The Light of the World

Light is one of the great Johannine words that occurs no fewer that twenty-one times in the fourth gospel. It is one of the two key words upon which John builds his testimony of Jesus. John describes Jesus as a light that has come into the world to light the life of every man (John1:9). Another one of John’s key words is darkness. John saw a darkness in the world that was very real and very hostile to the light. This darkness represents evil. Sinning man loves the darkness and hates the light, because the light exposes their wickedness. John takes these two themes and shows their natural opposition. He portrays a universal battleground where the forces of dark and light are arrayed in an eternal conflict. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it (John1:5). The darkness seeks to eliminate the light of Christ—to banish it from life, but the light will not go out!

This conflict is played out in the pages of sacred history. The Old Testament lets us witness everything from individual struggles with evil for the soul of a man to heavenly warfare for the soul of a Nation. In the New Testament this conflict emerges with intensity around the cradle of the incarnate Christ as the forces of darkness unleash Herod’s sword in a futile attempt to eliminate the light. The ultimate battle, however, would unfold at Calvary. The rulers of this age and the powers of darkness thought if they could only nail Christ to the cross that darkness would win once and for all. They thought the crucifixion of Christ would be the ultimate defeat and their final triumph. In fact, it proved to be just the reverse. Out of the darkness of his death came the blinding light of His resurrection victory. The light of this good news exploded out of the confines of Palestine and across the known world like a quickly spreading flame until, in a few decades, the gospel had impacted every major population center of the Roman world.

The powers of darkness responded with persecution and torture. But wild beasts and boiling oil couldn’t put out the light and the blood of the martyrs only fueled the flame. When persecution from without did not succeed, the forces of darkness turned inward and awful darkness settled down over the church. But out of the heart of that darkness, reformation fires began to burn and the light prevailed. Every counter move by the forces of darkness to extinguish the light only brought revival fires that would break out and save lives, transform nations, and change the course of history.

The darkness has used all sorts of political ideologies, human philosophies, and false religions to advance its cause. But the light always breaks through to enlighten the mind and liberate the hearts of men. As you gather with friends this Christmas season, light a candle and lift your voice in praise for light has come into the world and the darkness has not and will not overcome it!

High Places

Mention the name “High Place” and God reaches into His vocabulary and uses a word that expresses His most severe moral disgust – “abomination.” Mentioned over a 100 times in the Bible, the high places were originally centers for Canaanite idol worship. Located on mountain tops or elevated pieces of ground (hence the name high place), some of the most detestable things imaginable took place in the worship of false gods. Even before the children of Israel crossed the Jordan into Canaan, Moses commanded them to demolish all the Canaanite high places … “or they shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell” (Numbers 33:52, 55). Yet despite Joshua’s passionate destruction of such places, these pagan worship centers continued to plague the nation of Israel (Judges 2:12-13, 17; 1 Kings 14:22-24).
Tragically, it was Israel’s leaders who allowed worship on the high places to continue. King Solomon actually built high places for gods such as Ashtoreth, Milcom, and Chemosh (1 Kings 11:6-7). King Jeroboam established high places in Bethel and Dan so the northern tribes would not travel to Jerusalem to worship the true God (1 Kings 12:25-33). In their time each leader in Israel and Judah had to decide what he would do with the high places. When a good King would come to power, he would rid the land of idols and demolish the high places (II Kings 18:4; 23:4-20). Evil Kings, like Ahaz and Manasseh, would give full support to the high places and even offer sacrifices on them (II Kings 16:4; 21:1-3).
Over time the scriptural record notes that even among the good Kings “the high places were not taken away” (I Kings 15:14; 22:43; II Kings 12:3; 14:4; 15:4; 35). The surrounding cultural pressure to be like the other nations was so strong that most of Israel just “winked” at the remaining high places. Eventually, these high places became so entrenched in Israel’s culture that they seemed normal. They were so common, so ordinary, so much in keeping with the way things were, that even the best of Kings did not think to remove them. So the old high places that were an abomination to God became the “new norm” for the nation Israel.
Is there a lesson here for today’s Church? Have we accepted things into our lives (the way we behave and think) and into our culture (the values that we embrace) that at one time were considered an abomination to God? Are there issues we have grown so weary of opposing that we have simply yielded to the surrounding culture and subtly accepted them as the “new norm”? I believe the answer is yes and I believe these things are our “high places”.

“Sensuality” is one of our High Places
If we could transport Christians from the past into our present day, I think the thing that would surprise them most is how much at home we are and how tolerant we have become with the pervasive sensuality of our culture. Sexual perversion is not new to the Church. To be certain the church has always had to fight against sexual sin. It is on every list of vices in the Bible. It heads the list of things the Apostle Paul says are not fitting for a Christian. Yet today, mainline denominations are on the fast-track of accepting, even celebrating, homosexuality, same sex marriage and all other manner of sexual perversion. Even though most evangelical Christians still oppose these more blatant sins, they are far too accepting and tolerant of the sexual crudeness, vulgarity and carelessness of today’s world. Even worse, many entertain themselves with movies, television programing and novels that celebrate homosexuality, marital infidelity, fornication and nudity while often mocking purity and abstinence. This has become so common, so ordinary, so much in keeping with the way things are, that many Christians have ceased to cry against it. This has become the new norm!
One of the most visible indicators of the churches acceptance of this “new norm” is the immodest dress of America’s Christians. Actually the two are tied closely together. Whenever a sense of modesty is lacking, human sexually becomes fatally trivialized. And when human sexuality is reduced to consumer merchandise, the display of the body becomes the main billboard to advertise its sexual value. Even though the problem of immodest attire is widely acknowledged, few church leaders (men or women) offer guidance and biblical instruction. Their fear of becoming legalistic or offensive keeps them silent while the voice of a fallen world has no such inhibitions. This is one of our high places.

