Living with Diversity

Families are designed to help us learn to live with people who are different than us.

My 3rd child has started going to public school. That means that she is getting up earlier. What does she want to do in the morning? Talk. My wife and I like to quietly read and meditate in the morning, if possible. There’s nothing wrong with either preference. We’re just different.

But how are we going to deal with it? Can we tolerate the differences, live with them, and even thrive with them?

Sadly, many families don’t prepare people well for living with differences. Instead, they do one of three things. They either seek to suppress the differences, continually fight about them, or eventually flee from them.

The church is also designed to be a place where a diversity of people come together. A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus as the one who saves us from our predicament in sin and brings us to forgiveness and new life. Anyone can hear the message about Jesus, accept it, and become a Christian that very moment. Ideally, they also become a part of a particular community (i.e., the church) at that time.

When this happens, you have people who have a lot of different ideas, a lot of different backgrounds, and a lot of different experiences coming together to try and make the community work. Romans 14 describes the situation in the early Christian communities. The Christian teacher named Paul wrote to the Christian community in Rome describing this situation, “One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. . . . One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike” (Rom. 14:2, 5).

So, what are we to do with this diversity? The church has often tried the same things that families try: suppress the differences or continually fight about them. They also do what families sometimes do when these becomes too difficult. The differences are so hard to deal with that they just separate (which leaves them just as ill-equipped to deal with differences as before).

In the same letter, Paul gives some helpful instructions on how to live together in diversity. Here’s what he proposed:

  1. Receive or accept each other. “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1). What if our basic stance toward others was to accept and receive them whatever their differences?
  2. Do not have contempt for others. “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them” (Rom. 14:3).
  3. Don’t take the stance of a judge. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” (Rom. 14:4). It’s easy for us to set up ourselves as the one who is evaluating everyone else. It’s better to come alongside people and see ourselves as all being evaluated by the One Judge (see vv. 5–11, and note, curiosity is a more helpful stance).
  4. Seek to remove things that are a hindrance to others’ progress. “Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (v. 13). We should consider how our actions will affect others.
  5. Remember not every hill is a hill to die on. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit . . .” (Rom. 14:17). Paul had an opinion on foods and days. He just said his views on these matters were less important than other matters. Learn to distinguish what’s more important and less important.
  6. Help others grow. What I’ve said so far doesn’t mean we just leave people where they are. We should help them grow. Here’s what Paul said, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (v. 19). What if we took this attitude in all our communities? What if we thought of everyone’s interests and what would help move us forward in the best way rather than simply looking to our own interests?

I believe that Paul presents a beautiful, compelling, and wise vision of communities living together and thriving diversity. I believe that any person who adopts Paul’s recommendations will contribute to making their community better, and so I want to try and live this out in any community in which I am involved.

I also believe that this is not just up to me. I believe the good news that the power of God is available through the resurrection of Jesus to renew me as an individual and the communities of which I am a part. That’s the good news that Paul preached in the 1st century and is still available to us today.

Thoughts on Church Membership

The title of this post may not elicit the most excitement from my readers, but I think it is an important one. What we say about who gets counted in the church says a lot about what we think about the Gospel and the way that human beings can and should connect with God.

Here are some “theses” or “thoughts” that I wrote in 2012 after some serious prayer and consideration of this issue. My view has not substantially changed.

