How Do You Admonish Someone on A Debatable Issue in the Church?

The answer to that question is in an email I got after a great discussion we had in our Sunday evening Bible study this week. I’ve posted it below. But let me put it in context for you.

Our study of Acts has reached the episode of the Jerusalem Council in chapter 15. This is the pivotal chapter where the Apostles and Elders of the church at Jerusalem wrestle with what to make of so many Gentile conversions to Christ – that is, whether or not they were really saved since they were not circumcised like Jews. As expected, they conclude that Gentiles are saved just like Jews are – by grace alone. Gentiles do not have to become Jewish (through circumcision) in order to become Christian.

Yet there is an interesting and unexpected twist in the plot. Not only does the Apostle James tells the Jews to quit troubling the Gentiles over getting circumcised, he tells the Gentiles to not do 4 specific things that are offensive to Jews: don’t eat meat offered to idols, don’t fornicate, don’t eat meat of things strangled, and don’t eat blood.

The Gentiles were not being apostolically bound under the Mosaic Law to not do these things* (the Apostles had just declared that Gentiles were not under the Law), but that they were to defer to the sensibilities of the Jews on these things because they offended the Jew’s consciences. So purely for the sake of love and unity in the church among these two groups, James tells the Gentiles to not exercise their liberty in these areas. (* It’s possible that the reference to fornication here was a specific reference to marriages among those in close blood relation, thus all four of these practices are found in Lev. 17-18.)

Since love and unity among Christians is the central issue here, that makes this otherwise odd text quite relevant to the church today. Whereas at least three out of four of the things James tells the Gentiles not to do would probably never show up on a list of practices that Christians should refrain from in our own day, there are plenty of ways we can defer to the sensibilities of other Christians on what are often called “debatable issues” (I’m sure you can think of a few), by simply not doing those things around them that we know will offend them.

Yet aren’t there times when you should go to the “weaker brother” (like the Jews in the Acts 15 story), and seek to educate them and help them overcome their weakness so that they can grow beyond their “hang ups” (for lack of a better word)? I think there are clearly times for that, and have taken the time and effort to do so on occasion, as an exercise in exhorting others to greater maturity. But how should you go about doing it?

To help answer that I want to share an email that was prompted by our Sunday night study that I received this week from one of our members. I’ve posted this with their permission, with only slight edits to conceal identities.

Dear Pastor Scott-

When shouldn’t we forebear but instead admonish one another on debatable matters in the church, especially in the case of what we see as a weaker brother?

When we believe God is leading us to not forebear but instead approach a brother maybe the primary goal should be that no matter how the person chooses to respond to the correction, they should undeniably know that the person approaching them truly loves them. They should sense that the admonishment comes from the best motives, to build up, rather than from frustration, irritation, pride, anger, or any number of fleshly motives.

This evening when [my spouse] and I got home from church we were reviewing our experience on this topic. As members of various [name of denomination withheld] churches in the past 9 years, we became aware of this nuance of love as we were the “weaker brothers” in our church communities due to our baptismal convictions. We witnessed many good examples of brothers earnestly concerned about our faith journeys, seeking to help us along in our understanding of theology, but we also had some painful experiences which opened our eyes to some sinful habits in our own hearts. Praise God for this!!! If you don’t mind I will share one or two of these experiences with you.

When a group of people are together who appear to be like minded on a matter, they tend to let their guard down. We have been in Sunday school meetings and even personal conversations where [our position on an issue] was openly mocked to the point of making it hard for us to maintain true, deep fellowship with some other believers. We think in most of these cases, the people mocking were not aware of our convictions, so they were not intending to be malicious. But we felt we couldn’t be ourselves without being shunned or looked down upon. And when the topic of wine in communion came up once, we whispered to each other, “I’m so glad so-and-so didn’t come to church with us this Sunday. They would have been REALLY offended by the joking and sarcasm…”

After these slightly painful experiences, [my spouse] and I became aware of times when WE were doing the same thing! We began to see that even our private conversations at home were sarcastic and jocular about the “weaker brothers” at church who thought our perspective was weaker. Ouch!

