The Walking Dead; the Living Lord

“Hey, you look just like that guy from “The Walking Dead!” So said a young man at the door of Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School who had just come through the line to shake my hand after the sermon I delivered there early in 2011.

Although I had never watched it, I knew enough about the show to know that it’s about a zombie apocalypse. So I didn’t know whether to take his observation as a compliment or an insult. I wasn’t having a particularly bad hair day, but I asked, “Are you saying I look like a zombie, dude?” “Oh, no! Not at all,” he said laughing. “You look just like the sheriff, Rick Grimes,” he clarified.

Rick Grimes

Last summer at Lake Junaluska, a couple of days before Annual Conference and right after a pick-up basketball game, a couple young guys from Mississippi who were there for a youth retreat asked if they could take my picture. Puzzled, I asked why. They said that I looked so much like the sheriff from The Walking Dead that they just had to show their friends back home.

Later that summer while exercising my thumb with the remote, I noticed that there was a weekend marathon of The Walking Dead. I couldn’t resist. I took the plunge and just started watching and watching and watching. By the end of the year I had caught up on the first few season thanks to Netflix and have been watching it ever since.

If you’re not one of the 14 million or so viewers (I just heard today that the show was beating out Sunday night football in the ratings), as I mentioned above, the show is about a zombie apocalypse that breaks out due to some mysterious virus that causes people to turn into flesh-eating “walkers”, as they’re called. The walkers can only be stopped by puncturing their brains. Because the zombie virus becomes so widespread so fast there is a complete societal breakdown and survivors among the living must fend for themselves the best they can without the everyday amenities and securities that we all take for granted, like police, hospitals, electricity, etc.

In this context there is much to be feared not only from the dead but also the living who prey on the weak, naïve, and unprepared. The world of The Walking Dead is a fallen world that brings challenges to the morality, ethics, and “common sense” of the world that was. What’s right and wrong in the fallen world of the zombie apocalypse isn’t all that clear, and that is a frequent topic of conversation in the show-that-follows-the show called The Talking Dead, which functions as somewhat of a commentary on the practical and moral dilemmas that the characters face.

In an episode last season two adults, Carol and Tyreese, with three children not their own, Lizzie, Mika and Judith, were taking shelter in an abandoned farm house after having been separated from the larger group that they were with during a time of crisis. Two of the children were little girls, one around 10 and the other around 11 or 12 maybe. The other child, Judith, was a baby girl a little less than a year old I think, and also the daughter of the sheriff Rick Grimes. She had been born to his wife, who died in childbirth, in an abandoned prison after the apocalypse was already in full swing.

One of the older girls, the older of the two I think, Lizzie, had become somewhat mentally unhinged. She became overly fascinated with walkers and endeavored to play with them and feed them like they were playmates and pets. By this point in the series virtually all of the characters had given up hope of finding any humanity left in the zombies, but Lizzie was hanging on to some very dangerous sentimentalism. Scolding her and reasoning with her just didn’t seem to work, but after a major scare things seemed to change.

A herd of walkers stumbled upon the farm and began to attack Lizzie and Mika. Finally it seemed that Lizzie had snapped out of the deadly spell of zombie sympathy and saw them for what they were and the only merciful thing at the time that could be done, stopping them by puncturing their brain by whatever means necessary. Feeling comfortable that Lizzie had come to here senses, Carol and Tyreese, ventured out to find some food leaving the girls behind at the farm house.

They returned to find that Lizzie had fallen back into her delusion once again, this time having killed her sister, Mika; her murderous eyes and her deadly weapon being set next on baby Judith. She murdered Mika and was about to murder Judith under the delusion that it would be good to have them come back as zombie playmates. It was a horrible and gut wrenching scene, but worse was still to come.

In the old country home Carol and Tyreese agonized over what to do at the kitchen table, in a world with Sheriff Rick but no police force as before, a world with no prisons, juvenile detention centers, or mental health care facilities. What were they to do? They could no longer trust Lizzie at all. She might kill them or Judith at any unguarded moment. Should they just lock her in the barn and abandon her? What should they do?
They finally made a decision. In excruciating anguish Carol took Lizzie out into a field of wild flowers and shot her in the back of the head. It was horrible. It was horrific. It was incredibly, incredibly sad. Millions of viewers were left in shock as were the host and guests on the commentary after-show, The Talking Dead, which included the actress who plays Carol.

On The Talking Dead everyone, including viewers who called or tweeted in or sent in answers to a survey, agreed that the execution of Lizzie was horrible, but they also all, at least virtually all, agreed that it was the right thing to do. Wow! They agreed it was the right thing to do in such world as that, the fallen world of the zombie apocalypse.

As I watched I wondered what those same people might say about the morality of Deuteronomy 21:18-21, and the other cruel and violent stories of the Bible in general.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (ESV)
18 “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

AMC’s The Walking Dead is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart, but the truth is neither is the Bible. Yet while The Walking Dead is a cultural sensation, the Bible is quite often maligned, mocked, and dismissed by cultural elites and the average person. The new atheists, as their called, are quick to point out passages like the one above or other violent stories such Israel’s conquest of the Canaanites to dismiss the Bible and the One True God that it describes as a moral monstrosity that should be given little to no ethical credibility at all. But atheists aren’t the only ones that point to the “problems” of the Bible in order to dismiss certain portions of it. Docetists and Gnostic Christians of antiquity and many modern day Christians do as well.

Marcion in the second century dismissed the Old Testament and its so-called cruel “demi-god” in favor of the supposedly more loving and forgiving supreme God revealed in Jesus in the New Testament, but not before also excluding some specific New Testament texts as well. Saint Irenaeus wrote about how his Gnostic opponents would resort to attacking the validity of Scripture itself after they were unable to win their arguments from Scripture. His exact words were, “when they are refuted from the Scriptures they turn around and attack the Scriptures themselves, saying they are not correct, or authoritative, that they are mutually inconsistent and that the truth cannot be found from them …” (Against the Heresies III). Much has changed since the days of Irenaeus, but much has stayed the same!

A not uncommon ploy among some liberal Christians is to point out the other so-called morally objectionable commands of the Bible, such as the one from Deuteronomy above in an attempt to undermine its authority on other issues, especially sexual ethics. In a conversation with a progressive pastor several months ago, and not even on the subject of sexuality, but simply on the moral authority of the Bible generally, he objected that the Bible may not always be the best guide since it even commands the stoning of disobedient children. At least he didn’t resort to the shrimp argument! It is often argued that since the Bible contains many ethical standards that we find objectionable today then maybe we shouldn’t be too concerned with some of its other prohibitions, especially the ones regarding sex. What should we make of these objections? Here, by way of analogy, which always has its limitations though, I believe The Walking Dead may help.

