Glory Days

autopsyThere are a lot of dying churches out there. Some of them deserve to die, because their pastors are charlatans, or inept, or incompetent, or unregenerate, or hateful – maybe all of the above. But, some of these churches are dying because they’re living in the past.

These churches are filled with older members (the younger ones fled long ago). These good folks remember the glory days, usually back when Nixon, Ford or Reagan (or perhaps Bush #1) was in office. The pews were filled, children ran in the aisles, Vacation Bible School was a big event, and things were happening!

Now . . . well, things are different.

Everybody in the congregation has white or gray hair. Many of those children are gone. Some have remained, now in their fifties and above – forlorn and melancholy about what once was. The pews are empty. The sermons grow more and more pitiful and desperate with each passing Sunday. Everybody knows the church is dying. An air of sadness pervades the congregation, an aura of inevitable doom. Rooms are closed off; nobody has used them in years. The last time you had a visitor was that one Thanksgiving . . . was it last year, or the year before?

These churches often live in the past. They revel in it. If only they could recapture those glory days. Springsteen could have been singing about them. Maybe he was.

Churches like this will probably die. It’s common in churchy circles to double down on failure, to spiritualize it and claim you’re “suffering for the Lord.” But of course you are. Nobody can whitewash failure quite like a Christian.

Thom Rainer, in his outstanding book Autopsy of a Deceased Church, wrote about this kind of dying church:

The most pervasive and common thread of our autopsies was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as hero. They held on more tightly with each progressive year. They often clung to things of the past with desperation and fear. And when any internal or external force tried to change the past, they responded with anger and resolution: “We will die before we change.” And they did.

Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2014; Kindle ed. ), KL 161-164.

Killing You Softly? Unrepentant Sin as a Congregational Virus

Many Christians think their sins are a personal matter, a private affair – something that doesn’t have anything to do with their local church. This is how many of us think. We consider our private sins to be, well . . . private. Nobody’s business but ours. It certainly isn’t our congregation’s business. Our personal lives have nothing to do with our local church, right?

I don’t believe so. I’d like to re-think this, and I’m going to use what many people would consider to be an unusual source – the Book of Deuteronomy. This book has a lot to say on this matter of unrepentant and deliberate sin as community and covenant pollution. Here is my conclusion, after reading through the book again recently:

  1. If you’re a Christian
  2. and you’re in unrepentant sin
  3. and you don’t care, and have no desire to change your ways
  4. you’re polluting your entire congregation
  5. and you’re defiling your entire church

Let’s take a careful look at what the Book of Deuteronomy has to say, then build a bridge or two to our own context.

Sin contaminates the community

Moses believed that sin contaminated the congregation. It pollutes God’s people. It must be dealt with and eradicated. It must be purged from their midst. In modern terms, it’s a virus. Here is some of the data:

Deuteronomy 13:5

Moses explained what to do about false prophets. The Bible is quite clear. If a man claims to be a prophet, and he performs signs and wonders and makes predictions which come to pass, then entices you to abandon the faith and follow him to serve and worship another god – that man is a false prophet. Moses explained God would allow these people to spring forth, like pestilential weeds, in order to test His people.

Here is what Moses commanded God’s people to do with these men:

But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 13:5).

The man has to be executed, because his actions have infected the congregation. They’re ordered to “purge the evil” from their midst. That’s strong language. What would happen to Christians if they didn’t just consider the impact of their sin on their own life and circumstances, but also considered how it impacts their church?

Deuteronomy 17:2-7

In this passage, Moses gives the Israelites instructions on how they should treat apostates; professing believers who have purposely “transgressed the covenant,” and have “gone and served other gods and worshiped them,” (Deut 17:3). Here is what he said:

On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses he that is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 17:6-7).

Pay particular attention to the last phrase – by executing this apostate, the Israelites will “purge the evil” from their midst. Sin is a pollutant, a contamination; a pestilence that impacts everybody in the covenant community. We often don’t think of sin this way. We see it as an individual event, a personal defiling, a private affair. Moses (and God!) see it as something that puts a blot on the entire covenant community.

There is more.

Deuteronomy 17:12-13

Moses went on and explained how legal disputes should be settled among the Old Covenant Israelites. Criminal and civil offenses were adjudicated by the Levitical priests and “the judge who is in office in those days.” Together, they heard the matter and rendered a verdict. What happens if a man decides he doesn’t like the verdict? Is there an appeal process? Can he ignore the verdict?

