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“Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God;”

– 1 Thessalonians 4:1

 

One of my friends says that he, who has been in church all his life and saved for most of it, always tries to pay attention to gospel presentations during sermons, because it is so good to be reminded of these truths, to agree with them still, that we are great sinners undeserving of our Great Savior, who is nevertheless our Redeemer, Friend, and King.

 

Many of my friends, and I am often among them in this, feel that when speaking happens at church gatherings, it is rarely that satisfying, thought-provoking, insightful teaching that we long for.  We are honestly bored, and also get this puffing feeling that others might need the simple and lowly instruction offered in these messages, but we are beyond that.  I still see this in myself even though it has been some years since I realized that not all speech in church ought to be intended to teach (1 Corinthians 14:26).

 

In the New Testament, it is shown that there are multiple speaking giftings to be used for building up the Church.  Among them is teaching.  But there is also prophecy, exhortation, word of wisdom, word of knowledge, tongues and their interpretation.  In Hebrews, when we are commanded not to forsake assembling together, this comes as part of an admonition to consider one another to stir up love and good works, and that when we gather, we are to “exhort one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25).  Paul tells Timothy to “Preach the word! …Convince, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and teaching,” and also to “Give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.”  This seems to have been a model in at least some synagogues at the time as well, that after reading from Scripture, they offered a time where those present could offer exhortations to the congregation (Acts 13:15)

 

John the Baptist, the great prophet, “with many other exhortations, preached to the people.”  Judas and Silas, prophets in the book of Acts, “exhorted and strengthened the brethren with many words.” (Acts 15:32) Prophecy, though sometimes an otherwise unknown revelation including foretelling and rebuke, is sometimes associated with timely and relevant exhortation: “But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men.” (1 Corinthians 14:3)

 

When we read Paul’s letters, he often says that the congregations that are recipients of his letters have already been instructed, and do not need a repetition of the lesson.  But he still speaks to the topic.  Why?  I think it is likely that Paul was exhorting them.  Peter explicitly says, “For this reason I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth. Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding [you],” (2 Peter 1:12-13)

 

What is exhortation?  First the Greek, parakaleo, often translated, besides “exhort”, as “comfort”, “encourage”, and “beseech”.  The English dictionary defines “exhort” this way: “strongly encourage or urge someone to do something”.

 

I know for me that I need reminded.  I benefit a lot from hearing people agree that doing the right thing is worthwhile.  “[B]ut exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:13) So I want to receive exhortation, not being discontent because I hoped for a stimulating teaching, but rejoicing that I am in company with people who support me in good works, good words, and good attitudes.

 

Jesus exemplified this in His letters to the churches, as dictated in Revelation (chapters 2-3). Not much of it is introduction of new doctrines or ways of doing things.  He is, rather, comforting them with encouragement about what they are doing well, and pleading for them to do what they know to do.

 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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Caytie's Trees

Submission – The Church needs to be Submitted first to Christ’s headship.  One of my main concerns – with conventional and unconventional congregations (including many house churches) is that they are not Submitted to the biblical instructions for the church.  Many of those instructions are dependent on the Holy Spirit, and I believe that He is not being Submitted to, either, in a typical gathering.  Finally, the way they exercise their Submission – if at all – to God-appointed elders is rather loose.  A well-functioning church honors the elders among them.

Substitution – The thing about conventional churches that most of us don’t even notice is how they have Substituted a whole bunch of things for the way God created His Church to be and function.  Tradition replaces the Submission they ought to be practicing.  It isn’t that they aren’t gathering; they’re gathering a different way than prescribed.  It isn’t that they don’t do the Lord’s Supper; it’s that they have made it this ceremony of confession and contemplation rather than the communal feast in remembrance of our One Savior.  Things that appeal to and originate from the secular world have been brought in.  There are programs where instead there ought to be exercising of spiritual gifts on a personal level, and real shepherding where a leader gets to know the condition of the spirit of each member of his flock, guiding them into functioning as a whole according to the ways God is leading and equipping the parts.  And when problems are identified, so often man’s wisdom is consulted for solutions, replacing getting on their faces before God to repent and grieve and cry out for the only effectual help there is.

