Rock Conference – Edify, Protect, Encourage, Support

The FiveStone Rock Conference opened with a reading of Luke 6:47-48 . . . the Rock is Jesus Christ. FiveStone Churches is acting on its core commitment to build relationships that Edify, Protect, Encourage and Support church shepherds. And so we did when FiveStone pastors, planters and network shepherds gathered from May 26-29.

The network has grown to five partner churches—including one plant that went public last fall—and on-going work with three church plants in the U.S. and one in Canada. That’s nine churches as of the end of May. (We have not yet announced all of them, so you won't yet see them all on our website.) 

FiveStone has grown a lot faster than I expected, said Brian Jones, senior pastor of Calvary Bible Church in Ypsilanti, Mich. Calvary was one of the earliest adopters of the vision of FiveStone Churches, and has been partner church since 2010. Many good things are happening.

FiveStone Churches has not reaped easy fruit. In fact, the ministry has weathered difficult days that have built strength into the base of our ministry of planting, strengthening and renewing local churches.

What did we talk about at the Rock Conference? Here are some of the session topics: 
•    The Challenge of the Five Stones;
•    FiveStone Foundational Commitments;
•    Strengthening and Renewing the Local Church;
•    Biblical Evangelism and Discipleship;
•    Working with Elders;
•    Using Tension to Command Attention in Preaching;
•    Doing Church in Context.

We combined the sessions with a barbecue, deep dish pizza, a few vegetables, assorted man-foods and a handful of guest church pastors who were checking out the FiveStone ministry. At the core, it’s not how big, how many, how much. It's not Attendance, Building and Cash. It’s about setting character before gifting and building passion for shepherding the local church to make disciples of Jesus Christ.


This Good Elder Must Leave the Church

A church elder—I’ll call him George—is grieving the loss of the church he has shepherded since its earliest days. He and his wife wanted to know if they should leave.

Here’s a synopsis of how George described the problem:
The senior pastor no longer cares what the elders say and doesn’t want to hear what they think. He says he can do whatever he wants. He doesn’t need elders. He wants yes men, which I am not. Our relationship has soured. Continuing at the church is very difficult and quite uncomfortable. Face-to-face meetings have been unfruitful. If we stay, I’m a hypocrite and I’m miserable. If we leave, the church may be hurt, and we don’t want that.

We’ve always been taught that elders should not leave the church because the church would be hurt. At what point does that potential damage fade? I trust no one at the church and so I have no one with whom I can discuss these issues. How should I proceed? I’m all ears.

My response:
1.    It’s the Lord’s church, it is no man’s church. 
2.    The Lord owns you. You are not owned by any man.
3.    You are a follower of Jesus Christ first. You are not an elder first and you are not a small group leader first. Your service to the church is an outpouring of your commitment as a disciple of Jesus.
4.    You signed up to serve as an elder within a specific context and within a specific culture that included a plurality of elders who shared authority and responsibility. That culture has changed. You do not agree with the culture change and have argued against it.
5.    You are not obligated to continue serving within a context that significantly has been altered against your counsel and against your original commitment and against the original covenant relationship.
6.    If you and your wife do not support the new culture and have consistent heartburn against the new culture and its leaders, then you must leave. 
7.    How to discern that you genuinely do not and cannot support the new culture:

  • During a significant season, you consistently are frustrated, sad, even angry about the significant changes;
  • During that season, your counsel is regularly ignored or dismissed;
  • During that season, you are miserable;
  • During that season, you discern that the change is contrary to your significant conviction about biblical leadership;
  • You are forced out of positions of influence because of your disagreement;
  • You consistently feel alone, lonely in the church;
  • You are looked upon with suspicion;
  • You do not trust the leadership of the church;
  • You reluctantly or out of duty publicly support the church and its new culture, but not joyfully and not genuinely;
  • You do not—or you do not want to—joyfully, sacrificially and generously give out of your finances to the church;
  • You are distracted about these issues when participating in worship services;
  • You feel like a hypocrite for staying in the church.

8.    Yes, if you leave, your leaving will hurt some people, particularly if you kick and complain on the way out. If you stay despite agreeing with my above checklist, you will hurt yourselves spiritually and will risk becoming bitter and resentful and . . . hurting the church.

I know you are seriously pondering these things. If you leave, you must leave peaceably and quietly. Explain your position to the senior pastor, but do not fight with him or others. Simply stand by your convictions and leave well. It’s a large decision, of course.

George wrote me back: We’ve talked about every point you made. Sadly, we’ve experienced everything you described under point 7. We don’t want to hurt the church. Be assured there will be no kicking and screaming on the way out. We’ve been slowly drifting off.

So, this good elder and his wife are leaving, with good reason. They’ll land at another church, where they’ll surely continue serving the Lord well.

Paris and Here in North America

The murders of the 12 in Paris this week are the latest in a flowing trench of blood that Muslim terrorists are spreading around the world. The bloody trench is growing ever deeper and wider. It’s a war of classical Islam and its sharia law against everybody else.

In a New Year’s Day speech, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi offered several observations about the status of Islam. El-Sisi is a Muslim.

The Islamic world is being torn, he said. It is being destroyed, it is being lost. And it is being lost by our own hands. It's inconceivable that the thinking we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. This is antagonizing the entire world. It's antagonizing the entire world! Does this mean that 1.6 billion people (Muslims) should want to kill the rest of the world's inhabitants—that is 7 billion—a that they themselves may live? Impossible!

Yes, it’s impossible to kill 7 billion non-Muslims, but Muslim terrorists are giving it a bloody-good try. They continue to post literal head counts all over the world. So, finally, we hear from a prominent Muslim—El-Sisi—who condemns the carnage of Muslim terrorism. But where are the voices of other Muslim leaders? Silent. Disgustingly silent. There are no Christian terrorists cutting off the heads of men, women and children in the name of Jesus or performing other feats of unspeakable cruelty of which we now are so sadly familiar. There are no Buddhist terrorists, Hindu terrorists, Jewish terrorists. We only need watch for the Muslim sort.

Muslim terrorism of the Paris sort surely is coming to Canada and the U.S. We will not escape it. Almost any Americans or Canadians will be targets, but followers of Christ eventually will get special, targeted attention. But, at least as of today, the enemies of Christ in North America are spewing hatred onto Christians for the heinous, disgusting crime of believing that marriage is to be between one man and one woman. Months ago, the head of Chik-fil-A restaurants took a hailstorm of abuse for simply speaking of his belief in traditional marriage. And the owners of Hobby Lobby stores were vilified for refusing to pay employee insurance premiums for abortion-inducing drugs. The latest prominent Christian target is Kelvin Cochran, the newly-fired fire chief of Atlanta, Ga. He wrote a book that endorsed traditional marriage and spoke against various forms of sexual sin.

Cochran said: The LGBT members of our community have a right to express their views and convictions about sexuality and deserve to be respected for their position without hate or discrimination. But Christians also have a right to express to express our beliefs regarding our faith and be respected for our position without hate and without discrimination.

No matter. Cochran was fired anyway. Our pluralistic, post-Christian culture now is saying, All hail the irreligious! and All hail the Jesus you create for yourself, and All hail the Jesus who lets me do what I want whenever I want. That’s the Jesus, the false Christ, that many demand and foolishly have created.

But the Jesus of the Scriptures set the standard for marriage to be between one man and one woman. His word rejects sexuality expressed in other forms. Our culture, largely rejecting His word, have the right to do so. That’s their privilege. It’s also the privilege of faithful followers of Christ to speak His word and follow His ways, despite the reviling that is here and the deeper persecution that eventually and surely will come.

In light of that, FiveStone Churches has added to its Principles of Doctrine, Governance and Practice the following statement on the issue, just to make it plain where we stand.

Here it is: 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).