The Bible is not a simple collection of moral instructions to be applied indiscriminately in any and every situation in every time. Indeed there are timeless truths and moral laws, but that is not the sum total of what the Bible is. First and foremost and primarily the Bible conveys a grand narrative or story. It is a true story of creation, fall, and redemption. After chapter 3 the story mainly deals with God the Creator’s continuing relationship with a fallen world in rebellion and filled with violence and evil. Humanity, God’s crowning creation, as God’s image bearers was meant to be God’s representative stewards over creation and the praise and worship leaders of all of God’s creatures. Temptation led to rebellion and rebellion led to the virus of sin that infected the whole human race and threw the entire creation out of whack. Humanity was left in a state of spiritual death, “dead in trespasses and sins” in which even all Christians “once walked” as do all the children of disobedience (Eph 2:1-2). We were the walking dead.

The first several chapters of Genesis spell out just how badly and how quickly the world spiraled into chaos as a result of sin, and how God went to work mysteriously through the election of Abraham and his descendants, Israel, the ultimate of whom was Jesus, to rescue the fallen world. The world had drastically changed. It became increasingly volatile and dangerous with a tremendous amount of moral ambiguity due to the mysterious relationship between Divine sovereignty and human freedom.

In this fallen world God gave the clear command to his chosen people Israel “thou shalt not kill”, but also allowed for and even commanded killing in cases of national defense and social offense such as murder and other forms of high handed rebellion that jeopardized family, tribal, and societal stability. This is not because killing is ideal, but in this fallen world sometimes necessary as a check against unmitigated violence and evil. The fallen world is not the ideal world, but the world as it is, filled with dangerous forces of evil and sin. In this world (a phrase often used on The Talking Dead when someone is explaining why such unsettling decisions had to be made in the show) God allows and even commands actions that are far from ideal. This is a world where sinful humans insist on having things their way and for a time God allows them to have it, which is quite often a punishment all its own.

God allowed for divorce in the law of Moses for example, but pointing to the story of Creation Jesus revealed that that wasn’t what God had really intended (Mark 10:1-12). Here Jesus recognized and shows us – if we have ears to hear and eyes to see – how to read the Bible. God sometimes makes concessions in a fallen world that are less than ideal, but with the goal of training and preparing a people for the renewed world where perfect righteousness is completely at home (2 Peter 3:13). God allowed Israel to have a king even though it was far from ideal and not what He really wanted (see 1 Sam 8). Yet He made provision for a king after warning them of the negative consequences. It would be the vast majority of future kings beginning with Solomon that would bring many burdens to the people and eventually led them astray into idolatry and immorality that eventually brought national destruction and exile. God had used Israel to bring judgment on the Canaanites; and Assyria and Babylon to bring judgment on Israel. With the exception of Jesus the Bible doesn’t tell us a clear-cut story of unambiguous heroes and villains because not even the chosen ones were exempt from Divine wrath nor were the unchosen ones exempt from Divine blessing (i.e. Rahab in Joshua, Ruth in Judges, & Naaman in 2 Kings to name a few). So we have to consider the nature of the Divine interaction in and with a fallen world before we quickly pass negative judgment on and dismiss particular texts of the Bible.

We also must consider not only the difference between the world before and after Eden and before the New Heaven and New Earth, but also the difference between the world of 21st century Europe and North America and the ancient world that the Bible describes. Was the later more like the world of the zombie apocalypse or modern America? Think of the Jews coming out of Egypt where they were enslaved and wandering in the desert before entering the land of Canaan, which Biblical scholars suggest would have been filled with horrendously violent, warring tribes all vying for control (Watch Professor Lawson Stone explain the literary and historical context of the violent texts in the Old Testament HERE).

To sit from the perch of our world full of amenities, luxuries, securities, and institutions that the ancients could have never imagined and dismiss them as morally inept is quite dubious at best. It’s not like we don’t have plenty of morally questionable (to say the least) and quite vexing problems and practices of our own even with our modern amenities. So we must understand that the Bible is telling us a true story (not true in every sense of the word but in the highest sense of the word) about a fallen world not an ideal world.

The Bible describes a world filled with moral ambiguity not because there are no absolutes values, but because of sin and the wicked courses of this world we are too blind and blinded to see them clearly much less live into them fully. And much of the evil comes directly from our sin-infected, wicked hearts. Yes there are horrible stories of revolting atrocities in the Bible, “texts of terror” if you will. They are recorded in the pages of Scripture not because God is such a moral monster, but because of sin humanity is. No Scripture can be lightly dismissed simply because it does not reflect the heart of God revealed in Jesus as some are wont to propose; because not all of Scripture was given to just reveal God, but also to reveal sin, the sin in us. Romans 7 says exactly that; Torah, the law, reveals humanity’s sin and rebellion in all its ugliness and gore. It was displayed most vividly and despicably when Jew and Gentile conspired together to crucify the Lord of Glory Himself. In other words, the Bible reveals the problem, but, thank God it also reveals the solution; and it’s not an antiviral substance. It’s a person and His name is Jesus. “For God so loved the world, [even fallen in rebellion] that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16 KJV).

We still live in a fallen world where even now decisions may have to be made that are horrible in the faint retrospective afterglow of Eden and the brilliant light of the present but still coming reality of the kingdom of God, but for this fallen world, right. This is the paradox of the horrible and right. In the fallen world in ancient Israel a rebellious son who threatened the livelihood and lives of his family and the stability of the paradigmatic society of the chosen people must a least be warned about the horrible consequences for high-handed rebellion (the penalty in Deut 21:18-21 had to be agreed to by both parents and the tribal elders and in later Rabbinic commentary was highly qualified so as to provide several layers to protect the falsely accused. See New Interpreter’s Bible). In the fictitious world of The Walking Dead horrible but possibly necessary decisions have to be made as well. Neither is our world immune from horrible dilemmas.
In a restaurant a while back, my family sat around a table enjoying the company of two of our children’s grandparents over some scrumptious food. A woman sitting close to us overheard our conversation and surmised that we were Christians. She walked over and asked us to pray for her family, especially her son. She said that she and her family had to lock their bedroom door at night out of fear for their lives. Their son was very menacing and dangerous, not to the point of institutionalization per se, but enough so to cause his parents a great deal of fear.

We definitely still live in a fallen world, a dangerous world of the walking dead. This is the world that God so loved that he gave His only Son. This is the fallen world of the walking dead from which Jesus, the Living Lord, came to rescue us and to heal and renew for the meek. As Christians we still live in a fallen world, but we also live as citizens of the kingdom of love and light even in the here-and-now. We trust in the Living Lord who through death conquered sin and death and delivered us from the fear of death (Heb 2:14-15) so that we may live forever with him in the world “set free from its bondage to corruption” (Rom 8:21); a world with no more horror because there will be nothing horrible, a world where righteousness and righteousness alone is fully at home (2 Peter 3:13), world without end. Amen.

Witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses: Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience

Knock, knock. Ruff, ruff! My wife answered the door to find two well-dressed men on our front porch being sniffed over by our dog Cooper. One had a King James Bible and a little yellow book entitled “What does the Bible Really Teach?” The other gentleman had a very new and nice looking “New World Translation” in his hand. Both were obviously Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW’s) and they wanted to discuss the Bible with us. I invited them in to sit by the warm fire in our den on this cool early November Monday.

knocking-at-the-door

After a couple of minutes of small-talk, I said that I gathered they were JW’s from the little yellow book. The one who held it in his hand was surprised that I was familiar with it. I told him that I actually had a couple of versions of my own that I had perused a time or two. He asked what I thought about the title, what I thought it might imply. I said it obviously implies that this book will tell the readers what the Bible actually says versus what they may have been misled to believe that it says, and then I cut to the chase.

First, I told them that I believe all genuine Christians desire for their faith to be grounded in and in harmony with what the Bible actually teaches, with the exception of some very liberal Christians who openly admit that they think Scripture is just wrong and to be ignored in certain respects (i.e. Dan Via in the book Two Views on homosexuality). I also told them that most importantly I myself am very concerned about my faith being in harmony with Scripture. I also told them that I read and study the Bible daily and read it through in its entirety every year at least. At this point I let them know that I am also a pastor. Then, I shared with them that at one time I made many of the very same arguments that they make with regards to the nature of God and the person of Jesus Christ.

I was involved with an anti-Trinitarian group called The Way International (TWI) for over a decade, I shared. Although the doctrine of TWI was a bit different, we had used basically the same arguments and proof-texts (that means pulling scripture out of context to support a preconceived notion that is often foreign to Scripture itself). We pitted the human nature against the divine nature of Christ as revealed in Scripture and dismissed the paradox by explaining away the later. I shared with them that I too at one time was convinced that Jesus could not be God, but came to believe that I was indeed wrong after a period of self-examination and reevaluation that I entered into after a miracle that occurred with our daughter Anna after an emergency C-section (Read about that here). I told them that I came to believe that I had been exalting my own reason and logic above the revelation of the Bible and that I realized that there are many things, especially the nature of God, that may be beyond human comprehension, but not illogical. Incomprehensibility and irrationality are two different things.

That’s really the biggest objection to the Trinity, whether it be from JW’s, TWI, or Unitarian Universalists, that it is illogical. That would be true if Trinitarians actually taught that there is one God and three God’s, but that is not what the Trinity teaches. It teaches that there is one God in three persons, thus God is one in a particular sense, in His nature or being, and three in another sense, in persons. It is certainly ultimately beyond full human comprehension, but it is not technically illogical. One of the gentleman actually agreed that there are many things that are beyond our comprehension. How much more the God who created everything that is! This is not to say that there is no need to think about these things, to the contrary, the Triune God and his ways require us to love him with all of our mind while knowing that we will never grasp everything about Him and His ways (see Psalm 139, Isaiah 55:8-9 & Romans 11:33).

The other gentleman, apparently none too impressed, piped up and said, what do you do about Colossians 1:15, which says Christ is the firstborn of all creation, which they interpret to mean the first created being, who the created all other things. I pointed out that the phrase is a figure of speech to refer to Christ’s preeminence over all of creation. I also pointed out that John 1:3 was very insistent that not one thing came into existence without him as their own translation attests. If he himself was created by the Father, Jehovah, then one thing did indeed come into existence without him. In that same passage back in Colossians 1 in verse 16 it also emphatically says that all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible, were created by him, although the NWT (the JW’s own translation) unjustifiably adds the word “other” to make it appear to be saying that Christ created everything else after he himself was created. There is no credible reason to do that and it is quite curious that the NWT translators added the word “other” in Colossians 1:16, but not in John 1:3.

Next he says what about Proverbs 8:22 which he said clearly says Christ was created. I didn’t really go into the details of this with them, but I simply said there is much more going on in that passage in Proverbs 8 that must be considered. First of all, some translations say “possessed” rather than “created” in Proverbs 8:22. The translation “created”, however, does seem to fit best in this particular context. Nevertheless, the passage, as well as much of Proverbs, is using the figure of speech personification to speak of the very abstract concept of wisdom. Wisdom is personified as a woman who brings blessing and life to those who welcome and embrace her. My JW guests agreed with me that God Himself would never have been without wisdom, one of his many attributes. On another note, while Christ was certainly considered to be the wisdom of God in the flesh in the New Testament and by the early church fathers, it may be going a bit far to completely identify wisdom in Proverbs with Christ. Another aspect to consider here, and I am speculating, is that the wisdom here referred to as “created” is the logical code upon which the universe and everything in it is what it is and does what it does. One might say here the natural law embedded in the universe that declares the glory of the Lawgiver, namely God, (compare Psalm 19; also it is interesting to note that later Jews would identify wisdom with Torah as Christians would with Christ) who would later be revealed to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who created all things together. At any rate, Proverbs 8 is a very figurative passage and it is hard to discern and tease out the specific possible referents, namely wisdom as an attribute of God and as the logic embedded within physical reality and the interplay between them. What I have in mind is the distinction between the full wisdom of God and the specific wisdom formulation of natural law that governs the universe. This too is “knowledge [is] too wonderful for me” (Psalm 139:6).

That being said, what is clear is that John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16 indicate that Christ created all things period. Moreover, there is nothing in the New Testament or in Genesis 1 for that matter, to indicate that God created a being who then created everything else. Genesis 1 identifies God as the creator of all things and John 1:1 identifies the Word that became flesh (1:14) as God, not “a god” as the NWT would suggest. JW’s teach that Jesus, as the first created being was an archangel who was divine in a lesser sense than Jehovah. Hebrews chapter 1:8-11, as I pointed out to them identifies the Son not as an angel (especially see the context), but as God (Hebrew would be Elohim) and as the Lord (Jehovah or Yahweh, the name of God in the OT). Verse 8 may be explained away as Christ simply receiving the title “Elohim” as God’s representative, but it is much more difficult to explain away verses 10-11, which has God the Father applying Psalm 102:25-27 to the Son. The Son is identified, not as an angel or created wisdom, but as the eternal Lord, Jehovah Himself who laid the foundation of the earth and crafted the heavens.

I also shared with my visitors that I finally confessed Jesus as Lord and God (see John 20:28) and put my faith in Him as such when reading through Philippians 2 a few months after the miracle with our daughter Anna and during my time of reexamining my life and beliefs. I finally saw that verse 6 means what it says when it speaks of Christ being in “the form of God” and having equality with God and accepted it for what it actually says. The passage goes on to speak of Christ becoming something that he was not before, namely a human slave, which is what John 13:1-17 also reveals about the Word that was God (1:1) that became flesh (1:14). Before Christ became human he wasn’t simply a forethought in God’s mind as TWI teaches or an angel of a lower nature than God the Father as JW’s teach, but he was in the form of God and equal with God. As John 1:1 simply puts it, He was God. Philippians 2 goes on to speak of Christ in human form further humbling himself in obedience to the Father by giving his life on the cross, for which God exalted Him and gave him the name that is above every name. Then echoing Isaiah 45:23 that speaks of every knee bowing and every tongue confessing to God, Paul says that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess “that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philp 2:11). There’s no good reason to think that this would mean Lord in a lesser sense than Hebrews 1:10-11. I told my guests that I finally did what this passage calls us to do. I humbled myself and confessed Jesus as Lord in the highest sense of the term and put my faith in Him as such even though exactly how it is so is beyond my full comprehension.

