Inalienable Morals

Two issues converged this week to get me thinking about a concept that I’m going to call “inalienable morals.”  First, one of the young adults in my congregation sent me an email with a question about “rights” for homosexuals and how many people think this is an issue that should be divorced from religious considerations (i.e. an individual might call themselves a Christian and while they disagree with homosexual marriage morally, they suggest that we shouldn’t take away the “rights” of a homosexual to marry).  The other issue this week is a general feeling of patriotism as we approach the 4th of July, and some reflection on the “inalienable rights” that are promoted in our country’s Declaration of Independence.  Here’s the final product of those two thoughts meeting head on…..

Late Friday night New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that will legalize gay marriages in New York state, making it now the 6th state in our country to do so.  While not the first, New York is arguably the most influential state to adopt gay marriage, for a number of reasons.  Its population is quite large.  It has deep ties to the history of gay rights.  It also is A) a major tourist location, and B) has no state law requiring residency for obtaining a marriage license.  What that means is that New York City is likely to become the world’s epicenter of all gay marriage.

Celebrities like Lady Gaga, Pink, and Cyndi Lauper weighed in publicly with comments of rejoicing over the passing of the new law (no one with normal names, normal hair, or clean drug records could apparently be reached for comment).  Nonetheless, these individuals are reflecting more and more the public consensus and comfort in redefining marriage.

Whether we realize it or not, this law change is probably as impactful of legislation as we’ve seen in a while.  Coming off the relatively recent heels of Congress’ repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military, it has to be perceived as clear evidence that unless something drastic occurs, this is the direction that our country is likely moving in to define a “family unit.”  None of this should be that much of a surprise to anyone because all signs have pointed to this being the future norm in our country for quite some time now.  The reason: while our country proudly holds to the concept of inalienable rights, we’ve given up on the notion of inalienable morals.

Our founding fathers’ ideas of “life, liberty, and property” (what came to be called “natural” or “inalienable” rights) came largely from the writings of John Locke, a 17th century English philosopher who argued that these fundamental human rights could never be forfeited in the social contract, the relationship and responsibilities held between a government and its citizens.  These rights truly are a wonderful thing.  In a general way, it’s one of the reasons why we enjoy so many blessed freedoms in our country that citizens of other nations can’t begin to imagine.

However, while inalienable rights were explicitly stated in the Constitution, inalienable morals were merely implied.  Our country started, to a large degree, as an experiment in religious freedom by devout Christians.  Biblical morals were assumed.  No, not every founding father was a faithful Christian, but as much as we can tell without being able to look into their hearts, it appears that most were.  At the inauguration of George Washington, for instance, he got on his knees and kissed the Bible before leading the Senate and House of Representatives to an Episcopal church for worship.  According to the book What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? (by Dr. D James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe), about 34% of all the founding fathers’ citations in their recorded works were from the Bible.   These men clearly had a decidedly biblical worldview.  The truth is that the majority of Americans for the first several hundred years of our country’s history had a decidedly biblical worldview.  From the time the Puritans landed and started schools in the early 1600s until 1837, almost all of American education was Christian and even largely funded by taxes.  Obviously this sort of general public embrace of biblical doctrine is nowhere near the case anymore.  We’re at a point where lots of people still like Jesus of Nazareth, maybe even consider him such a wonderful guy and, largely due to family history, they’ll label themselves as Christians, but exercising that faith on any sort of regular basis in any sort of day-to-day kind of way is all but gone save for about 20% of the American population.   Today, statistically speaking, the majority will not let many of their personal feelings be affected by Christian doctrine.  We’re predominantly a people who, quite ironically, recognize the Lordship of Jesus without buying all of what he taught.  (I’d encourage you to check out the research found in George Barna’s 7 Faith Tribes if you disagree).

Since a very, very large percentage of our citizenship no longer is familiar with Biblical text or acknowledges a desire to adhere to the teachings of the Bible, a biblical worldview is going away.  If a biblical worldview disappears in our country, then what expectations should we realistically have that any legislation is going to reflect God’s desire for mankind?  I would suggest very little.

