Sunday, April 29, 2012

Facing the Future with Eyes Wide Open

I believe that the Church, capital C, Church, is facing a challenging future. Many have said it, but I believe it bears repeating. The world that the Church is facing is hostile to Christianity, and will be increasing hostile to Christianity. The fact is that the next 100 years will look increasingly more like the era that the church was born into, rather than the Christendom many of us were born into.

Why? Because while Christendom was a culture marked by a consensus “Christian worldview” (there was a catholic shape to this, and a protestant shape to this, but there was a shared core despite the tension), that’s not the world we live in now. Now we live in a world that is increasingly hostile and antagonistic towards Christianity. I hold up the way Vanderbilt University is trying to drive Christians off their campus as exhibit A. The good news is that as we move forward, the mushy middle will finish its slow death. The era of protestant liberalism will die, because it’s a powerless heresy that was as good as dead the moment it was birthed (75 years ago Richard Niebuhr spoke of it as "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross", while J. Gresham Machen showed that it is a heresy that is clearly not biblical Christianity), and we will increasingly be called to count the cost of discipleship, and live for his glory. What will be left is a leaner, stronger Christianity that will have a much greater impact for the glory of God and the furthering of his Kingdom.

And as we face this future, I want to note some things that I believe will be important to keep in mind. Things that should shape the church as we move forward. 

First, I believe that we will have to have our lives completely shaped by the gospel. For some time now, I’ve been consistently trying to articulate to First Baptist that we have to have a vision for gospel centered Christian living. My hope as a pastor is to grow people who really understand they are not saved by their works, or tenure, or anything else, but Christ and his finished work. To borrow from Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus + nothing= everything. We will need to drill this into our heads. Then, in grateful joy, we must live lives of consistent cross-bearing for the glory of Christ and the building of the Kingdom of God. As a church, I believe we are well on our way, and as I look to the future, what I hope to see is the continuing emergence of a church that is a Bible based, gospel centered, missional church family that seeks to proclaim the gospel, glorify God, build a great community through loving service, and grow deep disciples through solid teaching. As we face the future, we must be driven and shaped by the gospel, it’s the only thing that will sustain us, encourage us, and allow us to live for the glory of God in the face of suffering.

Second, we will need to be intensely missional. The early church went out, loving and serving the world around them, even in to face of persecution. It blew the world away. It was such an incredible witness to the world around that it transformed the Roman Empire. Our lives should be marked by loving service. We should be going out and serving the world, with joy, no matter what comes our way, knowing fully that we are always being watched.

Third, I believe that the church and church leaders will need to become much more intentional about training disciples. This will become increasingly important. We can’t just have  people pray a prayer, and expect that they will find their way in hostile world. We need to be mentoring and training people, helping them mature as followers of Christ, as they take off the old man, and put on the new man, Christ, and live for him and his glory. Church leaders will need to increasing focus on using the influence God has given them to help people live for God, remembering that the essence of Church leadership is not position and power, but service; serving people and using the influence God has given us to help people follow God more faithfully.

Fourth, we must relearn how to think doctrinally and critically, while speaking apologetically (apologetics has to do with giving a defense of the faith). Many Christians don’t know what the Bible says, they don’t know the core doctrines, and they find themselves unprepared for a hostile world. Furthermore, many Christians don’t know how to think critically. They don’t look at the arguments and assumptions that are being presented to them by the culture, and instead, blithely accept them. We need to relearn how to think critically, logically, and carefully, because while Christians are not known for being critical thinkers, when we look back we see that early Christians and Christian leaders were. In Acts 19, we see that Paul went in and was “reasoning daily” in the hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9). He did this for two years. As Christians, we need to be able to do the same. We need to be able to understand the beliefs and arguments of our secular friends better than they do, and then be able to refute them. We also need to learn to speak apologetically, to winsomely present Christ in a way that captivates the world around us as they see Christ lifted high in our words and deeds. Over time, I hope to see our church become more and more marked by people who think biblically, doctrinally, and for the glory of God. I think we have to see churches develop that are marked by theological rigor, critical thinking, and an ability to speak apologetically as they wisely live for the glory of God this incredibly and increasingly hostile world.

