How Can Poor Christians Give?

In my Sunday preaching, I am deep into a quest to cover each book of the Bible in a single sermon. I started preaching this single book series over one year ago, and I have now reached 2 Corinthians.

Child GivingIn listening to 2 Corinthians, I was struck by a paragraph at the opening of chapter 8. The Macedonians became an example which Paul used to inspire the church at Corinth to give generously toward helping suffering saints. At first, I was struck by the unimaginable generosity of the Macedonians. Later, I was struck by something even more astounding…

First, notice how generously the Macedonians gave. Though poor, they were wealthy in giving.

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints… 2 Cor 8:1-4, ESV.

Second, ponder the striking paradox between their poor circumstances and their generous giving.


But there is more to the story than simply generous giving.

Third, notice the intense desire the Macedonians possessed. Paul says—even though they lacked the means—they begged earnestly to participate. Poor Christians begged for the opportunity to contribute to a love offering! I’ve never seen anyone–rich or poor–begging to give an offering to help suffering saints.

Fourth, –and most surprising honestly–get a grasp of what kind of an example these Macedonians really are in Paul’s mind. We would expect Paul to use the Macedonians as an example of giving so that the Corinthians would be encouraged—almost shamed—into giving, right?. After all, the Corinthians were far better off than the Macedonians, and the Macedonians gave generously!

But Paul doesn’t use the Macedonians as an example of generosity. But of grace. Speaking of the Macedonians, Mark Seifrid points out,

“Yet they are an example, not of generosity, but of the grace of God.”

For Paul, the appeal to the Corinthians is not guilt, but grace. God’s grace empowered the poverty-stricken Macedonians to give. Likewise, God’s grace would also empower the church at Corinth to give generously.

If Paul had tried to shame them, the Corinthians may have been able to put up a defense against guilt. But what church would ever defend herself against grace? We love to receive grace from God. And Paul says, in effect, that receiving grace means giving grace.

Listen to Seifrid’s exposition of this profound reality about God’s grace and Christian giving:

“Paul also makes it clear that he understands the Macedonian act of giving as the reception of a gift from God. God is present and active in human giving in such a way that human givers are finally mere receivers.”

Amazing grace from an amazing God! The poor Macedonians were made rich enough to give away generously. May God’s grace make us so rich!

2 Persecution Lessons from a Keeper’s Broken Leg

Well, this isn’t exactly from the 2014 Fifa World Cup, but it is related to soccer and, more importantly, to our persecuted family.

Before the game, our team took note of the size of the goalie. He was at least 6’3” and weighed in at a solid 280. He was a big guy—like a mountain with a t-shirt. We thought (or hoped) his size would limit his agility, but then we realized he wouldn’t need agility because he filled the goal simply by standing in front of it.

Unfortunately, this young man broke his leg on a freak play shortly after the game began.  We never got an2 persecution lesson's from broken leg opportunity to see what kind of goalie he would be. Though we didn’t get to learn much about his goal-keeping skills, we did get a chance to learn a couple of important lessons from him.  At least, I learned from watching this accident unfold.  From watching this injury drama play out, I realized two important lessons about the church in relation to persecution.

Lesson One: Suffering as One

First, this young man broke his leg, but his entire—uncommonly large—body had to be hoisted onto a gurney.  His entire body was taken to the hospital—not just his leg. The reason is obvious. Bodies are a single unity of several parts. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 12, describing how the church is a body of many parts, each doing its own job, but all being unified as one.  In the same sense, each congregation belongs to every other congregation as one, universal reality called the body of Christ.

In Hebrews 13:3, the writer states plainly that all Christians (in all churches around the world) should remember the 2 Persecution Lessons from Broken Legpersecuted church “since you yourselves are in the body.”  There is one body, and all Christians are a part of it. The body suffers and triumphs as one.  The idea that a Christian could live unaware of the persecuted church is as unthinkable in the New Testament as the idea that this king-sized goalkeeper could play a soccer game without his left leg.  Bodies are very much aware when even the smallest parts are hurt, injured, or diseased. The whole body suffers as one. I saw this lesson plainly as the ambulance took this player away.

Lesson Two: Healing as One

Second, just as the body suffers as one, so, too, the body heals together as one. There is energy expended by one part of the body (the healthy part) in order to speed aid and healing to the other part.  Again, this goalkeeper helped me to see profound reality.

The game we played against his team was part of a high school soccer tournament. So, later in the evening—after he was discharged from the hospital, this goalie came back to the field to support his team.  Obviously, his leg was in a cast, and he was using crutches.  The crutches were the key for me to unlock this second lesson.

This young man is using greater energy and strength from his upper body in order to minister to the needs of his lower, injured body.  In the same way, as we minister to the persecuted church, we will both speed her healing and strengthen ourselves. This keeper is going to get stronger in his arms and his shoulders from lugging a 280 lb. frame around the schoolyard over the next two months. Just as you’ve heard that blind people often have more highly developed hearing, so, too, this lower body weakness will lead this goalkeeper to upper body strength.

