Category Archives: Faith

Christianity In An Age of Religious Pluralism

Perhaps you’ve heard of Duck Dynasty. I’m a fan. I’ve not seen every episode but I’ve seen a bunch. Besides the humorous adventures of the Robertson clan, the fact that I minister with a Church of Christ and that there’s enough red-neck still in me keeps my interest. One of the great values of the show is that every episode ends with the family eating and praying together, which is a great example to set.* 

Our Context Matters…

The show has established a platform for the family to express their Christian faith and Phil Robertson has seemingly taken advantage of this platform the most. On a few occasions Phil has made some comments which might not raise any concern in his own context but certainly do elsewhere. Having said that, I don’t want to spend any more time criticizing Phil or discussing his past remarks.

I mention Phil Robertson in order to make an observation about a difference between his context and the context of many other Christians, including those among the Churches of Christ. The Robertson’s live near West Monroe, Louisiana where those who affiliate with a Christian church make up roughly 90% of the population.  Compare that to Columbia, Maryland, where 56% of the people do not claim any church affiliation. On top of that, the last time I checked, my children attend school with children from thirty-nine different nationalities. As you might imagine, along with those thirty-nine different nationalities comes a plurality of religions and assortment of values that sometimes differ drastically from the values held by many Christians.

All that is to say that while I appreciate the public stance Phil Robertson is willing to make for what he believes, his example is not a model for every Christian. The response Phil Robertson takes is one that is shaped by his own cultural context. Yet more and more Christians find themselves living in an urban to suburban context that is very different, one where religious pluralism is a reality that requires a different approach.

Apologetics As A Way of Life…

When taking a stance for Christ, one of the frequently cited verses is 1 Peter 3:15. In this passage, the apostle Peter says, “But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess” (NET). For many Christians, Peter is talking about defending the existence of God or the resurrection of Christ. That’s why this passage is a favorite proof-texts among the enterprise of Christian apologetics. I’m all for providing good intellectual answers for those who struggle with Christian belief but what Peter is talking about in this passage is apologetics as a way of life. That is, to set Christ apart (sanctify) in our hearts is about making the way of life that Christ teaches our way of life. A quick read of the entire letter of 1 Peter should make this abundantly clear. 

Embracing apologetics as a way of life involves at least two steps:

  1. The first step in taking a public stance for our faith involves the way in which we set Christ apart in our hearts as Lord. We make sure that our life reflects the life of Jesus. What we say and do reveals our true values and when we profess Christ as Lord but exemplify a different set of values than those which Jesus embodied while on earth, we nullify our witness. One of the values Jesus lived by while here on earth involved the formation of relationships with other people. When we form relationships with others our Christ-likeness becomes a testimony that gives us a credible basis for proclaiming Jesus.
  2. Because we regard Jesus as Lord, the way in which we give an answer for the hope we have matters too. We don’t have an argument to win, just the good news of God’s victory in Christ to bear witness of. As David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw say, “Surely such claim for the supremacy of Christ pits us against other religions and other ways to God. But the conviction that Jesus is Lord actually does the opposite: it frees us from coercion and control. It is Jesus that is Lord, not us. We do not need to land a knockout punch to win an argument against another religion. We are witnesses! We do not need to be prosecuting attorneys on behalf of Jesus. We are witnesses!” (Prodigal Christianity, 158).

As believers and followers of Jesus, we are called to live as his witnesses. In an age of increased religious pluralism, we must become more intentional about taking a stance for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such intentionality includes boldness but let’s not confuse boldness with brashness. Our bold witness of Jesus must reflect the life of Jesus if we are to truly set Christ apart in our hearts as Lord.

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* Except for a few stylistic changes, this exact article was originally published in Connecting 29 (December 3, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

Engaging In A Culture War

Whatever you think about the current state of American culture, it’s clear that Christianity no longer has the influence it once had. There isn’t any use in becoming upset about it or complaining about it because that will change very little, if anything. Instead consider asking how should Christians posture themselves amidst a culture that appears less than receptive to Christianity?

The Courage Not To Fight Back!

Perhaps you’ve seen the movie 42 about the story of Jackie Robinson. There’s a scene in the movie where Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers is talking with to Jackie Robinson about the challenge his is going to face…

“People aren’t going to like this. They’re gonna do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse, and they’ll only hear yours. Follow a blow with a blow and they’ll say the Negro lost his temper. You’re enemy will be out in force and you cannot meet him on his own low ground. We win with hitting, running, fielding… only that. We win if the world is convinced of two things: that you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player.”

