They Know His Voice
In John 10, Jesus talks about Himself as the Shepherd and us as His sheep. In the analogy of the shepherd/sheep, He explains that His sheep follow Him because they know His voice.
In talking with other believers, however, I have found that we rarely seem to understand what the voice of Jesus is, and how we can know it. Recently, another blogger even posted a couple essays (with a debate ensuing in the comments forum) complaining about people who claim that God has spoken to them. The points made usually have to do with some of the following:
- God doesn't care what you eat for breakfast, so don't tell me that God leads you in those little areas of life.
- Any revelation outside of Scripture is suspect, so therefore, stay away from "personal revelation."
- Those "promptings" that you feel inside are quite possibly just you having an idea using common sense, so don't credit God with it.
Well, interestingly enough, I once wrote an essay called "Quit Blaming God", and today I want to take the opposite approach and say, "Quit denying it's God!" This idea that God doesn't want to speak to you personally is not only very sad, but according to the way I read the statements of Jesus, it is unbiblical. Setting up straw men such as "God doesn't care what you eat for breakfast" is not a good way to approach the argument.
When we see verses in Scripture such as Psalm 37:23 ("The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord") and 1 Corinthians 10:31 ("...Do it all for the glory of God"), I think we have to conclude that God really is interested in what we do with our life. And juxtaposing that with Jesus' comments about us hearing His voice, we have to conclude that, at least at some level, God is going to be speaking to us. I'm not trying to just twist some proof text out of Scripture, but I believe that the whole scope of Scripture gives us a story of a God Who is very personally interested in the lives of His children.
I find that the opponents of the idea that God speaks to us today often base it on the fact that they personally have not experienced what they believe to be God speaking. And while they're often quick to deny that they are ruling out the possibility of God speaking personally to someone, they still end up denying it with their arguments.
One writer commented that when God spoke to people in Scripture, it was very clear that God was speaking, and there was no chance that the message would not be heard. The example is sometimes given of God speaking to Abraham and telling him to move to the Promised Land. Or God speaking to Jonah and telling him to go to Ninevah. Or...
But here are the problems that I have with that, and I think this issue is something that needs to be considered carefully. First of all, not every place that God speaks to someone, even in the Old Testament, is it specifically stated that God spoke audibly. We know from Scripture that God spoke in different ways. Sometimes He spoke through dreams. Sometimes He spoke through an angel that appeared physically in front of the person, etc.. So, it is difficult to specify a finite set (or closed set) of methods through which God speaks.
The second issue I have is that these major examples of God speaking audibly, etc., are from the Old Testament. We must (and I can't stress "must" enough) realize that Christ's appearance on this earth changed a lot of things. Consider this progression:
- God asked Israel to come to the mountain so He could speak personally to the whole nation
- Israel was scared and asked Moses to speak/listen for them, and they would obey Moses
- A whole line of prophets resulted, wherein God spoke to one person, and that person communicated His words to the people (The prophet was "the man of God", and he said, "This is what the Lord says to you")
- Jesus comes, not speaking the words of God, but as the Word of God. (Jesus was not simply "the man of God", He was "man and God". He didn't say, "This is what the Lord says to you." He said, "This is what I say to you.")
So, then, Jesus says that we would follow Him and listen to Him because we know His voice. Then, He goes on in John 14:26 to say that He would give us the Holy Spirit, Who would "teach [us] all things." So, those "promptings" or "gut feelings" we have inside? Why just write them off as our own thoughts? Why not trust that God is actually speaking to us?
Let me give you an example which some might dismiss as just strange or wacky, but which illustrates my point:
Last year, I was practicing my golf swing in the field across the road from our house. I sometimes go out there with four or five balls, hit them all one particular direction, gather them up, hit them back the other way, etc. Sometimes, when the grass is longer, however, as it was this particular day, it's relatively easy to lose a ball down in the grass. In those instances, to avoid causing problems for the crew that mows the field, I stop and hunt for the ball until I find it.
