Doodle: Keep Preaching to the Choir

“Now I know I’m preaching to the choir,” is something I have caught myself saying in the pulpit on numerous occasions, teaching on the importance of belonging to a local church. We say similar things when we discuss passages in small group that emphasise meeting together, encouraging other Christians and living in community. It is a cliché and therefore about as useful as it is original. When we meet together to hear God speak – as the Bible is read, taught, and applied – we may be the metaphorical choir but that does not make us any less in need of being convicted by the Spirit. Imagine a believer in the church who received the letter to the Hebrews shouting, after 10:25 was read, ‘Hey, we’re here; stop preaching to the choir.’ It’s ridiculous because God’s Word gathers us and addresses the gathered. Furthermore, you need only read Hebrews 10:24 to see that merely meeting together is inadequate, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.”

ChurchThere is more to being a part of the church than meeting together. We must make no apology when emphasising the value as well as the purpose of meeting together, as if all of those who are gathered are committed to stirring one another up to love and good deeds. The gospel we preach does not simply say, ‘Come to church.’ That is the nominal poison believed and preached in many South African churches, especially among older generations. No, the gospel says that Christ has saved us for himself and to minister to his people. We need to keep preaching to the choir because there are people regularly attending church who play no active role in encouraging others. If people are uncomfortable with the demands of Jesus then it may be because they do not know or love him. Certainly, one of the ways we show our love for Christ is by being concerned for the interests of his people (Philippians 2:19-30). Keep preaching to the choir.

Christ taught that the numerical size of local churches is a fraught statistic, attendance can mean very little. Therefore, just as we do not apologise for preaching Christ and him crucified week after week, we should not baulk at challenging the gathered church about their personal investment in the local church. We preach the gospel Sunday by Sunday because it is a grave mistake to think the church visible is the church invisible. In a similar way, we keep seeking to convict Christians with regards to their love for God’s people, or lack thereof. Just as we keep preaching to spiritual corpses (Ephesians 2:1-3) we must keep preaching to the choir. We must regularly call for faith and repentance, not forgetting that all Christians still have much repenting to do. So keep preaching to the choir.

Since John Calvin kicked off this short series of posts thinking about our gifts and using them to serve the local church, I will quote him as we finish. “And this is the place to upbraid those who, having nothing but the name and badge of Christ, yet wish to call themselves Christians…Either let them cease to boast of what they are not, in contempt of God; or let them show themselves disciples not unworthy of Christ their teacher” (3.6.4).

Why We Don’t Serve in the Church

Last week I wrote a post unpacking part of John Calvin’s Institutes on gifts, the local church, and self-denial. Calvin shows that God is the giver of all that we have, including our gifts. If you are wealthy that is because God has been generous. If you possess a unique skill, your Creator installed it. Whatever you have it is not yours but God’s. Because he is the one who gives us our gifts he determines their end: the good of his church and ultimately his glory. The latter of those ends is impacted by how we use our gifts, our attitude and motivation. God is not glorified when we boast in our gifts—however public or impressive the demonstration. We also fail to give him due glory when we refuse to recognise that he is behind the gifts we see applied in the local church. In short, when we realise that our gifts are from God for service of his church and act accordingly God is worshipped.

Off the back of a few conversations about the previous post I felt the need to write a follow-up, exploring a few of the reasons people do not serve the local church with their gifts. I am sure you will be able to add your own observations to the list below, and I invite you to do so, for mine is certainly is not comprehensive.

We believe that our life is our own

The phrase ‘self-denial’ conjures up images of monastic misery and joyless perseverance. Yet for Calvin it was an unavoidable conclusion of believing the gospel, “We are not our own masters, but belong to God” (3.7.1). Citing both Romans 12:1-2 and 1 Corinthians 6:19 Calvin argues that God made us his own and therefore we should pursue his glory, indeed this is why he brought us to himself and his people. This truth is the root of self-denial, for if we belong to God we can forget ourselves as we find what God made us for. “Let this therefore be the first step, that a man depart from himself in order that he may apply the whole force of his ability in the service of the Lord” (3.7.1). Perhaps the most serious reason we are slow to serve in the local church is this, and it demands honest self-examination: I still believe that my life is my own. Once we understand that Christ has made us his own (Philippians 3:12), Calvin says seeking the Lord’s will – increasingly, though not always effortlessly – follows and we will serve others for the glory of God (3.7.2). Self-denial is not begrudgingly serving others; it is the glad service for which God made and saved us.

