Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Jesus and Racism in the American Church

Jesus and Racism in the American Church

by Justin Imel

The deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, along with other injustices against Black Americans have ignited protests across our land. While some of the protests have evolved into riots, others have been in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and such protests have reminded us that there is still a long way to go in overcoming systemic racism1 in our society.

Unfortunately, I fear we have a long way to go in overcoming systemic racism in the church of our Lord. I lived in one place when a local school hired a black man to coach their basketball team. The Sunday following the announcement of the coach’s hiring, one of the elders caught me in the foyer and expressed his dismay. This elder—yes, an elder in the church—could not understand why, with perfectly eligible white men who knew basketball, the school would ever hire a black man. I know about one location where migrant workers came to assist farmers in harvesting their crops one year, and members of the church there referred to those workers by ethnic slurs I choose not to repeat. Regrettably, I could tell you other stories when I’ve seen the people of God treat ethnic minorities with prejudice.

How can the church deal with racism? I don’t wish to be overly simplistic and paint an easy solution, but I believe the answer to racism in the church begins and ends with Jesus. He is the One who built the church (Matthew 16:18). Jesus is the head of the church, and God desires “that [Jesus] might come to have first place in everything” (Colossians 1:18; NRSV). Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). If we claim to follow Jesus, we “ought to walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:6).

If we wear the name of Christ, we must respond to those of a different ethnicity as Jesus would; he must always be our standard. How would Jesus respond to those of different ethnicity?

Jesus would sacrifice himself for ethnic minorities

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). God didn’t send his Son into the world to save the Jews or to save folks of European descent. Jesus came into this world to endure the shame of Golgotha and bear the sins of everyone—red and yellow, black and white.

Since Jesus sacrificed himself for us, God expects us to sacrifice for our brothers: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16). While racial equality in the church may not require our laying down our lives, we certainly must sacrifice ourselves.

How can we sacrifice to help bridge the racial divide in the church? Maybe I can give up an evening of watching my favorite TV show to invite a minority couple into my home. Perhaps introverts like me can step out of our comfort zones and warmly greet minority guests to our assemblies. What if I give up my home church for a bit to worship with my brethren at a minority congregation? Could I give up my Saturday to march beside my black brothers and sisters to protest injustices they suffer in our society?

Jesus would treat ethnic minorities with humanity

When Jesus was thirsty and sat down at a well, he asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. The shocked woman said, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9). In the same verse, John adds this parenthetical statement as recorded in the English Standard Version: “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” Samaritans descended from the intermarriages between the Assyrians and the tribes of the Northern Kingdom (cf. 2 Kings 17), and, as John records, there was a great racial divide between Jews and Samaritans.

Jesus, because he is the Creator of all (John 1:3), cared not for the systemic racism of his fellow Jews, and spoke to this woman as he would have spoken to any other soul he encountered. He didn’t wait until a “clean” Jewish woman came to draw water, but he treated this Samaritan and sinful woman as one bearing God’s image.

One evening, my wife went to Walmart to get a couple of things and spoke to someone of an ethnic minority on her way out of the store. No surprise there; my wife has never met a stranger. But when she came home, she told me, with tears in her eyes, how shocked the man was that she spoke. In that small community, white folks didn’t ordinarily speak to minorities, and this man was surprised a white woman would treat him with humanity.

How do we honestly treat our brothers and sisters who have a different ethnic heritage? Do we speak? Do we see them as precious souls bearing God’s image? Do we, like Jesus at the well, show humanity to those different from us?

Jesus would serve ethnic minorities

I’ve already mentioned Jesus’s sacrificial death for all people, but before he ever went to the cross, Jesus’s ministry demonstrated service to all races of people. Jesus healed a “foreigner” of leprosy (Luke 17:11-19). While Jesus’s ministry “was ... only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he healed a Canaanite woman’s daughter because of the woman’s great faith (Matthew 15:21-28). Jesus taught a lawyer who stood before him that any person in need—Jew or Samaritan—deserved to be served (Luke 10:29-37).

Jesus’s limited ministry to “the house of Israel” foreshadowed the universal ministry of his disciples. Jesus chose to live in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew 4:13-16). Matthew’s use of “Galilee of the Gentiles” likely foreshadows the end of his Gospel where Jesus commanded the Eleven to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). In Acts, the gospel was proclaimed to Jews (e.g., Acts 2:14ff), Samaritans (Acts 8:1-5), a eunuch from Ethiopia (Act 8:35), and Gentiles (e.g., Acts 10:34-43). Selfless service was rendered to minorities (Acts 6:1-6).

If Jesus served minorities and taught his disciples to do the same, shall we—as modern-day disciples of Jesus—do anything less? Can we even consider not sharing the gospel with some man because he is a minority? Can we refuse visiting a sister in the hospital because her ethnicity is different than ours? We dare not show any partiality in our service (cf. James 2:1-13).

Jesus would pray for unity with minorities

The night before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed, “I ask not only on behalf of [my disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21). Within the Churches of Christ, we often read these words with an eye toward the doctrinal divisions which run deep in Christendom. That’s an appropriate reading, for our Lord does pray for unity.