“Spiritual Mediocrity” is another High Place
With the proliferation of electronic media the average Christian has available to him more preaching and teaching – more information about the Bible and Christian living than ever before in the history of the world. We are clearly the most informed Christians that have ever lived! Yet one leading American pastor was forced to ask himself, “Why is today’s church so weak? Why can we claim more people with more conversions but have less and less impact on the surrounding culture? Why are our Christians indistinguishable from the world?” Dallas Willard’s response to this dilemma is interesting. He claims that it is not in spite of what the church is teaching but precisely because of it! He goes on to say that the church has pitched its message too low! It has offered a form of “miserable sinner” Christianity that tells believers we are but miserable sinners and that moral failure is expected. Hence we offer a gospel of “sin management” where the essence of the gospel is simply the forgiveness of sins – a message that neither offers nor expects any real transformation of life and character. As a management expert would say, “This system is designed to yield the results it is getting.”
This low level of spiritual living has become so common, so ordinary, so much in keeping with the way things are, that many Christians have ceased to expect anything else. This has become the new norm! But you can be assured of one thing; this is not the true gospel! The gospel not only offers the forgiveness of my sin but the real transformation of the heart! It clearly teaches that through the power of the Holy Spirit and the abundances of God’s grace we can live in full obedience to the commands of Jesus – “not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (I Cor. 15:10).

“Worldliness” is a High Place
I am using the term “worldliness” in the Biblical sense as to how people “think” and subsequently “behave” (Rom. 8:5-7; 12:2) The word for world (kosmos) means an order or an arrangement of things. Hence we can define the world as “Human ability organized historically and socially into a system where humans use natural ability (their own resources) to achieve what they want and to promote what they value, a great deal of which is in active hostility to God.” The Bible defines “living in the flesh” in much the same way. When the New Testament speaks of those who live in the flesh it speaks of those whose lives are oriented around themselves and who know only their own resources. A “man of the world” or someone who “lives in the flesh” is someone who thinks and acts from a point of view that leaves God out of the equation. To them the only reality is the temporal – what they see, touch and know.
True Christian living is the antithesis of this. Christians place the eternal over the temporal. They live from an alternate reality. Their life is drawn from divine resources. This way of living is in significant contrast to the world and has two major implications for the Christian. First, he thinks differently than the world thinks! His thinking is not limited to the confines of mere human understanding. He doesn’t determine his course of action by what Godless men say, no matter how brilliant it sounds (Psa.1:1). Second, he behaves differently than those who are of this world. He doesn’t seek after the “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes” nor is he controlled by the “pride of life.” To him the world is “passing away” and lacks permanence. Hence he “sets his affection on things above” and “stores up treasure in heaven.” This makes his life recognizably different; distinctly unique from everybody who is not a Christian (Matt. 5:47). He is in the world but not of the world.
The only problem here is that the description I just wrote of the Biblical Christian is not recognizable, much less acceptable, to the average Christian today! Our obsession with the material, our addiction to more, our love of the good life and our captivation with this modern day Sodom hardly receives a slap on the hand by even the most radical of prophets. Worldliness has become so common, so ordinary, so much in keeping with the way things are, that many Christians have ceased to it see as a problem. This has become the new norm!
The high places of our lives may be varied and unique but they are all equally despised by God. We may have changed the words we use for them but God still uses that same old word from long ago – abomination!

The Bible and Sexual Immorality

The 21st century doesn’t have a monopoly on sexual sin. Sexual wickedness has haunted every age since the fall of man. God has used water, fire and the sword to scrub previous civilizations clean of their moral rot. The Greek and Roman cultures were both so morally corrupt that they finally imploded – weakened and destroyed by their own lust. But what does seem to be unique to our day is that professing Christians – Bible toting, Bible believing Christians – have become quite at home in a culture deeply entrenched in all manner of sexual evil.  It doesn’t shock us. It doesn’t upset us. It doesn’t offend our consciences. The truth is, that unless it is really bad, sexual immorality just seems normal – even entertaining to many present day church folks! Many would even admit to telling dirty jokes, viewing pornography and watching sexuality explicit movies! This, however, is not the biblical norm.

Sexual Immorality (porneia) is Sub-Christian

Sexual immorality [any illicit sexual behavior including adultery, fornication, homosexuality, incest, prostitution, rape, lust, bestiality, pornography , sexual touch with someone who is not my spouse and voyeurism] is included on every list of “sins” in both Old and New Testaments. Jesus, Paul and all the Biblical writers understood and taught that sexual activity outside of marriage between and man and a woman was wrong. The first Jerusalem Council made it very clear to the new converts coming out of paganism and into the Church that sexual immorality is “sub-Christian” and is unacceptable. Sexual immorality is so incompatible with the Christian life that Paul tells the Ephesian church that it is not enough to just not do these sins , “but among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place . . .” (Eph. 5:3-4).

