Philemon Part 3: Rejection & Welcome

Have you ever been rejected?

I mean really, fully, and entirely rejected. Maybe it was by an authority figure, a family member or a close friend. I think at one point or another in life we’ve all been there. My experience has taught me that rejection seems to feel the worst when it comes as a surprise by someone we’d never expect it to come from. There’s a good reason why people describe rejection as being “stabbed in the back” because when you or something you’ve said or something you’ve done is rejected you can almost feel the betrayal (treachery), you can almost see the faces of your peers disregarding you, counting you as useless, and casting you out as worthless and no…longer…welcome. Rejection is something, which sadly, is felt too often inside the Church of Jesus Christ by those who think that in order to be a true Christian you have to look entirely respectable, have it all together, and never break the rules. When I first became a Christian a college I felt this when I stepped into church for the first time in years. I didn’t know what the “rules” as it were and from it many people who’d been believers for years made me feel like I was an outsider.

Think about where we’ve been in Philemon over these past 2 weeks. A runaway slave out on the loose, somehow meeting up with Paul while he’s in prison for preaching the gospel, becomes converted under Paul’s ministry, and heads back home to be reconciled with his master because the gospel demands it. Talk about worry and fear of rejection! The words of v17-20 would have been soothing to Onesimus and are soothing for any sinner who reads these words.

Held within each verse of this passage are two statements. The first statement in each verse is a truth statement, stating a certainty Paul is conveying. The second statement is each verse is an effect statement, stating the effect the truth Paul just stated leads to. Four verses, four pairs of statements, forming Paul’s main appeal to Philemon concerning his slave Onesimus.

v17: Truth Statement

“So if you consider me your partner…” The word for “partner” here in this statement is from the same word in Greek “koinwnos” which is translated in v6 as “sharing your faith.” That this word could be translated as “partner” here in v17 and as “sharing” in v6 means what Paul has in view is more then a mere business contractual relationship, but a unified, team work, co-laborer partnership in the gospel whereby these two men have linked arms sharing the load of the gospel whatever the cost. Certainly Paul would’ve seen Philemon as a partner in the faith, and you can count on it that Philemon saw Paul in this manner too. Paul and Philemon had both been chased down by Christ and redeemed, and through them Jesus was building His Church. They were truly partners, they not only shared their faith with others, but they shared the same faith with each other.

v17: Effect Statement

“…receive him as you would receive me.” Paul has alluded to this very request many times throughout this letter but here in v17 Paul finally makes it known. The fact that Paul and Philemon were partners in gospel ministry naturally leads to a result. The result is that Philemon is to extend the same level of grace he treats Paul with to Onesimus.

Paul is not asking Philemon to merely tolerate Onesimus, like some of us do with each other. Paul asks more of Philemon, not only tolerate him, but receive Onesimus in the same way you’d receive me into your home. You notice what Paul is doing in v17? He’s already has showed that he is not using his apostolic authority by only appealing to Philemon as a friend rather than commanding him to obey, and here Paul lowers himself even more by putting a slave on the same level as himself. This is what it means when Paul says ‘receive him as you would receive me.’ Was this just a nice thing for Paul to do for Onesimus? Sure, but for Paul it was reality. Though Paul is an apostle and Onesimus a slave, they both were once slaves of sin and have both become slaves of Christ through the gospel. How would Philemon receive Paul is he were coming to visit? He would do so with honor, dignity, respect, admiration, and submission because Paul is his Father in Christ. Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus in the same exact manner. Here in v17 we learn how far we should go to help sinners who show signs of repentance and acknowledgement of guilt.

v18: Truth Statement

“If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything…” with the effect statement being “…charge that to my account.” Here we learn that though we don’t know for sure, Onesimus likely stole from Philemon during his flight. This was customary in these days, because slaves were so unreliable and deceitful they often stole from their masters. You may think that Paul is being very generous here and simply is showing us an implication of the gospel by being so gracious. Wrong. Paul is being very generous here, but he is not showing us an implication of the gospel, Paul is showing us the GOSPEL ITSELF by saying “…charge that to my account.” This is language of satisfaction, of a debt being paid in behalf of another who cannot help himself. The glory of v18 is that “…charge that to my account” is not only what Paul says to Philemon in behalf of Onesimus, it is more importantly what Jesus Christ says to God the Father in behalf of sinners. Paul is making satisfaction for the debt of Onesimus and in that action we see a reflection of Christ making satisfaction for our debt on the cross.

This is the glory and the wonder of the cross, that “For our sake God made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ bearing the penalty for our sin, in our place as our substitute, making full atonement on our behalf makes us want to cry out “Guilty, vile, and helpless, we, spotless Lamb of God was He, full atonement can it be?! Yes it can! Yes it can!” In the cross we see the wisdom of God, the love of God, the wrath of God, and the justice of God perfectly interwoven by God for our great good and His great glory. How? John Piper says it like this, “The wisdom of God, has ordained a way for the love of God, to deliver us from the wrath of God, without compromising the justice of God.”

v18: Effect Statement (in v19-20)

“I Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it…” Paul usually wrote his letters to the churches by means of an amanuenses. This means that as Paul spoke someone was there to put his words down on paper. Paul does no such thing here to Philemon, to show again, how personal this letter was. This is Paul’s concluding thought on v18, the debt he see’s present between Philemon and Onesimus he will pay, and you can hold him at his word. How can Paul repay this debt? Isn’t Paul a simple tent-maker who has asked many for financial support in many of his other letters? Well yes, he is just a tent-maker, and yes he has asked for financial support in lots of his other letters. But Paul is able to repay this debt, because Philemon is actually in Paul’s debt. How? The rest of v19 says, “…to say nothing of your owing me even your very own self.” The truth is that Paul will repay, the effect of that statement is a reminder from Paul to Philemon that Philemon is in Paul’s debt for leading him to Christ, therefore, Paul won’t have to pay this debt, rather, Philemon is being encouraged to simply put the debt away, to strike it off the books.

 

v20: Verse 20 ends crystal clear: the truth Paul means to convey is “Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord…” and the effect of that statement is a command from Paul, “…Refresh my heart in Christ.” As Philemon is known to have been refreshing to those in the Colossian church (see v7), Paul similarly wants to be refreshed by Philemon, and if he welcomes home his runaway slave (who is now useful to him again, who is now another brother in Christ and fellow son of Paul), Paul would surely be refreshed. The word for ‘benefit’ in Greek is ‘oninemi’ which is the very word that the name Onesimus comes from, thus Paul’s pun continues in the letter. See the pun? I want to some benefit from you in the Lord, what is the benefit I want? What is the oninemi he wants? Onesimus.

Think for a second, what’s the opposite of rejection? WELCOME! Look at v17. One of the most encouraging implications of this text is just as Philemon was to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul because Paul removed the debt that stood between them, so too God will welcome sinners like us as He would welcome His own Son, because His Son, the Lord Jesus, has removed the debt that stood between us.

Sinner beware. You every reason to fear God’s judgment if you have never turned away from your sin and come to Christ. This is eternal rejection.

Sinner be boldly encouraged. If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead you will be saved. This is eternal welcome.

Philemon Part 1: Refreshed and Refreshing Others

The heart of Paul’s letter to Philemon has to do with the person of Onesimus. He was Philemon’s slave who had somehow wronged his master (v18), fled and through an unknown sequence of events met Paul in prison (v9), was converted (v10), and became a useful partner to Paul in the gospel (v11-13). But Paul knew the existing law in Rome demanded that Paul return the slave Onesimus to his rightful owner Philemon. In this letter Paul pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus back (v17), to forgive him (v18), to treat him no longer as a slave but a brother (v16), and to return Onesimus back to Paul so he can continue to labor in ministry alongside him (v13, 21). We’ll get to all this soon in the coming posts, but today focus on verses 1-7, which is made up of 2 sections: v1-3 where we see the greeting, and v4-7 where we have Paul’s first remarks.

The Greeting (v1-3)

I think it’s fair to say that in Paul’s greeting to Philemon we see things we’re used to seeing in Paul’s greetings, and we see things we’re not so used to seeing in Paul greetings. We’re used to seeing Paul’s name at the beginning of his letters, this is simply how one wrote letters in the first century. We’re used to seeing Paul include Timothy with himself in greetings, (he does it in 5 of his letters), and he did it here because Philemon had probably met Timothy in Ephesus where Paul was being held in his Roman prison. We’re used to seeing names to whom the letter is addressed in Paul’s greetings, and we’re used to seeing Paul say v3. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” appears in the greetings of all 13 of his letters, and shows Paul’s affirmation of the deity of Christ by linking the Father with the Son.

