Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Friendship

My best friend in college told me why we were great friends.  He said that friendship rested on economics, that we used one another for what the other had.  That didn't explain the most memorable times of our friendship.  Riding along Scenic Highway, listening to "music" and enjoying the view of Escambia Bay.  Struggling with Suite issues.  Sailing in a catamaran on Perdido Bay.

One of my favorite memories was a trip to Olive Garden.  We had issues with the food from the campus cafeteria, so often we would enjoy a meal off campus.  We would swap between Olive Garden and Red Lobster.  On this occasion, we began to notice that our waiter was not as attentive to our needs as one would had preferred.  So, we organized a game.  We began with our customary tip, the standard rate of 15%.  We agreed that anything he did exceptional would add to his tip, and any infraction of expected service would decrease it.  Every time he didn't refill our drink when empty cost him dollar.  Every time he walked past and didn't check on us cost him fifty cents.  We kept making deductions for other infractions, some impromptu, others regimented, and at the end, he owed us five dollars, meal included.  We had a wonderful time.

Man was made for companionship. We don't pass the second chapter of the Bible without this fact plainly revealed to us by God.  The creation of woman was more than the invention of binary reproduction.  It signaled something about being made in God's image.  The triune nature of God indicates that even in the godhead, there is relationship and companionship.  Since we are made in His image, we share that need of companionship and community.

Unfortunately, all that God made for good, sin has corrupted.  our natural and good need for fellowship drives many to form detrimental connections and relationships.  The Bible cautions us to take seriously the matter for friendship and form relationships that edify rather than corrupt.

The Biblical examples of friends are quite numerous.  It was Judah's friend that "helped" him through the death of his wife. (Gen.38)  Moses spoke to God as to a friend. (Ex. 33:11)  Haman's friends helped him celebrate the gallows made for Mordecai. (Esther 5-6)  Jobs friends did their best when they remained silent for seven days and nights. (Job 2:13)  The Psalmist talks about the friend who turns on you. (Ps.41:9)  This prophecy finds its fulfillment as Jesus calls Judas "friend."  (Matt.26:50)

The classic example of Biblical friends appears in the story of David and Jonathan.
And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.  And Saul took him that day, and would let him go no more home to his father’s house.  Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul.  And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle. (I Samuel 18:1-4)
This is the example of what friends are to be.  It is deplorable that this relationship has been used by some to justify homosexual sin.  It completely defaces the wonderful picture of friendship.  In this picture, Jonathan puts truth to the friendship reality that whatever he owned was at David's disposal.

The choice of friends matters.  When I talk about this issue, I am particularly referring to close friends.  We allow people in our lives at different stages of closeness.  Some people barely know us at all.  Some get to know our souls.  In choosing friends, I refer to the latter and not the former.  Nevertheless, even those with whom we regularly associate have an impact on our mindset.  Peer pressure increases by quantity as well as quality.  We should choose our close friends carefully while having a broad acquaintanceship.  Even so, we must remember that even our acquaintances have an impact on us.

Before we discuss choosing friends, there must be a choice to make.  The AV translates Proverbs 18:24 as, "A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother."  More modern translations follow some variant observed in the ESV, "A man of many companions may come to ruin,but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother."  The reason for this disparity is that the AV follows Greek manuscripts, presumably because the Hebrew is open to interpretation.  The verb and the word for "friend" use the same root.  It could be a play on words or a unique use of the verb.  The AV translators relied on an older interpretation than their own.  Nevertheless, the principle rings true.  Those who would have friends must present themselves as open to people.  Solomon also writes. "A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity." (Prov. 17:17)  If we would have this kind of person in our lives, we must be this kind of person.

In choosing friends, we are not free to imagine we live without the need of friends. Solomon in Ecclesiastes reminds us of the necessity of friends.
Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun.  There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail.  Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.  For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.  Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?  And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.  Ecclesiastes 4:7-12
In this passage, Solomon reminds us that life is futile without people in our lives.  We need people is only just to watch our backs.

The main biblical exhortation regarding our choice of friends has more to do with spiritual considerations rather than anything else.  "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" (II Cor.6:14)  Paul does not intend that we have no friends with unbelievers.  After all, he encourages the church to have relationships with unbelievers. "I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world." (I Cor. 5:9-10)  Paul understands the need to associate with unbelievers in this world, but he warns against a willful choice to associate closely with unbelievers.  This "yoking" indicates a close friendship.  This type of relationship should only be formed with those who share the faith.

Paul's reason for this warning comes from the reality that close friends advise one another.  The unbeliever advises out of a totally different worldview than the believer.  The substance of their advice will often conflict with what the Bible commands.  The absence of the gospel reality within cannot be ignored.  We make light of the gospel if we think we can form close friendships with those who do not have this reality within.  Either we don't think that the gospel transforms and affects all of life, or it has not truly changed us.

While we must form relationships that include this unity of spirit, we ought to beware of the tendency to form relationships with people identical to us.  Diversity is a healthy thing in personal relationships.  Forced diversity has become a socially desirable practice.  The Bible does not suggest it.  Rather, the diversity of gifts within the church reminds us that understanding the wide scope of the church suggests a broad array of friends.  It is amazing to me how diverse God's people are.  This is seen in our own church.

Friendship takes work, and diversity often requires the most work.  Our differences become the source of friction, but our similarities can be the catalyst that escalates minor differences into major arguments.  Is it any wonder in the church, the diversity and unity combine to encourage Paul to direct the church in its relationship with one another. "And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you." (Eph. 4:32)  It is informative that this verse appears at the end of a chapter the began with the diverse gifts that God gave to the church to edify it.  That which God gives to edify, man can distort to view as detrimental.

My mother always reminds her children, when we would fight each other, something along the lines of, "friends come, and friends go, but family is forever."  Perhaps forever is a bit strong, but it has proven rather effective.  Many families disintegrate.  Even my parent's siblings struggle to remain together.  The modern society and it freedom of transportation has allowed children to leave, but they have not often used that freedom to return.  Thanks to the influence of my mother, we enjoy being with one another, even we live so far apart from one another.

My mother was right and wrong.  Friends and family come and go.  For some, the fear of losing someone places a real psychological barrier to making friends.  Why make friends if they go away?  It makes as much sense as why live, if you are going to die.  Friendship matters.  Relationships matter.  Forming them well requires wisdom and discernment, so that we may fulfill God's calling upon our lives.  In this way, we may live Christian in an unchristian world.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Communication

Proverbs 26:4-5 "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.  Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit."  Christianity rests on communication.  God spoke the world into being.  God spoke in revelation to man.  God expects Christians to communicate well.  For us, communication depends upon us, the speaker, not upon the listener.

Regularly topping the charts as the biggest fear people have is the fear of public speaking.  Standing in front of a group of people and trying to communicate is a daunting task.  As a pastor, it is one that I wrestle with every week.

