!

In practical terms, this means that ALL of the secrecy and exclusion common in the surrounding religions is totally out of order for the people of God – even – or especially – when it is enshrined in “official” structures like denominations or conferences! The New Testament, by contrast, is replete with examples of people who, entrusted with roles of leadership, went to great pains to be certain that everything was done with the utmost integrity. From every congregation that contributed to the relief offering for Judea, Paul took along a representative to ensure its safe delivery. Peter, even tho called and specifically instructed by the Holy Spirit, took along brethren from Joppa as witnesses when he visited Cornelius. After each missionary journey, Paul and his co-workers reported back to their sending congregation at Antioch. Free-lancing was not and is not the mark of faithful leadership.

Neither is taking personal credit for what the Lord does. Very early, Peter and John had opportunity for a “glory trip” after the healing of a lame man in the temple. They overtly rejected the plaudits of the crowd,, and attributed the event to the resurrection power of Jesus. Paul and Barnabas reacted the same way to the worship offered them at Lystra (Ac.14).

There will – there must – be leadership in the Kingdom. But faithful leaders will take care that there be NO VEIL – total openness, total honesty, and the complete absence of any shred of secrecy or manipulation, is absolutely necessary.

Another safeguard which helped prevent any abuse of authority is the consistent pattern that every assignment, every “office” in the N.T. church is always spoken of in the PLURAL. In every group, apostles appointed local elders (plural) to supervise the new brotherhood. Eph.4:11 lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers (ALL PLURAL) who are to facilitate the ministries of ALL THE SAINTS. And even a cursory study of that term reveals that “saints” consistently refers, not to individuals of superior power or holiness, but to ALL the people of God. There is no hint of expectation that all the jobs in any given congregation will be filled by one or two individuals hired to “run” the church. In a faithful colony of the Kingdom, NOBODY IS OVERWORKED!! If in any congregation or denomination someone is overloaded with responsibility, then someone else – probably many ‘someone else’s’– are being cheated out of the privilege to be active in the King’s service. THE PRIMARY JOB OF ANYONE IN LEADERSHIP IS TO SEE THAT THE BODY BENEFITS FROM THE CONTRIBUTION OF EVERY BROTHER AND SISTER!!!!! The second is to be busily training his replacement.

Jesus himself had sharply defined the function of leadership in the Matthew passage we read this morning, and strictly forbidden the use of any honorary titles or deferential treatment of anyone filling ANY role. The lesson was apparently learned so well that at this distance it is difficult to determine who had what responsibilities. Steven, for example, chosen for deacon work in caring for widows, became a powerful preacher. Paul’s letters refer to “apostles” (using both male and female names) of whom Acts bear no record. Philip, also starting out as a deacon, was later known as an evangelist. The concern clearly was getting the work done, not in handing out certificates of merit or protecting anyone’s “turf”.

Jesus had stated it very clearly: “You have one Teacher and you are all brothers.” Different people may be in charge of directing different aspects of Kingdom work, but NO ONE INDIVIDUAL IS IN CHARGE!

In fact there is only one NT reference to one person being “in charge” of a local group – In III Jn.9-10 Diotrephes is chastised for speaking against elder apostles, loving to be first, refusing to welcome other brethren, in short, “running the show.”

No leader must ever be beyond challenge. Paul reported to the Galatian church about his encounter with Peter, when Peter stood in need of correction. On several other occasions he challenged the “pedigree game” and deliberately rejected the “value” of his own.

How then were assignments made? In many different ways.
Saul, who was used to giving orders, was introduced to his new role by Ananias, an obscure disciple in Damascus, who is never mentioned again. Ananias’ obedience to the Lord, however was a link in the chain that gifted the world with the ministry of Paul. Later, Barnabas took him in hand and encouraged the other apostles to accept the authenticity of his conversion. How much poorer would we be, had these two not acted in faithfulness!
Matthias (Ac.1) was chosen by lot at the initiative of the first disciples, after the congregation had chosen two nominees.
The deacons were selected by the entire congregation, to minister to an unmet need among them. The twelve, who obviously exercised a degree of authority, did not act threatened or defensive when the oversight was called to their attention. They did not call a private “ministers meeting”. They threw the issue back to those who had perceived the problem, and said, in effect, “you’re right: find some qualified folks to do the job!”
Prophets (plural) and teachers (also plural) in Antioch were enjoying a prayer meeting when the Holy Spirit spoke, directing them to call Paul and Barnabas for a special assignment.
At Lystra, Paul met a promising young man and invited Timothy to join the work.

The method of selection does not seem to have mattered.
But please notice, that IN NO INSTANCE was a permanent or even a temporary title conferred upon anyone. Jesus had forbidden that!!! Each was simply called to perform a needed function!

In view of the importance of function a look at the system in action may be helpful. A good example is the account in Acts 15. The Gentile brethren in Antioch were being hassled by some self-appointed “defenders of the faith”. The troublemakers had not come with the endorsement of the brotherhood, but on their own initiative. Discussions became heated. Consequently, the church commissioned Paul and Barnabas and some others who are not listed, to take the matter to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, who were apparently serving in a supervisory capacity. Their choice is described by the same word that is translated “ordain” in other contexts. Sent by the church, they set out, reporting as they went the work of God in calling Gentiles into his Body.

In Jerusalem, they met with “the church, the apostles, and the elders.” As they repeated their report, some folks objected: likely either the ones who had caused the problem, or some of their cohorts. At this point, (perhaps there was too much commotion to make any sense out of things!) the apostles and elders gathered to study the matter. BEFORE A JUDGMENT WAS MADE, however, ALL THE ASSEMBLY (literally “all the multitude”) listened to the testimony. In an eloquent demonstration of New Testament leadership, James summarized the argument, related it to Biblical precedent, and recommended a solution. “Then it seemed good to the apostles and elders AND THE WHOLE CHURCH, having chosen men from among them, to send them to Antioch…” Their letter speaks of “having come to one mind”, and confidently reports “It seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

Here is New Testament leadership at its best: hearing all sides, bringing them face to face, and helping them to a Scriptural consensus that results in “great rejoicing” among the brethren. THERE WAS NO CLOSED DOOR MEETING OF AN HIERARCHICAL IN-GROUP, but simply open sharing of perceived light among the citizens of the Kingdom.

Clearly, there will – there MUST – be leadership. That is to be neither lamented nor celebrated, neither sought nor avoided, but carefully controlled, and conformed, not to the pattern of the world with its executives, flow charts and committees, but to the model of our Servant King. In the Kingdom, all the citizens function together, in obedience to their ONE leader, each filling the role assigned to him at the moment, in the power of God, in faithfulness and joy.