Teaching Ministry of the ICOC

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Begin Here: Transforming Conflict in Congregational Settings

Stephen F. Staten — Chicago, Illinois, USA

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When left to their own devices, conflict and lingering problems can be extremely costly to the wellness, growth, and finances of a church congregation. It costs little or nothing to pursue concerns before they escalate. Ideally, there are capable representatives within the church body who can offer guidance, as well as some understood local practices for helping conflicted parties be in their best form and minimize the need for more expensive help.

Much of the foundation for conflict resolution in congregational life is grounded in the Old Testament’s dictate for the use of competent third party guides, the requirement for impartial investigations and the pursuit of justice, although Christ’s Sermon on the Mount significantly upgraded the call for forgiveness and reconciliation. It is being suggested that church leaders do as Moses did—set up wise, understanding, respected and impartial representatives to run point, on matters in their local tribe
(Dt. 1:9-18, 1 Cor. 5:5).

In the Old Testament, a problem handler might be a tribal leader, a priest, a king or other dedicated officials (Dt. 1:15, 21:5, 1 Kings 3:16-28, 2 Chr. 19:4-11). According to their mandate, the figure must not be a party to the concern itself, have skin in the game in terms of the outcome of a matter, or be perceived as being prejudiced towards one party. The primary goal of processes was to seek “justice and justice alone” (Dt. 16:20) with the general hope that parties would be satisfied with the outcome and/or the fairness of their hearing (Ex. 18:23).

The words concern and problem are used here in a broad sense to refer to the following: conflicts over sin/offense, unsatisfactory feelings with respect to an unmet need, an unresolved dispute/grievance, difficult relational dynamics, or a contest over competing values. It is important to identify which of these are present, and if there are more than one, so that the guiding intermediary can start from the best position.

It is important to establish two crucial practices. First, it is often the case that one party usually feels the problem more than the other. According to Jesus, the subject of a complaint, innocent or not, should be proactive in clearing up a matter (Matt. 5:22-23). Second, if the concern is a sin, then there must be witnesses to the perceived offense in order to utilize the simple path prescribed by both Moses and Jesus in Dt. 19:15-18 and Matt. 18:15-17. Witnesses to the offense are to be vetted because their testimony matters. If a matter has become one person’s word against another it is no longer a Matthew 18 issue—it is a relationship to be mediated or a grievance for arbitration.

The following recommendations for the third party problem-solvers and peacemakers are meant for more difficult situations, where actual witnesses don’t exist or are viewed as party to the conflict. A reasonable way to proceed is for the congregation’s leadership to deputize someone to be the third party facilitator, with the agreement of the disputing parties, and with the possibility of the third party facilitator continuing on as mediator or arbitrator. 

If you are a church leader or a church member needing to engage in a process of conflict resolution in your congregation, here are some first steps you can take:

1.Propose an Opening Process. The facilitator will assume responsibility for gathering the concerned parties and assimilating them into a mutually agreeable process for improving general clarity. This includes coming up with a safe location, ensuring everyone knows who will be in attendance and why (parties, witnesses, advocates, other resources). The facilitator should speak to the main parties in order to agree upon the topics to be discussed, then release an agenda of no more than three to five general topics. Parties should have options available to them to ensure that the sessions are agreeable. It should be communicated that the upcoming meeting is not intended to resolve the matter, which takes pressure off of everyone.

2. Gather Parties to Obtain Clarity. The facilitator should begin with warm words of hope and prayer, and then guide the first discussion to obtain helpful background history. He should then discuss the agreed upon topics and reframe them in the most useful and least offensive language. Future sessions can then make use of the increasingly clear picture, which usually comes into better focus as progress is made. The facilitator seeks to understand and record each party’s felt interests, makes a timeline and records personal observations. There is no pressure to solve the matter in this session. The goal is to obtain an integrated perspective of the issues and to inspire confidence in future resolution. 

3. Determine the Roadmap. The facilitator is now ready to make a few decisions. First, he must decide if the clarified matter requires mediated relationship, arbitration, a separate moderation process or a combination of these options. Second, the facilitator is ready to determine if he is competent to proceed, or needs to form an assisting team, or must turn this matter over to a more qualified third party. Third, the facilitator should now identify everyone who will take part in the process, obtain their consent to continue, and determine what their roles related to the matter are, as well as review everyone’s schedules and general availability.

4. Preparing the Parties. In many cases, even those not requiring mediation, the parties will be relationally strained. Even secondary parties are sometimes caught in the crossfire. It is recommended that difficult problems be accompanied by spiritual and emotional guidance. Two resources are Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a free PDF workbook that I wrote, entitled Preparing for Mediation.

5. Mediate Before You Moderate. Do not attempt to resolve an issue of doctrine, decision-making or preference of worship styles, etcetera, without first repairing a relationship which has been broken over those issues. It is more straightforward to solve a problem when two parties are thinking alongside each other. Two examples of moderation are in Acts 6:1-7 and Acts 15:1-35. Moderation uses representation and reasonableness to negotiate and address needs (such as food distribution) and values (such as obligations for Gentile believers). This subject is beyond the consideration of these pages; however, it is worth reemphasizing that moderation of problems is very difficult to accomplish when there are unresolved feelings between the parties.

6. Mediation and Arbitration. The difference between Christian mediation and arbitration is more evident near the end of their processes. Mediation aims to reconcile the relationship, and arbitration is about deciding an outcome; sometimes they occur concurrently. In both cases the third party focuses on creating the atmosphere for parties to give voice to their views — he draws out and listens, reframes, and nudges the parties. Private caucus is used to address topics deemed too risky for group discussion.

“Reconciliation,” Coventry Old Cathedral, Great Britain

“Reconciliation,” Coventry Old Cathedral, Great Britain

Below is a list of the kinds of things which typical conflict resolution specialists strive to accomplish:

  1. Mapping Dynamics—in which we discuss the conflict in its historical context, relationship dynamics, et cetera.

  2. Recognizing Each Party’s Interests—sometimes hidden drivers include unmet needs, respect/honor, hopes, fears, et cetera. A facilitator will draw these out when the parties are feeling safe, either privately or during a mediation.

  3. Obtaining Responsibility — throughout the process, it is important to seek appropriate expressions of lessons learned, owned responsibility, sympathy, appropriate defense, meaningful mea culpa and healing words—wherever appropriate.