Supplement – A lot of churches believe that they can relegate the biblical types of gathering to extra-curricular activities.  They make the primary meeting about preaching and singing; that’s what the paid staff is preparing for during the week; that’s where congregational announcements are made; that’s the first thing a visitor will come to in most cases.  And then some churches make available (with differing levels of assertiveness) the small groups that more closely resemble the body-gatherings described in 1 Corinthians 12-14 and Ephesians 4.  It’s already so easy to think of God as something we add on to the things we do ourselves: I try and then pray; I fill my day with activities and then have my ‘time with God’ in the evening.  What God wants His people to be busy with should not take second place to the things we’ve Substituted.

Suppression – By having a service centered on one man preaching, two things are suppressed: the headship of Christ and the participation of every member according to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Another thing often hindered by the way church is done is holiness.  When the focus of a gathering is on evangelism – with a seeker-sensitive message or an altar call – it’s hard to enforce a standard of behavior.  While we ought to welcome unbelievers into our gatherings, it ought to be plain that they are outsiders: challenged by the work of God in building up and sanctifying His people, invited by the way we love one another.

Success – First of all, the leaders of those churches tend to be obsessed with “Success.”  These men feel that the outcome rests on them, and so reflects on their performance (often leaving them discouraged and desperate).  The way most conventional churches define success is not biblical.  They track church attendance, converts, baptisms, friendliness, amount of square footage in the church complex, health and wealth, popularity of the youth group or children’s ministry, retainment of staff or members, energy of singing or ‘amens’ during the service, the sales or audience of any TV/radio/books put out by their church and its programs and pastors.  All this, compared to the Bible’s characteristics of a healthy church: love, unity, righteousness, obedience, holiness, maturity, zeal, faith, generosity…

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Made by a young pair of brothers, Divided the movie is the film version of the Family Integrated Church propaganda.  Careful oversight was given by Scott Brown, of the NCFIC, and he was also interviewed extensively in the documentary.  The film follows the research of Philip  Leclerc into the fruits, philosophies, and history of the youth ministry church model.

Divided consists mostly of interviews.  It begins by talking to the authors of Already Gone, Britt Beamer and Ken Ham, who discuss the statistics about youth leaving the Church and at what age they stopped believing orthodox Christianity.  One problem they identify with modern youth ministry is the lack of substance being presented in lessons and sermons at events.  This leads to man on the street shots of students after a Christian concert, and surveys of various youth leaders and conference directors for youth pastors, showing the pervading philosophies of being relevant and giving the students an emotional experience – intentionally not dealing with points of Christian doctrine beyond Jesus’ love and sacrificial death.

Some former pastors and youth leaders are interviewed about why they left the youth ministry model (much as the filmmaker’s parents had chosen to do).  An enlightening testimony suggested that teaching the “right things,” worldviews and Christian theology, still resulted in a majority of students leaving the faith by the end of high school.  This presents a contrast to the first segment, where the flawed worldview of average youth ministry was uncovered.  One church planter stated that if you just read the Bible, you would not think of doing church the way we do it today; his church is trying to function more biblically, and one aspect of that is to eliminate youth ministry.

Next is what I see as the strong point, the most useful part of the documentary, dealing with the history of age-segregated church, beginning with the origins of Sunday school classes for children.  The rest of the movie seems unlikely to enlighten or persuade anyone, as the philosophies of each side (pro-youth ministry and pro-family-based discipleship) are not tested against a biblical standard.

Afterward, Philip Leclerc interviews a series of leaders in the FamilyIntegratedChurchmovement, who point out that the Bible’s prescription for discipling children is that their parents train them up, and that youth ministry – separate from the main meetings and activities of the church – is never mentioned in the Bible.  Questions are brought forward, like the argument that since parents are not taking responsibility for training their own children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, if the Church doesn’t, the youth will fall through the cracks.

