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Category Archives: Discipleship

Ancient Paths: The Creeds

I became a Christian in a church that didn’t make use of ancient creeds, and then I didn’t recite a creed in worship for the first 25 years of my faith. I was led to understand that the Bible, not creeds, is what we should know and recite (though we didn’t really do either). The old creeds, I was told, are like everything else from the historical tradition of Christianity: extra-Biblical formalism that breeds hypocrisy, mindlessness and boring worship programming.

apostles-creed-session-two-i-believe-in-4-728(Meanwhile, I was encouraged to write acrostic missions statements, paste them on banners, etch them into glass windows, and have my congregations commit them to memory. This wasn’t extra-Biblical, hypocritical or mindless … this was cutting edge church leadership! But I digress…)

I have “graduated” to a wholehearted embrace of creedal Christianity. Specifically, my adopted faith tradition embraces three ancient creeds: The Apostles’ Creed (c. 180 AD), the Nicene Creed (325 AD), and the Athanasian Creed (c. 440 AD). Today, a few words about the Apostles’ Creed, which is truly an “ancient path” that has been traveled by millions of believers over two millennia.

I think of the Apostles’ Creed as the swiss-army-knife of the church: A concise creed with multiple uses!

  1. Personal Faith: Like it did from its organic inception during the first two centuries AD, it provides a means by which we determine who is and isn’t a Christian. It’s a great litmus test for every individual to see if her beliefs line up with classical Christianity.
  2. Teaching: It also provides an ideal outline for discipleship. Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism, says of the Creed, “As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.” Both at church and in the home, it functions as our syllabus for ongoing instruction.
  3. Evangelism: It is a great tool for proclaiming the gospel. It answers the question, “what must I believe to be saved?” Christians who have the points of the Apostles’ Creed memorized have at their disposal all of the necessary talking points for sharing the central tenets of the our faith.
  4. Worship: The Creed provides for a beautiful act of worship when read corporately. As the Psalmist says, “One generation will declare your works to the next and will proclaim your mighty acts” (Ps. 145:4). When we together in an intergenerational gathering of worship proclaim the Apostles’ Creed – creation, incarnation, sacrifice, forgiveness, resurrection, ascension, judgment and heaven – our faith is refined, we transmit our beliefs to everyone in the service (believers or not), and are encouraged by the shared testimony of others.
  5. Contextualization: The Creed is brilliant for use in places where the church isn’t so literate. We can take for granted in our well-educated Western society that truth is “most true” when it’s in writing. But many through history, including many today, must understand their faith in manageable, memorable ways.

Again, I grew up without the Apostles’ Creed. So, my litmus test for belief changed with each new church community I attended (most of which felt compelled to write their own doctrinal statements). My discipleship and evangelism training regularly shifted to whatever the latest popular Christian book had to say. Most of my fellow believers in churches have felt hopelessly ill-equipped to evangelize their family and neighbors, much less their friends, and keep trying to come up with an effective resource and training program for outreach. And, because of a wholesale rejection of classical, formal worship elements (including creeds), my faith was enslaved to the always-shifting spontaneous utterings of my pastors.

Life is better with creeds. A bit on the content of the Apostles’ Creed tomorrow.

– EO

(Some good historical information about the Ecumenical Creeds can be found here.)

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“Ask For the Ancient Paths”

“Ask For the Ancient Paths”

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand by the roadways and look. Ask about the ancient paths, “Which is the way to what is good?” Then take it and find rest for yourselves.‘” (Jeremiah 6:16).

My own personal journey has led me down ancient paths. Over 30 years ago, I was gripped by a love and desire for the experience of the ancient, early church. I have always wanted to be a part of a contemporary Christian tradition that has beaten a consistent path from the first century to the present … and would most fully connect me to the early church, both in word and practice. The journey has led me to the classical Christianity ensconced in Lutheranism (particularly in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod). I have chosen to take this path … and have found rest for myself. I recommend it without reservation.

