Racism: Towards a Biblical Response

Charlottesville. In recent days, the city has become the center of controversy, and any mention of it is likely to draw out a response of some kind. Having lived just 65 miles from Charlottesville, I can attest to its beauty, and contrary to what we have seen in the news, its tranquility. So, in a certain sense, the events of last weekend were more the exception than the norm. And yet, for 36 hours, this peaceful college town was transformed into the epicenter of racial tension. You’ve heard the news reports, read articles and op-ed pieces, maybe even had discussions of your own, and to say that racism is a hot-button, potentially divisive issue is an understatement, for sure.

By God’s grace, I have been the Teaching Pastor at FBC since October 2016. Since then, I have preached 45 sermons, all of which have avoided delving into the sticky-mess that is politics. Simply put, my expertise is not political science, it is Biblical studies. Further, my job is to preach God’s Word, speak the truth in love, equip the saints for ministry, and love God’s people in word and deed. You don’t need my opinions—you need God’s truth! That said, there are times when shepherds must speak out concerning issues that can potentially threaten the flock.

Hear me well: racism is not a political issue, it is a spiritual one.  

Hear me well, again: racism of any kind (spoken, written, joked about, etc.) stands opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and is incompatible with Christianity.

In its simplest definition, racism can be understood as prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism against a person (or group of people) based on the underlying belief that one’s own race is superior. The expression of racism may be explicit and public, or it may be subtle and private—both are equally condemnable and have no place in the life of the Christian or the Church. Here’s why (this list is not exhaustive):

1.        God has created ALL human beings in His image (Genesis 1:26-27; Proverbs 22:2; James 3:9)

a.        Racism tragically disparages the image of God inherent within another person. You, me, and everyone else are God’s handiwork—every person, regardless of their skin color, heritage, or ethnicity, were formed by God Himself. Each person has an inherent value, and to some degree, reflects God Himself.

2.        God judges ALL human beings without partiality (Jeremiah 9:25-26; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:1-16; Colossians 3:25)

a.        The tragedy of racism, in part, is that it elevates one group of people at the expense of others. The Scriptures do not teach this; rather, they show us that we are all on an even playing field, and that God is good and just—He does not arbitrarily show favoritism to one group over another.

3.        God offers salvation to ALL human beings without partiality (Genesis 13:14-18; Jonah 1-4; Matthew 28:16-20; John 3-1-21; John 4; Acts 1:1-10; Romans 10:5-16; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, Ephesians 2:1-22)

a.        Our spiritual condition was such that God sent His Son—a much-needed Savior—to secure salvation for otherwise helpless sinners. This gift is available to ALL who would turn from their sin and trust in Christ. The tragedy of racism is, at its core, works-righteousness—a belief that salvation can be secured through our own doing. In this case, “our own doing” is skin color. As Christians, we are saved by God’s grace—there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. Even the faith required for salvation is a gift of God (see Ephesians 2:1-10). Racism tragically distorts the Gospel and renders it powerless.

As if these passages aren’t compelling enough, let’s consider Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:6-8:

“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

“So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8)

I mentioned earlier that racism of any kind stands opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and is incompatible with Christianity. Why is that? Because one of the primary functions of the church is cross-cultural disciple-making. In other words, the very nature of the church’s mission transcends culture, race, ethnicity, gender, etc. To go further, one cannot call themselves a “Christian” while simultaneously ascribing to a belief that contradicts Christianity. A person cannot claim to love Jesus while also claiming to hate those whom He has told you to reach—there are no exceptions, and no acceptable “excuses.”

The events that have taken place recently can serve as an opportunity for self-examination and reflection. Ask the Lord to search your heart and reveal any racist tendencies, or even overt racism. Then, if He graciously brings light to the darkness of your heart, do not be content to let it sit there. Do not reason with it. Do not negotiate with it. Instead, crucify it. Let the truth of 1 John 1:9-10 flood your heart: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Confess. Repent. Trust. Go and sin no more.

