Tag Archive: church


Before you read Part 4 of this series, it’s really important to understand the context for what I’m about to say. If you haven’t read the entire series, at least read Part 3 first (I promise it’s short).

Jesus Cleansing the Temple 4

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

There’s another application of these ideas that might hit a little closer to home for some of us. Please understand that I don’t write this in a critical or condemnatory spirit. Rather, I write from a pastor’s heart. I long to see Jesus’ church reclaim His mission—seeking and saving the lost.

But I worry that the modern church has reversed Jesus’ methodology. We are gentle and accommodating to well-churched people, and we worry tremendously about offending them. (If you’ve ever been on a church board or nominating committee you know what I’m talking about.) But we seem to give little thought to how we might be offending those who are not so firmly established in the church. When new people come to our churches, many of them feel immediately that they are not good enough to meet our standards. They don’t look like us, smell like us, talk like us, and they certainly don’t live like us. And sadly our attitude toward them communicates that until they do become like us, they won’t be accepted.

One especially egregious example is our treatment of young people, even young people already in the church, unfortunately. They come to church dressed “inappropriately,” and some self-appointed church guardian scolds them (anonymous letters seem to be a popular tactic). They sing special music and the beat is a little too strong, so they’re reminded to be more “reverent” next time (as if they’re going to want to sing again after being shamed the first time). When they speak up and share their ideas, we often ignore them. If we bother to listen at all we may tell them that they lack the wisdom and experience to comment intelligently on the important matters of the church—not necessarily in those words, but the message is clear: “leave it to the adults, kids.”

The well-churched folks who do this kind of thing may be well-meaning, but good intentions are not enough. Sadly they are misrepresenting the gospel. No one is good enough for God’s grace, not even church folks. You may be a tithe-paying, Sabbath-keeping, vegan-eating Seventh-day Adventist, but none of that qualifies you to receive God’s grace. But like the Pharisees, when spiritual pride creeps in we imagine ourselves better than others. We may not say it openly, but our self-righteousness is obvious to others.

Please don’t think I’m being judgmental of judgmental people. I’m not any better than they are. I’m just as bad as they are, and I need Jesus just as much as they do. But part of being the body of Christ means that we hold each other accountable. There are times when we must take a stand and say enough is enough. We need to stop letting spiritual pride hinder others from coming to Jesus.

Now, I know someone may be thinking: “But what about our standards? Who will uphold them? Who will guard the church from creeping compromise?” The answer is simple—Jesus. He’s the one who protects His bride, the church. What are we so afraid of? Are we worried that if we let our guard down, we’ll come to church some morning to find that the sinners outnumber the saints? If that happens, praise the Lord! Our mission on this earth is not to preserve a holy country club where only platinum-level church members are allowed. Our mission is to join with Jesus in seeking and saving the lost. It’s messy business that requires a lot of patience and gentleness in dealing with very imperfect people. Remember how Jesus showed you gentleness, then go and do thou likewise.

It takes a lot of wisdom and guidance from the Holy Spirit to know when to be gentle, and when to firmly rebuke. The example Jesus gave us is a great place to start. Be gentle with the wandering soul looking for hope, love, and salvation. Be firm with the self-righteous saint hindering others from finding those things. This blog series is not intended to be a manual on who to offend and who not to offend. I don’t pretend to know the answer for every situation. But I think it’s high time the church had a conversation about all of this. Share your thoughts in the comments.

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When Jesus Offends Us, Part 3

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

In this blog series we’ve looked at Jesus’ interactions with people and saw that when dealing with wayward sinners He was gentle and patient, but when dealing with self-righteous religious people He was blunt and even offensive. We observed that the reason He was so straightforward with the Pharisees is that He wanted to break through the fog of pride that kept them from seeing their need of repentance. Jesus’ first and foremost desire is to save lost sinners, whoever they are. Last week we ended with another question: If Jesus was gentle and compassionate with wayward sinners, but blunt and offensive with the respected religious leaders of His day, how might He relate to 21st century well-churched Christians? What would He say to us?

