Yes, it really means that

I recently wrote a post wrestling with the question of how Christians can and should live with authorities that are doing, promoting, and protecting wrong. This was primarily premised on a faithful and serious reading of Romans 13:1-7.

As usual, the Scripture has context and, in this case, the relevant context extends forward into verse 8. And there, it offers a solution that forms the political platform for for the Christ-honoring Christian to follow: seeking, self-sacrificing, and sincere love.

Below is a video of me explaining this text and applying it to how Christians must stand against evil.

Advertisements

Does it really mean that?

Often the Bible tells us to do hard things–hard because they go against our grain.

And it’s no wonder, sin does that to you. As the prophet recorded our Lord saying, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). It’s actually a bit of a wonder (Amazing Grace, to be precise) that any of it gets through!

But sometimes, your culture and upbringing develop this sort of insidious worldview that makes you look at certain commands and it’s almost like your mind wants to literally re-write the words as you read them.

For example, when the Apostle Paul writes this to the Roman Christians:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

-Romans 13:1

Straightforward and simple, right?

What orthodox, conservative, Bible-believing Christian would deny that? Or who would dare to re-interpret Scripture to suit us?

After all, Revelation 22:18-19 is still on the books!

God is in charge of everything! God’s the Sovereign Creator! God has it all under control!

Yet, it wasn’t that long ago, that I posted this quote on my social media timeline:

One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Now I posted that quote on my timeline because it squares with my culture and worldview. The quote raises some sort of hackles within me and gets my blood moving. It makes me want to take action for truth and right.

But, how does it square with a faithful reading and application of Romans 13:1-7?

I suppose you could throw an Acts 5:29 (“we ought to obey God rather than man”) defense in there.

And you’d be right.

Even Romans 13:1-7 indicates that the ultimate authority is God. And we know that God doesn’t contradict Himself. And we know that human authority–ordained (under and appointed by) God as it may be–is sinful, flawed, and faulty.

So when any authority demands we disobey God, the response needs to be a hard no.

But what Dr. King–and my own libertarian mind–is advocating isn’t just disobedience when government demands we go against God’s clear commands. What I liked about his quote is that it suggests fighting city hall, slapping the hand of government overreach, pushing back and speaking out against what is immoral and unjust in the halls of power.

There’s a proactive nature to his sentiment, and to the way many like-minded Christians would practically interpret Romans 13:1-7.

Said another way, we’re not just saying that we have to obey God rather than man, but that we actually have the right and responsibility to force government to obey God rather than man. And if the government won’t comply, we need to fight back (albeit nonviolently, if we’re listening to Dr. King).

My heart swells at this thought in light of the genocide of abortion, the abomination of racism, the unjust treatment of the poor, the broken judicial system, the polluted politicians, the twisted logic of sexual deviance that’s fast becoming codified into law and judicial precedence, the systematic abuse of women by men (and women) of power, and so much more.

But is that really what Romans 13:1-7 is saying?

Is it suggesting or even leaving the door open for us to resist the power, especially when Romans 13:2 explicitly connects resisting authority with resisting God’s appointment?

Or is it much more difficult, painful, and even subversive than that?

Could it be that faithful, God-honoring Christians don’t have the luxury of taking the fight to Washington (or any center of power) because they live lives so diametrically opposed to unjust government that the fight actually comes looking for them?

Could it be that the reason we get to debate this sort of thing at all is because we’ve coalesced with the whole system so much that we can’t tell where we end and “it” begins?

Could it be that if we will conscientiously obey all authority up to the point that it comes in conflict with God–and not just picking and choosing what offends us, takes our money, hurts our feelings, or demeans us–that we will find ourselves fighting a real battle, not a theoretical, rhetorical one about “unjust laws,” but one for our own lives and one that has eternal meaning?

How do you think that those folks mentioned in Hebrews 11:32-39 earn their spot on that list? Those were people who–by the writer of Hebrews’ own admission–hadn’t even yet seen the promised coming Messiah. But they had faith in God’s ultimate authority, trusting Him fully, without looking for loopholes.

Of course, while Romans 13:1-7 does command obedience to authority, it doesn’t necessarily require passivity or silence. In fact, didn’t John the Baptist lose his head over speaking truth to power? And Jesus Himself was notable for pushing back on the religious leaders of the day (of course, as the King of Kings, He does hold a bit of a different position in all this, now doesn’t He?).