No, he cannot. Read on:

The man who acts presumptuously, by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die; so you shall purge the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear, and fear, and not act presumptuously again (Deut 17:12-13).

A man who defies the judges and ignores the verdict has spit in God’s face. He’s ignored the God-ordained people and means God put in place to take care of these matters. This term “acts presumptuously” signifies a special kind of contempt and scorn for authority. It’s a defiant, spiteful kind of rebellion (cf. Numbers 15:30ff). This kind of person hates God’s law (Numbers 15:31). Do you remember the account of the man who deliberately ignored the law and decided to gather sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36)? It’s the same attitude.

In this case, Moses decreed the man who defies and ignores the verdict must die. They “shall purge the evil from Israel.” Again, this unrepentant, deliberate sin is a cancer that must be cut out, lest it destroy the entire congregation. Moses says this man’s actions impacted the entire nation.

Think about our churches; how do our individual unrepentant sins impact our congregation as a corporate body? Think about your local church, where you join together with other New Covenant brothers and sisters to worship God. Your unrepentant sin pollutes the congregation, soils the entire assembly, and defiles the entire church. Will you commit to fixing this, for their sake and yours?

Deuteronomy 19:11-13

Murder is bad news. Moses knew how wicked people were, and after explaining the purpose of the “cities of refuge,” he hastened to qualify what he meant. These cities were for people who accidently committed acts of negligence that resulted in a person dying; “if any one kills his neighbor unintentionally without having been at enmity with him in time past . . .” (Deut 19:4).

Moses provided an example about one man killing another with an ax that slipped from his grasp. This is clearly not premeditated. A man could flee to this city to have the matter adjudicated, and the victim’s kin could not pursue him there and kill him. “The man did not deserve to die, since he was not at enmity with his neighbor in time past,” (Deut 19:6).

Of course, some people would try and abuse this caveat. Not so fast, Moses warned:

But if any man hates his neighbor, and lies in wait for him, and attacks him, and wounds him mortally so that he dies, and the man flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you (Deut 19:11-13)

The murderer must be executed, because he has brought “the guilt of innocent blood” upon the entire nation. Again, you can’t read this without being struck by how one person’s transgression pollutes the entire community. If this man is not killed, then the entire nation remains guilty, and is defiled by this injustice.

Deuteronomy 19:15-19

False witnesses are bad. God doesn’t like liars. He especially doesn’t like liars who swear falsely, and provide false, formal testimony with an aim to wrongly condemn an innocent man:

A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained. If a malicious witness rises against any man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days; the judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.

This man has polluted the congregation and the community. He must be punished because it’s the just thing to do. If his false testimony had been accepted, an innocent man would have been punished unjustly. So, to right this wrong, the false accuser will suffer the fate the innocent man would have suffered.

There are other passages, and they make similar points (see chart, below)

What sins are we talking about?

What sins are “bad enough” that they have this impact on the Old Covenant community? This chart summarizes the offenses from the Book of Deuteronomy that required “purging” of evil or guilt:[1]

table 1

You could summarize and place these sins under a few headings:

  1. Apostasy
  2. Civil disobedience (legal and family contexts)
  3. Severe moral failure

For clarity, I’ve re-framed these headings both negatively and positively:

table 2

This data could change when you factor in Exodus 20 and onward, Leviticus and Numbers, but it’s interesting enough already. These three headings are large, umbrella categories that encapsulate a great deal of “the Christian life.” They explain man’s duty to worship God, obey God-ordained authority structures that are the bedrock of a stable, sane and orderly society, and include perhaps the two most notorious moral failings among human beings.

If a covenant member refuses to love, worship and honor God by loving obedience to His law, then that man has “cut himself off” from God’s people and from God’s family. Likewise, if there is no order to society; if formal verdicts rendered by priests and ordained judges cannot stand, and courtroom proceedings become a kangaroo court of lies and trumped up charges, then all hope of an orderly, stable and civilized society has been lost.

But, what about the moral failures? Why, of all the offenses God could have chosen, did He choose sexual intercourse and murder?[2] I suppose it is because they are the most heinous offenses a man can commit.

Murder is the great and terrible sin; the snuffing out of a God-given life on purpose. This kind of action betrays a disdain for sanctity of human life. The Bible teaches us that we are not animals, nor are we descended from them. We are unique, made in God’s image, which means we dimly reflect some of his characteristics and attributes. Human life is sacred.

