What Healthy Church Leadership Looks Like

October 25, 2018

HCL

What healthy church leadership looks like. This is one way to consider Paul’s first letter to Timothy in the New Testament. Paul’s beloved church at Ephesus—the one he personally spent three years nurturing after its troubled beginning (Acts 19)—was in more trouble. Just as he had foreseen (Acts 20:29-31) “wolves” even from their “own number” had arisen to “distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.”

Unable to go himself, Paul sent young Timothy to counter these false teachers and restore the Ephesian church to health. It was a tough task. In the letter Paul continually urged Timothy to “fight the good fight;” to not “let anyone look down on you because you are young;” to “command, and teach;” and to “set an example” to the church. Paul knew Timothy needed such encouragement. To counter established and embedded leadership within in a church—especially if that leadership is unhealthy—took courage and persistence. Timothy struggled. The task even seemed to make him ill, but Paul prodded him to persevere.

Truth had been distorted by the unhealthy leaders in Ephesus. Their worship time was affected. Certain restrictions were being enforced that were unhealthy and unauthorized. Some women of the congregation had been negatively influenced, exploited and were acting out in unhealthy ways. Benevolence was being mishandled and taken advantage of. People in general were being mistreated. Leadership’s love for money was a driving force in the unhealthy spirit.

Timothy was to avoid all of this, speak soundness into it, while living out a contrasting healthy leadership style before the church. This was Timothy’s task—to teach about and to live out what healthy church leadership looks like.

The Character of Healthy Leadership

Since the church in Ephesus had such a distorted and unhealthy leadership structure, they needed clarification on the kind of character God values in his leaders. This is where Paul’s instructions in 3:1-12 are so important. Paul shares character sketches of the kind of people God is calling to lead his church both as shepherds and special servants. Leading God’s people is noble—highly needed and valued, but only for those who feel called and those who have the right heart and character.

Paul first speaks to elders. He outlines how those who desire to shepherd the flock must have a character beyond reproach. This character must be seen not just at church but also at home—in his commitment to his wife and family—and in the community. He must have the right temperament; the ability to discipline himself in all situations; know how to treat and welcome people and know how to teach. He should have healthy motivations; not given to addiction, extremes or flattery. He needs experience and sound judgment. These are the kind of men God needs—healthy and servant-minded—to shepherd God’s flock. Healthy leaders who will produce healthy churches—something not happening at Ephesus.

Next Paul offers a similar description of the healthy character of deacons (and either their wives or deaconesses). Those who serve the church in this way are also to be people who are worthy of respect; self-controlled, honest, clear minded and properly motivated, experienced in serving, trustworthy, not trouble makers—demonstrating their faith at home within their family.

All of this is what healthy church leadership looks like. It is the way leadership “ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth,” Paul remarks.

Again, contextually this is not what leadership looked like in Ephesus. Again, Timothy’s ministry there was to change that. To take Paul’s teaching, live it out, teach it, and bring about the changes needed within that church.

In our context we read and learn; we also are to live it out and teach it. Healthy church leadership is all too vital. As leadership goes, so goes the church. Ephesus is an example of what happens when it all goes bad. We do not ever want to be there. That is why Paul’s teaching remains ever crucial. It remains crucial when churches look to identify and add leadership. It remains crucial for those who are called to leadership. It remains crucial if churches are to be healthy.

Practical Applications

Lived out, this kind of healthy leadership also includes being:

  • Purposeful: Healthy leadership understands their purpose—to shepherd the flock—and intentionally lives that out. They are purposeful in protecting, nurturing, guiding, loving and caring for the sheep.
  • Progressive: In that, they have vision for the sheep and plan for ways to continue the growth of the sheep. They are forward thinking. They do not let the sheep remain in same pasture until there is no more food to sustain them.
  • Present: Shepherds stay with the sheep. The only reason they leave is to go find the one lamb that has wandered away. This is the only way the shepherd will know the sheep and they will recognize his voice.
  • Prayerful: This may be obvious, but it still needs stating. Healthy leaders spend much time in prayer for those they lead.

Healthy leadership like that Timothy was to teach and demonstrate (and what we continue to need in churches now) is to be:

…diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Preserve in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (4:15-16).

This is what healthy church leadership looks like.

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Remember These Things

October 18, 2018

Everything

The story of the second epistle of Peter is quite fascinating. Likely written to the same collection of Christians and churches in some provinces of Asia Minor as his first letter, Peter sets out to correct some misunderstandings and expose some false teachers. There is urgency to his writing due to his impending death—foretold to him by Christ (1:14). So, he writes asking his readers to “make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things” (1:15).