Do you have a perspective on a faithful reading and application of Romans 13:1-7?

And now I’m the pastor …

In 2005, I had as clear a direction from God as I’ve ever had on anything.

“A call to preach,” “a call to the ministry,” “a call on my life.”

Whatever you call it, the message was clear: God wanted me to be a minister of the Gospel and He wanted me to live that calling out as a pastor of a local church.

After a few years of itinerant preaching, I was able to fulfill that call on my life at Crestview Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, from 2009 to 2012, as a bi-vocational pastor. I’m not 100% sure I was as prepared to pastor as I should have been. But I loved the people and the work. I think the people appreciated me, my preaching, and my ministry. In any event, it was definitely a wonderful training ground.

I resigned that position to better and more fully prepare myself for serving in ministry full time. When I did, I don’t think I realized how long it would be until I had the opportunity to serve as pastor. Nor do I think I fully appreciated how quickly that next opportunity would actually come.

Now, I’m less than 48 hours away from officially taking the reigns as pastor of McConnell Road Baptist Church in Greensboro, NC. And I still don’t know that I’m 100% prepared as I’d like to be in order to be an effective pastor.

After all, it is the church of Jesus Christ we’re talking about. And she is a pretty big deal to Him.

 “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of the water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.” Ephesians 5:25-27

But by God’s own words (spoken through the writing of the apostle Paul), my being “less than” in some ways actually qualifies me even more.

“But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence.” I Corinthians 1:25-29

Either way, it’s happening.

The church voted heavily in favor of calling me as their next pastor. I’ve accepted the call. I’ve been preaching for them for over a month now. My family and I have joined the church. All that remains is making it official with an “installation” service on Sunday morning, December 31, 2017.

No, it’s not a requirement or even our tradition. But it does allow me and the church to mark an official “passing of the baton” from the man who faithfully served as an interim for over a year after the passing of the beloved former pastor to the man who we all believe God has called to be the next pastor.

So it’s a big deal to me. And it hits especially hard if I think about it for any length of time. And the feeling that comes is a mix of panic and excitement, worry and delight, stress and peace.

I have a ton of ideas. I have a million thoughts. I have all sorts of plans.

And, Lord willing, I’ll have an opportunity to play some of those out, working alongside of the godly, Christ-loving men and women of McConnell Road Baptist. And I’m sure even more ideas will come–from me and from them–over time.

But now really isn’t the time for any of that. For over a decade now, I’ve been preaching one basic message. It’s a shaded, nuanced message that deserves to be examined from all sorts of angles; but it’s just one message just the same.

“And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” I Corinthians 2:1-2

That message: Jesus is everything that we need.

And I pray that God will keep me focused on sharing, showing, and explaining that message to the folks at McConnell Road Baptist and the surrounding community. Because that’s the message that will actually make a difference for real people with real needs.

“For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” I Corinthians 1:18

So, now that I’m the pastor, I still have just the one message: Christ in the Scriptures.

Another year of preaching

This is probably more of a journal entry for my own enjoyment and memories than any sort of “deep thought” on Christian living or ministry. It’s sort of introspective, but it’s no less important.

That’s because I really enjoy preaching and I see the opportunity to do it a precious gift from God. No matter the setting, the size of the crowd or even my own emotional state (from burdened to joyful), preaching God’s word, pointing to Christ and spending time explaining the glories of God is just flat out great. And I have to thank God for the opportunities to preach and for trusting me with the responsibility.

In 2015 specifically, I got to that weighty, but joyful task over 20 times for at least 9 congregations (at least as noted by my itinerary page … I may have missed one or two?). Now that’s hardly the workload of a pastor (fulltime or bi-vocational). I know because I remember (fondly, I should add) when I was pastoring Crestview Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC, I would speak around 3 times each week about 51 weeks a year. So speaking 20 times in the course of a year isn’t a lot in the scheme of things … but each opportunity represented a God-given gift to speak to His people about His glorious message and a Divinely appointed mission to warn sinners of His coming wrath.

I have to admit that I didn’t realize the glory and the grace of what I had when I had it (though the enjoyment was still definitely there). But now the joy of preaching remains while the appreciation of the gift is clearer than ever.

