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, December 4, 2021

Just the Facts, Ma'am

 24/7 news is driven by profit. They need to you keep watching and develop content with the purpose of getting you “hooked” on their programming so they can sell advertising. This is their primary objective and they do it really well. By making you feel like you are part of the team against “the bad guys” they suck you in and make you feel the need to keep watching so you will be informed about what evil thing those guys are trying to do. In this environment, truth and facts are secondary to the actual plot…a plot whose sole purpose is to get you emotionally hooked into watching. 

This is done in a myriad of ways, but one of them is by claiming to be the best source of “real news” while subtly or overtly demeaning the other sources of news. Why tune somewhere else if you are already getting the best? 

They play to people’s fears. In order to survive, we all need to be aware of danger. As a result, we are hardwired to pay attention to things that might negatively affect us. This is why the news is almost always about tragic, upsetting, or anger-provoking topics. There is an old saying in news: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

They always have a face to go with the story. Make the wrongdoer look bad in the photo while the victim looks sweet and innocent. This plays to people’s sympathies and draws them into the story. 

They always know their audience so that the story can be spun in the appropriate way to keep them engaged. 

Let’s consider an example: imagine there is legislation being considered about increasing the number of wolves that could be trapped or hunted each year. A “just the facts story” would indicate what wolf populations trends had been and what the DNR thought the changes would mean for the future of the wolf population.

But let’s say that your primary audience is ranchers, then the pictures that accompany the story would be of cattle killed by wolves, perhaps a snarling wolf, and an “expert” stating that the proposed hunting laws would reduce the number of wolves to a reasonable number. A rancher would talk about how financially “devastating” it is to have wolves killing all the calves. The environmentalists would be painted as being rich out-of-touch urbanites with a romantic idea of wolves who have the ear of the politicians who oppose common sense changes in hunting laws.

If your audience was environmentalists, your program would show pictures of dead wolves, preferably ones mangled in a neglected trap. An “expert” would talk about the importance of wolves to the ecosystem while the silhouette of a howling wolf played in the background. The “devastating” effect that increased hunting would have on the wolf recovery would be discussed. The ranchers would be painted as greedy trespassers on land that rightfully belongs to the wolves who are only doing what wolves naturally do.  

See the difference? Note that these stories don’t really need or even want a discussion containing detailed scientific analysis of wolf population and cattle predation, or what type of impact the laws would likely have statistically. 

Heros, villains, tragic pictures, and fearful potential outcomes are all you need to keep people watching. The actual facts are relevant only if they build fear or self-righteous indignation (= engagement) in your target audience.

That’s the “news” today. 

Coming back to the United States was weird. It took only a matter of a few moments to determine which news source people were watching. It seemed like there were alternate universes existing in the same country. It was disturbing because people were convinced they were right and everyone else was either evil or duped by the bad guys. They instantly dismissed anything coming from other news sources.

I determined that I would do my best not to get sucked into the delusionary environments of cable news. I would try to find sources of information that were dedicated to merely reporting the facts, without a lot of analysis or spin. 

In other words, I wanted my news to be boring.

Ad Fontes Media has come up with an analysis of the news that I find helpful. They use pretty sound methodology for rating news sources based on factual reporting and analysis. On the following chart, you will see common news sources ranked. If you are surprised, please read their methodology carefully. It is really well-thought out and objective.

The higher a source scores on the chart, the more its content contains purely facts. 

As you drop down the chart, the more analysis and opinion is contained in the news source’s reporting. 

Near the bottom of the chart the contant is almost all opinion with relatively low reliability of any “facts” cited. 

If all you want is facts, pick the sites near the top of the chart. 


Notice that as you move down the chart the more left and right swinging the news sources become. What is happening? Remember, the lower down the chart you go, the more analysis and opinion is contained in the source’s content. In other words, the lower down you go on the chart, the more the source is interested in hooking you into a storyline that has a particular perspective or way of looking at the world. That’s why the reliability of the reporting declines as the partisan content increases.

