Belong before you believe, or believe before you belong?

Some of our leaders recently visited a local church holding a seminar on how to welcome new visitors. The practical advice and suggestions were all very helpful, but there was a phrase that caught our attention. During the seminar the speaker made a case for allowing non-members to serve in various ministries. The understanding seemed to be that if one gets plugged into the church they are more likely to return for subsequent Sundays. The hope was that eventually said person would come to know Jesus through exposure to other Christians, and eventually place their membership with the church. The speaker summarized this ministerial philosophy with the slogan, “belong before you believe.” In other words, whether one is a Christian, or simply a seeker there are no practical “lines in the sand” so to speak.

I get the heart and logic behind this statement, but I wonder if it’s biblical. It sounds pious but it may be missing the mark. It is definitely more pragmatic and yields immediate results, but is it the most healthy pursuit? Should we not call people to “believe before you belong?” Didn’t Jesus live out this philosophy? Some will reply—“Yeah but Jesus was accused for hanging out with drunks, prostitutes, and the unclean!” True, but we must ask ourselves—did Jesus hang around these people arbitrarily without any call for a change of lifestyle? Or did Jesus hang around these people for the sole purpose of calling them to “repent for the Kingdom is at hand?”

  • It was Jesus, was it not, who told the rich man to sell all of his possessions and give it to the poor before being allowed in the Kingdom (Matthew 19).
  • It was Jesus who said to the man who requested he bury his father before following Jesus, “let the dead bury the dead (Matthew 8).”
  • It was Jesus who said the road to eternal life was narrow and few would find it (Matthew 7).
  • It was Jesus who said that in order to follow him you would have to love him more than your entire family (Matthew 10).
  • It was Jesus who said that one would have to deny themselves, and  take up their cross in order to follow him (Matthew 16).

In other words, have we as a church become so obsessed with attracting people into our community that we have neglected to set any standard by which one can come in? Perhaps instead of leaving the front doors of the church wide open and the back doors closed it should be the other way around.

The time Jesus was wrong?

Recently I preached a sermon from Matthew 15:21-28, the famous story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. In this text I was taken back by Jesus’ seemingly harsh tone and attitude toward a woman who, from all intense and purposes, was one who showed tremendous faith and perseverance. A simple straight forward reading of the passage shows Jesus completely ignoring the woman’s plea for help (verse 23), dismissing her because she is not a Jew (verse 24), and finally calling this poor woman a dog (verse 26)! As one sifts through the Gospel of Matthew Jesus’ actions toward the persistent woman is oddly out of place. Jesus told the gentile centurion that he had never in all Israel found such faith (Matthew 8:10), spoke highly of the faith of the Paralytic in Matthew 9:2, and many more examples could be given. So, why in this particular instance does Jesus seem so unlike, well, Jesus?

While on the surface it may seem that Jesus is treating the Canaanite woman harshly could it be that there is something going on in the text that isn’t so obvious; that when one digs a bit deeper into the text discovers Jesus is actually being tremendously endearing? I think there is.

While trying to unpack the essence of this conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, some clues unveil in at least two places. The first involves the sudden shift in Jesus’ attitude in verse 28. It seems bizarre at first. After completely ignoring this woman while she cries out for Jesus’ help in verses 21-27, Jesus’ tone dramatically shifts as he exclaims “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire (Matthew 15:28).” So, why does Jesus intentionally ignore her in the first two requests for help, but then suddenly shift and speak of how much faith she has?

The second hint is found in the statement made by the Canaanite woman in verse 27. The Canaanite woman finally approaches Jesus, falls to her knees, and says “Lord Help me (verse 25).” At this point one could easily envisage Jesus responding in compassion. But no, Jesus actually responds with what only can be viewed as a harsh and rude statement: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs (verse 26).” It is at this point that the Canaanite says something that changes Jesus tone entirely, verse 27 reads thus: “She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’” What is it about this statement that radically changes the conversation?

I discovered that most English translations translate the Greek phrase Ναὶ κύριε, καὶ γὰρ (yes Lord, yet even) as “yes Lord, yet even…” or “Yes Lord, But even…” The problem however is that the words “καὶ γὰρ” never mean “but even” or “yet even,” but always mean “for even.” When translated as “but even” it gives the impression that the Canaanite is agreeing with Jesus statement. That is, it is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs—Implying that it is not right for Jesus to minister to the woman because his purpose was only to minister to the people of Israel. Rather, the phrase should be translated “For even.”

Read this way it implies something entirely different, namely that the Canaanite is disagreeing with Jesus. In essence she is saying in response, “Yes Lord, it is right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs, for even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table…(my paraphrase)” In other words, the Canaanite woman was challenging Jesus’ statement. She was arguing that the Kingdom is for both Jew and Gentile! In light of this, Jesus’ ecstatic expression in verse 28 makes sense. Jesus in essence says to this woman—you’re right!

