Living a Life of Thanks

Our world is in trouble isn’t it? It just seems like everything has become a huge mess. Everywhere we look we see conflicts of all kinds. People destroying other people with bullets and bombs, people bent on conflict and retaliation, countries rattling their sabers threatening reprisals and military action, political pundits throwing verbal grenades at various people groups and at each other, broken personal relationships, domestic violence and abuse, marriages and families being destroyed through divorce, and all the while our children are being forced to grow up way too soon as they are neglected and abused.

Our media doesn’t help. Much of our television, music, movies, and online content has distorted God’s good creation through making the absurd and perverse the standard. Dysfunctional relationships and families are made out to be acceptable and normative. Social media outlets are filled with jabs and jibes of destructive rhetoric and rants promoting every possible view with no grace toward any opposing view whatsoever. People are left angry, frustrated, literarily assaulted, defriended and alone, holding on to grudges as they stare into painful screens of narcissistic one-ups-manship in what Viktor Frankl observed as the “existential void” of man’s search for meaning.

The upheaval and chaos of strained relationships

In my mind, at the heart of all of this upheaval and chaos throughout our world is humanity’s inability to forgive and restore one another. Even in our community there are many family relationships that are strained and broken because of unresolved issues of forgiveness. Perhaps there is conflict in your family. Perhaps you have a strained or broken relationship with your mother, father, son, daughter, or some other extended family member.

Perhaps you are experiencing unresolved conflict with your spouse and even now you are trying to figure a way out of your marriage. Perhaps you are having trouble forgiving people who have hurt you time and time again in the past and now you have become cold and embittered toward them. Perhaps there are people at your place of work, school or even in your church who you are relationally separated from because there exists an unresolved issue of forgiveness between the two of you.

We are in desperate need of wise counsel from God’s Word in order to learn how we should live our lives the way God intended for us to live. We can learn a lot about forgiveness through what Jesus had to say about it. In the Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel, Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive Him? Up to seven times?” At first glance it seems that Peter was simply asking Jesus, “Forgiving someone seven times is pretty good isn’t it? Surely, there’s a limit on the forgiveness that we extend to people who have offended us, right?” I’m sure Peter thought he was being quite religious, benevolent, and even spiritual by extending forgiveness to someone “up to seven times.”

Getting the math right

But, how did Jesus reply? In the following verse Jesus said “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Can you imagine the look on Peter’s face when he heard this? Basically, Jesus informs Peter, “Dude, you have the decimal in the wrong place, try forgiving 490 times.”

Upon seeing Peter’s reaction, Jesus brought the point home to Peter by launching into a parable about a king who began to settle accounts with his subjects. One man was found to owe the king an incredible amount of money and was subject to being sold into slavery. The man had no ability to pay the debt and so he fell on his knees and begged the king for mercy saying, “have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Unexpectedly, out of compassion for the man, the king forgave the man the entire debt.

Now wouldn’t it have been great if this story ended here? A man had a huge debt that he couldn’t repay and then he was wonderfully forgiven this debt and he went on his merry way and lived happily ever after, with great gratitude and appreciation toward the king and everyone he came in contact with. But that didn’t happen. When the man went out from the king he found one of his fellow countrymen who owed him a very small amount of money and he “seized him and began to choke him, saying, “pay back what you owe.” His fellow countryman begged the man with the same words with which the man himself had begged the king just a few moments before, “have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” But the man would not forgive the countryman his debt. As Jesus explains, when the king heard about the man’s treatment of his countryman, he was outraged. The moral of the parable is we need to be completely forgiving of others based on the complete forgiveness we have received from God.

Washed whiter than snow

By the way, this is exactly what Jesus Christ has done for you if you have put your faith and trust in Him as your personal Lord and Savior. Like the man in the parable, we owe a debt that we can’t pay. But the good news is Jesus took upon Himself our debt of sin, shame, and guilt and paid our penalty of death, the debt that we should have paid for our sins. The Bible states that as we put our faith and trust in Jesus our debt of sin is removed from us as far as the east is from the west and our hearts are washed whiter than snow whereby we are completely forgiven by God’s grace.

We need to understand that by putting our faith and trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior we have received unmerited favor from Him as He completely forgives our entire debt of sin through dying in our place once and for all. Because of Jesus’ love and compassion toward us we really should be living lives that demonstrate thanksgiving toward God and forgiveness toward others in every way.