Expository Preaching: Understanding the Text

300,000. What does this number represent? The approximate number of churches in the United States. What does this number mean? On any given Sunday (or Saturday), there are as many as 300,000 different preachers preaching different sermons using different preaching approaches (say that five times fast!). With so many options available, it can be daunting to figure out which preacher to listen to, and what style is best. Is there even a “best approach” when it comes to preaching? Yes.

If you’ve been at Fellowship Bible Church in recent months, or even if you’ve just begun attending, you will notice that my preaching is expository. Simply put, expository preaching seeks to make the point of the Biblical text the point of the sermon. In other words, expository preachers want their respective congregations to know what the Bible teaches. I realize that highlighting expository preaching as the “best approach” may come off as a bit prideful. But, after years of study and preaching, it is the most practical approach—and the one that keeps the Scriptures as the centerpiece of the sermon.

The Benefits of Expository Preaching

·         Expository preaching is a safeguard against unfaithful, even false preaching.

In his second letter to the young preacher, Timothy, the Apostle Paul charges him to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). While he doesn’t give him a “how-to” manual for what this looks like, we do know that the Scriptures are to be the centerpiece of the sermon. How do we know this? Several verses before his command, Paul reminds Timothy that the Scriptures are “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” In other words, the Scriptures are God’s revelation to us, and that revelation is trustworthy to lead us, guide us, correct us, and train us to accomplish God’s will. Let me ask: If these statements about the Bible are true (and they are!), then as a Christian, shouldn’t a preacher explain the complexities of God’s word to us?

Expository preaching places the emphasis on gaining a proper interpretation of God’s Word. It is common to have a “what’s in it for me” attitude when we read the Bible. And while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it certainly is not the best thing. If we want to rightly apply God’s Word, we first need to rightly understand it! It is an unfortunate reality that there are “many false prophets” (1 John 4:1) in the world around us, whose goal is to deceive God’s people and lead them astray. A good expository preacher will make clear the entire counsel of God’s Word—allowing God’s people to have a clearer view of God’s revelation. When a preacher seeks to make God’s Word clear, the Holy Spirit makes God’s Word usable (John 14 and 16).

·         Expository preaching teaches God’s people how to read their Bible.

I must admit, this is one of my favorite aspects of expository preaching. Since the goal of expository preaching is to clearly teach the Scriptures, it allows for God’s people to learn how to study God’s Word. It is likely that this often goes unnoticed, if not unappreciated. I have heard some people describe expository preaching as “off the top of the head.” I assure you, that is not accurate. “Off the top of the head” preaching is called extemporaneous, and I do not recommend it as an approach, unless necessary.

When you listen to the sermon each week, you are getting a small segment of Scripture at a time. Over the course of the sermon series, my goal is to teach you what the Bible says in that book. Here’s an example: we are on the tail-end of our 1 John series, and the overall theme has been “Authentic Christianity.” Why? Because John’s primary exhortation to believers is two-fold: walk in the light, and avoid the darkness. Throughout the book, he expands on that idea, giving us insight into God’s will concerning what we are to do and how we are to do it! Long after we are done with 1 John, you should be able to read it and understand its contents.

·         Expository preaching holds the preacher accountable.

Let me be clear: there is no preacher in the world, who has the right to do what he wants. There are too many “pulpit-teers” out there, who put on a great show every week, all the while deviating from preaching God’s Word. For them, it is about their insight, opinion, soapboxes, ideas, and “visions”. The church, and the world for that matter, don’t need men to stand up and manipulate God’s Word—they need men to stand up and faithfully proclaim God’s Word!

Every preacher must submit to the authority of God’s Word. By default, preaching exists only because there is a message to proclaim. A preacher is not “making it up as he goes”; instead, he is to “present [yourself] approved to God…accurately handling the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15). Our authority is borrowed from God’s Word—it is not our own to do with as we please. Any preacher who deviates from God’s Word loses his authority to preach, and effectively renders himself unqualified. James, the half-brother of Jesus, gives a stern warning: “Let not many of you become teachers…knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1)

One of my favorite preachers, H.B. Charles, said it best: “The pulpit is not a stage for your performance. It is the throne for the Word of God.” I couldn’t say it better if I tried. As a pastor, one of my greatest joys is to hear that someone is growing in their understanding and application of God’s Word. Make no mistake, listening to expository preaching is hard work; but, if it gives you the best opportunity to hear, understand, apply, and mature in the truth, then it is worth it!

