One Powerful Lesson for the Church

On November 18, 1978, at the direction of charismatic cult leader Jim Jones, 909 members of the People’s Temple died, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning,” including over 200 murdered children.

Mel White, a Christian writer and filmmaker and adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, set out to investigate the causes of the Jim Jones’ Jonestown tragedy in the Guyana jungle, and pub­lished his findings in Deceived (1979).

In talking to defectors and survivors, he discovered that Jones’s victims had church backgrounds, but they did not find love there. Jean Mills, for exam­ple, a defector after seven years, said, “I was so turned off in every church I went to because nobody cared.”

And Grace Stoen, whose lawyer husband Tim became the second most powerful man in the People’s Temple, said, “I went to church until I was 18 years old .. . and nobody ever befriended me.” In the People’s Temple, however, according to Jean Mills, “everyone seemed so caring and loving. They hugged us and made us welcome … and they said they wanted us to come back.”

This discovery led Mel White in his last chapter (entitled “It Must Not Happen Again”) to list several resolutions, of which the first is, “I will do my best to help make my church a more loving community to our members and the strangers in our midst.”

Please make this one of your resolutions for 2019!

The Major Markers of Spiritual Progress

Have you ever wondered what does it really look like to make spiritual progress in

your journey? What kind of Christians does the Holy Spirit want to develop?

Christians whose lives display the following seven features:

  1. Doxology, the habit taught and modeled by Paul of constantly praising God and giving him thanks;
  2. Humility, the downward growth that comes by dwelling on the free, boundless,, almighty grace of God that achieves the salvation of sinners, including oneself, through the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ;
  3. Generosity, the whole-hearted giving of oneself and one’s resources in order to show love and render service both to God and to others;
  4. Honesty, the refusal to cut moral corners, practice deception or come to terms with injustice;
  5. Intensity, a spirit that rejects euphoric sloth and laziness in favor of maximum effort to further God’s cause, extend Christ’s kingdom, and make the Savior known, and that goes flat out with an eye on the goal as one does when running a race;
  6. Bravery, which, though sometimes trembling in its shoes, stands firm for Christ against all forms of opposition, belittling and ridicule; and
  7. Solidarity with the church, especially the local church, the people of God who are the body and bride of Christ and one’s one spiritual family, so that one never wanders off into any form of churchless individualism, as if one were the only pebble on God’s beach.” – J.I. Packer, From the periodical CRUX, Spring 2007, vol. 43. no. 1, p. 6.

Take Courage! There Are No Exemplary Families in the Bible

It is easy to despair when we realize how far we fall short as husbands, wives, fathers and mothers. Below is an excerpt from Eugene Peterson’s book Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up with Your Teenager (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998). It has been a source of tremendous encouragement for me and I hope it will be also for you. Thank you for taking time to read and digest this encouraging word.

Eugene Peterson writes:

The search of Scripture turns up one rather surprising truth: There are no exemplary families. Not a single family is portrayed in Scripture in such a way so as to evoke admiration in us. There are many family stories, there is considerable ref­erence to family life, and there is sound counsel to guide the growth of families, but not a single model family for anyone to look up to in either awe or envy.

Adam and Eve are no sooner out of the garden than their children get in a fight. Shem, Ham, and Japheth are forced to devise a strategy to hide their father’s drunken shame. Jacob and Esau are bitter rivals and sow seeds of discord that bear centuries of bitter harvest. Joseph and his brothers ring changes on the themes of sibling rivalry and parental bungling. Jesse’s sons, brave and loyal in service of their country, are capricious and cruel to their youngest brother. David is unfortunate in both wives and children – he is a man after God’s own heart and Israel’s greatest king, but he cannot manage his own household.

Even in the family of Jesus, where we might expect something different, there is exposition of the same theme. The picture in Mark, chapter three, strikes us as typical rather than exceptional: Jesus is active, healing the sick, comforting the distressed, and fulfilling His calling as Messiah, while His mother and brothers are outside trying to get Him to come home, quite sure that He is crazy. Jesus’ family criticizes and does not appreciate. It misunderstands and does not comprehend.

The biblical material consistently portrays the family not as a Norman Rockwell group, beaming in gratitude around a Thanksgiving turkey, but as a series of broken relationships in need of redemption, after the manner of William Faulkner’s plots in Yoknapatawpha County.

At the very least, this means that no one needs to carry a burden of guilt because his or her family is deficient in the sweetness and light that Christian families are supposed to exhibit. Since models for harmonious families are missing in Scripture (and for that omission I am repeatedly grateful to the Holy Spirit), we are free to pay attention to what is there — a promise of new community which experiences life as the household of faith, a family in Christ. Life together consists of relationships that are created not by blood (at least not by our blood) but by grace. We get along not because we are good but because we are forgiven.