How can we receive so much forgiveness from God and then turn around and not be forgiving of others? Is your life a demonstration of forgiveness toward others based on your gratitude to God for His wonderful gift of forgiveness? Or are you still holding on to your grudges? Collect postage stamps, coins, if you wish, but don’t collect grudges. Lay your grudge aside. Return to your King and seek His forgiveness. Go and grudge no more.

A man once made the comment to John Wesley, “I never forgive.” Mr. Wesley wisely replied, “Then, sir, I hope you never sin.” What a different world it would be if we all lived our lives in a way that demonstrated a forgiving spirit toward others out of a great thanksgiving to God for the forgiveness we have received through faith in Christ.

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The Church – So Many Churches – The Anabaptists

Within 10 years of Martin Luther’s now famous declaration against the Catholic Church that sparked the Protestant Reformation, other voices began to emerge. These voices called for an even stronger separation from the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther had certainly called for a simpler faith, but for many his reforms against the Catholic Church just did not go far enough. By the 1520s the Protestant Reformation was in full swing. But for at least one group of devote Swiss Christians a desire to adhere to ardently biblical principles for faith and practice was forcing a new controversy.

In January 1525 the city council of Zurich had ordered that Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz stop leading their own Bible classes within the community.  The city council had already warned that parents who did not baptize their babies within eight days of their birth would face banishment from the city. As several men of the city gathered together to sort out what to do with this growing coercion and interference by the state into the affairs of church members it became increasingly clear that something had to be done.

After a time of prayer, one of the men in the group, a former priest, asked Conrad Grebel if he would baptize him in the tradition of the apostolic forefathers. Just as the Ethiopian eunuch had requested to be baptized by Philip in the book of Acts, now grown men who had been baptized as infants were wanting to be baptized as adults to publicly demonstrate their personal faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. In essence, these men where wanting to be re-baptized for their faith in Christ. Thus, the Anabaptist movement began.

For the most part, the Anabaptists demurred their new “Anabaptist” title since they didn’t believe the baptism they received as infants counted for anything. They much preferred to be called “Baptists.” For most of them, however, the fundamental issue was not baptism but rather the concern over the church’s relationship with civil government.

For the Anabaptists, the religious requirements that were being imposed on the people by the state were undermining the essence of true faith-based Christianity. In their view, how could someone freely follow Jesus at the point of a civil sword? People were being forced to attend church and participate in church life by the government which in the end was undermining a real adherence to genuine faith in Christ.

Luther had taught that people should be able to study the Bible for themselves, but now as the Anabaptists looked to the Scriptures they saw a different world for how the early followers of Christ practiced their faith. Even though Luther had called for reform, the Lutheran churches were still arms of the government. For the Anabaptists, the Christianity of the Bible was a religion of authenticity and freedom and not a religion of governmental coercion or manipulation.

With this new rebellion against civil government, the authorities moved swiftly to banish these Anabaptists from the territory. But when that action seemed to be of little effect to slow the Anabaptists down a new edict was enforced which called for the sentence of death by drowning. “Apparently their thought was ‘if the heretics want water, let them have it.’” Subsequently, major persecution against the Anabaptists ensued and thousands of ardent, humble and faithful followers of Jesus Christ were put to death. But even this persecution wouldn’t slow the movement down. If anything, it just added fuel to the fire.

As time passed, the Anabaptist movement attracted other men with strong convictions. Men like Menno Simons (the Mennonites) and Jacob Hutter (the Hutterites) along with John Yoder and Alan Kreider who helped to solidify and then codify the beliefs of the Anabaptists. 1) Discipleship – For the Anabaptists, the call to follow Jesus Christ should be a call that is demonstrated in every area of life through faithful obedience to Christ. 2) Love – These Anabaptists were motivated to love others without the use of force. They would neither go to war nor defend themselves as they practiced a loving pacifism toward their enemies. This love was also demonstrated through how the community of believers shared and cared for people within and without the church.  3)  Congregationalism – This was seen through how the Anabaptists governed themselves as a church. Each member of the church was a freely baptized believer in Jesus Christ and was therefore “a priest to fellow believers and a missionary to nonbelievers.” The entire membership helped to determine the tenets of faith and practice for the church.  4) Separation of church and state – Faith is a free gift from God apart from state intrusion or coercion.   