Next week, we will be focusing on: Expository Preaching: Understanding the Tone of the Text.

The Ordinances: The Gospel in Plain Sight

If you’ve been attending church for any length of time, you have undoubtedly witnessed baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both are ordinances given by Jesus, with the expectation that they be observed regularly by the local church. There is plenty of debate as to the significance of the ordinances, and no shortage of conjecture concerning the frequency of observation/participation.

That said, I am a Baptist, both in theology and practice. Why say this up front? Because my understanding of Scripture and ecclesiological practice have typically been done in very specific ways. Admittedly, I have no intention of forsaking my Baptist roots, as other denominational views of the ordinances leave me feeling slightly uncomfortable. 

Lately, however, I have been wrestling with the attitude concerning the ordinances. When it comes to baptism, I have heard criticisms that it “lengthens the service,” and have been encouraged to “do them all at once instead of in separate services.” Likewise, when discussing the Lord’s Supper, the most common refrain that I hear is, “it’s good to do it less often, because otherwise it would lose its meaning.”

While I certainly understand the sentiment in these comments, I bristle when I hear them. It is possible, even very likely, that we have lost the significance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and so simply consider them to be “extras” in the worship service. Hold onto your hats, because my contention is this: if all we did on a Sunday morning was baptism and the Lord’s Supper, there would be sufficient Gospel proclamation for unbelievers to come to faith, and believers to be edified.

When explaining baptism, we often say, “it is an outward expression of an inward faith.” I believe this, and at a basic level, Romans 6 supports this idea. However, if we go beyond the surface, even slightly, we find that water baptism is a visual proclamation of the Gospel. Consider that the person being baptized is placed under the water, held momentarily, and then thrust upward. The significance should be clear—death, burial, and resurrection—and not just of the person who was baptized; rather, perhaps more importantly, of Jesus Christ.

Make no mistake, I am not minimizing baptism or the significance it has for a Christian. Rather, we would do well to proclaim the deeper truths concerning baptism—it is a call to repentance and faith for the unbeliever, and an encouragement to the believer that their hope is in a crucified and risen Savior!

Much of the same can be said of the Lord’s Supper; however, it is very likely that a local church will observe the Lord’s Supper more often than baptism. And while Scripture doesn’t tell us how often we should observe it, we do find that the Lord’s Supper should be done with a proper heart attitude, since it is an act of worship (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-34). But why observe it in the first place? Because it serves as an edible proclamation of the Gospel. Consider that the bread and cup are representative of the body and blood of Jesus. The significance should also be clear—suffering and death. As we observe the Lord’s Supper, we are proclaiming the death of Jesus on our behalf, and we are likewise reminding the Christian that their sins have been forgiven.

These truths should not just be good information that we recite every so often. Instead, they should be esteemed as being absolutely necessary for the advancement of the Kingdom. Pastor, have your baptism candidates share a testimony of God’s saving work in their lives—let unbelievers have an opportunity to respond in faith, and give believers a chance to worship! Preacher, when you lead the Lord’s Supper, make it clear that it represents the Substitutionary death of Christ on behalf of sinners, and take some time to remind believers that they have a responsibility to partake of the elements responsibly! The Lord, in His providence, mercy, and grace, has essentially given us three “vehicles” by which the Gospel goes out—preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.

Just for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of someone living in the first century. In all likelihood, the majority of early believers were illiterate and dependant on being taught proper Biblical truth. While the “best case scenario” is that preachers teach sound doctrine, the reality is unfortunate--false teachers creep in quite often. In the absence of good preaching, baptism and the Lord’s Supper stood as effective means for the Gospel to be  proclaimed. In other words, a person could hear bad preaching, see baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and have a sufficient understanding of the Gospel to respond.