The gentleman carrying the little yellow book objected and said that this was a very controversial passage. I said that anything can be made complicated and claimed to be controversial, but that doesn’t make it so. “What name would be above every other name?” I asked. After a moment of hesitation I said what about what Jesus says of Himself in John 8? There in an argument with the religious leaders who had scolded him for saying he saw Abraham, Jesus said, “Before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (John 8:58 NET). My guest objected that Jesus was simply claiming preexistence, not to be God. Their NWT does render the last phrase “I have been” rather than “I am”, but it is most certainly wrong to do so. Without dispute the Greek manuscripts clearly show that “I am” is the proper translation of ego eimi, which is clearly the present tense indicative form. “I am” may sound odd because it is grammatically incorrect if Jesus was simply saying that he preexisted Abraham as an angel or lesser divine being, but it makes perfect sense if Jesus was in fact claiming for Himself the name of God that was revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3:14) as the negative reaction of the religious leaders would indicate. When I pointed out that the Greek was clearly present tense indicative, he began to try to rationalize it in another way and I gently called him on it.

That’s really the issue. As I explained to them before and as I explained to them at this point again, it’s not that the Scriptures don’t really teach us that Jesus Christ is God; the problem is that how this is so in a metaphysical sense is beyond our comprehension and in pride we assume that because it doesn’t make sense to us then it can’t possibly make sense at all. This is an example of when we love to exalt our reason and logic above the revelation of God in the Bible. Jesus is not only revealed to be Lord and God in the highest sense of those terms in a few statements in a few passages, but also in the way he acted and the way he spoke. When Jesus said things like “You have heard that it was said, but I say unto you” (i.e. Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5) and “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 KJV), he was speaking with an authority far greater than the ordinary prophet. Ordinary prophets would simply say, “Thus saith the Lord” or call people to return to the Lord not to them. Jesus, however, speaks without reference to a higher authority and calls people to Himself. Jesus divinity is also revealed when he calms storms on the sea (Matt 8 & Matt 14) and walks on water (Matt 14), powers that are attributed to Jehovah God in the Old Testament (see Psalm 107:28-29 & Job 9:28). When his disciples in wonder asked, “What manner of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” The answer isn’t a semi-divine angel, but as the Psalm indicates the correct answer is that He is the Lord, Jehovah, or as Matthew would say, Emmanuel, which means God with us.

There is much more I could have told my guests and much more I could say here, but I hoped to get them to see that the problem is not that the Bible doesn’t really teach that Jesus is God, but that we have a hard time humbling ourselves to the reality of Someone Who is so far beyond our comprehension. It takes humility to have that kind of faith.

Of course they continued to throw out the standard objections, “If Jesus was God then who did he pray to?” “If Jesus was God then why did he say the Father is greater than him?” (John 14:28). The misunderstanding with the first may be cleared up by recognizing a couple of different things about the Trinity and about the incarnation. First, the Trinity is NOT teaching that the Father is the Son and the Son is the Father. They share the same divine nature with all of the attributes of divinity including omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence and they share the same will, but they are eternally distinct persons who act in coordination with one another but also in distinct ways. John 1:1 indicates as much when it speaks of the Word being “with God” and at the same time simply stating that “the Word was God.” There is a real unity but also a real distinction in the persons. As someone has said, God is one what and three Who’s. So the persons can and do communicate with each other, hence the Son praying to the Father. The other reality is that Trinitarians also recognize the full humanity of Jesus. He truly became human, and as a human he could and would pray to the Father as well. Both of these realities could also explain why Jesus said the Father is greater. First the Father could be considered greater in terms of their roles in salvation history, but still equal in terms of nature and divine attributes. A boss, for example, could be considered greater than an employee in terms of her roll within a company, but equal in terms of their shared humanity. Another way to think about it is that the Father would be greater in light of the incarnation. That is in terms of Jesus human nature. Either is a plausible solution to the paradox we find in Scripture that Jesus is both equal with the Father as we have seen and somehow less than the Father. Anyway, for what it’s worth, I also shared with my guests that I eventually realized that in the past I wasn’t really arguing against the Trinity. The arguments that I made and that they were making and that their little yellow book makes is actually against an ancient heresy called modalism, which Trinitarians also reject.

Again the problem is not that the Bible really doesn’t teach that Jesus is God. The problem is the all too human tendency to pride that causes us to exalt our limited human reason above Divine revelation. The former, without the healing balm of the gospel and the guiding light of the Bible, John Wesley called “the blind leader of the blind” (Sermons, Vol. 1, p. 209). I also shared with my guests that it is equally wrong to exalt tradition above Scriptural revelation as well, a point with which they readily concurred. It is also wrong to exalt one’s own personal experience or feelings above the word of God. In terms of authority, in the Methodist tradition this is often called the Wesleyan quadrilateral, but is more accurately seen as “a unilateral rule of Scripture within a trilateral hermeneutic of reason, tradition, and experience” (Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace, p. 46). I’m not sure what may come of it, but I am thankful for the opportunity to witness to Jehovah’s Witnesses and bear witness to the light, “the true light, who gives light to everyone” (John 1:5 NET). May their hearts also be flooded with that light as mine was almost 9 years ago; and may they too confess by the Holy Spirit that truly Jesus is their Lord and their God (John 20:28) in the highest sense of those terms to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Can we stop making excuses for small churches?

Can we stop making excuses for small churches?

I’m tired of being lulled by the matrix that is religion into an acceptance of the status quo in the Church, whatever the denomination.  We are reminded again and again that the vast majority of churches in America are classified as “small churches” (less than 100 people in attendance) as if being told this fact enough times will help shield me, the pastor, from feelings of ineffectiveness.   I can easily become content that I’m “average” or “normal” just like the majority of churches in America.

And so long as I’m comparing myself to the church down the corner or in the next city, that will work.   But it doesn’t work when I compare myself to God’s standard for his church.

When I read my bible I read about a God whose heart breaks for the least, the last, the lost and the lonely.   I read about a God who desires that none be lost but that all will be saved.  I read about a God who wants his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.  I read about a God who says fantastic things to me and you like,

‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.’ (Luke 14:23).

The God we find in scripture is not content with a small church.  And for most of our history since Pentecost God has not had a small church.  Just open the book of Acts and watch as God adds thousands each day to the messy, uneducated, Spirit-filled band of disciples who called themselves the ekklesia,or church, meaning those who are called out.