  4. Explore Outcomes—forgiveness, various types of reconciliation, and negotiated steps for improved dynamics.

Closure—the parties create written statements, including lessons for a better future. Determine who needs to hear of the outcome. Prayer. Planned follow up.


Stephen F. Staten is the Founder and an Organizational Health Consultant at Bridging International.

PHOTO CREDIT:

Reconciliation, Coventry Old Cathedral. In 1995, fifty years after the end of The Second World War, this sculpture by Josephina da Vasconcellos was given by Richard Branson as a token of reconciliation. An identical statue has been placed in the Peace Garden at Hiroshima on behalf of the people of Coventry. Both statues remind us that, in the face of destructive forces, human dignity and love will triumph over disaster and bring nations together in respect and peace. © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.







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.

 

"Let Each One Be Careful How He Builds"

(1 Corinthians 3:10)

A Study of the Statistical Narrative of the International Churches of Christ (ICOC)     

 -- The Initial Growth Phase --

 

by Andy Fleming -- Kiev, Ukraine 

ABSTRACT

Today is an important moment for the International Churches of Christ(ICOC). As the movement enters its second generation, understanding our history, our strengths and our weaknesses, has never been more vital. Although God’s word has world-transforming power and he desires for the whole world to be saved, there seems to be internal resistance impeding a gain in momentum and forward motion. I believe that part of this resistance can be attributed to lack of faith and discouragement, and self-focus rather than God-focus. At this moment, in this situation, we need the faith of Abraham as much as ever:

"Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, 'so shall your offspring be.' Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was a good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead." (Rom 4:18-19) 

That our movement has slowed in growth is a fact, but that does not change what God is able to do through our faith and faithfulness. What God wants to be done in this world, can only be done through his strength and wisdom. 

From 1979 to 2002, the ICOC grew from a single congregation of about 30 members to a worldwide fellowship of 439 congregations and 135,072 members. Although the growth was perceptibly slowing in the latter part of this period, the organizational collapse and loss of membership in 2003 were severe and largely unanticipated by the leadership. The purpose of this in-depth statistical analysis is to examine the available data of this “initial growth phase” and look for trends and patterns that might have served as indicators and warnings as to what was about to take place. Some of the most significant findings of this study can be summarized as follows:

http://www.missionstory.com/let-each-one-be-careful-how-he-builds-(2018).html

·      1999 was the actual “tipping point” for the ICOC’s growth where the rate of members leaving began an irreversible trend (without radical or divine intervention) to outpace the rate of members joining, thereby showing the events of 2003 as the inevitable outcome;

·      1990 marked the end of global “exponential growth” and the beginning of “linear growth”;

·      Certain strategic decisions like “building mega-churches” and “church planting schedules” were made and implemented without including the means for effective evaluation and strategic redevelopment;

·      Signs of weaknesses and flaws in the church growth paradigms were showing as early as 1990, but due to the attention given to the ongoing successes of geographic expansion and the planting of new churches, these warnings and indicators were minimized or ignored, and thereby unknown to much of the membership;

·      The ICOC developed an identifiable growth pattern that manifested itself across World Sectors and churches of all sizes—these universal growth trends demonstrate that the underlying causes were fundamental and connected to shared strategies and assumptions;

·      Although the Los Angeles church was supposed to become the model and solution, it shared the same growth pattern and experienced its own crisis;

·      The 6-year plan compromised a number of the well-established “church planting” principles, and in the end multiplied weaknesses and not strengths;

·      Beyond the statistical evidence, the similarities between the Boston and Los Angeles growth narratives also demonstrate the outcome of shared strategies and assumptions;

·      The focus on numerical growth and expansion above all else, eventually created imbalanced ministry practices where the needs of the church were not the priority;

·      The first part of the Great Commission was considered more important than the second part, and so the goal of making new converts held priority over supporting and helping the already converted;

·      Some of the fundamental assumptions like “one leader,” “one congregation in a city,” and “one movement,” need to be reevaluated through examination of the Bible’s teaching and example.

This knowledge doesn’t change the facts or the past, but gaining insight into past failures and challenges can help us dream and plan more effectively as we move forward in faith. It’s time for a new generation and new growth phase for the ICOC, and the priorities are still clear: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt 6:33)


SALT

Part 2 of 2

 by Kay McKean -- Sterling, Virginia, USA

 

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Don’t people complain about unsalted food?
    Does anyone want the tasteless white of an egg?
My appetite disappears when I look at it;
    I gag at the thought of eating it!

(Job 6:6 – 7 New Living Translation)

The passage above is one of the oldest scriptures ever written, and what is Job’s complaint? Food without salt!

The book of Job contains a host of hypothetical questions. He was searching for a reason for his suffering, and was left unsatisfied. In this passage, the question he asks is almost humorous. But he brings it before God as an imploring complaint regarding his unanswered requests for clarity. Some take this passage to refer to the conversations that have been going on around Job, meaning that they have been insipid and meaningless. Whatever was on Job’s mind at this point, it’s absolutely accurate to say that food is not as tasty without salt. He refused to eat what had no flavor!

Certainly things haven’t changed through the centuries. Although we’ve admitted the modern dangers of overly-salty processed foods (see Part One – “Salt”), we have also acknowledged the true danger of living without a supply of salt in our bodies. We truly can’t live without it.

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As we move through the centuries following the time of Job, we see further reminders of the importance of salt as a part of the covenantal relationship between God and His people:

 Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the Lord I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for both you and your offspring. (Numbers 18:19 NIV)

Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings. (Leviticus 2:13 NIV)

When God gave the Israelites the instructions about sacrifice, he promised this as a covenant of salt. Salt was the emblem that represented that which was incorruptible and permanent. Therefore, this covenant was one that would last. It was a binding alliance. Salt was also used in the grain offerings to the Lord. So we see salt as the symbol of the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel.

God was always willing to keep His promises, but unfortunately the political turmoil that followed the Israelite nation revealed that the people weren’t always willing to keep theirs:

Abijah stood on Mount Zemaraim, in the hill country of Ephraim, and said, “Jeroboam and all Israel, listen to me! Don’t you know that the Lord, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt? Yet Jeroboam son of Nebat, an official of Solomon son of David, rebelled against his master. Some worthless scoundrels gathered around him and opposed Rehoboam son of Solomon when he was young and indecisive and not strong enough to resist them. (II Chronicles 13:4 – 7)

Abijah, the rightful king, was appealing to those who knew that the royal line of kingship should come from the line of Judah. David was from that line, and the dynasty was to remain with his descendants. When civil war broke out, Abijah, David’s great-grandson, addressed the rebels by reminding them of the “covenant of salt” – an agreement that was to last for all time. Although the rebellion began by the poor leadership of Abijah’s father, he still maintained that to resist his kingship was to resist the Lord.  The message was clear: regardless of poor leadership and the mistakes of the past, the commitment to God’s plans were to be upheld.

