Category Archives: Preaching and Teaching

A Good Minister of Christ Jesus

When I was a student at Harding University, I belonged to the “Timothy Club.” [1] This was a group for those preparing to serve as ministers of the gospel named after the Apostle Paul’s protégé Timothy. The club provided further encouragement and mentoring for ministry students beyond the college classroom. And all of these students, including myself, believed God had called us to serve as ministers and was preparing us for that task so that he may send us out. [2]

Leaders Among the Church

Paul wrote Timothy saying, “If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching you have followed” (1 Tim 4:6). Space will not permit much analysis of what “these things” are. However, the passage hints at the great responsibility Paul expected of Timothy and under different yet similar circumstances, I believe Paul expected the same of Titus.

Whether we call them ministers, evangelists, or else, the work of Timothy and Titus was a continuation of what Paul began in helping establish the churches in Ephesus and Crete.  From a cursory reading of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, this ministry involved preaching and teaching as well as administrative work, all for the purpose of building up the churches as God’s holy people. For example, when it came to addressing the concerns of widows, Paul told Timothy to “Give these commands” [2] to the church (cf. 1 Tim 5:7, NRSV).

As a minister of Christ Jesus, this responsibility comes from Jesus himself. While all good ministry involves communal discernment, it is not a responsibility subject to the church’s approval but for the sake of the church — so that the church may continue participation in the mission of God. Both Timothy and Titus were sent as leaders among the church… not the only leaders, as they were to appoint elders and deacons (cf. 1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9), but leaders nonetheless.

The Need for Ministers

Churches today find themselves among a drastically different historical context and sometimes facing very different issues. Nevertheless, even though the circumstances are different, churches still need a minister of the gospel like Ephesus and Crete needed Timothy and Titus. Churches need ministers who spend time drinking from the deep well of God’s word so that they may preach and teach the scriptures, always pointing the church in the way of Jesus. Likewise, churches need these ministers acting administratively so that God’s people may, as followers of Jesus, increasingly become living expressions of the scriptures.

Whether a minister serves in the role of a “lead” or “senior” minister or in other specialized roles, such as a“youth” or “children’s” minister, they serve with the church as ministers called and sent by God to the church. Whatever fiscal arrangements are made for supporting a minister, these provisions should not bear upon the minister’s spiritual responsibility. This is not to suggest that there are never circumstances in which a minister has lost the ability to serve but to say that a minister’s service should not be reduced to employment.

Like elders, deacons, and even the church, ministers are not perfect. However, a good minister, one who understands the responsibility as working for God, has spent years learning and continues learning. Like Timothy, a good minister nourishes “on the truths of the faith” and has a good sense regarding what is necessary for building the church up. Likewise, a good minister is not defined by the approval of the church but whether or not that minister remains committed to that “good teaching” from the word of God.

A Final Word

There is so much more to say about the responsibility of a minister. However, in closing this essay, remember Paul’s encouragement to Timothy saying, “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God…” (2 Tim 2:6). The greatest service a minister can offer the church is to do just this.

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  1. This post is dedicated to my fellow Compadres (you know who you are), who serve God and the church as ministers of the gospel. Keep up the great work!
  2. A similar article is published as the same title in Connecting 29 (March 20, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.
  3. The word paraggellō involves making an announcement and is an expression used throughout the New Testament in an authoritative sense, see Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed., rev. Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 760.

Combative Emails: How Do We Respond?

Last Sunday you preached a real challenging message, taught a Bible class that really challenged a long-held traditional belief on a particular passage, made an announcement that is not appreciated by everyone, etc… Now you open your church email account and in your inbox is one of those emails. You know the kind of email I’m talking about… The email comes from a church member who means well but nevertheless is chocked full of emotion and criticism, correcting your wrong interpretation of scripture with enough proof-texts to create a topical index of the Bible.  I call them combative emails because they’re usually the critical kind of emails that are screaming for a combative response.

Don’t!

Let me say that again: Don’t!

Sympathetically, I don’t envy you one bit. I’ve received my share of combative emails during my ministry. It’s easy and very tempting to fire back a response, defending your message and correcting this person’s take on things. That’s a natural reaction because for many people, including myself, our response when challenged is to go on defense. But I have learned that this is normally a poor-defensive strategy and one that is likely only to create further problems. So what should the response be?