We in America who suffer lighter persecution than our brothers and sisters abroad, should remember that we are one body with them. We ought to suffer with them (as though in prison with them).  As we do this, we, too, should get stronger in our faith. God has designed bodies to work as one, the stronger parts ministering to the weaker, while both are being made stronger.

Who knew that a soccer tournament with a terrible injury would serve as such a great reminder of our responsibility as Christians to remember those who are persecuted for the sake of Christ? What is your understanding of Christian responsibility to the persecuted?

 Persecution is a social justice issue

One Reason It’s So Important for All Christians to Understand Persecution 

The Apostle Paul’s Seemingly Impossible Command

The Apostle Paul gives the following impossible command to the Philippian church:

Bible Complaining Leadership Elders Submit Obedience14 Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe

First, he does NOT say, do your best to avoid arguments. He doesn’t say try not to complain. He does not say the overall attitude should be compliance, not complaining. No, He says, do everything without complaining or arguing. Everything. No complaints.

Second, the main concern in this command is not your psychological well-being or your need to be protected from spiritually abusive pastors. The issue is squarely one between God and His people. If you belong to God, then do what you are told to do. [note the . ] And when you are told what to do—and thus are doing what you have been told to do—don’t allow your heart to grumble or your mouth to complain. When you are thus characterized by glad obedience, you are acting as blameless and pure children of God.

Third, the sum of such a compliant, obedient heart is a powerful witness to a perverted world. The most natural activity in the world is refusing any authority outside of yourself. All of us are by nature like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, who finds even the smallest thread of binding to be positively unbearable.

This wildness of heart and untamable demand for fleshly autonomy is evident even among Christians who have godly leaders lovingly instructing them.  It has a very long history among God’s people. It was prevalent in the Israelites in the wilderness. (Numbers 14:2-3, NASB),

2 All the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?”

In the midst of their suffering, they cried, “Why God!” Then they refused to trust the leaders God had given them, demanding instead to return to the past, which wasn’t perfect, mind you, but it was at least familiar. It was manageable. They could navigate the past. They knew they could get along comfortably there, but they had no guarantee of comfort going forward into a future which demanded faith in the place of sight. The past was easier to accommodate. It was doable. So, they grumbled at the man God provided to lead them into a promised future.

Such grumbling and complaining is both natural and wicked. It is severely and consistently condemned throughout Scripture. Jude marvels that the archangel Michael would not dare to condemn the Devil; instead, he said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (See Jude 9.) Yet, mere humans crept into the church and did not hesitate to “revile the things which they do not understand; and the things which they know by instinct, like unreasoning animals….”  “Woe to them!” says Jude, “they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah” (Jude 11).

Paul, likewise, has severe words for those who cannot obey without complaining. In a letter to the church at Corinth (1 Cor 10), Paul speaks of the rebellion of Israel in the wilderness. He has a particular interest in protecting the church from grumbling, so he warns them not to “try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents.  Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.”  You see the pattern? Grumbling and complaining get you killed. It’s not safe. Not good.

Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians that the stories of Israel’s grumbling in the wilderness were written down so that later generations of God’s people might be instructed—that is, might learn from them how to follow godly leaders.

“Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor 10:12).

Like it or not, we must be humble and obedient people, holding firmly to Christ, keeping His word, and serving His Bride as He completes His redemptive work in this world. We must not be like the rest of the world, acting as unreasoning animals, demanding our own rights, pursuing our own fleshly preferences. We must be humble, obedient, and faithful sheep listening for and responding to the voice of the Good Shepherd Himself.

What does that mean in practical terms? Consider these 4 applications:

Submit to your elders:
 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:17)

Do not entertain charges against your elders:
19 Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. (1 Tim 5:19)

If you disagree—or think you might disagree—go before the Lord in prayer and dive into the Word in study before ever disparaging the work of your church or its leaders.

Finally, when you feel you must question your pastor or elders, do so with fear and with faith. The issue must not be viewed as your preferences versus the pastor’s. The only issue is the preference of the Good Shepherd Himself. What does Christ command? What does His word teach on the subject? Bring your concern to the man with your Bible in your hand and the hope of reconciliation in your heart.  Then, and only then, can you claim to be doing what is right before God.

This is a grievous subject. More than a few churches have divided and split as a result of grumbling and complaining. Those who grumble and find fault are often followers of their own lusts. They speak arrogantly, flattering some people for the sake of gaining advantage over others (Jude 16). They cause deep divisions in the otherwise unified body of Christ. And this is why the Bible says, “Woe to them!”

This expectation of unity and peace among believers is why Peter asks, “What kind of people ought you to be?” Then answers, “Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless” (2 Peter 3:14).  It’s also why Paul lovingly tells the Philippians to do everything without complaining or arguing. Paul does not want any in the church to fall into the condemnation and woe of fleshly grumblers.

We need to think more about what this means in the church. So, what are some questions for a further post?


Why God Is Not Impressed with Our Anger

Moses, God’s Leader, Had Trouble With Trust, Too

God Restrains His Wrath, And We Can Restrain Ours

Which Church to Choose?

My family and I are adjusting to living in the population-dense city of Corona, CA.  While Corona is not as populated as its neighboring Orange County or Los Angeles County residences, it is substantially more peopled than our prior residence in Bullitt County, Kentucky.  There, we could not hit our neighbor’s house by throwing a rock. Here, we must be careful to turn from our neighbors when we sneeze.