Fifth, I believe that we must prepare to face persecution. As the world becomes increasingly unfriendly to biblical Christianity, we will be forced to face the cost of discipleship. The good news though, is that the church will be strengthened by persecution. Persecution forces us to decide who we will serve, and that’s a good thing, because it kills off most of the tares (think of the parable of the wheat and the tares, the farmer plants good seed, but the enemy comes and plants bad seed. They both grow side by side, and Jesus says, don’t root them out, if you do, you root up the wheat along with the tares). Something happens in the face of persecution. Most of the tares root themselves out. Because they aren’t true followers of Christ, they bail, and the church is actually strengthened. We see this in place after place. Christianity was supposed to die in China when the western missionaries left. Instead, while it shrunk initially, it’s now thriving. That’s the story in place after place. What grows up is not mushy middle faith, it’s Christianity, strong, and lean and lived with intentionality because the cost of discipleship has been counted.

Sixth, I believe that being a church leader will be more intense and more challenging than it has been since the reformation. In a hostile word, we will be pushing and encouraging our people to do something that is increasingly countercultural, live lives that are holy to the Lord in the face of hostility.

Seventh, how should you be preparing individually? Three suggestions. Learn, mentor, count the cost. I’ve been wrestling with three questions lately. What are you learning, what are you teaching, and what are the results? So what are you learning? What passages have you been studying? What books are you reading? What has God been showing you? Second, who are you teaching? Who are you training up, who is the Timothy to your Paul? And what are the results? Learn, mentor, but also, count the cost. We must prepare to count the cost of discipleship once more, and challenge each other to remember that Jesus invites us to take up our cross- our instrument of execution, and follow him. No matter what.

As the world shifts and changes, as it becomes hostile to Christianity, the future will be challenging. But here’s the thing. We can let it catch us from the blindside unexpected, or we can rise to meet it with joy. When I was in Texas, I got to help out with the  football team of the school I worked at. One of the things that I remember that the coach told us is that you can be the hittee, or the hitter. You can be leaning into the tackle, applying the hit, or the other person can be the one leaning in and applying the hit. His point was that if you were ready for the tackle, if you are leaning in and ready for it you would come out far  better than if you were the one that is back on their heels. Blindside hits were always the worst; the quarterback doesn’t see it coming and can’t prepare. We face a challenging future. We must be ready. For the glory of God, and for the furthering of His kingdom.        

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Valley of Vision: Desires

Teach me to pray.
  I confess that in religious exercises 
the language of my lips and the feelings
 of my heart have not always agreed, 
that I have frequently taken carelessly upon 
  my tongue a name never pronounced above
     without reverence and humility, 
that I have often desired things that would 
  have injure me, 
that I have depreciated some of my chief mercies, 
that I have erred both on the side of my hopes 
  and also of my fears, 
that I am unfit to choose for myself,
  for it is not in me to direct my steps.
Let thy spirit help my infirmities,
  for I know not what to pray for as I ought. 
Let him produce in me wise desires by which 
   I may ask right things, then shall I know thou hearest me. 
May I never be importunate for temporal blessings, 
  but always refer them to thy fatherly goodness, 
  for thou knowest what I need before I ask; 
May I never think I prosper unless my soul prospers, 
  or that I am rich unless rich towards thee, 
  or that I am wise unto salvation. 
May I seek first thy kingdom and its righteousness. 
May I value things in relation to eternity. 
May my spiritual welfare be my chief solicitude. 
May I be poor, afflicted, despised and have 
    thy blessing, 
  rather than be successful in enterprise,
  or have more than my heart can wish,
  or be admired by my fellow-men,
    if thereby these things make me forget thee.
May I regard the world as dreams, lies, vanities, 
     vexation of spirit,
   and desire to depart from it. 
And may I seek my happiness in thy favor, 
     image, presence, service.

