Monday, December 21, 2009

Just One Sermon

Laying in bed the other night I was going over the events & highlights of 2009. Two new grandchildren joined the family. A daughter & son-in-law graduated from college and moved a little closer to home. I thought about a lot of the good things that happened this year.

In the midst of those good things I was blessed to experience, another thought came to mind: I had only preached just one sermon in 2009. Never in my adult life had I been so absent from a pulpit. It was not for a lack of interest or desire. My heart is still there. It was not for a lack of willingness. I had tried to make my availability known. It most definitely is not because "I quit the ministry." It was simply a lack of opportunity to do what I know to be a God-given compulsion to preach, even as Paul noted in I Cor. 9:16.

My mind took me back to the only occasion I had to be in the pulpit in this last year. A friend in ne NC had called me and asked if I'd fill in while their preacher was out of town. I remember being a little surprised at the request because northeast NC is not a place I've been particularly welcome in the last 6 years or so. And some there, to be sure, are happy I'm not preaching these days. But I said I'd come and preach for them. It took me just a moment to recall the text and topic of the day. I preached about "Giant Problems," looking at the episode of David & Goliath in 1 Sam. 17. The day was hot and as I recall the A/C had gone out in the church, and the crowd that did attend seemed restless & uncomfortable, but they sat through the service and the sermon.

Have you ever wondered what you'd preach for your last sermon, or if you thought it might be the only sermon you would get to preach? At the time I didn't know it would be my only sermon of 2009 (and 2010 isn't looking any brighter for opportunities at the moment either). What would you say if you had but one opportunity to share God's Word?

I immediately thought of the cross of Christ. Paul said he preached "Christ and Him crucified," in 1 Cor. 2:1, 2). I thought about the necessity of knowing our need to be saved; God's desire to save us; and how we can be saved. I believe the greatest need of man is knowing these facts. Over the course of previous years I know that I've often strayed into other areas than these, things of great importance such as Church leadership; other areas of Biblical Doctrines; matters of the Second Coming, etc. I pray that I've not strayed from the truth, or lost sight of the issues of primary importance in our relationship to God.

I found the sermon I preached in 2009 and looked at the main points: (1) Giant problems are a fact of life; (2) Don't be intimidated; (3) Trust God to solve Giant Problems; and (4) God's solutions Are Much Better. It was not until the conclusion that I mentioned that "The promise of Scripture is that God is greater than our problems, the biggest of which is sin. Jesus has defeated that giant enemy and offers us the opportunity to share in that victory." I'm thinking my points were on-target; and my applications were Bible-based. But was my conclusion emphasized more than the familiar story of a young man with five smooth stones and a sling going against a giant of a man? What, if anything, did my audience take home with them that day from the 25 or so minutes I had to preach in 2009? It makes me wonder.

I've actually heard many sermons in 2009. Sadly, I couldn't tell you much about what I heard; recall important points; or "borrow" many worthwhile illustrations.

Who knows about 2010? What sermons will make an impact, or which ones will be soon forgotten? What content will be trendy, entertaining, and socially relevant? What content will lead sinners to the throne of grace?

Time will tell if I preach again or not. If that privilege presents itself, I will consider more carefully my topic, my passage, my study, my illustrations, and my applications. To the ones who regularly share the Gospel I'd urge them to consider anew, what would you preach if you could only preach just one sermon?

C'mon, Murphy. Let's go outside.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What I Learned In Prison - Part 2

Do you remember being called to the Principal's office? That voice which came through the classroom speaker that said, "Please send this student to the office" could make your heart sink with impending doom. Generally it was never a good thing to have your name announced over the loud speaker at school.

The Chaplain's voice over the prison PA system did the same thing. Being summoned to the Chaplain's office often meant there was bad news to be delivered. The Chaplain would be called by an inmate's family to inform him of a death or other news of an emergency nature. I took the information down, called the inmate, and shared that piece of news with them.

I learned quickly that many families of inmates do not accept calls from them because of the high cost of "collect" calls. Families would block their numbers. The only way some inmates communicated, when they did communicate, was through visits or letters. It was not unusual for inmates to go months at a time without hearing from their family.

But when the bad news came I was able to be helpful to them. I'd use my office phone so they could call their families and get the news "first hand." In a minimum custody facility I also had the ability to make it possible for the inmate to attend the funeral of close family members (typically only spouse, parents or children). They would be transported to the funeral, wear "street clothes," sit with their families, and then return at the conclusion of the service. (Although more than once I heard that the transporting officers let them stay for the meal at the church if there was one!) The family paid $50 to the State of NC for this service.

These emergency calls seemed to run hot and cold. I went weeks at a time without getting one, but when they came - they usually came all at once and I was filling out an ABUNDANCE of paperwork for each temporary release. But I could tell it meant a great deal for the inmate to be able to attend these funerals. And when circumstances prevented them from attending they at least had a good long conversation, courtesy of North Carolina, with their loved ones.

It had been one of those busy times of relaying bad news, grief counseling, and seeing if they could be released for the service when the phone rang. The woman on the other end told me her name and that her brother was an inmate, and that she had news for him. He was a new father! Finally some good news to share! I got all the news and pertinent information. I asked the baby's name, how big he was, how he was doing, everything I could think to relay to the inmate.

So I was excited to call the inmate to the office. I didn't know him, and when he came in he had that look of 'impending doom' on his face that I was going to ruin his day. But I said, "This is a good call for you." I told him, "your sister called and wanted to tell you that you're a brand new daddy." I told him everything I learned, the name, weight, good condition, etc. The man just sat there with what could only be described as a 'blank' look on his face. After I was done sharing what I thought was pretty good news, giving him something to look forward to, etc. he looked at me and asked, "Chaplain, did my sister tell you who the baby's mother was?"

I was stunned. I had to process that question for a minute! Then I was irritated. "I thought you would know that!" I said.

Nope, no clue. Big question mark written all over "playa's" face

I was to learn that all of his children (emphasis on ALL of his children) were by different women, and that this was the second child born to him while he had been locked up.

Whether he ever chose to find out who the mother of his child was remains a mystery to me. Whether his son will ever know his dad and have a positive relationship with him seems doubtful at best. Will that son grow up in his father's footprints and one day be locked up himself? It does seem a continuing cycle.

Family values are far more than a campaign slogan, or a talking point for community organizers. I was reminded in that situation what an awesome responsibility - and privilege - it is to be a parent. It is easy to pro-create, but the task of parenting and raising a child is demanding. Churches need to emphasize the qualities and characteristics of a Godly mom and dad. We need to model those qualities to young men and women who will learn much about the mechanics of sex, but little about the responsibilities that come with it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Who's Afraid of the "B" Word?