God Empowers (1:3-11)

Before he addresses the heresy, character and accusations of the false teachers and their destructive work among these churches, he begins the correspondence by reminding them just how incredible is the power of God at work within them (and us). He does so, no doubt, to provide reminding fortification to these Christians that God empowered them to do his will; provided for them to do his will; and invited them to fully participate in his will. To this end they should get after it, adding the tools God provided for them to get it done—knowledge; self-control; perseverance; godliness, brotherly kindness; and love. These virtues would empower them to overcome evil while producing within them the divine nature. These virtues also stood in stark contrast with the character of the false teachers, who were “nearsighted and blind” having “forgotten that he has been cleansed of his past sin.”

These virtues would also enable these Christians to ensure their “calling and election” even as the false teachers attempted to undermine it. It would also ensure that they would not fall into their traps and snares. The end result would be a welcome—not to the kind of folly represented in the false teaching, but into the very eternal kingdom of God. In order for these churches to withstand the false teaching being pushed upon them and to be able to expose the false teachers for who they were, Peter knew they needed to know they could—that God empowered them with everything they needed, not just for that specific challenge, but for all challenges.

Peter’s Purpose (1:12-21)

Here Peter states why he is writing with urgency and begins to address some of the accusations of the false teachers hurting these churches. One of the methods they used to attempt to destroy Peter’s influence was to claim that he and the other apostles simply made up their teachings about Christ. So Peter reaffirms and restates his case as an eye and ear witness to everything he had shared about Jesus. He was there. His message was not some “cleverly invented stories” as the false teachers propagated. Further the prophets also give witness to Christ. They did not make the stories up either, but spoke from God as the Holy Spirit led them. Listen to them, not the false teachers. Peter’s word and the prophet’s word—a much better and reliable witness than these false teachers—whose character and intent Peter would expose and shred to pieces in the next section.

False Teachers Exposed (2:1-22)

As Peter exposes and takes down the false teachers—“springs without water and mists driven by a storm”—it becomes clear how they operated and what their aim was. Their goal was to destroy any and all of the healthy influence and teaching they had received from Peter and the other apostles and replace it with a self-serving, “freedom” based doctrine that allowed them to exploit these churches in order to achieve their goals—basically stated—money and sex.

These teachers operated smoothly, of course, using familiar terms while twisting them at the same time (it seems likely that one example of such would be the purposeful mishandling of some of Paul’s teaching—perhaps Romans 6 on grace and freedom—since Peter mentions Paul and how some of his teaching is “hard to understand”—3:15-16). The stories of the false teachers were the ones “made up”—not what Peter witnessed to them. He makes it clear that these teachers stand in shameful condemnation

But these teachers had found a standing in these churches through their secretive agendas and accusations. Another such accusation claimed that there really was no real reckoning coming. After all, nothing much had changed over the generations, so God really was not going to bring about any kind of judgment. This accusation coupled with a false understanding of freedom would open the way for the false teachers to justify their actions—a way to reframe their evil agendas in a way to actually put God’s stamp of approval on them. Peter was having none of this. He mentions three Old Testament examples of God’s reckoning (along with God’s rescue for the righteous) and affirms it is coming for the false teachers.

Next Peter exposes their ungodly character. He does not hold back in describing just how depraved they were–arrogant, blasphemers, carousers, blots, blemishes, adulterers, greedy, and accursed. He compares them to Balaam—something no one would ever welcome. Their teaching was useless and destructive—just a means to get what they really wanted—exploiting and deceiving the church to gain money and sexual favors. They boasted in freedom, but yet were truly slaves to their lusts. In a stark illustration, Peter describes them as pigs returning to the mud and dogs returning to their vomit. Once enlightened perhaps by the knowledge of Christ, these teachers now had returned to the vile filth of the world and were attempting to drag these churches down with them.

The Day of the Lord (3:1-18)

In this last section Peter deals with one more accusation, that is, that the return of Christ is not going to happen. This was the claim of the false teachers—the scoffers—who had infiltrated these churches. Not true is Peter’s response calling them to remember the days of Noah. Jesus will return Peter affirms, but is being held back by the Father, who is patient beyond our understanding and desires to give everyone in every generation the opportunity for salvation. God’s patience is not merely measured in days and years. He is not thusly limited, but even so “the day of the Lord” will come—most certainly and unexpectedly.

