Teaching Ministry of the ICOC

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Filtering by Category: Questions of Conscience

The Power of Story to Divide or Unite Us

by Michael Burns -- Roseville, Minnesota, USA

Conversations That Can Unite or Divide

Stories are incredibly important. Every person and group has a story. Stories help to shape and craft our identities even when we don’t realize it. The grand stories that shape our self-understanding and the way we view and interact with the world are often called meta-narratives. When it comes to groups and societies, these meta-narratives are passed down from generation to generation. The impact of embracing these meta-narratives can be felt by future generations even if they have lost all or part of the meta-narrative itself.

The Grand Story and Identity of God’s People

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One example of an identity forming meta-narrative comes from the biblical text. Each generation of Israelite children heard and read the incredible story of the Passover. They thrilled as their parents and grandparents recounted the events that led their ancestors to the revelation that they were God’s special people. They marveled at all that God had done as he led them out from under the enslaving hand of Pharaoh.  And this set their self-identity in stone. They were God’s people and would never again be slaves to anyone, regardless of circumstances that might seem to temporarily point to a different conclusion.

In John 8:32 Jesus challenges the identity created by the Passover meta-narrative. He implies that the children of Abraham need to be set free which elicits a series of protests and emotional responses. That response was, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone” (John 8:33). Any other group of people would likely not have taken such offense at the implication of being enslaved, especially when Jesus explains that he is speaking of the universal slavery to sin (John 8:34). But meta-narratives and their ensuing identities are powerful. These identities become deeply held and we cherish them without typically fully realizing how important they are. The Passover meta-narrative had cemented in the nation of Israel’s mind that they were God’s children. No matter what tough temporary circumstances they might face, like the occupation of their homeland by the Roman Empire, they were still God’s family and would never be slaves. Jesus challenged both of those dearly held foundational identifiers.  The pushback and vitriol were palpable. 

Conflict is Unavoidable

Whenever two people are involved relationally to any significant degree, conflict is virtually inevitable. In this context, conflict is simply the incompatibility between two or more perspectives. Conflict itself is not necessarily sinful. You can have conflict without overt sin. Conflict will happen. The difference is in how we handle that conflict. The danger, of course, is that most human conflict does lead to sin.

In fact, it will happen often in a family of churches like ours.  The more diverse a group is socially, historically, and culturally, the more opportunities there will be for conflict. We will have different perspectives, experiences, cultural expectations, history, preferences, and so on. This will be a constant challenge to our unity, especially when difficult subjects such as race and culture are being discussed.

Yes, conflict will happen. But when that conflict involves pushing up against one or more meta-narratives, that conflict can get passionate, and negatively so, rather quickly. That’s when conversations and even relationships can start to break down.

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Healthy Families Talk

By way of example, let’s say that a Bible talk group sits down to discuss an incident that has been in the news involving a white police officer and a young man of color, resulting in the tragic death of the young man. As the group begins their conversation, conflict quickly erupts. Some in the group identify with the police officers and are prone to trust them and take their side without much in the way of questions. Others may or may not realize it, but somewhere deep down, they don’t trust police forces inherently. Even though we have a room full of disciples of Jesus Christ, tensions rise and before you know it there is a heated debate. Within twenty minutes, factions have formed, divisions have arisen, and hard feelings have developed.  What’s even more pronounced and problematic is that these divisions are often (though not always) along racial or ethnic lines.

In situations like this, what often happens is that an awkward fear develops in one or both groups and they determine that the best solution is simply never to talk about these matters again within the body. This is deeply problematic. Healthy families talk. In fact, healthy families can talk about virtually anything. The degree to which there are off-limits or taboo subjects is the degree to which a dysfunction is bound to develop in that family. 

Going Below the Surface

Here’s the real problem. In many situations, the different meta-narratives that we have lead to sharp disagreements. But we tend to not recognize that it is these underlying identity-forming stories that have led to our very different perspectives and resulted in severe conflict. Because of that, we stay at the level of the surface conflict and never get to the roots of it.

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Let’s go back to the Bible talk group and see how this plays out. Some probably grew up in a middle class, predominantly white environment like mine where the police force was always presented as a positive thing. Every year we would have “Officer Friendly” come to our school and spend time connecting with the students. We looked forward to seeing police officers in town because they would hand out baseball cards to the kids. We were always told that they were the good guys; they would save us and help us if we ever needed it. This is why so many defend and support police officers before they may even know the specifics of a case. They just trust them naturally. That was my meta-narrative and many of you may identify with that. It formed a specific aspect of my worldview and identity in relation to those that are given the responsibility “to protect and serve.”

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My wife is African-American and grew up with a very different community meta-narrative. The roots of many police forces, especially in the deep South where her family migrated North from, were as slave patrols. After slavery, those forces morphed into police forces, but they often had the objective of keeping black community members “in their place.” The lines of justice were frequently blurred and they often intimidated, brutalized, and terrorized the black communities. So, the meta-narrative formed that policemen were not a group that could be automatically trusted. They were to be rightly feared and meta-narratives like this are powerful and do not easily go away. They are passed down as wisdom from generation to generation. Even if a group is removed from the original context, the story and worldview often remain in place. And events that might seem like unfortunate, isolated incidents to those from one meta-narrative, serve as powerful reinforcements of the negative image for those from a different meta-narrative.

It can be incredibly destructive if we are unable to get down to that level of understanding one another in our church life. When we stay at the surface level of conflict, we simply argue. We waste our breath trying to convince one another but will very rarely be able to succeed. It is like two people staring at a white wall, one with rose-colored glasses on and the other with blue glasses on, who insist on arguing about what the color of the wall is. They will never get anywhere if they focus on the wall and fail to recognize that they have on different-colored glasses. 

That’s how it is with these meta-narratives. We must go beyond the conflicts and seek to understand each other. Ask deep questions. Try to comprehend not just what a person believes or what they perceive, but why. They may not even fully grasp their own meta-narrative at first. There are many members in my wife’s family that were raised with an inherent mistrust of authority figures like the police but have little idea of why or where that fear comes from. 

This is not taking sides on an issue or any specific incident involving police. If you’re focused on that, you’ve missed the point of this article. That was simply a relevant illustration to help us understand the powerful forces at work that can weave conflict into our relationships. The next time you find yourself in conflict with a brother or sister over a serious matter of this nature, don’t stay at the surface level of the conflict. Go deeper. Ask questions. Hear one another. Find out what some of their identity forming meta-narratives are (and we all have many).  We may not ever fully agree on everything, but we can at least start to understand the different perspectives that others may hold, and we may learn a lot more about ourselves.  When we understand one another’s meta-narratives, their perspectives start to make a lot more sense and we often feel empathy and a desire to reconcile rather than pull away or continue the conflict.

Practical Steps Forward

Here are some practical steps to help us begin to discover and navigate the waters of the meta-narratives of others.  First, I have a big warning though. Don’t attempt to do this with others until you have examined your own meta-narratives and presumptions. Only then can you have a reasonable chance of understanding and empathizing with others.

1.    When a conflict occurs, don’t focus on the “what,” become curious about the “why”.

2.    Ask as many questions as you can to respectfully pull out someone’s background and story, where they might be coming from and why they see the world the way they do. Some sample questions from the above example involving responses to the police might be:

a.    Do you think you tend to automatically give the benefit of the doubt to police or official government versions? Why do you think that is?

b.    Do you think you tend to automatically mistrust police and people in authority? Why do you think that is?

c.     What has been the past experience of yours or previous generations in your family with police officers in the past? 

d.    Do you think you have had any pre-conceived notions or beliefs about those in power or the underdogs in society that might influence your thinking?

3.    Everyone’s worldview makes sense to them given their meta-narratives, so seek to understand as much as you can about a person’s views from the perspective of their meta-narratives rather than your own.

4.    Listen to other’s story without comment, objection, or rebuttal. You are trying to learn and understand not teach and educate at this moment.

5.    Try to avoid the “whats” in a conflict until you have a really solid grasp of the other person’s “whys.”

6.    Together you can examine, not the meta-narratives themselves, but the identities and presumptions that have resulted from them. Are they in sync with a kingdom worldview, a godly perspective of others and a biblical response?

7.    Together, do either of you see that perhaps some of your identities formed by your meta-narratives need to change in light of the gospel?  How do you go about that?

8.    You may have to agree to disagree at times, but at least you now hopefully can better understand the perspective of your brother or sister and respect and understand their views rather than thinking that they are just “out of their mind”.

Deep Waters

Proverbs 20:5 says that “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.”  Our meta-narratives are certainly deep waters and when we take the time to learn our own and draw out those of others, we move one step closer to the kind of unity in Christ that God desires for his people.  A willingness to examine your own meta-narratives and identities and those of others, won’t solve every problem but it is a very healthy step in the right direction.

