Complicity is a Harsh Mistress

It can be a cathartic cleanse to hear church leaders confess an embarrassing failure or a long-ago cowardice. Even so, we must know that Character is revealed under pressure. It’s not so much that character is built under pressure, even though that could be a secondary fruit. If we’re sensitive to the Lord’s Spirit, we learn by living and know by our behavior where our character needs reconstruction. We see this, for example, in Luke 22:24-34. Peter and the other disciples argue about who is greatest, Jesus corrects them; Jesus tells Peter that Satan will sift him like wheat, Peter brashly denies it. The sifting pressure quickly comes in Luke 22:54-62 and Peter’s shattering weakness is revealed. When we fail as shepherding leaders in the Lord’s church, we shouldn’t linger in puzzled wonder about the why.

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An article in Christianity Today focused primarily on sexual abuse in the local church, but questions in the article’s latter half were most revealing. Nancy Beach, a former staff member at Willow Creek Community Church is cited saying that a key dynamic in an unhealthy work environment is an inner circle of leaders complicit in enabling the primary leader’s bad behavior. That is rightly said.

She is quoted asking: Why did so many of us accept what should not have been accepted? Her answer: Because members of the group directly benefit from this leader’s power. Beach acknowledges that she was part of this inner circle at the church, and said the realization of her own complicity prompted her to ask the question.

So . . . Why would leaders accept what should not be accepted? It’s because most people don't have a deep bank of spiritual capital to reject the seduction of power, position, personal financial enrichment or an idolatrous devotion to self-worth.

How can we see in ourselves and what can we look for in others to rightly discern these things? Watch and listen to what a shepherd leader does and says when a refusal to comply with sin will kill a power position or personal comfort or esteem. Refusing that kind of fleshly benefit takes some kind of Christian guts. It will cost preciously-held relationships and carefully-structured safety and the self-loving sin of Look at me! I'm important. I'm close to the leader. I walk in the after-glow of his greatness. It’s a wickedly disgusting perversion of Psalm 23; it goes something like this, The leader is my shepherd. I shall not want . . .

I often have wondered about the unspeakable grief Jesus must have felt when He listened to His disciples argue about which of them was greatest. All the time He devoted to them, all the lessons He taught them, all the long-suffering patience He gave them . . . and in the end of His ministry they argue about who is greatest. Even so, in His multiplied grace, Jesus remained patient and long-suffering. He reconstructed Peter’s character so that Peter eventually would have the bank of spiritual capital to obey the Lord’s command to . . . strengthen your brothers.

And that’s another reason why we love Jesus.

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Cowboys Don't Baptize Babies

I now know the real reason why we evangelicals don’t baptize babies. It’s because we’re cowboys and our doctrine was formed in frontier America. That’s pretty much the core of it, according to an article sent to me in response to my hat tip to the evangelism and disciple-making work of Church of the Violet Crown in Austin. The article says evangelicals really like rugged individualism, frontier camp meetings and fire-and-brimstone preaching. So Yee-haw! and Yippee-yi-o-ki-yay! and all that cowboy, spittoon-spit stuff. Check out an uber-caricature of so-called us at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jo-pApe1Kd0. But that is not us.

On the contrary, our conviction that only believers should be baptized is rooted in thoughtful exegesis of many Scriptures. Some who baptize babies believe the act of baptism forgives sin and grants eternal salvation. Some believe that baptism is not salvific, but is akin to circumcision in the Old Testament.

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It is disturbing, though, that those who largely disagree with believers-only baptism are not-so-rarely condescending in their arguments. Instead of addressing and discerning the issues in relevant Scriptures, there’s often a dismissive sarcasm in the discussion that does not appeal to understanding the meaning of the Scriptures.

We can easily discuss conversion and whether Christian parents urge children to embrace the faith or whether the faith is inculcated from infancy, as the article states. Certainly, the faith should be taught as a pattern of life in Christian families, but individual faith is not genuine until it is personally embraced and proven over time by the fruit of belief.

It's a valid criticism that evangelicals tend to hyper-emphasize the moment of conversion rather than the fruit of a life in relationship with Christ. We know that some genuine followers of Christ cannot state an exact date of conversion, sometimes recalling a season of life as their turning point to faith. Even so, that fact in no way validates infant baptism. The two are separate issues. We argue from the Scriptures that no ritual act brings anyone into saving relationship with Christ.

What of the criticism that evangelicals typically claim repeated conversion in countless altar-calls, hoping that this time faith in Christ takes root? That argument makes a mockery of those who endure seasons of doubt and genuinely examine themselves to discern if they truly are in the faith. In fact, in his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul admonishes each person to do this work of self-examination (2 Corinthians 13:5). Although I have never known even one person who has repeatedly claimed conversion and then has been repeatedly baptized, several of my pastor friends tell me they have known a small number who have claimed that experience. But the bottom line is that this experience is not normative and should not be mocked as if it were.

Lastly, does teaching your children a song such as Jesus Loves Me or the Lord’s Prayer, (known as the Our Father in my Roman Catholic upbringing), mean I really don’t believe children need regeneration? Obviously not. Teaching our children the Lord’s Prayer and singing songs about Jesus’ goodness and love simply teaches children about the character of God and how to approach Him. It’s a silly non-sequitur to conclude that our convictions about innate human depravity are insincere because we teach our children to pray and we teach them songs about Jesus.

The article The Real Reason Evangelicals Don’t Baptize Babies concludes that evangelicals come to a Yahoo! moment when they begin to understand that God induces a change of heart and a saving faith in those too young to even speak or remember their conversions . . . and that evangelicals impose a system that was designed for first-generation converts. Yeah, well, I’d be interested to read a biblical defense of those deeply spurious conclusions, because I don't think you'd get them from a thoughtful and careful exegesis of the Scriptures. And, apart from all of that, Yippee-yi-o-ki-yay! and Yee-haw! is not us.