Salt continued to play an important role in Israel’s history as we come to the time of the prophet Elisha:

The people of the city said to Elisha, “Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad and the land is unproductive.”

“Bring me a new bowl,” he said, “and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him.

Then he went out to the spring and threw the salt into it, saying, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.’” And the water has remained pure to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken. (II Kings 2:19 – 21 NIV)

Elisha was the protégé of Elijah, who had just been taken into heaven. So the incident with the water was Elisha’s first official miracle before the people. In this case, the salt was an emblem of purification. It brought about the healing of the water. While we understand that one bowlful of salt will not purify a spring, we do know that God can purify it. Elisha was clear in emphasizing that it was the Lord who healed the water.

The Jews weren’t the only ones who recognized the important nature of salt. Later in history, the Greeks exchanged salt for slaves. That’s where we get the phrase, “He isn’t worth his salt.” The Romans gave salt rations to their soldiers, calling it “Salarium Argentum”, which eventually became our word, “salary”. Even today, the traditions surrounding salt are plentiful. The British made it a point to bring salt to a newcomer’s home. Nelson Mandela made this appeal: “Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.”

When Jesus declared that His followers were to be the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), He meant it in the best possible way. Salt was one of the most valuable commodities of His time. It was crucial for survival. Jesus calls each of us to see our incredible value. He wants us to remember the eternal covenant that we have been invited into, knowing that God will keep His promise to us. His desire is for us to keep our commitment to uphold His leadership in our lives. He wants us to see that because of God, we are instruments of purification and healing among those that are in our sphere of influence.

         Hopefully, these thoughts will make you look at salt a little differently. It’s not the enemy some make it out to be! Otherwise, Jesus would never have said “Salt is GOOD!” (Luke 14:34) When you say, “pass the salt”, consider it as a reminder that you are to add flavor and hope to the world.

References:

http://time.com/3957460/a-brief-history-of-salt/

https://www.britannica.com/science/salt

Mark Kurlansky, “Salt: A World History” Published by Penguin Books, 2003

What is Prayer and Why Do We Pray?

A mini-study on Prayer

by John Oakes -- San Diego, California, USA 

Let us start with two questions:

1. What is prayer to you?

2. Why do you pray?

Either write down your answers to these questions or at least take the time to voice your answers to yourself.

 

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I. What is prayer?

Think about your prayer life.   Is your prayer talking to God or is it talking with God?

Also, what is the purpose of you praying?

For myself, as I grew up as a Christian, the model for prayer was what I saw in a public prayer.  When people are praying in public, obviously they talk.  If they stop talking, then the prayer is over.  So, to me, prayer is talking to God, or at least that is how I viewed it for many years.

But there are two problems with this. 

1. Communication is a lot more than words, and

2. Communication, by its very definition, is two-way.

Romans 8:26-27 reads,   "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.  We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will." (NIV)

Think about that moment when you communicated your deepest desires and feelings to someone whom you deeply love.  If you are a married person, it might be that look you exchanged with your spouse when the two of you first realized you were in love with each other.  That look said it all.  Words simply do not express our most profound feelings.  Prayer is not just talking.  Prayer is feeling.  Prayer is receiving a message.  The Holy Spirit helps us to express those deepest feelings to God.  And this is a two-way street. He also communicates God’s deep desire for us.  Sometimes in our prayer we need to stop talking.  We need to “be still and know that I Am God.” (Psalms 46:10).

There is a spiritual discipline that most of us have not developed, and I will add myself to the list of novices in this area.  It is meditation.  Prayer may be talking, but it is also meditation.  Meditation is not just for our Hindu friends. We need to take it back for use in Christian prayer.  David meditated, not by saying a mantra, but by contemplating God’s glory.  In Psalm 119:27 he tells us that “I will meditate on your wonders.” In Psalm 77:9, Asaph tells us, “I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds.”  This cannot be done while talking.  In Psalm 48:9 the Sons of Korah tell us that, “Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love.”  Prayer that God seeks from us includes meditation.

What is prayer?  It is a lot of things.  To break it down to just one of them is a mistake, but one of those things prayer involves is communicating on the deepest possible level our feelings and desires to God and God doing the same with us.  Let us consider prayer, not just as talking, but as feeling and meditating.  Let us consider the role the Holy Spirit plays in this and let us consider being trained to be still—to stop talking and to meditate on God—on his wonders, on his works and on his unfailing love.

 

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II. Why do we pray?

If we have a more complete understanding of what prayer is, then we will have a greater understanding of why we (hopefully) pray.  Of course, one reason we pray is that we are commanded to pray.  But consider your most valued relationships.  If these relationships are truly valued, then surely you do not communicate with those you love because you “have” to. In fact, if you have to, then that is not love.

Here are three much better reasons for you to consider as to why we pray. Our purposes in prayer include:

1. To give glory to God.

2. To align our heart with God’s will.

3. To influence God and be influenced by him through relationship.

Probably the best go-to place, both for how to pray and why to pray is found in Luke 11:1-4 and Matthew 6:9-13. Here the disciples, who have been praying their whole lives, realize that Jesus is the master prayer. Therefore, in humility, they ask him how to pray.  In his response to them, we can see all three of the points above.

First, Jesus begins his model prayer by giving glory to God.  All honor and praise belong to God and to God alone. My personal favorite example of this in the Scripture comes, not surprisingly, from the mouth of the second greatest prayer of all time—David. It is in 1 Chronicles 29:10-20.  “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor.” By this time, David is consulting his thesaurus, as he is running out of words. But he is not running out of reasons to give Glory to God.  First and foremost, the reason we pray is to give glory to the God who created us—to the God of all comfort, love, power and dominion, who deserves our eternal praise and who sits in glory in heaven, amen!