 

Permissible, Beneficial, Constructive

by Fred W. Faller -- Burlington, Masschusetts, USA

In the life of any church, there will be times when there needs to be settlement about issues that are dividing people. Typically, the division has already existed in the hearts of those dividing from one another long before it surfaces to be dealt with. In this discussion, I am assuming that both sides of the divide are composed of hearts that are good, albeit differing because of personalities or perhaps perceptions or simply have different ways of approaching the word of God. I do not intend to deal with the issue of division where the hearts are bad: selfish and stubborn. That is for another discussion.

It did not take long for the young church in the book of Acts to run squarely up against a brewing division where Gentiles were coming into the Kingdom of God and the children of Abraham were struggling, with their heritage as the old covenant people, in letting these despised outsiders in.

The first significant confrontation on a large scale takes place in Acts 15, where some of the Jewish Christians were beginning to insist that the gentile converts had to be circumcised and obey the Law in order to be part of the church. It was an "old school-new school" conflict where the old school folks were insisting on traditions and practices that no longer applied under the new covenant.

Without quoting all the significant passages, there are several things worthy of note about how this conflict was resolved:

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Jerusalem city walls 

1.      The elders and apostles gathered in Jerusalem. Barnabas was there also and shared, so we see that it was not exclusively the elders and apostles. One could argue that Barnabas was a teacher (Acts 14:1-5) and had earned the right to be called evangelist. There may have been other prominent contributors in the discussion. We also see that by the end of the discussion, the whole church was finally involved (verse 22) but we don't really know at what level and when they came in.

2.      Peter opened the discussion with the clear explanation that God had made it very clear that He had accepted the gentiles and had made no distinction between their salvation and that of the Jews. He basically explained the command of God that the Gospel was for everyone.

3.      Next Paul and Barnabas shared many examples of how the Gentiles had come to God and what God had done through them.

4.      Finally, James stood up to speak. His argument from the Scriptures finalized the resolution. It was a bit of a compromise: the people were to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality, meat that was strangled and from blood. The implication was one of freedom from the law, but with several nods to the law in the message. This is clear from James’ final argument: "For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

5.      The BIG issue at hand, circumcision, was not even addressed. The discussion centered on a much more basic problem: that of tradition and law and how it was bound on people in the lives of the new covenant church. Circumcision was resolved by silence, that is, not saying anything about its prohibition, but only saying what should be prohibited, the silence arguing that Jews who wanted to circumcise could do so and Gentiles who did not want to do so, did not have to. If they had specifically prohibited circumcision, it would have tread on the freedom of the Jewish Christians to do so, and by assumption, would have stepped over a line that the Spirit did not want them to step over.

6.      When the letter was sent out, the wording shows an interesting sensitivity to the issue:

a)     "It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit ..." -- this was not a set of new ironclad laws like in the law of Moses.

b)     "...not to burden you with anything beyond the following ..." -- we are only recommending what we consider to be the minimum burden.

c)     After repeating the list of abstinences, the letter said, "You will do well to avoid these things." These are not laws. There is nothing hard and fast here. There really aren't any strict rules, but this would be beneficial to you -– it would be well for you to stick with this. We find later that Paul certainly allowed people to eat meat sacrificed to idols, even claiming (I Cor 8) that knowledge allowed him to do so, and in Romans 12 it is clear that he considered meat eaters "stronger" than those who refrained.

7.      Paul and Barnabas were part of the team that took the letter to Antioch.

There is no doubt that Paul's involvement in this kind of discussion was consistent with his teaching in his letters. Paul fought courageously for the Gentiles in the face of the Jewish culture that often dominated the church. Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians...nearly all Paul’s letters would deal with the freedom of being in Christ, apart from the law, and how that freedom manifested itself in the church, and multiple appeals for peace between Jew and gentile converts.

Paul recognized the differences between people: Jew, Gentile, Slave, Free, Man, Woman, New Convert and Mature Disciple. In all his letters, he addresses issues of these differences, not only culturally but developmentally. Here are a few passages that stand out in this area.

I Corinthians 6:12 "Everything is permissible for me" – but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible for me" – but I will not be mastered by anything. The context of this passage is Paul's assault on sexual immorality that was prevalent in the church. What is most interesting is that he is contrasting not what is right and what is wrong, but he is making his argument by saying that even if something is permissible, the challenge is whether it is beneficial. Even if something is permissible, is it something that is taking over our lives? that is mastering us? I believe that Paul is trying to make a very positive argument, refraining from laying down absolutes, even when some of these behaviors perhaps should be absolutes. Instead he is initiating an argument that says, "Even if this were permissible, it is not beneficial. Even if this were permissible, if you engage in it, it will master you and steal your soul."

Corinthian statue of goddess Aphrodite, 4th century BCE

Corinthian statue of goddess Aphrodite, 4th century BCE

This kind of thinking threads its way throughout the letter as Paul continues: In chapter 8, he addresses the issue of meat that was being sold in the marketplace that had previously been sacrificed to idols. People knew this and it was an issue in the church about whether this spiritually tainted meat should be consumed by the disciples. Look carefully at Paul's argument about knowledge:

I Corinthians 8:1ff - "Now about food sacrificed to Idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up but, love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know." There is nothing wrong with knowledge. Knowledge is permissible, but knowledge is not as beneficial as Love.

Paul goes on to describe the true knowledge about the meat that is sacrificed, how it has no spiritual portent at all. This knowledge is good and it leads to freedom. But the exercise of your freedom might not be beneficial if someone else is still struggling with their lack of knowledge. Paul goes on to say that it’s possible to do something permissible, that actually destroys another person’s faith. When this happens, we are sinning against Christ (8:12). Paul volunteers at this point to never eat meat again if it causes a brother to sin. This is a stunning attitude about the length he is willing to go to do what is beneficial, over what is permissible.

In I Corinthians 10:23ff, Paul says this yet again! "Everything is permissible" – but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible" – but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good but the good of others. Paul goes on to discuss the issue of meat sacrificed to idols again. He concludes with another startling statement. After strongly suggesting that one should refrain from eating meat if another man's conscience is violated, he asks the rhetorical question:

"For why should my freedom be judged by another man's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church or God. - even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many." (I Corinthians 10:29b-33)

The answer to Paul's question is, of course, that my conscience is essentially bound up in the lives of the people around me. They cannot be separated. I lay down whatever it is I am holding onto to serve and meet the needs of others, even if it means purposely restricting my own freedom in Christ to do it.

As in many issues like this under the new covenant, Paul addresses this most thoroughly in his letter to the Romans. In Romans 12, after thoroughly vetting the many spiritual issues, he addresses the church in Rome about the practicals of life in the church. He launches into his discussion with a call for disciples to be living sacrifices, not pandering to the pattern of the world. This was particularly true of the church, that was supposed to be different.

He calls for humility (12:3) and an appreciation for the differences that exist in the church and the need to allow those differences to co-exist for the benefit of the whole, followed by a call to love, honor, service, tolerance and peace (vs 9-21). It’s all about submission, Paul seems to be saying, and he addresses the issue of our submission extending beyond the boundaries of the church in the first half of chapter 13, and then expounds on more examples of love for one another within the church. "Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore, Love is the fulfillment of the Law."

All this is bound up in Paul's view that "all things are permissible – but not all things are beneficial". Even the commandments fall under the guidance of the overarching rule of Love.

In Romans 14, Paul goes into even greater detail of the need for understanding these concepts in the community of believers.

Paul starts his appeal with the simple statement: "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters." Paul acknowledges that there are people in our midst who have weaker faith, who have not matured as much and his appeal is one of acceptance. The "acceptance" is not toleration, but wholesale embracing of the person, even in their weakness. Paul is generalizing here. A few verses later, he will talk specifically about several issues, but here he gives no way of telling who is weaker, but only that there will be stronger and weaker among us.

He then appeals to the two sides differently:

·       The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not.

·       The man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does. Why? "Because God has accepted him! Who are you to judge someone else's servant?" (Romans 14:3-4)

Paul then observes that each person will stand or fall before God. I am a servant of God and as a servant, God is able to make me stand, and stand I will! Paul goes on to explain that the differences I focus on, that I get so frustrated with, will all be sorted out when I face judgement, where I will give an account for who I am and what I have done. It is God who will judge, not me, so it is not my place to pass such judgment in the church. Stop doing that!

But Paul does not stop there. He says there is an alternative that we should do! "Instead," Paul says, "Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way."  (Romans 14:13) This is a conscious activity. I look at my brother who is so, so different than me, perhaps less mature in certain ways, less knowledgeable, perhaps, and as the more mature brother, I make up my mind to not do anything that would cause him to have trouble. He brings up the foods issue again and concludes the argument with:

"If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love! Do not by your eating, destroy your brother for whom Christ died." (v 15)

This is a very strong echo from I Corinthians 10 – a very consistent message about love for your brothers, overriding your personal freedoms, convenience and conscience.