I pray that God will continue to use me in 2016 to encourage, the exhort, to correct and to warn. You can keep watching my itinerary page to see exactly how God will do that. I hope you’ll pray for me to be a useful servant to our great God and King.

Spiritual Formation in a Revivalist Culture

Tomorrow is Sunday.

While a lot of folks in the modern era see it simply as the last day of the weekend (“Sunday Funday” as it is often called), Christians for centuries have honored it as a day of worship and a time to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And as one who has grown up in church, such that Sunday (morning and evening, by the way, right along with Wednesday night prayer meeting) church is part of the rhythm of a standard week, I always have a faint longing for those exciting services when there’s an apparent “moving of God” in the service. And I’m always wondering if the next Sunday will bring one of those.

If you’ve been going to church regular enough for long enough, you’ve experienced these services: there’s a different atmosphere, there’s something very personal about the singing and the preaching, there’s simply something “special” that’s happening. Often, these services are marked by “decisions”–maybe public or personal, depending on the service and the tradition. In any case, these services stand out precisely because they aren’t what you experience every Sunday. In fact, you might have one of these every couple of months, at best.

Every church culture has their way of dealing with this longing. Some just go about their business, almost drone-like simply waiting for the day when one of these services happen. Others work hard with lighting, music, angel-voiced singers and special sermonic modes (from specific topics to stylistic flairs) to create the right mood. And still others will go as far as to schedule services with names like “revival services” and bring in special preachers.

You’ll notice I”m not saying these sorts of church services are bad. In fact, inasmuch as the palpable presence of God is real and not mere manufactured emotionalism, these transcendent moments are wonderful. Of course, each gathering of the church ought to be transcendent in its own right–they are, after all, attempting to exalt the God of the Universe and to edify the saints that Christ bought with His blood. But there’s something very right about one’s religion doing something to his heart, mind and body.

The problem is that too many churches and individual Christians can get so wrapped up in the ecstasy of so-called revival as to miss the real elixir of Christ for their souls. That is to say that we often seek revival (an inadequate, but close enough term to describe these moments where God “shows up” in church services) when God, through His infinite wisdom, is often speaking through the still small voice of His word and His people to provide us with real and lasting spiritual formation.

In other words, we’re quick to quote John 5:9 where it is reported that when Jesus healed someone, “immediately the man was made whole,” and apply it to our Christian walk. However, I think we miss the long, slow, quiet and very real transformation of Simon Peter from a brash racist and brawling fisherman to a pillar of the church of God who writes the encouraging letters we call first and second Peter. In Peter’s case, through a series of tests and trials, many of which are never read about and most of which aren’t really that dramatic, God forms his inner man to be something much more akin to the image of Christ.

Even the Apostle Paul, who did have his share of dramatic defining moments, owed a good deal of who he was as a preacher, a leader, a Christian and a man to the everyday working of God–from the years he spent in the desert (Galatians 1:17-18) being taught of God to the investment of Priscilla and Aquila into his life and ministry (Romans 16:3-4).

While the “revival” services get all of the press, it’s actually the week-by-week, “run of the mill” Sunday services that really contribute so much to our spiritual lives. What’s more, I think this is the real value of the church for believers: spiritual formation.

In fact, the next time you start to wonder what the point of church really is, think about the fact that for over 2,000 years Christians all over the world have been gathering together on Sunday mornings (and occasionally at other times). While certainly there were some special services in the mix, the weight of the glory that is “the church” is the fact that there have been literally millions of Sunday gatherings over the years, happening every week, year after year.

Which will do you the most good for your health and muscle strength in the long run? Going to the gym 3-4 times every week for 30-45 minutes over the next 20 years or spending 3-4 hours every day for a week and then quitting the practice altogether? Even if you could maintain the motivation through the pain, the limits of the human body would require you to slow things down if you ever hope to get any value out of the exercise. The real value comes through regular and appropriate doses.

That’s the power of going to church every week–no matter if the preacher’s sermon doesn’t quite hit all of the right notes, no matter if you’re not a fan of that particular song, no matter if you don’t quite feel “spiritual enough,” no matter if your church isn’t the most exciting or all that big.

No matter what. Just go. Just worship God in spirit and in truth.