Church Holy Spirit Word God Christ

Church Holy Spirit Word God Christ

At any rate, we have been fascinated to watch how Christians have responded to booming populations. In Corona, there are about 4,000 people per square mile. And there are about 2.5 churches per square mile. Driving home from our wonderful new church (FBC Norco), my wife and I noticed several church plants. In fact, there were two church plants in a single commercial distribution facility. We passed them both and noticed their names. As a kind of thought experiment, I asked my wife which of the two she would prefer.

Think about which church you would choose. The first church we came across in this industrial/commercial complex was called “Led by the Holy Spirit Worship Center.”  Clearly, they desire to fulfill the spirit of Galatians 5:25, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”

The second church advertised itself as “The Word of Truth Gospel Church.” Clearly, this congregation hopes to keep in step with the spirit of Jesus’s own prayer to the Father in John 17:17, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” So, which church would you choose: The one led by the Holy Spirit or the Word of Truth?

My savvy wife ended up turning the question back on me. So, here is my short reply (and admittedly a reply ignorant of any knowledge about either church beyond its name). Given only the names, I would lead my family to the “Word of Truth” church over the “led by the Holy Spirit” church. The reason is simple: One church stands or falls on experience, while the other stands or falls on an eternal, unchanging word.

I am very much in favor of being led by the Holy Spirit—without the Spirit there would be no new birth (Jn 3) and no helper to call to our minds the Word of Christ (Jn 14:26). Without the Spirit, our prayers would be impossible, for He intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words, and He reminds us that we are children of God and are thus able to cry out to our Father in heaven (Rom 8:12-27).  The Holy Spirit empowers us to love and to good works. We cannot live the Christian life apart from the Spirit.

Nevertheless, the foundation for our faith is not the Spirit but the Word—the living Word of God who put on skin and came to live on the earth in the midst of a crooked and perverse, sin-filled people. The living Word of God in the person of Christ is the foundation of our faith. Christ is the eternal Word, whose work has wrought our salvation.  The Holy Spirit applies, empowers, and recalls to us the work of Christ. Christ is foundational–the author of our faith.

This distinction is slightly forced because both Christ and the Holy Spirit are one unity with the Father (the Trinity). Nothing I have said should be taken to imply division between Christ and the Spirit. But it is necessary for us to keep Christ first, for some in the name of the Spirit act as though the Spirit has the right to overrule the Word.  They allow experience to trump the Word.

For example, I spoke with a man who believed he should divorce his wife because she wasn’t as spiritually mature as he was. He believed the Spirit was leading him to get a divorce (his third). Another woman I know thought the Spirit was leading her to an adulterous affair. After all, God wants us to be happy, right? In both cases, experiences (and fleshly desires) were running roughshod over the clear teaching of the Scripture.  The Word of God forbids such behavior (Matthew 19:1-11).

So, my conclusion is, first, to say that we ought not separate the Trinity!  We need both Spirit and Word. But if you are forced to choose a Spirit church over a Word church, stick with the Word.  The eternal Word of God will correct your fleshly appetites and guide you in the way of salvation.  Your experiences need God’s interpretive guide—that occurs when you are led by Christ’s words, obeying all that He commands you.


Why Church Fires Cannot Destroy Christ’s Church

I own a coffee roaster and a small coffee roasting business. The secret to roasting great coffee is controlling the flame.  The Coffee Roaster Fire Flamesroaster uses real fire to heat a turning and churning stainless steel drum. As the drum turns and churns the coffee beans, the heat from the flames begins to warm the beans; then it begins to steal the moisture from the beans; then it begins to roast the beans; until, finally, the beans crack, bursting from the pressure of the heat-induced roasting.

In a similar manner, the Enemy appears to have a strategy: attack the children of God with fire until they crack under the pressure of the heat.  All the world over, the old Defrauder and his minions set fire to church buildings hoping to cause us Christians to crack, to break apart.  But God always has His hands near the flames, saying to His people:

The flame shall not hurt you, I only design

Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

Christian churches are burning somewhere in the world every single day. Last year, there was a slate of church burnings in Ethiopia.  This year, Nigeria is, literally, a hot spot, as Boko Haram is seeking to do the Devil’s bidding by ridding the landscape of its Christian presence.   Even here in America, evil has its minions working against the church.  Did you know that two dozen or more churches may be burned in America in any given month?

Over the past month or so, fires have been set intentionally at churches in Massachusetts; in Lufkin, Texas; in Savannah, Georgia; and in Potomac Heights, Maryland.  The strategy is tried in America just as in the rest of the world, and the result is the same.  God uses the flames as a master roaster uses his flame to bring forth a glorious new reality that would not have happened without the heat.

Here is the glorious reality of God’s design for the devil’s flame: It strengthens the church.  And here is how that happens.  Think of it this way.  There is a fire that destroys and a fire that inspires.  The fire that inspires is more glorious, more powerful, and more all-consuming than any fire the enemy can muster. In a sense, his little fires are cheap imitations of the ultimate reality spoken of in Hebrews 12:29, “Our God is a consuming fire.”

