Welcome!

For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
The churches' websites includes recorded sermons for those who are interested. Click the links below to access them.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

So What's the Difference?

I've been back in the United States for almost a couple of weeks now. The initial pain of leaving and the disorientation of arriving in a new place is slowly fading. One of the most common questions I am asked is what the difference is between France and the United States. It is a surprisingly difficult question to answer because the list is long and ranges from the profound to the silly.

  • There is much more water in American toilets than in French toilets. Why?
  • The people in the US love to chat. This includes clerks in stores who treat you like long-lost friends...which is both nice and kinda strange when you think about it.
  • I never saw what Americans call "French bread" in France. The same goes for "French dressing."
  • Despite the fact that America is a nation of immigrants, French society (as experienced in Strasbourg) seems more integrated.
  • Bottomless cups of coffee are one of the greatest blessings of living in America.
  • Americans eat really fast. Supper is at 6:00. GoĆ»ter is all day long.
  • France knows how to do cheese. America knows how to do meat.
  • In America, gas is currently about $2.50 a gallon. That's $0.66 (0.58€) per litre. In France, it is about 1.52€ per litre. For the mathematically challenged, that means it's about 3x more expensive in France.
  • Americans drive everywhere. The French walk or take public transportation.
  • In France, I passed 2 incredible bakeries as I walked to the supermarket.
  • In France, people gave me strange looks when I said I was a pastor. In America, they want to know what time the services are because they might come to church. 
  • American food is too salty.
  • American pizza is better.
  • In France, the old buildings are older than the country of the United States by several centuries.
  • In France, for some strange reason they call soccer football. Of course, the rest of the world does, too. 
  • The odds of getting Americans to adopt the metric system are better than the odds of getting them to call soccer football.
  • The Super Bowl was watched by 160 million people mostly in the United States. The World Cup was watched by over a billion people around the world. In other words, football is much more popular than football.
  • I spent the day surrounded by hundreds of other people at a high school sporting event. I did not hear a single word spoken in a language other than English. Any given day in Strasbourg I would hear French, German, Alsatian, English, and Arabic along with a mix of others!
  • Americans smile more.
  • The French are careful to greet each person individually when entering a room.  
  • There is always plenty of parking in the US.
  • Free public education stops at 12th grade in the US. Why?
  • In a French restaurant, a glass of wine usually costs less than a bottle of water.
  • When invited to dinner, Americans usually show up "on time." The French typically show up at least 15 minutes late.
  • Americans are much louder.
  • The French greet each other with a kiss on each cheek. Americans shake hands.
  • In France, the milk is on the shelf in the supermarket. In the US, the milk is in the refrigerators.
  • In France, the eggs are brown and sometimes have feathers. In the US, they are white and appear to have been power-washed.
  • Internet and cellphone plans are much cheaper in France. So is medical care.
  • Laptops are cheaper in the US. 
  • The US is air-conditioned. France is not. 
  • Taxes are included in the prices in France. They are added at the checkout in the US. 
  • Roundabouts are everywhere in France. GPS: "Go straight through 11 roundabouts..."
  • French people think fruit is a dessert. Americans think it is a salad.
  • In France, my Peugeot 206 was tiny which was good because parking spots were small. In the US I drive a mini-van which is fine because the parking spots are huge.
  • When driving in the US, I watch out for deer. In France, I watch out for bicycles.
The list goes on and on. My five years in France have changed me. My wife read this list and said she thought it "tilted toward the French." I suppose that is because I am still in transition and missing things that enjoyed in France while America is familiar. I am glad to be an American, but I now know that France is also a wonderful place to live.
The reality is that when I am in France I miss the US and when I am in the US I miss France.
I guess that means I am a pilgrim on a journey to another place that will really feel like home.

Friday, October 12, 2018

My Last TICOS Post...And The Last Verse of the Bible

 "May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen".

This is the last verse of the Bible, and it is a fitting text for my final post as pastor of Trinity International Church of Strasbourg. As the ending words of Scripture, the Holy Spirit magnifies the importance of grace. It is an essential reminder for us as a church family. 

Salvation by grace through faith.
The gospel is at the core of our message as a church. We are guilty sinners and worthy of the wrath of God. But God, in his mercy, graciously sent his Son, Jesus, to die for our sins. Those who repent and believe in him are forgiven and receive eternal life. This salvation is completely undeserved. We deserve wrath and are given forgiveness. It is gift. This is grace. Most people struggle with this concept. Either they think that they must do something to receive grace (go to church, give money to the poor, etc.) or they think that they have done something evil (like adultery, stealing, murder, etc.) that disqualifies them from receiving grace. The grace of God found in the gospel must remain central to what we believe and to our ministry as a church. In fact, if it doesn't, TICOS will cease to be a true church. 