Some words have become so "loaded," so taboo, that they are not even said anymore. A slip of the "N" word can have you branded as a racist for life. One vulgar word is still deemed to be so far across the line that it is referred to simply as the "F" word. Dropping the "F-bomb" on live TV can cost a network hundreds of thousands of dollars. A new word may be added to the list of forbidden words in some churches, and that is the "B" word.

I'll go ahead and spell it out now: B-A-P-T-I-S-M.

There is such a sameness to churches of all denominations today. They all have the greeters and the welcome table. It isn't hard to find a table full of donuts & pastries. Praise bands across the nation rock out the David Crowder worship tunes week after week. And the sermons are full of reminders to love God and do good to your fellow man. Who can argue with the new formula for success? Today's "lead pastors" have the playbook for growing modern, non-offensive churches committed to memory.

But something very unique was found in the preaching of the first-centuy church which is strikingly absent today. The apostles and those who came after them preached the cross of Christ. They preached the fact that man has sinned, deserves hell, but God in His love and grace provided a way of salvation.

Stop right there a moment, and you can almost hear the objections start to rise! They'd say, "That's what I preach." And probably that's what is still preached in many Evangelical churches. But the preaching of the early church, as well as the early decades of the Restoration Movement included how to enter that saved relationship with God; how to have sins forgiven; how to put on Jesus Christ; and how to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The preachers of the book of Acts preached that these great blessings were received when you were baptized into Christ! And this preaching about baptism for the forgiveness of sins is the key to the puzzle that is missing from most sermons today.

Why tell people they're lost if you're not willing to tell them HOW to be saved? Why tease them with the promise of heaven if the terms of pardon, i.e the plan of salvation is not going to be shared with them? It is cruel to keep the folks in the dark while dangling eternal life in front of them and not tell them how to find it.

The reason the "B" word is avoided is simple: It is offensive. People don't like it. There's no small amount of controversy regarding the mode or purpose of it. We could get along easier with visitors if we don't mention it and stick to the non-controversial stuff. It's better to talk to people privately about it than preach it publicly in a sermon on Sunday. Do any of these excuses sound vaguely familiar?

To run through all of the usages of baptism in Matthew, Mark, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, etc. seems so redundant. Obviously, these verses aren't obscure, or unknown to the Lead Pastors who choose to skirt them. They do so purposefully. They do it to seem more appealing to today's 'seekers.' The stumbling block of the cross has now been replaced by the stumbling block of baptism! How I wish they'd return to the preaching of Peter & Paul who had the strength of character and love of God's Word to dare to preach the whole truth of God. It is still foolishness to some, but to those who are being saved it remains the power of God. And here's my take on it: Preaching about baptism is so distinctive that it may actually attract people to Christ! It may take away the sameness of the run of the mill denominations and the 'cookie cutter' approach to how to 'do' church, and offer an attractive, biblically distinctive truth to our congregations.

Acts 19 is such a key passage. Paul wanted to know if these believers in Ephesus had the Holy Spirit. They didn't know about Him. Upon further examination Paul discovered they had not been baptized into Christ! They were still in need of teaching about baptism which results in the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. No way would Paul let them remain in the dark about one of the greatest blessings that Christians can enjoy! But we are leaving too many church attenders & members without the knowledge and assurance that they have obeyed the Gospel of Christ. Be it a gathering of 10, 100, or 1000 we must present the whole Word of God to them. Some may scoff. Some may reject it. Some may choose to attend a church that they find more palatable. Wrong, but palatable! But some will find eternal life! Remember that people also rejected the call of Christ, the preaching of Peter, and the Gospel presented by Paul. But not everyone rejected it. Those who heard it and accepted it found the promised blessings offered by Christ.

A passion to save the lost rings hollow without the presentation of the soul-saving plan of salvation. The "B" word may be controversial to some, but that makes it no less important or essential to salvation. I'm disappointed when I listen to preachers that choose to pass on the plan of salvation. It reminds me in my own teaching that I have the God-given responsibility and privilege to point people to the truth of God's plan.

Let's stop being afraid of the "B" word, and let's renew our commitment to sharing the fulness of God's Word and God's plan of salvation.

"C'mon, Murphy! Let's go outside"

Monday, September 14, 2009

What I Learned in Prison - Part 1

Situated outside of Columbia, NC is Tyrrell Prison Work Farm, a minimum custody facility. It houses many offenders. Most of them are young men who have drug offenses, usually selling them. There are also some non-violent offenders there. They committed crimes like check forgery, credit card fraud, and similar offenses. Yet there were also MANY older men who had been locked up a long time who have just worked through the prison levels from maximum, to medium, to minimum security. These have committed serious and violent crimes. Many had life sentences given to them. Through time served and good behavior they worked their way up to minimum custody to finish their sentences.

Prison was indeed the last place in my life I would have imagined finding myself. The chain of events that led me there for 15 months was something I’d never desire to go through again. It was far from the ‘hard time’ of a close-custody facility, but it was still prison. And it was inside the gates and razor wire over the course of many days, weeks, and months that I learned numerous lessons about my faith and what a Christian lifestyle really looked like.

Right now many of you are shocked and thinking, “I didn’t know Yager went to prison! Just what did he really do?” Put your minds at ease! I went to prison for 15 months, but each day I got to go home! I was employed by the NC Department of Correction, put there by God, not by the legal system. Although, I can think of a handful of people that would have liked me to have been permanently incarcerated there!! But I digress. For 15 months I had the unique opportunity to be a Clinical Chaplain, and was blessed to be able to minister to men (and occasionally their families) who had experienced far worse things than I ever have, or ever hope to experience.

My new-found congregation had as many 570 members. The numbers shifted from week to week, but that was the average. They all wore the same green jumpsuit every day, whether it was to church, to work, or to eat. Church services were held each Sunday night for about 90 minutes. An outside group called “Yokefellows” came each week for peer counseling; and I even taught a mid-week Bible study. Once a year we even had what could only be called a Revival with services each night for a week. One of the maintenance crew had built a baptistry for us where I immersed many men into Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We had an inmate choir complete with a praise band. Plenty of stories could be told about that group, sometimes referred to as “the Christian mafia” by the staff!

I always smile to think that I went from upstanding, clean-cut {for the most part!} Bible College students with a bright future to murderers, rapists, child molesters, and more drug dealers than I could count. The first inmate who greeted me each morning as I came to work is serving life for burglary and rape. The second one I usually passed each morning is doing life for 2nd degree murder. I had a Chaplain’s Clerk, now released, doing 6 years for 2nd degree rape. Fortunately for me, he was one of the most ‘respected’ inmates there, and one of the biggest. His nickname was “truck.” That pretty much sums up his size!