Many other churches have followed after the tradition of the early Anabaptists. Denominational relatives of the Anabaptists would include the Baptists of course, Quakers, Amish, Mennonites and loosely the Congregationalists. It seems that throughout history any time the church moves away from the simple teaching of Scripture, controversy and conflict ensues. One group argues for a liberal view of the Scripture while another argues for a more conservative view. No wonder those outside the church look at the church and shrug their shoulders. How can there be a message of peace, harmony and love in the midst of such controversy, cruelty destruction and hatred over the centuries. But couldn’t it be said that just because there is controversy within the church, doesn’t mean that there isn’t any truth to the claims of Christianity?

There are a lot of things within the church that are up for debate and in some cases there are heated disagreements and arguments, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t yet an absolute truth to discover and consider. For example, with regard to what’s known as the “freshmen fallacy,” I might ask you, “how many socks do I have in my sock drawer in my bedroom.” After surveying many people I’m sure that I would get all kinds of suggestions and opinions about the matter. But just because there are a lot of different opinions about how many socks are in my sock drawer doesn’t mean that there isn’t an absolute answer to the question. We could simply examine the sock drawer and see for ourselves how many socks are actually in it. Similarly, just because there are many different viewpoints about Christianity doesn’t mean there aren’t essential absolute truths about its claims. Perhaps we need to do some examining or even reexamining of the data of Scripture for ourselves before we are able to draw a conclusion about it. Perhaps you need to see for yourself what Christ intended for the world as you examine the evidence for Christianity in the pages of the Bible. In the context of being cleansed from sin the Scripture calls us to “come let us reason together.” Where is the healthy and constructive dialogue in the church that we should be demonstrating to a lost and hurting world? We need to come together as the body of Christ to find our unity in the essentials of the Gospel and our grace and charity in the non-essentials. Don’t worry. I won’t make you look in my sock drawer.

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The Church – So Many Churches – The Great Reformation

With the “Great Schism” of 1054 the church was divided theologically, geographically and linguistically. To the East with the Greek language went those who were rejecting Rome’s authority. In the West with the Latin language went those who remained loyal to the pope in Rome. By this time all sorts of rivalries and factions began to assail the Roman Church, some from within and some from without. Over the next 400 years, rival popes would vie for placement and authority within the church while externally the church was burdened with pushing back the emerging onslaught of the Ottoman Empire under a new religion, Islam.

With the East/West divide and its various disputes and rivalries, some began to think that the overall leadership of the church had somehow become corrupt. The likes of John Wycliffe in England along with the Czech reformer John Hus began to point out the pope’s inconsistencies and extravagances. In the 1300s and early 1400s these two reformers began protesting against the Roman Catholic Church as they began to see the pope’s authority and rule as Antichrist. They called for a return to a simpler faith that focused on Jesus and none other as being the head of the church. They longed for a faith that resembled the faith and practice of the early disciples of Jesus and not what the Catholic Church had become under papal rule with all its pomp and encumbrances. Of course the Catholic Church saw these men as threats and moved to silence their voices. With Wycliffe’s popularity, little could be done save expulsion from the University at Oxford. His followers suffered great persecution and yet he died in peace in 1384. But the Church had Hus imprisoned, and eventually he was burned to death on 6 July, 1415.

Of course, the views of these men would not die with them: Other voices rose up and began to complain and rail against the errors and excesses of the Roman Catholic Church. One such voice was that of Martin Luther, and his voice would ultimately be the voice that led to the rise of what is now called The Great Reformation (1517-1648). Under the protestant reformation, men like Luther believed there were different answers to four key questions that the Catholic Church held to. American Theologian Bruce Shelley suggests that the “the four questions that Protestantism answered in a new way were: (1) How is a person saved? (2) Where does religious authority lie? (3) What is the church? And (4) what is the essence of Christian living?”

Luther, who himself had actually gone through the rigors of becoming a Catholic priest, was now finding himself in great opposition with the Catholic Church with regard to his answers to these questions.  Racked with guilt over his own sin and rebellion against a holy and righteous God, he began to despair that there was nothing he could do by way of the sacraments of the Church that would dispel the just wrath of God against his sin and rebellion. “Finally, in 1515 while pondering St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans Luther came upon the words: ‘For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Luther was transformed by finally understanding the truth that he was saved by God’s sheer grace toward him through his own personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Shelley continues “Luther saw it clearly now. Man is saved only by his faith in the merit of Christ’s sacrifice. The cross alone can remove man’s sin and save him from the grasp of the devil.” Luther’s revelation was that it was faith alone that saved men not mere external adherence to the sacraments of the church. This view was in great conflict with the Roman Catholic Church’s view of faith and good works which included “virtuous works, acceptance of church dogma and participation in church ritual.”

