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May 24, 2006

Some time ago I became convicted, by the Spirit I trust, that I did not regard the celebration of the Lord’s Supper with sufficient significance or gravity. I felt that I did not sufficiently sanctify this celebration through lack of preparation and lack of focus when actually taking the bread and the wine. Over the past four days I have been making my way through Gospel Worship by Jeremiah Burroughs, a Puritan who lived and ministered in the early seventeenth century. In one chapter of this great book he addresses the question of “What is Required in Receiving the Sacrament?” While the book is filled, from cover to cover with godly wisdom, this one section spoke straight to my soul. Burroughs provides requirements for “the sanctifying of the name of God in this holy sacrament.” I’d like to share these with you today in the hope that they challenge you as they’ve challenged me.

Knowledge is Required - A person must know what the Lord’s Supper signifies and must be able to provide an account of what it is (and is not). We must also have knowledge of other aspects of the Christian faith, “for we can never come to understand the nature of this sacrament without knowing God and knowing ourselves, knowing in what estate we were by nature, knowing our fall, knowing the way of redemption, knowing what Jesus Christ was and what He has done in making an atonement, the necessity of Jesus Christ and what the way of the covenant is that God has appointed to bring men’s souls to eternal life by.” This must not be mere habitual knowledge, but knowledge that is stirred up by meditation.

A Suitable Disposition - Because the Lord’s Supper remembers the Lord’s broken body and shed blood, “a suitable disposition is brokenness of heart, a sense of our sin, of that dreadful breach that sin has made between God and the soul.” Our sin should be upon our hearts, but only in such a way that we understand it through the application of the blood of Christ. We must behold Christ broken and behold the ugliness of our sin in the red of the glass of the blood of Jesus Christ. “There is more in this sacrament to break the heart for sin” than any other sight we could behold, even a memorial or picture of Christ hanging on the cross. “You do not find that God set that [seeing a representation of Christ on the cross] apart as an ordinance, an institution appointed to the end that they should come to look upon that for the breaking of their hearts.” So when you see the bread broken and see the redness of the wine, allow your heart to be broken with your sin.

Purging and Cleansing the Heart of Sin - At Passover the Jews were to cast out all leaven from within their homes. They first made diligent search for leaven, even lighting candles to search for leaven in every corner. They then cast it out of their homes. Finally, they cursed themselves if they should willingly keep any leaven in the house. That signifies the soul-searching we should undertake before we approach the Lord’s table. We should “make a diligent search to see whether there is not some leaven, some evil in your heart; and whatever sin you shall come to find in your heart, there must be a casting out of it.”

Burroughs provides this moving metaphor for how we are to regard our sin as we approach the Lord’s Supper. “If you saw the knife that cut the throat of your dearest child, would not your heart rise against that knife? Suppose you came to a table and there is a knife laid at your plate, and it was told to you that this is the knife that cut the throat of your child. Fathers, if you could still use that knife like any other knife, would not someone say, ‘There was but little love to your child?’ So when there is a temptation come to any sin, this is the knife that cut the throat of Christ, that pierced his sides, that was the cause of all his suffering, that made Christ to be a curse. Now will you not look upon that as a cursed thing that made Christ to be a curse? Oh, with what detestation would a man or woman fling away such a knife! And with the like detestation it is required that you should renounce sin, for that was the cause of the death of Christ.”

The Hungering and Thirsting of the Soul after Jesus Christ - God expects that all who come to this feast should come with a hungering and longing for Jesus Christ. “Oh, that I might have more of Christ, that I might meet with Christ, that I might have some further manifestation of Jesus Christ, that I might have my soul further united to the Lord Christ, and so have further influence of Christ to my soul.” The reason we do not hunger after Christ like this is that we too often come with stomachs filled with the trash of the world. “So it is with men of the world. They fill their hearts with the trash of this world, with sensual delights; and hence it is that when they come to such a great ordinance to enjoy communion with Jesus Christ, they feel no want at all of Christ. They only come and take a little piece of bread and draught of wine, but for any strong, pausing desires to meet with Jesus Christ there in the ordinance, to come so as they know not how to live with Christ, even as a man who is hungry cannot live without his meat and drink, and so for the soul to have such a disposition after Christ is a rare thing.”

An Exercise of Faith - “Faith is both the hand and the mouth for taking this spiritual meat and spiritual drink.” Faith allows us to see in the bread and wine Jesus’ flesh and blood. “You know by this whether you have come with faith to the sacrament or not, whether you have seen the most glorious sight that ever your eyes beheld, alas, with our natural eyes.” And then, “as you reach out your hand to take the bread and wine, so there must be an actual reaching out of the soul by faith, putting forth an act of faith to receive Jesus Christ into the soul, to apply the Lord Jesus Christ to your soul with all His merits and good things that He has purchased.” And finally the mouth: “You have a bodily mouth to take in bread and wine, but know that without faith your soul cannot take in Christ. Faith is, as it were, the mouth. That is, by the act of faith the soul opens itself for Jesus Christ, and not only opens itself, but takes in Christ to the soul and makes Christ and the soul as one.”

Spiritual Joy - Despite the broken-heartedness of this feast, joy must be exercised. We rejoice with trembling. “This is a great mystery of godliness, that there should be at the same time the sight of Christ crucified and a spiritual cheerfulness in the assurance of the love of God in Jesus Christ.”

Thankfulness - We are to give thanks to God for every mercy. “When you come here and understand what you are doing, here you cannot but see matter for the enlargement of your heart, and wish that you had ten thousand times more strength to express the praises of the Lord. Here is a thing that must be the subject of the ‘Hallelujahs’ and ‘Doxologies’ that angels and saints must forever sound out in the highest heavens.” For in this act the Lord signifies that He has given us something far better than if He were to give us ten thousand worlds.

A Willingness to Renew Your Covenant - There must be a renewing of the covenant with God. “I come to receive this bread and this wine, and this is to be as the seal of the covenant on God’s part. Now this will be implied in the nature of the thing that, if I take the seals of the covenant, I must be willing to set my seal on it too, to renew the covenant that God calls me to.” We come to renew our faith and repentance.

A Renewing of Love - We come to renew our love not only to God but also to our brethren. “For it is a feast of the Lord, and it is an act of communion; communion not only with Christ, but with His churches, with His saints… The Lord requires that His children should not fall out who come to His table, but that there should be love and peace. There’s a mighty bond when you come to the sacrament, and therefore, first all heart-burnings and heart-grudges must be laid aside.”

Burroughs concludes with a warning:

“If we do not sanctify God’s name, it will turn quite to the contrary. It is the proper end of the sacrament to seal up our salvation, but if we do not sanctify God’s name it will seal up our condemnation. If it has not been your endeavour to sanctify the name of God, as many times as you have received the sacrament, so many seals have you upon you for the sealing up of your condemnation. Many men’s or women’s condemnations are sealed with three or four hundred seals, as it may be.” For God’s name will be sanctified in us, either through grace and mercy or through justice.

