THE BABY AND THE BATHWATER

Maybe it’s just me, but as I follow Christian dialogue today, and in particular Christian blogging, there seems to be (imho) a kind of polarisation and exclusion that is totally unnecessary and does a lot of damage. If you like, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Or, the failure to hold two biblical truths in their biblical tension.

Let me give some examples. Take the recently resurrected debate inspired in the main by John MacArthur called ‘Strange Fire,’ in which such an emphasis is put on the ‘fruit’ of the Spirit over against the ‘gifts’ of the Spirit, that he preaches ‘cessationism’ (basically, the gifts ceased with the NT) and then (literally) condemns to hell all Charismatic brothers and sisters who practise the gifts of the Spirit. There has been a response of hurt and yet compassion on the part of Charismatics across the world (most have admitted the crazy and dangerous extremes of some), who admirably insist that John MacArthur is still their brother in Christ and as such needs to be supported in prayer. Those nearer my age will know this debate has been raging since the 60’s – the fact is that the Scriptures clearly reveal, if you do your exegesis properly, a case for the fruit and the gifts of the Spirit. They complement one another. Maurice Smith and Frank Viola, among others, have responded graciously and eloquently on this issue.

A slightly different example, viz. that of the living Word (Jesus) being played off against the written word, as if they do not belong together or need each other. Let me state it up front. I am not among those who in past decades have held a view of the Bible which has virtually led to its worship, i.e. bibliolatry. Too often man-made, mechanical, fundamentalist and rigid views of biblical inspiration have been held to the extent that the Trinity could almost be defined as Father, Son and Holy Bible. In my early denominational days anything that even smelt of the Holy Spirit was held at arm’s length, one brother confessing that he would get physically nauseous at the mention of ‘the Spirit,’ admittedly in the heyday of the Charismatic movement and some extremism. I love my Bible to bits (it’s falling apart – some would say it means I’m put together?) but I love the living Word, Jesus, above all. The Bible, this wonderful and divinely inspired book (cf 2 Tim. 3:14-16; 2 Pet. 1:18-21) is not my Saviour but Jesus is. I appreciate the way OT scholar and ex Dallas Professor Jack Deere, who was brought from self-admitted spiritual barreness to abundant life in the Spirit, once put it (Surprised by the Power of the Spirit): ‘Jesus is not a doctrine, a theology, an abstract principle, a ministry, a church, a denomination, an activity or even a way of life (my emphasis). Jesus is a person, a real person. And he demands that we put him above all these good things. None of these things died for us; the Son of God did.’ However, let us not throw out the Bible as a reliable, historical witness to Jesus Christ and turn it into an ‘inspiring book’ Helen Steiner Rice style (with respect) providing helpful thoughts which ‘the Spirit’ brings to my attention as my personal needs and circumstances require. C’mon, are we spiritual babies needing dummies (pacifiers) or mature believers who understand that the Bible releases its treasures through serious pursuit and hard work! [cf Paul’s earlier counsel to Timothy in 2 Tim. 2:14ff – and yes, I am aware that Timothy did not have a leather-bound, red-letter KJV version of the Bible at hand (as one oldy used to say, ‘If it was good enough for Paul it’s good enough for me!)] My Seminary colleagues will recall a certain principal of ours known for his slogan, “Gentlemen, it’s not a case of ‘either or’ but ‘both and’… it became a little bit of a joke among us, but it carries truth!

Another example, that of the sovereignty of God (all the Calvinists cheer) and human responsibility (all the Arminians cheer). Fortunately as a young student I read J.I. Packer’s excellent ‘Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.’ Therein he makes clear that all theological topics contain pitfalls for the unwary, for God’s truth is never quite what a man would have expected. Thus with evangelism and God’s sovereignty (both taught in Scripture), we are dealing with an antinomy in the biblical revelation, and in such circumstances our finite minds simply don’t cope. An antinomy is ‘a contradiction between conclusions which seem equally logical, reasonable or necessary’ (Shorter Oxford Dictionary). In theology, at any rate, it’s not really a contradiction so much as one that appears to be one. An antinomy exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable (e.g. God has predestined his elect, yet we are to evangelize), both undeniable. J.I. Packer shows in his book how a right understanding of the sovereignty of God is not so much a barrier to evangelism as an incentive and powerful support for it.