I found a few things lacking in Divided.  At the end of the movie, I felt that the criticism against youth ministry was directed at its fruit: people who abandon belief in God and the Bible.  But the alternative put forward is not judged by the same measure.  I remain curious how successful family-centered discipleship and family-integrated churches are at retaining the next generation.  The filmmaker’s mentors are full of ideals which they claim are biblically based.  If the fruit is different from what statistics show for youth in the past several decades, this gives us hope.  If the fruit is the same, perhaps more is going on than negligent parenting and segregated churches.

The movie relies on the worldview of its audience to refute the postmodernism of most youth ministries which is put on display in the first half of the film.  Though presented as the unwanted results of age-segregated ministry, we are left to judge what is wrong with the youth interviewed based on our own notions – whether we would judge them for their style of music or dress, for their poor communication skills, for holding to false doctrines about creation, for caring about authenticity and relationship, for lacking discernment, for laziness, for postmodern relativism.  And if we only notice a couple of these, perhaps we are absorbing the rest of their subtle messages as true – or maybe we are judging everything they say as wrong because of the other things they are packaged with.

This highlights the next difficulty I had with the movie: some of the youth and youth leaders made really good points about what is valuable to people, what they expect – even need – to find at church.  When a student says he is looking for people who will tell him the truth and be real with him, and that he values a mentor for being involved in his life, surely the Church could learn from those needs.  A woman who leads training for youth pastors points out that they need to be relevant to the everyday lives of kids.  True – who has more relevance to the ins and outs of a young person’s life than the family he lives with?  Who is more real to him than his own parents?  But this point was not made, this challenge not extended to parents who are choosing to take up the biblical mandate to be spiritual leaders to their children.  Also, those concerns recognized by the representatives of youth ministry are really universal needs, not applicable just to teenagers, but also to adults.

Throughout the movie, the experts skirt the issue that the way we do church is fundamentally unbiblical.  We have not sought God’s design for our gatherings and Christian life.  The Church that was intended to be a community has become an institution full of programs, and people fill slots and categories and statistics instead of being directed by needs and gifts in the Body.  Perhaps parents are abdicating their spiritual roles because the Church isn’t allowing discipleship to happen among its members, leaving parents ill-equipped to train their children – but also leaving pastors ill-equipped, unsupported by the edification they are supposed to receive from the rest of the Church.

Finally, there is the question of whether people who are middle school, high school, and college age ought to be considered adults, invited and expected to contribute their spiritual gifts (if they are believers*) to the unity and edification of the whole church just as the rest of adults ought to be (but often are not).   I say “the rest of” because until the last hundred years, people in their mid-teens and beyond were counted adults.  In the very least they were not considered children.  And on the assumption that youth ministries are dealing with children rests the crux of the argument made by the Family Integrated Church proponents.  They argue that parents own the responsibility for the spiritual growth of their kids.  But if they’re not kids, in the biblical sense to which the commands would apply…

And even if they are children, if they are saved*, they are members of the body of Christ and the instructions about Church should apply to them.  They ought to receive instruction and admonition from any believer who is so gifted and led.  Parents are responsible, and not to shirk their duties towards the children God has entrusted to them, but they are not alone, and do not own exclusive rights to their child’s discipleship.  Perhaps they ought to do “catechizing” and “worldview training” at home instead of expecting it to be done at church.

I appreciate the call Divided puts out to parents to fulfill their God-given roles in the family.  The documentary shows the variety of people who believe in family integration, and the different reasons people practice it.  Exhorting the Church to be unified by ending age segregation is a great start.  When asked about children whose parents are not believers (the original target of Sunday schools), Family Integration proponent Scott Brown suggested an intense, personal solution: sound families should bring those children into their home during the week to witness to them and disciple them (sending them back to their own families with deference to the parents’ authority), and have those children sit with their family during church meetings.  The family is upheld as an important player in education and morality.  Ultimately, Divided exalts God for designing well, however dismal the results of man’s corruptions of church and family.