May 22, 2006

My review of Confessions of a Reformisson Rev. by Mark Driscoll raised a furor. I was shocked by just how quickly the comments began to add up. They quickly bounced up to over 170 before David, who helps me moderate the comments area, decided that they had served their purpose and needed to be shut down (and I fully support the decision). Many blogs picked up the discussion as well. Because of the amount of virtual ink that has been spilled discussing this post, and because of what a few people have subsequently said about me, I wanted to add a few comments.

First, It is an unfortunate truth of the blogosphere that sometimes the tone and content of a blogger’s post can be lost in the subsequent comments and discussion. I fear this may have happened with my review of Confessions of a Reformission Rev.. It may surprise you to know that my review was largely positive. I thought Driscoll had many good things to say and I tried to articulate that. It was not until the final paragraphs that I addressed my foremost concern with the book: the sometimes vulgar language. However, almost all of the 170+ comments focused only on this critique and very few mentioned the positive aspects of the book. Thus, while my review was largely positive, the comments were largely negative. So let’s be fair here and acknowledge that I think Confessions of a Reformission Rev. was quite a good book with many valuable things to say. Had I thought it was an awful book I would not have provided a link to buy it from Amazon.

So please understand what I said about Driscoll’s book and what was actually said in the later discussion. I cannot be held responsible for the tone or content of comments. Even here I would like to say that the vast majority of comments were level-headed and maintained a godly tone.

Second, it is important to note that what I wrote was not a theology of cussing, nor an examination of Mark Driscoll’s ministry. Rather, it was a book review. On the whole I tried to discuss only the book. After all, most people who read the book will know little more of Driscoll than what they encounter within the pages of Confessions of a Reformission Rev.. As some have pointed out, Driscoll recently penned an apology for some vulgar words he had written in response to the views of Doug Pagitt and Brian McLaren. In this article he apologized directly for what he had said about them and also suggested that he is attempting to moderate his use of harsh language. You can read this apology here. It is possible, and even likely, that the manuscript for his book was finalized before he was convicted of sin in his response to McLaren and Pagitt. Thus it is possible that, if given the ability to edit the manuscript, he might not have included some of the more vulgar sections of Confessions of a Reformission Rev.. Only Mark knows. But I don’t feel this is necessarily relevant to my book review.

Third, I do not feel that I need to first approach the author in order to critique his work. Mark Lauterbach wrote a post called Examples of how to critique? in which he said: “It is cheap to critique without trying to show the person their fault.” He advocates a Matthew 18-like process of confrontation and correction. I disagree with him. Driscoll’s book is a matter of public record and when a book (or a blog article) is published and publicly distributed, it is with the assumption and understanding that it will be read and critiqued. Reviewing books would be a useless and impossible enterprise if I first had to approach each author before I pointed out flaws or weaknesses. Matthew 18 does not apply to these matters of public record.

Fourth, it seems that some people were offended that I quoted Mark Driscoll’s use of vulgarity. To be honest, I did struggle a little bit with whether or not I should do this, but eventually decided that I could do so in good conscience. I dislike such use of language and felt bad that people would encounter it on my web site. Still, I feel that it was necessary to show that I was not merely being over-sensitive when pointing out that the book can be vulgar. The vulgarity of this book is not simply in using words like “crap.” While I hope there will not be a next time, if there is I will attempt to first post a disclaimer of sorts so those who do not wish to read such language can simply click the “back” button and avoid it. But I have to ask…is there anyone who can honestly say that he or she would have clicked “back?” Experience tells me that a disclaimer is really usually little more than an invitation.

Fifth, I probably could have articulated this within the review, but did not feel at the time that it was necessary. Perhaps I was wrong. One of the things I find most difficult about Driscoll’s vulgarity is that it is, at least sometimes, measured and deliberate. This is shown clearly within the dialogue with the college student. There is absolutely no way that what Driscoll presents is a completely accurate, word-by-word account of what happened. If he was as tired and groggy as he would have us believe, he could not remember every word that was spoken that night. What he presents is a memoir more than a transcription. Thus he could have used a less-vulgar term to describe what the boy had done. Yet he chose to be provocative. And in fact, I don’t think it was even necessary to publish the exchange in the first place. Driscoll added it to the book to show that he was reaching the end of his rope, but he did not need to provide this story. It is clear that he did so in order to be deliberately provocative. There can be a fine line between confession and exhibitionism. As I said: deliberate provocation.

Sixth, Justin Taylor wrote the following this morning: “I do wish that his extended quotation (which is causing all the heat) had been set in context more than it was.” Justin may be right. The quotation was taken from early in Driscoll’s career, and thus may not reflect what he would say if the same situation were to arise today. At the same time, it was written only recently. See point five, above. Justin also posts a great quote by J.C. Ryle. I agree entirely with what Ryle says and hope that Justin was not directing this at me in particular since I truly do feel that I was quick to see grace in Driscoll. See point one, above. J.T. was quite right, though, to indicate that some people made the error of committing “Graceless Slander Under the Guise of Discernment and Doctrinal Fidelity.”

As always, I am surprised by which of my articles cause a great amount of discussion and which do not. On the whole, book reviews are the posts which tend to gather the lowest number of comments. I was shocked, then, to see just how much discussion arose as a result of this one. Still, I think there was been some valuable and beneficial discussion and I trust that it has somehow proven valuable.

May 22, 2006

Today is a holiday in Canada and apparently we are supposed to celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria. Most Canadians celebrate the day by imbibing near-lethal quantities of alcohol. Actually, this is how Canadians celebrate most holidays. Since I hope to spend most of this day with the family (not drinking, of course!), I did some writing over the weekend, preparing a short biography of a man of God from days past. I hope you enjoy it.

Edwin H. Alden, was born in Connecticut River Valley, on January 14, 1836. He went to Dartmouth College and then to a seminary in Maine. After graduating, he enlisted in the service of the American Home Missionary Society, a ministry of the Congregational Church. A document on the website of Wheaton College provides a bit of detail about this organization:

A group of small missionary societies, the earliest of which was the Young Men’s Missionary Society of New York (formed in 1815) along with the New York Evangelical Missionary Society (formed in 1816) and other small agencies combined to make up the United Domestic Missionary Society in 1822. This group was supported by Reformed Churches and the Presbyterian Church. In May 1826, representatives from Congregational, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches met to form the American Missionary Society. During the convention, the United Domestic Missionary Society voted to merge with the American Home Missionary Society.

Its purpose was to assist congregations in the United States and its territories primarily until they could become financially self-supporting. Women’s groups within the society were recognized when a Women’s Department was formed in 1883. Operations of the Society were carried out through auxiliary societies, agents and agencies. In the 1890s the Society membership increased from 17 to 203. However, by 1893 the interdenominational character of the Society had been lost and it was renamed Congregational Home Missionary Society, which was still in existence in 1975.

