Productive

Long ago I copied down a striking quote from the late Pentecostal evangelist Oral Roberts. In these days it still rings true: “The sick, the dying, the poor, the brokenhearted, the desperate — few of these looked to the church for help. I was convinced that the great bulk of our time and effort was spent on ourselves — meetings for church members, prayers for church members, church for church type people. Now and then we would reach a new family and see a new face, but they were usually related to someone already in the church.”

So many of us look out at the world around us and see these situations and see that the Church of Jesus Christ is here to minister to them. These are the situations around us that call for effective disciples of Jesus:

  • Fellow believers who need our love and care
  • New believers who need love and guidance to grow to be mature, effective disciples
  • Those unsaved around us who need an effective witness from us;
  • Our own needs and those of our families in the face of our difficulties in this world

Throughout the past two millennia there has been a need always for effective disciples of Jesus Christ in this world, and this is still true today, as it will be until the day comes when Jesus returns. So the need for effective disciples calls for understanding and following what the Word says about spiritual effectiveness. And this comes down to the last teaching session of Jesus with the Eleven disciples, in the last evening before his crucifixion. He had this time to sum up and drive home all that he had been teaching them over the past three years. This was the night of the betrayal of the Lord Jesus by Judas and then his arrest, trial and crucifixion. This happened just after the Last Supper, the exit of Judas, the foot washing and the preview of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who would come about 50 days later on the Day of Pentecost. Jesus had only a couple of hours left with the twelve disciples, minus Judas, and he used this time to give further teaching to them, to prepare them for all the challenges and for the mission to come. It was in this time that he gave them the parable of the Vine and the Branches. This parable was his guidance for the apostles, as well as all believers in the centuries afterwards to his  secret of effective life and ministry, of what it would mean to abide in him and be productive in ministry.

So this is what Jesus had to say, as he gave the Parable of the Vine and the Branches:

“I am the true Vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me which does not bear fruit, he cuts away, and every branch which bears fruit, he prunes, so that it bears more fruit. You all are already clean – based on what I already told you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you all. Just as the branch has no ability to bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the Vine, so you all are unable to do so unless you remain in me. I am the Vine, you are the branches. That person who remains in me is the one who will bear much fruit, because without me you have no ability to do anything.” (John 15:1-5, Dale’s sight translation).

Spiritual productivity is the will and the provision of God for believers in Jesus Christ. God’s intention is for those who draw their life from his Son to be marvelously effective and productive in ministry for him in this world. And even more, he will not be passive, lax or ignorant throughout the lifetime of the believer to fulfill his intention. All his power, wisdom and love will be directed toward us in our lives upon this earth to make us spiritually effective and productive through our new life in his Son.

This means that the wonderful plan for our lives for those who have received life through Jesus Christ is defined by “abiding in Christ.” Those who share life with the Son of God are automatically enrolled in the plan of God the Father for our spiritual effectiveness of God the Father. It’s not an optional accessory of having eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ. Rather, it’s an essential part of living for Christ and in Christ for anyone who has received eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus, on that evening he was delivering his last teaching session to his eleven disciples, gave them this extended metaphor in verses 1-3: “I am the true Vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me which does not bear fruit, he cuts away, and every branch which bears fruit, he prunes, so that it bears more fruit. You all are already clean – based on what I already told you . . .”

In this extended metaphor, Jesus brings together and explains the relationship of the Father, the Son, and believers all together, and he uses the metaphor of a vine and a gardener. In the Old Testament, the vine had been a metaphor for Israel in the Old Testament, and every day that they had attended the Temple in Jerusalem during the previous week they would have passed through the Temple gates and they would have seen the golden Vine on the Temple gates which stood for Israel. But here and now Jesus takes the symbol which they had lived with all their lives and with which they had been long familiar and recasts it in terms of himself. With this metaphor he characterizes himself as the center, definition of the true Israel, in defining himself as the true Vine first of all.

But then he brings in the description of God the Father as the gardener, or vinedresser, as the term is translated in some translations. He gives the greater emphasis on the work of the Father, as the gardener/ vinedresser. They would have known what the vinedresser’s work is, but Jesus emphasizes there that God the Father as the vinedresser would trim and prune the vine and its branches for its maximum output. Then Jesus mentioned how the Father would remove removing unfruitful members from the vine. This could be a reference to the false and temporary disciples they had encountered (6:66) and to turncoats such as Judas. But the emphasis is not so much for them about what would happen to unfruitful branches but for God’s purpose for them. In the original language a pruned branch was a clean branch, and the reference to the disciples being clean was a play on clean from v. 13:10. What Jesus meant was not that they were perfect, but that they were faithful already and abiding with him then, and then the promise for them was that they would remain, but continue to be under the care and the plan of the God the Father. The result would be that they would continue to be effective and productive in the days ahead, as Jesus was looking forward to the days after his ascension into heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church for ministry.

This, then, is the plan of God the Father for the life of the believer in Christ. When we talk about how God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, this is it. If you were wondering why you are here on earth, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, this is it. It is not merely for the possession of eternal life alone, as having a ticket to heaven. The possession of eternal life through faith in Christ means that each and every believer is already a branch on the Vine and drawing life from the Vine, But the plan of God is for the believer, each and every believer, to be fruitful – which I explain as being spiritually effective and productive. The pruning/cleansing word play indicates the direction that this work of God in our life, the fulfillment of his plan, takes; it will be directed toward the spiritual effectiveness and productivity of each believer in Christ. He will use every means at his disposal to accomplish this. He will use the indwelling Spirit, the written word, the teaching, correction and rebuke of church leadership and of other believers, and even the most painful experiences of life, as his tools for pruning our lives to make us more and more spiritually effective and productive.