The enemy can only cheaply imitate and threaten with that which is not at all glorious. He burns our buildings, but God Himself fires our souls.  God’s fire is the one which lasts.  This is why when church buildings are burned, the building is destroyed yet the church is strengthened, edified, built up in love, and more sober-minded than before.  The church need not fear an enemy with a candle when she is already pursuing the fire that fuels a thousand suns.

Is the Holy Land Really Holy?

Is it okay to watch a movie in your church sanctuary? What about the Holy Land, is it really holy? These are but two of the practical questions I sprung on my Sunday school class recently. How would you answer?

Your answer would betray your allegiance to your concept of sacred space.  Do you believe there are places on the

Sacred Space Tremper Longman

Book by Tremper Longman on Sacred Space

earth which God particularly esteems?  Recently, I posted on a chapel dilemma facing Muslims in Denver.  The question of sacred space came up in that post because Muslims were separating into a different room from Christians, presumably for the sake of holiness.  Do we Christians recognize any place on earth as more holy than any other place?  Or, put more bluntly, is the sanctuary the actual house of God?

To answer these questions, simply turn to John 4, the story in which Jesus interacts with the Samaritan woman at the well. You might remember the important answer Jesus gives her concerning worship: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

The significance of his answer is seen in the context of the woman’s question. She had asked Jesus about the proper place of worship: Was the proper place of worship in Jerusalem or on Mt. Gerizim? Sacred space was the issue she addressed.  Jesus’s answer was that the Father demanded sacred people, people set apart by the Spirit through the truth of the gospel.

The question of sacred space had taken a decidedly different turn upon the arrival of Jesus Christ.  Jesus was called Immanuel (which means God with us). Jesus was God coming to the earth to dwell among us (John 1:14).  The presence of God was not limited to any place, but, rather, was enshrined in this one man from heaven, Jesus Christ.

Therefore, those longing to be in the presence of God need not make a trip to Jerusalem to the temple.  All they need is to be with Jesus.  Wherever Jesus lives, there is the unique presence of God on the earth.

So, sacred space is anywhere and everywhere the sacred people (saints) happen to be.  The temple of Christ’s body is actually the church (1 Corinthians 6).  He tore down the old temple and raised it up three days later. Christ now dwells in the presence of His people. Thus—because Christ is present with His people—His people make up a new and living temple, one not made by human hands. Each person who is in Christ is a living stone in the temple of God.  Sacred space is anywhere and everywhere you find the church.

Therefore, the building in which Christians gather is not necessarily any more or any less sacred than the building which houses the local coffeehouse. Not coincidentally, many churches meet in coffeehouses and bookstores, clothing shops and even restaurants and bars.  The place is not sacred unless the people are sacred (filled with the Spirit and the truth).  If the people are sacred, then the place will be, too, so long as the people are gathered there in faith.

In other words, God doesn’t meet with His people in the sanctuary because the sanctuary is His house.  God meets with His people in the sanctuary because that happens to be the place where his saints have gathered.

Movies can be watched by the church for the glory of God in the sanctuary, but the concept of a Holy Land is obsolete in Christ whose kingdom extends over all the earth (Matthew 28).

I am curious as to whether this makes sense to you? It can be a little confusing. So, as always, your thoughts are appreciated.

Update on Project 13:3


Just wanted to give you all an update on what is happening with Project 13:3, our new ministry devoted to understanding and responding to Christian persecution.

By the end of this week, a new website should be up and running. There are great new features on the website, such Project 13:3 christian persecutionas a locator for churches who are partnered together in the 13:3 network. These are churches which understand why Christians are persecuted, and they are trying to help spread the word about persecution.

In addition to the church network, there will be links to news, articles, videos, a podcast, and a special Twitter account which will send you an encouraging quote each day from the persecuted church, thus helping you to remember the persecuted because you are in the body.

Tons of great work is underway with Project 13:3. Visit the website (next week) and learn how to get involved.

Oh, and by the way, there will be a video posted which shows Christians being stoned in… Dearborn, Michigan, USA. Stay tuned to Project 13:3


The Wedding: A Special Bride (by Becca Potter)


[The following post is from Rebecca Potter who wrote this article about a very special young woman named Project 13:3 persecution crystal's crossCrystal Marie Simpson. Crystal had a heart for Christ and for the persecuted church. She was supposed to be married in June of this year.  Sadly, she was killed in February. Her zeal is remembered at Project 13:3. The following post honors Crystal’s life and was given to Crystal’s mother today (August 26, 2012), which would have been Crystal’s 20th birthday.]

The Wedding

The creamy white dress gently hugged her slender body, the satin fabric carefully framing her subtle curves. The slightly plunging neckline was a bit too loose, but it didn’t matter; it was a detail easily overlooked, but had been quite bothersome to the bride. The simplicity of the wedding gown perfectly communicated the pure beauty and femininity of the young woman. There was no gathered lace, no puffy sleeves, no layers and layers of fabric to mask imperfections or take the focus away from the bride’s own radiance.