There are several things to consider before making any kind of response:

  • Wait awhile! The first and most important thing you can do is wait. Give yourself some time to think and reflect on what the person is and is not saying. This way you avoid making a reply that is emotionally reactive and likely only to make matters worse.
  • Let it go! Not every battle is worth fighting. This is true of any relationship, like our marriages and it is certainly true for ministry as well. Some issues are not worth the time it takes to discuss them and sometimes, the battle is not worth the price it will cost in the end. Furthermore, there’s not much wisdom in discussing a matter with someone if that person has proven themselves to be unreasonable and close-minded.
  • Tell ‘em thanks! In most cases, the writer of an email like this would at least like to know that you received the email and read it. So a short and simple reply telling the person “Thanks!” will help a lot. You might even suggests that after having some time to think about their concerns more, that perhaps they would like to get together and talk over some coffee or lunch. In all likelihood, the person who sent you the email just wanted to be heard and this will oblige him or her while defusing something that could become very disastrous. And use discretion about any further engagement by emails.
  • Talk face to face! There are occasions where things are said and done that must be addressed. Whether it’s a misunderstanding, an accusation, or else, if it is possible then the best way to handle the matter is to arrange a time to sit down and talk face to face. Generally, I think it’s ok to arrange such a meeting by email or phone but that is it. Save the discussion for some conversation over a good cup of coffee or a warm bowl of soup. In this way, by seeing each others face, you remind each other that this is a conversation between two Christians and that allows you to speak in ways that builds each other up.

These I have learned the hard way… And I’m still learning.

There is one more suggestion I have and it has to do with fostering immaturity. I have found that these combative emails of reflect immaturity on the part of the sender, especially when the emails are accusatory and are full of incoherent arguments that proof-text the Bible at will. It’s unfortunate that such immaturity exists among Christians but the greater tragedy is to foster such immaturity by resorting to the same tactics in response. My suggestion is don’t! By doing so, you are simply telling the other person that it’s ok to act this way and it will not serve any purpose except to create more problems… including a giant headache. There have been a couple of occasions, where I refused to even respond and acknowledge my receiving of an email, choosing instead to go directly to that person. If they can’t handle that then there isn’t any conversation to have on the matter they want to address.

So what suggestions do you have for responding to people who send combative emails?

Repost: Those Noble Bereans

I’ve been really busy this week and have not had the time to blog much, so let me share a post from a few years back titled Those Noble Bereans. The post is about how we read our Bibles, a subject that is of interest to me.

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In the Churches of Christ, there has been a great admiration for the Bereans. We have admired these Bereans for their “back to the Bible” legacy and for good reason. In Acts 17.11-12 we read:

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.*

For clarification sake, it should be noted before going any further that the scriptures these Bereans were examining was what we Christians refer to as the Old Testament. There wasn’t any such thing as the New Testament yet.

So this passage in Acts 17 has been the oft cited proof-text encouraging the examination of the scriptures to test whether what is being preached is truth. Like I said, there is good reason for carrying on the legacy of these Bereans and I want to encourage every one of us to read the Bible, study the Bible, and let the Bible reveal the living God and his will to us.

However, it also seems that this passage has been cited for the wrong reasons at times too–not all the time, just sometimes. Here is what I am getting at. While praising the legacy of the Bereans for their examination of scripture, there has been a tendency to overlook the disposition of the heart with which the Bereans examined the scriptures. Let’s read our passage again but pay attention to what else it tells us (which I have emphasized in italics):

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

These Bereans were both listening to the message being preached by Paul and Silas as well as examining the scriptures with an open mind and open heart. That is why they were able to receive the message “with great eagerness” and “As a result” come to belief. This means they were not examining the scriptures just to prove Paul wrong.

As a Christian, I believe we should be reading our Bible’s but I also believe it should be done with an open mind and heart. That is the legacy of the Bereans. However, I fear that this passage is sometimes cited–and I’ve heard it cited nearly all of my life–to justify an approach to scripture that simply seeks to prove others wrong. If this is our approach to scripture, I think we will succeed in accomplishing our goal every time we try. One of the things I’ve learned over time is that when we open our Bible just to prove something or someone wrong, in almost every instance we will find what we are looking for whether the Bible really says it or not.