From The Valley of Vision pages 194-195

Friday, April 27, 2012

Worth Checking out: An Allegory of the Collapsing American Church

Wes Moore has a gut check article that I read yesterday. Read through it and think through it. I posted it in it's entirety. It was originally found here.
American Heart Services (AHS) was once a thriving business. With multiple locations in virtually every U. S. city, number one market share, and the best heart remedy products on the market, AHS was hard to beat. 
Over the past 20 years, however, AHS has been in a steady decline. Sales in 85% of its North American offices are in a steady descent, and hundreds of its stores will close in the next year. Of the few offices that are adding new business, much of the growth comes from taking customers from other branch offices (a practice which many in management applaud).
All the while, the competition is thriving. Whether with an alternative product offering or a cheap knock-off, the competition is leaving AHS in the proverbial dust. In fact, things have gotten so bad that many of AHS’s offices have been purchased and occupied by their competition.
What’s the culprit? Here are a few of their more obvious mistakes.
Sales Failure 
Shockingly, AHS no longer recruits sales people. They make no effort to recruit those people who are directly responsible for reaching new sources of business.
Further, existing sales people have no ongoing training program. When it comes to knowing AHS’s product line, the competition’s, or basic selling skills, the AHS sales force is on its own.
If that’s not bad enough, there is also no accountability system to help the sales team bring in new customers, nor is there an organizational structure for the sales force.
The sales people get together weekly with upper management, but, remarkably, no new customers are discussed. They mostly talk about the company’s products, how much better they are than the competition, and how amazing it is that no one will buy them anymore.
Instead of strategizing and planning a turnaround, they discuss how to be better employees. Yes, you heard right…better employees! 
  Disinformation by the Competition 
  Magnifying their internal failures, the competition is on a major disinformation campaign about AHS. They have developed a powerful range of media and print advertising that negatively portrays AHS and its excellent products (the AHS product line is still the best in the world).
Competitors constantly run commercials, TV programs, and even produce major motion pictures that slander AHS and spread, in some cases, outright lies about the company.
Upper Management’s Response
Upper management is concerned, but they either ignore the problems or are unwilling to implement important changes. In fact, many in management are afraid to do anything because of how the long-term employees will respond.
While some fear, others are just apathetic; they figure the company will survive long enough for them to retire or find a better job somewhere else, so why bother. And then there are those who just can’t see doing it any other way, even if the present strategy is ruining the company.
As for the competition’s devastating disinformation campaign, management mostly ignores the attacks. Instead of putting forth the truth, they cover their eyes and long for the good old days when things weren’t so complicated.
How would you react?
How would you rate AHS’s management team, training program, or sales approach? Do their strategies make sense? How would you react if you were a stock holder, a customer, or an employee?
You, like me, would probably demand immediate action and a new course for the company. People would be fired; heads would roll. And you’d be right.
But here’s the catch: by indicting AHS, you indict…yourself. You see, there is no AHS; it is only an imaginary company meant to illustrate a very real organization—the Christian church in America. [1]
In 2 Samuel 12:7, after David’s malicious sins, Nathan told him an imaginary story about an evil man, and then said to David, “You are the man!” And now, fellow Christian, I must now say to you: “You are the man!” AHS is your church, my church, everybody’s church.
The negligent and foolish way AHS carries out its mission is in many ways similar to the way we carry out ours.
How are we the same?
We have no strategy to recruit and train new evangelists within our congregations, and we give our existing evangelists no training to speak of, except the occasional Sunday morning pep-talk about witnessing. We don’t organize our people to effectively reach the lost and we have no system of accountability to help them reach their goals.
In fact, we’re far worse than this allegory implies. Over 90% of our people have absolutely no intention of sharing their faith. [2] None. The very people who are supposed to share the good news and grow the kingdom of God have flatly refused.
We get together weekly (if not more) and talk about how to become better employees (better Christians) and cry because our churches are shrinking and our children are leaving, but we’re too afraid of the Pharisees to make the changes we need to make.
Our leaders are often too apathetic, too bogged down in tradition, or too constrained by the old guard Pharisees to make any worthwhile changes. Yet, we sit around our Sunday school tables and brag about how great it is to know the truth.
Staggering Numbers
All the while, the numbers stare us in the face: 85% of our churches are declining. [3] When you measure church growth against population growth, only about 4% of churches in America are actually growing (that means 96% of churches are actually declining). Not a single county in America has more people going to church now than it did ten years ago. And, according to the Barna Group, of the more than 350,000 Protestant churches in America, over 60,000 don’t have a single convert each year.
In America, we close ten churches every day, 72 a week, over 3700 per year. Thousands more are on the verge of collapse and soon will become pawn shops, adult video stores, or temples for our nation’s idols.
Sanctuaries full of gray hair and empty pews incriminate us. Baptisms are few and far between and unsaved visitors almost unheard of. Some have even gone to thinking that a transfer is actually increasing the size of the church.
Furthermore, our enemy is eating our lunch. Whether it’s atheism, New Age, Mormonism, “spirituality,” or just plain “carnality,” the Adversary’s lots are full. Through the media, public schools and universities, and a myriad of other avenues, Satan has trained millions that they can’t trust the Bible, and has convinced entire generations that God’s Word is nothing more than pagan mythology.
And what are we doing about it? For the most part, we do what the management of AHS did—we cover our eyes and dream of a day when things were better. In my 14 years with Jesus, I have never heard a pastor address apologetics from the pulpit in any significant way. Not even once.
Given all this, should we be surprised when homosexuals are allowed in the military, God’s name is taken off every monument in our land, Nativity displays are banned, Jesus’ name is used as a curse word, more and more grotesque forms of abortion are legalized, and atheists buy ads on billboards encouraging Americans to be “good without God”?
Given the near collapse of salt and light in this land, it’s a wonder it isn’t worse.
Too harsh or just what we need?
Though shocking, I believe this comparison is an appropriate reflection of who we are and what we have become in the church in America, and I hope it gets your attention.
I thought about closing this article with a list of things to do to set us on a better course. But I think I’ll just let you contemplate the comparison a little longer. I would, however, like to leave you with two questions: If you worked for AHS, what would be your title? And, what will eventually become of AHS?
Answer these two questions and you should have all the motivation you need to get down on your knees and start thinking about your own renewal strategy.