Coming to the contemporary Organic Church perspective (which I hold to, and is defined in my blogs), I notice an understanding or misunderstanding of ‘church’ as just a group of people who believe in Jesus and casually ‘hang together’ Mt. 18:19-20 style (totally ignoring its context). Yes, it includes that! However, in the dialogue between church structure and spontaneity, let’s not lose sight that even in organic church there is need for minimalistic, simple structure, as e.g. they had in the early Church of Acts 2:42/NIV, ‘They (the newly-repentant and baptised) devoted (i.e. ‘committed’) themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship (Bonhoeffer, ‘the life together’), to the breaking of bread and to prayer (lit. ‘the prayers’). We also know from Acts that Paul planted small, organic, indigenous, identifiable grassroots communities in ‘locate-able’ places, under the majestic and functional headship of Jesus. So for example, the church at Corinth, Thessalonica, etc. Please let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water! Organic Christians, while being the Church 24/7, also have the responsibility to assemble somewhere, sometime, for mutual teaching, edification, encouragement and exhortation, yes even mutual worship [cf. 1 Cor. 14:26ff; Eph. 5:19ff (the exhortations in Ephesians are firstly corporate); Heb. 10:23ff] [no great detail is given of NT ‘church structure,’ in order to safeguard Christ’s body from formalism, institutionalism and blue-printism]. As a natural consequence, such healthy local churches and the members within them become missional in the local market place and among the untouched ethnic groups of the world.

A friend of yesteryear, who studied at Prairie Bible Institute in Canada during the campus awakening of the 1950-60’s (?), reminded me of Prof. Maxwell’s dictum, The hardest thing in the world is to keep balanced. It is you know. Speak to an equestrian. Let’s endeavour to hold God’s truth in biblical balance, lest we unwittingly do damage to ourselves and the kingdom. The best way is to read the Bible, the whole Bible, and let the living Word interpret it for us by the Spirit. Note Jesus’ beautiful clarification to his confused followers following his mysterious resurrection: Lk. 24:44ff (MSG), ‘Everything I told you while I was with you comes to this: All the things written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms have to be fulfilled.’ He went on to open their understanding of the Word of God, showing them how to read their Bibles this way”… I.e. from the perspective of the centrality and supremacy of the risen Jesus of the Gospels!

Justin Mulder has written powerfully, experientially and in a fresh way on the subject of how to read the Bible – see his blogs at http://justinmulder.wordpress.com

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TROUBLE AND JOY

Over the years I have listened to sermons and ‘testimonies’ from Western Christians, and the impression created in my own mind, especially in my more youthful days, was that conversion and serving the Lord is really all quite simple, straight forward, logical, exciting and successful. Is it really so in the light of Scripture, reality and experience?? 

The last few weeks I’ve been munching my way slowly through Paul’s First Letter to the church in Thessalonica. Reading from The Message, I was struck by v. 6 of chap. 1: ‘Although great trouble accompanied the Word, you were able to take great joy from the Holy Spirit! – taking the trouble with the joy, the joy with the trouble.’

Now the background to all this was that the Thessalonian church, in spite of Paul’s stay of less than a month with them, was flourishing and enthusiastic in their new-found experience of the Gospel and witness to it [as the ‘Gospel’ seems largely lost on Western Christians these days, maybe re-visit Paul’s definition thereof in 1 Cor. 15:1-34]. Paul heartily commends the Thessalonian community for this. However, these relatively new believers were being pressured by a number of things. On the one hand the Jewish opponents of the Way were engaging in a whispering campaign against Paul and his co-workers, questioning their integrity, motives and the potency of their message. On the other hand, these new believers were constantly surrounded by their pagan and hedonistic fellow-citizens and the temptation, when the way became difficult, was to revert to their easy-going pre-conversion morals and lifestyle. 