We’re not used to Paul addressing letters to individual people. Of all 13 letters only 9 are addressed to churches while the remaining 4 are addressed to 3 different people: Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. v2 shows us Philemon was a personal friend of Paul’s in that Paul calls him a beloved fellow worker, which also means Philemon was a minister of the gospel as well. We see Paul mention “Apphia our sister” and “Archippus our fellow soldier” who very well could be Philemon’s wife and son who also knew Paul well. We actually here of Archippus in Colossians 4:17 where Paul calls him a fellow soldier and encourages him to fulfill the ministry he’s received from the Lord, which shows us that Archippus was undoubtedly one of the leaders in the Colossian church along with Philemon. We’re not used to Paul identifying himself as a prisoner in his greetings. Out of all his letters the only ones where he doesn’t introduce himself as “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus” are Philippians, both letters to the Thessalonians, and here in Philemon. Plus, only here in Philemon do we see Paul identify himself as a prisoner in the greeting. That he does this rather than identifying himself as an apostle is telling and purposeful, and it sets the tone of the whole letter.

By beginning this way the letter immediately feels personal, gentle, and more like a friendly appeal than a letter of full blown apostolic authority. Don’t get me wrong, the letter is still from Paul and Philemon knew that, but Paul is intentionally going out of his way to reduce the feel of ‘command’ here. It also would have reminded Philemon of the severe hardship Paul has had to face in preaching the gospel and in comparison with Paul’s suffering for the gospel the thing Paul is about to ask Philemon to do will seem very small in comparison to what Paul has gone through.

So you see, even in this greeting Paul is already at work, using gospel-logic to prepare Philemon for what he’s about to ask him.

The First Remarks (v4-7)

As Paul concludes his greeting, he begins with his first remarks, and these first remarks are exactly what you’d think they’d be if you were listening to a conversation between close friends as a fly on the wall.

Paul genuinely, warmly, and honestly expresses his affection for this man. Why? Paul’s not just buttering him up in preparation for what he’s about to ask him, no. He gives reasons for this affection in v5 and v7, and Paul prays for Philemon in v4 and v6. Look at reason 1 in v5 = Paul has heard of Philemon’s love and faith toward the Lord Jesus, and Paul has heard of Philemon’s love and faith toward all of the saints. Because of these things Paul says in v4 that every time he remembers Philemon he always thanks God. v7 contains reason 2 = Paul’s heart has received much joy, comfort, and refreshment through Philemon’s love for him and for Christ’s Church. Apparently to Paul, to the Church in Colossae, and to many others Philemon is like water to a thirsty soul, refreshing. Because of this refreshment Paul says in v6 that he prays Philemon’s knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ becomes full through the sharing of His faith. This means that Paul is asking God to refresh the one who has been such a refresher to others. And specifically that God refresh Philemon by making his knowledge of all the good things he has in Christ, full. Paul is asking God to give Philemon more of God. What a prayer!

Now, we cannot read to quickly through v4-7, as if there just mere niceties because if we do so we’ll miss what God means to teach us about Philemon, and we’ll miss what God means to teach us about what happens in our hearts if we truly love Him.

There are two implications for us here:

You cannot claim to truly love Christ if you have no love for His Church

This is precisely what Paul sees in Philemon’s heart, and what prompts Paul to thank God for His work in and through this man in v4-5. Christ and His Church are separate things and they are the same thing. They are separate things in that love for Christ and love for Christ’s Church are different loves. They are the same thing in that love for Christ leads to a deeper love for Christ’s Church. The principle at work here is this: the more you seek to love Christ the more you’ll find your heart beginning to love the very things that Christ loves. What does Christ love the most? His glory. What is the primary means Christ employs to display His glory among the nations? His Church. Therefore the more one grows in love for Christ, the more one will naturally grow in love for His Church. More so, Christ and His Church are intimately connected so that if you turn away from one you inevitably turn away from the other. God placed this twofold love in the heart of Philemon, and Paul loved it, and thanked God for it.

Has God placed it in you? What do you feel about the Church? Do you feel a love, respect, yearning, and desire to be in it and used by God so it grows more and comes to bring a lasting influence on the cities we live in? Or, do you feel somewhat neutral or disinterested in the Church? Are you just putting on a face and going through the motions, faking your Christianity before the eyes of the world? Philemon’s love for Christ and love for Christ’s Church shows us the normal pattern for all believers. If we truly love Him we’ll truly love His people.

The normal pattern for all believers is to be laboring within the Church

v6-7 show how Philemon was not only a spectator, attender, and member of the Church, but that he was involved in the lives of the people, being used by God to refresh His people. This is the normal pattern for all believers. I want to say something here that may catch you off guard. I once heard Mark Dever say, “If you aren’t helping others follow Jesus, I don’t know what you mean when you say you’re following Jesus.” Do you think Church is just about what you can get out of it? Is it just about how myself and the other elders, or the worship team, or the Bible studies cater to your needs? Is it just what we can offer your kids? I hope not. If you’re here and not seeking to help others follow Jesus, you’re nothing more than a barnacle on the bottom of the boat. If you’re a barnacle don’t be afraid you’ll still be loved for sure, but you can be sure of this – the Christians around you won’t let you settle for something less than Biblical reality, and because of that they’ll keep pressing into you in as many ways as they can think to get you moved from a barnacle on the bottom of the boat just along for the ride to a worker on deck.

In these 7 verses it is crystal clear that Philemon’s life has been radically changed because of the gospel. He now exists to serve His master, the Lord Jesus, by ministering to others. This is what the gospel does. Philemon’s not refreshing in and of himself. You or I are not refreshing in and of ourselves. The thing refreshing about Philemon is the gospel, flowing into him, and flowing through him to others.

May God do such a work in us.

What is Church Discipline?

What gospel do you believe in? Do you believe in a gospel that says “God is holy. We have all sinned, separating us from God. But God sent His Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we might be forgiven. Everyone who believes in Jesus can have eternal life and be welcomed by God just as they are” (Jonathan Leeman). Do you believe in that gospel? Or do you believe in a gospel that says, “God is holy. We have all sinned, separating us from God. But God sent His Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we might be forgiven. Everyone who believes in Jesus can have eternal life and be welcomed by God just as they are. But in His grace and by His Spirit He doesn’t leave us as we are. No, He slowly and surely makes us into different people. People who love Him and hate sin. People who refuse to do life alone but do it in the community of the local church. People who grow in godliness, eager to reflect His holy character and glory to this fallen world.”

Which gospel do you believe in? The first version presents Jesus as Savior, the second presents Jesus as Savior and Lord. The first version points to our new status as children of God, the second points to our new status as children of God as well as our new job description as citizens in His Kingdom. The first version has a view of God’s grace saving us, the second has a view of God’s grace not only saving us but sanctifying us as well.

Everything in the first version is true, wonderfully so. But there’s much more to be said. My guess is that most of you would say you believe in this second version of the gospel, and that’s a good thing. But I am coming to you today with a pastoral question, “Are you sure about that?” So please pay attention to not only what God is about to tell you through His Word, pay attention to how you respond to what is said in God’s Word. Why? Your response to these things reveal which version of the gospel you really believe as well as which version of the gospel you’re really living out.

 

The passage we’ll be walking through today is Matthew 18:15-20, where Matthew would have us consider three points today, all aiming at how we as fellow believers do life together when one of us wanders and how to restore such a person(s) to a right standing within the church.

Notice What’s Before Our Passage (18:10-14)

In the verses that lead up to our text today, we find Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. In this parable Jesus says, “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of My Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (18:12-14). See here the great love of God for His people. It is so great and so vast that if one of them wanders off, He will always go after them and bring them home. Jesus shows Himself to be here in Matthew 18 what John 10 says He is, the great Shepherd of the sheep. And being the great Shepherd of the sheep, He not only has a great love for the sheep but He also sees to it that every sheep in the flock will remain in His hand until the end. None of them will perish or be snatched up by a wolf or some other intruder.

Church, since this is how God loves His people, since this is how Christ loves His Sheep, isn’t this to be how we love one another? Paul similarly, in Galatians 6:1-2 says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness…Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” This means when we come together and commit to one another in the membership of the local church, we commit to chasing down the wanderer, bringing back the sinner, loving one another despite our own foolishness, and pursuing the offender so that they are brought back home.

