…because we love the brethren

As the pastor of a relatively small church who is always looking at the condition of not only the congregation I lead, but to investigate the history of churches that have seen divisions, splits, and much more.  Since long before I was ever called to ministry, I have “suffered” from a constant yearning to know “why” and “how”. It is just part of my core being.

As a pastor, I try to grasp the whys and whats of a church’s history – why people join or leave a church, why young people (as much are wringing their hands today over) seem to be leaving churches in alarming numbers, and even why a church might split. Part of that ongoing series of quests is a look at the problem of swollen church membership rolls – that often include names that possibly no current member even knows the identity of! I believe one of the core problems (or diseases) responsible for a lot of these symptoms and issues is a spiritual issue – and in many cases, the problem is unregenerate church membership.

Bear with me for a bit – as this will take a few steps to explain.  You see, Jesus assembled His church – that first local church (as Christ’s Church is nearly always referred to) in Israel – a “church” that moved around following Him until He returned to His rightful place in Heaven. That church settled in Jerusalem where it gained the respect – dare say even admiration from their neighbors (Acts 2:47 records that they had favor with all the people). What inspired this period of favor (that also appears to have drawn people to Christ – and thus to be saved?) – the relationship these members of that first church had with each other – they were:

And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (ACTS 2:44-47)

Quite simply, their love for one another was such that they made sure everyone in need had their needs met (through sacrificial giving), worshipped God gladly and sincerely, and were day-by-day (regularly, even daily meeting together including fo worship). This early church was demonstrating what Jesus identified as one of the biggest of hallmarks of being a genuine Christ-follower:

“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

The word love here comes from the same Greek word (ἀγάπη – agapaō the same self-scarificing love Jesus demonstrated on behalf of His sheep on the cross!  And this is the exact same term translated as love in the source passage for my tltle today:

We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. (1 John 3:14)

This is the same love that Peter wrote of in 1 Peter 4:8 to the church under great persecution: Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.

I have long chewed on the concept of “love covers a multitude of sins”.  A genuine, personal, self-sacrificing love for your brothers & sisters in Christ overcomes/covers more sins than we can comprehend – just as Jesus’ perfect demonstration of this same kind of self-sacrificing love covered 100% of the sins of every person who would ever trust Jesus alone for Salvation – His sheep. We are called, time and again, to have and to demonstrate self-sacrificing love, beginning with our “brethren”.  It is this same love that drives a God-called pastor to fulfill the charge Paul had for Timothy (2 Timothy 4:2) to be ready in and out of season to REPROVE, REBUKE, EXHORT. Indeed, anyone claiming to be a pastor who is unwilling to reprove (put to the proof – point out error based on proof), rebuke – to boldly address, call out, to put/shut down errors, and to exhort – to call to action/correction – literally to plead with urgency for change. A pastor who loves his (Christ’s) people is willing to stand on Scripture and to take the steps necessary to correct those in error (sin, as well as doctirnal/theological errors).

And out of love for Christ and love for their brethren (including such a pastor), born-again church members should desire and even be glad to receive such correction with a right attitude.

Likewise – even a pastor with the best of intentions can make an error, and should have such a love that he can take correction with gladness.

Within the local church – genuine, intentional discipleship begins when members have this same self-sacrificing love tha they are willing to invest of themselves and their time to walk side-by-side with fellow believers to teach, lead, and help mature those believers.

It is the same kind of unselfish love that will draw together a local church as nothing else will – and will actually attract those around them who need to experience that same kind of love.

And it is this same love that will lead the born-again to regularly assemble together to worship God, to grow spriritually, and to edify their brethren – and lead you to not forsake the assembling together (Hebrews 10:25).

Which brings us full circle to the title verse – and the sobering reality penned by John under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit in 1 John – that we boil down as beign able to identify thsoe who are not abiding in life (Christ) by their lack of love for the brethren.

Do you love your fellow Christians? Does that love cover a “multitude of sins” – aka when they mess up, as humans do? Do you desire to be WITH Christians – beginning with the regular meetings for corporate worship as the local church, but also that you would spend a significant portion of your life with fellow chrisitans sacrificially giving to them of your time and self (disicpleship)? Does the church you are a member of have a pastor who loves you enough to be willing to deal with the real and hard issues and to reprove, rebuke, exhort the body to follow Scirpture?