The Apostle Paul, writing in Romans 2:14-15, teaches something called the Natural Knowledge of God.  He says, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.”  What Paul is saying is that everyone inherently knows that some things are universally morally right or wrong.  And when we violate that internal code of ethics, we experience a feeling of trepidation and guilt laid upon us by our consciences – this is a feeling that points us to the justice and holiness of God.  According to the Bible, everyone has this.  I can even prove this – I could go down the street and ask people one after another if it’s wrong to murder someone or to steal something or to cheat on your spouse and almost invariably each person would say that it is.  Where do notions like “good” and “evil” come from except the fact that God has tattooed a distinction on each human heart.  The problem, however, arises when a conscience is lied to repeatedly by self, society, and Satan.  It can become so confused that it then has no clue what is right or wrong.

How does this pertain to gay marriage?  Human hearts also have been tattooed with God’s design for human sexuality – one man connected to one woman in a lifelong, faithful commitment is God’s blueprint for marriage.  It’s obvious.  It’s natural.  It’s biblical.  However, when Satan has woven into the fabric of our society the philosophy that truth (even inherent moral truth) is all relative and you couple that with a society that has lost its desire for biblical guidance, you have a nation that will undoubtedly move in a direction for marriage that isn’t what God designed.  And in a democracy, whatever society’s conscience suggests is right will eventually win.

You see, this isn’t all merely a human rights issue.  Since all worldviews are affected by religious beliefs (even from those who claim to be “non-religious”), then you can’t totally divorce religion and human rights.  Human rights issues are absolutely moral issues and therefore religious issues.

The state should not be allowed to define marriage since the state didn’t start marriage, it was merely given the power by God to manage marriage.  God alone reserves the right to define marriage.  However, if people are not united in a belief of God and the absolute truth of his Word, you run into a bit of a quandary.  Then, the basic premise in democracy is…….the majority rules.  As the majority of our country increasingly drifts from active Christianity, again, unless something drastic happens, I can’t see every state in our country not eventually adopting complete equality for homosexuals – marriage, adoption, tax breaks, etc.  Without recognizing inalienable morals, Constitutionally, I don’t know how we’d be able to withhold certain “rights” from some people.  Logically, you probably can’t.

While our country holds “inalienable rights” of humans for life, liberty, and property, the majority is no longer grounded with a moral base.  Collected wisdom from history, science, and religion would seem to indicate that gay marriage and parenting should not be legal.  BUT, if there is no true agreed upon basis for morality, then it’s merely whatever the majority says.  And as legislation like what we just saw in New York continues to pass, it becomes so abundantly apparent where our countries heart currently lies.

My goal here today is merely to take some of the surprise or the “what’s happening to our country?” debate away from Christians in all of this.  Personally, I’m almost surprised that this legislation is not happening faster.  While I don’t have an immediate or easy answer to the situation, I would offer that while this might appear to be a legislative issue, this is really a spiritual issue that’s been a problem for a long time.  Let’s not expect citizens to vote on the basis of morals that they no longer have.

Simple as it sounds from a Conservative Lutheran, about the only thing that would return a healthy respect for godly morals and biblical truth to our culture is Law and Gospel.  A return to the reality of sin against a holy and righteous God who indeed has standards and expectations.  A return to Jesus as a Savior and not merely or even primarily an exemplary do-gooder.  A return to the truth about sexuality that God offers in Genesis 2, Genesis 19:1-4, Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13, Matthew 19:4-6; Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10.  If the Holy Spirit is afforded the chance to do his work and Bible teachers have the guts to proclaim biblical truth while knowing that some listeners are going to fight, scream, and leave, then maybe something as simple and beautiful as marriage, the first human relationship, will become much clearer .

Until then, people will vote whatever is currently in their hearts.  Encouraging people to get out and vote might be helpful, but they can only vote for the conviction of their heart.  In the long run for our country, encouraging people to get involved in a Bible-based, Jesus-centered church is much more helpful.  Introducing them to a God of love, mercy, and forgiveness without watering down his just, holy, and righteous plan for them is what alone can change their hearts and lives…….and our nation.

“Furthermore, every man is responsible for his own faith, and he must see it for himself that he believes rightly.  As little as another can go to hell or heaven for me, so little can he believe or disbelieve for me; and as little as he can open or shut heaven or hell for me, so little can he drive me to faith or unbelief.  Since, then, belief or unbelief is a matter of every one’s conscience, and since this is no lessening of the secular power, the latter should be content and attend to its own affairs and permit men to believe one thing or another, as they are able and willing, and constrain no one by force.” (Martin Luther, Concerning Secular Authority, 1523)

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Welcome to INdoctrin8ed

I wanted to share with you what I’ve been working on for a while now.  I’m trying to put our full adult instruction class on YouTube by breaking it down into common, practical Bible questions.  The online course is called INdoctrin8ed and the idea behind it is that difficult concepts of Scripture are given simple, straightforward, satisfying biblical answers in 8 minutes or less.  Ideally, we’ll be able to use these as at-home makeup lessons when people miss class.  Also, they will serve as easy responses to some of the more common questions I get, e.g. “So why do you guys baptize infants?”  Hopefully they could also serve as quick references for people at our website and maybe even tools for members to send to friends.

