Saturday, 15 June 2013

Fathers day and the Prodigal God

Maybe it is because my father passed away when I was still fairly young, but Fathers day has always been a bit of a religious holiday for me. I cannot help but reflect on what an incredible Father we have in Heaven. Like the way Christmas brings to mind nativity scenes, Fathers day always makes me think of Luke 15.

Most people know it as the story of the prodigal son, for me, it is the story of the prodigal God. The word prodigal itself means "excessive" or "reckless" which certainly reflects the lifestyle of the son who squandered his inheritance, yet it aptly describes the glorious love of our Father as well. The loving Father as portrayed in Jesus' story can be offensive to some, the story starts with Jesus drawing and receiving publicans and sinners to himself (verse 1-3) which did not go down well with the Pharisees. Thus the context of his story was to expose to the self righteous religious authorities (as depicted by the older brother) their hearts as well as reveal the heart of God (as depicted by the Father).

It is indeed a privilege to be called a son of God, and my heart echoes with the Psalmist

They shall abundantly utter the memory of your great goodness, and shall sing of your righteousness.
The LORD is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy.
The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.
All your works shall praise you, O LORD; and your saints shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and talk of your power;
To make known to the sons of men his mighty acts, and the glorious majesty of his kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.

Psalm 145:7-13

Sunday, 9 June 2013

A parable on authority

There was a point on authority that I wanted to make in the last post but somehow forgot to include. So I decided to just post it here as a follow on thought in parable form.

Suppose there was a rich man who had both a cleaner and a gardener who worked for him. One day he asked the cleaner to instruct the gardener to go and pull out weeds that were growing near his roses. So the cleaner went to the gardener and relayed the message that their master had given to her. 

In this story, who carries greater authority? Well, neither. Much of Christianity though would seek to elevate the cleaner. The cleaner, recognizing her new found power over gardeners everywhere would soon start up their own "Staceys Cleaners ministries" brand. Yet in reality, both the cleaner and the gardener are of equal standing in the household.

It needs to recognized, that there was authority in the message that the cleaner carried, because it came from her master. This is how the body of Christ works. A person can carry the authority of Christ in his message or a ministry that he has been given, yet he is still only a brother among brothers. This is why we can see Peter stand up with the eleven at Pentecost and speak with such authority. Yet in the very next chapter (Acts 3) after healing a lame man he proclaims "Why do you marvel and look earnestly on us? As though we had done this by our own power or holiness?". The kind of authority displayed here needs to be recognized as it serves to build up the Kingdom of God rather than the kingdoms of men. 

Friday, 7 June 2013

Submission and accountability

I meet regularly with a group of believers in the surrounding area, we always share a meal together and our meetings are open participatory, which means that the Holy Spirit is free to speak through anyone. I am free to bring a message or a song and the same goes for everyone else. The lack of having a central figure standing on the platform leading us is often criticized by others. They assume that us saying "Christ is our head" is a cop out and we are often accused of being rebellious to leadership and authority which makes us more prone to falling into error.

I would like to address those concerns here and also share what I believe the bible has to say regarding submission and accountability.

Mathew 23:1-12 says

Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.  But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.  They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues,  greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Teacher, Teacher.’  But you, do not be called ‘Teacher’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brothers.  Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.  And do not be called Leaders; for One is your Leader, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Strongs dictionary actually defines "Teacher" in the above as "an official title of honour". I find it fascinating how churches have looked for a loop hole in scripture and said, "Ok so we cannot be called Father, let's adjust that to Reverend or Pastor". Don't get me wrong, I certainly recognize the giftings of men that can shepherd and teach within the flock. But we do not read of Apostle Paul, Pastor Peter and Bishop John in the bible, because these were not terms used as titles separating them from their brothers. Jesus said that we are all brothers. We still recognize elders amongst us, but simply as bothers who are further along than the rest, and they are given the respect that they deserve. They do not get to wear a special hat that says that they are of a higher caste than the least of us.