My particular interest here is Paul’s statement that these Thessalonian believers received the Word with ‘trouble’ (NIV, ‘severe suffering’) and yet with joy.’

From my personal experience of following Jesus for over fifty years now (by grace alone, be sure of that), I can testify that most times the reception of the Word was accompanied by ‘trouble,’ whether it has come amid poor teaching, legalism in the church with the resultant lack of assurance, misunderstanding by family and peers, criticism and slander from ‘mature’ fellow-believers in one’s church (who should have known better), intellectual doubts, fears, worldly temptations, etc.

The other side of the coin has been the experience of colossal and inexpressible joy, amid those very  troubles – a joy certainly not natural to us, but supernaturally and unexpectedly given by the Spirit of God [the apostle Peter writes of such joy amid ‘grief in all kinds of trials’: 1 Pet.1:8-9 (NIV), ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him… you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls’]. I am sure we can all recall times when we experienced, amid our troubles and perplexities, God’s love and joy in such measure it felt like our body and spirit would burst!

I can identify with Swedish pastor and theologian Anders Nygren when he stated, ‘The gospel is not the presentation of an idea, but the operation of a power. When the gospel is preached… the power of God is at work for the salvation of men, snatching them from the powers of destruction… and transferring them into the new age of life.’ [I love JB Phillips’ rendition of Eph.6:12-13 because it reflects the realities of the Christian life: ‘For our fight is not against any physical enemy; it is against organisations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil. Therefore you must wear the whole armour of God that you may be able to resist evil in its day of power, and even when you have fought to a standstill you may still stand your ground’]

My friends, don’t be surprised at this ‘mixture of trouble and joy’ whenever you receive the Word (written and incarnate). We need to make peace with the fact that ‘trouble’ has always been part of the lot of the true disciple, as Jesus himself foretold: Jn.16:33 (NIV), ‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ The Reformer Luther once asked, ‘If Christ wore a crown of thorns, why should His followers expect only a crown of roses?’ It’s a little known fact that Mother Theresa of Calcutta served the poor sometimes for lengthy periods of many years without any sensible experience of God’s presence.

If you as a serious believer are going through a season of ‘great trouble’ at the moment, with seemingly no light at the end of tunnel, may I assure you that you are on the right road, my brother/sister, no matter inward emotions or outward appearances. Sooner or later, the Spirit will mix that ‘great trouble’ with ‘great joy.’ Your weeping will yet turn to rejoicing! (Ps. 30:5)

 

 

 

CAN YOU CHANGE YOUR CHURCH?

Let me unpack that question. Can I, as an unusually committed Christian, zealous for the kingdom, change my denomination or local church? Can I by grace bring it closer to what I (and maybe a few others) believe to be a more biblical expression of the body of Christ? I am referring here primarily to traditional, institutional churches [by the way, a somewhat dated statistic claims the existence of some 35,000 denominations world-wide]. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘institutional’ as meaning a body regulated by established laws, traditions, customs, organization, etc. From my experience, there are many sincere church members posing this question today, ‘Can I change my church?’ ‘Can I gradually change it from within?’ 

I’ve noted with interest some of the recent courageous statements being made by Pope Francis regarding the Roman Catholic Church. I have before me two articles on the subject. In the first, from NEWS 24, Pope Francis vows to change the Vatican mentality. He mentions the Catholic Church’s many previous narcissistic popes thriving on the flattery of their courtier aides. He mentions reforming the Curia (the Vatican’s troubled Administrative HQ), pursuing an outward-looking rather than an inward-looking Church, etc. In the second article, from TIME magazine, Father James Martin reports on an interview with Pope Francis entitled, ‘We Knew We Had Spiritual Dynamite!’ It touches on some controversial topics like the role of women in the Church, gay priests, and so on. What struck me most was his indicated desire to see the Church not as a top-down organisation imposing rules, but as a people, a community, in dialogue. Impressive!