[1] By this analogy I am not saying the church is a business. But as both are organizations who share the goal of growth and use people to drive that growth, one can loosely illustrate the failings of the other.
[2] John Ewart, Church Consultant Training Level 1, DVD Series (Louisville, KY: Society for Church Consulting, 2008). While these statistics are from 2008, based on the numbers I hear today, there is no reason to believe they have improved since then. If anything, they have gotten worse.
[3] Ibid. All statistics in these two paragraphs are from this same source.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Homosexuality: How do we respond? Part 3

Recently, I was asked if there is a place for Homosexual lifestyle to be affirmed within Christianity. This week, I’ve been sharing some of my thoughts on this issue. Tuesday I looked at the subject in relationship to our identity as people of the book and God’s design for sexuality. Yesterday, I looked at love and repentance. Today I want to look at sexual brokenness, identity, practical considerations, and witness. I’m adding practical considerations, because I think that we need to asses our situation and work from where we are at.

Let’s start with the issue of sexual brokenness. Here’s the question, “Aren't Homosexuals God's children?” Yes. Absolutely. Each person, homosexual or heterosexual (gay or straight), is created in the image of God. However, at the same time, each one of us is fallen. The bible makes clear that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in Romans. It says in Isaiah “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way (Isa 53:6).” All creation was marred by the fall. Everyone is a rebel in need of God’s saving grace. And every area of our life is damaged by sin. I was asked “do we need to assume they (homosexuals) are sinners rather than variations of God's great creation?”  My answer is yes. Now that sounds cold, but let me fill in the dead air. That’s the case with every one of us as well. Think about this. All of us, gay and straight, have a fallen sexuality. Let me just take us straight men. We want to sow our oats. Have lots of sex with lots of women. Eventually we “settle down”, which is an underhanded way of saying, “we quit the race, and just “settled” on one person”. Like we knew we couldn’t keep at it forever, so we might as well get out when we’re ahead. All of us have a broken set of sexual desires.

The bible makes clear that every part of creation is groaning because of the fall. It says, when Adam and Eve rebelled, they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they fell, and all of their hopes, desires, and instincts; everything, was marred. And that extends to us. It’s the doctrine of original sin. So while we are God’s creation, made in the image of God, at the same time, that image is marred, we are all affected by sin. Our hopes, dreams, desires, are all marred and twisted. And therefore, straight or gay, our sexuality is marred. Why is it that straight men look at porn, and cheat on our wives, and on and on and on? Straight, not gay… Because everyone’s sexuality is broken in some way.