  1. Church membership must be based on our definition of a Christian, since all Christians are members of the true church invisible and should be members of the visible church.
  2. A Christian is someone who has repented of their sins and believes in Jesus Christ for salvation.
  3. Consequently, the test for church membership should be a credible profession of faith in Christ with a promise of repentance as well as a desire to do this in the context of a particular local church (as the questions for membership indicate in the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order).
  4. This simple test is confirmed by the Scriptural examples of the Apostles who welcomed 3,000 members on the very day (Pentecost) they professed faith in Christ. Similarly, the Philippian jailer was baptized on the very same day in which he heard and believed in the Gospel (Acts 16:31–34). If our test for membership does not approximate this, then our view of membership is defective from the apostolic example.
  5. If we desire to see God’s blessing on our ministry, then we should follow the example of the Apostles in the way we welcome members.
  6. We must also not give the impression that such members are not Christians or view them with skepticism until they become mature. There are adults as well as children in the faith and in the church as the Apostle John says, “I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for His name’s sake” (1 Jn. 2:11).
  7. Obviously, such a standard for membership will bring many erroneous opinions into the church, and there will be problems in the church as the example of the churches of the Apostles indicates. We must deal with these differences with patience, gentleness, and humility, following the examples of the Apostles and this rule: “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all” (1 Thess. 5:14).
  8. Our view of what constitutes the true church should be commensurate with what we consider a Christian to be. Any church that teaches that the Scriptures are the very Word of God, calls sinners to come to Jesus Christ freely for salvation, and teaches repentance should be regarded as a true church. Their members may be welcomed as long as they are willing to submit to the particularity of our church because the basis for membership in such churches is fundamentally the same as ours.
  9. While our relations with particular true churches of Jesus Christ may be less or more involved based on the opportunities provided in God’s providence and the wisdom of the elders of the church, they must have our Christian sympathy for their ministry, and we must love them as brothers and sisters in Christ. We should not view their professions skeptically simply because they disagree with us on certain matters that we believe are Scriptural. As we have opportunity, we should speak to them as brothers following the example of the Apostle Paul, “Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you” (Phil. 3:15).
  10. In sum, we should regard all evangelical churches as true churches and all evangelical Christians with the expectation that they are true Christians, welcoming them as our members when they so desire, even if they disagree with some truths that we believe are Scriptural.
  11. Stonewall Jackson is a good illustration of how this worked out in the Presbyterian Church. When he applied for membership in the Presbyterian Church, his views were Arminian. Nevertheless, they cordially accepted him as a brother in Christ. Eventually, Jackson embraced the Presbyterian system of doctrine. This would probably not have happened if the church had required an understanding and assent to the whole counsel of God before allowing him to join.
  12. This does not mean that there is no place to maintain the boundaries of what we consider to be the whole counsel of God. That place is in the ordination of elders. We must examine elders to see if they are sound in the faith. In regards to the membership, we accept a credible profession of faith and do not wait to bring them into membership. In regard to the ministry, we do not “lay hands on anyone hastily” (1 Tim. 5:22). Paul also tells Timothy, “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). The elders of the church is the place to preserve the truths we believe are biblical and are confessed in our confessions.
  13. I believe that these measures will preserve a church that is properly centered on the gospel and that is both broadly evangelical and truly Reformed in practice and teaching. It will also lend itself to evangelism as it follows the Apostolic pattern of welcoming converts who confess their sin, profess their faith in Jesus Christ, and promise to live the life of the Christian. We should expect the blessing of God on such endeavors.

Of Course, Church Is Also for Unbelievers

It would seem rather obvious that church is a place for unbelievers as well as believers. After all, where else are people going to learn about who God is and what it means to be a Christian? What better place could there be?

Some argue that church is only or primarily for believers. Church is designed primarily to help believers grow, and then they go out and connect with people in the world. At the least, they might argue, unbelievers should not be a focus of the church as an institution. If they come, that’s fine, but having unbelievers in church is not a goal that the church should pursue, they might say.

I believe that this argument often grows out of frustration with churches that water down the Christian message in order to try and get people to come to church. I have also heard many people who think that if church is also for unbelievers, then it will simply be a church service where a simple Gospel message is presented over and over again with an altar call. Some Christians feel like they never get anything from these services that help them grow. They feel like they have been left behind in the quest for “numbers.”

Whether these sorts of complaints are just or not, I won’t attempt to answer here. It’s sufficient to say that there is no necessary connection between church also being for unbelievers and watering down the message or just focusing only on getting conversions.

In fact, I would suggest that merely repeating the simple Gospel message or watering down the Christian message is not particularly helpful either to believers or unbelievers. While it is true that in order to become a Christian, we only need a little bit of knowledge (i.e., John 3:16), following Christ involves understanding a whole variety of topics explained in the Bible at large.