First Instincts about Cutting, Picking Skin and Every Trouble Under the Sun

Thinking about a church shepherd’s First Instincts . . . when he hears about someone struggling with cutting, skin-picking, addictions, emotional support animals, all manner of sexuality issues and every trouble under the sun. What’s the shepherd’s instinctual response? If his first response looks to psychiatry and medications and the like, then he’s doing it wrong. His thinking ignores a core tenet of good shepherding. That is, What is the person’s spiritual condition? What does the Lord think? What does the Lord say in His Word? Those questions get to the nub of problems and will give the person a path to freedom and healing.

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As obvious as that should be, some shepherds lean immediately into the world’s looseness or the world’s solutions. Or they’re fighting a frustrating battle within the congregation that thinks of the church and the shepherds as after-thoughts or add-ons to life. In this mind-set, the church and the Scriptures are fine on the fringes of things, but that’s all. There’s a refusal to lean into the Scriptures, a refusal to look to the Lord and His church as first-line leaders in life’s battles. And often, when they do consider looking that way, they reject godly counsel because it’s difficult or contrary to the praised practices of the godless.

Shepherds laboring in churches in the FiveStone network frequently face this fight, both inside and outside the church. A woman I’ve known casually for several years told me about her 20-year-old step-daughter who’s 50 pounds overweight, studies psychology at a secular university, refuses to work to help pay her own way, picks the skin and flesh off of her back (and then flicks the pickings from her fingers while she’s eating dinner with the family). She demands that her parents buy her an emotional support animal (a bearded dragon lizard). I don’t know what to do! the woman told me. Does this kid need a psychiatrist or does she need to be medicated or what?

I thought, That girl’s got problems. But I did not instinctively assume that she needed a psychiatrist and medication. The woman sharing her story knows what I believe and what I do in ministry. We’ve discussed it in the past. As I listened to her, I prayed, Lord, what am I supposed to say here? Not, ‘You need Jesus and your daughter needs Jesus.’ She already knows that I think that. So, I said, Is your daughter a spiritually-minded person? Of course not. Her daughter is not the least bit spiritually-minded. Even so, the question led to a discussion about Jesus and His Word and the guidance and comfort that comes from knowing Him and following His Scriptures. Afterward, I had no hint that she was going to heed anything I offered, but at least she heard the offer.

With that as one of many examples of living in a post-Christian, psychologized and medicated culture, a handful of prime shepherding tenets forge a path to leading the church to strength:

  • the gospel of Christ is central to life, for the person who does not know Christ and for the person who knows Him; salvation in Christ and knowing the care He has for His children is key to living in confident wisdom;
  • the Scriptures are core to all aspects of the Christian life;
  • focus on Him leads to delight in Him;
  • teach the church to pursue the Lord in a long obedience in the same direction;
  • serve the Word to the church and help the people feed themselves on the Word;
  • meditate on the Word, His attributes and character, leaning into His Spirit to strengthen, guide, protect, vindicate;
  • the Scriptures are deeply practical; present the clear implications and applications of the Word, teaching people how to live well and bear up under pressure.

Lucas O’Neill, senior pastor of FiveStone partner—Christian Fellowship Church—has well-preached those tenets from Psalm 119:161-168. Several key quotes: Comfort comes from God’s Word. The truths of the Bible are treasure . . . you need to relentlessly pursue its truths. Peace in the face of pain is the fruit for those who love God’s words and love His instruction. Vindication comes to the person who pursues and obeys the Lord.

A 60-Hour Party at Church

Installing local elders at Encounter Church was a celebration, like a 60-hour bar mitzvah. The young church has taken on the full range of spiritual duty and responsibility. It was a joy, and it lasted for a full weekend: men’s breakfast, games night, installation service, potluck feast, Sunday night teaching, finally closing at a Monday breakfast with the newly installed elders.

I drank in the weekend, satisfied in knowing that we started with the vision for Encounter Church late in 2014 with smaller than small things. We had a devoted Andrew and Kathryn DeBartolo as planters and the smallest group of the wondering curious. No one knew whether this idea of a new work would become a local church.

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We smiled at Monday’s breakfast when Andrew DeBartolo and Steve Lappala recalled that they were certain FiveStone wouldn’t take on this insignificant crew in Kingston, Ontario. No money, no name, no fame, no way. But we did it anyway.

And today, there it is. Encounter Church is flourishing in its youth, bearing fruit as a life-giving, disciple-making work of Christ. The church’s best days are ahead with a devoted congregation and two good men as shepherding elders.

Thinking about Zerubbabel this morning. He re-built the Lord’s temple in the face of those who despised his vision and mocked his devotion. The Lord wanted it done. So Zerubbabel did it, using so-called small things. And even those who despised the work rejoiced when it was accomplished. Zechariah 4:6-10.

See photos from the installation service on the FiveStone Churches website, under the About Us tab and the Media option.

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Shattering Hammers on The Rock

Picture Jesus Christ as an enormous rock . . . surrounded by piles of shattered hammer heads and countless men, women and children. They clutch new hammers and pound at the rock. They exhaust themselves, the hammers blow apart, and not a mark is left on the rock.

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I thought of that picture this morning as I read a Statement discussing the Lord’s design for human life and our post-Christian era. Of course, issues of sexual identity and morality were in focus in the Statement.

The statement was released at a conference held in Nashville and addressed 14 core points. Approximately 150 leaders from various Christians traditions signed it. The Statement exhorts followers of Jesus to hold fast to His teaching on sexuality and humanity. The statement is biblically sound, strong, clear and compassionate. It reflects what is the consistent Judeo-Christian view of human sexuality as described in the Scriptures. The responses from many in the media predictably twisted Jesus’ statements and the entirety of the Scriptures’ teaching on human sexuality and the purpose of humanity. Some media comments were downright hateful. These writers obviously do not read the Bible and cherry-pick favored verses out of context and without understanding the Scripture's teaching.

