Why we shouldn’t sweep Christian Perfection into the dustbin of history – Colossians 1:24-2:5, Part 5

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Is perfection possible?  It’s the question I’ve been asking and exploring starting here. Why perfection? It seems like an easy question to answer when we look around the world today, and at ourselves. Perfection seems impossible, and even potentially damaging as a goal, because of the often destructive nature of perfectionism. I’ve been asking the question, though, because in the passage from the Bible that I’m discussing this week, Colossians 1:24-2:5, the writer of the letter, the Apostle Paul, says that he wants to present everyone “perfect.” Furthermore my denomination is part of a Christian heritage, following John Wesley of Methodist fame, who holds to something called Christian Perfection. Check out the two previous posts here and here to learn more about Wesley and what he taught. So now it is time to bring this to a conclusion and try to answer the question: Is perfection possible?

As I mentioned in the previous posts, because a man of John Wesley’s stature believed in Christian Perfection, because there is a biblical case to be made for it, and because many Christians not only agree with the doctrine but have said they experienced it in their lives, I do not believe it is right to claim that perfection is impossible.  I say that cautiously.  Here’s why.

The word Paul and Jesus use is not always translated by our English word “perfect.”  It is a rather flexible word that could mean any of the following: “perfect (in the moral sense), perfect (in the physical sense), mature, adult, genuine, complete, or initiated.”[1]  Initiated?  That refers to one who has gained entrance into a group or a club, because they have attained to a level worthy of entrance. You can see the connection to maturity and perfection. 

So of all these choices, which one did Paul and Jesus mean? 

It is hard to know.  Jesus compared this concept to God.  Be what God is, he said in Matthew 5:48.  Well, clearly God is perfection, right?  So if we’re going to be what God is, then we are shooting for perfection.  Or maybe Jesus was simply saying that perfection is the goal, not necessarily that we’ll actually attain the goal.  And what about Paul?  Paul might have been talking about maturity in Christ. We don’t know for sure.  My conclusion is that Christian Perfection is possible, but likely exceedingly rare, and not required for the Christian.

Furthermore, I think there is a better way to talk about what Paul means here. 

Sidenote: In my nearly 20 years in the EC Church, I have never heard Christian Perfection discussed at any session of our National Conference or at any gathering of our denomination.  It was barely mentioned in seminary, and even that was primarily in church history class.  I have only rarely heard it mentioned in conversation with my EC pastoral colleagues.  I suspect that, in the EC Church at least, though it remains in our Discipline, it is for all intents and purposes, a doctrine of the past. 

Frankly, I’m not so sure that is a good thing. 

There was an era in the history of my denomination, and many others, when the gracious loving pursuit of holiness in Christ was preached on a regular basis.  So while I remain iffy about the possibility of Christian Perfection, what I do hope you hear me talk about is the absolute necessity of growing in maturity in Christ.  This is why I talk about the Fruit of the Spirit so often.  We need to be people who are being transformed inwardly, so that love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness and self-control are flowing freely from our lives.  That kind of message, which was also right in line with what Jesus and Paul taught, is more helpful that arguing for perfection. 

It’s why this past week I participated in a retreat in daily life with Anam Cara Ministries. There were 50 or so of us, all on Zoom. It started with a two-hour opening session on a Sunday afternoon. Then each day Monday through Friday, we were provided with guides for prayerfully reading Scripture, spending time in prayer, and then we met with a spiritual director (again on Zoom) for 30 minutes. While the stated goal was not perfection, it was to hear God through Scripture and prayer, including the kind of holy listening that occurs between oneself and a person trained in spiritual direction, all so that we might move on in maturity in Christ. I needed it. I suspect you do as well.

It was sometimes awkward or a struggle to talk about my spirituality with a stranger, and yet it was deep and meaningful. The one phrase that kept coming into our conversations was “cease striving.” I needed to hear that, to dwell on that, specifically for this moment in my life, which is rather full and stressful. That was a reminder for me that growth in maturity, that moving on to perfection, does not mean I alone am responsible, but that God wants me to rest in his presence and cast my cares on him. I reveal that to you as a slice of the journey I am on in this moment in time, so that you can have glimpse of how Paul’s words in Colossians 1:24-2:5 relate to at least one person, me. I hope that is an encouragement to you, as you consider what it might mean for you to pursue maturity in Christ.

[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 243.

Why some Christians teach it is possible to become perfect in this life – Colossians 1:24-2:5, Part 3

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Perfection is possible.

What do you think about that claim? True or False?

We humans use the word, “perfect” quite a lot in our conversations. We make plans for a visit with friends, and we say, “That sounds perfect!” But we don’t actually mean that the plan is absolute perfection. Instead, we mean, “That plan is really good! I’m excited!”

We also talk a lot about perfectionism, usually in a negative way.

So is it possible that a human could actually become perfect in this life? It is possible that a person could reach a state in life where they no longer sin? Some Christians believe this is possible! In fact, the denomination which I am part of is one that believes in Christian perfection, which is otherwise known as entire sanctification.

Is my denomination crazy? Or is there a real biblical case to be made for believing in Christian perfection? As we continue studying Paul’s words in Colossians 1:24-2:5, we come to a verse in which he mentions perfection.

We have seen in part one and two of this five-part series is that Paul wants the true message of Jesus to be heard.  What is that true message?  If he is so concerned about making sure they know the true message about Jesus, you’d think he share it with them, at least as a reminder, right?  Well, he does share it with them. 