However, unity among believers means far more than being “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10) when doctrinal disputes arise. Jesus abolished the Law of Moses that he “might reconcile [Jews and Gentiles] to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death [their] hostility” (Ephesians 2:16). Jesus died that he might bring reconciliation between vastly different ethnic groups; therefore, he certainly had such unity on his mind as he poured his heart out to the Father before he went to that old rugged cross.

Shall, we, like our Lord, pray for the unity of all believers? Let us pray for our brothers and sisters who feel marginalized by society. Let us pray for those who face inequality we white Americans cannot even fathom. Let us pray for those with hatred in their heart—let’s pray that God will soften those hearts in order to put “to death that hostility” that divides us.

Let us imitate our Lord and work for racial equality among his people. As we’re baptized into Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). May we live that truth!


1 Love L. Sechrest says, “Systemic racism considers the way that material, attitudes, emotions, habits, and practices are embedded in social institutions, including power imbalances, the accumulations of intergenerational wealth, and the long-term maintenance of major socioeconomic deficits for other races.” “Racism,” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, edited by Joel B. Green (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 655.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Preaching on Equality and Brotherhood

Preaching on Equality and Brotherhood

by Bill Bagents

“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15:1).

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov 25:11).

I can’t remember how many decades ago I was introduced to the journalistic practice of “Afghanistanism.” It was when, for most of us, that country existed only on a map. The practice was simple. When there’s a white-hot issue in your community, write your editorial about Afghanistan or somewhere equally distant. Don’t risk angering people and losing subscribers by speaking to the pressing issue of the day. It was bad journalistic practice; it’s even worse for preachers.

Preach the Word

We love Paul’s famous statement recorded in Acts 20:26–27, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shirk from delivering to you the whole counsel of God.” This statement didn’t apply just to Paul’s teaching in Ephesus. Everywhere he preached, Paul sought to speak God’s truth fully, clearly, sincerely, and lovingly. Every preacher should do the same. We must because:

  • Scripture describes us as members of “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).
  • Scripture commands us to “follow the pattern of sound words…in faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 1:13).
  • Scripture links being “strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” with entrusting what we have learned “to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:1–2).
  • Scripture urges us, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).
  • Scripture charges us, “Preach the word, be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:1–2).

In the complex and multiple crises that are currently rocking the world, we are called to give maximum emphasis to preaching on the worth, value, equality, and brotherhood of all people. As battles rage on countless fronts, our world so needs that message of love, truth, and solidarity! As Bible-believing, Scripture-preaching servants, we stand in a unique position to offer hope—and encourage justice, respect and civility—through unmistakably fierce preaching on our common humanity and God’s love for each of us.

By Way of Reminder

You may not need the following reminders. These truths are so well-known. But in the spirit of 2 Peter 1:13, may I “stir you up by way of reminder”?

  • “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male, and female He created them” (Gen 1:27).
  • The Lord whose glory is “above the heavens” made mankind [all humans, each person] “a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor” (Psa 8:1, 5).
  • “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29)!
  • “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
  • “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:34–35).
  • “But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of the same nature as you’” (Acts 14:14–15).
  • A key part of “the whole counsel of God” affirms, “And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth . . . For we are indeed His offspring” (Acts 17:26, 28).
  • “But God shows His love for us [every one of us, each of us, all of us] in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us [every one of us, each of us, all of us]” (Rom 5:8).

Every human is made in God’s image. Every human is endowed with worth and honor by God. Jesus loved each of us enough to forsake the prerogatives of Deity, take on flesh, and die for us (Phil 2:5–11). Jesus loves every individual who will ever live more than He loved His own life. We dare not miss, neglect, ignore, minimize, or fail to teach the fundamental equality and brotherhood of every precious person. And we dare not fail to live what we teach (Mic 6:8, Matt 7:21–23, Jas 1:21–25; 2:17–20, 1 John 4:20–21).

Ministry in a Time of Crisis

Ministry in a Time of Crisis

by Joel Stephen Williams

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Thomas Paine published those words on December 23, 1776, in his pamphlet, The American Crisis. They reverberate in our American souls well over two centuries later, especially as we live in a time where we face more than one crisis. How should we do ministry in a time of crisis? When we are discouraged to the point of despair, what should we do? There is no single wise or correct answer to that question. Hopefully the following will be sound advice to guide those who are striving to “live peaceably with all” and to do “what is noble in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17–18).

Discouraged? Do Not Give Up

The writer of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher, witnessed many injustices in life. “In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing” (Ecclesiastes 7:15). “There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous” (Ecclesiastes 8:14). “Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power” (Ecclesiastes 4:1). But even though life frequently did not seem to be fair, the Teacher still believed that there was a moral compass for the universe that should be heeded. The Teacher did not give up to despair. He declared, “Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God” (Ecclesiastes 8:12–13).