Ongoing walk with God by grace (and the challenges of international life).
One of the ways I have grown in my relationship with God while here at TICOS has been understanding how deeply embedded the idea of the blessings of God being tied to my performance is in my soul. There are things that make me feel worthy of his love that were stripped away in the transition to life here. The result was a fresh discovery of grace.
One of these things was a sense of competence. In the United States I considered myself to be fairly adept in a number of areas, but moving to France meant that those areas were stripped away. Mailing a letter, buying groceries, and understanding street signs all became challenges. While they have become easy with time, the experience of uselessness chipped away at my sense of value. It exposed the fact that I thought I was valuable because of what I could do rather than considering myself valuable because I am loved by God.
Not only that, but the stresses of expat life reveal cracks in our character. Impatience, anger, criticalness and other sins are exposed. This ugliness can make us feel unworthy of God's love. We can think that there is no way God can still love us after we lose our temper (again).  Of course, we are unworthy of God's love, but he loves us anyway. That is the point of grace. And by understanding grace we can start to deal with the the sinful patterns that God has graciously brought to our attention by bringing us to a new place.
This is why the grace of God is so important to the TICOS family. It brings us into the presence of God Almighty.

Grace with others.
It isn't just in our relationship with God that we need to understand grace. We need it in relationship with other people. In order to love others as Christ loved us, we need to extend grace and mercy to other people. We need to live gracious lives. It is not an option but a basic part of following Jesus and is one of the building blocks of church unity. Because churches are made up of redeemed sinners of various degrees of maturity, we will need to extend undeserved and unearned love toward others. We will need to forgive, bear with, and embrace others.

Grace in the International Church - Cultures/Experiences/Short-termers.
An international church like TICOS is a great place to earn a graduate degree in extending grace.  With such a wide variety of cultures and languages coming together, the opportunities for misunderstanding and hurt feelings are around every corner. If we withhold love and acceptance every time someone does something that offends or annoys us, TICOS will become a cold and hard place. With grace, it becomes alive with the presence of God.

Our cultures give us certain expectations about how people "should" behave. We will differ in how free we are to express our opinion, how much we should question leaders, how early (or late) we should come to a worship service or dinner and how long we should stay, etc. For example, bringing a gift when going to someone's home for dinner is a cultural expectation in France. Failure to bring a gift can be seen as being a little rude. A foreigner may learn this and adopt the habit, but even then make mistakes that could easily offend. Like the time we brought a big bouquet of mums as a gift. (In France, mums are only used to decorate graves!) Thankfully, our hostess extended grace rather than being upset.

Our cultures also teach us to interpret things people do and say. "He wouldn't have said 'x' if he really didn't think 'y'" is an equation that is culturally learned. For example, in American culture a mild "put down" of someone is usually a sign of friendship. We wouldn't joke that way with someone we didn't like. In other cultures, it can be considered highly offensive. After all, why would you put down your friend?

On top of cultural differences is the fact that we must deal with multiple languages in TICOS. When we listen to others it is easy to assume we understand what someone means. But if they are not speaking their native language, there is the possibility that they did not actually say exactly what they meant. If we are listening to a native language speaker, we may not have the capacity to interpret what they said. These difficulties were initially designed by God to bring division between people. Overcoming them requires grace.

Grace is also needed because the international church is made up of some people who are "short-termers." They may only be in town for a few months or a year or two. If they choose to get involved, they will need to learn how we do things. This requires grace while they learn because it takes time to figure things out. Then again, some may choose not to get involved in serving. They may not want to commit to something because they are only here for a short time. What an opportunity for those who are "long-termers" to extend grace and love to them while they are here, even if they are not helping in practical ways!

Fortunately, during the five years I have been here in Strasbourg, I have seen the people of TICOS extend grace over and over again. Their love and mercy seems to know no bounds. Their willingness to listen and to understand people from different backgrounds overwhelms me sometimes.

Perhaps that is why I think the perfect final sentence in my final blog article echoes the last verse of the Bible:

May the grace of Lord Jesus be with all the saints 
(and especially my friends at TICOS). 
Amen.

Friday, October 5, 2018

What Makes TICOS "Work"

My time as pastor at TICOS is rapidly coming to an end. It has been an incredible five years of growth, challenges, and fun. We have had people from over 60 nations into our home. I’ve learned about other languages, cultures, and customs. I’ve worshipped with ambassadors and homeless people, company executives and refugees. What a ride! How is it that a church like TICOS can exist and even thrive with such an enormous variety of people?

You know I am going to say “Jesus”, but I want to help us think about why this is. After all, we live in a city that is home to several multinational organisations. Is TICOS just like them, or is something different at work? What makes TICOS different than other multinational groups? After all, they all deal with issues of language and culture. I think that TICOS is very different. Let me explain.

Our Condition

Deep inside the human condition is a desire to justify ourselves. We want to prove ourselves to be right. This tendency to justify ourselves extends to our relationships with other people. We say we want what is "right" but almost invariably what is "right" is also to our benefit.

We seek to get the things we desire and find reasons that we should get our way instead of someone else getting theirs. Often we appeal to “rules” which we think entitle us to getting what we want. For example, the athlete argues that they should be put in the game because they are faster than another player and will help the team win. Or the worker who argues that they work harder or have more experience so they deserve to be promoted. Or the child who argues that their sister got to choose which TV show to watch last time and it is now their turn to pick. They are appealing to rules to insist that what they want is right or just. They are trying to prove that they entitled to have their way.

