Forsaking all, they followed Him

Posted on November 25, 2008
Filed Under Theological | Comments Off on Forsaking all, they followed Him

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) the Psalmist writes. This blessing can be fulfilled among those who are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people” (1 Peter 2:9), when we gather together as the church of Christ. But our fellowships will not always realize this ideal until the new creation. A Christian may at times hear the call of God in his heart to leave a fellowship, even a fellowship of true saints. “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house,” (Genesis 12:1) God may say, and although He told Abram something of His plans, He did not give Abram anything to do besides go. We have no recorded commission for Abram to evangelize the Canaanites, or build altars, or slay the sinful. We know that he did at least two of those on occasion, but God did not send him out of his homeland for the express purpose of accomplishing these things; His instruction to Abram was simply “Go.”

A contemporary church will not object to a Christian leaving the congregation on a God-given mission (provided that church’s particular processes for approving the mission are followed), but a Christian who feels called to depart without any positive objective in mind will usually face strong opposition. There are many motives for leaving a gathering of believers, and among those are many wrong motives; so, too, there are many legitimate cautions against departure. Church solidarity advocates especially favor Hebrews 10:25 as a prohibition against leaving a gathering of Christians without transferring expeditiously into another. The verse reads, in its most immediate context,

“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

If we consider this passage as quoted above, it leaves a strong impression that any Christian sins who does not regularly meet with other Christians. However, this impression does not fit into the general shape of Hebrews and the teaching of the rest of the Scripture on Christian fellowship. We need first to get a broader perspective on this passage within the book of Hebrews. Shortly after the passage already cited, the author of Hebrews presents an extensive review of the faithful throughout the ages. All of these saints kept their faith at great cost. To look at one example,

“By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he looked to the reward. By faith he forsook Egypt, no fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:24-27, emphasis added).

Notice the word ‘forsook.’ Moses forsook Egypt not simply by walking outside of its borders; he repudiated what it stood for and what it offered him. This no Christian should ever do toward the general body of the saints. When Moses forsook Egypt, he took up a burden of suffering that all the faithful should expect to bear (cf. John 17:14). The writer of Hebrews strives throughout his work to give strength, hope, and confidence to those who are facing the same afflictions:

“But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven. Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward […] we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Hebrews 10:32-39).

In the context of the book of Hebrews, then, we understand that it is not the mere circumstance of assembly that is in mind in Hebrews 10:25. Those who had claimed the name of Christ were facing severe persecution, and to avoid those agonies some were repudiating their Christianity or attempting at least to hide it. Associating with the Hebrews cost Moses all the comforts and pleasures of his life, yet he persisted. The author of Hebrews addresses readers who know of others who turned back and regained their happiness in Egypt; he reminds his readers that the pleasure of the faithless is fleeting, and the affliction of the saints will have an end.

Contemporary American churches face nothing similar. Those who would leave churches are not motivated by abuses they bear for associating with Christians (if that is their motivation, they bear their own condemnation). Much more typically, the departing church member disagrees with some practice of the church or yearns for more satisfying spiritual food. The defenders of the church frequently acknowledge that there are faults in the church, but admonish that no church is perfect and that one must not forsake the assembly. It will be true until Christ returns that no church is perfect; what sort of imperfections are proper cause to leave a church is the subject of some other paper. In any case, the principle is far different than abandoning a fellowship for material reasons.

Rather than forsaking Christ for a crowd of worldly pleasures, many who leave a church are leaving behind their friends and family, and walking into a social wilderness. Doubtless they still have some contact with other people, but they may be without any friends of substance, and deal only with casual or work acquaintances. In this they greatly resemble the faithful reviewed in Hebrews 11, who were “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (v. 13) and “wandered about” (v. 37). The saints remembered in Hebrews were not faithful pew-sitting members of churches. They were mostly alone, dissidents, rejects, outsiders; not faithful members of an organized group.

It is a shallow subterfuge to say that these had no church to belong to as we do now. The author of Hebrews recalls those who were Israelites and those who were not, like Noah; he is concerned with all the people of God, regardless of names or denominations. He calls them out by their faith, and shows that one who is faithful has not forsaken the assembly of the saints, no matter how alone he may be, because every faithful man or woman is surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Some of those prophets had to stand against the people of God themselves, as they were reckoned in those times.

