Worship In Spirit and Truth?

I’ve heard more than a few sermons on the subject of worshiping God in spirit and truth. I’ve even preached a few of those sermons myself. Using the passage of John 4:23-24, the focus of the sermon always presumed a question of what are the requirements that God expects of the church in worship so that the worship is pleasing to God and thus offered in spirit and truth? The preacher then begins proof-texting various Bible verses to clarify what God presumably requires of Christian worship and how the church is to carry out that requirement. And if you’re from my Christian tradition, the Churches of Christ, that sermon will always include an argument for a cappella singing in worship coupled with an argument against the use of instrumental music in worship.

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The passage of John 4:23-24 is part of a larger story about an encounter Jesus has with a Samaritan woman. However, the type of sermon I described in the preceding paragraph has very little, if anything, to do with Jesus. The focus of that sermon is the church and specifically what the church must presumably do to worship God in spirit and truth. Yet the focus of John chapter 4 and really the entire Gospel of John is Jesus. So do we see the problem with a sermon using a passage from John 4 that is focused on us, the church, and not on Jesus?

Regardless of what our views our on how the church should worship, John chapter 4 isn’t about that and if we don’t realize that then we’re going to miss the more important point. So moving on…

There’s this woman from Samaria whom Jesus meets at a well and asks for a drink of water. That was a surprise to the woman since Jews don’t associate with Samaritans. As the conversation unfolds, Jesus offers the woman “living water” which will forever satisfy her thirst and everyone else’s thirst who drinks of the water Jesus offers. It is the promise of “eternal life” (v. 14). This intrigues the Samaritan woman but then, and rather abruptly, Jesus points out her marriage situation. Whatever the circumstances are for why this woman has been married five times and is now living with a man who is not her husband, the woman now sees Jesus as a prophet (v. 19). Her marriage history coupled with her identity as a Samaritan raises questions about her suitability to receive the promise of eternal life. But it is these questions that prepare us for the twist in the story.

Jesus offers living water and says, “Come, thirst no more!” Now who are we going to believe?

The twist comes when Jesus says in v. 21-24, “…believe me a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Jesus says to the woman, “you will worship…” The personal pronoun is in the second-person plural voice. In other words, here is this Samaritan woman with a questionable marriage history who knows that she and the Samaritans are excluded from the temple worship of God in Jerusalem but now Jesus is telling her that she and the Samaritans will worship God. They who were excluded will now be included. Jesus is the Messiah (vv. 25-26) and this Samaritan woman along with other Samaritans now believe in Jesus (v. 39). The assurance of worshiping God in spirit and truth is an inclusive promise because Jesus is the Messiah who comes as God in the flesh, full of grace and truth.

Let’s not miss the irony here either. In John chapter 3 Jesus encounters a Pharisee named Nicodemus, an insider who excludes people like this Samaritan woman and thinks he’s on the inside because he keeps the Law and its traditions… But unless he believes in Jesus (that eternal life is possible because of what God is doing in Jesus), he’s an outsider. On the other hand, in John chapter 4, she who has been an outsider becomes an insider because she believes.

So worshiping God in spirit and truth is about believing in Jesus. This point is underscored from the wider narrative of the Gospel of John when we keep in mind that God is both Spirit and the Incarnate Word. So while in the past God dwelt among the temple, he now dwells among in the person of Jesus and as the Holy Spirt whom the Father and Son have sent. We worship God in spirit and truth not because of how we sing or pray when assembled for worship among our local church. No… we worship God in Spirit and Truth, or even better, in the Spirit and in the Truth because we believe in Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit.

This inclusive promise is the good news for everyone who has been an outsider. Those who have been treated as an outsider because of their race and ethnicity or because of questions about their own marriage history and moral lifestyle are now included in the promise. Here Jesus is offering living water regardless of the past… regardless of whatever circumstances, sins, doubts, and so forth. Jesus offers living water and says, “Come, thirst no more!” Now who are we going to believe?

Can You Believe?

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16

102113This Bible verse, John 3:16, is one of the most well known passages of scripture in the Bible. Children throughout Sunday School’s memorized this verse and it was a favorite of preachers in many revivals, such as Billy Graham preaching to a stadium. Even those who never read the Bible may remember people holding up signs that read “John 3:16” at various sporting events such as seen in the picture above.