Reverend Alden was pastor of a Congregational Church in Waseca, Minnesota, but as part of his missionary duties often travelled to other churches. In his travels he followed the railroad west, preaching at newly founded towns and villages such as New Ulm, Sleepy Eye, Barnston, Walnut Grove, Saratoga and Marshall where the railroad ended suddenly at the wide prairie. Where the train stopped, he would stop, attempting to gather a crowd to hear the preaching of the good news of the gospel. Wherever possible he would encourage the construction of a church building and he was often responsible personally for much of the construction. Despite the hardships of his profession, he once wrote, “So far the Lord has prospered us though it has made me many a weary walk and journey, besides many a day’s toil with hammer and saw when nothing would induce anyone to help me—it was so cold—besides many a weary night of anxiety.”

Reverend Alden has been immortalized in the Little House books, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, though unfortunately, more people remember him for his innacurate role in the long-running television series loosely based on the books. Laura recalls the building of a church in their small town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Being founding members of the congregation, and the first two people baptized into membership at the new congregation, her parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls, were eager participants in the construction of this building. Laura records that her father donated three dollars for the purchase of a bell to complete the building. Three dollars was a sacrifice for so poor a family. Later records show, though, that her father had actually donated the handsome sum of twenty-six dollars and fifteen cents! Charles served as trustee and was active in the service of this church. The bell he helped purchase now hangs in the belfry of the English Lutheran Church in Walnut Grove.

The church at Walnut Grove was not the only building constructred under the leadership of Reverend Alden. What follows is his account of attempting to build a church in Marshall during the winter of 1873. It provides a glimpse into the hardship faced by such missionaries.

The lumber was ordered in October from Winona, 250 miles off. We waited anxiously for the lumber, day after day, but it did not come. Then we heard that it is on a side track sixty miles away, will be here in the next train. Volunteers with teams hurry in from the county to unload it and haul it to the site. It does not come, and the men returned disappointed. After a few days comes—only one car; the other two not heard from. We are anxious. The beautiful October weather is almost gone. Winter is at hand. The road has more than it can do to haul material for the seventy miles yet to be built. Engines and men are taxed to their utmost. Ninety tons of iron for each mile of track must come from Chicago; bridge timber from Winona, 275 miles; ties and piling from the Big Woods, 150 miles.

Night and day they drag their immense loads, carrying back 35,000 bushels of wheat daily. What if they cannot bring our lumber at all! We go eastward eighty miles and find one car. “Can you ship the car for our church tonight?” “Very doubtful. We are obliged to leave here several carloads that have been waiting for days.” After dark, in the rain, with a lantern, we see our car coupled to the westward train and return with a light heart. How it poured, all the night, the next day and the next night, a steady torrent! But our lumber arrived.

Shortly it was framed, raised and partly sheathed. A day or two after came the first great snow-storm of the season, to be followed by others unprecedented for severity and numbers in the history of the state. The house, though held with extra braces, could not stand the fearful gale. It was prostrated soon—buried by the drifting snow. What can be done? The road is blockaded, all the trains but one snowed in, the engines dead. One conductor walks twenty-five miles and telegraphs to the Superintendent. He hastens to the rescue with snowplows, car-loads of provisions and several hundred men with shovels. In time they dig their way to Marshall.

We go by the next train. The weather is beautiful and we move rapidly for seventeen miles. The snowplow comes to a drift; the men ply their shovels; the sky is suddenly overcast; the wind rises, mercury falls, and in thirty minutes all must take refuge in the cars. We are “snowed in.” The next morning, your missionary vies with the rest in the use of the shovel. We make seven miles a day. The train can go no further; no team can be found; we dare not try forty miles on foot over that desolate waste, so we return with the train—only to be snowed in again and find our way to New Ulm as we can—most of the way on foot. Nothing daunted, we take the next train several days later, reaching Marshall at night after a four days’ journey, visit the church site.

A few boards are seen on the foundation. The rest is covered by a deep snow hard enough to bear a loaded team. Can it be dug out and raised again? The carpenter says “Yes.” So says a young lawyer, promising to work his subscription all over again. So say others, and I say “Amen!” Soon the spot is thronged with willing volunteers, shovel in hand, and in two days or so we have the building about where it was before the gale, and passed it over to the contractor for completion. Of course the disaster made us great additional expense which we have not the means to meet.

Will not individuals and churches in the East help us?

I have never know a missionary to end a speech or letter without asking for support. Reverend Alden was no different!

The Ingalls family was to run into Reverend Alden again. After only a few years in Walnut Grove, the family moved to De Smet, North Dakota. One wintery evening the family was thrilled to find Reverend Alden once more upon their doorstep. He was as surprised and delighted as they were to find himself in the company of friends. The first church service in De Smet was soon held in the Ingalls’ home. Reverend Alden later wrote a letter of recommendation supporting the Reverend Brown, who was to become pastor of the first church officially planted in De Smet and who officiated the marriage of Laura to her husband, Almanzo Wilder.

After this time we do not know much about the life of Reverend Alden, save that he married twice, had two children, worked among the Indians and settled in North Dakota. He died May 6, 1911, in Chester, Vermont.

May 18, 2006

The article I wrote yesterday has caused a bit of a ruckus. I intended to answer some of the criticisms this morning, but then I had to try to keep Michaela from crying for two hours, and once I handed her off to Aileen, the phone rang a few times and before I knew it, the morning was getting away from me (it’s mostly Steve Camp’s fault—he and I just have too much to talk about). As you recall, I wrote about whether or not we, as Christians, have an obligation to assume or believe that others are also believers. I suggested that we are under this obligation when a person professes faith and is a member of a “true” church. I was prepared for some criticism, and when Joe Carter mentioned that he would answer this article, I pointed out that I knew there were several holes in my argument which I was sure he would have no trouble finding.

True to his word, Joe took issue with several things, among them my use of the Belgic Confession. “While I consider the Belgic Confession to be a magnificent creed and a beautiful exposition of doctrine, I also believe it to be significantly flawed. In order to understand the requirement for ‘pure administration of the sacraments’ we have to look at Article 34: The Sacrament of Baptism.” The Confession, of course, then advocates infant baptism. Joe concludes “A ‘true church’ is, according to this confession, one that adheres to infant baptism as a ‘pure administration of the sacrament’ of baptism. That means me, John Piper, Al Mohler, and the 16 million members of the SBC are apparently spending our Sundays at a ‘false church.’ (The same could be said for Tim himself since he is a ‘Reformed believer attending a Baptist church.’)”

I should point out that, as a Baptist, I consider the Confession a great document and one that is useful even to me. I look to the confession as a solid summary of the three marks and do not necessarily agree with how the writers of the document further define those three marks. The marks can easily apply to churches other than those which hold to paedo-baptism. I’d suggest that this was something of a red herring, for it seems to have kept Joe from interacting with the marks themselves—marks which I consider a useful guide to a true church.

Mike at “Eternal Perspectives,” who said on another site that I had a bad day yesterday, wrote a lengthy article called The Problem with Whitewash and Turpentine where he expressed his disagreement with me. On the whole I think he understood my argument, though he disagreed with it.