Check out these two media responses: 

. . . many discriminatory positions adopted by the Nashville Statement and . . . un-American toilet paper written by hypocrites. 

http://www.salon.com/2017/08/30/evangelicals-bigotry-filled-nashville-statement-is-denounced-for-its-anti-lgbt-bigotry/

. . .  if making other humans feel less than human is a requirement for entry into heaven, I think I'll keep my soul with me, buried in the dirt, and It's an offense to God to not acknowledge that all humans are different, to ignore the fact that telling LBGT people that they're sinners, that their identity is wrong, that they're somehow imperfect, is wildly and dangerously damaging, not to mention a sin in and of itself. 

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/huppke/ct-nashville-statement-lgbt-huppke-20170830-story.html

The satirical Babylon Bee did well.

http://babylonbee.com/news/progressives-appalled-christians-affirm-doctrine-held-unanimously-2000-years/

The world continues to fail to understand that the Lord is who He is. It does not matter what anyone wants Him to be. No one can change Him, His purposes or the order of His world. Beating on Him—and on His people—changes nothing about Him or His purposes. Man’s fist-shaking rebellion against the Maker always and ultimately is a loser . . . shattered hammers, hysterical haters of the Lord, haters of His people, self-inflicted destruction.

I Am With You Always, The Rock Conference 2017

A weekend at Lake Geneva in Wisconsin didn’t guarantee a most excellent Rock Conference, but gathering lead pastors with their wives pretty much sealed it.

FiveStone Churches’ annual Rock Conference this year focused on building relationships among lead shepherds. Worship, prayer, testimonies, teaching and group discussions filled the days. Bonfires, games and good food filled the rest.

This was our fourth annual Rock Conference. We’ve switched focus to add a unique touch each year. The first conference focused on building a biblical understanding of ministry success; the next sharpened lead pastors in their varied responsibilities. The third year, we gathered elders and those aspiring to eldership. This year, we welcomed the wives of lead pastors. That was a nice touch, as was the bracelet each woman received, inscribed with the words of Jesus from Matthew 28:20: I am with you always. 

Catch a photo album of the event here.

A few reviews:

Four days with the most excellent 5Stone Churches pastors and their wives. Couldn't have asked for more beautiful weather as we cherished our moments to hear each other's journeys and joys. Maija Nack, Vanguard Bible Church

What a sweet time this past weekend to connect and fellowship with our fellow pastors and pastors’ wives. Thankful too for the rest and time away together. Michelle Reyes, Church of the Violet Crown

The Rock Conference was timely for my wife and me to get away from the daily pace of ministry. It was a joy to meet with and hear the testimonies of other pastors and their wives. We’re thankful for the connections we made. Lucas O’Neill, Christian Fellowship Church

I look forward to the Rock Conference every year. I get to spend time with guys I enjoy and respect. I learn about how to be more effective in ministry and I get encouraged and taught from God’s word. Looking forward to the conference next year!  Brian Jones, Calvary Bible Church

A Young Woman's Flashing Smile at a Gray-Hair

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I was sweat-soaked and panting during my elliptical machine work-out today when a young woman walked past and flashed me a lovely smile and a thumbs-up. I smiled in return and she was gone. I’m no fabulous specimen of a man, so I had no worries there.

Here’s what had happened a few minutes earlier: Another woman on an elliptical near me asked a man standing in front of her what he was doing for Easter. He answered as you might expect, visiting family and eating ham and so on and so forth. I tuned out of their conversation and thought, What would I say if someone asked me that question? I ran through a series of answers I hoped I would give about going to church, remembering the cross on Good Friday and celebrating Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday. And, of course, gathering with family. As I was thinking about that, I tuned back into their conversation when she said, Well, I know I’m a sinner.

The man responded with some snarky comments about Jesus and the Bible. I watched and listened, but the woman said nothing as the man continued to insult the Lord and His Word.

I thought, Come on lady, say something!, but she didn’t. And then I thought, Stay out of this. This will be trouble. It’s a public place. There’s people everywhere. They’ll throw you out. My mind shifted to the movie Amazing Grace, when William Pitt counseled his old friend William Wilberforce. I would urge caution, Pitt said. Then he added, Oh, to hell with caution.

So I said to the man, loudly enough to be heard, I really don’t think you read the Bible.

The man looked surprised. He said, I used to, just like I used to read comic books.

Pedaling and panting much harder now, I said, Oh wow! Out of the heart, the mouth speaks!

He shouted, There is no God! There’s a super-force! We’ll be judged as good or bad by the force. We’ll be fine if we do good.

I said, No one is good enough to get to God. That’s why Jesus came in the first place. You need to read the Bible and learn what Jesus did. You know what? You’re going to die. We’re all going to die. You’re going to face Jesus! You need to read the Bible. 

We went back and forth like that for a bit and when it was over I looked around as I continued working the elliptical and realized everyone was quiet in the fitness center. I thought, Well, I guess I didn’t handle that very well. I’m a lousy evangelist. They’re going to throw me out of here. They’ll never let me back in.

And that’s when the young woman walked by flashing that big smile and a thumbs-up.

Today I set a personal best for speed and distance on the elliptical. Maybe I didn’t respond very well to that man. Still, I’m glad I tried to honor the Lord when the challenge came my way. And I’ll long remember that young woman’s affirming smile and thumbs-up.

Pastor-Exegete or Leader-Sociologist? It Matters

As immigration divides the U.S., it seems also to be dividing Christian leaders into two camps: pastor-exegetes or leader-sociologists. (It matters.)

Framing the divide are two books: The Immigration Crisis by James K. Hoffmeier and Christians at the Border by M. Daniel Carroll. Hoffmeier is a pastor-exegete, Carroll a leader-sociologist.

Hoffmeier calls for compassion for those he calls illegal immigrants, but he also calls on the U.S. government to enforce existing laws to monitor and control the nation’s borders. He discusses Scripture passages that demonstrate that border monitoring and control are the right responsibility of any sovereign nation. Monitoring and control were exercised with strength and certainty in the Old Testament era.