Yes, that is how popular John 3:16 has been. The passage has been a source of debate. Is it really true that we simply must believe in Jesus to receive the promise of eternal life? Well, that is what the passage says. Ok, then. But what about repentance and baptism? Doesn’t Jesus call people to repentance and re not those who respond to the gospel message in the book of Acts called to be baptized? And, of course, the answer to all of these questions is an easy “Yes!”

But these questions also seem more like a big adventure in missing the point because they are not the questions John is answering when he wrote John 3:16.

This might make more sense if we first recognize that John 3:16 is not the words of Jesus, but the commentary of John in response to a conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus. That conversation is about being born again and seeing the kingdom of God. Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:5-8:

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

While some interpreters see water and Spirit as a reference to baptism, these terms have more to do with life. For example, the vision in Ezekiel 36:25-27 suggests “a new begetting, a new birth that cleanses and renews, the eschatological cleansing and renewal promised by the Old Testament prophets” (Carson, The Gospel According to John, 195). Such newness of life comes from God alone and that is Jesus’ point to Nicodemus.

Keep in mind that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and as such, he believes that God will restore the kingdom when Israel returns to a strict observance of the Law and its traditions. While Jesus is not anti-Law, he is correcting the misunderstanding of Nicodemus. Seeing and entering the kingdom of God depends on the work of God but Nicodemus doesn’t get this and asks how this is possible (v. 9). So Jesus says in vv. 14-15, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believesmay have eternal life in him.” Alluding to his own pending crucifixion and resurrection (Slovan, John, 46), Jesus is telling Nicodemus that this is how God is ushering in the kingdom and this is what he must believe.

The point is simple but important: whoever wants to participate in the kingdom then  must believe that God is at work in Jesus Christ. This is what it means to believe in Jesus and why John sums up the conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus by saying in v. 16-17, “…God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

This is gospel or good news to us. It’s good news for fundamentalists and legalists but such people may have the hardest time accepting this good news. Those who are trapped in fundamentalist and legalism often believe they must “get themselves right with God” so to speak. In my own experience, participating in the eternal kingdom of God required “sound doctrine” and attending the “right” church. For others it might have to do with not watching any movies, using the KJV Bible only, and so forth. Now don’t misunderstand me, I am not trying to suggest that doctrine doesn’t matter or that moral relativism is ok. The point is this: we will only see the kingdom of God by believing that it is possible because of what God has done in the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.

Anything else is doomed to failure and we know this because we know we are sinners. Even if we give an A+ effort, we still come up with the results of B or C or… Yes, sometimes we even get an F. The good news is that we’re no longer burned with the task of trying to get a good enough grade, because God loves us and has given his only Son, Jesus Christ, for us so that we too might see the kingdom of God and thus share in eternal life with God.

This I believe!

Can you believe?

The Shack: A Story On Suffering and Hope

Last Friday evening I watched the film The Shack directed by Stuart Hazeldine. This film is based on the 2007 novel of the same title by William P. Young. Having read the book, I wanted to see the film too. Like most film adaptations of a book, the movie loses some of the dialogue. Nevertheless, it’s still a good movie to watch.

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In fact, here is the little response I posted on Facebook after watching the movie:

“I just returned from watching #TheShack at the theater. Though the movie, and the novel of the same title it’s based on, is fictional, it tells a wonderful story and powerful truth about God and life, love and forgiveness, faith and hope. Having buried my oldest son, Kenny, nearly fifteen years ago, there is so much I resonate with. From the question of suffering to the hurt and anger that ultimately inflicts more harm on one’s soul to the conflict and encounter with God, I resonate. The thought I had when the movie was over was a reminder that though I have sinned in life, made many mistakes, and often judged both God and people when that is not my business, God still loves me, is at work for the good in my life, and how much I just want to love others and be a part of that Good which God is bringing about in Jesus Christ.”

As you can tell, I resonate with so much of the drama because of the tragic loss of my own son. However, that doesn’t mean I abandoned my theology hat when I watch the film. So from a pastoral-theological standpoint, I also liked the movie.

Of course, some are quite critical of the movie. Some of those critics are Christians who are concerned about the doctrine and theology of the film, like this review by Al Mohler (or for a much more balanced critique, see the review by Focus on the Family). But this really misses the point of the film in my opinion.

First, sometimes it seems like some Christians almost go looking for something to disagree with. In that’s our objective, we’ll find that something in almost everything we do. It’s even more frustrating when a minor issue is made into a bigger issue than it really is. Are their some elements of the dialogue in this film that I question from a theological standpoint? Of course, there is but I didn’t watch the film to get bogged down in little particular details and miss the major point of the film.

