Why (Insert Group Name Here) Leave the Church

You’ve seen the blog posts and articles – why group X is leaving the church, men, millennials, college students, teens, etc.

Can I just say something? I’m tired of that approach. There are two and only two reasons people “give up on the church” no matter their demographic:

  • They are immature Christians. (Hebrews 5:12)
  • They were not Christians to start with. (I John 2:19, 3:10)

Listen to what God’s Word says about the importance of the church to the Lord and, by extension, to His people:

  • Christ died for the church, not for a collection of autonomous individuals. (Ephesians 5:25, Acts 20:28)
  • The church is Christ’s bride (Revelation 21:2)
  • The church is Christ’s body (Colossians 1:24)
  • The church is God’s plan to sanctify His people (I Corinthians 12, Ephesians 5:26-27)
  • The church is God’s plan to evangelize the lost (Matthew 28:18-20)
  • The church glorifies God to all creation (Ephesians 3:10)

Someone who does not see the church as essential to the Christian life is not viewing life through the lens of scripture, not viewing life from the perspective of one transformed by the Holy Spirit. That’s not to deny that sometimes one must leave a particular local congregation. However, a mature Christian will always seek another local expression of the Body of Christ with which to affiliate, no matter how difficult or hurtful their experience at a specific local church. Being part of a church is what Christians do. To say I’m a Christian who has given up on the church is like saying I’m a husband who has given up living with my wife. “Husband” implies relationship with the wife. “Christian” implies relationship with the church.

So next time you see an article on “5 Reasons Why Duck Hunters in the Midwest Leave the Church,” you can save yourself some reading: they are leaving because they are either immature Christians or not Christians at all.

 

When God Strikes Someone Dead

When God Strikes Someone Dead
Death of Ananias by Raphael

In the fifth chapter of the Book of Acts we read one of the more interesting and chilling passages in the New Testament. A man named Ananias and his wife Sapphira sell a piece of property, keep part of the money and give the rest to the church. Trouble is, they tell the church they are giving the full price received for the land (Acts 5:8).

As a result of this deception, God struck both of them dead. This has always seemed harsh to me. While it’s true the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), that payment is not usually required on the spot – thank goodness!  Why so in this case? Of all the sins we see recorded in scripture, why instant death for lying about the price of a piece of property?

The answer can be found by looking at the context of this passage in the Book of Acts and how God deals with His people throughout scripture.

This passage comes between the first arrest of the Apostles by the Jewish authorities (Acts 4:1-31) and the second (Acts 5:17-42). From her beginning the New Testament church was under attack.  The Enemy tried to destroy her one of two ways – the same two ways he does today – either from within or from without. When the first attempt to stop the spread of the gospel using the external threats of the Jewish leaders failed, there was a change of tactic. Satan tried to weaken the church from within using the deceit of Ananias & Sapphira (Acts 5:3) and the Holy Spirit dealt with that decisively. This was God protecting the church in her infancy.

God takes the purity of His church seriously. A pure church is a powerful church. So it’s no accident that right after Luke tells us about the purge of Ananias and Sapphira we again read about signs and wonders done by the apostles and the increase in the number of believers.

You see a similar pattern in the Old Testament.

Shortly after the Levitical priesthood was inaugurated, the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, failed to follow God’s instructions regarding the fire used for burning incense before the LORD. This was likely because they were drunk (Leviticus 10:9). As with Ananias and Sapphira, God immediately struck them dead and their bodies were carried outside the camp (Leviticus 10:4). Then, right after the conquest of Jericho, the very first battle in the Promised Land, the disobedience of Achan was dealt with similarly. He and his entire family were stoned to death at the LORD’s command (Joshua 7:15).

In each of these cases, a new chapter has begun in the history of God’s people. In each case as well, an internal threat to that new work arises and the Lord takes decisive action to address the threat and provide an example for others. The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira lead to a healthy fear of the Lord within the church (Acts 5:11).

It’s significant that it was not the Jewish officials persecuting the church who were struck dead on the spot but two church members. The lesson is that internal threats to the church are far more serious than external ones. External persecution tends to strengthen the church whereas internal threats tend to weaken her.

When churches die or apostatize it is virtually always because they failed to take seriously deceit, false teaching, personal sin or other disobedience to the Lord within their ranks.

The Trojan Horse is more dangerous than the battering ram. To remain healthy churches must, as Jude tells us, “contend for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 3).

