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Monday, June 13th, 2011

Fear is not what makes you a coward.  Fear exists in courage as well as cowardice.

Cowardice comes from a loss of identity–misunderstanding who you are and what your role is in God’s plan.

Ernest Hemingway said, “Cowardice…is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend functioning of the imagination.”  A person is a coward when his imagination runs wild and blinds him to reality.  He makes wrong choices because he is so scared of fiction that he can’t see the truth.

Cowardice is not one of those sins we discuss much, but the Bible teaches that cowards are first in line to the lake that burns with fire and brimstone (Rev. 21:8).  The reason why God is so hard on cowards is that cowardice is indicative of a heart that is more afraid of its own shadow than him.  Cowards are the worst offenders because they convince themselves that the physical illusion is more dangerous than the true spiritual threat.

Culture and the Church

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Should the church adapt to its culture? This is the question many concerned Christians are asking as they struggle for relevance in the world.

The Emerging Church Movement answers this question with a resounding yes. Its leaders would rather embrace culture than run from it, which is what many Christians appear to be doing. They say the traditional church is not reaching the lost, and it’s hard to argue with them. The percentage of people who call themselves some type of Christ has dropped more than 11 percent in a generation. When it comes to New Testament churches, we have not even been able to keep pace with the U.S. population, growing an abysmal 1.6 percent since 1980. Emergents say Christians must look more like the world around them if they are going to reach the lost.

The idea that God’s people need to adapt to their culture is nothing new. At the end of the period of the judges, Israel approached Samuel in his old age and said, “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5). Samuel read their request as a rejection of his leadership, but God revealed that it was more than that. “They have not rejected you,” he said, “but they have rejected me” (1 Sam. 8:7). It seems, at least from this example, that God’s people must consider more than culture as they approach their world. In some cases, embracing culture means rejecting God.

When you think about it, culture is a shaky foundation for churches. Our world is constantly changing. What happens to the church that adapts to its culture when the styles change in twenty years? When culture is the main consideration, Christians lose their footing.

Furthermore, there is the problem of compromise. The church is necessarily caught in a tension of trying to reach the world without becoming a part of it. Jesus knew the challenge, calling his disciples to be in the world, but not of the world (Jn. 17:15-16).

Perhaps we should listen to the strategy of the most successful evangelist in history, the apostle Paul. Writing to the church at Corinth, he said, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). At first this sounds like adapting to the culture is Paul’s primary concern. But then he says, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:23). Here is the secret to how far we may go in our quest for relevance. We must not forget the reason why Christ left us in the world in the first place. We are here to preach the gospel. If we adapt the church until it becomes another part of the world, we have failed our mission. The gospel is our anchor in changing tides. As long as it is central to our efforts, we won’t make the mistake of our Israelite forerunners.

Looking for new ways to reach the lost is fine. We just need to keep our mission before us so that we don’t find ourselves in a senseless exercise of attracting our neighbors by reject the God who sent us to rescue them.

Baptism’s Message to Others

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

There is no question that baptism benefits the person who is being baptized.  “Baptism…now saves you,” says Peter, “not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21).  Jesus himself said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved…” (Mark 16:16).  When we obey the Lord’s command to be immersed in water, our old, sinful lives are buried, our souls are brought into contact with the saving blood of Jesus, and we are raised to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4).

The benefits of baptism to the person being baptized are clearly worth discussing, but there is more to consider.  Have you thought about what your baptism can do for others?

Whereas faith and repentance comprise the internal process of conversion in the soul, baptism and confession make up the external side of that transformation.  Baptism is visible evidence of what is going on in the soul of a person who has come to believe in and give his life to Christ.

Many well-known evangelists have spiritualized away baptism, emphasizing the internal process of conversion and denying the necessity of baptism.  Baptism, they argue, is an outward work and therefore can be excluded from God’s plan of salvation.  Works of men, after all, cannot justify sinners (Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9).

First of all, baptism is not a work of men.  Baptism comes by the “powerful working of God” (Col. 2:12).

That being said, there is a perfectly good reason why God requires something as physical and external as baptism before he will restore the soul of a sinner.  Baptism is an important testimony of faith.  It is a statement of the genuineness of conversion and membership in the body of Christ.