Sexual Immorality is a Sin against the Body

The culture of our day insists that the freedom to express ourselves sexually in any way we choose is essential to our identity has human beings. But God’s Word plainly says that the body belongs to Him and immoral sexual behavior is a sin “against the body” (I Cor. 6:15-20). Many sins bring defilement and destruction to the body but sexual immorality goes further and desecrates the body in the same mystical way that the temple is desecrated by bringing an idol into it.

Sexual Immorality is so Highly Contagious that we dare not have

Intimate Fellowship with People who are Sexually Immoral

In I Cor. 5: 6-7, 9-11 Paul tells the Corinthians, “your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world … since then you would need to go out of the world. 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—not even to eat with such a one”. Paul is quite blunt here. He makes it plain that we don’t “coddle” but rather “cut off” the sexually immoral person who claims to be a Christian yet chooses to persist in their immorality. The Corinthian man who pursued an incestuous relationship was to be handed “over to Satan.” This does not mean we do not show them love. It means we show them “tough love”. Love and grace are redemptive and transformative – not just accepting and tolerant.

Sexual Immorality has Irreversible Consequences

Proverbs 6:27-33 says, “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished. People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry, but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold; he will give all the goods of his house. He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself. He will get wounds and dishonor, and his disgrace will not be wiped away”.

How does the church deal with Sexual Immorality?

1. Create a zero tolerance for all sexual immorality. This means condemning all inappropriate sexual behavior and all sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman.

2. When sexual immorality happens within the body of Christ, discipline should be administered fairly and without impartiality.

3. Preach the Gospel. It is only the Gospel of Jesus Christ that can free anyone from the bondage of sexual sin. Counseling has many good things to offer in the healing and helping processes, but only the power of the gospel and walking in the Spirit frees from the “lust of the flesh.”

4. Lead – don’t just react. Teach people, especially young people, how to establish Biblical guardrails in their life. Guardrails are established in a safe zone to keep us from going into an unsafe zone. The idea is to help them choose behavior that keeps them some distance away from disaster.

5. Be redemptive. Create an environment that makes it easy to confess failure, seek help and find forgiveness.

Authority in the Church

– May 2012

Authority in the Church

            The issue of authority in the Church has come down to us through the centuries on a sea of blood and fire. The pages of church history tell the story.  You can read of men slain by the sword or burned at the stake for questioning or acting contrary to the authority of the church. At the heart of the Protestant Reformation was the issue of church authority.  The reformers declared that Christ alone was the head of the Church and the Bible was the ultimate authority.  Many of our ancestors left their native lands to escape the heavy hand of a state church whose authority exploited rather than liberated the souls of men.  Even today, there is still a vigorous discussion by churchmen, scholars, politicians and laymen as to the church’s authority on everything from birth control to baptism.

This discussion over authority in the Church may sound somewhat benign and empty to most of the people who will read this article.  Their religious world does not include popes, archbishops, bishops or councils!  Churches within the holiness tradition function as self-governing communities or are affiliated with denominations that have a very limited form of top-down government.  Neither approach, however, has allowed the holiness church to escape the discussion or the problem of authority.  The Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement Article VI states that the CHM has been marked by “the spirit of autonomy and even anarchy. . . . Too often . . . we have exhibited rebellion against the authority structures which God Himself has established, boasting our independence of them, and refusing to submit to their godly discipline. This has been evidenced by continuing divisions among us, often over matters unconnected with allegiance to Scriptural truth.”

This is a part of the Call with which I am not completely comfortable.  The movement obviously faces issues with authority, but I think the Call paints the CHM with too broad of a brush.  I do not question the fact that there are those within the movement who have exhibited a spirit of autonomy and rebellion.  There are those whose self-serving ways and arrogant love for their own opinion has indeed spawned unnecessary division and bred much confusion.   I have watched with sadness as people have violated their word, ignored standards of ethical behavior, and broken membership vows while barely masking their obstinacy.  We have all met an Absalom, an Adonijah or a Diotrephes who would not heed any counsel but their own or follow any path but one of their own making.  But honestly, this has been the exception rather than the rule. On the contrary, most of the conservatives I know are more than willing to be led and are actually looking for leadership.  They are quite willing to take very unpopular stands and live out countercultural lifestyles in obedience to their church and conscience.  I see very little evidence that would indict them as rebels against Biblical authority or Biblically ordained authorities.  This of course is my perception, but I believe it to be a fair one.

Rather than seeing them as rebels, I see something that may be construed as rebellion.  I see confused, frustrated, and at times angry souls who are weary with leaders more willing to bow to church politics and fear than to lead with Biblical conviction and common sense. This weakness in leadership can and does produce reluctant and sometimes resistant followers, but none that should be called rebels.  I see church attendees, both young and old, who lack a proper understanding of Biblical authority.   I also see something else.  I see a generational difference in how authority is viewed and understood.   A failure to understand this generational difference may lead to labeling sincere, sanctified  people  as “rebels” who are only following their conscience and understanding as best as they can.