Her blond hair fell in soft waves around her shoulders left bare by her sleeveless bridal gown. Her young face showed peace and beauty. The angles of her jaw line were hard and strong, but made soft by her long, dark lashes and pink lips. The exquisite features of her face communicated youth, kindness, elegance, and warmth.

Beside the classically beautiful bride stood her groom. And close behind him was her mother. The trio was surrounded by friends and family who had gathered for the occasion—the room was filled to capacity. Quiet voices in separate conversations created a low murmur as guests filled the spaces of time with talk of how lovely the flowers were, how wonderful the bride looked, how great the turnout was. Some conversations moved to empty talk of work or weekend plans, but quickly came back to the bride and groom.

The bride’s father chatted with the many guests, seeming genuinely grateful for their attendance but exhausted at the same time. The mother said over and over, “Isn’t she beautiful,” then grinned knowing the answer already. This young bride had been responsible for the marriage of her own parents. Years before, they, as teenagers, had found themselves expecting a child, still children themselves. And so they married—because of this now bride.

A few years later, their little girl led them to church and then to a relationship with Jesus. She had begged them to take her to church as a young child. They did, to pacify her constant nagging. They did it for her, without realizing what she was doing for them. Through this sweet, humble girl, God had established a relationship with this family and glorified Himself through their lives and their unity. And now, because of her, family and friends were united on this day.

But this was no wedding.

Weeks of anticipation, months of planning, years of dreaming, and here they all were. Instead of walking his little girl down the aisle, the father would walk by her casket. Instead of a rehearsal dinner there was a visitation. Instead of planning a reception and ordering a cake, the mother would make funeral arrangements and pick out a tombstone. And instead of seeing his beautiful bride walk down the aisle in her flowing satin dress, eyes wide and intoxicating and a shy smile meant only for him, this groom stood over her casket, looking into her beautiful but empty face, longing for what could no longer be.

Her body has been in the ground for a few months now. The shock has worn off and the real grief has set in. The hearts of her loved ones remain broken and the image of her face is a painful comfort to those who loved her. Even amid the heartache and agony, this would-be bride is still bringing people to the Lord. The place where she sat during worship service is not empty; it is filled with family members who were out of church before who now hear the Gospel and understand it with new awareness. Her witness, her beautiful spirit, still resonates strongly with us all. And we all look forward to the day we are reunited with her at a marriage feast that will last into eternity.

For Crystal, to live was Christ and to die was gain. For this bride, it was not death to die. And now, she rejoices with the Bridegroom, singing praises around His throne. She is indeed alive.


2 Dangers of Putting “Para” in front of Church

Prefixes are fascinating little pre-words. Kids studying for the National Spelling Bee learn prefixes in order to quickly unlock the meaning of words. The prefix para can help a contestant unlock the meaning of the more than 11,000 English words which employ it.  The only problem is that English is notorious for its exceptions.  Not all para prefixes are created equal.

Para comes from a Greek word meaning “to come alongside.”  Most likely, it’s the Greek word which folks had in mind when they determined to put the para prefix ahead of the church.  Para-church, then, would mean, “come alongside the church.”  Para-church ministries would be those designed to come alongside church ministries.



But what if the para prefix used were the French version instead of the Greek?  Instead of meaning “to come alongside,” the French prefix para means “to guard against/protect from.”  (A parachute protects from a fall.)  In this prefixed arrangement, Para-church organizations would be designed to guard against or protect ministry from the church. Surely, para-church organizations aren’t guarding against the church, are they?

Some Christians have dismissed para-church ministries altogether as evil parasites.  I don’t think they are. Para-church organizations are obviously successful.  Mack Stiles points out that there are more than 91,000 para-church organizations operating in the U.S., with assets exceeding $4 billion.  Obviously, lots of folks think they are worthwhile.  And they are.  Para-church organizations often are able to gain access to prisons (Prison Fellowship) and to other populations which are difficult for churches directly to enter.  So, para-church ministries do have a role to play in the church.  But there are a couple of dangers which must always be kept in mind.

Dumbing Doctrine
First, Para-church organizations have an identity problem. If they don’t belong to a particular church, then to what church do they belong?  The most obvious answer is the “church universal,” the Church which in its early years was called “catholic.”  But the catholic (little “c,” meaning universal) church is difficult to define.  Does it include the Catholic (big “C,” meaning Roman Catholic) Church?  Does it include the Russian Orthodox, Mormon, or Jehovah’s Witness churches?  Any effort to answer such questions also slices off potential funding sources.

Photo courtesy

Para-church organizations by definition must appeal to churches outside of their local and denominational frameworks for support.  Many will appeal to government agencies and secular humanitarians as well for financial support.  This broader appeal for financial resources demands a broader (in the sense of more generic) appeal to biblical doctrine.  Doctrine divides.  Emphasis on doctrine inevitably leads to shrinking the population of the giving groups.  So, para-church organizations become generic.  If they had a doctrinal flavor, it would be vanilla.

Many para-church organizations present themselves as unisex jeans—able to fit whoever is putting them on.  They promise to work regardless of the true identity of those who use them.  Broad appeals for cash lead to narrowing appeals to Scripture. Para-church organizations often end up wearing doctrinal dunce caps.  It’s at least a danger.

