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Posts Tagged ‘Unity’

Foot-washingIn the church blogosphere, church leaders–specifically elders in Churches of Christ–are the target for much criticism.  Yesterday, I happened to be a neutral observer in a elders/members confrontation that will encourage you.

Apparently the worship wars that most big city congregations faced a decade or two ago had just become real at this good-sized church in a small town.  Some of their young people–but not exclusively young people–had been clapping and raising their hands during worship.  The ultimate offense, however, was some “stomping.”  I wasn’t there, so I can’t describe these actions.

Some of the brethren just left for other congregations in the county, but a few didn’t want to give up their pew without a fight so they threatened the elders with their ultimate weapons–withholding their contribution and/or divorce.

You have these options in many counties because there are so many congregations for so few people! I was recently in a Main Street congregation where the preacher told me there were 26 churches in a county with around 30,000 people. Many of the congregations were started in horse-and-buggy days when people didn’t want to be too far away from their cows and chickens–which to me explains adequately why they all started, but not why they still exist today!  My experiences suggest that they continue to exist because of tradition, turf, dynasties, clans, and sectarian feuding.

What this multiplicity of congregations has led to, however, is a consumer mentality among Christians. If I don’t like the price of milk at this store, I just go down the street to their competition. If this church doesn’t give me what I want, do what I want, worship like I want, I just go down the road to one that will.

Our actions suggest that God made a big mistake by describing the church as a family or a body. Can you imagine how ridiculous it would be if our bodies were built so that if our toes didn’t like where the foot was going, they could just leave!  And we know all too well how destructive abandoning one’s family is!

God hates divorce! But we seem to have created a congregational marketplace which encourages it!

Back to our story:  the elders of this congregation studied and prayed about these worship questions. Their conclusions were not to create laws and limitation where the Bible did not.  They delivered their prayerful decision to the church in a gentle and loving way, which is what brought out the threats of divorce!

So, last Sunday, this general “family meeting” as they described it, was not about worship, rather it was about what it means to be a family!

The elders did so many things right!  The first was to have the open meeting during the Sunday school hour so the maximum number of church members could attend. It says that they really wanted to talk to the family rather than exercising their perogative to “rule” from their board room!

Each of the elders spoke briefly–showing their unity of Spirit and their united commitment to the family.  No doubt they had not all been on the same page when they started praying and studying together, but they were by the end of the process. Majority rule has no place in church leadership.

The first elder who spoke was probably the least eloquent, but he set the tone for the meeting by admitting to how nervous he was. He quoted someone who said that nervousness is the price of being a racehorse instead of a cow!  The laughter–the humility– was good for the family!

Several of the elders spoke of their longevity in that congregation–through thick and thin, a cliche that was worn out by the end of the meeting.  One elder described the tapestry of experiences that he himself was, mentioning first the people in his life and then the congregations where he had attended.  He was just saying that we all bring a lot of different experiences with us when we become part of a congregation.  He went on to talk about how he had been shocked in 1991 when this congregation had men serve communion without a coat and tie on!

All of the elders spoke of their love for the family, their constant prayers for the members of the body, and their willingness to listen honestly to every concern.

And here is where they really acted as shepherds of the flock, over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers (Acts 20:28). The elders described their prayerful search for a biblical answer to this worship question–and then told the church what they believed God wanted this body to do!  These men lovingly led the church–prayerfully and humbly, not from seats of power–toward unity and freedom.

Unity and freedom–words conjoined over and over again in the statements from each of the elders, instructing the congregation to seek these same values as individual members of the body. Their “oversight” meant seeing what was good for the whole Family, the whole Body, and their word from God was not to bind on anyone what God had not bound, but also to call the members of the family to faithfulness, not divorce.

I understand why churches are moving away from the term elders; most have moved to the synonym shepherd. I don’t think that resonates much with most of us who have never had anything to do with sheep. I’d prefer for elders to be called pastors if we need to use a more modern term.  Theirs is more the pastoral role. But their title is not nearly as important as their hearts.

Thank you, God, for prayerful, humble, and courageous church leaders who live out the unity of the Spirit and the freedom in Christ and who lead their congregations by speaking the truth in love.

