Results tagged “Church Health” from Reformation21 Blog

Defeat and Victory in the Church

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It is well documented that a staggering number of pastors leave the ministry each year. Conflict and burnout are numbered as some of the top reasons. Conflict between pastors and the congregation are common. In addition, the pastor's inability to resolve bitter disagreements among members can be perceived as poor leadership. This is where 1 Cor. 6:1-6 can be instructive. Paul was likely addressing a civil matter. A member within the church of Corinth defrauded another which led to a lawsuit. While many concentrate on the necessity of Christian arbitration when conflicts arise between believers, it is equally important to look at the spiritual issues that Paul addressed that led up to this lawsuit. It is striking that Paul emphasizes the gospel as a way forward. And, it is likewise important to notice that the inability to resolve conflict biblically is compared to offenses such as sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, theft, greed, becoming drunk, being a reviler, and a swindler.

Roman Judicial System

The Roman historian Tacitus states that in the first century legal representation could cost as much as 10,000 sesterces (Ann. 11.7). Such an amount was over eight times the annual salary of a clerk working in a Roman colony.[1] A soldier in the praetorian guard could receive 20,000 sesterces after serving in the military for 16 years (Dio Cassius 55.23).[2] The fact that a lawsuit had taken place indicates that either one, or both parties, were wealthy individuals.

In addition, the Roman judicial system was far from fair. Tacitus (Ann. 11.6) notes of the widespread corruption of the courts. The ancient philosopher and historian Dio Chrysostom (Or. 8.9) describes of "lawyers innumerable perverting justice" in the city of Corinth.[3] The Roman statesman Cicero (In Verrem 1.1.1) contended that wealth can shield any man from conviction. And, the rhetorician Apuleius (Metam. 10.33) notes how judges were open to bribes.[4] Gender, class, and race all played a factor. Wealthy Roman men had the upper hand and foreigners did not fare well. The lower social classes could win only with the help of powerful patrons. Hence, in 1 Cor. 6:1-11 either a wealthy individual was taking advantage of a financially weaker believer, or, two men of considerable means or societal connections were exploiting the courts for personal advantages. Since Paul indicates in v. 6 that it was "brother against brother" and both had the means to play out the dispute in the court system the latter interpretation is preferred.

Church in Defeat

Paul did not merely mistrust the judicial structures of his day. Rather, his outrage was grounded in the public shame the church had to endure. The judges of Corinth did not share in the common faith of the early believers and did not belong to the covenantal community. But what led up to this lawsuit? In the same verse, Paul states that neither party was willing to be wronged. The first mark of a church in defeat is when believers refuse to take a wrong. The exact situation in Corinth escapes us, but it is likely over some financial matter since criminal proceedings would have taken a different avenue, namely, the involvement of authorities. Rather, what we are witnessing is a case of wounded prides and feelings of being cheated. The desire for retaliation drove these brothers to court at the cost of the unity of the church.

The second mark of a church in defeat is that when conflict arose, no one in the church knew what to do. The "you" in the first two verses are plural indicating that Paul was addressing the entire church. If these Corinthians deemed themselves "wise," they showed their spiritual incompetency by failing to settle this intense quarrel (v. 5). Also, some have noted that the two individuals involved in the lawsuit even failed to live out Grecian wisdom.[5] Socrates, for instance, once stated: "If it were necessary either to do wrong or to suffer it, I should choose to suffer rather than do it." This statement is preserved in Plato's Gorgias.[6] This is an interesting interpretation, yet there were other Grecian philosophers who thought that retaliation was a prudent show of strength (e.g., Aristotle). Paul, rather, is discussing the failure to live out godly wisdom. Roman culture used their courts to gain personal advantages and that was the route these brothers had chosen. Paul, in opposition, echoed Jesus' teachings recorded in Matt. 5:38-42. In v. 7, Paul asks -- why not take a wrong? Or in the words of Jesus -- why not turn the other cheek?

The third mark of a church in defeat is the loss of eschatological vision. Paul reminds them that they will one day judge the world and angels. Paul is seeking to convict the Corinthians of their present responsibilities to settle disputes in the church in light of future roles at the eschaton. We can say that the consequence of losing sight of this vision made present grievances unbearable. If the two brothers in Corinth had proper spiritual sight, they would have accepted the issue as a lesser or trivial case as Paul states in v. 2. Hence, the inability to let go, or, by nurturing a wounded spirit, along with the absence of eschatological sight caused a lawsuit that marked this church as already defeated (v. 7).