I’d very much appreciate if you’d take a look at some of the videos and give your feedback.  All you have to do is click on the INdoctrin8ed image above.  I’m no where near completed with the project, but I wouldn’t mind making some improvements now instead of when it’s all said and done and then have to edit laboriously or start over from scratch.

Also, as you’ve probably noticed, I ditched the “18 shades of gray” that the blog has been sporting for about a year now.  Some have mentioned that it was a little difficult to read.  I’m hoping for this to be an improved, slightly more modern look.  Feel free to let me know if you have any thoughts on it as well, particularly if you can’t read it.

As always, thanks for reading! (and now watching :))

Not Just Loving Jesus. IN LOVE with Jesus.

I don’t know if it’s helpful for everyone to make a distinction between “loving Jesus” and being “in love with Jesus.”  That might sound a little funny to some people.  And that might sound a little too mushy or sappy for some people, especially dudes, but I’m way beyond the point of that bothering me at this stage in my life.  It’s the truth for me.  I’ve had Christian faith since I was baptized.  I loved Jesus throughout my life.  But it wasn’t until I got into much more intense Bible study and involvement in church work later in life that I really fell in love with Jesus (by the way, I hate that expression, “fall in love,” but it’s true when it comes to Jesus.  Who he is simply compels you to love him.)   And this is something that I pray for every Christian to know.

Now, I want to make something clear here.  I’m not at all trying to establish myself as some higher class of Christian citizen or someone who through a clearly devised plan has made himself closer to God, like “I’m ‘in love’ with Jesus and you only ‘love’ Jesus.  So there!”  Not at all.  I’m simply saying that I enjoy being a Christian so much more now than I used to.  And I want every Christian to enjoy Jesus. 

In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit makes a distinction in verbs that talk about “knowing.”  You can know something to 1) be true on the basis of facts, or you can know something to 2) be true on the basis of experience.  Perhaps as I’ve grown, and sinned more, I’ve come to more and more appreciate who Jesus is and what he’s done specifically for me (i.e. to know him in the latter sense).  The truth is that today, I just admire the man so much that I can’t seem to take my eyes off of him.  I want to be like him and I want to be with him.  I’m in love with him. 

And again, if you think you’re too much of a guy to be in love with another guy, double-check your sports memorabilia case and look for the autographs of your childhood heroes.  We’ve all got role models, heroes, or significant others that we make the objects of our affection – people that we appreciate and venerate so much that whether we call it this or not, we’re in love with them. 

So…..I want to share with you today some of the truths that led to me falling more in love with Jesus: 

1) Christ’s Justice

When I was younger, I was terrified of God’s wrath and punishment.  I knew Jesus had taken away hell for me.  But I thought this current lifetime was to be filled with punishment for any inappropriate acts.  I was consistently riddled with guilt and afraid of disappointing authority.  As a child, if you looked at me funny, I cried.  I was that fragile.  And while I probably appeared pretty squeaky clean on the surface, I was still a sinner, and I knew it.  I tried to keep that as secret as possible, but it still haunted me.  That guilt, the reality of my imperfection was overwhelming at times.  I couldn’t stand those shortcomings in myself and I assumed God couldn’t stand me as a result of those shortcomings either.  Every sickness I got, every poor performance in sports, and every check mark on every classroom exam I interpreted as God’s hand squashing me for my unfaithfulness. 

Somewhere along the line I came to a more thorough understanding of God’s justice at Jesus’ cross.  Somewhere along the way the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to passages like 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.”  You see, what’s amazing is that God didn’t just dismiss our sins.  He paid for them through Jesus.  And once a debt has been paid, legally, no more payment can be collected.  If we’re in God’s courtroom and we’re on trial for our sins, God CAN’T sentence us to any more punishment for our sins because Jesus already paid our debt in full.  Consequently, if God punished (in the true sense of punishment) us for our sins today, it’d make him an unjust God, which would make him unholy.  God, the author of holiness and justice, is incapable of such a thing.  God’s justice is pure beauty for Christians, something that relieves them of any fear of punishment for who and what they are.