 A Biblical Understanding of Authority in the Church

            The concept of authority has fallen on bad times over the last few decades.  In some places if you just say the word people react negatively.  This should not surprise anyone since we have had a sad parade of politicians, policemen, professors, pastors and priests who have abused their authority and betrayed those who served under them. This abuse of authority has bred a culture of cynicism and suspicion.  It has created an environment where good authority, God’s authority, is regularly questioned.  The cure is not to abandon the important role of authority in our culture but to carefully proclaim what God says in His Word about authority.  My comments in this article are limited to authority in the church.

The classic passage quoted in the Call and in most other discussions on church authority is Hebrews 13:17a – “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account. . . .”   This is a powerful principle that serious Christians seek to follow. It is also one that has been so terribly abused that it needs clarification.  First, no preacher, teacher or leader by virtue of their calling has been granted an inherent right to rule over other people.  When I was ordained, I was given the authority “to preach the Word and administer the sacraments.”  The only authority that any pastor, teacher or church leader has is the delegated authority that comes through the Word of God and relates to the “spiritual guidance and soul safety” of those under his responsibility.  (Read Wesley’s Sermon On Obedience to Pastors.)

Secondly, the application of Hebrews 13:17 applies only to those leaders who are faithful.  All through Scripture we are warned to beware of false teachers and false shepherds. How do you judge the false from the true? You judge them by their fidelity to the Word of God, both in what they say and how they live.  Those who teach the Word faithfully and live it faithfully deserve our respect and obedience.  The pastor or leader who claims authority based on his position, or seeks to make his opinion equivalent to scripture, or tries to use religion and false guilt to make one conform to his will is completely out of line with his Biblical authority.

Thirdly, the NT does not describe the kind of church organizations we have today.  This does not mean it opposes today’s denominational structures, it just means that it primarily sees the visible church as a local community of believers led by a body of elders and deacons.  However, it does speak quite forcefully to the issues of order, authority, submission, discipline and accountability.   A person who has willingly joined a church or denomination and has given their pledge to obey the rules of membership ought to do so. They should honor and obey those in leadership and submit to the accountability and discipline of the church as outlined in the Scripture and the covenant of membership.  If they fail to do so or at some point decide not to do so, they should willingly and quietly withdraw from membership.

Church Authority and Generational Differences

The Greatest and Silent Generations  

            Christians born in the first half of the 20th century are referred to as the Greatest (1902-1924) and Silent (1925-1945) generations.  They were born into what is called the “modern era.” Their way of thinking and subsequently their worldview primarily reflects “modernity.”  They have an innate trust for the institutions of government, education and religion.  They highly value rules for morality, decency and conformity.  Issues of right and wrong fall easily and distinctly into black and white categories. They understand the way the traditional church works, see membership as important and think nothing of just doing whatever the church or church manual says.  They do not need exhaustive exegesis or detailed explanations for demands placed upon them. This is not to say that they do not think, it is only to say that these generations accept the rules without the need for “proof” or “explanation” because they believe in and trust the church and its leadership!  Even in areas they personally do not understand or do not fully agree, they are willing to go along and do what the church or pastor says because they trust the authority structures and believe it is important to obey and conform to what they are told.

As this way of thinking worked its way out in the more conservative churches, there developed a subtle emphasis on conforming to “group cultural rules of conduct.”  Conformity became more of a priority than the development of vital piety based on scriptural reflection.  Living the rules with no grasp of the principle behind them became far too common.  This resulted in at least two things worthy of observation: (1) Externals became the focus or “proof” of real heart change; (2) It became far too easy to “look right” and thus “be right” without any internalization of character or sound Biblical understanding of why they did what they did. I hope this will not be misunderstood as an indictment of insincerity or an accusation of hypocrisy – it is not!  It is an attempt to explain how this generation tended to think and act.  I do not question their earnest desire to please God!

This is the generation that pulled out of the Mainline Holiness Denominations and formed what is now called the Conservative Holiness Movement.  This is the generation that embraced without question and lived without fear what their leaders and churches had taught them.  When the Mother Church started changing values that had been held for decades, this generation voted with their feet and left the church.  I believe their actions were rooted in two things: their convictions and their culture.  Neither root is necessarily connected to rebellion.  Were there rebels who opposed the authority of the church and who were involved in the “come out”?  Of course!  But the vast majority of come outers were men and women of godly character who were simply standing by the things they had been taught.

The Boomer, Buster and Millennial Generations

By the late 1960s and early ‘70s America had fully made a dramatic shift from the “modern era” to the “post-modern” era.    The second generation of conservative holiness people (Boomers) was influenced by both modern and post-modern thought.  You can see the influence of both in the way they think and act.  The third and fourth generations of conservatives were primarily influenced by post-modernism.  Post-modern Christians think quite differently from those in the modern generation.  The post-modern generation does not have a natural trust of the institutions of government, education and church.  On the contrary, they have a deep suspicion of these institutions and the power they wield.  They reject “blind acceptance” of anything to the point of being cynical.  They grew up in the “advertising age” and learned quickly you could not believe what you read on the cereal box or heard from the media.  They look at all unsupported assertions with suspicion — especially those given in church.  They do not simply swallow what is taught or preached. They ask questions and want answers. Just because the preacher says it is wrong doesn’t make it wrong for them.  They want a clear, intellectually defensible, Biblical answer.  If answers are not forthcoming, they reject the assertions.  A large number of the early post-moderns were lost to the church because some leaders tragically confused “questions about Biblical truth” with “questioning the truth of the Bible” and classified them as compromisers or rebels.