Pathway to Victory

Wisdom literature of the Old Testament seems to be operating in the background of v. 7. Proverbs 19:11 (cf. 12:16; 15:18; 20:3), for example, states that there is glory in overlooking an offense. The question we can raise is when do we confront versus overlook a grievance? Jesus taught his disciples to confront the sinful brother (Matt. 18:15-35). We are supposed to involve the church when the person refuses to repent. In this instance, however, the Corinthian church failed to intervene. So, what do we do in these cases? The guiding principle is agapē love -- we need to choose the best option that promotes love in the church. In the previous chapter, Paul tells the Corinthians to expel the wicked person from the community. Here, Paul refers to the man who was sleeping with his father's wife. To not confront such a person and allow it to continue would tear down the holiness of the church. But in 1 Cor. 6:1-11, overlooking personal offenses rather than publicly shaming the church would have better promoted love in the body of Christ. There are times when we are called to take a wrong rather than retaliate to satisfy personal desires.

Paul compares the refusal to take a wrong with sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, theft, greed, becoming drunk, being a reviler, and a swindler. Taking a wrong does not mean merely remaining silent, but the disallowance of bitterness and anger to take hold. At first glance this seems perplexing. There are other passages in Scripture that addresses degrees of sins (e.g., Jn. 19:11). But how can the refusal of letting grievances go compare with these other acts? Upon further inspection, Paul's argumentation is theologically rich. While I cannot address each vice individually, I will give some examples. First, the unwillingness to let go of an offense is idolatry. If idolatry is placing anything above God, then these two individuals placed their personal agendas above the gospel. They could not sacrifice as Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross. Second, it is like being drunk. Inebriation often leads to loss of self-control. These two brothers lost control because they were "drunk" on their wounded prides and desires for vengeance. They lashed out no matter what the cost.

Finally, it was like sexual immorality, adultery, homosexuality, theft, greed, being a reviler, and a swindler. The common denominator is that they were all perversions before God. For instance, Dionysius of Halicarnassus deployed the word malakos to indicate a form of pederasty which was the taking advantage of young boys by older men (Ant. rom. 7.2.4). And the ensuing term arsenokoitai denoted men engaging the same gender. The two juxtaposed together heightened the sense of perversion. Paul was referring to a form of homosexuality that involved molestation of juveniles.[7] While Paul views all same-sex engagement as unnatural and sinful (Rom. 1:18-32), pederasty according to Philo was the most common form of homosexual practice in the Greco-Roman world (De Spec. Leg. 3.37-39). To place one's desires above the gospel at the cost of the church was perverted in God's sight and was comparable to these other vices.

Conclusions

Paul exhorts the Corinthians to remember their identity in Christ. They were washed, sanctified, and justified in Christ and by the Spirit of God. The tenses of the Greek for all three words indicate a definitive act where believers were cleansed of the guilt of sins, set apart, and were declared to be in right standing with God. The victorious Christian life and the victory of the church hanged on members of the church living out this new life in Christ. Pastors who enter the ministry, enter with a desire to do it right. They want to serve faithfully. However, conflict takes its toll. Identifying and training the right people for ministry is vital for the success of the church. But actively discipling the church in conflict management and gospel resolutions are also indispensable. No number of right leaders can change the direction of the church if the members are not electing the gospel above their personal agendas. A church can only be victorious when the it strives by the Spirit's enablement to choose the gospel as a better way forward.

 

[1] Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 162. I am indebted to Witherington's commentary for some of these Greco-Roman references. Others were gleaned from John Chow, Brian Rosner, David Garland, and Richard Hays, citations are listed below.

[2] John K. Chow, Patronage and Power: A Study of Social Networks in Corinth, Library of New Testament Studies (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992), 76 n. 1.

[3] In addition to Witherington's commentary, also referenced in Brian S. Rosner, Understanding Paul's Ethics: Twentieth Century Approaches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 91.

[4] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 197.

[5] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 95.

[6] Hays notes how this form of wisdom was also expressed by Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus and Musonius Rufus. For more see, Hays, First Corinthians, 95.

[7] Witherington, Conflict & Community in Corinth, 166.

 

Dr. John B. Song received his M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary (PA) and completed his PhD at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister and presently serves as Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Belhaven University Atlanta.