Thus, as I said in my last post, “As Christians we can be people who have a strong faith in Jesus Christ but are humble enough to remain learners and know that some of our views regarding the Christian faith might be wrong. This requires us to never become complacent about what we’ve learned or where we are at in the way we live in the footsteps of Jesus. It requires an openness to God’s work through the Holy Spirit as we pray, read scripture, join in fellowship with other Christians, and listen to other voices so that we can hear a word from God that we have yet to hear.”

This is what it is to honor the way of the Bereans. So yes, be like the Bereans, reading and studying our Bibles but also be like the Bereans, reading and studying our Bibles with an open mind and heart.

Preaching and the Mission of God

Per the request of a few people, I am uploading the paper I wrote for my first Doctor of Ministry class at Northern Seminary, Missional Ecclesiology, with Dr. David Fitch. I have reformatted the paper as a single-space, 13-page pdf.document.

This paper, which I have titled Preaching and the Mission of God, critically examines my own practice of preaching within the Columbia Church of Christ as we strive to participate in the mission of God. I begin by describing the doctrinal and ecclesiological formation of the Churches of Christ in order to understand how this bears upon my own preaching. Following this, I explore this formation in light of the cultural transition from a modern and Christendom culture, which the ethos of the Churches of Christ emerged in, to a postmodern and post-Christendom culture. The paper the turns with a focus on the mission of God and the role the church is to play within this mission in order to understand how I must engage in the practice of preaching.

Though the paper focuses on my own practice of preaching, I hope it will help others think critically about the practice of preaching — especially those who minister among Churches of Christ. So here is the paper:

Preaching and the Mission of God

Seeing and Hearing: Preparing for Sunday’s Sermon

Every Sunday when churches gather for worship, there’s likely to be a message preached from scripture. Maybe you’ll be the one doing the preaching or maybe you’ll be one of the listeners. Either way, we all are involved in this event called preaching. In fact, just as necessary as preaching is, so also is our involvement.

Preaching is Powerful

It might be tempting to dismiss the importance of preaching but don’t. Like singing and praying, preaching has always been a practice of the church but that alone is not the only reason for preaching.

Preaching is powerful because it is the proclamation of the word of God. According to Hebrews 4:12, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…” (NRSV). When the word of God is faithfully proclaimed it is able to convict, encourage, and inspire us to walk in the way of God as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. As a minister, I have witnessed the changes in people, including myself, because the word of God was preached.

To be clear, the power of preaching does not rest upon any human ability. Before Jesus was crucified, he promised that his Father in heaven would send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would convict and testify to the truth (Jn 16:7-15). Likewise, the Apostle Paul taught the Christians in Corinth that the church has received the Holy Spirit so that it may have understanding (1 Cor 2:12). So the power of preaching, which teaches us and calls us to live more deeply and faithfully in the way of God, is the work of the Holy Spirit living among us as the church.

Preparation Is Necessary

There’s a human element to preaching that cannot be overlooked or underestimated. First of all, there is the preparation of the one who will preach the word. Whoever preaches the word has the responsibility of preparing for that message through prayer and study. Occasionally I’ll hear someone say that this is unnecessary, suggesting that preparation stifles the Holy Spirit. They’re wrong! In fact, most of the time this is just a veiled excuse for laziness.

Those who think preparation is unnecessary for preaching the word of God might suggest that it gets in the way of the Holy Spirit working. That is absolute nonsense! If the Holy Spirit works during the preaching of God’s word, which it does, then he is also able to work in preparation for a message.

Yet there’s more to the human element than just the preparation of the preacher. There’s the part of the church as well. Allow me to explain…

Preparing Our Eyes and Ears

Have you ever wondered why, as Jesus preached and did many miracles, some believed while others did not? I have and having spent nearly the last ten years of my life preaching every Sunday for a church, I believe the difference has to do with our eyes and ears.