Then Paul makes a stunning statement, the first half of which I have never heard taught in the churches – ever! "Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." (Romans 14:16-17)

Paul seems to be giving the disciple the authority to rebuke a brother who would condemn something of which he has become convinced by faith."Let us therefore, make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification." (v 19) There it is again. All things are permissible – we have huge freedoms in Christ, but the focus is on that which is edifying – that which is constructive. Don't destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All foods are permissible, but if it causes another to stumble, it is wrong, it is not beneficial. It’s better to lay aside your personal freedoms and not do anything that causes your brother to fall! Paul wraps up the whole discussion with this idea set, undoubtedly aimed at producing harmony:

·       Whatever differences you have – whatever you have come to believe, keep it between you and God.

·       The man who is un-conflicted about this is blessed.

·       The man who doubts (is conflicted) is condemned if he eats, because he is not fully convinced (he does not have faith)

·       Anything in a man that does not come from the full conviction of faith, falls short of God's desire for him and he sins.

Now, it is clear that Paul is using the example of food and who has the faith to eat what, and who is sinning if they eat or don't eat. But I think that in spite of this example, Paul is arguing a much greater cause. He heads the whole discussion with a very generalized argument. "Accept people who are weaker, without passing judgment." The undercurrent of all of it is love and how love compels us to accept without judgment –- to love unconditionally and to go the extra mile, to make up our mind, not to create stumbling blocks, to not distress our brothers with our action. This is the character of Love.

Overarching Observations:

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1.      In all these passages, Paul develops a common theme, and that is that the good of my brother in my heart. I go out of my way to listen and take into account those needs and I go out of my way not to offend or cause him to stumble.

2.      The decision by the apostles, the elders and others in Acts 15 was overarching and totally minimalist. It did not even address the central issue of circumcision and left most of what they could have discussed open to the freedom of believers. When the other churches received the letter they were refreshed, possibly because it said so very little.

3.      Paul publically and specifically addressed failings in the church and called for each disciple to take responsibility to accept differences, love others unconditionally, to be fully convinced, and to accept fully the convictions of others.

4.      Paul did not leave the interpretation, enactment or enforcement of his rule of love and its implications to a small group of people who would decide for the others. The letter was written "to all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints." When he wrote to the Corinthians, it was "to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, - their lord and ours." There were probably elders, evangelists and teachers in Rome, and the other churches to which Paul wrote, but these letters are not to them and there is no indication in them that there was specific jurisdiction of any individual or group of people who made such decisions. Each member was expected to grow and mature and patiently wait for others and accommodate others in that process. We know historically that these letters were read publicly as often as they could be read, for as long as people could listen, and it was read to the whole church, not digested and re-taught by an appointed minority.

5.      Paul was convinced that the church, as a collective, was mature enough to handle his directives. In Romans 15:14 he stated "I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another." Paul believed that the church was capable of handling his "bold points", to discuss them and respond to them appropriately. He had faith that God was able to work in individual hearts to accomplish his goals.

6.      Paul expected them to go out of their way, to make every effort, not to offend others.

Practical Matters:

The way people read the bible, the hermeneutic and the conclusions that are drawn from it, are widely varied. It is no surprise that in a large church, with members ranging from the newly baptized to those thirty-plus years in the forming, that there will be huge disparities in knowledge, maturity, love, acceptance and sacrifice. So how does this all apply? How do I fully accept others without making judgements on their faith and maturity? How does one keep what he believes between himself and God and allow all others to do the same?

This task is much easier in matters that are largely personal – clothing tastes, ways of dealing with sin, entertainment preferences, prayer habits, fasting, personal disciplines and things like these. Where it gets complicated is where personal tastes manifest themselves in a more corporate environment, for example in the assembly of the church. How are we to know when something that we are doing is offensive, hurtful or not respectful of another's faith? How do I decide when it is time to give up my preferences for the sake of others? Is it the right of the elders, teachers, and evangelists to decide this for the church? When do I know when a person is just being stubborn or has a bad heart? Does that even matter?

In Paul’s writing, he does not answer any of these questions. Why is that? It is a distinct possibility that Paul never had to answer those questions. Maybe the early church never faced them because it was different than what we have developed. Perhaps if we made more of an effort to research and restore the new covenant understandings and assemblies, then the problems of our church would be more clearly answered by the Scriptures – by Paul's writings. As it is, Paul's answers seem almost foreign to our way of life because we are not being what the church was then.

I believe the key is in what Paul taught the church: that he would gladly relinquish his right to things he knew to be permissible for the sake of one who struggled with it. He considered it not beneficial to pursue his right in that context. He considered it not constructive or edifying. I have no doubt that Paul was not opposed to healthy dialog on such issues. He opened such dialog in I Corinthians 8 where he clearly argues that his knowledge about the nothingness of idols was correct –- that eating meat sacrificed to them was permissible, but that is the same passage where he volunteers "never to eat meat again" if it is an issue that remains for someone else. If the apostle Paul lived this way and called others to do so, should not this be the standard for my fellowship also?

How would this work? Paul was pretty clear to the Corinthians in I Corinthians 14:26 – 40 (By the way, the NIV heading "Orderly Worship" was added by someone else).  Nothing in the directive of these verses claims to be or fits in the category of worship, as Paul and Jesus saw it. After giving simple instructions, Paul concludes with this authoritative statement in verse 36:

"Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored."

Why would he say this? Paul says this through the spirit of God, because we are prone to invent our own ways of doing things and rearrange what God has ordained to our own desires. We go out and find teachers who support what we want, and inject the teachings of men into our practices, rather than the teachings of God. Paul is being very strong here. He is basically pre-empting anyone who would teach otherwise and he is teaching it as the Lord's command. Is he not saying that if anyone teaches someone differently they should be ignored?

Paul did not tell the church to organize "worship leaders" and have them "lead" the congregation in some "amazing way" with "vertical worship". Since Paul's vision was that God had seated us in the heavenly realms with God, that there was no need for anyone to "lead us into the presence of God" since we were already there. There were no polished presentations with minute by minute timelines and professional speakers with a time slot, and trained song leaders, or groups of people spending hours hauling around sound equipment for displays of "talent" to entertain the people who have not been properly taught what worship is. There was no claim that this was worship at all! It consisted of saved believers, gathered together, who each had something to give and by giving it, would build the church. In their eagerness to do so, Paul gave simple instructions about respect and process so that it would be orderly, and then he gave that final warning that this was God's command.

After I have had dialog about whether I should consider these alterations to God's command to be permissible, I then have to have the discussion about whether is it beneficial or constructive. According to Paul's multiple addresses on this topic, this is determined by whether it is offensive or hurtful to another person's faith in the assembly, in which case, the mature disciple would restrain their freedoms for the sake of conscience of those they see as less mature. At the same time, they would open sincere dialog about the issues while patiently waiting for each other to mature.

My faith is simple. Although I have never actually seen this, it does not mean that it would not work and I have to believe it would work. Paul had this faith. Shouldn't I be striving for that? My Protestant history, and modern culture, particularly American culture, is driven by the paparazzi mentality, that speaks to our psyche, that we must choreograph everything, that it must be "professional", that it must be "produced" or the small-minded, sound-byte-trained audience will get distracted. We perpetuate this idea that the people are not mature enough to figure this out and we have small groups of persons who figure it out for us. This is simply not the biblical teaching nor practice and we must grow in our faith in this area. The Bible teaches that if we do what God wants, the unspiritual man will come into our midst, see what we are doing and fall on his knees and worship God saying, "God is surely among you!"


Photo Credits

Jerusalem City Walls, CC Wikipedia

Corinthian terra-cotta statue of Aphrodite

Bronze Statue by Max Pixel. Creative Commons Zero - CC0  

The Truth About Christmas

Douglas Jacoby - Marietta, Georgia, USA 

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I remember the night. It was chilly, especially for Florida, and Dad had a fire burning in the hearth. Even as a seven year old, I realized that this spelled certain doom for the jolly man who later that night would squeeze down the chimney. I mustered the courage to ask Dad, 'Is there really a Santa?' I was devastated. Doubts soon began to flood my mind as to the existence of 'the Stork,' the Easter Bunny, even of God himself. In later years I learned that Santa Claus (alias Father Christmas, Saint Martin, der Weihnachtsmann, Père Noël) was merely a corruption of Saint Nicholas, a Roman Catholic bishop of the 4th century. His attributes (red suit, reindeer, residence at the North Pole) derive from a blend of pagan legends with traditions about the saints. Good heavens!