The first week or two that I passed under the razor wire, and through the various gates were very intimidating. Every prison movie I ever saw came to mind as I passed through the yard filled with many more inmates than Officers. After that I just viewed it as going to work, and hardly noticed the ‘prison’ aspect. Well, that’s mostly true. There was one day I was near-by where a fight broke out and ended up getting in the cross-fire of pepper-spray. This vividly reminded me I wasn’t in the local church building any more. I did have the officers who wrote the report include, “The Chaplain was inadvertently sprayed in the fight, but took it like a man!”

You’ll hear people often scoff that “everyone gets religion in prison.” But such is not the case. Many inmates chose not to attend the various services we offered, or attend the peer counseling groups, etc. It is also true that some may have attended just as a diversion from a very routine schedule. Some, I’m sure, abandoned their faith as soon as they were released. They may be like the inmate who told me he had been locked up ’27 times.’ And that guy was younger than me. But I’d like to believe that some who found Christ in prison took their faith beyond their sentence and incarceration and have experienced new lives outside the prison fence. I’m reminded that I know many people who have never been arrested who once claimed a relationship with Jesus, but for whatever reason do not desire to have one with Him any longer. I’ve seen countless kids at camp or youth groups have conversion experiences who are no longer in the Church. The same thing holds true for both those in and out of prison. Sometimes long-term faithfulness isn’t part of their plans.

One of the first lessons I’ll share from my prison experience is how when the masks, or veneers, or facades are removed, there is both a realness and a realization of who you are, and where you stand in life, and before Almighty God. There is a perception among many that every inmate claims they weren’t guilty. They were set-up. They were “victims” of false identification; police corruption; or for some other reason they didn’t deserve to be locked up. Ask some law enforcement officers some time how many of the people they arrest claim to be innocent.

This is one thing that truly surprised me and it blew away that preconceived idea: I only met one person among the hundreds that came in and out of that unit while I was there who said, “I didn’t do it.” The majority readily admitted their guilt to me. It was as if they were seeking someone who would listen. They had been found guilty by the State of NC, and rightly so. They wanted to know, however, if a Higher Authority had anything other than judgment and condemnation for them. It was my opportunity, even privilege, to introduce them to the God of forgiveness and salvation. I couldn’t do anything to shorten their sentence, but since I had them as a ‘captive audience’ {forgive the pun} I did endeavor to share with them the love, mercy, and forgiveness offered by Jesus!

Each week as dozens of men came in and out of my office I heard the confessions of crimes they committed. I could read the chilling reports in their files of what they had done. From gruesome murders that could make even Hollywood squeamish, to unspeakable crimes against small children, these men told me things I wasn’t expecting to hear. My office became a confessional of sorts, and the only absolution I could offer them was the blood of Christ. They still had to do the time, but I wanted them to know there was something better for them, something life-changing. They didn’t deserve it, but then neither did I. Neither do you. That is what God’s grace is all about.

I’ve come to believe that these inmates saw me in a far different light than the Correction Officers who made sure they obeyed the rules, or could write them up, or throw them in the hole (i.e. solitary). They didn’t see me as the police, the prosecutor, or the judge. Most saw the Chaplain as the one person in their world who just might listen to them without more condemnation or judgment. I think they had plenty of that already. They saw the Chaplain as God’s representative, the Lord’s servant, who just might have a kind word, or be able to present some better options for them.

Being a Chaplain in prison taught me that I had previously been too quick to judge and pronounce sentence. I was good at labeling sin, and proclaiming what was right, and what was wrong. Maybe I had even become too good at that. I previously had no use for those who committed these heinous and wicked crimes. Yet I was now reminded that these offenders were also sinners who could be forgiven. These were indeed the very lost that Jesus came to seek and save (see Mk. 10:45). Too many are quick to judge, but slow to reach out to the ones who stand condemned.

So many examples from Scripture come to mind. Perhaps none so compelling as that woman caught in the very act of adultery. The guilt of her sin, specifically condemned in the Ten Commandments, was never in doubt. It was never even debated what she deserved. But what she found from the Savior Jesus was far different than what everyone else was prepared to do to her. She found in Christ a voice of forgiveness not another joining in the shouts of condemnation. His admonition to “sin no more” said all that was needed about her guilt. His offer of pardon to her tells the story of God’s grace and mercy: “Neither do I condemn you” (See Jn. 8:3-11)

People can get accusations, gossip, judgment, and condemnation anywhere. But God’s servant must be a voice of hope carrying a message of forgiveness through the blood of Jesus. This doesn’t mean that we cannot stand opposed to violent behavior and even agree with strong punishments for the convicted criminal. But in the spirit of, “there but for the grace of God go I” we offer God’s plan of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. I want to be a Christian who can see beyond guilt and short-comings. I like so well the words of the hymn, “Seeking the Lost” that say:

“Thus would I go on missions of mercy, following Christ from day unto day; Cheering the faint and raising the fallen, pointing the lost to Jesus the Way” (William A. Ogden, 1886).

Hear again the words of the writer of Hebrews, “Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them….” (Heb. 13:3). Who do you know that has been judged, condemned, and thrown away by the world, and maybe even by Christians? They still need to hear about the love and forgiveness offered by Christ. Become a Chaplain to them!

“C’mon, Murphy. Let’s go outside!”

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

When Did Worship Become a Spectator Sport?

For the past couple of months I've been excited about the approach of Sept. 27th. Mary bought us tickets for my birthday present to go to Phoenix so we can watch Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts play the Arizona Cardinals. I'm counting down the days for that trip! I've always enjoyed going to games, whether it was the Reds games I watched when I was in grad. school in Cincinnati, or the local minor league Norfolk Tides. I love to go to the hockey games when the number of fights exceed the number of goals scored in the game!

When it comes to sports I have to confess I'm a spectator! Whatever gifts or talents I received in life did not include much in the area of athletic abilities. And I'm ok with that! If Lebron James won't try to teach Greek I won't try to match up with him on the court! We all have our place, and mine will be happily in the stands with a hotdog in one hand, a coke in the other! Let the games commence.

But I'm concerned that the gathering of the Lord's people in many congregations has also become a spectator event rather than a participatory opportunity. Even the phrases that are frequently used make me think we are but lowly spectators to the worship of others. For example, it is typical to hear that (insert name here) is "doing" worship. What does "doing worship" mean? Is he or she the only one worshiping? Am I worshiping by proxy? Is my worship experience only as good as the person singing or playing up front? If they aren't that good have I not really worshiped?

Years ago preachers used to joke about the revival speakers who had "7 good sermons and a fast car." Perhaps that should be amended to the Worship Leader who has "7 good songs and some great speakers." For some, the quality of "worship" is only as good as the band! If they stink, I guess worship stinks. If they are great, then worship is great. Is it even possible to worship without them doing it for me? Sounds almost like we have "worship priests" who do what we poor peons in the chairs are now sadly unable to do for ourselves. We have strayed far from the practices of the New Testament Church, and this is a glaring example!