Into this context, comes one of the most detailed explanations of how to do church discipline. That this parable of the lost sheep comes before v15-20 gives us an example of the spirit in which church discipline is to be carried out. Not to punish, but always to be aiming at restoration, at winning back the wanderer.

Notice What’s In Our Passage (18:15-20)

Jesus has already told us that every one of us is to be about the business of pursuing, chasing, and bringing back the wandering sheep in our midst. But now suppose the shoe is on the other foot, what then? Did you notice the first words in v15? “If your brother sins against you…” If you’re the one sinned against, are you still to chase them down? Or does someone else do that? To see it in yet another manner, get out of your shoes altogether and get into the shoes of another and suppose you’re the one doing the sinning against another. What is supposed to happen then? What actions are you to take? What does the church do? Or the offended party? These are deep questions, loaded with all kinds of baggage, that God has not left us in the dark with. The light of His Word shines into our disobedience with all manner of grace.

Here Jesus gives us four steps that make up the whole process of church discipline.

Step One – Private Admonition (v15)

In v15 we learn that the very first step in the church discipline process is to go to the person who has sinned against you personally and privately. This means when sinned against, you don’t sound off to the whole church about how bad they really are and how they’re the worst thing that’s come into this church in years. You don’t refuse to talk to them anymore, give them the cold shoulder, or close yourself off from them. You don’t build up a bitter resentment in your heart toward them. No, you go them and bring it up privately. They may be aware of what they did, they may not. But by going to them privately you’re protecting the offender’s reputation by keeping the circle of people who know about this offense as small as possible. And you’re also protecting yourself from gossiping about them to others in the church by going to them immediately and personally.

When you go, what do you speak with them about? In v15 when it says “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” it implies that you’re intentions in going to them are to make them aware of their sin and seek repentance from them for their sin. You’re not going to condemn the person, you’re not going to tell the person off, you’re there to share what they did or what they continue to do, how it crossed the line of right and godly behavior for a Christian, and to see if they feel a godly remorse over what has happened and desire to make things right. If they listen to you, express sorrow over offending you, and repent Jesus says you’ve gained your brother back! I’ve often found that when this occurs the result of such a meeting is a much deeper relationship in the future. But if they refuse to listen, don’t acknowledge that what they’ve done or keep doing is sinful even though it’s clear in Scripture, you move onto to step two.

Before we get to step two notice something else here in step one. This initial step doesn’t involve any kind of official organization or leadership in the church. It’s simply between you and the other person, which is where Jesus intends church discipline to begin. In this light see that step one of church discipline is just a normal part of Christian discipleship where we are seek to do spiritual good to one another. I think if we got this step right more often, most of the discipline cases in churches would be solved right away. But sadly in this fallen world, rather than humbly seeking restoration and repentance with those who sin against us, we too quickly go the opposite way, wrongfully involve way too many people in what should be a private matter, and destroy relationships and reputations.

Step Two – Group Admonition (v16)

In v16 we learn that the second step in the church discipline process is not to give up but to again revisit the offender, with one or two others. Now, there is no timeline given here as to the exact amount of time required between these two visits. Patience, love, and grace should allow at least some time between the first and second visit to let the private admonition sink in. But if in time it is clear that the offending member is remaining unrepentant the one who went by themselves now must carefully choose one or two others, probably ones that know and love this person, or an elder, and go back to give another admonition. That a few others go back echoes Deut. 19:15 which says, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” That additional witnesses must be involved at this point encourages the one doing the sinning to come out of their sinful isolation, and encourages the individual sinned against to think deeply about whether or not this case is serious enough to warrant the sound judgment of a few others, or if they’re just making a bigger deal of this than is necessary. If they do deem it worthy of another visit, though the circle is still intentionally kept small here, a small group’s plea with the wanderer to return does make the admonition a bit weightier as well as harder to ignore.

Hope remains, for the offender could hear and heed the second warning, and if they do, you’ve won them back and will rejoice to bring them home! But if they do not, step 3 comes into view.

Step Three – Church Admonition (v17a)

In v17 we learn that the third step in the church discipline process is again, not to give up, but to tell it to the church. As we’ve seen throughout these steps, here also we do not receive a time requirement between step two and three, so patience, grace, and love should allow at least some time between the second step and the third step. When it’s clear that the offending member is still remaining unrepentant Jesus is clear, the matter now comes to the entire church. This is not strictly just telling it to the elders, not strictly just telling it to the pastor, but it really does seem to be the whole body or the entire local congregation in view here. Of course the elders need to take the lead here, they need to be the ones who decide how and when the church is to be told about it to ensure this is done orderly and graciously, but through them the matter is to come to the whole of the assembly. Do you think this is unloving or embarrassing? Remember the parable of the lost sheep. When the first two steps have been employed and the wandering member has refused to listen we’re not to give up, but in this third step we’re to enlist the whole of the congregation to go and gain back the wanderer. David Platt, in his commentary on Matthew says of this third step, “God loves us so much that if we are caught in sin, He will send an entire army of believers to us as a demonstration of His love and mercy.” In this step the circle is no longer small. It is intentionally large. Large enough, by God’s grace, to wake the wanderer out of his or her sin.

So again hope remains, the offending member who has not repented could hear and heed the warnings when they see the whole church pursuing them, and if they do, they are won back! But if they do not listen to the whole church, the final step, step 4 becomes a necessity.

Step Four – Excommunication (v17b-20)

Look at v17b, “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” What does this mean? It means that when the offending member refuses to listen and repent after these first three steps, Jesus now commands one thing – excommunication. Though probably stirred quite a bit from the whole sermon up to now, our modern sensibilities are now in full shock. ‘Isn’t the church supposed to be welcoming to sinners? Isn’t the church a where sinners find hope? Isn’t the church where sinners find rest? Yes, of course. The Church of Christ is a very safe place for sinners, but it is not ever to be a safe place for sin. To excommunicate someone isn’t to forsake them or to forget about them, no. To excommunicate someone is a public declaration from the church of which they are a member, that this church no longer believes their profession of faith is true. So by excommunication, they cease to be a member of that church and cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper any longer.

In 1 Cor. 5 we see an example of this when Paul instructs the Corinthians to excommunicate a certain man (who had sinned grievously) so that he would be delivered “…to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). See it is restoration in view even here at this last step not punishment. So when this happens we should never forsake the person, but in treating them like an unbeliever we ought to pursue them with the gospel urgently. And just in case anyone is thinking ‘Who gives you the right to do such a thing?’ see v18-20. Here we receive the promise of authority in v18, that the church holds the keys of the Kingdom so that whatever is bound or loosed on earth is also bound or loosed in heaven. Here we also receive the promise of support in v19, that the Father will give His full support to what we agree about in prayer concerning these difficult matters of discipline. Here lastly we receive the promise of presence in v20. This is not a blanket statement about God dwelling in the midst of His people’s prayer, it’s specifically about God dwelling in the midst of His people’s prayer about excommunicating a wayward brother or sister. So when we do the tough work of church discipline, God encourages us with His authority, His support, and His presence.

Notice What’s After Our Passage (18:21-35)

We’ve seen what’s before and in our passage, now see what’s after it. In v21-35 we find the parable of the unforgiving servant, which asks “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? (18:21). No, Jesus says, “…not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (18:22). Lesson? That the passage describing how church discipline is done is surrounded before and behind, shows us church discipline must be carried out with gospel grace. How often will God forgive us for our sin? His grace never ends. Ours shouldn’t either.

In an age where this topic is as popular as a parent publicly spanking their child…

-We must remember that not all discipline is bad.

-We must remember that the exercise of pastoral authority is not the same as the abuse of pastoral authority.

-We must reject the belief that church discipline is a bad thing, and come to embrace the belief presented to us in the text, that the neglect of church discipline is a bad thing.

-And we must reject the critical/judgmental spirit that we’re all prone to, remembering that because we’ve received extravagant grace in the gospel, we now must extend extravagant grace with the gospel as well. These things are commanded by Christ for the wanderer’s good, for the purity of the church, and ultimately for the glory of God.

What That Verse Really Means – Matthew 18:20

There are a number of Bible verses that well-meaning people often quote at different times which twist Scripture into saying things it never intended to say. Some of us have probably heard or been guilty of using the phrase, “Where two or more are gathered, there am I among them.” This statement of Jesus from Matthew 18:20 is usually quoted when there is low attendance at some church function. Basically, we want to tell each other, “Hey guys, there may only be a handful of us here, but Jesus is with us.” It is true that Christ is among a small group of church members, but Matthew 18:20 isn’t saying it in that way.

