Monday’s Column: Neal at the Cross
Most people have very strong convictions, pro or con, about religious matters. Many who claim to be religious form opinions and draw conclusions with very little if any biblical consultation. How ironic is it to claim to follow God while ignoring and even rejecting His very revealed will?
Many religious people, church attenders and not, are guided by their feelings, desires, opinions, preferences, and consciences (cf. 2 Tim. 4:3; Prov. 14:12). Perhaps they have a favorite preacher or other religious figure they implicitly trust. Their religion may be submitted and subjugated to the message of the culture or even the media. It may be based on convenience and comfort. Throughout time, man has attempted to serve God on his own terms and based on what he thinks is right. Whether ignorantly or defiantly, he puts himself on a throne upon which only Jesus belongs (Mat. 28:18).
How long could religious error survive if potentially divided parties could lay aside personal interests and objectively study the sacred text? So often, the religious world is divided because of man-made doctrines and traditions. Instead of looking to the Bible to answer the important questions of time and eternity, men often come up with the answers they want and then go looking for Bible verses to support their predetermined views. Consider that some of the most popular religious ideas—salvation by saying the sinner’s prayer, premillennialism, speaking in tongues, women worship leaders, once-saved, always-saved, and instrumental music—are not practiced or believed based upon their being taught in Scripture but instead their being the beliefs and views of mankind. How thrilling it would be if we could unite every religious person in the desire to come to the text, the glasses of prejudice or sectarian beliefs removed, and let God tell us what to believe and how to live! That is possible, but it begins with each of us humble, sincerely asking, “What does the Bible say?”
Yesterday, John and Carla Moore, Kathy, and I worshipped with the church of Christ in Nazareth. We have been there a few times, but there was something extremely special about yesterday. In attendance was Wissam Al-Aethawi, an Iraqi and Muslim-born brother in Christ whom I first met at Polishing the Pulpit. What was so special is that this man, who explained that he has been a believer for 20 years and a New Testament Christian for 10 years, was able to worship in his native Arabic tongue for the first time ever. Can you imagine being a child of God for a decade before you ever had the opportunity to sing, pray, or hear preaching in the language you were born and raised to know?
Every Lord’s Day, most of us have the privilege to worship God in our native tongue. In fact, such is probably an afterthought if a thought at all. I got the sense that brother Al-Aethawi would relish the idea of being able to worship in Arabic each week, and there’s no doubt he would not take it for granted. But do I appreciate that privilege? Does worshipping God mean so much to me that I prioritize it over everything else? When I am in attendance, do I pour my heart and soul into it? Do I let the words of the songs touch me, the prayers reach me, and the sermon change me? As I am able to stimulate the others to love and good deeds with words that come naturally to me, do I appreciate the blessing of fellowship felt before, during, and after worship?
What a shame if I let the glory of praising God seem so ordinary that I fail to treasure each service! What if we approached each time as if it was the first time we were able to worship God with the people of God ? What a difference it would make to the energy and passion of worship, if each of us did that.
Most preachers know the unpleasant burden of having to preach on difficult subjects. There are some who, whether they find it unpleasant or not, are unpleasant in their demeanor and fully ready to frequently preach on moral, doctrinal, ethical, and other sin-related issues. However, it is distasteful business to most men who stand before congregations or sit before individuals to preach and teach the Word. What are reasons why we may be tempted not to teach truth?
1) Fear of repercussions. This is not said with cynicism or judgement of men’s motives and hearts, but for most of us there is usually fear of unwelcome consequences from preaching on a difficult subject. We do not want to offend people or their sensitivities. We do not want to cross people of influence who might encourage criticism or discontent against us personally. We do not want to see angry or hurt faces.
2) An overreaction to issue-oriented preachers. Most of us can think of a preacher or preachers who seemingly cannot stand before an audience without mounting their familiar hobby horse. Some have a stable of such stallions and a field of such fillies. Because we do not want to be that guy, we may be tempted to avoid difficult, thorny subjects.
3) Not being fully convinced that it’s truth themselves. I am convinced there are preachers who do not believe the truth on certain subjects, but they know the leadership or some in the membership do. So, they avoid preaching those subjects. If questioned on this, they can point to their lessons and defend themselves by saying they have not advocated error on a particular matter. Further investigation would reveal their silence on the matter altogether.