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he left his disciples with the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20).  Why did he demand that his disciples baptize believers “in the name of” the Godhead?  According to H. Leo Boles, the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit denotes the combined authority of the Godhead.  When you’re baptized in this manner, your baptism is brought into actual subjection to divine authority.  This says, “From now on I am not my own.  I belong to God.  I am replacing my will with his.”

Not only does baptism proclaim an exchange of the wills, but it also marks one’s entrance into the body of Christ.  When the multitude in Jerusalem on Pentecost were baptized, they were “added” to the church (Acts 2:41, 47).  Paul said, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…” (1 Cor. 12:13).  Without baptism, there would be no public statement of membership in the church.

Believers are baptized to answer God’s request and receive their own salvation.  But there is also a sense in which they are baptized for others—baptism is an important testimony of faith.  Have you communicated your submission to God and membership in the Lord’s body through baptism?

The Scum of the World

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Oscar Wilde once called sarcasm the lowest form of wit, which in itself may have been sarcastic, seeing as how Wilde was known for his biting irony.

The word “sarcasm” comes from a Greek term (sarkazo) meaning “to tear flesh” and refers to a cutting, often ironic remark intended to wound those who are within its range.

Readers might be surprised to find sarcasm in the Bible. There are plenty of examples. Elijah poked fun at the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kgs. 18:27), and Isaiah shined a light on the truth about idols, mocking the ironsmiths and carpenters who constructed idols from raw materials, burned the leftovers for fuel, and fell down to worship the work of their own hands (Is. 44:12-17). Even Jesus was known to use irony. Who could forget his saying about the man with a beam in his eye trying to help someone else who was afflicted with nothing more than a splinter? (Mt. 7:3-5).

Perhaps no one used sarcasm more than the apostle Paul. Notice how he addresses the pride of some of his converts in this excerpt from 1 Corinthians:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! (4:8).

Paul then begins to describe the sacrifices he and the other apostles had made on behalf of Christians like those in Corinth. While they had assumed a position of wisdom and strength and honor, the ones who had brought them to Christ had undergone great sacrifices and had been treated as second-class citizens. Paul ends this tirade, saying, “We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Cor. 4:14).

Sarcasm ought to be used sparingly, but in some cases it is appropriate, and Paul’s example gives us some guidelines to keep our wit in check.

1. Do not use hard words until gentler methods have been tried. Later Paul reminded the Corinthians, “… you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (4:15). This isn’t the first exchange Paul had with the Corinthians. Things had grown desperate; irony was used as a last resort.

2. Do not speak with a sharp tongue unless what you have to say is true. The Corinthians had no reason to boast, for they did not save themselves. “What do you have that you did not receive?” Paul asks (4:7). What he was saying was based upon eternal truths of grace, mercy, and judgment.

3. Use speech like sarcasm cautiously when it is needed to cut through stubborn attitudes like pride. Proud people are not aware of their sin. It takes sharp words to rouse them from their delusional state.

4. Never make the mistake of speaking out of pride. Paul, no doubt, blushed to speak this way. He had mentioned earlier that he was only a steward and that he would be judged by God (1 Cor. 4:1-4). He wasn’t trying to get a laugh at someone else’s expense. Sarcasm was merely a tool that he used skillfully to bring his readers back to their senses.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). So choose your words carefully.

The Tennessean’s Attack on the Churches of Christ

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Last Sunday Bob Smietana, a reporter for the Tennessean, published a vicious attack on the churches of Christ.  The headline itself was an insult: “Churches of Christ drop isolationist view, work with other faiths.”

The article begins with the same old accusation of “they think they are the only ones going to heaven,” couched in a quote from Doug Sanders, the associate minister of Otter Creek Church of Christ in Brentwood.

When he was growing up, Doug Sanders learned there were two kinds of people in the world.

Those who belonged to the a cappella Churches of Christ, who were going to heaven. And those who didn’t, who were going to hell.

“In the Church of Christ, we had all the answers,” said Sanders, associate minister at Otter Creek Church in Brentwood. “And if we had the answers, that meant everyone else didn’t. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit it, but that’s the way it was.”

We haven’t gotten three paragraphs into this article and already it is clear that neither Smietana nor Sanders understands that what makes the churches of Christ special is that they are fundamentally nondenominational. 