This has begun a slow heart change for us – we still slip up! To love brothers from the heart we have to practice doing so when we are not even around them. Then in the off chance that we are around someone of differing opinion and we don’t realize it, we will be less prone to hinder unity by a slip of the tongue, for our hearts will be prepared to humbly love them in a respectful and earnest manner. After all, out of the mouth comes the well-spring of the heart! So there are times when we need to approach a weaker brother as God leads us, but we need to be prepared to do so with a truly humble and loving heart, seeking to build up rather than destroy. We pray that Grace Church ([our family] included!) will continue to grow in understanding of God’s command to love one another deeply from the heart.

That’s my frequent prayer too, and it’s the reason why I took the the discussion in that direction. May humble love abound in both our forbearing one another and in our admonishing one another.

Reading the Bible Like a Book – Thanks to the Latest ESV’s

I finished reading the last half of the Book of Job today in my ESV Personal Size Reference Edition. I have been trying to read through the Old Testament this year in the ESV (I’m actually quite behind), so when this paragraphed edition came out, I was determined to read it in that edition, which has a single-column paragraphed layout.

Believe it or not, this layout has proven to make the text easier to read by making the text flow much more smoothly, yielding an improved Bible reading experience. I find that I read it faster, but with better comprehension. Stories read like stories, and poetry – like Job – reads like, well, poetry. The layout actually makes the Hebrew parallelism more obvious and clear. Job has yielded riches that I had not seen before. I can actually attest that the layout helped me see things I hadn’t before – simply because it got out of the way. It’s like you’re actually reading a book, not a reference work.

That’s one reason I pre-ordered the ESV Study Bible today. This Thursday is the last day to get 35% off. (UPDATE: You can now get 33% off until June 15, 2008). One of the main reasons I want one is simply because it’s in this layout (single-column, paragraphed). Plus the scholarship that has gone into the notes of this Study Bible looks stellar. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be interested in yet another Study Bible. It doesn’t come out until October, so until then I’ve an edition to keep me happy.

For more insight on what the big deal is about the the whole single-column paragraphed experience, check out the links I’ve provided here.

UPDATE TO: Another way for Homeschoolers to Have Humility and Strive for Gospel Unity…

Josh Harris’ dad and renown homeschool advocate Gregg Harris has weighed in on Josh’s remarks that I posted here earlier this week. Gregg is very supportive of Josh’s pleading with his congregation to display humility and unity when it comes to differing approaches to educational choices among fellow believers. Here’s what Gregg said:

Hey Josh, this is your dad. Just for the record, I heartily agree with what you have said so well in this video clip. Educational choices have always been a matter of parental responsibility, not of some extra-biblical standard. Every householder should make an informed decision before God. All should research their local schools, public and private and become fully convinced in the way in which he (or she) decides to use his God-given liberty under the Lordship of Christ to bear the best and most abundant fruit he can for the glory of God.

The only moral issue at stake is whether we are willing to walk in the obedience of our faith in God and His will as we understand it from the Scriptures. Though wisdom and foolishness are called into play, there is no moral superiority to be found in any one educational option. Though dilligence is required of all three options, only our labor in Christ will not be in vain. Then, as the relative fruit of each option is put on display in time, may we all be humble enough to change our ways as needed in order to bear even better fruit for God.

Not all options seem to be equally fruitful thus far. But as a long-time home-schooling father and Christian home-schooling advocate I can honestly say that every option, including home schooling has its problems (as you well know). So, pick your problems, and by the grace of God deal with those problems as they arise. Our family has chosen the problems that come with home schooling. But, as you have said, we pray for all of our fellow parents and their children that God will mercifully bless their efforts to be faithful. We are all one in the body of Christ and that should allow us to support one another wholeheartedly in spite of our differing convictions on how to educate our children. Good job, Josh. I am so pleased with you and your service as a father, a pastor and just as my son. I love you. – Dad

[HT David Wayne]

It is good to hear the same call for unity come from one who has for decades persuaded many parents to homeschool their kids. I particularly appreciated how he casts this issue as a “be fully convinced in your own mind” issue, just as Paul does other non-biblically-mandated matters (see Rom. 14).

