Overcome Controversy With Gentle Truth

699500_74798238Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. (2 Timothy 2:23-25)

I remember a classmate from junior high with a tendency to bloviate about issues and situations. (Of course, I didn’t use the word bloviate back then so this is obviously a reflection, not a journalistic retelling.) He was quoting his father who supposedly said to him, “Boy, don’t you be starting no fights. But if you get in one, you better finish it.” I always felt safe in assuming that to his father “finishing the fight” meant boxing the other guy’s ears.

Well, this philosophy operates on a strategy of meeting force with even more force. And this strategy that we are tempted to use today in less physical but equally heated situations. I’m talking about controversies and conflicts within the church.

Some people love nothing more than a good argument. Paul wasn’t afraid of controversy or confronting issues that needed to be addressed–read Acts 15 to see his willingness to contend for the sake of the gospel–but he knew that most arguments were foolish and ignorant. Writing as a senior ecclesiastical statesman, the apostle seemed unimpressed by much of the theological and philosophical wrangling of his day (2 Tim. 2:14,16).

Some of the disputes in which people engage are just unwise because they deal with tertiary and unimportant issues. Those disputes turn into divisions. People will then fight a battle to win a victory that isn’t worth the price. They will alienate spiritual brothers and sisters, derail the church from its mission, and damage God’s reputation simply because they have to have be RIGHT.

But some of the controversies are ignorant in the sense that they lack knowledge, knowledge of a better way to proceed. I’ve known leaders who figuratively burned their church to the ground over an issue in which they were but then had little left to show for it. Many times we want to do the right thing but we go about it in the wrong way.

The problem with some of these disputes according to Paul, is that they breed. We know what breeding is. It is to reproduce offspring. And many controversies reproduce negatives effects lasting for many generations. Anger and hate reciprocate and leave a trail of collateral damage. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t start the fight. By finishing it, you spawn destruction that will probably outlive you.

Paul outlines a better way. He enjoins Timothy to employ kindness and gentleness instead of a harsh insistence of compliance. Instead of launching a decisive nuclear strike on an opponent, the Lord’s servant is called to persist, to demonstrate a willingness to endure a stalemate rather than going for the kill shot, and to patiently let God work in a situation by changing hearts and subduing wills. And a shepherd, Paul reminded, must teach. He must instruct through the Word, letting the truth from its pages win the argument. Let God’s Word have the last word, rather than you.

Of course, God’s shepherd doesn’t start fights. Except in rare occasions where the truth is at stake, he usually doesn’t have to end them either. He teaches the truth, serves God’s people, and acts with gentleness and kindness.

 

Act Your Age, Not Your Rage

1072482_79445869So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:22)

We certainly struggle with different sins at different stages of life. President Ronald Reagan observed once that middle age is that period of life when confronted with two temptations, a man chooses the one that will get him home before 9 p.m. A professor of mine by the name of Mack Roark was once commenting on John 1:29 where Jesus is described as the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. Noting the singular form of sin, he observed, “We outgrow some of our sins. We get too tired to commit them. But we never outgrow our sin.”

In biblical times, generations weren’t as segmented as today, with Boomers, Busters, Millennials, and so on. Essentially there was youth and old age. I’m not sure where the cut off was but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a date on the calendar. But eventually one day you wake up and realize you’re not young anymore.

But that’s okay because youth in Paul’s mind was characterized by certain passions that were not helpful in the work of shepherding God’s people. We seem to be pretty high on this quality of “passion” today. We have a epic conference gathering named after it. We love to describe ourselves as passionate followers of Jesus Christ.

But I can’t get a quote of Zig Ziglar out of my mind when I hear the word. He commented about enthusiasm once and it seems to apply about passion. “Enthusiasm,” he said, “is like running in the dark. It might get somewhere. It might get you killed.” I know, leave it to an old man to put a damper on things.

Of which youthful passions should a pastor be wary? Certainly not love and enthusiasm for Jesus Christ; this isn’t the point. However, in our youth, we often lack wisdom. And this lack of wisdom creates a lack of humility. And that arrogance can set us up for a fall like one might experience when running in the dark.

By looking at the qualities Paul lifts up–he wasn’t one of those irritating ‘agin-ers’ who only obsessed about what was to be avoided–we see the opposite of youthful passions to avoid. “Righteousness” is always the gift of God and only He can make us righteous. Early in life we sometimes fail to see how short we come of God’s holiness and our need for imputed righteousness. Live long though and your shortcomings will present themselves for inspection. Typically this occurs about the time your young children begin have conversations with other adults who are your friends.