Yes, you should seek to see Christ high and lifted up. Yes, there should be transcendence in the experience. Yes, you should absolutely enjoy the service when those revival moments happen. But you should also know that there’s value to your spirit by you just being there on that pew or chair or bench or whatever, holding your Bible, trying to focus on the preaching, exposing your ears (and those of your family) to the sounds of hymns and spiritual songs sung by regular folks trying to worship God too.

You likely won’t see instant results: you won’t suddenly kill all of your sins, love everyone as you should and surrender to a lifetime of sacrificial work for your community and the lost. The truth is that it will likely take a lifetime of God’s working on your heart to get you there. But that’s exactly what spiritual formation is. And you’re a sinful lump of clay that God loves enough to keep working on you … every day, slowly, steadily, simply … molding you into someone that looks a lot more like Jesus (Romans 8:29).

Hypo- and Hyper-Biblical Preaching

I like to listen to preaching while I run, particularly on my longer runs (which have become less “long” lately). Southern Baptist leader Dr. Russell Moore is one of my favorites, but I’ve listened to just about every sermon he’s put out a couple of times over! So I’m always seeking out new preachers.

And in that quest, I’ve run across two types of preaching that I, as a preacher, want to avoid like the plague and that churches, particularly those seeking pastors, should never abide: the hypo-Biblical preacher and the hyper-Biblical preacher.

Let me take the obvious and easier one first. Hypo-Biblical preaching is when someone just doesn’t use enough Bible in their preaching. What they’re saying isn’t wrong, isn’t bad and isn’t uninteresting. It’s just not necessarily based on the Bible. Or, if it is, the preacher isn’t making it clear that his words, thoughts and concepts come from Scripture. These guys tend to trade on their credibility, their experience as scholars or moral authorities.

In other words, these hypo-Biblical preachers say, “I said it, therefore it must be true … you can assume God agrees with me.”

This sort of preaching is alluring because most of these preachers have certain tricks and traits (at least the most well-known ones I’m aware of):

  • interesting and mesmerizing storytelling ability
  • compelling and spine-tingling rants
  • practical and logical advice for daily living
  • domineering and forceful personalities

Often these guys will be branded as “really great preachers” because of these traits. But they run the risk of encouraging man-worship (aka “cults”) and definitely promote sources of truth other than Scripture.

This kind of preaching can be helpful. It can be useful. And it can even be good. But it has to be recognized for what it is: something less than Biblical.

Now the other kind of preaching is even more subtle. In hyper-Biblical preaching, the preacher will often make a big deal about so-called “expository preaching” and make sure you know that they always and only preach the text. Of course, that’s a good thing. The preacher’s job is to proclaim the text, to make plain sense of the text and to motivate people to respond to the text.

But the kind of hyper-Biblical preaching I’ve heard goes a step further. These guys turn the Scripture into a text book to be taught and understood as if we’re passing a test. They usually will eschew any sort of emotion (especially humor) and the practical applications are–if present at all–tacked on to the end. I call it “hyper” because it attempts to (and sees itself as) being all about the Bible … and lots of it.

By these hyper-Biblical preachers are essentially saying, “Welcome to the ancient study of religious theory, make sure you take good notes.”

This sort of preaching is often appealing to intellectual-types and the super-spiritual due to these sorts of traits:

  • explaining (and pronouncing) the Greek and Hebrew
  • spending 10 minutes of a 1 hour sermon to explain what the word “through” means in this passage
  • extensive historical background of the text serves as an introduction
  • outlines rarely contain less than 10 points

Often these guys will be branded as “really deep preachers” because of these traits. But they run the risk of making God’s word boring, lifeless and academic.

Again, this kind of preaching can be helpful, useful and good. But it also must be recognized for what it is: something less than Biblical.

You see, the Bible is alive and powerful. It is, after all, God’s word.

As such, the preacher must be careful to preach it clearly and plainly, adding nothing to God’s word and not presuming that God’s word needs any salt, seasoning or flavor. It is sufficient, self-sufficient and satisfying.

That said, God has chosen to deliver His word through the vehicle of flawed and faulty preachers (Paul calls this the “foolishness” of preaching in I Corinthians 1). What’s more, God didn’t give His word to be some sort of collectible, something that we need to “preserve” (He’s done that just fine, thank you!) and keep under lock and key.