The post-modern Christian rejects the carefully “air-brushed, compartmentalized, and rote cookie-cutter religious expressions of the previous generations.”   They prefer religious spontaneity and authenticity over mere appearances.  This has caused a post-modern generation to be slow in accepting all the traditional life-style values and standards of the conservative holiness movement.  It’s not that they reject Biblical values, but rather they reject “cookie-cutter” conformity for the sake of just “looking the part” or fitting in to the culture.  They want to know the reason and see the value of the thing they are being asked to do.  I don’t believe they have rejected the traditional values because those values lack veracity but because they have been given without explanation and applied without flexible common sense.  Parents whose post-modern kids grew up in complete conformity to these values while at home are shocked when those same kids jettison those standards after leaving home.  It some cases the rejection flows from a rebellious worldly heart, but in many cases it does not.  It flows from a heart that is seeking spiritual authenticity and from a mind that wants intellectual “buy in.”

Addressing the Problem

            Rebellion is a strong word and should be used wisely.  True rebellion against proper authority reveals a deeper rejection of God’s authority and should be treated as such. That’s why the Bible compares it to the sin of witchcraft and idolatry.  Only the Holy Spirit can root out rebellion and replace it with submission by a radical change of one’s heart.  However, if we are dealing with generational ways of thinking, then we need to understand and respond accordingly.  Christians of all generations desire authenticity.  Authenticity begins with honesty.  We must be honest with who we are, honest about our biases and prejudices, and honest in our interpretation and application of scripture.  Authenticity continues with a willingness to differentiate between what is scripture and what is tradition, what is principle and what is preference – clarifying the role of both.  However, authenticity also means that we refuse to conform to any cultural thought that is wrong but that we confront “unbiblical thinking” in every generation with the Word of God.

Romans 12:1-2 offers some remarkable insight:  “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”   We can only replace bad thinking with biblical thinking by the faithful application of the Word of God.  The Holy Spirit can enlighten the mind with Biblical truth and change any way of thinking that does not align itself with God’s point of view. The Holy Spirit can also discern between resistance to generational thinking and acting and rebellion to Biblically ordained authority.  If real rebellion is present, then repentance and the relinquishment of self to God in holy surrender is the only cure for the rebel within.   We must have both, the radical change of hearts and the renewing of the mind, if we are to effectively deal with the problem of authority in this generation and in the ones to come.

The Church – A Community of Faith

– Winter 2011

The Church – A Community of Faith

America is blessed with a lot of churches.  Some sit astride prominent street corners proudly displaying their architectural glory while others are tucked away indiscreetly between a used shoe store and a day old bakery in a weary strip mall on the tired side of town.  Some have one word names like “Grace.”  Others have names so long that you can’t say the full name without stopping to breathe. Most have the stereotypical church look, while others resemble something between a cinema and a warehouse.  It is not, however, the architect they display, the appellation they wear, or the affiliations they boast that makes them a church.

The New Testament doesn’t provide a simple concise definition of the Church other than what is found in the meaning of the Greek word for Church (ekklesia) which is “the called out ones.”   What it does provide is long narratives portraying the Church in action, colorful word pictures of what the church is like, specific duties that the Church should fulfill, doctrinal standards that the Church should teach and prophetic insights of how the Church can stray from the path and lose its way.

History has taught us that the Church needs periods of reformation and times of revival to keep it doctrinally sound, morally pure and faithful to its calling. At other times, the Church needs change that is less radical and might be described as a course correction.  These internal corrections need to be made because the Church has a hard time keeping its balance.    Certain imbalances can be attributed to the peculiarities of leadership.  Others are derived from simply over-emphasizing one truth to the neglect of other balancing truths. The worse imbalances, however, grow out of the fertile soil of fear. When the church and its leaders do what they do or fail to do what they should do out of fear, the church will inevitably suffer from some imbalance.

The Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement, by its very nature, is a challenge to the CHM to address particular areas of weakness or failure. The call is not designed to enumerate all the good things that could be said about the CHM.  Article III of the call speaks to the CHM’s community of faith and addresses some of the imbalances in the way the CHM views its own community of faith and the community of faith at large.  I think it is important to note that even though these imbalances are real and need addressed, the average conservative holiness church is a wonderful place to worship.  In my opinion, they still offer one of the best environments available to raise a family; hear the Word of God fearlessly proclaimed; feel conviction for sin while at the same time find the power of grace; hear fervent praying; sense the moving of God’s Spirit; worship with people who are serious about everyday holiness; and find an environment that truly helps one to keep his feet on the narrow path that leads to life eternal!

Nevertheless, the CHM does have a significant imbalance in the way it views its own differing communities of faith as well as how it views the larger community of faith.  The Movement at large and the various denominations within suffer from a culture of suspicion toward those who do not share their particularities.  They also suffer from a certain insularity that robs them of the insight, wisdom and balance that could be derived from the larger Christian community.  This condition varies in degree from denomination to denomination and from church to church, but it is present and needs to be honestly confronted and openly addressed.