The Parable of the Ten Virgins – Matthew 25:1-13

The Parable of the Ten Virgins – Matthew 25:1-13“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

This parable can be confusing if we try to attach specific meaning to each component (lanterns, oil, trimming the lamps, oil sellers, etc.). While it was common in medieval theology to spiritualize every single aspect of a parable (see Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable), parables generally teach one overarching truth and should be understood that way. We’re not called to ferret out the allegorical meaning of each component. There are times when, because of context or other teachings in scripture, symbolic meaning can be assigned. For example, I believe we’re safe in saying the “bridegroom” in this parable is Christ. There are also times when scripture tells us what the components mean as we see in Matthew 13 when Jesus explains the parables of the sower and the wheat and the tares. But, beyond that, we should not speculate.

The key to understanding this parable is its context. Matthew includes this teaching immediately after Jesus’ teaching on the end of the age in Matthew 24. The parable is a warning to be prepared for the coming of Christ.

The foolish virgins thought they were ready. However, the unexpected return of the bridegroom exposed them as frauds – and it was too late for them. The response of the bridegroom to their pleas in verse 12 is almost identical to Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:23:

“And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

Terrifying words.

We know not the day and the hour. Therefore, we should make our calling and election sure so that when that day comes we will receive a rich welcome into the “eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (II Peter 1:10-11)

Are you ready for the coming of the Lord?

King Saul’s Bad Theology

King Saul's Bad TheologyThroughout the book of I Samuel, God, through Samuel and others, made it clear to King Saul that the kingdom of Israel was no longer his (15:26). It was also clear that David was God’s anointed and would one day be the king (18:12, 24:20).

Despite this, Saul continued to pursue keeping the throne and as part of that quest he sought to kill David.

In I Samuel 23:7 we read an interesting thing as Saul pursues David:

Saul was told that David had gone to Keilah, and he said, “God has delivered him into my hands, for David has imprisoned himself by entering a town with gates and bars.”

The self-deception here is enormous. Despite God’s clear message to the contrary, Saul believes God approves of his plan to kill David and he even believes God is orchestrating events to help him do so.

Saul is confusing his evil desires with the will of God and is interpreting circumstances in light of those desires rather than in light of the Word of God.

How often we can do this!

Many times we want things God’s word says we cannot have – a romance with someone other than our spouse, something our neighbor owns, marriage to an unbeliever, etc. We sometimes want these things so badly that to get them we are willing to ignore God’s Word or, like Saul, twist it so that God appears to approve of what we want.

However, our theology must be grounded in the word of God and not our desires. God has never promised to fulfill all our desires but he has promised to work all things together for our good if we are His followers (Romans 8:28). Simply put, nothing we desire that God forbids is good for us.

Take time to examine the desires of your heart. Are you willing to give up pursuing those things not in conformity to the Word of God? Pray and ask God to mold your desires until they are shaped like His.

How Sermons Work by David Murray

How Sermons Work by David Murray
Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I want to learn to build a birdhouse or make Coq au vin or speak German there are any number of simple,  step-by-step guides from which I can choose. But what if I want to learn how to prepare and preach a sermon? Though there are many books on preaching, my experience is none of them is what you’d call simple and straight forward. Most read like seminary text-books (perhaps that’s because many of them are seminary text books!). But, David Murray’s How Sermons Work, is not like that at all.

This is the best book on sermon preparation I’ve read. Murray approaches preaching as a skill that can be learned, not a mystical talent delivered from on high to a select few. While it is true certain men are more suited for ministry than others, it is equally true that having a “calling” to ministry does not negate the need to learn good sermon preparation techniques. Murray makes it clear that a man called of God to deliver His word has a responsibility to put in the time necessary to become good at what he does.

The book is very logically organized with chapters on how to select a text, how to organize the information and how to apply the text in a way that is helpful to the listener. Never having been to seminary, the most helpful part for me was the chapter on exegesis. I found the list of exegetical questions particularly helpful. I’ve created a template of these questions and have begun using it to prepare Bible lessons.

While a systematic approach and simplicity are the book’s strengths, Murray doesn’t assume those are all that’s needed to teach God’s word. He has an excellent chapter on preparing to preach that emphasizes the importance of prayer and familiarity with scripture as prerequisites for God-honoring, life-changing preaching. He also emphasizes the importance of character in one who teaches the Bible, quoting Al Martin:

Next to the presence of Christ, there is no greater companion to the minister than that of a good conscience. To have the Lord at your side and a peaceful conscience in your breast – these are the preacher’s two greatest companions.

The only complaint I have about the book is not about the content but the Kindle version I read. There was no active table of contents, in fact, no table of contents at all. I find the table of contents helpful both in getting a feel for a book before reading it and in gathering my thoughts about it for things like this review after I’ve read it. With that in mind, you may want to consider the print version of this book unless that has been changed in the Kindle version.

If you teach the Bible either as a pastor or otherwise, this is a book to read and add to your library. Like William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (which interestingly Murray references in his book) this is a book I will review periodically and keep handy as a reference.

How Sermons Work