The beauty of this film is its journey into the world of suffering where there is brokenness and deep pain along with doubt and uncertainty that evokes a crisis of faith for anyone unfortunate enough to be on this journey. I have and still an on this journey, though I have learned how to walk along this way. This film is about the healing that everyone suffering needs. This is a healing that comes knowing that God still loves them, that the grace of God is still for them, and that they can trust in God again even though they don’t always understand.

And I’m telling you, as one who has suffered, there are people you meet every day who are dying from the inside out. Maybe they’ve buried a child, been through a divorce, been sexually abused, are drowning in drugs and alcohol… they’re the broken and what they need is not a lesson in the fine particulars of Trinitarian theology but a reminder that God the Father, Son, and Spirit love them and long to redeem them. That’s what The Shack reminds us of. So don’t get lost in the details and miss the big story, for if you can hear the big story then you just might be better equipped at helping someone who is dying on the inside find life again.

Lastly, I don’t normally recommend books I haven’t read but since I know this author and trust his judgment, I’ll recommend his book as a companion read. John Mark Hicks, Meeting God at The Shack: A Journey Into Spiritual Recovery, 2017. Besides being an apt theologian, Hicks has traveled on the road of suffering and so I believe you’ll bennefit from his perspective.

On Violence and Sacrifice: The Cross of Jesus and the Eucharist

René Girard, in his book Violence and the Sacred, which was published in 1972 and then translated into English in 1977, explores how violence is endemic among all people of every society. When blood is shed, there must be an avenging of that blood in order to bring about justice. Of course, attempting to bring about justice by means of blood for blood… blow for blow, establishes a perpetual and escalating cycle of violence to the peril of everyone. One only needs to read about wars to understand, as nobody really wins in a war since everyone pays a massive toll in the loss of human life.

If a society has a means of sacrifice, a surrogate victim who will suffer the cost of avenging the violence committed by others, the cycle of violence is disrupted. Throughout history societies have turned to religious rituals as the means of sacrifice. However, as Girard observes, the loss of such rituals so that they lose their meaning as they become increasingly banal leads “…to the outbreak of a new sacrificial crisis” (p. 125). This crisis is one of violence, as society turns inwardly and casts its need for retribution on each other.

As a human society, we need not seek to destroy one another for the evil we have done. For we do have a means of sacrifice, a surrogate victim (if you will), who atones for our evil. His name is Jesus, the Messiah. On the cross in which Jesus is crucified, he absorbs our sin… all the hatred, envy, selfish and lustful desires that often lead to violence, as well as our violence too. When we peer into the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross, we see the evil of our sin. However, as we peer into the mystery of the cross, we also see the grace of God, his love and mercy by which we find forgiveness of our sins. By peering into the mystery of the cross, we learn how to let go of our sin and extend such grace to other sinners rather than lashing out with violence upon them. But what happens if we lose sight of this sacrifice in which God offers up his begotten Son as the surrogate victim who absorbs our sin?

“For as we partake of the bread and wine, we remember the words Jesus spoke as he broke the bread and took the cup saying, ‘This is my body broken for you… This is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins…'”

For some time, the Christian faith has been in decline among North America. This decline is not something that has happened to us. It is something we, many of whom professed to be Christian, allowed to happen. Somewhere along the way, the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross became banal. Our ritual of peering into this mystery where we gather together in local congregations as the body of Christ to share in the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) gradually became more and more meaningless. It became a rote tradition we did at Christmas and Easter or, if you grew up in my Christian tribe, something done weekly merely to obey the command “Do this in remembrance of me!” which was inscribed on the communion table.

All the while, violence is escalating among us. Our society has become tolerant of violence and sometimes even seems to have an appetite for violence when it is taken out on an enemy. We Christians will acknowledge that Jesus teaches us to love our enemies (cf. Matt 5:44) but… we’ll find someway to dismiss what Jesus has said because our need for avenging evil is greater than our desire to extend the grace of God by showing love and mercy. Now the violence is turning inward, seen in the outbreaking of more violent protests and violent rhetoric aimed at cutting each other down. How does it all end?