Now, this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t provide correction in our lives, nor does it mean that there aren’t natural consequences of my sins.  But God can’t hit me with a lightning bolt if Jesus has already been hit with it.  In Christ, and on the basis of God’s justice, I don’t have to worry about lightning striking twice in the same spot.   

2) Christ’s Boldness

If the Gospels are accurate (and obviously I believe they are), Jesus is the most loving and least politically correct man I’ve ever known.

It sometimes drives me nuts that virtually every statement you make today has to be accompanied by a qualifying statement so that no one gets offended.  We’re that sensitive.  We’re that proud.  We’re that drunk on our own beliefs and ideals and self-righteousness that we’ll get in a fist fight with the first person who seeks to provide any correction, because “how dare they find fault in the great and mighty me.”  Much of the time we get so offended because we’re so full of ourselves.   At other times, we almost apologize to people for who we are because we know that they might get offended by who we are, since they’re probably full of themselves too.  We take our shoes off before walking on carpets, we sanitize our hands after every sneeze, and we handle everyone with kid gloves.  Quite frankly, we all just need to not take ourselves quite so seriously.

I just don’t see this problem in Jesus at all.  He’s radical, revolutionary, and incredibly refreshing in this way.  If I were to sit at Panera with a known prostitute, gang leader, pedophile, and ruthless businessman over a cup of coffee, people would talk.  And I probably would care about what they had to say.  Jesus didn’t.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  (Luke 15:2)  The people he talked to were desperate and hurt and sick and broken.  It raised more than a few eyebrows that he, supposedly a “teacher” could associate with such people in any way.  He just didn’t care what people who measured him with their own self-righteous measuring stick thought.  Can you imagine that?  People making derogatory comments and absurd judgments about God’s perfect Son because they were so blinded by their own stupid selves! 

I’ve made a million unwarranted judgments about people.  I’ve inappropriately worried a million times about other people’s opinions.  And I’ve never cared about people a sliver of what Jesus did.  And I’m not a sliver of the man who Jesus was/is. 

When appropriate, Jesus called people names (both pagans and the super religious, cf. Matthew 7:6 & Matthew 23:33).  Jesus was very, very exclusive and intolerant in his belief system (John 14:6).  Jesus called people to standards and hated sin (Luke 13:3).  To many, Jesus was super offensive and if he was the pastor at a church today I’m not sure how many people would actually attend his church because Jesus was brutally honest, and brutal honesty, while it attracts people to immoral talk radio and tabloid magazines and television, doesn’t seem to attract as many people to church.  But Jesus seems to be okay with that, because he doesn’t seem nearly as concerned about getting people to like him as much as he is about expressing love to them.  And that brings me to my final point. 

3) Christ’s Selflessness

My whole life I’ve wanted to be loved.  All humans want this.  We can get very needy and unhealthy about it.  And many people spend large chunks of their life searching for love.  It probably comes from the fact that we don’t, by nature, know the truth.  The reality is that we humans, who are created in the image of God, inherently are loved by God.  God created us not to seek love, but to understand that we already are the recipients of love, and then to express that love to others. 

Jesus, by whom and through whom we were created (John 1, Hebrews 1, Colossians 1), knew this and demonstrated that he knew this in his time on earth.  He said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)  Jesus washed the feet of those lower than him (John 13:1-17), and made time for those who would not benefit him (Matthew 19:14), and even cured those who would not thank him (Luke 17:11-19).  He just walked around expressing love constantly.  And while it seemed like these casual expressions of love to the lowly maybe weren’t doing anything for him in life, truth be told, he is the most famous figure in the history of this planet.  There’s no close second.  More importantly, he did more for the people of this planet, including me, than anyone in the history of this planet.  There’s no close second. 

 This is fascinating.  I (and most humans) have generally always operated with the mindset that if I truly want to accomplish something in life, I’m going to have to carve out time for me, put energy into me, educate me, promote me, and love me.  It’s clearly very “me” focused.  God forgive me for that.  Counterintuitively, Jesus was the most “successful” and “important” man in the world’s history, and yet he didn’t make a single decision that was primarily for his own benefit.  Every move was an expression of love to God above all and love to others more than self.  I just can’t get over that.   

Obviously, we’re not Jesus and cannot be.  But I find these truths about him and about who God also created us to be in Him as so beautiful and so enthralling, that it’s led me to be more in love with him – a hero, a role model, an object of affection, but most importantly, my Savior.

