Tag Archives: unity

Should Christians make rules to follow? Titus 1:10-16, Part 4

5 Jul

When my wife and I were students in Bible college, at the beginning of every semester we had to sign a document stating we would abide by the student handbook which had loads of rules.  You couldn’t go to the movies.  You couldn’t kiss on campus. There were pages and pages of rules. One rule was that you couldn’t dance.  That was in the early 90s when grunge music was popular, and our area was a hotbed for local Christian bands. Every weekend we could pick from multiple venues featuring grunge style rock and roll.  If you’ve ever been to a grunge concert, you know that you don’t really dance to that style of music.  Instead there is a mosh pit, featuring a rowdy form of jumping around and crashing into each other.  It is a lot of fun.  So because we Bible college students couldn’t dance, we would mosh. 

Were we breaking the college rules? Should the college even have rules like that?

As we continue studying Paul’s teaching in his letter to Titus, I want us to think about the intersection of Christianity and rules. In Titus 1:15-16, what we saw in our last post is that Paul was teaching something very new about rules. I want ask: are there ways in which we have been taught that Christians have certain rules to follow?  Oh yes. 

A heritage of rules is a long-held part of evangelical Christianity.  Yet, I think Paul would say the same thing to us that he said to the churches in Crete in his letter to Titus: We are free. We shouldn’t have rules like the OT Law. 

So where did our contemporary Christian rules come from?

Our evangelical heritage had a strong holiness emphasis.  It started off well and good, I believe, where people wanted to pursue the blamelessness we talked about in the series of posts on Titus 1:5-9.  But it is so interesting how a pursuit of blamelessness can lead to creating new rules. 

When my Bible college’s administration discovered, for example, that many students were moshing at grunge concerts, and they created a new rule about it. I’ll never forget the college chapel service when the dean of students got up in front of the student body and tried really hard to read the new decree that there would be no more…and he stuttered…he couldn’t get the word out right…he said, “mooshing?”  He didn’t know how to properly pronounce it, so he kept saying, “mooshing.” We were not allowed to moosh.  There was much laughter in the crowd that day. 

My dad was a professor at the time at the college, and he regularly taught in his New Testament classes the exact kinds of passages that we are looking at this week, “To the pure, all things are pure.”  His suggestion was that we should scrap the entire student handbook, and just allow the Bible to guide us.  I agree. 

This is tricky, though, because we have so many rules in a church family that we disagree about.  We’ve talked about this many times over the years on this blog.  Can girls and women wear bikinis?  Can we watch R-rated movies, smoke, drink, dance, curse, work on Sundays, and on and on it goes

Clearly, Paul was saying to Titus that those people in the church who made following OT cleanliness rules a test case for faith were wrong.  Likewise, we should not be creating any rules and regulations and trying to bind people to follow them.  We Christians are under the New Covenant in Christ, which is the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament.  That is what guides our lives.  When people are trying to teach us to follow some other rules and regulations, we should rebuke them just as Paul is saying here. 

But as we rebuke, we can do so using the principles of patient encouragement and inclusion that Paul taught Titus. We want to encourage people to sound doctrine so that they can be part of the church family.  We give them chances.  To that end, we pursue unity, not uniformity. 

There is plenty of room for disagreement, so long as people in a church family are willing to agree to disagree, in a gracious manner.  There is a phrase that I have mentioned before, and I’ll say it again here because I think it is so helpful to guide us during those times when we disagree.   

It is the Pyramid of Doctrine: “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

What are the “essentials”?  I would suggest that the top part of the pyramid should be tiny.  It is why I so appreciate the my denomination’s membership ceremony which does not require new members to agree with the 25 Articles of the EC Church.  Admittedly, different denominations and churches have disagreements about what should be included in this top level, but for the EC Church we only ask people to agree to faith in and discipleship to Jesus, baptism, and commitment to the church.  Some people have suggested that we Christians should just rally around the Apostles’ Creed.  Either way, the top level is reserved for the major doctrines of the faith, and we should major on the majors, and minor on the minors.  As the phrase goes, at this top level of the pyramid, we should have unity. Not uniformity, by the way, as, even at this level, we can have some differences.