Conversely, John at “Blogotional” seems to have (quite conventiently, really) overlooked my main point. He asked “Who Then Is My Brother? as if my article suggested that only those who profess faith and attend a true church can be believers. Of course my article merely asked who we are under an obligation to assume is a believer, rather than who is a believer. There is a vast difference. He also objected to my criticism of the Roman Catholic Church.

Were I to criticize my article, I would probably point out that very few churches really do practice proper church discipline, and thus there are not a lot of churches left that actually adhere to the three marks I presented. In theory, most churches make some attempt at articulating a policy for church discipline. Sadly, few actually practice it. Many that do practice it, use it more as a tool for ridding themselves of dissenters than a God-given means of separating the wheat from the chaff. This was proven true a few days ago when even the The United Church of Christ, which touts an open-door policy that welcomes everyone and declares that no one will ever be kicked out of the church’s membership, was removed from membership for raising questions about the church’s spending.

So for today I would like to discuss church discipline. I was surprised, when I searched the archives of this site, to see how little I have written about this. However, I found an article which summarized much of what I believe and, having tidied it up, bring it to you today as a basis for what I’d like to say tomorrow (if the phone is a little bit quieter):

Much has been written in our day about healthy churches. Men like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, known as being at the forefront of the church growth movement, insist that their primary concern is not with making churches bigger but with making them healthier. Mark Dever, in 9 Marks of a Healthy Church includes an appendix that lists the prescriptions offered by many contemporary authors. Though this is merely a small sample of what people have suggested, the list comes to over 10 pages. Clearly there is some controversy regarding how we can discern a healthy church from a corrupt one.

Since the time of the Reformation most Protestants have agreed on the marks of a true church (not to be confused with a healthy church). These are summarized in the Belgic Confession, Article 29, which says “The marks by with the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preaching therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.” While not all confessions included church discipline as one of the marks, where absent this was assumed as being integral to the proper administration of the sacraments, for they are to withheld from those who are engaged in gross sins. Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin and Cramner, for example, all agreed on these marks.

Church discipline is an area that is largely overlooked in the contemporary church, yet is one that is necessary for a church to be a true church and to be a healthy church. Until recent times, discipline was viewed as one of the primary functions of the leadership of a church. Until the mid-1800’s, Southern Baptist churches would excommunicate, on average, two percent of their membership in any given year! Church membership was considered both a privelege and a responsibility, and those who did not meet their obligations were swiftly removed. Churches were serious about sin.

As churches changed in the mid to late 19th century, discipline faded. It seems that an emphasis on holy lives was replaced by an emphasis on solving society’s ills. Greg Wills has written extensively about the changing views on church discipline in Democratic Religion:

In fact, the more churches concerned themselves with social order, the less they exerted church discipline. From about 1850 to 1920, a period of expanding evangelical solicitude for the reformation of society, church discipline declined steadily. From temperance to Sabbatarian reform, evangelicals persuaded their communities to adopt the moral norms of the church for society at large. As Baptists learned to reform the larger society, they forgot how they had once reformed themselves. Church discipline presupposed a stark dichotomy between the norms of society and the kingdom of God. The more evangelicals purified the society, the less they felt the urgency of a discipline that seperated the church from the world.

Church discipline today is generally reserved for only the most terrible sins. I suspect many churches are willing to overlook almost any sin provided it does not cause rifts in the church and call the leadership into question. Disunity is the cardinal sin of the twenty-first century. Matters of morality and godliness are regarded with far more leniency. Sadly this shows that many church leaders are more concerned with how the members of their churches regard them than with how they regard God. This has not always been the case. Even 100 years ago many churches considered almost any consistent transgression of biblical rules grounds for discipline. In 9 Marks of a Healthy Church Mark Dever provides some examples from the rules of his church which were drawn up in 1878. The document outlined many ways in which members could be liable to discipline. They included: any outward violations of the moral law; any course which may…be disreputable to it [the church] as a body; neglecting to contribute financially; being habitually absent from church. In short, the church required believers to act and live like believers and any consistent transgression of this rule would begin the process of discipline as outlined in the Scripture.

Clearly this model, which seems to have been quite common in that day, is unusual for our time. But consider the impact on our churches if we placed under discipline those who miss church on an ongoing basis, those who live in sin and those who refuse to give financially to the church - in short, those who show clear evidence of ongoing, unrepentant sin in their lives. Evidently attendance would fall dramatically. But would this be a bad thing? It seems to me that a lean church composed of committed believers is far superior to a bloated body composed of a mix of believers and unbelievers. Almost sixty years ago H.E. Dana observed that:

The abuse of discipline is reprehensible and destructive, but not more than the abandonment of discipline. Two generations ago the churches were applying discipline in a vindictive and arbitrary fashion that justly brought it into disrepute; today the pendulum has swung to the other extreme - discipline is almost wholly neglected. It is time for a new generation of pastors to restore this important function of the church to its rightful significance and place in church life.

I wonder how the church would change if discipline were taken seriously. I wonder how many goats would immediately flee the assembly of the sheep. But wouldn’t the church be better for it? Mark Dever observes that “Jesus intended our lives to back up our words. If our lives don’t back up our words, the evangelistic task is injured, as we have seen so terribly this last century in America. Undisciplined churches have actually made it harder for people to hear the Good News of new life in Jesus Christ.” I fully agree. Churches in which the members show little evidence of the Spirit’s work of sanctification appeal to the world and harm the task of evangelism. Laxity in this area brings harm and shame to the church of Jesus Christ.

The great irony may be that those churches which are most concerned with evangelism are those which do the most to harm their own witness with their bloated, often largely-unregenerate membership.

May 17, 2006

On Monday, Joe Carter, he of Evangelical Outpost fame, posted on his web site discussing an article Andrew Sullivan had published in Time Magazine entitled “My Problem with Christianism.” There is one aspect of Carter’s article I would like to discuss today: the preamble. This is how Joe began: “While I believe that he can be as intolerant as Fred Phelps, I consider Andrew Sullivan to be a brother in Christ. Our differences of opinion—and they are profound—are trivial when compared to that relationship.” If you were so inclined, you could read the complete article and the subsequent commentary here.

I can’t imagine why Joe began this article with a comparison of the intolerance of Fred Phelps (the “God Hates Fags” preacher from Topeka, Kansas) and Andrew Sullivan. It was an odd way to begin an article, but I will pass that over to get to the statement that I wish to discuss: “I consider Andrew Sullivan to be a brother in Christ.” This statement caused an immediate reaction among Carter’s readers, the majority of whom are, I presume, Christians. Sullivan is, after all, proudly homosexual and an advocate of homosexual rights. Richard John Neuhaus has argued, correctly I believe, that homosexuality is the polestar of Sullivan’s journalism, so obsessed is he with this aspect of his identity. He is a vocal advocate of the rights of homosexuals to marry and has been a pioneer in issues such as gays in the military. Sullivan considers himself a Christian and is a practicing Roman Catholic, though he constantly criticizes the Church for its views on homosexuality.