“The Present Crisis”

James Russell Lowell was involved in the movement to abolish slavery. He was the editor of an abolitionist newspaper and he also wrote poetry to express his views. His poem, “The Present Crisis,” is probably his best-known work. The NAACP named its newsletter, The Crisis, after it. The lyrics have been set to music in a dramatic hymn, Once to Every Man and Nation. Martin Luther King, Jr. often quoted from “The Present Crisis” in his speeches. 1 I was introduced to this majestic poem by Dr. W. B. West in his New Testament class on the book of Revelation. The Christians of the early church were persecuted by the Roman Empire and in danger of losing heart, but the apostle John encouraged them because Jesus Christ was still Lord. W. B. West drew a parallel between Lowell encouraging those in the fight against slavery not to lose heart and the apostle John doing the same in the book of Revelation for persecuted Christians. Consider these lines from Lowell’s poem.

          Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,
          Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
          Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.


Look to Jesus

The writer to the Hebrews pointed Christians of his day to the example of Jesus as one who suffered hostility. He did not want his readers to lose heart: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1–3).

The apostle John declared the same truth: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). So, when we are confronted with a crisis and are discouraged, and when some of our brothers and sisters are suffering hostility or injustice, the biblical message is that God is still there. He knows what it is like to suffer; Jesus endured the cross. So, do not lose heart. God approves of justice and mercy. It will be well with those who fear and obey him.

1James Russell Lowell, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Russell_Lowell

Monday, June 1, 2020

On Racism: A Personal Story and a Personal Plea

On Racism: A Personal Story and Personal Plea

by Tim Gunnells

Most of my life I have lived in the South except for a few years out West. My younger years were split between two Southern States that played pivotal roles in both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. I was born in South Carolina; our state fired the first shots of the Civil War. The place of my birth was a small city whose majority population was black. I am white.

The middle years of my youth were spent in two different, small towns in Alabama. The towns consisted of primarily two races: black and white. While the whites lived in various parts of the community, most blacks lived in specific sections. Those sections had names. Everyone knew them. The blacks and whites had names too.

I attended public school a decade or so after integration. I never knew what it was like to go to an all-white school, and I am very thankful. My life has been made richer by friendships with people of different races. My parents and grandparents treated people of all races with great respect and showed love in many ways. I am thankful for their good hearts and good example.

Racism was certainly alive in the South during my youth. However, racism was and is not isolated to one region of the United States. In fact, it is not isolated to the United States. Racism is a part of the human predicament. Hatred, prejudice, and fear are not isolated to one race, one region, or one culture.

Since I grew up in a home where racism was not exhibited and I had friends who were black, I did not grasp the extent that others experienced prejudice. I did not fully appreciate the need for Black History Month because “my” history had never been excluded from any books.

My understanding of the world began to change around my sophomore year of college when two black students approached me about participating in a Black History Program in our college’s chapel assembly. They asked me to lead singing for a chapel program. I was the only white person on the stage. When I asked them why they chose me to represent my race, they said, “Because you understand us.” To this day, I have no idea what they meant, but I took it as a genuine compliment. In later discussions, they talked about some of the racism that existed on our campus. Again, I was oblivious to it, but I was not the one facing it.

My wife and I married before she graduated from college. For a particular course, she had to interview a person of a different race about how they had been treated with prejudice. She interviewed one of my dear friends, a black man about 10 years older than me. He was a successful businessman, my fishing buddy, and a member of our church. The stories he told simply flabbergasted me. I never knew a black man who drove a Mercedes could get stopped by the police several times a month. (This is not a diatribe against the police. I have many family members and friends of many races who have served in law enforcement without prejudice.) I am simply saying that I was ignorant that people could be treated so differently because of the color of their skin. Ignorance and naivety can be nice places to live, and I had a comfortable home in both of them.

About a dozen years ago, one of my dear nieces married a black man (unfortunately they are now divorced). They have three precious boys together. To say those boys are beautiful would be quite an understatement. They are smart, strong, and kindhearted. They have also experienced mistreatment because they do not fit nicely into one race.

I also have an adopted nephew who is black. I love him dearly. His smile makes my heart smile. God has blessed our family in amazing ways because of my nephew and great nephews. As their uncle, I will protect them and show them love and stand up for them.

As a Southern, white male, no, as a human being, I am grateful to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others like him who helped to begin to change the world for the better. However, we all still have much work to do by treating all people with love, respect, and kindness. I believe I am most like my hero and savior, Jesus, when I do.

“And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26).

I sing this song with my children and I hope you do too. I hope you live it out by your actions as well.

          Jesus loves the little children,
          All the children of the world.
          Red and yellow, black and white,
          They are precious in His sight.
          Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Preacher: A Spiritual Man?

The Preacher: A Spiritual Man?

by Joel Stephen Williams

[Editor’s Note: The following article was originally published in Christian Bible Teacher in August 1989. It is reproduced here without any editing or updating. It is surprising to me, the author, how timely it still is more than thirty years later.]