All God's people can - and should - worship! When we go to worship it is not to watch someone else show how close they are to God, it is for us to "bend the knee" to Him ourselves. As Jesus approached Jerusalem and the people were crying out Hosanna, the Pharisees told Him to tell them to stop. Jesus said, "... if these become silent, the stones will cry out" (Lk. 19:40). Christ was to be praised by all people, not just the apostles, or the elite of the day. In fact, God is not so impressed with those who offer lofty, eloquent prayers as the one who goes into his prayer closet and pours out his heart to God (Mt. 6:5-7). The "look at how good I am" prayer of the Pharisee earned him nothing, but the humble prayer of the publican brought forgiveness (Lk. 18:10-14).

The Restoration Movement ideal of the "priesthood of all believers" must extend to the worship of all believers. God seeks - He actually looks for - people who will worship Him. Jesus declared that God seeks those people who will worship Him in "spirit and truth," going on to say that the worship God accepts is done just that way, in spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:23, 24). Yet in our "seeker sensitive" mentality we have let just one guy pray, and one group sing, and we have watched passively from our seats as good spectators, but have we worshiped? We stand when they tell us, and sit when they tell us, but have we been active in worship?

Our gathering with the Lord's people on the Lord's day around the Lord's table is preparation for eternity. Paul noted that "every knee will bow" and "every tongue will confess Jesus as Lord" (Phil. 2:10, 11). Church leaders must not be content with hiring staff or finding volunteers to do the worship. They must teach God's people to be active participants in the worship experience, not mere spectators at the show.

So look for me in amazing HD on September 27th on the NBC Sunday night game. I'll be in my seat - ROW 8 - on the 30 yard line. For those 3 hours or so I will be one happy spectator. But when God's people gather for worship, don't just sit passively in the stands while others have the joy and responsibility of worship. Be active in worshiping the Lord yourself!

C'mon, Murphy, let's go outside!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Keep That Dog On The Chain!

What has happened to the great cartoons? I can't find Bugs Bunny anywhere these days, and I have a LOT of channels!! One of my favorite Warner Bros. cartoons was, and is, Foghorn Leghorn - the Southern Gentleman rooster! The plot never varied too much. He would aggravate the dog, the dog would chase him, and then dog would get his neck snapped back when the rope to which he was tied reached the limit. Occasionally he would also get hit upside the head with a 2x4. Oh, they don't write entertainment like that anymore! But before the cartoon would end, invariably Foghorn Leghorn would end up inside the dog's range and he would get tore up. He was safe, until he got too close to trouble.

That "dog on a chain" illustration has been used to describe the "binding of Satan" described in Revelation 20:2. Many understand this binding to be one where Satan is wrapped head-to-toe in a big chain, and tossed into the depths, never to be heard from again - or at least until the 1000 years has ended. While I'm the first to think that this type of 'paradise on earth' would be an awesome experience - after all, who wouldn't like a day, a week, a month, a year, a millennium without violence, crime, temptation, etc.? - I don't think this is what is meant by the binding of Satan. Let's add some context!

Go back to the book of Job. The angels present themselves - and Satan is among them! He challenges God's assertion that Job was faithful. Satan said Job was only faithful because he had it so good. God allowed Satan to take those possessions from him, and we see how Job did indeed remain faithful. Shortly after that, another scene in heaven takes place where Satan again shows up. This time God allows Satan to harm Job physically, but limits him as well. He could not kill Job. Again, Job remained faithful through it all - even when his wife urged him to curse God and die!

Two things stand out from this account: Satan was then allowed in God's presence to accuse people; and there are limitations placed on his power. In other words, Satan is NOT omnipotent.

In the Gospels we read where Jesus sent his disciples out to do some evangelistic work. Luke 10 describes the ability they were given to heal the sick and do miraculous works. The disciples returned with joy saying, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name" (Lk. 10:17). The Lord's response is very important: "I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning" (Lk. 10:18). What was so significant about this event that the devil gets the boot (and forcefully so) from heaven?

Jesus also uses an illustration about the thief and the strong man in Mt. 12. Having just said that it makes no sense for Satan to cast out Satan (Mt. 12:26), Christ goes on to explain how by casting the demon out of the man he in fact rescued him from Satan's authority. Before he could take what was in Satan's possession He had to bind him. In other words, the 'thief' had to be stronger than the strong man! That "thief" is Jesus! By His coming and ministry which He began, He demonstrated His authority over the devil and "took" what was once in his possession.

Eph. 4:7-10 likewise teaches that by Christ's death, burial, and resurrection He has freed the captives - those once under the dominion of the evil one. Col. 1:13 states, "For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son" (NASB). And Hebrews 2:14, 15 sums it all up perfectly: "Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that, the devil; and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives" (NASB).

I believe the argument can be made that Satan was bound at the first coming of Christ, and victory was won through the Lord's death, burial, and resurrection. But someone will certainly say that the devil can't be bound because of all of the evil, sin, crime, violence, terrorism, etc. that is in the world. After all, the 6:00 news is really just a report of what Satan has been up to in the last 24 hours! He doesn't seem to be bound very tightly!

Revelation 12 helps clarify what is going on in this world. It pictures the woman (I would say representative of the people of God - both Old and New Testament); the male child (very clearly a picture of Christ); and the dragon (specifically identified as Satan in 12:9). There was "war in heaven" and the dragon and his angels "were not strong enough, and there was no longer a place found for them in heaven" (vs. 8). He was thrown down to earth (cf. Lk. 10:18). He is described as the "accuser of our brethren" (Rev. 12:10). Heaven can rejoice because the accuser is no longer allowed to enter. The earth, however, must deal with his "great wrath" (12:12). The devil is now hell-bent on taking as many people to destruction with him as possible. He is greatly restricted, but that roaring lion still has teeth!

Earlier I mentioned how God had placed limits on Satan when testing Job. Likewise, Christians have the great blessing of 1 Cor. 10:13. God will not allow Satan to tempt us beyond what we can endure. He will also give us a way of escape when we do face those temptations. The "world" has no such guarantee. They are firmly in the sphere of Satan's destructive power, until they come to Christ, and experience the life and protection He offers!

Christians, too, will often err and decide to dabble with sin, thinking they won't get hurt, or not get 'too deep' in it. They will pay the price as well! The dog may have been on the chain, but when you get too close, you're gonna get bit! Too often Christians, spiritually speaking, seek to wander in the abyss - instead of following Paul's admonition: "If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God" (Col. 3:1 NASB). Christians have been given great assurances such as "greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world (I Jn. 4:4); and "If God be for us who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:31). We have been afforded great protection, but often choose to ignore it, and go it on our own. We wander right in that area where the dog on a chain can still get us. Whose fault is that?