Luther became increasingly intolerant of the Catholic Church’s manipulation and “enslavement” of people under the burdensome yoke of reparations for sin through acts of penance that included: the uttering of prayers, the giving of alms or the paying of indulgences. In his view, the Church’s requirement that people needed to confess their sin to a local priest whereby the priest would then assign personal penance to complete payment for sin was outrageous.  In other words, if the Gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ meant that Jesus had paid for all of our sin on the cross, it certainly was not good news that we still had to pay somehow. On the other hand, if Jesus really had paid for our sin on the cross, once and for all, that wouldn’t just be Good News, that would be fantastic and incredible news.   

In 1517 Luther drew up 95 propositions against the Roman Catholic Church and nailed it on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg as a public notice. Within a short time, opposition to Luther’s views began to surface. And in June of 1520 Pope Leo X issued his bull that condemned Luther and his views, giving him 60 days to recant.

In his trial, known as the Diet of Worms in Germany, Luther refused to recant any of his protestations against the Catholic Church with this simple argument:  Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”     

Even though his life would be threatened and he was defrocked as a priest by the Catholic Church, Luther was never detoured in his effort to proclaim what he believed to be the truth of the Gospel. Thus, the Protestant Reformation was established along with other voices that came after him including John Calvin, Theodore Beza, John Knox, Peter Martyr, William Tyndale and Huldrych Zwingli.

The determination of these men over against the Catholic Church helped to bring about what is known today as the the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Church. This Protestant movement would eventually bring about the Anglicans, the Baptists, the Congregationalists, the Methodists and the Pentecostals. More on that later.

To me it is sad to think that the very thing that should bring unity within the church, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is now the very thing that separates. It doesn’t appear that the protest is over nor will it be over any time soon. Yet, I’m still hopeful that what Paul wrote would be the case for the church. “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” As the church, we have much to do in striving toward preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

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The Church – So Many Churches – East and West

Early on in its existence the church enjoyed a great deal of unity. You’re right, it wasn’t without controversy, heated debates and discussions as the early church endeavored to hammer out the major tenets of its faith and practice. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until the summer of the year 1054 before the first major division occurred within the church. Quite frankly, it is rather impressive that the church endured almost a thousand years before its first major split.

The division within the church that took place that year also seems rather understandable in retrospect. Over the first millennia of the church, a growing divide took place within the church geographically, linguistically and theologically. In the West was the language of Latin and the church capital of Rome. In the East was the language of Greek and the church capital of Constantinople. The foundations for this geographic divide within the church were laid as early as 395 when Emperor Theodosius the Great divided his realm between his two sons, Honorious in the West and Arcadius in the East. Earlier, Constantine, having been helped in battle by what he believed to be the Christian God, converted to Christianity and established the new capital of the Roman Empire at Constantinople. As Constantine established the use of councils at Nicaea to ensure the doctrinal unity of the church, there slowly emerged one doctrinal difference that neither East nor West could overcome.

For the West the church saw the Gospel as a legal matter that Christ remedied on the cross by paying for the sins of His people. Legally, sin had separated men from God and the just wrath of God against man’s sin and rebellion was seen to have been appeased by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. Through faith and through the adherence to the sacraments of the church, a parishioner could find favor with God and be restored judiciously and reconciled relationally to God. The themes of repentance, faith, penance and justification became central to western Catholicism.  

However, for the East the focus was on man being made in God’s image. Man was seen as carrying the very icon (image) of God within himself. Thus sin had merely tarnished that image before a holy and righteous God. The Gospel was seen as the way for mankind to restore the image (icon) that had been maligned within man through the fall. Salvation consisted of God’s restoration of this fallen image of God within man. So the themes of rebirth, recreation and the transfiguration of man became central to eastern Orthodoxy.