The Lord is a master at communicating His message effectively. Further, he knows our propensity to misunderstand Him, and He has taken the proper precautions to ensure that the Gospel is proclaimed! Instead of complaining over the length of a service, or debating the frequency of observation, perhaps we should take the time to simply proclaim the truth of the Gospel—from the Word, the water, and the table.

The Power of a Testimony

Have you ever been to a conference or other ministry event, and heard a powerful testimony from a speaker? If so, do you remember the emotions that you felt as they described the work that the Lord did in their lives? There’s no doubt that hearing the testimony of another believer can be impactful.

What about your own testimony? Do you remember the moment the Lord saved you? Do you remember the emotions you felt as you trusted Christ as your Lord and Savior? If so, your testimony is a powerful reminder of God’s work. For some, salvation came at an early age; for others, it came later in life. Regardless of how you came to faith, your testimony is a miracle!

In church circles, we often talk about sharing your testimony with others. Admittedly, it can be overwhelming to think about sharing with others, and there is no shortage of rebuttals that we can come up with to avoid it. I wonder, though, if we truly understand what a testimony is. Before we highlight the reasons for sharing, let’s define the term.

Simply put, a testimony tells of our experience in coming to know the God of the Bible through the power of the Holy Spirit. Even more specifically, a Christian testimony begins the moment a person places their faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Our testimony begins with salvation, but it does not end there. Our testimony continues and grows as the Lord works in our lives.

We know what it is; but, we still haven’t answered the question: “why is it important to share our testimony?"

This morning we will be celebrating baptism, and as a pastor, I could not be more thrilled. The stirring of the baptism waters is the direct result of the Lord stirring the heart of an individual. Romans 6:3-4 remind us that we first experience a “dry baptism”, before we experience water baptism, and that the latter finds its significance in the former.

You may have noticed that each baptism candidate shares his/her testimony with

the congregation prior to being baptized. I’ll concede that this may be a departure from what has been done in the past. At the same time, I’ll submit that the sharing of a testimony is one of the most important aspects of the baptism process.

The rationale behind the sharing of testimonies is more than aesthetic. In fact, there are deep practical, and even doctrinal reasons for this. Here are just a few of those reasons:

·         It glorifies God. Ultimately the testimony time, in addition to being a benefit to the church, brings glory to God. When we celebrate the work that Christ has done in a person’s life by affirming them and bringing them into the fold of our congregation, we are accomplishing God’s will.

·         It provides an opportunity for the congregation to hear and celebrate the work of Christ in a person’s life. Each Christian has a testimony of God’s grace working in their lives. Even more than simply listening to a person share their testimony, we should celebrate the reminder that “Jesus saves!”

·         It is a witness to visitors who may not know Christ. Scripture teaches that baptism is for believers only. As the church, we celebrate how the Lord has worked in a person’s life. But, we know that each week there may be unbelievers in our midst. For God’s people, a testimony serves as an exhortation and a reminder; but for unbelievers, a testimony is a powerful tool in helping them understand the person and work of Jesus Christ.

·         It is an encouragement to members who may have shared similar life experiences. Each person has a different testimony. Some come to faith as a child; others as an adult. Some come to faith with a simple realization that they were a sinner in need of a Savior; others come to faith “kicking and screaming!” It is easy to feel as though no one can relate to your testimony, which, at times, can be discouraging. When you hear a testimony that you can relate to, it provides encouragement. Rather than feeling alone, it is comforting to know that others have been through similar circumstances.

As we grow deeper in our faith, it will become imperative for us to share how the Lord is working in our lives. Your testimony may just be the encouragement that a person needs to continue trusting the Lord!

Baptism: What is it and Why is it Important?