Or do you abide in death?

The Problem…

As I sit on my scheduled “day off”, soaking in the after effects of our Palm Sunday services while also ruminating on all that I see in the news of the day, I can’t help but reflect on all the insane finger-pointing. The United States is a nation in decline.  Yes, our economic state is slightly improved, but that is rapidly being undone by uncontrolled Federal spending (thanks to a brand new Omnibus spending bill of over $1.3 Trillion that carries us through 6 months… seriously!) We see lots of senseless death, from school shootings, to a literal epidemic of young black males killing each other on the streets and neighborhoods of Chicago and other major cities.  We see a radical discrimination – where the media and rabid freedom-hating protestors get emotionally up-in-arms, organizing widely-expensive “March For Our Lives”, funded in large part by radically Leftist (and almost universally unregenerate-acting) celebrities, over a single school shooting where the victims were, interestingly enough – caucasian, while these same deep-pocket celebrities essentially ignore the hundreds already dead in inner-city, predominantly black communities.  It takes the “tears of white mothers” to stir up action?  And then the “action” is against inanimate objects and totally ignores the perpetrators, the government and law enforcement agencies that flat-out failed to take any action that would most certainly have prevented this most recent mass shooting altogether – all adding up to a failure to see our problems as symptoms of a greater illness – indeed a disease that is absolutely going to destroy this nation.  It isn’t guns.  It isn’t video games. The disease isn’t violent entertainment or misogynistic, hate-filled music, or a failure for people to be able to even acknowledge basic biology (gender). The problem is not a tool or the endless list of symptoms above – but a heart issue.

Scripture is clear – Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us that:

“The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?”

We have a problem known as sin – and it is a disease that has infected mankind since almost the very beginning. In fact, Scripture clearly says that All have sinned… (Romans 3:23).  And the sin problem in our nation (and world) is not improving – and I would like to propose that a major part of the problem is “US” – the evangelical world.  Oh – we may say we love Jesus.  For that matter, we have libraries full of love songs to Jesus (that too often sound more like love songs between high school sweethearts than adoration of the Holy, Righteous, and glorious Sovereign Creator!)

We have a sin problem – and while the problem isn’t new, the “Church” (especially evangelical churches) have dropped the ball – whether it is simple laziness, complacency, or even proclaiming what the Apostle Paul called “false gospels” – we have actually contributed TO the sin problems in our nation.  Doubt this?  Take an honest look into your local church. Look around – what do you see?  Yes, you see a room full of sinners – we all fit that category.  BUT – do you see in those same people – growing, maturing, and sin-shunning (constant-repenting) believers who are walking by faith?  Chances are, in many “evangelical churches” (regardless of denomination), you will find quite the opposite.  You will find a percentage that fit the above, but you will find far more who are little more than church attenders who have two persons – a Sunday Morning face, and the other 6.5 days personality. Let me further explain.

Jesus gave His great command to His church to make disciples.  For many years, from the first church in Jerusalem, we see a model laid out before us – people lived out their faith in a way that strengthened said faith, that aided each other to grow together in their walk – to see lives genuinely transformed in such a way that they were a beacon of hope, even when under incredible persecution. We still see some startling examples today in nations that are far from Christ-friendly; where Christians indeed walk in faith and where they absolutely understand the need to make disciples.

Return for a moment to the USA – where many see a man-centered religion. What happened? Back in the late 1800’s, a wave swept across evangelical Christianity – some look back with fondness, while most Bible-believing Christians who look through a more Berean lens (discerning) see something far different.  Preachers like Charles Finney began preaching dramatic, emotionally-charged sermons pleading for listeners to come to Jesus. It was the advent of the “ask Jesus into your heart” movement – where “decisions” were made based on feelings and tears (often contrived) verses genuine conversion via the Holy Spirit’s conviction and regeneration. The movement became all about what is known as “synergistic salvation”: a gospel that lays as much or more of salvation’s work on the heart of men (remember the Jeremiah quote near the beginning of this entry?). A feelings-based, emotionally-driven profession of faith, followed rapidly by baptism and adding to a church roll. Great!  But where are the growing disciples who are then to be disciple-makers?  That just didn’t really happen.  Numbers-driven ministry  only continued to take over Gospel-driven ministry. In fact, it was this same existential, pragmatic religious movement that gave birth to what we now know as pentecostalism and other Charismatic faiths, and the erroneous belief that mankind, once genuinely saved, can somehow be plucked form Jesus’ own hand (John 10:28-30). As the dramatically evolving Christianity in America began to spread – Christianity became more and more man-centered and less God centered.  We saw church building expanding along with growing church staffs to manage these growing churches – and with it the ever-growing budgetary needs to sustain these growing organizations.