This theological difference came to a head over the use of images (icons) within the church. For the East the use of icons in worship became the centerpiece of reverence for God’s holiness. The icons were seen as a gateway or window into the realm of the holy and spiritual. However, in the West the establishment of revering and reverencing holy men (saints) and holy objects (relics) became the center pieces of worship and reverence. From the perspective of the West, the East’s usage of icons (images) in worship was a form of idolatry that God’s Word strictly forbade in the Ten Commandments. The West became iconoclasts (image breakers) in their determination to remove idol worship from the church.

In 1054 with the conflict of the iconoclasts in the background along with other trivial disagreements Cardinal Humbert along with two other representatives from Pope Leo IX delivered a Bull (an official papal document) of excommunication to the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople and thus the first great ecclesiastical schism was established. The church was now officially divided West and East.

In the West the Roman Catholics continued in unity unabated until the Great Reformation of the1500s. In the East, over the years the Eastern Orthodox Church grew into several different geographical namesakes including: Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Macedonian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, etc. Currently Moscow is the center city for the orthodox world.

A few years ago I visited a small orthodox church near St. Augustine, Florida. (Ironically, St. Augustine is where the Catholic Church is said to have established the first catholic parish in America.) While visiting this little church I ran across some Orthodox Church literature that defended the Orthodox Church over against Catholicism in general. Essentially, their claim to fame was “We were the church before the Catholics were.”

Even though I think they meant this in all seriousness, I couldn’t help but smile. I tried to imagine how Jesus might have handled these two “sons of thunder” as He had handled the original “sons of thunder,” James and John, who rivaled to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in His new Kingdom.  Perhaps Jesus would respond the same way he responded to James and John. “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but who ever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church at large, East and West, could set its differences aside and begin serving each other as Christ intended from the beginning? Unfortunately, at this point it doesn’t seem likely until such time as Jesus returns. We might not be able to find unity this side of eternity, but we can still overcome our differences by serving each other. As the church, we still have a lot of serving to do.

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The Church – So many Different Churches

“Catholics, Lutherans and Baptists, Oh my!!!” As we have seen, all Christian churches should have much in common in terms of their biblically mandated three-fold purpose of worship, nurture and outreach. Yet, even with this common purpose, over the centuries the church has been divided into hundreds of fragmented splinter groups. This is a global phenomenon, with each group claiming to hold the essence of Christianity with respect to faith and practice. Arguably there should be a lot more unity within the church than is apparent. Even so, there are still tenants of faith that seem to be held overall as the essence of Christian belief.

Some of the central truths that most Christian churches hold to include: the existence of God in a Trinitarian form of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, man’s adherence to God’s written revelation to man which is the Bible, the fall of man through sin and rebellion against God, the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ, salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, the general sacraments or ordinances of the church including baptism and communion or Eucharist, the future return of Jesus Christ to rule and judge the earth, eternal destinies of heaven for the believer and hell for the unbeliever. Again these tenants are extremely general and even some churches would take exception with some of these. Some would argue that there are really more central tenants that the church at large should hold to while others would suggest that there are fewer.

With so much in common why then is there so much division within the church? To work through this question we really need to go back and unpack some church history. The first major disagreement within the church is documented within the New Testament. The book of Acts and some of Paul’s letters to various churches seem to address an early conflict regarding what it really means to be a Christian. Since most of the early Christians were Jews many within the church suggested that to become a Christian, a person would first need to conform completely to Judaism. This conformity included participating in the right of circumcision, abstaining from various foods and keeping various festivals and holidays. Through the apostle Peter’s vision in the book of Acts, the dietary restrictions were lifted for the church, and through the apostle Paul’s confrontation of Peter the right of circumcision was rescinded. In other words, the early church came to early agreement that to become a Christian a person did not have to conform to Judaism. In essence the early church clearly determined that the Gospel of Jesus Christ wasn’t just for the Jews, but it was for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.

Further, dividing points within the early church included discussions about what books of the Bible should be included (canonized) and which should be left out, what is the essence of Trinitarian belief (Is God three in one: Father, Son and Holy Spirit?) and in particular what is the nature of the person of Jesus Christ (Is He divine or human or both?). As early as the 200s the New Testament was already taking shape and by 367AD Athanasius had cataloged the list of the New Testament books that we have today.

By the late 300s, the doctrine of the Trinity for the church was well established over against Arius’ view that the Christ was not of the same essence as the Father. At the exclusion of the Arians, the church moved forward holding to Trinitarianism which became a core doctrine of Christianity. Under this doctrine, there is but one God who has been made manifest through the coeternal persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God was said to be one in essence and three in person.