Let’s answer this in five parts:
An ordinance given to the local church by Jesus Christ:
     In Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus tells the disciples to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
     The disciples would receive the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), and then become the Apostles, or leaders of the early church. Baptism was to be a regular part of worship for God’s people. Here are some passages that highlight the practice of baptism from Acts:
                                                Acts 2:41-42
                                    Acts 8:28-38
                                    Acts 10:44-48
                                    Acts 16:31-34
                                    Acts 18:7-8
                                    Acts 19:1-5
An expression of our unity with Jesus Christ:
     In Romans 6:1-7, Paul explains that baptism is a sign that “we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
     It has been said that baptism is an outward expression of an inward faith. It’s true—baptism, by itself, has no meaning apart from being a religious ritual. However, when we understand baptism as the visible expression of salvation, it becomes chock full of meaning and depth.
     Baptism is a visible expression of the Gospel—namely, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. When a person goes down into the water, it symbolizes death. When they are momentarily held in the water, it symbolizes burial; and when they are brought up out of the water, it symbolizes resurrection. The beauty of baptism, in part, is that it allows the person being baptized to proclaim the Gospel in a visible, tangible way!
For Believers only and by immersion only:
     Let me be clear: baptism is NOT necessary for salvation. In Ephesians 2:8, Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Our salvation is secured by Jesus’ work on the cross, not by ours in a baptismal pool.
     This is why you will sometimes hear baptism referred to as “Believer’s Baptism.” I understand that many other denominations baptize infants; however, the pattern that you find in the New Testament (see above), and the symbolism of baptism (see above) makes it so that it should be practiced by the church and done only with those who have already trusted in Jesus Christ.
     Further, if baptism is a visual expression of our unity with Jesus Christ, and our unity with Him is based on having faith in Him, how is it that infant baptism can be legitimate? While a difficult conclusion to come to, it’s essential for our understanding—we can’t affirm infant baptism. An infant is incapable of making a conscious confession of faith in Jesus, and therefore does not qualify for baptism.
     What about the way we perform baptism?  Some denominations sprinkle or pour water over the head of an individual. Again, going back to the New Testament pattern, we find that baptism is always done in a relatively large body of water (river, sea, stream, etc.) Furthermore, the Greek word, baptizo, from which we get “baptism” means, “to immerse, to submerge.” The definition entails that those who were baptized were put down into the water so as to cover their body, and then brought up from the water.
     An even more compelling narrative is the baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3:13-17, which says, “After being baptized, after Jesus came up immediately from the water…” So, based on the NT, we have three compelling truths: Jesus was baptized by immersion, individuals are baptized ONLY after they have trusted in Jesus, and those believers are baptized by immersion.
Done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
     Going back to Matthew 28:16-20, we find that Jesus gives the disciples a commission to make disciples, and to baptize them. If we are not careful, we will miss an important aspect of baptism—it is done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
     As Christians, we believe in a Trinity. The Godhead is a tri-unity, with three persons, equal in authority, power, and essence. God the Father, Jesus the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all equally God, and work in harmony to bring about God’s purposes. When a person is baptized in the name of the Trinity, that individual is affirming that the full Godhead had a hand in salvation. Those who have simply been baptized into the name of Jesus miss the instruction given by Jesus Himself.
     When Jesus was baptized, we see that the Trinity is present—Jesus comes up out of the water, God the Father speaks “out of the heavens” and the Spirit of God descends like a dove.
The entry point for local church membership
     Going back to the pattern in Acts, we find that those who believed in Jesus Christ were saved, baptized, and then added to the local church. In being added it meant that they were known by others as a follower of Jesus, and could therefore benefit from teaching, fellowship, service, etc.
     The same is true today. Baptism is the entry point for an individual to come into a local church as a member. It allows the congregation an opportunity to hear and affirm their testimony. We are committing to pray for/with the person, walk/work alongside of the person, and seek to advance the Kingdom of God with the person. 

