Wednesday, 30 July 2014

5 years outside of the institutional church and what it has taught me

August 2014 marks the 5 year anniversary of my leaving the institutional church in pursuit of a deeper level of fellowship and community with God and other believers.  August 2014 also marks 1 year of bearded awesomeness in my pursuit of looking older and not having to shave in the mornings. Yet while having a face warming, ice cream catching face blanket may make one look more like the distinguished theologians of old; looks can be deceiving. So while beardly wisdom may be overrated, there is much to be learned from how one gathers with other believers. So without further ado here is a list of 8 things that I learned in the last 5 years after leaving a traditional church for the less formal and more intimate setting of one another’s homes.

1 – Life does not come from models.

I have met several people in the last 5 years who, after searching the scriptures, started meeting in homes. Even a casual reading of the New Testament will reveal that the early church met house to house (Acts2:46 & Romans 16:5). Yet imitating the actions of the early church will not bring genuine life but only the illusion of it. It is only when the church truly gathers around Christ that genuine life springs forth and when that does happen, you will discover that similar characteristics to the early will become evident in your own meetings and it will happen quite naturally. Certainly, the home is the perfect environment for the church; it naturally encourages relationships and can eliminate many of the distractions associated with more formal gatherings in more formal places. But it is not the be all and end all of gathering. There are without a doubt some believers meeting in traditional settings who are more alive than those who “look” more biblical outwardly.

2 – Don’t push others.

Many people feel as if they were cheated by the system and that they were lied to. The best advice that I can give anyone who feels called to leave is to do it quietly. Remember that God used the people and place you were in like stepping stones to get you where you are today. If you want to share your convictions with others, do it at their invitation and do not be surprised if they are less enthusiastic about your discoveries than you are. And if they begin to slander you, speak condescendingly toward you or spread rumors about you that are not true, shake it off and love them anyway. You are not being treated any differently than most of us were. Allow no room for bitterness and soon enough some of those same people will come around. Given time others will agree to disagree and reconcile while others still will continue to berate you. It is just the way that it is.

3 – Build relationships first.

There is an important difference between unity and uniformity. The church is to be one yet this does not mean that everyone is going to agree with every other person about everything down to the smallest detail. When gathering with others focus on them as people, get to know them and care for them. Church splits occur when stubbornness and self-righteousness become more important to us than people. When relationships have firm foundations you will find yourselves able to disagree respectfully and discussions can take place without heels being firmly planted in the ground. We do not feel threatened by those we trust and even in disagreement we can usually see their true intentions. That is not to say that there will never be a valid reason to break fellowship with someone or with a group. But the world out there sees how Christians like to tear into one another. Those attacks often move from doctrine and get personal very quickly. How dare we reject who Christ calls his own? Jesus said that the world would know his disciples by the love that they have for each other. Start there, if you have not love, you are like Dubstep* (1 Cor. 13:2).

4 – God works in spite of our short comings.

Something within us seems to believe that when God moves it is a validation of what we are doing. It is simply not true, God will work with what is available to reach others otherwise we would not see Him moving at all. I once heard someone bragging about the size and cost of their church, “How can anyone say God is not blessing us?” With that reasoning the same God that is blessing the prosperity preachers is also blessing the mosques and Hindu temples in the same area as well. When God seems to be moving, enjoy it, but do not assume that you must have finally gotten everything right.

5 – It’s all about everyone.

Love God and love people. Jesus made it simple for us. It is not about the music and the lasers or the eloquent speaker or even about the coffee. It is about God and people. Home churches come with their own set of problems. It can be difficult for newcomers to feel a part of the group when a handful of people have already developed a strong bond with one another. Are people growing in love toward one another and toward God? Are the least of these treated with respect and being cared for? Do the blind see? Church is about God, it is also about one another and further still it is about those outside of your gatherings whether they are Christians or not.

6 - Watch out for counterfeits.

There is no doubt that the Spirit is stirring the church. Many in the West are hearing the same thing from God. From South Africa to North America to Australia and beyond; people are throwing off the yoke of Constantinian churchianity and discovering something better. The house churches in China have been growing for decades at an incredible rate despite persecution. Yet just as phrases like house church, organic church and simple church have become more well-known we have also been introduced to things like the out of church movement and web church or audio church. The concept of “just me and God” is completely foreign in both scripture and church history. While one can retreat alone to the desert from time to time, it is not the place of our permanent residence. That is not to say that you need to get yourself to some sort of gathering at least once a week. That is a wrong mindset to have. All it means is that Christians need face to face time with other believers on a constant basis. No ministry, bible study or sermon in the car can replace that.