What kind of man should a preacher be? With all of the recent scandals over immorality with televangelists, some assume most ministers have a shady side to them. The televangelist scandals are only the tip of the iceberg. Reports of immorality among preachers circulate with ever increasing frequency. The role of a minister is becoming more of a businessman than a man of God. Some of our training reflects this along with our hiring practices and the work environment. A modern preacher is a man who edits a bulletin, runs a photocopy machine, directs business meetings, and manages an office with its staff. Is this an adequate role for a gospel preacher? Are the essential elements of holiness being blurred?

A preacher should be a man of pure heart and conscience and a man of faith (1 Timothy 1:5,19). He should be a man of prayer (1 Timothy 2:1,8). He should be a man of sound doctrine, but not one devoted to petty arguments over trivialities (1 Timothy 1:3–7; 4:1–7; 6:20–21; 2 Timothy 2:14–16, 23; Titus 3:9). Godliness should be his aim (1 Timothy 4:7; 6:6). His conduct should be above reproach (1 Timothy 4:12). He should treat other people with proper tact and kindness (1 Timothy 5:1; Titus 3:2). His relationship with women should be one of complete purity (1 Timothy 5:2). He must be firm in rebuking sin and in preaching the truth (1 Timothy 5:20; 6:17–19; 2 Timothy 1:8, 13–14; 4:1–4; Titus 2:1–10, 15). He must not show favoritism (1 Timothy 5:21.). His leadership should be cautious and wise (1 Timothy 5:22).

A preacher should beware of becoming a greedy individual (1 Timothy 6:9–10). He should strive for righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness, and peace (1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22). He should always be concerned about keeping his reputation spotless (1 Timothy 6:14). If hardship is his lot in life, he should be willing to endure it (2 Timothy 2:3; 3:12; 4:5). The minister of God should put spiritual priorities first, rather than worldly pursuits and prestige (2 Timothy 2:4–7). His treatment of other people should be marked by kindness and humility, not a showing-off with arrogance (2 Timothy 2:24–25; Titus 3:2). He should be careful of the company he keeps (2 Timothy While education is worthwhile, a preacher should first and foremost be a man of THE book (2 Timothy 1;5; 2:15; 3:16–17).

I was told recently of a couple visiting another congregation. Their home congregation was between preachers, so they told the minister where they were visiting that the position was open. They asked him to pass that information along to any ministers whom he thought might be interested in the work. He asked a few questions about the work, the size of the congregation, location, salary, etc., and then arrogantly pronounced, “l do not know any preachers who would lower themselves to go there!” And this was not a struggling, small rural work of which he spoke, but a city congregation with a good eldership and an attendance of 400. Is the attitude he displayed that of a holy, devout man of God?

A minister called to inquire of an opening at a congregation. He asked only one question other than a general, “Tell me about the opening.” He only asked, “How much does it pay?' The only other comment he made was about how he had “outgrown” the smaller congregation with which he was working. He was too good for them now. Another minister moved to a different congregation and constantly bragged that he doubled his salary with the move, proudly predicting, “The next time I move, I will be getting over $100,000.” Elderships and congregations encourage this attitude. Larger congregations speak of their pulpit as a “big” pulpit and pursue the “right man” in terms of reputation and flashiness.

What is needed in ministerial training is a greater emphasis upon study of the Bible and devotion to God. Private devotion and prayer need to be a required part of the training. Professors need to be examples of and teachers of humility, simplicity, kindness, prayer, and spirituality. I have studied Bible under many teachers at five different universities. All of the men were intelligent and well-trained. By their example, however, some did not encourage my spiritual development. They had a cocky attitude and enjoyed showing off in front of students while jousting against windmills. Looking back, I have fonder feelings for those teachers who led us in prayer in class and dared to speak with emotion about their love for Jesus Christ as Lord.

Career goals of holiness, purity, and devotion to God should be primary for preachers, rather than knowing the right people, getting to speak at the right places, and building a career on selfishness and greed. Churches seeking a preacher should first inquire into a candidate's morality, his character, his faith, and his personal, inner devotion to God. I am still in shock by the first question of one eldership that was considering me for a work. They asked, “Steve, tell us how much time you spend in private in prayer.” They did not choose me, but I respect those elders to this day for their proper emphasis.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Civility: Ethical Leadership in the Church

Civility: Ethical Leadership in the Church

by Joel Stephen Williams

For a couple of decades now various research organizations have been reporting on the increase in political polarization in America, and many of the effects are harmful. Frank Newport cites research which shows that hostility and loathing of others influences voters more than loyalty to one’s own party. Anger is a primary means of motivating voters, which leads to negative campaigning. The sociological impact is “increasing disapprobation [moral condemnation, JSW] of one’s political opponents.” Newport says all of this has led to “skeptical views of institutions and social structures” that “skew us toward distrust, anger and internal infighting – not actionable efforts to fix problems and address threats.”1

Craig E. Johnson’s textbook on ethical leadership contrasts ethical ways for someone to argue in favor of a position versus unethical means. 2 Ethical ways to present one’s position include making assertions based on evidence and reason and arguing against the opponent’s case in the same manner. Unethical ways to argue include verbal aggressiveness which attacks other people rather than the stand they take on the issues. Aggressive tactics include competence attacks, character attacks, insults, teasing, ridicule, maledictions (wishing others harm), profanity, physical appearance attacks, threats, and nonverbal indicators that express hostility. We constantly see these in the public square.