Our view of being gifted is shaped by the world

People are celebrated for being exceptional and we are constantly pointed to the achievements of remarkable people. This has lead to us misunderstanding the word ‘gifted’, limiting it to a small group of hallowed individuals in the local church. But that could not be further from the truth. Passages such as Ephesians 4:7-16 have long been used to perpetuate this error by creating elitism within the local church. Some look at Ephesians 4:11 and believe God is elevating the word or teaching offices above all others. However if you read the very next verse we learn why God gives gifted teachers to his churches: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (4:12). If you spend all your time marvelling at a mouth, discussing the shape of its lips and how straight the teeth are, but never recognise that the mouth is designed for nourishing the body, you will starve. Likewise, the word ministries are not to be marvelled at but put to use, teaching the church how to use their own gifts in service of others and equipping them for ministry.

We think too narrowly about gifts

This is linked with the previous point, for it is also an aspect of churches drawn to exceptional gifts but indifferent to the more mundane expressions of love and service. This was at least part of the problem Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Without entering the debate about the continuation of gifts such as tongues and healing – you can read some exploration of prophecy here, and here – let us note something undeniable: Paul does not limit gifts to the ‘spiritual’ set. He reminds the church that the Spirit apportions many gifts to create a body where each member has a valuable role (12:11-26). There is no place for division, instead we should honour the less impressive members and gifts in Christ’s church (12:21-25). Another point often overlooked in churches that boast the more spectacular gifts and manifestations is 12:31-13:13. Though Paul does call on Christians to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” he speaks of a “more excellent way” (12:31; also see 14:1). What is that? Love. Sacrificial service of God’s people using the gifts God gave you, regardless of being noticed for it. Unfortunately 1 Corinthians 13 has been misappropriated by so many lazy wedding preachers meaning that when we read 13:4-7 we forget that Paul is referring to relationships in the local church. Love shown practically in God’s church is a gift, one that surpasses the powerful and ostentatious ‘spiritual’ gifts.

We are not encouraged to discover our gifts

servingIn 1 Corinthians 12:11 Paul says that the Spirit has diversely apportioned gifts to everyone in the local church (also see Romans 12:6). We may not believe that, because few of us feel exceptionally gifted, like the powerful preacher in the pulpit, and we cannot speak in tongues or heal the sick. But listen to the apostle Peter, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Now while Peter’s list does include the more public gifts such as speaking the oracles of God he includes serving in the same sentence (4:11). Peter also mentions loving one another (4:8) and hospitality (4:9). I will admit that I have given too little thought to the gift lists in the New Testament, but I also wonder if most of us have failed to give enough thought to God’s varied grace so that we might serve his body. In many churches today it feels like you are either a minister of the word (in home groups, church meetings, or evangelism) or you serve tea. But surely Christ did not give the former group to equip us to serve tea (Ephesians 4:11-12). God has gifted each member of his body for purpose. Discover your gifts and use them in service of your brothers and sisters, to the glory of our heavenly Father.

John Calvin: Our Gifts and the Church

Though wisdom and my recent less than prodigious blogging record suggests that I should not commit to any sort of writing project, with this post I am setting out on series of articles reflecting on John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Reading through his tremendous work in 2017 proved to me the practical value of solid systematic theology, as I found myself drawing on it in pastoral situations as well as for preaching. In writing these posts I hope to impress that value upon my readers.

Under the headings below I have summarised part of Calvin’s teaching on the use of our gifts in the local church, which is strikingly embedded in a section on self-denial. The setting of gifts under the heading of self-denial will seem strange to many Christians today, since gifts are usually paraded about, elevating individuals in the believing community. This creates an ungodly discontentment with the gifts God has equipped us, along with an unhealthy elitism, both of which are unbiblical and far from the mind of Christ.

Our gifts are from God (3.7.4)

Calvin notes that God calls us to esteem others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4), applying ourselves to doing them good. God calls us to this because naturally we are only concerned for ourselves (Philippians 2:21). Furthermore, Calvin says, we long to tower over others, which we accomplish through unfair comparisons and self-flattery. We all serve the “kingdom in our breast.” Ironically we attempt this self-aggrandisement through the things we have received from God, the abilities that might set us apart from others. Therefore, alluding to 1 Corinthians 4:7, Calvin writes, “We are instructed to remember that those talents which God has bestowed upon us are not our own goods but the free gifts of God; and any person who become proud of them show their ungratefulness.” Calvin frequently picks this theme up throughout his Institutes, quoting Cyprian elsewhere, ‘We ought to glory in nothing, because noting is ours’ (2.2.9).