7 – There is a building that IS important.

Buildings are not the issue, much like nose hairs, they can be both helpful and hurtful depending on the situation you find yourself in. I am simply speaking here of a community where Christ is the head. You (plural) are like living stones being built up into a spiritual house with Christ as the chief cornerstone. If you want a beautiful church building, sow into their lives and watch her grow.

8 – Freedom in Servanthood.

In leaving the institutional church many people find a release from the pressures of a performance based faith. Yet you will never experience true freedom unless you remain or learn to abide in the vine. To be free is not to be independent. See how that one worked out for Adam and Eve. Rather, freedom is found in submitting to Christ. Life is found in dying to self and joy is found in a person. Freedom from sin is not merely the pardon of your wrong doings but the release from the power that it once held over you.

To sum it all up, I have learned beyond a simple theological understanding that it is all about the person, the Word, the Christ who gives us life. He lives beyond our walls and even our book in a community called ekklesia. I have heard his voice and been lifted up by his hand through brothers and sisters in whom he dwells. This is the Christian life.

*If the Dubstep remark went over your head it was a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:1 for the 21st Century and a chance for me to poke some fun at a genre of music I don't quite enjoy :)

Sunday, 27 July 2014

I once was blind but now I see

And their eyes were opened and they knew… (Genesis 3:7 & Luke 24:31).

Many of my early blog posts could probably have been filed under the category “bible study”. Nowadays my posts are normally a little more topical as I have shared my thoughts on various topics. This post will be similar to those older ones though as a friend of mine pointed out some wonderful similarities between Genesis 3 and Luke 24 which I thought I would share.

They are two stories that we are all very familiar with. In Genesis 3, we read the story of how the first man and woman were deceived by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. After eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil their eyes were “opened” (verse 7). The chapter ends with the couple leaving Eden for the wilderness. Our second story is the one of the two dejected followers of Jesus who, after his death, were heading from Jerusalem toward Emmaus. Jesus joined them on the road but they did not recognize him. It was only once they reached the village and sat down with their Lord and broke bread with him that they realized exactly who he was.

Consider some of the similarities in the two stories:-

- In Genesis 3 we see the first recorded meal in the bible. It results in mans eyes been “opened”. In actual fact, man was blinded, Paul comments in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers…” Notice how in the book of Luke it is in the breaking of bread that the disciple’s eyes were opened. Genesis 3 was the first meal of the fallen creation while Luke 24 was the first meal of the new creation.

- In both stories, there are two people involved; some have suggested that Cleopas’s companion on the road would have been his wife as John 19:25 places her at the cross when Jesus was crucified meaning that she would have been in the same vicinity as her husband at the time of these events.

- In both cases a supernatural being offers food which results in a new perception of spiritual reality.

- After eating the fruit Adam and Eve leave the garden, the place of Gods special residence. In the case of Cleopas and his companion, after eating the bread they immediately returned to the place of Gods special residence (Jerusalem) and testified “how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke bread” (Luke 24:35).

There is an old saying that Jesus can be found on every page of the bible. Still it never ceases to amaze me when new parallels are revealed. He is the husband in Genesis 2, the Passover lamb of Exodus 12, the guilt offering of Leviticus 5 and on and on. We can say with confidence, the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, he anointed him to preach good news to the poor…and recovery of sight to the blind. – Luke 4:18

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Conditional vs. Universal immortality

A while back I wrote a series of articles on the different views of hell. Ever since then I have continued to study the topic which is the reason for this post. For those looking to go deeper on this, it would be helpful after reading this post to go back and read this one as well.

Firstly, as stated elsewhere, I do not think that Universalism has any biblical merit. The views that I have therefore been focusing on are the traditional view of hell which is that of eternal conscious torment and Annihilationism, also known as Conditional immortality. So here is the big question, is the soul immortal? Does everyone inherit eternal life or will those outside of Christ perish? Below is a very basic summary on the history of the teaching of the immortal soul followed by what the bible says about the topic.