If this interpretation is correct the tone and feel of the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is read in a different light. Was Jesus being rude and ugly in response to the Canaanite woman’s plea for help? Some would conclude that he was. But, what if Jesus was purposefully responding in the manner he does in order to draw out the faith of the Canaanite woman? Could there be a bit of sarcasm and facetiousness being delivered by our Lord? Was Jesus purposefully saying something wrong in order for the Canaanite woman to correct him?NT scholar R.T. France seems to think so:

Cold print does not allow us to detect a quizzical eyebrow or a tongue in the cheek, and it may be that Jesus’ demeanor already hinted that his discouraging reply was not to be his last word on the subject. Need we assume that when eventually the woman won the argument Jesus was either dismayed or displeased? May this not rather have been the outcome he intended from the start? A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view—even if the phrase ‘devil’s advocate’ may not be quite appropriate to this context!” (France, R.T., NICNT, Matthew, 591)

When I preached this sermon I titled it “The time Jesus was wrong?” It got a lot of attention as you can imagine! But, in the end it is interesting to see that Jesus’ deliberate response to the Canaanite woman actually intended to spur on the great statement of faith that she did. And Jesus was glad she was right!

Are people generally good? A foundational question for young evangelicals.

I ran across a very interesting https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fprageru%2Fvideos%2F1739404986102350%2F&show_text=0&width=476“>debate (conversation?) that sheds much light on the contemporary landscape among young liberals and their political views. As a young individual with more conservative leanings I am concerned as to the future of our nation, and her approach to biblical virtues and morals. You can decide as to where you stand on the issues discussed in the video yourself; it is definitely an intriguing dialogue.

But as you listen to the conversation take note during the conclusion of the discussion. Dennis Prager submits what he sees as the essential dividing line between both groups–Are humans essentially good? How would you respond to such a query? Prager answers in the negative while the young college students answer in the positive. I think Prager has put his finger on an important issue that influences how one shapes his or her worldview.

One slightly familiar with the biblical narrative will realize before he reaches Genesis 4 that human nature has been seriously affected by sin. A biblical worldview argues that we as humans are not generally good but generally evil. Paul makes this clear in the opening chapters of Romans, claiming that “none does good not even one (Romans 3:12),” and “that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” In Ephesians Paul makes it clear that we were “dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1).”

So, yes this is a crucial question in trying to determine why society is the way it is. The young college students propose that “badness” is the result of social conditioning; change the circumstances, change the people. But go back as far as you want, and you will discover that every generation struggles with being “good.” The Bible however offers the only true remedy to the problem of badness–It is in the regeneration of the Spirit of God graciously bestowed to us by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. A transformation must occur for lives to be changed. no amount of social conditioning, behavioral correcting, psychological diagnosing, or any other treatment will suffice. No, if the Bible is true then we have to conclude that true formation of our attitude and behavior can only come through the supernatural work of God! Thus, Paul can go on to say in Ephesians 2 “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ( Ephesians 2:4). “

How Making Jesus your King Can Send you to Hell.

I was struck this past week, as I was preparing for my sermon on Jesus’ feeding of the Five Thousand, by a phrase in John chapter 6:

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves (John 6:26, ESV).”

In the context of John’s rendition we discover that after Jesus performs the miracle of feeding a conservative estimate of 15,000 people with five loaves and two fish, the crowds are so amazed of what they experience they try to take Jesus by force and make him their King (see John 6:15). On the surface it seems fantastic; this is Jesus’ climactic opportunity to be exalted as King and Messiah. Yet, we read that Jesus perceiving this is what they were intending to do, withdrew….why?

We discover the answer in that most provocative verse above. Jesus reveals the true intentions of the crowd—they wanted Jesus for the bread of the flesh, not the bread of life! Rather than desiring a devotional allegiance to Jesus they merely wanted Jesus for what he could give, namely their physical security.

In fact, as the texts unfolds in the rest of John 6 Jesus begins to spell out exactly what type of attitude he desires:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst (John 6:35).

In response to this radical call of devotion the crowds are taken back, and are not that sold on such a bizarre invitation. They are after all just wanting Jesus for his ability to feed their bellies, and perhaps heal them when they are sick. So radical was Jesus’ invitation to feed on him rather than mere physical bread, that it compelled the majority of those who claimed to be his disciples to no longer follow after him. This enormous crowd who moments earlier desired to make him their kind had now wanted nothing to do with him…

As I reflect on the massive implications of this compelling story I can’t help but wonder if this reaction is prevalent in today’s culture. Could it be that many who claim to want Jesus as their King really just desire him for what he can do for them, rather than wanting Jesus Himself? I wonder if some of us carry Jesus around, and only find him useful when he benefits our physical and emotional needs? Could it be that some of us really don’t want Jesus, but rather only want what he can give us? Could we be in danger of acting like the crowds and only wanting him because he has bread?! Is it Jesus that we want or just the benefits that come with carrying the name “Christian?” These are admittedly penetrating questions, but questions I think every serious Christian should ponder.