In fact, in verses 26-27 Paul summarizes the content of the true message, which he calls a “mystery, Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  What does that mean?  We’re going to pause on that until next week.  As I said at the beginning of this five-part blog series on Colossians 1:24-2:5, this section of Scripture has enough important material that we need two weeks to cover it.  Two themes, one per week.  Next week’s theme, The Mystery!  For now, let’s continue following Paul’s train of thought.

After summarizing the content of his preaching, in verse 28 Paul says the purpose of his preaching is to “present everyone perfect in Christ.” There’s the word “perfect” I mentioned above.

If you visit my denomination’s seminary in Myerstown, PA, you can walk over to the library building where long ago they installed a large concrete carving of the seminary seal in front of the building.  This verse is carved on that seal.  It’s the seminary verse, and it was picked as the seminary verse because it has a long historical connection to the Christian movement our church is a part of.  How so? 

Colossians 1:28, and specifically Paul’s mention of “perfection” in that verse, has a relationship to a movement in our country called the Second Great Awakening, which occurred between the years 1790 and 1840.  In those years revival swept the nation.  The Methodist church, started in England by John and Charles Wesley, made its way to the USA and was a big player in the revival.  In fact the predecessor denomination to the EC Church, the Evangelical Association, was started by Jacob Albright, a man who came to faith during the revival and was discipled and licensed by the Methodist Church.  Christian Perfection is an important doctrine in the preaching of John Wesley. This is the idea that we Christians are to pursue perfection in Jesus.  Jesus himself said in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

What is Christian Perfection?  Were Jesus and Paul actually teaching that Christians can achieve perfection? 

Wesley thought it was possible.  In fact, our denomination not only includes a statement about Christian Perfection in our 25 Articles of Faith, but we also include a lengthy passage from Wesley himself.  In this post, I’ll talk about what our Article of Faith teaches, and in the next post I’ll talk about the passage from Wesley.

Our Article # 11 is about sanctification.  Sanctification is the process of becoming more and more like Jesus.  We believe all Christians are in that process of growth in Christ.  But Christian Perfection takes it a step further.  Actually Christian Perfection is sometimes called Entire Sanctification.  Here’s how our Article #11 describes it: “a state of righteousness and true holiness that every regenerate believer may attain. It consists in being cleansed from all sin; loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength; and loving our neighbor as ourselves. This gracious state of perfect love is attainable in this life by faith, both gradually and instantaneously, and should be earnestly sought by every child of God; but it does not deliver us from the infirmities, ignorance and mistakes that are common to man.”

Notice that phrase in bold.  If we want to have a better understanding of Christian Perfection, I think it will be helpful if we take apart that phrase piece by piece. 

The first part of the phrase describes what we are talking about: “a gracious state of perfect love.”  Awesome, right?  Imagine if more and more people lived in a gracious state of perfect love.  Wow.  Think about what that would do in relationships, in families and throughout communities across the globe! But is perfect love actually possible?  1 John 4, we read that “perfect love casts out fear.”  Is that what Jesus and Paul meant when they talked about perfection?  Hold that thought.  At this point, I’m not saying “Yes” or “No.”  I’m simply saying that is what the EC Church states, based on Wesley’s teaching, and based on verses like Colossians 1:28.  And I think we can all agree that if a gracious state of perfect love is possible, that is a very good thing. 

The second part of phrase says that perfection is  “attainable in this life by faith.”  Again, is this possible?  Maybe, maybe not.  The EC Church believes it is possible, but note the words “by faith.”  That’s key because of the next part of the phrase.

In the third part of the phrase, we read that a person can be perfected “both gradually and instantaneously”?  When we connect the concept of faith mentioned in the previous part of phrase to what we read about perfection potentially being gradual or instantaneous, this Article is saying that we cannot just get zapped with perfect love, as if the Spirit of God randomly chooses, for no reason at all, out-of-the-blue to bless people with perfect love, whether they want it or not.  Perfection, the EC Church believes, is by faith, meaning that perfection can be experienced by the person who seriously desires it.  It is a choice of faith, of free will.  Furthermore, it can occur gradually or it can come upon a person in an instant.  The gradual kind…I get that.  In fact, becoming more and more like Jesus normally seems very gradual.  But the instantaneous kind…that seems like a miracle, if not impossible. Even if it is possible, it must be super rare, that by faith a person would instantly become perfect.  In the absence of Scriptural teaching that says instant perfection is impossible, perhaps it is a viable option. Inwardly, though, I admit that I am hesitant about this, thinking, “Really? Is it really possible that person could achieve perfection, let alone instantaneous perfection?”  Stay with me, as I will try to answer that question.

Now let’s examine the fourth part of the phrase: “should be earnestly sought by every child of God.”  To this I say, “Yes!”  No matter what a person believes about whether perfection is attainable, and no matter if it is gradual or instantaneous, this phrase seems like a good one to agree on.  What I mean is this: we should make it our goal to pursue God’s ideal, even if we will never achieve that ideal until after we die and we are resurrected with a new spiritual body freed from the sin nature.  Simply put, we should pursue holiness.  We should want to be like Jesus.  That’s what disciples do: they follow their master seeking to be like him.