“But that is politics. Why are you mentioning this in an article on church leadership,” someone may ask? I respond, “Merely notice how people in churches are talking and writing about others in conversations and in posts in social media, especially on religious or political topics.” We should all ask ourselves the question: “Have we allowed our culture to influence us more than we are trying to change our culture for good?”

What is Civility and
How is it Tied to Morality?

“Civility” shares the same etymology with words like “civilize,” “civilized,” and “civilization.” “Civility” refers to courtesy or politeness in one’s conduct. In the Christian sense Kerby Anderson recommends Jesus’s repetition of Leviticus 19:18 as a cardinal commandment for our guide in being civil: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39; NRSV). He explains: “If we truly love our neighbors, then we should be governed by moral standards that express concern for others and limit our own freedom. Perhaps the reason that civility is on the decline is that more and more people live for themselves and do not feel morally accountable to anyone (even God) for their actions or behavior.”3 He quotes Stephen Carter who also agrees on the root of the problem: “Rules of civility are thus also rules of morality; it is morally proper to treat our fellow citizens with respect, and morally improper not to. Our crisis of civility is part of a larger crisis of morality.”4 Changing our etiquette will not solve the problem. We need a moral and religious change.

What Civility Is Not

When civility is promoted, often someone will object because there is a misunderstanding about what civility entails. So, let us notice three things from Richard Mouw and one from James Calvin Davis that civility is not.

Civility is not relativism. Civility does not mean that you must agree with every idea that is promoted by everyone. As Richard Mouw argued, “Being civil doesn’t mean that we cannot criticize what goes on around us. Civility doesn’t require us to approve of what other people believe and do. It is one thing to insist that other people have the right to express their basic convictions; it is another thing to say that they are right in doing so.”5

Civility is not liking everyone. We are to love everyone, but biblical love and liking everyone is not the same thing. The key term for love in the New Testament (agapē) is defined as “the quality of warm regard for and interest in another.”6 While this term is used for the love of husbands and wives for one another and our love for God and Christ, remember that it is also used for the love we must have for our enemies (Matt 5:44). We need to seek what is in the best interest of everyone, whether we like them or not.

Civility is not an evangelistic strategy. “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18), but do not do it merely to try to get someone into the waters of the baptistry. Christians were “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone” (Titus 3:2), but do not do it just to give the appearance of being a gentleman or a lady so that maybe you will win debate points. “Honor everyone” (1 Pet 2:17), but again, do it with sincerity, not primarily to manipulate a hefty donation out of a rich person or to get a gift from a wealthy relative. Sincerity and honesty are virtues that should be practiced along with civility.

Finally, civility is not passivity. Civility is not sitting back and doing nothing in acquiescence. Davis borrows a metaphor from Os Guinness and compares civility to sportsmanship. Imagine two football teams that play a hard-fought game. There are plenty of hard hits and rough tackles, but there are no cheap shots or violations of the rules. One team wins and another team loses. The players are rivals, but they respect each other. Some of them hug each other and shake hands both before the game and after the game. That is good sportsmanship, and it is comparable to civility in religious discourse. We know we are not always going to agree. As Os Guinness put it, “What we are looking for [in civility] is not so much truths that can unite us as terms on which we can negotiate and by which we can live with the differences that divide us.” 7

Acting with Civility

The incarnation of Christ was the dawn of a new age for the world that meant light to replace the darkness so that we might be guided in the way of peace (Luke 1:79).8 Jesus taught, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50). Paul wrote, “Pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom 14:19). “Agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Cor. 13:11). On the negative side, he said, “You must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth” (Col 3:8), and “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29). So, in our interactions with others, especially non-Christians, Paul wrote, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (Col 4:6). From the apostle Peter we are told, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15–16). Do not behave like the world. Christian leaders, be a good example of gracious speech, seasoned with salt, and teach the flock the “way of peace.”

1 Frank Newport, “The Impact of Increased Political Polarization,” Gallup, 5 December 2019, https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/268982/impact-increased-political-polarization.aspx; cf. “Partisan Antipathy: More Intense, More Personal: Majority of Republicans say Democrats are ‘more unpatriotic’ than other Americans,” Pew Research Center, 10 October 2019, https://www.people-press.org/2019/10/10/partisan-antipathy-more-intense-more-personal/?utm_source=link_newsv9&utm_campaign=item_268982&utm_medium=copy

2 Craig E. Johnson, Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow, 6th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2018), 217–18.

3 Kerby Anderson, Christian Ethics in Plain Language (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2005), 34.

4 Anderson, Christian Ethics, 34–35.

5 Richard Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 22.

6 Frederick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 6.

7 Cited by James Calvin Davis, In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 161.

8 Just as we are unable in a short article to deal with every possible objection that might be raised (for example, what about the harsh criticism Jesus made of the Pharisees), likewise we cannot give a full definition of the biblical understanding of “peace.” The New Testament term (eirēnē) is defined by Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, 287–88, as (1) a state of concord or (2) a state of well-being.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Preach the Word!