What are the minors, the “non-essentials”?  I would suggest that they are things like Predestination vs. Free will, Church government format, Evolution vs. Creation, how to do baptism, communion, and worship services.  There are a great many issues about which Christians will disagree, but we should do so with grace, love and humility.  In our church, we have a variety of opinions about these matters.  As the pyramid moves downward, the levels grow larger, meaning that there will be more and more areas of disagreement.  But that is okay.  At this middle level of the pyramid, we should have liberty, meaning we give people freedom to choose and disagree, while still maintaining loving family relations with them. Again, it is unity, not uniformity, that allows for liberty.

Finally, what are “all things”?  In this, the largest level of the pyramid, there are so many areas we could include: politics, issues of ethics, gray areas in Christian behavior, and so on.  Here, as the phrase goes, we should have charity, meaning love is our focus, because we could have sharp disagreements, but we should still love and not break relationship with one another. 

Paul is saying, in other words, that leaders take divisiveness in the church seriously.  We pursue unity in doctrine and in relationships.  Paul said we should not tolerate sin and divisiveness in the church family.  Church leaders should commit to following his teaching of silencing, rebuking and encouraging rebellious ones among them to return to sound doctrine. 

The Top 5 adjectives that should describe a church family (do you know them?)

1 Aug

Related image

Get out a pen and paper, or open up a note-taking app.  What are the first five adjectives that come to mind if you were trying to answer the question: “What are the five top adjectives that should describe a church family?”

This week we are studying 1 Peter 3:8-12 where Peter teaches how a church family should interact with one another.  Yesterday we saw the first of five adjectives that Peter says should define a church: harmonious.  A church should be unified.  Today we going to look at the remaining four adjectives, and I think you’ll see that they all very much relate to or support the idea of being harmonious.

The second adjective is Sympathetic.  Sympathy is when you have common feelings or emotions with someone.  Hear the unity in that?

Third is Brotherly Love.  This is the Greek word philadelphia again, just like we saw in 1:22, “love for your brothers.” Same word.  This is vital for unity.  Love is the basis for unity.

Next is Compassionate.  The passion part of this word is not about erotic passion.  The word Peter is using is about painful passion.  We English speakers almost never use the word passion like that, except in one week of the year.  You know which week?  Holy Week.  It is also called Passion Week, and churches do Passion Plays, and what passion are they talking about?  Jesus’ passion, his suffering!  Jesus’ arrest, beating, crucifixion and death are his passion, his pain, his suffering.  And that is what the word compassion is getting at.  It means to “suffer with someone.”  We normally think of compassion as when we see someone hurting and we go, “Awwww…it will be okay,” or some platitude like that.  But true compassion is to enter into the pain with that person.  That is a whole deeper level of kindness and relationship that we can see totally spurs on unity!

Finally, Be Humble.  That one is huge.  Humility, teachability is critical for unity in the church family.  I cannot emphasize this enough.  In a church family, we must simply be humble.  Pride and arrogance will destroy our relationships.  When I did my missionary internship between my junior and senior years in college, I spent three months in Guyana, South America.  There were probably 15-20 different missionaries working together in the same general area.  My host family were really awesome, and they taught me so much about ministry.  One thing they taught me was humility.  One night the wife was telling me about how they had been having significant relationship problems with one of the missionaries.  This other missionary was being extremely difficult about a policy and making false accusations against my host family.  They prayed hard about how to respond, because they knew they had not done what they were accused of.  You know what my missionary host family told me they decided to do?  “It is better to take one for the team and preserve unity, than it is to be right.”  Wow.  That’s humility.

Those are the five adjectives Peter says should describe a church family: harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly love, compassion and humility.  So how many did you get?  And more importantly, are there any that you need to work on?  Who can you talk with in your church family about improving on that characteristic?

But Peter is not done.  He finally gets to some verbs. We’ll start looking at them tomorrow!

How a church family can disagree but still be harmonious

31 Jul

Photo by Rawpixel on Unsplash

Is your church family harmonious?  How much should a church family agree with one another?  Is it okay if there is disagreement in a church family?