In Mark chapter 4 Jesus told a parable about sowing seed. In this parable he likened people to soil, some of which was good soil for planting seed while other people were like bad soil unfit for seed. In the middle of that parable, Jesus made a very difficult reference to people seeing but not seeing and hearing but not hearing (v. 12). I’m not so much interested here in how that statement has been understood exegetically in the Gospel of Mark. I mention it in order to point out the fact that we all have eyes and ears and yet it’s possible that we remain blind and deaf.

So what does this have to do with preaching?

Everything!

Typically before I begin to preach, I start with a prayer. I pray for God to pour upon me the gift of preaching through his Spirit. I do so because even though I have spent thorough time in preparation for the message I will preach, I don’t want to rely on my own power in preaching. But I also pray that God will grant the church I serve the eyes to see and the hears to hear. I pray for this so that through the preaching of God’s word, the Spirit may bring an understanding that calls the church into a deeper and more faithful life together in Christ.

Now knowing that your church will gather in worship this Sunday and, among other things, hear the word of God proclaimed, WHAT WILL YOU PRAY FOR?

The Pastor and Prophet

I’m a preacher and minister, so my official “job” title says. Not a pastor and prophet. But the more and more I serve in ministry the more it seems that pastor and prophet is a better job description.

I don’t mean prophet in the sense of like Isaiah the Prophet or John the Baptist, who have an inspired word from God. I mean prophet as one who spends time in the word of God, listening to what God is saying while understanding the culture in order to point the way of God for the times we live in today. Sometimes this prophet still gets it wrong and that is why the people of God must test the words of the prophet (cf. 1 Thess 5:20), but prophet this disciple of Jesus is.

And I don’t mean pastor as someone who is spiritually above the rest of the flock. Any pastor worthy of the calling is a sheep first. That is, the pastor is a follower of Jesus and therefore a humble servant among the people rather than a master over the people. That’s also why it’s called ministry because it is about serving.

But as I said, the more I serve in ministry the more it seems that pastor and prophet is a better job description.

It’s not just standing up to preach for a little while during a worship gathering. Every minister know the depth of emotion and self-giving love poured into the preparation of that sermon because the minister knows who is going to hear that word—the couple whose marriage is falling apart, the one whose child is struggling through depression or addiction, the one who is living with chronic illness, and the one who keeps justifying sin.  The minister prays that this will be the day when the word preached becomes a word of hope and encouragement, a word that brings repentance, a word that calls a somewhat a church-goer out of their religiosity and into faithful life of following Jesus.  If not during the message, then perhaps during a chat over coffee or dinner.

There’s the vision to be cast too so that the church may always go towards the future rather than settled in the land of complacency.  Of course, sometimes pursuing that vision is seems so difficult.  Because sometimes there are other issues that must be dealt with (and every minister knows the issues).  But whatever it be, it is the task . . . the work of the pastor and prophet among God’s people for the sake of God’s glory and mission.

So the church might call on someone to be their preacher and minister but after nearly fifteen years spent in ministry, it really seems that they’re calling for is a pastor and prophet.  Just saying…

But you can still call me the preacher or minister!  Or you can just call me “Rex” and that will be fine too.

unChristian Christians

I chose the title  unChristian Christians because in some sense what I want to share might have in mind the Christians described by Kinnaman and Lyons in their book unChristian.  Yet in this post I want to talk about the unChristian Christians Jesus has in mind.  To do that, let’s read a passage from the Gospel of Matthew.  These words, spoken by Jesus, are quite alarming.  Matthew 7:15-23 reads:

15 “Watch out for false prophets.  They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.  16By their fruit you will recognize them.  Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  17Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  20Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.  21Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’  23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Alarming?  They ought to alarm us.  They’re words of judgment.  They tell us that there are some people who appear to be the Lord’s people but are not.  Instead they are false prophets!  People whom Jesus will deny ever knowing!  People under the judgment of God!

But Who Were These People?

Most of the people I have heard in my lifetime referring to this passage have either quoted or paraphrased verse 15 and then verses 21-23.  Usually this is done as a proof-text with little, if any, consideration of the context.  In other words, verse 15 and verses 21-23 have become ad hoc proof-texts  used to label and condemn anyone who did not preach sound doctrine—according to their standard of sound doctrine—as false prophets, the people whom Jesus denies knowing.  Growing up in the Churches of Christ, the false prophets were the church goers and preachers among other denominations because they may have held a different view on baptism than we had, or because they used musical instruments in their worship, or because they had a different understanding of the end times, or because…  And one and on it went.

