Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Time with God for Fathers": A Book Review

This work is a small volume (102 pages) by Jack Countryman.  The book contains 90 one page devotions addressed to fathers based on specific Biblical texts.  Each page gives the title of the devotion, the Scripture reference (primarily New King James Version), and a one paragraph exposition/application for fathers.  Here are a couple of samples:

Under the title "Father, Help Me to be Patient", based on Romans 15:3-5, the author writes,

"Patience has been defined as learning to accept difficult situations without giving God a deadline for their removal.  We know we need patience, but we generally shun the process by which we learn it.  We want it now!"

For a devotion entitled "Children are a Joy from the Lord", using Matthew 5:13-16 as a text, Mr. Countryman writes,

"Christ wants you to take seriously your role as a father.  As "salt", your behavior is to be distinctly different from those who do not know God, and it must not reflect the same kind of behavior that corrupts a godless culture.  Do your children see that you are burning with the light of heaven?"

These examples illustrate the content of the work.  I find the devotions quite brief and not very challenging.  Perhaps if the author would have spent more time with the associated Scriptures I would have found more value in the work.  As a devotional guide, there are others (e.g., "Morning and Evening" by Spurgeon) of much greater insight and value.

Following the devotions, the author has included some reference pages (each one page in length except for the last one.:

  • God Listens To A Father's Prayer When ...
  • God's Promises For Fathers
  • God's Blessings For Fathers With ...
  • Responsibilities Of Fatherhood To ...
  • God's Dynamic Example Of Fathers
  • Crisis Scripture Guide

If you have money and would like to purchase a devotional work, I recommend you skip this one and look elsewhere. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Pastoral Concern 2: Local Church Membership - Part 1

I’ve been a Christian, a Baptist, and a Southern Baptist for almost 40 years and one of the recent trends I have witnessed in various local churches concerns church membership. The attitude of some Christians concerning church membership simply puzzle me for two primary reasons: (1) their attitude is inconsistent with church history and (2) their attitude flies in the face of God’s Word.

So, what exactly is this attitude, this trend concerning church membership which disturbs me? Simply put, it is the reluctance or outright refusal to join a local church fellowship.

One of the ways I have heard this reluctance or refusal expressed is as follows:

Churches in the New Testament did not have membership lists. “Joining” a church is a man-made procedure. So, as long as I attend church, that’s good enough. Besides, I come to church services more frequently than some of the so-called members of the church.(1)

This perspective has been shared with me by several folks over the past ten years or so. Unfortunately, those holding such a perspective do not understand the teaching of the Scripture on the nature of the church.

The most frequent word rendered “church” in the New Testament is “ekklesia”, meaning “the called out ones”. Certainly every true believer has been called out of the darkness of sin into the light of Christ (1 Peter 2:9). It is Christ, through the working of the Holy Spirit, who gives us life to our spiritual dead being and calls us to follow Him. 

In that sense, every true believer of Christ is part of the “ekklesia”, the church. Theologically, this concept is referred to as the “Universal Church”, the “Invisible Church”, or the “Church Triumphant”. It includes those who have already gone to be with the Lord as well as those true saints who are presently serving Christ. It is this universal church to which Paul was referring when he wrote:

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...” (Ephesians 5:25).

However, the overwhelming majority of New Testament texts are not speaking about the universal church. For example,

“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: grace to you and peace.” (1 Thessalonians 1:1)

Clearly this reference is of a specific body gathered together in Thessalonica. This is one of many assemblies of professing believers meeting in specific locations. When compared to the universal church, this is the “Local Church”, the “Visible Church”, or the “Church Militant”. As Dr. Richard Land has said, the local church is a “colony of heaven”. The local church serves as a visible representation of the universal church.

“Joining” such a local congregation implies a level of commitment beyond simple worship attendance. Since the local church is a visible representative of the universal, invisible church, we would expect such a commitment. To be a part of God’s universal church there must be a commitment to Christ, a trust in him which distinguishes the universal church member from those who do not believe. Therefore, there should be a similar level of commitment or trust to be a part of a local church. 

But, more importantly, what do the Scriptures say? Does God’s Word say anything about the concept of joining, becoming a member of a local church? The answer is YES!

1. Consider the local church in Jerusalem.

Acts chapter 5 tells the sad story of Ananias and Sapphira . These two professing believers in the Jerusalem church lied and were slain by God. Verse 11 states “and great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.”