The answer to that question depends on how we respond to Jesus. Do we come to Him with broken hearts seeking forgiveness for our sin? Do we fully acknowledge our need of Him and put our confidence in none of our righteousness, but in His alone? Then Jesus rejoices over us and welcomes us into His kingdom with open arms (see Luke 15). The humble, repentant sinner will always find a gentle and forgiving Savior.

But if we allow ourselves to become prideful and confident in our status as “good Christians,” and if we imagine ourselves to be better than the people around us, we may find that Jesus, determined to break our self-induced spell of spiritual arrogance, becomes just as blunt with us as He was with the Pharisees. God’s Word still convicts today, and whenever we allow pride to creep into our hearts, Scripture stings like a slap in the face. No one likes to be rebuked. But since the convicting rebukes of Scripture are for our own good, we should rejoice that God does not let us drown in self-delusion.

There are times when I am the whitewashed tomb. I look the part, talk the part, and act the part of a “holy saint,” but in my heart I harbor bitterness, criticism, or pride. I am a hypocrite. I judge others for their failures and wonder how they can call themselves Christians when they say and do that, but I excuse my own sins and ignore the times I’ve failed in the exact same way for which I’m condemning others. I’m thankful that Jesus bluntly spoke these words, and through the Holy Spirit still speaks them to me today: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1, 2).

Of course, it’s our choice how we respond to Jesus’ rebuke. Like the Pharisees, we can harden our hearts against Him. We can delude ourselves further by thinking that Jesus is talking about others, but surely not about me. I’m certainly not prideful or spiritually arrogant—though I can think of a few people who are. (I’m saying this ironically, of course.)

Or we can take His rebuke to heart and repent of our Pharisaical attitude. I’d like to suggest that all of us, after we’ve been Christians for a time, are tempted to think better of ourselves than we ought. Let’s own up to it, repent of our pride, and ask Jesus to help us see others through His eyes. And let’s learn to treat them with the gentleness He shows them. And maybe we can even learn how to firmly hold each other accountable for pride, judgmentalism, and hypocrisy. More on that to come…

When Jesus Offends Us, Part 2

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

Last week we looked at a different side of Jesus than we usually consider. There were times when He was blunt and outright offensive to the religious sensibilities of the people in His day. Jesus’ bold teachings still confront us today, and it’s actually good for us that they do. Here’s the question we considered at the end of last week’s blog: What was Jesus’ purpose in coming to this earth, and how do His blunt, offensive teachings serve that purpose?

Jesus expressed His purpose in John 3:16, 17—probably the most loved and well-known of all Bible passages: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” He did this by giving “his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). He also said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). Jesus came to this earth to save sinners by sacrificing His life for them and calling them to repent of their sinful ways and to believe in Him as Savior and Lord.

So how do Jesus’ offensive teachings serve that purpose? First, consider what Jesus’ death tells us about God: He will go to any lengths to save us. He will sacrifice His very life to redeem us. Such a God will not let anything stand in the way of His rescue mission, not even the self-righteousness and pride of self-proclaimed “good” religious people.

Jesus loved the Pharisees. He wanted to save even them! If we read His blunt conversations with them and think that He’s simply giving them a slap on the wrist for their holier-than-thou attitudes, we would miss the point. This is the same Jesus who wept over the city of Jerusalem, knowing that their rejection of Him would lead to a terrible end (see Luke 19:41-44). This is the Jesus who, even after pronouncing woe upon woe against the Pharisees, cried out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37).

The heart of God breaks for lost sinners and yearns to save them, even those who reject Him and refuse the grace He extends to them. If He needs to bluntly offend us in order to get through to us, He will. Jesus will not let anyone slip easily into hell. He will meet our false sense of self-righteous security with a truthful smack upside the head. Apart from violating our free will and His own loving character, Jesus will do anything to wake us out of our sinful stupor.

Which brings us to a second reason why Jesus was so forceful with the Pharisees: they were actually preventing others from receiving the salvation that He came to offer. In rebuking the Pharisees, Jesus told them:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (Matt. 23:13, 15).