Satan has been bound and defeated, and now seeks to take as down with him as possible. Christians are called to be faithful as the devil seeks to make war with them (Rev. 12:17). We are also called to preach the Gospel that still saves those who are presently under Satan's authority. We are admonished to keep ourselves "unstained by the world" (James 1:27), rely upon God, and by all means, STAY AWAY FROM THAT DOG ON THE CHAIN!!

C'mon, Murphy, let's go outside! (a dog that has never been on a chain in her life!!!)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Come As You Are... But Leave Different!

I confess I like going to Church without a jacket and tie. I have even wore blue jeans on several occasions. I guess it is as liberating to me to not wear a suit to church as when women were burning their bras back in the 60's. Come as you are to church is a great idea!

Actually, my love for the casual goes way back. I enjoyed restaurants as a kid that said, "Come as you are." That meant I could wear my play clothes and no one was going to tell me to put on the 'good clothes.' I was happy when I went to Bible College that they didn't have any dress code that said I couldn't wear my blue jeans to class.

It is wise for the church to get rid of those attitudes of "certain types of people are not welcome here." We've seen those with a 'past' given a cold shoulder.' Actually, I've been that "guy with a past" who was given a cold shoulder in noted congregations in Hampton Roads. One girl I know who currently serves in the Navy tells of going to a church and receiving a nice, friendly welcome. When she first visited it was the winter. When spring, and warmer weather rolled around she came to church in a short-sleeve shirt revealing several tattoos. At that point she was told she was no longer welcome. "Come as you are" didn't quite work in that congregation. A certain look was cause for being 'shown the door'!

We salute congregations reaching out to the homeless, the alcoholics, the drug users, and the list goes on. Following Christ's example of ministering to the materialist, the swindler, the adulterers, the sexually immoral, and the down-and-out, we rightly open up our doors to all who will come. May this good example increase.

My concern is a reluctance to tell people they need to change! We get them in the door one way, and we send them out the door at the end of service the same way! Sin is not identified or "called out" for risk of offending someone. Because we want them to keep coming back we walk on egg shells on issues of eternal importance where the Scripture speaks loud and clear. Because we don't want to be labeled as Bible-thumping or Fundamentalist we take a casual approach on doctrine and Christian lifestyle choices. Do what you want, and we'll say nothing is NOT the model we see portrayed in the Scripture.

Jesus called people to repentance. While He said He did not condemn the woman who was caught in the act of adultery, He did tell her to "sin no more" (Jn. 8:11). He called the "Rich Young Ruler" to leave a life of materialism to follow him (which apparently the young man chose not to do) in Mk. 10:21, 22. Zaccheus was so moved by his luncheon with Jesus that he gave half of his possessions to the poor, and pledged to repay those whom he swindled back four times as much (Lk. 19:8).

"Repentance" is still a good, and especially valid word. Jesus said twice in the span of three verses, "unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Lk. 13:3, 5). This solemn warning is a favor to mankind! It tells us that there is still a chance, that we can be forgiven, and we can be saved! That is, "if" we repent! When the crowds on the Day of Pentecost wanted to know what they could do, as Peter laid the blame for crucifying the Son of God at their feet, he told them that they needed to repent (Acts 2:38).

I've often said that God is more concerned about what we will be today than what we were yesterday! The idea of a "change" is inherent in the concept of "repentance." The word "repentance" is rightly defined as "a change of mind that leads to a change of action." People who walk in the doors of our congregations need to not only hear that God loves them, but that God is calling them to a different, better life. I'd dare say that many people know they need to change, but will not change until called upon to do so. This is what distinguishes the Church from the Moose Club, the Lions Club, etc. We call people to repentance and salvation!

But it sounds so mean! It sounds like we're judgmental. It sounds like we're closed-minded! Who are we, after all, to tell people that what they're doing is wrong? Perhaps we better just talk about the love, mercy, kindness, and grace of God. Whew... that sounds so much nicer. Who could disagree with that? We sing "Just As I Am" and are grateful that God takes us that way. That makes the preacher sound more compassionate, the church seem a little nicer, and Christianity a whole lot easier!

But wait a moment. Is it possible that God's love, kindness, mercy, and grace are actually motivation and reason to repent? It is according to the apostle Paul. He wrote, "Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?" (Rom. 2:4) God's patience is seen in the timing of the return of Christ. Peter writes that God isn't slow but patient "not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9). We advance the purpose of God as we call mankind to repentance. God's great love is greatly seen as we call them to repentance.

This article cannot conclude without emphasizing the importance of repentance. I've barely scratched the surface of the many references to this essential component of salvation. But it must be said that repentance is not a "take it or leave it" proposition! As Paul preached in the Areopagus he said, "God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent" (Acts 17:30 NASB). The NIV translates the verse that "[God] commands all people everywhere to repent."

I urge preachers to call sin what it is! It is appropriate to talk about God's judgment that will come. It is an urgent message to call people to change while there is still an opportunity. We want them to come in our doors one way, but they need to leave different. They need to repent!

C'mon, Murphy, let's go outside!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Elders: Who Needs Them Anyways?

Like the old organ covered in dust that sits unused in the auditorium, elders seem to have a diminishing if not non-existent role in the modern Church. I’ve noticed several “new” churches (and by that I mean less than 10 years old) that have neither need nor interest in having a biblical model of leadership, i.e. having elders.

Apparently the current Bible College [or Christian University as seems to be the trend] graduate has acquired such vast insight into church planting, church growth, care of the flock, strategic planning, etc. that having Biblical eldership would only get in his way! And this is, I believe, the reason that eldership is ignored or undermined by many new preachers in new church work. They regard elders as old, uninformed, out of touch, entrenched in the past, and not interested in doing things in new ways. It is just so much easier to “do church” without the burden of a bunch of old guys standing in the way and messing up their perfect plans every chance they get. Yet, as I often see, they still want those old folks to write a check to support the work they are doing! Is this “man with a calling” mentality really conducive to a healthy body which will provide for sustained growth in the future? I think not. Let’s examine some Biblical examples.

Moses was a man with calling. Empowered by God for his mission, he was ready to go, and was working hard day & night. It was his father-in-law, Jethro, who gave him a needed admonition: “The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (Ex. 18:17, 18). Moses was not only hurting his ministry by being a ‘one-man show,’ he was also hurting his flock!

Fast Forward to the New Testament Church. Many young congregations had the amazing experience of being started by an apostle. Yet the apostles were wise enough to realize that these local congregations needed sustained, local leadership, and they appointed elders in those congregations (Acts 14:23). The evangelist Titus was instructed to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). Peter likewise gave instruction to the elders concerning their task in the local church (1 Peter 5:1-3). Just how important were elders to the fledgling Church? In Acts 11 one reads that a benevolent gift was sent to the “elders” in Judea (Acts 11:30). In doctrinal matters the elders are even listed alongside the apostles! See Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23! To diminish the role of elder in the 21st century church is to lay aside altogether the essential role they played in the 1st century church! As an aside, as you read these passages note how the plural is used for “elders.” You can also read my earlier blog about the “pastor.”