Encountering the Lord in Kingston

Our new church plant in Kingston, Ontario, has a clear core purpose: encounter God. So, when people who want to encounter God get together, they could rightly be called Encounter Church. I like it.

I first met planting pastor Andrew DeBartolo about eight months ago. I asked him why he wanted to plant a church and what would be the purpose of the new church. We want to encounter God, he said. We want to stir our affections for Him. We want to focus on God’s goodness to us. Well said.

Andrew and I have spent several months investigating the possibilities for the church plant and preparing the ground to receive the church planting seed. Andrew and his wife, Kathryn, have gathered a core group of committed followers of Jesus Christ, and Andrew has framed a clear vision of what it would mean for the people of Kingston to encounter the Lord at Encounter Church.

That vision is expressed in the church’s four core values: 

• Holding fast to the Gospel of Christ – 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 – In every part of our lives and in every part of our church, our desire is that the Gospel is at the centre of everything we do.

• Making disciples of Christ – Matthew 28:18-20 – We are committed to teaching people what it means to follow Jesus and obey the things He has commanded us to do. 

• Passionate in worship – Psalm 100:1-5 – In our corporate gatherings, we are intentional in encouraging and teaching our people to worship God with joy, sincerity, and in truth.

• Pursuing authentic relationships – Hebrews 10:24-25 – Through fellowship, mentorship, and accountability, we will sharpen one another in intimate relationships.

The church’s core values are extensions of what the Lord has made me passionate about, DeBartolo said. I love the idea of starting a church from the ground up. Kingston has a tremendous need for the gospel. 

He said that, in this city of about 125,000 in eastern Ontario, about 100,000 are not involved in a church. I love to study and teach the Scriptures. The Lord uses His word to draw people to Himself. People who come to Encounter Church will hear God’s word and see it applied in all of our ministries. I’m hoping that people who don’t know Christ will hear the gospel and respond to it. I’m hoping that those who already know Christ will grow to become more like Jesus Christ.

That’s a fine Kingston vision. There’s a lot of ground work to do in the next several months. We’re looking for the church to emerge next spring with its first public worship service.

For more about Encounter Church, see the News article on our website.

Diotrephes the Bully Versus Elder John - Round 2

The bully Diotrephes, noted in John's third letter, is headed for an unpleasant encounter with church discipline. Using what certainly was a prominent position in the church, Diotrephes diminished other leaders, spoke wickedly of them, bullied other believers to be inhospitable and, if they did not comply with his commands, prevented them from gathering among the congregation (3 John 9-10). The conduct of Diotrephes, repeated and cemented over time, should have disqualified him from shepherding leadership. But it did not. It would take someone such as the apostle-elder John to lead a flint-like, prophetic response to Diotrephes' abuses.

Given the list of his long-term sins, surely many witnesses could have attested to his behavior. In keeping with the requirement of 1 Timothy 5:19, the local congregation would have needed only two or three. Someone from within the congregation must have gotten word to apostle-elder John about Diotrephes’ abuses. The first accusations almost certainly would have been delivered to Diotrephes indirectly in a flanking approach. This indirect approach would have prevented Diotrephes’ from delivering a withering attack on his accuser. Despite the righteous accusations, Diotrephes persisted in his abuses. (I’m reminded of a friend who was stuck working with several bullies. In his misery, he said, These are the guys I hated in junior high school. Rightly said. My friend had painted a simple picture of the bully-tyrant Diotrephes and the relentless pain he and his ilk cause.) Apostle-elder John would lead the way in handling it. John’s pledge to speak of Diotrephes' offenses could rightly be assumed to include a public rebuke. A public rebuke, reserved particularly for unrepentant, sinning elders, would be in accordance with 1 Timothy 5:20.

As a good elder, John would have focused on protecting, cleansing and restoring the health of the church. He also would have looked with hope to the welfare of Diotrephes. In his third letter, John does not directly state concern for Diotrephes, but his concern is demonstrated in his promise to confront the sin. A crisis of confrontation sometimes is needed to break an entrenched pattern. Paul urges such a crisis of confrontation in 1 Timothy 1:3-7. He exhorts Timothy in verse three to stop those who are teaching false doctrine. In verses six and seven, he ridicules these teachers for their arrogance and incompetence. Sandwiched between these verses is his charge that love must be Timothy’s motivator as he confronts these teachers. Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:5 that the confrontation is to be done out of love that springs from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

Wayne Grudem, in his book Systematic Theology, argues that church discipline properly handled allows the sinning leader to begin the gradual process of rebuilding relationships and trust with the congregation. That truth is rooted in the biblical principle that church leaders are held to a higher standard than are other congregants. When leaders fail, they hurt the whole church.

Even so, could Diotrephes have a future in the local church? Given John’s emphasis throughout his letters on abiding relationships and fellowship, as well as grace, mercy and peace in 2 John 3, we can assume that even a persistently abusive leader such Diotrephes could be restored to fellowship after whatever disciplining rebuke John and the other leaders delivered to him. But Diotrephes would have been required to own all of his ugly sin patterns—not just a portion of it—that he had amassed over time.

A repentant Diotrephes seems a perfect fit for the person Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 2:5-8, If anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. Even so, if Diotrephes refused to own all of the sin he had amassed over time and be reconciled in fellowship with the church, he could be, as John describes in 1 John 1:6, a liar who does not practice the truth. 

Owning only a portion would be insufficient for Diotrephes. It also would be insufficient for the local elders, who failed to confront Diotrephes earlier, before his bullying metastasized like a cancer and severely harmed the church. Perhaps they were afraid of Diotrephes or were over-matched by his ability to bully. The reason does not matter. Owning their failure would be the elders' bitter fruit for feeding the growth of a bully-tyrant and for joining in his sin.

Forgiveness can be granted immediately, but restoration of relationships and position take time. Diotrephes took a long time amassing his sin list. An immediate or fast restoration of Diotrephes to authority and responsibility would be an egregious error. John and the other leaders certainly would not have accepted a spoken repentance of, Oops. Sorry about that. Glad that's over. Nothing more to do. Let’s move on. But re-building trust, responsibility and authority take time. Some sins are consumed like food. The eating of food cannot be un-done as if it never was eaten. The repeated and severe damage Diotrephes inflicted on other believers could not be paid back as if he had stolen a few measures of wheat. He could not un-do his actions like Zacchaeus, who repaid his financial victims fourfold to compensate for his sin (Luke 19:1-10).

In order to be restored to shepherding leadership, Diotrephes would need to demonstrate authentic, biblical repentance as a demonstration of his sincere grief for all of the damage he caused. That repentance would yield fruit to be harvested over time—of the type described in 2 Corinthians 7:9-13. That would be sweet, and would nourish an opportunity for restoration.

Words spoken do not by themselves prove repentance to be authentic. The words simply are an early step. Genuine repentance for Diotrephes would be a difficult process. That's why genuine repentance rarely comes from a Diotrephes.

Diotrephes the Bully Versus Elder John - Round 1

The letters from the apostle John, who refers to himself as an elder both in 2 John and in 3 John, have a lot to say about church discipline. In verse 10 of his third letter, John says he plans to bring up what he (Diotrephes) is doing. What was Diotrephes doing? Simply said, Diotrephes was a bully.

Handling a bully in the church is difficult, but handling a bully who also has immense and seemingly unassailable authority is a different level of difficult. The man with that kind of authority not only is a bully, he’s also a tyrant. He’s been allowed over time to build his own personal kingdom and becomes too big to discipline. Strong elders could have and should have dealt with his behavior far earlier, before it became a metastasizing cancer in the church. Now they have a major problem. Responding to it requires that the elders become a multiplied force of flint-faced prophets. Soft, feckless elders, failing to understand their job or lacking the courage or gifting to do it, unwittingly feed the bully and create the tyrant.