This pruning is necessary because as we are, we will not either become or continue to be spiritually effective without his pruning in our lives. We often wonder why things happen to us, why others say this or that and so on and so on, and some may lamely shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, everything happens for a reason,” as if that settles the matter. Well, when we’re looking for a reason, this is often the last reason that we will consider, if we consider it at all. We often try to figure out the machinery of the circumstances of our lives and may complain and cry when we find painful things in our circumstances. The simple consideration of these few words that Jesus gave us on the last evening of his earthly life and ministry, though, would give us a whole new perspective and sense of purpose on much that happens in our lives. For example, there was once a minister who visited a man who had been was complaining about apparent unfairness of God during a time of deep trouble. The minister found the man in his garden trimming his grapevine, and he asked the man what he was doing. He replied, “Because of the rains, this vine is overgrown with a lot of unprofitable stuff. I have to cut it away so the sun can get to the grapes and ripen them.”

So the minister asked, “Does that vine resist and oppose you?”

The man replied, “No.”

So then the minister came to the point: “Then why are you so displeased with our gracious God, who must do to you what you are doing to your vine to bring its fruit to maturity?”

Such a great question for so many of us! What are we doing when we complain and resist God when he is doing with all his wisdom and love what he needs to do in our lives to bring us to be spiritually effective and productive, in ways that we could not imagine or conceive for ourselves, in those times when we childishly imagine that we are in control of our lives and our circumstances and that it’s all about what we want. God’s goal in our lives upon earth is our spiritual effectiveness and productivity through Jesus Christ. However painful it may appear at times to be pruned, because it is done by the Father, we can trust that it is done with infinite compassion and skill. Moreover, we can trust that it is being done far better than we would have thought possible and far better than we could have done in our own wisdom and strength.

So this first application of the lesson may be painful at times, and as we go on, the second lesson may then seem to be an unwelcome splash of cold truthfulness to us, but it likewise is necessary for us to come to the joy of becoming effective as disciples of Jesus. So here’s the second lesson that Jesus gives us from the Parable of the Vine and the Branches: without Christ we are completely ineffective and unproductive.

From the words and teaching of Jesus himself,  the need of abiding in Christ is absolute. For us to fulfill our purpose here on this earth as believers in Christ, remaining in fellowship with him is completely necessary. Any attempts at effective ministry apart from him will be completely inadequate and ultimately fail. We will find no effective ministry and no spiritual productivity through our own ideas and efforts when they are divorced and estranged from dependence on and close fellowship with Jesus Christ. This underscores the necessity to abide in Christ, because of our utter ineffectiveness apart from him. We ignore this truth from the teaching of Jesus himself to our own sorrow and difficulty, and when we ignore it we bring ineffectiveness, incompetence and unproductivity to those around us who need our ministry.

So Jesus went on to say, in verse 4: “I am the true Vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me which does not bear fruit, he cuts away, and every branch which bears fruit, he prunes, so that it bears more fruit. You all are already clean – based on what I already told you.”

The command to remain in Christ is balanced by his promise to remain in us, and then the fellowship with him is maintained so as to be able to have his life and ministry flow through us. This was definitely necessary for the apostles in the days ahead, during the days of preaching, teaching, laying the foundations for the church and its ministry. They would fail if they did not learn the lesson of helplessness in ministry apart from abiding in Christ.

This lesson of helplessness in effective ministry apart from Christ is a lesson, then, best learned early in the lifetime of a believer. It’s simply an extension and logical outcome of the moral helplessness and inability to earn salvation apart from Christ for each one of us. This then becomes a lesson that we always need to be reminded of, to avoid self-reliance and self-confidence, in the pursuit of one’s own ministry as a believer. And make no mistake, we like to try to rely upon our own ideas, experiences and abilities and we like to try to rely upon the repeating the words and experiences of other believers which we have heard; we love to be spiritual tailgaters and copycats. And even more, in ourselves, we love to try to rely upon own abilities, talents and attractiveness, as if there were something within ourselves that was worthy of credit for being effective and productive in ministry. And we often forget the deceit of enemy and of others under his suggestions who try to get us to look at and depend on ourselves instead of Christ and try to get us to try to control the work of God in our lives and others. So often, then, when we go down these by-paths, we come back to our need of  personal experience with Jesus Christ and fellowship with him through his Word and in prayer, and then back to reliance upon him in the times of ministry. And it’s then we find that abiding in him that we find again the wonderful privilege of his letting us be a loving witness to unbelievers, the ministry of evangelism, and to build up fellow believers, the ministry of edification, for the glory of God.

The situations around us, therefore, that are opportunities for ministry not reason for rushing off armed with our plans and our own ideas for what is to be done and for how it is to be done. So many times and in so many ways we do this. In our day and age, maybe we hear a teacher and go to a seminar where we hear a few principles that are laid down for success, which the teacher backs with proof texts from the Bible. We rush off and in our spiritual pride and conceit that we’ve received these principles  — which we may not take back to the scriptures and see if they really are scriptural, in the context of the surrounding scripture and the teaching of the Bible as a whole – and strut around and try to correct others according to what we’ve heard from that seminar – and end up being as rigid and self righteous as any Pharisee from the time of Jesus. Or we may start reading and decide that we need to do some radical things in our lives and be counter cultural and go against the political establishment – and end up as bitter and backslidden and far from Christ as anyone who has turned from the fulness of Jesus to their own ways. I fear that the former way of the seminar junkie and self appointed moral policeman and detective was the problem of the 1970s onward for many, and the latter path of the descent into bitter radicalism has been the path of more recently, though I can remember some back in the 1970s that fell into that retrograde spiral away from the Author of Life and the Source of true ministry. So you want to be effective and productive in your personal growth in righteousness? You’re not going to find it in the rules from the seminar; you’re going to find it in Jesus himself, and drawing from him and his life, and only through him will you have an effective – and genuinely loving and gracious – ministry to others in the body of Christ. So you want to make a difference in this world for Christ? So don’t try to be radical and grow more and more radical as you can; what you will find there is more and more bitterness and antagonism when the problem is at least as much in your own sinful heart as it is in the world outside you. You will not be able to make more of a difference in this world than you can make in eradicating your own sin from your own heart by yourself. Rather, find your life and ministry from Jesus himself, and let his life and ministry flow through you for his glory and to be the difference that he wants to make in this world. 