Verse 12 in Mathew 23 is profound and reveals the heart of true leadership. A person who truly seeks to lead us deeper into Christ will be a servant to those he cares for. I always think its strange how the grace preachers emphasis our sonship with God and how Jesus called us "friend", while the more fundamentalist groups deny this and say "no no, we are slaves!" I have no problem using either term, even interchangeably, because true love is not self serving but seeks to serve others. Paul was likewise comfortable using both terms. Jesus himself demonstrated the servant heart to his followers.

1 Peter 5:3 is a telling verse as well as it is the only instance that I am aware of where the word "clergy" appears in the bible., although it gets translated as "heritage" or "inheritance" in most cases. The elders whom Peter is addressing or commanded not to lord over Gods clergy but lead by example. So the only time we see clergy in the bible it is speaking not of the elders, but of the entire assembly! So yes, I think scripture is clear that we are all priests within the body (Rev 1:6). Jesus told us that the gentiles like to exercise lordship and authority over one another, and that it should not be so amongst his followers (Mat 10:42).

So then what does this mean for the church without "super priests"? I believe 1 Peter 5:5 has the answer.

"Likewise, you younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yes, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble."

For me it's clear that the entire church must be willing to submit to every other member. Me under your feet and you under mine. With special attention given to the wisdom of elders, simply because they exhibited more maturity than others. But even they are subject to the least of us. This provides wonderful protection for the local church, egos are not nurtured and doctrines are judged not by the elite, but by all. The institutional umbrella or pyramid model has not proved any more successful in safeguarding the flock from error. And worse yet, when it does go bad, it can lead millions into deception. What the Pope or Calvin or (insert leaders name here) says goes and becomes the "truth" for all under them.

We are not exempt from error ourselves, but I believe setting biblical principles in place does give us a better chance of being "sound", and if we do err, at least it is one local assembly and not one entire denomination that falls into some amount of bondage. While ultimately, we are accountable to God, we are to confess our faults one to another in overcoming them. If people think we are lone rangers or not submissive. They have missed the heart of the true fellowship that we pursue.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Interpreting scripture

When discussing scripture with people it never takes long to reach conflicting views with other believers. Especially when those people are from different fellowships or denominational backgrounds. It can be highly frustrating to both sides and doctrinal agreement is rarely ever reached. This got me wondering as to why you can sometimes have 2 born again Christians who are of similar intelligence, reading the same version of the bible and who are at a similar maturity level; and have one shouting "amen" and the other "heresy"!

Below are some of the reasons I believe are the causes of misunderstandings or just blatant false doctrine that we all encounter from time to time. It is probably not as simple as the few points I've mentioned but I think it may be a nice starting point to understanding where people come from and also on how we should approach interpreting scripture. It is in no way a refined list either, these are merely my own observations and most of the errors below I have personally being guilty of at various stages in life.

Everyone of us carries some extent of baggage along with us. If you had or have a father, you will have certain subconscious assumptions about God as a father figure. If you grew up under strict discipline or total freedom, then you will react differently to the topic of discipline in the bible and so on. These are 2 simple examples which show how our thoughts are immediately influenced by life’s experiences.

On top of this, there are some clear methods to approaching scripture that can be recognized. All interpretation methods carry some element of danger within them, and all can still arrive at truths even in poorest of approaches.

Proof texting - This is when people cut and paste verses from the bible and lay their own interpretations on them. This is not just applicable to the performers on TBN and is far more widespread than you would imagine. Sometimes when someone hears something that they do not agree with they will simply read a little further until the text can be put into the context of what they themselves believe. They will immediately stop reading further on and preach "context" to the other person. The bottom line here is that whenever we read scripture with the view of proving something we are in danger of seeing what we want to see and nothing else. Proof texting is abused in most of the other views below as well. Most people have several texts to support their views, but they cannot all be right.