Yesterday we began looking at 1 Peter 3:8-12, and I said that Peter is talking to all Christians about how they should interact with one another in their church families.  He starts off with five adjectives that should describe us.  Today we look at the first one, and tomorrow we’ll see how the remaining four support the first.

Adjective #1.  Christians should be harmonious

The word Peter uses for “harmonious” means, “Pertaining to being of the same mind or having the same thoughts as someone else.”  So Peter could be translated here as saying, “all should be like-minded”. The dictionary I use says that the word Peter uses is a word picture of “having thoughts that follow the same path.[1]

Harmony is a musical word.  To make harmony, not everyone is singing the exact same tune.  In fact they are singing different tunes that work together.  But we know right away when harmony is poor, right?

Peter is not saying that everyone in a church family must think about everything exactly the same. That would be uniformity. Peter is not suggesting that we need to strive for uniformity in the church.  Peter is talking about unity, where we have the same goals, same mission, same heart, but we can still disagree about a great many things, in love.

What are some areas where we can disagree?  Politics and matters of ethics are areas where I think it is obvious that people in my Faith Church family disagree.  We have Republicans and we have Democrats.  We have those who are conservative and those who are moderate and those who are liberal.  We have people think that certain behaviors are okay, and people who think those same behaviors are wrong.  Those differences are completely normal, and even to be expected.

Though we have differences of opinions about many things, we are to be harmonious.

There are a few things that are non-negotiable, and the rest we can disagree in love. Have you heard the phrase:  “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”  I find it to be very helpful in providing a framework for how Christians in a church family can be harmonious.  Let’s look at all three levels.

In Essentials, Unity

What are the essentials in which we are to practice unity?

Historically, the Apostles’ Creed.  This is what Christians everywhere, from the very early days of the church, said out loud together to give voice to what is true Christian teaching:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell; The third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; The Holy catholic Church, the Communion of Saints; The Forgiveness of sins; The Resurrection of the body, And the Life everlasting. Amen.

I think it is best to keep as small as possible the theological statements that we feel are absolutely essential to be followers of Jesus.  The Creed is perhaps the best foundation.

In Non-Essentials, Liberty

What are some examples of the middle level, the non-essentials?  One could be differences in churches’ modes of baptism.  Or differences in how we practice communion.  These and many other doctrines express differences that distinguish between denominations.

I think the EC Church does a great job of asking its members to commit to a few distinctives rather than a big group.  The EC Church has 25 Articles of Faith and a really long statement on Christian Practice.  But to be a member of an EC Church, you don’t have to agree with that.  I find that very healthy.  What do you need to agree to, to become a member of an EC Church? This is what we ask:

The Discipline of the Evangelical Congregational Church outlines the qualifications for membership: (1) Believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; (2) Believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God; (3) Be committed to daily Christian growth; (4) Be committed to giving Jesus Christ your time, talent, and treasure; (5) Be supportive of our local church and the ministry of the Evangelical Congregational Church denomination; (6) Be faithful in attendance and participation; and (7) Be baptized as a Christian.

In All Things, Charity

Finally there is the third level, what we would call “in all things, charity” and this is where much disagreement takes place.  Should Christians gamble, drink, smoke, swear, watch R-rated movies, wear bikinis, and on and on? When I preached this, I illustrated this part of the sermon with a picture of a gambling table at a casino. I said, “As soon as you see that picture, some of you are thinking, ‘I can’t believe you put that picture there!  Gambling is a sin!  Are you trying to encourage gambling, Joel?’  And others of you are thinking, ‘There is nothing wrong with having a little fun at a casino on vacation.  Geez, the stock market is a worse gamble.’

There is so much we could talk about here.  Peter says, be harmonious.  Charity means “love.”  In all things, charity, means that we absolutely need to love those, especially those in the church family, with whom we disagree.  Check out this post (about bikinis!) for further thoughts on how Christians can disagree about ethical issues.


[1] Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains 1996 : 351. Print.

Is your church too small?

12 Sep

Why are there so many Christian churches and denominations?  Can’t you all just get along?