These things seem benign, and they may even seem logical, but lurking in them is the intense desire to get what we want and it often spirals in ways that bring deep division.

For example, we may argue that because our country is wealthier our ways should be adopted. Or if we are from a poor country, we will argue that the wealthy have somehow become rich because they have not been fair and it is time to correct the injustice so we get more. The person with power believes "might makes right" while the powerless person says, "power corrupts." Those with an advanced degree will argue that they are more qualified than the person who only has experience. The person with experience will insist that their “on-the-job” learning is much more valuable than sitting in a classroom isolated from the real world. And on and on it goes. They are justifying themselves to get what they want and what they feel they deserve.


Reality check: We don’t really want what we deserve

We spend enormous energy trying to deserve what we want. The message of the Bible is that what we actually deserve is hell. We are rebels against a holy God who is infinitely worthy of both worship and obedience. What we deserve is infinite punishment. All of our self-justifying tendencies are stopped dead in their tracks by the truth of Scripture. All of us are guilty. None deserve mercy. Before God and his perfect justice we stand mute. We have no excuse. There is no justifying our behaviour. We are all guilty.

Becoming a Christian begins with the realisation that we are guilty and do not deserve whatever it is we want. We don’t deserve to get our way with God or with others. Our salvation is completely a gift of God’s grace. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins and those who repent and believe in him are forgiven. His righteousness becomes ours. It is a gift of grace and mercy. Salvation ceases to be a gift of grace if we think it is something we really deserve.

Because salvation is a gift of God’s grace and mercy, boasting of our own righteousness (which is really justifying ourselves) is eliminated. Everything that might have counted to our advantage we now consider as garbage (Philippians 3:2-10). Notice in that passage Paul specifically mentions his nationality. He considers it worthless. He did not cease to be a Jew. In fact, he expressed a special heart for his countrymen (Romans 9:1-5), but his Jewishness gave him no special rights or authority  before God or other people. Neither did his education, his religious zeal, or anything else.

The Gospel and our Relationships 

The fact that we deserve nothing but condemnation and that our salvation is a gift of God’s grace to be received by faith is a game-changer in our relationships. It breaks our pride and our sense of entitlement. It causes us to hold loosely to those things that we once sought value and meaning in. It causes us to be “poor in spirit.” And this is the first characteristic of those who belong to the the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:3) and from this characteristic the rest of the Sermon on the Mount follows. 

The result of the gospel working deeply is a person who no longer seeks to justify themselves. They are no longer seeking to get their way. This gospel-centeredness is the key to how TICOS works and it's also the thing that makes us different than an "ordinary" multinational organisation.  We are a people who have been shown incredible mercy who now want to simply love God and love others. We come from a variety of nationalities, but we don’t seek to have our nation’s way of doing things dominate over others because it isn’t our nationality that gives us a sense of value. We come from a variety of careers, but the worldly prestige of our career doesn’t mean that we have any special status in the church because we realise that we don’t deserve anything. 

Having been humbled by the gospel, we seek to learn from others, realising that they may have learned something we don’t know. We seek to honor others in meaningful ways. We seek to bring true peace into our relationships. We seek to encourage one another to pursue Jesus whole-heartedly. We learn from others what being a devoted follower of Jesus might mean for us. We continually turn to the Scriptures to understand what the culture of the kingdom of God is so that we can work to create that culture in our church and in our lives.

The gospel is what makes TICOS work. And it will continue to make TICOS a special place long after I am gone. If I have learned anything at all at TICOS, it is the power of Jesus to unite sinful people from around the world into a community that seeks to love him and love one another together.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Jesus and the Bible

“The Bible is true.” 
“Oh, yeah? Prove it!”

What would you say? How would you go about “proving” the truthfulness of the Bible?

When I was young, my pastor taught us that it was true because it was inspired by God. He said “2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that Scripture is ‘God-breathed’ and is the very Word of God. God worked in the lives of the writers of Scripture so they said exactly what he wanted them to say. They are his words. Because God cannot lie, all the words in the Bible are true and reliable.” He went on to give a detailed and good defence of the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible. 

Many of my friends were excited about what they were learning, but I was a little bit troubled. I knew that his presentation wouldn’t satisfy someone who wasn’t already convinced of the authority of the Bible. “The Bible is true because these verses in the Bible tell us so” is a circular argument. 

The Bible is a Supernatural Book About Supernatural Events

The Bible contains many stories that are miracles. A talking donkey, men walking around inside a blazing furnace, instantaneous healings, and a resurrection from the dead. These things are reported as historical facts. If one is to believe in the truth of the Bible, one must accept the idea that there is a God who intervenes at times in what happens on earth. A person must accept the idea that miracles are possible.