Hoffmeier also calls on the Christian church to help illegal immigrants achieve legal status. His book was published in 2009, so it can’t be said with certainty how today’s overwhelming and ongoing illegal immigration would affect his view about the church’s responsibility. The Bible’s references to alien describes a permanent and legal resident of a nation. The word foreigner refers to a traveler passing through a nation for business or other purposes. The foreigner obviously is not a permanent and legally approved resident of a nation. Hoffmeier was born and raised in Egypt and, in 1967, was booted from Egypt with his Canadian parents. He is sympathetic to immigrants, but has no problem using the term illegal immigrants in referring to those who broke immigration law to get into the U.S.

In contrast to Hoffmeier’s argument that a righteous government monitors and controls its borders, leader-sociologist Carroll argues in Christians at the Border that U.S. immigration laws are patently unjust and should be broken. He says U.S. laws deny those outside the U.S. the dignity the Lord demands for all people, regardless of their land of origin or their immigration status. They are made in God’s image and should be afforded rights to live in safety and dignity. Carroll cites sociological realities of the current U.S. immigration rates: the region of origin for most immigrants (Mexico and Central or South America), how many Latinos live in the U.S. (35.3 million as of the year 2000; 40 million as of 2007), the growth rate of the Latino population (50 percent between 1990 and 2000), and how many Latinos are living in the U.S. illegally (between 12 million and 20 million). By those figures, between 30 percent and 50 percent of all Latinos living in the U.S. are living in the U.S. illegally. Carroll calls those millions undocumented immigrants rather than illegal aliens because he rejects what he says is the pejorative term illegal

Carroll asks the reader to feel the pain of these immigrants, who he says live in agony in the U.S. while emotionally tied to their homelands to the south. Carroll argues that most of these immigrants are of Roman Catholic or Protestant heritage. The church in the U.S., he says, must treat them with special care reserved for those in the faith. These immigrants, he says, enrich and energize the U.S. culture. This is not romantic optimism, says Carroll, who adds that he is convinced that change is certain and that it will be fruitful.

Such sociological change in the U.S. seems certain, but it’s not at all clear that it will be positively fruitful. Hoffmeier argues that, although the Lord loves all people regardless of their social and legal status, he also argues that governmental authorities should enforce existing laws that protect national interests as well as the interests of the alien, those living in the land legally. Among those national interests are the security and preservation of the nation’s culture as well as its economic, political and social strength.

Hoffmeier and Carroll see Romans 13 and its application differently. Carroll dismisses the application Romans 13 to the immigration issue, citing that the government’s laws should be obeyed but that a greater law of compassion for all humanity outweighs what he labels as unjust immigration laws of the U.S. He calls for a dialog that can be leavened with grace and any proposed solutions and compromises can be guided by divine wisdom. But the divine wisdom Carroll advocates excludes careful exegesis of the Bible.

Carroll’s quick dismissal of an application of Romans 13 to the immigration issue is particularly troubling. Even though he’s a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, he clearly reveals himself as a leader-sociologist, not a pastor-exegete. Hoffmeier directly challenges Carroll’s arguments. He agrees that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, but says that such a commitment does not mean that a government official or authority should look the other way when a crime is committed. For Carroll’s position to have merit, current American laws must be inherently unjust. I see nothing in Scripture that would abrogate current (U.S.) immigration laws. Carroll’s attempt to equate American immigration law as an example of a conflict between secular and sacred law is a matter of special pleading.

Hoffmeier thoughtfully analyzes the Bible’s description of legal and illegal residence in a foreign land. Although Carroll discusses the biblical issues, he presupposes that a nation’s borders should be completely open because we’re supposed to be compassionate. Carroll delivers an unbalanced application of the Bible that presupposes that borders should not guarded or entry restricted. 

Carroll inflames and condescends in his comments about what he calls the majority population in the U.S. He repeatedly writes sweeping statements that he neither explains nor defends. He wonders how Latinos in the U.S. can raise their children with the positive values of Latin American culture that sometimes clash with those of North American consumerism and individualism. He fails to mention that in the midst of so-called terrible consumerism, most immigrants—legal or illegal—come to the U.S. for a better life. That means more freedom. This more individualism in the U.S. somehow has created opportunity for the millions who push their way in to live in the U.S. They look for freedom and opportunity to determine their own destiny. A better life includes opportunity to earn a decent living, live in a comfortable home and express individual freedom. Carroll insists that Latino immigrants only seek appreciation for their abilities and for their different backgrounds. It seems to me they’re looking for a lot more than that.

Carroll argues that most Latinos are Christian brothers and sisters who share the same values and ethics and are similar to the U.S. majority population. He cites unnamed positive Latin American values that clash with the U.S. majority population’s values.

Carroll is not believable, and his own sociological facts support disbelief. He notes that both illegal and legal immigrants working in the U.S. in 2006 sent $45 billion back to their families and friends in Latin America. (That transfer, of course, hurts the economy of the U.S. and helps Latin American nations where the money is spent.) So, Carroll would allow all to flood into the U.S., get a better job and a better life and send a lot of money back to loved ones in their homeland. Besides that, his quick dismissal of some sections and black-out of other relevant sections of the Bible's teaching on the immigration issue reveals a perspective informed not so much by God's word but far more by man's wisdom.

Hoffmeier the pastor-exegete has the far more complete biblical perspective and properly applies the Bible’s teaching to his own real-life experience. His parental in-laws were legal immigrants from China. He writes: What especially galls immigrants (and those whose applications are in progress) who go through the legal requirements to become immigrants in America is when people do not follow the rules. They think it unjust that while they go through the legal process that can take years, many foreigners enter or stay in the country illegally and benefit from their illegality, being employed, getting social and medical benefits, and seeing their children getting free public education.