From infancy, we struggle trying to communicate. We begin by communicating critical wants.  The infant cries, communicating that it needs cleaning, feeding, or caring, and it's up to the parent to discover which.  The toddler learns to speak and learns which need and which sound to make to the parent to get their needs met.  Then parroting begins.  Complex emotions are simplified.  The toddler learns to describe the feeling toward its parents as "love".  Does it understand love?  Probably not, but it communicates in this way regardless.  Information gathering begins as the child discovers how to navigate the world.  We train people in receiving and disseminating information in reading and writing.  Eventually, we expect them to effectively communicate, to add to the conversation.  Communication is a learned skill.

Communication method differs depending upon the situation.  We talk to a crowd of one thousand different than a crowd of fifty, different than a group of ten, different than speaking to one other person.  Even in discussions with a single person, our relationship and history with that person governs the method of communication.

In all these encounters, the Bible gives us factors to consider as we govern our communication.  It tells us what to communicate and how to communicate.  The Bible even gives us a short-hand phrase to express its requirements.  Paul writes, "But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ." (Ephesians 4:15)  This verse appears in the context of the apostle describing the spiritual gifts that God gives the church in Jesus and the purpose for which those gifts were given.  God gives spiritual gifts for the purpose of building up the church, the body of Christ.  This strengthens the individuals within the church, the members to engage also in the building of the church.  Each member speaks the truth in love for the purpose of building the church, edifying other members of the church.

This verse gives us the what and how of our communication.  What are we to speak? We are to speak the truth.  How are we to speak?  We are to speak in love.  Let us look at each in turn.

Speaking the Truth

The importance of truth-telling appears early on in the Bible.  Jesus says, "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it." (John 8:44)  Let's leave for later the purpose of Jesus statement and look at the historic comment.  Jesus speaks of the devil as a liar from the first.  He takes us back to Genesis 3.  "And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:4-5)  The devil through the serpent lies.  He says something that is not true and sets himself against the truth telling God.

This lie produces conflict and hiding.  That conflict erupts into murder as Cain kills Abel and then lies to God about it. "And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?" (Genesis 4:9)  Cain, the first seed of the woman, shows himself to be the seed of the serpent, doing serpent things.

We need not elaborate on Abraham's lie to Pharaoh about Sarah  (Genesis 12) or Isaac's similar action (Genesis 26).  We well remember Jacob's lie about being Esau (Genesis 27) and his sons lying to him about Joseph (Genesis 37)  Even God's people have a problem with telling the truth.

This all comes to a head when the Lord appears upon Mt. Sinai and codifies the moral law in the Ten Commandments, the "ten words."  "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." (Exodus 20:16)  Although directed at truth in justice, the application of this commandment goes further.  In the seven things the Lord hates, truth-telling is mentioned twice. "These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: a proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, an heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren." (Proverbs 6:16-19)  Notice that a lying tongue is separate from a false witness.  We also should note the purpose of truth telling as apart from the last sin, the promotion of disunity among those united in Christ.  From this, we learn that our speech ought to exclusively communicate truth.

Let us consider some socially acceptable exceptions.  The first we call "white lies."  This refers to socially acceptable falsehoods we tell not to hurt the feelings of others.  While we may find the motive admirable, it cannot overcome the evil of falsehood.  Let us not engage in casuistry, where doubt is cast whether people ought reasonably expect the truth in these situations and address the true problem.  Our resort to falsehood usually arises from our unwillingness to take the time and effort to express the truth well in a particular situation.

Let us take the oft-used example, "Does this shirt make me look look fat?"  To answer in the negative unreservedly is not in accord with the truth.  In actuality, the question focuses our attention to the garment and not the individual.  The individual ought be affirmed in his acceptance by God and us as they are.  The garment may be critiqued for not best expressing the glory of God in the individual.

Another socially acceptable exception is deceptive speech, where we have not spoken falsehood, but we have spoken in a way that encourages people in thinking or believing something that is not true.  This rests on the false division between speaking and communicating.  Even when we aren't speaking, we are still communicating.  By encouraging people to think or believe a lie, we are communicating untruth.

As we consider these issues, we ought to distance ourselves from the puritan rejection of fiction in literature.  They saw these stories as violations of the Ninth Commandment since these stories of things than never happened.  Nevertheless, we understand that these stories communicate truth through the narrative even if the events of the story never occurred.  These stories have truth content from which we can benefit.  They follow in the steps of the parables.  Few readers of the New Testament consider that all the parables were true stories.  They were tales told to make a true point.

We are to speak to truth.  We are to speak only the truth.  Having committed to this principle firmly, we turn to the manner in which we are to tell the truth.

Speaking in Love

One of the most uncomfortable experiences in seminary occurred in the course "Pastoral Counseling."  It was divided between the theological faculty and the counseling faculty.  The counseling faculty held to a philosophical commitment that I did not share.  Nevertheless, you can learn from people with whom you disagree.  In one exercise, they attempted to help us learn to communicate.  They had us tell each other a life story and then you had to echo back what you heard.  This exercise was aimed at encouraging us to listen and learn how to express what we heard.  It was incredibly uncomfortable and didn't really help in skill acquisition.

It did represent a biblical truth. James writes, "Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God." (James 1:19-20)  James gives the church this direction following his description of the grace of God for us in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In light of what Jesus did for us, we ought to adopt this way of communicating.  Because Jesus listens to us, were are to listen to others.

Listening precedes effective communication.  Practically, listening should have come first in our examination of communication.  It governs how we communicate.  You cannot communicate effectively without first listening.  You have to understand what makes a person tick, what language they speak.  We have a problem in assuming that just because someone speaks English that they use words the same way that we do.  We struggle with assuming that others think the same way that we do.  People are different.  It is our responsibility to understand them.  We ought not expect them to understand us.

Listening immediately gives you an opportunity to be heard.  I've heard it referred to as relational capital.  People understand reciprocity, that if you listen to them, they also ought to listen to you.  In addition, this world is filled with speakers and very few listeners.  We are so attention starved that a like on our Facebook post, or picture of our lunch makes people feel affirmed.  This isn't listening.

People will take a Facebook like as a poor substitute for true listening, but it is listening that they want.  They want someone who listens to them, who knows them, who knows the core of who they are, and still accepts and affirms them.  Naturally, the one they want is Jesus, and seek poor excuses for Him, but we in imitating Him, ought also to imitate Him in our listening and communicating.

Our goal in listening, then, is to put ourselves in their mind.  We need to think their thoughts, to understand their point of view.  We need to consider why certain thing are important to them even if they are not important to us.  We need to consider how they differ from us.  Even when we disagree with their conclusions, we ought to affirm their concern while encouraging them to think differently.

James also reminds us that not every discussion is one in which we ought to be involved.  Being slow to speak may mean not speaking at all.  Remember Jesus statement to the Jews about their father, the devil.  Even as he does this in a dialogue to encourage one group to think biblically, He also suggests that another course might need to occur.  "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." (Matthew 7:6)  This verse appears in the context of correcting another.  Jesus warns the people to cast out the beam in your own eye before trying to address the speck in your brother's eye.  Then he bring up this swine metaphor.  In context, Jesus says that there are some who will not listen even if you have previously cast out your own beam.  It then is not wise to try to correct them.