As a committed Christian, one who believes in Jesus and seeks to follow him, I crisis begins to dissipate as we again learn to peer into the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross. This is why I love that my church shares in the body and blood of Jesus every Sunday as we gather together by partaking of the bread and wine. This is not just some empty ritual we do to check off a box that says we’ve now obey Jesus. No! This ritual, this act of worship, has much meaning. For as we partake of the bread and wine, we remember the words Jesus spoke as he broke the bread and took the cup saying, “This is my body broken for you… This is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins…” And so when we share together in the body and blood of Jesus, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).

What are we doing when we gather together to peer into the mystery of the cross by sharing in the Eucharist? We see our sin and realize how terrible and horrific it is. We recognize how much we have hurt ourselves and others, and in doing so, hurt God who is the Creator of us all. But we are not burden with this weight of sin that we cannot bear. For as we share in the body and blood of Jesus, we also see our forgiveness. We see that “God has shed his grace on thee” and we see that God loves us more than we can even begin to fathom. As we see the grace of God for us in the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross, we learn to extend that grace to others. It’s not always easy to do but just as God has loved us and forgiven us, so we understand and desire to love others and forgive them of their wrongs too. No longer do we wish them ill, do we seek to avenge their wrong with violence of any kind, for the love of God compels us to love one another… to love our neighbors and even our enemies.

And that, my friends, is how the crisis of perpetual violence is broken and the future of God’s kingdom breaks into our present day!

And Who Is My Neighbor?

Most people have heard the story Jesus told in Luke 10 commonly referred to as The Parable of The Good Samaritan. You can read the story here if you would like to reacquaint yourself with the story, which I would highly recommend. Why? Because despite the casual familiarity society has with this story, which has undoubtedly served as the inspiration for the names of numerous “Good Samaritan” hospitals and other “Samaritan” charities, this story really isn’t about a Samaritan.

Yes, you read that correctly! The Parable of the Good Samaritan really isn’t about the Samaritan whom, by the way, is never described as good (or bad) in the actual text. So while we may derive a side point about the virtuous character of the Samaritan, it’s not the main point of the story.

The story is actually about a conversation between a Jewish lawyer and Jesus. The lawyer approached Jesus wanting to “test” him by asking him a question about how he may inherit eternal life (v. 25). Wisely, Jesus turns the tables on his little religious test and asks him about what the Law says. More importantly, Jesus asks this lawyer about how he reads the Law (v. 26). It’s sort of analogous to saying “What does the Bible say about inheriting eternal life? How do you read the Bible?” That’s important because in becomes clear as the story unfolds that Jesus and this lawyer don’t read the Law exactly the same. Their hermeneutic for understanding what is necessary for inheriting eternal life is different. It begs the question of us, as we read the story, as to whether our hermeneutic differs with Jesus.

The lawyer responds by reciting what we commonly refer to as the greatest commands: 1) love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and 2) love your neighbor as yourself (v. 27) (see also Matt 22:36-40; Mk 12:28-31). If this lawyer was simply taking a test, he would have passed because he is right that about loving God and neighbor. The problem is his understanding of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. He doesn’t want to really love every neighbor as himself and so to justify himself, he asks Jesus just who his neighbor really is (v. 29).

In turn, Jesus responds by telling him a story… Well you know the story. But the shocking part of the story is that of all the characters Jesus could have chosen to play the role of hero in the story, Jesus chose a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans hated each other with an enmity that was full of mutual distrust, discrimination, and animosity. And yes, Jesus knew this and that’s the point. Because Jesus is saying to this Jewish lawyer is that the Samaritans, whom he hates, are his neighbor too and if he wants to have a place in the kingdom of God then he must learn to love the Samaritans as his neighbor and that looks something like how the hero Samaritan of the story loved the man who was viciously assaulted along the roadside.

“…we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

So where do we find ourselves in this story? Who are we more like? The Samaritan or the Jewish lawyer? Of course, we want to become like Jesus but to do that we first need to ask if we’re not more like the Jewish lawyer than we realize. If we don’t discern that question then we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.

When Jesus made the hero of his story a Samaritan, he was saying that our neighbors include those we regard as enemies, those we may fear, and even those we may discriminate against in one fashion or another. Had it been a White American evangelical Christian approaching Jesus like this Jewish lawyer, who would have been the hero of the story Jesus told? I think the hero of the story would have been a Muslim father from Pakistan, Egypt, etc… Or a LBGTQ Feminist girl attending college at Harvard, Stanford, etc… or a young Black male living in Chicago, Baltimore, etc… Or a Latino woman originally from Honduras, Mexico, etc… Or a… The list can go on and on and on.