Our gifts are for others (3.7.5)

Because the gifts we have are not ours, Calvin writes, “Whatever benefits we obtain from the Lord have been entrusted to us on this condition: that they be applied to the common good of the church.” Our talents, abilities, wealth, skills, and time do not ultimately belong to us; they are given by God for his church. Calvin discusses our gifts under self-denial because without renouncing ourselves we will never give wholly to others, doing Christ’s works of love. “We are the stewards of everything God has conferred on us by which we are able to help our neighbour, and are required to render account of our stewardship.” God has been generous to every one of his children in the church, both saving them and equipping them with gifts (respectively Ephesians 2:8-10 and 4:11-16). So we must remember that we are accountable for what we do with what God has given us, all of it. It is to this point that Jesus told his parable of the tenants (Luke 19:11-27).

Our hearts determines the value of our gifts (3.7.7)

Under 3.7.6 Calvin touches on the image of God to convict us when we are slow to use God’s gifts in service of others. If we deem someone unworthy of our efforts, “the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.” This, Calvin argues, means that the love we must show others requires that we look first to God, paradoxically, and not people. If we love him then we ought to love and serve those made in his image. This brings Calvin to a conclusion, in 3.7.7, dealing with our attitude as we serve others, not forgetting the two points above. There can be no pride when it comes to our gifts, nor arrogance in our use of them. Once we have properly understood that all gifts we possess are from God for others we should learn to give freely, not under compulsion. When we serve others we must refuse to consider those helped as indebted to us, since we are merely being generous with what God has given us (1 Peter 4:11). Finally, what limits should be set on service and the sharing of God’s gifts? Calvin says only the end of our resources and the rule of love.

Doodle: Constantine, the Caesars, and Jesus Christ

Bavaria Faith Religion Head StoneLast week I posted an article on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I argued that the birth of the early Christian church is more than a historical peculiarity, for it demands that we answer why despairing disciples became daring heralds of their crucified lord. Jews living in the Roman Empire saw many messiahs publicly killed, and every futile revolution left those who believed in it with a decision: seek out a new messiah or surrender any sort of hope. But those who followed Jesus did neither. Rather, as Paul Barnett writes in The Logic of History, “The early rise of Christianity as a movement close in time to Jesus is a fact of history. Someone gave impulse to the rise of that movement in the immediately preceding weeks and months”. Thus I argued that if we apply logic – and avoid sceptical presuppositions, or poor historical explanations – the resurrection of Jesus provides us with both a satisfactory and startling answer.

When I preached on Christ’s resurrection over Easter I joked that most of us only know who Julius Caesar is because we were forced to read Shakespeare at school. Furthermore almost none of us know his nephew, Augustus Caesar. Yet these men were considered gods. I mention Julius and Augustus because the latter was a contemporary of Jesus, and both were considered divine. Classicist Mary Beard writes in SPQR, “There were priests and temples, sacrifices carried out to them, not on their behalf, and some wonderful surviving images that literally put the imperial gods in the Olympian heavens.” But none of them are broadly remembered today, and they are certainly no longer worshipped. Strangely, on the other hand, the Jewish peasant who was publicly executed by the Romans has stubbornly endured.

Enter The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, faux historical research, Wikipedia, and conspiracy theories that make employees at Area 51 incredulous, to rescue us from believing Christianity was a significant presence in the Roman Empire before Constantine. These reputable sources have indubitably proven that prior to Constantine’s conversion Christianity was hardly worth mentioning. Upon gaining state support it, however, enjoyed meteoric success and growth. But that is to be a poor student of history, not to mention a gullible consumer of popular fiction. In his insightful work, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark writes, “Constantine’s conversion would better be seen as a response to the massive exponential wave in progress, not its cause.” This agrees with actual historians, not potboilers. A notable Christian sect must have existed in the Roman Empire in the 4th century C.E. Constantine did not venture into the religious marketplace in search of an obscure faith; he could not ignore the influence of a faith that was sweeping through his empire.