So just working through the main question, I would say no, there is no place in Christianity to affirm homosexuality. But there is no place in Christianity to affirm a straight couple sleeping together outside of marriage. However, while there is no place to affirm homosexuality, that does not mean we repress and shame. In love, we hold up the same message to everyone. You are a sinner, your need Christ. Turn to Christ. And then, on the basis of faith in Christ, call all to lay aside their sin, whatever that is. And remember, every day, everyone, even Christians, sin. Martin Luther (the man who started the reformation) noted that that we were simultaneously sinners and saints. We are recipients of the gospel… recipients of grace, yet we will sin till the day we day.  So, shame, no. Repress. Absolutely not! Call to repent, yes.

Now, here’s the thing. The church has an atrocious record (what do you expect of people who are sinners? Repentant sinners, but by no means perfected yet. At times Christians have been cruel, and unloving, and evil. And that was and is wrong. It is as sinful a course of action as you can find. There is a difference between saying something is sin, and being a jerk about it. And on top of that, let’s face it; most Christians don’t live as God calls us to live. We look far more like the culture around than like people who have responded to the grace of God with joyful obedience. Let’s all acknowledge our brokenness.

Now, while I’m here, “does everyone need to reproduce?” No. Paul was called to live as a celibate Christian. So have many others. A hero of the faith, John Stott, recently died. He was never married, and lived as a celibate man.

Also, “do Christians believe that they really aren't gay and just need to be saved”? I would say they are gay. Their desire is marred, just like my desire is marred. I’m not going to play that game. I think that only by Gods grace will their desires be changed, but currently, their desire is to be gay. All I can say is what I would say to an unmarried straight person. What are the boundaries of sexuality as the bible holds them forth? Glorify God by following them.

Now, this brings us to the subject of identity. Having grown up near Brattleboro VT, I have known a fair amount of gay people. When I was a kid, people used to cite some study that Brattleboro had the third highest per-capita percentage of homosexuals in the nation, after SF, and Northampton Ma. I’ve never looked up the numbers because it didn’t matter. Brattleboro was and still is a huge gay Mecca. When I was a teenager, the owner at the restaurant I worked at was gay, as were several of the staff, from the chefs, to the waiters, to interns. Later, when I was in college, I was friends with a guy that I worked with who is gay, and I’ve got a friend from home who is married to his partner.

One thing that I’ve often think is unwise is that those in the gay community identify themselves first and foremost as gay. I also think that we are doing those in the homosexual community a disservice by allowing them to see themselves only in light of their sexuality; “I’m a man who has sex with man, that’s what I am about”. What is going on in that is an idolatry of sex, in this case homosexuality. Martin Luther showed something interesting. He showed the way sin works is to create idols, counterfeit Gods if you will. He pointed out that the first commandment in the ten commandment is “"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”You shall have no other gods before me.” The second is, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them, (Exodus 20:2-5)”. Luther showed that to sin, in any way, you have to break commandments one and two. You place something else on the throne of your life. It becomes a “counterfeit God”. Whatever gives you that hope and joy in life, whatever sits on the throne of your life and names you, is a counterfeit God.

But here’s the thing, there is more to anyone than just their sexuality. There is a person in the West Wing, one of my favorite shows, and he’s a gay republican congressman, and he lectures one of the main characters about how there is more to him than who he sleeps with. I think when we see someone only on the basis of their sexual identity, we reduce the person. Are we doing them a favor in saying, this is who you are? Are we doing anyone a favor by over sexualizing the culture, saying, this is who you are, gay or straight?

And thinking about it this way, if all are sinners by nature, we all lie, cheat, steal, do little things that breaks God’s laws, would we want to encourage someone to identify their sin as the thing that drives and motivates them? “I’m Jonathan, I’m a liar, please celebrate that”.Also, lets keep in mind that we are more than able to be freinds with someone that is gay while not celebrating their lifestyle, and ecnourageing theri idolatry. There is a difference between a) unconditional acceptance of their lifestyle and unconditionally encouraging them to identify their sin as the thing that defines them; and b) liking them as a person and being friends with them. Jesus was known as a freinds of sinners. I think we should be to.