Many people would be surprised to discover that Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20 deal with church discipline. I’ve always heard it said that a text without a context is just a pretext. So let’s look at the context. Context is best found by reading the verses and chapters before and after. To discover what Jesus means in verse 20, we only need to read verses 15 through 20. Jesus says there,

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

The concept of church discipline is foreign to many churches today because we live in a society that embraces inclusion and we don’t want anyone to feel left out. Also, we may have seen this practiced in an unbiblical way and thrown out the baby with the bathwater. But due to our throwing out church discipline, we have an even more serious problem: unregenerate church membership, or worse, unregenerate church leadership. 

Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has pointed out that Southern Baptists, America’s largest denomination, haven’t included a statement on church discipline in their doctrinal beliefs (The Baptist Faith and Message) since prior to 1925. Yet there is no avoiding it here; Jesus is talking very plainly and clearly about church discipline.

We can’t say with Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” When a person becomes a believer, they join a family, and families love one another. What compels families to hold interventions for an alcoholic parent? Love. As church members, we’ve got to ask ourselves, “Is it really love that motivates me to keep quiet when a brother’s foul language ruins his witness or when a sister’s addiction to pain pills enslaves her?” We may say it is love that silences us, but it is really fear. Love compels us to confront brothers or sisters caught in sin. Fear stands idly by and watches while someone’s life implodes, while love acts to rescue them. This is why we have a Good Samaritan’s Law which criminalizes onlookers who don’t help a person in danger. Real love is concern in action; a heart attached to hands, feet, and a yes, even a mouth.

But how is church discipline to be exercised? Are we to go around pointing out each other’s sins every time we see one another? Of course not. Jesus gives us some very clear steps to take and each imply some covenant relationship between both parties. These steps are to be carried out among members of a local church who have covenanted to care for one another spiritually. We’re not the spiritual police for the planet, but we are responsible to our fellow members.

Step One

According to Jesus, step one involves going to the sinning brother or sister on a personal level. Paul explains the spirit we should have in step one this way: “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 5:26-6:2). The aim in every step is restoration, yet loving confrontations enables this. If they do not “listen” and refuse to express any change of mind (repentance) about their sin, we move on to step two. 

Step Two

This involves bringing one or two others. Why? They can be extra witnesses, they add seriousness to the need for repentance, and this allows others a chance to persuade them. If repentance occurs, the process stops and restoration begins. If they refuse to listen even to these two or three gathered in Christ’s name, then the church body as a whole is to be notified. 

Step Three

And by “tell it to the church”, Jesus doesn’t mean the universal church! So sin that was once a matter between two members, due to ongoing unrepentance, has now become a matter for every member of that church who has covenanted to care for one another spiritually. This process probably goes on for a period of months and involves many prayers and tears first individually, then among the two or three, then as a unified church body. If however, this individual is so entrenched in sin that they refuse to repent even before the church body, the church is to respond by no longer treating them as a fellow member, but as an unbeliever in need of salvation. Paul uses the language of handing them over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that their spirit might be saved in the end (1 Cor. 5:5). Even biblical ex-communication aims for eternal salvation!

So what does it mean when Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”? It means that if two or three believers go to an unrepentant brother or sister on behalf of the church, that individual should know they come with the authority and presence of Christ himself. We are all sinners, but we are all repentant sinners. Unrepentant church members must know that their sin not only brings them out of fellowship with fellow believers in their church, but out of fellowship with Christ himself. So in the event that you find yourself among the two or three going to confront another brother or sister living in sin, take Matthew 18:20 with you…and pray for the miracle of restoration.

Church Attendance

Commands and Suggestions

We all know the difference between a command and a suggestion. Suggestions can be considered and heeded or not, but commands on the other hand are directives that need to be obeyed. Many times there are significant consequences to commands that are not obeyed, like that time I was told (commanded) not to touch broken glass. Well, I touched it and the result was a bleeding finger. The author of Hebrews gives us a command that has huge consequences if we don’t obey.

Commanded to Meet

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). We are commanded as Christians to come together for the purpose of stirring up one another in the faith. That is, men and women in the faith are commanded to meet together regularly so that they can disciple and be discipled. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a place where Christians could come together on a regular basis to do just that? Thankfully, there is a place like this: it’s called the church. The gathering of God’s people is necessary in pointing believers to Jesus and to stir believers to love and good works. Every Christian should be regularly attending and active in a local church. Hanging out with Christian friends is great, but this isn’t church. Listening to podcasts of great preachers is awesome, but this isn’t church. Listening to Christian music is nice, but this isn’t church. The fellowship of believers through the church that Jesus established is what the author of Hebrews is commanding that we do.

Neglecting to Meet

Hebrews 10 tells us that there are some who neglect to meet together as commanded. They do not make a habit of meeting with other Christians on a regular basis. They are not encouraging others and they are not being stirred up to love and good works. They were skipping out on this vitally important command. That was true in Biblical times and that is true of some believers today. They just don’t make it a priority to be a part of their local church. Instead, they would rather sleep-in, do homework, go to the beach, get yard work done, or a million other things that do not involve edifying Christian community. Christian community is important because it is ultimately about Jesus Christ – growing in His likeness and worshipping Him above all else. Neglecting Christian community through the local church, ultimately, is neglecting Jesus.

Too Busy

Life is busy which can make it difficult to see the importance of Christian fellowship. There is school and work and marriage and kids and bills and hobbies and responsibilities and deadlines. Our society is consumer driven and is always pleading for our attention. That’s just how it is, and the author of Hebrews knows that – God knows that. That’s why He commands that we meet together. He doesn’t suggest it or send an advertisement saying that it’s good idea. He’s not saying, “Everyone throughout the history of the church needs to meet together except for those who live in the 21st century. They are going to be way too busy for church. So you guys just do it everyone once in a while, when you can.” That is not what He is saying. No. He says, “do not neglect to meet together.” As busy as we are, we will always make time for what is most important to us. The questions is, is Christ’s church a priority for you?

My prayer is that we will not neglect the church, that we will be regular in church attendance, fellowship, and community. As Christians it is vital that we meet together regularly to point one another to Christ and to stir each other on in the faith. Get plugged into a Christ-centered church and seek to disciple and be discipled because ultimately, it’s about Christ!

Challies: 3 Quick Questions Before Quitting Your Church

After perusing around Facebook this morning I ran across an article that caught my eye. It’s from Tim Challies and it’s very good. I’ve reposted the whole article below for you to read:

Tim Challies:

We all know there are times and circumstances in which the only right course of action is to leave a church. If the church leadership has apostatized or proven themselves unqualified for ministry, if they are preaching a false gospel, if they have surrendered to the culture, we need to get out. We can leave these churches boldly and without looking back, shaking the dust from our feet.

But more often than not, we leave churches for what we might consider discretionary reasons. We don’t need to leave, but choose to leave. And we typically do this when we feel weary of the people, when we feel like they aren’t interested in us anymore, when relationships feel cool rather than warm, when we feel like we need a fresh start.

I wonder if you are in such a place right now—you are part of a church but feeling restless, ready to move on. Maybe you’ve attended another church a time or two and are finding yourself drawn to that congregation, to those people. It’s not always wrong to leave a church under such circumstances, but before you do, I would want to ask three important questions, all of which I’ve asked many times as an elder and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church:

Here’s the first question: Have you been praying for the people of this church? Your love for others grows in direction proportion to your prayer for them. As you pray for people, you find that you love them. You are called to pray for your enemies in the hope that they will become your brothers and sisters and for strangers in the hope that they will become your friends. How much more, then, are you to pray for your fellow church members? When you don’t pray for the people in your church you may soon find your heart cooling toward them. Once your love cools you may find yourself blaming them for your discontentment when really it began within you. Before you leave a church, first determine that you will take a period of time to pray—to pray for the people specifically and by name. Then see if your heart remains cool and distant.

Here’s the second question: Have you been serving the people of this church? Your love for others grows hand-in-hand with your service to them. As you do love toward others you naturally feel love toward others. Too many Christians prefer to be served rather than looking for every opportunity to serve. They gauge their emotional response to the church by the actions others have taken or not taken toward them. Yet God’s first call to us is not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45, Philippians 2:5-11). The more we imitate Christ in his selfless service, the more our love grows warm. Before you leave a church, first determine that you will take a period of time to serve that church—to creatively seek out opportunities to serve and surprise. Then see if your heart remains cool and distant.