Second, we pray so that our hearts and desires can become aligned with God’s will for our own lives  and for the world as a whole.  Jesus says in his model prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Does this mean that God’s will is not always done?  I thought that God was totally sovereign.  In fact, God’s will is not always done because there are creatures who have free will, whose wills very often do not align with the will of Him who created them. In prayer, we seek to align our desires with those of our Father in heaven. We offer ourselves in submission.  We pray for things, but we expect God to give us those things only if it is according to his will, right? In 1 John 5:14-15 we are told that anything we ask that is in accord with his will we will receive. For this reason, as we pray, we are trying to align our will with his will.

The third reason we pray goes back to the first part of this lesson. The greatest purpose of prayer is to give glory to God.  In prayer we align our free wills with God’s will. Both true, but in the end, prayer is two-way communication. In prayer, God presents his deepest desire for us—his will for our lives and for the whole world.  But in prayer, we also lay bare our deepest desires to God.  It is surely one of the greatest mysteries that the Creator of the Universe wants to be influenced by puny little us. In prayer, we move the universe.  Well, it is not exactly we, moving the universe, but it is we moving God, who then moves the universe.  In his model prayer, in Matthew 6:11, Jesus prayed that God would “give us our daily bread.”  In prayer, we present our requests before the most powerful person in the universe, knowing that if it is according to his will, that he will make it happen.  “By prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,” we “present our requests to God.” (Philippians 4:6)  Our prayer moves the universe, and this is one reason we pray, because when we ask, we receive.  But let us remember a few things about this.

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1. First, let us give glory to God.

2. Second, let us first do our very best to align our desires with God’s will.

3. Third, let us remember that our presentation to God of our desires will be greatly helped by the Holy Spirit, who speaks for us in groans that words cannot express. Let us sometimes stop talking, meditate, communicate and let us “be still and know that I am God.”

 

12/6/17

Published January 9, 2018 on www.disciplestoday.org

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:

Jerusalem city walls  

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:

Bronze-Listen-To-To-Listen-Sculpture-The-Listening-2275202.jpg

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?

The_Shepherds_and_the_Angel.jpg

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

    A Reflection on the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

    John Oakes

     

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    There is much interest in the Christian world on the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation Movement.  Even in mostly-atheist Germany, awareness of the history of this world-changing set of events is high.   October 31, 1517, is the day when Martin Luther posted his famous 95 theses on the cathedral door in Wittenberg—the starting gun for the Reformation.

    What exactly is the Protestant Reformation? What is its legacy, both positive and negative?  Are we, as Bible-believing and Bible-obeying Christians, Protestants? Perhaps most importantly, what practical lessons can we learn from the momentous events which in many ways led to the modern world?

    First of all, we should introduce ourselves to the great heroes of the Reformation. The big three are Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. And of course, there are many lesser heroes as well. Luther, Zwingli and Calvin are all complicated men, with incredible strengths, but also with fatal flaws in their character. Are they heroes of Christianity? By almost any measure the answer is yes. All three showed remarkable physical courage and gave up nearly everything in order to pave the way so that we can worship God according to our conscience, with the Bible as our only standard of faith and truth.

    Martin Luther

    Martin Luther

    Luther was a man of miraculous resolve. His zeal was for Jesus and for his church. In the face of almost certain death at the hands of the Catholic Church and the Catholic princes, he began a reform in Wittenberg which overturned centuries of dominance over Christendom by Rome and the pope. He created the first translation of the entire Bible into his native German, returning the scriptures to the people. He abolished the most egregious Catholic practices such as indulgences, the system of penances, Roman sacramentalism and reliance on works-based salvation. His discovery from the Book of Romans that salvation is by faith marked one of the greatest turning points in the history of the faith. Yet, his reform did not return Christianity to its biblical roots. His faith-alone doctrine caused him to reject the book of James, which teaches that faith without deeds is dead. His theology was that of the fifth-century theologian Augustine. He maintained a strict church-state structure. Ironically, Luther continued the practice of infant baptism, despite the obvious fact that infants cannot have faith. The Catholic Church, under the influence of 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas, taught a fairly healthy balance between the sovereignty of God and free will on our part. Luther reversed this to a strict predestination, as taught by Augustine. One can argue that although Luther made fantastic strides in restoring Christian practice, he moved theology in the wrong direction. 

    Ulrich Zwingli

    Ulrich Zwingli

    Most of those whom we would call Protestants actually trace their theology and practice to the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli  and the French theologian John Calvin. The two brought about a more radical and thorough reformation than that of Luther. Theirs is known as reformed theology. Most evangelicals are of a Reformed rather than a Lutheran faith. Zwingli headed a church/state in Zurich, Switzerland. He went beyond Luther in removing vestiges of unbiblical practice. Zwinglian worship services have been called, “four walls and a sermon.” Like Luther, he restored the Bible to the common people. Yet his Augustinian predestination was even more thorough than that of Luther. He declared that those who are predestined by God to hell give glory to God equally with those predestined to heaven. Wanting to maintain infant baptism as a means to establish citizenship in a Christian state, he created the idea that baptism is a kind of Christian circumcision—a symbol of membership in God’s kingdom. We can see where this unfortunate choice led. Zwingli was a head of state and a soldier as well. He died in battle defending the Swiss Reformation against a Catholic army.

    John Calvin

    John Calvin

    The greatest theologian and Bible scholar of the Reformation was John Calvin. He reluctantly headed a theocracy in Geneva, Switzerland. It was his Christian Institutes that solidified normative Reformed theology, doctrine and practice. His theological system, Calvinism, made Augustinian predestination standard in almost all of Protestantism. Even if they are not aware, most of our Christian friends are Calvinist, which explains their embracing the once-saved-always-saved doctrine.

    Less well known is another Reformation which burst out, beginning from within Zwingli’s movement in Zurich. This “Radical Reformation” featured a rejection of church and state. Zwingli himself initially recognized that the only correct form of baptism is by immersion of adults, but he was unable to accept the implication of rejecting infant baptism on citizenship in his Christian state. Instead, he began to violently persecute these rebaptizers who thus became known as Anabaptists. Catholic, Zwinglian and Lutheran could not agree on much, but one thing they agreed on was that this rebellious Christ-like group must be suppressed. Catholics burned them at the stake, while Lutherans and Zwinglians drowned them. For a time, preparation for baptism of brothers and sisters was really preparation for martyrdom. Literally every one of the early leaders of this movement was martyred for their faith. Christian Europe was not yet ready to accept true Christianity with Jesus as the only head of the Church.