Among the comments posted on Carter’s site is this one by “Eric and Lisa:” “I find it curious that you call Sullivan a brother-in-Christ. A man who unrepentantly engages in homosexual activity. So curious that I wonder if you would ever see fit to say that anyone who says they are your brother-in-Christ are not?” Glenn asked a similar question. “Just curious, by what criteria do you consider Sullivan a ‘brother in Christ?’ I know he waves his catholicism about pretty boldy, but his ‘Christianity’ could be entirely civil and not spiritual. I’m not trying to pass judgement here, but what fruit has his tree produced? What testimony do we have of his faith in the work of Christ? By what means do we consider him a brother and not reprobate?”

Joe responded that he bases his assumption that Sullivan is saved upon his earlier profession of faith, pointing to an interview with Sullivan in the Right Wing News. Sullivan said:

As to one’s own faith, I think it’s possible to maintain a prayer life, a relationship with the Jesus of the gospels, and an attempt to live out those ideals in one’s life while remaining a proud gay man. In some ways, I think the experience of marginalization that homosexuals have can deepen their spiritual life. Jesus’ message, after all, was that faith belongs to the excluded; and that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The exclusion of gays from the Catholic church is an opportunity to grow closer to Christ, not further away. But it might mean that to reach Jesus, one has to bypass the hierarchy of the church.

Carter went on to say that he would “even go so far as to say that Sullivan appears to be a very immature believer. But I’m not sure that I can say that he is not my ‘brother.’” He said, correctly, of course, that “I’m not sure I have the authority, though, to say that he is ‘one who is predestined to damnation.’” For indeed humans are not able to make such judgments. In answering Eric and Lisa Joe says, “Unfortunately, I know plenty of believers who believe that certain activities (pride, gluttony, etc.) are not sin and are not completely repentant. But I’m not ready to write all of them off as apostates just yet.” He then provides a fairly lengthy explanation of what he meant by “brother in Christ.”

Let me clarify what I mean by a ‘brother in Christ’ by defining what I don’t mean when I use that term: I don’t mean that I know their salvation is assured (only God knows the answer to that one); I don’t mean that I have evidence of his regeneration (he appears to have a long way to go on the road to sanctification); and I don’t mean that he is not on the road to apostasy. All it means is that I take him at his word: that he confesses to being a follower of Jesus Christ.

Obviously I take issue with Sullivan’s unrepentant homosexual behavior. But while I truly believe his sin has ensnared him in a trap of self-deception, I think he has convinced himself that his behavior is not a sin. This doesn’t let him off the hook, but I do believe it is different from someone who does recognize that they are committing sin and they do it anyway.

What it ultimately comes down to is that I am not ready to excommunicate Sullivan from the fold – at least not yet. I may eventually get to the point where I no longer believe that he is really a ‘brother in Christ.’ But for now, I’ll still make room on the pew for Sullivan, Pat Robertson, and a few others whose ‘fruit’ I consider questionable.

I provide this as background information so you can understand what I will discuss next. I was intrigued by Carter’s affirmation of Sullivan’s faith and immediately dedicated some effort to attempting to decide what I believe on this issue, which really goes far deeper than just Sullivan. I will use this example of Andrew Sullivan to springboard a discussion on who we are to assume is a brother in Christ. This article represents my thoughts. As I understand it, there are two main issues here. The first concerns a profession of faith made by someone who is outside the authority of a “true” (a term I will define shortly) local church. The second concerns a profession of faith by someone who is involved in ongoing, unrepentant sin.

Not too long ago I posted an article (which you can read here) called “The Ultimate Human Judgment” in which I discussed when and how humans can judge the faith of other humans. Much of what I believe on this issue is summarized by Dave Swavely in his excellent book Who Are You To Judge?. Here is what Swavely writes in regards to the acceptance of a profession of faith:

“[R]egarding who are the wheat and who are the tares, they [the apostles] left that judgment to God - except in the case of those who were under church discipline. The biblical writers did not attempt to determine or distinguish true believers from false believers within the church. They accepted people’s profession of faith, as long as it was a credible or biblical profession; and they treated all members of the church as believers, unless the process of discipline proved otherwise. We should therefore do the same.”

How we define a credible profession of faith may vary slightly from church to church, but it should definitely contain an affirmation that the person is saved by grace through faith, should affirm many of the doctrines concerning the nature of God and the person should have been identified with the church through baptism or other forms of membership. If a person has professed faith, been baptized and been received into membership his claim to be a believer has a certain level of credibility. Conversely, if he has refused to be baptized and to be received into membership we would have a good reason to be concerned about his profession.

It seems clear from this explanation that, in order to assume that a profession of faith is genuine, the person must attach himself to a “true” church. How we define a true and false church has been the source of much dialogue and disagreement in the centuries since the Reformation, but I am inclined to agree with the three marks proposed during the Reformation and which are summarized in the Belgic Confession, Article 29, which says “The marks by with the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preaching therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.”

When a person has made a profession of faith and is a member in good standing of a true church, as defined by these three marks: the preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of church discipline, I believe that we are under an obligation to assume that this person’s faith is genuine. I quote again from Swavely:

I would suggest that when someone has professed personal faith in Christ, been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and identified with the church, we are then under obligation from Scripture to make no negative judgment about the validity of his faith. That obligation remains even when a professing believer seems to exhibit a lack of fruit, or even if he commits repeated and heinous sin, because in those cases the other members of the body of Christ are called to encourage, admonish, and if necessary discipline him according to the process Jesus outlined in Matthew 18:15-17. Each of those means of sanctification are based on the presupposition that in most cases the Holy Spirit is present and operative in the sinner’s life. Otherwise they could not be effective in helping that person to grow in grace and to put away the sin against which we all continue to struggle.

This is important, for we have affirmed that a person can be involved in ongoing and unrepentant sin and still be assumed to be a believer, provided that he is within the context of a local church and is receiving necessary discipline. For, as Swavely has pointed out, unrepentant sin leads to discipline, a process which still assumes the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. Thus we can still assume of such a person that the Holy Spirit is operative in his life.

I think that most believers would agree with me to this point. But, of course, things are not always so simple. In the case we are examining today, Sullivan is not a member of a true church. This places him in the company of many today who consider themselves Christian but reject the local church as being fundamental to the nurture and development of their faith. Furthermore, his profession of faith is made within the context of Roman Catholicism. If he holds steadfastly to the doctrines of Catholicism, as he claims to, he cannot affirm such fundamental doctrines as justification by grace through faith alone, the very heart of the gospel. What are we to do, then, with a profession of faith made by a person who is outside the God-given oversight of a true church?

I would suggest that in a case like this, it would be helpful to consider what would be different if Sullivan were to be a member of a true church. Like everyone else in North America where churches abound, he has had every opportunity to place himself under the authority of a biblical church. And this is exactly what we would expect of a person who has been indwelt by the Holy Spirit. We would assume that such a person would be naturally drawn towards other believers. Yet Sullivan has decided not to place himself within such a church. He has even suggested that he must “bypass the hierarchy of the [Roman Catholic] church,” which marginalizes him based on his sexual preferences. He has removed himself from authority and accountability. It is clear that, if he were to attend a church that exercised biblical church discipline, Sullivan’s homosexuality would have placed him under the discipline of the church. This would have been done lovingly in an attempt to save him from his own sinful behavior. If he was not convicted of his sin and did not turn in repentance, it would be assumed that he was not saved and the church would bear the sad responsibility of excommunicating him in the hope that this drastic action would cause him to repent.