Q&A: Genesis 3:1-21

     Last Sunday, we started a short, three-sermon Christmas series. Rather than go through a traditional re-telling of the Christmas story, we took a different approach. We began in the Garden of Eden, and more specifically, with the introduction of sin into the world. Why start there? Good question.
     The truth of the matter is that the true meaning of Christmas is much deeper than family, friends, and nicely wrapped presents. Sure, these things are great and have their place; however, Jesus was born in order to “save His people from their sins.” Talking about sin, in today’s day and age, is not popular; and to do it during the Christmas season is certainly not politically correct. But, the “good news” (Jesus saves sinners) of Christmas has no meaning apart from the “bad news” (we are all sinners) in the Garden.
     While a familiar passage for many of us, Genesis 3 is not quite as simple as it seems. The passage is complex, and filled with irony, word-play, and allusions; its implications have profound impact on how we think and act. God is a master communicator, for sure; but, if you’re like me, you sometimes read the Bible and walk away thinking, “huh”? There are times when I have more questions than answers. And, over the years, I’ve come to realize that it’s perfectly okay to ask whatever questions come to mind.
     I’ve always encouraged people to ask questions, regardless of whether they come up while reading privately or while sitting in church listening to a sermon. Pastors (should!) spend many hours each week studying, praying, and preparing their sermons. The goal is NOT to preach whatever we want; rather, the goal is to accurately interpret God’s Word and clearly communicate it for His people. Even on our best day, we leave some questions lingering and unanswered.
After the sermon last week, I was asked two interesting questions. Here are my thoughts:
If Adam and Eve didn’t have the knowledge of good and evil before eating the fruit, how could God hold them accountable for their actions?
     In order to answer this, let’s go to Genesis 2:15-17. In this section, God tells Adam to avoid the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Right AFTER this, God creates the woman (Eve). This is significant, because, sometime between this and the start of Genesis 3, Eve has already heard about the prohibition given by God.
     Let me add: it is 100% correct that Adam and Eve had no understanding of good and evil before eating the fruit from the tree. But, I also think that they’re lack of understanding is a poor excuse for their actions. Here’s why:
God’s word is enough to dictate the terms.
     While Adam and Eve did not know what “good and evil” meant, they knew that God had given them a very specific instruction—Eve, who was not even created when God spoke to Adam, corrects the snake when he initially tries to deceive her. The problem in the Garden wasn’t a lack of knowledge, the problem was a disregard for God’s instructions. Regardless of whether or not they had exhaustive knowledge of good and evil, the requirement was simply that they trust God and take Him at His word.
     In an email exchange with a church member, she provided a helpful analogy. She said, “It brought to mind that when my children were toddlers, they didn’t know good from evil; but, if they reached for something and I said, “don’t touch”, they understood and obeyed (well, for the most part!). My point being, and as you’ve brought to my attention, they didn’t have to have the knowledge to know and obey...”
Why did God put the tree in the Garden if He knew that Adam and the woman would disobey Him?
There are two reasons.
     First, to provide us with a choice to either obey or disobey God. We have free will, the ability to make conscious choices, to either follow God or rebel against Him. Is God sovereign (in control)? Absolutely. But, somehow, and this is a complex mystery, our free will doesn’t diminish His sovereignty. If we choose to disobey God, like Adam and Eve, it makes us fully culpable for our sinfulness.
     We can never legitimately point the finger at God, and say, “It’s your fault that I made this choice.” Remember, Adam tries that (Genesis 3:12) and fails miserably.
     Second, it’s also to remind us that all of our pleasure is to be found in God alone. The tree was unique in that it was prohibited; but, that didn’t make its fruit less appealing or desirable. At the moment of temptation, Eve was at a fork in the road: eat from a beautiful, forbidden fruit; or, follow a beautiful, accessible God. She chose the first, and we are still doing that to this day.
     In one sense, the tree was symbolic of God’s desire for us to deny ourselves so that we can follow Him unhindered. He wanted Adam and Eve to simply find their joy in the Creator, not the creation. God was sufficient for them, and He is sufficient for us! Jesus echoes this idea in Luke 9:23: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.”
     If you’ve heard something recently that has left you scratching your head, and you’d like me to give my thoughts, simply email me:
pastorwill@fellowshipnj.com.