When he comes the heavens and earth will undergo a fiery transformation—elements laid bare; stripped clean; evil destroyed. What remains will be “a new heaven and new earth, the home of righteousness.” No place here for the false teachers and what they are peddling. So Peter asks in light of this information, “what kind of people ought you to be?” He answers his own question, “You ought to live holy and godly lives.” (Both the question and the answer still vitally pertinent and true today.) Don’t listen to the false teachers. Jesus is coming, but God is patient. Embrace his salvation and live it out in purity and peace. Don’t listen to the false teachers. Listen to the apostles—to Paul—not to the distortion of Paul offered by these “ignorant and unstable” teachers. They are out of control and headed for destruction—don’t follow them! Guard against them. This is what Peter wants them to remember.

 


A Marriage Theology

March 15, 2018

marriage-prep

In his first correspondence with the “church of God” at Corinth, the apostle Paul dives waist deep into the Corinthians marriage troubles. These were not typical marriage troubles—more like extreme marriage troubles, as in an extreme misunderstanding of what constituted holiness within a marriage.

Two overriding circumstances drive Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7—both are vital to understanding this text:

  • Apparently the Corinthians somehow had come to a conclusion that all sexual activity was immoral—even within marriage—that abstaining from sex even when married was the best choice to avoid defiling God’s temple, the body. This is what Paul first responds to (7:1—not to “touch” means not to engage in sex with), which provides the framework for the rest of the chapter.
  • “The present crisis.” It is crucial to realize that Paul’s answer to their marriage questions were framed by some type of urgent crisis—specific to that situation. The crisis is not identified for us. Some have speculated it could have been famine, persecution or some other challenging circumstance. Whatever it was, Paul makes clear it would be easier faced alone if at all possible. Perhaps if this crisis had not existed at that moment, his answers might have been different. There is no way for us to know, but this does have significance to unpacking this section of Scripture.

Moving into the text, it is vital to know how these two points inform and frame every bit of marriage theology Paul shares.

Enjoy the Marriage Bed (1-9)

Immediately Paul counters the idea that sex even within marriage is unholy. The extreme idea of the Corinthians that sex was somehow too dirty even for husband and wife was incorrect. Rather—couples have a responsibility to one another in this regard. They belong to each other in this way, so enjoy—do not withhold sex from one another. What they were promoting was not holiness—it was dangerous. Satan could seize it and create real trouble.

Understanding the nature of the flesh and of Satan, this was Paul’s best advice. He did not command it so, but conceded it. In his opinion the best practice was celibacy, but he knew not everyone shared that gift with him. (At this writing Paul was single, but he might not always have been so—Acts 6:10; Philippians 3:4-6.) To those who did not share this gift—the “unmarried and the widows” Paul advised them to marry rather than “burn with passion.” The overall point of this section—enjoying sexual relationships within marriage is a natural part of that relationship. While singleness may be preferable considering the current crisis, marriage is preferable to singleness if temptation and lust are the alternatives.

One note—the word rendered “unmarried” in verse 8 is only used by Paul in Scripture and only used here in this text—four times (verses 11, 32, & 34 also). He uses it to differentiate the unmarried from the widows (who obviously are unmarried). The meaning of the word for Paul would have likely included those who had been divorced. Our versions translate it using our broad term for all unmarried, but contextually Paul seems to use it in a different way, which would have included those divorced.

Christian Couples (10-11)

Out of the idea that abstaining from sex within a marriage might be a godly approach, some Christian couples apparently took it a step further to consider dissolving their marriages altogether. Paul speaks to this next. He references Christ’s teaching (Matthew 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12) to reinforce the marriage bond. Absolutely these couples should honor their marriage vows—no reason to consider divorce even under the current distress. Even if separation occurs—work it out or remain single. No drastic changes needed to occur considering the circumstances.

Mixed Marriages (12-16)

The next question Paul considers is the validity of marriages in which a Christian is joined to an unbeliever. Are these marriages sacred? Should a Christian remain in them? Paul answers in the affirmative—if at all possible—except in this situation he has no direct teaching from Christ to reference. Instead he offers his apostolic advice based upon the overall circumstance and what is best for the family. The presence of the Christian within this type of marriage brings a sanctifying aspect to the union—to the unbelieving spouse and to their children, if present. Like the leaven Christ mentioned—the believer could be God’s instrument to bring salvation to the rest of the family. So Paul instructs the believer to stay within that marriage. Of course the unbeliever may see things differently and abandon the marriage. If so, Paul advises the believer to accept that for the sake of peace. In this situation the believer is not bound to the departed unbeliever and would be free then to pursue remarriage.