Paul provides an example that the faith of an individual believer cannot be profitably weighed against a crowd of other believers when he refused to heed the church at Caesarea, and continued on to Jerusalem (Acts 21:7-21). He stood on the same principle when exhorting the Galatians (Galatians 1 – 2, esp. 2:14). Walking contrary to the will of the believers around you cannot be freely equated with faithlessness. Denying Christ to retain worldly status is condemned in Hebrews 10:25 and in many other places, but this verse does not provide a basis to compell the attendence of every believer at a gathering of Christians once every seven days; nor does any other New Testament scripture. Faith has no such simple ritual.

Nothing thus far examined supports individualistic Christianity, which is based on what the individual believer wants and feels most happy doing. It is to Christ we each owe our allegiance. If Christ is not alive and speaking to the individual believer, the believer is already lost, whether inside our outside of a church. If Christ leads the believer into a fellowship with other saints, he is that much more blessed. And if Christ calls the beleiver to depart from a particular gathering, he must go as Abraham went, “not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). Neither the pleasure of fellowship nor the pain of isolation should stop him. Nor should the rewards or abuse of the world lead him away from associating with the meek of the earth; but in whatever way he goes, he must consider the faithful servant, Christ Jesus, who has in store for all his children family, fellowship, and great reward, when at last He comes again.

Great Expectations

Posted on November 23, 2008
Filed Under Journeyman Chronicles | Comments Off on Great Expectations

Today I visited the first house church I have found in this area. I could not tell you tonight whether it’s the beginning of answered prayer or of great dissappointment.

In this part of the country, everyone knows the whole countryside from their youth, so the concept of road signs is not really understood. There are road signs; some little byways that barely have enough traffic to keep the grass from growing are marked. But sometimes a sign is inexplicably omitted from a main juncture. Today I happened upon a four-way intersection that prominently displayed signs indicating the road to Whereville and Sometown, but no sign whatever indicating the names of the actual roads. So I guessed, and guessed wrong, and wound up on a road clinging to a cliffside. In this area you often wind up on extreme road conditions if you go half a mile off of the main drag. I love those roads and I am a great hazard driving on these cramped roads for gawking at the views.

Once I sorted out my directions and got where I meant to go, I was welcomed into the home, where the meal preparations were underway. We loafed about chatting as we waited for others to arrive. I had thought that it was just one couple and the wife’s parents, but when I arrived there was already an elderly man and woman of no relation to each other or anyone else, and another adult daughter of the previously mentioned parents. There were also some young children, and I admit to being captivated by quiet little knee-highs with wide eyes.

Then the young couple arrived with three more little children, and, after waiting a little longer for some other possible arrivals, we began with some songs accompanied by guitar or CD. Anyone present could nominate a song, including the children, and they ranged from old hymns to to very contemporary compositions. As we were singing another family arrived with their three daughters. When everyone was through singing a recorded sermon from John MacArthur was played, and then we concluded with prayer. Anyone who wished spoke in the prayer. The proceedings were very informal and relaxed throughout; adults sometimes had whispered conversations on the side, and when the children were bored they played in an adjacent room.

Afterward we all sat down to eat, and the meal continued into converation on to about 4:30 in the afternoon. The two older people and the family with three daughters left then, and I was about to; but when I was at the door I asked how it was they felt they could not attend a typical church and yet felt they should feature a typical preacher. The conversation went on from there and I left around seven o’clock.

Three of us were conversing, with three others who gradually joined in, so you can imagine how we went from one subject on to a related topic, and then on to another, and then another, and then back to the first again; and in the manner of conversation some nuances went unexplored, and some clarifications wandered into secondary subjects. It is difficult and even unfair to extract from that theologies and errors and the philosophical underpinnings that shape and drive an association. But, on the caveat that it is the first impression from my limited perceptions and not a verdict from the throne of the Almighty, here’s what I discovered of their thinking:

They first stopped attending traditional churches when it was hard to find one that was doctrinally sound. Gradually they became more convinced that no tradition or particular pastor had a better source of doctrine than they themselves, or any other believer; they realized that God is the authority and he speaks through his spirit, not particularly through ordained experts. Having come to this perspective, it became harder to go along with shallow and arbitrary regulations in traditional churches (such as the one that I have been visiting, which they also formerly attended, which frowns on contemporary music).