With respect to the nature of Jesus Christ it took four major church councils to fully articulate what would become the foremost doctrinal center piece of Christianity. In 325AD, the council of Nicea proclaimed that Christ is fully divine. In 381AD, the council of Constantinople proclaimed that Christ is fully human. You see where this is going. In 431AD, the council of Ephesus put forward that the Christ is a unified person. And in 451AD, the council of Chalcedon argued that the Christ is human and divine in one person. Thus, it was determined from Biblical authority that the mystery of the Gospel was that Christ was one person with two natures, divine and human.

Through establishing these rallying points for the church so early on in its existence the church began to grow and spread rapidly. By the 300s the church had already spread westward to Britannia, eastward to India and southwest to much of North Africa. Through the demise of the Roman Empire the church really took off and grew in leaps and bounds across Europe. There was much persecution against the church, but the persecution only served to fuel the further growth of the church.

Some of the sensational accusations against the early church included claims of cannibalism and sexual orgies. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Because the Eucharist included the idea of consuming the body and blood of Christ through partaking of the bread and the cup through the Eucharist, understandably, some people thought the church was associated with strange pagan cannibalistic rituals. On top of this, the early gatherings of the church were often called “love feasts” where each member of the church greeted each other with a “holy kiss.” But the slander against the church over this was so horrendous that the early church quickly abandoned the practice of the “holy kiss.” And the only love feast that was taking place was that the followers of Christ enjoyed great fellowship through taking their meals together. But for the most part the church continued to grow with almost reckless abandon.

This growth took place because of the impassioned belief that God had intervened in history through the person of Jesus Christ bringing with Him the hope of forgiveness, salvation and redemption. The Gospel was touching the hearts of people who were in great need of hope in a dark and dismal world. Early Christians were incredibly loving and self-sacrificing often taking care of people who no one else would. Lastly, the persecution of the early church also provided the lightning rod for rallying to the aid of a great cause.

These same attributes should be at the heart of the church today. Today’s church needs to continue to remind the world that God has intervened in history. And that the good news of forgiveness, salvation and redemption has been made available through faith in Jesus Christ. Because of Christ’s love for us, Christians should be the most loving and self-sacrificing people in the world. This kind of Christ-like love should be pouring out of church sancturaries and into the streets of our world. The apostle Paul asserts that the world will know that we are Christians by our love. Oh, that we would love the way that Christ has loved us. As the church, we still have a lot of loving to do.

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The Church – Mercy and Outreach

What is the purpose of the church? We have already discussed two of the three main purposes of the church. First, the church is made up of people who freely worship God through their corporate expression of appreciation and praise for God’s provision of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the ministry of worship. Second, the church is made up of people who are in the process of creating an environment where people can be encouraged and built up in their faith. This is the ministry of nurture. Lastly, the church is made up of people who have been sent out into the world to be a savory influence in the lives of people through meeting the spiritual and physical needs of people. This is the ministry of mercy and outreach. The spiritual needs of people are met through evangelism and outreach while the physical needs are met through the exercise of mercy, compassion and care.

Over the past two centuries a crisis arose over whether the spiritual care or the physical care of people was more essential for the church. In the late 1800s as the church encountered mounting pressure to recant its adherence to the miraculous and extravagant supernatural claims of the Bible, the church began to waffle in its convictions toward meeting the spiritual needs of people. “Modern Science” had thrown out anything that smacked of the supernatural and mystic claiming that all events should be able to be explained by way of the natural laws that seem to pervasively govern our existence. The essence of the struggle suggested that since the so called supernatural and spiritual realm of our existence could not be tested nor submitted to the scientific method of investigation, then, therefore, perhaps the supernatural and spiritual world didn’t really exist. And if that is the case, man’s biggest problem wasn’t spiritual as the church had asserted for almost two millennia but rather man’s only problem was that of overcoming his physical needs. Because of this the church began to lose its role in helping people spiritually. The only thing left to do was for the church to turn to the physical ministries of care and compassion.

It is at the turn of the last century that we see this huge shift in mission for the church. All of this had already begun in the mid 1800s in Europe and came to full fruition in the late 1800s in the United States. Over a short amount of time a whole host of parachurch organizations popped up to help meet the many physical needs of the masses from a Christian perspective including the likes of the Salvation Army, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), gospel missions and soup kitchens. These organizations along with their parent churches began focusing on ministry to the social outcasts of European and American society. The church began to turn towards helping those who were in great need by ministering to alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes and the homeless. The essential gospel message of saving faith in Jesus Christ was still there, but it just was not the urgent focus of the church in general. Thus the “social gospel” was born and with it a general liberalism within the church emerged. Its focus was characterized the most by Charles Sheldon’s question, “What would Jesus do?”