*If a child is not yet a professing follower of Christ, should he be required to attend Church gatherings with his parents?  Should he be allowed to participate if he is there?

What if the Bible isn’t enough?  What if God desires us to have more of a relationship with Him than a hermeneutical understanding of morality and doctrine?  And isn’t that what the Bible teaches: walk in the Spirit, walk by faith, the Spirit will guide us into all truth, despise not prophesying?
If you’re anything like me, first you rejected these speculations. Then you couldn’t stop thinking about them, and started reading the Bible in a new light, considering the possibilities.  And now that you’re seriously tempted to believe in continuing revelation, you’re scared.  I’m not very good at explaining this fear.  I think about how I have relied on the Bible so much.  How do I appeal to fellow believers about their belief and practice except on a universally accepted standard?  How do I witness to nonbelievers except by demonstrating the inerrancy (internal consistency and outward truth) of the Bible?  Can I claim that internal consistency proves anything when that was a test for which books made it into the Canon or not?  Supposing God does speak to me, how will I know it’s Him? What if He speaks to someone else?  Why should I submit to what He speaks through them?  How will believers be on the same page, with each one (or at least each congregation) receiving his own revelation?
Maybe I’m scared because I never dreamed I would be here, believing these things.  And where else will it lead?  Maybe if I need to hear from God today, or in the future, I have to trust that He will speak; I can’t just sit comfortably holding in my hand all He was ever going to say.  I have to believe in a God who is able to communicate not just to me, but to people around me.  I have to believe in a God whose mercy is so great that even when I’m sinfully not listening, He’ll cushion me from making mistakes too terrible.  But I need His mercy every time, because whenever I’m not listening to Him, I’m doing my own thing.  So maybe I don’t like this belief because it puts me out of control.  I can’t force revelation from God by being smarter or studying longer or even by asking the right teacher.
On the other hand, I like it.  The God of the universe is speaking to real live people today.  He has designed a community for His people that is interdependent.  We get to be a part of His ministry both to those who have believed and to those who have not.  God has not left us alone to make up our own decisions.

 

Did God speak outside of Scripture?  Does He still?  Can we speak His (new) words?

 

Speaking is a big focus of the New Testament, though I think we have overlooked it.  Many of the spiritual gifts have to do with verbal communication.  Are those gifts supernatural (spiritual) or not?  Can speaking gifts come from God, but not the words?  What about this verse from Peter?  “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God…”  Have you ever thought about Paul’s admonition to take up the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”?  Did you know that Paul follows with a request that his friends pray that “utterance may be given unto [him]”?

 

Maybe you’re like me, fascinated by how casually the Old Testament refers to God speaking to men.  God spoke to Cain.  God told Noah.  God visited Abraham.  He interrogated Job.  Was it like in the movies, where light streamed from heaven and men heard a voice?  How often did men have experiences like Abraham, who entertained God and a couple of angels in his tent?  Was the voice audible or not?  Did God come in dreams like He did for Joseph, instructing him to go ahead with his marriage to Mary?  Why doesn’t the Bible go into more detail about these fantastic communications?  Why do the authors seem to think we know what they mean when they simply say, “God spoke”?  Did they expect us to have similar experiences?  Does God still speak?

 

Did you know that the Bible never says anything about the end of the writing of Scripture?  Did you know there is no biblical instruction for determining a Canon?

 

Catholics ascribe authority to the words of the Pope (when he is speaking as Pope).  That way they have one universal authority to which all members of the church must submit.  Protestants rejected the Pope because they observed the fruit of his edicts, in the sixteenth century and before, that they were worldly.  Perhaps they also claim that the New Testament does not teach apostolic succession or the spiritual authority of popes.

 

But Protestants claim similar things about the Bible.  We use it as the universal and exclusive authority over the Church.  Now, the Bible does mention authority.  It says that men will live by the words of God, and I am fairly certain that the writings of the Bible fit into that category.  All Scripture, Paul wrote, is profitable for doctrine and rebuke and instruction in righteousness.  I’m willing to at least suggest that he had the Old Testament in mind.