Now here’s the thing. I think we need to stop and address some practical considerations. The bible says ‘no way’ to affirming the homosexuality within the church. It’s a sin to be turned from, not something to be ‘celebrated’, and it makes clear that while homosexual sex as sin, grace is offered to all. Straight sinner and gay sinner are called to repent and be saved. But that’s the boundary within the church. As a church, for all the reasons I have listed, we can’t affirm their lifestyle, but in a secular society, I’m not sure where the boundaries are. Is it legitimate in a secular society for me to impose my morality on others?  Legislated Christianity? Legislated morality? The early church didn’t seem to do this. They lived in such a radically different way, that the world was attracted to them, and joined them. The sexual ethics of the early church were radically different in a world that was incredibly broken in terms of its sexual ethics. But that was inside the community. Outside, the culture was free to be as broken as it wanted to be. The churches duty was and is to guard the witness of its community.

Furthermore, and this is just practical, it seems to me that we should be working to guard the boundaries of the church because this is a done deal. Gay marriage will be the law of the land within 5-10 years. Many wiser than I have made a case that the church has already lost battle in the wider culture. And I wonder if it would be better if we just urged the state to offer some sort of civil union for all, and leave marriage for the church. I’m not sure. I think it might be. Allow the gay community to have the protections of civil union, but leave marriage for the church and religious institutions.

At the same time, if (as many argue) it’s a done deal, we should be thankful that the constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, and speech, which protects those who see it as a sin continue to be able to speak against it, and it protects us from being legislated out of existence.

Final section. Witness. The churches responsibility is to witness with grace. We cannot, must not, act in pride, anger, or from a position of “we’re better”. It’s only when we see ourselves, as people who have been shown the mercy of God, but are always going to have the tendency to sin, that we can have any credibility. It’s only when we are seeking the good of those around us, the good of the gays in our community, that we can say, “hey, God has something better for you”.

Since the sexual revolution in the 60’s, the bibles stance on sex have seemed outmoded to most of our culture. But yet, when you look around, you see that our families are in disarray, and kids are far more venerable than they used to, and you have to wonder, did the sexual revolution really free us, or enslave us in a different way? Personally, I think the fact that the church has all but capitulated to the sexual ethics of the world inside the church, the fact that the church has failed to hold up and follow Christ’s teaching on sexuality has damaged its witness. And why has it happened? Because we have also allowed sex to become an idol in our hearts at one time or another. And I’ve done it, and so have many in the church have done it, and the result is we’ve damaged our credibility, and dishonored our Lord. At that point, all we can do is repent, and seek God’s forgiveness, and then get our house in order, knowing that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1Johb 1:9) From there we seek to glorify God in our lives and urge others to do the same.

One last thought. At the end of the day, I’m with Keller. It all comes down to the gospel, and the issue of the cross and resurrection. If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn't rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.” This should be our message to the world.  Figure out what you believe about Jesus and the resurrection. Is Jesus who he said he is, the Son of God risen from the dead? If he is, that changes everything. And if he’s not, that to changes everything.

Does this help. My hope is that as a pastor I can give you a framework in which to think through this biblically. Has it helped? I’d love to hear responses.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Homosexuality: How do we respond? Part 2

Recently, I was asked if there is a place for Homosexual lifestyle to be affirmed within Christianity. Wouldn’t Jesus have accepted gays, aren't they too God's children, do we need to assume they are sinners rather than variations of God's great creation, did God really need everyone to reproduce, and at the heart of the issue, can't there be a place in Christian ideals for gays to flourish, should these people really be repressed and ashamed? Do Christians believe they really aren't gay and just need to be saved?

It’s a big question. In some ways, the way a church responds reveals their fidelity to the scriptures more than any question of out age. Yesterday I looked at the subject in relationship to our identity as people of the book and God’s design for sexuality. Today, I will look at love and repentance. Tomorrow, I will look at sexual brokenness, identity, and witness.

Love and repentance. Wouldn't Jesus have accepted someone who is gay? Great questions, especially in light of the way that some “Christians” act. The Westboro Kansas group would tell you “God hates fags”, and just stop there. Some in many churches just want to throw a rainbow on the sign and forget that the passages in the bible about homosexuality exist. But this is more thoughtful. How would Jesus have acted, since He is our savior and model for all of life? 

