Sometimes Now I Just Do Not Know What To Say

June 16, 2020

Words are my thing. As a preacher, words are my trade. I have been called by God to speak truth in love to all kinds of situations; to apply biblical teaching from its context to ours; to address the wonderful words of life to sometimes our less than wonderful circumstances. I take that seriously. I do my best to not allow my own agenda to get in the way (difficult at times if I am honest) to simply present God’s message. And usually I can find the words, perhaps not eloquently spoken or pleasing to all, but my best honest effort to preach and teach God’s word.

Words—typically I can find them.

Now, however, that is not always the case—particularly on matters of race. As I have witnessed the unfolding of events in our country; the reaction that they are sparking; the politicizing of it all—sometimes I do not know what to say or how to say it. I find myself swept up in diverse, often confrontive voices coming at me from different places. According to who I am speaking with, I can either be not “woke” enough or am part of the problem that is destroying our country. Some say that because of my skin color—as a white man—I have no voice at all and am inherently part of the problem. Some are asking why I am not standing up more for injustice. Others may think I have already said quite enough about it; that I need to move on to something else. I have been asked at times, “whose side are you on?” To which I’ve replied, “I am trying to be on the Lord’s side.” (Judged by the reaction—apparently those aren’t the right words either).

So now, sometimes, maybe ofttimes, I do not know what to say. I find myself struggling for words. Words to express my heartbreak over racial injustice; proper words to engage this struggle that will not trigger someone or disappoint; proper words to speak to everyone of every color struggling with the same feelings; words to do my best to encourage the maintaining of the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace among God’s people during a time that threatens to rip us apart.

I have tried silence; not adding any words to the avalanche of them that already exist on this issue, but my silence is not seen as acceptable. Plus God does call us to speak to injustice, but with the right words–his words–those I am struggling to find.

I find myself wondering—do I speak about my upbringing in the heart of the Mississippi Delta during a time of overt racism and social unrest? Do I mention my experiences in college and beyond in Mississippi as I spent a great deal of time in African-American churches of Christ; and some of the fallout I personally dealt with as a result? Is that self-serving or disingenuous? Is that making it about me and trying to prove that I  can relate or have some kind of credibility behind the words? I don’t know.

I look around our church and am thankful for the diversity. It also makes me aware of the diversity of thought—folks of all colors and backgrounds. I have to have words for them all—at least that is how I understand it. Words that will encourage growth, acceptance, understanding, repentance if necessary and most of all, love for all—knowing that not everyone is even at the same place in their spiritual journey.

It is not a new challenge. The more I understand the New Testament context and experience the struggle today, the more I am amazed that they even pulled church off. The divide between Jew and Gentile; slave and free; even male and female in that world was incredible, yet they eventually were able to bridge it—in Christ Jesus—and change an empire as a result. They had the right words—divine words to speak. I am trying my best to speak these same words to our context, but I do realize—I am not Paul or Peter or John and I certainly am not Jesus.

So please pray for me as I seek the right words to address racial injustice; to speak for the disenfranchised and overlooked; to spark growth among us all; to encourage unity; acceptance and love for one another; to help those who are confused; who feel left behind; who feel threatened; to trust all the more in Christ; to lift him up above all; to push us all to seek the kingdom first above everything else.

Sometimes now I just do not know what to say. Sometimes I just want to cry. But I also know God is calling me to find the words. So, I will keep trying—trying to be faithful to God and faithful to his people.

 


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.


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.