On this one particular occasion, I was searching for a lost ball in the general area in which I thought it went. I must have searched for about 10 or 15 minutes without any success. I walked back and forth, back and forth, very methodically covering a wide area around the spot I thought the ball had gone. With every step, I brushed away dead grass to see if the ball was beneath it, probed the live grass with my club to see if the ball had gone all the way down to the ground beneath, etc. Nothing. I expanded my area of search, and again continued to carefully search every square inch of that area. Still nothing.
At this point, I came to a decision. Jesus told us that God notices when a small bird falls to the ground. I knew that there was One Who knew exactly where my golf ball was, and so I decided to ask Him. "Lord," I prayed, "I know this is a rather trivial matter, but I do not want to leave this golf ball out in the grass to potentially damage the mower or cause damage to something else. I know that You know where the ball is, and I need you to guide me to it."
Instantly, and I do mean instantly, I experienced what I believe was the leading of the Lord. Call it whatever you want to: a gut feeling, a sudden thought -- whatever it was, I suddenly knew to walk directly to a spot that was not even anywhere close to my search area. (My shot had been a lot worse than I realized!) I didn't have to walk back and forth until I reached that point. I just immediately walked diagonally from where I had been searching to this spot, stopped, looked down, and saw the golf ball lying right beside my foot.
Now, the question I want to ask is, why should I not give God credit for that? Why should I say, "Oh, I guess my subconscious mind just finally remembered where the shot had landed, and I went there on my own?" To say that was not God leading me, or speaking to me, seems to me to be very calloused and almost blasphemous. It would be similar, in my mind, to someone saying to Jesus, "Lord, heal me of this awful disease", and then when He healed them, saying, "Wow, that medicine the doctor gave me was so wonderful that it took my disease away."
So where am I going with all this? Well, maybe I need to write a part 2 to this essay, since it's already quite lengthy, and I'm not sure I've said even half of what is on my heart. The point is, for Christians to say that they don't believe God speaks today through anything but the Bible, and/or that He only speaks about things that are "significant", I think we cut off a huge part of the relationship that God wants us to have with Him. Why else would He go to such great lengths to finally circumvent the whole "prophet/thus saith the Lord" situation that Israel had requested? Is it not obvious that God wants to speak to us, and wants us to listen to Him?
This perhaps, then, begs the question: How do we know the voice of God? I think I will go ahead and write a part 2 in the days ahead and try to answer that question on some levels.
Until next time,
In Christ There Is No Jew or Greek...
This post is overdue by about a week and a half, but I think I'll finally take the time to write it and see if anybody has any thoughts in response.
On Sunday, September 18, my wife and son and I spent about 4 hours at Shoutfest -- a Christian music festival that tours around the country. The event we attended was in Johnson City, TN, and this experience may not reflect other Shoutfest dates, but our experience prompted me to consider an ongoing problem in the Body of Christ.
First of all, I will confess that the style of music presented at Shoutfest is not exactly up my alley. We went because it was the weekend of my son's birthday, and he wanted to see Disciple (one of the groups....ummm....singing). But this is not a critique of the...ummm...music. ;) I guess I'm getting older than I want to admit!!
So, there we are, watching a particular hip-hop group perform, and the crowd that was there (which was not overwhelmingly large to begin with) was receiving them pretty well overall, but apparently not well enough to satisfy the performers. So, they (the performers) began to chide the audience after one of their songs. It's quite possible that they were trying to be funny in doing this, so I was willing to overlook comments like, "We don't think you really want to hear any more songs. We'll just end our set now instead of doing another song." That very well could have been (and probably was) tongue-in-cheek. But it was the next statement that really surprised me and caused me to really question what was going on.
"Everybody's just looking at us. What? You don't have black people here in Johnson City?"
Paul made a very interesting statement in Galatians that I think gets overlooked a lot in the Body of Christ. It's found in Galatians 3:28. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." This verse could be applied in many different situations, but I think that the one area that we need to really consider is how this relates to various races of humanity.
What was the relationship between Jews and Greeks in Paul's day? To be very concise, it was not a good relationship. But Christ changed that. Paul is describing in the context of the surrounding verses the reality that when we are baptized into Christ, we take on Christ and become equal heirs to the promises given to Christ through Abraham. In other words, our national identity takes a back seat to our identity as Christ. One might even go so far as to say that our national identity does not matter anymore once we are in Christ.