The point is that our neighbors are also Muslims, LBGTQ people, Blacks and Latinos, and whoever else we think of as different from us. Jesus told the Jewish lawyer to go do as the Samaritan did and extend mercy to our neighbors. We don’t have to agree with our neighbor, share their same religious and political views, or even like their way of life but we must love them as ourselves by showing them mercy − doing acts of mercy as we have the opportunity. In fact, we’ll never see the kingdom of God unless we can learn to show mercy and be their neighbor by loving them.

“Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!”

I’ll push this even farther because it is time we get the point. The currency of our gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is that we love God by loving others… we love one another but we also love our neighbors and even our enemy neighbors. It doesn’t matter what we preach and teach if we cannot love our neighbors as ourselves! To paraphrase Paul somewhat, if we cannot love our neighbors then we are as useless as a noisy gong.

Let’s be more than a useless noisy gong. We believe that we are called to be witnesses of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God to the world. Very good! But remember that begins by loving our neighbors and the best place to begin is right in our own neighborhoods with the people living next door or just a few doors down no matter what skin color they have, what sort of lifestyle they live, what their nationality of origin is, or what their religious and political beliefs are. Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!

Encountering Truth in a Post-Truth Society

As of last year, the word post-truth officially entered into the American vocabulary. Ergo the Washington Post recently ran a piece with the following headline: “Post-Truth” named 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. The article then went on to say, “It’s official: Truth is dead. Facts are passe.”

So this, among other things, is what we’ve come to as society. Truth has become whatever we, as our individual selves, want to believe. It’s not just the politicians or the journalists, it’s us. That’s why there is all the influx of fake news stories about this or that we’ve passed along as truth in various social-media outlets. Most of the time, we don’t even care enough to even see if what we’re sharing is true or not. Why? Because the fake news story agrees with what we wish to be true. As my friend Sean Palmer remarked on Facebook, “We [don’t] see things as they are. We see things as we are. The lies are a symptom, the ego and false self are the disease!”

The question we must as is where do we go from here? Where might we find truth in order that we see life as God wills life to be?

Let’s begin with how our western society has understood truth and the birth of modernism in the 17th century, particularly with a couple of philosophers named René Descartes and Immanuel Kant. They led us to believe that the human mind and our ability to objectively reason was the foundational basis of what could be known and how we could resolve moral issues. Truth was reduced to whatever could be scientifically proven and the western world began to operate as though human reason could solve all of our problems. Though it wasn’t the intention of Descartes and Kant, this resulted in a grandiose view of humanity and what could be achieved through human ingenuity.

The human mind and objective reasoning might all sound good but then came the 20th century with depression and world wars, gas chambers and nuclear bombs, and humanitarian crises such as famine and the rise in urban blight. This is what the human mind, with its capacity to objectively reason, produced? It became rather obvious that science and human reason wasn’t solving every problem. Enter into the conversation two more philosophers named Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. They helped us see that we’re not as objective in our reasoning as we wish since we all think from a location shaped by our experiences; and sometimes our motives are less than pure. Thus, modernism bequeathed postmodernism.

“Truth is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the gospel story which centers in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Now I am far from well-read in the field of continental philosophy. However, from what I have read, it seems that postmodernism offered a good corrective to the arrogance of modernism which placed such high confidence in human reason. However, the downside of postmodernism is a trajectory that has led us into a post-truth reality where our only source of truth is our individual selves. Obviously, we have a problem when the only source of truth is ourselves. While we are all shaped by our own biases, experiences, and motives, is there any truth beyond ourselves? I believe so and if you’re a Christian, so then should you. Truth is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the gospel story which centers in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I further believe the Bible is a truthful, and therefore trustworthy, witness of Jesus Christ, his gospel, and teaching.

We know this truth in the passing of tradition among the church. What I am speaking of is what Roberto S. Goizueta describes as “a truth that emerges from the interaction between two particular persons and that, therefore, transcends each of them” (Caminemos Con Jesús, p. 158). In our case the two particular people is ourselves and the local church which is always part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church whom Christ is present among. Among the local church is the tradition of what the first witnesses of the crucified and resurrected Jesus saw and began telling others who then told others and so forth. They we’re simply telling what they saw first-hand and subsequently experienced vicariously through their encounter of the gospel among the church. So the gospel story of Jesus and his teaching became the tradition passed on from one generation to the next.

