Not Forsaking the Assembling Together

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.  (Hebrews 10:23-25 ESV)

If I could leave you with one thought, it’s this: Go.  Go to church.  Don’t go for the coffee, the presentations, the music, or the amenities.  Don’t even go for the feelings you may or may not get when you go because, no offense, these feelings may or may not be trustworthy most of the time.  Go for the gospel.  Go for the preaching.  Go to be near to God’s Word (Why We Love the Church, p. 196).

The church is not an incidental part of God’s plan…He called [people] to repent, called them to faith, called them out of the world, and called them into the church.

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7).  If we truly love the church we will bear with her failings, endure her struggles, believe her to be the beloved bride of Christ, and hope for her final glorification.  I still believe the church is the hope of the world – not because she gets it all right, but because she is a body with Christ for her Head.

Don’t give upon the church.  The New Testament knows nothing of churchless Christianity.  The invisible church is for invisible Christians.  The visible church is for you and me [my emphasis added].

So I guess this is my final advice: Find a good local church, get involved, become a member, stay there for the long haul…Go to church this Sunday and worship there is spirit and truth, be patient with your leaders, rejoice when the gospel is proclaimed, bear with those who hurt you, and give people the benefit of the doubt.  While you are there, sing like you mean it…enjoy the Sundays that click for you, pray extra hard on the Sundays that don’t, and do not despise “the day of small things” (Zechariah 4:10) (p. 226).

 

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Another “Follow Jesus, Forget the Church” Epic Fail

Contributing author Andrew Sullivan wrote the cover story of the “Easter edition” of Newsweek informing people that they should “Forget the Church. Follow Jesus.”  Sullivan’s headline is not new, in fact, he is a bit behind the times as there have been a number of books published over the years that have already debunked his premises (e.g. the 2009 book Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion – an insightful, pointed, yet humorously witty book by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck).

Sullivan recycled old points while mixing in some current events in order to try to sell his point; ending with the tried and found wanting appeal that “all we need is love.”  As Trevin Wax points out in his article (posted below), Christianity in Crisis? A Response to Andrew Sullivan, the “love of Jesus” that Sullivan wants is not the love of Jesus according to Jesus.  Or, as Wax states it, “It’s interesting to see how those who advocate a return to the words of Christ often display a frightening ignorance of what Jesus actually said.”

For a great synopsis of the Sullivan article and Wax’s critique of the positives and landmark failures of Sullivan, check out the article below:

Christianity in Crisis?  A Response to Andrew Sullivan by Trevin Wax

Newsweek’s cover story, written by popular author Andrew Sullivan, encourages Americans to “forget the church” and just “follow Jesus.” According to Sullivan:

We inhabit a polity now saturated with religion. On one side, the Republican base is made up of evangelical Protestants who believe that religion must consume and influence every aspect of public life. On the other side, the last Democratic primary had candidates profess their faith in public forums, and more recently President Obama appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast, invoking Jesus to defend his plan for universal health care. The crisis of Christianity is perhaps best captured in the new meaning of the word “secular.” It once meant belief in separating the spheres of faith and politics; it now means, for many, simply atheism. The ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes.

Sullivan sees the problem of a politicized faith, one that focuses relentlessly on gaining power, changing laws, and regulating the morality of others. He sees contemporary Christianity as a faith obsessed with getting doctrines about Jesus right to the exclusion of what He actually taught us to do and be. This leads him to ask some piercing questions:

What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand? What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself?

From the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality to evangelical Christian support of torture, Sullivan makes his way through a long list of perceived threats to the centrality of Christ among believing people.

So what’s the solution? Sullivan points us toward Francis of Assisi and Thomas Jefferson. Francis – for the simplicity of his vision for following Jesus. Jefferson – for the way he stripped away all the miracles of incarnation and resurrection and got to the greatest miracle of all: Jesus’ message of love.

A Response

Where to start with an article like this?

On the one hand, Sullivan is absolutely right to point out the politicized nature of Christianity in the West. He has witnessed the counterfeit gospel of activism that gives us “culture warriors” from the Right and the world’s “errand runners” from the Left. He has seen what happens when churches unite around a cause rather than the cross, and the results are indeed repugnant. If we deny the shortcomings of the church or minimize the scandals, the abuse of power, or the existence of injustice behind our stained-glass windows, we are departing from the righteous vision of Jesus’ kingdom and joining the first-century Pharisees.