But, again, what was Diotrephes doing? In 3 John 9-10, John says that Diotrephes refused to acknowledge the authority of both John and of Gaius, who was referenced in verse one. John says in verse nine that he had written something to the church, but that Diotrephes disregarded John’s message. John says in verse 10, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to (welcome them) and puts them out of the church. Using what certainly was a prominent position in the church, Diotrephes demeaned other leaders, spoke wickedly of them, and bullied other believers to be inhospitable and, if they did not comply with his commands, also prevented them from gathering among the congregation.

The conduct of Diotrephes, repeated and cemented over time, disqualified him from shepherding leadership. It would take someone such as the apostle-elder John to lead a flint-like, prophetic response.

As I noted in the article, Church Discipline According to John, elders are to protect and nurture the church. They look after her, build her, strengthen her, sacrifice for her. In his book, The Church, Edmund Clowney rightly says that discipline advances nurture. When John in verse 10 of his third letter says he plans to bring up what he (Diotrephes) is doing, he obviously intends not only to rely on his own authority to address Diotrephes, but also intends to bring the circumstance to the local church’s authority structure, i.e. to the local elders, and then likely to inform the entire congregation.

In 2 John 2, John links himself with all of the brothers and sisters in Christ by noting that the Lord’s truth abides in us and will be with us forever. With those words, John includes himself with all other followers of Jesus and claims nothing special for himself. Contrast that with the sinning elder, Diotrephes, in 3 John 9-10. In pledging to bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us, John makes it clear that church leaders are to be held accountable for their behavior. If we presuppose that Diotrephes had an important leadership position in the local church, possibly as an elder, we can see that powerful church leaders are not exempt from the application of church disciplline. In fact, when a man has been allowed to become a bully-tyrant, the local church's elders eventually must gird up their loins to impose appropriate discipline against a most difficult target. Because of their authority and responsibility, elders are rightly more vulnerable to examination and public rebuke, as described in 1 Timothy 5:19-25. Diotrephes persisted in various sins, i.e. placing himself first, likely refusing to distribute an earlier letter from John, rejecting the authority of church leaders, sinfully talking about church leaders, refusing to welcome itinerant ministers, stopping others in the church who wanted to welcome itinerant ministers, and putting believers out of the church who refused to fall in the line Diotrephes had drawn. All of these sins are patterns that take time to cement and build upon.

John only says in 3 John 10 that he will bring up these matters. It seems clear, though, that Diotrephes is headed for an unpleasant encounter with church discipline. Next up: Round two of Diotrephes the Bully Versus Elder John.

Church Discipline According to John

I’ve never heard anyone talk about the apostle John’s views about church discipline. The topic always seems to lead people into Matthew 18. But John, in his three New Testament letters, has a lot to say about discipline that ensures the church is strong and healthy. Despite the view of a church leader who told me, with clear certainty, that the sole purpose of church discipline is to make forgiveness happen, I think theologian Wayne Grudem has it right when he argues that, at its core, church discipline is to keep sin from the church (Ephesians 5:25-27; 2 Corinthians 11:3), cleanse sin in the church (1 Corinthians 5:1-13) and restore individuals in the church into healthy relationships (Galatians 6:1).

John’s three letters do not directly address church discipline. But John refers to himself as an elder twice—in 2 John 1 and in 3 John 1—and his letters point to the elders’ responsibilities to protect, cleanse and restore health to the Lord’s church.

When John, in 1 John 4:1, tells his readers to test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world, what is the follower of Jesus to do when he believes that a particular spirit within a person is not from the Lord? Beyond his own discernment, to whom should he turn for guidance or assistance in rightly responding to this person? Is he on his own? Or, in 2 John 10, John says the follower of Jesus should not welcome a false teacher into his home or even greet him. Is that where the issue ends? Does John intend to leave a false teacher and his doctrine unaddressed within the congregation? In 3 John 9-10, John says that Diotrephes does not acknowledge our authority in the church, (meaning the authority both of John and of Gaius, who was referenced in verse one). Is that where the issue ends? Although John says in verse nine that he had written something to the church, John indicates that Diotrephes has dismissed John’s message. John says that Diotrephes does not acknowledge our authority, and I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. John continues in verse 10, And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to (welcome them) and puts them out of the church.

2 John.jpg

When John says he will bring up what Diotrephes is doing in the church, John seems to be understating his intent. John asserts that he will respond to Diotrephes’ words and actions. Using his prominent position in the church, Diotrephes has bullied other believers to be inhospitable and, if they did not comply with his edicts, prevented them from gathering with the congregation.

Diotrephes almost certainly held an important position in the church. Otherwise, how could he have exacted such strong-armed control? If Diotrephes held a position of authority in the church, perhaps as an elder, and the apostle-elder John pledged that he would speak of his behavior, to whom would John speak? Who within the structure of the church would have the authority to deal with a sinning elder? The Scriptures teach that elders are the Lord’s undershepherds and have authority and responsibility to shepherd the church. Given their role, the church’s elders would have primary responsibility to deal with Diotrephes. And then, after they discerned what would be appropriate for the health of the church, they could present the circumstances to the broader congregation.

Elders are to honor the Lord by protecting and nurturing His church. Elders are to honor the Lord by being more and doing more than other congregants in the local church. They have a bigger assignment. The Lord will hold each elder accountable for the quality of his shepherding performance (Hebrews 13:17). Elders are undershepherds of Jesus Christ as they serve the church (1 Peter 5:1-4). They must be strong enough to ensure that the Lord’s honor is the foundational commitment of the church. Elders are to protect the church. From what? They protect the church from anything that would weaken, sicken or hurt her (John 10:11-15; Acts 20:28-31).

As I listed in an earlier blog article, among the most common attacks on the church are personality cults, divisions over music styles, heresies, legalism, license, syncretism, Gnosticism and its forms, Judaizing and its forms, Docetism and its forms. Sometimes, though, attacks on the church come from bullies like Diotrephes. What do you do about a Diotrephes in the church? I’ll talk about that in my next article, Diotrephes the Bully Versus Elder John.

The t-shirt Jesus Could Wear


My daughter gave me a bookstore t-shirt featuring what easily could be a true-to-life sketch of the rough ruggedness of an Old Testament prophet or a New Testament apostle.

And I thought, The Lord made His prophets and apostles look something like this guy. Would the Lord come to Earth looking like something cleaned up, perfumed? Nah. Jesus was a burly-man.

Jesus came to Earth not majestic or pretty . . . Isaiah 53:2-3. It's sad, disgusting, the things people do to shrink Jesus. 

Now He looks like nothing we've ever seen, as in Revelation 1:12-18.

Awesome . . . beyond measure.

I need to meditate on Jesus as He is, the Logos of the Trinity . . . firing up, looking forward to Sunday. 

Bakersfield Burning for Matthew 16:18

It was 109 degrees in Bakersfield, Calif., this week. It was hot like an oven is hot. It burned with smoldering intensity. It reminded me of the weeks and days before a church plant emerges for the first time. The pioneers in a church plant ought to burn with intense excitement as they prepare for that first public worship service. That excitement is what Cary and Maija Nack, their four children, and quite a few other pioneers are building as they prepare Vanguard Bible Church to emerge in Bakersfield.

The word vanguard is defined as troops moving at the head of an army or the forefront of an action or movement. The imagery of soldiers and action are biblical and excellent for church planting.

Vanguard Bible Church will be a partner in the FiveStone Churches network. We expect Vanguard to go public in spring 2015.

I've known planting pastor Cary Nack for about nine years, and I’ve appreciated both his character and his gifting. He meets the qualifications of an elder as described in Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and does the work of an elder described in 1 Timothy 4:6-16. He’s also a fine preacher and leader and administrator.