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Unity Requires Grace!

Whenever someone starts to talk about unity, other people get nervous that somehow people who shouldn’t be in the fold of the saved might be allowed in.  I suppose too many people under grace would somehow water down the value of salvation, or those that were really good would be disappointed to learn that they didn’t really need to be that good to get in.

Even those who further narrow the passage way believe in grace.  In fact, it is the measure and scope of God’s grace that seems to be one of the most difficult problems. Too much grace and we have Romans 6: “Shall we sin that grace may abound??”  Too much grace and we are tempted towards universalism, or salvation for everyone!

But not enough grace and we find ourselves in legalism, sectarianism, and judgmentalism, which all of us believe to be out of step with the spirit of Christ.

What if we quit speculating about grace and just listed the sins toward which we know God has extended grace.  This is just a blog, not a book, so you’ll forgive me for just hitting the high points without a lot of footnotes.

Old Testament

  1. Lying              –                                              Abraham lied twice about his wife
  2. Cheating      –                                              Jacob cheated Esau out of the blessing
  3. Idolatry        –                                              Aaron made a golden calf for Israel to worship
  4. Rebellion     –                                              Aaron and Miriam rebelled against Moses’ leadership
  5. Lust                –                                              David lusted after Bathsheba
  6. Adultery      –                                              David took Bathsheba to bed and got her pregnant
  7. Murder        –                                              David had Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed
  8. Challenging God’s righteousness      Job

New Testament

  1. Adultery      –                              Jesus and the adulterous woman
  2. Stealing        –                              Thief on the cross
  3. Denying Jesus           –              Peter
  4. Power struggle         –              “Who will be the greatest in the kingdom”
  5. Hatred/Vengence   –              “Do you want us to call down fire on them?”
  6. Persecuting Christians –         Saul of Tarsus
  7. Murder                        –              Saul and Stephen
  8. Racial prejudice/hypocrisy – Peter with the Greek Christians

And then there is the lists of  “and so were some of you” that Paul mentions: “You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips” Colossians 3:7.

So how does this list of sins stack up against those sins for which you are willing to deny fellowship with others who call on the name of the Lord?

 

Let’s acknowledge two very important truths about sin/grace here:

  1. All sin has consequences.  Grace did not mean Paul was not hated and persecuted by the Jews. Grace did not mean that David’s infant son by Bathsheba did not die.  All sin has consequences.
  2. We are called to repent of all sin!  But as I think back over the above list, I don’t remember Abraham or Jacob or the Sons of Thunder repenting—at least not in a way that was worth recording.

So I can acknowledge that God’s grace is extended to all (“God so loved the world”—not “God so loved the Good People”)and still acknowledge that there are people who will not accept the grace of God.

Two verses of Scripture have changed my need to speculate about the portion of grace you have received.

John 1:14 – The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory,the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

If Jesus could be full of truth and full of grace at the same time, then I should strive for the same.  All truth and no grace is just as wrong as all grace and no truth!  Full, to me, means going for the most truth possible and the most grace possible.

James 2:13“Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

What this says to me is that if you are in doubt about whether to exercise mercy or judgment, you should always choose mercy.

Ephesians 2 says that God is rich in mercy.  If you need help in deciding whether to show grace or to exercise judgment—think about being “full of grace” like Jesus and “rich in mercy” like God.  I have a hard time seeing how you can go wrong following these paths.

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I told the preacher from a small town in Tennessee that we have historically been with the a cappella part of the Restoration Movement, and he said, “That just makes me tingle!”

Sherrylee and I are at the North American Christian Convention, which is the primary annual meeting of the Independent Christian Churches.  We have been treated to wonderful classes, outstanding preaching, and great fellowship, but more importantly for me, we have caused goose bumps!

I stopped at a booth yesterday and was talking to three women who are involved in a benevolent ministry, listening to them tell about their wonderful work. One of the women read the logo on my shirt and asked, “So what is Let’s Start Talking?”