A Small Church Can Be a Great Church

If a mark of a God-honoring church is baptizing people who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, then Church of the Violet Crown is doing very well. Violet Crown is a congregation small in number and large in commitment. The church is making and baptizing and teaching followers of Jesus Christ. Three of those new followers were baptized last Sunday.

The baptisms were a celebration of obedience, said Pastor Aaron Reyes. Our people saw the fruit of their own diligence and faithfulness. The testimonies of these three men were powerful. They came to faith through our people and they’ve been taught through our church.

Since late in 2014, when Violet Crown opened in Austin, Texas, a dozen new disciples have obeyed Jesus’ command to believe and then be baptized as testimony to their belief. They continue to invest in the Lord’s work, faithfully worshiping and faithfully participating in discipleship and other ministries.

The Lord is using Church of the Violet Crown to bring people into His kingdom. There’s nothing better. And that’s why one of FiveStone’s core values is A Small Church can be a Great Church. We have several small churches in the FiveStone network. Each and all are treasured as precious expressions of the Lord at work in His fields. 

I warmly remember the answer from Dave Corning, who serves on our Elders Council, when asked to describe the Lord's work. Dave recited John 4:35: Do you not say, 'There are four months, and then comes the harvest?' Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are ripe for harvest. That's it. The Lord's world has many people ready to receive Him for salvation. Our job is to bring the ready ones to the Lord for salvation; for His fame, His glory. A Small Church Can Be a Great Church.

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It's Those Evil Christians!

Nobody I know is celebrating the massacre of 49 by an Islamic terrorist at a gay bar in Florida. Everyone I know is disgusted by it all. Even so, followers of Jesus—those who take His Scriptures seriously—are targets for hate and blame as a result of the attack. 

Here's a sampling of comments I’ve read:
•    “You all are CINOs (Christians in Name Only). Paul said in Romans 13:10 that love does no harm to a neighbor.”
•    “I blame you and people like you for Orlando. They’re dead because of homophobia. You and your ilk, spreading your messages of hate, directly contribute to tragedies like this.”
•    “You Christians helped cause this massacre. F__k your prayers and your chaplains. How ‘bout you stop your anti-queer theology that supports our death and despair, huh?”
•    “The Christian Right has introduced 200 anti-LGBT bills in the last six months and people blaming Islam for this. No.” (Posted via Twitter by an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.)

The blame, of course, is completely ludicrous. It is the practitioners of Islam who advocate and practice the execution of homosexuals. The Florida massacre was the direct result of Islamic hate. The repeated massive and bloody violence perpetrated in the name of Islam bears its own sole responsibility. Christians obviously are fighting the forced overturning of biblical teaching on sexual sin and obvious natural law regarding relationships between men and women. Fighting by argument and persuasion the hostile overhaul of biblical values is righteous and perfectly legitimate. But many cannot tolerate the tension, resorting to blame-shifting, name-calling and hateful intolerance of the Christian's biblical worldview.

This 21st century is building into something of a mini-first century. When Rome burned in A.D. 64, Emperor Nero blamed the Christians, even though Nero likely started the fire. Christians were easy targets. Roman practices were steeped in sexual immorality and idolatry. Christians refused to take part. Nero and his followers called followers of Jesus haters of the human race. They must be disliked by all because of their anti-social attitudes. (Nero famously took the term dislike to the deepest level of understatement.) Followers of Jesus were hunted, arrested, killed. Roman senator and historian Tacitus reported that some were crucified. Bloody animal skins were sewn into the bodies of others who were then hunted down and torn apart by wild dogs. Other Christians were immersed in hot tar and burned alive, serving as living torches in the night. After all of that, Tacitus had the gall to write that followers of Jesus were notoriously depraved. Juvenal, a Roman poet, piled on by calling followers of Jesus river sewage.

The restaurant chain Chick-fil-A, (a favored target of Christian-haters) served free sandwiches and iced tea to those donating blood for the surviving victims of the Florida massacre. Caring for those victims is a perfect and precious example of loving your enemies. I wonder how those enemies will respond.

 The rainbow, a sign of His covenant promise. The Lord will never again cause a flood to destroy the Earth. Genesis 9:11-17. Doesn't matter what anybody else says about the rainbow. The Lord always keeps all of His promises about everything.

The rainbow, a sign of His covenant promise. The Lord will never again cause a flood to destroy the Earth. Genesis 9:11-17. Doesn't matter what anybody else says about the rainbow. The Lord always keeps all of His promises about everything.

Be, Do, Repeat . . . That's It for Shepherds

What's an elder to be, or not to be? That was the question. Then we looked at What's an elder to do. Besides that, we prayed and laughed and ate and had a good time.

Thirty-eight men—from our FiveStone partner and supporting churches—joined in this year's multi-day Rock Conference. Our driving point: an elder can't rightly do the work of shepherding the Lord's people unless he's rightly walking with Him. That means pursuing the Lord's mind through the Lord's word and prayer and living in the sharpening that comes from shouldering the work with other men.

 

In light of these things, who are elders to be? They must be like Jesus, which is so commonly said these days that it sounds close to trite. The challenge from Romans 8 is being willing to be conformed into Him. As we looked at the context of Romans 8:29, it was clear that we must learn to respond to the difficulties of this world as Christ responded to them. His example is exemplified in the Servant-song of Isaiah 50:4-9. Shepherds are to be men of courage (Acts 4:18-20), men of faith (Hebrews 11), men of the gospel (Colossians 2:6-7).

We gave each man coasters of granite that were etched with the 5Stone logo. Stones in granite. He is our foundation rock. There must be no other. We are to be built into Him and on Him (1 Corinthians 3:10-11). I hope the men will keep those coasters in eye-view to remind them of their calling.

If He's called a man to do shepherding work, He will shape that man into who he needs to be in order to do the work He's called him to doHe promised that to Moses, and delivered (Exodus 3-4). That's His comforting promise to each of us. We need to be willing to be and then do.