Now for the issue of Sullivan’s homosexuality. Were he a member of a true church, and even if he were under the process of church discipline, we would be obligated to assume that his faith was genuine, despite his homosexuality. As it stands, though, he is outside the realm of the church’s authority and thus I feel we have no obligation to make such an assumption. We do not need to understand his sin to be despite the Holy Spirit being operative in his life. It is just as likely that his unrepentant sin is evidence that the Spirit is not operative.

As I understand it, then, because of Sullivan’s unrepentant behavior, and because he has deliberately avoided placing himself within a true church, the proper context for all believers, I feel that we have no obligation to assume that he is a true believer. Of course this does not necessarily mean that he is unsaved. By God’s grace he may be. Neither you nor I can know for certain. But neither do we bear the obligation of assuming that he is a brother in Christ.

May 16, 2006

How many times have you heard a person claim that he has “accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior?” Have you ever asked him what it means that Jesus is his Lord? Have you ever asked him how Jesus is his Savior? What makes Him his Savior? And what does it mean that He is his personal Lord and Savior?

How many times have you heard a person open a prayer with the words “Dear God?” What do those words really mean? Are they addressing God or addressing a letter? Why do we begin our prayers with an address? Is this necessary or merely custom?

How many times have you heard a person thank God that Jesus is present, for “where two are more are gathered together, Jesus is there?” Have you ever asked him why Jesus is only there where two or more are gathered? Have you ever asked if He is present in a more special way when people are gathered versus when they are alone?

There are so many times we flippantly speak of God and His attributes without even caring to understand what we are saying. So we really understand what it means to address God and to bring ourselves into His presence? Do we understand what it means that “Jesus is there?” Do we even care to know what it means that Jesus is my Lord and my Savior?

The incredible thing is that we don’t need to understand these things to be God’s children. We do not need to devote ourselves to endless studies in theology and doctrine in order to be saved. God sees and knows and values the heart more than the mind. Yet if we want to grow deeper in our love for God, we need to begin to understand these things. We need to grow deeper in our knowledge of Him.

On that day that I got married, I loved my wife deeply. On our wedding day, as I looked at her walking down the aisle towards me, I never would have believed that I could love her more than I did at that very moment. I had known her for four years and had spent thousands of hours just being with her, listening to her talk and watching her interact with other people. And now she was walking towards me, looking absolutely radiant, and intending to pledge her life to me. I began to sob like a child and felt my heart would nearly burst with the love I felt for her. But you know what? Almost eight years into that marriage I can honestly say I love her more now than I did when we got married. Why is that? It is simply that I know her so much better now. The more I learn about her, the more I know her. The more I know her, the more I love her.

I use that illustration to show that you can really only love God inasmuch as you know Him. When you are an unbeliever and do not know God you cannot love Him at all. When some day you die and go to be with Him, you will know Him in a perfect way, and will accordingly love Him in a perfect way. The time between when you come to love Him and you are called to be with Him is your opportunity to experience that love and get just a foretaste of heaven here on earth.

I love God more now than I did when I first believed. As a child I loved God with a childlike love, but I barely knew Him. I can think back to distinct moments as I grew older when God taught me something new and amazing about Himself. I can remember moments where something hit me like a lightning bolt and I was awakened to a new reality about God that I had not known before. There were times when my whole body broke into chills as I grew in my knowledge of my Creator. There were other times when I broke into tears as I began to realize the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice for me or the vast depths of His love for me. As I learned about my God I learned to love Him more. As I learned about my God I had to love Him more!

You can be a believer and know almost nothing about God. The man who hung on the cross beside Christ new little more than that Christ was the Son of God and that God had forgiven his sins. And that was enough. But if you want to love God more you need to know Him more. I know that I’m a mere preschooler when it comes to knowing God. I look at others and see some who are in primary school, some who are in high school and some who must be about ready to finish up their post-graduate studies. And how I yearn to know Him that much, knowing that the love I feel for Him now, as great as it may be, is nothing more than a child’s love! I long to love Him, and therefore long to know Him. And I look forward to the day when I will know Him even as I am known by Him, that I may love Him with the perfect love with which He loves me.

May 15, 2006

Every now and then I take my van to WalMart for an oil change. I generally try to make these appointments for as early in the morning as possible, for early in the morning, I very nearly have the place to myself. A little while ago I brought the car in and then spent the next hour wandering from one end of the store to the other, just marvelling at the incredible variety of products on the shelves. There is part of me that despises WalMart, but another part that admires a store that can offer so much at consistently good prices. WalMart is one of the most clear statements you can find about North American consumerism and the insatiable desire to have more for less.

As I wandered I came across the electronics section where they sell (obviously) electronics but also video games, DVDs and so on. One DVD in particular caught my eye. I do not remember the title, but right below the title were the words “bringing the Bible to life.” I picked it up, took a quick look, and tossed it back on the shelf. I still don’t really know what it was. I suspect it was a DVD-based multimedia experience that was intended to help bring the Bible to life. It made me think of a ministry I saw not too long ago, and their description was almost exactly the same: “bringing the word of God to life.” And just this weekend I watched a DVD, and quite a good one at that, that claims it will “make the Bible come alive” as it leads the viewer through the ancient lands where the biblical drama unfolded.

I understand what is being suggested in these statements, but the fact is that the Bible doesn’t need us to bring it to life. If the Bible depended on us to bring it to life I would want no part of it for it would indicate that the Bible was all too human a book.

Do you remember that rather awful movie Titanic? What was it that made the movie so exceedingly popular? When the movie released I was working next door to a brand new, state-of-the-art theatre that showed Titanic all day and all night. I saw all sorts of people come into the store after seeing the movie. Many had red eyes and some even continued to sob as they walked around and tried to compose themselves. I was amazed at how that movie caused so many people to openly weep. But I digress. What made the movie so popular? What gave it the ability to make grown men cry? I think a large part was that it brought history to life. Everyone who remembers what happened on the Titanic is dead. In fact, just a few days ago the final survivor, who was only a small child at the time, died. The events of that day had long-since been relegated to the history books when James Cameron decided to make the film and bring that small piece of history to life. We all got to see what the Titanic looked like, got to meet some of the people who were on it and got a glimpse of life in that day. In that regard it was fascinating. In that regard the filmmaker made something that was dead to us come to life, even if the life was only three hours long. Once he brought history to life, it allowed us to become emotionally engaged with the characters so that their joy became our joy and their pain became our pain. We were drawn in by the realism of the history the film displayed—a history that had been dead to us.