Robinson asks, “You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?”

So Rickey says, “No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.”

Perhaps the best response Christians can have towards the current changing American culture is having the courage not to fight back!

Christians Have Lost Their Temper?

Every year as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day approaches, there are some Christians who insist upon engaging in a culture war over the greeting “Merry Christmas.” By insisting upon the phrase “Merry Christmas” as opposed to “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings,” they think that the society at large will remember the “reason for the season.” They call for Christians to boycott stores that don’t mention Christmas, voice their protest in various social-media outlets, align themselves with various political talking-heads (some who may not even be Christians), and even make a movie about saving Christmas.

Is this really about living as faithful witnesses of Jesus or is it about preserving a culture that favors Christian sentiments? In other words, is this culture war over Christmas motivated by a desire to serve God or a selfish political desire?

To be frank, I really don’t care whether a person says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” What I’m concerned about is the notion that some Christians have which believes that this is a spiritual battle that they must stand up and fight. They seems to believe that Christians can and should go blow for blow with society. However, taking a page from Branch Rickey, when this is done, society only seems to think that Christians have lost their temper… and seem quite ready to leave us to ourselves where we can pout in the corner while we have a tantrum.

Isn’t there a better way? I certainly believe so!

Love, Service, and Hospitality

For the last few weeks I’ve been preaching through the book of 1 Peter. In one sentence, this is a letter that addresses how Christians must live as the holy people of God amidst a hostile culture. Never does Peter say anything about fight back, standing up for your rights, boycotting and protesting those who don’t show favor to Christian values. Instead Christians are persistently reminded to be the church. That is, instead of trying to determine how the rest of society should live, Christians should make every effort to embody the living hope they have received.

One of the more important passages in about Christians embodying the  living hope they have received is found in 1 Peter 4:7-11:

For the culmination of all things is near. So be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of prayer. Above all keep your love for one another fervent, because love covers a multitude of sinsShow hospitality to one another without complaining. Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God. Whoever speaks, let it be with God’s words. Whoever serves, do so with the strength that God supplies, so that in everything God will be glorified through Jesus Christ…

Loving one another, serving one another, being hospitable… Think about it! Branch Rickey told Jackie Robinson that they would win with hitting running, and fielding. Peter is telling us who call ourselves Christians that we win by loving one another, serving one another, being hospitable towards each other.

If we really believe in Jesus then we need to be Christians who have the courage to not fight back… or at least not fight back on society’s own low ground. Instead we must learn to fight with love, service, and hospitality. Then we become a living demonstration of the reason for the season, the life Jesus came into this world to offer through his own death and resurrection.

Living Hope!

Life is full of disappointment, hardships, and suffering. In my own life, the story has the grief and pain of losing a father, a son, and a younger brother. For others the struggle has been divorce, depression, abuse, chronic health problems, persecution, and so on.

Localized persecution made life very difficult for the Christians living in Asia Minor. So after the standard greeting, the Apostle Peter began his first letter to these Christians with these words:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you, who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. – 1 Peter 1:3-5

There’s a hymn that churches sometimes called The Sands of Time, with the words written in 1857 by Annie R. Cousin. The song captures the journey of faith that we live on.  “…Dark, dark hath been the midnight, but day spring is at hand,” reads one line. The fourth verse begins, “The King there in His beauty, without a veil is seen; it were a well spent journey, though seven deaths lay between.”

As difficult as life can become, the journey is coming to an end. That end is Jesus Christ who is coming again and bringing with him our salvation in its fullness. When we see Jesus appearing, full of the great mercy of God, we’ll see our King standing unveiled in the most splendid beauty. Then we will know that our journey has been a well spent journey, even though the seven deaths do lay between.

That hope… that’s what keeps me on the journey. May it offer you courage to keep on the journey too!

Living As We Believe

“But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works.” – James 2:18.

As Christians, our faith should be evident in the way we live. It’s not always the case but it should be. In reality, how we live is always trying to catch up with how we believe. For example, we believe that we are to live by the Spirit and not by the works of the flesh (cf. Gal 5:16-25) but as we all know, it requires daily discipline in order to say “No!” to the flesh and “Yes!” to the Spirit.