For those considering whether or not to follow Jesus, it’s good for them to learn about what that means for their families, their work, their emotions, their time, and a host of other things. That’s why being in church where the whole counsel of God is taught is especially helpful for those considering Christianity.

But does the Bible teach that church is also for unbelievers? I believe it does. When God established His worship in the Old Testament, He centered His worship in the temple. According to Isaiah, the design of the Temple was to “for my house [to be] be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Is. 56:7).

When Jesus came to earth, the Temple had a walled in area outside of the Temple proper that was called the Court of the Gentiles. This is where money changers and those selling sacrifices set up shop. They took over the place where the Gentiles were to come and worship. That’s one of the big reasons why Jesus took some whips and cleared everybody out. When He did He said, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17).

If the people of the nations were to come to the worship of God when the distinction between Jew and Gentile was still part of God’s worship, how much more in the era where that dividing wall is broken down (Eph. 2:11–15)?

This seems to be Paul’s assumption in 1 Cor. 14. He says concerning people speaking in tongues: “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (v. 23). Notice that his assumption is that unbelievers and inquirers will come in.

So, if this is the case, then what does it mean for the church? Substantively, the church should not do anything differently. We should still sing, pray, preach, fellowship, partake of the sacraments, etc.

However, there are two ways that I approach these things based on the assumption that church is also for unbelievers. First, I try to think about hospitality (which of course would help anybody, even regular attenders and members of the church). Hospitality is when we think about how to make our guests feel at home. When we are hospitable, we think not only about ourselves and what we are used to but how those who are not familiar with our home, organization, or church might experience those places and then seek to make them more comfortable for them.

One of the best ways to learn how to do this is to visit other churches where you don’t know anyone. See what is comfortable and awkward and what is unhelpful. That will give you some sense of what others feel when they are visiting your church, especially those who may have never gone to church or been away for a long time.

The second thing I would suggest is closely related. I try to think of unbelievers when I study the Bible. We all approach passages of the Bible from a particular perspective asking particular questions. I think it is helpful for unbelievers (and actually to most believers) if I ask this question, “if I was talking to someone who knew nothing about the Bible, how would I explain to them why it is relevant for their life in the 21st century?” That can be a hard question, but it is a question that yields significant dividends.

One way I think about this is by asking (HT: Andy Stanley), what is the human question that this task is answering? For example, let’s take the genealogy of Jesus in Mt. 1. We could say that this genealogy shows how God keeps His promises revealed in the Old Testament. That’s true and helpful but probably not a big question on most people’s minds. We could also show how this demonstrates the true humanity of Jesus Christ. Again, a question not a lot of people today are thinking about, though it is an important one.

So, what do we do with it? We can talk about messed up families. All of us have messed up families to a degree. Probably many of us feel like our families are hopeless. Some of us may feel shame about or fear from our families? What the genealogy tells us is that God connects with types of families like ours and literally becomes a part of them. Doesn’t that present a significant amount of hope for families like yours and like mine? Wouldn’t this make us view our families a little bit differently?

My goal whenever I talk about the Bible is this: for each person to walk away saying (even if they don’t believe it), “If this is true, then it would be helpful. It would make a difference if this were true and I let this inform my thought or my actions.”

I think that if we do that, we could help believers a lot more, but we could also help unbelievers to see why church and an ancient book matter for life in the 21st century. I believe they would see that church is also for unbelievers.

10 Ways the Church Needs to Reform, if the Simple Gospel Is Central

At the heart of the Reformation is justification by faith alone. This means that, though human beings stand guilty and condemned, God offers acceptance as a free gift based on what Jesus has done. Closely related is the fact that God also transforms those who are justified to make them more like Jesus (often called sanctification).

This is the simple Gospel that was emphasized and put back at the center of the church by Martin Luther and the other Reformers.

This is what had first place in the New Testament Church: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4).

It’s still easy for us to make other things of secondary, tertiary, or no importance central. I still struggle to keep the simple Gospel central. For a long time in my ministry, I did a terrible job of it. Even when I preached the simple Gospel, my actions often said that other things were just as important or more important.