Stay Where You Are (17-24)

After answering their specific questions Paul offers some general advice to all of the Corinthians. Again, considering the overall context of the crisis, he suggests the best course is for everyone to remain exactly as they were when called by Christ. If married—stay married. If single—remain that way. Don’t try to abandon your ethnicity—nothing to gain in doing so at this point. He even advises slaves to not seek their freedom unless an obvious opportunity arises. From Paul’s perspective this was the least complicated situation from which each person could most effectively serve God. He stated this was his rule for all the churches, but he also knew not everyone would be able to keep it. Already in the text he has make exceptions and he will continue to do so.

Never Married? (25-35)

Now Paul addresses the “virgins” or those never married. Once more he has no direct word from Jesus to consider, so he offers his own judgment based upon the “present crisis” and encourages those never married to stay that way if at all possible. He realizes not all can accept this and once more allows for marriage (while again instructing those married to remain so), but foresees potential trouble for such marriages. This could mean the coming of persecution; the effects of a famine—whatever the crisis was—Paul thought it to be impending and being single with no dependents would be the best way to face it. Being single under these circumstances would also be the best possible way to serve God with “undivided devotion”.

To Those Engaged (36-38)

Some in the Corinthian church were engaged. What about them? Paul leaves that decision up to those in that relationship. If for reasons of conscience, age, or self-control, the decision to marry is made, so be it—marry. But if the decision is made to not marry, that too, is permissible. Couples should feel no compulsion—in such stressful times—to honor their engagement. Both are good, but being consistent, Paul concludes being single is the better option.

Christian Widows (39-40)

He concludes his marriage Q&A in the same manner. Christian widows would be best served to remain single—she would be “happier” is his judgment. He acknowledges their freedom to remarry, instructs them if they do so to only marry another Christian, but fortifies his instruction to remain single by speaking as one who has “the Spirit of God.” This was Paul’s way of putting the divine, authoritative apostolic seal on his teaching in this text. In his ministry Christ did not address all of these specific situations, but Paul, inspired by the Spirit of God has the authority to do so—creating a marriage theology consistent with and flowing from that of Christ.

Now?

As we go about applying these teachings to our own current situations, it is imperative that we understand their context of impending crisis. The takeaways for us remain: It is less complicated to serve God as a single person. Not all have the gift of celibacy. Marriage is holy and honorable including the sexual component—commit to make it work in every way. However if abandoned or widowed—the marriage bond is broken. Remarriage is possible, but don’t rush and if desired–find a good Christian mate. The overall goal is to make sure God is served first whether married or single.

 


Slaves and Other Brothers

March 2, 2018

57.PHILEMON.1

The apostle Paul’s New Testament letter we recognize as Philemon, carries incredible impact for such a brief correspondence. Its messages are revolutionary and transformational. It is a deeply personal letter. It is all about a slave named Onesimus.

First let’s identify Philemon. He was likely a wealthy man due to slaves within his household. He was non-Jewish and known by Paul. He lived in a city named Colossae and obviously was a very crucial part of the church there since it met in his house.

Now, let’s briefly consider this church. It most probably was planted by a man named Epaphras (Colossians 1:7; 4:12; Philemon 23) and/or by Philemon himself. Either could have heard the gospel during Paul’s ministry stay in Ephesus and then returned home to Colossae to start the church. However it occurred, Philemon became a friend and co-worker of not only Epaphras but of Paul also.

Slavery in Ancient Rome

This brings us back to Onesimus. He was a slave owned by Philemon, thus making him a part of his household and subject to whatever jobs or duties Philemon chose. Slavery in the Roman context was not racially driven. Slaves could be any nationality. Many were losers in border wars in the ever-expanding Roman Empire. Some volunteered enslavement to pay off debt. Others were the product of generational slavery—the offspring of slaves. Numerous unfortunate pathways could take someone to the slave block in Rome. However Onesimus got there—he was there. He had extremely limited rights; was the sole property of and at the complete mercy (or often lack thereof) of his owner. His value lay in whatever he produced for his owner. The hope of buying himself out of slavery (a practice called “manumission”) existed, but only a small percentage of slaves were ever able to do so. Onesimus certainly benefited from having a Christian owner, but still a slave’s life in Rome was a slave’s life—it was not their own.