Maybe the fact that there are so many churches and denominations is proof that Christianity is false.  Jesus prayed in John 17:20-21 that not only his twelve disciples, but also those who would become his followers through the ministry of the twelve, would be one, unified.  Does the presence of all the various denominations mean Jesus’ prayer request has failed?  He prayed that we would be one, and yet there are thousands upon thousands of Christian denominations and independent churches.  How are we to think about this?

To answer that, we continue looking at an event that happened in Deuteronomy 3:12-20.  With the defeat of King Og, Israel has conquered the land on the eastern side of the Jordan.  You can read about that in verses 12-17.  This is the first fulfillment of the promise God gave to Abraham to give his family the land.  500 years have gone by, and this is a huge moment, as a couple of the tribes are given their land on the east side of the Jordan

Look now at verses 18-20. This section shows how God is commanding the tribes of Israel to help each other.  We’re now at a part in the narrative where God is giving direction about what is to happen next as the people enter the Promised Land.  Up until this point in Deuteronomy, Moses has been retelling the nation’s history to the new generation. They are encamped on the east side of the Jordan.  So far 2 ½ tribes have been given their inheritance land on that side of the River.

Now Moses is about to convey what they should do next.  It would be very easy for those 2 ½ tribes to settle down, build houses, start farming, and finally relax.  God says NO.  The fighting men from those 2 ½ tribes must continue across the Jordan and help out their brother tribes.  Once their brother tribes have been established, then the 2 ½ can go back to their families and make their start.

It is an “all for one and one for all” mentality.  God is a God of unity, and he wants his people to be unified.  We Christians have many tribes too, and we tend to fight against each other rather than support one another.  This is why I am convinced that Faith Church, while remaining faithful to our EC “tribe”, must also be incredible supportive of the other churches in our community.  This is why we have sought to be involved to a high level in our local Ministerium.  It is why I’m so glad we’re renting to The Door and seeking to work together.  We need each other.  We should not be territorial.  We’re all part of the same family.

I encourage you to read John Armstrong’s excellent book, Your Church Is Too Small.  I was greatly encouraged and challenged by it.  I had been youth/associate pastor at Faith Church for six years, and senior pastor for about 2 years before I read Armstrong’s book.  During those years, Faith Church had very little interaction with any other community churches, except for our sister churches within our denomination.  Personally I felt competition with other local churches.  A family from Faith Church might move on to a different local church, and it would leave me frustrated and angry, with a bitter feeling toward that other church.  Then a good friend put Armstrong’s book in my hands, and it was life-changing.  One day, perhaps a month or so after reading the book, there was a knock on our church office door.  It was a local pastor whom I had never met.  He was representing the local ministerium, as they had reorganized and were seeking to include every church in our school district.  I marveled at the timing, and felt God was at work.  I jumped at the chance to practice the principles of unity Armstrong teaches in his book.

When he refers to “church” in his title, he is not talking about our individual local churches.  Instead he suggests that we Christians widen our view of church.  It is okay to have tribes, different denominations, within the larger church.  We are not called to uniformity, as if all of us need to become one uniform denomination with totally uniform beliefs and practices.  Instead we are called to unity.  We can practice the selfless and support that we see God requiring of the tribes of Israel.  We can work together, share, help one another.

I have said for years now that, in our school district, Conestoga Valley, though there are many churches, it cannot be said that we do not work together.  I am so thankful for our ministerium, and how our wide variety of churches support one another.  Together the churches of CV launched a social services organization called Conestoga Valley Christian Community Services, that has taken off and is making a wonderful impact in our community, especially through feeding the hungry and clothing those in need.  Our ministerium runs two Homes of Hope, helping people transition out of homelessness.  Every year we give the CV School District social worker thousands of dollars in benevolence funding for families in need.  We provide an annual scholarship to a graduating senior going to college to study ministry.    Our CV Ministerium pastors pray together, study the Bible together, and we bring our congregations together for worship a couple times each year.  I could go on and on.

So how about you and your church family?  Is your church too small?  How can you practice the selfless unity God expects?