The irony however, is that while the crowds desired only the physical bread, it was Jesus himself that provided “everlasting satisfaction!” Jesus said “I am the bread of life!” Oh how I hope to always desire the bread of life over the bread of man! Take my friends, but give me Jesus! Take my family but give me Jesus!Take my life but Give me Jesus! As the songwriter puts it “when I come to die, give me Jesus. You can have all this world but give me Jesus!”

It’s no wonder we find these words from Jesus:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied (Matthew 5:6).

My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life (John 10:10, NLT).

Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:39).

A Case for Local Church Membership.

Nowhere in the New Testament do we find the words “thou shall be a member of a local church.” However, the absence of the word “Trinity” doesn’t seem to keep us from believing in a triune God either. The reason involves simple logical deduction or inference from a holistic reading of scripture, which moves us to conclude that God is one in being yet three in persons. Similarly, while the words “local church membership” are not found in the Bible, a serious reading of the text cannot but persuade one to its validity.

With that said the following is my attempt to list details from the NT that, I believe, accumulatively make a strong case for the NT’s teaching of local church membership. But first allow me to define exactly what I mean by my terminology:
Local—I mean a specific geographical area where the church meets regularly to worship God, in contrast to what’s typically termed “the universal church,” that is, true believers throughout the entire world.
Church—I mean the assembly of believers for the purposes of worshipping God, edifying the saints, and manifesting the glory of God.
Membership—I mean the intentional and apparent recognition of each individual who has pledged their lives to a particular local church, for the advancement of the Gospel in the local community, and throughout the world.

With our terms set before us here are ten biblical reasons why, when put together, make a strong accumulative case that every believer should be a member of a local church:

  1. The word for “Church” implies in itself a group of people who gather regularly, in a particular place, for a uniting purpose. The word translated “church” comes from the Greek Ekklesia meaning “a gathered assembly.”
  2. When the apostle Paul wrote his letters they were written to specific churches in a specific geographical location.
    • To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours (1 Corinthians 1:2)
    • and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia (Galatians 1:2)
    • Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons (Philippians 1:1)
    • Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.(1 Thessalonians 1:1)
  3. The NT describes the first church as being established and having elders appointed to each local church.
    • And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.(Acts 14:23) (see also, 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9)
  4. The NT teaches that believers met regularly to worship God together.
    • I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.(1 Timothy 3:14-15)
    • And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.(Hebrews 10:24-25)
    • But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse (1 Corinthians 11:17).
    • If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds. . . What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn. . .(1 Corinthians 14:23,26)
    • See also, Acts 2:42-27
  5. Paul at the conclusion of his letter to the church at Rome sends greetings to a number of individual believers. It seems from this list that there was a clear understanding of who had identified as being devoted to that particular local congregation.
    • See Romans 16:1-16
  6. The call for church discipline involves a mutual understanding between each member of a local church that they’re held accountable to each other for what they believe and how they behave.
    • Matthew 18:15-20
    • 1 Cor. 5:1-13
    • 2 Cor. 2:5-11
    • Galatians 6:1-5
  7. The call for church discipline implies that to be put out of fellowship with a congregation means that one would have once been in fellowship with a congregation. 
    • See passages in previous point
  8. The body/member metaphor given by Paul points to the design of a local church.
    • 1 Corinthians 12:12-26
  9. Leaders of the church being accountable for the souls in their flock assume they know who is in their flock.
    • Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
  10. Jesus established and taught the importance of the Local church 
    • Matthew 16:13-20
    • Matthew 18:15-20
    • John 17:20-26

Reasons why baptism should be performed by immersion and not to infants or young children.

I have had several conversations with some of my Christian friends over the issue of the mode and candidates for baptism. And while this topic tends to divide us on doctrine it is nevertheless a crucial and important topic to have. As I heard one theologian put it: “when doctrine divides the worst thing to do is to say nothing.” So here are some reasons why I believe the proper mode of baptism should be immersion, and the proper candidates should be those who can believe and repent (i.e. not babies or children):

The Mode—immersion

  • The original word “baptism” comes from the Greek baptizo which literally means to “immerse” or “dip (see A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Walter Bauer. 2nd ed. 130).”
  • In John 3:23 we are told that John the Baptist was baptizing near Salim “because water was plentiful there.” There is no need for a large quantity of water if anything other than immersion is to be understood.
  • In Acts 8:38-39 we are told that Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch went “down into the water…and they came up out of the water.” This seems to indicate that Phillip Immersed the Eunuch, rather than sprinkling or pouring.
  • The picture baptism symbolizes in Romans 6:2-4 is one that can only make sense with immersion in view. According to Romans 6 baptism pictures a death burial and resurrection.When one is immersed into water, and comes up out of the water it pictures Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Sprinkling or pouring cannot picture these symbols.
  • In the early church the only mode of baptism was immersion (see The Emergence of the Church, Arthur G. Patzia. 240.)