There is a balancing test to answer for this matter.  Should I speak?  You must balance the importance of the matter with the likelihood of the person listening to you.  For instance, often the church in judgment must admonish those who it knows will not listen.  Nevertheless, they must speak for the peace, purity, and correction of the church. (I Corinthians 5)  A minor matter might find a listening ear and thus warrant discussing.  Deciding when to speak requires discernment and wisdom.  We ought to ask ourselves, "Should I talk?" and in retrospect, "Should I have talked?"

Having chosen to speak, we must then decide how to speak.  Hopefully, our time spent listening will guide us to effective communication.  We ought to ask, "How can I express this idea," or, "encourage this way of thinking, in a way that this person will understand?"  In retrospect, we ought to ask, "How could I have expressed this better?"

Finally, there is one important thing to remember.  Effective communication does not guarantee agreement or change.  Your effective communication cannot change a person's heart.  It cannot change their minds.  The power of the Holy Spirit is needed.  We cannot take it personally if someone disagrees with our perspective.

Living Christian in an unchristian world requires us to communicate effectively.  We are to speak the truth.  We are to be those who reflect the truth God is.  We are to speak the truth in love.  We are to listen and speak according to what we have heard.  This is how we show the world the love of God shown to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Monday, October 2, 2017

You have a locational calling

In this study, we have looked at vocation, the concept of calling, the gifting that God gives to His people to benefit His kingdom.  When we discussed this topic, we noted that while it comes first in the list of topics, it does so largely based on my preference rather than biblical or logical preference. Some begin with gifting and allow that to govern their decisions about location.  Others begin with location and choose their profession in order to stay in that chosen geographical region.  This represents one person's calling different from another's.

The biblical support for the calling of a person to a location appears in Genesis 12.  God calls Abram from Ur to go to the land of Canaan.  While the purpose for this calling had great ramifications for redemptive history, we ought to note how location remained central to the calling of God upon Abram's life.  This continues for Isaac and Jacob.  The mission activity in the New Testament also demonstrates that God often calls people not only to an occupation, but also a location.

While the hierarchy of decisions on these topic may differ, the criteria for making these decisions largely stay the same, adjusting only as ones decisions in one area affect decisions in another.  The first and most important question regarding geography involves the spiritual needs of the individual.  Does the location include a church that will meet the spiritual needs of the individual?  The question about which church to attend we discussed previously.  Now, we ask whether such a church exists in a certain location.  By asking this question we ought not take for granted that every location includes a church that would meet the biblical qualifications we discussed.  Ideally, the Christian should desire a church within his local community.  Failing this, many Christians travel many miles to attend a biblically based church.  This requires the formation of a separate community from their local environment.  The true church has always formed a community that has, in some ways, been separate from the rest of the world.  The ease of travel in modern society and the replacement of geographical community with virtual community has fostered the ability of remote churches to form spiritual communities of geographically diverse people.  There is much in technological advancement for which to give thanks.

Even so, the formation of these communities comes at a cost.  Beyond the cost of technology and travel, the bifurcated communities creates a psychological block to evangelism.  We see the local society distinct from the church and not the subject of ministry by the church.  It becomes difficult to invite people to church when we travel far distances to attend the church.  We can easily become divided from the church and careful attention must be paid by the officers and members of the church to foster fellowship within the church despite the distances.  Even with these challenges, the ability to attend a biblical church must take first priority in our decisions regarding location.

We must acknowledge that there are some places where the true church does not exist and where the distance to reach such a church is too long to make true fellowship practicable.  Some resort to home churches and compromise with deficient churches.  While this must remain a decision between the individual and God, the Bible strongly encourages us to see this as an indicator that God would have us move to a different location.  We are not called to independence, either in rule in home churches or in the absence of fellowship. (I Tim. 3; Heb.10:25)    Compromise in church selection, outside the ordinary allowances discussed previously, endangers our souls.  Church officers have an impact on the congregation, and their failure in their biblical duties places the souls of the people in danger. (Heb.13:17)

With the question of spiritual health out of the way, other biblical criteria may be considered.  To return to the intersection of location and vocation, depending on your particular calling, location may influence vocation and vice versa.  If location then does not govern vocation, than vocation will govern location.  In other words, if you have not chosen a vocation that will allow you to live in a particular area, then your vocation will largely determine where you will live.  Simply put, you will live where you can find employment.  This probably will not limit you to a single location, but it will eliminate some options.  Your duty to the kingdom of God demands that you continue to pursue your vocation.

These are fundamental concepts that most Christian take for granted, but the Bible includes other criteria that ought to influence this decision.  Scripture reminds us about the importance of family.  At its most basic, we must look at the directives Paul gives to Timothy.  The oft quoted verse on a person's duty to provide for his family appears in a broader context.
Honour widows that are widows indeed.  But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.  Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day.  But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.  And these things give in charge, that they may be blameless.  But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.  (I Timothy 5:3-8)
Within the context, the verse requires sons to provide for their widowed mothers.  This principle means that the Bible expects children to care for their aging parents and not leave them to the care of the church.  This principle draws from the Fifth Commandment.  Honoring parents means being involved in the life of the family.  While this does not mean that children should live in the same city as their parents, it does mean that each member of the family ought to consider its duty to the rest to be a part of their lives.  No member of the family ought to abandon the family.

Jesus expects His disciples to reside in the world. (John 17:15)  Although He chose us out of the world (John 15:19), our evangelistic duty requires us to interact with our community. (Matthew 28:18-20)  The choice of community requires a bit of self-examination.  The location in which we were raised will influence our ability to interact with that community.  I grew up in the deep south, Mississippi.  As I have dealt with people from the northern states of the United States, I have seen how different we can think and react.  This difference can pose a real barrier to our interactions.  This does not mean that cross-cultural ministry cannot occur.  Indeed, missions requires such a ministry.  However, this is not the calling of many Christians.  In the first century, we read of the travels of Paul, but his experience was extraordinary.  It is part of the Bible to demonstrate the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus that the gospel would spread to the ends of the earth.  Most Christians never left their home, or formed new homes by flight from persecution.  While we read of those who engaged in cross-cultural ministry, they never anticipated it to be the norm, other than bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile, including all in their society to the community of faith, excluding none.  For this reason, unless otherwise called, finding a community into which you fit may be the wisest course for you to follow.

Good stewardship also requires that you find a location that you can afford.  It is biblical to remember that some places cost more than others.  If you would provide for yourself and your house, you ought to consider if your employment will permit you to live in the city or community of your choice.  While many make this a matter of common sense, and so it is, it also have spiritual implications.  God requires us to consider affordability as a matter of stewardship.