Click here to see an album of photos from The Rock Conference.

The Worthy Work of Church Planting

I enjoyed a fine weekend with the people of one of our FiveStone church plants: Vanguard Bible Church in Bakersfield, Calif. Pastor Cary Nack and the core are nurturing a God-honoring congregation that has a clear and compelling vision for making and baptizing disciples of Jesus. They are boldly biblical and are working from a clearly-stated philosophy of ministry. What a joy to invest in that work. If you're interested in the weekend's Sunday sermon, here's the link: http://www.vanguardbible.org/resources/sermons/the-worthy-work-of-church-planting/

Harvest Bible Church Supporting 5Stone

I strolled between a liquor store and a bar to enter the strip mall ministry center of Harvest Bible Churchwest of Detroit. I remember laughing and thinking, Somebody's got some guts to put a church here. That was the first time I met Pastor Dan McGhee and the founders of Harvest Bible Church. I liked them from the start.

Since that initial meeting about 11 years ago, Dan and the church's shepherds have navigated some stormy seasons and worked through a couple of major transitions. Through it all, the church has flourished as it has remained faithful to the simplicity of the gospel and making, baptizing and teaching disciples of Jesus. Now we welcome Harvest Bible Church as the first Supporting Church in the FiveStone network. 

Supporting Churches embrace FiveStone's Principles of Doctrine, Governance and Practice. Each Supporting Church will receive a variety of benefits, including shepherd relationships, discounted teaching, sharpening and assessment services, as well participation in FiveStone's annual Rock Conference.

Supporting Churches contribute financially to the work of the FiveStone ministry, in accordance with each church's financial strength and desire to invest in church planting, strengthening and renewal.

Harvest Bible Church believes in the work of FiveStone Churches, Dan said. We're thankful for the men who lead it. Our leaders appreciate FiveStone's goals and the emphasis on integrity and character in the work.

We welcome this good church to FiveStone.


Character - What You Do Under Pressure

It’s said that Character is what you do when no one is looking. The definition is too narrow. The other extreme and all things in-between should be included. What do you do when everyone is looking, or when only one is looking, or a few are looking? Character is not in the number, it’s in the response.

I knew a man who liked to apply Proverbs 27:21 to himself. Sometimes, when he would talk about character in shepherding the local church, he’d smile and say, A man is tested by his praise. The proverb says, of course, that a crucible separates silver and a furnace separates gold. In the same way, a man’s character is revealed in how he responds to praise. A godly man is to be humble when praised. People praised this man a lot. I think they praised him largely because he had a sweetness about him. But every time he applied the proverb to himself, I sensed that he was oddly proud of being humble . . . proud of his own supposed excellence. I didn’t think he was at all humble. He was annoyingly proud in his certainty that he both was great and humble. Despite this oxymoronic example of prideful humility, is it true that good character largely is about being humble in the midst of praise? Again, that definition is too narrow because it considers only one part of the whole described in the Scriptures.

The Scriptures teach that Character is what you do under pressure.

Character is tested, for example, when you ponder reneging on your word because circumstances have turned difficult or inconvenient or unpopular. Biblical principle says the godly man does what he said he would do, even if it hurts; Psalm 15:4, Deuteronomy 23:21-23.

Men often fold under the pressure of difficulty, inconvenience or unpopularity, and then justify themselves by applying a salve of excuses for their failures. Sleep comes more easily that way.

It’s easier to be righteous when there’s no one scraping against your weaknesses. The apostle Peter was a natural alpha dog. But a character crack was revealed when he ate non-kosher food with the Gentiles and then flipped when he was under pressure from the Jews. In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul rebuked Peter for his duplicity. The graceful and great news is that the Lord faithfully shaped Peter despite his failure. Peter’s two epistles—written at least 14 years after Paul’s epistle to the Galatians—reveal that Peter grew into a consistently powerful force for the good of the Lord’s church.

There’s much more to consider on the topic of character. Coming blogs will look at how Abraham, David and Paul responded to various types of pressure. Lastly, we’ll look at Jesus’ perfectly powerful character in His responses to incredible pressures.




The Blinding Stupidity of the Smart

I was reminded this weekend of the television show, The West Wing. In one episode, the U.S. president executes a withering word assault on a Christian radio personality. At the close of his assault, the president snarls that the Christian wrongly assumed that the White House meeting was the monthly gathering of the ignorant tight-ass club. Obviously, only idiotic no-fun fools take the Bible literally.

A similar slap at Bible-believing Christians was thrown in at the tail-end of an otherwise insightful December 13 New York Post article about the primary cause of Islamic terror: ‘They’re so nice,’ until they get religion and want to kill us. http://nypost.com/2015/12/13/theyre-so-nice-until-they-get-religion-and-want-to-kill-us/

It is self-evident and obvious that Islam has a terrorism problem, despite the willful blindness of politicians and most of the media. In contrast, Christianity has no terrorism problem. Nor does Judaism, Buddhism or Hinduism have a terrorism problem. It’s become axiomatic that the more devoted a Muslim is to the tenets of Islam, the more likely that person is to be violent. That conclusion comes from the obvious facts of hundreds of Islamic killings in San Bernardino, Paris (twice), Chattanooga, Boston, London and many other locales around the world. That conclusion also comes from experts in the FBI and from several organizations that have researched Islamic terror. Despite these obvious facts, many continue to suppress the truth, ala Romans 1:18.

And, to perpetuate the lie that all religions struggle to contain so-called extremists, many continue to suppress and misrepresent the history and tenets of Christianity. That episode from The West Wing ridiculed Christians who believe that homosexuality violates God’s natural law and God’s mandates for human sexuality as revealed in the Bible. Among other things, the president in that episode bloviates about wanting to sell his daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7) and mockingly asks whether he should have a staff member executed for working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14). That president’s assault against the Christian’s beliefs about homosexuality could stand as a poster-sample of the biblical ignorance of our anti-Christian cultural elites. That president obviously never studied or gave even a slight thought to the relationship of Old Testament law, culture and practice to the New Testament’s teaching of Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and freedom from the law. Homosexuality is judged wrong in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. And Jesus specifically referred to marriage as assumed to be between a man and a woman (Matthew 19:4-6). Marital alternatives are assumed to be so outrageous that they do not even warrant a mention to be rejected in the Scriptures.