The Candidate—a Repentant believer

  • Baptism is always accompanied with faith and/or repentance (e.g. Acts 2:38; Romans 6:2-4; Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:11-13; 1 Peter 3:21). Therefore, one would have to have the ability to place their trust in Christ and understand that they need to turn from their sin—babies and children are unable to do this.
  • Nowhere in the NT do we find children being baptized. Therefore, the silence of such examples leads one to conclude that infants are not required to be baptized.
  • Jesus says in Matthew 19:14 that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to children. Thus, until they reach an age of accountability it seems appropriate to conclude that Children are under the grace of God.

Should I leave my current church for a church with better youth and children programs?

 

Smaller churches today struggle to keep young families in the church, because they lack many of the resources and programs that larger churches can offer. As a result, many end up leaving the smaller congregation for a bigger one, for the purpose of getting their kids in a more effective ministry to meet the needs of their children. Unfortunately, I have experienced this situation first hand in the churches I have served in, and have sought to encourage families to re-consider leaving simply on the basis of what other churches have to “offer.” While there is nothing intrinsically wrong about seeking other churches that may meet the needs of their children more effectively (I am thankful they are still in the church!), I would caution leaving a particular congregation solely on these grounds. If you are thinking about leaving your church because another church has more to offer your kids, let me offer four points to consider:

  1. No matter the vibrancy and health of a church youth program, nothing will affect and transform your children’s life more than the Parent. The Bible emphasizes greatly the important role of the parents to their children. Deuteronomy 6:1 and following speaks of the parents as the primary teachers and disciplers of their children. Proverbs for example, is an entire book where a father seeks to pass on godly principles to his son. Paul in Ephesians 6:1-4 admonishes dads to “instruct their children in the way of the Lord.” Titus 2:4 speaks of the importance of the mom loving her kids. One of the major confusions in the church today is that the church is the primary spiritual leaders for children. But in actuality the church is simply the equippers (see Ephesians 4), and supplemental to the parents, so they can train their children well. The parents are the primary spiritual leaders of children.
  2. If the parents are not 100% devoted to the local church, and committed to serving the church as a main priority, it doesn’t matter how good of a youth group you may find—he will most likely leave the church after he is out of the home. One article showed that “82% of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home attached great importance to their beliefs. It also found that children who were active in their congregations while growing up tended to be religiously active as young adults. It was parents engaging with their children about their faith that made the difference.” Thus, a self-examination of the parent’s devotion to Christ is so important. You must ask the question: If the kids were not in the picture would this still be a major concern—would we still have a hunger and desire to be committed to Christ and his church? I believe if the parent’s devotion to Christ is primary then your children will follow. Discipleship is caught more than taught.
  3. Youth DO need good and godly peers to surround themselves with. While I do believe youth programs are not necessary for kids to grow in their Christian faith, I do believe surrounding themselves with Christian influences is necessary. Paul says “bad company corrupts good character.” So, youth do need Christian friends and acquaintances. However, if kids have Godly parents who exemplify and emphasize holiness, and they are involved in a church where the people surround them with love and support, I truly believe this is a sufficient influence for their Christian development. Yes, Christian peers of the same age are beneficial (and they seem to naturally come given time), but what is necessary is the example of godly parents, a Godly church, and peers to show youth how to live.
  4. As long as the parents are devoted to a Bible-believing, God-honoring, Christ-exalting local church, serving on a regular basis, but find one with a youth program they feel is more beneficial to the growth and spiritual development for their children, then they should have their pastor(s) full blessing to go to that church (not that you need their blessing!). While, the selfish part of us as pastors would obviously desire that each family remain in our church, we ultimately should long for the spiritual growth of the family. For example, I understand that at our current stage as a church we are unable to provide families with some of the options other churches can. I am confident that as we grow numerically we will be able to offer more opportunities for our kids, but as of now we simply do the best we can with the resources we have. So, if a family prayerfully decides to devote to another local church in order to help their kids grow in their Christian walk, then by all means they should do so. Pastors should be 100% on their side, praying for God to use whatever church they connect with to assist them in training their kids in the instruction of the Lord.

How do you feel about these four points? What would you add or take away?