Christians need to avoid the legalism that comes from over-elevating this issue to the level of making it a key way that someone’s spirituality or holiness or seriousness about following Christ is measured. Biblically, educational decisions are not that kind of a measuring stick. Love is.

UPDATE: For more help on thinking about what Scripture actually says on this topic, check out a great couple of articles I recently read over at Pulpit Magazine, entitled Home, Private, or Public School? and Does the Bible Mandate Home School?

Another way for Homeschoolers to Have Humility and Strive for Gospel Unity…

…is by being gracious to others who don’t educate their children the same way you do. This is a way to show humility and the grace of Christ toward others who haven’t reached the same conclusions as you. Having that grace will drain the tension in the air and breathe the love of Christ.

Educational condescension (in the name of ” Biblical conviction”) and shame (resulting from the guilt trips even a condescending look or a tone of voice can cause) are too often found among brothers and sisters in Christ over this issue. Aren’t our relationships and discussions supposed to be saturated with love and humility?

As the pastor of a church with a high percentage of homeschool families, and being a homeschool father myself, I have had a long-held desire for those under my influence to exercise the humility and unity that springs from the grace of the Gospel. I see this as simply a matter of Christian love. And as a matter of obedience to the Biblical commands to strive for unity (e.g. Eph. 4:1-3). Amanda and I have tried hard to model this attitude in ourselves.

If you go to church with people – or otherwise interact regularly with people – who educate their children in a different method than you have chosen (homeschool, private, or public school), then please watch this less -than-seven-minute-long video. Please! I could not have said it better than Josh Harris has done here.

UPDATE: Go here for Josh’s dad’s response to this video.

[HT: Tim Challies] [Josh’s post]

Related: Homeschoolers Need Humility

When Sin Pays: How We’re Making a Mistress a Star

Eliot Spitzer is getting eclipsed by his mistress. I find the media’s treatment the entire sex scandal to be contradictory and strange.

On the one hand there is apparent, and I say only apparent, outrage over Spitzer’s escapades with a high-priced prostitute. And on the other hand there is a bit of hand-rubbing glee that he’s been caught breaking the very laws that famously propelled him to legal superstar as New York’s top enforcer. Many are glad he’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar that he rigidly patrolled.

There is a degree of gloating over him being caught in his crimes. Maybe it’s fueled by the dislike he seemed to spawn in the hearts of his opponents. He has a reputation for being quite arrogant, and there’s something delicious about seeing an arrogant man having to eat the dirt he dished out to others. It appears as if this is the sentiment that is pulsating in the public response to Spitzer, even more than apparent outrage over his sexual infidelity.

Yet for Ashley Dupre, no such outrage seems to exist. Instead of being appalled at this girl for engaging in not only illegal, but immoral acts with a married man, there is actually a level of curious interest in her life that has propelled her into a celebrity. Have we forgotten that she is no fair maiden, but a prostitute?

The larger percentage of the news about this scandal keeps showing photos of her in candid and posed settings, reporting about the number of music downloads and the accompanying money she’s made since the firestorm ensued, interviewing friends and co-workers to get more of an inside scoop on who she is and what she’s like. Why is all of this so interesting?

Well, media coverage as a whole seems strangely ambivalent about her. We are reminded that she’s was involved in the “sex scandal” with the governor, but what used to be shameful for being a prostitute is now soon overpassed for eager interest into the real life of an aspiring singer, who, mind you, if not for her sexual involvement with a public figure, would be of no interest whatsoever otherwise. No one would know about her if she hadn’t slept with the governor.

But that’s just it. She has become the main focus of interest in this story. People can’t get enough of her videos, songs, news stories showing her pictures and giving the latest tidbit of discovery about her. It’s as if there is an eager hope that we’ll catch a glimpse of something forbidden. We know we shouldn’t be so interested in the behind-the-scenes life of a prostitute, but we are.

It’s like the ambivilence people have toward a fatal car accident. Passers by don’t want to look for fear of the sight of blood or dead bodies, but who can resist looking after all? We want to look, but know we really shouldn’t.