Sexual deviance is the great failing of men and women. Our bodies are not our own, and God has always cared about how we act and what we do with them. In the New Covenant, Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and (by extension) the Son and the Father, too. Our bodies are therefore temples of God; He resides within us. In the Old Covenant, this is an implicit teaching, as well.[3] Even in the famous passage from the law, believers are command to love God with all their heart, soul and might – in short, with their entire being. Our bodies are a part of who we are; it isn’t an amalgamation of bone and flesh. We aren’t gnostics who believe the physical realm has no moral meaning. What we do with our bodies is an extension of our thoughts and desires (i.e. mind and heart).

Sexual purity is a major focus of God’s law. Those apostates today who advocate for unrepentant “Christian” homosexuality and perverted transgender constructs of self-identity are stunningly ignorant of the Old Testament Scriptures. Perhaps, as Brent Strawn has noted, it’s because they can’t speak the “language” of a full canon in the first place.[4]

In general terms, God’s word calls all true believers to:

  1. love God,
  2. respect and obey civil authorities, and
  3. live holy lives

These are core, general principles that transcend the Old Covenant vs. New Covenant (or, more commonly and erroneously “law vs. grace”) dichotomy. They’re basic and fundamental. These categories encompass the very sins which Moses says defile the congregation, pollute the entire nation, and must be purged from among the Israelites.

What about today?

What does all this have to do with you, today? It’s 2017. You own a smartphone, have wireless internet, and probably binge-watch television shows on your tablet when the weekend comes. What hath Sinai to do with Seattle?

More than you think.

True, there are some major differences in context:

  • The two-tiered Old Covenant has been replaced by the single-tiered New Covenant. Only true believers are part of God’s covenant people now.
  • The Israelite theocracy has been abolished, and Jesus has been crowned as King in heaven, and is waiting to return and establish His rule. Christians now are slaves and subjects waiting for their King.
  • The legal system and its judges are secular and cannot be counted on to care about God’s laws, or reverence them. Therefore, God’s civil laws have been abolished, but the basic principles can often apply today – whether the secular judge applying them realizes it or not!
  • The ceremonial laws have been abolished, because all New Covenant believers have been made permanently clean before the Lord by what Christ has done.
  • The sacrificial laws have been abolished, because Christ’s one, perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice has made fulfilled those parables.

But, the basics are still the same. We are God’s covenant people. God has not changed. Jesus has now come and gone, and will return again. We have new revelation to augment the old.

And, those three basic principles about the “Christian life” still hold true:

  1. love God,
  2. respect and obey civil authorities (see, for example, 1 Pet 2:13-15), and
  3. live holy lives

Moreover, those three headings about the “contaminating sins” from the Book of Deuteronomy are still perfectly applicable today:

table 2

What does this mean for you? It means that today, under the New Covenant, the unrepentant sins committed by the regenerate individuals who are members of local churches defile, pollute and contaminate the entire congregation. Your unrepentant sin pollutes your entire church.

How do I know this? How do I know this basic principle of unrepentant sin as community pollution carries weight in the New Covenant, in local churches? Because the Apostle Paul said so.

Paul to the Corinthians

He wrote the Corinthian congregation and rebuked them for tolerating unrepentant incest in their midst. He warned them, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor 5:6).

His point is clear enough – this one man and his blatant, proud and unrepentant sin has defiled the congregation. Just as a little yeast will have an outsized impact on a loaf of bread as it bakes, so this wicked man and his sin will pollute and destroy the congregation. This is why Paul went on and commanded the church to, “cleanse out the old leaven,” (1 Cor 5:7). He continued:

But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

Paul finished by quoting from Deuteronomy 17:7.[5] He believed this principle, and lived by it. He commanded this man to be purged, driven out, expelled and kicked to the curb. This man was disgracing the Lord’s name in the community. This sin was so unrepentant, deliberate and blatant that Paul has heard tell of it (“it is actually reported that . . .”). Think of how primitive communications were in his day, and realize that, despite the absence of Twitter, Facebook or text messages, the apostle Paul had heard rumors of this wickedness from afar. If he had heard of it, what do you think the local community had heard!?

Because this professing Christian was unrepentant, he had to be purged and driven out from the body. It was for the good of the congregation. Ultimately, of course, it was for the Lord’s sake that he be expelled.

So what? A plea for holiness

God commands His people to love Him with everything they have (Deut 6:4). Jesus said this was the greatest and most important commandment. If we love God, then we’ll want to do what He says.