Of course, I know many of these other denominations considered the Churches of Christ to be false prophets for the same reasons . . . doctrinal differences.  But it all completely misses the point of what Jesus is saying.  In fact, it’s an easy conclusion to perpetuate if we only read this passage out of context to rehash what we have been taught and accepted with little question.  And let’s not be mistaken, this view is not one that we would likely reach if we were simply reading the Bible for ourselves!

Who The False Prophets Really Are!

When Jesus warns of false prophets and the people he will deny knowing, he does not have in mind all the many doctrinal disputes that we have assumed.  As I alluded to earlier, the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:15-23 has a context and it is the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7).  Read through this sermon, if we dare.  Rather than addressing matters of Christian doctrine the hobby-horse issues of our churches, Jesus is preaching about the way of life his disciples are to live as people who belong to the kingdom he has started proclaiming (cf. Matt 4:23).

So in the middle of this passage from Matthew 7:15-23, Jesus reminds us that we will recognize false prophets by the fruit they bear.  However, given the context, it seems that the difference between good and bad fruit is whether or not people embody the way of life imagined in the Sermon on the Mount.  That has nothing to do with Christian doctrines and to say it does or apply this passage to those who disagree with us on different doctrinal issues is to go beyond this text (a problem in itself for those who claim to take scripture seriously).  So the false prophets Jesus is warning us about are the people who profess the name of Jesus, who may be able to quote scripture after scripture, and who may even be more than able to defend every doctrinal issue they deem important, but ignore the moral and ethical way of life Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount.

And This Matters Because…

Believe me, I’ve met some preachers and some churches who thought they were the epitome of “sound doctrine” but had little idea of what it was to be merciful, to leave their gift at the altar and go reconcile with their fellow Christians, to love their enemies, to pray the kingdom prayer Jesus teaches, etc…

I’ve been one of them at times.  I’m trying not to be one any more.

This is also to say that we all should take Jesus’ warning about being quick to pass judgment on other Christians, accusing them of being false prophets.  For if we take Jesus seriously and keep his alarming words in context, the false prophets may be closer to home then we would like to admit.  And one of them just might be us . . . which ought to be alarming.

May we be people who follow Jesus, bearing good fruit as we live the life our Lord has taught us to live in the Sermon on the Mount!

Just Read The Bible!

Over the past year I have been reading through the entire Bible chronologically, thanks to my YouVersion Bible App on my iPad.  I’ve read through the entire Bible before but never according to the chronological schedule that I am following this year.  But whether I am reading the Bible chronologically, traditionally, or whatever, I continue to learn, be challenged, and most importantly, desire to live in righteousness before God (which doesn’t always happen).

I normally read from several translations.  My two favorite are the New Revised Standard Version (1989) and the New International Version (2011) of which I also do most of my preaching and teaching from.  There are other great translations to choose from.  A lady who recently began attending our church still reads from the old King James Version and she asked me if that was alright.  Of course, it is.  With few exceptions, a person should read from whatever translation they are most comfortable with, prefer, or find the easiest to read from.

While all versions of the Bible are just translations of the original language, every committee translation is reliable to teach us who God is, who we are as God’s creation, and the life we are called to live as people redeemed in Jesus Christ.  With every translation there will be questions about how certain words from the original language have been rendered in English (or whatever language the Bible has been translated into).  But that fact itself does not render any translation as unreliable, especially those translations done by a committee of scholars.

I have six graduate hours of instruction in Old Testament Hebrew and twenty-one hours of graduate and undergraduate instruction in New Testament Greek.  Yet I am not even close to having the qualifications to say that one translation is unreliable, filled with error, and so on.  However, I am continually amazed at how many Christians there are who have less instruction, if any, in Hebrew and Greek yet they believe they are somehow qualified to condemn one translation over another (such as the NIV in particular).  These Christians preach and teach to people about such hearsay information that they have learned (often from people just as unqualified as they are) when they have the slightest ability to even determine if what they have heard is true or false.

Stop it!

Stop preaching and teaching such poisoned messages that only distracts people into talking about the Bible rather than reading the Bible!