“Faith” is confidence directed towards God, not ourselves. The years have a way of showing us that we aren’t as competent as we first imagined. Jung supposedly said that Act One of a young’s man life was when he sat out to conquer the world. He then wryly noted that Act Two was when the world lets him know that it is not about to be conquered by the likes of him.

“Love” is the indispensable attribute for anyone who seeks to shepherd others. At times in Scripture, it is contrasted with knowledge (1 Corinthians 8:1-3). Demonstrating to others my brilliance–and my need to be “right”–may keep them from perceiving my concern for them.

In my younger years it seemed virtuous and godly to communicate my right ideas even when it created unnecessary clashes. But now I realize how valuable “peace” is among the flock of God. Every shepherd will sense at some point the tension between leading the sheep forward and keeping them together. Going forward is the “right” thing to do but so is preventing them from being scattered.

As one whose daily work is with pastors, it is concerning to see a growing tendency toward public and interpersonal outbursts of anger by pastors, along with the subsequent damage done in their congregations. Being a pastor, a shepherd, is unbelievably challenging these days: no debate there. But even if the times have changed, God hasn’t and He still offers the strength to check the youthful passions from a pastor of any age.

I’m not sure though that the youthful passions Paul counseled against are the exclusive domain of the young. I’ve known more than a few of the older variety who attempted to shepherd apart from righteousness, faith, love, and peace. I’ve known this from personal experience. The old description of “no fool like an old fool” expresses exasperation at the failure to demonstrate the maturity of the years.

Mack Roark was right. I may outgrow some of my sins but my sin seems to dog my steps all of my days. That’s why this aging shepherd needs the Lamb of God to forgive, check, and someday eradicate his sin.

Resolve To Leave Sin

“…Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” (2 Timothy 2:19)

It was the great Augustine who wrote about his wayward youth: “But I wretched, most wretched, in the very commencement of my early youth, had begged chastity of Thee, and said, ‘Give me chastity and continency, only not yet.'” Many have paraphrased it this way: “Make me pure, Lord…but not yet!” (Pusey, E. B. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.)

1429638_79756262Shepherds lead their flock toward increasing sanctification, in the “paths of righteousness” (Psalm 23:3) for the sake of the Lord’s name and fame. But before they can do that, they must travel the path themselves and heed Paul’s admonition to resolve to leave sin. And the problem there is that frequently we love our sin more than we love God.

I have thought much over the years on the best ways to experience sanctification and transformation into the person God wants me to be. I’ve looked for every secret, every new insight, and spiritual experience. And after many years, I have concluded that the pivotal factor is the decisiveness of my repentance from the sin I’m trying to forsake.

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses are famous for their historical importance in church history but it is often overlooked that the first thesis he nailed to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg read: “The Lord Jesus Christ wills that we live a life of repentance.” My entire life must be one of continual repentance of that which obscures the formation of Christ in my character.

John Stott says it very well in his commentary on Galatians 5:24:

The first great secret of holiness lies in the degree and the decisiveness of our repentance. If besetting sins persistently plague us, it is either because we have never truly repented, or because, having repented, we have not maintained our repentance. (The Message of Galatians)

We used to sing this old hymn: “I am resolved no longer to linger…”  That is the secret.

Use Words That Matter

But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness. (2 Timothy 2:16)

I believe it was George Orwell who suggested that at times language served to obscure thought rather than to express it. He was thinking about fascists but I’m thinking of a different target audience. Diligent shepherds have to give consideration to the nature of the words they use in teaching and leading God’s people.

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According to Paul, there is such thing as “irreverent babble” and it is to be avoided. Blasphemous words and irreverent words are not the same thing. In fact, “religious” words can be said but, if spoken apart from an awareness of God, they might actually be profane in His sight.

A danger for those whose profession is tied to spiritual and religious faith is that words come out without thought and reflection. Over time, it is easy to learn the jargon, the lingo, the code language of pastoral ministry. The phrases roll off the tongue but do they possess any heartfelt meaning? Beware, my shepherd friend, of the use of vain repetitions (Matthew 6:7).

When words don’t provoke and inspire, listeners are not sanctified. And when they are not sanctified, they become endangered, prone to fall into the profane or, as Paul puts it, “led into more and more ungodliness.”