 

The problem is that the Bible itself also teaches about the Church, and who has authority over it.  What it says is that Jesus Christ is the head of the Church.  He is its authority, to which every member must submit.

 

 

Once upon a time I went through and underlined every time “word of God” was used in the book of Acts.  The phrase occurred quite often in passages about evangelism, which of course is a theme of Acts. At the time I was accumulating evidence that if we wanted to be effective at converting the lost, we needed to use actual Scripture instead of our emotional phrases and cute metaphors.   A passage in 2 Timothy inspired me: “And that from Childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures of God, which are able to make you wise for salvation…”

 

Having been raised in the evangelical church, I didn’t at that time ask an obvious question.  When the apostles, Paul, the deacons, and all those famous evangelists spoke “the word of God,” to what did that refer?  Did they stand up in front of masses of Greeks and compile quotations from Exodus, Psalms, and Habakkuk to call men to faith in Jesus?  Obviously they did not yet have the New Testament written.  We do have some examples of the apostles quoting the Old Testament to people while preaching.  And there’s the story of Philip, who found the Ethiopian Eunuch reading Isaiah, so he explained how what we know as chapter 53 was a prophecy fulfilled by Jesus, and led him to salvation from there.

 

I’m skeptical that “the word of God” could have been referring to the Old Testament.  There are words to refer to those writings: Scripture, Prophets, Law, Moses, Isaiah, “as it is written.”  But Acts didn’t use those to describe the apostles’ preaching.

 

Ok, Jesus when He was being tempted quoted to the Devil that man lives by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  Jesus Himself was using Scripture, so we usually interpret this as an exemplary double-punch.  I don’t need bread; I need exactly what I’m using now: Scripture.  Except, well, what did the original author mean, the one whom Jesus was quoting?

 

If you go to the Psalms, all over the place you find references to the “word of the LORD.”  David says he delights in “Your word.” Does he mean only that he delights in the Law of Moses?  Why do we think of something different when we read, “The word of the LORD came to…” the prophets?

 

When Jesus reaffirmed that man lives by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” was He including the words God would speak during His earthly ministry?  Did He mean also those words that He heard from the Father and spoke obediently?  What about the New Testament, which we are today taught is God-breathed just like the Old Testament?  Are we to live by any other “words from God?”  I mean, if the apostles were preaching the “word of God” in Acts, and that didn’t just refer to what had been previously expressed in the Scripture or by Jesus, why don’t we have those preached words recorded?  Do we need them?  John supposes that if everything Jesus said and did were recorded there wouldn’t be books enough to contain them; why don’t we need all the words that Jesus spoke?

 

To God be all glory.

 

 

Today I read an extra chapter from Frank Viola’s From Eternity to Here.  This is the chapter I bought the book for.  In The Anatomy of the Church, the author lists and describes 14 biblical images of the Church, from the familiar: Bride, Body to the obscure: Field, Loaf.  Each one includes references.

 

“Compare the bouquet of roses to a rose bush. In a rose bush, the roses are one organic whole. Each rose possess its own individuality, but none are individualistic. They grow together for they share the same root. The bush passes through seasons of death and resurrection together. They are one organism. The church that the New Testament envisions is a rose bush, not a bouquet of roses.”

 

Frank emphasizes the communal (non-individualistic) nature of the Church and the headship of Jesus Christ, brought forward in every image.  Jesus redeems individuals in order to make for himself a special people. And He takes us and baptizes us into one body.

 

I’m interested to study a few of these images more.  The Loaf and The Army particularly piqued my interest.  Is the Armor of God given to the corporate Church rather than to individuals?  What does that look like?  Where does this Bible teacher get the idea that the “grains” produced by Christ’s death and resurrection must be crushed and fired and turned into one loaf?

 

On the other hand, how beautiful and exciting to meet with a vision for the Church: for God’s love for her, His purpose for her, and His delight in her.  How do we respond to that?