It is believed that the concept of the immortal soul was first taught in ancient Egypt (see The Egyptian book of the dead) and in Babylon. We see the idea in ancient religions like Hinduism as well. Some have credited Satan as being the first to suggest the idea with his words recorded in Genesis 3:4 (You will not surely die). Rather than through the bible, Christians seem to have being exposed to the idea through ancient Greek philosophy. Many of the famous names in 3rd and 4th century Christendom were influenced by Greek thought both before and after their conversions. Many of them held on to what they had learned from men like Plato. Regarding the soul immortal, Plato taught that “The soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intelligible, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable”. Although most Christians rejected Plato’s idea of our existing eternally in the past, many accepted the idea of everyone existing eternally into the future.

It seems to be in Alexandria where Christianity was most influenced by the pagan beliefs surrounding them. Athenagoras (A.D. 190) who was schooled in Greek philosophy was the first Christian that we know of to publically embrace the immortality of the soul. Clement (A.D. 220) and Origen (A.D. 254), also from Alexandria, were other adherents.  But it was the writings of Tertullian which really shifted the popular opinion on the soul. In A Treatise on the Soul he stated, “The soul, we define to be sprung from the breath of God, immortal, possessing body, having form…” It must also be noted that Tertullian was not basing his arguments on scripture but in his own words, “I use the opinion of Plato, when he declares that every soul is immortal”. It was due to his writings that the meanings of certain words began to be interpreted less literally, “death” could be interpreted as “eternal misery” and “destruction” or “consume” as “pain” or “anguish”. Death therefore meant “perpetually dying but never actually dead”.
   Augustine is worth a mention as well as he has probably, after Constantine, had more influence on the Christian faith than anyone else. A prolific writer, he wrote a book (The immortality of the Soul) giving sixteen reasons as to why he considered the soul to be immortal which was enough to see it become the official position of most of the Western Church.

There have of course always been those who have debated this. The Waldenses of Europe rejected it, as have scores of individuals including many of the men who translated the bible. William Tyndale, the English reformer said “The heathen philosophers, denying that (the resurrection), did put that the soul did ever live. And the Pope joineth the spiritual doctrine of Christ and the fleshly doctrine of philosophers together: things so contrary that they cannot agree.” (An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, Book 4, Chapter 2).
   Martin Luther agreed with Tyndale as evidenced in Volume 7, pp131, 132, where he wrote in protest of the ideas that “... he (the pope) is emperor of the world and king of heaven, and earthly god; that the soul is immortal, and all these endless monstrous fictions...”.
   Other bible translators who also believed in Conditional immortality were John Wycliffe, John Huss, R.F. Weymouth and Robert Young.

What does the bible say?

Just because the idea of the immortal soul can be found in Pagan philosophy and other religions does not necessarily prove that it is wrong. So it is important to turn to scripture to shed further light on the topic. Consider the following verses:-

...the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and lives in unapproachable light... – 1 Timothy 6:15-16

To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. – Romans 2:7

The soul that sins shall die – Ezekiel 18:20

The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever. – Genesis 3:22

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. – Matthew 10:2

Eternal life or immortality, if I am reading the bible correctly, belongs to God alone and to those who find life in Christ:-

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16

For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: Death has been swallowed up in victory. – 1 Corinthians 15:53-54

I know what I am saying is controversial and not very popular, some of my closest friends are freaked out that I have even being looking into this. I would love to hear feedback from you on this topic. Is it something you could consider despite the inevitable shunning that would follow? Is it something you disagree with but won't make you go all "John Piper" on someone over? If you disagree with Conditional immortality, how would you interpret the passages mentioned?


Friday, 11 July 2014

Embracing a Christocentric view of the bible without throwing away the Old Testament.

Over the last few years I have discovered a secondary way of reading the bible. I used to interpret everything through the traditions of 21st century Protestantism. There was still genuine growth and some changes of views taking place along the way but always still from within the safe theological box of the mainstream denominations.  It may sound weird to some but for me I had to take a step away from that to find a more holistic approach to scripture. I guess that I could point to Wayne Jacobsen’s transition series as the biggest turning point for me in recognizing just how much God looks like Jesus and just how differently they are portrayed from one another in much of the church today. It was the parable of the prodigal God (most know it as the prodigal son story) in Luke 15 that really helped me to start reading scripture in a new way. Suddenly Jesus was not the guy taking a bullet for me from an angry dad’s pistol but rather he was the one showing me Fathers heart. The godhead now working together to rescue you and I from Satan, sin, self and death.