In this new community, created by the Holy Spirit and called the church, much of the vocabulary used to describe relationships comes from the family as we already know it: brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers. The message seems to be something along these lines. What you never managed in your own families naturally, you may now have in the new community supernaturally. All that was lost at Eden is regained at Gethsemane. Relationships learned at the cross of Christ, the ways of love and the techniques of forgiveness, will give you the brother and sister you longed for, the son and daughter you desired. What you learn in the community of faith you will then be able to take back into your natural families of sons and daughters, of fathers and mothers.

We are faced daily with the reality that something has gone wrong with our families. Our children fight and quarrel; our parenting misfires. We are involved in failure, and we are guilty. Something has, of course, gone wrong with the family, but it went wrong long before we came on the scene. It is futile to complain or feel guilty; we can, though, go to work and nurture family life on the new grounds provided by the Holy Spirit. Blood relationships are transformed into relationships of grace. Our natural families are informed and redeemed by the same principles that are foundational in the community of the Holy Spirit, the church.

But it is not easy to acquire these biblical perspectives. It is especially difficult when we are isolated from others and confined within the structures of our natural family. That is why it has seemed to me so important to encourage parent coalitions,” gatherings of Christians engaged to discover and appropriate the promises and gifts of God as they are learned through the forms of family life.

Charles Williams, I think more than any other Christian in our time, has shown the centrality of what he calls “substituted love” (and what theologians in the Reformation traditions have named “the priesthood of all believers”). Williams’s exposition of the doctrine in his novels and his poetry showed both how necessary and how attractive it is to “bear one another’s burdens . . .” (Gal. 6:2). He invited Christians who were faced with difficulties, whether slight or heavy, to enter into “compacts.” “Compacts,” he wrote in his essay “The Way of Exchange,” “can be made for the taking over of the suffering of troubles, and worries, and distresses, as simply and as effec­tually as an assent is given to the carrying of a parcel . . . . To begin the way in small things conveniently is better than to dream of the remote splendors of the vicarious life; not that they are likely in any case to seem very splendid when they come. To begin by practicing faith where it is easiest is better than to try and practice it where it is hardest. There is always somewhere where it can be done.” (Charles Williams, Selected Writings (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 128.)

Since the burden of parenthood is particularly onerous to many during the time their children move through the years of adolescence, I have hoped, by describing some of the motions of that process and by inviting parents to meet together, to initiate acts of burden-sharing, “compacts” of substituted love. Where two or three – and eight or ten – gathered together in our Lord’s name we learned through honest discussion, se­rious Scripture reading, and faithful prayer, the inner dynamics of the family of God which is the church. Sometimes we found that we also became more skilled in love and practiced in pardon, and so were able to live with one another and with our sons and daughters in happier ways, and that was so much the better.

It is this second community with its origins at Pentecost that releases energies of redemption, not the first whose roots are in Eden. And so it is with the presuppositions of faith that I have approached the entire matter of the parent and the adolescent. It is more important, I think, that families be used as places to develop faith than that the faith be used as a resource to develop families. For it does no good to improve the family if we only make a household god out of our success. Our Lord, who wills our love for one another, also gave us solemn warning, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

Behold THE Face to Meet All Faces

“Because Jesus Christ alone is the Lord of glory, we are to reject the kinds of pretense and discrimination toward other people that depend on a working theory of our own personal superiority.  Because of His glory, we are able to relax, without the need to impress other people with our glory.  This becomes for us a reason for humility and an altogether healthy antidote to pretentiousness or discrimination toward others.
I know One who deserves the glory, so my head is not so easily turned by the lesser luminosities of life.”
Earl Palmer

“The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes,
the more will everything else between us recede,
the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and His work become the one and only thing that is vital between us”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Five Keys to Authentic Community (Romans 16:1-16)

We all desperately need community. This hit me again with great force recently as I was watching the movie “The Count of Monte Cristo” starting James Caviezel as Edmond Dantes. Abbe Faria, aka the Priest, becomes a lifeline to the weary Dantes during his stay at the prison, Chateau d’if. Abbe is a great scholar who gradually transforms the unschooled Dantes into a wise, learned and cultivated man. The beginning of the movie sets forth the power of community to endure adversity and hardship.

Romans 16:1-16 also sets forth the power of community and gospel partnerships. It highlights at least five secrets to discovering genuine New Testament koinonia. This more or less summarizes my desire for our church over the past 8 ½ years.

What are these five keys? Concern (love for one another), a Christ-centered life, the importance of the cell group, a common cause, and candor. To put it more simply our church must serve as a home and a mission. (NOTE: The above sentence and basic outline of this post comes from a talk on genuine fellowship from Sam Shoemaker. The last phrase of the church serving as a home and a mission comes from Randy Pope and Perimeter Church.)

A local church can be a place of health and beauty when it follows God’s pattern.

  • Concern (deep affection and love for one another). People matter. People were important to the Apostle Paul. How so? Note that Paul says something specific about virtually every person greeted. He enjoyed real relationships of love.