Spitzer deserves worse than he’s gotten so far, but so does Dupre. Our society should not let getting paid to sleep with someone be a fast track to becoming a star. We shouldn’t be so interested. We should feel shame for her. I keep wondering if she does.

Beauty’s Attraction: Like Irresistible Grace

“I just think beauty is irresistible. It disarms us. It takes away our arguments. …I think that beauty, which is more related in my mind to the sublime, is what we can not resist.” – Stephen Dunn, poet

This is what Calvinists mean when we talk about irresistible grace. By His grace, the Spirit awakens us to the breathtaking beauty of Jesus Christ, and all our resistance to Him is disarmed, so we run to him in faith, for we cannot resist the desire to embrace Him.

It’s funny how even a non-Christian poet can give us beautiful ways of seeing the world and even accidentally simplify oft-complicated theology.

(Source: “Provisional Conclusions, A conversation with poet Stephen Dunn,” Books and Culture, March/April 2008, p. 27)

Moses Was High On Drugs?

The story has been in the news lately that some Israeli professor is now saying that Moses was actually high on drugs when he was on Mt. Sinai.

I think it’s always an amazing feat of arrogance to think you can psychoanalyze someone 4000 years after they’ve lived!

Why do people think they can do this? Why does he think Moses was high? Here’s his answer:

“As far Moses on Mount Sinai is concerned, it was either a supernatural cosmic event, which I don’t believe, or a legend, which I don’t believe either, or finally, and this is very probable, an event that joined Moses and the people of Israel under the effect of narcotics,” Shanon told Israeli public radio on Tuesday.”

Very probable?

Isn’t it amazing the lengths people will go when they simply refuse to believe that the Biblical text just might actually be true? They’ll invent the most cockamamie theories (evolution anyone?) and convince themselves that their theories are the most likely scenario.

Anything but believe the Bible. Anything.

The story went on to say:

Moses was probably also on drugs when he saw the “burning bush,” suggested Shanon, who said he himself has dabbled with such substances.

“The Bible says people see sounds, and that is a clasic [sic] phenomenon,” he said citing the example of religious ceremonies in the Amazon in which drugs are used that induce people to “see music.”

He mentioned his own experience when he used ayahuasca, a powerful psychotropic plant, during a religious ceremony in Brazil’s Amazon forest in 1991. “I experienced visions that had spiritual-religious connotations,” Shanon said.

Ah, now it’s becoming clearer. He took drugs and had a “spiritual-religious” experience. So, his drug-induced experience has given him the hermeneutical key to the Biblical text? That is arrogance indeed! Or pure idiocy.

No, it’s both.

Who has more credibility here? The thousands of years of unchanging Biblical witness to the events, or a drug-taking professor who is already operating from a perspective that precludes belief in the Biblical text, but gives credence to the most ridiculous theories to explain it away?

Give me a break. I’ll keep believing the Bible, thank you.

Compelling Voices

A voice is a God-wrought instrument. It can sing, it can speak, it can even yell and whisper. Sometimes God gifts a person with a voice that stands out among the rest. Some of them even become our favorites – we just love to hear them.

I guess I have an unusual interest in voices and patterns of speech, since it is basically what I do for a living as a pastor who teaches and preaches several times weekly. Since I’m always looking for ways to improve my own speaking skills, I sometimes find myself listening to the way people say things as much as to what they are actually saying, including even the way they form words with their mouth. That’s eccentric of me, I suppose.

Of course, some people’s voices I like to listen to for their own sake, because frankly, there are simply little to no preaching skills that I can glean from listening to, say, Clint Eastwood! Here are a few of my favorite voices with some links to enjoy them yourself.

EXEMPLARY USE OF DICTION AND THE DICTIONARY:

William F. Buckley – I’ve already written about why I love to hear him speak here, You can watch him here on Charlie Rose.

Stephen Fry – I love him best as Jeeves in the British comedy Jeeves and Wooster. Head over to YouTube for a dose of his endearing British lilt and impeccable diction. One of my favorite expressions of his, while playing the role of Jeeves, is when he manages to elevate the common phrase “when Hell freezes over” to a level only a proper English gentlemen could. Head over to his website for more.