So why would someone who claims to be in the Body of Christ even joke about others rejecting them on the basis of their race? Is that a joking matter? I really don't think so. I don't want to go so far as to say I was offended, but I was deeply saddened by the comment.
Frankly, as one who tries very hard to not tolerate any kind of racism in himself, I get very frustrated when I am either individually or corporately accused of racism. I sometimes want to stand up and scream, "Why can't we all just get along?!" Because it seems to me that the issue will never go away if we're willing to draw attention to our different human races, even in jest.
I am in Christ. Therefore, I do not find my identity as a white person. I do not find my identity as an American. I do not find my identity as a male. I am a Christian. If you are in Christ, then I do not identify you as a male or female, black or white, American or Chinese, etc.
It reminds me of a comment I once heard or read Bill Hybels make. He wanted to use a particular illustration in a sermon, and asked his board their impression of the story. In the story, he described a man as "a black man" (or something similar to that). After he finished the story, one member of the board wisely said, "Does it matter to the story that the man was black?" Hybels admitted that, in reality, it didn't matter to the story at all. He removed the race reference when he used the illustration in his sermon. I applaud that kind of thinking.
I do not deny that racism does exist in our culture. In fact, racism in some form or other has probably existed in every culture since sin entered into the world. We know for a fact that it was rampant in the time of Jesus and of Paul. That's not the issue. The issue is that, even though it might exist in our culture, it does not need to exist in the Body of Christ. Or, to be more strong about it, it must not exist in the Body of Christ. We who truly are in Christ will not behave in such a manner, nor accuse others of it, nor joke about it.
What are your thoughts?
Until next time,
On Creeds, Doctrinal Statements, and Orthodoxy
Here's one sure to ruffle some feathers! ;) But seriously, as always, I hope you understand my heart in writing these things and that you test anything I say and evaluate it for yourself.
Recently, I wrote a post regarding "whisper down the lane" theology which addressed the problem of people just believing what others tell them instead of searching the Scriptures for themselves. But today, I want to go even deeper with that and address an area of growing frustration for me -- the way people treat creeds and doctrinal statements (or "statements of faith") as if they were on the very level of Scripture.
Let me begin with an illustration from earlier in my life. Oh about 11 years ago, I had the distinct pleasure (all sarcasm intended!) of being put through the grueling process of ordination. The idea was rather basic. The church in which I was the Associate Pastor convened a meeting of about seven or eight gentlemen who were in various positions of ministry, and they grilled me for several hours on all kinds of theological points. Several of the men were ones which I chose, and several were chosen by the senior pastor of my church. The purpose of the meeting was to determine if I was fit to be a pastor or not.
In preparation for the meeting, I was instructed to compose a document containing my doctrinal beliefs. This document was then copied and given to each member of the ordination council, and they used that as the launching pad from which to torment me. Because I foolishly believed that these gentlemen wanted to know what I actually believed, I labored many, many hours creating statements that articulated my beliefs. In fact, I tried very hard not to mimic the words of the systematic theology books I had studied in Bible college.
When it was all said and done, one member of the council said to me, "When you write a doctrinal statement, you really should use the verbage that many of the great theologians use in their writings. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. There's a reason why they're considered great theologians, so just use their statements."
Anybody that knows me can probably guess how that went over with me. I was actually rather shocked. You mean to tell me that in order to be a pastor, I must be able to accurately parrot the statements of some other theologian? And to try to think it out on my own and use my own words means that I'm somehow reinventing the wheel?
This brings me to my current topic. Why do people want to run to creeds, doctrinal statements, and other written records of what others have agreed on without thinking it through for themselves? Now, if the creed actually states what you believe and you want to use that language, then be all means, go ahead! I have no problem with that. But I really wonder how many people understand what it is they are quoting anyway!
And the difficulty that we have is that once a creed has been accepted as the "standard" by which all orthodoxy is judged, there is no room for discussion without people labeling you as a heretic or a rebel or whatever other insulting term they can think up.