Church, by God’s definition then, is always a group of people growing in both faith and number as they are continually going out into the world to make disciples of Jesus, compelling the world to come in so that God’s house will be full.

It’s really difficult to imagine that Jesus died on a cross so that we could have a place to gather on Sunday mornings without the purpose and intention of seeing people who do not know Jesus join us next Sunday.  And then some more yet again the next Sunday.  And the next.  And…well, you get the idea.

If we as Christians – whether clergy or lay – are doing our job as the church we should never remain a small church because we are always going out as those called out by the God who calls all to Himself.

So perhaps here it would do well to define what a “small church” is, at least as I see it.  A “small church” is a church that has not seen any growth in the past year. It could be a church of any numerical size but yet not a single conversion.  Not a single baptism.  Not a single life changed.

Such a gathering is not a church and we need to stop making excuses for such places.  We need to stop encouraging nostalgic sympathies among long-time Christians and instead encourage them to grow up and get out into the world to take part in the mission to which God has called them.  The only reason a church should remain “small” is because everyone within a 30 mile radius of your building is already saved.   But so long as there are people around us dying and going to hell we need to stop pandering to our own desires of what a church should or shouldn’t be and instead compare ourselves with the moving, holy, unpredictable, messy, flourishing, vital, magnetized Church of Jesus Christ that we read about in the New Testament.

Anything less than this is, in my humble opinion, an offense to the Lord of the Church, the one who died to birth it.  So rather than making excuses let us instead spur one another on to good works. Let us encourage one another to get out into the harvest and get to work bringing it in, for our Lord says it’s plentiful!  Let us pray for revival in our communities, that God would raise up leaders and workers who can help us reach the lost and disciple the found.   Let us pray that this take root in each of our own hearts.

Praying with and for you, and all our Sunday places of worship, that we may truly be the church, and therefore, anything but small.

Just do your job: Make Disciples #UMC

Just do your job: Make Disciples #UMC

That’s our job.  Jesus handed it to us when he ascended to heaven.  It’s the mission God entrusted to us, the church, while we await his return.   One day I will have to answer for how well or how poorly I sought out and made disciples of Jesus Christ.

Several months ago I was convinced that it was really hard to make disciples when my denomination couldn’t seem to agree on what a disciple looks like.   And it’s true, we seem to be at odds, at least from a global perspective, when it comes to defining sin and marriage and what a life of holiness should look like.  Perhaps it’s a sign of my own weakness, but when I spend time gazing at the state of the church from a global point of view I get dizzy.   I lose air.  I find it very difficult up in the stratosphere to see how any of this can or will work out.   This is only one of the many reasons I would make a pitiful God (despite my constant striving to be that) – I can’t shoulder all the mess and brokenness that is the Church.

But God – the one true God – can.

He shouldered it on the cross.  He shoulders it today, as Jesus is living and always interceding on behalf of his Bride.  Because Jesus is the Savior of the church I don’t have to be it.   A few months ago I came to that realization and I have to say, it’s been such a relief!   I do not have to save the church.   Say that with me:

I do not have to save the church.

God has done it and is doing it and will do it.  When I understand this and live into this I come down out of the dizzy-headed stratosphere and I find myself in a local congregation situated in a community where God placed me and has graciously gifted me in certain ways to do the work of seeking the lost and making disciples of Jesus Christ.   That’s my job.  That’s your job.  Wherever you are.

When I am busy having breakfast and lunch appointments with dreamers from my local church, or meeting with addicts on Thursday night who hunger and thirst for freedom, or hold the hand of an elderly woman in a nursing home, or pray with the sick in the hospital, or study for this Sunday’s sermon, or gear up for a community wide Trunk or Treat this weekend, or visit a neighbor and offer them some food I find that my heart is full to bursting and my joy is complete.   When I get my head out of the clouds and focus on making disciples – interacting with people who are flesh and blood and right in front of me – I find the cares I had when I tried to save the church melt away.

God’s got that.  He’s given me this.

I have this hunch that grows increasingly stronger that if each and every one of us would put our hand to the plow and get to work in our communities where real people are dying and going to hell (sidebar:  If a vein just bulged on your  forehead and you yelled at the screen, “Yeah, but so many of my colleagues don’t even believe in hell!” then take a deep breath and say this aloud again:  I don’t have to save the church) then we would see the Holy Spirit move in ways we cannot begin to imagine.    We would see revival break out in our streets if we would just offer Christ to the people around us rather that bicker and complain and grumble about what people we don’t even personally know are doing.

I am preaching to myself as much as to anyone else here, but stop blaming everyone else for the state of the church and look instead in the mirror, repent for the sloth that is so easily dressed up as righteous-indignation-over-the-internet, and get to work.   The harvest is plentiful, says our Lord, and he called you and I to bring it in.  Just do it.

Make disciples.

keep-calm-and-make-disciples-59

Revelation: For Specualtion or Transfromation?

“Well, I’m not worried about the book of Revelation too much because I won’t be here when all that stuff goes down anyway.”

Perhaps you’ve heard someone say something like that. I’ve heard it many times. In fact I have uttered those words myself. That seems to be the sentiment that’s just kind of in the air among many Christians. That is, the idea that by the time of the events described in the book of Revelation unfold the Church of true believers won’t be here because she would have been raptured, that is taken up to heaven to await the end of a period of seven years of great tribulation.

This is what is called a pre-tribulation rapture which is part and parcel of a premillennial, dispensational theological paradigm of the end times. Man! That last sentence was a mouth full, wasn’t it? This is the viewpoint on which the “Left Behind” series of novels and several movies, including a new one starring Nicholas Cage is based.

The idea is that before a period of seven years of tribulation and before the final judgment Christ will partially descend to “take” true Christians up to meet him in the air. Then after seven years of worldwide tribulation Christ will return with his church to destroy the wicked and set up his kingdom. The problem is that you can’t read this exact sequential scenario in any one place in the Bible. It is a narrative that is pieced together by taking bits of passages from here and there.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 for example contains one of those bits, and is one of the primary places used to “prove” the rapture, although the bit about the church waiting out seven years of tribulation with Christ in heaven is not there. The meeting in the air is simply concluded with the statement, “a so we will be with the Lord forever” (v. 17 NRSV)). Many scholars believe that the imagery of meeting the Lord in the air evokes the common imagery in the ancient world of a special envoy going out to joyously welcome a king or some other dignitary and then immediately escorting him back into the city. One such scene may be found in the Gospels when Jesus makes his entry into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday! Moreover, neither does chapter five of 1 Thessalonians contain any such narrative of the Church awaiting with Christ in heaven during a great tribulation. There is simply a warning that the second coming will come unexpectedly like a thief and followers of Jesus should be found awake and sober, not lulled asleep into conformity with the ways of an evil world and not drunk on its spiked Kool-Aid either. This is symbolic imagery that Jesus himself used.