To try to “prove” the truth of the Bible to someone who rejects the idea of the supernatural is pointless. After all, we are trying to demonstrate the supernatural nature of the book itself! Their assumptions need to be challenged. When faced with such a person, it is best to begin by having the person read the Bible for themselves.  Most people haven’t read it and their arguments against the book are second-hand. God has a way of speaking through the book to people who read it honestly. If we can get them to read it, the Holy Spirit will often open their eyes. Sometimes it is also helpful to challenge the flaws inherent in their naturalistic thinking. If they begin to crack open the possibility that God exists and miracles are possible, the crack will be a place where the gospel seed can be planted.

The Bible Records the Words of Jesus Accurately

One of the remarkable things about the Bible is that it is considered to be fairly reliable, even by secular writers. Archeologists frequently use the Bible and find it to be accurate geographically and historically. Unlike other religious texts like the Book of Mormon, the Bible is useful in historical research. While rejecting the supernatural elements, the secularist affirms the reliability of New Testament authors as recorders of what Jesus taught. For Christ’s followers this is important because we want to be led by him in our understanding of the world. 

This is what breaks the “circular reasoning” for the believer. The Bible records accurately the words of Jesus. This is not in itself a claim for divine authority. There are many documents that truthfully record events. However, since Jesus is God in the flesh, then those accurately recorded words have divine authority. As his followers, we trust his judgment as to the reliability of the Bible.

Jesus Taught that the Scriptures are True

But what did Jesus say about the truthfulness of the Old Testament?

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished." Matthew 5:17-18

Jesus taught that the Old Testament was absolutely true. Everything in it was reliable and everything that it prophesied would come to pass. He accepted its authority and taught others to accept it as well. 

It is fascinating that Jesus specifically referred to passages deemed “impossible” by today’s anti-supernaturalists. He used them as a foundation for his teaching.

  • He accepted the truthfulness of there being a literal Adam and Eve (Matthew 19:4-5).
  • He accepted the truthfulness of the existence of Cain and Abel (Matthew 23:35).
  • He accepted the truthfulness of the catastrophic flood and Noah’s and animals’ survival on the great ark (Matthew 24:38).
  • He aspected the truthfulness of the account of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish and being vomited onto land after three days (Matthew 12:40).

It is undeniable that Jesus taught the truthfulness of the entire Old Testament. 

There are some who would argue that Jesus merely adopted the common understanding of the times because he didn’t want to challenge everything that they wrongly believed to be true. This ignores the fact that Jesus frequently corrected the assumptions of the day. “You have heard that it was said, but I say…” is common gospel refrain (Matthew 5:17-48). He was not afraid to straighten out wrong thinking. Much of what he taught was counter-cultural, so this idea has little merit.

The teachings of Jesus were accurately recorded. He taught that the Old Testament was completely reliable and truthful. Because we know what he taught, and because we believe him to be God, we can trust what he said about the Old Testament. It is the Word of God and God cannot lie. 

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Offering Plate is Coming...What Do I Do?


"Is there a rule about how much a Christian should give to their church?" 
"Are Christians required to tithe (give 10%) like they were in the Old Testament?" 
"How do I decide how much to give and where to give it?"

I have several concerns when I hear these questions. The first concern I have is that many people think that the church is primarily interested in accumulating wealth for itself. The grand cathedrals of the medieval era and the multimillion dollar salaries of today’s televangelists have given rise to a sense that churches are merely schemes for preachers to get rich. I don’t want to add to that impression. 

Second, I rarely hear these questions from someone who wants to know whether there is a limit to the amount they should give. People want to know if there is a minimum standard. For some, this comes from a desire to make sure that they are “paying their dues” like they would to a club. For others, it comes from a heart filled with greed. They want to know how little they can give and still be okay with God. Still others are struggling financially. They are considering lowering their giving and want to know if that is okay. An adequate answer must take into account the various motivations that might lead to the questions.

Third, the questioner often wants a simple answer. In reality the issue deserves the careful examination of the Scriptures and an open heart to following what it says. A soundbite-sized answer doesn’t do the issue justice. So I’ll try to lay out what I believe is the biblical guideline for giving to the local church. It will take more than a paragraph, but I hope that it sheds light on what the Bible teaches.

It is About More Than Giving: It’s About Our Hearts

The teachings of the New Testament are clear: following Jesus demands that he have control of our money. All of it. Giving isn’t a matter of setting aside a little bit of money for God and keeping the rest for ourselves. All our money  is to be under his control. If he isn’t Lord of our bank account, he isn’t really our Lord at all. It is essential that we commit our finances (and the rest our “stuff”) to the Lord. The person who takes up his cross to follow Jesus keeps nothing of his own (Luke 9:23-25).

We must acknowledge the power of money. It can easily become an idol. Paul warns us that those who desire to be rich fall into a snare and many harmful desires that endanger their very souls (1 Timothy 6:9-10). Jesus warns in explicit terms against covetousness (Luke 12:15-21). He told the rich ruler who asked him how to gain eternal life to sell all of his possessions, give away the proceeds, and to follow him (Luke 18:18-30). 