When members of the church of Christ speak of their fellowship, they are not talking about some small subdivision of Christianity, such as a denomination.  They are speaking generally of the universal body of Christ.  With this frame of mind, saying the churches of Christ are going to heaven is the same as saying Christians are going to heaven.  The idea that only Christians find salvation is a controversial point of view in its own right, especially when it confronts worldviews outside the Christian faith.  But most professing Christians will insist that Jesus is the only way to the Father (Jn. 14:6).

The churches of Christ were practicing nondenominational Christianity long before it was in vogue.  Today the trend is away from denominations.  In fact, the fastest growing churches in America last year claimed no denominational affiliation.  But many of these independent churches combine biblical authority with cultural norms to form their fellowship.  The churches of Christ are unique.  They arrive at nondenominational Christianity through conformity to the Scriptures, speaking where the Bible speaks, remaining silent where the Bible is silent.

The article printed in the Tennessean reflects this nondenominational approach in an excellent summary of the Restoration Movement.  But then it returns to poor journalism, cherry picking anecdotal hearsay as evidence to demonstrate that the church of Christ is no longer the Bible-based movement of Stone and the Campbells but rather a judgmental, isolated cult filled with bitterness and wrath.

The lowest blow came from an interview with Lee Camp, a Bible instructor at Lipscomb University in Nashville.

Wearing shorts was cause for damnation, Camp said. He recalled going on a youth group trip as a teen and passing a man wearing jogging shorts. “Our preacher said, ‘He looks real nice in those shorts. They’ll look real nice in hell,’ ” Camp said.

The article then reports that Camp is “grateful” for his upbringing in the church of Christ.  If his story about shorts in hell was truly indicative of what life in the church of Christ is like, why would he be grateful for that?  The only explanation that is given is Camp’s admission that most people in the church practiced a “kindler, gentler form of Christianity” than the preacher in his example. 

Could it be possible that he gave a poor example?  Every religious group has its share of zealots.  I can’t help but wonder if Smietana would have printed this story if his article had been about Baptists or Catholics.  There are hundreds of these kinds of stories in all faiths.  Loading an article with one of them to make the subject distasteful is slander’s oldest trick.

Much of the article deals with the church of Christ’s “isolationist” approach to the world.  Sanders points to his work in the Nashville area as a new trend in the church.  But the truth is, members of the church have always cooperated with community leaders, non-profit groups, and even denominations to address poverty, suffering, and natural disaster.

Right now in Haiti, Christians are working with medical personnel, the military, and charitable organizations to bring relief to those who were affected by the earthquake.  It would be impossible to get involved in any other way. 

I have a friend who works for a non-profit organization that promotes familiy values.  He is a member of the church of Christ.  Others on the staff attend denominations.  It is possible that some of his coworkers do not even attend a church.  Nobody is criticizing him for the work he is doing. 

It’s true that most leaders in the church of Christ would shy away from interfaith worship settings, such as a community Easter gathering or anything else that might detract from their devotion to simple New Testament Christianity.  Call it isolationism, but decisions like this are a result of having convictions.  And any group without convictions will eventually fade into oblivion.

The church of Christ is accustomed to bad press.  On the bright side, the exposure given by the Tennessean produces a healthy dialogue.  The best way to view the article is to see it as an opportunity rather than a setback.  The questions raised by the article should afford teachable moments to spread the message of the value of restoring the church of the New Testament.

For Correction, for Land, or for Love

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Elihu, the angry young man who speaks up near the end of the book of Job, comments on the powerful forces of nature under God’s control, saying, “Whether for correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen” (Job 37:13).

He had been speaking of thunder and lighting, tornados, ice storms, and torrential downpours. Storm systems “turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world” (Job 37:12). Elihu’s point is that nature, over which man has no control, proves the great power of God.

What does he mean when he elaborates by saying the blizzards, whirlwinds, gales, and squalls are “for correction or for his land or for love?” The middle item seems to be out of place. That is why one translation connects it with God’s love: “He brings the clouds to punish men, or to water his earth and show his love” (NIV). Elihu points to two basic motivations governing God’s power over the forces of nature: his wrath and his love. These are two sides of God’s nature we cannot afford to ignore. As Paul says, “Note then the kindness and severity of God…” (Rom. 11:22).

In the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Haiti, many believers have wondered whether God’s hand was in the devastation. Televangelist Pat Robertson raised eyebrows with his declaration that Haitians had made a “pact with the devil” and have been “cursed” ever since.