Our self sufficiency and self importance mean that we will fail if we are not abiding in Christ. Rather, this is the reason to approach it first from within a deep, abiding fellowship with the Lord Jesus, to make a prayerful examination of the situation through his Word, to take it to him in a Biblically based time of prayer and to work in harmony with the leaders and others in the church, as being his body to minister to each other, reach out to the world. The place where the spiritual effectiveness and productivity starts is not with us but in him and from him and him alone.

From the parable of the Vine and the Branches, the first two lessons do a great deal to keep us from an unwarranted self confidence in ministry. The third lesson, though, guides us to the proper source of confidence for ministry: through Christ there is great effectiveness and productivity. The promise of great effectiveness and productivity, then, is a great reason for faith and perseverance in the face of the most difficult ministry situations into which God may call us and guide us. This is the reason to go forth into them with the confidence in Jesus that he will make us effective and productive. The realization that the life, ministry that flows through us is from Christ is the basis for confident ministry and the basis for ministry that has real results that will last for eternity, because its source is not in us, but in the Lord of eternity. And so Jesus goes on in verse 5: I am the Vine, you are the branches. That person who remains in me is the one who will bear much fruit, because without me you have no ability to do anything.”

His earlier lesson of helplessness now passes to and is backed by his promise of much effectiveness and great productivity. This promise was given in a general manner, not just to the eleven there in the Upper Room, but to believers throughout the centuries. His repetition of the Vine and the branches shows that he is drawing out another implication of the metaphor:. He reinforces that apart from his being the source of their life, ministry, they can do nothing. But the promise is that as they rely upon him as the source of their life and effectiveness, they – and any other believer afterwards — will be extremely productive. The truth of this promise was then demonstrated in the extremely effective ministries that these eleven rather ordinary men actually had. The thing is that this is also the plan of God in our salvation, for us to be productive:  as revealed in Ephesians 2:10 – end result of not abiding: verse 6

Effective and productive ministry, then, has its source in Christ, and it is effective because it is from him and not from us. His life and continuing ministry is  received, transmitted and continued through us. But then this becomes the confidence of those effective in ministry in Christ above all, that because it is from him and through him, then it must be effective in this world. And this confidence in him and his ministry can make us effective in the face of situations that would stagger and overwhelm us if we only depended on ourselves. Then, it comes back to us, to pour ourselves out in ministry, as those who have freely received, then to freely give (Matthew 10:8). This is the kind of faith that the eminent missionary to Korea, Jonathan Goforth, had when as a young man he went to witness in an area with a bad reputation. A policeman asked him, “How do you have the courage to go into those places? We never go except in twos or threes.”

His answer was: “I never go alone either; there is always someone with me.”

The need of the world around us, the fellow believers around us and our own friends and families, calls for effectiveness in our own lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. The need of the lost and broken world around us calls for us to be effective and productive disciples of Jesus Christ, and his life and ministry flowing through us means that we can and should be those through whom the life and ministry of Christ can flow. His ministry through us must be a much greater priority in our lives. This gives us a strong reason for refusing the useless pursuits – such as gossip, video games, sexual fantasy and actual immorality, rigid religious routines and give ourselves for complete consecration to the Lord Jesus, for us to be all his so that all that is his can flow through you to those around you. William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, had this kind of consecration, and he said that this was his secret of ministry: “God had all there was of me. There have been many men with greater brains than I and men with greater opportunities; but from the day that I got the poor of London on my heart, and a vision of what Christ could do for them, I made up my mind that God should have all there was of William Booth.”

So then, Jesus gave these three basic lessons from the Parable of the Vine and the Branches to guide us to a life of effective ministry. What remains, then,  after hearing about them is to put them into practice in our lives. The wonderful plan of God for the lives of believers in Jesus Christ is for them to know his life and ministry flowing through them for spiritual effectiveness and usefulness. In this life, for believers, the wages of our sins and lack of fruitfulness will always be far greater than any difficulties that we may anticipate in breaking our routines, leaving behind our own ideas and ingrained habits of thinking, speaking and doing, for a new life of going forward with Christ, into a deeper and closer, more effective walk with Christ. Living in close fellowship with Jesus, and letting his life and ministry flow through us is the path to satisfaction as believers in Christ.

First of all, therefore, accept Christ as the source of your life and effectiveness as a disciple in ministry. Accept your place in him as a branch in the Vine, and himself as the Vine, for your own life and power for ministry for him in this world. Go forward to him and with him beyond that first and initial  trust in him for eternal life, and put on Christ as your life and power for ministry, as part of the ongoing process of putting on Christ for the lifetime of a believer. What? You weren’t aware that the key to growing deeper in Christ wasn’t more discipline but more of him, and taking up Christ in your life in all his fullness and living for him? Start here, then, and make this a definite transaction before him, to acknowledge him as the Vine in your life and yourself as a branch. Maybe even you could commemorate it by some kind of memorial to yourself, like a note in your Bible or prayer notebook, to remind yourself in the future that you have definitely received this promise from Christ as your own.