That is how the EC Church describes Wesley’s teaching about Christian Perfection in our Article of Faith #11.  But as I mentioned, there are definitely some iffy parts.  In fact, beyond the question of whether or not it is possible, I think the ultimate question is this: Is the attainment of perfect love in this life, before death, what Jesus and Paul even meant?  Or were they referring to something else? Check back in to the next post, as we’ll continue studying this.

Should we “fill our body with affliction”? – Colossians 1:24-2:5, Part 2

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In the previous post Paul reminded us that we can learn to rejoice in the Lord, even amid difficult circumstances.  But as we continue to trace his teaching in Colossians 1:24-2:5, Paul writes something that seems bizarre to me. In fact, it seems wrong.

Paul writes that he fills up in his body what is still lacking of Christ’s afflictions.

What do you think about that? I find it to be a very strange phrase.  When I read that I get the image of some kind of burning hot painful liquid being poured down Paul’s throat.  He is being filled up, but its very bad.  On New Year’s Eve, our son and daughter-in-law had us over for a get-together, and they created a mini-Olympics that we did right there in their living room.  One event was “Who can drink an ice-cold slushee the fastest?”  We each had a small slushee, probably in an 8oz cup, with a spoon to help.  I started shoveling it in, as I wanted to win this event!  I knew brain freeze was on the way. Sure enough in no time the roof of my mouth was screaming in pain.  What I didn’t expect was something that I call, because I don’t know how else to describe it, chest freeze.  I had never experienced that before, and I wondered if I had seriously injured myself.  The freezing slushee sliding down my gullet had me feeling affliction inside my body.  Is that what Paul is talking about?  No, not that he drank slushee too fast.  Instead when Paul says he fills up his body with affliction, it’s just a symbolic way of saying that he went through many difficult times.  I won that slushee event by the way… Yes, it was a “difficult time” for me, but nothing compared to what Paul endured. In the book of Acts, we heard that Paul suffered much physical persecution because he boldly shared the message of Jesus around the Roman Empire, and there were many people who attempted to brutally shut him down. All that to say, I understand this part of the phrase, the part about pain filling up his body.

It is the second part of the phrase that has me scratching my head.  What could be lacking in Christ’s afflictions?  Is Paul saying that the flogging and crucifixion and death that Jesus endured wasn’t enough?  There’s no way that could be true, though, right?  Jesus’ death was sufficient and complete, lacking nothing.  He fully gave his life and rose again.  There is nothing else needed for the forgiveness of sin and for the salvation of the world.  Even Paul, himself, writes that Jesus completed his mission.  

Look at what Paul wrote, just a few verses earlier, in Colossians 1:18-20. There Paul describes Jesus as 100% successful, accomplishing the task God set for him to do.  Then look at verses 21-22.  Very similar.  Jesus’ work is fulfilled!  There is nothing incomplete about Jesus’ suffering.  So what does Paul mean when he says that there is still something lacking in Christ’s afflictions?

It seems best to understand Paul as saying that there is still something lacking when it comes to the cause of Christ.  What is lacking?  The many, many people who are not yet followers of Jesus.  That’s what Paul refers to in his next phrase.

Paul says he has suffered “for the sake of his body, which is the church.”

So, to put it all together, Paul is saying that what is lacking is that there are still many people who are not yet a part of the church of Jesus, which he refers to using the figurative concept of Christ’s body. 

Paul is willing to endure affliction in order to complete the mission that Jesus has given him.  That’s an incredible example for us.  Paul has made the mission of Jesus his priority.  What will it look like for you to give the mission of Jesus more priority in your life?

The natural next step for Paul, then, is describe this role and mission.

Look at verse 25.  Paul explains the mission by saying that he has become the servant of the church.  Before he said he was servant of the Gospel.  Now he says he is servant of the church.  Well, he is both. 

“Servant” in the Greek Paul wrote in is “diakonos,” where we get our English word “deacon.”  Paul says he has become a deacon, one who serves, a helper.  Paul saw himself as a servant of the larger church.  He was never a pastor stationed at one church.  While he did stay for a year or two in both Corinth and Ephesus, he did so not as a shepherd or pastor.  Instead Paul was always in the role of apostle, evangelist and teacher.  Most often he would be on the move, trying to push into new places to start new churches, or revisiting past places to strengthen churches. 

He also served the church by his writing.  He helped the churches solve problems and understand the good news about Jesus.  That’s how he served the Gospel and the Church.

Furthermore, Paul says God commissioned Paul to this role as an apostolic servant.  We studied the story in Acts last year.  In Acts chapters 8 & 9 we learned that Paul had been a persecutor of the early Christians, but Jesus appeared to Paul and changed his life. 

Ever since that moment, Paul had been a servant of the mission, with the purpose of presenting the word of God in fullness, he says in verse 25.  Paul saw his mission as preaching the word God as fully as it could possible be preached.  That could be geographically, meaning that Paul wanted the message about Jesus to be spread to every corned of the world.  Paul could also be talking theologically, meaning that he wanted the true message of Jesus to be shared. 

That idea of the true message of Jesus is especially important to Paul as he writes this specific letter to the Colossians because he has heard some troubling news about them.  There is a controversy that he needs to address.  He doesn’t address it just yet, not in these verses, but we’ll get to that controversy in the weeks to come.

Paul wants the true message of Jesus to be heard.  What is that true message?  If he is so concerned about making sure they know the true message about Jesus, you’d think he share it with them, at least as a reminder, right?  Well, he does share it with them, and we’ll study that in the next post.