    An Anabaptist Execution

    An Anabaptist Execution

    Are we as New Testament Christians Protestants? The simple answer is no. In the International Churches of Christ, our historical roots go back to the Restoration Movement in the United States in the 1820s and 1830s. This was a back-to-the-Bible movement which rejected denominationalism, and specifically Protestant denominationalism in order to embrace Christian unity based on the essentials of the Bible alone. Leaders such as Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone recognized their debt to the great reformers, but did not accept their unbiblical creeds.

    How, then, should we think about this, arguably the most important turning point in Christian history? First of all, despite their faults, and they were many, we need to honor and appreciate what Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and many lesser-known reformers did to restore Christian faith and practice. Their courage and zeal for God’s people is an inspiration. Even if we do not wholeheartedly accept their doctrines, we can give honor where honor is due and recognize that, without them, our Christian faith today would not be what it is. Their willingness to lose everything, including their very lives for the sake of the gospel is an upward call to all of us. Yet, although they did wonderful things to restore Christian practice and to restore the scripture to believers, the Protestant Reformation fell far short of reestablishing correct biblical doctrine and theology. These men restored orthopraxy (correct practice) but not orthodoxy (correct teaching). Rather than restoring New Testament teaching, they only went back to Augustine. To embrace a Calvinist/Augustinian predestination is to reject the truth that God loves all and that he “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Their rejection of biblical freedom and their relegation of Christian baptism to a mere symbol are teachings that we must reject as unbiblical and as a stumbling block to salvation.

    Menno Simmons, founder of the Mennonites

    Menno Simmons, founder of the Mennonites

    Of course, there is a part of the Reformation that we can enthusiastically embrace. We can be inspired by the supernatural courage of our Anabaptist brothers and sisters. The Anabaptists were not without their faults, but neither are we. Perhaps you can get into a conversation with a Hutterite, Mennonite, Brethren or Amish friend. You would perhaps be surprised how much you have in common. However, there is one weakness of this movement that we should not embrace. Under the most extreme pressure of persecution, understandably, most of the Anabaptists chose to remove themselves from the world. They rightly rejected worldliness, but took this too far, choosing instead to isolate themselves from those who hated them. Within two or three generations, these disciples virtually stopped evangelizing the lost. As we celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, let us embrace the zeal, vision, and passion of all the reformers, not just the Radical Reformation, but let us take on a renewed zeal to establish the Church that Jesus died for and let us not withdraw from the world, but rather let us make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and surely, Jesus will be with us always, to the very end of the age.


    REFERENCES

    Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978)

    John M. Oakes The Christian Story: Finding the Church in Church History  Vol I and II (Spring, Texas, Illumination Publishers)  Volume III, covering the Reformation, will be available late 2018.

    John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James III, Church History, Vol. II (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2015

    Jean Henri Merle d’Abuigne, For God and His People: Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation, trans. by Henry White (Greenville, South Carolina: BJU Press, 2000)

    Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1957)

    William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s, 1996)

    T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (London; John Knox Press, 2006

    [1] Stephen J. Lawson, John Knox: Fearless Faith (Fearn, Ross-Shire, Scotland; Christian Focus Publications, 2014)

    What Should I Do To Become a Christian Teacher?

    by John Oakes 

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    I have been serving as a teacher in one way or another for more than thirty years.  It is my career, as a professor of chemistry and physics, and my avocation as well, as a teacher for churches. I have taught the hard sciences as several universities and colleges, as well as teaching for more than 150 churches in more than 70 countries.  One of my passions is to help to raise up teachers who can take on the unending task of helping both the saved and the lost to come to understand the Christian gospel.  In my travels and in my efforts to mentor teachers around the world, I have made a number of observations, both positive and negative, of what makes for an academically and spiritually well-qualified teacher which I would like to share.  I will make these comments, more or less in order as to relative importance as I see it.

    1. Humility.

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    I cannot count the number of times I have come across young believers who have passion to be Christian teachers but who have flamed out because of pride. I believe humility is the most important quality for anyone who aspires to be a teacher for God’s Church.  Generally, those who aspire to teaching in a Christian setting see themselves as smarter than the average person.  Hopefully, this is true about the expectant teacher, at least to some extent, as the gift of teaching certainly includes above-average intellectual skills!  However, the tragedy which I have seen repeatedly is that those who see themselves as smarter than others allow themselves to be know-it-alls.  Confidence becomes pride.  They wish that everyone were as smart as they and they cannot understand how the other believers could be so unwise and so uneducated in the basics of Christianity.  They cannot wait to enlighten everyone around them with regard to their ignorance.  How could anyone not realize that the teaching ministry is the most important aspect of the work of the Church?  Because I have such deep knowledge, what can these less-informed Christians teach me about anything?  I will hear what they have to say, but pass it through the filter of my superior wisdom.

    The amazing thing is that these prideful prospective teachers do not realize that others can see these symptoms of pride from a mile away.  One reason I can list these examples of prideful teacher-thinking is that I have been sorely tempted with all of these many times.  I confess that one of the comments I have received in my student evaluations as a professor are statements such as, “he is a good teacher but arrogant when I talk to him in my office.  He makes me feel stupid.”  Ouch!  Double Ouch!!  I made a decision many years ago that I will go after defeating this kind of pride with unrelenting vigor. I will leave judgment about how successful I have been in this area to those who know me.

    This prideful attitude will have two devastating results.  First of all, no one likes a know-it-all.  Certainly no one wants to be taught by a know-it-all.  More importantly, no church leader will give the “stage” to such a person.  And they should not.  The prideful teacher will cause more damage to the church than any help they can offer.  For a teacher, to not have the opportunity to use his or her gift is a great frustration.  It is also a sad waste of potential good for the Church.  Mark it down; if you have a prideful attitude about your wonderful knowledge, you will never be a respected and fruitful teacher.  You are like Nebuchadnezzar, who stood over his beloved Babylon and said to himself, “Is this not the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30)  You have forgotten the admonition of Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “What do you have that you did not receive, and if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you did not?”

    Second, and perhaps more importantly, the candidate for teaching who is prideful will inevitably have a hard fall.  I have seen this pattern many times.  We all know that “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)  We tell ourselves that no one appreciates our gift.  We are not respected.  This church does not deserve me.  I am going to find a place where my gift will be appreciated and used.  As a result the gift is either used toward non-Christian ends or the person will end up joining a church which does not hold to genuine Christianity.