This week our church* is beginning a 9-week preaching series called Ask For the Ancient Paths. It is a study of the six chief parts of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism: the Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and Confession/Absolution. This series provides an ideal time for me to share some of my journey as it relates to the foundational teachings of classical Christianity as put forth in the Lutheran Catechism.

Feel free to engage with your questions, comments and critiques. “One who listens to life-giving rebukes will be at home among the wise. Anyone who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever listens to correction acquires good sense” (Prov. 15:31-32). Good sense, wise company, life! My journey continues. I hope yours will, too.

So, grab your hat, your sun-screen, your walking stick … let’s explore this ancient path together.

– EO

* Christ’s Greenfield Lutheran Church (LCMS), Gilbert, AZ

 

 

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Any Chance We Might Grow Up?

Withholding love from another person is the supreme act of childishness. Forbearing, proactive love … that’s the trait of a mature adult. We need God for that.

———————

This from one of Christianity’s most popular texts, 1 Corinthians 13: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (13:11). What are these childish ways that Paul is talking about? In the context of this chapter, it’s quite simple. It is childish to withhold love.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” If I lay out articulate Facebook rants, and can share quotes from my favorite talking heads, but am snarky, antagonistic, profane or dismissive of others, I’m just noise.

“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” If I, in my self-perceived brilliance, believe in my convictions can change the world around me, but cannot be kind when I present them, I am nothing.

“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Even if I “walk my talk”, and am involved in all kinds of service projects that support my causes, but my heart and attitude toward others who disagree with me remains angry and contentious, the gain of my good works is nullified.

So, what is this love that Paul speaks of? It is, primarily, staying active in hard relationships. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

Kind. Love suffocates in non-relationship. It breathes through activity. Being kind is love. Just choosing to be neutral — to not be unkind — isn’t love.

Patient. Bearing. Enduring. Never-ending. Love assumes things will get difficult, and stays in the game anyway. To bail out on a relationship when it doesn’t go your way, that’s childish.

Arrogant. Rude. Irritable. Resentful. If these words describe you, then you’re acting like a child.

If you are so bent toward someone that you actually rejoice when things don’t go their way … this is the height of immaturity.

Children always think they should be given a second chance, but still carry grudges against others, and withhold them their kindness. Children want the benefit of the doubt for themselves, but they choose to meditate on the negatives of others, thus exchanging joy for bitterness. Children want people to believe in them, but they magnify and believe the worst in others. Children want others to see it their way, but give up hope for a better tomorrow that comes, as promised by God, through reconciliation and sticking together.

Children think they know. Then they become judge and jury over you. You will be found guilty. Love is gone. Existence becomes null and void.

Childish politics conceives contentious gridlock. Childish religion creates suicide bombers.Childish academes squash thoughts from a different point of view. Childish employees trash talk their bosses behind their backs. Childish church members leave their congregation when something happens they don’t like. Childish marriages produce divorces. Childish friends feel they’ve been so wronged that they have to withhold their ongoing care, affection and kindness.

God, through His Word, calls us to put away these childish behaviors. He provides the means to do so. But these days few are listening to God, and even fewer are availing themselves to the divine empowerment that makes change possible. Even those who find God interesting remain unwilling to hear His call to us to exercise the self-sacrificing kind of love that could change the world.

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Any chance we might grow up? Our chance is contingent on our love for God … which will enable our love for our neighbor. Without God? No chance.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).

– EO

 

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What Are We Promising?

I saw this on the home page of a church website today.

Is this really an accurate representation of what the church is supposed to be?

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You are welcome here.

lisa-engel-church

At (our) Church—

You will find a family who will make you feel and know that you are wanted and welcomed.

You may want to dress casual or be dressed up.

You may be hurting or praise filled.

You may come for yourself or for your family.

The Lord and His people are ready to embrace and welcome you.

———————-

Paraphrase. You are all that matters. You feeling wanted, welcome, comfortable, free to let your emotional state go unchallenged … that’s why we exist. Come, because God is ready to be your servant.

I feel compelled to offer an alternative.

You are welcome here.

At (our) Church—

You will find a family who does want to know you and love you.

But you need to know that your personal feelings of warmth and comfort are not our goal.