This brings me to Matthew 24. Here Jesus is answering a two pronged question from his disciples, when will the temple be destroyed and what will be the sign of his coming and the end of the age. He then goes on to warn them about deception and coming persecution and calls them to endure to the end in order to be saved (see v. 13). Then he describes an unprecedented time of suffering and THEN AFTER those things he speaks of his second coming and the gathering of his elect. In other words, there is a gathering of the saints after not before the tribulation of which Jesus speaks. Next he goes onto to compare the time of his second coming to the days of Noah. He speaks of those who were taken in the flood. Then he says so it will be when he comes again, some will be taken and others left. The imagery evoked here by the comparison to the flood is that to be taken is to be taken in the judgment of God’s wrath like those in the flood and to be left is to be left or preserved for the New Creation similar to Noah and his family. So in this context to be left behind is a good thing.

This brings me back to Revelation. As one cannot read a pre-tribulation rapture scenario from any one place in Scripture, neither can one read it from Revelation, although one can certainly easily read it into Revelation. The idea that the Church is taken up in a rapture in Revelation is simply not there. It is common however, for some to read it into chapter four where John and John alone is told by a voice from heaven to “come up here” to receive the vision that unfolds through the end of the book. To read this as a rapture is eisegesis (reading into Scripture things that are not there) at its worst. It is reading Revelation this way that leads to the idea that Christians don’t have to worry too much about the events in most of the rest of the book. According to this view most of the book is then left for us to engage in the tantalizing task of speculation, and boy do we have a lot of that, rather than reading it for transformation as I believe it was meant to be read.

Revelation

Toward the end of Revelation Jesus tells John that “this testimony” (no reason to here to think that he is not talking about the testimony of all that was just revealed to him) is “for the churches” (22:16), which is followed by a warning to those who would dare alter the message through addition or subtraction (vv. 18-19). Revelation is a message for the churches and it is for more than just speculation, it is for our transformation. So what churches is he talking about?

How about for starters the same churches that he addresses in chapters 1-3, seven specific churches (1:4) that were in existence in the Mediterranean world at that time? First and foremost this was a message for them and that means the whole book. It was a message that they were to hear and to keep for their blessing (1:3), as opposed to adding to it or subtracting from it which would be to their cursing. Seven as a symbolic number of completion and wholeness probably signifies that this message was meant for all churches, as many scholars would tell you, and I would add for all churches past, present, and future. The fact that we have it in our cannon today, even as uncertain as it was for a while early on, is a testimony to that. It is a message for us today too, and as it was for the original churches it is a message of hope, encouragement, and warning.

One key, I believe, to seeing this is to begin with the promise of the New Heaven and Earth in chapter 21. Who will inherit the New Heaven and Earth? The answer is given in verse seven. It is for “those who conquer”! The word conquer, in some versions is translated “overcome” or “to gain victory”, is exactly what each of the seven churches in chapters two and three are called to do. The word “conquer” is a translation of the Greek word, nikaō, the noun form of which is where Nike get its name. This is what Jesus calls each of the seven churches to do in his tailor-made messages to them in chapters two and three, to get to work and “just do it,” to conquer.

While each of Jesus’ messages is tailor-made for the unique problems and specific situations of each of those seven churches, the recurring refrain that begins with “Let anyone who has an ear listen …” indicates that each message is an encouragement and warning to all the churches and the call to conquer is a way of summarizing all of the specific things to which Jesus calls each church. In other words, all the churches are called to hear what Jesus is saying to each church and to take note of the encouragements and admonitions. As a summary term to conquer from the context of the messages in chapters two and three means to endure, to not tolerate false teaching, to not be worn down by the pressures of living in an ungodly culture even if it hurts your livelihood, to not lose the fervor of your first love and wane in your labor for the Lord, to be faithful unto death even in the midst of deadly persecution, to not deny one’s faith in Jesus amidst such threats, to not compromise with those who practice idolatry and sexual immorality, to hold fast to the faith, to continue to do the works of Jesus to the end, to stay awake and strong in the Lord, to be faithful to keep the word and testimony of Jesus, to not grow complacent and lukewarm amidst wealth and the ease of luxury, in other words to simply be faithful and not be conformed to an ungodly culture. The apostle Paul would say be not conformed to the world but rather be transformed (Rom 12:2). Paul might also say to sum up these messages from Jesus, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, IF we do not give up” (Gal 6:9).

The promise for those who conquer is eternal life through resurrection in the New Heaven and New Earth (Rev 21:7; see also Gal 6:7-10), and to be saved from the second death, the lake of fire that is first and foremost for “the cowardly” (Rev. 21:8), those who fail to conquer as described above. While Revelation is first a message of hope, we should not downplay its warning, which by the way is directed first and primarily to the churches. The promise of the New Heaven and New Earth is held out to each of the churches when Jesus says to the church in Ephesus “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” (2:7). Conversely, the promise of salvation from the second death (see 21:8) is also held out to those who conquer in his message to the church in Smyrna (2:11). Along with the other promises associated with conquering, this indicates that the promise of chapter twenty-one is inextricably bound up with the call of each of the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 to conquer.

Of course, some will say, the promise of paradise is for the churches, but the tribulation described after chapter 5 is not because the Church is saved from the wrath to come as 1 Thessalonians 1:10 promises. In fact, they may say that was a promise to the church of Philadelphia. There Jesus tells them that because of their faithfulness, “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth” (2:10).
Yes, Jesus will keep them, and all the saints, from the trials and tribulation that will be inflicted upon the “inhabitants of the earth”. Nonetheless, Revelation makes a sharp distinction between “the inhabitants of the earth” and the people of God, the saints. The former refers to the wicked who refuse to worship God (9:20) and destroy the earth (11:18), and the later refers to those who refuse to compromise, to be conformed, and worship the image of the beast (13:15). In Revelation the saints are indeed spared from the wrath of God’s judgments poured forth on the earth to bring the wicked to repentance because they are protected by God’s seal and refuse to take the mark of the beast. All the saints are saved from God’s wrath, but not necessarily from the wrath of the dragon working through the beast, “who is allowed to make war on the saints and conquer them” (13:7). Revelation 9:9 makes it clear that only those who do not have the seal of God are inflicted with God’s wrath, and 13:16-17 makes it clear that those who do not accept the mark of beast are susceptible to the wrath of the dragon carried out through the beast and the empire over which he rules. And of course the saints who conquer are saved from the wrath of God’s final judgment too, but the wicked and those who allow themselves to be conformed are not. This is how the Church is saved from the wrath to come.