In Defense of the Sabbatical

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Pastoral ministry often feels like a 24/7 calling. A pastor can't leave the care of the people of God at the door of the office when the clock strikes 5 PM. While pastoring in the First World requires considerably less sacrifice than it does in most parts of the Second or Third World, it has its own unique challenges and sacrifices. Late night counseling sessions, sudden emergencies and hospital visitations pull a pastor away from spending time with his wife and children. There are the challenges of overseeing staff members. There is the important labor of identifying, training and leading elders and deacons. There is the opening of the home to visitors and members alike. If he belongs to a denomination, there might be quarterly meetings and committee work. In a smaller church, it is not uncommon for the solo minister to have the primary responsibility of giving oversight and guidance to the administrative needs. Then there are the undesirable burdens of discontent and divisive individuals in the church. Add to these the challenges posed by opposition in the community and one can begin to grasp the wearisome nature of ministry. 

The pastor's family also makes exceptional sacrifices. A solo pastor's children don't see him very much on the weekend when most other fathers spend quality time with their families. The children of senior or solo pastors will almost never know the benefit of having their father sit next to them in the service in order to teach them how to worship. A pastor's wife helps carry the weight of the burdens that weigh down the heart of her husband. Even when a pastor wisely protects his wife from knowing details about congregants that she does not need to know, he cannot protect her from knowing that he is burdened by a number of aspects in the life of the congregation. No matter how many protections a minister may put in place to guard himself and his family, the demands of ministry always take an extraordinary toll on pastors and on their families. It is no surprise that we see so many pastors falling into sin on account of not taking time to feed their souls spiritually. One can easily begin to see why it would do local churches a world of good to grant their pastor(s) suitable vacation time, days off, study leave and Sabbaticals. 

In his excellent 2007 article, "Taking Care of Your Pastor," Chad Van Dixhoorn  writes:

"Increased vacation, adequate study-leave, and regular sabbaticals (along with the more creative ideas that you may have) could aid churches in their quest for ministers who are both godly and gifted. It may aid those whose abilities need room to grow or provide someone with the time to write...It will help seasoned pastors ward off that extreme weariness that causes so many to fail, and will help new pastors get a good start in their ministries."

I am writing this a week away from a short Sabbatical that our elders graciously built into my call package when we organized in May of 2015. To that end, I wanted to explain one or two aspects of Sabbaticals that churches might want to consider. Historically, ministerial Sabbaticals have been viewed differently than extended vacation time. A man may get 3-6 months off in order to work on a project that he has not had time to work on with his regular schedule. This may include vacationing in a spot where he can work on a book, dissertation or some other pastorally related project.

While churches that give their pastors Sabbaticals generally give them 3-6 months leave from their pastoral duties, pastors face certain dangers when they are away from the congregation for that length of time. For instance, many pastors have grown discontent when they are away from pastoral work for several months. It is easy to convince oneself that you need a new pastorate, while you are away from the burdens of ministry and sitting on the porch of a farmhouse or in a chair on the beach. In turn, some ministers end up using their Sabbatical to look for a new call without telling the elders of the church. Another danger is that members in the congregation who are discontent with the pastor can seek to take advantage of the pastor's absence in order to stir up sinful dissent among other members of the flock. While the ruling elders of the church ought to be competent to protect against such dissension, discontentment can be powerful and spread swiftly when the pastor is not in clear sight. 

One way pastors can guard against the potential dangers that might accompany a Sabbatical is for them to ask the elders to divide the Sabbatical up into smaller breaks over a few years. That was the approach that I took with the elders at New Covenant. Rather than take a whole 3 months at once, I asked for 3 months broken up over a 3 year period  (3-4 weeks a year above and beyond my vacation time). This has worked out quite nicely. It has given me an extended break and an opportunity to work on writing while spending more time with my family at the beach or mountains. It has also given me a zeal to get back to the pastoral call to which the Lord has called me. 

However, in whatever shape or form it may take, I would encourage all local churches and sessions to show love to their pastor(s) by granting the adequate time for them to rest their bodies, refresh their souls, recalibrate with their families and refocus their labors. I am certain that the members of the congregation that does so will ultimately also be the beneficiaries of the blessing of the pastoral Sabbatical. 