Now, in some situations, God calls us to walk by faith despite the economic realities.  Many heroes of the church obeyed God even when the economic of political situation looked dire.  They acted contrary to apparent common sense.  Nevertheless, they represent the exceptions rather than the rule.  There ought to be compelling counter-considerations to overcome the affordability factor.

Finally, we must comment on the question of safety.  In the modern era, we live in a society of free mobility.  We choose where we live.  We are not bound by geography.  We can leave a location that we deem to be unsafe for us or our family.  Are we justified in such a move?  Consider the requirements described in the Westminster Shorter Catechism's discussion on the Sixth Commandment.  "The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others." (WSC 68)  It is not illegitimate to take lawful actions to preserve our life and that of our family.  While we can never achieve perfect safety and must leave our ultimate security in the hand of the sovereign almighty God, we do have warrant for avoiding clearly dangerous locations.

Again, there are exceptions to the rule.  Missionaries willingly enter dangerous foreign places.  This is not illegitimate for it is part of their calling.  Some engaged in domestic cross-cultural ministry may also be so called.  Perhaps one called to a depressed area may see it as his duty to remain in mission to the changing demographics.

If you can't tell from these factors, they are guideline and not firm rules.  It takes discernment.  This will be our mantra for this entire study.  To live as Christian in an unchristian world, your will need to discern from these factors what God is calling you to do, where He is calling you to live.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Vocational Training

One of the difficult anomalies of the modern era is the rise of the concept of adolescence.  Prior to the modern era, cultures has little to no concept of a period between childhood and adulthood.  The individual transitioned immediately between the two.  With industrialization, the advantage of jobs requiring advanced training, and more opportunities to afford that training, the age at which someone was considered an adult increased.  We don't consider someone to be an adult until they are able to financially meet their obligations, to take care of themselves and their families.  Considering most people now go to college, this entry into adulthood may not occur until ones early to mid-twenties.  This can mean that one lingers in the uncertain state of adolescence for possibly a decade.

The cultural situation does not demand much from us in terms of Biblical application.  Practically speaking, prolonged adolescence has its own challenges whereas the immediate transition to adulthood had other challenges.  We ought to be aware that this arrested development that we see in the modern day has its roots in this prolonged adolescence.  Christian adolescence must wrestle with the need to take responsibility for their own actions, for their own finances, while still honoring their parents who often still subsidizes or completely pay their bills.

Within this tension, the Bible's injunctions regarding the duty of every adult to provide for themselves indicates a responsibility to prepare for that future vocation.  We have already address the choice of vocation, we now move to choices and behaviors in preparation for that vocation.

Every vocation requires training.  While the Lord gives us talents and abilities to use for His kingdom, none of us are born knowing how to work.  It is a learned skill.  Whether you are called to be a farmer or a brain surgeon, every work has its necessary training.  The farmer certainly does not need to go to medical school, but must learn the way of the farm and the tools of his trade.

This requires us to think outside the classroom.  Training for our vocation may not require classroom instruction.  Certainly certain basic fundamentals will be taught in a classroom environment.  Every vocation requires the ability to read, write, and calculate.  Even if someone could be trained to a work without these abilities, they benefit the worker in bettering his ability to pursue his vocation.  As a Christian ought to strive for excellence in his work to the glory of God, these minimum lessons are necessary.

The point we labor to make is that not every calling requires a person to attend college.  Skilled laborers may benefit from vocational training, but the kind of specialized education of college may be excessive.  I say this, because our society has made college a necessary part of life.  There is an uncritical assumption that one must go to college to obtain a well-paying job.  This assumption has so infected our society that demand for skilled manual labor has risen precipitously.  Students who dislike school and show talent for manual labor often struggle with a society that determines worth based on education.  The absence of a college degree does not indicate that a person lacks intelligence or knowledge.  The church should not perpetrate not perpetuate the hubris of culture.

For those whose calling requires further education, the Bible has something to say about the choice of educational providers.  We live in a glut of colleges and universities, fighting for a limited pool of applicants.  Even so, the costs of a four-year degree are substantial.  Student loans have provided a means to defer the payment of these costs.  However, the burden that student loans can place upon individuals has become a major concern in many industries.  The ABA reported that graduates from law school borrowed on average between $84,000 and $122,000. (https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_education_and_admissions_to_the_bar/statistics/avg_amnt_brwd.authcheckdam.pdf)  A law student basically graduates owing a house without the house.  This does not even count the cost of college.  USA Today reports that the average student debt coming out of college is around $30,000. (https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2017/04/28/average-student-loan-debt-every-state/100893668/)  So, a graduate of law school owes the equivalent of a new car and a house without the car and house.  Medical student generally owes more.  Even graduates from seminary headed to the pastorate often carry substantial debt limiting their options.

This debt burden has garnered attention in the present age.  The Bible speaks strongly about debt.  "The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender." (Proverbs 22:7)  "Be not thou one of them that strike hands, or of them that are sureties for debts." (Proverbs 22:26)  While debt is not in itself a sin, the Bible warns that we not become a slave to debt.  With this in mind, We ought to think carefully about our debt obligations.  We ought to plan and consider how our debt obligations will restrict our opportunities.

While the Christian's duty to pursue excellence in his work remains, that ought not require the assumption that one must attend the "best" college or university.  At the outset, the determination of "best" arises from criteria of the reviewer that may not reflect the individual's experience, nor may it well-train the student.  In law, many assume that so-called "ivy-league" schools were the best.  The last few decades, employers grew less sanguine about hiring these graduates due to the political rather than practical education the students received.  Instead, we need to allow the Bible to guide us into the "best" college for each person.

Some wisdom guidance here may be raised with little comment.  The options should have the degree program and be respected with regard to that degree program.  The campus and housing should be a safe environment.  A common sense factor, but one that becomes more and more important in the current rash of violence in and around educational institutions.  A visit to the institution should precede any decision and the student satisfied that the institution will meet their needs as well as provide an environment acceptable to the student and learning.

The Bible does remind us that education functions in aid of our service of Christ rather than in opposition to it.  For this reason, some have chosen Christian colleges.  There are many fine institutions that provide a distinctly Christian moral atmosphere for their faculty and students.  I have experienced a number of these firsthand and heard reports of others.  While the moral atmosphere has its advantages, it does not compensate for the worship and Christian fellowship the church provides.  Many look to a Christian college or college Bible studies to compensate for their lack of engagement in the local church.  They often excuse their lack of connection to the church with the perceived busyness of their lives.  They are not alone in this excuse, and the excuse does not excuse.  Engagement with the local church is necessary even for those in Christian colleges.