Understand also that God the Father is working in your life to make you effective and productive in your service and ministry for him, to glorify him in this world. Consider, then, that your earthly difficulties, those situations that you complain about, or those passages of the Word that hit you where it hurts, as pruning actions by God the Father. Regard it as God’s gracious, skillful work when his Word may cut and hurt in the correction of what is wrong and unproductive in your life as I must do so also in my life. But even more trust God that this pruning of your heart and life will result in greater usefulness and effectiveness and that it will have lasting spiritual, eternal results in your life.  Go into all the depths of the life and fellowship with Jesus, and you will see his gracious effects upon the lives of the others around you as you become more effective as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Take the promise of Christ for great fruitfulness for each opportunity for ministry that you have. Make it a matter of trust as you follow Christ, and give him the glory for the results.

The Eternal Need of the Person Who Is Perfectly Happy Now

This week I can remember a pastor on the radio sharing how someone had become flummoxed when he was attempting to share the gospel with an aged hedonist. He approached gaining an opening to share the gospel from the perspective of felt needs: an inner loneliness, emptiness and lack of a sense of fulfillment. Unfortunately, the hedonist came back with the answer that he was having the time of his life and couldn’t be happier. And that left the person who was attempting to share the gospel at a loss on how to proceed.

It’s simple enough to proceed, though, if you remember how scripture describes, “ . . . the pleasures of sin for a season . . .” (Hebrews 11:25). The question becomes, “How long do you think that will last?” And if the person replies, “Till I die” or “Until the end of my life,” simply ask, “And what then?”

At that point, after receiving whatever reply the happy hedonist gives,  it would be possible to go to the normal Evangelism Explosion questions. It’s always necessary to remember that whatever ‘felt’ needs a person has, he or she always has the eternal need of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And though Jesus and the apostles often used a felt need or a ‘hook’ from the situation at hand to get an opening to share the gospel, the eternal need will always be there, since, “. . . an hour is coming when all who are in their graves will will hear his (the Son of God’s) voice, and will come forth: those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done wicked  to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29).

Wicked Schemes: The Social Behavior of the Abuser

I’d like to recommend to every church leader the recent blog post of Boz Tchividjian: The wicked scheme of child offending church leaders: A house of cards. In it he describes what I’ve described elsewhere as The Social Behavior of the Abuser. It’s noteworthy that his description doesn’t apply just to child abusers but to those who formulate a wicked scheme to exploit another person or persons for their own wicked and selfish ends. And this wicked and selfish end might be no more than trying to make themselves look much better than they are at the expense of someone else. Though I’ve heard church leaders pooh-pooh that wicked and selfish purpose as nothing to be concerned about, it does add up to the transgression of the commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

One thing that I’m sure of after forty years of following Christ and having had various levels of involvement with churches of various sizes and in various denominations: people do not run from a church where the church consistently shows them the love of Christ. They do run from intrusive and controlling people.

One thing that I have also noticed over the past generation: most pastors, elders and church leaders do not take Galatians 6:1 to heart: “Brothers and sisters, if any of you is caught in some transgression, you who are spiritual straighten that person out in a spirit of gentleness, as you watch out for yourself, that you yourself might not be tempted.” For too many in church leadership, this seems to have devolved into – at best —  just watching out for those in egregious sexual sin and banishing and expelling them. But I would venture that it would include watching out and correcting the habitually intrusive and controlling person – the church busybody, often enough – or that person whom you see having the last conversation with a person before that person runs from your church. But again, the problem here might also be that a pastor or church leader may not realize that that person is himself or herself, and that you’ve been blindsiding, harassing and tormenting fellow believers with your wicked, self aggrandizing schemes – maybe even for decades. And unfortunately, so many at this point of realization may become embarrassed – but go no further. If you see yourself here, realize that embarrassment is not repentance, and it’s really not the godly sorrow that lead leads to a repentance that leaves no further regrets in its wake. It rather astonishes me that so many that I’ve known who have had the greatest chutzpah to interfere in the lives of others are the biggest cowards when it comes to setting things right when they are most blatantly wrong and hurtful – to repent scripturally and do restitution scripturally where possible. So then, if you see yourself here,  confess your sinful, wicked schemes before God and man with as many tears as it takes for as long as it takes.

Church Ministry and Murder Victims

*** I found this blog draft and do not know why I did not publish it previously. It does deal with one of the most heavy and frightful subjects this side of heaven, but unfortunately, one which many people have to deal every day. ***

Ever since I came to Christ in August, 1974, I’ve heard thousands of sermons and teachings, besides my own preaching and teaching ministry. I think that we only deal with the issue of murder when we’re going through the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. As it turns out, every year there is a National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims on September 23. Our churches do need to become aware of this issue that deeply scars many families. I also think that fellow pastors find may need to see this to be an issue that we naturally think of when we come to the place where we put together the application of whatever passage of scripture that we’re dealing with, though I would hope not too regularly.

The National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims is on the anniversary of the passing of Lisa Hullinger. Lisa might not be a person whose name is familiar with many people. She was a friend of mine in college, and she was assaulted with a hammer by her ex-boyfriend Bill Coday in September 1978 while she was in Germany. She lingered in a coma for about a week, and passed away.

Lisa was a strong believer in Christ, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, and I knew her through the fellowship of believers that we both attended. That time was a time of deep mourning for the loss of Lisa, and also a deep realization of the comfort that we have in Christ. In fact, her memorial service was announced as, “The Celebration of the Resurrection of Lisa Hullinger.” Her parents then went on to found the organization, “Parents of Murdered Children.” A fellow classmate, believer and friend of Lisa’s and mine wrote the following article several years ago about Lisa: Robert and Charlotte Hullinger fondly recall their daughter Lisa.