What sort of discipline is necessary so that there might be more coherency between what we profess as belief and how we live? In his book Captive to the Word of God, Miroslav Volf says:

Espousing a belief puts pressure on the one who believes to act accordingly. Put more generally, basic Christian beliefs as beliefs entail practical commitments. These commitments may need to be explicated so as to become clear, or they may need to be connected to specific issues in concrete situations, but they do not need to be added to the beliefs; they inhere in the beliefs. Christian beliefs are not simply statements about what was, is, and will be the case’ they are statements about what should be the case and what humans beings should do about that. They provide the normative vision for practices (p. 50).

Volf is suggesting that what we articulate as our belief shapes how we live. It works sort like this: If we profess that we reject envy and jealousy as being an acceptable way of life then we envision envy and jealousy as abnormal and sinful values and commit ourselves to getting rid of such works of the flesh in our lives. Or to put it another way, if we profess that we are to give thanks in all circumstances (cf. 1 Thess 5:18) then we envision life where we take stock of the blessings we have and express our gratitude for such blessings (rather than becoming envious of others who have what we don’t have).

This is our submission to the sanctifying work of the Spirit in our lives. We profess our beliefs, thereby committing ourselves to live in accordance with what we believe. Consequently, this is one reason why we should continue gathering together in worship and fellowship as the church. When we come together as Christians for worship and fellowship, which includes preaching and teaching, we are reminded of what we believe and the life that our faith calls us to live into. It is also a reason why confession of faith in prayer is an immensely important as a daily discipline. For example, if in prayer we confess that we are called to live by the same mindset of Jesus (cf. Phil 2:5-8) then we are more likely to remember the mindset of Jesus as we encounter life and live accordingly.

The Lord’s Supper and the Church As Family

As you know, one of the metaphors used to describe a church is family. In the best sense, family is a warm and lovely image. So it is with the church, the family of God. Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ, bearing the burdens of each other and supporting one another. But as we all know, a family can also have some stressful moments too. Anyone who has grown up with siblings know that brothers and sisters don’t always play so nice together. And so it is with any local church at any given moment.

Family-Church

Churches are people with a myriad of different personalities, who bring all sorts of different baggage to the table. At any given moment, someone says or does something that bothers someone else, unknowingly causes offense, and may even create some level of animosity and division. How does the church deal with this?

The Lord’s Supper

The Corinthian church had a lot of problems. Among those problems was their participation in the Lord’s Supper. According to 1 Corinthians 11, some of the Christians were stuffing themselves and getting drunk (imagine that!) while leaving nothing for others, leaving some still hungry (vv. 20-21). So what does Paul do to remedy the problem? He tells them about their participation in the Lord’s Supper. Here’s what Paul says in vv. 23-26:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Paul reminds them that this Lord’s Supper involves both remembering and proclaiming.

Remembering goes back to the Passover in which the Jews would come together and remember how God delivered them from Egyptian bondage. So partaking of the body and blood of the Lord is to remember the redemptive grace God has shown us in the death of Christ. Proclaiming is to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” says Paul. The scope of this proclamation is past, present, and future. It is to embrace the grace of Christ, which involves the most unselfish act of giving his own life up for the sake others, as the church’s way of life.

Reading the remaining part of 1 Corinthians 11, we see how effortlessly Paul moves from participation in the Lord’s Supper to how it ought to shape the social-practice of the church. What the church remembers and proclaims (belief) as it participates in the Lord’s Supper must extend beyond the actual meal and transform how the church relates to one another (practice). This has everything to do with being a family.

As Christ, So We

In his book Captive to the Word of God, Miroslav Volf suggests the connection between belief and practice involves an as-so structure saying “as God has received us in Christ, so we too are to receive our fellow human beings” (p. 46). This is a helpful way of understanding how our participation in the Lord’s Supper ought to shape the social-practice of the church as a family. It says that as a church remembers Christ and proclaims his death until he come, so also should every believer grant the same grace God has granted them to their brothers and sisters in Christ. In this way, participation in the Lord’s Supper is a rehearsal of what we believe, which is wrapped up in the grace of God, so that we can act towards each other as we have rehearsed.

So as a family, Christians are going to say and do thing that get on the nerves of each other from time to time. Sometimes the offense has caused enough harm that it creates division and in those cases, with repentance, an apology is necessary so that reconciliation can take place. However, what is also needed is an assumption of grace. Every Christian has a bad day, moments when they don’t put their best foot forward . . . times when they say something wrong. In those moments people need to know that they’re forgiven and that their brothers and sisters in Christ don’t hold what they said or did against them because they’re a family who grants each other the same grace that they have received in Christ.