The Call to Commitment and Community (Part II)

     Last week, we looked at some general patterns that help establish a Biblical case for church membership. This week, we want to begin building on that foundation, and focus on specific New Testament passages that give us a deeper understanding.
                                                                      The Book of Acts
     In and of itself, Acts is a fascinating book, as it gives us the history of the early church before and after its inception.
Acts 2 opens with the disciples, along with thousands of others, assembled in Jerusalem for a religious holiday, Pentecost. Following an order given by Jesus (post-resurrection), the disciples were there awaiting the arrival of the “Helper” (see John 14-16). Sure enough, the chapter opens with the coming of the Holy Spirit “as tongues of fire.” In that moment, the church was born, and the disciples would soon become the apostles, or early church leaders.

     As the chapter continues, Peter, empowered by the Holy Spirit, preaches a sermon that “pierced to the heart” those who heard it. Peter continues by telling them that they must repent for the forgiveness of sins. Notice what the passage says, “So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that there were added about three thousand souls.” Did you catch it? It’s a small word: added. Peter preaches, men and women respond in faith, are baptized, and then are added. But it begs the question: added to what? The answer: they were added to the newly formed local church in Jerusalem. In other words, on Pentecost, the church in Jerusalem went from non-existent to three thousand members!
     Acts 6 offers us some unique insight. The growing church in Jerusalem is experiencing a problem: a handful of widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. The apostles (think pastors) call together the congregation, or gathering, and instruct them to “select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.” While this short section is chock full of important concepts, let’s focus on just a few.
     Notice, the apostles call together the congregation. It’s obvious that these were specific individuals, namely those who were a part of the church in Jerusalem. If we connect Acts 2 with Acts 6, we find that those who were “added” are now those who are “summoned.” These were individuals who had not only committed to Jesus in faith, but also committed to one another in love (see John 13:34-35; Acts 2:41-46; 1 John 3:13-24). The congregation was tasked with identifiying qualified indidividuals from within the church, who could dedicate themselves to serving the church. Those individuals would come to be known as "deacons." 
Fun Bible-reading fact: the word, church, always refers to a gathering of people.; always plural, never singular.                                                                                 1 Corinthians
     The Corinthian church was a hot mess. In fact, Paul writes not one, but two letters of correction to the Corinthians, instructing them on various church matters. 1 Corinthians 5, in short, deals with the discipline of a church member who had intentionally been living in sin. More specifically, he was committing sexual sin and the church had overlooked it. Paul tells them, “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” This also begs the question: remove the wicked man from what? The answer: the church.
     While seemingly harsh, Paul’s instructions are clear. As Christians, we have been called out from the world, and set apart for God’s purposes, which never includes living in sin. Unfortunately, the individual in the Corinthian church had resisted all calls to repentance, and went about his business as he saw fit. Paul rebukes the church for their negligence in dealing with the situation properly, and instructs them accordingly.
     Simply put, a person cannot be “removed” unless they have been “added.”
     1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 both deal with spiritual gifts and church leadership. While we will talk more specifically about this in the weeks ahead, it’s important for us to understand that church leaders and church members are equally important in the church. Church leaders (pastors and deacons) may have a public platform; but, that does not make them better or more spiritual than anyone else.
     Church leadership exists for the edification of the church. Likewise, each church member has been uniquely gifted by the Holy Spirit to worship God and build up the church (other members). More on this in the coming weeks!                                                                                                  1 Timothy
     At the tail end of both his ministry and life, Paul gives instructions to the young pastor, Timothy. In 1 Timothy 5:9-16, he offers a simple, easily overlooked command regarding widows. He says, “a widow is to be put on the list only if...But refuse to put younger widows on the list...” Did you catch it there? It’s a small word: list. Paul recognizes the existence of a list of individuals in Timothy’s church. In other words, individual believers were both identified and organized into a usable document! In today’s church life, we would likely refer to this as an attendance roster.
     Here’s the reality of church membership: the general pattern, coupled with specific passages, offers a compelling argument in favor of its practice. Some of you may still be thinking: “Can I just attend a church every week without joining?” I’ll answer that question next week, as we look at the practical implications of church membership!