Likewise, we should admit that we have too often been known more for our denunciations of those outside our walls than for our passion to uproot our own self-righteous hypocrisy, something Jesus was always confronting in His day. Sullivan sees many of the problems within contemporary Christianity with a perception that should give us pause and bring us back to our knees.

Jesus without Jesus

Unfortunately, his solution is woefully inadequate. He wants to return to the simple message of Jesus as if that message can be divorced from the Man who delivered it. Despite his protests against a politicized faith, Sullivan is saying we should follow a Man whose primary message concerned a kingdom. You can’t get more political than that.

It’s interesting to see how those who advocate a return to the words of Christ often display a frightening ignorance of what Jesus actually said. The primary message of Jesus was not love – at least, not love in our sense of the world. The message of Jesus was Love with a capital “L” – meaning, His message was about Himself. It was about His kingdom, His identity as king, and the cross that became His throne.

So when Sullivan says that Jesus would have been “baffled” by current debates over homosexuality or abortion, I would counter that Jesus spoke to both of these issues and more, albeit indirectly:

  • The sexual ethic He put forth is so radical that even a lustful thought after another human being is considered sinful.
  • The picture of God’s intention of marriage – male and female from the dawn of creation – is reinforced so strongly that divorce ought to become unthinkable.
  • Abortion? How can we listen to Jesus talk about God’s care for a fallen sparrow or watch Him bless the little children and believe He would have nothing to say to those who would still the heartbeats of those who are “more precious” to the Father than the birds of the air?

What’s more, Sullivan’s assertion that we should return to what Jesus asked us to do and be (“rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was”) flies in the face of Jesus’ own words to His disciples. Jesus is the One who raises the eternal stakes of understanding His messianic identity. Over and over again in the Gospels, we see the disciples asking, “Who is this man?” The wind and seas obey. The dead are raised. The lame walk. The deaf speak. Jesus is acting and talking like He’s in control. He’s either crazy or He’s king of creation.

Sullivan wants to take Christ’s teaching without Christ Himself. His vision tries to deliver Christ’s message of love without the atoning cross that gives love its meaning. It wants Christ’s justice without the victorious resurrection that launches the new world God has promised , the new world that totally changes the landscape for how we view everything: ethics, morals, politics, art, law.

Jesus’ teachings are not just about embarking on a new journey, embracing a new way of life, or experiencing a new spirituality. They are about His ushering in a new world order – a kingdom that encompasses everything.

Snip away at the miracles, like Thomas Jefferson, and you may be left with only the red letters. But even those red letters testify to the world-changing news of the kingdom’s arrival. This isn’t a Jesus whose message you can understand apart from His cross and resurrection.

The answer to Andrew Sullivan is to point back to everything the Gospels tell us. Let’s not isolate the sayings of Jesus we like and fit Him into our vision for how the world should work. Instead, let’s fall at the feet of King Jesus, ready and willing to do whatever it takes to fit our lives into His vision, a vision of the world to come that has crashed into the world that is.

Cafeteria Christianity

“I’ll take a Jesus Burger with some love and peace. Hold the exclusivity and wrath.” How often do we treat Jesus and the Christian faith like a cafeteria buffet line? Picking and choosing what we like but rejecting what we find objectionable or “out of date” compared to the current cultural norms.

If we find ourselves walking the Jesus buffet line then we need to ask ourselves if we really have saving faith in the God of the Bible or just a belief in a God?  If so, then James would say that you don’t even have a belief in God equivalent to the demons (James 2:19) because they at least acknowledge God as He truly exists – even though they are unrepentant and rebellious. If we are so quick to compromise our faith then there is something wrong.  As one writer puts it, “Real Faith Can’t be Checked at the Door“.

