What I learned from a Jehovah Witness

Recently I sat down and had a conversation with Ida and Jim, a couple who are Jehovah Witnesses (from now on referred to as “JW”). I met Ida two weeks previously, while dropping a friend off at their house. I asked if we could get together in the future so that I could learn about what JW’s believe and teach. She was delighted, wrote down her number, and said that I could call and set up a time to meet.

I agreed to meet with Ida and her husband Jim at their Kingdom Hall (what JW’s call their place of meeting). I received a friendly greeting as I was ushered into their building. After some small talk and a quick tour of the building (there building’s are very simple in architecture and are only built to hold no more than 130 people. I hear that they build their Kingdom Halls in about 3-4 days time), we sat down to discuss what the JW’s teach about the Bible.

Now,  before you get the impression that I am on the road to conversion, let me assure you, I am not convinced JW’s are in line with the claims of the Bible. In fact, I truly believe that many fine folks have been severely misguided in their understanding of scripture(especially the teachings of Jesus.) Nevertheless, I was impressed by a couple of areas in which I think evangelical churches could learn.

Diligence in Evangelism

Ida and Jim told me that they spend 12 hours a week going house to house sharing their faith with strangers, 12 hours! Admittedly, much of this motivation comes from a works based understanding of salvation. However, The church could glean a lot from the effort JW’s make to reach converts. It is true that the bible teaches salvation apart from works, but many Christians forget that salvation is for the purpose of good works . The Bible teaches that we strive to do good works because of God’s grace. James points to this truth when he says we are to be doers of the word and not hearers only; that faith without works is dead. Imagine if Christians sought to do half of what Jehovah Witnesses do to reach the lost, what kind of results would there be?

Focus on Teaching

The JW’s do not  place much focus on extravagant and attractional worship services. There auditorium is very simple: a pulpit, a microphone, a sound booth, and chairs. They sing songs, but it is all done with a CD accompaniment led by a volunteer. What they do place a lot of emphasis on however, is teaching the Bible (Indeed, with a high emphasis on the Watch Tower magazine). They meet three times a week and have over 2 hours of Bible Study each meeting. The reason JW’s are firm in what they believe is because they are having it engrained in them multiple times a week. The problem obviously, is that they are taught not to learn the scriptures on their own, but what those, who organize the Watch Tower magazine, tell them the scriptures mean. Nevertheless, we could learn a lot from JW’s intentional focus on Bible study. It may prove productive for Christian Churches to place more emphasis on Bible teaching than creating attractional worship services and programs.

Please don’t misunderstand me, the belief system of the JW’s has some severe problems. There denial of the deity of Christ, strange understanding of the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation, and continued false predictions of the end times are just a few of the flawed teachings presented by the JW’s. Yet, the two areas mentioned above display a couple of areas in which the evangelical church could gain insight. Hopefully, we are always seeking to improve our growth in Christ. Ironically, we sometimes learn from those outside of orthodoxy.

P.S. I will be meeting with Ida and Jim again to discuss the Deity of Jesus. Pray that the truth will be exposed and their eyes will be opened.

Am I doing enough?

I recently received the following question: Do you feel like you do enough for God or was that a motivation for you to go into the ministry? Below are some thoughts I had in response.

I have to admit, that I never feel as if I do as much as I can. I think that this reaction is only human. We strive to give God our best, but when Jesus is the paradigm how does one compete with that! Here are some thoughts I have had on the subject (for what it is worth):

First, we are dealing with two areas of our Christian walk. One is our conversion. That is, the point in which we are declared just in the sight of God (we see baptism as this point in time). Justification, as the Bible teaches us, is given to us solely on the basis of Jesus’ work on the cross. Nothing we could ever do brings justification, we are saved by grace though faith, not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9).

However, there is a second aspect to our Christian walk, namely, sanctification. Sanctification involves the process in which we grow or mature spiritually into the image of Jesus. There is no questioning our salvation, because that was taken care of on the cross. However, while we are justified in the sight of God, we still struggle with the reality of sin and battle with our spiritual maturity. This is what I think the apostle Paul is referring to in Romans 7:7-25. Here Paul paints a picture of the struggle we face: living by the flesh or the Spirit. Our daily lives consist of numerous choices wherein we decide whether to live by the flesh or by the spirit. Paul makes it clear that we don’t always follow the Spirit’s guidance; sometimes we choose to follow the ways of the flesh (vv. 14-24). So, the Christian walk consists of living with this struggle. However, the more we grow in Christ the easier it is to follow the Spirit. Do we still struggle? Of course we do! But when I think back 20 years ago and reflect upon how I was as a young Christian, I can see evidence of growth and spiritual maturity. I can say now that I look more like Jesus than I did then, and that’s what I can find comfort in. Are we ever doing enough? No! But with the Spirit’s guidance, and constant study in his word I believe we can get closer and closer. Then one day, we will have the opportunity to stand in front of Christ and hear those words: “Well done good and faithful servant, enter in your father’s rest!!!”

I don’t think the Bible seeks to keep us in a state of fear and worry, wondering if we are doing enough. Instead I think the Bible gives us principles and guidelines for us to follow so that we can keep our eyes on the finish line. Therefore, if we are constantly thinking upon Jesus and his Kingdom we should live in a state of gladness and joy (Read Philippians!). It is only when we neglect God’s work that we should begin to fret over our Christian life.