We worked extensively together in planting what developed into a flourishing church in Illinois. That Illinois plant started with about eight of us gathering for a get-acquainted dinner. This California plant started with telephone discussions and planning meetings before I made the trip to Bakersfield to meet the planting core group and get to know the city of Bakersfield. (The city of 360,000 is 110 miles north of Los Angeles and 280 miles south of San Francisco. Bakersfield is growing fast; its population was 185,000 in 1990.)

While I was in town, Cary and the team hosted a most excellent meet-and-greet Coffee with the Pastor that included the core group and about 45 others who wanted to hear more about the vision and values of Vanguard Bible Church.

Here are a several of those values:

Preaching: bold exposition with application;

Worship: contemporary, passionate, contemplative;

Discipleship: intentional; built around Word, Worship, Walk, Work, Witness;

Gospel-centered Missions: service plus evangelism;

Excellence: honors God, removes distractions, attracts people;

Holiness without legalism.

A new, life-giving work in Bakersfield will please our Lord. I’m totally fired up about the Lord using Vanguard Bible Church and FiveStone Churches to take more California ground for His kingdom. It’s Matthew 16:18 all over again.

Read more about Cary, his family and the vision for Bakersfield in this news article on the FiveStone Churches website.  

Born-againers Born that Way

It's amazing how the world has turned in a few years. The homosexual rights movement and its allies have convinced the broader culture that the homosexual lifestyle has nothing to do with choice but has everything to do with being born that way, being born gay. So, they say, anything less than a full embrace of gay everything and anything makes you a homophobic-bigoted-hater-troll-idiot, or something like that.

Born that way or not, what these people do not know is that devoted born-again followers of Jesus really are born that way and have no choice in the matter of following Christ. What they also do not know is that all real Christians are born-againers, as some derisively call us. And, as followers of Christ, we make it our aim to obey Him and cooperate with the way He has set up His world. Born-againers are born that way, actually born again that way. Those devoted to Him make it their aim to please Him (2 Corinthians 5:9; 2 Timothy 2:4). It’s rooted in who they are. Sure, as any critic of Christians knows, a self-proclaimed follower of Christ can rebel for a moment or for a season. But he’ll feel terrible about his rebellion and will self-correct, or the Lord will handle the correction through natural or supernatural consequences. The devoted follower of Christ has no real choice in the matter because Christ rules the born-again heart.

So, all the world’s disgust, punishment and reviling heaped upon the born-again baker who won’t bake a wedding cake or a born-again photographer won’t shoot photos at a so-called gay wedding really reflect a broad cultural rejection of Christ and His ways. The same holds true for the owners of Hobby Lobby stores, who refuse to pay employee insurance premiums for abortion-inducing drugs. The same goes for the head of Chick-fil-A restaurants, who faced a whirlwind of hate for simply saying that he believes marriage is only between a man and a woman.

You know the arguments: Christ never said a word against homosexual relationships and Christ accepts everyone and who are you to judge. The apostle Paul was just a homophobic bigot because of his words in Romans 1, the Old Testament’s condemnation of homosexual relationships is irrelevant because, after all and for example, crazy dietary laws of the Old Testament make the entire book entirely irrelevant for today. It doesn't take a brilliant theologian to turn those arguments aside. In Matthew 19:4-6, for example, Jesus affirmed the veracity of the Old Testament and the conviction that marriage is between a man and a woman and only between a man and a woman. Jesus’ clear conviction affirms the concept of marriage that consistently has been held for millennia before and after His life, death and resurrection. By extension, His argument for one woman, one man marriage also rejects all homosexual relationships.

An item on offers a key observation: In the 1930s, British anthropologist J.D. Unwin studied 86 cultures that stretched across 5,000 years. He found, without exception, when they restricted sex to marriage, they thrived. Strong families headed by faithful spouses made for bold, prosperous societies. But not one culture survived more than three generations after turning sexually permissive. Noted Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin found no culture surviving once it ceased to support marriage and monogamy. None. (If you want to read J.D. Unwin’s entire book, titled Sex and Culture, it’s available at this link.)

We are in deep danger here in the U.S. The haters of Christ do not seek our tolerance; they demand our compliance. But we should make no room for a Jesus formed in their preferred image of a pudgy, palatable man, all so soft and mild. He does not want or need soft and mild disciples.

Jeremiah 1:17 and Luke 18:8 are especially relevant. In Jeremiah 1, the Lord tells Jeremiah that the people of Judah have been evil in abandoning Him. They've made offerings to other gods and worshiped the works of their own hands. But you (Jeremiah), dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. And then, the terrific second half of verse 17, Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. Am I so afraid of them that I do not speak of the Lord and His ways? The Lord’s admonishment to Jeremiah rings. If I am so afraid of them that I refuse to speak of Him, then the Lord will make me even more afraid of them so that I cannot speak of Him. The lack of courageous words reflects a cowardice that is the fruit of a less than devoted life.

At the end of it all, how many of us are sufficiently devoted to embrace ridicule, humiliation and physical loss as a cost of knowing Christ and living in His ways? As in Matthew 10:24-39, He demands that each of us acknowledge Him as proof of our relationship. It is expensive, in this life, to be a born-againer.

Character Before Gifting in Austin, Texas

I’d rather work with a man of A-grade character and B-grade gifting than a man of B-grade character and A-grade gifting. That’s not to diminish the value of gifts. I’d just rather work with a man who drives not only to achieve through his gifting, but drives to personal excellence as he goes about the work of achieving. Of course, this means measuring personal excellence according to the Lord’s economy, not man’s economy.

So, while the temptation seems overwhelming to evaluate the local church with the typical ABCs of success measured by Attendance, Building and Cash, the Lord uses those ABCs as secondary measures of success, not primary measures. If I understand the Scriptures correctly and Revelation 2 and 3 specifically, the Lord at His core is deeply concerned about who we are as we work for Him. That’s the genesis of the FiveStone Churches core value of Character before Gifting. Gifting is good and important, but character is better and crucial. It’s gold to the follower of Christ.

With all of that in mind, FiveStone Churches is moving toward planting a church in Austin, Texas. Aaron Reyes, a man who by every indication has A-grade character and A-grade gifting, will be the church plant pastor. Austin, home to the University of Texas and the state’s capital, is a fast-growing metropolitan area of about 850,000 people. We’re expecting to plant east of Interstate 35, where there are few dynamic, life-giving churches. Austin’s east side also has a large mix of all kinds of people. I expect our work there to flourish.

Aaron gets the importance of Character before Gifting. That’s one of the things I like best about him. Aaron’s heritage is Latino and Caucasian, and he was born and raised just north of Austin. Aaron played football at the U.S. Air Force Academy until he figured out that the Lord wanted him in vocational pastoral ministry. He then transferred to Wheaton College in Illinois, where he finished a business degree and played football. He went on for a master’s degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., while he served as the lead shepherd of a church’s young adults ministry. That’s where he and I connected.

I spent time getting to know Aaron while discerning his character, commitments, convictions and gifting. We agreed last fall to covenant together to plant a church in Austin. Aaron’s been serving as a FiveStone Churches resident at one of our partner churches, Christian Fellowship Church in Itasca, Ill., where he’s been mentored by Pastor Lucas O’Neill in shepherding and preaching. I’ve also been working with Aaron to build and prepare the plant seed to germinate and emerge this fall. Aaron has been spending time in Austin, recruiting like-minded pioneers to serve as prayer partners and point people to prepare for the first worship service.

Aaron and his wife, Michelle, expect to move to Austin early in June. Michelle, who is of Indian descent, is completing a doctorate in German literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

To read more about Aaron and the vision for Austin, click here.      

Bumblebees Cannot Fly . . . Don't You Know

Someone said that, according to the laws of aerodynamics, bumblebees cannot fly. But bumblebees, not knowing the laws of aerodynamics, go ahead and fly anyway.

Bumblebees go ahead and fly anyway. Real followers of Christ go ahead and follow Him despite all of their obvious impediments and natural inclinations to wallow in the dirt.