Therefore, there is no really good reason to read any part of Revelation without the Church in view. Consequently, there is really no good reason to interpret the vivid and intricate symbolism as if it has nothing to do with the Church. All throughout Revelation there are calls for the endurance of the “saints,” a term that is used throughout the New Testament to refer members of particular churches in specific locations. In 5:8 and 8:3-4, we have assurance that God hears the prayers of the saints on earth and in heaven. In 12:11 we hear of those who “conquered” the dragon by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death (see 2:10). In 12:17 we see that after the wrath of the dragon against the messiah child of the woman is thwarted by his ascension, which assumes his resurrection, it (his wrath) is then redirected toward “the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.” There’s no good reason to think that this isn’t saints in the Church. In chapter 13 we see the dragon working through the beasts to bring him worship, but also to carry out his wrath against those who refuse to do so. At the end of 13:10 there is a direct call for “the endurance and faith of the saints” echoing the messages of Jesus to each of the seven churches. Again, in chapter 14 after the call of the angel with the “eternal gospel” for people on earth to worship God and a warning for those who worship the beast and receive his mark, there is another “call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus” (v.12), which, again, is exactly that to which the seven churches were called in the beginning. In chapter 16 after talking about demonic spirits that call kings of the earth to battle against God, there is a parenthetical blessing with an implicit warning that echoes the language of Jesus and Paul directed toward Christians elsewhere (i.e. 1 Thess 5). “(‘See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame’)” (v15; compare Mark 8:34-38). A similar warning occurs in 18:4 when the people of God are warned not to take part in the sins of the corrupt city, Babylon. There is no reason to not take this as a warning for the churches, indeed for members of the Church universal to not be conformed to the idolatrous worship and wicked practices of an evil empire.

There is much, much more to Revelation than that which I have laid out here. There is much, much more to see and hear, but one thing that isn’t there is the rapture as it is popularly understood. I’m not saying that anyone who does in fact believe in the rapture is bad. I know of many very faithful Christians who love the Lord dearly who believe this. I used to believe this myself, but like many others, over the years and after much reading and study of the Bible I have come to a different conclusion. One major problem that I had and that I think others with a dispensational viewpoint may be susceptible to, is that I thought I was somehow exempt from the extreme demands of faithfulness to which Revelation calls the saints. Jesus first disciples were not exempt from those demands (see Matthew 10:28 in context) and neither will the last disciples or anyone in between be.

I do believe that Christ will come again, and I do believe that we need to be found faithful when he does come. Revelation, all of it, can help us to do just that, or should I say, “just do it!” Reading Revelation should be an event that is more than just speculative. More than that, it should be transformational. Whether or not you or I will end up going through great tribulation, I do not know; but I do know that Jesus promised that in this world we will have tribulation (John 16:33). As with the churches that Jesus addressed in Revelation the tribulation we face in this world may come as a threat to our livelihoods (2:8-11), being able to buy and sell (13:16-17), a threat to the integrity of our faith in Jesus, or a threat to our lives. For any of us the pressure to conform our faith so that it is acceptable to a fallen world hell bent on idolatry, violence, greed, and sexual immorality will be great.  Nevertheless, Jesus says, “take courage: I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). By his blood and the word of our testimony we can conquer too. Let us then hold fast until he comes! “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20)

What I Learned By Not Blogging or Reading #UMC

What I Learned By Not Blogging or Reading #UMC

It’s been over 3 months since I’ve written anything about the United Methodist Church and it’s contentiousness over human sexuality (to the applause of my 3 or 4 readers, I’m sure).  I don’t intend to ruin that streak here, but wished to share a little of what I have learned during my hiatus from blogging in hopes that it might be beneficial to one or two of you.

One of our blogging superintendents, Sky McCracken, has said time and time again that we need to get back to the task of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  Three months ago I am sure I asked him something to the effect of, “That’s fine, but how do we do that when we can’t even agree on what makes a disciple?”   Over the past 12 weeks I believe I answered my own question, perhaps discovering what Sky and others have been trying to say all along:

As a pastor called by God to shepherd God’s people, that’s my job.

What this means is, who cares how a pastor in another state, or even across town, is making disciples?   I have enough on my own plate praying with and for, teaching, preaching, counseling, visiting, visioning, leading and training the hundred or so people I have right here in front of me.   If I would focus on making disciples right here and right now to the best of my God-given ability then I will be far too busy to care what my colleagues are doing with their flocks and, Lord willing, do a far more faithful and better job of it.   In fact, this is precisely what has happened these past 12 weeks when I stopped focusing on what others were doing and determined to focus on Jesus Christ and the people who need him right here in my own little neck of the woods.

And praise be to God we have seen the fruit of such labor!   In the past 12 weeks we have baptized 13, brought in 29 new members (with more coming this Sunday), reshaped the vision and focus of our Sunday worship from a traditional, gospel feel to a more modern/contemporary feel, and increased community awareness about the recovery ministry we are gearing up to launch in November which promises to transform hundreds if not thousands of lives in our county starving for such a holistic, Christ-centered ministry.   I don’t share any of this to boast but to simply yet loudly announce this to my colleagues living in cyber space on both sides of this issue:   Get off the computer and get to work!   

I say this in love, and i hope you receive it as such.   Yes, I know, there are problems in our denomination.  Yes, I know, there are people doing things they should not do.   And yes, I know, we need leadership which will address these issues and lead us faithfully into a new, bolder future.   But until you or I (God helps us) become a district superintendent or a bishop, I believe our task is to serve the people in our local parishes and make disciples for Jesus Christ.  If we would each do this faithfully, while praying for those in leadership over us, I believe God will take care of the rest.

I am still committed to the same truth I was blogging about every week or so in the spring of this year and before.    But I am even more committed to, and even more enlivened and excited about, the work of making the church at which I am appointed the best we can be to the glory of God.  I want to make Jesus famous here, not an issue or cause.   And you know what?  I think most people who know me would say I’m a happier, more joy-filled, hope-filled pastor (not to mention a more present husband and father) because of it.

make-disciples

So a challenge:  Stop blogging for 3 months about any issues.  Stop reading blogs about issues.   Read stuff and write stuff that instead feeds your soul and those of others.  Read and write stuff that points people to a Savior who loves them and died for them and wants to be in a relationship with them today.   

Put an end to the cycle of talking heads and see for yourself what God will do right in your own backyard when you take your eyes off the backyards (and bedrooms) of everyone else.   To God be the glory. Amen.

Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:22).

Now….back to the mission field!   Happy disciple making!

Learning to Judge Again

Once I was with a fellow who was about to speak at an important meeting in front of about 50 people. He was wearing a tie with slacks and a sports coat. He looked rather spiffy. That is, with the exception that he had tied his tie way too short without noticing. As he went by a mirror and stopped to double check his appearance he finally noticed that his tie made him look a little bit like Bobo the clown trying to get into GQ. He quickly fixed his tie after which he turned directly to me, who had been with him for about 15 minutes, and asked, “Why didn’t your tell me how goofy I looked before I almost embarrassed myself in front of all those people?”

I can’t say that I didn’t notice his tie, but I also wasn’t sure whether I should say anything or not. It was short, but I wasn’t sure if it was too short for his tastes; and I didn’t want to point it out for fear of offending his own possible fashion sensibilities. He wasn’t pleased. Basically he said that I should have pointed it out because he would rather be embarrassed in front of just me rather than 50 others. More or less he was disappointed that I didn’t show enough concern to risk offending him in order to save him from even worse potential embarrassment.