     2. Having the spiritual gift of teaching.

    Some are teachers, but do not have the gift of teaching.  As a stop-gap measure, in a church without gifted teachers or in a small ministry or new church, this expedient may be a necessity, and that is fine in such a case.  However, ideally, the evangelist will have the gift of evangelism, the elder will have the gift of shepherding, the church board member will have the gift of dealing wisely with money and the teacher will have the gift of teaching.  This principle can be found in 1 Peter 4:10-11, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms."

    Of course, this raises the question.  Do I have the gift of teaching?  How would one know?  This is a really important question.  I do not have “the” answer to this question, but will suggest a few things to look for.  First of all, is this what you love to do?  Is this your passion (see below)?  In your attempts thus far to delve more deeply into the truths of Christianity, do you find yourself making greater strides than many others (not as a point of pride, but simply asking a realistic question)?  Is there reason to think that your intellectual gifts are well above average?  Do others agree with this assessment?

    Certain skills are necessary; otherwise the gift cannot be used effectively. If it cannot be used effectively, then it is probably not a spiritual gift.  Intelligence alone is not sufficient.  Ideally, a teacher will be a strong public speaker.  If you cannot get across what you have learned, what good is it? There are other avenues of expressing this gift.  Not having skill as a public speaker is a deficit, but is not necessarily a sine qua non.  For example, perhaps you are a really good writer or a person who can reason effectively in a one-on-one encounter.  Bottom line, in order for a supposed gift of teaching to be genuine, the person holding this gift must have the ability to pass along knowledge in a persuasive way.  If not, then this is not your gift.

    3. Having passion to teach.

    I have taught on spiritual gifts dozens of times, and have published a book on this topic (Golden Rule Membership, Illumination Publishers).  My first advice on discovering one’s gifts is to ask what you love to do.  Your gift is the thing you will do even if no one appreciates it and even if you receive no encouragement for doing it.  Passion for teaching is an absolute essential for the one who wants to teach in God’s church.  There are at least two reasons this is true.  First of all, to become a well-trained and effective teacher will require a LOT of training.  I would argue that this role in the Church may require more training than any other.  Many hours of reading, studying and preparing, well above the call of duty, are absolutely required.  Without passion, few will be able to maintain this effort over time. Unlike the first two qualities mentioned above, this quality is relatively easy to “measure.”  By our twenties we know what we love to do.  You should ask yourself a simple question.  Am I truly passionate about teaching the gospel to both believers and non-believers?

    4. Having the will and the opportunity to get the training.

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    We cannot teach what we do not ourselves know.  Knowledge does not leap into our brains while we sleep.  The Holy Spirit will at times give us the words to speak when we are before rulers (Luke 12:12), but this cannot be counted on in every case. Desire alone is not enough.  Jesus did not have any degrees and he was the greatest Christian teacher who ever lived.  But we are not Jesus and almost certainly, advanced training, very likely including a post-graduate degree, will be required for the effective teacher in the twenty-first century.  It is unfortunate, but nevertheless true today, that the Christian teacher will need skill in English, because the great majority of useful resources are in English.  Knowledge of additional languages is not an absolute requirement, but it is very helpful.  Some training in history, philosophy, and the natural sciences is very helpful.  Some do not have these skills and will find difficulty acquiring them for various reasons.  Perhaps they come into the game at too advanced an age.  Perhaps they did not have access to education for cultural or other reasons.  If this is the case, then it is not likely that this person will become an effective teacher.

    5. Being willing to work in a serving position.

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    This point takes us back to the first on our list—the requirement of humility.  Here is the bottom line.  To teach is to serve.  Of course, this is true of all Christian ministry, as Jesus told us (Matthew 20:26, John 13:13-17).  But this is fundamentally true of teaching in the Church.  My experience tells me that teachers often do not see it this way.  I teach in a chemistry department.  In academia, chemistry is known as a service discipline.  What this means is that most taking my courses are there, not to be chemists but to be something else, such as a biologist or a pharmacist or a nurse or doctor.  I need to accept that nearly all of my students do not share my passion for chemistry.  I am there to serve other disciplines.

    In Ephesians 4:11-12 we are told that the evangelists, shepherds and teachers are to prepare God’s people for works of service.  The way I like to put it, teaching is not the most important thing.  It is not the second most important thing in the church.  It is not even the third most important thing.  However, it certainly is in the top ten and might just possibly be in the top five.  If you want to do the “most important thing” then you need to recognize that teaching is not that thing.  Your role as a teacher is to provide something to others.  Yours is one of the parts in putting together the whole. Teaching actuates other abilities, but it is not that most essential ability and it will not normally be the thing which will be noticed first.  The purpose of the Christian life is to know God and to be known by him.  The Christian mission is to win as many as possible to Christ.  The teaching ministry does not take an up-front role in these things, although it is important to these things.  In fact it is essential to these things in the long run, but the teacher’s role is not the most essential one in helping people to have a relationship with God and to conversion of the lost.

    Because one of my particular skills is in the area of Christian apologetics, I am blessed to have many experiences which are an exception to the rule I am stating above, but I still need to stress this fact about the teaching ministry.  Yours is a service role.  You will be tempted to think that it is the top priority, but it is not!  A church built out of people, all of whose skill is intellectual, will not be an effective church (effectiveness being defined as achieving the purpose and ministry of Christianity).  Evangelism and shepherding and taking care of the physical and spiritual needs of the lost and the saved are more essential.  They are higher up on the list.  If this is not okay with you, then perhaps you should pursue something other than teaching.

    6. Able to take the long view and to hold our tongue—not having an agenda or an axe to grind.

    The fifth quality I want to mention is a practical aspect of the humility which is the chief quality needed to be a fruit-bearing Christian teacher.  This quality can be encapsulated in one word—patience.  Anyone who is a teacher will have deeper than average insight into those qualities required for churches and individual members of churches to grow and be effective in their faith.  We notice the mistakes our preachers make.  We often cringe when we hear outlandish interpretation of the scripture, especially in public forums.  We know some church history and notice immediately why a decision is a bad one.  What will we do with this knowledge?

    Here is the bad news for the teacher.  More than ninety percent of the time, we need to hold our tongue and keep our opinion to ourselves.  This is true, both because as I already stated, no one likes a know-it-all, and also because teaching is a serving role.  I made a decision many years ago and I must remind myself on a regular basis, that I must bide my time.  There are convictions I have that I must keep under my hat for a time.  When I am invited by a Christian group to teach them, I need to remember that my role is to do what was asked, not to come with a hidden personal agenda.  I do not visit churches in order to correct all their errors.  My role is to support what the leaders are doing, even when I do not completely agree with what they are doing.