Lets try it this way. Yes, but…. First the yes. Jesus absolutely met people where they are at. We see him sitting and eating with tax collectors (who were the worst of traitors). He went to parties. He ministered to the sexually broken. Time and again he welcomes sinner, hangs with sinners, accepts sinners. He sits and talks with the woman at the well in great length. The thing that irritated the religious leaders the most was that he rubbed shoulders with those they thought of sinners.

So that’s the yes…Here’s the but.  He doesn’t leave people the same. Encounters with Christ lead people to turn from their sin. Sometimes He confronts the sin in people’s lives, sometimes they know it instinctively.

Take the woman at the well in John 4. He sits and talks with the woman at the well in great length. He’s traveling, he comes to this village, and he and his disciples decide to stop at about the sixth hour, early afternoon. He stays by the well, while his disciples go into town. While he is there, a woman comes out  to get water (this tells us allot about her- because this was usually done in the morning or evening, when it was cooler. She’s an outcast on some level). She and Jesus strike up a conversation. He asks for a drink, and she asks, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)  Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." "Sir," the woman said, "you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?" Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (here Jesus is speaking of salvation. Living water is a metaphor for salvation) The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water." Look at what happens when she says that. They are talking about salvation. Suddenly, he changes the subject to sex. Out of the blue. She says "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water." And what does he say, be saved? No. Verse 16 tells us that “He told her, "Go, call your husband and come back." "I have no husband," she replied. Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true." He confronts her with her sexual sin. He points out that there are things that have to be dealt with in her life.

Or take another example, this one having nothing to do with sex. Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is a tax collector (which means he’s a thief and a traitor- the Romans would make a contract with a tax collector, you give us X, whatever you get over that, you can keep. It was completely corrupt, and meant selling out your people, to the Romans- Jews hated tax collectors). Jesus comes and says, “I must stay at your house today.” So he (Zacchaeus) came down at once and welcomed him(Jesus) gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner.'" But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount." Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." (Luke 19:5-10) Now, is there a confrontation? No, but the result of meeting Christ, is that he turns from his life of sin.

From the very beginning of Jesus ministry, he preached repentance. He say “The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mar 1:15). Now is God’s grace free. Absolutely! Grace is free, but an encounter with grace brings change in your life. It causes you to turn from sin, to God. It calls you to trade one love for another love. 

So, the church has a responsibility to show love to all. Absolutely! It has a responsibility to reach out to all, but to gay and straight, no matter what the sins, we call for repentance. And here’s the thing. If someone comes into my church that is gay (and they have), I’m not going to kick them out, I’m not going to say, you dirty homosexual. I’m going to welcome them. I’m going to seek to get them to think about Christ and the resurrection, and only then are we going to deal with the issue of homosexuality. And that’s how I would deal with anyone’s sin. Be it sexual sin, theft, lying, greed, gossip, or you take your pick... One of the pastors who’s influenced me allot is a guy named Tim Keller (I think people in the church get sick of hearing his names I invoke it so often). He has a great statement. He says that people come to him, and they have this objection, or that objection (and one of them is homosexuality- he pastors in Manhattan NY), and he says that he points out that “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn't rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.”

Does this resonate? Chew on it. Think about it. As Christians, have a responsibility to show love to all. But to gay and straight, we say the same thing. Figure out the gospel and the resurrection, turn to Christ in repentance, flee from sin and live lives that glorify him.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Homosexuality: How do we respond? Part 1

Recently, I was asked if there is a place for Homosexual lifestyle to be affirmed within Christianity. Wouldn’t Jesus have accepted gays? Aren't they too God's children, do we need to assume they are sinners rather than variations of God's great creation, did God really need everyone to reproduce, and at the heart of the issue, can't there be a place in Christian ideals for gays to flourish, should these people really be repressed and ashamed? Do Christians believe they really aren't gay and just need to be saved

It’s a big question. One that all of us will face, because homosexuality is gaining ground, and exerting more and more pressure to be accepted, and yet the bible clearly declares that homosexuality is a sin (as is any sex outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage). This is, in many ways, one of the tests of gospel faithfulness in our day. are you willing to stand on the word of God, and lovingly say "NO"? We love you, but it's not healthy or God ordained?

This week, I will be sharing some of my thoughts on this issue. Today I will look at the subject in relationship to our identity as people of the book and God’s design for sexuality. Tomorrow, I will look at love and repentance. And Thursday, I will look at sexual brokenness, identity, and witness.