His word says we need to be continually confessing and forsaking our sins. We need to be purging ourselves of evil habits, and replacing them with Godly habits. Our unrepentant sins aren’t a private matter – they’re a public matter. It impacts our churches. It’s a community affair.

For your congregation’s sake, for your sake, and for God’s sake – remember that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 Jn 1:9). This is not a one-time event, but a lifelong habit. We try our best to honor and glorify God by the way we live our lives, because He’s redeemed us, and we love Him. As we fall short, we thank God that Jesus has already redeemed us from all unrighteousness, we honestly confess our sins, determine to forsake them again, and keep on going.

We purify ourselves, day by day, seeking to be more and more like Christ, our Savior (1 Jn 3:5). Don’t pollute yourself. Don’t pollute your congregation. Don’t let the virus of unrepentant and unconfessed sin destroy you spiritually.

You have the antidote. Use it.

Notes

[1] On Deut 22:23-24, I believe the assumption in the text is that it is consensual intercourse. The Bible tells us, “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you,” (Deut 22:23-24).

The man did not “seize her” (which is the term used to describe rape in the very next verse; Deut 22:25ff), he “meets her.” This implies some kind of consensual rendezvous. Moreover, she could have called out for help, but she did not. This also indicates their action was consensual.

Some commentators disagree, and believe this incident in Deut 22:23-24 is sexual assault; see, for example, Eugene Merrill, Deuteronomy, in NAC, vol. 4. (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1994), 304. I don’t find his arguments convincing.

[2] It’s important to note that these offenses did not include vague references to sexual immorality in general; the laws are concerned with the act itself.

[3] I don’t have the time or energy to elaborate on this theme here. For a good overview and argument for Old Covenant indwelling of the Spirit, see Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit, MI: DBTS, 2009), 2:272-280.

[4] See Brent Strawn, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017).

[5] The quotation from the LXX (Rahlfs) at Deut 17:7 (ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτων καὶ ἐξαρεῖς τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν) is identical to 1 Cor 5:13 (ἐξάρατε τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν). The verbs has a different tense-form (the former is an imperatival future, the latter is an aorist), but they are translated exactly the same.

Living Stones in God’s House

Peter has a lot of practical advice for Christians. His original audience were believers who faced “unofficial” hostility from society. The storm cloud of official, state-sanctioned persecution had not yet broken, but it didn’t a meteorology degree to see it was coming soon. These new Christians faced all sorts of pressures from evil-intentioned and well meaning people, alike.

Some were Jews who embraced Jesus as the long-promised Messiah, and had been abandoned by their family, their synagogue, their community – effectively, they were non-persons. Cast adrift, they had no family and no social support structure besides other members of their Christian congregation.

Other believers were former pagans, who had renounced everything their society and culture stood for. They found themselves to be an unexpected minority, likewise cut off from a world they used to move quite easily and freely in.

Whether Jew or Gentile, the temptation to soften the shaper edges of the Christian message were the same. If they could only see their way clear to reinterpret some of the more “objectionable” things (like, say Jesus’ deity, His miraculous resurrection, His exclusive claim to be the only conduit for salvation and eternal life), then perhaps life would be easier.

One of the reasons Peter wrote his letter was to tell them to not give in to this self-delusion. Over and over again, he emphasized that Christians have been called to suffer for Christ’s sake. He stressed the idea of Christians in community with one another; fellow exiles trying to make our way in this wicked world together, serving the Lord and waiting for Him to return to fix everything.

This passage today, 1 Peter 2:4-10, is all about mission and purpose. What on earth are Christians here to do? What is our mission? Peter tells us all about that today.

  • How should you think of a church? What is its mission?
  • How should you visualize the people who make up a church?
  • If you’re a Christian, why did God save you? For what purpose?
  • What does God think of you as?
  • What implications does all this have for your life, for your job, for the way you should view yourself?
  • What implications does this have for the way you should think about your position or station in life?

All this, and more, is what Peter’s message here is all about. Take a listen, and consider what all this means for your congregation, and your personal and unique role in the life of your church. More than that, consider what it means for who you are, and why God made you the person you are today.

The PDF notes for today’s lesson are here. As always, all audio files and PDF notes for all lessons are here. Unless I note otherwise, you can assume the translation from 1 Peter is mine.

Generic Parchment Reference (ES)

The Marks of a Church (Part 1)

churchWhen it a church not a church? It’s an important question.

What are the essential, non-negotiable elements which must be present, in order for a religious group to be considered a Christian church? These elements have historically been called the “marks of a church.”