Since falling in love with Jesus, Bible study has become not just an academic exercise, but a bonding experience with my best friend.  Public Worship has become not just about marking off the checklist of my Christian duties, but encountering my Lord within the body of Christ.  Prayer has become less about just asking for what I want, and more about unloading the baggage that I’ve already got.  I love Jesus.  But I thank God that I also now am more in love with Jesus.  Being a Christian is more enjoyable now.  And I’d like to think that I wouldn’t be willing to go back even for all the love of the world.

Reaching Out to All: Stripping Away the Culture of Church

Would the tax collectors and prostitutes of Jesus day be welcome at your church as they were at Jesus table?

19 Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

To say that you are interested in winning souls for Christ is one thing.  To be about it is different.  Every other aspect of the Christian faith works pretty much the same way:  To say I love Jesus on Sunday morning is one thing.  To make decisions that show he’s a top priority in my day-to-day life is another.  To say I appreciate God’s Word is one thing.  To study it with fellow believers, proclaim it in worship, and meditate upon it at home is another.  To say that I appreciate God’s generous blessings is one thing.  To use those blessings to glorify him by faithfully managing them and supporting the spread of his kingdom is another.  You get the point.  The Apostle Paul, as highlighted in his letter here to the Corinthians (and clearly seen in his mission work around the Mediterranean Sea in the book of Acts), put his outreach money (and life) where his mouth was. 

I think almost every pastor (at least those who are “better” at evangelism work) has a sense of this in his heart – that we’d bend over backwards for the possibility of a single soul coming to faith in Jesus.  For most of us, that’s why we got into this work in the first place.  The hope of being used as an instrument of God to touch hearts with the good news of Jesus and redirect souls from death to life, darkness to light, hell to heaven, this is the thing that drives us.  While pastors have this as a built-in portion of their job description, every Christian, albeit to varying degrees, plays a big part in the journey an unbeliever embarks on to become a Christian. 

One massive way in which every Christian factors in to the entrance of an unbeliever into the church, is by being a part of “church culture.”

Since the Christian Church was a design of God, church culture, in a sense, was a design of God as well.  The general nature of church culture was to be inclusive in Christ.  What does that mean?  It means that if Jesus Christ is your Lord and if his teaching guides your beliefs and life, you are a part of his Holy Church and should be welcomed into local churches, regardless of other intangibles.  If you confess Jesus as your Lord and Savior and his Inspired Word as your source of faith, then it shouldn’t matter if your skin color is red or yellow or black or white, it shouldn’t matter if you’ve got classical or rock or rap or country or pop or jazz streaming through your iPod, it shouldn’t matter if you’re 5 years old or 50 years old or 105 years old, and it shouldn’t matter if you are unemployed or a farmer or a doctor, you can always feel welcome in your Christian church.  In other words, it’s as the Apostle Paul also described in his letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)  That should be church culture, inclusion in Christ

Christianity is vastly different from other religions in that it inherently does not have its own worldly culture.  It has no centralized location or home base of operations, no common language, and no common race or ethnic heritage.  Aside from it being non man-centered, this “culture apart from worldly considerations” probably sets Christianity apart from other world religions as much as anything.  The only true element that holds all of Christianity together is the risen Lord Jesus Christ. 

Unfortunately, without most Christians realizing it, many churches have a culture within themselves that is diametrically opposed to the culture described above.  It’s a culture of exclusion that’s based on the personal comfort levels of members.  What’s the reason?  By nature we just don’t want to “be all things to all people.”  By nature we want everything to be about us. 

Practically, what this means is that (while we’d never say this) we’d much rather a newcomer be uncomfortable at our church than to make ourselves uncomfortable.  So ingrained is our old nature that we still assume that to some degree the point of this life is to make ourselves as comfortable as possible and our lives as close to a utopian kingdom as can be, failing to hear Christ’s exhortation to a kingdom not “of this world” (John 18:36).  And along with this mentality is an unwillingness to embrace the culture of our day (which carries the people of our day) in order to reach the lost. 

But isn’t worldly culture evil?!  Yes and no.  Because it contains humans, it is tainted by sin.  So are local churches though.  You can’t get away from sinful humans if you’re going to try to minister to sinful humans.  Of course Christians should not embrace the sinful elements they see in culture, but an unwillingness to embrace societal culture in general is, plain and simple, an unwillingness to “be all things to all people.” 