25 December?
When was Jesus born? Does anyone really know? Early Christians were unsure. Cyprian thought 28 March, Clement of Alexandria guessed 20 May, Hippolytus supposed 2 June. If these early Christian writers (3rd century), who lived close to the time of Christ, had to guess the date of his birth, how is it that we know better?

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The Shepherds
According to Luke 2:8, the shepherds were 'living out in the fields' keeping watch over their flocks at night.' But what is Israel like in late December, the time traditionally assigned to 'Christmas'? It is cold. It is the rainy season (Ezra 10:9, 13; Song 2:11). The shepherds would not be found dwelling in the fields in the winter season, and certainly not at night. It is therefore unlikely that Jesus was born after Halloween! Whence then the notion that he was born on the 25th of December?

Roman History
In 274 AD the Emperor Aurelian, influenced by the Persian cult of Mithras, designated 25 December as the 'birthday' of the sun god, 'Sol Invictus' the invincible sun. (In Mithraic tradition, the deity was born 25 December, and celebrated for twelve days. Sound familiar?) In some circles worship of the sun became identified with worship of the Son (see Malachi 4:2). Then in 354, Liberius of Rome ordered Christmas celebrated. This was popular among the Romans, who had already been celebrating the Saturnalia (12-24 December) as well as the Brumalia (25 December) -- times of merrymaking and exchanging presents. Houses were decorated with greenery and festal lights. Gifts were given to children and the poor. Yes, Christmas has pagan origins. On top of all this, it is not even the actual birthday of Christ!

Teutonic History
As with the Romans, the Teutonic peoples, too, had their celebrations of the winter solstice. The idea was that the sun god was dying or dead, and that there were certain things one should do to assist it on its way, thus speeding the recovery of the world from its winter torpor. As the days lengthened after or around the 22nd of December, there was great rejoicing and partying. Thousands of years of Teutonic history make their contribution to the customs of Christmas, and these customs spread with the people into Central Europe, Gaul, and Britain. At the Yuletide, special cakes were consumed, Yule logs were burnt as an incentive to the waxing sun, fir trees were adorned with lights in honor of the tree spirits, special greetings and gifts were exchanged, many went a-wassailing, and of course there was the mistletoe, under which one stood and began (only a kiss, mind you) the headlong rush into a night of pagan revelry (1 Peter 4:3)! Remember that all of this was going on long before Christ was born.

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Shopping Sprees
What would Christmas be without the frenzied shopping that characterizes our society? Listen to Libanius, a 4th century Roman writer, as he describes the scene in pre-Christian Rome:

"Everywhere may be seen 'well-laden tables'. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who through the whole year has taken pleasure in saving'becomes suddenly extravagant'a stream of presents pours itself out on all sides."

Yes, Christmas 'spirit,' often sustained by big business to sell merchandise, is nothing new, but rather an ancient and time-honored tradition.

Closing considerations
We have seen that 'Christmas' is essentially 100% tradition -- and non-Christian at that! Yet traditions are condemned in the Bible only if they directly contradict the word of God (Mark 7:6-8). Jesus commanded us to remember his death, yet there is no harm in commemorating his entrance into the world. As one of the few who understands the true origins of this holiday, you can now enjoy the season in a more enlightened manner. So be of good cheer!

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Merry Christmas!

Click here to listen to Douglas' ten-minute podcast on Christmas

Reposted from www.douglasjacoby.com

Photo Credits:

USA Stamp 

The Shepherds and the Angel

DC: Ye Olde Yule Log by , Wally Gobetz, December 2000

 

 

    Bringing Back the Stray

    Douglas Jacoby - Marietta, Georgia, USA

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    Since the Lord restores our souls (Psalm 23), and those who are spiritual ought to restore the brother caught in sin (Galatians 6:2), bringing back the those who have strayed isn't restoration in the original sense of the word. Keep in mind:

    • To bring back the stray is Christ-like.
    • This is a process of freeing a drifting brother or sister (Hebrews 2:1) from the allure of the world and bringing him or her back to the fold. This process takes time. It is much more than simply adding someone’s name back to the membership list based on assurances of future commitment.
    • It is to be carried out gently (Galatians 6:2). This means caring for the individual, hearing him or her out, not rushing but carefully retracing steps back to the place he or she got off the narrow road. More often than not, those wishing to return to the fold already have plenty of guilt and shame. They need assurance, not an “I-told-you-so” telling off (2 Corinthians 2:6-8).
    • Not all Christians are able to bring back the stray. Maturity, experience, and spirituality are essential. This is a pastoral duty, though not necessarily limited to church leaders.
    • All Christians are “shepherds” of the flock in some sense. Many congregations contain plenty of mature Christians, and these are the ones who will be most qualified to bring the wanderers home.
    • The process itself is somewhat precarious by its very nature. The temptation to over-identify with the lapsed disciple, taking on his attitudes or championing his grievances, is more than some disciples can handle. In some cases, the sin in which the person to be restored must relinquish is still ongoing.

    Practicals

    • Always ask, What are the causes of the person’s leaving the church? We must make sure that we are dealing with true causes, not symptoms. Otherwise, after being welcomed back, they may slip back into the same well-worn ruts.
    • Remember that God holds the individual responsible for quitting—no matter what (Romans 2:5ff).
    • Sometimes it is largely a leader’s fault. Shepherds, through harsh leadership, can scatter the sheep (Ezekiel 34). In addition, sometimes people fall through the sin or lack of forgiveness of another (Luke 17).
    • False teaching also has a role in dragging many back to the world (2 Peter 2:1-3).
    • Spiritual “starvation” (1 Corinthians 3:2) may also be an issue. Lack of proper appetite may be a factor, but so may lack of proper diet. Milk and meat are both needed. Shallow preaching and or humanistic leadership inhibit our potential to grow. (Still, the onus is on the individual.)
    • Always speak to those who were involved in the person’s life before he lapsed. Realize, in addition, that in some cases there are “two sides” to the story (Proverbs 18:17). Make sure you are properly informed.
    • Call for additional help as required.
    • If someone is not open to returning at the moment, “leave the light on and the door open”! (The Parable of the Lost Son shows the example.) Don’t be resentful or take sinful decisions personally. This only causes us to turn a cold shoulder to them, and it prohibits them from coming back.
    • Be urgent to see the person progress, but don’t rush him. Beware of flash-in-the-pan decisions. Give them time to once again implement spiritual disciplines (personal devotional times, to begin with) and to re-integrate the church schedule into their own routine.
    • Study the Bible together. Pray together. Expect them to do the same on their own.
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    • When they have true conviction, they will probably start sharing their faith with their friends again.
    • If the lapsed Christian is married, ask the spouse what he or she thinks about the change. The spouse probably has a better vantage point from which to evaluate what is going on than anyone else.
    • While not withholding gentle assistance, expect the individual to exhibit initiative. Ultimately, it is not hand-holding that will set them back on the path to the Lord’s heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18).

    Conclusion
    In most cities around the world there are not only active Christians, but also a number of men and women who have turned back from following the Lord. We must reach these individuals to “save their souls from death and cover over multitude of sins” (James 5:20).

    Shared from www.douglasjacoby.com, originally posted March 1, 2015

    Photo Credits: Stray sheep on the railway track at Bryn-y-Felin Bridge,
    cc-by-sa/2.0 - © David Tyers 

    Bible open to Psalm, CC0 Public Domain

    Teachers' Subcommittee Report on "Love Your Enemies"

    During a church builders’ workshop in Boston in early 2010 one of the presenting elders made some comments about Christians and the military. This led one of the teachers into a discussion with this elder. Following a number of developments, the teachers’ service team reviewed a paper on the subject, had a subsequent discussion with the elder, and then asked a subcommittee to study the matter and make a proposal. As a result of reading numerous emails and articles and conducting nine WebEx meetings totaling about twenty hours, our subcommittee, with unanimity, came to the following conclusion, which we later confirmed by the entire committee: 

    1.    The issue of loving our enemies is one of Jesus’ most revolutionary teachings occupying a prominent place in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Kingdom ethos to be shown to the world (Matthew 5:44-48). Thus, the implications of it need to be thought through very carefully. 

    2.    A Christian must act as a disciple of Jesus at all times in all circumstances (meaning in this context, that he must show love to his enemies at all times). The classic argument going back to Augustine and Luther that a Christian has a private self and a public self and can do things in his public self that he would not do in his private self is not biblical. The Scriptures know of no such division within the Christian. “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17 NIV). 

    3.    Every Christian needs to be taught to obey Jesus’ commands to love our enemies, pray for them, do good to them, lend to them, be merciful to them and do to them as we would have done to us (Matthew 5:44-48 and Luke 6:27-35). For this to be obeyed, disciples must be encouraged and helped to think through the implications and applications of this teaching. However, in this matter, we do not believe it is best just to tell our members what to practice, but rather teach them how to make wise judgments, remembering, “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14 ESV).