One Scripture commentator declares that Romans 16 is one of the most instructive chapters of the New Testament. Why does he say such a bold statement: “Because it encourages personal relationships of love in the church” (Emil Brunner)

Notice first of all the affection and love that Paul has for his friends. “Greet my beloved Epaenetus (v.5)… greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord (v.8)… greet my beloved Stachys (v.9)… Rufus’ mother who has been a mother to the Apostle Paul (v.13). The word ‘beloved’ means dearly loved.

This list of greetings opens a door into the everyday world of the first century church – it’s a home. This chapter serves as a hall of family portraits of our brothers and sisters who’ve gone before us. It also affords us a remarkable portrait of the heart of the Apostle Paul.

The warmth of Christian friendship evident in these verses (with so many indications of warm affection) remind us that in a world of fractured families the church is so often the first family where men and women find the warmth for which they long.

(How do you and I experience this type of authentic community? Christopher Ash is the Director of the Cornhill Training Course in London, and was previously the minister of All Saints Church, Little Shelford, near Cambridge. He declares that the only way to experience this type of community is “not in being passengers but rather by being active servants alongside others.”)

  • A Christ-centered life – The gospel matters. We share life together in Christ. On what are you centered?

Everyone has a “Center”.  Everyone lives for something–something that we think will give us a sense of significance and satisfaction. We all then have a “personal center.” That which is your bottom line. Your ultimate value by which you sort through all the activities of life and set priorities?  It may be money, career, possessions, appearance, romances, approval from a certain peer groups achievement, marriage, children, friendships – or a combination of a several.  Without this “bottom line”, your life would be completely meaningless.

(In Romans 16:1-16, the phrase “in Christ… in Christ Jesus… in the Lord” is used ten times). With whom do we have the privilege of advancing the gospel? We serve together with those who are beloved in the Lord (v.8). (v. 9 – the phrase “fellow workers,” v. 10 – “approved in Christ”, v.13 – “chosen in the Lord”).

  • Cell (house church… small groups). Small groups/community groups matters. Aquila and Prisca. Notice the phrase: “The church in their house” (v.5). 1 Corinthians 16:19 “Early Christians gathered on a regular basis in the homes of leading members.

Such groups not only were intimate for the members but apparently represented nonthreatening environments in which to do evangelism.

The development of authentic community life requires significant face to face relationships. Deliberate effort. It will not happen in worship or other Sunday morning ministries.

Cocooning is the name given to the trend that sees individuals socializing less and retreating into their home more. In the 1990s, Faith Popcorn suggested that cocooning could be broken down into three different types: the socialized cocoon, in which one retreats to the privacy of one’s home; the armored cocoon, in which one establishes a barrier to protect oneself from external threats; and the wandering cocoon, in which one travels with a technological barrier that serves to insulate one from the environment. We now can live in physical isolation while maintaining contact with others through the internet.

  • A Common Cause – Advancing the gospel matters. We desire to see others come to find hope, life and salvation in Christ. Expand and grow our family… (Notice the words used in v.14-15 – brothers and saints – Process of seeing natural enemies transformed into brothers… and sinners transformed into saints).

(Epaenetus – “The first convert to Christ in Asia” (v.5)

Prisca and Aquila were tentmaking missionaries and helped Paul start the church in Ephesus and had been instrumental in the church in Rome.

This passage calls for maximum effort to further God’s cause, extend Christ’s kingdom, and make the Savior known. We should do this will the same intensity that a runner has when he has his eye on the finish line.

(What will it demand of us in building this type of authentic community?)

  • Candor (What will it take to build this type of community that truly advances the gospel?) Let’s be honest.

It will demand sacrifice and hard work (Scholars debate whether Phoebe is a servant in a general sense, or whether she served as a deacon. She served as a patroness, probably with financial assistance and hospitality. Apparently Rufus’s mother (Mark 15:21 – Rufus’ father was Simon of Cyrene) ministered significantly to Paul.

It says that Tryphaena and Tryphosa and Persis “worked hard in the Lord” (v.12). It is important to note that women had a significant place in the life of the early church and engaged in significant ministry.

It will demand risk taking (v.4). Prisca and Aquila risked their lives when Paul was in danger in Ephesus (Acts 19:23–41; 1 Cor. 15:32).

Where is God calling you to take risks?  This week we’ve seen many people risking their lives to save others.  One great gambler for God in the past was C.T. Studd. He was a man who “hazarded (gambled with) his life for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26).  He once wrote:  “No craze so great as that of a gambler, and no gambler for Jesus was ever cured thank God!”  He was willing to jeopardize his own life to magnify and make known the name of Jesus Christ.  Are we?

It will demand a willingness to suffer (v.7 – fellow prisoners). Bravery, at some point you will have to stand firm for Christ against some type of opposition, belittling and ridicule.

Conclusion: God calls us regularly to reflect on what it cost Him to make us members of His family. This galvanizes us to make any sacrifice to serve Him. In fact, C.T. Studd intones: “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then there is no sacrifice too great for me to make for Him.”