Further, many Christian colleges follow a legalistic methodology toward Christian behavior.  The slippery slope argument truly occurs.  It is not a hypothetical slope, but one history shows actually leads many to legalism.  The way this slope works comes from the combination of the Christian, Biblical morality of the institution and the necessity of practical living regulations.  In any collective group, some rules are necessary to preserve a peaceful society.  Everyone acknowledges that these rules are needed even if they are inconvenient.  Students willingly put themselves under these rules.  This ought not cause a problem.  Many of these rules are broken through inadvertence and forgetfulness, without malice or the desire to rebel.  Christian institutions that insist on absolute obedience, who equate the inadvertent infraction with direct rebellion, who crush any voice of dissent, use their power to enforce a legalistic mindset.  Non-biblical rules take the same place as the Ten Commandments.  The atmosphere becomes fraught with fear and suspicion.  This is not the case with all Christian colleges, but more common than may at first seem.  Choosing a Christian college then is not unwise, but cannot be elected uncritically.  

In addition, whatever college is chosen, the student must find and engage in the worship of God and fellowship with God's people within a church.  While this choice of church lasts for a limited time, it is nevertheless critical.  Do not let the name on the sign dictate your decision.  All Reformed churches are not good, nor all baptist churches problematic.  In addition, as part of the review process for a particular institution, the availability of an appropriate place of worship must be considered.  The lack of an acceptable church should disqualify the college or university.  The matter of spiritual growth and guidance during these years is critical.

Near the bottom of the list of factors to be considered is the question of location.  Most people think of this factor in relation to cost: in-state versus out-of-state tuition.  This factor does influence another part of life.  Research has shown that most people end up living and working within a few miles of their college or university.  While this statistic only points to trends rather than forming an invariable result, it does elevate the factor to one that requires thought.  There is an element of proximity to family that matters as well as proximity to community.  In a later place, we will discuss more fully the issue of location.  Suffice it to say here, that God not only calls us to a particular work, but also to a particular place.  It matters then where we go.

Finally, college campuses have become difficult places to live faithfully for Jesus Christ.  Absent a Christian college, the environment will generally trend to the secular, at times even exceeding the general community in its dalliance with depravity.  I remember hearing with horror some of the warnings given to students at state colleges and universities, warnings necessitated by the wicked things that sinful people perpetrated on one another.  While these may have been isolated incidents, their occurrence reflected the abandonment of morality that we see trending in our culture.

Not only are these campuses environmentally discouraging toward Christian morality, they also discourage Christian speech.  A person who supports Christian ideas will often find himself opposed to the thinking, not merely of his classmates, but also of the faculty.  This means that the student must enter this environment with a grim determination to stand for Jesus regardless of the opposition that exists.  How to do this will appear in another place concerning the manner in which Christians ought communicate.

Again, we have no interest in giving absolute answer to highly specialized questions.  The factors involved are so greatly individualized as we have noted they begin with individual calling.  Nevertheless, though not exhaustive, these guidestones provide sufficient direction to point the prospective student toward a wise method of considering the question.  A proper decision in this area will begin the journey of living Christian in an unchristian world.

N.B.  I think it important to note that a seemingly unfortunate decision in the choice of college, God often uses for good.  Providence works.  My choice of PCC may have had soul crushing effects, but God worked that experience to my good and His glory and set my feet upon the path that put me right were I belong.  Remember, we make these decisions based on limited knowledge, and may find ourselves in a position we consider troublesome.  This does not invalidate the wisdom of the decision nor hinder God from using it in our life.  College is preparatory, not determinative.  It is a means, not the end.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Education: Preparing for Your Calling

Thinking about education has been part of my life since I was a child.  In 1985, my family began our journey into homeschooling.  At that time, people in the church would criticize my parents for harming their children by taking them out of the public schools.  By 2005, I knew of churches that would criticize parents for harming their children by putting them in the public schools.  In less than 20 years, the church had done a complete reversal regarding the topic of education.  The debate still rages throughout the church, and I have no desire to add more heat to the discussion, but light.  I want us to consider the Biblical ground for education, the limits of education, the goal of education, and the cost of education.

The Bible speaks of the education of children early in its text.  As early as Exodus 12:26-27, Moses was telling Israel to teach their children the purpose of the Passover.  "And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service?  That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses."  This command instructs the parents to rehearse the history of Israel's exit from Egypt.  The Lord wants the people to teach their children the spiritual reality behind the flight from Egypt.  This principle then expands in Deuteronomy.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.  And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. (Deut. 6:4-7)
In this passage, it begins with the declaration of identity for the nation of Israel.  This is the famous "shemah", the "testimony".  It identifies the nation whose God is the Lord, Jehovah, Yahweh.  He alone is God of Israel.  This relationship with God forms the identity of the nation.  This is how the nation is to see themselves.

Following this identity truth comes a moral requirement that flows from that identity.  As the Lord alone is God of Israel, Israel must show unalienable fidelity and love toward the Lord.  If that moral requirement follows as part of the identity of the people, then the people must cherish this statement and its moral requirement as irreplaceable in their own hearts.  These words, these statements, these truths must persist within the consciousness of the people.

The people, then, have the responsibility to pass these vital truths on to their children.  Parents must teach the word of the Lord to their children.  Moses even outlines the method of teaching.  It is not a formal classroom environment.  It learning through immersion.  In language acquisition, learning a foreign language is facilitated by immersion into the language.  The student is placed in an environment where only the unknown language is spoken.  He must learn to speak it in order to survive in that environment.  This training technique follows from language acquisition of infants.  They learn their parents language in order to communicate their basic needs.  They learn to imitate the sounds and language of those around them.

Moses depicts spiritual education much like language immersion learning.  The parents are to create an environment where the word of God appears everywhere.  Moses requires that the parents purposely refer to the words of the Lord from sunup to sundown.  Every event of life must be approached with a scriptural purpose.  In order to instruct the child, the environment must be filled with scripture.

The Lord does not merely use one method of education.  Later in the same chapter another pedagogical process appears.
And when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments, which the Lord our God hath commanded you? Then thou shalt say unto thy son, We were Pharaoh’s bondmen in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand: and the Lord shewed signs and wonders, great and sore, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his household, before our eyes: and he brought us out from thence, that he might bring us in, to give us the land which he sware unto our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as it is at this day. And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the Lord our God, as he hath commanded us. (Deut. 6:20-25)
Here is more traditional lecture methodology.  In addition, this question and answer style gave rise to the church's use of catechesis, the use of catechisms.  Notice also that this process indicates the importance of theology.  It is not enough to know the history and rules of the community.  Children are to be taught why these things matter.  The rules and history do not appear in the abstract, but God reveals them to us to explain why theses things matter.  These things are not just revealed to show us what happened, but why they happened.  The science of theology takes the data of scripture and answer the question why and how.

Notice as well, the centrality of redemption in the teaching of the children.  The answer to the question begins with God's gracious salvation of His people.  We omit this part of the explanation to our children's peril.  In the New Testament, it is not rescue from Egypt that forms the heart of the parents' duty to teach their children.  It is the gospel message, the message of redemption from sin Jesus accomplished for us.  The gospel message requires theological and moral training.

From these verse, we see the biblical mandate for education, here, scriptural, moral, and theological education.  The parents are given the responsibility for overseeing this education and creating an environment conducive to this learning.  While the expended family, the church, and others may play a role in assisting the parents in this educational enterprise, the burden for providing this education still remains with the parents.  No other can replace them in this effort.