Is rejoicing in suffering a bad idea? – Colossians 1:24-2:5, Part 1

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How should we respond to suffering? Maybe you’re suffering somehow, and you’re sick of it. I’ve had heel pain for the last few months, and though I will admit to being very inconsistent in treating it, I’m frustrated with it. I want it to be healed. I am not rejoicing in this suffering.

Rejoicing? If you’re wondering why I mention that concept, it is because so often Christians talk about rejoicing in suffering. Frankly, it seems to me that we sound odd when we talk about suffering that way. Even something small, like heel pain doesn’t seem anything close to the kind of thing we should be rejoicing about, let alone the plethora of major reasons for suffering. So why do we talk about rejoicing in suffering? In this post, we continue our study of Colossians, looking at a verse that describes that very concept.

A couple months ago we started studying the New Testament letter to the Colossians.  The writer of the letter is one of Jesus’ earliest followers, the great missionary and teacher, Paul.  Paul wrote numerous letters to groups of Christians around the Roman Empire, and some of those letters are collected in the New Testament.  The ancient ruins of the town of Colosse are located in modern-day Turkey, but at the time Paul wrote it was a medium-sized town where perhaps 4 years earlier some people had become Christians. 

Paul has heard some news about these Christians, and he is concerned.  So he writes the letter to help steer them in the right direction.  If you scan back through the blog, you’ll see that we have studied verses 1-23, learning how Paul presents Jesus as completely God, and how we can have reconciliation with God through Jesus.  If you’d like, open a Bible and read chapter 1 verse 23.  There Paul says that he became servant of the gospel.  What does he mean?  You can be a servant of God, or a servant of people, but a servant of the Gospel?  The Gospel is an inanimate object.  It’s just an idea.  We Christians believe it is a true idea!  But it is an idea, a concept.  How can a person serve an idea?  Paul explains himself. 

Please read the passage that we’re studying on the blog this week: Colossians 1:24-2:5.  As I studied this passage, I found two major themes Paul communicates to us.  They’re different enough that we’re going to study one this week, and the other next week.  This week we begin the first theme, which will develop over the week, by focusing on what Paul says about the idea of being a servant of the gospel. 

Today we look at verse 24 where Paul writes that he rejoices in what he suffered for them.  There it is, another Christian talking about rejoicing in suffering. Is something wrong with Christians for taking this view of suffering? Let’s see if we can understand why Paul might say something so counterintuitive.

We begin by trying to answer, what did he suffer for them?  It is unlikely that Paul suffered anything specifically because of the Christians in the city of Colosse.  He didn’t start the church.  We read in chapter 1 verse 7 that it seems his missionary associate Epaphras started the church.  It is likely that Paul is speaking here about his apostolic mission, and the sufferings he encountered, which if you remember the series through the book of Acts from last year, were constant.  Also Paul is likely writing this letter while on house arrest in Rome.  He knew suffering.  There is a sense in which Paul suffered for the mission of the Kingdom, and therefore he suffered for the whole church.  His really was a suffering on their behalf.

What is amazing is that he rejoices in his suffering.  It is so easy to get fixated on our suffering and all we can think about is getting it over and done with. Or get stuck in a victim mentality, a “poor me” pity party.  Paul shows us a different way.  Paul transcends his suffering, seeing how his suffering has led to greater things.  And that causes him to rejoice.  I’m not saying that all suffering has some greater purpose.  Not all does. 

Some suffering occurs because we made a bad choice, and we’re facing natural consequences.  Actually we can rejoice in that suffering, if we have a humble teachable attitude, desiring to learn from our mistakes. 

Some suffering is perpetrated against us, and some is just part and parcel of our broken world.  It can be hard to rejoice in the face of that kind of suffering because it appears to have no meaning. To that apparent lack of meaning, we should ask, “Does the suffering we’re facing have actually have meaning that I am not aware of?” Rather than simply fixate on trying to eradicate the suffering, we should observe it, face it.

Paul is an example of one who suffered physically, because of his activity as servant of the Gospel. As a result of his preaching and teaching about Jesus, he was beaten numerous times, to the point where the perpetrators left him for dead. In Colossians 1, then, Paul is providing meaning to the suffering, meaning that enables him to rejoice. He does not see his suffering as pointless or predetermined. Instead, he owns the fact that his free choice to follow the way of Jesus has led to suffering, but the suffering was worth it because of the greater good it accomplished for so many people who now were a part of the family of God. For that, he rejoiced.

When we face the suffering that seems to have no meaning or purpose, I urge you not to just explain it away by saying, “Well, God has a reason,” or “God is in control.” While those kinds of epithets sound spiritual and give the appearance of trust in God, they do not face the suffering. There are other faithful ways to respond to suffering.

One faithful way is the example of Paul. Paul is showing us that we can learn to rejoice in the Lord, even amid difficult circumstances.  I’m not saying it is easy, but that it is a good goal, an attainable goal.

Another faithful response to suffering is lament. Lament is holy complaint, demonstrated often in the Psalms, in which the suffering calls out to God, asking for him to intervene, even to wake up, because it appears God is asleep. I include a psalm of lament in every Wednesday prayer guide for Faith Church, because we need to learn to lament.