Of course, I started telling her and her response was, “Why haven’t I heard about this before?”  I explained that LST began in the a cappella Church of Christ, to which she replied, “Now what’s going on here? “

She had grown up in the non-instrumental Church of Christ and knew from her childhood that the two cousins were not in fellowship with each other. YET, the keynote speaker that morning was from Abilene Christian University, and here we were standing right in front of her.

I explained to her that there were still differences—like any two brothers or sisters are different—but that maybe we were all learning that loving one another was more Christ-like than castigating one another.

At least 5000 Christians are in Orlando at the conference. I hardly know anyone here—which is so different from when we go to Pepperdine or Harding or any of our lectureships or conferences.  And I didn’t really know how we would be received.  Every group has its hardliners who only have room in their hearts for people who do not disagree with them on things.  What if I sat at the table with someone who was angry that this “other” person was at their meeting!!

When the preacher from Tennessee said, “That just makes me tingle, ” the thought crossed my mind that he was reacting negatively, but then he said, “I just love it that we have begun to find each other again.”

It’s a beautiful thing when brothers walk together in unity. And it’s a sign of a maturing body of Christ, and a sign of the reconciliation of the world, and a sign of the work of God’s Spirit—and an answer to the last prayers of Jesus.

If you were thinking about bristling, stop and pray for tingling instead!

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A couple of nights ago, Sherrylee and I watched Keys To The Kingdom (1944) with Gregory Peck playing the role of Father Francis Chisholm, a Catholic priest who serves as a missionary to China for 40 years in the early 1900s. The film is quite inspirational in a black-and-white way, but one scene jumped out at me as we were watching. After struggling for decades with very poor facilities and limited resources, the priest learns that the Methodists have just sent new missionaries to the same city, but with a big new church building and lots of money. The first question everyone asks the priest is if he is resentful of the new workers. A good fifteen minutes of the film is spent showing the priest reaching out to the new missionaries, finding common ground, encouraging them, and making friends instead of enemies. At one point Father Chisholm says he can’t imagine what the Chinese would think about Christianity if all the Christian groups fought with each other.

Great churches focus on the unity of the body of Christ. Most religious movements have a long tradition of settling disputes by first contending, then condemning, and then eventually separating from each other, resulting in new churches, but always at the expense of the reputation of the kingdom of God. Jesus did say that “a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.”  The Kingdom of God will stand, but will our expression of the Kingdom of God survive disunity?

Here are my suggestions for churches who would seek the unity of the body of Christ:

 

 

  • Celebrate and acknowledge all faith in Jesus as Lord. Is their faith in Jesus not a gift of God just the same as your faith? And if the particulars of the expression of that faith are different from yours, must you ignore what you have in common?
  • Let mercy triumph over judgment! If you have been forgiven of your sins, is it possible that God might forgive even the sins of Others? If you have grown and matured in your faith since you first believed, is it possible that God allows Others the same process?
  • Seek relationships with Others. It can’t really be love to acknowledge that Others might be children of God, but intentionally avoid contact with them. Separate but equal has never worked in the Kingdom of God.
  • Believe that Good will triumph over evil. Have confidence that the Kingdom is eternal and if Hell cannot prevail against it, misunderstandings of God’s Will cannot destroy His Body.  Jesus was not afraid to eat with sinners—after all, who else could he have eaten with?
  • Don’t think greater of yourself than you should. If reading about the attitudes of the Pharisees begins to sound like your congregation, if the prayers are anything but “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner,” then you need to search for the seeds of self-righteousness.
  • Be a peacemaker and be blessed. Some churches, some church leaders see themselves mounted on white horses, leading the armies of God, but that role is reserved for the resurrected Jesus.
  • Encourage those who facilitate peace.  We were in Thailand and met with a good church attempting to mediate a national dispute between churches and Christians. Unfortunately, the result of their attempts to make peace only resulted in rancor and mistrust towards them from both polarities.  Jesus said that peacemakers are blessed!
  • Turn the other cheek. You are not greater than your Master. Others will malign and mistreat you—as they did Jesus. It is at that very moment that our prayer must be, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they do.”  Neither defensiveness nor counterattack is appropriate.
  • Don’t be afraid! Fear is the enemy of love.
  • Pray for unity, long for it as Jesus did. “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”(Jn. 17:23)

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