In the United States universities like Princeton, Yale and Harvard, which were all founded originally as seminaries to train clergy for the new colonies, also succumbed to the advent of liberal theology. Previously God was the center of all the educational disciplines. But slowly God was relegated to the department of theology. Of course even now the department of theology has been even further deluded into the department of comparative religion.

It was at this point that a backlash against the liberalization of theology occurred in American society. There were Christian fundamentalists who were insistent that the essence of the gospel and the purpose of the church was to save souls, not just physically but spiritually. To overcome the liberal educational system in the U.S. the advent of the Christian college and Bible institute began in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Westminster Theological Seminary was founded over against Princeton. Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, Taylor University, Gordon College, Columbia Bible College and the Grand Rapids School of Bible and Music all began during this time. Later, other parachurch organizations were also established to save souls like Youth for Christ and Young Life. 

So what is the purpose of the church? Is the church just supposed to save souls spiritually or is the church just supposed to help people who have physical needs? In his classic book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism written in 1947, Carl F. H. Henry, the father of modern evangelicalism, challenged the fundamentalists at their core with the reality of Jesus’ twofold ministry to the spiritual and physical needs of His followers. Jesus not only forgave and restored people spiritually, but He healed the blind, lame and deaf physically. He fed the 5,000, He calmed the sea and He raised the dead. Jesus is the one who can not only restore us spiritually, but He is the one who can restore us physically too.

Jesus made it very clear that the essence of His ministry and for the church was not just to make disciples who make disciples but to feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, cloth the naked, invite the stranger in and visit the imprisoned. Jesus said “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of the least of these, you did it unto Me.” The church is called to touch hearts and lives spiritually with the good news of the life saving message of forgiveness and reconciliation that is found through faith in the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ on the cross on our behalf. And the church is also called to touch the hearts and lives of people physically through purposefully extending compassion and care for those who are in need physically.

Both ministries are essential within the Gospel and both ministries should be essential in every church. If your church leans more on one or the other of these ministries which most churches tend to do, you can be the one who can help bring about the ministry balance that is at the core of the beauty and the wonder of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Share Christ with others as you offer a cup of coffee. Share Christ with others as you feed and clothe the hungry and naked. The apostle Paul summed things up this way. “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.”

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The Church – Nurturing Relationships

What is the nature of the church? We have already seen what is meant for the church to be the center of worship of the living God. In this article we will dive into what it means for a church to foster nurturing relationships. At first glance, this doesn’t sound very exciting at all. For the most part, it seems that many people would rather limit their exposure to the relationships they have rather than expand them. Many people are just doing all they can to survive in this world and this is quite enough to overcome, let alone adding the responsibility of nurturing others along the way. Most of us have enough problems of our own to deal with. “Why should I be concerned with all the problems that others are dealing with? Some of the problems that other people are dealing with are incredibly complicated and messy. Aren’t there professionals available to help with that kind of thing anyway? Why would the church need me to help people? I’ll just stay home and do my own thing.”

Throughout the Bible there are five major metaphors that describe the relational nature of the church. In every case we are told that relationship is the essential component that makes the church what it is. 1) The church is like a building or temple that God is constructing for His glory. Each member of the church is considered to be a living stone that is being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood. The chief cornerstone for our building is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He is the one from whom we find our place and alignment as we are all being built up together into something beautiful and purposeful. As a building, each stone is in relationship with other stones as well as being in relationship with the chief cornerstone. If a stone is missing there is a hole in the building. If a stone is out of alignment with the chief cornerstone, the walls of the church will become bent, crooked and unstable as new stones are added. How we are related to each other and to Christ in this building is very significant.

2) The church is like a human body where each member of the church is a member of the body of Christ. The head of the body is Christ and we are the various members that make up the entire body. The apostle Paul goes to great length to describe this metaphor. He makes it clear that we are all members of each other and that each member of the body is very necessary to the whole of the body. Unity with distinction and unity without uniformity within the body is an essential element of this metaphor. We are all one body, but we are not all just one member. In other words, not all of us can be the eye. Someone needs to be the ear, and someone needs to be the foot. But without the eye the foot would not know where to step, and without the foot the body would not be able to go anywhere. Each member of the body has its essential role within the body of Christ. Again, we see that relationship within the church is essential for the whole body to be able to function properly in a healthy way.