And one last question: Have you been with the people of this church? Have you been there on Sunday morning, and if you have, have you been all-in, looking for people to speak to, new people to meet, coffee to brew, chairs to stack? Have you been at the Sunday evening or mid-week services, or the prayer meetings, or the small groups? If everyone else in the church is getting together three times a week while you parachute for a quick Sunday morning fix, you will necessarily feel like an outsider looking in. You need to embrace the whole life of a church, not just the one main gathering. Before you leave a church, first determine that for a time you will commit to it all the way. Then see if your heart remains cool and distant.

Under many circumstances we have freedom before God to move from one church to another. In some cases this is a necessary course of action while in others it is a sinful course of action. Most of the time, though it is discretionary, depending on the particulars, the circumstances, the heart. Before you make such a move, do consider the questions: Have you been praying for the people of the church? Have you been serving the people of the church? Have you been with the people of the church? Love grows cold where there is no prayer. Love grows cold where there is no service and no togetherness. In other words, love grows cold where there is no love—no expression of love through prayer, through deeds, through fellowship.

Hearing the Voice of the Lord in Your Pastor’s Sermon

This week I’ll be posting the writing of other’s that I’ve recently found helpful. Today, I draw your attention to Danny Hyde who has given us 5 helpful ways to be better listeners during sermons. What follows is from Hyde over at Meet the Puritans:

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

Reformed churches believe God still speaks. While we do not believe he speaks via the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we believe that via preaching God’s voice is as real and vital to us as it was through the mouths and pens of prophets and apostles. How can we say this? Here’s the doctrine formulated as simply as possible: when a lawfully called and ordained minister (Rom. 10) preaches the Word of God and not his own words (2 Tim. 2:15) and does so in sincerity to honor God and not himself (1 Thes. 2:3–6), God speaks. His words are “not . . . the word of men but . . . the word of God.” In the words of Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575): “Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called [per prædicatores legitime vocatos], we believe that the very Word of God [ipsum Dei verbum] is preached, and received of the faithful” (Second Helvetic Confession, 1.4). So how do you hear the voice of the Lord in your pastor’s sermon? Obviously I’m assuming the above is true of him. Here’s how:

1. Expectantly—“Lord, I expect you to speak” Since we gather together on the Lord’s Day to hear what Paul says is “not . . . the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God,” we need to come expectantly, crying out to God, “Lord, I expect you to speak.” This means that we need to prepare all week to hear him speak through the preaching of his Word on the Lord’s Day. We need to be preparing our hearts all week long with a spirit of anticipation. The prophet Isaiah spoke of our day, saying, the Lord’s mountain would be exalted and the nations would flow to his house: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isa. 2:3). Because of this we need to be saying to ourselves, “God’s going to speak. What’s he going to say? I can’t wait.”

2. Hungrily—“Lord, I need you to speak” When Sunday morning rolls around, we need to hear the Word hungrily, crying out, “Lord, I need you to speak.” Why? Why do we need him to speak through the words of men, which are in reality the Word of God? Because his Word is the food of our souls. In our age of instant gratification and having the world at our fingertips on our iPhones and Blackberries, we are ever-connected to each other and to information. But that feeling is passing. It does not last not does it satisfy our souls. Like our forefathers in the wilderness, our hungry souls need the Word. “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3). Like the prophets of old who ate their scrolls to signify the people’s need to have the Word within them to nourish them, so too we need to partake of the Word to satisfy our spiritual hunger. What kind of an appetite do you have? Do you want the empty calories, the quick sugar high of the devil’s words, the world’s words, your own words, and sadly, the words of so many professing Christian preachers today? What kind of appetite do you have? Do you want your ears tickled with promises of a better life now, health, wealth, and happiness? Instead, we are called to have an appetite for the Word like a nursing child has an appetite for milk. As Peter says, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Milk is nourishing. Milk is healthy. Milk is satisfying.

3. Attentively—“Lord, I will listen to you speak” To make best use of that nourishment we need to hear the Word attentively. During the sermon, we need to be praying, “Lord, I will listen to you speak.” This means every week and even every moment of the sermon, we need to be saying to ourselves, “These are not the words of Pastor ____, but what they are in truth, the words of God.” As we recognize that God is in our midst and that he is speaking, we will be able to give our attentive listening to the Word. This is why the Westminster Confession calls the “conscionable hearing” of the Word an act of worship. We are hearing God, and hearing him, giving our minds and hearts’ full attention to every last word. One example of hearing the Word attentively is in Deuteronomy 32:47. At the end of one of Moses’ last sermons, he exhorted the people to recognize the profundity of what was happening in that sermon: “For it is no empty word for you, but your very life.” Here is a challenge for pastors as well as for parishioners. Can you say of the preaching of the Word in your church that it is not empty? Can you say of the preaching of the Word that it is your very life? Let me challenge you with all that is in me to think of preaching totally different after this sermon. Let me challenge you to fight fatigue, to fight distracting thoughts, and to fight what the devil wants you to think about all this, that it’s boring. Worship is the place and the time where God speaks!

4. Faithfully—“Lord, I believe you when you speak” You need to leave worship saying to God, “Lord, I believe you when you speak.” I know this is difficult to believe that in preaching it is not the words of men but the words of God. I know it must be hard to believe that your pastor’s words are not merely his words but God’s words, given that you know that he is a mere man, a sinful man at that. Because of this receive the preaching of the Word by faith as God’s word to you. Because preaching must be received by faith, that faith is inevitably going to be an object of the devil’s temptation. We too easily give into the devil’s subtle designs on this point. How? He wants us to judge the minister with our eyes—his appearance, his fashion or lack thereof, or even the fact that he may wear a robe to signify his office but that turns you off to the content of what he preaches. The devil wants us to judge the minister with our hearts. Don’t ever tell him your gripes, but hold grudges, hold spite, and hold adverse opinions about him that you are saving as weapons for a later time. He wants us to judge the minister with our minds. How easy it is to fall into the trap that one of my college professors said parishioners fall into when he said, “Some people know just enough Hebrew and Greek to be dangerous.” We puff ourselves up in our minds so that we can do mental battle with the preacher. All this is so that we do not listen to him.

5. Obediently—“Lord, I will obey you when you speak” Instead, God wants us to hear the Word obediently. He wants us to leave, saying to him, “Lord, I will obey you when you speak.” The Thessalonians heard the Word, they received the Word, and they accepted the Word. And it was that Word that was “at work” in them. The Word is never fruitless, but is always fruitful. As the prophet Isaiah said, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
 and do not return there but water the earth,
 making it bring forth and sprout,
 giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
 it shall not return to me empty, 
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
 and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:10–11). Are you a doer of the Word and not merely a hearer? We need to learn how to fine-tune our spiritual senses that we are able to hear the Lord in a world of noise. We can do that as we listen expectantly, as we listen hungrily, as we listen attentively, as we listen faithfully, and as we listen obediently. Let me challenge you to do so that your life will be saturated with the Word in every part and guided by the Word at every turn of your life. Let me close with a wonderful quote that summarizes it all. The Puritan Joseph Alleine once said—and I pray this is true for us all: “Come from your knees to the sermon, and come from the sermon to your knees.” Amen.

The 4 Kinds of People in Your Church

I’ve been in and around pastoral ministry for 10 years now and over that time I’ve noticed that in every congregation there usually are 4 kinds of people present. I find these distinctions to be quite helpful because each group requires a different approach, and they need different things (that I want to be able to give them) from me as their pastor.

Now, not every person fits into one of these categories. I have been in all 4 myself over the years and I’m sure you have too. I’m sure you also will be able to tell who these people are in your church, well, that is, if your church is smaller rather than bigger. Though it’s rare, sometimes you will run across someone who doesn’t fit into any of these groups, but I’ve found it’s a rare exception. Most all people do fit into one or more of the following groups.

Shy Guys

These are folks who are timid and shy in large AND small group settings. This isn’t a bad thing at all. Shyness is a gift of God, for it keeps many people from sins they’d dive into if they were more extraverted or proud. What is tempting for this person is to sit back and hide, or fade into the background so no one notices them. And in their hiding they can easily begin to believe that they have nothing to offer their church. That’s a lie.