For the genuinely saved Christian reducing the faith in a pick-and-choose manner has damaging effects on both the gospel. This is counter-intuitive to those who promote that the church is the problem not Jesus because the majority of people seem to “like Jesus but not the church”.  Yet the “Jesus” the world likes is really “another Jesus”; not the Jesus of the Bible.  Along these lines, the authors of Why We Love the Church have this to say about having a cafeteria Christianity:

Karen Ward, an emergent church leader in Seattle, claims that 95 percent of the nonchurched in her area have a favorable view of Jesus, “so Jesus is not the problem. It is the church they dislike, because they do not readily see the church living out his teachings.” But the Jesus they like is certainly not the Jesus who calls sinners to repentance, claimed to be the unique Son of God, and died for our sins. He is almost certainly a nice guy, open-minded, spiritually ambiguous, and a good example.  He is guru Jesus who resembles Bono in a bathrobe. If the church is the problem, it is likely because the church gives shape and form to an otherwise malleable and hollow Christ. (p 78)

Book Review: Why We Love the Church

WWLTCI have finished reading Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck.  My reaction the book is, “It is about time!” It is about time that there were some authors who have gone counter-cultural and written about the church, Christ’s Body & Bride, from a positive and biblical perspective.  I give this book a solid 4.5 out of 5 stars. It is missing the final .5 star only because I felt a couple chapters could have had a little more “meat”.

You can get some of my positive feedback on the book by looking at some of my earlier blog posts.  So, I would like to end with a couple impressions from the book’s epilogue: Toward a Theology of Plodding Visionaries.  In this ending the authors bring out that if people truly understood the doctrine or original sin a lot of this “anti-church”, “church is lame”, “disgruntled with church” thoughts could be greatly reduced.

Unfortunately it seems that many who promote discontentment with the church also fall into the heresy of denying (or mocking or ignoring) the clear biblical teaching of original sin (it was “officially” declared heresy at the Counsel of Ephesus in AD 431).  Original sin has this way of getting in the way of their idealistic utopian view of humanity that just needs to love more and act more like Jesus (without necessarily needing to be born again) to solve all the world’s problems.  Yet if we truly understand the doctrine of original sin, we will have a more realistic view of the world, ourselves, the church, and the need for Jesus to die on the cross for the sins of the world.  Instead of bashing the church we will begin to see her as Christ sees her and realize how Christ is using her to be the hope of the world.

Here are some of the authors’ concluding thoughts:

“In summary, the gospel is not about what we need to do for God.  It’s a message about what God has done for us.  It’s a declaration of God’s plan of redemption unfolding in history with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins (1 Cor. 15:1-8).

By contrast, the marching orders of the church today are often nothing more than dressed up moralism.  We have a gospel of activism, with no rest for the weary, only a summons to do more for the world.  This kind of gospel, though it’s presented as the glowing alternative to all that supposedly plagues the church today, will quickly cause a church to collapse under the weight of its own idealistic demands.  We need to recover the doctrine of original sin if for no other reason than so we can once again discover God’s glorious grace.

The church is not an incidental part of God’s plan.  Jesus didn’t invite people to join an antireligion, antidoctrine, anti-institutional bandwagon of love, harmony, and reintegration.  To be sure, He showed people how to live.  But He also called them to repent, called them to faith, called them out of the world, and called them into the church.

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7).  If we truly love the church we will bear with her in her failings, endure her struggles, believe her to be the beloved bride of Christ, and hope for her final glorification.  I still believe the church is the hope of the world – not because she gets it all right, but because she is a body with Christ for her Head.

Don’t give up on the church.  The New Testament knows nothing of churchless Christianity. The invisible church is for invisible Christians.  The visible church is for you and me” (pp 225-226).

Organic & Organized Church

There is a lot of hype in the Christian world today about the church needing to be organic and not organized. A kind of reaction against what some feel to be an oppressive system or dry set of practices.  Church PlantOften Matthew 18:20 (“For where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there in their midst”) is stated as the model for true biblical “church gathering” (ignoring the fact that the context is about church discipline).

To be fair, I do not doubt that there are come congregations that may be “oppressive”, overly “systematized”, and “dry”.  But we must be careful about making blanket statements and setting up false dichotomies.  The Bible is clear that the church is both organic and organized.  She is the organic Body of Christ and is to be biblically expressed through spiritual and organizational means.