Interestingly, a failure to embrace 1) God, 2) the biblical concept of church, or 3) the reality of society, will leave you falling short in some way in your faith.  If you emphasize church and society apart from the authority of God, you end up with liberal, gospel-less pseudo-Christianity, a mere social gospel.  If you emphasize God and culture apart from the church, you end up with parachurch organizations that try to convert people but don’t get them rooted in Christian growth or community.  And, like many highly traditional churches, if you emphasize God and church apart from culture, you end up with a group so inwardly focused that it functionally ignores outreach to lost souls, regardless of whether or not people say they want to do outreach.   Saying it is one thing.  Being about it, as Paul was, is another. 

What does the false “culture of the church” look like?  Let me explain by way of anecdote: As I write this, I’m sitting in a coffee shop, listening to 2 ministers (one male, one female, both about 60 years old) hotly debating the possible redundancy of the Kyrie in the Gathering Rite of a specific historical order of worship.  And before you point your“Pastor, you shouldn’t be eavesdropping” finger at me, understand that I’m fairly certain the barista brewing up a fresh roast in the back room probably heard every word of this liturgical troubleshooting too.  The squawking was that loud and that passionate. 

The point is this: I listened for over an hour to the ministerial elite sipping lattes and debating issues that the average Christian, let alone the average non-churchgoing person, don’t understand, don’t care about, and frankly probably shouldn’t care about that much because it’s merely entrenching even further the issue of a false church culture that distances people from the Great High Priest who fulfilled and therefore negated for us the Jewish ceremonial laws that pointed ahead to him.  Not surprisingly, this same set of ministers was lamenting the lack of passionate and faithful young people found in their church body.    I’ve got an idea where some of these young people might be….someplace where they’re not asked to enter a foreign culture to connect to Jesus….a place where the church culture merely is Jesus, period.  That was part of the beauty of the early church.  I’ve heard many talk about how church should be counter-cultural, which is a true statement, but shouldn’t be misunderstood.  Church should be counter-cultural in that it is completely all-inclusive in Jesus.  It should NOT be counter-cultural in that it asks people to stop being who they culturally are (moral problems notwithstanding).  Rather, Paul’s writing (without compromising the gospel) seems to be compelling Christians to bend over backwards and be willing to adapt who we are for the sake of others.  That is VERY different and VERY difficult. 

So what are some ways in which we might be unwittingly creating a culture that was never designed for church?  Here are just a few… 

Insinuating (verbally or through practice) that there’s only one appropriate way, form, or style to corporately worship God. 

 People have very passionate feelings about this, and I admittedly don’t always know exactly how to balance being respectful about such feelings and yet be firm here, but this is manmade church culture, plain and simple.  (If you say there is only one way to worship, then your functional god is your religion, not Jesus.)  Here’s one example of church culture in worship: there is no place in society where we antiphonally sing responses back and forth to one another.  That is a unique culture.  As far as I’m personally concerned, there’s also sort of a unique beauty to it, but there’s no denying that it’s counter-cultural.  And so the question needs to be answered as to whether the potential benefit gained from it outweighs the cultural obstacle that it presents. (SIDE NOTE: for more on the topic of worship and outreach, here’s a link to three essays from our seminary’s website that pursue the issue.

Not having intentional ways of showing genuine interest in newcomers.

Every Christian should embrace one another with open arms, particularly those new to the faith, right?  Therefore, integrating new Christians and new church members into the body should just naturally happen, right?  Well, it doesn’t.  There’s probably lots of reasons for that, but finally, it takes hard work to make it happen, and that starts from church leadership down, having a system in place to assimilate people (i.e. make them feel “at home” in their Christian community).

Not understanding the mentality and lifestyle of newcomers. 

People new to church are going to use rougher language, have rougher lifestyles, and in general, have more rough edges in their lives to smooth out than me, since I’ve had the privilege and advantage of many years of spiritual growth.  Christianity is much less about where I’ve been as much as it is about the direction I’m moving in.  While we obviously don’t just tolerate sin, welcoming newcomers means that we understand that spiritual maturation is a process and is therefore no occasion to insert our own self-righteous judgments when someone is moving in the right direction. 

Answering questions to newcomers with that old, pompous“I can’t believe you didn’t know that, you must have been raised by heathen wolves” attitude. 

While we’re not Jesus and we’re not Saviors, part of the DNA of being in the body of Christ is a humble willingness to descend to save people rather than making spiritually condescending comments to people.  In other words, we sympathize with where people are in their spiritual progression in order to help coach them along.   We don’t patronize, but we also don’t assume anything.