History is like that, isn’t it? History is dead. History books are dead. They may be interesting and can provide all sorts of great information, but they’re dead. But not so the Bible.

The Bible says of itself “the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) From that passage, do we see God telling us to bring life to His word? Is it our task to take the dead words of the Bible and make them alive, to make them more interesting or to make them more appealing? Clearly not! Jesus tells us that “the words I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” (John 6:63) How can we bring life to something that is already alive? And why would we want to replace Scripture’s immortal life with the mortal life we experience on earth. Imagine perverting God’s perfect word with our imperfection!

I understand the intent of the people who seek to make the Bible come alive. On the whole I believe that their intentions are pure but their wording is imprecise. In most cases I would suggest that these people are attempting to “bring the history of the Bible to life” or to “bring the setting of the Bible to life.” This is a far different task than bringing the actual Scripture to life. It is a far more noble task. The Bible is, after all, a historical document that was written within particular places and within particular cultural contexts. It may be helpful, at times, to bring to life some glimpses of the culture, customs and history of the Bible. This is what the Paul: Apostle of Grace DVD sought to do, even under the poor wording on the video’s cover. This is what many godly pastors do when they study the ancient people and describe them to their congregations.

I would urge people to guard their words when they speak about bringing the Bible to life. Imprecise wording can bring confusion and can cause people to believe that the Bible, like any other historical book, is mere dead wording that requires human effort to bring it to life. But this is not the case.

We can bring history to life. We can bring culture and ceremony and customs to life by illustrating them, filming them or re-enacting them. But not so the Bible. Will you try to bring life to God’s word? You will fail. You must fail, for the word is alive before you even begin to breathe your life into it. Do not try to bring life to the word. Bring the word. That is enough.

May 12, 2006

Immediately prior to the Together for the Gospel Conference, I had the opportunity to be part of a panel discussing issues pertaining to blogging. In the days following I mentioned on my blog that, due to the brevity of the occasion, I did not have the chance to address some of the “soapbox” issues pertaining to blogging in general and Christian blogging in particular. A couple of people have since asked me if I would consider writing about these issues and I thought I’d take the opportunity to address one of them today. This is an issue that actually extends far beyond blogging and the blogosphere and is one that has become increasingly important to me over the past few months. It has to do with anonymity.

Admiral Lord Nelson once remarked that “every sailor is a bachelor when beyond Gibraltar.” This was a statement about anonymity, something that was quite rare in even just a few generations ago. Nelson knew that once his sailors moved beyond the bounds of the British Empire, beyond society’s systems of morality and accountability, they underwent a transformation. Every man became a bachelor and sought only and always his own pleasure.

In the past, anonymity was both rare and difficult for people tended to live in close-knit communities where every face was familiar and every action was seen. Travel was rare and the majority of people lived a whole lifetime within a small geographic area. Os Guinness remarks that in the past “those who did right and those who did not do wrong often acted as they did because they knew they were seen by others. Their morality was accountability through visibility.” While anonymity is not a new phenomenon, the degree of anonymity we can and often do enjoy in our society is unparalleled. “For most people most of the time, their villages or towns were sufficiently cohesive and their relationships sufficiently close that behavior was held in check. In small towns neighborliness was often ‘nosiness’ just as in cities anonymity was often ‘liberation.’ But the point still stands—traditional morality was closely tied to accountability.”

Under-girding these statements is the fundamental belief that humans require accountability. Left to our own devices, we will soon devise or succumb to all manner of evil. As Christians, those who seek to live by a higher standard, we know that we need other believers to watch over us and to hold us accountable to the standards of Scripture. Passages such as Ecclesiastes 4:12 remind us that “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” The Bible reminds us that “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17) and that we are to “provoke one another to love and good works…exhorting one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Life is far too difficult and we are far too sinful to live it in solitude. We need community. We need accountability.

Our society values anonymity. There are many who feel that anonymity is a right and one that is to be closely guarded and protected. Those who use technology may have noticed the influx of tools designed to protect the anonymity of the Internet user. The latest versions of web browsers come with tools designed to erase all trace of what a person was doing while browsing the web. Other tools allow a person to be untraceable to others as he travels various web sites. While there may be legitimate applications to these tools they are, by and large, used by those who are up to no good. But anonymity extends far beyond technology. It extends to the workplace where many people travel extensively, spending weeks of every year in hotel rooms where what they do and what they watch is kept behind closed doors. We live in communities where we may not even know our next-door neighbors either by name or by face, for we arrive home from work, pull the car into the garage and close the door behind us. We live only yards away from people we may never meet. Churches grow larger and relationships grow weaker. We are anonymous, impersonal people in a largely anonymous, impersonal world. We live beyond Gibraltar. Guinness does not exaggerate when he writes “More of us today are more anonymous in more situations than any generation in human history.”

I have often seen the effect of this anonymity in my line of work and in my wife’s. Aileen sells products online. It is not unusual to have a person who is somehow dissatisfied with his transaction write her an email that is rude, abrasive and even filled with profanity. But invariably, if the person later phones her or if she decides to phone the disgruntled customer, the person is much more kind and even-tempered when the communication is less-anonymous. I would assume that if they were to meet face-to-face, these customers would likely be more civil still. Truly anonymity can have a strangely negative effect on people.

I don’t think that Christians are any more immune to the temptations of anonymity than are unbelievers. Guinness asks, “Why are there more temptations in a hotel room in a distant city than at home? Why do more people ‘flame’ on the Internet than would ever lose their cool in an office?” These questions are surely as applicable to those who seek to follow Christ as they are to those who do not. Christian-owned forums and blogs are all the proof we need that Christians require accountability as much as anyone. Perhaps more so.

Many bloggers and other Internet users value anonymity. A blog is understood by some to be a place of refuge and safety—a place where a person can post what is on his mind and on his heart while revealing little about who he truly is. It is a place to let loose with the anger and frustration. It is a place where a person can speak out to other people and about other people without ever having to look those people in the eye. If every sailor is a bachelor beyond Gibraltar, we could as easily say that every blogger is a pundit or a curmudgeon or an expert or a righteous man when in front of his keyboard.

Guinness says that, in former days, morality was accountability through visibility. Yet today many of us are able to remain invisible. Not too long ago I was an invisible blogger. In some ways I valued my anonymity, and yet I knew that it could be a danger. I wrote a lot and my site was read by many people, but all the while I was safely removed from the people I wrote for and wrote about. I began to see the effect of this in my writing. It became increasingly abrasive and showed a distinct lack of character. The past year or so has brought about something of a transformation in my life. By live-blogging conferences I have had to emerge from my home office and meet many of the people who read this site and whose sites I read. This has been, in every case, a tremendous blessing. At the same time I made changes to my life, even going so far as to begin attending a new church where I would come face-to-face each week with people who would encourage or exhort me as necessary. I deliberately sought people who could challenge me and keep an eye on whatever ministry opportunities arise from my writing.