3) The church is like a flock. We are all the sheep of His pasture, and Jesus Christ is our Great Shepherd. As the Great Shepherd, Jesus protects the vulnerable flock from ravenous wolves that seek to destroy the sheep. Each lamb is important to the Shepherd.  In turn, all the sheep know their Shepherd, and when they hear His voice they follow Him. In this metaphor Jesus is also seen as the gate to the sheepfold. He is the way to safety for all the sheep as we enter into His care through Him.

4) The church is like vine in a vineyard where Jesus is the vine and we are the branches of the vine. Through this metaphor we are instructed as branches to abide in the vine where we can find nourishment, refreshment and fruitfulness. In this metaphor Jesus is also seen as the vinedresser who prunes the vine for maximum growth and fruitfulness. Again, as long as we are in relationship with the vine, who is Christ, we will remain in good healthy relationship with each other and with God.

5) The church is like a marriage where Christ is the groom and the church is His glorious bride that He is preparing to marry. This is perhaps the most beautiful of the metaphors. As the future bride, the groom is preparing us to be ready to be married to the dashing groom who has loved us so much that He laid down His life for us. There is no greater picture of chivalry than the picture of the groom’s love for His bride. As the bride of Christ we are all members of each other while He is our loving betrothed. As the blushing bride we should be preparing ourselves for the wedding that is to come through pursuing righteousness and purity as we await the return of the groom for u. Again, we see the close association between the members of the church as the bride of Christ along with our relationship to Christ who is our loving groom.

With all this focus on relationship within the church it is no wonder that the Bible is chocked full of encouragements to foster loving relationships within the church. There are well over 30 “one another” passages within the Bible. Over and over again we are told that we who belong to Christ should be nurturing each other within the church: love one another (occurs over 13 times), be devoted to one another, honor one another, live in harmony with one another, stop passing judgment on one another, accept one another, instruct one another, agree with one another, wait for each other, have equal concern for each other, serve one another, do not provoke or envy one another, carry each other’s burdens, bear with one another, be compassionate with one another, forgive one another, speak to each other in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, submit to one another, do not lie to each other, encourage one another, build up each other, spur one another on toward love and good deeds, do not give up meeting together, do not slander one another, offer hospitality to one another, clothe yourself with humility for one another, be kind to one another, don’t grumble against one another, confess yours sins to one another, and pray for one another.

Wow, that is a whole lot of “one-anothers.” But what a world it would be if we practiced these things with each other. This is a picture of what the church should look like as we come together as the body of Christ. But none of these things can take place if you aren’t there. But perhaps you say “I know I should be a part of the church but I always end up being hurt or disappointed or disillusioned with what goes on with all those people there.” Yes, it is risky and potentially dangerous to put yourself in the vulnerable position of loving others. They might not return your love. Others might misunderstand your attempts to love. Misgivings and misunderstandings are bound to take place. Wouldn’t we all just be better off without risking all this pain and frustration? The simple answer is no.

You would not be better off separated from the very vehicle that God has ordained for your spiritual growth and maturity. How can a foot remain healthy if it has been cut off? How can a branch bear fruit if it has been severed from the vine? Paul wrote that the church exists “so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.” It is only through the church that we can find and understand the wisdom that God has for each one of us. For some of us, it just seems counterintuitive and dangerous to intimately associate with a church. Isn’t there another or better way? Apparently not.

It is the church that God has chosen to use to bring His people together in a special nurturing relationship of blessing. So as members of the church through faith in Christ we need to start practicing these “one-anothers” more completely and thoroughly so that we can continue to become the beautiful creation He is making us into.

What part of the body are you? Are you abiding in the vine becoming more and more fruitful, or have you cut yourself off? Are you listening to your Shepherd, or are you wondering off again? Are you a living stone being built up into something beautiful, or have you “left the building?” Are you getting ready for the groom to return, or have you soiled your wedding gown again? He is coming again, and He will be here soon. When He comes there will be a wedding feast like no other. At the wedding banquet, He has prepared a place for you at His table. I hope I get a spot next to you.

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