    4.    Romans 12:2 (NIV) reads, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.“ However, on this issue, our respective cultures’ emphases on patriotism and nationalism often has influenced how we view the treatment of enemies more than have the Scriptures—particularly, the teachings of Jesus. This must be changed and our minds must be renewed by God’s wisdom. Whatever decisions we make must be made from consciences informed and shaped by the Word of God.

    5.    Although the implications of this teaching (love your enemies) may be difficult, all faithful disciples must study and pray about these matters. This is not an option. We must all seek God’s will, for that is the nature of the Kingdom life. 

    6.    The examples of soldiers’ interactions with John the Baptist (Luke 3:14), Jesus (Mark 8:5-13), Peter (Acts 10) should be examined, and consideration should be given to what these situations say and do not say. Whatever conclusions we come to should address these situations, as well as the material at the end of Romans 12 and the beginning of Romans 13.  

    7.    A deeper consideration of our teaching on this subject of loving our enemies will almost certainly lead to some significant shepherding issues in which we help disciples make decisions based on the Bible rather than on culture.  These will likely include: (1) Counseling a disciple who wants to enlist in the military (or in some countries is being drafted into the military) about the implications of the military oath; objectives of military training and consequences of travel away from the fellowship. (2) Counseling a disciple currently serving in the military regarding the possibility of serving without violating one’s conscience, as well as what options are available if one’s conscience is violated. (3) Supporting and nurturing individual disciples as they wrestle with and make these difficult decisions. 

    8.    While we believe this area needs to be taught on and explored, we also believe that discussions and collaboration are needed with elders and evangelists in order to handle this in the best way in our congregations, so the church might be unified, built up and grow into maturity (Ephesians 4:11-16).  

    9.    Our belief is that we must be a people who are very willing to examine difficult issues and hear different perspectives represented, even as we encourage each other with the greatest of love and respect to keep seeking and asking and knocking (Matthew 7:7) for the will of God. It is our hope that the process we have followed with this matter may be a model for handling other difficult issues or addressing needed changes in our teaching.  [To that end, we invited and included representatives from both the evangelists’ service team and the elders’ service team to join us on the discussion of this project, and we were grateful for their input.]

    Finally, while those of us on the subcommittee do not agree on every implication and practice that should come from Jesus’ teaching on this matter, we are in complete unity that the command to “love your enemies,” in all its counter-cultural quality, must be studied and implemented by every disciple and practiced in all phases of life. This is a crucial mark of the Kingdom, for in this context Jesus said: "If you greet [show love to] only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:47-48 NASB). 

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    Two Position Papers

    The previous appeal was written for the evangelists’ service team and elders’ service team to summarize what the teachers’ subcommittee discussed concerning "love your enemy."  The following papers represent two different views on this topic.  These papers are given to help disciples think through this topic.  The papers are not written to tell anyone what to think, but to help each person work through the issue.  We want to develop a culture in our churches where diverse perspectives on complex issues can be discussed and respected.  In the case of these particular papers, we acknowledge that the majority of the authors are citizens or residents of the United States of America. Those who live in other countries may have a very different perspective from these authors. 

     

    I. Disciples and Enemies: A Kingdom Perspective

    Michael Izbicki graduated from the United States Naval Academy near the top of his class in 2008. The next year he took a psychological exam on which he found this question: If given the order, would he launch a missile carrying a nuclear warhead? He answered that he would not.1

    For the next two years the Navy fought hard against his request to become a conscientious objector. In finally receiving that status, only after taking his case to federal court, Izbicki became one of 300 over a nine-year period who received an honorable discharge as a CO. Another 300 applicants were denied. 

    During his junior year he had taken required courses studying the just war theory, mainly as argued by Thomas Aquinas, but he became increasingly uneasy with “the frankness with which people talked about killing.” In his application he wrote:  “We calculated the extent of civilian casualties and whether these numbers were politically acceptable.” 

    Eventually, he studied the Gospels, read widely about the early history of the church, took up Hebrew so he could read the Old Testament in the original, and started to measure his faith according to the question: What would Jesus do? He concluded, “I could not be responsible for killing anyone.” This led to his unexpected answer on his psychological test and triggered a long series of interrogations.

    Izbicki’s story illustrates a crucial issue often faced by the disciple of Jesus who lives in a post-Constantinian culture where Christian military service has been taken for granted by most Christian groups for 1800 years. Disciples follow Jesus, who said, “Love your enemies.” But killing enemies is widely accepted and sometimes even expected as a part of Christian obligation.

    A variety of arguments can be made against Christian involvement in war,  but the point of this paper is that it is inconsistent with Jesus’ main message, namely,  the way of the Kingdom of God—a radical new way of living in this present age: living by the principles of the age to come.. With that premise, I would put forth the following points:

    1.    Jesus was the embodiment of the Kingdom. In his person and work the Kingdom of God was breaking in. To the disappointment of many,  including his own followers, Jesus' approach did not involve any embrace of nationalism or support for the violent overthrow of ungodly pagan tyrants. As a naval officer, Izbicki asked, "What would Jesus do?" He certainly would have found nothing in the Gospel accounts that would indicate that Jesus would have supported war or lethal force in any way, unless we are talking about spiritual warfare fought with spiritual weapons.

    2.    When Jesus taught his disciples what it meant to live the Kingdom in this present age, that is, to allow God to be in charge of their lives, he spoke to them of a radically different ethic in which you would not resist the evil man; would turn the other cheek, go the second mile, love your enemies, pray for them, and do good to them. Jesus not only taught this, but lived it right down to his final breath.  Certainly,  what officer Izbicki was taught at the Naval Academy regarding enemies could not have been more starkly in contrast to the teachings of Jesus about the Kingdom life. The goal in war is to destroy and obliterate the enemy,  not to show love, compassion, kindness, mercy, and concern. The nuclear warhead that the naval officer might be asked to launch, the grenade the soldier may throw, or the bombs dropped by a pilot would certainly accomplish the first of these objectives, without being mistaken in any way for the second.

    3.    This brings us to the behavior that we observe among the disciples as they were taught to live this Kingdom life. We have no examples of Jesus’ disciples killing anyone. The last time we see a follower of his taking up a weapon is one where there is an effort to defend an innocent and unarmed man. And, yet, in this case, Peter is told by Jesus, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52 NIV). This view of a culture of force and Jesus’ rationale is expressed even more clearly in his statement to Pilate, where Jesus said, "My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my Kingdom is from another place"  (John 18:36). Precisely because this is the Kingdom of God, fighting in the normal way against one's enemies is not an option.  Quite in line with the in-breaking Kingdom, Jesus will set the example for his disciples when he utters these words from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34 NIV). Then, later, when one of them, Stephen, was stoned and was dying for his faith, he demonstrated that same heart, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60 NIV). 

    As already noted, Jesus lived this new way, but the disciples understood that his life was also to be a pattern they followed. Peter initially struggled mightily with this concept. But he eventually turned and strengthened his brothers (Luke 22:32) with these words:

    "To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example,  that you should follow in his steps. 'He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.'  When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.(1 Peter 2:21-23 NIV)

    This non-violent, non-resistance was not just for the redeemer in a great redemptive moment. It is for all disciples. While such a decision looks foolish to most people, it is a deliberate choice made because one is “conscious of God,” (see the wider context) and far from being a decision to do nothing, it is a decision to “entrust” one’s self “to him who judges justly.” It is a decision to affirm that God is indeed King and his ways will be vindicated. 

    4.    In each of these points we are seeing the development of a Kingdom culture. In the Kingdom of God things are done dramatically differently from the way they are done according to the patterns of this world. The Kingdom is characterized by humility, mercy, compassion, peacemaking, forgiveness, honesty, unselfishness, sacrifice, and love for friends, strangers and even those people who wish to do us harm. The Kingdom is at odds with any system where there is a culture of force, self-defense, deception, retaliation, intimidation and disregard for the other especially those who wish you harm. 

    In Ephesians 5, Paul speaks of the Kingdom culture and how certain things, like sexual immorality, are “out of place.”  As we try to lay learning war and killing enemies alongside humility, forgiveness, meekness, and mercy, and love for enemies, it glaringly belongs to a different world and way of living life.

    As the community of Jesus, we are to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom in word and in deed. We must demonstrate a life of the age to come in this present age; we are to do God's will on Earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). If we do harm to our enemies, we show the world the typical religion they have come to expect and give them cause to doubt the reality of the Kingdom. When the crusaders placed the cross on their breastplates and shields, and then in the first crusade left their Muslim enemies knee-deep in blood within the walls of Jerusalem, they were engaged in the most oxymoronic, contradictory activity possible, and a thousand years later their actions are still doing great harm. 