    I have seen other teachers forget this basic aspect of the teacher’s role.  They tend not to be invited back.  Their skill and their passion therefore find a reduced opportunity to be expressed.  My personal ministry as a Christian teacher is somewhat unique, as I do so much traveling and have taught for many different churches.  It makes this principle even more necessary to the effective use of my gift.  Whenever I am invited to teach for a ministry other than my own, I remind myself that I do not want to leave having created more problems than I have solved.  In almost every lesson I teach, I find myself asking whether I should make this or that point, no matter how valid.  If it will not help what the leaders in the local church are trying to do, whether or not what I am saying might be true, I must hold my tongue.  James tells us that the tongue is a fire and a world of evil that corrupts the whole body.  In the context, James is speaking this truth about teachers!

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    One could use the excuse that the Holy Spirit put it on one’s heart to say such and such.  Maybe so, but would the Holy Spirit have you creating havoc in the local church or in the ministry to which you are speaking?  Perhaps one time in one hundred it is true that the Holy Spirit will influence us to create a big stir.  God’s prophets certainly did this at times.  There is a role sometimes for a teacher to stir the pot and upset the apple cart, but this is rare and should be done with extreme caution and only after purposeful thought.

    One last thought on this point.  As teachers, one of the things we love is when others learn through us and grow in Christ.  Their life is changed forever. What a thrill.  This is a good thing and it is not, by itself, a sign of pride.  However, we need to take the long view here.  If you will pursue your teaching over time, you will gradually acquire a stronger voice.  What you cannot say and what cannot be heard by your audience now because you are a novice, you will be able to say in ten years.  I have been teaching for decades.  I have gained a significant amount of respect over time.  People can hear difficult teaching from me that they may not have received when I was a relatively new Christian.  Because I was willing to bide my time many years ago, I am now able to help people understand and learn from my conviction.

    The next few qualities on my list are important ones, but perhaps not absolutely essential.  These qualities can be acquired over time.

    7. Willingness to think broadly and cross-culturally.

    One of the growing problems of our world culture is that, more and more, we tend to live in an ideological bubble.  The teacher needs to be able to break out of that bubble.  He or she will be teaching singles, marrieds, campus and teens.  The teacher will most likely be crossing church cultures and likely even human culture.  It is my experience that in order to use their gift, teachers will do some traveling and will eat strange food.  A greater than average ability to think outside of the box within which one was raised will be necessary.

    8. Broad knowledge combined with one or more areas of specialized knowledge.

    As a teacher, I generally must wait to be invited to teach.  Why would I be chosen for the task rather than another?  My advice to any prospective teacher is that you must acquire two kinds of knowledge.  First, you must make yourself the expert in one or two areas.  You should choose a topic you are particularly passionate about and dig as deeply into that topic as you can to make it your own.  You should nail this topic down so that anyone who needs a lesson on the topic, whether it is a biblical book you have mastered, or a character trait you have studied out or whatever it is, you will be the one they will call on.  Maybe you will even write a book on this topic.

    The other kind of knowledge you must be prepared with is broad based.  You must have one or eventually two or three specialties, but you will also need a little knowledge in a vast array of topics.  You must be the Rennaisance man or woman who knows a little about everything.  For example, you must know the Book of Colossians backward and forward, but you must have a deeper than average knowledge of all sixty-six books in the Bible.  You must know a little history, a little Church history and a little theology.  The reason is that you will become the answer person to many and you need to be prepared to give that answer as often as possible.  Recently I was asked to do a lesson for a church in Bangladesh on the question of marriage and divorce.  I told them that this is not my expertise.  They asked me to do it anyway.  The fact is that I have studied this topic out quite a bit, actually, and it was a simple matter of taking a few hours to put my material together.  It went fairly well.  This kind of broad preparation is one thing you must move toward if you want to be a Christian teacher.

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    I hope that those who have read their way all the way through this essay will find it useful.  Presumably, it is because you yourself are interested in teaching.  I want to encourage you to pursue this gift.  You will find it infinitely rewarding over time as you are able to contribute greatly to the maturing of the saints and to the winning of many more to shine like stars in the universe (Daniel 12:3).  If I can be of service to you, do not hesitate to contact me.

    John Oakes

    john.oakes@gcccd.edu

    Reprinted with permission from Evidenceforchristianity.org

     

     

    Photo Credits:

    Jesus washes the disciples' feet. http://aathmeekaunnavu.blogspot.com/2012_09_14_archive.html

    Chemist examining a beaker at a crude oil processing lab in Arusha, Tanzania. Photo Credit: Mitchell Maher / International Food Policy Research Institute

    Graduation Hat Cartoon 

    Holy Spirit Paraklete Dove, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHoly_Paraclete_Dove.jpg

    ESA/Hubble [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

    An Introduction to the Old Testament Text

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    by Dave Pocta -- San Antonio, Texas, USA 

    When we open our bibles, we often take for granted what is in front of us. For centuries, scribes and scholars have meticulously unearthed ancient texts.  They have preserved, catalogued, studied and compared them to accurately provide us with God’s Word.  This paper is a very brief introduction to the languages, textual traditions, early translations, and recent discoveries that laid the foundation for the blessing now known as the Old Testament. 

    Biblical Languages

    The Hebrew bible (Old Testament) was originally written by several authors ranging from roughly the 15th to fifth century B.C. in the Hebrew language with small segments in Aramaic.  (Primarily Daniel 2:4b-7:28 and Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26.) Aramaic was spoken by the Jews after the exile, which explains its appearance in these books with later dates. Documents in the original language are called manuscripts and copies of them are transmissions. Documents in other languages are called versions, as they are translations

    Example of Aramaic papyrus

    Example of Aramaic papyrus

    Languages vary in communication style, flow, and structure. We would therefore prefer to possess the earliest manuscripts in the original language to ensure accuracy and avoid the translators’ interpretations. The two extremes in translation would be “word for word” translations which tend to be more literal but often can lose the exact meaning of the text, or “thought for thought” translations, which attempt to capture the meaning but lose the nuances of specific words. This makes evident the difficulty in translating a translation. For example, translating the Old Testament from Latin into English introduces the difficulties of moving across two language barriers instead of translating from Hebrew directly into English. The science of studying manuscripts to remove scribal copying errors and obtain the most likely original text is known as textual criticism. The intention of textual critics is to provide a precise original language text that can be used as a basis for translation into any language.