Those who would claim that Constantine is the reason for the season must explain what happened to Julius Caesar, supposed descendant of Aeneas, and his nephew Augustus, those first Roman emperors who had ascended, becoming imperial gods. Constantine’s state sponsorship of Christianity is thrown around as if it was the first occurrence in history. It is also ignorantly supposed that Constantine’s support of Christianity enforced exclusivity in the Empire. The reality is that a contemporary of Jesus enjoyed state support – of varying degrees – for over 300 years until Constantine’s conversion experience. Where are the imperial gods now? Condemned to the fading memory of history. Those who supposedly ascended to Mount Olympus and took their place amongst the pantheon of classical gods are all but forgotten today.

CaesarThe one truth we might draw out of this meandering post is the ephemeral nature of state sponsored religion, or perhaps just the shallowness of such faith. Christianity was almost certainly already a significant Jewish sect long before the 4th century. It held its own in that religious marketplace not because it had state backing, such as the worship of Caesar Augustus, but because Christians from the 1st century were convinced something incredible had happened. As Marilynne Robinson writes in Wondrous Love, explaining what gives the cross and resurrection such lasting power, “They tell us that there is a great love that has intervened in history, making itself known in terms that are startlingly, and inexhaustibly, palpable to us as human beings. So, as Gamaliel said about some of the disciples who were preaching Christ’s death and resurrection, ‘Keep away from these men for if this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them” (Acts 5:38-39).

How the Early Church Proves the Resurrection

In her most recent novel, Lila, Marilynne Robinson draws back the curtain on a character who, though present in her previous two novels, Gilead and Home, has remained fairly mysterious. She is the young wife of John Ames and Lila recounts her austere life as a migrant worker, dominated by loneliness and loss. But one day Lila finds herself in a church service, when she was only looking for shelter from the rain, “She was thinking how strange it was for them to be there singing songs to somebody who had lived and died like anybody.” Very few historians would dispute that there was a historical man named Jesus, who was remarkable at most but died nonetheless. And this means Lila’s bemusement is more than bare wonder, but a question we must all answer: how do we explain two millennia of singing?

A historical note

CrucifixionFirstly, because without it the resurrection makes little sense, we must look at the death of Jesus. “Crucifixion,” David Seccombe writes, “was designed to inflict as much pain as possible for as long as possible, in a manner that brought about the complete public humiliation of the victim…This was Rome’s way of exposing the foolishness of anyone with political pretensions. There was no honour or heroism in such a death” (The King of God’s Kingdom). For Jesus’ disciples, his death signalled a miserable failure and a familiar pattern. Jewish messiahs would gather devoted followings, appealing to the oppressed people with promises of God’s powerful liberation. None succeeded. Jesus fits this category: supposed Jewish messiah executed by the Romans. In dying Jesus was painfully ordinary, even predictable. He was not exceptionable and arguably not even the most popular messiah of his day. This was what happened. And, in addition to the Jewish people’s familiarity with disappointment, they did not expect their messiah to die and be resurrected (a point very well made by N. T. Wright). Therefore, historically, the Jesus story is very similar to the lesser-known stories about other failed Jewish messiahs. Strangely, Jesus’ story is remembered.

An improbable hypothesis

That brings us to our next point, the quite incredible historical reconstruction put forward by sceptics. This popular explanation of the resurrection requires, in my opinion, a greater suspension of logic than the kind Christians are often accused of. For it says that a bunch of despondent and utterly disappointed followers, whose messiah was recently put to death, went about proclaiming his resurrection. Their teacher had just been horrendously executed and before that, as he was being arrested and tried, they were climbing over each other to dissociate themselves from him. Jesus was dead, going the way of every other messiah. So they decided to proclaim that he had been resurrected. Even though it had not happened. Indeed, no one expected it to, probably not even Jesus’ disciples. But in the midst of overwhelming disappointment and guaranteed ridicule as well persecution for proclaiming it, they go about preaching Christ’s resurrection. Again, the sceptic must face up to the difficulty that logic presents. What could possibly propel the disciples into the Empire that had recently killed their messiah, declaring that he was alive?

An unpopular explanation

ResurrectionFormer Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams proposes the incredible but altogether logical explanation, “Jesus appeared to people whose confidence in him had crumbled, not to believers. It was the resurrection that created the Church and its faith, not the Church that created the resurrection.” He makes two points: the first has been lightly touched on already, we might paraphrase Williams in saying that Jesus appeared to sceptics. In the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel we encounter two former followers of Jesus, pouring out their heavy hearts in the wake of Jesus’ apparent failure, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Now whether you consider the Gospels historically reliable or not, it is safe to assume that those two men accurately illustrate how Jesus’ disciples would have felt after his death. As Williams correctly says, their confidence in him was shattered and he would be assigned a place with all the other failed messiahs. But that did not happen, as Williams’ second point suggests; a new faith was born, which is hard to account for apart from Jesus’ resurrection. Their faith, their eschatological hope and longing for liberation, did not anticipate the resurrection of a single man. The resurrection created the church, for their fractured faith would not have created a resurrection.