Several years ago, this issue was brought to my attention even more when I served as an alternate juror on a murder trial where the prosecution requested the death penalty. A wife was on trial for allegedly hiring a known murderer to kill her husband in vengeance for an act of adultery. When the jury was given a tour of the house, I was surprised by how many evangelical knickknacks were around the house. I don’t remember anything much about their church involvement or anything else about their professed Christian commitment, but they were both evidently exposed to evangelical Christianity and probably had made some kind of profession of faith in their lives.

The issue of murder does hit professed believers, both as victims, and, though we may not like to admit it, as perpetrators. Bill Coday, the murderer of Lisa, was a professed believer when I met him over a year before the actual murder, and not someone that you would have thought capable of murder. Both the husband and the wife in the trial where I sat as an alternate juror were professed believers and part of a local evangelical church. I can attest that this issue is not one which you can see approaching and avoid with a little wise scriptural advice and sin management. It’s one where when it hits you, you need all the comfort and strength of scripture, prayer, the fellowship of believers and above all the abiding presence of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Here are some things that believers and churches can do:

  • Understand that the human heart is capable of great evil that may not be apparent outwardly, and understand the capability of violence and murder within the wickedness of the human heart beneath all outward appearances.
  • Let what God says in the Bible so many times about hating violence and the value of other people made in his image touch your own heart.
  • Pray for and seek for peace among your family, friends, church and community at large.
  • Assess the kind of entertainment that you and your family may be seeing and whether it condones violence and treats murder and the value of human life lightly.
  • Preach and teach about the sins of murder during the course of any kind of preaching and teaching, when it comes up in the normal progression of  scripture.
  • Understand that dealing with anger and betrayal scripturally and with the love of Christ can literally be a matter of life and death where there is the potential for violence and murder in the human heart.
  • Understand that stalking behaviors are not a normal way of dealing with unrequited love, even if TV and movies depict it that way, and strongly counsel every believer to see these in themselves and to see the danger in these behaviors.
  • Understand that God does not condone using anger and violence to control another person and punish the sins of others or disobedience of others to one’s own selfish demands.
  • Understand the need for comfort and long term prayer and support that the family and friends of murder victims need from others in the body of Christ.
  • Above all, the greatest comfort that you can leave anyone else in the event of your own death is your own strong and unwavering testimony of faith in Jesus Christ that is backed up by a life of serving him. In Christ,

Here are some words from a friend of mine from California who lost her son and grandsons in a locally prominent murder case. I’m on an email list of friends who she emails when things get rough for her in her mourning, and while the trial of her daughter in law is underway. What’s below has been publicly posted on the Internet for others, so I’m not breaking any confidences in sharing these words. Something quite bizarre to me that she’s also shared that shows how ill equipped many people are to deal with the reality of murder is the first question they ask her: “What did he do to cause his murder?” The answer for him and his sons is, “Absolutely nothing. And it wasn’t something that he could have anticipated at all.”

“September 25, 2008 is the USA’s annual observance of the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims. I hope you will make a special point of remembering and talking about Neal, Devon and Ian, and of educating others about the devastating effects of murder and it’s aftermath. I noted on an FBI website that a study in 2005 estimated the number of Americans who lost their lives to murder that year alone (not manslaughter, but murder) was more than 16,000! That’s an average of nearly 2 per minute! This is not acceptable, it’s outrageous, and people should be talking about it! Even one murder per year is too many, and can be utterly devastating to the families and friends of the victim. I know that many people assume that these are gang members and others who live a dangerous lifestyle, but you and I know that murder takes the innocent as well – even small children like Devon and Ian. So, please, when September 25 comes around, remember them and all the others who have had their lives and futures stolen by murder. I am always very grateful for your continued support. Jan Williams Mother of Neal Williams (27), Oma of Devon (7) and Ian (3) Williams murdered August 8, 2007”

“Murder isn’t over, you know, not ever – not for those of us left behind. In murder mystery books and crime dramas everything is wrapped up with a nice red bow right before the end, which usually comes just as soon as the cuffs are put on the suspect and their Miranda rights are read. The end. Cut to commercial. Show the previews for the next episode. It isn’t like that in real life. There are no quick, neat solutions. Forensics take months, investigations can be long and painstaking, and it seems to take forever for the trial to even start. And there is the pain of loss. That pain doesn’t go away, you don’t breathe a sigh of relief when the solution is presented or the trial ended. There isn’t even any real closure. You will never, ever, understand why someone felt they had a good reason to take your loved one’s life. No reason is good enough. And the pain is still there. The pain of loss is your life companion now. You may hide it. You many impress others with your strength, courageously build a new life for yourself, even find other happiness. But the loss is still there, the pain is still there, and grief just waits around the corner for a chance to trip you up again. “

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Not too far from where I live, about a year ago the city of Cleveland, the nation and the world was rocked by the rescue of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight from their long, abusive and completely criminal captivity at the hands of a depraved man. Not far to the east, another house of horrors was revealed to the city, the nation and the world with the crimes of Anthony Sowell.  To all that I have written above, let’s add a strong persistence to remain in prayer for the rescue or revelation of the fate of those who may come up missing and for any perpetrators of any crimes which led to them becoming missing may be brought to justice.

The Culture Wars: Never As Bad As It Seems and Never As Good As It Seems

I’ve been hearing some evangelical leaders lately talking about how the evangelical churches in the United States have lost the culture wars. What’s the reasoning behind this? As far as I could tell, it was based on the current poll results for certain attitudes.

Yet it was less than a decade ago that I listened to a program from a major evangelical ministry broadcasting a celebration on how the culture wars were won. What was the reasoning behind this? As far as I could tell, it was based on the current poll results for certain attitudes.