From this biblical educational standard, we can extend the duty to more general education as we understand it today.  I think one of the best logical extensions appears in one the more delightfully names laws passed in the colonial period of the United States.  Lesson 2 quoted from the “Old Deluder Satan” of 1647 in Massachusetts.  This law provided for public education so that children could read the Bible.  Basic educational tools enable people to read and understand God's word.  From this, we may suggest that part of the parent's spiritual educational duties toward their children include general education to enable their children to understand the Bible on their own, to train them so that they may train their own children.

This sets general education in a specific context for the believer.  In contrast to the values of the world, the Christian values education for different reasons.  The world sees education as valuable to create a tax base, to form income producing patriots, or income producing progressives.  The evaluation of education is often limited to competitive analysis.  Do our students outperform other students?  This is the general values of the world.  As Christians, we are not primarily concerned with professional, competitive, or cultural benefits to education.  These facets may play a role and will play a role in the process of general education, but the central, the first concern of general education is to train children how to understand God's Word.  To live Christian in an unchristian world, we can never lose sight of this fundamental purpose.

Now, at this point, you might expect some directives regarding the methodology of education.  Debates in the church have raged and passions inflamed in the controversy over the method of training children.  The options generally fall into three categories: public school, private school, and home school.  I have experienced all three.  All three have their advantages and disadvantages.  To exclude one as unacceptable to the Christian is rather myopic.  Instead, one must understand the costs and benefits to each in the decision-making process.  While probably familiar, it behooves the author to reiterate these factors in turn.

Public schools are usually the most inexpensive way to educate children in the United States.  They also are the most secular method of education.  Parents choosing this option must understand that they will face the necessity of counterbalancing the worldly mindset that their children will endure for most of their educational life.  This is not a impossible hurdle to surmount, but such a serious problem, that many Christian families have rightly abandoned this method for ones more conducive to scriptural immersion.  The cost of sparing ones child from the onslaught of secularism may be worth paying.  Parents ought to consider if they have disposable income whether they are not better discharging their duty by using those resources to put their children in a better educational environment.  Nevertheless, some families do not have that option, and charity must be exercised to grant them the rightness of faithfully discharging their duty to education their children by this method providing that they recognize the burden they take on to counterbalance the secular immersion.

Private schools, and here specifically Christian or church schools, have their own cost.  They carry a financial cost that normally exceeds any of the other two options.  In addition, one hidden cost is the loss of control over the day-to-day educational process.  This can lead to situation in which the parents have a perception of the school that does not coincide with the reality of that school.  Parents may think their child is being immersed in scripture when the child is really being immersed in secularism.  Some "Christian" schools were started for reasons that had nothing to do with Christianity.  Even when the curriculum may reflect the truth of the Bible, the child's fellow pupils may bring their secularism into the school with more effect than the teachers bring scripture.

During my education, I experienced three different private schools, only two of which I spent a year within.  The first would fit the requirements that I would consider good, even though upon its present quality I cannot comment.  The second seemed good on paper, but my experience reflected many of the negative attributes we have noted above.

Finally, good Christian and church schools are not ubiquitous.  They are often hard to find.  Parents looking at this option must weight the cost and carefully monitor their child's education.  They cannot simply assume that the school is fulfilling their educational responsibilities.

Homeschooling has exploded in Christian culture in the last few decades.  Having been on the cutting or even the bleeding edge of this movement, I have seen the practice rise in acceptability, convenience, and affordability.  Nevertheless, there are costs associated with homeschooling.  Though typically less expensive than private education, the parents pay a time cost since it usually requires more of their time than the other two options.  While curriculum companies have streamlined and simplified their products to aid the instructor, there still is a learning curve for the parent who would teach their children.  In addition, there are pedagogical realities outside the curriculum that require wisdom on the part of the parent.  Not every child learns the same way.  Not every child can learn in the same environment.  The instructor must observe the progress of the child and tailor the environment as best can be to enable the child to learn.

The choice between these three includes other factors that are not generally characteristic of one over the other, although generally public education will be the least acceptable in these areas.  Curriculum and activities play a role and making this decision.  As stated before, the central purpose of general education is to enable the student to understand God's word.  However, other topic will be studied as well.  Other secondary goals do coincide with this primary goal.  Parents should consider each child's aspirational and professional goals.  The curriculum should prepare the student for life outside of school.  Education includes learning how to deal with people.  Parents should consider the availability of extra-curricular activities for their children as part of their learning.

"Much heat and very little light" describes much of the literature on Christian education.  Parent become passionate about their children and the manner in which they choose to raise them.  Much of the discussion about schooling has been considered, rightly or uprightly, an attack upon the family.  The concept "this is right for my family and my children" has morphed into "this is the only way to educate Christians."  Every family is different.  Every child is different.  Location, economics, and ability play a critical role in making a right decision about education.  Nevertheless, we must always remember what is at the heart of the goal of education, to know the word of God.  Without this, we must abandon the task of living Christian in an unchristian world.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

You have a vocational calling

Every Christian has a calling.  This statement contradicts the traditional language of parts of historic Christianity.  In previous eras, Christians considered ministers of the Word to be the only profession that could claim that they were called to their profession by God.  We cannot deny the truth that ministers of the Word do have a calling from God for their office and ministry, but we also affirm that every occupation given to the Christian comes from God's calling as well.  We believe that God is sovereign over all things.  We believe that He has planned the end from the beginning for all things.  This means that that sovereign plan also encompasses all of our individual lives.  He has called us to a particular form of service for Him in His kingdom.  It matters what we do in life.  It matters what we do for a living.

As I arranged the topics for this study, I had to decide the logical order of the specific situations in this section of the third part of the study.  I informally called it, "The Christian's Life."  The topics included in this section included vocation (the present issue), location, education, and relationships.  Ordering this section logically became difficult for each topic involved the others.  You cannot look at them in isolation from one another.  Decisions in one area influence decisions in the others.  In choosing how to address them in some order, I admit to some bias.  I value vocation over the other factors.  That is part of my personality.  This priority is potentially unique to my personality.  Others might value location or relationships of higher rank, and that is acceptable.  We often understand calling in a myopic manner.  We isolate it to occupational considerations.  However, God's calling and design also extends to location and relationships as well.  Some sense God's calling them to a particular place.  Some sense God's calling them to a particular relationship.  Others considerations then serve that primary calling.  We ought not be dogmatic about the priority of calling to every personality and every life.  We do urge that the factors and biblical principles necessary to make these decisions be observed in each area of life.  However you order these issues, each decision should follow the dictates of God's Word.