To say God sent an earthquake to punish Haiti for some specific sin that happened in the past is to oversimplify Elihu’s point. Only a narrow-minded person would draw such a conclusion. Is Haiti the only sinful nation on earth? Where was the earthquake during Stalin’s regime? Why didn’t China melt in a volcanic eruption during the Cultural Revolution of Mao Tse-tung? In the real world of natural calamities, good nations often suffer tragedy and bad nations get a pass.

This is not to say that God has never used an earthquake to punish sinful nations. Amos’s prophecy came two years before God sent a deadly earthquake to punish his people (1:1). But the circumstances in Amos’s day were very different from what we are seeing in Haiti. Israel had been given a clear prophetic warning prior to the devastation. No such warning was heard in Haiti. In the rare cases where God has used calamity to punish sin directly, he has always communicated his plans to the people who would be affected, giving them opportunity to repent.

Still, God uses tragedies like the one in Haiti to correct. The Bible clearly teaches that suffering is God’s discipline (Heb. 12:5-11). Not all discipline is strictly punitive. There is too little space to write about the many rewards that come from suffering. Suffice it to say that when something happens of the magnitude of the Haitian earthquake, the world is reminded of its need for God. Self-reliance and indulgence are corrected. People begin to look upward for answers.

At the same time God uses nature to correct, he also uses it to show his love. Of course, we know he “sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt. 5:45), but his love is not restricted to benign weather patterns. Even a malignant terror like an earthquake can create conditions for God’s love to be manifested in his people. As I write these words, hundreds of Christians are pouring personnel, resources, and wealth into a country that had been largely forgotten until now. Doubtless, many will hear the gospel in the aftermath of the tragedy and will be reborn, so to speak, out of the pains of childbirth.

God works providentially in this world for correction and for love. His people must recognize this so that they can be the channels through whom these two sides of God’s nature may benefit mankind.

Teacher’s Workshop

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Saturday Ashville Road hosted a Teacher’s Workshop. Our guest speaker for those teaching teen and adult classes was Dennis Lloyd, an elder at the Granny White congregation in Nashville and associate editor of the Gospel Advocate. Here are some excerpts from his informative presentations.

“Teacher and learner alike must find joy in their roles.”

“Two warnings for teachers are: 1) don’t pass up an opportunity to teach; and 2) we should never teach for the wrong reasons.”

“There are three kinds of teachers: those you remember, those you forget, and those you forgive.”

“Avoid irreverent, silly myths (1 Tim. 4:7). Too many teachers waste time on spiritual junk food.”

“The learning process requires prepared, enthusiastic teachers, but it also requires good learners.”

“Teachers should share with their students what’s right, what’s not right, how to get right, and how to stay right.”

Bon Voyage

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Cusco TeamEarlier this week I said farewell to my brother Barton and his family as they boarded a plane headed for Peru where they plan to do mission work for the next several years of their life.  It will be a long time before I see them again.

I must admit that I have mixed feelings.  For the last several years Barton has been more than a brother to me.  He was my coworker.  We worked together at Ashville Road, where I preach, for five years.  I saw him almost every day.  He was someone I came to depend on, and it was a joy to work together with him.  I am really going to miss seeing him on a regular basis.

At the same time, Barton and his wife Allison are realizing a dream they have been chasing for many years.  Since they were students at Freed-Hardeman University, they have been making plans to do mission work in a foreign country.  For the last year they have been engaged in intense language and cultural studies, getting ready to live in Peru.  I’m happy that they are being given a chance to do what makes them happy.  More than that, I am thrilled that they are doing the Lord’s work in a place that really needs it.

Cusco is a large metropolitan area in Peru that, as far as we know, has fewer than 100 New Testament Christians.  Barton and his team have already met the Christians there, who greeted them with much enthusiasm.  On their first visit, one of the brethren told them they were the answer to years of fervent prayer.  The Cusco Mission Team will start a new work in another part of the city, but the feedback they have received from the Peruvian brethren tells them they can expect to have a good working relationship with the other Christians in the area.

Barton and Allison have raised their monthly support, but they are still in need of one-time gifts.  If you would like to contribute to their work, learn how to do so here.  Also, you can keep track of their progress at the Cusco Chronicles.  Please keep them in your prayers.  I believe that God will do great things through them and the rest of their team.