A resurrection shaped hole in history

That unpopular, though logically credible, and in my opinion more probable, explanation answers the question we started with, the strange fact that people are still singing songs to Jesus. The answer goes beyond curiosity, to ask us what we make of Jesus, his resurrection, and the early church. American pastor Timothy Keller comments in The Reason for God that the first Christians knew that if the resurrection was true then they could no longer live their lives however they wanted to. He goes on, “If it happened, it changes our lives completely.” What will you do? How else do you suggest to expain the faith of the early church? Let me close with the now famous lines from C. F. D. Moule, in The Phenomenon of the New Testament, ‘If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes rips a great hole in history, a hole the size of the and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?’

Reflections on LeFouGate

LeFou - Beauty and the Beast 2017With the release of Beauty and the Beast around the corner and the (completely intentional, as far as I’m concerned) controversy over “LeFouGate,” I have been thinking (again) about the LGBTQ / SSA community and the church. The big question on my mind is one that has been asked many times before: how do we make both compassion and holiness our priorities?

It seems that one the major problems is that the idea of the church and its reality are two very different things. Although we say we are against all sin, what we do stigmatises sexual sin and brushes pride, greed and selfishness under the carpet. We say that the church is a community and that everyone is welcome – in fact we would say we are the best community – but in a small group I attended a gay friend once said the best experience of community that he has had has been outside of the church. I asked him what he meant by “best experience of community” and he explained “where I feel like people care about me and try to understand me.” So yes, once again we can say the church is failing on this front – if you’re reading this and you’re in the LGBTQ / SSA community, sorry for mucking this stuff up for so long!

Two responses that I don’t think are helping us are (1) saying “love the sinner hate the sin” – this response is definitely on the side of “love them with the truth even if it hurts.” Sure, there’s something to be said for this approach but the problem is that it stops far short of knowing “the sinner” and forgets how core of an issue this is with regards to self-identity. I think if we are going to be compassionate, this solution is going to let us down. (2) Reframing sin in terms of brokenness (which I wrote about that a while ago). Although this helps us to be compassionate by using language that is not condemnatory, it also turns us into victims of our own sin rather than wilful agents. This is actually more of a problem to the heterosexual community which seems to have gravitated toward this language because while sounding generous and loving, it excuses and plays down our own sin.

So what’s the solution? Well if you want a solution to a problem that has been plaguing the church for the last few decades and to which few people even gesture at answers, you’ve come to the right place – if you know me, you know that I don’t hesitate to give definitive answers to life’s difficult questions (*sarcasm people). But to suggest something rather than crash landing this post at this point, I will say two things.
Washed and Waiting - Wesley HillFirst, read (and this, by the way, is the only solutiony type thing I’m going to offer). In his Experiment in Criticism Lewis writes

In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.

If you’re reading this blog, it’s probably something you already know – reading the words of people we don’t understand helps us sympathise with them. So I will recommend Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting to anyone who still hasn’t read it. Unfortunately nothing else that I’ve read is springing to mind that I want to recommend so highly (if you have suggestions, put them in the comments!).

Second, to loop back to LeFouGate, watching Beauty and the Beast is not going to help you sympathise. The media’s approach to gender identity is going to be to affirm and to normalise which will make us conservative types recoil all the time (until the normalisation takes effect). We need stories about people who are struggling with their own identity because in their stories we learn sympathy. Imitation Game (about Alan Turing breaking Enigma during WWII) is one example I can think of, a more recent one – though not as good an example – is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (the latest in the Harry Potter world) – watch Credence (the adopted son).

Let’s be clear, these movies are normalising identity struggle and I’m confident that their objective is to normalise alternative sexualities but they do also depict the internal struggle that I think Christians all to often fail to appreciate in the people around us – people around us who we are called to love. I think whatever loving means, it’s going to involve some sort of understanding. Whatever you decide to do in response to LeFouGate, let’s remember that Beauty and the Beast is a story in which love transforms the unlovable and our decisions and actions communicate to those around us – what we say and what we do need to correlate.