Preach the Word

by Bill Bagents

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and kingdom, preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:1–2a).

A friend sent a heartbreaking email. After two months of “worshiping apart” due to the global pandemic and “stay at home” orders, the congregation resumed meeting in one place to worship God on the Lord’s Day. She had such hopes for the reunion. There would be extra opportunity to “draw near [to God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb 10:22) and to “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24). Faith would be bolstered by hearing the word of God (Rom 10:17). What a blessing to be back together in God’s name to God’s glory! What a blessing to hear God’s man speak God’s word to God’s people.

What was the heartbreak? The sermon began with a disclaimer—basically, “What I’m going to preach today is just my opinion. It’s certainly not binding on any of you.” Then, there were twenty-five minutes of opinion before God’s word was read. And more opinion followed.

Dashed Hopes

My friend met with the saints to worship the Lord, but she also came to be fed and encouraged. She came seeking a word from the Lord (Jer 37:17). She came because of her faith in the teachings of Jesus: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4, quoting Deut 8:3). She came because of her desire to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18). And the preacher let her down. He forgot the commission of 1 Peter 4:11, “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God.” He forgot the first words of 1 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the word!” He forgot the precious principle of 1 Corinthians 2:2, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” I’m not calling the error intentional, but he gave his word precedence over God’s word.

Our opinions can’t save. Our opinions can’t build faith. Our opinions can’t help people draw close to God. Only the clear, honest, and loving teaching of God’s word can accomplish those noble aims. The lesson is clear: If we’re going to preach, we must preach God’s truth. Nothing else compares. Nothing else even qualifies.

Failure to Discern the Time

We don’t mean to be harsh, but there was a second major issue with the preacher’s choice on that Sunday—he failed to discern the time; he failed to recognize and honor the opportunity unique to that day. Consider the array of appropriate topics and texts.

  • Preach the joys of worship (Psalm 122:1).
  • Preach the joys of reunion and face-to-face fellowship (Rom 1:11–12; 1 Thess 2:17 and 3:18).
  • Preach the raging uncertainties of life and the rock-solid consistency of God (Heb 13:8; Jas 1:17).
  • Preach God’s grace, mercy, and comfort (2 Cor 1:3–4).
  • Preach hope and love as defined by Jesus (Heb 6:13–20; 1 Cor 13; 1 John 3–4).

In the spirit of 1 Chronicles 12:32 and Ecclesiastes 3:1–8, be a teacher and a leader who “understands the times.” Rise to the occasion. Meet the need. Bring God’s word to bear. Don’t just preach what’s on your mind or what seems important to you (1 Pet 5:5–6). When God presents a HUGE opportunity, seize it to His glory! Trust the truth to sanctify and set free (John 8:31–32, 17:17). Trust God’s truth to do what human opinion can’t even begin to accomplish!

Bottom line—Preach the word, the whole word, and nothing but the word. Nothing else matters.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Sufficiency of Scripture and Christian Ministry

The Sufficiency of Scripture and Christian Ministry

by Joel Stephen Williams

A young man really likes a young lady he has taken out on a date, but he is unsure if she is the right one for him. He desires a good Christian marriage, so he prays to God for guidance. He decides to call the young lady three nights in a row at 7:00 p.m. to ask her for another date. If she accepts, he will take that as a sign from God that she is the one. If she does not answer, if the phone is busy, or if she declines, it will be God’s answer that he should keep looking. Another man is having doubts about the love of God, even wondering if God really exists. As he is walking out of his house, he notices a hawk descend onto a bush in his front yard. A small cardinal frantically flees from the bush and flies straight toward the young man as if it is looking for help, brushing against his chest, only to fly away to safety in a nearby tree.

What is Meant by the
Sufficiency of Scripture?

What do we mean by the sufficiency of Scripture, and how does it relate to the two imaginary stories I just told? As Wayne Grudem explains in his Systematic Theology, the sufficiency of Scripture means that the Bible contains everything we need God to tell us for salvation and for trusting and obeying Him perfectly (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994; 127). Timothy Ward describes this as the “material aspect of the sufficiency of Scripture,” which “declares that Scripture contains everything necessary to be known for salvation” (“Reconstructing the Doctrine of the Sufficiency of Scripture,” Tyndale Bulletin 52 [2001]: 157). Dennis W. Jowers contends that the sufficiency of Scripture satisfies four conditions (“The Sufficiency of Scripture and the Biblical Canon,” Trinity Journal 30, no. 1 [Spring 2009]: 49).

  1. It contains all of the articles one must believe to attain salvation.
  2. It contains all precepts one must obey in order to live piously before God.
  3. It is sufficiently perspicuous [easy to understand, JSW] to convey this information to an attentive reader.
  4. It is self-authenticating.