This led to reading almost everything in scripture with new eyes and a fresh perspective. But if God is really like Jesus (which He is); then there are some pretty crazy things happening in scripture that become hard to explain. Many today seem to be going the way of Marcion, an early follower of Christ, who rejected the Old Testament God in favor of what he perceived to be a better God. The problem with that is that Jesus affirmed the Jewish bible and so we should rather learn to see and read it as he did. Did God order the killing of entire nations? Did he drown the world in a flood? Did God really threaten to burn up the wicked in the afterlife? Did God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Some would say no and there are some interesting angles worth considering by people who are defending those views. While I can say that I can see some genuine conflict within scripture that invites us to search Christ out and I do think that the progressive revelation of what God is like view does hold some weight in the sense that God was only fully revealed to us in the person of Jesus. I am not willing to say that the Old Testament authors got it wrong; how could I? My view in trying to make sense of these things could probably best be explained by using Matthew 24:22 as an example.

If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.

There is no doubt about Christ’s call to us not to wield the sword and his own life was a perfect example of that as he was crucified by the very people he came to save. I believe he was modeling a way for us to live in a violent society and more than that, a way in which to overcome evil with good. Yet I also am reminded of Deuteronomy 32:35, It is mine (the Lords) to avenge, I will repay in due time. Judgment is there and definitely best left to God, He is after all omniscient, compassionate, patient, merciful and forgiving but Love must also intervene in order to protect what is good and also to end what is not . We may as well use the flood as an example because it is the most obvious of the atrocities mentioned in the bible. Thinking back to the principle of Matthew 24:22, if the days of Noah had not been cut short, would Noah and his family have survived? Would evil men have destroyed themselves as well as Noah’s family leaving no line for Jesus to be born into? Perhaps the flood was God's rescue mission for mankind rather than what we tend to make it out to be. It must be emphasized that God gave the men of Noah’s day 120 years to repent (Gen 6:3) before “cutting those days short”. The pattern is similar in many of the other low points of human history recorded in scripture. There is always warnings, invitations for redemption and time before judgment.

The other big one in scripture is hell. Many people have rejected God after the death of a loved one which forced them to consider what kind of a deity would torture someone for the rest of eternity for no obvious reason. While I do not believe eternal conscious torment is the best exegesis of scripture, I find Universalism to be even less convincing. Rather I believe that God offers all men eternal life through Christ. Those that reject this offer will not inherit immortality (see Romans 2:7, 1 Corinthians 15:53-54, 2 Timothy 1:10) and therefore perish. I do plan on writing an article in the near future on conditional immortality vs. universal immortality as more and more info has piled up as I have continued to study the topic since I last touched on it. I find it difficult to view God as looking the other way regarding all judgment. Consider Satan being seized, bound and thrown into an abyss as described in Revelation 20 and I just cannot explain away the use of force in those kinds of scriptures.

Anyway, all of that to simply say that God is far more loving and good than I believe we could have ever imagined Him to be. Yet I think it is at our own peril if we dismiss the ideas laid out in scripture of God judging the wicked. He does it not because He repays evil with evil but because evil destroys itself (the wages of sin is death) and when left to grow, will ultimately end up destroying everything around it as well. God gives every possible opportunity for men to turn to him so that in His son they could find a release from the bondage of the power of sin. But ultimately, if Christ is to be all in all, everything outside of Him must be dealt with still.

So I do think that we can say that God wars against evil. I do not for a second though think that we should see this as a license to take matters into our own hands. All those verses about us stoning people, paying back like for like, oppressing others or causing harm to others in any other way; Jesus clearly overturned with his call to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. Yet what if the Hitler’s of the world become more and more in number and worse and worse in wickedness? Would we not cry out with the saints “How long Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6:10).

*After sleeping on this for a night I felt like clarifying something. I agree with men like Greg Boyd that God was revealed in the cross as the one who conquered sin, death and released the captives not by spilling blood but laying down his own life for his enemies. But to ask the question behind that question. What does God do with the free will agents like Satan or men who reject him after this? There has to be some sort of action to end what is outside of Christ if there truly will be a heaven on earth.