Most every preacher has at least one horror story about an unfit elder. They’ll say he was Biblically illiterate; he had a bad attitude; all he cared about was the money and the budget; he had no vision past next week’s Sunday service; he was morally deficient; and the list goes on. Yet these anecdotes must not become an excuse for not having elders in the church. It is, after all, quite possible that some of the bad qualities we point out in elders just might be found on occasion in paid staff as well.

Elders bring a perspective and a vantage point which is needed by the paid staff. An elder is one who possesses the wisdom that comes from life’s experiences and their walk with God. They have perspective and insight which comes from knowing the congregation and the community. Elders are not a roadblock to the success of the church or the plans of the minister. They are facilitators of that mission.

Those who claim for themselves the most recent re-definition of the title ‘pastor’ seem to ignore the role of eldership as it regards authority in the local body. They may not know what the term “monarchical episcopate” means [one ruling elder], but they enjoy the authority/power it gives them, which would otherwise be held in check – and rightly so – by a body of elders. It may burst the bubble of young pastors {can you discern the irony there?} to read 1 Tim. 5:17, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well…” (NIV); or “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor…” (NASB).

An evangelist doing new church work may not immediately have elders to work with, and it may take some time to get these leaders. But it must remain a high priority to get these men challenged, prepared, and in place. I always appreciated a lesson taught by Elmer Towns: “Leadership is not doing the work of 10 men. It is finding 10 men to do the work!” The apostles knew this to be true, and so will the wise Gospel preacher today.

Elders provide leadership and pastoral care, and they safeguard soundness of doctrine. Their wealth of experience and personal example of a walk with God provides a model for the congregation to follow. They can mentor a preacher, protect him from attacks, and correct him when necessary as well. Elders are a blessing to the Lord’s Church.

Who needs elders? The Church does! I think back to the men who served as leaders back in my home congregation. I remember that it was an elder – not the preacher – who immersed me into Christ. I remember many meals in the home of elders, and the time they took with me individually, and others in my family. Perfect men? No, but they were godly. They did their best to lead the congregation as they believed God would have them to do.

The need to correctly understand and implement the Bible’s teaching on eldership remains an essential component of the Restoration Movement. We must hold men accountable to follow the clear teaching of Scripture on leadership in the local church. Too many new Christians remain on milk, or die as newborns in Christ, because there was no functioning leadership to nurture these babes to maturity.

C’mon, Murphy, let’s go outside!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

When is the next "Baptism Sunday"?

In March of this year I had the opportunity to attend a new Church work in Knoxville, Tn. In their announcement time they were excited about the next “baptism Sunday” to be held in early May. That’ right, I said early May, about 6 weeks from the time I visited there. The announcement was packaged as an important part of their faith journey and an act of worship for those who were to be baptized. Interesting.

The next thing they talked about was an offering. This too was presented as an act of worship and part of the faith journey. But the surprising thing was that they weren’t going to wait 6 weeks or more to take up the offering. They wanted to take it that week! And the week after! And I’m guessing the week after that! Could it be that one act of worship was a little higher priority to them than another act of worship? Fortunately for their budget, the faith journey was not as far to the offering box as it was to the water to be immersed into Christ!!

Is there something to be said for making disciples, i.e. teaching them before they are baptized? This does seem to be in line with the great commission of Mt. 28. Preaching did proceed the events of Acts 2:37. But there was no lengthy delay between the preaching and the baptizing. In fact, the Gospel made such an impact into the lives of those who heard that their conviction led them to urgent repentance and their baptism followed right behind it.

This immediacy is also indicated in Acts 8:12, 13. They believed and were baptized. It is demonstrated again with Lydia and her household. Paul found them assembled at the riverside for prayer. He began to preach and “the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). And one verse later she and her household were baptized. How do we know it was immediate? Because in the next statement Lydia invites Paul to come and stay at her house (vs. 15). Apparently Paul believed they heard enough, and didn’t need to wait 6 weeks or more to be baptized into Christ.

This urgency is clearly seen later in Acts 16. The familiar account of the Philippian jailer records that he was told to “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your whole household (vs. 31). The next verse shows that teaching took place. Paul “spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house.” And in the very next verse – “that very hour of the night… immediately he was baptized, he and all his household “ (vs. 33).

There is an importance to respond to the Gospel that is unmistakable. Dragging your feet for convenience, or emotional impact, or whatever reason is not biblical! In all of these instances I’ve just cited there were sinners who needed to be saved, and time was of the essence! Who was to say that these people would have the opportunity to be immersed a month or two after hearing the Gospel?

I believe this delay for a better day mentality is indicative of the denominational thinking that has crept into the Restoration Movement, especially among new church work. If baptism for the remission of sins is important, and dare I say, essential for salvation, there would be no delay between the preaching, the conviction, and the immersion! But when baptism is relegated to a place of such little importance as to be put off for weeks at a time it clearly indicates that the leaders do not view it as significant or essential. The denominations do this all the time. Are preachers giving reason to think that baptism is only to “join the local church” rather than to be saved? I don’t know of any who have come out and said that, but they certainly indicate that is a part of their thinking in these long delays. Where do we read of “baptism Sunday” in the New Testament? What we read there is not about delays but about the urgency to have sins forgiven and be saved!

Luke may not have recorded all of the conversation between Ananias and Saul. Yet the essential elements are given to us. But what is vividly clear is Ananias’ admonition to this sinner: “And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16).

There is no reason to delay! Certainly not days upon days, or even months. Ananias equated immersion with the time that Saul would have his sins forgiven. Peter certainly viewed baptism as the occasion when sins would be forgiven in Acts 2:38. The immediacy and urgency is clear.

What a privilege it is to share the Gospel. It still changes lives. It still brings people to a point of decision. It still demands a response. It is not one that can be put off to a more convenient day, or when we know just a little more!

George Root wrote these words in 1878:

"What do you hope, dear brother,
 To gain by a further delay?
 There’s no one to save you but Jesus,
 There’s no other way but His way.

Why do your wait, dear brother? 
The harvest is passing away,
 Your Savior is longing to bless you,
 There are danger and death in delay.

Why not? Why not?
 Why not come to Him now?
 Why not? Why not?
 Why not come to Him now?"

I urge preachers of the Gospel to restore this sense of urgency in their preaching. The Gospel still works if we will share it like we should. Those who respond to the urgency of the Gospel will find salvation now, rather than 6 weeks from now on "Baptism Sunday."

C’mon, Murphy. Let’s go outside!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Substitute Preachers"

I loved having substitute teachers in school. As soon as I walked in the room and the regular teacher wasn't there I knew it was a free day! Whoever the "victim," I mean highly qualified educator was, there was no way they were going to teach anything that day. I almost seem to remember an entire week where the sub. did nothing but show movies (and I'm talking the old 16mm kind for those of you old enough to remember those!)