The Pharisees were misleading the people, and worse, hindering them from entering the kingdom of God. Their stubborn refusal to consider the possibility that their perfectly tuned system of religion might be mistaken blinded them to the reality of God Himself present in their midst. Not only did they deny Jesus as their Messiah, they used their influence to oppose Him and to prevent people from following Him. No doubt Jesus was including the Pharisees when He said:

“But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” (Matt. 18:6, 7)

Both of these reasons—Jesus’ desire to save even the stubbornly self-righteous, and the tendency of the self-righteous to inhibit the salvation of others—are still applicable today. The attitude of the Pharisees is alive and well, sometimes within our own hearts. Those of us who have been religious for much or all of our lives are especially susceptible to Pharisaical pride. And like the Pharisees, we do not see ourselves as prideful, but rather as good, moral, religious folks.

In next week’s blog we’ll look at some practical implications of Jesus’ offensive teachings. We’ll end this week’s blog with another question: If Jesus was gentle and compassionate with wayward sinners, but blunt and offensive with the respected religious leaders of His day, how might He relate to 21st century well-churched Christians? What would He say to us?

When Jesus Offends Us, Part 1

Image credit: FreeBiblePictures.org

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child;
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.

– Charles Welsey

 

So goes the first verse of the old hymn. It reminds us of the little children who Jesus welcomed with open arms (Luke 18:16). The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus’ kindness and gentleness. Jesus showed the woman caught in adultery forgiveness instead of condemnation (John 8). He treated the Samaritan woman at the well with dignity, even though He knew about her sordid personal life (John 4). When He saw the multitudes He had compassion on them because He realized “they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).

But there are also stories that reveal a different aspect of His character. While interacting with faltering, failing sinners He was tender and compassionate. But when dealing with the religious leaders of His day, the “good” people, the “moral” people, He could be quite blunt. In fact, if we really took His words to heart we would probably find them offensive, as did the religious, “churchy” people of His day.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, could also be righteously angry Jesus, upending the tables of the moneychangers and driving those shameless swindlers out of the temple with a whip (John 2). He could also be sharply rebuking Jesus, who called the religious leaders of His day hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, blind guides, snakes, and sons of hell (Matt. 23).

To deepen the impact of some of Jesus’ offensive statements, let’s bring them into the 21st century. Imagine that Jesus walked into your church one day and declared, “The homosexuals and the Muslims are getting into heaven ahead of you Christians” (see Matt. 21:28-32). Or imagine that He told a story about two men who came to prayer meeting one night: one a good, upstanding church elder and the other a divorced, jobless, hopeless alcoholic (see Luke 18:9-14). The twist in His story is that the alcoholic, rather than the church elder, went home forgiven and accepted by God.

How would you respond? How do you think most Christians would respond? I live in the Bible Belt, not far from Chattanooga, which was recently named the most Bible-minded city in America. I can tell you how most people here would take it: not well. But that’s very similar to how offensive Jesus’ actual words were when He told the Pharisees that the worst sinners of all, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, were entering the kingdom of God ahead of them, and were justified by God instead of them. It’s no wonder why they plotted to kill Him. He called them out publicly and deeply offended their religious sensibilities—and their pride.

I believe Jesus’ offensive teachings still confront us today. Like a thorn stuck in our shoe, they make us uncomfortably aware of our true condition and they refuse to let us ignore it. That’s actually a good thing. We’ll discuss why next week in Part 2 of this blog. For now, reflect on this: What was Jesus’ purpose in coming to this earth, and how do His blunt, offensive teachings serve that purpose? I believe the answer to that question tells us something wonderful about the love of Jesus. Stay tuned…

A Church Divided

Angry Political FightUnless you’ve been purposefully avoiding the news, you know that the U.S. government is currently in shutdown mode following a stalemate between Democrats and Republicans over the budget. The big storyline of the shutdown is the thousands of federal employees currently not working and not getting paid. Congress is still getting paid, however, which naturally draws the ire of many citizens. How is it that the people responsible for thousands of others losing their income are themselves still getting a paycheck?

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the mess we’re in. And everywhere you turn you can find someone eager to place blame, whether it’s pundits in the news media or your politically-minded friends on Facebook. (This is yet another of those occasions when suddenly everyone becomes an expert on Constitutional law, and economic and domestic policy.)