The Principle of Christian Excellencies

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Aristotle’s Principle of Human Excellencies looks for the “excellencies” or “virtues” proper to life.  Human artifacts, he explains, have distinctive purposes.  A pen, for example, is for writing; a lamp, for lighting; a knife, for cutting.  And when you know the purpose of any artifact, you also know how to tell whether it is a good or bad one.  A knife with a strong blade is better than one with a weak blade.  So is a knife with a handle that gives us a sure, comfortable grip better than one with a handle that does not.  You could call a strong blade and a sure grip “excellencies” proper to a knife.

Aristotle asked, “What is the purpose of a human being?”  He believed this was something called eudaimonia, a Greek work usually translated  “happiness” but better understood as total well-being.  To Aristotle, eudaimonia is what all of us are striving for.  Therefore, he defined things such as a well-ordered life not given to extremes, loyalty, generosity, honesty, kindness, and anything else that might lead to total well-being as “excellencies” or “virtues.”

What is the purpose of a human being from a Christian point of view?  Ephesians 2:10 reads, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  According to Paul, we were renewed in Christ to walk in good works.  Christians were put on earth to make it a better place.  We are the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Mt. 5:13-16).  Like our Master, we came not to be served but to serve (Mt. 20:26-28).  Every day we should be using our talents and opportunities to improve the quality of others’ lives.  Ultimately this means sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.  What good does it do to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and comfort the bereaved if we do not help them find salvation in Christ?  Everything takes a back seat to the soul.

Taking a cue from Aristotle, we ask, “What qualities should Christians be cultivating in their lives?”  In other words, what are some excellencies or virtues proper to Christian life?  Peter gives this sample list:

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.  (2 Peter 1:5-7)

Where did Peter come up with that list?  These attributes are nothing more than virtues proper to Christian life.  Things like self-control and brotherly affection are virtuous for Christians because they help us fulfill our purpose of walking in good works.  Peter continues, “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).  Christians cannot be truly fruitful unless they grow in the virtues Peter lists.  A pen without ink is not a good pen.  A lamp without a bulb is not a good lamp.  A knife with a dull blade is not a good knife.  And a Christian who does not possess things like compassion, love, and forbearance is not a good Christian.  Call it the Principle of Christian Excellencies.

A lot of the things that consume our time in our churches and in our homes are good things, but they do not cultivate virtues proper to our role as Christians.  We need to prioritize.  Of first importance are those things that will help us become better at fulfilling our purpose as the workmanship of God.  The hundreds of other good things we like to do have a place, but they should never come first.  We must never forget why we’re here.

Invisible Piggybacks

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

Words are powerful. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” says Solomon (Prov. 18:21). But the power is not in the words themselves. Take them to a lab, put them on the table, dissect them, and what do you see? Nothing but a combination of letters, phonics coordinated for a language.

The power of words is in the ideas they represent. Words symbolize concepts, emotions, strategies, and arguments. They serve as signposts to an inner world. As Charles Wright put it, “The visible carries all the invisible on its back.” Without visible, concrete words, we would not be able to tap the invisible world that is the real driving force behind our lives.

The apostle Peter presents the reverse of Wright’s image, stating, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). Peter’s men, who were “carried along by the Holy Spirit,” were the inspired writers of the Bible. The process he describes is not simply one where the “visible carries all the invisible on its back,” but this time the invisible Spirit carries visible men, empowering them to record the divine will in human language.

Paul describes inspiration as being a verbal process; that is, God revealed not just his thoughts but the very words he wanted man to learn. 1 Corinthians 2:10 says, “These things [the truths revealed to the apostles, D.K.] God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” He then continues, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (vv. 12-13, emphasis added). This is significant. The Spirit did not stop at revealing the thoughts of God, leaving it up to the biblical writers to come up with the right words. The results would have been disastrous. Humans have trouble putting their own thoughts into words, let alone the thoughts of God. To ensure that we would have everything pertaining to life and godliness, the apostles were given the right words to symbolize the things needed to build our faith.

With these things in mind, we should make the Bible our authority in every religious matter. Being the Word of God in every sense, it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Words are powerful because of the concepts they carry. But when those concepts originate in human hearts, they are always flawed. Not only that, but they can become lost in translation, as they move from the soul to the page. But in one instance, an invisible God fused a saving message to visible, readable, understandable words. We are the beneficiaries of that message, so that when we read, we may receive insights into the mystery of Christ (Eph. 3:4).