Evangelism, Baptism and Evaluating Church Health

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If I've heard it once I have heard it a thousand times: Christians who are members in Reformed Churches tripping over themselves to apologize about how poorly the Reformed Church does evangelism. Related to this is the tried and true self-deprecation: "We need to see more adult baptisms." What turns my stomach most of all, however, is hearing such individuals says things like, "Evangelical churches win people to Christ and then we disciple them." Such a statement is almost entirely untrue. In this post, I wish to challenge the assertion that the Reformed Church is bad at evangelism by focusing attention on the sacrament of baptism.

It has been both my pleasure and privilege to baptize more adult converts than I ever could have imagined when I first became a pastor. However, it is probably the case that the majority of baptisms that I have performed have been those of the children of believers. For some-- even among those who gladly wear the Reformed and Confessional label--this is not a good thing. "We need more adult baptisms," they say. Generally speaking, those who talk like this seem to have embraced a scale by which they judge baptisms: Infant baptism, good; older children (in a family that has transferred from a non-Reformed Church) baptized by profession of faith, better; college students/young professionals baptized on profession of faith, even better; middle aged or senior converts, even better still. The problem with this scale is that people who unnecessarily create levels of baptism unfortunately reduce the beauty of covenantal baptism, and unwittingly undermining baptism itself. Covenantal (i.e. household and infant baptism) is baptism. We should, therefore, rejoice in the same manner and with the same passion and emotion at each and every baptism. Sadly, it is often the case that, for many, simply speaking of "infant baptism" subtly undermines baptism.

Those who have adopted a baptism scale miss what is actually taking place during the baptism of the infant of a believer. When the child of a believer is baptized we are doing evangelism and we are making disciples (Matt. 28:18). At every baptism we rejoice in the work of God in these waters as we witness another baptism, another disciple being made and another member added to Christ church. From this perspective the Reformed Church is quite good at evangelism.

One of the things that the Reformed Church universally acknowledges is that re-baptism isn't baptism. When I was 19 or 20 years old, having undergone a profoundly religious experience and a turning from sin to Christ, a group of Christians was encouraging me to be re-baptized. The ironic thing about this experience was that the group encouraging me to do this, on the one hand, absolutely insisted on it (so much so that membership was not allowed without it); while, on the other hand, they were equally clear that baptism doesn't really matter that much. They told me that baptism was about me taking a step of obedience and proclaiming my new life. The reason I was told I had to be re-baptized was because I had been baptized as an infant. To the group insisting on re-baptism, this baptism didn't count. I came to see, however, that my baptism as an infant was really baptism and my experience in the backyard pool at 19 or 20 was nothing more than a religious incantation which I was forced to undergo.

There is no such thing as re-baptism. There is only baptism. Baptism is not repeatable. There is only one baptism. One is either a baptized person or one is not a baptized person. The Reformers and the Reformed Church have consistently defended the fact that baptism cannot be undone--no matter the state of one's heart or one's church standing.

Grasping this principle helps us understand, in part, why we see fewer adult baptisms than infant baptisms in our church. Additionally, it helps allay the thesis that the Reformed Church is bad at evangelism. One very clear reason why we see fewer adults being baptized in our church is because a large number of people come to repentance and faith in Christ many years after having been baptized as infants. In that case, they join our church by reaffirmation of faith rather than re-baptism. That was my experience and it is the experience of many who live in areas where the Gospel has been at work for Centuries.

In contrast to such an approach to baptism, evangelicals of all stripes insist that those who have had a spiritual experience and have come to Christ in repentance and faith must enter their waters. By virtue of that, Evangelical churches have more adult baptisms than Reformed Churches. This is, of course, nothing new. This is the Anabaptist way. The fanatics (as Calvin called them) were doing the same during the Reformation as they are doing in our day. By the looks of things, they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Does the fact that we do not see more adult baptisms really mean that the Reformed Church is bad at evangelism? Au contraire; it may simply mean that we have a different way of evaluating and calculating effectiveness. Simply put, this difference stems from a different way of viewing baptism.

The Christ-Defined Roadmap to Church Revitalization

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The last post was an attempt to document three Biblical axioms concerning the ministry of church revitalization. Briefly let's review them:

  1. Church revitalization was an Apostolic ministry strategy initiated by the Apostle Paul on his second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-16:35). Then it was not only affirmed but also defined by the Ascended Christ as He addressed the Seven Churches in Revelation chapter two.
  2. The objective in church planting and church revitalization is not church growth, which inevitably leads to mission and message drift, but church health and vitality.
  3. Every local church, presbytery, and denomination ought to implement the Apostolic strategy which "turned the world upside down" as they sought to fulfill the Great Commission. This strategy was repeated in city after city as they extended the Kingdom of Christ through four Gospel ministry initiatives...