    Textual Traditions

    Ironically, the oldest manuscript of the complete Hebrew bible that we have is the Leningrad Codex (codex meaning ‘book’ as opposed to scroll), which is dated to 1008 A.D. Another important Hebrew codex is the Aleppo Codex, named after the city in Syria in which it was located. It was considered a model codex, used for Jewish high holidays and settling matters of dispute amongst scholars. Unfortunately, it was partially destroyed in a fire in 1947. Both of these come from a strong Jewish scribal tradition and are known as the Masoretic text. The Masoretes were a group of scholars that flourished between the 7th and 11th century A.D. They had meticulous practices of preserving the text and required the destruction of worn copies (They didn’t see the need for older copies because the text was firmly established.) They were also responsible for vowel pointing. The original Hebrew text was consonantal only. The Masoretes were concerned about the pronunciation of the language, as it wasn’t being spoken much anymore; and they added vowel pointing to preserve the proper way of reading the Hebrew. 

    Other portions and fragments of the Hebrew text have been found which have significantly earlier dates, such as the Nash Papyrus. It contains parts of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 and 6.  Scholars debate its date. Some believe it was pre-exilic while others give it a first or second century A.D. date. These fragments serve as a snapshot of the early text. They provide some confirmation and some potential conflicts with the Masoretic text. 

    Early Translations

    Even though we lack early complete Hebrew manuscripts, we have a number of early witnesses. These are translations that give us insight into the original text. 

    The Samaritan Pentateuch – Sometime after the exile, the Samaritans became an independent faction from the Jews. Their scriptures were written in a script variant of the Hebrew (called the Paleo-Hebrew script) and are now called the Samaritan Pentateuch. The Samaritan Pentateuch serves as a second Hebrew text of the Pentateuch and carries some six thousand variations from the Masoretic text. Most of these are orthographic (spelling differences) and some are additions that were introduced by the Samaritans to preserve their cult. (I.e. the command to build a sanctuary on Mount Gerizim was inserted after Exodus 20:17).  It should be noted that about nineteen hundred variants agree with the Septuagint (see below) against the Masoretic text. 

    The Septuagint – Hellenism spread the Greek language as universal in the Diaspora. An Alexandrian Jew named Aristeas writes to his brother in the Letter of Aristeas that Ptolemy II Philadelphus, while serving as King of Egypt (281 B.C. to 246 B.C.), desired that his library have a copy of the Jewish Law. He sent to Eleazar, the High Priest, in Jerusalem for translators. Eleazar selected six elders from each of the twelve tribes and sent them with Hebrew scrolls to Ptolemy II.  Supposedly, the seventy-two men translated the Pentateuch in seventy-two days on the island of Pharos; it was read to the Jews in Alexandria and approved as accurate. We aren’t sure how the rest of the Septuagint was translated, but we do know that it was done by multiple translators because parts of it tend to be literal (word for word) and other parts are more free (thought for thought). The Septuagint (abbreviated LXX, which means “according to the seventy”) is significant as it was widely recognized as the bible of the early church and many viewed the translation as inspired.  

    Fragments from Deuteronomy, manuscript of The Septuagint. John Rylands Library, Papyrus Greek 458

    Fragments from Deuteronomy, manuscript of The Septuagint. John Rylands Library, Papyrus Greek 458

    Other Early Translations – Language influences necessitated other translations for the Jews and early Christians. As previously noted, many post-exilic Jews spoke Aramaic. The Aramaic translation is known as the Aramaic Targums. The Syriac Translation is known as the Peshitta.  The early Egyptian Christians read the Coptic Version. We also have the Ethiopic Version, the Armenian Version, and the Arabic Versions that bring perspective on the early text. Of special note is the Latin Vulgate. (Vulgate meaning “common language”) There were a number of Latin versions of the scriptures floating around the church by the fourth century A.D. Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome, an eminently qualified scholar in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, to translate a uniform and reliable text. Jerome’s Vulgate was pronounced the “authentic Bible of the Catholic Church” at the Council of Trent on April 8, 1546.  

    Recent Discoveries

    With a basic understanding that the oldest complete Hebrew text we possess is from the early 11th century, we can now appreciate the significance of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Stumbled upon by a shepherd boy in 1947, the eleven caves of the ancient Qumran community have yielded hundreds of manuscripts and fragments. The most significant find was a complete scroll of Isaiah that dates to the second century B.C.! This answers the accusation that the Isaiah messianic prophecies could have been written after Jesus’ life, as it pre-dates his birth. Fragments from every book in the Old Testament except for Esther have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  

    Today’s Hebrew Bible

    The Hebrew text that is primarily used today is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS). It was edited from 1967 to 1977, published by the German Bible Society, and its text is based on the Leningrad Codex.  Its attached apparatus contains the notations of variants from different manuscript traditions. Many view the Aleppo Codex as the most authoritative codex of the Masoretic text. The Hebrew University in Jerusalem is in the process of producing an edition that will contain the exact reproduction of the Aleppo Codex as its foundational text and a significant apparatus with major variants from other sources. Thank God for the archeologists, linguists and scholars who have preserved the Holy Scriptures!

    Bibliography

    Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1988.

    Geisler, Norman L., and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

    Jacoby, Douglas. How We Got the Bible (Audio Series). 2005.

    Lightfoot, Neil R. How We Got the Bible. Third. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003.

    Soulen, Richard N., and R. Kendall Soulen. Handbook of Biblical Criticism. Third. Louisville, KY: 

    Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

    Wurthwein, Ernst. The Text of the Old Testament. Translated by Erroll F. Rhodes. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.

    Photo Credits

    1. Eduard Sachau, public domain; photo taken in 1909 of Aramaic papyrus containing a contract for a loan, dated to regnal year 5 of pharaoh Amyrtaios, in 400 BCE. From Elephantine (Upper Egypt), 28th Dynasty, Late Period. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAmyrtaios_aramaic_papyrus_Sachau.png

    2. Manuscript of Septuagint with 8 fragments of the Book of Deuteronomy. From the 2nd Century B.C. Source: Papyrus Rylands 458. Public Domain, {{PD-UK-unknown}} {{PD-US}} https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AP._Rylands_458.jpg

     

    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). 

    https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABloch-SermonOnTheMount.jpg

    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;