For example, I recently read a very good essay by one person who has chosen not to use the word "inerrant" in his view of Scripture. Now, all good evangelical Christians know that a belief in inerrancy is required for entrance into Heaven, right? (Excuse me while I remove my tongue from its firm position in my cheek...) But here's the issue that was raised in the essay. The definition of inerrancy as used by most Christians is specified as relating only to the original manuscripts of the Bible. Oh, and by the way, we don't have any of those laying around! Many people are very clear that the "doctrine of inerrancy" doesn't apply to later copies. In fact, we know that later copies must have some errors because copies that we have found (even from many centuries ago) disagree with one another on some words.
Here's my obligatory interruption to assure you I am not a heretic. I do believe that God has preserved His truth for us, but it's pretty obvious that we don't know for absolute certainty exactly what words may have been original and what have been added or modified. But I do believe by faith that the truth conveyed in Scripture has been preserved for us. In other words, any changes or "errors" in copying the text do not alter the teaching of Scripture.
However, getting back to the point, if the "doctrine of inerrancy" only applies to the original manuscripts, and we don't have the original manuscripts, is the doctrine of inerrancy even necessary for a definition of "orthodoxy"? But, it's in a lot of people's doctrinal statements, as if it's an absolutely essential doctrine. (And of course, they will generally argue that if you throw out the doctrine of inerrancy, you end up denying the resurrection of Christ and your whole faith falls apart. Hmmmm, interesting logic there. Amazingly, I have yet to deny the resurrection of Christ!! I guess I must just be odd.)
One other frustrating point of "orthodoxy" for me is the way in which most evangelical theologians and systematic theologies define the Trinity. It's not that I don't believe Jesus is God. It's not that I don't believe in the Holy Spirit. It's just the way that it's worded that bothers me.
First of all, what do you do with the fact that most of the time Paul greets his readers, he mentions the Father and the Son ... but no mention of the Holy Spirit. Look at the opening to most of his letters. (For example, 1 Corinthians 1:3: "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.") And what about Revelation 1:5 which mentions the "seven spirits" (or some would translate it as the "sevenfold spirit")? In fact, Revelation describes in heaven a throne with someone sitting on it (probably the Father) and the Lamb (obviously Jesus Christ) coming and taking a scroll from the right hand of the one on the throne. And again, the Lamb is mentioned as having seven horns which represent the seven spirits of God, but there is no mention of "the Holy Spirit" in the description there.
So, when we come to a doctrinal statement which affirms that the Trinity is defined as three Persons who are "eternally distinct", I get uncomfortable. "Eternally distinct" implies that we will always understand God in eternity to be "Three in One". No, change that. It doesn't imply it. It outright affirms it! If you want to say that at this point in history, we have a revelation of God as "Three in One", I will let you say that. But to assume that's how we will always understand God? Or even more strongly put, to assume that is exactly how God really IS? That's frustrating for me. Because this is something that has been held up to be a test of orthodoxy.
Now, I'm not saying that I want to go all the way to the United Pentecostal "oneness" position. In fact, I've been there, done that, and don't even care to wear the T-shirt anymore! I'm not comfortable with that side of the issue. But must it be one or the other? Why is it that we can't even discuss the points I made above without getting into accusations of heresy?
In the aforementioned ordination council, one gentlemen repeatedly warned me that "heresy starts in degrees." Or it was something to that effect. In other words, he was saying, "You don't just wake up one day and choose to become a heretic. You slide down this slippery slope until there's no returning to orthodoxy." (My paraphrase) So, I guess for many, the answer is to draw the lines just as clear as possible and burn anyone who steps over them or even questions them.
That's not my kind of approach, and I am not interested in playing that game. So, if that means I'm not an "evangelical" because I won't sign off on a particular definition of the Trinity, then so be it. If it means I'm not an "evangelical" because I won't sign off on a particular statement of inerrancy, then so be it. I guess I'll just be a "Christian" and not try to fit into anyone's camp! ;)
Whew! I can't tell you how good it feels to admit that out loud (well, sorta out loud...)!
