A Pattern for Church Ministry (Part Three)

Acts 14:21-23

Strengthening the disciples by encouraging them to continue in the faith and by telling them, “It is necessary to go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (14:22 CSB).

The book of Acts records what the Lord Jesus continued to do to build his church through the ministry of the apostles by the Holy Spirit. As we read this record, we discover a pattern of ministry that can guide us in the work that the Lord of the church has called us to do. Previously, we have seen these aspects of this pattern:

  • Real life ministry
  • Preaching
  • The gospel (good news)
  • Make disciples
  • Strengthen disciples

This brings us to the next part of this pattern of ministry. We are to encourage disciples (learners of Jesus Christ). This is an important but often overlooked part of the gatherings of believers. I think this is because the emphasis in most Bible believing churches has been “don’t do these naughty things” and “do your duty by serving the Lord”, which is often reduced to such matters as hand out bulletins, work in the nursery, and help out at the building on work days. On the other hand, a contemporary alternative is “you can feel happy or be successful or prosperous (in your marriage, parenting, job, or finances) by doing these steps”. All this stuff has nothing to do with Biblical Christianity! The average person leaves a meeting rather frustrated or depressed or ready to drop the whole church routine.

Encouragement is a goal of Christian ministry. After the so-called “council of Jerusalem”, the church at Jerusalem sent out men to encourage the church at Antioch, after some had caused a disturbance in Antioch (Acts 15:30-32). When a church has been upset, its members need encouragement! After the apostle Paul had to set right some matters in Corinth, he made certain that he directed them to be encouraged. Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you (2 Corinthians 13:11 NIV). Paul sent Tychicus to the Ephesian believers to encourage them (Ephesians 6:22). He sent Timothy to the Thessalonians on the same mission (1 Thessalonians 3:11). To encourage is an essential part of preaching God’s word. Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction (2 Timothy 4:2 NIV; cf. also 1 Corinthians 14:31; 1 Thessalonians 5:11).

The world and the forces of evil press hard against the people of God, and so we need encouragement to remain faithful. When he [Barnabas] arrived and saw the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged all of them to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts (Acts 11:23 CSB). Barnabas himself was a model of encouragement (Acts 4:36). Like him, some have encouragement as a spiritual gift (Romans 12:8), but we all are to encourage one another, especially with the truth of our Lord’s second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:18).

Encouragement is a need of those who are suffering. This is what God our Father does for us: who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Corinthians 1:4 ESV). As the children of such a loving and comforting Father, we ought to be known for our concern and skill in encouraging each other.

Encouragement is necessary to prevent spiritual decline. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (2 Corinthians 2:7 NIV). But encourage each other daily, while it is still called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception (Hebrews 3:13 CSB). Clearly, this is our mutual responsibility in our gatherings: not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:25 ESV).

So then, I plead with everyone to make our local churches gatherings for encouragement. This is my prayer for Christ’s followers in every place. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal encouragement and good hope by grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good work and word (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 CSB).

Grace and peace, David

A Warning to Churches

img_08593 John 1:9-10

I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, 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 and puts them out of the church (ESV).

A local church is a spiritual family, a gathering of brothers and sisters in Christ, children of the Father in heaven, a temple of the Holy Spirit. These truths set forth what we are because of God’s grace. An assembly of the Lord’s people should joyfully celebrate the blessings of grace and radiate love for one another. It is to be the place where all are welcomed and accepted for Christ’s sake. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (Romans 15:7 ESV). As the old hymn says, “When we walk with the Lord in the light of his Word, what a glory he sheds on our way!” Being with people who are jointly being transformed from one degree of glory to another should be a foretaste of heaven (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18).