But it wasn’t just these growing local churches (and so-called “mega-churches”), but even smaller local churches also started to shift towards man-centered ministry and beliefs (even doctrines). With this came the various degrees of the “prosperity gospel” and now the Social Justice/Social Gospel that substitutes the doing for proclamation and motives.

Let me return in this rambling post back to core doctrines that have contributed to our national issues – We have two common models that have evolved since/from the Finney/revivalist era – those that have attempted to remain true to core doctrines and biblical teaching – but have slipped into a form of practical legalism: after a person says a prayer for Jesus to come into their heart (I have yet to find a biblical reference or example), and we get them quickly baptized – we then throw what amounts to a list of rules for Christian conduct at them – then hope it sticks. Keep the 10 Commandments – Don’t make or bow down to idols – yet we have no problem with filling our homes and lives with literal shrines to our favorite sports team, entertainment stars, or hobbies (Whoo Pig Sooie!), don’t kill (though we forget Jesus equated hate towards a neighbor to be like murder), honor your mother and father (while we sit idle by watching society tell kids to dishonor parents and always buck the system). We say to not steal (while many cheat on their taxes, have no problem with being accidentally under-charged for a purchase, or take advantage of someone’s lack of understanding to gain an extra dollar). We say “thou shalt not commit adultery”, while turning a blind eye to the rampant divorce and remarriage rate WITHIN churches.  We MIGHT say to not “covet” what others have – yet we church folks can run with the best of the “keeping up with the Joneses”. And the list goes on –

On the other branch, we see churches that make similar please to “love Jesus”, yet make no expectation at all of change.  Indeed, the functional message is – come as you are (great!), and when you go home – go home unchanged – except with a smile on your face! We see a catering to the tastes and preferences of specific “target groups” through affinity-based churches (churches that are centered and founded on interests or lifestyles – think biker churches, cowboy churches, outdoorsmen churches, etc.) We see the growth of entertainment/flash-based churches where style, excitement, and experience reigns supreme over the Word of God and the clear-preaching of it.

The Gospel, when it is proclaimed is a gospel that helps people understand the genuine nature of sin – the genuine cost of sin (both in this temporal world and more importantly – in eternity).  The Gospel isn’t just about God’s love that was demonstrated in Christ’s perfect sacrifice, but is also recognized as genuinely good news because we see also Gods’ wrath that is poured out on ALL unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). And when God (not man) applies the true, and full Gospel to the hearts of men – regenerating their heart of stone for His heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), we should anticipate – indeed fully expect change to come. A desire to please God, to know God, to serve God who paid such a high price for our forgiveness – the same God who, through Jesus Christ, who endured the wrath WE deserve.

And with that change of heart and progressive sanctification (the ongoing growing more like Jesus) we begin to better reject sin and more interestingly – we begin to be able to exercise Judgment/Discernment.  Yes – that ugly word that so many, even professed Christians, are so scared of. We mis the understanding of just what KIND Of judgement we are suppose to exercise.  Our judgment should be connected to and based on Scripture.  We should see God’s Word as inerrant (in its original manuscripts) and completely trustworthy from cover-to-cover and trust it to be the judge of all that we see and must make decisions about. See more about this HERE.

And as we bring this all forward and look to the downward spiral of our nation- where we point fingers at guns, politicians, organizations, etc – let us not forget that many who march against rights, who point blame, who even spew some pretty nasty words – are folks who sit in a char or pew on Sundays. Let us not forget that many who commit crimes and other acts of violence were “brought up in church” and were even considered by some to be “good people”.