Paul reminded Timothy that from childhood he had “been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15–17 ESV; cf. Psalm 19:7–14). “Sacred writings,” which probably referred to the OT with their prophecies of the Messiah, were able to instruct Timothy “for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” “All Scripture” is useful for “training in righteousness.” William D. Mounce in his Pastoral Epistles explains that the “ultimate purpose of Scripture’s inspiration” is expressed with a play on words in Greek in this text by the apostle Paul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000; 570–71). By means of Scripture, everyone could be “complete” (artios) and “equipped for every good work” (exsartizō). According to Frederick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon, the Greek word artios is defined as to be “well fitted for some function” or “able to meet all demands,” while exsartizō means “to make ready for service” (3rd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000; 136, 347). Scripture is sufficient to instruct us in every way for salvation and righteous living.

What is the Significance of the Sufficiency
of Scripture for Christian Ministry?

What are some implications and consequences of the sufficiency of Scripture? First, the sufficiency of Scripture, along with related truths—the inspiration, authority, clarity, and infallibility of Scripture—means that in our doctrinal and ethical teaching, we should turn first and last to the Bible. Peter wrote, “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20–21). When we read Scripture, we are not reading mere opinions of human beings, but God’s viewpoint, God’s will on the most important matters of life.

Second, the sufficiency of Scripture does not suggest that we should abandon the use of reason or sound methods of interpretation in studying the Bible. Some ways of using the Bible, some methods of biblical interpretation, and some resulting interpretations are better than others. We would be wise to consider carefully what others have said or written about the biblical text, taking advantage of good Bible study tools to check our thinking against that of others.

Third, although Scripture is sufficient to instruct us regarding salvation and righteous living, proper application of biblical teaching will need to be made to circumstances of life that are continually changing. The foundational principles that we use in our analysis of problems—such as love, justice, holiness, righteousness, purity, and honesty—will continue to be the same, because God’s character does not change (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8), and human nature is no different than it was in the days of Adam and Eve. For example, we must answer dilemmas in medical ethics that were unknown to earlier generations, but the teaching of the Bible is sufficient for us to construct a medical-ethics theology for making appropriate decisions.

Fourth, the sufficiency of Scripture provides us with an objective standard for what we need to know to be saved and how to live morally, spiritually, and religiously to be pleasing to God. We do not need to look to random events of life or inner feelings in hopes of finding additional guidance or signs from God. It is inconsistent to claim that the Scriptures are one’s sole authority for faith and practice, when in reality supplementary guidance is constantly being sought by various subjective means.

Seeking God’s Will

Finally, what does the sufficiency of the Scripture have to do with the two fictional stories with which this article began? Did the young lady answer the phone when the young man called to ask her out for another date? No. She did not answer the phone three nights in a row, so he believed God had given him a sign to look for someone else. Later, the young lady saw the young man and asked him why he never called her for another date. He explained what had transpired. She told him she was attending a gospel meeting every night that week. He suddenly realized that she was a good Christian lady like he wanted to date. He thought, “Why did God guide me away from her?” Then he wondered, “Maybe God is leading me to her now?” This young man’s extra-biblical method of seeking God’s will was thoroughly subjective and contradictory.

In the second story, as the young man watched the bird fly to safety, he had a sense of calm come over him. He thought to himself, “God is giving me a sign that He exists and that He loves me. God saved that little bird. Surely God must love me even more than He loves that bird.” A few days later, though, the young man saw the feathers of a mockingbird in his back yard. Likely the hawk had caught it and eaten it on the spot. He wondered, “Is God giving me a different sign now?” The second young man’s approach to seeking guidance from God was just as subjective and contradictory as the first young man. Neither approach was capable of producing assuring results.

The problem with both of these young men was that they were looking in the wrong place and in the wrong manner for guidance from God. Instead of looking to chance occurrences or searching their inner feelings, subjectively guessing at what God might be saying, hoping for an answer to a prayer, both of them needed to open their Bibles to study the Scriptures. The first young man should have searched his Bible for principles of a happy marriage relationship, behaved accordingly, and then looked patiently for a good Christian mate, but not through reading spiritual tea leaves or praying for signs from heaven. The second young man needed to look no further than the clear teachings of the Bible to know whether or not the God who exists loves mankind. What more could God say or do to prove His love for us than what He has already done through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

Both of these stories could be rewritten with numerous conflicting endings. I know of several real-life stories similar to these and have read many others (e.g., see Garry Friesen, with J. Robin Maxson, Decision Making and the Will of God, rev. ed. [Portland: Multnomah, 2004]). We are not inspired prophets or apostles like Isaiah or Paul. Searching for divine guidance from what are likely random, chance events or nothing more than fleeting feelings in our hearts is a rejection of Scripture’s sufficiency and an embracing of a contradictory, subjective standard for truth. In ministry, let us point people to the Scriptures as we teach them sound methods of Bible interpretation. Let us try to be as objective as we can, always listening to the advice of wise counselors. There are many excellent tools available for all who are involved in ministry, but when it comes to knowing what we must do to be saved and to live a life that is pleasing to God, we should always rely on the objective standard found in the inspired, authoritative, and infallible Scriptures, which are sufficient to instruct us for salvation and for righteous living.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Let it Shine!

