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.

A Return to Disciplined Spirituality

– April 2012

A Return to Disciplined Spirituality

The Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement’s Article V is a call to return to the principled piety that was fundamental to historic Methodism’s success in spiritual formation. John Wesley’s approach to the cultivation of holy character was nothing more than the methodical application of the ordinary means of grace that the Bible says are central to spiritual health and growth.  Wesley defined the means of grace as the instruments appointed by God to “convey to men, preventing, justifying, and sanctifying grace.”  Wesley’s list of these means included: Scripture, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, fellowship and fasting.

For some in the CHM, a call to reach into the treasures of our past is a call in the wrong direction.  The assumption is that “everything has changed” therefore new approaches to the development of spiritual life are needed. I would dispute both parts of that equation.  I readily acknowledge the constant change in the culture around us but I firmly assert that basic human nature has not changed.  Thus the fundamental human problem has not changed. Neither has the Biblical solution to that problem changed nor has the effectiveness of that solution changed. Faith still comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.  The ordinary means of grace are just as effective in today’s 21st century church (if given a chance) as they were in those first Mediterranean house churches established by Paul centuries ago.

The CHM should not let go of its historic approach to the development of spiritual character.  What it does need to do is to work on applying it with a better balance between discipline and dependence.  It is easy to slip into the extreme of either approach.  The extreme side of discipline is to overemphasize the role of what we do to cultivate spiritual life.  This position is characterized by the mentality of striving.  It emphasizes knowledge, rules, re-dedication efforts, and human activity while virtually ignoring God’s grace extended through the enabling power of His Spirit. Its emphasis on “what-do-I-need-to-do” can lead to the bondage of legalism. On the other hand, the extreme side of dependence is to overemphasize God’s role in our spiritual development to the neglect of any human initiative.  This position is characterized by a “Jesus-did-it-all passivity.”  It stresses experience, the supernatural, and the person of the Holy Spirit to the neglect of human endeavor.  The one side rolls up its sleeves and says, “God helps those who help themselves.”  The other side responds with, “It’s all by grace.”  The CHM has generally fallen into the ditch of the former but is now showing signs of falling into the ditch of the latter.

The Biblical answer to this imbalance is that spiritual formation is both human and divine.  Kenneth Boa stated it succinctly when he said that “discipline should work in concert with dependence, since grace is not opposed to effort but to earning.”  Paul places these elements back to back in Philippians 2:12-13:  “So then, my beloved, …work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”  Paul makes it clear that working out our salvation is not the same as working for it.  He is also careful to balance this with the fact that God is active within us, accomplishing what all our learning and labor cannot.

The CHM must also guard diligently against the danger of just practicing the means of grace as an end in themselves.   The “doing” of certain spiritual practices can create a subtle carnal smugness. The means of grace are never an end but merely the instruments through which God administers His grace.   The means of grace were not given to satisfy our sense of “doing” but to transform us from the inside out!  One can read the Bible faithfully yet fail to demonstrate the character it commends. One can be meticulous about his prayer time yet fail to ever really pray or experience the oneness of true intercession.  One can kneel at the altar to receive the elements as ritual only and completely miss the reality of His presence. Wesley warned about following the outward signs only without our hearts being renewed and enabled by the Holy Spirit.

Alan Redpath wisely noted that the conversion of a soul is the miracle of a moment, but the maturing into a great saint is the task of a lifetime.  Our Methodist Fathers understood this and modeled for us the art of disciplined spirituality like no one else in the last 100 years.   It’s our heritage – it should be our practice—it may be key to our renewal!

Holiness

– March 2012

Holiness

I was sitting in the barber’s chair when my barber, Tony, asked me what I was working on that day.  I told him I was writing.  He asked me what I was writing about.  I told him I was writing on the subject of “holiness.”   He grew very quiet and finally said, “That’s a subject nobody talks about.  Of all the things that get talked about in here I have never heard anybody talk about holiness”.

Tony is right. Purity and moral excellence is certainly not in the top ten lists of today’s societal values.  The media will only talk about it when they have the opportunity to mock a morally decent person as a hypocrite– otherwise the subject is just too boring.  Movies typically cast the morally upright as some “out of touch simpleton” whose attempts to do the right thing are valued only for a few laughs.  Sadly, most people have never heard a sound, scriptural discussion on holy living – not even in church.

The subject of holiness desperately needs to be re-discovered and re-introduced into the culture and values of America.  That process should begin in the church.  The practical presentation of holiness has long since been cast out of the pulpits and publishing houses of the people that made it a household word in America – the Methodists.  Actually, many of the twentieth century holiness groups (descendants of Methodism) have also de-emphasized the message or abandoned it altogether in their quest for respectability and acceptance at the table with mainstream evangelicals.  It is true that Evangelicalism has become the dominant expression of Christianity in America.  But it is also true that the moral and spiritual life of the nation has collapsed while embracing its flimsy offers of cheap grace, the promise of heaven no matter how you live and the disgusting doctrinal conclusions that Christians are just “saved sinners” who are far from “perfect” but are “forgiven” nonetheless. It shouldn’t surprise any of us when surveys show that there is almost no difference at all in the core values between the churched and the unchurched in America!  What is missing?  Holiness!