#1. Evangelism and Discipleship

#2. Church Planting and Church Revitalization

#3. Deeds of love and mercy.

#4. Leadership multiplication and mobilization.

Since church revitalization and church planting are Apostolic strategies designed to fulfill the Great Commission after the Ascension of Christ and the blessing of Pentecost are revealed in God's Word, the information as to how they are to be implemented will be found in the same place. Not only is a Gospel-driven, Spirit-empowered and Christ-exalting ministry of church revitalization found in the Word of God, even more impressive if possible, is the fact that Christ Himself reveals the three step church revitalization roadmap. Where? Revelation 2:1-7.

Remember, Repent, Recover

The book of Revelation is addressed in the immediate to seven churches. The first church mentioned is the Church of Ephesus that was likely the mother church of the other six, all of which would be located on a major trade route into Asia Minor. Unsurprisingly the same heart of the Great Shepherd who would leave the 99 to pursue one sheep who wandered from the flock is displayed as he pursues four wandering flocks of the seven churches who were in need of revitalization. He does not "write them off", nor ignore them, nor does He simply focus on planting another church. What He does do is call them back to Gospel health and vitality and even identifies what the leadership of the church must do to implement a ministry of revitalization. He begins with the church at Ephesus. It is there that He reveals a three-step roadmap to implement the ministry of Gospel revitalization. So where does He reveal it?

After identifying the commendable traits still resident in the life and ministry of the Church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:1-3, Christ incisively addresses the reason of their spiritual impotence in verse 4 - "you have left your first love." After His diagnosis in verses 5-7, He gives the solution and then the stark prognosis if the solution is neglected - "I will come and remove the lampstand from you." So what is the solution for the revitalization of the church at Ephesus so that they are once again a "first love" church? Christ's answer is - "Remember, Repent and Recover the deeds you did at first." Simply but profoundly the Savior "who purchased the church with His own blood" outlines the road map to spiritual health and Gospel vitality to produce a church that once again would be able to say "the love of Christ compels us." So just how do you implement the revitalization roadmap "Remember, Repent and Recover"? The implementation answer is found not in Revelation 2 but in the Epistles of Paul in general and I Timothy and Titus in particular.

The fact is this was not the first time that the church at Ephesus was in need of a ministry of revitalization. At the conclusion of Paul's 3 year ministry he warned the elders of Ephesus in his farewell sermon (Acts 20) that Satan would attack the church by infiltrating the leadership with false leaders and false teachers. The leadership did not heed the warnings of Paul. The result was that when Paul who had spent years incarcerated first in Jerusalem, then Caeserea Maritima and ultimately in Rome, was released, he was informed of their decline. Paul like Christ does not "write them off", nor does he simply ignore their plight and plant another church. What he does do is send them his best disciple - Timothy - with a handbook on Church revitalization - I Timothy. By the way he also gives another handbook on revitalization to Titus - note the overlap of content within I Timothy and Titus - who was also sent on a mission of church revitalization to Crete with instructions "to set in order what remains."

Obviously the Lord blessed Timothy's ministry since the church was still viable five decades later as they receive another epistle - Revelation. But now they are in need of another ministry of revitalization - this time under the leadership of the Apostle John. So how does a church follow the three-step roadmap of "Remember, Repent and Recover the first things"? The answer is found in the Epistles of Paul, who had revitalized churches and who mentored both revitalization pastors Timothy and Titus. It is there that the ten strategies to implement the three-step roadmap of Remember, Repent and Recover are found.

The Ten Strategies 


Remember

Strategy #1 - Connect to the past.

Learn from the Past - to live in the Present - to change the Future

Repent

Strategy #2 - Godly Repentance

If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I John 1:9

Recover

Strategy #3 - Recover: Gospel-Driven and Christ-centered Ministry

The Gospel is the foundation, the formation and the motivation of a "first-love" Church where the Christ is the sum, the circumference, the substance and the center of all things.

Strategy #4 - Recover: Personal Spiritual Formation

Gospel healthy leaders influence others to effectively achieve a defined mission together.

Strategies #5&6 - Recover: The Ministry of Prayer and the Word

The Ministry of Prayer and the Word are the essential lifelines of Gospel health and vitality. 