I am not suggesting that I am a model to follow. But I think that God was gracious to me in revealing the necessity of avoiding complete anonymity. He helped me understand that accountability is closely tied to visibility. And so I have sought to make myself more visible that I may accept correction and reproof when it is necessary. At the same time I have renewed my commitment to the One who is always watching and who knows every word I write and every intent of my heart. And so this is my challenge to bloggers and to those who comment on blogs: make yourself accountable through visibility. Commit yourself to purity of heart and to only speaking or writing what is honoring to God. And then ensure that there are people who know you, who read your words, who will lovingly exhort and correct you when you do not keep this commitment. In this way we can honor God and maintain a focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ.

May 08, 2006

It seems that life is filled, at almost every turn, with trials and difficulties. Some of these times of trail are light while others are terribly weighty. Strangely, some of these trials are caused by times of great joy while others are caused by great pain. The birth of a child can prove to be almost as great a trial, despite being brought about by such joy, as the loss of a job or another occasion of pain. It is during times like this that I am particularly grateful to be a part of the church. Never is God’s wisdom in bringing His people into this type of community more profoundly felt and seen than during these difficult times.

I am one of those people that loves to help (most of the time, anyways). While I am a shamefully selfish person in many ways, I do derive some type of joy from helping others, even if that help is expressed in something as simple as lending my back to help a family move, lending my van for hauling a crowd of people from place to place, or lending my time to help out at some occasion or another. Whether I always do this from a pure heart, deriving my joy from obedience to God in helping these people, is debatable much of the time. It is a strange and unique fact of the Christian faith that, as far as God is concerned, motives matter more than actions. God values a pure heart and one that seeks His honor above all. Far too often I know that I do things from the desire to be seen, known and thanked. It’s pathetic really. Shameful. Yet it is all too human.

But while I love to help, sometimes from pure motives and sometimes from impure, I am not the type who likes to be helped. I assume that this is simply an outworking of pride in my life. I am convinced that it is also a product of my upbringing. Despite not having any recent Dutch heritage, I was, in large part, raised among second generation Dutch-Canadians. I went to Dutch schools and churches and no doubt absorbed much of their culture and many of their values. The Dutch are, in many ways, a noble group and, when saved, make some of the strongest, most committed Christians I’ve known. There are few groups I have seen that do a better job of taking care of and ministering to their own. While these Dutch people value hard work, they also take very good care of those who are unable to work because of age, infirmity or circumstance. These Dutch churches put to shame many churches I have come across since where those who fall upon hard times are considered burdensome and are shunned rather than honored, left to their own rather than ministered to.

Yet while the Dutch people I knew took very good care of those who were unable to care for themselves, they placed great value on self-sufficiency. Charity was something to be extended only to those who had a genuine need for it. While it was not generally considered shameful to need or accept charity, it was considered most shameful to request it when it was not absolutely necessary. Embedded deep in the Dutch culture is the value of a person pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, being strong, and showing no weakness. Those who were considered weak, especially when young, were often trampled underfoot. Dutch schools were full of weak, frightened people who pretended to be strong. The churches were probably not much different.

It is a strange dichotomy, I suppose, but this desire to be self-sufficient was as much part of the culture as was the desire to help those who had genuine needs. Charity was valued as highly as self-sufficiency. This was the culture I absorbed as a child and teenager. It was the culture that, in some ways, I carry with me today. I am usually glad to extend charity, but am rarely as eager to express need or to accept help from others. I hate to feel weak.

It is only over the past few months that I have come to see the value of expressing weakness when I am weak. I have seen the value in asking people to come in to my life and to minister to me when I have needs. I can think of at least three reasons that this is a necessity for believers.

First, expressing weakness is an expression of humility. Conversely, it is only pride that keeps me from making my needs known and asking others to minister to me. When I am filled with pride, a strong and ever-present foe, I would rather suffer silently than humble myself and allow others to extend help to me. Far too often I have feigned strength when I am filled only with weakness. Far too often I have allowed pride to overwhelm humility and have suffered in my sinful silence.

Second, expressing weakness allows others to plead for me before God. There are times when my prayers are weak and filled with doubt. There are times when I don’t even know what to pray or how to pray for myself. In these times it is comforting to know that others are praying for me and holding me up before the throne of grace. What a blessing it is to be part of a body where needs are expressed and are brought before God!

Finally, when I refuse to express my weakness I refuse to give other people the opportunity to minister to me. It is a strange fact that, while I am always eager and willing to help those who reach out to me, I am far less eager to reach out to others. I cannot count the number of times that I have been blessed by having the opportunity to help others. While I attempt not to see extending help and charity as a selfish act, an act primarily for my own benefit, it is sometimes difficult not to! I have had my faith challenged and strengthened and have been greatly blessed in helping others. When I have heard expressions of gratitude by those I’ve been able to help I have often had to say, with honesty and humility I think, that it was surely a greater blessing to be able to help than it was to received assistance! Why is it, then, that I am so hesitant to allow others the opportunity to be blessed by helping me? It seems to me that I am as sinful in refusing to help those in need as I am in refusing to allow them to bless and minister to me when I have need.

I guess this little meditation was brought about, in part at least, by the birth of my daughter. This is a time when, for just a few days, life becomes near-chaos. Schedules are disrupted, sleep is sporadic and tempers can quickly fray. Yet during this time we have already been blessed and ministered to in many ways. We have had people offer us their time and resources and we have several meals, all of which look delicious, waiting in our freezer. My first inclination, when offered a meal or other help is always to refuse. But I quickly realize that to refuse would be only an expression of pride. And worse, far be it from me to refuse someone else the opportunity to be strengthened in his faith by ministering to myself or my family!

During the past few days (and during the past few weeks when my wife was ordered to stay off her feet) it has been a blessing to allow others to minister to us. It is good to be members of the body of Christ. What wisdom God has shown us in giving us this body, this family!

May 07, 2006

King for a Week is an honor I bestow on blogs that I feel are making a valuable contribution to my faith and the faith of other believers. Every week (or so) I select a blog, link to it from my site, and add that site’s most recent headlines to my left sidebar. While this is really not much, I do feel that it allows me to encourage and support other bloggers while making my readers aware of other good sites.

This week’s King for a Week is Worship Matters, the blog of Bob Kauflin, who serves in Gaithersburg, Maryland as Director of Worship Development for Sovereign Grace. He is probably best known for his involvement in several Sovereign Grace Music projects, including Upward: The Bob Kauflin Hymns Project and Songs For The Cross Centered Life. Bob is a relative newcomer to the blogosphere, having begun “Worship Matters” in November of last year. But since then, he has often blessed and challenged me with his humble, Christ-centered reflections on faith and worship. While the blog is intended primarily for those who are involved in leading God’s people in corporate worship, I can attest that it will prove valuable for anyone who cares to make it a regular stop.

For the next few days you will be able to see the most recent headlines from Bob’s blog in the sidebar of my site. I hope you will make your way over to his site and look around.

I continue to accept nominations for King of the Week. If you have a site you would like to nominate, feel free to do so by clicking on the “suggest” button below the King of the Week box. Thanks to those of you who nominated this week’s honoree.