When I left New Covenant Presbyterian in Spearfish in 2015, I preached from 1 Cor. 15:3–4. I explained ten things that I had tried to do, ten reforms that I had tried to make that were based on making the simple gospel central. I said, whatever else I had done, this was my vision and what I had wanted to do.

A man in the church came over to me afterwards and said, “You need to make that the first sermon you preach at your next church.” I changed what I was preaching on based on his advice.

And this is still my vision. This Sunday, I’m preaching on the Reformation. It’s on justification by faith alone. I’m going to share 10 reforms I think the church needs to make, if the simple gospel is central to her life.

  1. If the simple gospel is central, then it gives us an outward focus. The people outside the church are not that different from us. They are just one act of faith away from being fundamentally where we are.
  2. If the simple gospel is central, then all that is necessary to be a member of the church is to embrace the simple gospel. We can’t make entrance into the church higher than entering into the kingdom of God. This is what captivated me in Presbyterian history. Presbyterians aren’t perfect, but they have historically understood this.
  3. If the simple gospel is central, then we cannot let other preferences or other truths crowd it out. If other doctrines, ethical principles, church principles, or anything else gets talked about more than the simple gospel, people will believe what you talk about is the most central. We should not do that.
  4. If the simple gospel is central, then everything we do must be formatted around it. We cannot say one thing & then show another. We can’t say Christ’s love is free and then not care whether or not people can find our building. We can’t say Christ is hospitable but then be inhospitable.
  5. If the simple gospel is central, there is unity of believers in the local church. We may be at different levels in our spiritual journey or knowledge, but we all sit down around the table and let Jesus wash our feet. That gives us a powerful unity.
  6. If the simple gospel is central, then the church is composed of a variety of people from a variety of different backgrounds at a variety of different levels. Each should be valued as a believer in Christ. Thus, the worship and the sermons should be designed to include everybody and give them all sense of being part of the people of God.
  7. If the simple gospel is central, then we will value children in our church because the simple gospel is simple enough for a child to grasp and embrace.
  8. If the simple gospel is central, there is a unity with all believers. It is no longer just about the believers in our church, it is about believers everywhere because we all believe together that which we value most.
  9. If the simple gospel is central, then we can and should work together with all churches who preach this simple gospel. We share a basic unity that transcends other differences.
  10. If the simple gospel is central, then this is what we need most in order to grow. We must preach the gospel to ourselves when we see our sin, when we need guidance, when we are struggling with our circumstances, and when we are struggling with people. What does Paul write to the churches? The Gospel.

The Reformation was about clarifying the Gospel and bringing it back to the center of the church. This is not a completed act. It is not a pristine period in history. It is a continual call to make Christ and Him crucified the center of our lives, churches, and hearts.

The Progress of the Church in History

What progress can the church expect to make in history? What are the prospects of the church before Christ returns?

There are several places in Scripture that indicate a progressive growth in the kingdom of God before Christ’s return. For example, Jesus compares the kingdom to a mustard seed: “Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches” (Mt. 13:32).

Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel envisions a kingdom that breaks all other kingdoms. It “became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth” (2:35).

I believe that it is very hazardous to predict the future, even with the images that the Bible gives us of the future. Most who have tried to do it in any detail have been totally wrong. It is not for us to know the times and the seasons.

That being said, I predict that Jesus will return on October 25, 2134. Just kidding. Not going to make that sort of prediction.

However, I do think that history has shown us enough for us to believe that these images of progressive progress do tell us something about the direction of history. The movement of history seems also to teach that the kingdom will continue to make progress throughout history before the consummation.

Consider the early church. It grew from a small group in Jerusalem to a multitude of congregations throughout the world.

From there, the church continued to grow until it overran the Roman Empire and displaced the pagan religions there.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Christian missionaries went out and brought the Gospel to those who had overran the Empire. The conversion of “barbarian” tribes continued throughout the Middle Ages. Continue reading “The Progress of the Church in History”