Sadly, this is not always so. The Apostle John warns us about this sad truth in the above words from his third letter. There are people, who while they profess that a local church is a gathering of believers, think it is a group of people for them to control. They love power and preeminence rather than people. John unmasks these people for what they are – they are lovers of self (cf. 2 Timothy 3:2). In their heart, they have a problem with authority, not theirs of course, but with God’s authority, which John exercised as an apostle of Jesus Christ. They refuse to humble themselves to the authority of the word and then to act with love and respect toward their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Two evils come from such wickedness, which often masquerades as holiness (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15). First, they talk wicked nonsense against other leaders in the church. They tell falsehoods about them, portraying them as out of step, outdated, incompetent, or having an agenda that won’t attract the world. Second, they refuse to welcome the brothers. Obviously, this does not refer to everyone in the church, or they would not have anyone to rule over. It means people in a local church that are not of their class, burdensome, or otherwise less than desirable. They imagine the church as a sophisticated, classy group is filled with beautiful people – in worldly eyes. They need to submit to 1 Corinthians 1:26-31. For this reason, they force out people that don’t measure up to the kind of church members they desire. Those who try to stand up to their wickedness are put out as discontents and troublemakers.

Since this kind of people worm their way into churches, the Apostle John warned Gaius against them. We should not be naïve. It happens too often. It can happen in any kind of church, organic or institutional, because pride works in all hearts. John also told Gaius that he planned to act against the wicked Diotrephes, if he could come. Like Peter and Paul, John had special power as apostles to set matters right. Read Acts 5:1-11 for a fearful example. But John did not know if he could go to help Gaius, so he hints at the action that the church ought to take against the evil man trying to rule over people.

This is an unpleasant subject to consider. At times the friends of godliness finds themselves outnumbered and their local Diotrephes acts against them. Do not be discouraged. The Lord knows those who belong to him. What we all should gain is what the Lord intends for his churches. They are to be gatherings of love, joy, and peace; they are to be partners in spreading the good news of the Lord and Savior everywhere. Pray for your group. Strive to keep it a church where the peace of Christ rules in everyone’s hearts!

Grace and peace, David

Meeting Together

DSCN0604Hebrews 10:25

Not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching

Traditionally, western churches (gatherings of believers) have met in buildings that they own. Over a period of seventeen hundred years, a local church has been very identified with its building, so much so that to talk about “meeting together” became synonymous with going to the church building. For ease of reference, we will call these “edifice churches”. Much of the people, time and monetary resources of edifice churches is consumed by the building. I know this firsthand, because I grew up in such churches, trained for the ministry in edifice churches, and was the pastor in two of them. I mention this because most people think that “meeting together” equals “attendance in the church building at its regular services”.

I say all this to address an attitude difficulty about this verse. Please don’t think of it as a text that a pastor uses to beat his people to attend services in a building. Please don’t think, “Oh no! I know just what he’s going to say, and I’m not going to listen!” Frankly, I am not your judge, and I think we can both give thanks for that! Jesus Christ is your Lord, and he alone must be the Lord of your conscience.

  • If you think that this text is a weapon to clobber you, then I think you misunderstand the nature of a new covenant ministry and of many pastors and teachers who love you. (Sadly I admit that there are many pastors and teachers that are legalists and look for Bible verses to control people who they’re supposed to be serving in love.)
  • If you view any texts of Scripture as clubs, then I think you have been taught about the Bible incorrectly or might have a serious spiritual problem (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Why are you hiding from what God the Holy Spirit says to you in his word?
  • If in this text you hear the voice of the local leaders of your gathering instead of the Lord’s, then I think that you need to reconsider your accountability to the Lord. When I was a pastor of an edifice church, I said the following many times. “If your reason for missing a service is good enough for the Lord, then it had better be good enough for me. But is it good enough for the Lord?”

Now that hopefully we have cleared some of the bogeymen away, let’s listen to what the Holy Spirit says in this Biblical text.

The writer of Hebrews confronts a grievous problem. Some were in the habit of staying away from the gatherings of God’s people. They were giving up meeting together.

Let’s consider a couple possible explanations for their conduct.

  • Fear of suffering because of persecution: Across the world many followers of Jesus Christ constantly live with this fear.
  • Spiritual laziness: the cares of this life have a greater importance than the values of the spiritual life, including loving one’s brothers and sisters in Christ
  • Unbelief (Hebrews 3:12) – this is secret at first but gradually becomes known; someone looks like a convert, but they have not been changed. Spurgeon told of such a person in his autobiography, the converted “wild man”. He looked good at first, but he had never counted the cost (Luke 14:25-33). Soon, he was absent from God’s people.