4) An assumption that people already know the truth on a subject. Without proper vigilance and attention to balanced preaching and teaching, this is inevitable. Especially if many in the audience grew up in the church and older members remember certain subjects being regularly addressed in their lifetime, they may not feel a sense of urgency that such subjects be periodically visited. We can raise an entire generation, assuming they believe what we came to believe through studying and hearing these matters preached. This assumption is both faulty and false.
Ephesians 4:15 and Colossians 4:6 are beacons and guides that determine how we preach. Acts 20:27 guides us as to what we preach. Fear is not an excuse for omitting certain subjects from our sermon repertoires (cf. Rev. 21:8). An overreaction that causes us to avoid all controversial, “hard” sermons is in itself an extreme (cf. Josh. 1:7). One not convinced about truth owes it to themselves and their hearers to stop preaching until they get that resolved (cf. Jas. 3:1). Assuming people know and understand the truth on a subject can make us poor stewards of the high charge we have as preachers and teachers (cf. 1 Cor. 9:16). Let us be transparently kind, caring, and concerned for people when we stand before them to teach and preach. Yet, let us have a righteous boldness and unwavering trust in the Lord to declare the whole truth so as to please Him.
—And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery (Mat. 19:9).
—Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
—For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error (Rom. 1:26-27).
—And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all…There is one body (Eph.1:22-23; 4:4).
—And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord (Eph. 5:18-19).
—A woman is not allowed to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet (1 Tim. 2:11-14).
Passages like these are hotly debated, denied, and derided by those who either cast them against other Scripture or subjugate them to current cultural expectations. Those who desire to accept verses like those above as simple truth are often thought to be ignorant or, worse, dangerous.
The same book reveals the person and sacrifice of Jesus. It reveals the nature and attributes of God. It tells us where we came from and where we are going. It speaks of grace and faith. We accept these truths at face value. But when we come to passages that go against the grain of popular opinion (in or out of religion), cultural mores, or religious orthodoxy, we somehow attempt to say they do not say what they say they say. Jehoiakim’s scribe’s knife and his brazier fire did not eliminate truth (Jer. 36:23). It actually intensified the message against him (36:29ff). The number of academic degrees, religious followers, or oratorical skill will not change the truth of Scripture. It is what it is. Our role is to humbly submit to it or forever beat ourselves against it. May we love and revere God enough to always do the former.
Hans Kaltenborn was an ardent admirer and defender of Adolf Hitler and the “new Germany” ushered in with the Nazi regime. Despite diplomatic warnings of assaults upon Americans, Kaltenborn, an influential American commentator for CBS and NBC and of German descent, dismissed it as flawed and skewed information gathering by biased personnel. About to return home to the states to speak against such reports and warnings, his family went to downtown Berlin to do some last minute shopping. While out, the family found themselves in the middle of one of the endless S.A. parades. When his family refused to offer the Nazi salute, his son was physically assaulted and injured. Finally, someone intervened and the incident ended with no further harm. However, the transformed Kaltenborn was apoplectic. He made a report with the American Consulate in Berlin, but no charges were filed. As Eric Larsen writes, “the senior Kaltenborn ‘could remember neither the name nor the number of the Party identification card of the culprit, and as no other clues which might be useful in the investigation could be found’” (In The Garden of Beasts, 164). Despite this, Kaltenborn was now of a different mind!
There are many ways in which life can do the same thing to us. We may be dead certain about marriage when we are single, about childrearing “pre-kids,” about our career when still in the classroom, about home ownership when in our parents’ home, dorm room, or apartment, and so on. But, life so often has a way of rudely awakening us from some well-meaning beliefs.
Sometimes, this can happen to us in the all-important area of religion. As we stay in our Bibles and gain wisdom and experience life, we may reaffirm but also clarify and even change certain positions we have long held. This can certainly be a dangerous affair, and some have allowed life to change their positions from what is true to what is false (what Jesus says about marriage, divorce, and remarriage because of a family situation, unscriptural changes in worship because of children attending church who have adopted such, etc.). But few of us will go all the way through life without reconsidering especially some conscience or judgment matters.