I think that both perspectives are simply naïve, and they take poll results too seriously. From what I can see from the scriptures, though, and the mandates of Jesus in the New Testament for the church, there’s nothing that I can see with him giving the church a mandate to win or lose any kinds of culture wars. Rather, his mandates have more to do with the ministry of evangelism and disciplemaking throughout the entire world (Matthew 28:81-20, Luke 24:46-49, Matthew 9:35-38), and, while all this does have cultural implications, I don’t think that it can be boiled down to a war that can be won or lost with a national culture at large. Rather, there will definitely be battles with civil and religious laws and rulers as the church seeks to continue with its ministry of evangelism and disciplemaking, such as in Acts 4:1-32. And, as the idol makers found out in Acts 19, and the Roman empire found out in the second century, the more Christians there are in a culture, the more it impacts negatively those who had been making their living from oppression, superstition, idolatry and depravity.But all this doesn’t really add up to culture wars that can be won or lost, and especially not upon the results of polls of the general population and evangelical churchgoers. I do think that the results of the polls add up to more wise and diligent work in the areas of evangelism and disciplemaking more than anything.

Ultimately, though, the church will always need to have a real concern for any kind of attempts at governmental control and interference with beliefs and practice. This has been true of the church for ages past; usually the concern has been over governmental authorities that attempt to compel some kind of obedience in some way that compromises obedience to the God of the Bible.  This usually comes out of a greater environment where there is some kind of legal or extralegal coercion of strongly held beliefs and personal rights of conscience. Much more often than not, Christians have opposed such coercion of strongly held beliefs as a matter of unjust rulers and unjust laws.  This is why Paul gave these directions to Timothy, and through him to the entire church of Jesus Christ in all places and in all times, to make these requests part of our public gatherings for worship, prayer and scriptural instruction. Let’s never neglect this at any time in any place for any reason. Pastors, and especially senior pastors, please simply follow scripture in making this a regular and consistent part of public worship services.

“I urge, therefore, first of all, that prayer requests, prayers, intercession, thanksgiving, be made for all people, for kings and everyone in authority, so that we might lead quiet and peaceful lives in all reverence and solemnity. For this is good and acceptable before God our Savior, who wants all people to be save and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

(I Timothy 2:1-4)

On Minor Disagreements Among Pastors, Church Leaders And Other Believers On Passages of Scripture And Matters of Biblical Interpretation

During the times of my preparation for ministry during my seminary years and my preaching and teaching ministry over the years, there have been several, but mercifully few, times that I’ve had fellow pastors, church leaders and other believers take issue with my interpretation of a particular verse or passage of scripture. There has never been the least insinuation to my face of my ever having departed from orthodox evangelical teachings such as the Trinity, the full deity and human of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion, bodily resurrection and ascension, the personality and ministry of the Holy Spirit, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and so on, as stated in the Statement of Faith of my own denomination or the National Association of Evangelicals. Rather, it’s been more like taking issue with a view on a verse which I expressed which clashed with an interpretation which they had either heard all their lives or heard about from some other pastor, teacher, professor or author, and thus they classified that view as the ‘traditional’ view, and they were aghast that someone would have a view any different than what they thought was the ‘traditional view.’ Or it may be taking issue with my stating a different take than  a particular interpretation of a verse, passage or book which they had publicly stated in their preaching or teaching.

Here I’m talking about such things as:

  • Having a different view than someone else on what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was
  • Taking a different view than someone else of a passage or book which had been viewed ‘traditionally’ as allegorical, such as the Song of Solomon
  • Taking a different view than someone else on what the ‘old Man’ and ‘body of flesh’ meant in Romans 6
  • Taking a pre, mid or post tribulational view of when the rapture is to take place
  • What it means for a man to ‘touch’ a woman as in I Corinthians 7
  • Taking a different view than someone else on who is the man ‘sold under sin’ in Romans 7:14-25.

In some of these matters of minor disagreement, they happened a number of years ago – for some of them, decades ago – and in some of them these disagreements were with believers and leaders who were chronologically older than I was then. The reaction – or rather, over-reaction –seemed from several to be that I was being rebellious and anti-authoritarian and casting off all the hard won and precious traditions of the church, and who was I to mention even the slightest disagreement with all that. Yet the truth is that I came to my own conclusions as the result of personal study of the scriptures, often in the original languages, and with due consideration of generally agreed upon guidelines for scriptural interpretation, and I could usually cite at least one, and many times more, prominent evangelical Biblical scholars and interpreters who held pretty much the same interpretation. I personally don’t remember ever having any idea as to the meaning of any particular passage of scripture where I didn’t find some other sound evangelical scholar who held the same view once I consulted the commentaries.

At some point, it seemed that for some I was violating another one of the unspoken rules that some in our evangelical churches seem to live by: “Thou shalt never disagree with a pastor,” or, “Thou shalt never disagree with this or that favorite teacher of mine,” or some other variations on that. Or it may be an unspoken expectation that a professor, pastor or teacher has, that his or her position as pastor, teacher, professor or leader insulates them from even minor questioning and disagreement after a respectful exchange of views. And questioning and disagreement may often be ascribed to ignorance or rebelliousness rather than a serious consideration of the scriptures, and even the slightest expression of disagreement, such as an offhand remark in a conversation or a discussion in a Bible study or Sunday School class may be blown all out of proportion into someone trying to undermine the preaching and teaching ministry of a pastor, leader, or teacher. But the truth is, in the matters which I just mentioned, they are all things on which sincere believers may disagree and still have a genuine saving relationship with Christ and be walking in fellowship with Christ with a full commitment to the Scriptures and not even the slightest hint of trying to discredit any pastor, teacher or leader.