In a sense, the right answer to the question of how much a Christian is to give is “Everything.” This giving flows from a heart that has received richly from the storehouse of the grace of God. A redeemed sinner who has seen the glories of the grace of God in Christ lives a life of grace-filled giving. The things of this world have little value in comparison to the joys of knowing Christ. This is the joy that should mark the giving of the believer (2 Corinthians 9:7). The overwhelmed heart yearns to bless God and others with everything they have. That includes their finances.

The issue of giving cuts deeply into the areas of our heart that we rarely let others enter. While the majority of people will battle against greed or fear of not having enough, others will be prone to let their giving be a matter of pride (Matthew 6:1-4). Still others will give hoping to influence God or people. We must instead surrender of ourselves to the Lord and realise that he owns everything and we are stewards or managers of resources he entrusts us with.  If we will be held accountable for how we use money, then we need to know what his expectations are for our management of the money he has given us. The Bible becomes highly relevant at this point! So what does it say about giving to our church?

Old Testament Background

In the opening chapters of the Bible, we read that Abram rescued his brother Lot from the wicked kings that had captured him. In the King’s Valley the king of Salem (Jerusalem) appears with bread and wine. His name is Melchizedek and is called a “priest of God Most High”. He blesses Abram. Abram responds by giving this king/priest a tenth of everything (Genesis 14:17-20). This is the first mention of the tithe in the Bible (tithe simply means 10%). The tithe originally was a spontaneous gift given to the representative of God in thanksgiving for Lot’s deliverance.

Later, God established a formal priesthood. When they entered the Promised Land, the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes, was set aside to serve as priests. The other tribes each received a portion of the land. Working the land would be their means of generating income. The Levites, on the other hand, received no land. They were to be supported by the rest of God’s people setting aside a tithe (10%) of their income to give as an offering. This is the way the priestly ministry was funded. The Levites themselves were not exempt from this required tithe. They, too, were to give a tenth of their income (Numbers 18:19-26). There were other offerings, and at times there was spontaneous giving to the Temple, but the basic means by which the ministry of the priests was financed was the tithe. 

The Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments

The work of the priests included performing the duties of the ceremonial system. This system pointed to the coming of Jesus. It emphasised the need for sacrifice to atone for sin. The final sacrifice was the death of Jesus for our sins. By his death, Christ fulfilled the Old Testament law. As a result we are free from the law. For example, we no longer offer animal sacrifices or worry about its regulations about clean and unclean food. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ and our lives are not lived by following rules like under the Old Covenant (Roman 6:14-15; 7:5-6; Galatians 3:15-4:7; Colossians 3:4-18). 

Instead, we serve by the Spirit and the law of Christ. Since the ethical commands of the Old Testament are based on the principle of loving others, there are many ethical commands that guide the life of the believer (Romans 13:8-10). We are free from observing the ceremonial law, but are empowered by the Spirit to follow the moral law. So we don’t sacrifice animals to atone for our sin but we do avoid stealing. We don’t consider some foods to be unclean, but we do help others in need. 

The question then becomes whether the tithe is one of those things that is commanded for Christians to obey. Was it fulfilled in Christ like the other ceremonial laws? Or is it like the ethical laws that are reaffirmed in the New Testament? We are called to be generous, but are we required to tithe (2 Corinthians 8-9)? To answer that question we turn to the New Testament.

Jesus and the Tithe

While Jesus talks about things like adultery and killing in a straightforward way, the only time Jesus talks about the tithe he does so in a roundabout way. In Matthew 23 Jesus is rebuking the scribes and Pharisees for the way they are leading the people. He chastises them for being careful to tithe even the smallest thing that they receive, but neglecting the more important things like justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Instead of rebuking them for tithing, he says that they should have tithed and done the more important things (Matthew 23:23-24). He affirms their careful tithing. Does this mean that believers are supposed to tithe? Maybe. It certainly points to the danger of focusing on religious observance without transformation of the way we interact with others. But the Levitical priesthood that was supported by the tithe has now been abolished. Does this mean that tithing is no longer required?  Perhaps.

Other New Testament Insights

Full-time Ministers of the Word

While the Levitical system no longer exists, the New Testament tells us that there will be those who would give themselves full-time to the ministry of the gospel. Let’s consider a few passages.

1 Timothy 5:17-18

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (ESV)

In this passage, Paul indicates that there would be elders who are worthy of “double honor”. He specifies that these elders are those who labor in preaching and teaching. He then quotes two Old Testament passages that infer that these elders should receive payment for what they do. So Paul is saying that there will be those elders who have given themselves to the time consuming work of preaching and teaching in such a way that they deserve to be compensated for their ministry.

1 Corinthians 9:3-11


This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? (ESV)

Paul points out that the other apostles and ministers are not working for a living. Instead, they are being supported by the other believers. In effect, their ministry is their job. He compares it to a shepherd receiving milk from the flock or a vineyard owner receiving fruit. Paul is reinforcing the idea that there will be elders who give themselves to preaching and teaching in such a way that prevents them from having regular jobs. Their work is valuable and they are to be compensated for their ministry.