    We must seriously consider a real possibility. It may just be that those who believe the only safe course is to rely on arms, force and violence, need to hear the very same words Jesus spoke to Peter. “Get behind me, Satan, you don’t have in mind the things of God but the things of men.” How can the church show the Kingdom of God to the world if it does not fully embrace the qualities of the Kingdom?

    5.    In order to train for war, then, a disciple must decide that there is a time and place to no longer imitate Jesus and to no longer demonstrate the distinctive Kingdom way of life. Even though he has stated that God is King, he must believe that there is a time and a place to put a cause, a commander or a country above his King. This, of course, completely contradicts the idea the absolute reign of God.

    In Jesus, we do see the Prince of peace, the one who taught us to love our enemies – that is, to treat them well. In his disciples we see those who followed the way of the cross and learned from him to show love and forgiveness, and trust him who judges justly. Again and again, we hear Jesus announce the gospel of the Kingdom, and we see that the rule of God has broken in, bringing a way of living life that is in sharp contrast with that of the world, and the amazing, loving treatment of enemies is a part of that life.

    Does Jesus’ teaching raise questions for us?  Certainly. So do his teachings on lust, divorce and remarriage, lawsuits, justice and possessions. But with an attitude of wanting to do what is most like Jesus, what most fits with the Kingdom and what most fulfills righteousness, our questions can be answered. 

    This brings us to a final point. The world's view of things is deeply embedded in our culture and equally embedded in most of us. This means that we are often profoundly emotional about this issue—far more than we even realize. We have grandfathers, fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins who have served in the military. Nationalism and patriotism run deep. Our countries usually celebrate and honor the armed forces. In the United States, conservative evangelicals –-those most known for their belief in the Bible--- compose the most pro-military element in society, even favoring the use of torture in interrogation more than those with liberal views of Scripture. Militarism is in the American culture, especially its self-professed Bible-believing religious culture. Consequently, Kingdom-thinking (on this and other subjects) will not be found among God's people unless it is vigorously taught and then reinforced with some regularity.  We have seen how this must work with other deeply embedded cultural ideas (racism certainly comes to mind). Such thinking is not dislodged easily. 

    Because the reality is that disciples have not immediately been of one mind on this issue, vigorous and respectful dialogue should be encouraged. Each Christian should listen, study and pray with a heart to “find out what pleases the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10). Michael Izbicki asked a good question—what would Jesus do?  Each of us should another good question—what does Jesus want me to do?


    1. Izbicki's story has been published in a number of newspapers, for example, see this story in the New York Times

     

    II. Love Your Enemies—The Dilemma

    An ethical dilemma arises when one faces an apparent conflict between two moral imperatives. To obey one command would result in transgressing the other. Jesus purposefully orchestrated conflicts (and resolved them) to highlight a new teaching or challenge a worldview. For example, on the Sabbath,  just before he delivers his sermon on the plain, Jesus asked a man with a withered hand to come forward (Luke 6:6-11).  The crowd of biblical experts fixed their eyes on Jesus to see whether he would heal on theSabbath (thereby transgressing their interpretation of the Law). Two moral imperatives were about to clash before their eyes. The tension climaxed as Jesus presented the clarity of the dilemma, 

    Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do harm, to save life or destroy it?” (NIV)

    Jesus chose to do good, to save, to heal the man. But how would he have chosen to do evil, to destroy life? By doing nothing when he had the opportunity to do good -- even on a Sabbath. 

    Soon after this incident, Jesus presents some of his most revolutionary teaching (Luke 6:20-49). A most provocative section commands us to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.” (Luke 6:27-29 NIV)

    Considering this teaching, our subcommittee has wrestled with the potential ethical dilemmas that arise from our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven with its moral imperatives to both love your brother/family/neighbor (e.g. 1John 3:16) and to love your enemy (Matthew 5:44). 

    Which is lawful when confronted with an enemy seeking to harm your family: to love your family/brother or love your enemy? And given the number of disciples who serve in militaries, many of our fellowship must wrestle with the dilemma on a more public level. Which is lawful when confronted with an enemy nation seeking to harm your nation: to love your family/brothers or love your enemies?

    Jesus’ sermon on the mount/plain brilliantly stretches us to live beyond the cultural pressures of this present age. He strips away our small-minded self-focused entitlements. No more revenge, no more lex talionis1, no more “that’s not fair,” and no more self defense (Matthew 5:39 -- plus Rom 12:19-21, 2Cor 11:20, 1Thess 5:15). Rather, we are to love, lend to, and pray for our enemies, and so we do on our better days. But does this preclude us from protecting the innocents? Jesus makes self defense indefensible for us, but what about selfless defense? I’ve concluded that selfless defense of the innocent is not only defensible, it’s morally mandated. To do nothing when I have the power to protect (1Cor 13:7) allows an innocent to be harmed or even destroyed. Loving my enemy does not mean that I allow him to harm my innocent wife/child/brother/neighbor. If even my dearest friend were seeking to harm my wife/child/brother/neighbor I would deploy all necessary means to stop him (not for revenge or even for justice but for the selfless protection of an innocent). While my friend would thank me for preventing his malice, my enemy may not. Nonetheless, I choose to do good through selfless action and not by doing nothing. Classic pacifists argue that doing nothing is not really nothing; rather, they assert that they are doing something of immense power — they are praying. Such faith is remarkable. However, even the Pharisees would argue that they were more trusting of God by doing nothing other than praying for the afflicted man on the Sabbath in the introductory dilemma.

    When the dilemma to love moves from the private to the public life of a disciple, the question of military service comes into focus (as does police work). Can a disciple square military service with the ethical demands of New Testament? The same principle applies. Selfless defense of the innocents trumps doing nothing in the name of loving one’s enemy. There should be no inconsistency between our private and public ethics. If military service always violates kingdom ethics, then it would be strange for the NT to consistently highlight positive military metaphors and positive military personnel, for example:

    “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.” (2 Timothy 2:3–4 NIV)

    “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk?” (1 Cor 9:7 NIV)

    “also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier...” (Philemon 2 NIV)

    “But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier...” (Philippians 2:25a NIV)

    "The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (Matthew 8:8–10 NIV)

    “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”” (Mark 15:39 NIV)

    “At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” (Acts 10:1–2 NIV)

    “When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants.” (Acts 10:7 NIV)

    “He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.” (Acts 21:32 NIV)

    “But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan.” (Acts 27:43a NIV)

     In addition to these references, we meet soldiers on a path to repentance that runs right into John the Baptist in Matthew 3 and Luke 3. John came preaching of a new kingdom and thus prepared the people for a radically new way of life to prepare for this new kingdom of God.  His charge to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2) is the same message that Jesus preached (Matthew 4:17) as he began his public ministry. Within this context of preparation for the new kingdom, soldiers approach John to gain clarity on what they should do in order to produce fruit that proves their repentance. He charges them to stop their extortion and rather be content with their soldier’s wage.  No “resign your post” or“put away your sword.” An argument from silence? If so, then John was ignoring the elephant in the Jordan — not his style. 

     While the examples of metaphors and soldiers in the New Testament don’t settle any issues, they do keep us from overstating the pacifist’s case. A soldier who repents and is baptized into Christ does not need to resign his post if he is not violating his conscience. If his country is engaged in a selfless defense of innocents, then he may not have occasion for moral conflict. However — and this is important to note — such righteous military action is extremely rare indeed. If his country engages in unrighteous military initiatives, then he is forbidden to kill. A professional soldier is expected to use his discretion even on the field of battle. If he is called to violate his conscience then he should seek reassignment or resign. 

    <a style="background-color:black;color:white;text-decoration:none;padding:4px 6px;font-family:-apple-system, BlinkMacSystemFont, &quot;San Francisco&quot;, &quot;Helvetica Neue&quot;, Helvetica, Ubuntu, Roboto, Noto, &quot;Segoe UI&quot;, Arial, sans-serif;font-size:12px;font-weight:bold;line-height:1.2;display:inline-block;border-radius:3px;" href="http://unsplash.com/@zonde?utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=photographer-credit&amp;utm_content=creditBadge" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" title="Download free do whatever you want high-resolution photos from Zoran Zonde Stojanovski"><span style="display:inline-block;padding:2px 3px;"><svg xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" style="height:12px;width:auto;position:relative;vertical-align:middle;top:-1px;fill:white;" viewBox="0 0 32 32"><title></title><path d="M20.8 18.1c0 2.7-2.2 4.8-4.8 4.8s-4.8-2.1-4.8-4.8c0-2.7 2.2-4.8 4.8-4.8 2.7.1 4.8 2.2 4.8 4.8zm11.2-7.4v14.9c0 2.3-1.9 4.3-4.3 4.3h-23.4c-2.4 0-4.3-1.9-4.3-4.3v-15c0-2.3 1.9-4.3 4.3-4.3h3.7l.8-2.3c.4-1.1 1.7-2 2.9-2h8.6c1.2 0 2.5.9 2.9 2l.8 2.4h3.7c2.4 0 4.3 1.9 4.3 4.3zm-8.6 7.5c0-4.1-3.3-7.5-7.5-7.5-4.1 0-7.5 3.4-7.5 7.5s3.3 7.5 7.5 7.5c4.2-.1 7.5-3.4 7.5-7.5z"></path></svg></span><span style="display:inline-block;padding:2px 3px;">Zoran Zonde Stojanovski</span></a>

     This is not a theoretical issue. I am in daily fellowship with many Christian soldiers. They are currently on career paths that steer them well clear of direct combat. Their contribution to potentially unrighteous combat is not totally different than mine as I pay taxes to fund the same effort. I have not counseled them to resign their posts. Most have been very effective at helping the kingdom break into their bases, forts, ships, and barracks as they have spread the gospel. However, if a disciple contemplates military service after baptism, I strongly counsel against enlistment as they will face compromising oaths, desensitizing conditioning, and there is no guarantee that he or she will not be assigned to a position that violates the demands of life in the kingdom.