The Biblical call to holiness leaves no room for Christians who want to coddle sin and live in a state of perpetual immaturity and worldliness.  Not only does scriptural holiness teach that Christians can be liberated from willful sin and empowered to live lives of obedience to Christ; it also teaches that the Christian can be cleansed from the inner propensity to rebellion, selfishness and pride through the work of the Holy Spirit.  A holy life is a life where spiritual and moral character is taking root and being lived out in a sensible, upright and godly way.

This is the message that birthed the Wesleyan Revival, took 19th century America by storm and raised the level of social and moral concern on two continents!  The post-Civil War holiness revival impacted numerous denominations in America and influenced many Christian Leaders outside the Methodist holiness tradition.  Oswald Chambers, a Scottish Baptist, was significantly affected both spiritually and theologically by his association with the American holiness movement.  In his popular devotional My Utmost for His Highest he wrote, “Continually restate to yourself what the purpose of your life is. The destined end of man is not happiness, nor health, but holiness….God has one destined end for mankind, viz., holiness. Never tolerate through sympathy with yourself or with others any practice that is not in keeping with a holy God. Holiness means unsullied walking with the feet, unsullied talking with the tongue, unsullied thinking with the mind – every detail of the life under the scrutiny of God.”

Many in the broader holiness movement today would be embarrassed by Chambers words.  They would see them as extreme, maybe even hypocritical.  However, there is still a clear witness to the historic message of scriptural holiness!  The Francis Asbury Society is a strong voice among Methodists. The mainline holiness groups still have a few scholars, pastors and laity who aren’t ashamed to lift the torch for scriptural holiness. The most welcoming home for the holiness message is among the Conservative Holiness Movement.  They write it in their church disciplines, teach it in their Bible Colleges, preach it in their pulpits, editorialize it in their periodicals, celebrate it in their testimonies, and emphasize it in their conventions.  For the most part, the CHM is strongly committed to the message of holiness.

However, providing the message of scriptural holiness a home and keeping it healthy are not one and the same.   The Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement addresses this in Article V.  The Call points out certain weaknesses that can and will undermine the message.  Let me enumerate some of my own concerns with the CHM’s stewardship of the holiness message.

I am concerned about legalism.  That scriptural holiness has behavioral and lifestyle ramifications cannot be argued: external matters are not unimportant. But when we turn our primary focus away from the heart and onto externals (usually particular standards of dress or modes of behavior) we are in danger of reducing holy virtue to custom and thereby trivializing both.

I am concerned about “works righteousness.”  Holiness people take the formation of moral and spiritual character seriously. However, the balance between God’s work in us and our work in forming holy habits can get out of balance more easily than one might think.  God graciously invites us to work in cooperation with the Holy Spirit through a variety of spiritual disciplines appropriate to our need, but it is always God at work in us. We have nothing that has not been given to us by the Holy Spirit.  All holiness is God’s holiness in us! The temptation to believe that any progress forward is somehow our own doing can be a very real problem.  The tendency to believe that careful obedience to Biblical principles or personal adherence to codes or cultures of lifestyle somehow earns merit or standing with God is a subtle form of pride that must be rooted out. Andrew Murray reminds us that, “There is no pride so dangerous, none so subtle and insidious, as the pride of holiness.”  Deep devotion to Christ and careful attention to righteous living must be motivated by loving obedience or we will fall into the ditch of works righteousness.

I am concerned about perfectionism.  Holy people have not attained a state of “sinless perfection” that renders them incapable of any wrong action. Holiness involves both purity and maturity.  There is still much room for growth in the sanctified life.  Holy habits deepen into fixed patterns of living as we learn to walk in the Spirit.  We can and do make many mistakes.  There may be times when our attitudes or actions are simply wrong. When that happens we should, in good old honest humility, exercise repentance, make amends and learn from our failures. We never learn from failures denied. Only by seeing them, admitting them, and mending them in total meekness will we follow Peter’s admonition to “grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).  This is how holy people respond to failure.  However, perfectionism cuts us off from our essential humanity, forcing us to deny who and what we really are, or to downplay or outright deny what we have done.  When this happens we are simply pretending we are something we are not, and such duplicitous behavior is destructive.   True holiness is not the breeding ground for pretentious behavior or self-righteousness.  Rather it is the womb in which honesty and humility are nurtured.

I am concerned about message drift.  There is a certain amount of tension and balance in which every Biblical truth must be held.  The same is certainly true of the call to holiness.  The balance wheel for holiness is unadulterated love for God and others.  If holiness loses that balance, it will become a crotchety, sterile, loveless way of rules and regulations that values law over love.  One ends up behaving like the Priest who valued unsullied hands for temple service more than helping the wounded Samaritan out of the ditch.  It can also go the other direction and become nothing more than a mental ascent to a positional sanctification that is void of any real sanctity.  The theological concept of being “in Christ” is reduced to nothing more than a convenient semantic cover-up for a life of sin and failure.   I fear both extremes.  Scriptural holiness will not take you down either path.

I am concerned about isolation. The CHM has made valiant attempts to honor the Biblical call to separation from the world but has simply become isolated from the world thereby hiding its candle under a bushel.  The message of holiness needs to be lived out loudly in the market place of life and we are the people to do it!  It needs to be broadcast over the Web, printed in books and argued as the path to true happiness for individuals and families.

My barber is right.  You don’t hear talk about holiness in the barber shops, bakeries or board rooms of America.   But the day will come when “Holiness unto the Lord” will resound throughout the earth and be part of an eternal conversation by those who have “pursued that holiness without which no man will see the Lord.”  I want to be one who promotes the conversation now – don’t you?

 

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.