Not being sympathetic to the fact that it takes time for people to build trust and commitment to a church family.  

If the church family isn’t the one that goes out of the way to consistently embrace the newcomer, the newcomer will be lost.  Although a newcomer can’t delineate every doctrinal point, they’re human, so they can feel love, generosity, and acceptance as well as any long-time member.  If they don’t perceive that, but rather perceive a bunch of ritualistic hoops that they have to jump through and a bunch of non-biblical rules they have to follow, they’ll bolt.  I probably would too. 

Using religious language and phrases that humans who aren’t in worship every Sunday morning wouldn’t understand.

Justification, sanctification, discipleship, salvation, conversion, sacrament, covenant, bought with blood, being in the Word, Spirit-filled, dying to self, old and new natures, old and new man, etc. are probably all phrases that have no business being used on Sunday mornings since newbies (and for that matter regular Christians) aren’t familiar with most of them.  For many, they cloud instead of clarify biblical truth.  I became painfully aware of how unbeneficial this kind of “church language” was when conducting a Bible study a number of years ago with a friendly group of seniors to whom I embarrassingly encouraged to “daily kill the old man.” 

Practically, I think there are all sorts of big and obvious issues that are affected by church culture.  But again, by way of illustration, and to help us think through the issue of church culture, let’s take one more tangible example.  Look at the name of our national church body – Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.  As far as I can tell those 4 words present 4 possible cultural obstacles to joining our church body, a group I belong to because I believe it very faithfully teaches the truth of God’s Word.  I want others to see that truth too, so I’d love to remove any possible obstacles.  “Wisconsin” seems to alienate people geographically.  “Evangelical” is a word that in 2011 is more associated with a Christian movement than it is with its original meaning of being gospel-centered.  “Lutheran” is a word that, due to some recent and public anti-Scriptural leanings of the largest Lutheran church body in America, has become somewhat of a dirty word in American Christendom.  And “Synod” is a word that I’d guess less than 1% of the population can come very close to defining.  Does the culture of our name prevent us from “being all things to all people”?  I’ve heard some argue that it doesn’t.  I have trouble believing that.  If it doesn’t, then somebody should let the marketing departments at KFC and IHOP know that their research was invalid and their changes were pointless.

There should not be one single thing that we’re not willing to let go of, including our lives, if it means more opportunity for the gospel. 

So how important is it to strip away our “church culture” (i.e. who we culturally are and what we’re culturally comfortable with as a church) in order to bring salvation to lost souls?  In Jesus we find the answer.  Not only is he the one who forgives us for our unwillingness to stray outside our comfort zones to win the lost and welcome the new, but he’s the one who also teaches us the humility and pattern of how to do so.  In Jesus, God himself became man, sacrificing the comfort of heaven to subject himself to the torture of hell, all to welcome sinners into his Church.  That’s outreach.  “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8)

What If Loved Ones Die and They’re Not Christian?

How much are we going to "miss" those who are not in heaven with us?

A number of years ago my wife took an adult instruction/membership class at one of the churches in our national church body.  This was before she was my wife – at the time, just a pretty girl I had tricked into dating me.  She loved the class, became a member, and attended again, this time bringing along a non-Christian friend.  Her friend hadn’t had nearly as extensive of a Christian background as my wife had, and in applying some of the truths that she was learning to her own life, she struggled with answers to some of the big life questions.  There was one in particular that bothered her: What if a loved one dies and he/she is not a Christian? 

I remember my wife calling and asking me about it and feeling a little helpless.  I’d been trained with “proof passages” for every doctrine I’d learned that I could typically rattle off pretty quick.  I hadn’t, however, been trained to comfort someone grieving the loss of a friend or family member who, according to every biblical indication, is probably in hell.  As it turned out, this friend’s dad had died of a drug overdose years earlier.  Now she was wondering why she’d even want to go to heaven if there was no hope of her dad being there.  Pretty good question. 

Since this incident 6 years or so ago, I’ve had the same question asked numerous times in a variety of ways by both Christians and non-Christians.  In the article I posted several weeks ago, I mentioned that people in our country are gradually becoming more willing to not identify themselves as “Christian,” which also means that there are fewer nominal Christians that we could reasonably hold out potential hope for, making this a question that could more increasingly be an issue for Christians in the future.