In 1978 there was another hopeful Pope, Pope John Paul 1, Albino Luciani. He died mysteriously only thirty-three days after his election. He was known as ‘the smiling Pope.’ By all accounts he was highly intelligent, a man who loved the poor, who refused to impose Christian solutions on non-Christians. He was sensitive to social problems and open to dialogue, a good pastor and a shepherd in the way Jesus was, a man of enormous faith. David Yallop in his world-celebrated book ‘In God’s Name’ maintains, very credibly, that Albino Luciani was in fact discreetly murdered by poisoning because he dared to investigate the well-known corruption within the Vatican. Yallop’s book was instigated at the request of certain important individuals within Vatican City who suspected a massive cover-up by those who stood to lose the most. It was based on monumental research over three years, sold over six million copies world-wide, and is hugely believable (read the book for yourself, I found a copy in my local public library). To this day, the central questions in Yallop’s book remain unanswered. Am I prophesying? Nope. Just submitting that it’s well-nigh impossible to try and change an institution from the inside!

Now I can tell you from personal and rather painful experience, that sincere and zealous attempts on my part as a pastor to change the top-down mentality of ‘democratically’ run churches (democracy lit. means ‘man rules’) in my own evangelical denomination over many decades, largely failed. Seven years ago the Lord sovereignly and graciously engineered my wife and I leaving our traditional pastorate. Since then we have been facilitating ‘organic house churches’ [for a definition, see my previous blogs], after the Christo-centric spirit of the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the NT Epistles. There have been up’s and down’s but more than compensating fruit and joy. This meant, amongst other things, implementing the ‘priesthood of all believers’ and above all the supremacy of Christ as functional head of his body – things most institutional churches preach but almost never practise. 

You may object that you belong to an independent, free-worshipping charismatic church with the full operation of the gifts. More and more folk from that background are acknowledging that they are subject to traditionalism as much as in any orthodox denomination. In fact, sometimes ‘control’ is exercised by leadership akin to that of little popes. 

Can one totally write off the institutional Church? I guess with GOD, in contrast to us mere mortals, nothing is impossible? Are there ‘Spirit-filled’ believers in institutional churches? I am sure there are, but can they sustain that position indefinitely? (more often than not, the institution shapes us). Does it behove the many who have said ‘farewell to institutionalism’ across the globe [the stream has become a torrent in many places, e.g. the Church in China – where denominations failed abjectly, house churches triumphed magnificently] to be self-righteous and uncharitable? Never! Can I as an individual believer change my institutional church from within? That’s the million dollar question…

What must I do then, if I am totally frustrated with my lovely, comfortable church which ‘cares’ for the poor but does not know the poor? Well, maybe that would require a future, separate blog. Whatever you do in the mean time, do not act hastily or uncharitably. Be patient, read your Bible from a fresh and Christ-centred perspective, and be praying much as we pray for you. Seek the counsel of the wise. The Lord will surely guide you along his way. 

I know that what I have written here may ‘rock the boat’ somewhat. I run the risk of being misinterpreted and misunderstood. I have attempted to be as charitable as possible in my personal assessment of the institutional and the non-institutional. But as Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, said long ago, ‘If you want to change the future you have to disturb the present.’

The good news is you don’t have to accept my sentiments! On the other hand… 

 

‘THERE’S A LOT OF PAIN, BUT A LOT MORE HEALING…’

Robin Mark and four thousand men in Belfast (Ireland) sing this song, and one of the stanzas reads,

‘There’s a lot of pain, but a lot more healing
There’s a lot of trouble, but a lot more peace
There’s a lot of hate, but a lot more loving
There’s a lot of sin, but a lot more grace!’

