Some Advice About Church Fights

angry smileyIn this article, I’m posting an excerpt from a letter written around 96 A.D. It’s the earliest letter we have from Christians outside of the New Testament. Though it is traditionally titled “1 Clement,” it was really written from the congregation in Rome to the congregation in Corinth. Of course, Paul had written at least two (and probably more) letters to that unfortunate church about 50 years previously. Now, however, a new problem had cropped up.

The congregation in Corinth had apparently dismissed its pastors at the instigation of a few troublemakers in the congregation. It’s both encouraging and depressing to know that this has been a perennial problem. Politics, power struggles and infighting characterize every organization – and it’s always particularly depressing when it happens in a congregation which allegedly confesses allegiance in the same Lord, the same faith, and has the same baptism of the Spirit which has placed them into the New Covenant!

Read this excerpt, and consider how relevant it is for today. It could describe some churches in 2017 . . .

Clement’s advice

You are contentious, brethren, and zealous for the things which lead to salvation. You have studied the Holy Scriptures, which are true, and given by the Holy Spirit. You know that nothing unjust or counterfeit is written in them. You will not find that the righteous have been cast out by holy men.

The righteous were persecuted; but it was by the wicked. They were put in prison; but it was by the unholy. They were stoned by law-breakers, they were killed by men who had conceived foul and unrighteous envy. These things they suffered, and gained glory by their endurance.

For what shall we say, brethren? Was Daniel cast into the lions’ den by those who feared God? Or were Ananias, Azarias, and Misael shut up in the fiery furnace by those who ministered to the great and glorious worship of the Most High? God forbid that this be so. Who then were they who did these things?

Hateful men, full of all iniquity, were roused to such a pitch of fury, that they inflicted torture on those who served God with a holy and faultless purpose, not knowing that the Most High is the defender and protector of those who serve his excellent name with a pure conscience, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

But they who endured in confidence obtained the inheritance of glory and honour; they were exalted, and were enrolled by God in his memorial for ever and ever. Amen.

We also, brethren, must therefore cleave to such examples.  For it is written,

Cleave to the holy, for they who cleave to them shall be made holy.

And again in another place it says,

With the innocent man thou shalt be innocent, and with the elect man thou shalt be elect, and with the perverse man thou shalt do perversely.

Let us then cleave to the innocent and righteous, for these are God’s elect. Why are there strife and passion and divisions and schisms and war among you? Or have we not one God, and one Christ, and one Spirit of grace poured out upon us? And is there not one calling in Christ?

Why do we divide and tear asunder the members of Christ, and raise up strife against our own body, and reach such a pitch of madness as to forget that we are members one of another? Remember the words of the Lord Jesus; for he said,

Woe unto that man: it were good for him if he had not been born, than that he should offend one of my elect; it were better for him that a millstone be hung on him, and he be cast into the sea, than that he should turn aside one of my elect.

Your schism has turned aside many, has cast many into discouragement, many to doubt, all of us to grief; and your sedition continues!

Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the Apostle. What did he first write to you at the beginning of his preaching? With true inspiration he charged you concerning himself and Cephas and Apollos, because even then you had made yourselves partisans. But that partisanship entailed less guilt on you; for you were partisans of Apostles of high reputation, and of a man approved by them.

But now consider who they are who have perverted you, and have lessened the respect due to your famous love for the brethren. It is a shameful report, beloved, extremely shameful, and unworthy of your training in Christ, that on account of one or two persons the stedfast and ancient church of the Corinthians is being disloyal to the presbyters.

And this report has not only reached us, but also those who dissent from us, so that you bring blasphemy on the name of the Lord through your folly, and are moreover creating danger for yourselves.

Let us then quickly put an end to this, and let us fall down before the Master, and beseech him with tears that he may have mercy upon us, and be reconciled to us, and restore us to our holy and seemly practice of love for the brethren.

Notes

This excerpt is from “1 Clement 45:1 – 48:1,” in The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Kirsopp Lake, vol. 1, The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge MA; London: Harvard University Press, 1912–1913), 85–91.

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.

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)

We Believe in . . .

constant
Homilies of Gregory Nazianzus (from a 9th century Byzantine manuscript)

Here, at long last, is my pitiful translation of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (381 A.D.). The first four so-called “ecumenical councils” between 325 and 451 A.D. were where early Christians hammered out a vocabulary and framework for explaining what the Bible says about the triune God. These councils did not invent or create doctrine; they articulated what the Bible already says. I will use this translation, and the classic translation from Phillip Schaff’s work, for a future discussion of Father, Son and Spirit. For now, here is the text:

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“We believe in one God; Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of everything visible and invisible.

Also, we believe in one Lord; Jesus, Messiah, the unique Son of God, who was brought forth from the Father before all time began (that is, from the substance of the Father), light from light, genuine God from genuine God. He was brought forth, [but] not created; [the] same substance as the Father, by whom everything was made in the heavens and on the earth. He came down out of the heavens for the benefit of us men, even for our salvation, and was made flesh by [the] Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Indeed, He took on human form, was crucified for our sake during the time of Pontius Pilate, and was tortured. He was buried, yet rose the third day according to the Scriptures. He ascended into the heavens, is sitting down at the right hand of the Father, and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and [the] dead; whose kingdom shall never end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit; Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, is worshipped and glorified together with Father and Son, and who spoke through the prophets.

We believe in one holy, universal and apostolic congregation. We confess one immersion concerning forgiveness of sins. We are waiting for [the] resurrection of the dead and the coming eternal life. 

But, those who say, “there was a time when He did not exist,” and “He did not exist before He was brought forth,” or that “He was made out of nothing” or “out of another nature or substance;” those who claim, “the Son of God is alterable” or “changeable;” the universal and apostolic congregation curses them.”

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Some Christians are taught by well-meaning but ignorant teachers and preachers to ignore creeds and confessions. You ignore the first four ecumenical creeds (Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon) at your own peril. Actually, you don’t ignore them at all – your theological vocabulary is riddled with their terminology; you just don’t know it! As Carl Trueman has observed,

The Lord has graciously provided us with a great cloud of witnesses throughout history who can help us to understand the Bible and to apply it to our present day. To ignore such might not be so much a sign of biblical humility as of overbearing hubris and confidence in our own abilities and the uniqueness of our own age (The Creedal Imperative [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012; Kindle ed.], KL 1738-1740).

More on this creed another day! The detailed translation is available here. You can compare it with the normal English translation if you wish.

Are God’s Promises to Israel Spiritual?

Here is an excellent, short article on this point! I am not known for writing short articles, so I thought I’d pass this one along. I’ll be posting an exposition of Amos 9 in the next few days, which demonstrate that God’s promises to Israel were literal and must be interpreted as such, if we are to be faithful to the text.

Here is the article – http://sharperiron.org/article/promises-to-israel-we-should-expect-literal-fulfillment