As qualified as they may have been, they usually opted to do the "keep 'em quiet and entertained" mode of educating. At the end of the day they got paid, and the students were happy because there wasn't any homework! All in all, it was a pretty easy day for everyone concerned. I cannot, however, say that I was taught anything nor did I learn anything. But I went to school, and for that my mom was happy!

Today's blog is all about those preachers who know better, but choose to act like substitute preachers. They have been taught how to teach and preach. They know the tools that would help them understand a passage, communicate it, and make it applicable to today's audience in a meaningful way. But they choose not to do that. Rather, their goal is entertainment and multi-media is the approved method.

Have I seen videos that were appropriate to the topic, moving, and compelling? Absolutely! No more recently than this past Lord's day the church where I was a visiting preacher showed a video of the suffering of Christ on the way to the cross. It made partaking of the Lord's Supper a very real experience having just seen the broken body and shed blood as it was portrayed in that 3 minute video. A video that supports and illustrates the well-prepared message is a very valuable tool.

But to let cute videos, parodies, and stuff that is just plain silly - with no relevance, spiritual value, or illustrative value to a sermon/lesson is the mark of a lazy or stupid preacher/teacher. Entertainment was never the goal of a spokesman of God! I think of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. I think of Paul who was run out of one town after another. Should they have replaced God's message with a monologue fit for Conan, Dave, or Jay? Would they have been noted entertainers of their world? Would they have been invited to speak at the big conventions of their day? Maybe so... But they would not have shared the life-changing message of the eternal God of the universe.

Do we wonder why the average church member is so biblically illiterate? They can watch youtube at home! The entertainment portion of "church" is squeezing out much of the Scripture they desperately need to hear, learn, and apply. Bible Colleges that have squeezed out much of the Biblical/Theological component of a preacher's education may share the blame in this as well (but that's another blog for another time).

We often point the finger at the younger preachers who are substituting amusing multi-media for the Word of God. But what about those seasoned, "been in the pulpit for years," successful preachers? I listen to them on occasion and end up thinking things like this:

They tell me about Barna, but they don't tell me about Bartimaeus, Bartholomew, or Simon Bar Jonah!
They tell me about the latest poll by Zogby, but they probably couldn't find Zechariah or Zephaniah to save their life.
They repeat moving stories told by Lucado, but ignore Luke, the beloved physician.
They glory in the leadership principles told by John Maxwell, but look stunned and bewildered when someone asks them who John Mark was!

Do we get the point people? Great videos or great illustrations are fine - to support a great sermon or lesson! But to replace the word of God with the word of man is a grave mistake. It is also one teachers will answer for one day as well (see James 3:1). We owe it to our congregation to constantly strive to give them meat rather than milk (or the sweetened soda pop junk food that is so often spewed out today).

C'mon, Murphy! Let's go outside.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Grace & Telling the Truth Go Hand in Hand!

Years ago, in another life, I listened to many men and women give their Bible College "Chapel Talks." Occasionally someone would veer over into doctrinal areas and share the truth about the New Testament's teaching on immersion for the forgiveness of sin, and its place in the plan of salvation. Usually I would later hear a particular administrator commenting on it. She would often say, "that wasn't very gracious." This became her code for "immersion is controversial, perhaps we should say nothing about it as it may offend some people."

There is seemingly a great fear of putting people off by telling them the truth. Of course, no one likes to be told they're not telling people the truth. And now it is often defended by the catch word of "grace." The Bible College administrator didn't think it was "gracious" to say immersion was essential to salvation. People who speak the truth are often labeled as teaching and practicing a "graceless theology." Is this "new speak" for saying "whatever you want to do or believe is ok, just join my group and I won't offend you by sharing the truth with you"?

If advocating preaching & teaching sound doctrine is "graceless" then we need to return to the Scriptures. Paul warned against "tickling ears" (i.e. telling people what they want to hear, that they're ok just the way they are, etc.) in 2 Tim. 4:3, 4. The apostle who presents most of the New Testament's teaching on the subject of grace also forcefully demonstrated that not speaking the truth was a dangerous and unloving thing to do!

Paul risked preaching the truth even though he knew it would put him at odds - both with believers and non-believers. Paul did not avoid the hard or controversial topics just because it might offend people. When one reads 1 Corinthians they find forceful teaching on issues that are controversial, but necessary to know. He teaches on morality & salvation in chs. 5 & 6. He writes of the role of the Holy Spirit in chs. 12-14. He defends the truth of the resurrection in ch. 15. All of these topics - and more - show Paul defending the truth of God's Word even though it might be offensive to some. He noted this in 2 Cor. 2:14-16 saying that his message was to some an aroma of life and an aroma of death. He put the truth out there, the responsibility was then on those who heard to accept his message for what it was: the truth.

Paul lamented the fact that some would turn away, and even reject him personally, all for telling the truth. In Gal. 4:16 he writes, "Have I therefore become your enemy by telling you the truth?" Galatians is all about the topic of being saved by grace not by works. Paul maintains that to be in a grace relationship with Christ you must know the truth and you must follow it - God's way, not man's way.

A relationship with God, or starting/growing a church, is not ala carte, taking a little of this teaching, some of that one, or rejecting this one altogether and making your faith what *you* want it to be! We do our world a dangerous disservice by telling them God is really ok with you just the way you are. Jesus told the "rich young ruler" that he lacked something in Mk. 10:21. When the young man turned and walked away Jesus didn't run up and say, "wait a minute, don't worry about that, it's no big deal." Jesus told him the truth, and the young man rejected it to his own peril.

How sad it is that we think we need to avoid the Bible's teaching {doctrine} because it might put someone off. Actually, it will save them from hell if we will be bold & courageous enough to teach it. Paul told Timothy that as he pointed these things out to the brethren he would be a good servant of Christ (1 Tim. 4:6). He later told him to "Prescribe and teach these things" (1 Tim. 4: 11). When the doctor gives a prescription it is for the benefit of the patient. When we teach and maintain sound doctrine it is for the eternal benefit of those who will listen. A physician who doesn't prescribe life-saving medicine is not fulfilling his obligation to his patients. A teacher/preacher who will not prescribe sound doctrine does so to the danger of those unfortunate enough to hear him and think he is doing a good work.

No one denies that salvation is by grace (Eph. 2:8). But it is a misuse of the term grace to twist it to mean that whatever we teach (or don't teach) is fine as long as we love God. This is a gross error! Sound doctrine matters. Preaching the truth in love matters. Grace and truth were realized in Jesus' incarnation (Jn. 1:14, 17). Paul wrote to the Colossians that, "All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth (1:6). John wrote, Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father's Son, will be with us in truth and love (2 John 1:3).

