BOLDNESS

When one reSt-Paul-Preaching-in-Athensads through the book of Acts it is quickly discovered that the early church was a unique group of individuals, a group like no other. So moved by the event of the resurrection, these early believers could not withhold the things that their eyes had seen. As Peter proclaimed to the Jewish council, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).” The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus had changed the early church forever, and they would not stop until the whole world knew of the Gospel (i.e. “the good news of Jesus”).

One particular area of interest concerning the early church is there courageous and fearless proclamation of the Gospel of Christ. A running theme in the book of Acts that seems to sprinkle throughout the narrative, involves the extreme boldness of the early Christians. The word “boldness” (from the Greek “parrēsia”) appears several times in the book of Acts. One lexicon captures the essence of these early Christians by defining “parrēsia” as “the absence of fear in speaking boldly (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament by Joseph Henry Thayer).” The Christians as described in Acts feared no man. Even in the midst of death itself they stood their ground, boldly proclaiming the message of the Gospel. Their confidence in the resurrection was so real, so alive, and so profoundly true, that they feared nothing!

We see this boldness exemplified in Acts 4 when Peter and John are facing the Jewish council. The Jews, annoyed at their message of the resurrection, threatened them to no longer speak of Jesus. However, Peter and John, with great boldness, looked them in the eye and spoke evermore passionately the resurrection of Jesus. So filled with the Spirit, the educated Sadducees were astonished of how Peter and John, uneducated men, could speak with such authority! We see it again when the seized Stephen stands confidently in front of the high priest and the hostile crowd. Eloquently Stephen articulates the continuity of the Old Testament scriptures with the person of Jesus. Stephen’s message creates such uproar that the hearers begin to grind their teeth at him, unable to accept the convicting message. Nevertheless, Stephen remains bold; so bold and so in tune with the father in fact, that he is able to look into their hate-filled eyes and say “Lord do not hold this sin against them!” We see it in beloved Paul, possibly the boldest of them all. We read time and time again of how Paul would preach and in return be physically mutilated. So much so, that on one occasion in Lystra, Paul was stoned so severely that the people left him for dead (Acts 14:19). But, he kept on preaching, he would not stop boldly proclaiming the story; it was that important.

And then, there is you and me. Decades separated from the time of those faithful early Christians. There work is now simply words on a page and at times it is difficult to recapture the fire that resided within those bold believers. So, we replace confidence with complacency, courageousness with cowardliness, and boldness with fear. We shriek at even the thought of inviting a stranger to church, let alone telling them about Jesus. And our concept of evangelism has shifted from proclaiming the good news of the resurrection to simply being a “silent witness.” Thus, we pass them by, hundreds of people, who need to hear the most profound and life-changing message on the planet.

But Why?

Why does the boldness described of those early Christians seem to be less evident in today’s Christians? Doesn’t the same Spirit who empowered the early church empower us today? Surely Joel’s prophecy concerning the indwelling of the Spirit for all believers is still true now as it was on Pentecost Day. If so, why the lack of zeal and courage to spread the Gospel to the entire world? Maybe it’s because we have been distracted by an ever growing culture of materialism and consumerism. Desire to reach the lost has been substituted with desire to reach our personal goals. Or maybe the pressure of subjectivism, relevance, and tolerance, that invades our culture, prevents us from proclaiming a message that is counter-cultural; a message claiming to be the only true worldview. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that the boldness for the Gospel as seen in the book of Acts looks much different than contemporary American Christian evangelism. Perhaps it is time to set aside our many reservations and simply proclaim the message of Jesus with boldness!

What do you think about the church’ effort to evangelize? Do you think we have become too complacent in our effort to reach the lost? How is the early church, as described in Acts, different from today’s church?

TO JUDGE OR NOT TO JUDGE?

5.0.2Have you ever experienced a situation in which you lovingly sought to correct another Christian concerning a serious sin in their life, only to receive a most offended “don’t judge me!” The underlying assumption presupposes that condemning someone’s sinful actions disobeys Christ command to judge not that you be not judged (Matthew 7:1). Besides, didn’t Jesus say that one should remove the log from their eye before pointing out the speck in another’s eye? Likewise, did he not tell the Pharisees, concerning the adulteress woman, “let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at he (John 8:7)?” But are these conclusions correct? Is it wrong for Christians to point out other Christians sinless lifestyles? How do we respond to Jesus’ words “judge not?”

As one studies the Bible it becomes clearly evident that the above responses to the issue of judging are sadly mistaken. The position that Christians are prohibited to admonish and rebuke one another’s immoral behavior results in a relative and subjective code of Christian ethics. That is, removal of spiritual accountability and church discipline allows for each individual Christian to live life in any manner he or she wishes. Furthermore, this illogical position goes contrary to the biblical position on the issue as we will see. The Bible speaks clearly on the Christian’s responsibility and obligation to hold each other accountable to the teachings of the Bible.