But even more, here’s the problem with those unspoken rules and expectations: they are very close to the cultish view of authority and scriptural interpretation. The leaders and their views and interpretations are beyond disagreement and serious examination, and they exude a highly aggressive hypersensitivity to even the mildest question or disagreement. And the churches and leaders who take these kinds of views tend to take on very cultish characteristics in terms of dealing with their membership such as:

  • The leaders are right about everything because they are the leaders with authority from God.
  • The leaders have such absolute authority from God that they can micro manage and control the lives of any members as they please, and direct and guide in areas where they have no expertise or experience.
  • It is a sin to question and disagree and even more to leave if you disagree.

But I don’t see in scripture where God has given this kind of absolute authority, often verging on infallibility, to the particular views or interpretations of any professor, pastor, teacher or leader, so that they are to be accepted without question or that there cannot be disagreement where major doctrines of scripture such as the Deity of Christ are not at stake. That’s equating scripture with a very fallible human being’s particular views and interpretations of scripture. And it’s actually been said that what this amounts to is that a pastor or leader is treated pretty much as a Protestant Pope in the area of infallibility when making a statement or pronouncement on the basis of his office, and not on the Word of God reasonably interpreted according to generally agreed principles of scriptural interpretation. And even on the matters of major doctrines, the believer needs to have his or her views based on the authority of the Bible, as intelligently read, studied and understood to the best of his or her ability, and not on the authority of any particular professor, pastor, teacher or leader.

I would say, in the meantime, to anyone finds himself or herself in a church or ministry situation where leaders take consistently these kinds of positions or pick out particular people to ‘lord it over their faith’, please take a look at David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, The: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church and the website on Recovery From Spiritual Abuse. The kinds of problems that come under spiritual abuse seem to come from leaders who grew up in an addictive and/or legalistic home or who fit the clinical descriptions of pathological narcissism.

Let’s remember that scripture itself commends someone taking the time to examine carefully any leader’s preaching and teaching by Scripture. For instance, Jesus himself challenged the Jewish religious leaders, “You keep on searching the scriptures, because you think that in them is eternal life, and they witness about me” (John 65:39). And even after his resurrection, he took pains to demonstrate and explain that all that had happened to him was in accord with the Old Testament revelation of the Messiah (Luke 24:24, 47).  And, moreover, scripture compliments the Beroean believers that they examined all that Paul had been teaching them according to scripture (Acts 17:11).

So let’s take another look at what the epistle to the Hebrews had to say about regarding and following human leaders within the church:

“Remember those who are leading you, who spoke to you the Word of God, and as you observe the outcome of their conduct imitate their faith . . . obey those who are in leadership over you and be in submission, because they watch over your souls as those who have to give account, so that they can do this with joy and not laboriously, because this would be a bad situation for you” (Hebrews 13:7, 17).

So the manner of genuine leadership in the church is to be that of humility and responsibility to God as someone who stands under judgment of God, and as a servant of the Word, and of Jesus Christ and his church (Luke 22:24-27, John specially II Corinthians 4:5, “But we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants on account of Jesus” ). God does command his people to follow the Word of God and example of faith of the leaders, and to act in submission and obedience to leaders – but here they are described as responsible messengers of the Word who are looking out for the good of the people in their charges, and not for themselves nor acting in a despotic manner over anyone else. This means, then, that the pride of position which seeks to crush and quash even minor disagreement with the aggressive assertion of personal pastoral authority is fully out of line with scripture and with all that Jesus Christ commanded regarding servant leadership within his church, and is therefore an abuse of position and of people.

Let’s then address these kinds of minor disagreement according to what scripture says:

1. Let us accept one another as believers in Christ when we demonstrate full assent to the primary teachings of scripture regarding the major matters of scripture, such as the creation and providence of God, the Trinitarian nature of God, the deity and real humanity of Christ, the personality of the Holy Spirit, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, etc. Our acceptance of other believers as believers and into fellowship is not supposed to be an enticement into a situation where we try to give them a complete personal and doctrinal makeover.

“Therefore receive each other, just Christ has already received you, to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7; see also Romans 14:1).

2. Let us not try to strong arm another believer into believing, thinking or doing the same kinds of things that we believe, think or do by the mere assertion of personal or pastoral authority, especially in matters where that person has already formed a conviction and is being guided by his or her conscience. The import of the following passage about dealing charitably with differences in personal convictions applies to leaders as well; there is no special rider attached that gives anyone who asserts church authority to try to override the sincerely held personal convictions and responsibility of someone else who has a minor difference in opinion or practice.

“Not one of us lives for himself, and not one of us died for himself; because if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord. So if we live or if we die, we are the Lord’s. It was for this purpose, that Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of the living and the dead. You – why are you are judging your brother? Or why are you holding your brother in contempt? For we must all stand before the judgment seat of God, because it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will confess to God.’ Therefore each one of us will give account to God” (Romans 14:7-12).

3. Let us avoid getting all worked up about minor matters and matters on which we are to show charity, acceptance and forbearance to each other, and never insinuate or exaggerate any minor disagreement to the level of a major doctrinal error or opposition. Even more, let’s seek to put to rest any attempts to blow minor issues so far out of proportion that they become prolonged conflicts which poison the loving unity of the body of Christ:

“I, the prisoner for the Lord, encourage you therefore to conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and meekness, with patience, as you bear with one another in love, as you make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).