One of the ways we encounter this tradition even as we share in it in order that we might know the truth is through the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist where we remember Jesus Christ. In the partaking of bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we encounter the truth of what the world really is coming to be as God wills. We anticipate the future of history in the present (prolepsis) as we remember the past by sharing in the Lord’s Supper together as we sing hymns and pray as well as read scripture and hear the word of God proclaimed. Gathered together for this Eucharistic meal is where we then learn how to live into this future as a witness of the truth so that others, in a post-truth society, will encounter the truth of Jesus Christ.

Caging The Tiger: Church Leadership and Toxic Christians

The Church of Christ my family and I were a part of when I was a child was a small congregation. Most of my church experience, especially as a minister, has been with small congregations. By small, I mean congregations of less than one-hundred people and that includes children.

If you talk to members of these congregations, they’ll usually talk about the closeness the members have with each other. The local church is like an extended family, which seems good. In fact, one of the challenges that larger churches face is trying to retain this sense of close community so that all members have a sense of belonging and deeper relationship with at least a few others in the church. This is one reason why small groups have become so popular. Another thing about small churches is that most of them want some numerical growth. So generally, there is an excitement when someone decides they want to place membership and for various reasons, these small Churches of Christ are always happy when a person from another Church of Christ wants to become a part of their church. However, there’s a real danger in that sometimes there is such a desperation to welcome a new person or family that someone toxic person is welcomed without any reservation or qualification.

“If you want a lamb and a tiger to live in the same forest, you don’t try to make them communicate. You cage the bloody tiger.”

– Edwin H. Friedman

Who is the toxic person I have in mind? Typically he or she is a Christian who every few years gets upset about something in their church and leaves for another church (note: they’ll always has a “scriptural” reason that justifies their reason for leaving). This person is toxic because he or she is an argumentative and divisive bully who thinks they are smarter than others. They’re eager, too eager, to assert themselves as a leader which has more to do with their own ego than it does with serving. They are quick to correct others and will even insult others as a way of demonstrating their diluted sense of superiority, especially when it comes to knowing the Bible and matters of sound doctrine. However, there’s a reason why such a person has left the last church. Though not always the case, sometimes such a toxic person leaves is because the others of that church had enough and someone rightfully stood up to them. Like any bully, the last thing this toxic Christian can handle is anyone who will not cower to their coercive and intimidating pressure.

So what should be done with such a toxic person among a church? In Friedman’s Fables, the Friendly Forest fable ends with these words, “…If you want a lamb and a tiger to live in the same forest, you don’t try to make them communicate. You cage the bloody tiger.”

Cage the tiger?

Yes!

Let me say it again… Yes! Cage the tiger!

Caging the tiger here takes some courageous and wise leadership so as not to create further conflict, if that is possible. So ignoring the problem until either other people begin leaving the church or become so frustrated that they lash out will not work. The only way of caging the tiger is to confront the individual  and speak the truth in love, candidly explaining the problem. If the person will not listen and change, then you must lay out the resolution for them (which is no longer up for discussion). If the tiger is not caged and a toxic person is passively empowered then there more problems will surface. I know of one church where most of the adults stopped participating in any Bible classes because they were tired of always being corrected and insulted by one particular toxic individual. I once witnessed people get up and walk out of a meeting because they had reached their limit for tolerating the lecture they were about to receive from another toxic member (who had acted like this many other times). That shouldn’t happen and it doesn’t have to if someone will have the courage to lead by wisely caging the tiger.

Cultivating a healthy culture in your church depends on caging the tiger!

When I was serving with the Columbia Church of Christ, a man started visiting our church. He had previously served as a minister with several other Churches of Christ but was now on disability and our church was the nearest Church of Christ. So he showed up but made it quickly known how much he disagreed with our gender-inclusive practices. So for the next two weeks when he showed up to Bible class, he promptly told the women how wrong they were and you could see the hurt and frustration on everyone else’s face. It was rather obvious that he was here to create division. So I met with him and explained to him that though he was welcome to be a part of our congregation, gender-inclusiveness was a part of who were as a local church and if he could not accept that then there were other churches in the community for him to visit. He never came back and that’s ok. The following Sunday, the atmosphere of our Bible class was back to normal with a lively discussion fostering an an encouraging conversation about how we live as followers of Jesus.

That’s one example of caging the tiger. It’s not the only way, just one way. But by all means, if you’re a church leader then have the courage and wisdom to confront the toxic people and cage the tiger. Cultivating a healthy culture in your church depends on caging the tiger!

So again, I will say it and close with these words… Yes! Cage the tiger!