Strategy #7 - Recover: Mission and Vision

Mission is what God's people are called to do while Vision is what they are to be as they fulfill the mission by the grace of God to the Glory of God.

Strategy #8 - Recover: Leadership Multiplication and Mobilization

A Gospel healthy church defines leaders, develops leaders and deploys leaders for the church and from the church into the world.

Strategy #9 - Recover: Small Group Discipleship.

A knowing and growing fellowship intentionally implements relational and informational small group disciple-making.

Strategy #10 - Recover: The Great Commitment

To live you have to give, therefore, the giving church is the living church.

Dr. Harry L. Reeder, III is the Senior Pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL. Harry completed his doctoral dissertation on "The Biblical Paradigm of Church Revitalization" and received a Doctor of Ministry Degree from Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina (where he serves as adjunct faculty member). He is the author of From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Churchas well as a number of other published works.

There is a perennial need of God's people to protect God's holy things from worldly corruption. The need is particularly great today when so many professing Christians and churches are adopting the ways of the world to do the work of God. There are men in the role of ministers of the Gospel not just failing to shepherd, but failing to hold basic morals while claiming to doing God's work.

God calls Christians and churches, and yes, pastors to be holy. This means that we must not allow His holy things to be profaned. This raises important questions for us to answer: how does a zeal for evangelism often mask the importing of worldly influences? What constitutes genuinely holy worship? Does zeal for holiness involve legalism or is it a true mark of God's grace?

This years PCRT was titled "Profaning the Sacred: Beauty and Holiness of the Bride of Christ." We were hosted in both Byron Center (Grand Rapids, MI) at Byron Center First Christian Reformed Church and Bryn Mawr (Philadelphia PA) at Proclamation Presbyterian Church with both gracious hosts and wonderful friends. 

Order the audio and consider the holiness of the Church, together with its worship, ministry and life. Messages include:
"Profaning the Sanctity of Worship" by Derek Thomas
"The Uncorrupted Gospel" by Michael Horton
"The Holy Christian Life" by Greg Gilbert 
"Evangelism & the Holiness of God" by Michael Horton
"The Holy Prayers of Righteous People" by Phillip Johnson
"The Holy Bride of Christ" by Richard Phillips

And mark your calendars on March 20-22 for Grand Rapids, April 10-12 now in Nashville, and April 24-26 in Philadelphia where we will be exploring Holiness and Honor: A Reformed View of Sex and Marriage with Iain Duguid teaching the pre-conference on the the Song of Songs.

Text Links -
Audio - http://reformedresources.org/pcrt-2014/
MP3 audio - http://reformedresources.org/pcrt-2014/profaning-the-sacred-beauty-and-holiness-of-the-bride-of-christ-mp3-set-pcrt-14/
CD audio - http://reformedresources.org/pcrt-2014/profaning-the-sacred-beauty-and-holiness-of-the-bride-of-christ-cd-set-pcrt-14/
On numerous occasions I have been told that the church is like a hospital for the sick. The illness is sin; the remedy is Christ. We, therefore, attend church to receive our diagnosis and to gladly hear and embrace its remedy. "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly" (Rom. 5:6). Over the years, however, through numerous conversations and limited pastoral experience, I have come to realize that the church - the gathered assembly on the Lord's Day - sometimes appears like a place for those in perfect health. Illness (i.e., sin) is not allowed.

Theologically we know that is inaccurate. That is why in many Presbyterian and Reformed churches we corporately confess our sins. We acknowledge our offense against a holy and righteous God. We know that our lives do not reflect the perfection that God demands. We, therefore, readily admit our brokenness, or do we really?

As a pastor, I have the privilege to interact with people, both inside my church and outside, about some of the harsh realities of how sin affects us. Lust, coveting, broken marriages, hatred, and dishonesty are all the result of acting on the desires of our sinful hearts. To some degree we all suffer from some of these things, but you can hardly tell that on Sunday mornings. Between 10:30am and noon, some people manage to put on the Christian veneer. The outside looks pearly white while the inside is suffering from a cancerous illness - sin.

Is that acceptable? Asked differently, should we put a smile on our faces for a hour and a half on Sunday mornings when things are truly chaotic in the home? No sooner than we depart the church building, we are met by disobedient children and dueling spouses. Our pornography addiction resurfaces; our anger meets us again; we are back in reality. 