     Which is lawful when confronted with an enemy seeking to harm your family: to love your family/brother or love your enemy? Which is lawful when confronted with an enemy nation seeking to harm your nation: to love your family/brothers or love your enemies?  We’ve failed once by allowing the world to inform our consciences on these vital concerns. That was also a failure of doing relatively nothing. The world’s propagandists shouted loudly about patriotism while the kingdom’s preachers spoke sparingly on the implications of loving our enemies. Many of us left our brothers and sisters to discern God’s will without the full counsel of God on this matter.  Let’s not fail again through overreaction. Well-informed spiritual brothers disagree on these questions. These ethical dilemmas sharpen our discernment as we strive to live out His kingdom in a fallen world. Let them also strengthen our unity through cooperation but without compromise on His moral imperatives.


    1. the principle or law of retaliation that a punishment inflicted should correspond in degree and kind to the offense of the wrongdoer, as an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; retributive justice. www.dictionary.com/browse/lex-talionis

     

    Photo Credits: Thanks to Carl Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons for the photo of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount; Thanks to Alpha2412 for the Swiss Soldier via Wikimedia Commons;  The much-decorated elderly Soviet military man is the father of Natasha Samonina of the St. Petersburg, Russia, church of Christ, who was baptized into Christ in his retirement and died a faithful disciple of Jesus;   thanks to Zoran Zonde Stojanovski for the British soldier at www.unsplash.com;

    Including the Context of Redemptive Grace in our Teaching and Preaching

    The following transcription is part of a lesson entitled, "Maturing Our Churches -- Lord, Teach Us," taught on Thursday, July 7, 2016, at the Reach Summit in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. You can listen to the audio recording of this lesson here. (Please note that a small subscription fee to DTV is required to access the lesson.)

    Ed Anton -- Hampton Roads, Virginia, USA 

    Ed and Deb Anton

    Ed and Deb Anton


    I come to you from a perspective, really, chiefly, as an evangelist, as a church leader. A lot of times I find myself incidentally in the Teaching Ministry. We all teach, whether we’re leading a Bible talk or putting on an MTA (Ministry Training Academy) or similar event.  We all do teach in some way or another.
    More importantly than just teaching, the big picture is that we want to see the church grow up into the full stature of Christ. This is massive, and we have an amazing opportunity to take the church from an adolescent phase, in some cases, to a bullet-proof, rock-solid maturity where we can stand, and not just stand, but make a stand, to really change the world. 
    In Colossians 1: 3 (ESV) Paul writes, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints,  because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel…”
    We can hear the word “gospel” and it can kind of just fall off of us, with familiarity, and the contempt that comes from familiarity. But every time we hear “gospel,” we should be blown away that we get to have the gospel! It’s the most counterintuitive construct of religion that has ever existed under heaven, and we’ve got it! There is no other approach to man and God that is an approach of a covenant of grace, and that’s the good news, that’s the gospel: that we’re saved not by works, we’re saved by love. Because God loved us, and intervened and disrupted and interrupted, before anything that we could have done that was wondrous or Spirit-filled, we, in our depravity, were saved by love. And not only that, he arranged time and space so that our eyes could be flung open and we could even see how it is that he saved us by love, and ultimately be brought to a place where we surrender over completely to that, and live forever in that covenant.


    We’re pretty good as a movement – as a matter of fact, I would say that we are phenomenal as a movement -- at being able to help people appreciate how big grace is, as they come to the waters of baptism. Nobody, nobody can touch it. Do you think that somebody who has this kind of little-surfacey-altar-call has actually instilled the beauty of love and the beauty of grace and the beauty of debt-free living by just -- “Come forward??” Thoughtlessly, in some cases, or only with emotion? But we, unlike any other great pursuit of Christianity right now, we really do understand, as the woman in Luke 7 understood: she who has been forgiven little loves little, but she or he who has been forgiven much loves much. And when we are forgiven, my goodness, we get it!
    I was having a discussion with a group of  very mature brothers the other morning, and we were in Hebrews 9, where there is this beautiful passage that talks about how, in the Old Covenant, the blood of bulls and heifers could not cleanse the conscience; but it did actually cleanse from the outward manifestation of sin. But in the New Covenant, we are cleansed not only from unintentional sin, but from sins that lead to death. That’s the difference in Hebrews 9 there: not only does it cleanse our debt, but also cleanses us from sins that lead to death. By the way, in the Old Covenant, do you know what the recourse was, if you committed an intentional sin? Death. Or Goodbye from Community.
    But we actually have the mechanism through grace, by which, not only is our debt forgiven, but our consciences are clean. Why? It says, so that we may serve the living God. So we grow up in that kind of maturity, we head into baptism with that kind of maturity, realizing we have been saved by love -- and boy, have we been saved, and how much it is that we have been saved by!
    I asked the brothers at this breakfast, “Do you have any conscious issues that hold you back from serving God from sins that you committed prior to your baptism?” And one after another with an honest take, they said, I do not. I said, that’s terrific. How about sins that you committed after baptism? and everyone said,  “Oh I do. Over the top. I even wonder if I should even be at this breakfast right now having a discussion with you guys.” 
    So something is happening with our maturity. My goodness, we come out of the gate great! Our “K-through-Eight” education in the Kingdom of God, we got it going on! But when you get to the secondary school level, then something happens, the wheels fall off the cart. We have not been able to appreciate the power of grace after baptism.
    I think one of the things that’s helpful for us to realize too, If we’re going to be brought from “Immature” to “I Mature,” is the idea that Christ died for my sins (Romans 4:25) but he was raised -- for what? 
    He was raised for my justification.
    He died for my sins, but was raised for my justification. 
    There’s two really amazing things that happen (among many others) when you are regenerated in Christ. When you are baptized, not only are your sins credited to Christ, but his righteousness is then credited to you. Not just credited to you, but then, through the Holy Spirit, the ability to attain to that righteousness, and not just to claim it as a legal standard, but actually to grow into and live out that righteousness, is given to you as well. You come out of that baptism not just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned, but you come out of that baptism, really regarded in the heavenly realms, just-as-if-I’d healed the leper; fed the 4000; fed the 5000; raised the widow of Nain’s son, so she could have life and family again; just-as-if -I’d brought Lazarus back; just-as-if-I’d lifted the woman bent over for all of those years; just-as-if-I’d…!
    Jesus came as a man and lived an entire life of street-cred righteousness, not for no reason -- he was even baptized – why? To fulfill all righteousness. Why? Because he was bundling all of that up and giving it to you. As you rise up. But most of us, we walk out of our baptism thinking: “Yes! I’m a blank slate! I’m a vacuum! Yes! I have nothing on my record whatsoever!” 
    But you do. You have the righteous record of Jesus and the Spirit that will only accelerate that in your life. But when we don’t recognize the addition portion of grace and only the subtraction portion of grace, it’s very easy to remain rather immature. So what we’ve been trying to do is, in this past year, really help in everything we do, whether it’s a quiet time or a discipleship time, a devotional, or in some public discourse of preaching and teaching, to bring home the gospel of grace. Going on here in Col 1:6, it says, this gospel  “which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth.” (ESV)
    Now I know we say this all the time, “Oh I don’t get grace, in the church we don’t get grace.” I really think we can nail this thing. I think that we are in such a great position as a body of Christ to be able to take grace and to see it turbo-charged, not only for the benefit of our maturity but also our spread of the good news as well. 
    Why?  because other churches, or families of churches,  that may go after grace, they’ve never actually gotten obedience. We already have that down: “What’s the Bible say? I’m getting after it, halleluia, amen, I love it, it’s clear, I’m getting it, and I’m fired up about it, 
    And yeah, on some bad days I may feel dutiful;  but if it’s obedience, I’m getting after it.”