It has long been a fairly common assumption in society and even in many Christian circles that the worst thing we could do is ever judge anyone. Once in a sermon I stated some of the things that I disagreed with regarding some of the doctrines of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Afterwards a man approached me and said that I was being too “judgmental” and that “it just wasn’t Christian”. Lost on him was the irony that he was “judging” me for being “too judgmental”! I have even seen people wearing T-shirts that say, “Only God can judge me”, which just seems to be another way of saying to anyone who may be critical of their actions, “Shut up!” And that I think is really the point behind much of the selective judgmentalism regarding judgment.

Who are we to judge anyway? After all didn’t Jesus say, “Judge not lest you be judged”?

Yes he did, but he also said a few other things that undeniably show that he didn’t mean that we should never say that certain actions are wrong or that we should never point out fault in another person’s life.

Luke 17:1-4 (NLT)
One day Jesus said to his disciples, “There will always be temptations to sin, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting! 2 It would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around your neck than to cause one of these little ones to fall into sin. 3 So watch yourselves!
“If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. 4 Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.”

An expanded version of this same admonition appears in Matthew 18:10-21. The context shows that it’s God’s heart for the church to diligently go after straying and wayward sheep. Immediately following the parable of wayward sheep, Jesus points out the duty of disciples to “point out the fault” (v. 15 NRSV) of one who may have sinned against them. It is a loving, but relentless process with an abundance of forgiveness required where there’s repentance. It is so relentless, even when excommunication takes place, because the goal is always reconciliation of sinners to God and the body of Christ. The reason quite simply is because “it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matt 18:14 NRSV).

lost sheep

If this seems unloving it is only because you may not have quite the same definition of love that Jesus operated with (see Timothy Tennent’s article here on the importance of knowing your Biblical vocabulary). Jesus summed up (not abrogated) the entire law of God with two commandments found in the law itself. Love God (Deut 6:5) and love your neighbor as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18).

The context of the former makes clear that to love God is to obey all of God’s commandments (see Deut 6:6). It’s no accident that the love command follows the restating of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5.

Likewise the context of Leviticus 19:18 makes clear that to love one’s neighbor is not out of sync with pointing out a neighbor’s fault.

Leviticus 19:17-18 (NRSV)
17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

The permissiveness that the world defines as love is defined by the Bible as hate. To not reprove one’s neighbor is not to love one’s neighbor. It is not loving to stand by while a fellow disciple acts contrary to the word of God any more than it would be loving for me as a parent to stand by while my 9 month-old precariously enjoys playing with an electrical outlet. That’s why Jesus insisted on accountability among his people, not in spite of love but because of it.

So disciples of Jesus are called to make judgments, but we must be careful to only make the judgments that Jesus has commanded us to make, and to carry out that judgment in the right way.

A friend of mine became a volunteer firefighter as a teenager. One day I ran into him somewhere and as we were talking he told me how excited he was because he was going to get to help burn down an old abandoned house with some other firefighters for training. A little pyromania for sure! The reason they got to burn down the house is because it was condemned by the proper authority.

God is the only proper authority who can pronounce final and everlasting condemnation, not the church. Moreover, only God can see the motives and intentions of someone’s heart. Nonetheless, the church is called to judge fruit, the actions someone takes. And actions indicate the direction of a person’s life. Blatant disobedience is a sign that someone is headed in the wrong direction; and if someone seems to be headed for, or even seems to be turning toward, the destruction that Jesus (Matt 7:13-14) and Paul and the other apostles’ warned about, the loving thing to do is to warn them. That’s why Paul warns that those who practice what he calls works of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God as he juxtaposes them with the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19-22). Although we are not called to determine anyone’s final destination, we are called to warn about bad fruit that indicates that someone may be going in the wrong direction.

Yes we are called to make judgments, but with the goal of redirection rather than pronouncing final condemnation. Hence, Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians to not shy away from judging one another within the church (1 Cor. 5:9-6:11). This he discussed in the context of a man who was unrepentantly, defiantly, and arrogantly engaged in an incestuous affair with his stepmother, of whom Paul judged that he should be excommunicated. This was not for purposes of final condemnation, which is only God’s prerogative, but with a view toward redirection so that the incestuous man might be saved on the Day of Judgment (6:3-5). Thus, the purpose of judgment should be discipline that hopefully leads to redemption, which is the purpose of all Divine temporal judgment, whether it was carried out against the nations of Israel and Judah through the Armies of Assyria and Babylon or whether it is carried out with regards to individuals through church accountability and discipline. And make no mistake, it is all about love because God disciplines those he loves (Prov 3:12; Heb 12:6; Rev 3:19).

It is important, however, to note that it is also important that the judgment to which we are called is to be carried out with the proper spirit, which is humility. When Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged” he went on to discuss the manner in which we should actually point out the fault of a fellow disciple.

Matthew 7:1-5 (NLT)
“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. 2 For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.
3 “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? 4 How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? 5 Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.

Notice the warning is really about judging hypocritically. Also notice that Jesus doesn’t say just forget about the speck in your neighbor’s eye altogether. No. He simply reminds us about the log in our own eye, which we need to attend to first. He doesn’t tell us to ignore specks or logs, but to attend to both, but in the proper order. First remove the log in your own eye and then you will be able to help with the speck. We are all sinners, yes, but that is no excuse to ignore sin in our own lives or in the lives of others. From what we already saw above Jesus obviously couldn’t have meant that. Judge we must, but only in a spirit of humility and gentleness not one of arrogance and hypocrisy. Hence, Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 6:1-2 for believers to hold each other accountable “in a spirit of gentleness” and to bear each others’ burdens in order to fulfill the law of Christ, which is the law of love.

Among the many strengths of the early Methodist movement were a commitment to be Biblical Christians and to holding one another accountable to the word of God in love. Their loyalty to Scripture was not coincidental to their commitment to accountability. This commitment was inherent in the meaning of Methodist membership. As a result in the early days Methodist worship attendance far outnumbered Methodist membership. Today the reverse is the case, which is an indication of the loss of both our commitment to be faithful to Scripture and, not coincidentally, to genuine accountability in love. We need to recapture both of these commitments if we are ever to become a vital and transformative movement again.

We need to learn how to judge again; and to learn to judge again is to learn to love again. In this case to not judge places us under the rightful judgment of God as pronounced in the Word. Judge not and we will be judged, and found wanting. As Leviticus 19:17 says, “you will incur guilt yourself.” And it will involve more than a little embarrassment over a stubby tie in the presence of a few strangers, but, according to Jesus, shame at the coming of the Son of Man in all of His glory (See Dan 12:2 & Mark 8:34-38). Let us repent therefore and seek the Lord while he may still be found and we will find forgiveness through his blood and empowerment for obedience and right judgment by His Spirit.