In other words, “Occupy Democrats” is very left leaning, and its reporting of the factual news is considered to be “selective, incomplete, unfair persuasion, or propaganda”. It is a news source for over 8 million people!

But the same is true on the other side of the political spectrum. Tucker Carlson is a popular Fox News personality watched by over four million people, yet his own employer’s lawyers argued that people should not consider him to be a source of truth!


So the question becomes “are you watching the news to become aware of facts, or have you been sucked into what amounts to a soap opera designed to keep you hyped up and tuned in?


Stick to boring. AP and Reuters online will tell you what is happening with little analysis or opinion mixed in. There are others on the top of the chart you can use as well. You’ll be informed but not propagandized (by the right or the left) who want to tell you what is “really happening” and move quickly away from reporting the facts of the day into weaving a web to keep you watching and spoiling for a fight. 


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

I'm Going to Tell You How to Vote.

There is an election coming up. 
I am going to tell you how to vote. 
It’s something that I’ve done almost every election that I have been a pastor. 
I always get in trouble, but here it goes.

We are surrounded by voices and images trying to influence us to vote a certain way. It is estimated that over $10,000,000,000 will be spent this election by parties and political committees to influence your vote. That doesn’t include the pundits, social commentators, online experts, or news agencies spinning things so that you will vote the way they want you to vote. 

Often one candidate is cast as an evil or bumbling person who will destroy the country (or maybe just your life) while the other candidate will lead us to the promised land flowing with milk and honey. It’s all designed to motivate you to vote in a certain direction.
 
Once again, this election is portrayed as the one that will determine the final destiny of  America. Every election cycle has been like that, only it seems palpably real this time. Maybe that’s the effect of the record amount of money being spent. Or perhaps it’s the effect of social media. Or maybe it’s just 2020. After all, it’s been that kind of year.

So how should you vote? Easy.

Get a copy of the platforms of the various parties. A platform is their list of what they hope to accomplish. Don’t rely on “voter’s guides”. They are often produced by partisan groups. Go straight to the party platforms. The Democratic platform is found here. The Republican platform is found here. Do a simple Google search to find other minor parties and their platforms.

Candidates almost always follow the party line. By voting for a candidate you are saying that you want them to drive the country in that direction. Read the platforms with an open Bible. That is, read the platforms and compare them with your best understanding of what the Bible says. It will take some time, but it is worth the effort. You may find some issues black and white. Others will be shades of gray. Sometimes one party may support some issues you think are biblical while also supporting other unbiblical ideas. What issues are the most important biblically? Which party best reflects your understanding of what the Bible teaches?

Then consider the candidates themselves. Are they qualified to serve in the role they are campaigning for? Do they have the qualities to be a good leader in taking the country in the direction of their party’s goals? Decide how that factors into your decision. 

Notice what I left out: Political advertising. Rush Limbaugh. Rachel Maddow. Tucker Carlson. Wolf Blitzer. Dan Rather. Stephen Colbert. Ben Shapiro. Ann Coulter. Bill Maher. Glenn Beck. Jon Stewart. Sports stars. Actors. Your union. AARP. CNN. Fox News. YouTube videos. Podcasts. TV and Radio preachers. Your pastor. Your crazy Uncle Louie. Did I miss someone? Add them to this list. 

You get the picture. It’s you, the party platforms, the Bible, and God. 

Realize that there will be no perfect party or candidate…at least not until Jesus returns. Until he does, pray for wisdom as you prayerfully weigh the issues in the light of the Bible and then vote.

We will soon have the results. Whether your candidate wins or loses, life will go on. We will still be called to love the Lord and love others. We will be about the task of making disciples of all nations. We will pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-6). We will serve one another in love. We will do the work the Lord has set before us until he comes to take us home. 

Come quickly, Lord. 

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. Goûter 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.