As noted before, the concept of calling in terms of occupation follows the two principles of divine sovereignty and the kingdom of God.  By sovereignty, we recall that the Lord has ordained all things that come to pass.  He has something for each person in His kingdom to accomplish that matters in the plan of redemption.  That kingdom is not limited to the confines of the church.  It encompasses all creation being redeemed for His redeemed people.  Redemption extends as far as the curse is found, in the words of the familiar hymn. ("Joy to the World")  This purpose and goal for every life, we may properly call calling.  God's calling extends to all His people.  It calls them to a particular work in a particular place for a particular time with particular people.  Discovering that calling requires the careful application of God's word.

The Bible gives us four elements to consider when considering the issue of our vocation, the particular work God has for us to do.  Each one informs the rest and plays a role in making the decision.  We can list them a gifting, desire, provision, and training.  Again, there is no particular order or priority to these factors, but all most be considered together.

God has gifted us with talents to use for His kingdom.

The Bible tells us repeatedly that God has granted us gifts for profitable work in His kingdom.  We can think of the parable of the talents that Jesus tells. (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27)  While the use of money is the foreground, the parable encompasses all resources God gives His people that they are to use profitably.  This includes the abilities and gifts that He gives to each person.  In the spiritual realm, Paul will speak of gifts given to each person to be used for the church. (I Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11-16)  While focused on the building up of the church, the metaphor is equally extended to every part of life.  As God has given gifts to the church to be used and each part of the body is to use that gift, so He has given gifts to His people to be used in the larger kingdom work in all of life.

Finding that talent or gift is a matter of wisdom rather than Biblical directive.  We are not born knowing what gifts or talents God has given to us.  We must learn by experience what it is we have a gift for.  It behooves us to experiment, to try different activities to see if we possess a talent in that area.  Education and assessment by others plays a role in identifying gifts.  Additionally, we ought not merely assume that we have a singular gift.  God is not stingy with His benevolence toward His people.  He gives freely.  It is wise to discover all our gifts in order to discern well our vocational calling.

God gives us desires for work that will advance His kingdom.

In the rush to determine God's will for our lives, I fear we lose sight of one question that gets buried.  We often ignore it because we think it selfish to consider it.  Yet, it is Biblical for us to ask the question, "What do I want to do?"  Why do we think that God will call us to a vocation that will make us miserable?  It is true that our desires or feelings ought not be the sole determiner of our sense of calling.  Nevertheless, they cannot be eliminated from our consideration.

One of the Psalms seems appropriate here. "Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.  Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.  Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass." (Ps.37:3-5)  David begins with an oft-repeated proverb.  The trust in the Lord brings security and provision in the land.  When  delighting in the Lord rules your mind, He gives you what you want.  I once heard this verse interpreted that God gives you the desires of your heart.  This translation cannot really be justified by the grammar or vocabulary, but it does hint at the reality behind this promise.  As one delights in the Lord, His desires become our desires.  A sanctified desire can prove a helpful guide toward vocational calling.  Finally, committing that desire to God, leaving its fulfillment in His hands brings complete realization.

God expects us to work to provide for ourselves and others.

If you have a gift doing something that you like to do, you cannot jump to the conclusion that you have been called to that activity.  You must ask a practical question.  Can you provide for yourself and others by this work?  We have the clearest Biblical support for this exhortation. "For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat." (II Thessalonians 3:10)  Paul in this passage uses his own example among the church to defend his exhortation to the church to work productively.  Even with the charitable frame of mind that ought to be manifest within the household of faith, there remains a necessary effort for each person to attempt to provide for themselves.

In addition, each person should attempt to provide for their own family.  "But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." (I Tim. 5:8)  Paul delivers these hard words in instructions to his apprentice, Timothy.  In directing him regarding the church's duty to widows, he includes this exhortation that the family ought to care for their own mothers instead of leaving it to the province of the church.  This does not indicate that those incapable of such provision are guilty, but rather condemns those who do not, when able, undertake that duty, but rather abandon the duty, relying upon the charity of the church.  The Bible then teaches us that we are to plan to provide for both ourselves and our family.

Finally, the Bible extends our provision to others.  "Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth." (Eph. 4:28)  In this prohibition against theft, we find the object of work.  Our vocational calling is to enable us not only to provide for ourselves and our family, but also to give outside the family.  The first gift that comes to mind is that which we ought to give by joy, thankfulness, and love to the work of God's church.  God expects us to give to Him and His local ministry.  Beyond that, we have no biblical imperative, but a general rule of generosity.  We are called to be ready to give generously to those in need.  We need to understand that our vocational calling ought to enable us to provide for ourselves and others.

God provides training to do that work for His kingdom.

The Bible says a lot about training.  The primary example appears in the book of Proverbs.  We often look at the book in a spiritual sense, and so it is.  But the original purpose is supposed to be Solomon's orientation manual for new courtiers in his government.  It is the orientation manual for Israel's bureaucracy.  "To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding; to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity; to give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion." (Prov. 1:2-4)  Imagine if our nation used the book of Proverbs to train its governmental officials.  What kind of government, what kind of nation would we be?  Solomon wanted his officials trained in wisdom.  As we understand that Proverbs trains us in wisdom in all of life, we ought to also understand that this principle urges us to seek training in the calling to which God has called us.

I have chosen the word "training" carefully.  Do not confuse training with education.  You need to understand that not everyone is called to the same life.  God does not call all His people to go to college.  Not even gift requires formal education.  (We will discuss general education in a later lesson.)  However, most gifts require some form of training.  It doesn't matter if you are a farmer, a musician, an electrician, an HVAC technician, an auto mechanic, a pilot, a soldier, a doctor, a surgeon, a nurse, an attorney, President of the USA, or (perhaps the most important vocation) a mother.  Each calling requires training of some kind, but not all look alike.  If you cannot obtain the training you need to carry out that particular gift, that may be God's direction to pursue another gift.  That is why I remind you that most people don't simply have a single gift, but must choose between multiple gifts.

Simply put, God has a calling for you to do.  While not exhaustive, the root calculation for this calling ought to arise from the intersection of these four factors.  It is a work in which you are gifted that you like doing, can provide for yourself with, and have the ability in which to be trained.  This is how God has called to to work as Christian in an unchristian world.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Which Church?

In an astonishing sign of gospel reconciliation, in 2017 the Bible Presbyterian Church reestablished relations with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church from which it separated in 1938.  Nearly eighty years of hostility turned around and a bright future awaited both denominations.  Even in the midst of such a joyous moment, the taint of sin was not missing.  During an address, one member recounted how different the welcoming attitude of the OPC was to the BPC's reception by other reformed denominations.  This experience is the unfortunate norm rather than the rule.  Certainly, there are historic and theological reasons for division and difference, however, within a shared theological framework, charity and fellowship should reign.  How lamentable that organizations committed to bringing God's people together would include those who advance division without warrant.

This presents a question for those who would live Christian in an unchristian world.  The church is not unified and wears a great many names.  How ought a Christian consider the question of which church or denomination with which to associate?  This is a knotty question to address and one fraught with difficulties.  Nevertheless, it is a necessary one, for it determines the very heart of our souls.