Ian McKellen – Renown for his Shakespearean acting career, and more recently as Gandalf (Lord of the Rings), his voice is simply beautifully rich and wise-sounding. He has narrated Robert Fagles’s translation of The Odyssey and Shakespeare’s The Tempest as audiobooks. I even managed to record him narrating the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (my favorite epic poem; click here for a clip) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, both on BBC Radio 4.

James Lipton – Host of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” (Mondays on Bravo or here on YouTube) Strangely enough, I often find Lipton more fascinating than the celebrities he interviews. Lately he’s parodied his own risingly-famous diction and vocabulary on some Geico commercials, to brilliant effect.

Maya Angelou – Poet extraordinaire who speaks with gentle clarity and grace. Our family heard her give a speech and narrate her poem “Still I Rise” last year at an MLK celebration with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on the campus of Morehouse College in Atlanta – an unforgettable night.

MANLY VOICES:

James Earl Jones – “This is CNN.” Darth Vader. His dark, deep, bass voice seems almost divine.

Clint Eastwood – Intimidating and laid back, all at the same time. (“Do you Feel Lucky?” warning: violent scene).

Sean Connery – A dashing Scottish brogue.

Sam Elliott – A classic cowboy with a strong, deep, clear voice. I’ll watch a poor movie (he’s made a few) just to hear him speak.

Mike RoweHost of Dirty Jobs and narrator of several other shows.

Pastor Adrian Rogers – What I’d give to preach with a resonating voice like his! (I remember Dr. Danny Akin, now president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, jokingly saying once (when I had him at The Criswell College years ago): “Why did God give him that voice? Makes you just want to slap him!” Of course, you’d have to know Dr. Akin to immediately laugh along with him when he said that, as we all shared the envy!)

VOICES THAT NEED TO BE SILENCED:

Gilbert Gottfried – What an intentionally irritating, grate-on-your-nerves waste of a voice – and that’s not to mention how filthy he can be. Whenever he comes on, I immediately turn the channel, because I simply refuse to be bombarded by the assault.

Fran Drescher – It was funny for a while, but I’m glad it went away.

Bill Clinton – All politics aside, he simply is a lazy speaker. He constantly tries to power his voice with his throat (rather than his diaphragm), resulting in a gravelly non-attempt at projecting his words.

The horrible shouting man who does the OxyClean commercials – Give it a rest! I can hear you!

Michael Jackson – He can definitely sing, and frankly, he would do better to sing everything he wants to say, rather than ever speak again in that soft, icky talking voice.

It’s All The Reward You’re Gonna Get

Satire is always funny because it’s laced with so much truth.

(HT: World From Our Window) (Thanks Brandon for the tip!)

Now, more seriously:

If we entertain people, our church will grow. If we lead in worship, our church may shrink until it is composed of a group of people who want to worship. Then the church has a chance to grow based on the precedent of worship. The church that worships will have many visitors who never come back, and a few who cannot stay away.

— David Hansen, The Art of Pastoring

If Jesus had a church in Simi Valley, I betcha mine would be bigger. I betcha if the Apostle Paul had a church in Simi Valley, mine would be bigger. In fact, I betcha people would be leaving their churches to come to mine. Because I don’t call them to the same commitment that Jesus called them to. Jesus would have a crowd of thousands of people, and by the time he’s done preaching, there’s, you know, a few left and he goes, “You guys wanna leave also? ‘Cause I’m gonna walk out here and you gotta leave your father, your mother, your wife, your kids, and there might be a bunch of crosses out there, and we’re just all gonna get crucified together. You wanna come with me?”

That wasn’t real popular. I think, man, I’m more popular than Jesus. I can keep a crowd. I can keep ’em interested. I can say some interesting things. I can make ’em laugh. I can keep ’em coming. And it just bugged me, because I think, wait a second, that’s not right. Am I really willing to say whatever Jesus called me to say?

— Francis Chan

(HT: Jared)