In direct answer to the initial question, maybe. I do feel that initially I went into ministry because in ministry, I would always be involved in “God’s work.” However, I have found that you can be completely immersed in ministry and be as far from God as an atheist! I have come to discover that we are all minister’s for the kingdom, and I have just happened to be called out among the church and serve in a full-time manner, As Paul so eloquently puts it in Ephesians 4: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

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.

Do James and Paul contradict each other?

James teaches justification by works in James 2:20-26. In order to bring his point home James uses two familiar examples from the Old Testament: Abraham and Rahab. In speaking of these two examples we find a phrase that has caused many scholars much discussion and even resulted in some classifying James as contradictory to the rest of scripture. James states clearly that Abraham and Rahab were “justified by their works.” How are we to resolve this seeming inconsistency with Paul’s clear teaching of justification by faith apart from works (See Romans 4: 5, Eph 2:8)? At first glance it seems that there is no way around James and Paul’s statements. Paul is saying one is justified by faith and James is saying one is justified by works. However, a deeper study of this text will see that Paul and James are not in contradiction but instead complement each other.

The key to understanding Paul and James is their use of the word justified. It is important to understand that words do not always carry one wooded definition but are capable of semantic ranges. That is, words can have more than one meaning. This is the case with justification. When the Apostle Paul uses the word justification he means God’s declaration that a believing sinner stands righteous before him. However, justification can also mean “to vindicate” or “to prove” or “demonstrate” something to be true or just. Let’s take a look at a few passages of scripture that use “justify in the latter sense:

•             Luke 10:29

In Luke 11:19 a lawyer came to Jesus to put him to the test by asking “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks the man what he thought the law stated and the man responded by quoting the Shema. Jesus tells the man to go and do this and he would live. The next verse is what I want to point out. Verse 29 says “But he, desiring to justify himself said to Jesus who is my neighbor?” The word “justify” here is the same word we find in both James and Romans. However, this man was not using the word justify here in the sense of making himself righteous before God rather, he desired to “show himself righteous” before others who were listening.

•             Luke 16:15

A similar passage is found in Luke 16:15 wherein Jesus says of the Pharisees “you are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.” Again, justify here is to be taken as a demonstration before men not a legal declaration before God.

•             Matthew 11:19

Matthew 11:19 Jesus says “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Jesus is saying here that wisdom will be proved true by observing what it produces.

•             Psalm 51:4

Finally, in Psalm 51:4 David writes concerning his sinful actions: Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. David meant that God would be shown righteous in his words.

In all of the above passages the word justified is defined as proof or a demonstration of righteousness. This is also the way I believe James is using the word justified. The only way we can be sure is by the context.

The immediate context most surely seems to indicate that justification is referring to a demonstration of one’s profession of faith. Look again at verse 18. “Show me your faith apart from works and I will show you my faith by my works.” This clearly indicates that works is something that is shown or demonstrated as proof of a true faith. James in essence is saying “you have faith well then prove it!” As an example of someone demonstrating their faith James refers to the great man of faith; Abraham. We read in verses 20-24 “You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, “and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”It is important to realize that when Paul used Abraham to prove that one is declared righteous in God’s sight by faith he had in mind a faith that was living and active. However James is writing to a group of people who see faith as only some simple proclamation detached from any type of good works. Therefore, James uses Abraham and the incident with his son Isaac in Gen 22 as an example of faith being demonstrated by one’s actions. This is why James writes in verse 22 “you see that faith was active along with his works and faith was completed by his works.” The word completed here means that Abraham’s works were the fulfillment of his true faith. In other words James is not saying that because of what Abraham did he was declared righteous before God. Rather, Abraham’s actions proved that his faith was genuine! This is clearly seen in the Gen 22 Narrative when God says to Abraham in verse 12 “now I know that you fear God.” God knew because Abraham proved it to him!

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.”

First Works and Rebaptism

I listened to a preacher today preach on Revelation 2:6. In his sermon he maintained that Jesus’ phrase “do the works you did at first” referred to one having to be baptized again. Apparently this church re-baptizes individuals numerous times. The logic is as follows: (1) Revelation 2:1-5 teaches that one can lose their salvation. This is what is meant by “lost your first love.” (2) Because one has fallen from grace they are commanded to do their first works again. This is taken to mean those things that one did when they first became saved; the “process of salvation.” (3) The process of salvation is as follows: believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. (4) Therefore, one needs to be re-baptized.

Here are some fallacies I see in this deduction: First, while I maintain that one can lose their salvation (Heb 6:4-6) this doesn’t seem to be the case for the church at Ephesus. In verse 5 Jesus says that if they do not repent then he will in fact “remove their lampstand.” While the church is in danger of losing their salvation they are not yet in the position. Secondly, to say that the “first works” refers to the plan of salvation is merely an implication read into the text. There is no contextual evidence to take this phrase in this way. Thirdly, to say that “first works” refers to the plan of salvation goes against the larger biblical teaching of salvation by grace apart from works (Eph 2:8-9). To say that “first works” refers to the plan of salvation is to imply that one is saved by “works.”

What seems to be intended by “first works” is faithful Christian conduct. That is, the church of Ephesus needs to repent of the unrighteous “works” and return to the righteous “works of God. In light of this I do not see Revelation 2:5 as a text favoring the practice of re-baptism.