To begin, we must define the sine qua non of the church, the necessary elements of a Christian church.  Throughout the life of the church this question has been debated.  During the reformation, theologians described three marks of the true church in contrast to the marks the Roman church advocated.  These follow from the one core value of the reformation, sola scriptura, one that we have already examined in this study.  With the primacy of the word of God, what the church does with the word of God marks it as the true church.  The marks of the true church then consist in the faithful preaching of the word, the faithful administration of the sacraments (sensible word), and the faithful exercise of discipline (administrative word).

From these marks, we observe that two of the primarily appear in corporate worship.  We must then assume that a corporate community is also necessary for the existence of the true church.  At its heart, the church is a worshipping community.  It is not a social club, a moral education society, or an entertainment venue.  The first question one ought to answer is this.  Is this were God's people gather to worship?  This question rests at the heart of the rest of the biblical criteria

The worship of this community must then be by the book.  We often try to separate the preaching portion of worship from the rest of worship, but this will not do.  The entire worship service preaches to us.  How one worships preaches a sermon on worship.  If one would hear that sermon, one must ask whether it is faithful to the Word of God.  The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way.  "[T]he acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture." (WCF 21.1)  This states the so-called regulative principle of worship, that we may only worship as God has expressly prescribed in Holy Scripture.  This does not answer all questions about the character and particulars on worship, but it does guide those decisions in a Biblical way.  One ought to ask of a prospective church, does the worship conform to the regulations of the Bible?

The next mark indicates the faithful administration of the sacraments.  The sacraments are the Word made sensible, that is, appreciable to our senses.  Many churches don't have problems with the correct observance of the Sacraments since the instructions for their use appear plainly in Scripture.  Baptism is to be administered with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:36; Matthew 28:19)  The Lord's Supper is to be administered through the bread and cup according to the instruction in I Corinthians 11:23-34.  Where many churches reveal a latent problem, their low estimation of the sacraments, is in their delinquency and irregularity in their observance.  Baptism, by its nature, is an irregular sacrament.  The Lord's Supper, on the other hand, must be scheduled.  While properly occasional, it does not have to be irregular.  The lack of regular observance says something about how important a church considers the sacrament.  If a church does not regularly observe the Lord's Supper, that church communicates to its membership that the sacrament is not a necessary part of their spiritual life.  This expresses a low view of the sacrament.  A church that has a low view of the sacraments often struggles with a low view of Scripture.  As the sacrament is the word of God made sensible, a low view of the sacrament suggests a low view of the word of God in all its forms.  One ought to ask of a prospective church, what is their view of the sacraments?  Do the regularly observe the Lord's Supper?

The final mark noted by the reformers involved the faithful exercise of church disciple.  The reformers took seriously the Scriptures teaching on the new life that believers have in Christ.  Failure to live this new life required action by the church.  This principle requires careful and biblical analysis.  Faithful exercise of discipline does not mean that the church regularly engages in public censures.  Excommunication should remain a rare occasion.  This extreme censure should only occur when all calls to repent have gone unheeded.  The object of discipline is first, the repentance of the sinner.  All are sinners and must live lives of repentance.  Lack of repentance brings ones profession of faith into doubt.  Only at this point ought excommunication be effected.  The church must be willing to engage in this act if repentance does not appear in the life of a sinner.

Discipline includes more than the official censures of the church.  Discipline begins in the preaching of the Word.  A church that fails to call people to repentance by showing them their sin through the preaching ministry is not engaged in the faithful exercise of church discipline.  The church must proclaim the reality and heinousness of sin, all sin that the Bible condemns.  We have no warrant to call sin what the Bible does not condemn, nor to ignore those things the Bible clearly condemns.  Both violate the duty to faithful church disciple.

Within Christianity we find churches who have abandoned discipline altogether.  Nothing is ever considered sin.  Sin is not discussed, nor are people warned of its danger.  This lack of teaching and warning shows that the church does not take the Bible's message seriously.  Whatever contextualizing argument might be advanced, the Scripture's warnings ought not be ignored in order to accommodate the modern, worldly opinion.

In this vein, we must also observe the truth of churches the wound their members.  In these recent years, the discussion of so-called "spiritual abuse" has increased.  While the language often gets applied too broadly, examples appear all too often of religious groups and churches that use religious authority and power to violate the consciences of those under their jurisdiction.  Even otherwise Biblical churches have fallen into these errors.  Nevertheless, we must be careful before condemning any church, minister, or elder.  Ministers and elders sin like any other human.  They can wound their flock, intentionally or unintentionally.  We must charitably analyze their work and practice.  Are they ready to repent and make things right when they overstep their duties?  Have they created an environment of fear or suspicion?  Does the congregation share their censorious (def., severely critical of others) attitude?  These factors will indicate whether there has been a breaking of the duty to the faithful exercise of disciple for severity.

In analyzing a church, I encourage you to consider whether you trust the leadership of the church.  In most churches, either by vow or expectation, the members promise to submit to church leadership.  If you do not trust that leadership, you should never make that promise.  Do you believe that the leadership of the church loves you and seeks your best?  Can you listen to their criticism knowing that they bring it to you not quickly, but with consideration and thought?  Can you trust the minister and elders with the care of your soul?

One final mark that the reformers did not consider is that of fellowship.  The concept of unity appears throughout Scripture.  The one body of Christ pictures the nature of the church.  To that end, we are commanded not to forsake the gathering of the church. (Heb.10:25)  This warning does not appear in a purely worship or preaching context, but appears as a practical application of the church's duty to encourage and edify one another.  Again, Paul in Philippians encourages the church to put deeds into their fellowship one with another. (Phil. 4)  This means that the fellowship of the church is necessary to its spiritual life.

Again, this mark needs proper biblical analysis.  Fellowship does not mean that you ought to find a church filled with people like you where no one ever disagrees.  No church is free from a difference of opinion or practice.  Paul's discussion of the strong and weak christians reflect the way we ought to deal with differences within the church. (I Cor. 8,9, Ro.14,15)  This means that love ought to rule our relationships within the church.  We respect our differences in love, knowing that we have one Lord and are part of one body.

Here again are the marks:  Bible teaching, Bible sacraments, Bible discipline, and Bible fellowship.  When we address these marks to denominations, we must exercise caution.  Some groups have so abandoned these principles, that though there may be some isolated examples of true churches within that group, the trajectory of the whole ought to warn us that the natural pressure will be toward that abandonment.  Other groups known to be faithful to these principles may include churches that contain serious failings in one or more of these marks.  While denominational reputation may be helpful, it is certainly not determinative.

While we use these marks to determine which church with which we wish to associate ourselves, we ought also to consider how we interact with the church to encourage these marks.  Are we preaching the word faithfully to ourselves and others?  Are we taking the sacraments seriously?  Are we disciplining ourselves, participating in discipline well, and encouraging others in their obedience?  Are we participating in church fellowship, and edifying one another?  If we would live Christian in an unchristian world, we must do so first in the church.