I wonder if in some of our churches there is no place for grieving, mourning, lamenting, suffering, and acknowledging sin in more places than the corporate confession? While I have not conducted an analysis of every Reformed and Presbyterian Church in the US, I know this to be true from my personal experience and in my conversations with other pastors. Sunday mornings are the time to be on your best behavior. You cannot show weakness; you cannot fail. Lest the corporate confession of sin, there is no place for brokenness. There is an imaginary sign above the entrance of the church that says, "This is the place for those in perfect health."

It troubles me to know this reality exists. This observation caused me to ask a question: "Why?" Why are things like this? I began to pursue my inquiry. Overwhelmingly, and this is not limited to my congregation, when I asked people why their actions depict their lives are in perfect order when I know things are a bit chaotic, the response I received was, "I don't want to be judged." They believed there was no room for reasonable transparency in the church. It was expected that one's children be in perfect order, spouses on the same page, and singles portrayed as if they struggle very little with contentment.

Though I do not believe this is the cause, I wonder how much Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites contribute to this sad reality (i.e., in all things we must be relatively perfect). Most Facebook posts and Twitter feeds that I have read are largely positive. People gladly boast of their witnessing opportunities, the books they are reading, vacations taken, and family reunions. Most people confess very little of the difficulties through which they are going. I see the same thing in many churches.

This is not to suggest that we must air our dirty laundry to everyone in the church, and the world for that matter on Facebook and Twitter, but a certain level of transparency seems healthy. Rosaria Butterfield, in her book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor's Journey into Christian Faith, put it this way,

"I think that churches would be places of greater intimacy and growth in Christ if people stopped lying about what we need, what we fear, where we fail, and how we sin" (25).

I could not agree more. I often tell my congregation that is okay to hurt; it is okay to fail; and while it is not okay to sin, it is okay to be transparent about where you sin because there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ. 

If there is any merit in my observations, I also wonder how this affects the church's witness. One of the constant accusations I hear from unbelievers is that the church is full of hypocrites. However we handle that accusation, I wonder if the point behind it is that sometimes people in the church present themselves as perfect. As soon as the Christian veneer is shattered, unbelievers' image of how Christianity affects one's life is ruined. They were under the impression that Christianity makes one perfect (not positionally perfect (i.e., righteous) but presently perfect in thought, word, and deed). Therefore, once they realize the untruth to that manifestation of Christianity and that Christians, too, often face the same problems they do, Christians are labeled as hypocrites. In unbelievers' minds, the mask was removed.

Is there a solution? I am a rookie pastor. I do not have all the answers. I do not think I will have all the answers in the future either. However, I wonder if we need to more fully embrace the doctrine of sanctification? Unlike our justification - a once for all completed act - our sanctification is a process. Sometimes our sanctification may seem to be moving more slowly in our lives, or the lives of others, than we would like; nevertheless, God is at work. He guaranteed it! If we more fully embrace this, perhaps we will more readily understand that the church is like a hospital for the sick. Our illness is sin; Christ is our remedy. We, therefore, do not need to put on the Christian veneer.

We all suffer from the effects of sin. I pray that we, as the body of Christ, can more openly acknowledge our sins, mistakes, and express our sorrow without fear of judgment, without fear of a ruined reputation, without fear of our perfect family image being shattered. It will take time, prayer, a better understanding of grace, forgiveness, and sanctification, and the Spirit's work. It is possible. I will pray to that end. Will you join me?

I was alerted by Scott Clark's blog to a year-old article by Sally Morgenthaler in which she declares the worship-evangelism mega-church experiment, of which she was such a proponent, to be a failure.  After a generation of seeker-sensitive consumer-driven worship, the unchurched have not been reached, the megachurch has simply gathered the churched through blatant consumerism, and the overall position of the Evangelical movement in America has been greatly weakened.  She writes: "For all the money, time, and effort we've spent on cultural relevance - and that includes culturally relevant worship - it seems we came through the last 15 years with a significant net loss in churchgoers, proliferation of megachurches and all."

 

Avery Willis, who was one of six candidates for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention (Johnny Hunt won, more on that later), told Associated Baptist Press . . . "The thing I see missing most in the churches I visit is God." David Wells would agree.

As a member and minister in the PCA, I do not offer this quote as a smug condemnation of the churches of the SBC, but as a sober call for our own self-assessment.