These lyrics trigger for me the evangelist John’s words in his profound prologue to his Gospel:  Jn. 1:4-5 (NIV), ‘In him (the Logos, i.e. Jesus) was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it’ (Gr. ‘understood’ or ‘overcome’).

A month or two ago I wrote to my family members and friends about our annual SCO (Students’ Christian Organisation) camp for children from the township school in Kuyga, a very poor community on the western outskirts of Port Elizabeth. A small team and I have been privileged to share, for about seven years now, the good news through word, deed and life with some of these kidz, ranging from Grade R to Grade 9 [about 7 years ago, after I had left the traditional pastorate, God spoke to me clearly about the fact that approximately 80% of the world is poor and young]. Pupils are encouraged to raise the costs of the camp at R.150 per person, all inclusive. Some of them managed (somehow!) to do that, others just couldn’t – your contributions enabled us to fully sponsor a good number of children who had showed consistent interest in the SCO gatherings over the past year. Now you may recall that most of the families in Kuyga have only one parent, some homes have no parent and children are raised by an older sibling or Gogo (grandmother) or even a caring neighbour. Often the children are emotionally abused, some sexually – it’s an exception for kidz to come from a fully integrated home. I can’t tell you the excitement of these scholars as the camp drew nearer – they simply could not wait for that special moment.

Last weekend, the 4-6th October, we took forty kidz together with the two overseeing teachers to ‘Springs’ camp-site near Uitenhage. We had not been to this venue for two years, and were shocked at the state of the facility – it had degenerated terribly, under obvious mismanagement, over that period. The rooms were dirty and the furnishings and plumbing in a poor state, etc. Nonetheless, these children thought they were in paradise! They revelled in their own bed, a warm shower, three tasty and wholesome meals per day, the camaraderie, the games and sports activities, and so on.

This past Wednesday at our weekly gathering I asked my class for three volunteers to share what they enjoyed most about the camp. The volunteers mentioned the usual things young people enjoy on an outing, but significantly all three commented on the inter-active time of sharing with Siphokazi, as she dealt with the problems plaguing our society today especially in the township ethos. For example, they learned that they are created in God’s image, ‘OK without drugs,’ and the recipients of God’s grace in Jesus. Siphokazi is a mature single mom, a deeply committed believer who has the most amazing passion for children. She is totally energised by holistic ministry to the young. Exhuberant and vibrant, she conveys God’s unconditional love for  those she serves in innovative ways. Siphokazi’s and my path crossed a year or two ago, when in a dark valley she phoned me one day (I hardly knew her) and shared her acute pain and depression. To cut a long story short, after intense prayer and helpful medication via a sympathetic Christian medical doctor, she has entered a new dawning of purpose and joy – all this despite being unemployed at this moment and staying with her elderly mother, whose only income is a tiny state pension.

As I write I am close to tears – tears of joy and gratitude, that God should choose to bring together a team such as I have described above, to share Christ’s unquenchable light with a group of young people living in dark places. And YOU, by your financial gifts and intercessions, helped make this possible! And so, on behalf of the staff and students, many many thanks to you all from our hearts to yours!

‘O outrageous grace! O outrageous grace!
Love unfurled by heaven’s hand
O outrageous grace! O outrageous grace!
Through my Jesus I can stand.’

Siphokazi was sharing with me how, driving home (very reluctantly, especially the children) the children in her mini-bus passed a drunken man staggering dangerously along the road. The children immediately, spontaneously and loudly exclaimed their camp slogan, ‘Ke mojo without drugs!’ ‘I am fine without drugs!’ Amid all your busy-ness and the clutter of life, if from time to time this letter or a sentiment in it flashes momentarily through your mind, please remember us in prayer.

May God shine his face on you, wherever you are and whatever your calling, in these momentous times,

in Jesus’ name!

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