Let it Shine!

by Justin Imel

I once knew a minister who set an extremely poor example in the small town where he preached. If he received the wrong change in a grocery store, he’d throw a fit that would make a temperamental, spoiled child look sane. If he went to the hospital and someone had parked in the lone “clergy” spot without the appropriate sticker designating the driver as a minister, he would ask everyone in the waiting room who had dared park in his spot. You can imagine the reputation he gave the church and even the reputation he gave the Father.

Jesus expects us to give his Father a great reputation through the way we live: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16; NRSV).

We don’t light our lamps to spotlight our good deeds. We don’t seek the accolades of our peers. We don’t post our good deeds on Facebook or Instagram for “likes.” We do good to shine a light away from ourselves and onto our Father in heaven.

How can we let our lights shine?

One: We imitate Jesus.

If we want to let our lights shine, we must imitate Jesus, for he is the light of the world (John 1:9; 8:12). If we want to bring glory to our Father, we see to walk as Jesus did. Paul urged the Corinthians: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). The Corinthians didn’t need to follow Paul for the sake of following a famous apostle, but they were to follow him in the way he followed Christ.

Two: We watch what we say.

“Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world” (Philippians 2:14-15). If we want to allow our lights to shine in this dark and dying world, we must go through life “without murmuring and arguing.” Complaining is the way of the world. Log on to Facebook and see how many people complain about their circumstances from day to day. Go to work and hear how many people complain about what the boss just asked them to do. Go to school and hear your fellow students complain about an assignment.

Such is not the way of Jesus. Be different. Stand out. Do all without murmuring and arguing and shine like a star.

Three: We live differently from the world.

Again, notice Philippians 2:14-15—We shine like stars as we are “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish.” If we’re just like the world, there will be no letting our light shine. Be different and point people to Jesus. Be different at work, at school, and at home.

Four: We live intentionally.

What Jesus says we’re to do cannot happen by accident. Instead, we live intentionally. We determine that we’re going to let our lights shine, and we see every day how best we can do that. Tomorrow morning, before you even get out of bed, ask yourself, “What can I do today to let my light shine?” Then, let your light shine in a big way.

Are you letting your light shine? May God bless you as you seek to point a light to him.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Raising the Bar of Discipleship

Raising the Bar of Discipleship

by Tim Gunnells

A couple of years ago I was invited to moderate a panel discussion at the Church Involvement Conference in Athens, Tennessee. The panel related to Millennials and the practice of faith, or reaching them and keeping them. The primary message that stood out with universal agreement from the panelists is that Millennials (and younger generations) desire to be challenged and not coddled. The younger generations appear to have more in common with the Greatest Generation than the Generation Xers (my generation) and the Boomers. Yet, it is these last two generations that are in leadership in most churches, thus, the apparent disconnect.

Millennials and their younger counterparts, it seems, take Jesus’s admonition to “take up your cross daily” pretty seriously (Luke 9:23). They aren’t pushing to jettison all traditions or make wholesale changes to worship practices, but they do deeply desire a more profound and sincere approach to following Jesus. They take the Greatest Commands (Matthew 22:34-40) to heart, they want to see sincerity and genuineness, and they seek real community. That all sounds really good to me!

Raising the Bar

This all got me thinking back to a phrase I have heard throughout my life that I saw illustrated first-hand: “raising the bar”. What exactly does that mean, and what does it have to do with the Bible, church leadership, and reaching and keeping the younger generations for Christ?

While my daughter was in high school, she worked with a pole vault coach who won an Olympic Gold Medal in the sport. His name is Tim Mack, and he won in the games in Athens, Greece. He was in his 30s when he won, and he had failed to make the team twice before. What he discovered and what I saw play out in his coaching sessions is this, you have to literally raise the bar higher if you ever expect to go higher. In my daughter’s case, and in the case of her fellow athletes, he would raise the bar sometimes when they weren’t even hitting the current height he thought they could reach, and they would go much higher. What he relayed to me is that athletes will usually only try to hit the height of the bar where it is placed and not go much higher. In so doing, they will often fail to even hit the lower mark. Interesting, isn’t it?

The Hebrew writer, in Hebrews 12, upped the ante in his challenge and encouragement to his readers to stay true to Jesus and keep the faith. He moved on from Moses and the other heroes of the Faith and went to Jesus instead. He held Jesus up as the example of perseverance and success and suggested that they hadn’t even “resisted to the point of shedding blood” (Hebrews 12:1-4). Talk about raising the bar!

Church Leaders and Expectations

So, maybe we have failed the younger generations by not expecting enough from them when it comes to discipleship. Perhaps we have tried to fashion things like we think they would like for them to be, or just force them into a model of ministry that we like better, instead of truly embracing the truths of Scripture to deny our self and take up our cross.

I would encourage you, as an individual, to raise the level of expectation you have for yourself in following Jesus. I would encourage church leaders to raise the level of expectation and paint a genuine picture of discipleship in your churches. I would encourage Millennials and younger generations to help us see what we are missing that would do more to raise the bar of expectations for all of us.

“Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12)