I’ve been preaching for over ten years now and the more I continue preaching the more biblical illiteracy I encounter, even among Christians.  So with little exception, rather than wasting time on stupid arguments about which translation of the Bible is better, let’s spend our time trying to encourage people to read the Bible—reading from whatever translation they prefer (KJV/NKJV, RSV/NRSV, ASV/NASB, NIV, ESV, NEB, CEV, etc…).

Just read the Bible!

Loving Our Enemies

The Sermon on the Mount, found in the Gospel of Matthew, is not difficult to understand.  The challenge is doing what it says.  Yet Jesus summons us to follow him as his disciples living the kingdom life he teaches us, so that through such living the future goal (telos) of history begins erupting upon the present.  Thus Jesus presses us as his disciples to pursue a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (cf. Matt 5:20).

One of the more difficult challenges, perhaps the most difficult, Jesus instructs us to do is to love our enemies.  Jesus says in Matthew 5:43-48:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

muslims christians protectIt’s not enough to love our families, neighbors, and God.  We must also love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  This is what distinguishes us from every terrorist, murderous, war-mongorous, individual who is quite willing to love his or her family, friends, and neighbors of good standing but is more than willing to do harm and even kill those he or she regards as an enemy.  The picture in this post is a shot of Christians in Egypt surrounding Muslims gathered for prayer as a means of protection during the Egyptian revolution of 2011.  I post it as a reminder to us all that it is possible to love our enemies.

In the message posted below, which I preached before the Columbia Church of Christ on Sunday, June 30, 2013, I challenged the church to hear this instruction of Jesus.  I wanted the church to wrestle with the challenge of this text (or better yet, let God wrestle with our hearts) rather than to resolve it in a way that fits with our American way of life.  However, as with any message, a preacher can only do so much in one time-slot.

So I want to go a bit further here and address one of the major ethical questions this passage raises which is the question of killing and warfare.  Namely, is it ever appropriate for a Christian to participate in killing an enemy or engaging in warfare against that enemy?  Throughout Christian history there have been two answers to this question.  Yes and no.  Those who answer the question in the affirmative fall into the “Just War” tradition while those who say “no” to the question fall into the tradition of “Christian Pacifism.”  There are credible arguments for both traditions, so neither view should be dismissed as unrealistic or indefensible.  Having said that, rather than argue for either tradition I want to offer a challenge to each tradition in the way it responds to Jesus’ challenging instruction.

Just War

As I said, for some Christians, it is believed that there is are certain times when engaging in warfare and killing is necessary to stop a greater evil from advancing. This is regarded as just war.  If you click on the Wikipedia link for Just War Theory you can read a synopsis of how this doctrine developed and the classical criterions for discerning what is a just war.

Those who embrace the doctrine of just war need to take it seriously.  The entire premise of a just war assumes that there is also an unjust war.  If the said action of a war is incompatible with the Christian criterion for what constitutes a just war, then the war is unjust.  For example, warfare which knowingly targets non-combatants such as civilians is unjust.  Christians who adhere to the doctrine of just war must learn how to discern when war is just and unjust, resolving not to participate in any unjust war.  For Christians to participate in any unjust action is to engage in injustice and fail to have a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and scribes.

Christian Pacifism

For other Christians, it is believed that Jesus’ call to love our enemies is defined by the way Jesus loved his enemies, suffering their persecution rather than killing them or engaging in warfare against them.  For these Christians, there is no such thing as a just war for Christians to engage in since as far as it is known the historical Jesus of Nazareth never killed any of his enemies or engaged in warfare against them—even though he had plenty of opportunity to do so.  If you click on the Wikipedia link for Christian Pacifism you can read a synopsis of this doctrine.

Those who embrace the view of Christian pacifism need to remember that pacifism does not equate with passivism.  While, as far as it is known, Jesus never killed or waged war against his enemies, Jesus was never passive in wake of oppression and evil.  Jesus pursued his kingdom ministry in the trenches with people who were suffering, including those who suffered under the oppressive and evil tyranny of others.  Not only did Jesus live in the trenches with such people, Jesus was willing and in fact did lay his own life down for those suffering. Christians pacifists must be willing to do the same as Jesus.  To do any less might be regarded as pacifism but it won’t be Christian pacifism.