Finally, another faithful response to suffering is to seek appropriate means to stop the suffering. Suffering in and of itself is not automatically honoring to God. When Paul was beaten for proclaiming the Gospel, the beating was unjust and sinful. It should not have occurred at all. When Paul says he rejoiced in the suffering, he was not indicating that God approved of the beatings. There are many cases of injustice that lead to suffering and we Christians should be on the vanguard seeking to eradicate suffering. This approach also applies to suffering that is not in the category of injustice, such as natural disaster, illnesses of all kinds, or relational brokenness. We should seek to right all of them, using appropriate means. Suffering in and of itself is not unmitigated good.

Current Events – (How to Avoid) The Failure of Ravi Zacharias, Part 5

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This week on the blog, I’ve been talking about the recent news of the awful failure of Ravi Zacharias. He is one in a long line of abusive leaders, and started with the first post here I’ve attempted to tell his story and how we might respond to it. As I mentioned in some of those posts, it is not just leaders.  Any of us can live a double life, unaccountable, isolated.  We might even look real good on Sunday mornings, wearing our Sunday clothes and smiling, as we worship in our church worship services.  But there is another side to our lives.  It might not be as awful as Ravi Zacharias.  It doesn’t have to be, though.  Hear me again: I am not saying that, in order to be genuine followers of Jesus, we have to be perfect.  Absolutely not.  What I am saying is that we should be living highly consistent lives.  The choices and actions of our lives should be significantly in line with what we say we believe about Jesus.  The Fruit of the Spirit should be evident.   

To build a culture of goodness, we need to live lives of goodness, and that means we need to be humble, teachable, accountable to others.  Surround yourself with a few people you know you can trust and who you know have your best in their heart. I know that during this time of less contact that can seem difficult. But, I suggest to you, in love, that you do it anyway.  Maybe it is by Facetime or email or text instead of as many coffee dates as you used to be able to have.  It is important to stay in relationships where goodness is the culture that is being created. 

Confess your sins to another. 

Confront sin in one another.

Speak the truth in love. 

Pursue the Fruit of the Spirit. 

In McKnight and Barringer’s book, A Church Called Tov, they told the story about a person that was accused of wrongdoing in their life.  They chose to respond to it exactly the opposite of Ravi Zacharias.  You know what they said?  They said this: “I say let the stories come.  Let them all come out. Let every attempt to deflect or defend come to an end, and let us listen and learn from the courage of the abused.  They, the abused, are our prophets now…Indeed the overdue purge has begun, and may it not relent until every hidden darkness faces the light of justice.”

We need to be especially concerned and empathetic about the vulnerable.  About women, about those on the margins.  About injustice, about truth, about abuse of power.  We need to build a culture of goodness. I encourage to read McKnight and Barringer’s book.

Work to intentionally build a culture of goodness in your life.  Jesus promises that in him life is abundant.  This culture of goodness is a key part of that abundant life. Living in honest community with one another, pursuing a culture of goodness, letting our light shine and as we read in 1 Peter, “that we may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  For, once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. That people may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

Current Events – The Failure of Ravi Zacharias, Part 4

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This week its Current Events week on the blog, and I’ve been been writing a five-part series about the failure of Ravi Zacharias (so far you can read part one, part two, part three, and this is part four). How do we respond to such a grievous failure?

It seems to me the primary response is that we must live in light of the truth that we are not intended to be alone. We are meant for community, including the checks and balances the community affords.

We should run towards being part of groups and having relationships with people who will speak the truth in love to us.  We should welcome those relationships, not because they will be always fun and easy but because they are marked by people who love us enough to be with us in the good and bad times of life and who will speak truth in love when it is needed.

This means we need to see love not as a free for all, but as something that has checks and balances. Real love is guided by what is best for someone else.  “By this all men will know you are my disciples that you love one another,” Jesus taught.  What Ravi Zacharias did was not loving; it was incredibly hurtful to many vulnerable women.  Furthermore, Zacharias committed his evil regularly with a built-in culture of secrecy and deceit.  

Love, then, has boundaries. Love has accountability.  Boundaries and accountability can seem to be constraining or blocking freedom.  People might respond to accountability saying, “But we are free in Christ, and we should have relationships that are marked by freedom.”  People who think like that, though, misunderstand the loving nature of boundaries and accountability.  Loving boundaries and accountability are meant for good.

It seems that many of the leaders, like Ravi Zacharias, who abuse others have false accountability. They have very few or no relationships with people who could speak truthfully and boldly to them.  They live double lives and no one knows it.  Oftentimes leaders are isolated.  People assume that leaders are doing great, that leaders love the Lord and are just walking in the Spirit all the time.  Do not assume that about any Christian leader, including your pastor, your group leader or any Christian person you want to assume is living a consistent life of following Jesus.

Instead, make time to connect, to reach out in real community with those around you, including your leaders. The leaders in your life should be able to definitively explain and demonstrate for you how they are living consistent, accountable lives.

As I have mentioned earlier in this five-part series, the failure of Ravi Zacharias is not just applicable to leaders.  Any of us can live a double life, unaccountable, isolated.  We might even look real good on Sunday mornings, wearing our Sunday clothes and smiling, but we are hiding another side to our lives.  That other side might not be as awful as Ravi Zacharias.  It doesn’t have to be, though.  Hear again what I said in the previous post: I am not saying that, in order to be genuine followers of Jesus, we have to be perfect.  Absolutely not.  What I am saying is that we should be living highly consistent lives.  The choices and actions of our lives should be significantly in line with what we say we believe about Jesus.  The Fruit of the Spirit should be evident in our lives. Regular, consistent participation in honest accountable relationships is vital to helping us pursue Christ.