4. Let’s deal with genuinely serious disagreements according to the guidance of scripture. I have never heard the following passage either taught in a seminary or explained in Biblical preaching and teaching as the scriptural guidance to dealing with serious disagreements and opposition. I think that the translation suffers from an unnecessarily added third personal pronoun, and I think that this distorts the application of the passage. The passage should not be twisted into dealing with personal disagreement as personal opposition to the pastor, but rather with those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18), such as Hymenaeus and Philetos (II Timothy 2:17-18), who were teaching such egregious error and disrupting the faith of others in such a way as to be legitimately described as being, “under the wiles of the devil.” Such people may not begin with personal opposition to the pastor but rather attempt to seduce him into their false ideas first, and then go into open opposition if the pastor refuses their influence. But in any case, the primary application of the following passage definitely does not need to be those who believe in and love Christ with all their hearts, who have full assent to all the major doctrines of the faith and to the Bible as the Word of God, and may yet have minor disagreements with a pastor or who respectfully demur where a pastor attempts to rule outside the sphere of his wisdom, expertise or authority, but rather those who are in really serious doctrinal disagreements and who are instigating serious schisms in the body of Christ. (And at the least it also is a command for the leader in the church to avoid being drawn into other people’s disagreements, controversies and battles. I’ve used it as the scriptural authority for me to avoid being drawn into other people’s battles in the past.)

“But swear off foolish and uneducated controversies, since you know that these breed battles. And the servant of the Lord must not fight, but must be gentle to all, ready to instruct and patient. He must instruct those who are in opposition, so that somehow God might grant them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth, and that they might regain their senses from the trap of the devil, since they have been taken captive to do the will of that one”(II Timothy 2:23-26)

Denizens of the Empire, Not Necessarily Citizens of the Kingdom

“But our citizenship is in heaven . . .” (Philippians 3:20).

I recently visited a number of Amish businesses in Holmes County, Ohio, to look at furniture. I was impressed by the variety and craftsmanship, saw that they did take their work seriously, and enjoyed talking to the young men and women from both Amish and old order Mennonite backgrounds. I was also impressed by the number of scriptural phrases and other Christian themes in the decorations that they had hanging around their shops. Certainly there would have been a witness to many who may have visited their businesses who were unfamiliar with the actual words of scripture. I found myself wondering, though, whether it would become old hat to many inside their businesses and organizations, and whether they might become insensitive to what was actually being said. Even more, I wondered how much someone could simply learn and repeat the accepted words and phrases and behaviors and seem to be genuine even while never having received the truth and reality into his or her heart.

But it’s not as if the young men and women that I met never had a choice. Those from an Amish background were old enough so that they might have had a chance to go through rumspringa. This would have been where they had a chance to view what the outside world had to offer and make a choice for themselves. A few months ago, when I was taking the Jet Express ferry from Put-In-Bay to Port Clinton, Ohio, I met with a group of Amish adolescents who were probably on such a foray into the outside world.

What I just wrote was in no way to criticize the Amish or Mennonites, though. Rather, I can see a tremendous parallel in the world of what we call evangelical.  With our church day cares, Sunday Schools, home schools, Christian school, Christian colleges and universities and Christian seminaries, ministries and organizations, it may well be that many of our young men and women are growing up as denizens of an evangelical empire perhaps as insulated as those who grew up in an Amish school and worked in an Amish farm and business, and who view going to a college or university as their chance for an evangelical rumspringa or escape from an environment which they found suffocating and in which they had no other choices than to say the words and participate in  the activities.

I personally didn’t grow up in that environment, and I don’t claim to have much of what goes on in the thoughts, emotions and motivations of those who have. Often enough, those who try to treat me as if I had – who try to push the buttons of the customary evangelical influence by preaching, lecturing, scolding and guilt trips – find that they are trying to press buttons in me which were never installed, and they get very frustrated with me. Occasionally I get some honest accounts of what it was like during private conversations with my brothers and sisters in Christ who grew up and eventually made their decisions to live as conscientious disciples of Jesus Christ – perhaps even after a time spent living apart from Christ. But the most complete account of what this is like I found in, of all places, Jeff VanVonderen’s book Good News for the Chemically Dependent. His account of how he grew up was that he found himself scripted not in following Christ in the grace of God, but in people pleasing behaviors, and thus he found himself falling into the partying lifestyle when he went to college through peer pressure.

I think that Jeff’s story of his being raised within the evangelical empire and doing all the accepted things, and then going off into the partying lifestyle is a typical face behind many of the statistics that are now being put forward. Apparently 20% coming through as denizens of the empire go on to follow Christ as adults, according to the exit polls. My own first impression when I heard these stats was: do we think that the parable of the Sower (Mark 4) did not apply to those who come up through the empire?

First, it should never be a surprise to us if false conversions are found among those who have come up as denizens of the empire but have not become citizens of the kingdom. I don’t thing these situations are less than rare, or any reason for a witch hunt for false conversions among us, but I do know of these kinds of situations. They include a pastor’s son, a Bible college student and even a fellow pastor – and they all confessed openly to playing the game before they really found the Savior by faith, and they shocked everyone around them when they truly did come to Christ.

Second, there needs to be a greater understanding among us that eternal life is the relationship with God through Jesus Christ: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3, King James Version). I don’t think that we hear enough preaching and teaching that mentions that it’s not saying the  things approved within the evangelical empire and participating in the activities of the evangelical empire that save, but the heart relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. And even more, growing in Christ is growing in that relationship, not in getting better at repeating the language of the evangelical empire and taking on more ostentatious activities within the evangelical empire. Rather, here it is: “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus as Lord, so walk ye in him: Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:6-7, King James Version).

A scriptural example of someone who was showed the outward signs of godliness only when under the godly influence of another is King Joash of the southern kingdom of Judah: “And Joash did that which was right in the sight of the LORD all the days of Jehoiada the priest” (II Chronicles 24:2, King James Version). The story of how he showed all the outward signs of being faithful to God when he was under the guidance of Jehoiada, but quickly led the nation into idolatry after the death of Jehoiada under the influence of his idolatry and peers needs to be mentioned in these days.

Last, when the denizens of the evangelical empire go out to their lives in the secular world of work and university study, I personally would keep them reminded of this passage from Romans: “And that, knowing the time, that now is the high time to wake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof” (Romans 13:11-14).