That’s how the many imperfect churches lives as a healthy family! Families forgive rather than hold grudges. I grew up with two brothers and two sisters in my nuclear family. Sometimes we would say and do things that irritated each other, made each other mad, etc… But we learned to love each other, let things go, and carry on as brothers and sister. That’s how it should be in every church and when Christians participate in the Lord’s Supper, they are saying this is how it will be in their church.

Blessing The Children

Yesterday the Columbia Church of Christ had our blessing of the children. Besides singing songs and reading scripture about the abundant blessings of God, the message was about the role parents and the church plays in raising children as faithful followers of Jesus. At the end of the message, the parents brought their children and committed to raising them as followers of Jesus, with the church lifting each child up in a prayer of blessing. After blessing our children, we shared in the Lord’s Supper together.

The following was part of the prayer of blessing offered for our children:

As the family of God, a congregation of whom Jesus is the head…We ask for you God, our Father in heaven to bless these children…

Lord, we praise you for the life of these children and ask you to surround everyone of them with your blessing, that they each may know your love and may be protected from all evil, knowing your goodness all the days of their lives.

Lord, we ask that you bless the parents of these children, giving them the grace to love and care for their children with patience and faith. As they stand before us as a profession of their commitment to teach their children to be followers of your Son, Jesus, may your Spirit grant them wisdom and guidance to live as Jesus, setting an example of what it means to be a Christian!

And Lord, as we give these Bibles to the newest born children among us, we pray that as they grow up, they will receive the scriptures as your word, shaping them and becoming their story… our story…your story, Lord! Amen!*

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* Adapted from an Anglican prayer of blessing for children.

Do We Have To Go To Church?

“Do we have to go to church?”* said most everyone of us at some point in our life. I’ve asked that question before and I’m sure other minister have done so as well.

I get the question. People are asking if attending a Sunday church assembly is necessary. Part of me wants to whip out Hebrews 10:25 as a prooftext, where the writer of Hebrews warns against forsaking the assembly. If were looking for a law, which a question like this often assumes, then the instruction in Hebrews appears sufficient. Having said all that, something else has already gone afoul when we have to ask the question of whether it is necessary to assemble with our church… on Sunday or any other time when the church assembles.

What Are We Asking, Saying, and Doing?

The question of whether we have to go to church also assumes a view of church that is widely accepted but still wrong. The assumption is that church is where we go and what we do rather than who we are as a community of disciples. Hence, we speak of church in the third-person singular rather than the first-person plural voice. Church is no longer thought of in terms of who we are − our identity as a community of disciples − but as an independent part of our life.

The problem is deeper though. As I pointed to earlier, the question assumes a legalistic approach to the Christian faith. This legalism holds that there are certain laws that must be kept in order to remain a faithful Christian and the question wants to know if going to church is necessary to remain a faithful Christian. However, most of the time it seems as though the person asking is looking for an out… a legal loophole, so to speak. Perhaps the person wants to justify sleeping in on Sunday morning, heading out to the golf course, the deer stand, etc… Because church is already regarded as just a part of life, something the person goes to do rather their way of live, church is now becoming even a lesser part of life.

In reality, the question of whether or not we have do go to church says much about our relationship with God. Since church is only a part of our life and is becoming a lesser part of life, God is no longer first. God is replace with something else, which is now more important and that is a deeper issue.

A Spiritual Disease?

As I think about the deeper issue, I am reminded of the story in the Gospel of Luke about the rich ruler (Lk 18:18-29). The man’s problem is not his wealth, it’s putting his wealth before God! Trying to justify himself he comes to Jesus inquiring about what is necessary for eternal life, so Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. Of course, this wealthy man is already keeping the commandments. There’s still one problem and Jesus calls him on it… This man loves his riches more than he loves God and so his riches, rather than God, are his top priority. So he left, unable to follow Jesus into the kingdom because he loved his riches more than he loved God.

We can’t and don’t go to church because we are the church! Yet as the church, we gather together as an assembly in various formats and these gatherings are important. There are times when we cannot assemble and have legitimate reasons for not being able to do so. But when we begin to see the assembly as the church and separate that into just one part of our life, we inevitably do the same with God. For our relationship with God is bound within the community (church) of God’s people which God has made us a part of. When we relegate this relationship into one part among other parts of our life like family, work, hobbies, and so on, those other parts have the potential of becoming more important.

When this happens we end up asking questions like “Do we really have to go to church?” It’s a spiritual disease because what we really seem to be asking is “Do we really have to put God first?”

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* This article was originally published in Connecting 29 (October 1, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.