I really like that bumblebee quote, and read it aloud early on day two of last weekend’s leader retreat at City Centre Baptist Church in Mississauga, Ontario. I didn’t use it right from the get-go on Friday night, but waited until Saturday morning. We spent Friday evening looking at the awesome responsibility of rightly leading the Lord’s church. After letting the weight of it sink in overnight, I kicked off Saturday morning by answering the obvious question: Who is adequate for these things?

The fatso bumblebee with its tiny wings is completely wrong for flying. And, just to look at us, we are completely inadequate to shepherd the Lord’s church. But we go ahead and do it anyway. And, in the process, we try to get others in the church to lose the bumblebee excuses for failing to fly.

The retreat theme: Devotion, Motivation, Urgency . . . all with the Lord and all for the Lord. We wanted to get a grip on the leader’s requirement to love Christ in a deeper way, leading to greater motivation to work for Him, compelling the leader to serve Him with intense urgency.

Friday's focus:

Saturday's work:

  • Passion, Vision, Mission;
  • Jesus’ Vision for the Church;
  • The Worker’s Toolbox;
  • In the Slough of Despond, a.k.a. Sanballat, Demas, and Alexander the Coppersmith.

The weekend was exhausting and exhilarating. It was a blessing to be with others who don't just want to do more for Jesus, but first want to be more for Jesus so they can truly do more for Him. Check out some retreat photos here

An Earnest, Wacked Read!!!

To make it plain, I didn’t like much in Mortimer Arias’ book, Announcing the Reign of God. The crux of Arias’ argument is stated at the book’s close. The Christian church, he says, needs a creative and new understanding of evangelization and must focus on a new kingdom perspective.

He is earnest—relying on 110 exclamation points for urgency in the book’s 139 pages—but his vision of a more just and kinder world is peppered with common criticisms of the Western church, and he argues that broad re-distribution of the world’s wealth will yield the excellent fruit of a great and just kingdom of Christ on earth. Arias also falls into heresy when discussing repentance, the nature of salvation, the understanding of the purpose of communion in the local church and what he calls gross literalist images of second-coming preachers who were an offense to my intelligence and my faith.

Arias is a bishop in the Bolivian Methodist Church and was a professor of evangelism at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. He says, The kingdom of God is . . . the new order of love, the kingdom of the Father. The need for a new order of love is made clear by people struggling for justice and freedom from oppressive societies; when so many young people are rebelling against authoritarian religions; when others are running away from neglectful parents; when women are seeking equality and liberation from the exploitative use of patriarchal images of sexual subordination it is essential to recover an understanding of God’s fatherhood and the liberating and fulfilling meaning of the reign of God that Jesus came to inaugurate: the reign of fraternity, the true family of God, the reign of grace.

This reign of grace, as would be expected, translates into a liberal dose of what Arias calls unconditional forgiveness and free forgiveness with no need of individual repentance. If unconditional and free forgiveness is a true understanding of the forgiveness Jesus offers, then who on Earth needs to repent? In Arias' theology, God gives every person unconditional forgiveness and God welcomes every person unconditionally into his heaven. Obviously, if this is so, then Jesus did not need to die and Jesus did not need to rise from the dead. There are many ways to tear into Arias' view, but naming just three: What of Jesus’ admonition of Nicodemus in John 3:3 that You must be born again? What of Jesus’ claim in John 3:18 that a person who does not believe in the Son of God is condemned? And what of the urging of John 20:31, requiring personal belief in Jesus as the Christ in order to be granted eternal life?

Arias argues that authentic liberation is not represented by those who present the false liberation promoted by those who see sinners as people without hope or any possibilities at all. Yet, Arias offers no answer to the many Scriptures that clearly describe all individual people as enemies of God at their core and, as such, are without hope for relationship with him until they repent and turn to salvation offered in Christ.

Troubling also are the author’s inflammatory statements that criticize the fruit of sin but do not connect the sin to a new birth with power to sever the cause of sin at its origin in the human heart. Arias also sees societies and, by extension, the church, as reluctant to recognize the full humanity of disabled people. Arias would re-distribute the world’s wealth by giving unlimited funding for children’s lunches, old people survival incomes and more accessible education and paltry sums given to Third World nations through the World Bank. That’s a good plan, sinners confiscate all the wealth of other sinners expecting to righteously spread that wealth and build a righteous world. Who needs Jesus anyway.

As could be expected, given his commitment to what he calls a new kind of evangelism, Arias espouses a clearly postmillennial view of eschatology and says, We can commit ourselves to the improvement and the transformation of society for the sake of the reign of God, in line with the reign of God. Arias does not argue that a personal encounter with Christ will change a person's heart and lead to a better world. His vision is rooted in a vision for a better world apart from a transformed life in Christ. He embraces the love of Christ without embracing the power of Christ that enables selfless love. Arias’ error is encapsulated in his misunderstanding the very nature of repentance. He argues, for example, that Zacchaeus’ transformation in Luke 19:1-10 came as the result of his change of economic relationships and the implicit change in style of life and priorities Jesus called ‘salvation’ and integration into the people of God. Contrast this view with the Bible's consistent presentation that repentance comes first and is demonstrated in a person's good works.

Announcing the Reign of God is another proof that earnestly urgent sincerity doesn’t prove right doctrine. Saul of Tarsus was earnestly urgent in his sincerity. But he was just wacked . . . until he personally encountered Christ!      

Can Anything Good Come Out of America?

When I read this third book, The New Global Mission by Samuel Escobar, I repeatedly felt like asking, Can anything good come out of America? It seemed Escobar’s answer was a repeated and clear, No. 

OK, I understand that the center of Christianity’s power has shifted away from Europe and the United States and has moved toward China, Africa and Latin America. Western culture has proven itself  increasingly stubborn in resisting the gospel, but the church in China, Africa and Latin America is the spawning bed of innovators and disciple-makers in the third millennium. And I also understand that the Christian church is facing a world that is largely post-modern and post-Christian, leading to an erosion of Christian influence on the forces that shape culture. Christians, particularly those rooted in Europe and the U.S., frequently struggle toward effective missions ministry as they face the new reality.

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So says the theologian Escobar, who is a native of Peru and is president emeritus of the Latin American Theological Fraternity. Escobar reflects on the implications of the new global reality and offers insights into how the church should take advantage of  the shift as it evangelizes in the third millennium. He details on-going struggles for influence, focusing on Western missionaries who are finding it difficult to respond to the massive change. Escobar argues that the ways of missionaries and evangelists from Europe and North America often are rooted in cultural habits and preferences rather than in biblical requirements for conversion and spiritual growth. There must be a distinction, Escobar argues, between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the American way of life.

Today, Escobar says, missionaries and evangelists from the West are engaged in a not-so-subtle struggle for influence with the church in China, Africa and Latin America. Missionaries and church leaders from the West seem unable or unwilling to come to grips with the new realities. The new reality: disciples of Christ outside the boundaries of Europe and the U.S. have immense and growing influence over the missionary methods of the Christian church. At the same time, however, Western managers of those missionaries often measure success solely based upon numbers of conversions. Says Escobar: They (missionaries) have to produce a certain number of churches or conversions within a given time limit, and if they don’t, their failure is considered a sign of inefficiency, lack of faith or poor spirituality. This places intolerable burdens on them . . .    

This criticism may be valid. However, equally valid is the flip-side of the argument. The flip-side says that missionaries must have some accountability for the stewardship of their work. Accountability for one’s work is not a European or American concept. It is a biblical concept. Without it, because human nature is corrupt, it is easy to fall into a standard that fails to hold missionaries to any standard of accountability for the fruit of their work.

Unfortunately, as I heard one senior pastor say in an elder meeting, Missionaries line up a bunch of natives against a wall, shoot a photograph and say, ‘Look at the fruit of my work! Isn’t it great!’ Where’s their accountability for our investment in missions?!