Current Events – The Failure of Ravi Zacharias, Part 3

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This week we’re talking about the failure of Ravi Zacharias. In the first post, I wrote about how Zacharias was for me and many others a mentor from afar, but how it has been revealed that he lived a double-life. In the second post, we looked how Jesus’ disciple, Peter, wrote about the story of transformation that Christians not only tell, but also, and I would say, more importantly, live. Because we are people who can experience new life in God’s family, Peter says, we live a new way. Zacharias powerfully told the story of new life available in Jesus, but he lived something different and insidious. We all know this battle. In fact Peter wrote about it using the imagery of a battle. Let’s continue to hear what Peter has to say about winning the battle.

In 1 Peter 2, verse 11, he writes that Christians abstain from sinful desires.  It is a war Peter says, a war against the soul.  Notice in that one short phrase how he combines both the physical and the spiritual.  We have an inner part and outer part.  We have a material part, our body, and an immaterial part, our soul.  A human person is both.  We cannot compartmentalize ourselves.  If we think, for example, that our church part is something that does not relate to our work part, we have misunderstood our humanity.  If we think that our private life doesn’t affect our public life, we are fooling ourselves.  If we think that we can be one person at church, but another person at home, we are deceived. 

We are called to live a new life, a new life of choices and actions that show we are truly members of God’s family.  Furthermore, Peter says, when we enter God’s family, we become aliens and strangers to the world around us.  We take on the identity of God’s family. 

I wonder if your family has an identity.  Most do.  What I am referring to is family tendencies.  For good or for bad.  One of my Kime family identities for generations now is being in involved in ministry, and specifically, teaching.  My grandfather on my mom’s side was an ordained pastor and long-time professor at Lancaster Bible College.  Then my dad became a pastor and a long-time professor at LBC.  Then Michelle and I got married.  Michelle’s dad is also an ordained minister and was a long-time professor at LBC.  Now I became an ordained pastor, and I teach courses from time to time as an adjunct pastor at LBC.  I’ve joked that it is the family business. Now we have a son married to a teacher and another son engaged to a teacher. 

Or it could be a different tendency in your family.  Maybe a tendency that you are trying to build into your family.  When our kids were younger, and one of them got frustrated at a board game or a puzzle or playing sports with the neighbors outside, they would storm into our house declaring, “I quit!” If you have kids, you are likely familiar with this scenario. But in response I would say, “Kimes aren’t quitters.”  I wanted to build persistence into their lives.  It wasn’t just a phrase, though.  The phrase had the right content, but to make it meaningful, it would require me and Michelle to make the kids to get back out there, to not be a sore loser, keep at it, and finish what they started.  Even if they lost the game. 

The family of God has tendencies like that. Tendencies that are not just beliefs, but actions.  Because, Christians, our identity as children in God’s family is our primary focus, our primary identity, we not only have content that we believe, but more importantly we make choices and we perform actions in our lives that show what we really believe. 

Authentic Christians are Christians more than just during the one hour per week that we attend a worship service.  It is a very good thing to attend church worship services, but I have to ask: Is it possible that our attendance at worship service is covering up a different reality in the remaining 167 hours each week?  The choices and actions of our lives in those other 167 hours are where we show what we really believe.  That is why Peter says we abstain from sinful desires, we live good lives, we do good deeds. 

Does this mean that we have to be perfect or we aren’t really believing in Jesus?  No, that is not what I am saying.  What I am asking you to consider is this: What is in your heart?  What is the culture you are creating and working to create in our lives?  A culture of secrecy?  A culture of deceit?  Of hypocrisy?

We are to be creating a culture of consistent goodness, both in our own hearts and in the organizations we participate in.

What I am talking about is practicing a humble teachable faith, such that our hearts are being transformed so the fruit of the Spirit flows from us.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know that I talk about the Fruit of the Spirit often.  But that is because it is such an important principle.  So let’s talk about it again.  I think you’ll see the link between what Peter taught in 1 Peter 2:9-12, which we looked at in the previous post, and what Paul talks about in Galatians 5:16-26.  Let’s read that: 

“So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”

While a person like Ravi Zacharias proclaimed boldly and powerfully the authenticity of faith in Jesus, in his private life he demonstrated the regular, purposeful acts of the sinful nature which were destructive to other human beings.  He also set up a lifestyle and a culture that allowed for him to continue in that way without accountability.

So what do we do in response to this?  How do we turn away from the sinful nature and grow the fruit of the Spirit?

We cannot turn a blind eye to sin.  In ourselves and others.  This is especially important and difficult when a poorly behaving person is also respected and successful.  It is so easy to become starry-eyed by the powerful speaker, the wealthy person, the leader with power and influence, or the person who makes you feel great.  It is so easy to be dwell on their perceived success.  I mean, they are bringing in people, they are building buildings, they are writing books, they are on TV, the radio, and have tons of followers on social media.  They can’t possibly be giving in to the acts of the sinful nature, can they? 

We look at people that appear to be successful and we assume that they are golden. 

Instead we should ask a different question:  What is success? 

Or more precisely: What does God’s Kingdom-minded success look like?  How is that different from the version of success so typical in many cultures around the world?

The world’s version of success is often, “bigger is better.”  More people paying more money at more events in more buildings.  We Christians can use these metrics or measurements of success too.  We can even spiritualize these metrics.  “God must be blessing that big church down the road because of how big they are.”  I recently was talking to someone about a new church building that their church completed in recent years, and that person said, “They did it right.” 