Proverbs 25:11 likens effective communication to “apples of gold in a setting of silver.” This refers to the artisanship behind either jewelry or artwork. In either case, there is the expression of skill based on planning and reflection. A shepherd thinks about what they are saying and the impact of those words. So the imperative for any pastor is to use words that matter.

His Highness is also His Nearness

Perspective is sometimes a matter of inches. We can be off just slightly but the result is monumental. Imagine that you and I attempted to hike to the North Pole, fixing our compass settings, but mine was just a fraction of a degree off. We would travel side by side for miles and miles. But eventually our paths would diverge, with you arriving safely while I would miss the destination by hundreds of miles.

Slight divisions and emphases can bring drastic differences. Look at these two sentences:

God is nowhere
God is now here

The same letters in both sentences but they illustrate different perspectives. And a crucial division creates a completely different outcome. For many people, the division of belief comes at this point: is God is near or remote?

A frequent descriptor of God in the Old Testament is “the Holy One of Israel,” a phrase which acknowledges both His highness and His nearness. He is the Holy One who towers over all creation in majesty. Yet He also choose to connect Himself to the people of Israel, to come near to them in a covenant relationship.

Some people believe in God; they really do. They would quickly tell you that He exists and that He is behind everything that we see. But they don’t believe that He is very involved in people’s lives, except maybe on those occasions when they really need His help to solve a problem or overcome a difficulty.

Believe it or not, this belief is quite ancient. Historians refer to it as deism and some of the founders of our country actually held this belief. They looked at God as a Great Watchmaker, who created this intricate and precise world, wound it up, and then walked away to leave it to run on its own. Lots of people have that perspective on life. For all practical purposes, God is nowhere close. The Bible teaches that God is now here close. The psalmist maintains there is nowhere where you can flee from God (Psalm 139:7).

It is hard to imagine a God of love who is distant. He might be a wise, all-knowing God, which the deists believed Him to be, but you couldn’t really call Him a loving God. Absence is really a lack of concern. Lots of people grew up with absent fathers and I don’t know of many of them who were confident in their father’s love for them.

Of course, God’s love is a holy love. These practical “deists” want not some much a Father in heaven but. as C.S. Lewis pointed out, a Grandfather in heaven, someone who only shows up for the fun stuff, who isn’t that involved in the daily nitty-gritty, and whose main concern is at the end of the day if a good time was had by all.

What matters is, whether we know what to call it or not, our belief in the nearness of Christ. If He is near, involved in the daily lives of people—and He is, I assure you—then there are certain ways in which we should behave and conduct ourselves. Our daily lives look different because of that belief.

 

Seven Last Words of the Church

1339522_36508016I think you already think you know what I’m going to say. But I don’t think you do.

My title, of course, comes from a book written by Ralph Neighbour, Jr., a former Southern Baptist, which called for the church to become innovative and relevant to the times. (Interestingly enough, he also wrote the book “Survival Kit for New Christians.” Many of us have used this resource in discipling new believers in Christ.)

What are the last seven words of the church? You know this part. “We never did it that way before.”

I appreciate what Neighbour was saying and trying to do. With all appropriate respect to a man who did much good for the kingdom, I want to suggest my own last seven words of the church: “Walk in the flesh, not the Spirit.”

The book of Galatians is a letter from Paul to “the churches of Galatia” to address a theological controversy, the dispute between salvation by grace alone or also through human effort. He intentionally mentions these churches as his target audience. I think this is important because we read Scripture through such an individualistic filter. Of course God deals with us personally. But we have to interpret Scripture in light of its original intent.

Paul seemed to be concerned about the survival of the churches in Galatia. In Galatians 5:15, he expresses concern about the possibility of them being “consumed by one another.” He isn’t just addressing “mutually assured destruction” between individuals. I believe he is, as one commentator mentions, contemplating “the possible ruin and annihilation of the Galatian churches through their raucous attacks on one another.” (Timothy George, Galatians, NAC)

Immediately following this, the text commands us to live according to the Spirit, not the flesh. The “flesh,” at least in this context, is not the body but rather anything and everything aside from God in which one puts his final trust and reliance.

If anything dooms the church, it is the failure to live in the power and under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Birthed by His power on the Day of Pentecost, a church responsive to the Spirit of God will display behavior uncharacteristic of the general public, of which onlookers must ask, “What meaneth this?” Without that mental arrest, our culture will ignore us because there is nothing distinctive present in us.

The typical level of conflict and disunity within the average congregation fails to meet any reasonable standard for distinctiveness.