The pastor’s comment, despite its sarcastic bite, reflected a legitimate concern. Yet Escobar mentions nothing of a concern for assessing fruitful ministry. There is no way of knowing whether he is oblivious to the concern or simply is not interested. Escobar frequently repeats his refrain against what he calls the dominant current paradigm for mission (a.k.a. the Western way) that pushes missions as an efficient machine. Spiritual formation is neglected because it does not easily fit the assembly-line paradigm. The factory paradigm encourages missionaries to set objectives for mere outward behavior. It is primarily interested in quantities.

Yes, character and commitment built through spiritual formation are key markings of genuine conversion, but Escobar ignores the reality that the Scriptures also commend other measurable types of ministry fruit. Genuine fruit is a product of an authentic life based upon a commitment to integrity. While Escobar argues against measuring ministry success by quantity, he also argues for measuring success by quality. Really, both are measuring sticks. Escobar values quality over quantity, and who will argue against that? But, truly, measuring quality requires a quantitative exercise of its own. (Some churches measure success solely by quantity. Measuring fruit by quantity always is a serious wrong. Healthy things may multiply, but not everything that multiplies is healthy, as in, for example, cancer cells or weapons of terror or financial debt or even numbers attending worship services.)

There is great error in measuring success primarily in terms of numeric growth, but there also is great error in pretending to measure nothing quantitatively. In any mission, it is encouraging to know the number of children fed or the number of abused women served in court protection proceedings or the number of homeless people placed in shelters or even the number of people who confessed conversion to Christ. It’s simply encouraging to those who work in and support the ministry. But it seems that Escobar sees none of it, except the qualitative factor which, as I said, actually includes significant quantitative elements.

Escobar endorses the argument that, because African culture does not ordinarily focus on individuals, missionary evangelists must aim their work at families and groups of people. This argument ignores the reality that the Bible fundamentally calls for an individual decision for or against Christ. It is true, of course, that the Philippian jailer’s family was saved and the argument for working in families and groups of people is understood as biblical. However, more to the core of the issue of conversion is the individual decision for or against Christ. This is not a Western concept or a Western cultural preference. It is a biblical mandate—as in, for example, Matthew 10:32-39—so that even if father or mother or son or daughter opposes a person’s conversion, that person is responsible to make the decision and will be held accountable for that decision.

Escobar also falls into a related trap when he levels yet another criticism of Western missionaries. He cites the example of an American-trained medical doctor who had to unlearn some of the things he learned about human nature in his American education and needed to learn new perspectives from Africans. Without denying that new perspectives can be useful, unlearning what was learned in America fails to acknowledge that there is good to be gleaned in any culture and tradition, even the sort taught in an American medical school. Or, are we really expected to answer, No, to the jaded question, Can anything good come out of America?

Salvation, Social Justice, Vegans

Christopher J. H. Wright, in his book, The Mission of God’s People, seeks to answer what he calls a broad question, What do theology and mission have to do with each other? He argues that theology (properly understood and applied) must have missional impact and mission must have sound and defensible theological foundations. That makes sense, but Wright runs into deep trouble when his list of missional impact and mission seems to elevate social justice and ecological sensitivity to quasi-salvific status. He also calls for Christians to be irresistibly attractive to the world, but offers zero counsel of how to be so attractive when people either cannot care less about Jesus or despise you and your savior from the get-go.

Wright is the international director of the Langham Partnership International (John Stott Ministries in the U.S.). The book presents a clear, systematic analysis of who God’s people are and what God’s people are to do. He dives into analysis of the Lord’s call of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3, and argues that God’s people are not only to rejoice in their own salvation, but they are also to bless others as a significant fruit of enjoying their relationship with God.

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Wright asks the question, Do the people of God have any responsibility to the rest of human society in general beyond the imperative of evangelism? Of course, his emphatic answer is, Yes, as he affirms the gospel implications on how Christians are to conduct social justice, pursue fair and equal treatment of people groups, properly care for the Earth, represent the Lord  to the world and attract people to Him. Christians are to embrace the call to be sent ones into the world and actively pursue the work of being a blessing to each and all nations of the Earth.

Wright properly notes that Christians have suffered, are suffering and will suffer for their faith. At the same time, though, he wonders whether Christians are missing out on the excitement and joy of sharing in the God’s attraction (of other people) by failing to have hearts that are fully committed to the Lord God in practical daily living according to his ways and standards. For our mission begins as we seek to live in that way—a way that enables God to attract outsiders to himself. Wright says that the Bible proclaims the kind of people God’s people are meant to be rather than the kinds of things they are meant to say. He calls it missional magnetism. This magnetism should be so attractive that the world takes note and becomes interested in hearing the great truths and changed lives brought by Jesus Christ. The world will see no reason to pay any attention to our claims about our invisible God if it sees no visible difference between the lives of those who make such claims and those who don’t.

That’s nice. But Wright fails to mention in even the smallest way the implications of life in post-Christian, postmodern North America or post-Christian, postmodern Europe. In the post-Christian culture, almost everyone has already heard of Christ and his followers, have been infested with poisonous reports about Christians or have few interactions with Christians. What they think they know of followers of Christ, they do not like. And they have not the slightest interest in following either the hard-edged ways of Jesus or even his softer ways. They have seen the Christians, and they have decided they want no part of them or Jesus. Wright fails to discuss or even mention the challenges of evangelizing for Christ and living for Christ in such a culture.

In expounding Exodus 19:4-6, Wright argues that Christians must live out their identity as ones who truly have tasted God’s grace and mercy. And live with such attractive obedience of ‘good lives’ that people will be attracted to the God you worship, and whatever they say about you, they will come to glorify him. Or, of course, these same people may completely despise you and seek to ruin you or kill you. Wright’s application of Exodus 19:4-6 may be tenable, but again he fails to discuss how Christians are to live in a post-Christian culture that wants no part of it. And he makes no mention of texts such as Matthew 10:16-25 (sheep among wolves), Matthew 10:34-39 (not peace, but a sword), John 15:18-20 (the world hated me before it hated you), Philippians 1:29 (believe in Christ, suffer for Christ) and 2 Timothy 3:12-13 (to live godly in Christ is to be persecuted).

The question of evangelizing and living in a post-Christian culture is connected with the concept of social justice, as in, Wright says, actual actions that you do, not concepts you reflect on or an ideal that you dream about. Wright’s concept of rightly living the Christian life emphasizes social justice and proper care for the Earth. He places social justice and ecological sensitivity in such prominence that they are, perhaps unwittingly, equated with individual believing on the Lord Jesus Christ and thus gaining eternal life. Wright bemoans the use of animals for food, calling meat-eating within God’s permission but hardly within the Creator’s best pleasure. Even if I accept Wright’s argument, am I then to become a vegan to gain God’s best pleasure? The Scriptures simply do not teach this. They do teach us to have dominion over the Earth and all of its creatures (Genesis 1:26), and that it’s no problem to kill and eat (Acts 10:13). Ecological sensitivity and good works in social justice may lead to opportunities to share the gospel, but salvation is not won by good works in social justice and ecological sensitivity. Wright elevates the two, leading to a confused understanding and a false communication of the core identity of salvation.

Despite that severe error, Wright hits the mark with the implications of personal salvation in Christ: If God blesses you, it is so you can bless others. If God redeems you, it is so you can demonstrate redemptive grace to others. If God loves you, feeds and clothes you, then you should go and do likewise for others. If God brings you into the light of salvation, it is so you can shine with a light that attracts others to the same place. If you enjoy God’s forgiveness, then make sure you forgive others. In this sense, all of our biblical theology should be missional.