Galatians 6:6

One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches. (ESV)

Paul is direct in the way that instructs this compensation to be made: those who are taught are responsible. In other words, the teaching and preaching ministry of the local church should be supported financially by those that attend. 

These passages establish the idea that churches will often have elder(s) whose main focus is teaching and preaching. They are to be compensated by the church for their work. Typically, this will be their full-time occupation. At the same time, there is nothing mentioned about how much each person is supposed to give toward their support. There is no command to tithe to support them. So how much are we to give? That’s where 2 Corinthians provides some help.

2 Corinthians 8-9: An Important Passage 


In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he gives instructions regarding giving. The context is important: there is a collection being made to help believers who were suffering in the area around Jerusalem. So this passage isn’t about giving to support the ministry of the local church, but it does give some indication about how believers are to give to meet the needs of others. Its principles are worth noting as one considers how to meet the needs of those who give themselves to teaching and preaching. 

He begins by bragging about the churches of Macedonia. They were experiencing a severe trial and were in extreme poverty, yet they were filled with the joy that comes from the gospel. Their joy resulted in an outpouring of generosity that went even beyond their means. They were begging to take part in the relief effort! (2 Corinthians 8:1-5). Their poverty didn’t prevent giving: their joy in Christ overflowed in giving to others. 

Paul goes on to instruct the Corinthians to give. But he doesn’t set a percentage that they should consider. Instead, in this relief effort they should give what they "decided in their own hearts" to give. He wasn’t going to force them. He wasn’t going to motivate by guilt. Instead he wanted them to give in the same joyful spirit that characterised the Macedonians (2 Corinthians 9:7). 

Paul taught them that giving generously would result in a multitude of blessings. First, it would meet the needs of others. There would be rejoicing and glory given to God by those who receive. There would be an increase in righteousness in the lives of the givers and God would supply them with even more. Of course, this increase in righteousness and “seed for sowing” would lead to even more generosity and more glory given to God (2 Corinthians 9:6-15).

Paul challenges the Corinthians in a way that we all need to be challenged. He tells them that they are excelling in faith, in speech, in knowledge and in love. They are doing well. Then he challenges them to excel in this grace of giving (2 Corinthians 8:7). Paul calls them to a greater discipleship that will impact their own lives but also the lives of others.

Key points:

1. Jesus requires total commitment. All areas of our lives, including our finances, are to be under his Lordship. It is helpful to say to the Lord, “All I have and all I will ever earn, is yours.”
2. The tithe was established in the Old Testament to support the levitical priesthood. These priests did not receive land (which was the primary means of earning an income) and instead were paid for their ministerial duties.
3. The tithe is not binding on Christians. 
4. There are elders in the New Testament whose work is preaching and teaching. They are to be supported by those tco whom they minister.
5. Christians are to be open-handed people. We are to seek to excel in the grace of giving. We are to give joyously and generously give to meet the needs of others.

Summary

The tithe is not a New Testament requirement in the same way that it was in the Old Testament. However, the New Testament does indicate that there will be those in the church who give themselves to teaching and preaching. They are to be supported by those who attend the church. In addition, believers are to give to meet the needs of others beyond what they give to the local church ministry. The New Testament gives no indication of a percentage of income to be given for either type of giving, but we are to give what we have decided in our own hearts, after having committed ourselves to excel in the grace of giving.

How I Do It

Let me share with you how I have applied this in my own life. Remember, for many years I was NOT a pastor. I had “real” job. My thinking was formed on this issue before I had a “stake” in what people gave to the local church. 

I was raised going to church. When I was young, my parents gave me a few coins to put in the offering plate during the service. Eventually I started to receive a weekly allowance from them and they stopped giving me coins. Now I had a decision to make: would I put some of “my money” into the offering plate? Frankly, I would have been embarrassed not to put something in, so I tried to remember to bring a few pennies to put in. 

It wasn’t until I was in university that I fully committed my life to Christ. I was blown away by depth of his love, grace, and mercy. My heart pounded with love for him. Now the few pennies seemed like silly things to put in the offering plate on Sunday morning. How much should I give? 

I studied the Bible and came across all the passages that I've mentioned. It seemed to me that the heart transformed by grace should excel in giving to an amount that at least matches that of those who lived under the Old Testament system. They were required to give 10% of their income to the support of the priesthood. I decided that I would do the same. I would seek to give to the Lord 10% of my income through my local church. It seemed like a good way of fulfilling Galatians 6:6. At the same time, I wondered how it was possible to give so much. University students are not known for having lots of extra money! Could I “afford” to give so much? It was then that I ran across God’s challenge in Malachi 3:10. He dares the people to bring the full tithe into the storehouse and see what would happen. He promised them incredible blessing. So I accepted the challenge and discovered it to be true. God met my needs and I found myself drawing closer to him. 

So while not explicitly commanded to do so, I use the tithe as personal guide in giving to my church. This has been my practice during both times when my income was high and when it was low. It has been my practice during seasons where I was excited and when I was concerned about things that were happening at church. Through the decades I can say that I have not lacked. Even in lean times, God has been faithful to supply what I need. Malachi 3:10 is a challenge from God to trust him. He is faithful. 