They did?  How do we know that?  Did it right according to what standard?  God’s standard? 

Let me clarify.  Sometimes Kingdom-minded success will lead to that which the world calls success.  Ministries growing large is not inherently evil.  The early Christians, as we studied last year in the book of Acts, grew and grew and grew.  And we are thankful they did because the good news of Jesus through the centuries eventually reached us! 

What I am suggesting is this: if you turn your eye away from evil, just because a person or group is bringing worldly success, then those who turn their eyes away are culpable in the evil.  That is what happened with Ravi Zacharias and so many others.  They were incredibly successful, and there was a willingness on the part of the people around them to allow bad behavior to continue because, “the ministry is flourishing.” 

Instead our goal is to do exactly what Peter and Paul teach.  Walk in step with the Spirit, so that the Fruit of the Spirit is flowing out of our lives.  That should be our standard for measurement.  Not how many people are viewing our YouTube videos.  Not how many people are attending our worship services.  Not how many people are getting baptized.  Not how big our budget is, or whether or not we have a fully funded budget at the end of the year.  Not how many events we had.  The measurement that we seek is how much we are filled with the Spirit so that acts of the sinful nature are decreasing in our lives and the fruit of the Spirit is increasing in our lives.

(Author’s Note: I’m thankful for the book A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer for introducing me to this concept. I’m just scratching the surface in these blog posts. I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book and read it with your small group, class or church leaders.  Another excellent resource is The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives by Peter Scazzero.)

Current Events – The Failure of Ravi Zacharias, Part 2

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In yesterday’s post, I told the story of Ravi Zacharias’ moral failure. How did this happen?  The reasons are typical for leadership failure.  There was a decades-long lack of accountability.  Zacharias had too much control and authority in his organization.  He was alone in many ways.  He was also extremely intelligent and convincing, able to make himself seem totally innocent.

We hear a lot about leaders like that, sadly.  But it is not just leaders.

This relates to all of us.  Sure, leadership failure makes the news, but this should concern all of us.

It reminded to me of something Zacharias said in one of his sermons.  He told the story of a conversation that occurred after a conference, at which Zacharias was a speaker.  The conference organizer had invited a friend to come hear Zacharias.  She was not a Christian and she was a very intelligent woman, so the conference organizer thought Zacharias’ way of explaining the truth of Jesus might be meaningful to her.  That conference organizer was right.  After the event was over, he was very eager to see what his friend thought, so he asked her: “What did you think of Ravi’s talk?”  You know how she responded?  “Very, very compelling.” And then she asked a surprising question of her own:  “I wonder what his personal life is like?”  The woman was making a great point.  We can speak all the truth we want, but if our lives don’t back it up, then our words are empty. She had seen far too many Christians live hypocritical lives.

When Ravi Zacharias told this story, he was saying that for Christianity to be real, Christianity has to actually work.  Christianity, and therefore actual Christians, must live up to our claims. Coming from Zacharias, this is a sobering truth when considering the moral failure in his own life.

The important implication of this story is that Christianity is not only a series of doctrinal statements or beliefs.  Yes, we do have beliefs.  But for Christianity to be authentic, it must lead to transformed lives because that is what Jesus said would happen.  For Christianity to work, disciples of Jesus not only believe in him, but are also being changed so that we live more and more like him. 

That conference organizer’s friend was exactly right.  A Christian can talk all they want, but if they don’t walk their talk, then they are doing a disservice to the cause of Christ, and worse yet, they are not to be believed. 

This reminds me of what one of Jesus’ earliest followers, Peter, wrote in 1 Peter 2:9, in which he talks about how Jesus’ disciples should view themselves.  Who are you, Christian?  Here’s what he writes in 1 Peter 2:9, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.”

As we continue following Peter’s logic, now that we know our identity, that we are a people belonging to God, Peter tells us our purpose. 

What are the people belonging to God to do?  Look at what Peter says in the middle of verse 9 through verse 12: “…that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

In verse 9, the phrase “praises of him” specifically refers to telling the wonderful deeds that God has done.  We Christians are people who tell the story of God’s goodness.  There is content to that story.  There are actual things that God has done in history, up to the present day. That is the story we tell.  We are story-tellers.  Story tellers who focus on telling the good news.  Notice how Peter himself tells the story.  Three ways:

We are called out of darkness into God’s light. 

We once were not a people, but now we are the people of God. 

We once did not have mercy, but now we have received mercy. 

That is some amazing good news that we get to experience, and that we get to communicate with the people around us.    

But Peter doesn’t stop there.  Because we are people who can experience new life in God’s family, he says we live a new way. Check back tomorrow, as we’ll look at what that new way of life is like.

Current Events – The Failure of Ravi Zacharias, Part 1

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It’s Current Events week on the blog.  For the past year, one week per quarter I pause whatever blog series we’re in, and I scan the news on Monday morning to see what headline I’ll write about that week.  My goal is that we learn how to engage what is happening in our world.  We do not want to be people who bury our heads in the sand, unaware of what is going on. But we can be confused by or uncertain of how to process the latest news.  So, as one person famously said, we need to be people who hold a newspaper in one hand and our Bible in the other.  Or maybe nowadays I should say it this way: on our devices, we have a news app open side-by-side with a Bible app.  In other words, we study scripture and theology, and we apply it to the world around us.  We are trying to answer the question: “What does God say about things that are going on?”  I want us to learn to think Christianly about our culture.