Legal based - What I mean by this is that we look at scripture simply as a book of do's and don'ts, this is at the heart of many fundamentalist groups that have no love. Preachers often preach dying to self without moving on to our new life that is in Christ. Some groups will focus on the Old Testament law while others will push the New Testament commands in a similar fashion. It is a Christianity that while denying a works based salvation in theory, is at its heart very much still performance based. It can be very disheartening as you see your best efforts constantly fall short. And even when your performance is better than that of those around you, there can be a feeling of emptiness as imitation is exposed for authentic Spirit fueled works and fruits. Show a legalist something like 1 Cor 8 and compare it to Acts 15:29 and their heads will surely explode. That does not meant that the New Testament commands are not to be followed, but there are 1066 of them and they raise the bar even higher than the OT ones did. They are not to be kept by will power but by Christs life within us. I tend to think of them more as promises than commands. The closer one is to Christ the more his life will reflect that of our redeemers.

Low level interpretation - By this I mean that people often look at things and topics without thinking of the bigger picture. Oftentimes the things of Christ will become a substitute for the person of Christ. Burying themselves in Apologetics or Eschatology to hide the shallowness of their relationship, they move from one fad to another year after year. The Pharisees bitterly complained about Jesus for silly things like healing people on the Sabbath without realizing who he was or why the Sabbath was given in the first place. They are generally the busiest people and 2 Timothy 3:16 is their favorite verse as it validates their arguments. The problem with Low level interpretation is that while much of the theology is true, it is only half truths. The gospel gets reduced to a salvation message instead of a kingdom message. Fellowship gets reduced to Sunday gatherings, dying to self is not followed up with the good news of the resurrected Christ etc etc

Tradition based – Traditions can be good, biblical, harmless or incredibly harmful. I am referring here to the latter. This is the most scary of all approaches to scripture, Mark 7:13 says that the traditions of men make the word of God of no effect. How many of our traditions are younger than Pentecost and without biblical support? Yet we proof text them into scripture and claim authority in them. Countless times I have shared things with people who simply cannot see what you are reading to them. Outside of their traditions scripture simply blows over their heads, it scares me to think how often I may have been on the blinded end and not realized it. These are the walls that we have built around God and anything that is outside of our box is usually met with fierce opposition and hostility. Their conversations often center around what "false teachers" rather than "Christ" is doing. (note - I am all for exposing false beliefs with those who believe them, I am against gossiping about false teachers with people who already know better).

Christ centered - We need to understand that Gods book is the bible, but Gods Word is Jesus. All scripture is inspired but not in the sense most people think though. Automatic writing is occultic and is different to something that has Gods message behind it. A Christocentric interpretation of scripture is by far the safest way of looking at scripture. Everything either points to him or builds up to him. Yet even here we need to be careful, for example, some of the red letter Christian crowd tend to ignore other parts of the bible when focusing on the gospels. All 66 books are given to us to reveal Christ and the Father to us, not just the gospels. And some of those books will expound or bring in wonderful truths that are not present explicitly in those first four NT letters.

In conclusion - The bible needs to be understood as one complete story. A chapter on its own is not context. It may stand as a truth on its own, a single verse like John 3:16 can stand as an absolute truth on its own. But it is dangerous practice to apply this to any part within the canon. The God who destroyed the earth by flood is the same God who has come to seek save that which was lost. Everything together is interwoven and needs to be understood as one piece. This means that the Father can be viewed as we saw Him in Jesus. Commands and laws can be summed up in loving our neighbors and bearing one anothers burdens. The Sabbath and Christ or the showbread and David stories reveal to us that there is a spirit within the message that is sometimes more important than the letter of the law itself. We need to prayerfully consider when meditating on scripture what biases we may be placing upon it.

If any of what I have written sounds critical, let me reiterate that it is based on inward reflections. I used to study the scriptures thinking that my efforts and hours would guide me into all truth. As I grow older I realize that it is the Spirit that guides us into all truth (John 16:13). Let us listen before talking and remain humble in our thoughts.