I also decided that I would give beyond what I give to the local church to meet the needs of others. This might be in support of missions or some physical needs of people the Lord brings to my attention. Though the years this amount has gone up and down depending on my situation and the needs that I was aware of at the time.

That’s the way I do it and I commend it to you as a means of seeking to excel in the grace of giving. 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Is Church Membership Biblical?

I’ve always been more concerned with people feeling welcome, building relationships, and growing in Christ than I have been in pushing church membership. 

Perhaps that is because in my teenage years I attended a church that boasted of having 2,000 members, but only had an average attendance of about 300. Reporting large “membership statistics” to the denomination seemed to be a means of stroking the pastor’s ego rather than an indication of true ministry. 

Or perhaps it is because I have lived in a time that has been marked by a decrease in “brand loyalty.” Previous generations identified strongly with companies, associations, and churches. Today about the only strong brand with a loyal following seems to be Apple. In the church in America, this has resulted in church-hopping among Christians and in churches dropping the denominational “brand” from their name.

Or perhaps it is because as a pastor the question of membership came up in meetings where we were looking for people to serve in capacities that required membership in the church. For example, there might be a person who seemed like that would be a real asset on the Council of Administration, but they are not a member. The main benefit of church membership seemed to be you could get asked to do something! No wonder people weren’t interested. They could enjoy the “benefits” of attending a church without the risk of being responsible for what happened there. 

Or perhaps it is because the idea of church membership sounds institutional and administrative. I'd rather be organic and flexible. 


Every church I have been a part of has had formal church membership. It has been accepted as a normal practice. Of course, the real question that we should really ask is: is membership in the local church a biblical concept? If it is, what does it entail? Is it different than membership in other clubs? 

To be clear, joining a church doesn’t assure that you are going to heaven. That is determined by your relationship with Jesus Christ. On the other hand, if church membership is taught in the Bible as an expectation and a means of growing in our relationship with Jesus, then we need to take it seriously. 

By church membership I mean a more or less formal process where a church affirms a person’s profession of faith, gives oversight to the person’s discipleship, and in which a person submits his discipleship to the authority and ministry of a particular local church and takes on the responsibilities that come from being a part of a local church. It is a process by which a person takes responsibility for their part in the church and the church takes responsibility for the person’s spiritual well-being. In most cases, those who have become members of a church are added to an official list. Rarely, particularly in places where persecution is a threat, such lists are kept mentally by leaders because of the dangers associated with formal lists being used for harming believers. 

So is such a formalisation of the relationships between a believer and a local church biblical? I had my doubts. Then I started to dig into the New Testament.
  
Glimpses in Acts

There are indications in the book of Acts that there was a method of counting people who were part of the church. Of course, as Acts unfolds, it is a church in Jerusalem. For example, in Acts 2:41 it says that about three thousand people were added through baptism. Someone was counting.

As the church grew, it encountered structural problems and need to change to meet the needs of the larger group of believers. As a result, the apostles gathered “the full number of disciples” and had them select people to oversee the food ministry (Acts 6:1-17). Obviously, they knew who to gather together. They had a list of who the disciples were so they were assured of bringing together the full number of disciples. This “full number” of disciples had a voice in the organisation of the church: they selected and approved of the men in charge of food distribution. It wasn’t just anyone who got to be a part of the process, it was the full number of people known to be disciples. They were people known to be followers of Christ. 

As the church expanded, we see the that the believers in various cities gathered together in their cities to meet together. Eventually, letters were written to encourage them. These letters are often addressed to the local church in that city (See for example, 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1). If the letter is addressed to a region like Galatia, it is addressed to the churches in Galatia (Galatians 1:2). In a similar fashion, the seven letters of Revelation are addressed to the local church (Revelation 2-3). Thus we see that believers in each city organised themselves into churches with their own structure, but still related to churches in other cities. Christians were part of the local church in their city.

The believers in these local churches were not simply people who attended the same event like one attends a sports contest. They were committed to one another. They loved each other. They exhorted one another. They prayed for one another. They carried each other’s burdens. They submitted to one another. They spurred one another on to love and good deeds. They shared the Lord’s Supper together. These types of relationships involve commitment and time. Commitment to Christ involved commitment to other believers. The “one-another” commands point to serious and sustained relationships within the church. It is the crucible where discipleship takes place. The idea of a believer who practicing their faith without involvement in the local church is unknown in the Bible. Of course, none of this demands a “formal church membership” like happens in many churches today, but it does demonstrate committed togetherness. 

Another Consideration 

There is another piece of the puzzle to consider: the responsibilities given to church elders. Consider for a moment what Paul said to the elders of the church in Ephesus:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. [29] I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; [30] and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.  - (Acts 20:28-30)

The elders were to watch over and care for the flock. God had made them caregivers for the church in Ephesus. Remember, the church isn’t a building or a Sunday worship service. It is people. The elders were given responsibility to watch over the life, faith, and doctrine of the group of people known as the Ephesian Church. 