Note the contrast between the hearers listed in that verse. You have the “whole church” and “upon all who heard of these things.” Continuing in chapter 5, we read:

“None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.” (Acts 5:13-14)

Some were “added to the Lord” but not all. Nevertheless, because of their fear over events such as the slaying of Ananias and Sapphira, “none of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.” The word translated “join” is “kollaomai” meaning “to unite oneself with”, “join”, “stick to”. As the great Baptist Greek scholar A. T. Robertson said, this verb means “to cleave to like glue”. Clearly this local church in Jerusalem consisted of believers who were joined or glued to one another. The Jerusalem church was not a casual gathering of professing believers. It was not a mere collection of people who came and worshiped together on Sundays. No, it was a committed, devoted, “glued together” group.

2. Consider the matter of discipline in the local church.

Jesus was well aware the local church would have problems never experienced by the universal church. For example, it is possible an unbeliever may profess to be a believer and become part of a local church. But unbelievers can never be a part of the universal church. And, when you mix believers and unbelievers in one body, problems are going to arise. So, Jesus provided instruction to local churches on how to address such difficulties. 

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)

Note the involvement of the local church in the matter. The church is to confront the sinner and, if he refuses to listen to the church, then he is to be treated as a Gentile and tax collector, in other words, as an unbeliever. 

These words have absolutely nothing to do with the universal church. No one is being removed from that body. No, these are instructions to local congregations. If the individual in sin refuses to repent throughout this entire process, he is to be treated as an unbeliever. 

The New Testament provides an example of this procedure being put into action. The church at Corinth had a member practicing sexual immorality with his father’s wife. Paul writes to the church and instructs them to pursue disciplinary action. 

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:1-2)

“Removed” translates a word meaning “to lift up”, “to set aside” and “from among you” literally reads “out of your midst”. Clearly Paul is instructing the Corinthians to exercise the church discipline described in Matthew 18 and remove this man from their body. 

Paul doesn’t mean never to allow that man to attend services with them or to hear the preaching of the Gospel. He continues this discussion as follows:

“When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5) 

Paul indicates the intention of their action, namely the removal of the man from their fellowship, is a step in reaching him for the Lord. He is not a believer and, therefore, not to be part of the church. Yet, the church’s action, hopefully, will be a step to winning him to Christ. The implication is this man is welcome to attend the church’s meetings and hear the Gospel. So, his removal “out of their midst” is not referring to physical removal, rather, it is his removal from his union (i.e., membership) with the church. The unique blessings, fellowship, and opportunities he has as a member joined to this body is to be severed. Instead of treating him as a fellow worker in Christ, the believers in Corinth are to give him the Gospel. 

This individual in Corinth has been moved from position of “one of the brethren” to “Gentile” (unbeliever) in accordance with Matthew 18. There must have been some means in Corinth to distinguish between those who were “one of the brethren” and those who were not. Is this not one purpose for a membership list? 

3. Consider some of the other terminology used to illustrate the church. 

“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-3)  

Peter speaks to those whom God has called to be the leaders of His local churches. In so doing, he uses the three titles given in Scripture for this one office: “elder”, “overseer”, and “shepherd” (elder, bishop, pastor). 

Baptists have traditionally used the title “pastor” (meaning shepherd) for the name of their local church leader. Not only is the term Biblical, as we see above, but it also communicates a great picture of the local church: those in the church are the sheep forming the local flock and the pastor is the shepherd, appointed by God, to guide and care for this flock.

I have never cared for physical sheep but I do know that a shepherd has responsibility for specific sheep, namely, the sheep assigned to his care. The shepherd KNOWS his sheep. He is not responsible for every sheep wandering in the fields. Sheep belong to a specific flock. While there are many sheep (believers in Christ) in St. Charles, this shepherd (me) is not responsible for every one of them. Rather, God has appointed me over a specific flock, i.e., Bethesda Baptist Church.

Now, who makes up my flock? Is it every believer who walks through the church’s front door? Does it include even believers who are simply visiting on a given Lord’s Day? Does my flock consist of those sheep who regularly attend our morning worship service on Sunday? Am I, as the shepherd of this local flock, responsible for every sheep coming my way? No, I am not. A distinction must be made between the sheep which comprise my flock and other sheep. How does a shepherd make this distinction? How does he know his flock? 