First, people of the book. As Christians, we believe that the bible is the inspired word of God. It’s not just a group of people telling about what they think God is like, but that God directed and shaped the content of Scripture. In doing so, we are following Jesus example and belief. Jesus, looking at the Old Testament, make clear that he saw scripture as the word of God time and again. Let me give you one example, because it comes in the context of marriage. “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."  (Matthew19:3-6). When you go back and look, you see that this is a footnote added by the writer of Genesis. But Jesus makes clear that ultimately, it’s there because God put it there. Jesus had an incredibly high view of scripture, and so all the time we see him saying, it is written, and how will scripture be fulfilled?” He was shaped and molded by scripture. He viewed it as the word of God. Later, when you get the epistles, you see that Paul says, “all scripture is God breathed”, and Peter says “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2Pe 1:19-21).

Now, the issue before Christians is this. If we take Jesus view of scripture, we cannot affirm homosexuality. Scripture tells us that a man should not lay with a man. Leviticus 18:23 say “do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable. Leviticus 20:13 say “if a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads”. Notice that what’s condemned is the action, not the inclination. Furthermore, scripture makes clear that those who practice homosexuality (and many other sins) are under the condemnation of God. Romans lays out  famously that “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator--who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips,  slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Rom 1:18-32). 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 also jumps in, and says, “do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

Now here’s the question. What does the bible say about sexuality in general? It condemns homosexuality, but what else does it say about sexuality? It tells us that God designed marriage, one man, one woman, in lifelong union. We’re told God designed the woman to be the perfect complement to the man (quite literally). He created woman to be the equal and complimentary partner to the man. In genesis we read that “The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him." Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman, ' for she was taken out of man." For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. (Gen 2:16-25)

The bible does not just condemn one thing, it holds up something else, an ideal. It shows that  God designed marriage, a man and a woman together for life, and the woman to be the perfect compliment to the man (quite literally). She’s not his underling, not from his feet; or over him, from his head, but from his side. His equal, one to support him, encourage him, be with him for life. When you read through the bible, time and again, it makes clear, that’s the only context for sexuality. All sexuality. What did Jesus say directly about homosexuality? Nothing. But when he’s asked about things in the wheelhouse of sexuality, divorce, what does he say? He takes the questioners right back to genesis. He grounds all human sexuality in terms of marriage, and makes clear that there is only one confine for sex; lifelong marriage. In other places, he says things that are incredible. He says looking with lust at a woman is as adultery in the heart (You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mat 5:27-28). He condemns adultery in other passages. And he affirms the scriptures. He makes clear that all the passages in the old testament that tell us, sex before marriage is sin, sex with someone other than your wife is sin, and on and on, (think the law in Exodus –Deuteronomy), are still valid. And while he fulfills the clean laws (he lived sinlessly- doing what Israel failed to do- he kept the law), and makes clear that the clean laws are abrogated, they no longer apply (see mark 7), he affirms the creation mandate of sexuality, and affirms the law. And think about the implications of that for divorce. Divorce and remarriage, is not in line with God’s design. In Matthew, he makes clear that the only grounds for divorce and remarriage, is adultery.

The bible, from beginning to end, says that there is only one acceptable confine for sex; marriage between a man and a woman. It says everything outside that boundary, is sin. Here’s the thing. We Christians wear egg on our face, because we sit here and say, homosexuals. Sinners. But, the bible says, sexual sin is sexual sin. Period and end of discussion. It says divorce without cause (adultery or abandonment by a non-believeing spouse) is sin. It lays out an incredibly high sexual ethic.

Now. We Christians fail to live up to this ideal? Yes. Absolutely.

But here’s what makes our sin even more grievous. The bible says that marriage is a God designed picture of Christ and the church. It shows us that way before creation, God planned on the great work of salvation, and he created marriage to be a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church. Ephesians tells us “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church--  for we are members of his body1 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Eph 5:21-33)

So  here’s the issue. With the fact that we follow our master in being people of the book, with the fact that there are passages that say homosexuality is sin, and with the fact that heterosexual marriage is God design for sexuality, and with the fact that Marriage is a picture of Christ and the church, how can we possibly we affirm it?