A Culture of Suspicion

The CHM highly values the Biblical call to separation from the world.  As appropriate and good as this may be, inherent in any serious commitment to “Biblical separation” is the temptation to be suspicious of others who may have a lesser degree or even a greater degree of separation that we do.  Just as the call to holy living can veer off the path into perfectionism, the call to separation from the world can veer off the path into isolationism – an isolation that breeds a carnal suspicion of anyone and everyone that doesn’t see it like I do or share my particular version of how the faithful ought to manifest their faith. This has been a perennial bane for the CHM.   Rev. Tom Reed says this kind of suspicion has caused us to “play God – determining who is or is not a Christian based on the way we see things.”  Clearly if this suspicion is left unchecked, it will lead to a spirit of judging and condemnation of the larger community of faith as well as to divisions within our own CHM family.  Even now many groups within the CHM will not use a speaker from another group within the CHM because of suspicion and fear. Conservative leaders could use their influence and voice to help remedy this disease with a cure that doesn’t require anyone to compromise their corporate values or personal convictions.  It only requires a renewed understanding and commitment to the teachings of I Cor. 8-10 and Rom. 14.  Add to that a fresh supply of the “love of God poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” and we can be well on our way to removing the ethos of suspicion and division among us.

A Detachment from the Larger Christian Community

In I Cor. 12 Paul reminds us that the Church is a body made up of many different members; each contributing something that the other members cannot give.  This has an application to both the local body and to the larger body of Christ.  It seems to me that God has given the various traditions of the Christian Church particular insights into truth and practice that He has not given in the same degree to all.  He must expect us to learn from one another.  I have learned much about prayer by reading from both Catholic and Evangelical writers.  I have   been immeasurably enriched by the writings and teachings of evangelicals like C. S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Ravi Zacharias and Chuck Colson.  The expository preaching and teaching of men like John MacArthur, David Jeremiah and Howard Hendricks have added great value to the life of the whole Church and challenged others to take the Scriptures more seriously.  The work of William Booth, Mother Teresa and Erlo Stegen have challenged me to the core of my spiritual being to be mindful of the downtrodden and disenfranchised among us.  Where would America’s families be today without the ministry of James Dobson?  Personally, no one has challenged me more in the area of spiritual intimacy and holiness than Dennis Kinlaw and John Oswalt.

It must be noted that not a single name mentioned above identifies with the CHM.  Yet each one of them has spoken powerfully into my life and the lives of many conservative holiness people.  In preparation for writing this article I spoke with the Rev. Tom Reed, who is an elder statesman within the CHM.  He shared with me a list of men outside our tradition who have been used of God to advance his own spiritual life.  He mentioned: H.A. Ironsides (a former pastor of Moody church), A.W. Tozer (he visited his church often on Sunday evenings), Paul Rees, Vance Havner, S. M. Lockridge and Howard Hendricks.  He added this insightful comment, “these were not holiness men but they were holy men and I refuse to write them off just because they see some things differently than me”.

The CHM has tended to isolate themselves from these “outside” voices.  They fear that they might be a corruptive or a persuasive influence, or even worse, that if we allow anyone to minister to us that does not fully share all our values we have somehow compromised and demeaned those values.  Some of this kind of thinking grows out of simple fear.  In other cases I think it is because we have failed to distinguish between a Romans 14 category issue (opinions, preferences, interpretations, etc…) and a Galatians 1 category issue (false doctrine or heresy) and have treated all outside voices as if they were in the Galatians 1 category.  Mature leaders should be more discerning than this. I know many laymen who already exercise this kind of discernment by means of radio, books, CD’s and DVD’s that they buy and listen to.

Let me clear, I am not advocating an open door policy on “outside voices”.  I am certainly not encouraging local churches to open up their pulpits to men and women from other traditions.  What I am suggesting is that in our large conventions, conferences and forums we need to occasionally hear what our brothers and sisters outside the CHM have to say to us. God is working powerfully in His world through many of these choice servants. There are many outside our little circle who are far outstripping us in their passion for the lost, their zeal for the disenfranchised, their insight into scripture and their love for holiness. To hear what they are doing, to be challenged by their successes and to learn from their insight will not and does not diminish my love for my Zion nor make me want to jettison my spiritual tradition and values!  It simply makes me a better servant of the Lord!

We Have Something to Offer the Church

The sword of isolation cuts two ways.  We are cut off from what the larger Christian community can give us and the larger Christian community is cut off from what we can bring to it. The CHM is the beneficiary of hundreds of years of rich holiness heritage.  We have grown up embracing and experiencing truths that some in the body of Christ will never know or experience. We have some preachers who are as capable and anointed as any out there anywhere.  Our emphasis on personal transformation, purity of heart, perfect love, real character development, growth in grace and freedom from the power of sin are emphasis that are needed by the larger body of Christ!  Surely what God has freely bestowed on us we ought to freely share with others!