The Bible is clear that Christians are to hold each other to spiritual and godly standards of moral conduct. The same Jesus who said that we are not to judge also gave commands to confront Christians who are living immorally. In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus prescribes how the church is to go about dealing with someone who sins against another. The person who has been sinned against is to go and confront them about their sinful behavior. If the person does not repent, then they are to take two to three others with him and confront the person a second time. Finally, If the person still refrains to change they are to be taken in front of the church and given an opportunity to repent. If the person still refuses to change then he is to be released from the congregation.

The apostle Paul provides a case in point in the book of 1 Corinthians 5. Apparently a son was having sexual relations with his father’s wife and the church of Corinth was condoning the behavior. The response from Paul may seem shocking to some. He plainly states that the church, rather than condoning the sinful activity, should be mourning the immoral behavior. But that’s not the shocker. What appear harsh are the words that follow.  Paul states that in his absence he had already cast judgment (same word that Jesus used in Matthew 7), not just on the situation, but on the “one who did such a thing.” Later in the passage Paul states some additional shocking words:

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

This passage seems to go contrary to the way that most think about judging. In my estimation the contemporary church flips this logic on its head. We do a fine job of judging the un-churched but stray away from confronting the immoral behavior of the Christian, stating that it is wrong to judge each other. Contrarily, the apostle Paul states that we are not to judge those outside the church but are to judge those inside the church. Paul’s reasoning seems rational. The foundational reason we are to take serious the sins of Christian’s inside the church is because sin in the church affects the health of the entire church. Thus, Paul says in verse 6 “do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” In other words, sinfulness within the church doesn’t just affect the person sinning; it also affects the health of the church as a whole. Therefore, when sinfulness is brought into the church the church has an obligation to confront it, and remove it so as to not be affected and ultimately damaged by its disease.

Although judging is obligatory upon the church toward Christians who live openly and habitual sinful lifestyles, it should always be done in love and with the hope of reconciliation. In the passage mentioned earlier in Matthew 18 Jesus concludes his thought with a very familiar (and usually misinterpreted) passage: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Here Jesus is referring to one who repents of his sinful ways and reconciles with the brother he sinned against. The entire reasoning behind church discipline is for reconciliation. Similarly, Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 is not pictured as a bully thrashing all Christians with shortcomings. In fact, Paul mentions elsewhere that “all have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23),” and even referred to himself as the “chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).” Paul’s hope in confronting the young man in 1 Corinthians 5 was that he would ultimately see his sin, repent, and be reconciled to the church (see verse 5). Elsewhere Paul calls for church discipline and confrontation to be done in gentleness, “brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1).” This word “gentleness” is a medical term and was used in reference to mending a broken bone. Thus, we as Christians must confront, but do so with the utmost gentleness and love.

As Christians we are called to love one another. But, love involves telling each other the truth and drawing each other’s attention to sinful behavior that we may be blinded to. In doing so, we not only help the individual who is blinded to their sin (see James 5:19-20), but also protect the Church body from sin leaking in (1 Corinthians 5:6-8). Ultimately, our hope is that we are continually being reconciled with one another and with God our father.

Have you ever experienced a situation like the one described above? What do you think of the conclusions made here; do you think Christians have a place for judging each other?

Should Doctrine Divide Us?

The New Testament is clear: Christians should not be divided (Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 1:10; 12:25; Tit. 3:10). It was Jesus himself who prayed “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:21).” Yet, it doesn’t take long for one to notice the numerous denominations in our very own country. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia by Barrett, Kurian, Johnson (Oxford Univ Press, 2nd edition, 2001) there are 33,000+ “Christian denominations” in 238 total countries! These staggering numbers somehow do not seem to match up with Jesus’ high priestly prayer.

What is it that seems to be the dividing line between all of these various denominational groups? What seems to be the uniting factor, is that each of these denominations maintains the bare essential elements of the Gospel. That is, each group believes that Jesus Christ lived, died, was buried, and rose again (1 Cor.15). This is what in fact sets “Christianity” apart from all other religious groups. However, there are obviously differences among these Christian denominations as seen in the above stat. The question is, what are they?

While there may be other areas of differences among these various denominations I believe a main contributing factor are all of the teachings from the Bible that are extensions of the main message of the Gospel. In theological terminology we call these “doctrines (I’m using doctrines here in the broad sense meaning all the teachings of the Bible).” While all Christian denominations maintain the core beliefs of the Gospel found in 1 Cor. 15, not all denominations are in agreement concerning all doctrines taught in scripture. I believe it is here we begin to divide.

For example, there are some churches who maintain that the doctrine of baptism is an essential element for one to be saved; however, others propose that baptism is merely an outward declaration of one’s faith done after becoming a Christian.  The only prerequisite for salvation, they maintain, is faith alone. Likewise, there are some who believe that the doctrine of “once saved always saved” is taught from the pages of scripture while others hold to the belief that one can forfeit their salvation by living continually in sin. These are just a couple of major disagreements among many others found in differing denominations. One could look at the beliefs of the second coming of Christ, the trinity, the Lord’s Supper, church polity, predestination and find similar disagreements.