Disengaging Church
A second danger to consider with regard to para-church organizations is the danger of increasing the tension between church and para-church.  Neither wants to be controlled by the other.  Because the para-church organization is not anchored in a particular church, it is run independently of all churches.  There are usually boards which control the organization, but boards are not churches.  Churches are better than boards at holding people accountable to Christ (or at least they are supposed to be).

What happens often is that the para-church group begins to drift away from accountability to Christ.  Christ is deemphasized on behalf of the work supposedly done in His name.  The homeless shelter that once shared the gospel simply becomes the homeless shelter.  Or, worse, it may become merely a gym or recreation center.

Mack Stiles illustrates this second problem brilliantly and succinctly:

The standard cliché for parachurch is that it’s not the church, but an arm of the church. Yet historically, that arm has shown a tendency to develop a mind of its own and crawl away from the body, which creates a mess.

A dismembered arm is certainly a mess.  So, it’s best—insofar as it is possible—to keep ministries within the church, holding the body together in unity.  On occasion, it will be beneficial for the church to partner with a para-church organization, but when it does, the church must keep these two dangers in mind in order to avoid them.

Given the dangers, it might be best for us to think of the prefix para to represent neither its Greek nor its French roots, but, rather, to refer to its Italian meaning when put in front of the church.  In Italian, the prefix means “to protect,” as a goalie parries away a shot toward the goal he is defending.  Both church and para-church organizations would be best served if our main interest were protecting and defending the Bride of Christ.

Why We Use Wine (Part 2)

As for the second question, why change now from grape juice to wine?  The answer is a little more complex.  The most succinct—if not the most forthright—answer is simply, “I don’t know.”  I am not sure why now is the right time to switch—or even if now is the right time for our church to change from drinking grape juice at the Lord’s Supper to drinking wine.  I have to believe—by faith—that the moment of conviction is normally the best moment for corrective action.  Once we know what the will of God is, how long should we wait to obey it?  I think the sooner we obey, the better, right?

Of course, it is possible to delay in order to achieve the full benefits of repentance.  Consider Zaccheus—that wee little man who climbed up in a tree.  When the Lord told Zaccheus that He would be going to his house, Zaccheus was immediately overcome by the condescending grace of our God that he repented at full throttle.  Yet, Zaccheus—a wealthy tax collector—didn’t simply begin handing out money.  Rather, he embarked on a mission to discover whom he may have defrauded, pledging to pay them back 4 times what he owed them.  Such a thoroughgoing repentance takes a plan, and plans take time to enact.  In one sense his repentance was immediate, yet in another it was more slowly enacted.  Such is the case with our changing from grape juice to wine.

Most immediately, I have been reading a book (which I first read several years ago) in preparation for teaching at Southern Seminary.  The book chides churches which use grape juice instead of wine.  The author, Donald Macleod, offers a rather frank rebuke against the use of grape juice in the place of wine:

“Many, probably even most, evangelicals today, use unfermented grape juice….  They object in principle to the use of alcohol.  Many of us, however, find this scrupulosity deeply disturbing.  It not only involves a clear departure from biblical precedent, but implies adverse criticism of the wisdom and integrity of our Lord.  The sacrament is not administered according to the mind of Christ if it willfully departs from His example” (Macleod, Priorities for the Church, 117-18).

In past readings, I went by this paragraph with no serious consideration of altering church practice.  The reason, I think, is not so much because it was overlooked or considered unimportant; rather, the reason was most likely because our church was wrestling with much more basic issues at the time—or at least more urgent issues.  The early years of my ministry here at Cedar Grove were spent mostly on church order and missions (both of which remain integrally important).  The elements of the Lord’s Supper were not urgent priorities in view of other things which needed to be addressed.

But now, our church is more mature and ready, I think, to embrace boldly all of the instructions of the Scriptures.  We don’t flinch when we are corrected by the Scriptures.  We genuinely mean the line we sang as children, “the Bible tells me so.”  When the Bible tells us so, we respond by believing it, putting our faith into action.

With Macleod’s critique on my mind, I headed back to the Scriptures and then to the elders of the church. We had a good discussion about the biblical teachings in relation to our practices as a church and concluded that there was no good reason to use grape juice instead of wine (particularly the non-alcohol wine which we chose).  So, we put together a plan to introduce the wine at our January 2nd service.

Whether this was the right time to introduce the change to our church or not, I suppose I still don’t know, but I think that it probably was for at least two reasons.  First, this move challenged us to be biblical instead of traditional.  The Protestant Reformation placed a sharp emphasis on the necessity of the church to be always willing to conform to Scripture whenever Scripture and tradition collide.  Our tradition—for the entire life of this local church—has been to use unfermented grape juice.  We gladly altered that tradition in light of the Scriptures.  Surely, that is a good thing, a mark of spiritual maturity and growing faith as a church.  (It is always the right time for such faith to be practiced).