David Bosch's Transforming Mission

I’ve read four books this summer focusing on the theology behind missions and evangelism. Of the four, I especially liked one, one was good, one was just OK and one was mostly bad because the writer’s theology is just wacked. In any case, I’ll devote four articles reviewing the four books. Below is the first . . . about the book I liked best. It’s the great work of the Dutch Reformed theologian and missiologist David Bosch. Here you go:

In his preface to the 20th anniversary edition of David Bosch’s book, Transforming Mission, Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission, William R. Burrows praises Bosch for creating an oasis that recognizes God’s complete freedom to be who He is. It is we humans who build up illusion-creating systems that tame God’s mystery to make God safe for us. Of course, God is not safe, not for any person and certainly not for any system created and nurtured by the minds and hands of fragile human beings.

Bosch himself experienced the fragility of life and the fruit of a sinful system in 1992 when he bled to death in rural South Africa after a head-on car crash, only one year after publishing Transforming Mission and two years before the end of apartheid. After the crash, passersby called for an ambulance to free him from the wreckage to stop his bleeding. When no ambulance arrived, they called a second time. The ambulance dispatcher reportedly replied, You didn’t say he was a white man. A subsequent investigation proved inconclusive, largely because recordings of the two phone conversations had disappeared.

In Transforming Mission, Bosch clearly describes the certain transience of all things that are not God and all methods and models that do not come from His hand. Bosch first focuses on the New Testament models of mission, detailing the differences and similarities of mission in the entire New Testament and discussing mission practices of the apostles. He follows with descriptions of the many and inexorably shifting historical paradigms of mission in Christian history. The descriptions are completely satisfying for their detailed clarity and thoughtfulness.

If one covering statement is to be offered for a theme of Bosch’s book, it may be, We are the product of our times. Apart from taking right confidence and comfort in the certain reliability of the Scriptures, history shows that human beings have no reason to be certain that their interpretations and, consequently, their life applications of the Scriptures will endure beyond the current generation. This is not to say that the Scriptures are not reliable and that the tenets of the Christian faith are malleable. The Scriptures are completely reliable. The tenets of the faith are not malleable. As the divinely inspired apostle Peter said in 2 Peter 1:20-21: . . . know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. Proper interpretation of the Scriptures is not God’s problem. Proper interpretation—and resulting application—always is man’s problem. Man’s interpretations reflect his holiness, his sinfulness  and the powerful unseen influences of the era in which he lives. We would be wise to build a hard strength in the discipline of allowing the Scriptures to speak for themselves no matter the influences of the day.

What can be certain is that the gospels reveal the Lord’s heart and standards for the mission of spreading faith in Christ. The gospel of Matthew, written for Jews, is interested in costly discipleship. Matthew’s gospel is not simply interested in the numerical expansion of the church. Says Bosch, Ideally, every church member should be a true disciple, but this obviously is not the case in the Christian communities Matthew knows. If this attitude (of costly discipleship) scares people away, then so be it.

In the gospel of Luke, written for gentiles, the reader is told in nine references that, whatever else Jesus was doing, He was on His way to Jerusalem to suffer and die. The gentile readers know from Jesus words in Luke 24:46-47 that . . . the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Luke’s particular interest is in the materially and spiritually poor and other marginalized people groups. But what does Luke say in his gospel and in the book of Acts about the materially rich? Acts notes that wealthy and distinguished people joined the Christian community. Both rich and poor are tested for their willingness to follow Christ no matter the cost. Bosch notes: In Luke’s gospel, the rich are tested on the ground of their wealth, whereas others are tested on the ground of their loyalty toward their family, their people, their culture and their work. Just as the materially rich can be spiritually poor, the materially poor can be spiritually poor.

For the apostle Paul, mission means the announcement of Christ’s lordship over all reality and an invitation to submit to it. Paul’s mission is deeply personal, as it is driven by and rooted in the overwhelming experience of the love of God received through Jesus Christ. Bosch cites Galatians 2:20 and Romans 5:5 as evidence of Paul’s devotion to his Savior. Bosch also could have cited Romans 2:4 as further evidence of Paul’s devotion. Paul calls for personal response to the Lord’s astounding love for each person: . . . do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?

It is important to note the contrast between the solidarity of the Scriptures and the fractious practices of the church throughout its history. The Scriptures describe coordinated motivation and heart of mission. But church history is marred with fractious, contentious and often vicious persecutions—pitting follower of Christ against follower of Christ—in the name of advancing the Lord’s work on Earth. Despite these terrible divisions, the universal Christian church was and is ultimately battling against the spirits of the age that war against the Lord’s reign.

Bosch notes these terrible divisions as he walks through an analysis of the church’s missionary paradigms in the Eastern church, in medieval Roman Catholicism, in the Protestant Reformation, in the wake of the Enlightenment, in the postmodern world and in ecumenicalism. History marks the ebb and flow of life as a Christian. Whereas the earliest Christians were persecuted, ridiculed, isolated and pursued as ignorant renegades against the state, by the late second century Christian scholars were matching pagan philosophers in erudition and argument for the Christian faith. Says Bosch, Even before the persecutions stopped and Christianity was declared the sole legitimate religion in the Roman empire, the church had begun to be a bearer of culture and a civilizing presence in society.

It is ironic how things have swung around for followers of Christ in the present age. The world is largely post-Christian. Certainly the U.S. and Canada and Europe are post-Christian. Most people know the message of Christ and His offer of salvation. Most have heard of Jesus, they know of His church through relationships with followers of Christ or through the exposure gleaned via the media or through government messaging. They often are committed to non-Christian, pagan, agnostic or atheistic worldviews. Many of them despise the thought of Christ and what they sense is the bad odor emanating from Christians. And so, as Bosch rightly notes, It is today a liability rather than an asset to be a Christian. He notes an ever-increasing tension between the church and secular authorities.

Even with such tension between the church and secular authorities, the church in North America seems to have fallen into what Bosch describes as an effort to re-gain lost ecclesiastical influence. The church appears to act out of what may be wrong motive to win people not to Christ, but to individual churches. . . . there is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) suggestion that competition is necessary. Thus, people in the surrounding community, whether they belong to other churches or not, are perceived as ‘prospects’ to be won. Much of this reflects the tendency toward empire-building—the church cannot resist the temptation to open yet another branch office in an area that looks promising. Whether intended or not, this mentality suggests that it is not by grace, but by becoming adherents to our denomination, that people will be saved.

Bosch goes on to argue that much of so-called contemporary evangelism aims at satisfying rather than transforming people. That seems obviously true, at least in much of the contemporary Christian church in the U.S. and in Canada. Equally obvious, then, should be a call to return to the simple and powerful imperative in Matthew 28:19 to Make disciples. This must include Matthew’s concept of costly discipleship and, as Bosch says, if that scares people away, then so be it.

Allahu Akbar! (You Got That Right)

Last week’s hideous murder of British soldier Lee Rigby on a busy London street has led to earnest observations and guidance from all kinds of sources. As you know, two men repeatedly shouted Allahu Akbar! (translated from Arabic: God is greatest!) as they stabbed and chopped the defenseless Rigby. Then one of the men showed off his bloody hands as he boasted via video of the goodness of his deed.

The attack quickly was followed by spokesmen for Islamic organizations and the British government who insisted that the savages of London had no connection whatsoever with Islam. (Well, scratch my head. I guess. If you say so, then it must be true.) Of course, we were then scolded to be tolerant and non-judgmental and not even pass a thought that there just might be even a tiny little problem with Islam.

In connection to all of this, I keep thinking about Ahmed Deedat. Many disciples of Christ probably never have heard of Ahmed Deedat, the famous Islamic apologist. Maybe Deedat should be referred to as a polemicist, as he engaged in intensely snarky arguments to promote Islamic doctrine and belief. His particular energy was devoted to quoting the Qur’an, ridiculing the Bible, mocking Christians and denying the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Unlike some Muslim clerics who directly advocate killing we who are so-called infidels, we who believe in Jesus as the unique and only Messiah, Deedat did not directly advocate killing us. But he hurled nasty ridicule Christ’s way, our way. Deedat and his teachings are highly regarded by many Muslims. On internet discussion boards that I’ve been reading, Deedat is considered a great defender of Islam.