Shy guys need to be reminded that God has placed them in a specific church with other specific people for a specific purpose. A purpose which won’t be able to be completed if it weren’t for their contribution to the whole. This means in God’s sovereign plan He has so ordained that this shy person be in whatever church they find themselves to be in for their good AND the good of those around them. They have gifts, great gifts and abilities, that must be put into practice if the body is to be built up as it should. I’ve often found that it is the shy guys, as opposed to any other group, who thrive in one-on-one discipleship settings.

Pray for them, that God would make them bold and eager to jump in with all hands on deck.

Prideful Allies

These are folks who are proud and deeply desire to prove their usefulness and talents to you. Opposed to the shy guys above, these folks think they’ve got a whole array of gifts and abilities to offer the church, and that if those gifts are used often they believe the church will be ‘better’ than it is now. These people will normally ask you to lead something in the church within 10 minutes of meeting you, and upon doing so will promise glorious results. Beware this person. In the beginning they will seem like one of your biggest allies and for a time will actually be just that. But when asked to stick in for the long haul and become a committed member they usually leave quickly.

The sad thing about this group is that most of the time, they do have very developed gifts that are rare and could be very useful if put into practice. But, pride getting in the way usually prohibits them from actually doing so. The longing to lead isn’t a bad thing (see 1 Tim. 3:1), but the longing in this person isn’t to lead for the sake of the body as much as it is to lead for the sake of being seen in the spotlight.

Pray God would humble them in your ministry and give them more joy in humility than they thought was possible.

The Disenchanted 

These are the folks who have an exaggerated dislike of you as the pastor. For whatever reason everything you do is seen as suspicious and strange. This person usually doesn’t enter the church in this way. In order to be a disenchanted person they must have once been an enchanted one. It takes a series of events, or a one time event that changes a lot within the church to turn them into this kind of person. They once bought in to the vision of the church. They once looked on the pastor with respect. They once joined in and gave their life to this body of believers. They may have even been a part of leading to some degree. But now, for a reason (that is very real/meaningful to them) they are backing away slowly.

I’ve found this person is one who is hurt. Through certain events, or a major change at the church, the person no longer feels like a welcomed or appreciated member of the team and from this they grow discontent. In this anger (that’s really what it is) the person will see everything the church does as suspect and wrong, even if it is something they actually agree with. This is a sad story, every time, because I’ve found that these people don’t often let you know about their feelings until it’s too late. The hurt is real, deep, and prolonged. No one can survive for very long in that mode. So they give up after a while, assume the worst of the particular ministry (and minister), and their exit is often a hard one because they’ve been around for so long.

Pray for them, that God would give them an eagerness and excitement to join in again and contribute their own gifts to the ministry. Things may not look like what they want it to be, remind them that’s ok.

The Overenchanted

As opposed to the disenchanted person above, the overenchanted folks have an exaggerated love of you as the pastor. These are often folks who are new to the church and have only been around or been members for a year or less. The newness hasn’t worn off yet, which puts them in a ‘honeymoon period’ with the church. Everything the pastor says is fantastic, even if it’s wrong. Everything the ministry is doing or not doing is seen as justified, even if it’s wrong. Rose-colored glasses are on and in use at all times for this person, and they’re not aware of it.

Because of the heightened approval this person has for your ministry the danger is obvious isn’t it? Once the rose-colored glasses are taken off they could easily become a disenchanted person. Remind them of your sins, remind them you’re not perfect, that you struggle, that without good commentaries you’d be lost in sermon prep, and without God’s grace you’d be nothing. The sad thing about this case is that just as the disenchanted person see’s everything as suspect, the overenchanted person will see everything as glorious, even if it’s the pastor admitting his own weakness and need for help and grace. Remind this person that the kingdom is bigger than your particular ministry, that you’re not the best thing since sliced bread (you know you’re not right?), and that you really do need God’s grace to make it everyday.

Pray for them, that God would give them a true sense of the ministry, that He would remove their rose-colored glasses and create an honest and deeper enjoyment at your church.

I must end, but remember this. Acts 20:28 stands as the banner over these 4 kinds of people and really all kinds of people in our churches. ‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with his own blood.’

Pastor or church member, be faithful. Pursue these people, love these people, lead these people.

4 Questions to Ask Before Joining a Church

Very helpful blog post from Brian Croft:

I’ve been asked this question many times not just through my Practical Shepherding website, but even more recently in my own church by visitors. It is a common scenario. You move to a new area. You get find your new residence and job. You get the kids enrolled in school. Where you settle in a local church often becomes a longer, more drawn-out task.

After checking out all the churches you desire to visit, here are four questions to ask yourself as you narrow the search to make a decision.

1. Is this a church where my family will be regularly fed by God’s Word?

This is the first question that needs to be asked. Not just are they faithful to the Word of God, but will this church preach and teach in such a way that my soul and the souls of my family will be nourished? In other words, are they preaching expositionally through books of the Bible as the regular, steady diet of the congregation? This approach does not automatically answer this question, but it is a great place to start and evaluate.

2. Is this a church where I am convinced the care of my soul will be a priority?

Does this church have real pastors/elders who see their primary task to be the spiritual care and oversight of the souls of the members? In other words, just because they have powerful, biblical preaching does not mean your individual soul will be tended to on a regular basis. Ask the pastors. Ask other church members. It will not take much investigation on whether this work is a priority of the leadership of the church.

3. Is this a church where my family will experience meaningful Christian fellowship and accountability?

To know this, it will require a bit of a commitment to one church for a time to build relationships, attend some church fellowship events, and get to know some of the pastors and leadership. Yet you must have a realistic expectation as you are not yet a member, so do not expect to be treated as one.

4. Is this a church where I can serve God’s people and use my gifts for its benefit?

It will help to know where you are gifted and what some of the needs of the church are. Some needs can be filled by your simple presence and commitment. Also, do not assume you know what those areas of need are by your limited observations.

You should be able to know the answers to these questions within a few months of attending one church if you give yourself to the process. If you can answer in the affirmative to all four of these questions, it is a good possibility you have found your next church. At that point I would encourage you not to delay but to pursue membership.

Important Final Note

One final element is the key to persevering with the zeal required in this search. You and your family should feel a sense of persistent unease knowing that you are not in covenant fellowship with a local church and are not under the authority of undershepherds caring for your souls. The freedom and absence of accountability many experience in the search for a new church can cause a sinful complacency.

In other words, you do not ever want to become comfortable being one of God’s sheep who has wandered away from the fellowship of the flock and the accountability of shepherds to care for you, even if that journey at the time feels fun and exciting.Brian Croft is senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also the author of Visit the Sick: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Illness and Test, Train, Affirm, and Send Into Ministry: Recovering the Local Church’s Responsibility to the External Call. Brian blogs regularly at Practical Shepherding.

Biker-Church, Community, and the Gospel Witness

Community is a big deal in our day.  In the modern era, community was important but not as important as the individual quest for truth.  Now in the post-modern era the communities quest for truth is more important than the individual quest.  It is no longer important to know what you believe, but rather, the important thing today is what we believe.  We love to believe things along with other people, so we define ourselves by all kinds of sub-groups.

This emphasis on community within post-modernism isn’t a bad thing, and even within the Church we should seek to foster and build community.  We should seek to give people a place where they belong, and a people they can do life with.  But this quest for Christian community can turn bad very quickly if we build our communities on something other than the gospel.

Let me explain.  Every year in our city (New Port Richey, Florida) there is a Bike-Week where motorcycles from all over stream into town.  The city if filled with leather, loud exhaust, tattoos, and you guessed it – motorcycle ministries.  Motorcycle ministries?  Yes.  You’ve seen them before right?  These are ministries that exist for the sole purpose of reaching bikers.  This is a good idea, and I fully back my brothers and sisters who have a heart to reach into these communities with the gospel.  But sometimes these kind of ministries, when they grow large enough, become churches.  A motorcycle ministry could become a motorcycle church.

I think this is bad.

Don’t hear me wrong.  We should seek to bring bikers into the Church, we should seek to bring all kinds of people into the Church so the witness of the local church worshiping God can show all peoples what life is truly about.  But a biker church is a bad idea because it’s based on a community that would still exist if the gospel didn’t.  Bikers would still gather together and create community regardless if God existed or not.  The difference about the community that’s to exist within the Church is that if God didn’t exist, the community of the Church wouldn’t exist either.  But because God does exist, and because the gospel is good news for all peoples, the gospel and only the gospel is to be the very thing the Church builds it’s community on and around.  A local church should gather together for worship only because of their commonality of belief in and love for the gospel.  If certain kinds of Christians gather together in church to worship for any other reason the gospel – you don’t have a church, you have a club built around common interest.

Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop once said, “When Christians unite around something other than the gospel, they create community that would likely exist even if God didn’t.”  Lesson?  A community formed by the gospel should look unlike anything else in the world.  This is why the local church itself in its worship and work is to be a compelling community witnessing to all other communities of what true community is to be built upon.  God’s people are called to a togetherness and community commitment that transcends all other natural boundaries – ethnic, generational, or economic.

Not age, stage, or common interests, but only the gospel.

The Danger of Seeking Your Dream Church

Helpful post from Brian Borgman:

Our church, like every other church, gets phone calls throughout the week from people wanting to know about our assembly. They ask questions, but typically they are not the kinds of questions I would ask if I were looking for a church. “What kind of music do you have? Do you have programs for the kids? Does your church home school? Do you have recovery groups? What Bible translation do you use? Do you serve Krispy Kreme or Dunkin Donuts?” Okay, we’ve never had anyone ask that last one, but at times the questions haven’t been much more substantial.

Then, of course, people come and go. People get upset and leave. Unfortunately, people often leave for reasons that likewise lack substance. They are willing to isolate themselves and fragment the church because their theological or ideological boxes have not all been checked.

For some people, these insubstantial issues manifest themselves in obvious and external behavior. But for many, these issues are quieter and less noticeable. They fester in the heart where no one can see.

Assessing Our Assessments

Have you ever been upset with your church? Have you ever been disappointed with people in the church? Have you ever been offended by someone in the church? Have you given up on the church altogether?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, then ask yourself, Why? Is it because the Word of God is being violated? Is it because God is being dishonored? Or is it because your view on right and important is not being satisfied?

As a pastor who planted a church in 1993 and has been serving that church ever since, I have seen many get disgruntled with us for not holding tightly enough to the things they thought were important, whether politics, education, or family planning. And the list could go on.

Danger of Our Wish-Dreams

Over the years I have gone back again and again to a little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. The wisdom and comfort in this little book is inestimably valuable. One of the most important truths I have gleaned from Bonhoeffer’s work relates directly to the disgruntled, the disappointed, and the angry. Bonhoeffer says:

Every human wish-dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly.

Brothers and sisters, how we must guard against our own wish-dreams of what the church ought to be. The church isn’t about my preferences, my agenda, my likes or dislikes, my political views or personal convictions. When these wish-dreams govern the way we evaluate a church, we become critics of the church as we stand in judgment over it.

The church is about God’s truth, God’s people, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and fellowshiping with sinners who have been saved by grace. The treasure of the church isn’t in the sterling people who compose the membership and wave the right flags. The treasure of the church is Jesus Christ himself, as he comes to us in the gospel (2 Cor. 4:3-7). The people in the church are clay pots, earthen vessels, weak, frail, fragile sinners. That’s all of us. Wish-dreamers are always focused on trying to improve the clay by reshaping the clay into their wish-dreams.

Why We Have Wish-Dreams

Obviously Bonhoeffer didn’t mean biblical standards are wish-dreams. He was talking about our non-biblical expectations of others and thus of the church. When we expect the church to be “the fellowship of the pious” we have a wish-dream. When we expect the church to trumpet our personal causes, then we have a wish-dream. If we are put off because there are sinful people in our church whose clay is showing, then we have a wish-dream.

Wish-dreamers forget that the church is built on the gospel of the cross and that gospel is for people who really know themselves to be sinners. Wish-dreamers see themselves as having their act together because they . . . [fill in the blank] . . . and expect the church to follow suit. Wish-dreamers see themselves as sinners only in their creed, but not in reality. When we see ourselves as desperate sinners in need of the grace of Christ, it changes the way we look at others, what we expect of others, and what we want the church to be. Wish-dreamers are concerned about certain sins, but not others. They are great labelers of people. They are always looking for a church with better clay.

But the wish-dreamer forgets that we live in community with one another for a reason. As Bonhoeffer reminds us later, “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.” To be alone, to withdraw from the body because our wish-dreams have been challenged or smashed, is to end up alone in our sin. When we are together, we are together in him, in his gospel. We can minister to each other and love each other as fellow sinners.

The gospel is glorious when clay remembers it is clay and treasures the true Treasure.

6 Reasons Why Church Membership Matters

From Kevin DeYoung’s blog:

“Why bother with church membership?”

I’ve been asked the question before. Sometimes it’s said with genuine curiosity-“So explain to me what membership is all about.” Other times it’s said with a tinge of suspicion-“So tell me again, why do you think I should become a member?”-as if joining the church automatically signed you up to tithe by direct deposit.

For many Christians membership sounds stiff, something you have at your bank or the country club, but too formal for the church. Even if it’s agreed that Christianity is not a lone ranger religion, that we need community and fellowship with other Christians, we still bristle at the thought of officially joining a church. Why all the hoops? Why box the Holy Spirit into member/non-member categories? Why bother joining a local church when I’m already a member of the universal Church?

Some Christians–because of church tradition or church baggage–may not be convinced of church membership no matter how many times “member” actually shows up in the New Testament. But many others are open to hearing the justification for something they’ve not thought much about.

Here are just a few reasons why church membership matters.

1. In joining a church you make visible your commitment to Christ and his people. Membership is one way to raise the flag of faith. You state before God and others that you are part of this local body of believers. It’s easy to talk in glowing terms about the invisible church-the body of all believers near and far, living and dead-but it’s in the visible church that God expects you to live out your faith.

Sometimes I think that we wouldn’t all be clamoring for community if we had actually experienced it. Real fellowship is hard work, because most people are a lot like us-selfish, petty, and proud. But that’s the body God calls us to.

How many of Paul’s letters were written to individuals? Only a handful, and these were mostly to pastors. The majority of his letters were written to a local body of believers. We see the same thing in Revelation. Jesus spoke to individual congregations in places like Smyrna, Sardis, and Laodicea. The New Testament knows no Christians floating around in “just me and Jesus” land. Believers belong to churches.

2. Making a commitment makes a powerful statement in a low-commitment culture. Many bowling leagues require more of their members than our churches. Where this is true, the church is a sad reflection of its culture. Ours is a consumer culture were everything is tailored to meet our needs and satisfy our preferences. When those needs aren’t met, we can always move on to the next product, or job, or spouse.

Joining a church in such an environment makes a counter-cultural statement. It says “I am committed to this group of people and they are committed to me. I am here to give, more than get.”

Even if you will only be in town for a few years, it’s still not a bad idea to join a church. It lets your home church (if you are a student) know that you are being cared for, and it lets your present know that you want to be cared for here.

But it’s not just about being cared for, it’s about making a decision and sticking with it-something my generation, with our oppressive number of choices, finds difficult. We prefer to date the church-have her around for special events, take her out when life feels lonely, and keep her around for a rainy day. Membership is one way to stop dating churches, and marrying one.

3. We can be overly independent. In the West, it’s one of the best and worst thing about us. We are free spirits and critical thinkers. We get an idea and run with it. But whose running with us? And are any of us running in the same direction? Membership states in a formal way, “I am part of something bigger than myself. I am not just one of three hundred individuals. I am part of a body.”

4. Church membership keeps us accountable. When we join a church we are offering ourselves to one another to be encouraged, rebuked, corrected, and served. We are placing ourselves under leaders and submitting to their authority (Heb. 13:7). We are saying, “I am here to stay. I want to help you grow in godliness. Will you help me to do the same?”

Mark Dever, in his book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, writes,

Church membership is our opportunity to grasp hold of each other in responsibility and love. By identifying ourselves with a particular church, we let the pastors and other members of that local church know that we intend to be committed in attendance, giving, prayer, and service. We allow fellow believers to have great expectations of us in these areas, and we make it known that we are the responsibility of this local church. We assure the church of our commitment to Christ in serving with them, and we call for their commitment to serve and encourage as well.

5. Joining the church will help your pastor and elders be more faithful shepherds. Hebrews 13:7 says “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” That’s your part as “laypeople”. Here’s our part as leaders: “They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” As a pastor I take very seriously my responsibility before God to watch care for souls. At almost every elders’ meeting the RCA Book of Church Order instructed us “seek to determine whether any members of the congregation are in need of special care regarding their spiritual condition and/or not making faithful use of the means of grace.” This is hard enough to do in a church like ours where there is constant turnover, but it’s even harder when we don’t know who is really a part of this flock.