Some shout: “THEY NEED JESUS” to which I give a hearty “AMEN!”. But they need Jesus then they need to see good, biblical, Godly examples – not a soup of rules and contradictions along with selective picking and choosing of what parts of the Bible are applicable and dependable.  They need Jesus – and discipleship.  They need churches to not just throw rules at them, but preach doctrines that are 100% Bible-based. They need genuinely born-again Christians to extend a hand to them to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ (that we can’t forget included whips and overturning tables as well as calling sin – sin, and calling wolves and snakes what they are). It means that, while we recognize that God is the “Great Physician”, He owes us nothing! While God can and will provide our needs, He is under no obligation to provide the lusts of our flesh! It means recognizing the absolute necessity to die to self every day (to prefer the will of God and the needs of others over ourselves).

This also means that we must come out of our little protected enclaves we call “churches” and open our hearts and lives up to “those people” – whether they look different than us, act differently than us (are we shocked when people who are unregenerate and without Jesus act like they are unregenerate and without Jesus?). It means we must be willing to call out those who profess to be born-again believers in Jesus who walk in unrepentant sin, reflecting the flesh of the world instead of the Light of Christ.

Lest we forget the message of this little Jewel from the Mark Trammel Quartet:

We cannot guilt and arm-twist people into saying a “sinners prayer” and expect real change. WE must recognize that salvation is not of man, of grand speech, or clever argument – it is 100% of the Lord – as a FREE GIFT, granted by faith, not of any merit of ability we have – (Ephesians 2:8-10). But again, this is just the beginning. While genuine salvation is sure – and we can confirm it by seeing the very change it brings both immediately and long-term, we are called to repentance for a purpose – to be the living, breathing Gospel to those around us as we ourselves journey to know Christ and to make Him known!

And the sooner we realize and trust that it is God who converts the sinner into a saint, the quicker we begin to get about doing what Jesus actually commanded US to do – MAKE DISCIPLES.  Not mindless religious zombies.  Not another generation of unrepentant and shallow “church members”, but to teach, equip, and walk along-side those who we know and seeing them through from lost, to saved, to growing and mature Disciples who then become disciple-makers themselves.  If we in the Evangelical world would take Christ’s command as given, turn lose of measures that revolve around numbers (seats filled in church services and offering totals), and get serious about helping people to grow to be genuine disciples of Jesus Christ – we will see first – a resurgence of the true Church of Jesus Christ – we will see churches that are spiritually healthy.  But as an extension, we will see communities changed for the good, the needs of those around us better met – and we will see the Kingdom of God as never before!

But as I preached yesterday (Palm Sunday) – it will cost us something – it will cost us our idols, our selfishness, our prejudices, and our comfort zones. But let us not forget – it cost Jesus everything!

It isn’t about being a “social justice warrior” as many en the evangelical world have become – for the works of our hands alone will make no real difference. It isn’t about a social “gospel” – for that makes no eternal difference at all (indeed – it makes do-gooders who can’t seem to do real good at all). Let us be Christ-followers – as individuals and as local churches.

If you currently are a part of a local church that not only proclaims the whole and true Gospel of Jesus Christ – a church that places a top priority on actual, one-on-one, Bible-based, Christ-glorifying disciple making – congratulations – you have found  a Jewel!  Treasure it and be an active part in it.

If, on the other hand, you find upon real, Berean-like examination according to Scripture that your “church” really isn’t much of a church at all – but a purveyor of man-centered doctrines and theologies – of flesh-pleasing programs, of man-glorifying religion – then I implore you – seek out a church that truly sees the Bible as the Word of God: every page of the 66 books of the inspired, divine revelation of our Lord – a church that takes seriously the command to make disciples – submit to sound Biblical teaching and to being discipled – with a goal of becoming a disciple-maker and using what God has given you in material and spiritual gifts to serve Him.

And to that – I humbly submit the church I pastor – not because I am the pastor, for anything good First Baptist Church may have or display is more in spite of my leadership than because of it! Yes, we have “issues”, as any and every institution made up of human beings will have.  But you will also find that we recognize our shortcomings and are constantly seeking ways to grow in Christ, to deal with the “demons”, and to be the salt and light.  We would love to have you visit, but even more – if you genuinely want to be what Christ has called people to be – join us in our journey! First Baptist Church.

California, Gender Identity, and Rebellion

Not surprisingly, California has again jumped into the headlines over gender issues in recent months. First with legislation passed what began as Senate Bill 219 – a measure to legislate the use of gender pronouns (specifically geared to nursing and care facilities), but with far-reaching fallout possible. The legislation actually codifies as a crime punishable by up to a year in jail, the use of the wrong gender pronoun!