 

  • How many marks are there?
  • What does the New Testament tell us?
  • Do each of these marks have to be present?
  • Can a few be absent?
  • If so, how many can be missing before a church is no longer a church?

This might seem like silly, ivory tower nit-picking. After all, who cares as long as you love Jesus, right?

Wrong.

Imagine this scenario:

  • A group of eager, young Christians gather at a local Starbucks every Sunday for a bible study – at 1100 sharp!
  • A different “leader” takes a turn every week reading a passage of Scripture and explaining it. The group always has a wonderful discussion. “The Spirit is, like, really moving in our lives,” one attender explains, eyes alight with joy.
  • Once per month or so (“whenever we feel the Spirit leading us”), they observe the Lord’s Supper together. But, they like being different. So, the group usually observes the ordinance with Cheese-Its and Diet Coke. They tried pita crackers and milk once. It didn’t go over so well. It was . . . gross.

One attender explains he doesn’t feel the need to go to a “traditional church.”

It’s, like, so confining. I used to go to a ‘normal’ church, but it just became, like, way too much. All the rules. All the stuff that just, you know, like, gets in the way. I like coming here better. It’s like we’re getting back to the, you know, the  . . . the purity that Jesus always talked about. Here, we just keep it simple. No rules. No judgment. Just the Word and the Spirit. I’ve grown in Christ more here than I ever did in a traditional church. When the Spirit is working, who am I to judge or criticize, ya know?

Does this young man go to a “church”? Is his Starbucks fellowship a church? Why, or why not? You see? It does matters what a “church” really is, and what it isn’t. And for that, we must turn to the New Testament.

Baptist theologian Kevin Bauder explained this dilemma pretty well:

An analogy may be helpful. A dog by definition is (among other things) a quadruped. If it loses a leg, does it cease to be a dog, or is it simply a damaged dog? How many appendages can it lose before it can no longer be called a dog? Eventually, if one lops off enough parts, the dog dies. The same principle applies to churches. How many characteristics can be lost before a church can no longer be called a church? Baptists do not have a single, straightforward answer to this question.[1]

For the foreseeable future, I’ll be systematically working my way from Acts – Revelation, trying to answer:

  1. What are the marks of a church?
  2. Can any of these marks be missing?

As I finish my review of each New Testament book, I’ll post my thoughts here. I’m not sure how long this will take, but it will surely be fun!

For now, here are some thoughts from a smart, dead guy on this matter:

When we say that the pure ministry of the word and pure celebration of the sacraments is a fit pledge and earnest, so that we may safely recognise a church in every society in which both exist, our meaning is, that we are never to discard it so long as these remain, though it may otherwise teem with numerous faults.

Nay, even in the administration of word and sacraments defects may creep in which ought not to alienate us from its communion. For all the heads of true doctrine are not in the same position. Some are so necessary to be known, that all must hold them to be fixed and undoubted as the proper essentials of religion: for instance, that God is one, that Christ is God, and the Son of God, that our salvation depends on the mercy of God, and the like.

Others, again, which are the subject of controversy among the churches, do not destroy the unity of the faith; for why should it be regarded as a ground of dissension between churches, if one, without any spirit of contention or perverseness in dogmatising, hold that the soul on quitting the body flies to heaven, and another, without venturing to speak positively as to the abode, holds it for certain that it lives with the Lord?

The words of the apostle are, “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you,” (Phil. 3:15.)

Does he not sufficiently intimate that a difference of opinion as to these matters which are not absolutely necessary, ought not to be a ground of dissension among Christians? The best thing, indeed, is to be perfectly agreed, but seeing there is no man who is not involved in some mist of ignorance, we must either have no church at all, or pardon delusion in those things of which one may be ignorant, without violating the substance of religion and forfeiting salvation.

Here, however, I have no wish to patronise even the minutest errors, as if I thought it right to foster them by flattery or connivance; what I say is, that we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists, and keep the use of the sacraments instituted by the Lord.

Meanwhile, if we strive to reform what is offensive, we act in the discharge of duty. To this effect are the words of Paul, “If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace,” (1 Cor. 14:30.) From this it is evident that to each member of the Church, according to his measure of grace, the study of public edification has been assigned, provided it be done decently and in order.

In other words, we must neither renounce the communion of the Church, nor, continuing in it, disturb peace and discipline when duly arranged[2]

Notes

[1] Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Schaumberg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), 217.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 4.1.12.