This same situation would have existed in the first century. When Peter tells the elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among” them, those shepherds must have had a means of distinguishing which sheep were truly part of their flock. Again, I ask, is this not one purpose for a membership list? 

There is a specific flock known as Bethesda Baptist Church. It is comprised of those sheep (professing believers) who have been called by God to covenant together to form a specific flock (Bethesda Baptist Church). These sheep, not all sheep, have “glued” themselves together (by “joining” the church) with the other sheep in the sheepfold to form this flock. They are the ones I am to shepherd. You may be a sheep who frequently gathers with my flock on Sunday mornings but that does not necessarily make you part of my flock. To you I am a shepherd but not your shepherd. 

Consider another illustration of God’s church found in the Bible: 

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” 1 Corinthians 12:37

Again Paul is addressing the local church at Corinth. He calls them the “body of Christ”. So the local church is here pictured as Christ’s body. Furthermore, each individual member of that local church is viewed as a member of Christ’s body.

Often I have sat with my grandchildren on my lap and had them place their hand on mine to demonstrate our similarities and differences. When I look at those hands, I KNOW which of those fingers I am looking at are mine and which ones are not. Mine are connected, they are JOINED to my body. They contribute to my body’s function, have responsibilities within my body, and receive benefit from my body as a whole. Now my grandchildren’s fingers are as much real fingers as mine. But they are not a part of my body!

Therefore, just because you are a real “finger” of God (i.e., a true believer), that does not necessarily mean you are a member of the local body of Christ. Do you contribute to the local body’s function? Do you have responsibilities within the local body? Or, do you simply receive some benefit from the local body by meeting with them once a week?

4. Consider the meaning of the “whole church” at Corinth.

“If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (1 Corinthians 14:23)

How do you know if the WHOLE church has come together if you do not have some type of list indicating who is part of the Corinthian church (and, by implication, who is not)? In other words, there is some type of membership list. Corinth practiced local church membership. An individual was required to do something to be added to this list.

I close, first, with a return to my original thoughts on the nature of the church. The church consists of the “called out ones”, those whom God has called out of darkness into His light. All true believers are called out ones, members of the great universal, invisible church. We testify to the world that God has called us out by professing our faith in Christ and committing our lives to Him. Should we not do likewise when it comes to the local church, the visible model of the universal church? Being part of a local body goes far beyond simple attendance. Rather, it involves a level of commitment (i.e., “joining”) as well as a profession of that commitment (“I am a member of Bethesda Baptist Church”).

Finally, since Christ not only gave us the universal church but also the local church, shouldn’t every true believer be committed to a local church body? If you remain a non-member of a local church, what are you communicating to those outside the church? Aren’t you telling them by your actions that the local church, a creation of Christ himself, is of little or no consequence? How can you call yourself a committed follower of our Lord Jesus Christ if you will not become a committed follower of an institution He created?

If you are not a member of a local church then I exhort you to find a church in which God’s Word is preached and commit your life to serving Christ as a member of that church body.


(1) There are several good books and articles on the subject of joining a local church. Most of them address the matter much the way I have endeavored to do so here. The arguments for church membership in most of these works are the same (why wouldn’t they be since each writer uses the same Scripture to explain and defend the practice of joining a church?). The best work I have ever read on the subject (and one of the most readable) is found in Chapter 3 of Don Whitney’s book, “Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church”, published by Moody in 1996. This specific chapter is currently available online here  if you wish to read it. If what I have written does not convince you to join a church then I pray you do take the time and read his thoughts.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Pastoral Concern 1: Education

When asked by the Pharisees in one of their many attempts to trap him, Jesus told us the nature of the first and greatest commandment:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.”
(Matthew 22:37-38)
Jesus has masterfully taken the first four commandments of the ten God gave to Moses in Exodus chapter 20 and summarized them into one. God is to be the number one love of our entire life: heart, soul, and mind.

Wait a minute! Did Jesus just say something about our minds? Surely not! How can God want us to love Him with our minds? Doesn’t He understand what folks have long said about Baptists? When they come to church, Baptists leave their brains in their hats on the coat rack.

While we may laugh at such a thought, I fear there is much truth in the joke. Having been a member of several Baptist churches and a visitor in many others in my almost forty years of walking with Jesus, I am constantly amazed by the worldview held by many Baptists who claim they know Christ. It is safe to say their worldview is more often “politically correct” but certainly not “Biblically correct”.