Walking in the flesh makes us like every other organization or community in the world; walking in the Spirit makes us distinctive and not so easily explained away. So this is why I say that a church doomed for extinction is the church whose last words are “We don’t have to submit to the Holy Spirit in all that we do.”

Personal Manifesto #15

Listen to what the years and the centuries say over against what the minutes and the hours say.

The real test of this belief is not in debates but in moments of temptation. Most of the moral decisions we make hinge on this dynamic: short-term versus long-term. We either choose the moral equivalents of mushrooms, which develop over night, or oak trees, which develop over time.

As a parent, I decide whether to just be my kid’s buddy and make them happy–which is what the minutes tell me to do–or be their parent and try to make them a decent human being–which is what the centuries tell me to do. As a pastor, I decide whether to entertain my congregation or shepherd according to Scripture. As an individual, I make choices that determine my health–the minutes tell me to eat ice cream while the years tell me to have a piece of fruit.

I’m frequently tempted to exchange long-term benefits for immediate pleasure. What I need to do in those moments is listen to the echoes of time-honored truth.

This is what I believe.

Personal Manifesto #14

Sacrifice always brings success. If not for you, then for someone else.

325448_5628I known a young man who coached a high school team here in Oklahoma City. My use of the past tense is intentional. He won’t be coaching them next year and I’m sorry about that.

Here’s what makes me feel especially bad for him. Because of scheduling changes, the team will be well-positioned next year for success. My young friend has been making some investments in the young men on the team–sacrifices, if you will–that will bring success in the future. Or at least that’s what an article in a local paper asserts. But he won’t get the credit for the success.

Sacrifice and success–they always accompany each other. But not necessarily on the same flight. Here’s how I’ve heard it stated. if you sacrifice without success, that means someone after you will succeed. If you succeed without sacrifice, that means someone before you sacrificed. (Barry Switzer should know this every time he looks at his Super Bowl ring.)

All of this is true. In some way, sacrifice brings success. But I also factor God into the equation. He sees. He knows. And the success that is awarded–or not awarded–to us in this life pales in comparison to that which He bestows in the next life.

This is what I believe.

Personal Manifesto #13

Some people are on a journey with God and you can help by building them a sidewalk.

999679_96840291It’s been one of my favorite illustrations for years. (I’ve actually heard it in two forms but I’ll use the one that stuck best with me.) A university built a series of new buildings and dorms during a major expansion. However, they didn’t build any sidewalks.

You can imagine both the mockery and ridicule. “Build all these new buildings but no sidewalks! Idiots! What’d they do, run out of money!?!” About a month later, the sidewalks were poured but most people never knew the real story. The decision was intentional. During that month, natural paths were formed where people walked. Those paths were the most natural and helpful; they represented the most practical ways to get to class. After 30 days, they built those sidewalks where the natural pathways had already begun to be formed.

No one argues that sidewalks are needed. But it is rare to see someone take this particular approach in this particular sequence. Why is that? Because most people think they already know what path everyone else needs to follow. They assume they know the best path.

This story is a great picture of servant leadership in that it represents humility. The designers didn’t assume that they knew the best place for sidewalks. They were willing to learn from others and to let them set the design agenda.

This has become a metaphor for my life. God is leading people down certain paths in life. I don’t assume to know the specifics but I know that everyone needs help on their journey. I try to make it easier for them to follow God’s direction. Wherever He is at work in people’s lives, I want to be there, making it easier for them to follow Him. If they are listening to His voice, He will direct them. And He calls me to be a facilitator in that process.

This is what I believe.

Personal Manifesto #12

The glory of God serves the good of man. And the good of man highlights the glory of God.

1428816_99193162The glory of God. The good of human beings. I don’t think these two things are incompatible. Saint Irenaeus wrote in the second century, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” This life described as “fully alive” reminds that some who are alive really aren’t. At times in the church’s history, it has been guilty of suppressing human achievement, supposedly under the guise of Christian obedience.

However, the good of man shouldn’t trump the glory of God. We live in the era of “be all you can be,” the cult of self fulfillment. Some would interpret “man fully alive” in ways that would constitute outright disregard of God.

If a human being will choose to live a life that has the worship and magnification of God as its highest object, then that person will be benefited as a result. And when believers in Christ live life at its fullest as He desires (John 10:10), then God is glorified as a direct outcome.

This is what I believe.

Real life. Real leadership.

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