There are also a great many of our friends who have been taught religious error on God’s plan of salvation, the singular, undenominational nature of the church, what God wants in worship, women’s role in church and worship leadership, and the list goes on. This can be such a difficult challenge for anyone, to revisit long-held and deeply-believed positions in light of what the Bible says.
For all of us, there must be an abiding humility that approaches scripture without the blinders of prejudices, preconceived notions, and influences like family, friends, church, and so on. That is uncomfortable, but essential—for all of us! We may come to find that something we’ve clung to so tenaciously must be rejected or that something we rejected must be embraced. If we ever get to that place, may we have the kind of heart that puts the will of God above our own will. Without such, we cannot hope to make heaven our home.
I will preface this by saying I cannot determine anything specific about the religion of Devon Allen, a remarkable college student-athlete at the University of Oregon. He is in the headlines now as a starting football player who qualified for the Olympics in track and field. It was during his training and competition for the latter that he decided the time was right to be baptized. So he was, in the Willamette River in Eugene last Friday before the watchful gaze of family and teammates from his track and football teams. No less than ESPN reported on his religious quest alongside his impressive athletic achievements. The article ended with the proper sentiment, particularly if Allen was baptized in the right way for the right reason. It reads, “It was the right starting line for two different races” (Chantel Jennings, espn.com).
I am encouraged that Jennings found this newsworthy. I am encouraged that Allen thought baptism to be so important. I am encouraged that his friends and family showed up in impressive numbers to witness this act.
When even so many in Christendom go the extra mile in denying the importance and significance of baptism, Devon troubled himself to do it. We do not know, but he might have said what the Ethiopian said: “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36b). As he studied with Oregon football team chaplain, could he have been taught the New Testament truth that baptism is for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38), baptism washes away sins (Acts 22:16), baptism reenacts Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:1-4), baptism puts one into Christ (Galatians 3:27), baptism buries one with Christ (Colossians 2:12), and baptism saves one (1 Peter 3:21)? If he was taught baptism from the New Testament, these are the kinds of things he would have heard.
Regardless of Allen’s understanding about baptism’s function in God’s plan to save us, one who is taught in accordance with the several passages above and who has a good and honest heart (cf. Luke 8:15) will want to be baptized without delay (cf. Acts 22:16). Like the jailor at Philippi, they will submit to baptism even if it is the middle of the night (Acts 16:33). Like the 3,000 on Pentecost, they will demonstrate gladly receiving the word by being baptized (Acts 2:41). Thus, they will be saved.
My prayer is that Devon Allen understand these Bible facts and responded the way he did because he humbly accepted their truth. More than that, my prayer is that those who need to make the decision to be baptized will not let anything hinder them from doing what Jesus died to make possible for us all. May we ignore all rationalization that leads us to resist the act which, from a believing, penitent heart, washes our sins away.
The word “scruple” comes to us, as many words do, from a Latin word (in this case, scrupus) and it literally meant “rough pebble” and figuratively meant “anxiety.” It has come to mean “a feeling of doubt or hesitation with regard to the morality or propriety of a course of action” (Apple Dictionary, version 2.2.1, 2005-2015). All of us have scruples that reveal themselves in the standards we set for ourselves. Often, our “doubt” or “hesitation” arises because of Bible teaching. We disapprove of sexual immorality because God forbids it. We shun drunkenness because Scripture condemns it. Where God commands something be done or avoided, we are simply exercising obedience by following His Word and even echoing His will by teaching it to others. In such cases, we are not making law but only seeking to be obedient to what God has already commanded. Yet, there are areas that fall within the realm of judgment where we must be careful to distinguish between our tastes, proclivities, and convictions and what God has actually said about it. In its more serious and sinister form, we may even draw lines of fellowship or form judgments about someone because they violate, not Scripture, but our scruples. Consider a short list of areas and examples:
- That men must wear a suit and/or tie to the assemblies and women must wear a dress to the assemblies (most especially that the preacher must don suit and tie when he preaches).
- Abstaining from watching all TV.
- That putting up a Christmas tree or otherwise celebrating the season is wrong.
- That one must offer an invitation after every sermon.
- That there must be an evening worship assembly offered for a church to be sound.
- Opposing tattoos of any shape, size, or place.
- That children must be educated at home or in the public school system.
- That allowing one’s teenaged children to date is inherently sinful.