My plea is not for some silly, stupid ecumenicalism!  It is a simple plea for us to both reap and share the bounty of spiritual riches that are ours in Christ and found within the various members of His Body – including our own.  The late H. E. Schmul, one of the greatest conservative holiness statesmen I ever knew, use to lead us in singing, “I don’t care what church you belong to, Just as long as for Calvary you stand.  Just as long as your heart beats with my heart, You’re my brother, so give me your hand”.  Somebody strike the tune and let’s sing it again!

The Bible Says…

– November 2011

The Bible Says . . .

When my boys were very small I would often give them their “Saturday night bath.”  This weekly ritual involved a long warm soak, a robust scrubbing and a vigorous shampoo – leaving them squeaky clean.  The boys loved the playful soak, tolerated the scrubbing, but became quite agitated when I would reach for the shampoo.  It may have had something to do with the fact that I used such copious amounts that rinsing it out of their hair became an experience close to drowning. One Saturday night all was going well until I reach for the bottle of shampoo.  My older son, who obviously had had enough, stood up in the front of the tub pointed his finger at me and with evangelistic fervor shouted, “The Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not wash a little boy’s hair with shampoo’!”  My son had a remarkable grasp of the authority of scripture, yet at the tender age of three he had not yet acquired an exact understanding of how to use it – or more accurately how not to use it for his own designs and purposes.

A less—than—careful use scripture is a slippery slope for both men and movements.  Most religious traditions, including our own Conservative Holiness Movement, have not escaped this pitfall.  As the Aldersgate Forum’s Call to Biblical Fidelity states, “we have often focused on issues and made demands which we cannot legitimately establish from the Scriptures. As a result, trivial notions and speculations at times have marred our witness”.  The CHM has, for the most part, comprised a group of people who have placed a very high value on scripture.  Our willingness to live out many unpopular biblical values is a testimony to this.  However, we have not always had an equally high commitment to the careful exegesis of scripture which is crucial to preserving Biblical fidelity.

Webster has defined fidelity as “the quality of being faithful; of accuracy in detail; exactness.”  The dictionary adds an interesting modern analogy to explain fidelity: “the degree to which an electronic device (as a record player or radio) accurately reproduces the original sound.”  With this in mind we can define Biblical fidelity.

Biblical fidelity then is to reproduce faithfully and accurately the thoughts, meaning and intent of scripture in both our preaching and practice.

                Every tradition, including the CHM, works in a sub-culture of its own. These subcultures gravitate toward certain theological, cultural and religious biases that inevitably serve as lens through which scripture is viewed and applied to Christian living. For the most part this is healthy and normative.  It is not, however, without problems. For all Biblical and theological biases must be held in check by an unyielding commitment to be both honest and faithful to the Biblical text. If this does not happen Biblical fidelity is compromised or even lost.

Are there any particular ways the CHM needs to be more careful?  Yes. Let me offer a few that I believe are especially applicable to the CHM.

  1. The CHM must be careful not to practice eisegesis instead of exegesis.  Eisegesis is an interpretation of scripture that expresses the interpreter’s own views rather than the text’s true meaning (exegesis). When we impose our own theological, cultural or personal views on a text, despite knowing that faithful scholarship will not support our interpretation, we compromise the truth and fail to honor God’s word. The CHM must regularly remind itself that scripture is the standard by which we test all other truth claims, not the other way around.
  2. The CHM must be careful not to blur the line between Biblical principle and religious tradition.  Tradition is a valuable part of our Christian life. Traditions may certainly be taught in our homes and churches, but they should be taught as traditions, not as divine revelation. Traditions must never be confused with God-given commands or given the same authority and weight as scripture.  When this confusion occurs the end result can be a church that has replaced the authority of God’s Word with the deadening weight of traditionalism or, worse, just trivia.
  3. The CHM must be careful not to misinterpret “questions” as “questioning” and inadvertently discourage honesty!   It is impossible to respect the God’s Word too highly, but it is possible to respect it wrongly.   We must let people know that it is not irreverent to see difficulties in the Biblical text and allow them to think hard and honestly about how these difficulties can be resolved. You have not truly studied the Bible until you have asked hard questions of it.   However, in some people’s minds asking hard questions is the same as “posing problems,” and we have been discouraged all our lives from finding problems in the Bible. Let me assure you, the Bible can handle scrutiny. Honesty is a vital part of Biblical fidelity.  God would rather have honest disagreement from one committed to His Word than forced affirmation of something we don’t really believe or understand.
  4. The CHM must be careful not to allow the externalization of Biblical standards to substitute for the internalization of Biblical character.   The Bible was not written to be a curiosity shop from which we pick and choose certain things to obey in our lives like one might pick and choose an article of clothing.  Rather, it was written to transform us from the inside out!  One can know and honor the Bible in visible ways (especially those that make us look spiritual in our setting), yet fail to demonstrate the character it commands. One can be meticulous, even legalistic, about his tithe and yet fail ever to develop the spirit of generosity. One can dress modestly and still have a sensuous  spirit. Sheer knowledge of the Bible doesn’t make one godly.  The mere application of a few visible commands doesn’t mean we have cultivated holy character.   One can read the Bible daily, acquire significant amounts of Biblical knowledge, adopt standards of dress and behavior– yet have no straight-line correspondence between that and real Christlikeness.