Ignorant school-boy mocking both from the president in The West Wing and from those who hate the biblical Christ do not change the truth. The Bible obviously is to be interpreted literally where it is meant to be interpreted literally. The Bible uses historical record, the writings of prophets and kings, and letters from church leaders to inform and to teach. It uses poetry, parables, metaphors, similes, sarcasm, hyperbole . . . all to lead the reader to a clear understanding of the Lord’s character and the Lord’s ways and the Lord's demands.

It’s painfully outrageous that so many mock the Scriptures and the tenets of Christianity while at the same time revelling in complete, willful blindness to the primary cause of so much of the world’s terrorism. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—who is a Muslim—argued early in 2015 that Islam must reform. Islam, he said, must stop being a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. He’s right, but don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. Best to get shrewd as a serpent about all of this. Otherwise, we might hear really smart people say something like, You have a cloak; you shall be our leader, and this heap of ruins shall be under your rule. Isaiah 3:6.

 

Man’s Word to God: ‘Shut Up’ or ‘I’m listening’

So much going on . . . marriage turned upside down, government coercing an Illinois high school district to let a boy shower with the girls, wide open national borders in Europe and the U.S., multiplying murder by radical Islamic men and women, Islamic children learning how to cut off heads, 180 followers of Christ killed every month simply because of their faith.

But you better not say anything about it, or else. And God better not say anything about it. But God rejects their rejection. He talks about it anyway.

In 43 words, here’s what He says all over the Bible:

Here’s who I am. Here’s who I want you to be. Here’s what I want you to do. If you reject my Way, you reject Me. You hate My people. You’re stubborn. I’m long suffering and patient . . . but not forever.

While He says that, that same God also says we should delight daily in things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable and excellent. I was reminded of that at a wedding last weekend. The couple honored and celebrated the Lord and His ways. It was a joyful reminder that He still rules in many hearts.

All will be made right in time. He wins, and we get to join in His victory.

 Arc de Triomphe in Paris, honoring those who fought for France.

Arc de Triomphe in Paris, honoring those who fought for France.


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Haters Gotta Love Christianophobia

It’s obvious that a hateful dynamic has been building against followers of Jesus. It’s older than Emperor Nero but new to followers of Jesus in America. Rejecters of the Lord often aren’t satisfied just rejecting Him and being quiet about it. Now they celebrate it and happily mock those of us who do not join them in their way. I’ve heard them spit foul words as they lie about us. I’ve heard them draw strange caricatures of us as they try to bully us into fear and silence. This is common in the broad public square and in academia. It’s becoming more common in individual neighborhoods and workplaces. It’s the new reality: a growing Christianophobia in America.

George Yancey—in his thoughtful book titled Hostile Environment, published by IVP—well-describes the problem. Simply said, Christianophobia targets followers of Jesus with irrational, unwarranted hatred. It seems to me that this phobia, when unleashed from common courtesies, also features irrational thinking and lies, foul language, hateful name-calling, and bizarre behavior.

Yancey cites the Hobby Lobby case, decided in favor of Hobby Lobby by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision, as evidence of the strange response of our opponents. Recall that the owners of Hobby Lobby simply did not want to pay for their employees’ use of drugs that induced abortions. Yancey notes that, Even small legal victories by Christians engender a hysterical level of anger . . . the wild accusations following the case are unreasonable. The only reaction some of those with Christianophobia will accept is complete capitulation of Christians to their social and political desires.

Yancey cites research that shows that Christian-haters do not understand Christians, nor do they want to understand them. Next to that comment in the margin of the book, I wrote, Right. They don’t want to know or understand Christians, but they also don’t want the biblical Jesus. Or, they twist the Scriptures to create a Jesus who is soft, roundy . . . one who nods with a stupid grin at their basest of rebellions. But Jesus does not contort himself to please people. He is who he is.

I greatly appreciated Yancey’s discussion of how to respond to Christianophobics and their attacks. He cites Luke 6:29 in asking, Didn’t Jesus tell us to turn the other cheek? Of course, He did. Yancey notes that the apostle Paul, unjustly arrested for speaking the gospel in Acts 22:22-29, did not silently accept flogging. Instead, he challenged the Roman jailers who were getting ready to flog him. And Jesus, in John 7, challenged the crowd that planned to kill him. Jesus did not allow the crowd, at that time and in that place, to escalate their abuse and kill him. Christians are not called to be the world’s pathetic doormats.

Yancey gets it right: Turning the other cheek is most appropriate when a person is dealing with personal privileges or offenses. Slapping . . . is an insult, a personal affront. In my life there will be those who attempt to slap me, to personally insult me. The insult is directed at me personally. I can confront them, or I can turn the other cheek. I prefer to turn the other cheek in situations of personal affront.

Conversely, says Yancey, confrontation is appropriate when more is at stake than your own sense of worth or personal rights. He argues that turning the other cheek is wrong when seeking after broader justice is required. You don’t turn the other cheek, he argues, when the ramifications of the wrong extend beyond you personally. These are situations leading to sin against certain groups. Determining when to take action to protect other Christians will be important for assessing when to confront those with hateful attitudes and actions against Christians.

If the offense is personal, just be sure you don’t throw your pearls before swine as you turn the other cheek, as in Matthew 7:6. Yancey suggests that, When someone starts a conversation with an insult, you are not addressing someone with whom you can have a fruitful discussion. If individuals . . . do not return some degree of respect, then we are probably wasting our time.