    Do you realize how rare that is?? But that is our culture! Yes! the blessings of obedience! Yes, the clarity of what we need to do with the word of God! Now what if we poured gasoline on that, and created a fire with the grace of God burning within us?

    Here’s, sadly, what I’ve neglected in all of my Biblical exegesis teaching, expository preaching, and teaching.  I have completely neglected the redemptive or the grace context of the Bible. What do I mean by that:  Do we not believe that this whole Bible is orchestrated together, just right, by God? Do we not? Do we not realize that all of it is fitting together and all of it tells a vital story? And that story is: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back and they live happily ever after. There is an epic narrative that is the story of God and you. Creation, fall, redemption, restoration. Fall, redemption, restoration – restoration, of course, being the consummation of all things. 
    Here is what I have neglected as I have tried to teach the Bible in probably the last 15 to 18 years: as I teach context, context, context, over and over again, as I teach, how to read the Bible, context, context, context, and my context is historical: what was the historical setting, who was writing to whom, where did they live, what was going on, was there idolatry, was there pagan religion, what was the situation that was there? Learn it,  bring it to life, make it memorable, let the movie of your mind play as you hear what it was that they heard, as they listened to Jesus at his feet, or as they received the letter from Paul in their fellowship -- what must that have been like? I felt like I was pretty good at that.  I knew where to go and to get the resources and really bring it to life. 
    And then the literary context as well: why this, why here, how does it flow in the bigger story, what is going on, how does it connect, to see some of the really cool connections within the flow of that book or argument or psalm, or song,  how does this help us to understand the greater whole? 
    But that’s where it stopped. And for anyone who would then go and walk back and try to look at the redemptive context, I was critical of those people. I was thinking they were freewheeling it a little bit too much. Just get in the text, stay in the text, trust the text, and that’ll do the trick. 
    But that was my own definition of what it meant to “be in the text, stay in the text.” To “be in the text and stay in the text” is to look at the full text. It’s to look at the whole story, the full story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back and ultimately they live happily ever after. 
    There may be things in the Old Testament that may not look at all like grace or like “boy gets girl back” or “they live happily every after.” You may not see any of that there. But when you watch a romantic comedy and you watch it a couple of times, and then you see the bone-headed move by that guy, and how he pocket-dialed the girl --  all it is showing is the fallen nature of that relationship. Knowing what’s going to happen later, it helps you appreciate, despite that bone-head move, that there’s still going to be the white picket fence, the happily ever after. Despite that call that he made and left on her answering machine. That’s what the Bible is for us, it’s not just a one-act play. We need to look at it in its totality. If we take our eyes off that, we’re going to stop marveling. We’ll end up looking at the little story, and you know what we’ll have? All we’ll have is: “You need to be careful that you don’t dial somebody in the middle of the night.”  And then the lesson becomes a moralizing lesson. “You need to put up better boundaries, you need to fix your phone, You need to be more diligent about not calling in the middle of the night.” But that’s not the gospel of grace. And if that’s all that we preach – “Don’t call in the middle of the night, be like Joseph, be like David,” wihout looking at the full context, then all we’re doing is what’s called “moralizing.” We’re putting together a moral tale, and what we’re saying, is, if you try harder, if you do better, then I’m going to approve of you better, and so is Jesus. 
    “Ding!” 
    And subtly, when we do it, then I do it in my quiet times as well, and in my discipleship times. I think, here’s a great scripture. Now try harder. Here’s another great scripture, now try harder. If that’s what it’s going to be, we’re going to be forever young. And that’s not a good thing. We’re going to be the Peter Pan church of Christ. But I believe, as we can start to be able to appreciate the fullness of the redemptive context, we can move from a gospel of grit -- “if I do good, then I’ll be worthy” – to a gospel of grace: “I am worthy, therefore I do good.”

    Even the way Paul does it: if we’re looking at Ephesians, in Ephesians 1, 2, and 3, there is not a single command in all those chapters. No imperatives, almost all indicatives, and it’s all amazing. You’re chosen, you’re predestined, you’re Spirit-filled, you’re marked, you are adopted, you are redeemed, you’re his sons, you’re the ones he loves, you are his workmanship, you are his masterpiece; therefore -- and in Chapter Four is the pivot point -- therefore live a life worthy of the calling by which you’ve been called. “Live a life worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called” is in the context of,  “look at who you are, you have been redeemed, this is who you are in Christ.” Identity drives duty, duty doesn’t develop identity; and with that identity given to us, the more we can recognize this, we think, oh my goodness, this is who I am, what wouldn’t I do for Jesus? Oh my goodness, I want to run through a wall for Jesus! Knowing who I am right now, come on! Bring on the commands, bring on the clarity, I can’t wait to see it, I wanna go after it and live the life that I was always meant to live, knowing what it is that I have been made in Christ! And when that fire begins to burn, and we preach the gospel to ourselves, over and over and over again, every quiet time, every discipleship time, not leaving out the greater redemptive context in all that we do…[we will become mature].
    One last thing I want to mention here: grace is an interesting concept, because you may think that there is much of Christendom that is better than you are at preaching grace. But let me level it. I don’t really think they are. And it’s not because I am chauvanistic in this, but because I really have tried to study this. And basically, the best that most of Christendom has done, to try to make grace more of a motivator, is to make grace a credit card with a higher limit. I think you can go ahead and test that – whatever sermon, book, whatever you want to look at. It is kind of a simplistic way of putting it, what it comes down to. In the first century, the people that would have heard “charis,” grace, they would have understood it as something very different [that what most of Christendom understands today]. As a matter of fact, “charis” – it’s like, today we say money makes the world go around. In the first century you would probably say, “charis” makes the world go around. Because “charis” is the idea that grace -- (when you get a chance, read through 2 Corinthians 8 and you’ll see all aspects of this) -- “charis” is not only the free gift, given from a benefactor to a beneficiary, but it’s more. 
    This is the way it would have been understood through the ears of someone living in Corinth or Athens or Berea or wherever; it would not only be the gift given, but when you use the word grace, it would have been applied to the welling up in your heart of gratitude. That was also called “charis.” The reception of it and the gratitude was grace. 
    But that’s not where it ended, there was another aspect of grace that was immediately part of the equation and could not be ripped away, and it was the immediate overwhelming desire, even beautiful obligation, to give in return. How can I give back in return, someway, somehow? How is it that can I do that? It creates a tighter and tighter bond of intimacy that gets ever deeper and strengthens the relationship between the two parties. It is, in the first century, in an honor-and-shame society, one of the great shames, to break that cycle of grace. And likewise for us. 
    So grace actually has teeth, beautiful teeth – teeth that bring you -- or hooks, even -- that bring you to a place where you always wanted to be. It creates a wonderful obligation of intimacy and excitement. 
    I recently had this as an experience. Deb and I had a van. It had 331,000 miles, it died, it was too bad, we were going to go down to one car. But then we had a brother in our ministry come to us and say that he was going to trade in a really nice car that he had, a big car (and we needed a big car) and he said, you know, instead of trading it in, I’m going to give it to you guys. We’re like, Aaaah! You know, you feel weird in those situations, you get weird, you get proud; but we decided: we’re going to kind of swallow deep and receive this gift. You know what it did to our relationship? It didn’t weird it out. My ears were always open to what encourages that family: Yes!! we found something that encourages them! Not like, ‘Ohhh, we gotta make the donuts…” It was like, Yes! We found something! Let’s do this! Let’s go by! Let’s do this! Let’s share! Let’s mention! And then to see the joy in their eyes as well; and then it created that dance of grace that only strengthens things again and again and again. If we can understand this, I think this is a component of grace that we’ll look forward to developing more over time. 
    Let me just close with this idea, that if we’re going to go on to maturity, I’m not suggesting that we throw out any old hermeneutics or any old exegesis, I’m just saying let’s do the extra work, not just the historical or literary context. Do the extra work and really look at the redemptive context. Maybe this makes it more profound, how boy lost girl, and it makes you appreciate it what’s going to happen later when boy gets girl back. Or maybe it is actually a picture of them living happily ever after, and we paint that beautiful picture of Jesus’ return and what that’s going to be like for us, and with that identity, my goodness, what wouldn’t we want to do to be able to serve this great God! But if we don’t make this our culture, every quiet time, every discipleship time, every public discourse, then we are going to so easily fall into a pattern of performance. Not because it’s our church’s issue, but because it’s everybody’s issue. This is not unique to us. You didn’t get an A in Physics from your teacher on Day One, and then he said,  “Wow, I bet now that you know that that’s your identity, you’re really going to live up to it.” Nothing happens that way in the world! This is a rare, counter-intuitive thing, we have to really fight to be able to get to this place.