The question then arises: should all Christians agree on every doctrinal issue mentioned in scripture or are these open to opinion? In other words, is the Gospel the only thing all Christians must agree on? These questions are not easy questions. There are two observations I would make in considering these questions. First, what actually is the content of the Gospel? For many, the Gospel is stated concisely in 1 Cor. 15: Jesus lived, died, was buried, and rose again. This is essentially the Gospel or good news for Christianity. But is this all that the Gospel entails? In Romans 1:15 the apostle Paul tells the Christians at Rome that he is “eager to preach the Gospel to you also who are in Rome.” If the Gospel is merely the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, why did Paul need to preach it again to people who had already heard it? I have heard others refer to the Gospel as the things one must believe in order to be saved. That is, salvific teachings in scripture are what unite us and the rest is open to opinion. This brings me to my second observation. If the only things in scripture that are “essential” for unity are salvific elements, then what do we do with all of the other teachings in scripture? Are the teachings of church polity, eschatology, predestination, even ethical issues like homosexuality up for grabs? If it is only salvific elements of scripture that we must be united on, then the answer is yes, everything else is of opinion.

But how do we respond to the heavy emphasis put on sound doctrine found in the New Testament? The following passages seem to place a high emphasis on sound doctrine.

“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them (Rom. 16:17).”

“So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Eph. 4:14).”

“If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain (1 Tim 6:3-5).”

“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Tit. 1:9).”

“But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine (Tit. 2:1).”

While most, if not all Christian denominations, affirm the basic elements of the Gospel found in 1Cor. 15 certain doctrinal beliefs keep us from sharing common ground. Although the belief in the death burial and resurrection of Jesus creates a shared agreement across denominational lines, certain doctrinal beliefs keep us from total agreement. But what exactly does the apostle Paul mean when he tells the Corinthians that “all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment (1 Cor. 1:10)?” The question still stands: are the essential elements of the Gospel all that we must agree on or must all Christians agree on every doctrinal issue as well? I like the idea of the former while I wrestle with the latter.

Freedom, Media, and Discernment

As Christians we are free (Gal.5:1). Freedom however, is not permission to do whatever we would like; to carry a license for sin (Rom 6:1). The idea of freedom as understood in the Bible is freedom from the bondage of sin and the availability to walk by the Spirit. The apostle Paul pictures this freedom as a death and resurrection. That is, we die to sin and its power and are raised to walk in newness of life (Rom.6:11). Therefore, as sons and daughters of God we are truly free!

Yet there is an uneasy paradox that leaps from the pages of scripture into our daily lives-although we are freed from sin we still struggle with it on a daily basis. How can Paul state on the one hand that we are freed from sin and its power while on the other hand maintain the fact that our fleshly desires are very real and we still struggle with them? It seems obvious that both realities exist in tension with each other. We are freed from sin in the sense that Christ has taken our sin upon himself and covered our transgressions upon the cross. Therefore, when we come into Christ we are truly freed from sin, alive in Christ. However, while in this present evil world, sin still shadows over us. We are still marred with selfish desires and tarnished with unholy habits. It is the Spirit then that has been given to us to lead, guide, and help us discern how we should live our lives. Since then we are free from sin we are able to live by the Spirit.

When it comes to living by the Spirit there are certainly obvious ethical areas in which the scriptures are clear and straightforward. For example, no one would question whether murder or sexual immorality is wrong. It is clear that areas such as these are clearly taught in the bible as sinful. But what about areas that are not as clear, those grey lifestyle decisions? How are we to know whether or not something the Bible doesn’t explicitly speak on is o.k. or not? It is in these situations we as spirit-led Christians are called to use spiritual discernment based on biblical principles.

Media is one example on how we can approach these types of issues. The Bible is silent on what type of movies and television shows we should and should not watch, for obvious reasons. We as 21st century believers must then apply biblical principles to such areas in order to help us discern what is beneficial and not beneficial. A sample text that may give insight on this particular topic is Philippians 4:8 which says “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” This passage and other similar passages can be used as lenses in which we discern whether a particular movie or television show is appropriate to watch. We may consider asking ourselves questions such as “is this movie pure? Or is it honorable? While the Bible doesn’t directly speak to specific issues such as what types of movies one should watch it does give us basic principles to help guide our decisions.

We are indeed free in Christ. However, we still struggle with sin. The Spirit therefore, is essential in living out the Christian life. Moreover, the scriptures have given us clear commands on issues that are non-debatable. Yet, there are areas in the Christian life that are not as black and white. When faced with such case by case matters we must heed biblical principles while seeking spiritual discernment. I believe if honestly approached we will pursue to “think upon such things.”