So Onesimus ran away from home and from Philemon (which was far from legal and put Onesimus in great danger if caught). He ran to Rome and eventually to Philemon’s friend Paul, who was himself imprisoned there. Influenced by Paul, Onesimus became a Christian and a significant aid to Paul (vss. 11-12). This then created a dilemma—what to do with the now-Christian runaway slave of a friend and brother?

Legally Paul could have been complicit in harboring Onesimus. It was a tricky situation. Paul’s answer? Suggest something quite revolutionary!

“ As a Dear Brother”

Paul’s solution to this dilemma on the surface sounds quite simple. He asked Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave, “but better than a slave, as a dear brother…even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (vs. 15-16). This simple request, however, masked many complexities and certainly challenged Philemon to reconsider relationships in the Lord.

In the Roman context slaves were in no way socially equal to their owners. In no area of life did the barrier between slave and owner not exist. Slaves were property—no more, no less. An owner would never view a slave as his equal; never treat him like a brother. To do so would have been scandalous and no proper Roman would ever consider it for the briefest of moment.

Add to that the fact that Onesimus had cheated Philemon in some manner before he ran away. Perhaps he stole something on his way out or had been slack in performing his job. The specifics are not clear, but Paul recognizes the situation. Certainly Onesimus had briefed him on it.

So stop to consider what Paul is asking of Philemon—to not only receive back this slave who cheated him and ran away from him; but also to receive him back without penalty or punishment AND no longer as a slave but as a brother–an equal! What an incredible request!

On what basis could Paul request such a scandalous action? On something actually more scandalous—the cross of Christ! While not specifically mentioned, it underscores Paul’s reasoning to Philemon. First, it changed and redefined Onesimus just as it had Philemon. Onesimus was now a new man—from slave to free in Jesus; a son and dear brother to Paul and therefore to Philemon. Second, Christ was the very reason Paul and Philemon were friends and co-workers in the faith—now Onesimus shared in this partnership. Third, Paul was willing to pay the ransom (just as Christ had paid for all) for the transgression of Onesimus. “Charge it to me” says Paul (vs. 18). Paul put himself in the role of redeemer and reconciler–at least in regards to the wrong committed by Onesimus against Philemon.

This course of action recommended by Paul undermined all social norms and supported his call for a brand new community—one not bound by earthly constructs but defined by heavenly values. One he described to Philemon and the church that met in his house as:

Here there is no Greek or Jew; circumcised or uncircumcised; barbarian; Scythian; slave or free, but Christ is all and in all. (Colossians 3:11. See also Galatians 3:28)

Now was test time for Philemon. Could he live this out? Would he be courageous enough to put this to practice? Would he run the risk to his reputation and to his household to honor Paul’s revolutionary request? Could he ever see a slave as his equal in Christ?

Will We?

Think about the transformational themes within the brief book:

  • Forgiveness
  • Redemption
  • Reconciliation
  • Equality

These are among the hallmarks of the new community of Christ. This community exists to destroy the harmful, artificial, and oppressive culture of the world and replace it with a community of grace, justice and mercy–a community where all are equally welcome based upon freedom in Christ. Only through Christ can this ever be accomplished.

This still presents quite the challenge to our way of thinking. Christ levels the playing field. The same grace that saves me—saves everyone. I am in no way superior than anyone else. My relationship with others in Christ should trump all accepted social and cultural norms. Being ashamed of your sister or brother (Romans 1:16; Galatians 2:11) is not acceptable. In Christ we are all one—all equal— as slaves and other friends and brothers. That is the revolutionary nature of God’s community to which Philemon and us were called to live out.


The Often Complicated Ministry of the Apostle Paul

February 22, 2018

2cor4_8-9

The brief New Testament letter of 1 Thessalonians offers us a fascinating glimpse into the often-complicated ministry of the apostle Paul. His transition from hardcore Jewish legalist and Christian persecutor (see Acts 9:1-2 & Philippians 3:5) to special missionary and apostle to the Non-Jews came with baggage. Some in his former community did not appreciate his conversion and new emphasis. They opposed him at almost every stop along his missionary journeys—even seeking once to kill him (Acts 23:12-35). More often this opposition metastasized in the form of fierce criticism within the local church context in an attempt to undermine his credibility and authority. Such was the case in Thessalonica.