To start, I think that you’ve got to be careful about not falling off of either edge of this discussion into a valley of “no truth” or “no love”.  The valley of “no truth” here would be a universalist attitude that holds out hope that a loving God might possibly contradict his own Word and either not send anyone to hell, or, possibly send people to hell but after a while, have a period of annihilation so that they don’t have to suffer any longer.  This would be unscriptural.  (cf. Matt. 25:41, 46; Matt. 3:7-12; Mark 9:42-48; and, for instance, 2 Thessalonians 1:9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.)

The other valley, the valley of “no love,” would be to boldly proclaim orthodox doctrine about heaven and hell and why people go to one or the other, but do it in such a way that suggested you didn’t have any comprehension or sensitivity to the fact that this person would obviously like their loved one to be in heaven but they are powerless to change the dire reality.  In doing so, you could inadvertently rob heaven of its attractiveness, which would be misrepresenting it, and could turn someone off of any desire to live in eternal relationship with God.  And ultimately, this would be unchristlike. (cf. 1 Peter 1:3; 1 John 3:1-3; Jer 29:11; and, for instance, Matthew 11:28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” )  Christ came to give hope to the weak, weary, lonely, and oppressed – those sick with sin.  To lead with biblical teaching in a way that shatters someone’s hope would probably misrepresent the gospel.  It’s sort of like doing a Bible study with a liberal feminist and starting with the doctrine of the roles of men and women.  That’d probably close any lines of communication immediately.  Rather, the more sensible thing to do would be to start with showing the love, sacrifice, and generosity of Christ, a man whom you can’t help but respect.   

Demonstrating a perception of human integrity and sensitivity should be common sense, but with Christians who are passionate and fervent in defending doctrine, that just unfortunately isn’t always the case. 

So, what can you say when someone asks about a loved one in hell? 

I’ve sometimes heard people quote Christians or even pastors in saying that since heaven is a perfect place and there won’t be any sadness there, then since the knowledge/memory of a loved one who is not there would naturally be terrible, that memory must be erased.  I don’t know that there is sufficient biblical evidence to support the blissful ignorance of a heavenly lobotomy like that though. 

Rather, here are 2 things I’d encourage people to think about:

1) Those not in heaven never really wanted what heaven truly is anyways. 

In the simplest description I know, heaven is the eternal blessing of being in God’s loving presence.  An unbeliever doesn’t really want that. 

I once read the story of a pastor who, after a debate with a non-Christian friend about heaven, said that it became very obvious to him that by not taking everyone to heaven, God was actually being very gracious.  His friend had suggested that if God is truly loving he should really take everyone to heaven, regardless of their beliefs.  The pastor then asked his friend if he would like to spend eternity under God’s rule worshipping Jesus with other Christians.  The friend responded by saying that this sounded like his own personal hell and that he would be furious if God stuck him in a place like that forever.   

What some believers don’t understand is that unbelievers have chosen life apart from God.  Their unbelief wasn’t just some crime that they were a victim of.  It was what their heart wanted.  That doesn’t make the thought of them in hell easy, nor does it make their afterlife enjoyable, but it does at least give it the sense of ownership and responsibility that is deserved on the part of the individual.

2) It is possible to experience joy and happiness despite knowing that others are suffering.

Some of you are thinking that sounds like the most unchristian thing you’ve ever heard.  Then answer me this question…..is God continuously miserable?  NO ONE is as in tune with souls that have been lost as he is.  In fact, no one has ever loved the souls that have been lost more than he has.  And yet, he continues to reign over all creation in holiness and glory, apart from fear and sadness. 

The truth is that it is still possible to be empathetic and compassionate as well as joyful at the same time.  In fact, this regularly happens in our lives.  If you cross the finish line first in a race or if you win the lottery, is your first thought sadness and mourning for those who didn’t win?  That is by no means a perfect analogy, but hopefully it at least illustrates the point that we can be thrilled for our own good fortune, appreciative of God’s justice, and yet at the same time aware of those who by their own choice have not partaken of Christ’s payment for sins and promise of good fortune. 

Finally…

You know someone who is bound for hell at this moment.  Some of you know people who are already there.  Gut-wrenching.  If this person is still alive, don’t ever stop working with them and praying for them.  My goal today is not at all to cause you to care less about their spiritual well-being and eternal future.  My goal is to remind you that while your passion for such an individual is/was unquestionably great, the passion that you find in, from, and for Christ will be unquestionably greater. 

To say that you don’t want to go to heaven because a loved one won’t be there is to fail to understood that, no matter who you are, your greatest loved one, Jesus, is already there.