“The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose and the lion will defend itself.” – Charles Spurgeon

Instead, God’s word is given to us so that we may know Him, serve Him, honor Him and just plain live every day as He wants us to. That’s going to mean that we have to allow God’s word to “filter” through human experience. I don’t mean we water it down or dilute it anyway. But know that when God chooses a man to preach His word, that God wants that man, not some automaton mouthing words (otherwise, why not just have Alexander Scourby blasting from pulpits and street corners?

So instead of adding our own opinion to God’s word as we preach (hypo-Biblical preaching) or trying to impress academia with how boring and analytical our preaching can be (hyper-Biblical preaching), why don’t we echo Paul’s words:

“For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” – I Corinthians 2:2

You have nothing to preach but God’s word. But preach it like it’s powerful, like it’s interesting, like it matters.

A tale of two universities

I live in Hillsborough, a little town just about equidistant between Durham, where Duke University calls home, and Chapel Hill, where UNC-Chapel Hill (aka “Carolina”) calls home. While these two schools have a national sports reputation, it’s their local influence I’d like to think about for a minute.

I’m just a casual observer, of course, but I find the communities around both schools very fascinating. Both schools have outstanding academic reputation, athletic reputations and prestigious alumni. But what are they doing for the areas right around them?

Well, you have Duke. It’s in Durham, NC, which has a tough reputation as a fairly violent and often poor city. To be fair, right around the university, home prices are pretty high and the neighborhoods are nice. I, for one, love to run the Al Buehler Cross Country course that goes around the golf course near the school. But as a larger community, it seems that the Duke influence has been minimal.

Even if you stretch out the influence beyond the immediate ZIP code, I’m always surprised when I run into a Duke alum outside of the great Raleigh-Durham area–partly because they are a pretty elite bunch and often because they are usually high paid or high profile people. In my experience, the Duke influence is strong, but focused.

Then, you have UNC-Chapel Hill. It’s in Chapel Hill, NC, which has the enviable position of having some of the highest property values in the entire state. While the city and it’s surrounding county (Orange) isn’t devoid of crime or poverty, its schools, city & county services and infrastructure, is top-notch (full disclosure: I live in Orange and enjoy many of these benefits … and pay the taxes that make them possible).

But what’s more, UNC-Chapel Hill also is something of “the people’s” school. I’ve met Carolina alum in all sorts of places and in all sorts of professions–teachers, executives, writers, athletes, politicians, homemakers, doctors, dentists, statisticians and more. While the school does a good job of remaining an elite institution of learning, it seems it also has somehow democratized higher learning too.

Plus, while both schools have incredible sports histories (particularly in basketball), you find Carolina fans all over the place, while a few Duke fans pop up from time-to-time. Full disclosure, I’m a Wake Forest fan (Go Deacs!) and also enjoy seeing Carolina lose.

So what?

Well I think our churches often take on the Duke role–serving some particular elite group that seems to serve our needs. Whether that’s the cultured set, a particular race of people or even the “hard core” true believers. Most churches will find enough of their target demographic to sustain themselves for some period of time. But it seems that we’re missing a huge opportunity to do what the church is supposed to do: make a real difference in the lives around us.

It seems that if we really do have the hope of the world (Jesus Christ) and we’re doing what He told us to do (tell people about Him, Matthew 28:18-20), then those places where churches pop up should be the most out-reaching and most life-altering places on the planet. You shouldn’t be able to live near a church and not be affected by it … even if you don’t go to their services.

Sadly, you can literally live next door to one (I live within walking distance of two!) and never feel their presence beyond the odd (it must be to those who don’t go) gathering that happens 1-3 times each week when the parking lots fill up with cars.

Shouldn’t  communities be improved around churches? Shouldn’t the sick, the poor, the afflicted, the hurting and the needy be helped by churches? Shouldn’t the wealthy, the poor, the liberal, the conservative, the saint, the sinner, the religions and the irreligious be sought out by the church?

I’m not saying that we have to bend the church to the standards of those around us–look at my example with Carolina, they certainly don’t lower academic standards (ok … there was the thing with the student athletes. But other than that!). But I am saying there ought to be real, lasting imprint that the church makes on everyone that comes close enough.

Unfortunately, too many churches are content being a Duke, super high standards, high cost of admission and completely comfortable having a minimal impact on those that live nearby.