Dangerous Duty

Acts 17:1-15 chronicles the story of Paul’s experience in Thessalonica. After initially finding quite the receptive audience in the local Synagogue among a few Jews, some God-fearing Gentiles along with several prominent women, things turned ugly. “Jealous” because of Paul’s success, some Jews in the city rounded up some “bad characters” and created a mob scene by rushing to the house where they assumed Paul would be. This led to false accusations and more chaos before city officials. A man named Jason, who had hosted Paul, caught the brunt of the trouble. Paul, along with his traveling companion, Barnabas, was able to slip away after nightfall and escape to nearby Berea. This should have been the end of the story, but upon hearing that Paul was teaching in the synagogue there, the Thessalonian Jews followed him, “agitating the crowds and stirring them up.” Once again, Paul had to make a hasty departure—this time to Athens.

As a result of this dangerous duty Paul had to abandon his ministry in Thessalonica much sooner than he desired. This is evident when reading the first Thessalonian letter. Also evident is the continued attempts to harass Paul’s name and create doubt within the church about his motives and authenticity.

The Letter

It is a masterpiece of Paul’s writing. He wonderfully lifts up the Thessalonian Christians for their steadfastness in the face of opposition. He expressed his joy over the health and growth of the church in spite of the difficulties. He reminded them they were chosen by God to be his people and upheld them as a model church. He had some teaching to do as well in correcting some eschatological misunderstandings. He also addressed some moral concerns and church matters common to all infant churches, which were not necessarily related to the other circumstances.

He does express his regret in not being able to stay with them longer, but recognizes that in spite of that, his ministry among them was successful. His only agenda while among them was to share Christ and do God’s will. He reminds them that he and his team did not burden them in any way financially, but worked to support themselves. He was proud of their progress in the faith—much like a parent with a child. He wanted to make it clear to them that he and his efforts were above reproach unlike those who opposed him. He longed to be able to return and spend more time with them.

“Hard Pressed on Every Side”

This is how Paul described his ministry in 2 Corinthians 4:8. That too was in a context of heavy criticism and challenge to Paul’s authority in a local church context. Like in Thessalonica, some in Corinth were attempting to undermine his ministry. To defend himself against those critics whom he labeled false teachers, he reluctantly shared his substantial resume and concluded with this:

Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak and I do not feel weak? Who is led to sin and I do not inwardly burn? (See 2 Corinthians 11:1-33 for the full context)

Slammed for leaving Judaism; opposed for introducing the gospel to the Gentiles; criticized for receiving support to spread the gospel and accused of preaching merely for financial gain; made fun of because of his appearance and lack of speaking eloquence; accused of teaching cheap grace; characterized as being a paper tiger—bold to write letters, but timid when face-to-face; and finally arrested for his proclamation of Jesus to all people; Paul’s ministry was indeed often complicated with forces opposing him from both within and without the church. Yet he constantly carried with him the daily  concern for all the churches.

The Thessalonian situation was certainly a part of this concern. Specifically his critics in that city and within that church accused him of exploitation, greed, and deception, of impure and improper agendas. The point of the criticism—like all of it—was to destroy Paul’s influence within the church so a takeover could occur. This happened repeatedly in Paul’s ministry. The motivation for the takeover varied. Sometimes it was monetary gain. Sometimes it was doctrinal. Sometimes it was ego. Envy and hatred were among the driving forces. It was never healthy.

The Jews attempting to cripple Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica were just another group pressing hard against Paul. They were among those making a career out of opposing the gospel; of opposing Jews who expressed faith in Christ; of opposing inviting Gentiles into a relationship with God through Jesus. The idea that they “always heap up their sins to the limit” (1 Thessalonians 2:16) was Paul’s way of saying that they were leaving no stone unturned in their fight against him and the gospel. They were going to use every measure and go to any extreme to stop the spread of Christianity.

Paul was willing to endure it for the sake of the church (see 2 Timothy 2:10). And about all of these complications that were pressing on every side? Here is the rest of that story:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Paul was opposed but never defeated. All attempts to short-circuit the gospel failed. God cut through the complications. He still does. There is no time for pity-parties in the kingdom. Capturing the singular passion and purpose of Paul is our challenge. We still have God’s treasures in our jars of clay. Nothing can stand against that all-surpassing power. Paul understood. Do we?


The Legacy of Choseness

January 18, 2018

chosen

Romans 9-11 is not easy treading. These chapters represent the core of the apostle Paul’s response to the struggles of integrating both Jew and non-Jews equally into the Roman churches.

In this text Paul reveals his own struggles for his people; expressing his passion for Israel, while also explaining why Israel is now about more than genetics. It is a fascinating section of Scripture, which offers us an incredible glimpse into how a sovereign God operates to accomplish his will, which includes exploring the notion of God’s choseness.