The Deeper Challenge

Whether we hold the view of Christian pacifism or just war, the challenge to love our enemies and pray for those who would persecute us is the challenge to see our enemies as people.  All humans have been created in the image of God.  Therefore in every human do we see the image of God and our own image since we too bear the image of God.

When we learn to see our enemies as God’s creation who bear God’s image, it ought to become very difficult to treat them as an enemy.  For we too were once enemies of God who loved us still.  And when we learn to love even our enemies, the world will see a snapshot of what life is like when God is given reign.

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Here is the message “But Jesus Says…” which I preached from Matthew 5:38-48 if you care to listen:

Matthew 5:38-48 “But Jesus Says…”

Preaching the Word: My Philosophy of Preaching

The task of preaching is an ancient practice.*  Yet, as we might expect, the focus of preaching has changed throughout history.  By the late twentieth century preaching generally focused on expository sermons where the truths of a particular text would be expounded upon.  While there’s much to commend about expository preaching, the sermon often capitulated the culture of American individualism so that preaching served as a therapeutic exercise aimed at addressing individual felt needs.  Consequently it’s now quite common to hear of Christians church shopping like they shop for cars, attempting to find the church that perfectly meets their needs.

Such preaching “christianizes the horizons” which the hearers, Christian or not, bring with them allowing the “fundamental convictions” of those horizons to remain (Wright, Telling God’s Story, 37).  The problem is that since Christian preaching is ordained of Christ, it must serve the aim of the gospel of Christ.  This aim is not the baptism of American culture(s).  Rather the aim of the gospel is the formation of a people reconciled to God and one another who will bear witness to God’s redemptive mission by living as a redeemed people among people yet to be redeemed.  This is why the New Testament is concerned not only with what God has done in Christ but also with how this redemptive history bears upon the moral formation of those who belong to Christ.

So Paul charges the evangelist Timothy with the task of preaching.  Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage…”  In the larger context we learn that Paul is so adamant about the necessity of such preaching because some will turn away from the truth (v. 5).

It’s important to recognize that in Paul’s day, “truth” was as much a way of life as it was a belief or confession.  In other words, to embrace truth required both belief and living.  Conversely, any way of life that is inconsistent with the confessed belief was just as much a rejection of truth as it was for those who rejected proper belief.  So Paul charges Timothy with preaching the word in order to form the church in the truth, so that the life and beliefs of the church become a coherent product of the gospel which results in the church becoming a portrait of the gospel.

This I believe is the necessary task of preaching today.  We live in a culture where the difference between Christians and the rest of society has become so blurred that some might wonder if there’s any difference.  The church must again be formed in the truth, the aim of the gospel.  This means the task of preaching is not to offer applicable take aways that address the various felt needs of  individuals, allowing scripture to be absorbed into their lives as is.  Rather, the task of preaching is to open the scriptures, calling the church to embrace the world that God’s word imagines with all of the necessary beliefs and virtuous practices necessary to encompass the truth.

If this were not so then conversation Jesus had with the rich man in Luke 18 would have ended with Jesus reminding him of the commandments (v. 20).  For with Jesus’ mention of the commandments, the rich man had an applicable take away necessary for the him to be at peace with his life as it was.  However, the problem with the rich man was that there was still a part of his life that was at odds with the kingdom of God.  So Jesus told this man to go take care of this one thing by giving it up and then come follow him (v. 22).  Why?  Because Jesus was not trying to help this man apply God’s word to the life he was already living but instead was calling this man to let go of his life and accept the new kingdom life Jesus imagine for him.

With all that said, I believe that I am called not to help the church apply the scripture to the lives we are already living, but to preach in such a way that we may let go of our own lives and embrace the life God imagines for us in scripture.  In this way, I believe preaching serves the aim of the gospel or in other words, serves our formation as disciples of Jesus Christ.  And as one who is nothing more than a disciple still stumbling along as I follow Jesus, I pray that I will preach God’s word boldly but with humility that is full of grace and truth.

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* This post is a slightly revised version originally published as an article titled “A Word on Preaching” in Connecting 28 (June 26, 2013), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.