There were certainly a lot of headlines to choose from as I started looking through the news this past Monday, but the news about Ravi Zacharias struck me personally, and I thought it was important we talk about it. 

I have mentioned Christian speaker and writer, Ravi Zacharias, in my sermons over the years.  I did a search on my computer through my sermons since I started at Faith Church in 2002, and I found that I’ve mentioned Ravi Zacharias at least ten different times.  I did so because he had such a wonderful way of explaining things.  He had a combination of intellect and humor grounded in biblical truth, with the ability to speak in a compelling way. 

I would say that as a public speaker, and as a preacher, though I never met him, Zacharias was one of my mentors from afar.  I first learned about him at the Urbana student mission conference in 1993 which I attended on winter break of my sophomore year of college.  It was awesome.  20,000 college students learning about how God’s Spirit was at work around the globe.  Then Zacharias spoke at a main session one evening, and it seemed the entire crowd in the University of Illinois basketball arena was mesmerized.  When he got to the end of his sermon, he asked the organizers of the event for a bit more time, because he had more material he hadn’t covered, and the crowd cheered like wild.  We wanted more!  Even then he only summarized a few of his closing points, and we wished he could keep going.  

I bought the cassette of that sermon and listened to it frequently in the months and years to come.  It is still my favorite sermon of all time.  At some point I lost the cassette, so I bought the DVD, and then the digital recording.  I wanted to learn to communicate like Zacharias. 

As I continued my college career, I took a philosophy class in the spring semester of my junior year.  Maybe it was because it was early in the morning.  Maybe it was because philosophy can be dry.  I hated it.  At that point in my life, I was a bit of a missionary elitist, thinking that studying philosophy was a waste of time when I could be out there doing ministry.  In fact, I was getting excited about my upcoming summer as I was traveling to Guyana, South America, for a 13 week-long missionary internship.  Philosophy seemed pointless when there were so many that needed to hear about Jesus.  As I was packing for Guyana, I brought along some books to read in my free time, including a brand new purchase: my first Ravi Zacharias book, Can Man Live Without God?  I read it that summer, as I ministered in Guyana, and just like his Urbana sermon, the book was compelling.  Interestingly, in the book, Ravi Zacharias engages with philosophy the whole way through.  All of a sudden I had a new vision for how Christians can appreciate philosophy.  In fact the book opened my eyes to how vital it is that we think deeply about God, and that belief in God is rational.  I went back to college that fall and took an apologetics class, which is basically using philosophy to show that Christianity is rational, and I loved that class and it strengthened my faith.  Thanks to Ravi Zacharias.

Over the years, I listened to many, many more of Zacharias’ talks and sermons online.  I also read a bunch of his books, and watched as the evangelistic organization he founded, and which bears his name, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, grew and grew.  I heard him speak again in person at Lancaster Bible College.  If I ever started doubting this whole Christian thing, all I needed to do was go on YouTube and watch more Ravi Zacharias videos.  I found his Q & A sessions to be especially fascinating. Many times after a talk, he would answer questions from the audience.  Often the questions were really intimidating, as people raised objections that make Christians cower and feel immature about our faith, as if we are just believing fairy tales.  Zacharias, without missing a beat, would have amazing answers to the questions.  Often he would even be able to take apart the questioners’ questions, showing how their question had false assumptions or inconsistencies.  Certainly I did not watch every Q & A session, but I never saw him interact aggressively with the questioners. Instead he answered calmly, with kindness and humor, inviting the questioner to talk more in person afterward.

Then a couple years ago, a story broke with accusations against Zacharias. A woman said he had an abusive relationship with her. Not what you want to hear about one of the people who influenced your faith so positively.  It didn’t make major news, but Christianity Today certainly reported it, so it was out there in evangelical Christian circles.  Zacharias adamantly denied the charges, saying instead that the woman was aggressively pursuing him.  He claimed he was being attacked, and people including his ministry board strongly came to his defense.  He ended up settling the case in court with a non-disclosure agreement.  That means case closed, and details were kept under lock and key. 

Ravi Zacharias continued his ministry, and it grew even more.  Then in 2019 he broke the news that he had cancer.  It was fast-moving, and he passed away in early 2020.  Many in the evangelical community around the world were grief-stricken and numerous people shared stories about how Ravi Zacharias impacted their lives.  Loads of people shared their favorite Ravi Zacharias videos online. 

Just a couple months after his passing, though, the adulation and praise turned to more accusation.  New stories started coming out about Zacharias.  Stories about massage parlors and inappropriate relationships.  Christianity Today reported again.  This time his ministry, the large international organization that still bore his name, commissioned a law firm to independently investigate charges.  That was about six months ago. 

Their report was published this past week.  What they uncovered was horrible.  Now it wasn’t just Christianity Today reporting the news.  It was all over the media. Ravi Zacharias had maintained numerous extra-marital sexual relationships in which he manipulated and abused women.  It was spiritual abuse, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse, including rape.  The report is very hard to read, especially because of the excruciating pain Zacharias caused to so many women.  While this five-part blog post will examine Zacharias’ failure and what we can all do to avoid such failure in our lives, let us remember the women, the vulnerable hurting ones, because of the evil inflicted on them by a powerful persuasive abuser. 

How did this happen? Check back in to the next post, and I’ll try to begin to answer that question.