In my faith family–the churches of Christ–the idea of choseness (or election) has not historically been a topic of much consideration. We have tended to dismiss these ideas in opposing Calvinism and/or the doctrine of predestination. Yet when we read Paul in these texts it sounds like God is up to something that seems fairly similar.

All About Context

Just as a reminder—what Paul is teaching flows directly out of the situation in Rome—a situation over which the Jewish Christians there were stumbling. Paul masterfully weaves history, Scripture, and theology to present the case that it was always God’s intent to include non-Jews into his covenant of promise. If the Jews had been paying close attention to the prophets they would have known that God had long planned to take the wild olive branch and graft it onto the cultivated olive tree. He did what he had to do with whom he had to do it for all of that history to play out—so when Jesus arrived to accomplish it, all would be ready. This was no slight to Jewish people however. It was supposed to be an honor—they were actually chosen for this—to be God’s instrument to share his Good News. And even though they did stumble over this, God still has not forgotten them. Those branches that died falling off the olive tree can very well be brought to life again and grafted back. God desires for all Israel to be saved. So it is a win-win situation. God’s grace is extended to all people of every nation with that cultivated olive tree—Jewish nation leading the way. Being chosen has its privileges.

Is God Unfair by Choosing?

This was a question asked of Paul in reply to his teaching by those in the Roman church. After all, from the womb God chose Jacob over Esau. In the Genesis narrative we witness this approach repeated often. On the surface it seems quite unfair. Paul’s answer was startling. God is God and we are not! God is his sovereignty has the right to do what he wants—to show mercy upon whom he desires. None of this redemption story depends upon our efforts anyway (9:16). It is all God-originated. Everything he has and continues to do is for the express purpose of furthering this story. How he has decided to do it is not for us to question—just as the clay does not question the mastery of the potter. It is not unfair at all—it is how we got to where we are. Our call is to not stumble over this, but embrace it; to trust explicitly in God and find our place within The Story. If God has chosen us—what exactly does that mean?

We have Grace to Share

Contextually it meant that the Jewish people had the wonderful privilege of being God’s instrument to share their covenanted blessings with others. How could others hear without the preacher sharing it with them? Who better to share than those most acquainted with faith? Yet some within the Jewish community refused their calling and election—so God rejected them. But as God extended his blessings to others, he still did not forget Israel. He did what he had to do, but continues to hold the door open for their full return. It is called grace—exactly the result of everything God set out to do. Every choice; every action of kindness or sternness; everyone chosen to be involved along the way; all of it for this:

So, too at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer works, if it were, grace would no longer be grace. (11:6)

There will always be the remnant chosen by grace or else everything God accomplished is for naught.

Our Choseness

Now consider what Peter says in light of the Romans text:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9; See also Ephesians 1:3-14)

See any similarities?

We are here—a people of faith in the exact same way Israel was—because God chose us. He chose to create us a little lower than the angels; took care of our sin problem when we could not and arranged a way for us to enjoy a full relationship with him through Christ Jesus. He elevated us above our own status based only upon his desire for us—nothing we ever did or could do. Just like he chose Jacob from the womb based upon his sovereign will he chose us. We are now a part of royalty—a people made holy—for God’s special use, that is, to speak his praises into the dark world yet aware that they have been chosen too. (Which by-the-way is exactly what Paul was trying to get the Jews in the Roman context to understand.)

So what can we learn from this:

  • We are now the chosen of God
  • The promised blessings for the chosen will occur, but individual participation in them still requires a faith response
  • Being chosen does not shield from failures and difficulties
  • The chosen still are to answer a missional call
  • All of this is predicated upon the act and will of God. He alone makes it all possible—so that none of us can boast in our choseness. And the NT makes it even more abundantly clear that what motivated him to do so is his deep and abiding love for us (John 3:16; 1 John4: 7-8)
  • Like the Jews–we can reject our choseness, but God will never give up on pursuing us

We do have a legacy of choseness. It should excite and motivate us. We should rejoice in being God’s elect and get on with the serious business that involves. By faithfully living it out and sharing it with others—we give witness to  The Story among those yet aware of the grace they also have access to in Christ Jesus.

 


Why Be Wretched?