What is the special concern of this text? It is not dealing with the questions of when and how often. It says nothing about which day of the week that Christians should have for our gatherings. It also says nothing about the number of times that we should meet in any given time period. It clearly says nothing about going to a meeting in a building to fulfill some sort of an obligation to God.

Instead, the text is directly speaking to the issue of forsaking the assembling of Christ’s people, period. “Some people are not among your gatherings; don’t follow their wrong example.”

Here are some additional clarifications:

  • This verse has nothing to say about what may or may not be valid reasons for not attending any particular meeting. Everyone wants to start asking questions at this point. Illness? Death in the family? Employment? Distance? Vacation? Old age? Something else? You are adult sons and daughters in God’s family, and your Father in heaven expects you to figure this out without a direct word from your local leaders.
  • Instead, this passage refers to those who abandon meeting with the other followers of Christ. The person knows that their local assembly is meeting. He or she could be here if he or she wanted to be, but he or she doesn’t. Something else is more important to him or her than public worship and mutual fellowship. One thing that I have learned over the years is that people basically do what they want to do. To those who forsake meeting with your brothers and sisters in Christ, I would simply ask, “Why don’t you want to be with them?”

Next time in this passage, we’ll talk more about what this means in a positive sense. But for now, think about how important it is for you to be with other followers of the Lord Jesus on a regular basis. You need to be opening your heart and sharing your life with them. Are you?

Grace and peace, David

A Place for You (Part Three)

IMG_02321 Corinthians 12:7-26

Every believer, every part of the spiritual body of Christ is needed (12:21-26). We must accept each other in his body and value the contribution of each person (12:21). Every local church has a unique gathering of individuals, and these groupings might not seem to offer much promise for friendships at first glance. For example, one person might not be able to approve of much another does. The second might not particularly want a third as you’re their close friend. But for Christ’s sake we must accept one another in love and spur one another on to love and good works. Let me say some things to push us all to consider the actual condition of our local gatherings. In order to make progress, we must see one another as “in Christ” and realize that we are members together of one body. I think most will claim, “Of course we believe this and do this!” But I ask, “Is your assembly (church) really this way? Or are many being rejected in subtle or not so subtle ways (James 2:1-4)? Toleration is not the same as reaching out in friendship.

There is a place for “other-esteem” in the church. We must see each other with the Lord’s eyes. Yes, we will see failures and weaknesses, but we should also see the grace of the Lord, and seeing that, prize each other highly. If a local church is more like a social club than the body of Christ, worldly distinctions like ethnicity, education, economic level will abound. In some churches, people are valued above others because of their attainments in doctrinal knowledge. In other churches, it is because they are skilled social mixers. However, we ought to prize one another because each one is “in Christ”.

Everyone in the body must have a concern for everyone else (12:25). What about special friends? People can be drawn close to one another in surprising ways. Close friendships are not a problem as long as the friendship is holy. Then they become very beneficial to the whole body. You probably will feel closer to some than to others, but do not neglect the whole for the sake of the few. Move out of your comfort zone and seek out fellowship with others that you suppose are unlike you. (You see yourself as an eye or ear, and see others as knees and elbows.) My friend, show some loving concern for those members that you suppose are beneath you. This requires ongoing, special effort; it doesn’t simply happen.

The local church is a spiritual body, and it only develops as the parts of the body enjoy spiritual fellowship with each other. Local institutional churches grow for many reasons: a good location, enthusiastic inviters, an upbeat, contemporary music program, a watered down message that offends no one, or they grow for the fact of being large enough so that those attending can do nothing but attend and enjoy the big crowd, or because they promise healing and prosperity to the faithful, etc. A few actually grow because they are faithful to the Lord, according to the light they have! But we need to ask: what is developing—a gathering of disciples who make disciples who make disciples, or is it merely a weird kind of social club?

The spiritual health of each part affects the spiritual health of the whole body (12:26). Your holiness and sinfulness affect more than you. Your spiritual condition affects all of us. The best course of action is to walk with the Lord in holiness, love, joy and peace and share these blessings with others. If you are taking steps toward heaven with the Lord, why not share that journey with others?

Grace and peace, David

P.S. Yesterday, Sharon and I went all day to the Philadelphia Flower Show, which was the reason for no new article. We had a great time, and we will feature some pictures from our excursion there. For today, a flower from a few years ago.