The are generally conservative in their doctrine, believing in God’s sovereign election (what is called Calvinism) and six-day creation, and are ardently opposed to abortion. The subject did not come up and I do not know, but if I had to guess, I would suppose that they do not hold to infant baptism or strict Covenantal theology; but they definitely incline toward “God, Family, and Country” principles. The families are all homeschoolers and were vocal McCain supporters.

The way the father (or grandfather, depending on your view) said that they chose not to be politically passive seemed to allow a tolerance for legitimate Christianity that chooses not to be involved in polictics; I avoided the politics and I think that was sensed and respected. Since I did not push the boundaries I do not know exactly where their boundaries lie. Although my sense is that they do not believe that a Christian must vote and must vote Republican, there is certainly room for me to be wrong on this count.

They also believe in a seven-year Tribulation, if the comment of the son-in-law is any indication, and this suggests a general problem with figurative scripture (often those who maintain six-day creation struggle with figurative scripture and especially Revelations).

Further, and possibly the gravest concern of all, it seems to be the women who shape this church. Here I will begin to use names, because the personalities will be pivotal in my further involvement in this fellowship. The family moved out to Montana years ago because Paul wanted to; they moved back to this area because Vickie wanted to. Vickie told me that their original plan was to meet in a home initially and then move into a church building with a pastor. She described to me using the first person singular pronoun (‘I’ for the grammar-challenged) her concerns as they began that process: “How would I know that the pastor had good theology? How would I make sure that he was thoroughly interviewed?” And, if the my recollection and the imprecision of conversation are accurate, she was the one to decide on listening to recorded sermons. She types up chatechisms for their young children. And Paul remarked that, since she is teaching the children, Vickie is usually the one to first read and discover good teaching that is out there in other books, which she then recommends to him. Then their son-in-law Ray chimed in, noting that in both their families their wives were the pioneers of doctrine (my phrase, not his), searching out and brining in the edifying teaching.

I do not believe that women can not and should not ever teach men anything spiritual. Those who believe in such spiritual patriarchy have not learned that in Christ there is neither male nor female; that the same holy spirt indwells both. At the same time, though, in the different earthly temporal roles of the sexes, the overall role of leadership belongs with the men, and when they do not fulfill this there is harm or at least lack, as with any spiritual principle that lies fallow.

When someone is irresponsible with their money, it is much easier to say that they will end in financial ruin than it is to say exactly how they will get there. I could not hazard to predict exactly what sort of harm (or lack) results from men neglecting their leadership duty (rightly understood, and not to the exclusion of the spiritual gifts of the women), but I can still say that it is unbalanced, and, drawing on the sense of something imbalanced, that it could gradually drift off course, or totter ever more precariously, or just be susceptible to sudden toppling.

But they have been meeting for six or nine years, or something on that order if I remember correctly; families have come and gone. In my experience it seems that the worst flaws cause catastrophes in less time than that.

Surely this is no perfect church, without blemish and ready for the marriage supper of the lamb. That does not answer whether it is a profitable fellowship for me at this time in my life, though. We all have shortcomings, not just those random incidents that fundamental Baptists allow but habits, preferences, and fiercely held opinions that are not God-honoring. So the question of fellowship is not “Are they wrong about some things?” but, “Are they as a fellowship committed to something which is not Christ-like and which pertains to the fellowship, so that my joining with them would indicate my acceptance and endorsement of this error?” My answer to that question, according to my Spirit-led understanding, could change in a month, or a year, or ten years. Today, I plan to go back next week.

How shall I describe this?

Posted on November 7, 2008
Filed Under Theological | Comments Off on How shall I describe this?

I hit a really hard time in my life a few years back when the love of God seemed like a bitter joke. You could say God’s love was a fact, and I could shrug and agree with you. They say the earth revolves around the sun, too, far above the thin layer of my life upon the earth.

I have found an Echo of those days. I commend it to you as 48 hours of a year of my life. It may show you, if it has for you the power it has for me, how the heart can unravel the weave that keeps the soul in the body.

I kept waiting to feel God’s love. Then I realized: That day hasn’t come yet.

“Behold, this is our God;
We have waited for Him, and He will save us.
This is the LORD;
We have waited for Him;
We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.” (Isaiah 25:9)

But it will.

Isn’t it amazing that the difference between winter and summer is just a matter of how much the earth leans toward the sun?