January 11, 2018

wretched

First, let’s set the context—without it the story is difficult to discern. The Roman church of the apostle Paul’s day had some complications. Jewish and non-Jewish Christians did not play well together. Outside forces factored in (Jew’s banishment from the city of Rome by Emperor Claudius around 49 A.D. for approximately five years), but inside factors were driving the tension. The Jewish church wanted the non-Jewish church to honor and keep the Law (as in the Torah, Law of Moses). For them it still held substantial meaning even as they followed Christ. It was their heritage and embedded securely within their identity. No way they could worship God without it being somehow a part of the process. Circumcision, the Jewish calendar, dietary practices, etc. were simply too deeply ingrained to abandon. Paul understood. He was Jewish. It was not an issue as long as Christ was honored and followed above it all. One small item however—the non-Jews were exempt. The Law and those cherished practices were basically meaningless to them. They did not come to Christ through it. It did not enhance their relationship to Christ. In fact it actually got in the way. They were not expected to honor it. But this irritated many Jewish Christians. They wanted church done their way and so the struggle of which Paul’s divine correspondence addresses. Numerous lessons for us to learn in this letter, but for now let’s consider Romans 7-8.

The Law’s Failure

Or more precisely stated—our human failure. In this text Paul expertly affirms the purpose, strength and significance of the Law while at the same time detailing its weakness.

The Law itself was good—God’s covenant to us for generations. It was his marriage contract, but it expired. A death—Christ’s—annulled it and his resurrection ushered in a new contract/covenant, one vastly superior. The Law’s failure was that it could not release us from condemnation. It only served to remind us of our weaknesses. The Law was not at fault for this—we were. Sin used the Law to exploit our weaknesses and remind us of how truly wretched we are. Just like Paul, it left us conflicted and guilty—never able to extract ourselves from the consequences of sin regardless of how diligently we tried. So while we may want to be right, we end up wrong—evil always right there with us as Paul described it. That is not a good position in which to remain and just a quick glimpse at the Jew’s historical relationship with God demonstrates it. So, why desire that status quo? Why force that on other unsuspecting folks? Why be wretched when there is another option?

That option, of course, is Christ. In him there is absolutely no condemnation. He did what we could not; what the Law could not—set us free from the life of sin and death. Through him and God’s Spirit our sinful nature can be defeated. No more living in constant conflict! Instead we develop the mind of the Spirit. He empowers us. Our obligations are met as we live as more than conquerors. That is the story of the text! Incredible!

But let’s be honest—are we actually living this story?

Still Clinging to the Superficial?

The message is clear. Christ has done the job for us. In him we are set free. Our sinful nature no longer has to hold us captive. Life in the Spirit is something altogether more and wonderful. So why do we continue to find ourselves stuck in the middle of the wretched disconnect of knowing what is right and actually doing right?

Could it be that we have never really moved beyond the superficial to fully embrace the Spirit-led life? Could it be that we continue the worn out practice of attempting to measure our faith by our own merit? In our hearts do we find some comfort in measuring our Christian performance by some standard other than the grace of God? Actually we are prewired to do this. It is not the Law or the same situation of our text, but it is the exact same tendencies. And as long as we go here—we lose. We will never be able to develop a deeper relationship with God or fully develop within us the Spirit-led life. And we will forever be failing even as we redouble our efforts to work harder to take up the slack. The story here is—it is not up to us to tackle our sin problem. We are unable to take up the slack. Christ has already done that. What is up to us—is to follow him.

Now this may come across as too fine a nuance, but it is actually much more than that. Following him does not become about what we do, but who we are. The Spirit resides within totally remaking us from the inside out. It is not about a law, it is about a life—a discipled life fueled by faith. God’s nature becomes our nature instead of our sinful nature. His will becomes our natural default, not merely a set of facts to remember. Our relationship with him empowered by and through his Spirit supersedes all else. The Spirit enables us to realize a deeper level of commitment—not based upon performance, but upon what Christ has delivered: no condemnation; sonship; adoption; the inheritance of the Father. This reconstructs our very makeup. We begin to yearn—not for things of this world—but for what is to come in Christ. Apart from Christ we cannot even begin to define our life. It makes no sense without him. We cannot even fathom being separated from the Father.

Everything else—not our approach to Christ—becomes superficial. No more hesitation on selling completely out to him. If not, then it goes back to this—“O wretched man that I am”— that is, either always guilty and hopeless on one hand or self-righteous and sanctimonious on the other.

What does that accomplish? Nothing healthy. The Romans are evidence of that. Is this who we really want to be? Why stay here when there is amazingly more to experience in Christ?

Wretchedness?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.