Right. See the Lord use dog imagery: Don’t give dogs what is holy, Matthew 7:6. And there’s the clear difference between those whom Jesus allows into His heaven versus those He rejects. Those are the dogs, sorcerers, sexually immoral, murderers, idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. Revelation 22:14-15. He is who He is.

Telling All, Winning Some

In the 15 months since its first public worship service, Crossroads Church of Sturgeon Bay already has a reputation for evangelism and doing good in the community. That's largely because Brian Mitoraj, Crossroads' founding pastor, is a natural evangelist. His passion for the gospel's message of new life in Christ naturally flows out of his preaching and shepherding. Brian's an evangelistic live wire for the Lord and His church.

We want to reach the community, he said. Young or old, rich or poor. We're engaging as many people as we can in Sturgeon Bay so we can win some to the Lord. We want to see lives transformed by the power of the Lord's Gospel.

Sturgeon Bay is a town of about 9,200 in southern Door County, Wis. The county is a hub of tourism in the Midwest. Brian is not a native of Door County. He and his wife, Erin, and their two daughters have been involved in vocational ministry for about three years in the county. Brian was born and raised on the south side of Chicago and became a Christian at 35 years old. He had been enjoying success as an entrepreneur but, soon after his conversion, dove deeply into serving in a couple of churches in the Chicago suburbs.

He soon sensed a desire to be in vocational ministry. But he lacked formal theological training. Brian received zero encouragement from the leaders at his home church. He still recalls the response from his church's senior pastor, who said: I don't think so. Everybody feels called to be a pastor when they first get saved.

But Brian couldn't give it up. He said: Erin and I saw a need in Sturgeon Bay. We sensed the Lord wanted us to fill that need. This town needs a Bible-believing, gospel-centered church. So we started Crossroads.

The church's first public worship service was on Easter 2014. Crossroads has grown to about 100 people and, despite a few common setbacks along the way, has led people to Christ and has influenced the community for good. 

People need the Lord here in Sturgeon Bay just like they need Him everywhere, Brian said. Sturgeon Bay is where the Lord has placed us. Just like anywhere, this town has broken families, hurting people, many people who don't even know they need Jesus Christ. Sturgeon Bay has a sense of religion, but what sometimes is missing is the authentic relationship with God through Jesus Christ. God is not a theory. He is living and wants relationship. That's why we're in Sturgeon Bay. 

That's also why Crossroads Church is a welcome partner in the FiveStone Churches network. Brian, the church's other shepherds and the broader Crossroads Church culture understand and embrace the church's purpose . . . to make disciples of Jesus Christ in fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) . . . to baptize and teach those disciples to love the LORD in the depth of the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-38) . . .  to exhort those disciples to manifest the LORD’s presence in all arenas and in all circumstances (Isaiah 43:1-7).

See more about Crossroads Church here.

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Suddenly Strangers in a Strange Land

If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary-wise, what it is it wouldn’t be, and what it would be, it would. You see? – Alice of Alice in Wonderland

We now are wandering a surreal wonderland: an obviously white woman becomes African-American because she identifies as such, a man is celebrated as a true woman by adjusting his genitalia, an oligarchy of five supremes discerns that the U.S. Constitution gives two men or two women a fundamental right to marry.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, though he voted last week with the majority in the court’s 5-4 decision on so-called gay marriage, nodded to objections for religious grounds. He wrote that those who adhere to religious doctrines may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. Last week, a bill introduced in the U.S. House and Senate would prevent the federal government from penalizing federal employees, contractors or religiously affiliated organizations that oppose gay marriage.

Even though a couple of other justices gave a similar nod as Kennedy to those whose religious convictions reject such so-called marriage, it is a dubious nod. The five supremes certainly know the reality to come and the reality already here. Their edict opens the gates for people of faith to be persecuted, vilified and otherwise marginalized even as they stand on their genuine religious convictions. People of faith are protected under the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment commitment to freedom of religion. Even so, if there is a fundamental right of two men or two women to marry, the ruling oligarchy of five could easily decide that a fundamental right of marriage between two men or two women trumps first amendment freedom to live by genuine religious convictions. The courts are sure to be overwhelmed with years of lawsuits and attacks against people of faith and the organizations they support. The secular and the pagan are uniting to unleash their vision of an irreligious, fascist utopia against those of genuine religious faith. The coming years of culture and legal wars will be similar to the ongoing battles that still follow the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion rights decision.

The irreligious and secular certainly will seek to punish pastors who refuse to marry two men or two women, they’ll push to strip churches of their non-profit status if they do not support such so-called marriages, they’ll seek to punish faith-based schools and teachers at those schools. Parents should beware of public school curriculum that will force the secular, pagan worldview on their children.

This is the way of those committed to willful blindness; they're blind to the sinfulness of sin. We in the U.S. suddenly are a long way from our constitutional republic rooted in 1776. The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland put it this way: You used to be much more . . . muchier. You’ve lost your muchness. 

Infinitely better, the Lord Himself said it in Isaiah 3:8-9: For Jerusalem has stumbled and Judah has fallen, because their speech and their actions are against the LORD, to rebel against His glorious presence. The expression of their faces bears witness against them. And they display their sin like Sodom. They do not even conceal it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves.

To make it plain, below is the FiveStone Churches conviction about marriage and human sexuality, as excerpted from our Principles of Doctrine, Governance and Practice:

The Scriptures teach and require that marriage be reserved for and restricted to a union between one man and one woman (Genesis 1:27, Matthew 19:4-6, Romans 1:26-27). God designed marriage between one man and one woman for four primary purposes: complementary partnership, relational intimacy, sexual fulfillment and multiplication (Genesis 1:27-28; Genesis 2:18; Genesis 2:23-25, 1 Corinthians 6:18, 1 Corinthians 7:9, Ephesians 5:31). The Scriptures encourage and honor sexual intimacy only within the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4-6, Hebrews 13:4).