It would be helpful for all of us to remember that the “sounds” our lives make on earth reach heaven either as the scratchy, tinny, garbled clanging of carnality, or as harmonic, melodious, pleasant reproductions of Christlikeness.  Our success at being like Jesus will be determined by not only knowing with a high degree of accuracy what the Bible says, but also by honestly living it out.

Educating the Body

–March of 2007

Educating the Body

Eva Sutton is a ninety-two-year-old resident of a nursing home.  Her days are lived in the shadowy world of dementia.  She has a number of children and grandchildren, but if you mention them to her she will talk of another era.  She rattles on about her mother and father as if they were alive and she was still a child.   Eva was an active part of her church and its organist for over forty years.   So on most days, she will sit at the piano in the foyer of the nursing home doing what she loves the most—playing the old hymns. The hymns that she played for decades are now lodged in her bones and are released through age-bent fingers with what appears to be little effort.

Eva Sutton reminds us that the body learns – that it can be educated.  That it can be deeply and resiliently marked by that education.  Her fingers and tongue and lips remember the old hymns, even when her broken mind doesn’t.

The athlete calls this “muscle memory.”  One practices movements over and over again until one can do them without thought or any mental awareness of what is happening.  We ride our bikes, milk a cow, swim, make our beds, play basketball and do a host of other things without ever thinking about or analyzing the movements we make.  Our body knows what to do, and it just does it.

The Apostle Paul understood this and admonished us to “…exercise yourself toward godliness. For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (I Timothy 4:7-8).  He understood that spiritual formation involves the whole person, not just the spiritual part of us but the physical body as well.  Actually, the body lies right at the center of the spiritual life and is a chief ally in the formation of Christlikeness.  Paul again makes this clear in a question to the Corinthians: “Are you unaware that your body is a temple to the Holy Spirit from God, Who is within you?  And that you are not your own property?  A price has been paid for you.  So make your body a showplace of God’s greatness” (I Cor. 6:19-20, paraphrase).  This truth is quite a shock for many 21st century Christians who disconnect the mind and heart from the body in their spiritual walk.  For those who “walk in the flesh,” the body may well be the primary barrier to conformity to Christ.  But that is not because it has to be that way.  The body is not some uncontrollable mass that carries our head around.  It is not inherently evil, or the cause of evil.  The body, when presented to God, can be a servant unto righteousness — in fact, it must be.  The proper training, enculturation, and disciplining of the body is absolutely essential to spiritual formation.

Actually it’s the body that often learns first and can retain that learning long after the mind is gone.  We teach our children to speak words of appreciation long before they understand true gratitude, for we know that trained, repeated responses of thankfulness can in the long run create an attitude of gratitude that can mark them for life.  We instruct them in the posture and words of daily prayer years before they understand its real value because we want them to develop the habit of daily prayer.  We repeat this process with acts of mercy, deeds of kindness, and respect for authority and age.  We are “training up the child in the way he should go: so that when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

For those who need help in this area, there are some practical steps you can follow to bring the body under the control of the Spirit.

  1. Surrender your body totally to God.  (Romans 12:1.)  This must be decisive and complete.  You must then understand that the body is no longer your own to do with as you please.
  2. Refuse to make the body your ultimate concern. (Matthew 6:25-34.)  Contemporary culture idolizes the body.  We are overly concerned with food, fashion, fitness, longevity, sickness, and death.  We can become far more concerned about the body’s wellness and care than we can about its usefulness to God.   The body is not a god to worship.  I recently went on an extended fast just to let my belly know I was still boss and that feeding it was not the ultimate concern in my life.
  3. Stop misusing the body.  (I Corinthians 6:12-17.)   Stop using the body to speak the language of this present world.  Christians do not dress to look sexy or any other way that misuses the body by accentuating its sensuality. They do not need a “power tie” or any other clothes that tend to elevate them above others or possibly intimidate others.  We do not misuse the body by lacking sleep, being a workaholic, or eating too much or the wrong things.  The body doesn’t have to have a steak, sex, or Sony’s latest Play Station when it wants it.  Food is our servant, and we are not its slave.  Sex is for the mutual benefit of a husband and wife in the context of a marriage relationship.  Recreation is my servant, kept within the bounds of wise stewardship.
  4. Honor and care for the body as God’s Temple. (I Corinthians 6:19-20.)  The body should be nourished, cared for, rested, and adorned so that we may glorify God in our bodies.
  5. Train the body in godliness and grace. (I Timothy 4:7-8.)  Writers on spiritual formation have listed around twelve spiritual disciplines that have been used through the ages to cultivate Christlikeness and to keep the body as a servant to righteousness.  Make the practice of some of them or all of them a part of your spiritual exercise routine.

Coy McGinnis has been a preacher of the gospel for over fifty years, much of that time spent in evangelism.  He recently passed away after battling cancer for several years.  Toward the end, there were times when his mind was not clear from the sickness and the medicine.  On one such occasion in the middle of the night, while still asleep, he cleared his throat, announced his text, quoted it, and then preached a complete sermon from John 1:29.  When he finished the sermon, he stretched out his arms and pled for souls to come to Christ.  He was never aware of any of this.  Preaching has so marked his life that he could literally do it in his sleep.

The body can be deeply marked and thoroughly educated.  If you don’t think so, don’t try to convince Eva Sutton or Rev. McGinnis – they know better.