And here’s where I, as a pastor, become greatly disturbed by what I see happening. American political discourse has become increasingly rancorous and partisan. Angry accusations are hurled by each side at the other. Each side presents itself as the champions of truth and justice who are justifiably—even righteously—angry at the malfeasance of the other side. And Christians are right in the thick of it. Despite the fact that we claim to follow a King who unequivocally declared, “My kingdom is not of this world,” we seem to get awfully caught up in what the kingdoms of this world are doing, so much so that we, too, take sides and get into the mudslinging with the best (worst?) of them.

I see three big reasons why this Christian partisanship is problematic. The first is that it divides us from each other and even pits us against each other. You may be a hardcore political conservative who can’t stand Democrats, but guess what: sitting next to you in the pew may be a diehard Democrat. When you start blaming the Democrats for what’s wrong in Washington, how well does it go over with your Democratic brothers and sisters in Christ? How well does it go over with you when you find out that they’re Democrats? (“In my church? Unconscionable!”) Are you able to maintain Christian unity with those on the other side of the political spectrum? Are you more likely to be singing “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” or “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” followed swiftly by “The Battle Hymn of the Republic?”

The second reason why Christian partisanship is problematic is that it distracts us from our mission. The Great Commission tells us that the invitation to join God’s kingdom extends to every nation (Matt. 28:18-20). The kingdom transcends nationality, race, culture, language, and political affiliation (Rev. 5:9). Can you embrace your political opponents as members of the same family of God to which you belong? Or do your political convictions lead you to exclude those whose convictions are different? If those of us in the church can’t get along because of political disagreements, how will we ever make disciples all over the world? Who is going to take us seriously if we’re divided amongst ourselves over matters which only have temporal importance? After all, Jesus said that all people will know we are His disciples if we love one another (John 13:35). If we’re lacking in love, we’re telling the world that we’re not really His disciples.

The third reason why Christian partisanship is problematic is that causes us to sacrifice our Christian values. I have observed that there is an inverse correlation between the party which one blames the most for our current political disorder and the party which he or she supports the most. That might seem obvious; of course we’re going to criticize the other side more. But Christians should have a higher standard of morality than which political party we happen to like better. Let’s suppose, for example, that you tend to side with the Democrats. Your natural tendency might be to blame the Republicans for the nation’s woes. But would you be willing to hold your own party accountable? Would you be willing to stand up and call out injustice, greed, pride, and selfishness no matter who has perpetrated it? It’s all too easy to turn a blind eye to our preferred party’s faults and instead focus on the wrongdoing of the other party.

Far too many Christians seem blindly loyal to their political ideology, and far too few Christians display a sold out, no holds barred loyalty to God’s kingdom that supersedes every earthly loyalty. The first words in the Great Commission establish that Jesus has all the authority in heaven and on earth. No political loyalty should surpass our loyalty to Jesus and to the principles He taught. Can you love your political enemies like Jesus does? Do you have to sacrifice Christian values, like humility, graciousness, mercy, and peacemaking, in order to fight your political foes? Ask yourself this: how would Jesus relate to our current political climate? Can you imagine Him in the thick of political debates blaming, accusing, and deriding the opposition? Can you honestly imagine Him taking a side at all? If you can, I would strongly encourage you to take a closer look at Jesus’ values and compare them with the values of your preferred political ideology. The glaring discrepancies should answer any lingering questions about which party Jesus would support.

The gospel is for everyone: Democrats and Republicans, liberals and libertarians, progressives and conservatives. And the gospel unites everyone under the same banner of God’s eternal kingdom. But when we allow politics to divide and distract us, we deny the power of the gospel and the all-inclusive nature of God’s kingdom. We become a church divided against itself which cannot stand. Make no mistake: troublous times are coming, when the kingdoms of this world will array themselves against the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. But how can the church withstand the onslaught if we’re too busy bickering over which earthly kingdom is greatest (or which is the lesser evil)? I challenge you, my Christian friends, to put your loyalty to God’s kingdom above all other loyalties. Do not let anything undermine your allegiance to Jesus and your unity with your fellow kingdom citizens. Let the words of Paul in Ephesians 4 characterize your life, even in the arena of politics:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:1-6)

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph. 4:29-32)

 

 

My friend Nelson Fernandez, who pastors on South Carolina, has also written an excellent blog along similar lines.