Until next time,
Simplicity in Ecclesiology
How's that for a formal-sounding title? It probably seems to most to be an oxymoron to use the word "simplicity" juxtaposed with the word "ecclesiology". Ecclesiology is the study of things related to "church" (the Greek word translated as "church" is "ekklesia"), and often is made quite complicated. But I am once again drawn to discuss the topic of simplicity when it comes to defining things related to the church.
Ask several people what constitutes a church, and you will likely get as many answers as the number of people you ask. In conversations I have had with others, the following representative answers (though not an exhaustive list) have come up:
- Presence of worship and teaching in the meetings
- Existence of a non-profit corporation under which the church can accept tithes and offerings
- Presence of the "five-fold ministry" (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers)
- Two or more gathered in Jesus' name
- A building in which to hold services
- Someone employed as the pastor (this often is related to the "five-fold ministry" mentioned above, but sometimes stands on its own)
As you can see from the wide spectrum of thoughts in those ideas, ecclesiology is often complicated by assumptions of what is "necessary" in order to identify a "church". I would like to prompt our thinking in the direction of a much more simple approach.
I'll just tell you up front that I believe that there is a "correct" answer, and that it is the gathering of two or more people in the name of Jesus. In other words, when two or more people who are "in Christ" come together, the church is meeting. But if that is the case, where do these other ideas come from? Some of them actually do come from Scripture, but I believe there may be an added layer of interpretation clouding the true concept. The "five-fold ministry" is one of those areas (more on that to follow).
And not all of the ideas above are necessarily invalid. It is definitely true that when the church meets, the Holy Spirit will prompt the use of gifts (such as prophet, teacher, evangelist, etc.) that are needed in that fellowship. And when the church meets, there will likely be worship and teaching taking place. However, I believe that the definitions of "worship" and "teaching" in the previous sentence are not what we would traditionally use. Or, to put it another way, I don't believe that "worship" and "teaching" need to be interpreted to be nearly as formal as they usually are.
I do not believe that a non-profit organization, a building, or an employed pastor are needed. In fact, I would actually be more inclined to see those as hindrances to true expressions of the church than to see them as beneficial. Obviously, we can agree to disagree on these, but to date the arguments I have heard and read in favor of incorporating or building or staff pastors are not convincing to my mind.
So, when I meet a Christian brother for lunch, there is church. When my wife and son and I get together with another family to spend time together, there is church. When larger groups of believers get together, there is church. "Church" is neither a place nor an institution. It is the fellowship of people of like faith. Anything that seeks to add to that definition of church serves to complicate the issue.
Now, much has been said by others about the "five-fold ministry" (taken from Ephesians 4:11), and so I would like to offer a different viewpoint. There are a couple of points I would like to make about this. It seems to always be our tendency to want to "package" something and take it as definitive. For example, you may recall the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", or the 40 days of purpose, or any number of "five steps to..." or "twelve steps to..." or -- well, you get the picture. We always love to have a list of the steps necessary to accomplish something. And we find the same temptation when reading Ephesians 4:11.
First of all, it is debatable whether or not "pastor" and "teacher" are two separate identifiers. Grammatically, it is quite possible that they go together as descriptive of one. That would make it a list of four, not five. But that's actually not the point that I would like to emphasize!
In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul begins a similar list of gifts as in Ephesians 4:11. He starts with apostles, then prophets ... so far, it sounds just like Ephesians 4:11. But then he jumps right to teachers, and goes on to include miracle workers, healers, helpers, etc.
So the point I would like to make about this is that we must be careful looking at Ephesians 4:11 as any definitive (or even exhaustive) list of gifts given to the church. To me, the existence of a different list in 1 Corinthians 12 gives reason to question the "five-fold ministry" concept. (Important note: I'm not questioning the validity of those gifts! I'm referring to the "package" called "five-fold ministry" as a concept.) In other words, the five listed in Ephesians 4 are not any different in importance than the others listed in 1 Corinthians 12. Therefore, they should not be elevated above the others. In fact, 1 Corinthians 12 goes out of its way to decry the elevation of any gift above another!