To give just one example, we try to be diligent in following up with people who haven’t been at our church for a while. This is a challenge. But if you never become a member, we can’t tell if you are really gone, because we might not be sure if you were ever here! It’s nearly impossible for the elders to shepherd the flock when they don’t know who really considers them their shepherds.

6. Joining the church gives you an opportunity to make promises. When someone become a member at University Reformed Church, he makes promises to pray, give, serve, attend worship, accept the spiritual guidance of the church, obey its teachings, and seek the things that make for unity, purity, and peace. We ought not to make these promises lightly. They are solemn vows. And we must hold each other to them. If you don’t join the church, you miss an opportunity to publicly make these promises, inviting the elders and the rest of the body to hold you to these promises-which would be missing out on great spiritual benefit, for you, your leaders, and the whole church.

Membership matters more than most people think. If you really want to be a counter-cultural revolutionary, sign up for the membership class, meet with your elders, and join your local church.

Pastors’ Wives 101: A Must Read for Every Christian

Crossway is still going strong with their March theme of the Pastor’s Wife.  Below are some of the videos they’ve made.  They are good, and will no doubt break through many misconceptions about a the ‘first lady’ in our churches.  These videos will help you love her well.

Misconceptions about Pastors’ Wives

In this video, pastor’s wife and blogger Jen Thorn confronts some common misconceptions related to being a pastor’s wife. Misconceptions about Pastors’ Wives from Crossway on Vimeo. This video is »

Dealing with Hurt as a Pastor’s Wife

This is guest post by Tara Barthel and is part of Pastor’s Wife Appreciation Month. Tara is the coauthor of Peacemaking Women: Biblical Hope for Resolving Conflict. Pastors’ wives »

Ask a Pastor’s Wife: Friendships

In this video Q&A, Gloria Furman responds to Pam who writes, “How do you have friendships that are open and honest when you are having marriage problems?” Ask »

Raising Kids as a Pastor’s Wife

This is guest post by Heather Platt and is part of Pastor’s Wife Appreciation Month. Heather’s husband, David, is the best-selling author of Radical and Radical Together and »

How to Befriend Your Pastor’s Wife

In this video, Jen Wilkin, author of Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds, offers some advice for befriending your pastor’s »

Pastor, Love Your Wife

This is guest post by Dave Furman and is part of Pastor’s Wife Appreciation Month. Dave is the pastor of Redeemer Church of Dubai. His wife, Gloria, is the »

A New Book By Gloria Furman

Being a Pastor’s Wife Is a Noble Calling In her new book, The Pastor’s Wife: Strengthen by Grace for a Life of Love, Gloria Furman offers wives of »

LISTEN UP: How to Listen to A Dull Sermon

We’re not exactly sure what Paul’s preaching was like, we get a few hints here and there (1 Cor. 1-2), but in Acts 20:7-12 Paul preached for a really long time.  So long in fact, that a young man went to sleep and fell out of a window.  We’ve not all fallen out of a church window before but most of us, I can admit this too, have fallen asleep during a sermon.

By definition the word dull means this: not lively, spiritless, causing boredom, lacking depth or intensity, slow.

These words are usually not descriptive terms pastors want to hear attached to their own preaching.  BUT sometimes it is.  A dull sermon is one that leaves a lot to be desired.  It may be chaotic, hard to follow, unstructured, dense, cramming too much into a little time, too brainy.  Sometimes it may feel like eating very heavy pudding, or like walking in a dark little room with no windows to let light in.  The sermon gives its hearers little to no methods of applying it to their lives, and was poorly presented for sure.  Now, not every sermon is going to be a home-run, and yes, sometimes our pastors will strikeout.  But still, don’t they have degrees for this reason?

I think for a sermon to be dull it means one thing: lacking in presentation.  It may be 100% Biblically faithful, accurate to the text, delivered by a preacher who knows the truth, yet lacking all sorts of Holy Spirit power, and definitively boring.  What then are we to do when those dull sermons come?  A few things:

1) Pray: did you pray for your pastor before church?  Did you pray for him at all during the week?  If not, a dull sermon may be God’s answer to your prayerlessness.  Lesson?  Pray for your pastor.

2) Listen to the dull sermon: don’t walk out.  Sit there and make yourself listen.  It may make you tired to pay attention deeper than you normally do, but God will reveal Himself through His Word.

3) Seek your heart: why do you find it dull?  Are you one who favors a kind of personality over the truth?  Surely, the truth ought to be delivered with a passionate fire and power/unction from the Holy Spirit, but ask yourself if you really only like the cool, hip pastors downtown?  If you do, be rebuked.

4) Pray & Learn: I’ve already touched on prayer, but seriously do it.  Pray that God would cause something in the sermon to stick to your soul that would benefit His glory and your own good.  He will answer, and you may be surprised at what you come out of that moment learning.

5) Encourage: You’re pastor may need some encouragement, so do it.  Tell him what you liked about that passage, about his sermon (even if it was little), and if you can do so in a gracious manner tell him how to preach better.  This may mean telling him to apply it deeper, stick to the text more, or seek to soak in the text throughout the week.  Anything you say to your pastor will mean a lot, especially if he knows you are for him and want his success.

We’ve all been there, dull sermons are hard to get through…for both the pastor and the hearer.  Settle down, sit back, pray, God will move…He always does.

 

LISTEN UP: Do What the Bible Says….TODAY

Monroe loves preaching.  He loves and believes that God speaks to His people through His Word, and sits on the edge of his seat with notebook in hand to take meticulous notes.  He has done this for many years, and has on his shelf tons of full notebooks to show his faithfulness in sermon note taking.  He has become more convinced that the Bible is 100% reliable and trustworthy.  But his wife and his friends haven’t really noticed much change for the better in Monroe’s life over the past 10 years or so.  He sure knows a lot, but doesn’t change a lot from all his sermon note taking.  He wonders why.

Dave on the other hand doesn’t take notes during the sermon, doesn’t feel like he knows very much Biblical knowledge, and feels out of his element during small group/Bible study discussions.  He knows he doesn’t know much, and he seems to carry around a lot of questions with him.  But when Dave learns something about God, his conscience simply won’t let him forget it, or settle to just have down in a notebook somewhere.  He must apply it, and that very day he adjusts his life in line with what he learned.  He is grateful for God’s work in His life.

Which person do you relate to more?  Throughout the past 10 years of my life I have had seasons where I looked a lot like Monroe (more than I’d like to admit), and seasons where, praise God, I’ve looked more like Dave.  You see, from the outside looking in Monroe looks like a better Christian because he has shelves to show for it.  But though Dave doesn’t have shelves of sermon notes or theological books to show anyone else, he has a heart that is becoming more like Christ everyday.  Dave would make a great leader, Monroe would not.

Why?  Dave obeys the Bible….TODAY while Monroe merely puts it on a shelf.

What do you do?  Do your shelves condemn you?  Or do your shelves commend you?  Deuteronomy 30:15 says, “See, I have set before you TODAY life and death…choose life.”  Psalm 95:7-8, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.”  Every time the Bible is preached it should lead all who hear to repent again, to trust in Christ again, and to obey afresh. We must respond that very day as the verses above teach.  Now, it’s not that we become Christians all over again day by day, but rather that we are all in an urgent situation where we must hear, receive, and apply the Word of God daily (James 1:21).

When I look back at those times in my life when I more resembled Monroe I notice now that I would also take vigorous sermon notes.  I’d never miss a point, sub-point, or illustration.  My note taking was so meticulous that a pastor once asked me what his sermon points were the previous Sunday because he knew I would have them written down.  The issue here wasn’t that I took good notes, that’s great.  The issue was that after taking such notes I would never go back to them again and soak in the what God had taught me.  I accumulated many notebooks full or sermon notes that I merely got onto paper like a monkey in senior high economics class.  That’s not good.

Every time we hear a sermon the devil whispers in our ears, ‘Good stuff huh?  You’ve got plenty of time to apply this stuff to your life, do it tomorrow, you’re busy enough the rest of the day.  After all there is no rush is there?’  Wrong, there is a rush.  We must apply what we learn from God the day we learn it.  Psalm 95 said, ‘TODAY when you hear His voice…’ and one thing we learn from that is that when we hear His voice, we obey His voice that very day.

Practical steps to take:

1) Ask yourself about the things you need to change after the sermon.

2) Do it TODAY, praying, and asking for grace to enable you to repent/change.

3) Enjoy preaching, not as entertainment, but as God’s regular gracious invitation to walk with Him, and rejoice in a clear conscience.