Clearly one of the truths communicated by our Lord in this text is the need to have our minds governed by the Word of God. If we truly love God then our thoughts should not only think about God but our brains should guide our lives to live according to the Word of God, in other words, to live based on a Biblical worldview. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

In pondering the matter, I also realized the paucity of Biblical knowledge by many who have professed Christ as their Lord for many years. How can any of us love God with our entire mind, live a life according to the principles of the Bible, when we don’t even have a simple grasp of the contents of the Word?

There is certainly much Jesus is stating when He commands us to love the Lord with all our minds. But it can’t be denied that loving God with our mind includes intellectually knowing something about God. For example, I love my wife and my children with my entire being. That love includes knowledge about them: their birth dates, their personalities, their likes and dislikes, and so forth. Perhaps I do not know everything about them, but, over the years, my knowledge about them grows. My love for them demands I use my mind and get to know them.

What would my wife think of my love for her if I forgot her birthday every year? What if I constantly forget the date of our wedding anniversary? Do I really love her if I don’t ever learn her middle name, her parents’ names, or her love for sunflower seeds? I knew none of these things when I first met her. But my love for her has resulted in my mind learning about her; who she is and what she likes.

Church after church and Baptist after Baptist have proven to me many people who profess their faith in Christ do not have the type of love for God as Christ commanded in the above verses. I have taught classes where I have asked believers, those who have been a part of the church for decades, to open their Bibles to the book of Ephesians only to find them searching in the Old Testament or using the “Table of Contents”. I have witnessed seven and eight year old children put adult Christians to shame by quoting all the books of the Bible from memory. My eyes have seen long time church members arrive at church for Sunday school and worship without a Bible (no, they do not have it memorized either!). If we do not have a grasp of such simple facts as the titles of the books of Scripture then it is quite likely we have no grasp of the theological truths concerning God and His work. In other words, we have NOT loved God with all our minds.

Yet, despite the seriousness of not growing in our knowledge of the things of God, there is another fact which disturbs me even more. Many Baptists appear to have little or no interest in growing in their knowledge of God! That may seem like a strong claim so permit me to elaborate.

Baptists have long claimed to be “people of the book”. We teach the Bible is God’s Word, the revelation of God. Since we take the Word so seriously, Baptist churches offer education programs to assist their members (and guests) to better understand the Word and, therefore, grow in their love of God via their mind. Southern Baptist churches almost always offer a “Sunday School” program of some sort either before or after the morning worship service on Sunday. Some churches continue to have education classes on Sunday evenings as well. These may vary in title (Training Union, Discipleship Training) but their purpose remains the same: provide Biblical education for believers. Some congregations offer Bible Study classes in various members’ homes. Others provide further education opportunities on Wednesday evening often in conjunction with a church prayer meeting.

Virtually all of these educational opportunities are led by knowledgeable Biblical teachers. Furthermore, these classes are almost always free or charge. A Baptist can come, share in the fellowship time with fellow believers offered by the class, and grow in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ without paying one red cent!

But when we look at our churches, too often we find Sunday school classes with small attendance. We find Sunday evening classes with only a handful of students present. Bible studies in homes may begin somewhat large but often degenerate quickly into a small gathering. And Wednesday evening studies are almost non-existent due to the lack of people. No wonder our people have trouble finding the book of Ephesians!

Some who are reading this are likely thinking, “You’re right. I don’t go to those classes. I study my Bible on my own.” That may be true in a few cases. But I suspect those who fail to take advantage of church provided opportunities for education simply reveal their true nature, i.e., they do not study God’s Word. The situation is similar to those professing Christians who claim they can worship even when they are fishing on Sunday. Yes, they can but they don't!.

Christians, generally, and Baptists, particularly, need to learn their Scripture. They need to study and study and, then, study some more. They must invest the time and effort (yes, study requires effort!) to grow their minds in the truth of God so they can truly love their God with all their minds.

To those who are not growing in their knowledge of God, I challenge you to change. The first step in such a change is to repent of your failure to devour the Word of God. You will never change your behavior if you will not first confess to our Lord your sin in not studying His Word.

Then, let’s turn off our technology and televisions, open the Bible, and study. Let’s make it a habit to attend Bible studies offered by our local congregation whenever possible. Let’s do all we can do to grow our Biblical knowledge, not to impress others, but so that we may truly love our God with all our mind.