So to the faithful communicators of God's Word out there: Keep preaching the truth of the Scriptures. It is the gracious & loving thing to do. Don't fall into the devil's trap of tickling ears just to grow your congregation.

C'mon, Murphy, let's go outside!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's Wrong WIth "Church"?

Am I the only one noticing that many new upstart groups are avoiding the word "church" like the plague in their names? "Church" has now been replaced by such nebulous and non-threatening titles such as "community," "family," etc. Most recently the cast of "Dancing With the Stars" also assured their viewers that they too were a tight-knit 'family.' That sure makes me feel better about watching them! Or groups will often choose names that evoke thoughts of positive life choices, belonging, transitions in life, etc. without needing to bother with the term "church." These have become replacements for the word "church." One of my favorite seminary professors would have called them "weasel words"! I recently went on a website of a "Christian Community" and looked in vain for any mention of the word "church." When I visited that "group" twice they appeared to be working very hard to avoid the use of the word "church" in their service as well. Have we become ashamed of the "Church" and too much like the world already filled with one group or organization after another?

My question is this: Is the word "church" a bad word? Have the modern church growth experts determined for us that in the 21st century the word "church" is so loaded with baggage that it must be replaced in order for people to desire to become a part of it. Is "church" too old, out-dated, and moldy where it must be relegated to a place of non-importance, just like that dust-covered old organ that hasn't been played in the last 5 years?

Is "church" just a replaceable synonym for any community, or a civic club, or gathering of people? I think not. The very word which we translate "church" is ekklesia which means to be "called out," from the world, and other social, political, civic entanglements, priorities, and loyalties. People can (and often are) devoted to the Moose Club, the Lions Club, the Elks, Eagles, Knights of Columbus, and the list goes on, but these are not replacements for the Church regardless of any good civic work they may do. The "church" is not just a group of like-minded individuals such as a civic club or political party. It is much more than that! It is the "church" which is identified as the body of Christ, not the Improved Order of Aardvarks!

Perhaps if Churches actually were less like the world they would be more attractive to people who are already entangled in the mindset and sin of the world. Too many cutting edge, visionary church planters have "dumbed down" (to borrow a phrase) what being a part of the Church is all about. They've forgotten "Who" the Church really belongs to as well. This also raises the question, "Why do today's church planters still call themselves "church planters" when they avoid the use of the word "church" in the groups they establish? Answer: To get money from established churches! Or to ask another question, why do Christian Universities still give lip-service to training a faithful ministry when it's obvious they no longer have that as their first priority? Answer: To get money from the churches! (But that's an upcoming blog!)

The "Church" is precious because it was established by Jesus. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, "upon this rock I will build My church..." (Mt. 16:18). The Church belongs to Jesus! He didn't come to establish a civic-club no matter how well intentioned. He didn't come to start another non-profit organization. He did come to call people out of the world and to be made a part of His body, the Church! This is not something to avoid or minimize. This is something worth shouting about! The "Church" is precious to God because it cost Him something very valuable. Paul said that the "church" was purchased with "His own blood" (Acts 20:28). Show me one place where the local Kiwani's club or Rotary club was purchased with the very blood of the Son of God! The Church is no doubt precious to God, and should be to us as well! It is a name not to be forgotten or re-defined to be more culturally palatable to the masses. By definition it seeks those who will leave the world's way and be identified with Jesus who founded the church. We should take note that Paul also had a high regard for the concept contained in "church" when he said, "All the churches of Christ greet you" (Rom. 16:16).

Being all things to all people to win some is a great idea (see 1 Cor. 9:19-22). Yet it does us well to remember the lines of a great little poem: "Methods are many, principles are few. Methods always change, principles never do." Selling out the "church" is selling out the body for which Jesus died, and the lifestyle He calls us to join. I believe it's time to be excited about the possibilities of the "church," not throw it out! We are told that the Church still has a mission. Look at Ephesians 3:10-12 and then tell me we can do without the church! Paul writes in verse 10, "in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places."

Be excited for the church! Be involved in the church. Don't cast the church aside!

C'mon, Murphy, let's go outside!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Who's My Pastor?

Don't be so quick to call yourself a "pastor"! I smile and shake my head at the number of guys out there who have {mis}appropriated the title of pastor, or when they think they are really important "lead pastors." It sounds so relevant, so cutting edge, so dynamic. But what it doesn't sound is biblical! It shows a complete disregard for correct usage of a fine biblical term in order to conform to what they think is more attractive to the masses. It shows a near contempt for the biblical model of leadership in a local congregation. Perhaps in their mind the end justifies the means, but it is a dangerous concession to make, because it circumvents the Lord's plan for the care of the flock. God's plan doesn't need to be amended! This applies to the plan of salvation as well as to the leadership in His Church.

The term pastor is a great word. It denotes a shepherd of the flock, one who knows his flock, cares for them, and protects them. Jesus used this term in John 10 as He described His care for the people, and noted that He would lay down His life for the sheep! Paul uses the term alongside teachers in Eph. 4. Peter calls upon elders to shepherd the flock, and refers to Jesus as the Chief Shepherd in 1 Peter 5. There is nothing wrong with the term at all when understood and applied biblically.

In the New Testament church "pastor" becomes a term for a shepherd-leader of the flock, used interchangeably with the word "elder." Yet I don't recall seeing anyone use the term "lead elder," or "Elder of the flock." I guess if more denominations used it then our guys would be falling all over themselves to claim that title too.

What's the problem then? Pastors are neither distinct nor independent from elders! They are the same body of leaders in the local church. Pastors are definitely not the executive branch and elders the legislative branch. They were never designed to be independent and definitely not antagonistic towards one another.

At one time the elder's role may be in teaching or preaching (1 Tim. 5:17). At other times their work may be in the pastoral area (Acts 20:28; Eph. 4:11). Some elders may be more gifted in administrative roles, others in shepherding roles, and others in teaching or preaching. But they remain elders just the same!

Many years ago, J.W. McGarvey wrote, "To apply {the title pastor} to a preacher who is not a regularly appointed elder of the church is a misnomer; as much as to call the Lord's Day Sabbath, or to call sprinkling baptism. It is a violation of the law that we must speak as the oracles of God; it is letting go of the form of sound words which we have heard from the apostles. Again; to style a a preacher "the pastor" is still more unscriptural, for it robs the eldership entirely of this title and makes it appear that there is but one pastor to the congregation, whereas the apostolic churches all had a plurality of them..."

I doubt that there's a youtube video of McGarvey saying these words, or else it could be shown in the middle of a sermon somewhere. But to all those cutting edge, modern, maverick, not bound by the tired traditions of the past "lead pastors" out there, why not call Bible things by Bible names? And if you're really searching hard for a good title, maybe we could talk about 'evangelist' some time??

C'mon, Murphy, let's go outside