Second, because we are exercising faith, we are strengthening our own faith.  Faith operates in the same way as our biceps.  If we hope to keep them strong and healthy, we must give them a workout.  Changing our practice at the Lord’s Supper offers us the opportunity to work out our faith.  Anytime we work out our faith, it grows stronger.  Already, I have received testimonies of folks who had never before seen the connection between the wine we drink at the Lord’s Supper and the glorious, aged wine we will drink at the marriage feast when Christ is finally and forever gathered with His bride, the Church.  The wine is a foretaste of glory. We see that glory more clearly now because (by faith) we moved to wine.

In addition, I have also spoken with several folks who have asked about the bread Jesus would have used.  Was it leavened or unleavened?  Whichever it was, it most certainly was not the paper-flavored Chic-lets we are now receiving.  One guy said he thought they were unseasoned croutons.  No one has mistaken them for bread.  So, come March 6th, we will likely be serving new bread with our new wine.  And this, too, is healthy for a church body.  One act of faith usually does open doors to other opportunities for faith, just as strengthening our biceps opens opportunities for us to do heavier lifting.  It is good for us to give our faith a biblical workout.  I am glad to be part of a church body which makes this exercise possible.

And now for answering some objections…


There are so many stories out there right now concerning church-state relations.  This story from GetReligion speaks of the entanglement of law and religion in the matter of faith healing when children die.  In the past, other couples have been convicted of reckless homicide for not seeking the aid of a doctor.

While I certainly thank God for antibiotics and make use of doctors and nurses (believing that God is actually more glorified in working through ordinary means), I cannot absolutely condemn all occurrences of “faith healing.”  Part of this admission is based on the simple fact that I do not know how much the parents knew about the disease of the child or the ease of access to the remedy.  For instance, I know of a family whose daughter had migraines.  They prayed for her, but she died.  They had no idea they should have been seeking advanced medical help.

In the case mentioned in the story above, there was most likely a good deal of knowledge about the child’s condition, and the parents should have gotten help for the child.  However, we are treading on very dangerous grounds when that determination is given over to a government official.  Not only is this a potential overstep into the private lives of citizens by the government; it may also be a violation of the 1st Amendment of the constitution–establishing religious doctrine.  Can the government tell a citizen it is wrong for him to live by a faith conviction?  What if the government decides that it endangers the life (psychologically–as in Doe v. Bolton) of a 15 year-old to have a baby?  The government might mandate abortions in such a case.  Should parents who dissent for religious reasons be subject to penalty under law for their refusal?  Is medical treatment an obligation, a duty, a right, or a privilege?  Ought citizens to be forced into medical treatment? Which treatments are mandatory?

There are so many knotty issues concerning church and state.  I certainly believe these parents should have had their daughter treated (both for theological and practical reasons).  Their case, however, is one of individual liberty and the role of church and state.  We can clearly see that minors deserve some protections.  We will not ever be comfortable with decisions others make for their children; however, we should also be willing to recognize a fundamental duty of parents to be the primary decision makers for their children.

One Nation Under God (2)


Is it true that our greatest danger is keeping God out?  I think it is and will offer some examples in just a moment, but I hesitate in going further at this point under the weight of objection which I sense at the claim that we need God in our national conscience (including our political considerations).  What about the Salem witch trials?  Won’t it mean we will execute people for their beliefs (or unbelief)?  What about the Inquisition?  The Crusades?  It seems there will be no end to the bloodshed once theology enters the discussion, right?


Well, what about the Salem witch trials?  The Salem Witch Trials are much more easily tossed out as fodder for feeding anti-Christian animosity than they are understood in their political significance.  Sure, it is not good to burn witches.  On that point, Christians and secularists agree.  Indeed, one will search long and hard attempting to find a Christian who will advocate burning anyone to death for any reason.  Still, the trials did happen, and people did die; it was tragic.


The Salem Witch Trials were sparked by Samuel Parris when a group of young girls suffered from unexplained delusions.  The enigmatic expressions gave Mr. Parris an opportunity to exact vengeance on his unsuspecting enemies.  From there, the hysteria grew.  More and more folks besides Mr. Parris began hurling witchcraft accusations against those labeled enemies or those deemed enigmatic.  At the conclusion of the hysteria, 20 people had been hanged: 14 women and 6 men, with some others having died in prison.


I neither wish to condone such abhorrent behavior nor defend it.  However, if one is inclined to allude to these trials as an example of why God and faith ought to be kept out of public policy debate, then three further points ought to be considered.  First, Christians are the very ones who appealed for the practices to stop.  Cotton Mather, who himself opposed witchcraft, urged restraint, arguing that it would be much better for 10 accused witches to go free than it would for even one innocent witch to be burned.  Christians held other Christians to account for these wrongs which were committed. 


There was a very public call for repentance in Salem; there was a day of public prayer and fasting for forgiveness.  Anne Putnam, one of the original delusional girls, publicly confessed her guilt and sought repentance and restoration, as did Samuel Sewall.  Sewall—as a magistrate—judged the witch trials and was very much broken by a confrontation he had with Matthew 12:7.  He confessed his guilt publicly, repented, and sought forgiveness and reconciliation with the people of Salem.  He would later become the chief justice of Massachusetts.  So, Christians—because they believe very much in a higher order of law than either themselves or the state—recognize that each man individually and all societies corporately have another authority—a higher justice—to which they are bound.  The reality of higher justice serves to offer correction for errors along the way.  Salem corrected herself. 