Now admittedly, this is not one of the more cohesive posts I've written, but I hope it will cause some thought on the part of the reader. Perhaps the next time someone asks you the question, "Where do you go to church?", you will stop to think about the "who" of the church, not the where. Let's not "go" to church, let's "be" the church! If we can see ourselves as the church anytime we are together with other believers, it will simplify a lot of our thinking and cause us to reach toward the maturity available to us as Christians in relationship to each other. And we just may find ourselves functioning as the church in a much more meaningful and edifying way!
Until next time,
The Selfishness of Human Nature
I want to get a few things off my chest. We here in America (and perhaps around the world, too) have been watching with amazement and horror at the events in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast area affected so horrifically by Hurricane Katrina. And I must admit that I'm not even able to really put my attention to it because I can't get my brain wrapped around what's going on down there.
First, there's the actual disaster caused by the hurricane. The destruction and devastation caused by a hurricane of this magnitude is just unbelievable. And if we allow it, the media will fill our minds with all kinds of images of destruction that it's a wonder life can go on anywhere! Certainly, it causes a lot of reflection and perspective. I am doing some freelance work for a client in Louisiana (his location is less than an hour from New Orleans, I believe), and even though I have heard through the grapevine that he and his family are fine, their business is shut down for a while and I am unable to reach him to discuss the project progress. That just feels really strange.
But the images that disturb me more than the natural disaster images, shocking as they are, are the images of the looting and chaos that are taking place there. I understand "survival mode", in that I believe that some people are stealing food and clothes because they feel like they have nothing else to survive. Stealing is still wrong, but I can at least comprehend that. What I can't understand is the people looting things like electronics, jewelry, etc. For those who like to argue that human nature is naturally "good", I would look at these looters and say, "I don't think so." And it doesn't appear to me that we are talking about a few isolated incidents, either. This looks like a growing problem. I'm not saying that everyone affected by this hurricane is acting on these evil temptations. But I am saying that I think we are seeing what human nature is all about. When push comes to shove, selfishness takes precedence over anything else.
On another thought regarding this hurricane and its effects, all of us here in America are facing the effects of it in the way of outrageously inflated gas prices. In the past week, we have watched prices per gallon spike by as much as 50 and 60 cents. And in the past month, the increase has been along the lines of $1.00. Everyone's talking about "gas shortage" as a result of the oil companies that have been shut down in the Gulf of Mexico, etc.
Now, I don't deny that there's a problem there with the supply and that there will be an effect from it. But my issue is that I don't believe that every cent of the increase in gas prices is a fair effect of what happened in the Gulf. This is anecdotal, I realize, but let me share with you an experience I had the other day when prices started to spike drastically.
I stopped at a gas station where the price was still "only" $2.68 a gallon to fill up before it got out of control. The station right across the street had just jumped 41 cents to be $2.99 a gallon. I walked into the store to buy something to drink (mostly because I wanted to see what the conversation was like inside), and as I walked in, I overheard one employee speaking to another employee about calling their manager. This was not a "private" conversation. It was loud enough for everyone in the store to hear. And the comment was this: "You better call him and tell him that we're 30 cents lower than everyone else in town. What are we waiting for?" And sure enough, I drove past that gas station 30 minutes later and saw they were now at $2.85 a gallon. By yesterday afternoon, they were also $2.99. (Now other gas stations are as high as $3.29, so the game will continue, I'm sure.)
Notice what the conversation was about. This is what really infuriated me. The comment was not, "We just got notified that our shipment today is going to cost us 50% more than usual." And it wasn't, "We're running low on fuel and we aren't sure when we'll be getting more in, so we better raise the price." No. The gist of it was, "Everyone else is now 30 cents higher. We could be making more money right now if we raise our prices."
It's comments like that which cause me to get very cynical at any suggestion that this increase in gas prices is a direct result of what happened in the Gulf of Mexico this week. No. To me, it's about greed, it's about selfishness, it's about taking advantage of a situation.
Hmmm...how about that. Both situations came back to a conclusion that it's about selfishness. Left to their own devices, human beings will naturally gravitate toward thinking of themselves. And therein lies the divide between those who are choosing to remain there, and those who choose to lay down their own desires for those of their Lord.
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:3-8, NIV)
Until next time,