This idea is more strongly stated  in the book of Hebrews:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.  - (Hebrews 13:17)

Notice that the Bible says that the leaders of the church will have to give an account for the souls of particular people. They bear an incredible responsibility before the Lord for the health and spiritual welfare of the people entrusted to them. The Lord will ask them, “what about this person, or that person?” For the elder, this leads to a simple question: who are the sheep for whom I must give an account? They are not responsible for “all people everywhere” but for individual people that were entrusted to their care. How do they know who these people are? The elder needs a way of identifying who these people are. He needs a list of the members of the flock.

Perhaps even more illuminating is the instruction in this verse to obey and submit to leaders of the church. These words express two important concepts that cut deeply into our motives. The first word, “obey” is the passive form of a verb that means “to persuade”. In the passive voice, it means “to trust”. I like to think of it as having allowed oneself to be persuaded. It describes someone who places confidence in another person. The ESV translates it as “obey” because often it is used to describe the action of one who trusts (Romans 2:8; Galatians 5:7; James 3:3). The second word, “submit” means to yield to authority and admonition. It is a word often used in military contexts of submitting to another person.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that for the good of each of our spiritual lives, we are to have shepherds that watch over us and to whom we submit. Most of us do not like the idea of submitting to another person, but frankly, sheep without a shepherd are usually not healthy for very long. Sheep thrive when they are in a flock with a shepherd that watches over them. A believer should be able to identify the flock they belong to and the shepherd(s) that watch over them. This relationship should not be a surprise to the shepherd! Nor can a person be shepherded by a television personality or YouTube videos. It takes interaction with a real live person. It is a relationship.

So a membership commitment in the local church is a normal biblical practice. It entails loving and serving others in the church. It involves commitment and sacrifice. It involves the blessings of being a part of a family that cares about you. It also involves submitting to leaders who watch over your life to help you grow in your relationship with the Lord. 

How this commitment is made will be different in various set. Logically, it will involve giving a testimony of your faith in Christ, an orientation to the life and doctrine of the church, and an interview with the elders of the church. This interview is the beginning of their oversight of your soul. At some point, a commitment to the church and an affirmation of membership will be made making it official. 

Typically, there will be a list of members kept by the church. Certainly in places of persecution having a written list of members on paper will be dangerous and it will be a mental rather than physical list. But in normal circumstances, a list of members should be kept. These are people who have given evidence of being born again, been baptised, and have made a commitment to be a part of and submit to the authority of the local church. They have voice in some of the decisions of the local church (Matthew 18:15-20; Acts 6:1-6). They actively do the one-anothers. They are watched over and cared for by the shepherds. 

The care of the sheep is usually a joy. The shepherds love and protect them. They offer guidance and work to make sure that the sheep enjoy good pasture. Most of all, the sheep and the shepherds simply go through life together with all of its changing seasons. Sometimes the elders must spring into action because of a threat to the sheep. Once in a while the shepherds examine each sheep to ensure all is well. But mostly, the scene is a tranquil one. Once in a while, though, there is a sheep who goes astray. The shepherds then have a responsibility to go after the sheep. 

Another Factor

This picture is how the church is designed to work and brings us to another indication of formal church membership: church discipline.

In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus gives instructions about dealing with sin among believers. On rare occasions, a person refuses to repent of their sin. At this point, their behaviour is to be brought before “the church”. If the the church agrees that the behaviour is sinful and the person refuses to repent, they are to be “treated like a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, they are to be treated like an unbeliever. This process is designed for the health of everyone involved. For the sinner, it is meant to bring them to repentance and salvation. For the believer, it keeps sin from destroying the church. 

In order for this process to work, there must be a specific group of people called “the church.” If the person does not repent, they are to considered like an unbeliever. They were part of the “the church” but now they are not part of the church. The same implication can be seen in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. In this case, there is gross sexual sin in the church and the person is to be “removed from your midst” until they repent. There must be some formal way of indicating where a person stands in relationship to the local church. This is another indication of local church membership being a biblical practice.

Final Thoughts

Does becoming a church member mean you are going to heaven? No. That is determined by being born again by the Spirit of God and having one’s name written in the Book of Life. So this is the most important issue. But those who have been born again want to obey the Scriptures and the Scriptures point to a commitment to a particular local church and submission to its leadership as the normal way for the believer to live out their faith.

Of course, no church or leader is perfect. Grace is needed as imperfect people follow God together. Even Peter got it wrong sometimes (Galatians 2:11-14)! Our allegiance is to Jesus. When churches act in unbiblical fashion and leaders are taking us to places that don’t line up with the Bible we need to find a healthier church. I understand. I have been hurt by churches, too. When I was, it was difficult to make a commitment to a local church. It was something I needed to work through.

The commitment of church membership is important for the health of the church and the spiritual well-being of the believer. While not specifically taught in Scripture, it naturally flows out of the Bible and the life of the New Testament churches.