Second, arguments which appeal to the Salem affair must acknowledge that it was not a major event on the scale of even the smaller wars and conflicts we have faced as a nation.  I do not mean here to diminish the value of the two dozen lives lost—not at all—for that would itself be a non-Christian thing to do, since each human life is created in the image of God and, thus, has great value.  What I am saying, however, is that Christians will make mistakes just like non-Christians.  Though Christians have access to the revealed truth from God, they don’t always act rightly upon such revelation.  This is a fair and honest assessment.  The mistake of wrongful execution is serious, but this particular case of it pales in comparison to the wrongful executions committed by non-Christians.  And, this kind of argument is a two-edged sword which would, if followed faithfully, rule science out of political discourse along with religion. 


Scientists, like Christians, make mistakes, too.  I don’t mean simply that scientists make mistakes such as the mathematical one which recently shut down the 2 billion dollar CERN collider project.  I mean tragic human mistakes such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, which left 400 patients untreated for scientific purposes.  Approximately 140 of these patients died as a direct result of not being treated.  In addition, forty of their wives and 19 of their children were infected, all of which could have been avoided with simple penicillin (which had become available, but the victims were neither told about it nor offered it… for scientific reasons).  Whatever weight one gives to Salem for keeping God out of public policy debate, he has 5 times the weight of evidence to keep science out.  As Christians, however, we do not wish to keep either out, for both are indications not of inherent problems with science or with Christianity, rather, inherent problems with humanity.  We are born under sin, and we will sin.  Thus, we need correctives.  We need higher order authority.  This is true whether we are Christian ministers or lab technicians.  This is why we have checks and balances in our government.


Third, as has been hinted at with the above reference to Samuel Sewall, the trials were carried out by civil authorities, not the church.  Obviously, church and state were too intertwined to speak of much of a difference between them, and, being a Baptist, I would agree that such an intertwined affinity is unhelpful both for the church and the state.  However, this conviction does not at all lead to the conclusion that earnest Christians should be barred from public policy.  If the hard line is maintained between the Christian church and the state, then how might a Christian serve at all in public office?  The anti-Christian zealot may quickly reply, “He shouldn’t. If he can’t keep his religious beliefs to himself, then he ought not be allowed to serve in office.” 


My reply is simply to ask what kind of a public servant is able to serve while keeping his beliefs to himself.  If one is able to accomplish such a thing, he is a hypocrite.  Would we say that only hypocrites can run for office?  Maybe only hypocrites do run for office.  Sometimes it seems that way, but we know it isn’t true.  And—more importantly—we do not desire for it to be true.  We elect people who we believe will keep their word and deliver on their promises.  The Christian ought not be hypocritical about his Christianity, and he ought to be welcomed in the public policy debate.  If he is not, then the political climate has become the opposite of what Mr. Meacham has argued for—free.  It is not free if a significant proportion of the population is ruled out of bounds simply because they believe just about the same thing most of the history of our nation believes.

God or Government

We typically ask about the relationship between God and government. It may be that the issue is God or government. 

As it turns out, the more dependent people become on the government, the more ungodly they become.  To put the matter another way, faith in government diminishes faith in God.  A recent article spells out the implications of Obama’s attempt to hook more and more people on federal funds.  Dependency on government money, healthcare, education, and employment leads to a lack of faith in God.


This article makes and defends these assertions.  If one were to question the consequences of government action seriously, he would need to look no further than the problem of absent fathers among African-American families.  Look at the state of the black family in the 1960’s and compare it with more recent figures.  The war on poverty was a war on families because it taught so many to depend on the government.  Even with the best of intentions, liberal welfare policies undermine faith and family.


Traditional Church Dead?

A Christian writer, Michael Spencer, has recently said:

“One thing I want to try to say loud and clear is if you are concerned about evangelicalism’s future, then get out there and support church planting because new congregations are doing much better than those congregations that are facing generational horizons or are in real danger of simply ceasing to exist,” he contends. “Church planting, I think, house churches — I think we’re going to enter an era with a lot of diverse forms of the church. Denominationalism and the traditional church on the corner is going to be, I think, the minority report.”

What do you think? 

How ought we to respond to this assessment?

Fervently From the Heart

Peter’s epistle is astounding for what it says about the church.  In 1 Peter 1:22, we read, “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brothers, fervently love one another from the heart.”  My, what a long way our churches have fallen from this ideal!

Purifying your soul to love the church fervently is obedience to the truth.  Somehow, our presentation of the gospel falls short of calling for this kind of fervent love.  For Peter, the gospel includes a sincere love for Christ’s church, as he says in 1 Peter 1:25, “This is the word which was preached to you.”

“Father, purify from our hearts the petty self-love which honors others only as they honor us or make much of us.  Father, purge from us the small selfishness which seeks only our own gain.  Instead, set us free to give up our rights and our claims of justice so that we will be free to love sincerely and fervently from the heart.  Take away our foolish fear of losing self esteem.  And, Father, grant that we would understand the Gospel more clearly and more plainly so that we would grow in our love for and service to the church.”