The Call to Commitment and Community (Part I)

Note: We’ve recently begun a Sunday School series, entitled, “The Local Church.” These articles are intended to provide some additional insight.

“For the body is not one member, but many…Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:14;27)

     This morning in Sunday School, we began to discuss the Biblical foundation for church membership. Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Church membership is in the Bible”? It’s a good question to ask. And the answer is both “no” and “yes”. You see, the words, “church membership”, never actually appear anywhere in the New Testament. There is no “address” that you can to and definitively say, “the Bible says in (book, chapter, verse) about church membership.” That’s the “no” portion of the answer.
     Remember, though, I said that church membership is in the Bible. Now, you may be thinking, “Pastor Will has lost his mind. One minute he says it’s not in the Bible, and the next he says that it is!” Bear with me, as we take a short detour. If you were to look in the Bible for the word, “trinity”, you will come up empty. That word is nowhere to be found in Scripture, but the idea is found all over, both in the Old and New Testaments. And while we often look for specific words, Scripture often gives us specific patterns.
     So, while the words, church membership, are nowhere to be found, the idea is found throughout the New Testament. In fact, the evidence is both implicit and explicit. This week, we will look at the implicit evidence. Consider a few basic truths:
          Matthew 16: Jesus tells Peter that he will build his church on the rock.

·         Matthew 18: Jesus gives instructions on how to practice church discipline.

·         Matthew 28: Jesus commissions the disciples (who would become the Apostles, or early church leaders).

·         Acts 1: Jesus repeats His commission to the disciples—telling them they would be His witnesses throughout the world.
     Why are these portions of Scripture fascinating? Because in these passages, and many others, Jesus speaks of the church prior to its existence! These portions of the Gospel help lay the foundation for the rest of the New Testament teaching concerning the church and its members. Jesus tells the disciples, and by extension us, that His people will assemble as the church, and that they would function in specific ways for specific purposes.

     Still not convinced? That’s okay. Let’s continue our journey through the New Testament. Consider this:

·         13 (possibly 14) New Testament letters were written to local churches, with each letter giving specific instructions to the respective congregation.
      When you open your Bible and read from Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, etc. you are reading a letter written to a specific local church (or local churches), addressing specific issues, correcting specific errors, and directed to specific people. In Philippians, when Paul writes about Epaphroditus, the church knew exactly who was he was.
     Each of the New Testament letters are unique; however, the beauty of Scripture is its unity. Even though Romans and Ephesians were written to different local churches, the content of the letters are cohesive. In other words, Paul’s command to obey government authorities (Romans 13), was applicable to the Ephesians. Likewise, his exhortation to pursue church unity (Ephesians 4), was equally important to the Romans. The New Testament letters, written to a local church, and then circulated among other local churches, makes a compelling case for church membership.
     By now, I’m hoping that you can see a pattern starting to emerge. But, if you’re like me, you need to be thoroughly convinced. There’s some more evidence I want you to consider:

·         There are 59 “one another” passages in the New Testament. And, they are not limited to just the church letters. You will find these “one another” passages in the Gospels and book of Acts.
     There are some who wrongly assume that Christianity is merely “my personal walk with Jesus.” That’s only partly correct. Every person must trust Christ for the forgiveness of sins on their own. Once a person becomes a Christ follower, he or she has a call to commitment and community. You see, the New Testament doesn’t teach a “lone wolf” Christianity. We exist to be in relationship with God AND His people.
Here’s a fun Bible-reading fact: repetition is important.
     If God tells us something in His word just once, it should be important to us. If He tells us twice, we should take note. But, when He tells us 59 times, then we better snap to attention.
     Here’s the truth of it: you simply cannot be obedient to God’s Word apart from committing to a local church. I’ll anticipate a question that some will inevitably ask: “Do I need to join a church in order to be obedient? What if I just attend every week? I’ll answer those questions in the coming weeks—stay tuned!