Kenny DeYoung and Ted Kluck, authors of Why We Love the Church, explain this quite well in the twenty-six page long seventh chapter of the book – ‘The Church of Diminishing Definition”.  I shall just pull out a couple quotes since you really should read the book yourself:

“The problem with this minimalist ecclesiology [all you need are two or more Christians in the same place at the same time being spiritual together] is that it confuses definition and function.  I have no problem with defining the church as elect people of God, or as the gathered Christian community, or as all those who have put their faith in Jesus.  These are pretty standard definitions.  But to say the church is the people of God is not the same as saying that wherever the people of God are there you have a church.  The problem with the previous sentence is that “church” is used in two different ways.  At the beginning of the sentence, “the church” refers to the universal organic fellowship of Christians.  So, of course, the church is the people of God.  The two are almost synonymous.  But in the second half of the sentence, “a church” suggests a local, concrete expression of the universal, organic fellowship.  The church manifests itself in churches.  And churches do certain things and are marked by certain characteristics.  So as a definition, the church may be the people of God, but for God’s people gathered to be a church they must function in a certain way” (p 166).

Later on, the authors of the book use an example from the Jesus figure in the book The Shack. On page 123 in The Shack we hear “Jesus” tell Mack, “Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you.”  I think this is a good example of setting “organic” (or relationship) against “organization” (or structure or hierarchy) – something that the Bible does not do in regards to Christ’s church.  The authors of Why We Love the Church make these comments about this quote:

“The idea is that the church can exist, and it seems should exist, without authority structures or any role distinctions among its members.  There are only two problems with this model of church: it’s unbiblical and it’s unrealistic.  “Anarchy does not work,” writes Professor Herman Bavinck.  “To say that Christ has founded a church without any organization, government, or power is a statement that arises from principles characteristic of philosophical mysticism but takes no account of the teaching of Scripture, nor of the realities of life.”” (pp 167-168).

I’ll close this blog with what I feel is a great summarizing paragraph from Why We Love the Church in regards to having an organic and biblically organized church:

“The church, as the elect people of God, is both organism and organization.  The church is a breathing, growing, maturing, living thing.  It is also comprised of a certain order (1 Cor. 14:40), with institutional norms (5:1-13), doctrinal standards (15:1-2), and defined rituals (11:23-26).  The two aspects of the church – organism and organization – must not be played off against each other, for both are “grounded in the operations of the glorified head of the church through the Holy Spirit.”  Offices and gifts, governance and people, organization and organism – all these belong together.  They are all blessings from the work of Christ” (p 170).

Football, Faith, & Fatherhood

I was reading Why We Love the Church and got excited about hearing a football player boldly declaring the gospel while being inducted into the Hall of Fame, but then teared up a bit upon reading the comments of the football player’s son.

“[Here’s] former Washington Redskin wide receiver and 2008 inductee Art Monk, who quietly and passionately present the gospel and quotes more Scripture than most American pastors during his speech.

Monk’s words are something of a revelation.  He begins by explaining that football and the Hall of Fame induction don’t define him.  Rather, he says, he is defined by his faith in Christ. “My identity and security,” he says, “is founded in the Lord.  And what defines me and my validation comes in having accepted His Son Jesus Christ as my personal Savior.  And what defines me is the Word of God, and it’s the Word of God that will continue to shape and mold me into the person I know that He’s called me to be.”

Monk not only quotes Scripture be he does so in an evenhanded, humble way which is in contrast to most cringe-worthy Christian-athlete rhetoric that seems devoid of any doctrine other than God-as-cosmic-good-luck-charm.  It’s a way that suggests that Monk has sat under good biblical and doctrinal teaching the majority of his adult life.

He was introduced by his son, James Monk Jr., who spoke at length about Monk’s involvement in his local church body in Washington, D.C., and how his commitment to Christ shaped his career, and his parenting:

Art and Son“So to answer the question, do you want to be like Art Monk when you grow up, my answer is I’d rather be like Dad.  Dad, thank you for being the man of God that God has called you to be, and for raising me in the same way.  As your best friend, as your admirer, as your biggest fan, and as your son, I want to tell the whole world that I love you and I’m truly honored and blessed to induct you into the 2008 Pro Football Hall of Fame.”” (pp 155-157).

As I read the James Monk Jr.’s words I was filled with a longing that my future children (of whom I hope at least one is a boy) would feel the same way towards me.  That I could be such a positive model of what a man of God looks like in life.  A person that my son(s) would want to emulate and a kind of man that my daughter(s) would seek to marry.