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We can ponder a few of Deedat’s jewels from his Combat Kit Course Against Bible Thumpers ( Teaching his students in Kenya how to answer Christian evangelists, Deedat cited a portion of Qur’an Surah 3:110 and said, The majority of them (Jews and Christians) are perverted transgressors. The Bible is the most dangerous book on Earth. Keep it under lock and key. Your children must not have access to it. It has an x-rating. It’s rubbish, crap, shit. This is not the book of God. You need an inoculation against the book. (Note: I added the boldface.)

To the claim that parts of the Qur’an actually were copied from the Bible, Deedat said that between the years 1800 and 1950, Christians wrote 16,000 books against Islam. They (Christians) behave like innocent little babes, like children, like cherubims. What do you have (in the Bible) that is worth copying?

Or, consider some of Deedat’s insights in Qur’an or the Bible, which is God’s Word? ( Deedat said, There are 10 cases of incest in this book of God (the Bible). The types of incest that you can commit. A textbook if you want to know what types. And as a dessert . . . the whites in my country, in South Africa . . . most of them are Christians. Eight percent of the whites in South Africa commit incest with their own daughters. Thirteen percent of Americans are committing incest with their own daughters.

Deedat does not explain how he gathered these statistics, but similar diatribes are innumerable against the people of the book, as Muslims often derisively refer to Jews and Christians.

Deedat also attacks topics involving historical characters noted in the Bible: There’s rape, not only rape, but how to rape your own sister if you want to. It’s given to you in detail. One of the sons of David said what you must do if you wanted to rape your own sister. Gang rape is there. The crime rate in America increased because of the stories in the Bible. This is what you read and this is the result.

After many years of similar talk, Deedat stopped his work in 1996 when he was hit with a stroke. The stroke left him paralyzed from the neck down. He died in 2005. In the nine years that he lived after the stroke, he could not move or speak. He communicated only through eye movements. Maybe there’s no connection between Deedat’s fate and his hatred of Jesus Christ, his hatred of the Bible and his hatred of the people of Christ. Maybe there is a connection. It is interesting, but I don’t know. We know that Christians and all people suffer all kinds of fates.

I suppose we should just keep repeating, as directed by so many sources, that there is not the smallest connection between Islam and the now many despicable terrorist attacks. Of course, Deedat hated Christ and hated Christians. And so many others hate Christ today and hate Christians today. We disciples of Christ shouldn't need convincing of the direct connection between those who hate Christ and those who hate us. Christ warned us of this. John 15:18-21. No surprises, not anywhere. Not in any of it.

The Rock Conference - How Big, How Many, How Much

I’ve been reflecting on whether The Rock Conference hit the mark earlier this month, as we focused on the theme: Building commitment to biblical success in the local church. In building that commitment, we also wanted to take a chisel to the miserable tyranny of how big, how many and how much. The conference was, uh, a Success. We achieved our mission to Edify, Protect, Encourage and Support pastors and church leaders.

No need to say how many were at the conference. (There were plenty; more than expected.) And no need to say how much money we lost on the event. (We lost plenty, but no more than expected.) Kent Hughes was riveting and remarkably humble in his teaching from the Scriptures and from his 41 years in pastoral ministry.

One pastor—Mike Thorburn of Bayside Community Church in San Jose, Calif.— took me aside during the conference and stuck me with many observations that I wanted to remember. Problem was that I remembered the gist of what he said but not the exact specifics. So I called him. We talked, and then he sent me his comments in writing. They get at the core of things. I’ve pasted Mike’s comments below:

We live in a performance-based culture. What you do for me is more important at times than why you do it or the character with which you do it.

This is true for many modern ministry models. If a person is getting results, is talented or fulfills a perceived need we often do not question the person’s motives or character. We’ve created a ministry model that values performance and results over godly character. Sometimes we even overlook obvious character faults due to the person’s success. There are a multitude of examples of how this is evidenced in today's church.

FiveStone Churches is unique in that the core values are character-based. Integrity, authenticity, trust, leadership and service are qualities that are easily found and supported in Scripture and are qualities which work hand-in-hand with the fruit of the Spirit and the Pauline leadership qualities for elders and church leaders.

In fact, Paul's call for leaders to be men who are gentle, faithful and persevering shepherds seems to be a distant memory for what we should be in light of the CEO, rancher, business model for ministry that is taken for granted today. While Paul could write from prison that he had fought the good fight and finished the race, today we read of victory through the breaking of attendance records and the square footage of facilities.

The new paradigm of FiveStone Churches is really a call to return to the biblical foundation of leadership based on character. But this new paradigm creates a tension in many pastors. Today's message to pastors is that church size is the single most important factor in determining success. The second most implied message, and perhaps the most dangerous is that true godliness always results in quantitative growth, not qualitative growth. In conjunction with this is the message that you do spiritual things in order to get visible results. The debate used to be doxological versus soteriological. Our culture now says that you do not seek godliness to glorify God (doxological), you pursue godliness to achieve personal success (egological).

I can't say that numerical success isn't biblical. For example, we have Pentecost as a huge numerical growth because God was working. But for every Pentecost in Scripture there is also an Isaiah (no one listens), a Jeremiah (no one cares) and a Jesus in Capernaum (John 6:67 - everyone leaves).

So at a conference like The Rock Conference where the focus is shifted away from numerical success there is a definite tension. All of the questions we normally ask just don't seem to fit. That's because we've been conditioned to ask questions that have at their core the desire to be successful in the bigger, better, how many, how much realm rather than at the realm of faithfulness and character. Man looks at the outward appearance. God looks at the heart.

Governing Freak-out and the Local Church

How church world intersects with the maneuverings of federal budgets and spending cuts, a.k.a. sequester

Several years ago, a church planter and I walked into a school district administrator’s office in the Chicago metropolitan area to suggest that we rent one of the district schools for Sunday worship services. We promised to pay a good rental rate. We promised to pay the rent on time. We wouldn’t break anything but, if we did, we’d be quick to replace whatever it was that we broke. We’d be good citizens.We knew the district was hungry for more cash, so we thought we had a good shot of working out an agreement. But the answer was a quick, firm and non-negotiable No.

Was it because the administrator hated the thought of a church in the district schools? Maybe he doesn’t know that he can’t legally forbid a church from renting the facilities if others rent the facilities. Or maybe he was just having a tough day. 

No, it’s not that, he said. The taxpayers just voted down a property tax increase. We don’t want to add revenue at this time.

He didn’t want to add revenue at this time . . . because taxpayers voted against adding their revenue at this time. I remember thinking it was all so very weird. The district wanted cash. We would have provided a good monthly chunk. But the administrators obviously were planning to punish taxpayers because they did not cooperate with the district’s tax plan. Doesn’t matter if other revenue sources could be found or, for that matter, if spending cuts could be found. Bottom line was that the taxpayers would suffer consequences for their stubbornness. District services would be stripped away as a first resort to cause pain to taxpayers.

I think about that local school administrator when I read the headlines about the consequences of federal budget cuts. The people will suffer consequences, whether the consequences are needed or not. They must feel pain.

So the federal government is facing 5 percent cuts in programs that have increased by an average of more than 17 percent during the Obama presidency. Airline flights will be delayed, children and old people will suffer. Food quality will decline. Prisoners will be set free to terrorize us. Governing via freak-out.

I’ve seen this movie before. Now it’s re-runs over and over and over. We truly are strangers in a strange land. The human heart is desperately sick, as the Lord said in Jeremiah 17:9. Thank the Lord for His word and His church.