As if this wasn’t disturbing enough in many ways, the same California legislature has now passed SB179 – an additional legislation that formally and legally recognizes three gender identities: male, female, and non-binary (also sometimes known as gender-queer) for state identification and other purposes. Not only does this fly in the face of reality and facts, it flies in the face of sanity!

unidentifiable-genders.pngOne can rebel all day long against God and His design – but one thing remains true, regardless of what a state wants to “recognize” – and that is DNA. Our DNA clearly and consistently identifies us as either “Male” or “Female“. Period.

Gender is not something one chooses (though many choose to act in rebellion to what they are biologically). Even if one submits to surgical mutilation to remove or create gender-identifying body parts, you still, biologically, are either male or female – and that remains unchanged.

Yet another reality is – even if you go through hormone treatments and surgical mutilation, the record is clear – you will never have peace with yourself – and it makes finding peace with God even more difficult. Depression rages on in those who have attempted to change their gender. And it goes back to – we are created by God as male or female. It is WHO you are, even if you “don’t feel like that gender”. Attempts to side-step that and self-identify or even “reassign” your gender to match your personal preference only makes things more complicated and damaging to the very soul.

And this is why we must seek our identity, not in our gender feelings, in our personal preferences, or in other people’s opinions, but in the God who created us…Male and Female.

What we see unfolding before us is what happens when mankind decides he (or she) knows better than the One who created us. We decide to go “our own way” (Isaiah 53:6). What began primarily with adults who decided that their feminine feelings (for men, male feelings for women) were more than simply strengths to be appreciated – they became more who they thought they were.  Our society had for so long lifted up men as only REALLY men if they “never cry”, to “never eat quiche” – and any softness – any emotion was taboo.  Likewise, women who felt strong, who were natural leaders, who enjoyed traditionally male work, hobbies, or activities were somehow looked down on.

Then came the Women’s Liberation Movement, which went from simply making sure women had equal rights, to the radical, rabid feminism of today – that actually encourages women to rebel against not only biblical gender roles, but to subject men and ultimately eliminate gender identities altogether.

And along comes a movement to legitimize same-sex attraction and sexuality – which,

Rebellion-650-x-433.jpg

despite the adamant declarations to the contrary, were voluntarily merged into the same umbrella as the whole gender dysphoria debacle to produce the ever-growing alphabet identity war (LGBTQ). And all support each other because of one commonality – rebellionagainst the God-cr

eated, God-ordained order of things. And while it was one thing when restricted to adults who have a right to be wrong, to do wrong, and to make bad decisions (and face a consequence for those), the movement to totally legitimize the movement ultimately led, as many predicted, to spread it intentionally to ever-younger children. What use to be seen as absolutely normal – little girls who were “tomboys” – often all the way to adulthood, and little boys who enjoyed playing with girls, dolls, and more “feminine”-identified activities, are not immediately scooped up and wedged in to the LGBTQ moniker – and being subjected to medical procedures, hormone abuse, and essentially brainwashing – all to firmly anchor them in this identity.  Last year, a 4 year-old underwent gender reassignment procedures – Yes, 4 years old! Exactly what does a 4 year old know of gender?

The reality is – all of this ongoing battle, and the ever-younger victim base of those involved in the war, are trying to legitimize their own fleshly desires – that they know, down deep in their heart, are wrong. But they also have succumbed to the deception that simply forcing the world to “accept” their choices and behavior will somehow alleviate the deep guilty and conviction that they experience. It is all an effort to smother the pain – equal to the effort to use alcohol,  illegal drugs, or opiates to dull the pain.

Gender identity debate reflects broken, corrupt, prideful, and unregenerate souls who are in desperate need of hope and restoration that can only be found in a right relationship with their Creator. And this right relationship will never be found in hormones, surgery, or legalizing your feelings over what is true and right. Peace will never be obtained by forcing others to accept your choices. Comfort cannot be found in the arms of laws that squash the rights of others (for legalizing what is wrong does not make it right).

Genuine peace, comfort, and security can only be found in Christ Jesus. Repent, believe that He died to break the chains of our sin – including our sinful desires and lusts, and trust Him to work all things out to the good. For the same God that gave us Jesus Christ to suffer and die in our place, is the same God who can liberate us from our sinful desires, and give us the strength to walk upright – and He is the same God who can be our true source of value and identity.