Are we majoring on the minors? – 1st Corinthians 1:10-17

20 Jan

Yesterday during our continuing study of 1st Corinthians, we talked about BNPs!  After a very encouraging greeting, Paul begins to deal with the problems coming out of the church in Corinth.  First up, people claiming that they are followers of certain Big Name Preachers of their day.  Apollos, Peter, Paul himself and even Jesus.

It seems that groups were forming in the church, divvied up by who got baptised by one of these famous preachers.  Then there was the uber-spiritual group who said they followed Christ!  Paul confronts them all.

Even the group that followed Christ?

Yes, even them.

His point was that even those who sounded spiritual on the outside, claiming to follow Christ, were being divisive, creation a faction.  Paul’s solution is to remind them to pursue a passionate unity of the heart and mind.  He goes on to say that his purpose wasn’t to baptise, but to preach Christ.  His focus was on the mission of God.  And that is the one thing that we Christians from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives can unify around.

But that will only be possible unless we are a people committed to unity of heart and mind.  We need to major on the majors and minor on the minors.

The problem is that too often we major on the minors.  We can spend a lot of time and energy on lesser matters.  Some theologians over the centuries have tried to develop a system for understanding what the major doctrines are and what the minor doctrines are.  A common way to describe this is to use a pyramid with three levels.  On the top we have primary issues, which are the majors.  The next level are secondary issues, which are still important, but they are minors.  The third level, a very minor, and people will have wildly divergent points of view on them.

In the EC Church, our top tier is what we ask people to agree to when they become members of one of our churches.  The list is very small:

1) Belief in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord;
2) Belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God;
3) Commitment to daily Christian growth;
4) Commitment to giving Jesus Christ your time, talent and treasure;
5) Support of the local church and the ministry of the Evangelical Congregational Church
6) Faithfulness in attendance and participation;
7) Baptism.

Our second tier issues are found in our Articles of Faith, and our third tier issues are found in our Discipline, which is our book of order.

What you notice about the triangle is that the sections get larger as you go down the levels.  There are very few major issues, but we have scads of secondary and tertiary minor issues.  Here’s where the problems happen.  When people try to expand the top tier of their pyramid!  Majoring on the majors means that we’ll keep our top tier relatively small, but we will focus the vast amount of our time, energy and money there.  We will refuse to create factions based on second or third tier issues.  We will work graciously with people, even if they don’t agree with our opinions on the minors.

So are you majoring on the majors?  Does this raise any concerns or your questions in your mind?  Let’s discuss it further.

Multiple worship services ARE of the devil!

5 Nov

Yes, having multiple worship services are of the devil…if we let them be.

Let me explain.

It is very interesting how we go through life and end up changing our minds about things.

For example, how did I go from this to this?  If you don’t want to fully read those two blog posts, here’s a brief summary.  In the first post, written in February, I make the argument that it would be wrong for us to have multiple worship services because people need to give up their consumer mindset and be unified.  In the second post, written last week, I explain that in June we started a second worship!

All it took was the short time from February to June for my mind to change.  Actually it was a bit quicker than that because the decision to start an early traditional worship service was made in April or May. I remember during that time feeling a bit like a hypocrite.  I had written an impassioned blog post decrying consumeristic Christianity (which I still agree is a problem), and now I’m appearing to give in to consumerism.

I remember the series of meetings our church Council had about it. Things got very emotional.  People were making points to support their position, and we didn’t have any kind of consensus.  Between meetings I thought and prayed about it a lot.  I talked with people and sought out their wisdom.  At one point a different perspective struck me.  When God wanted to express his amazing love to us, he didn’t say “Jump through these hoops and get to me.”  Instead, he knew we were unable to reach him, and he gave up a whole heck of a lot to reach us.  Philippians 2:1-11 tells the story pretty well.

As I thought about Jesus’ sacrificial love for us, I compared that to our worship situation.  For the previous six years we had asked people to sacrifice in order to worship together.  But this was the opposite of how God looked at us.  No doubt God calls for us to sacrifice for him, but he took the first massive step.  I pondered this and knew my heart and mind was changing.  When it came to worship, we, the leadership, first needed to sacrifice for our people before asking them to sacrifice.  We needed to give of ourselves as an act of love.  That act of love needed to be a new worship service specifically for people who prefer a traditional style.