- That a preacher must support himself with a secular job.
- That an organized youth program is wrong.
There is no way to be exhaustive with such a list, but what all of these (and other things) have in common is that we cannot find book, chapter, and verse that causes these scruples to rise to the level of commandment. I’m not talking about whether they are wise or unwise, what role principle might play in decision-making, or what is or is not the best judgment. Short of a heavenly mandate, we must tread so carefully. Most of the examples above have been the source of friction between faithful brethren who otherwise stand together upon the gospel foundation. I have strong, decided feelings on most of the matters mentioned above. A few might surprise you, but many may not. When it comes down to the brass tacks of practicality, though, we need to remember to balance Paul’s injunction to not only “bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Rom. 15:1) but also “receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things” (Rom. 14:1). This requires such Christian qualities as wisdom, grace, patience, understanding, and love. Some battles can distract us from the real enemy. Let’s not allow that to happen!
My sister is taking a meal to the sick
My brother has gone a wayward one to see
They both were busy, no “convenient” time to pick
But what about me?
They invite their neighbors to come to church
Have over people with frequency and glee
For good deeds they seem to constantly search
But what about me?
He’s a leader of others, she’s winsome and sweet,
He’s teaching the class, she’s full of hospitality,
They’re meeting the visitors, their lunch they will treat,
But what about me?
My life’s not more complicated, my resources so few,
That some little something I just cannot do
God wants me to warm so much more than my pew,
Others are active, and I can be too.
I don’t have to do some dramatic, huge act,
But with little needs every life’s brimming and packed,
If I could be impressed with just one simple fact,
I can supply something where once it had lacked.
I’ll look at life differently today, as I can,
Will spring to my feet after bowing my knee,
When asked, “Who’ll help this child or woman or man?”
I’ll say, “What about me?”
I love the World War II generation and the enormous impact they have had on our nation! Perhaps no generation has had a greater challenge since them than the one presently coming to maturity. Last night, at Teens In The Word, we asked the teens to describe the religious philosophy of their peers as they interact with them at school, their jobs, and their extracurricular activities. It was heartening to see and hear our teens’ conviction, knowledge, and heart, but disheartening to discuss the fruit of a couple of generations of our culture’s social experiment to reprogram the thinking of people, especially this burgeoning generation.
Our teens attend schools in Douglas, Jefferson, and Denver Counties, go to large High Schools, charter schools, private schools, and homeschools. Despite these diversities, what they encounter is remarkably similar. It might surprise you that many of their peers believe in a Higher Power and would consider themselves spiritual. More than anywhere else, these peers attend community churches. Whatever the church growth gurus and experts claim, the teens that go to these churches tell our teens something very different. Their religious experience is heavily dependent upon entertainment, doing fun things with a party atmosphere, not motivated or influenced by much biblical teaching, segregated from adults, hard-rocking music, dancing, and overall a very tactile experience. What impact does it have on “faith”? If speaking in terms of growing closer to God and learning more about Him, not that much. The prevailing worldview of many of our teens’ friends is “what’s right for me may not be right for you,” that God and the devil, heaven and hell are mindsets more than realities (really just your conscience inside of you), and that essentially the only or worst sins, the “objective wrongs,” are offending others and judging others. When our teens seek to assert objective truth from scripture, they sometimes encounter scorn or rejection. While our teens know a varying degree of peers whose faith and beliefs are more concrete and committed, perhaps the most frequently observed comment last night was that many of their peers “believe in God but not the Bible or Christ.” They see the Bible as a book of myths or fairytales and not the revealer of truth or a standard of authority.
As we closed our class last night, I was left awestruck. Our teens are among my most cherished heroes. They are on the frontline of faith, battling in a world more opposed to truth than that of any generation now living which preceded them. We were struck with more than admiration, though. We felt determination, the need to redouble our efforts to establish and defend the trustworthiness and integrity of the Bible, the existence of God, and from that the authoritative nature of Scripture. Not only will this bolster the faith of our teens, but it will help them in dialoging with those among their peers possessing good and honest hearts (cf. Lk. 8:15).
Here are four things you can do right now for our teens. (1) Pray for them. (2) Live Christ without hypocrisy before them. (3) Actively encourage them. (4) Help equip them. Look for heroes where you will. I have found mine!