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!