The idea was born.

At the next meeting, I sat quietly while the Council debated numerous ideas.  After 30, 40, or 50 minutes, I don’t know, I decided to submit my proposal.  I explained the change in my heart and mind, and then I suggested that we start an 8am service in a traditional style.  No volunteers, just me in a suit and tie, and our worship leader playing hymns.  We would use the offering plates and the doxology.  Same order of worship every week.  An act of love.

And it passed.

I expected 5-10 people to show up, with 10 being a victory.  I was afraid it would be only 5.  For five months now, we’ve averaged 15.  It’s tiny, but that doesn’t matter.  It’s not about numbers, but instead about giving in love.  After a three month trial the attenders thought we would shut it down, but instead we removed the “trial period” label and made it a permanent service.  We’ve found at least one unexpected benefit: people who are serving in various ministries and would normally have to miss the 9:30 worship can now come to the early service.

Are there any downsides?  Sure.  Our worship leader has to wake up earlier and prepare a whole set of extra songs.  We used to have a Sunday AM worship practice prior to the 9:30 service, but that is now impossible, so she also has to have a new practice time on a weekday night.  She has graciously sacrificed more for this venture than anyone.  I have to get up earlier too.

What of the other downside I refer to in my previous post, the possibility that this additional worship service has led to disunity in the church?  Is Satan at work in this?  I think not.  Not if we respond to the concern in a healthy way.  Here’s how I finished my sermon this past week to address this:

Unity cannot be accomplished by sitting in the same room as other people during a worship service. To borrow an illustration that Billy Graham used about shots, such as flu shots: perhaps by having worship together, and thus having a small dose of fellowship each week, we’ve inoculated ourselves from the real thing.  Building a relationship that leads to unity takes a lot of time outside the walls of the church. Let’s envision fellowship in a whole new way. Miss people from the other service? Give them a call, a visit, take them out for lunch, coffee, and spend a good long time with them. Then do it again and again. Invite them to dinner. Pray together, serve together, etc.

Unity takes work.  Unity is not easy.  Unity can be messy. Unity requires sacrifices. 

So how are you going to pursue unity with the people at the other worship service?

Could starting an additional worship service be of the devil?

1 Nov

Well, could it?  People have wondered this.

We started an 8am worship service a few months ago, in addition to our 9:30am service.  We did not need to have another worship because lack of space necessitated it.  We have plenty of room in our sanctuary for our current attendance on Sundays.

People wondered if starting the early service was a bad idea.  Some even cautiously speculated that the devil might be at work in the process.  The reason they thought this is that adding the extra worship service can give the impression of disunity.  There are now two groups.  The 8am people and the 9:30am people.  It seems that this is not a good thing, especially when our sanctuary could fit them all at the same time.  Is this not division in the church?  A kind of church split?  We know the devil loves those.

This concern was part of the reason that we balked at the idea of two services as long as we did.  Since I’ve been at Faith Church, we have been discussing this at least as far back as 2007.  We want unity.  We have asked people to give up their worship style preferences so that we can have a visible expression of unity, worshiping together on Sunday mornings.  As a result, starting in 2007, we decided to hold one blended worship service, half traditional, half contemporary.  I don’t feel it went very well.  (And yet, look what I wrote here.  Interesting the change.)  You set out to please everyone a little bit, and you end up pleasing no one.  20-25 people left the church because they felt it was too contemporary.  Others visited and never came back because it was too traditional.  Unity?

I wish we would have started a second traditional service years ago.  The heart behind our decision to do so earlier this year was love.  Express love by ministering to people in their language.  For some in our congregation, that language is traditional worship.  We have 15-20 people that attend the early service.  Could it be the work of the devil that we are reaching out to them in love?

And what of unity?  Some people from both services have legitimately expressed concern that they miss seeing and talking to the people from the other service.  That is a great concern!  The issue is not how the new service broke unity, but instead how we will pursue unity in spite of the new service.  What do you think you could do to be unified with those who attend the other service?  Is there Scripture that might apply to this?  We’ll talk about this more on Sunday, but feel free to start discussing here now.