You see, God is glorious and good … and we are not. Like everyone else in our church, your life falls out of alignment with the way God wants us to live. So, there are issues to be addressed in seeking (re)connection with Him.

So, if you are new to seeking out a relationship with God, you will likely not feel warm and fuzzy at first. Those feelings may come at some time, but we don’t promise them, and certainly don’t want them to be your expectation. 

If ultimately your willingness to attend a church depends on your choice of clothing or the music mix, we’re off to a bad start. If it depends on the people of the church affirming you to the point that there is no call for repentance or life change, you’re in the wrong place. If you’re a religious consumer, looking for spiritual goods that meet your expectations, you need to know that we’re not in that business.

If you’re interested in seeking out God on His terms, and seeing your sins forgiven, your life healed, and your eternity squared, and are ready to take God’s directives in order to experience these blessings …

Then know that the Lord and His people are ready to embrace, welcome and walk with you you into life lived extraordinarily well.

I would want to attend this church.

– EO

 

 

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Christianity and Patriotism

Christianity and Patriotism

The 4th of July is coming. In the life of the church, there is often tension associated with the holiday.

In the U.S.A., most in our congregations are citizens (though there are also immigrants, aliens and sojourners among us). Most of these are proud of their country. In many churches, the expression of that national pride has become a part of Sunday worship celebrations, and even special programming centered around our pride in, love for, and allegiance to the U.S.A.

Some cry foul. Others are ready to tar-and-feather you if you don’t enter in.

Recently, John Piper shared his thoughts about Christianity and Patriotism in an online podcast. I’d like to share my thoughts in relation to Piper’s in an attempt to set an appropriate course for churches.*

Piper points out that, in many churches, our Fourth of July celebrations seem “uninformed, unshaped by the radical nature of the gospel, and out of proportion to the relationship between America and the kingdom of Christ.” This is our big question: What is that relationship?

Piper: “We are pilgrims, sojourners, refugees, exiles in all of those. Our first identity is with the King of the universe, not any country or nationality or political party or governmental regime. America is emphatically not our primary home or primary identity. That should be spoken.”

So far, so good. Unfortunately, for many church goers, it is their primary identity.  The Word of God does need to be spoken clearly into these idolatrous hearts, and a call to absolute allegiance to God needs to made. Still, being citizens of the U.S.A. is part of our identity. (I appreciate Piper using the the words “first” and “primary” above.)

Where I would veer away from Piper’s thinking is in his choosing to make such a vigorous demarcation between allegiance to God and allegiance to the state. “We swear absolute allegiance to him and to no one and nothing else. All other commitments are relativized … All of those authorities are subordinate and secondary to the authority of Christ and, therefore, all submission is qualified.” Piper draws a bold line between Christ as Lord and all other lordships.

ref-luthertours.jpgBut this approach and this rhetoric fails to give weight to the Biblical truth that the Kingdoms of this world are a divinely ordained extension of the rule and reign of God. For kingship belongs to the Lordand he rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:28). “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15). And, the extension of God’s rule on the planet is delivered through human governments. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God … he is God’s servant for your good … he is the servant of God … the authorities are ministers of God … Pay to all what is owed to them … respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:1-7).

In short we have the tendency to pit God’s rule against the rule of governments — when the reality is that the state is an extension of God’s rule. This governance can and should be respected and honored by the church.

(I think it’s obvious, but I’ll say it anyway — this is true not just for the U.S.A., but for any believer in any country. This can be especially difficult when a government is plagued by dysfunction and injustice. Nonetheless, it is truth that calls all Christians to appropriate, faith-filled, disciple-like action.)

So, if I might take the liberty of reshaping Piper’s previous paragraph: “We swear absolute allegiance to him, and our allegiance to our country is an extension of our acknowledgement of His rule. All other commitments are contained in this over-arching commitment to God … All of those authorities, though subordinate, needn’t be considered “secondary” to the authority of Christ, but part of it. Therefore, all submission needn’t be qualified, except in instances when disobedience to Christ is mandated.

As to the question of patriotism in worship, I agree with Piper when he says “any pledge of allegiance –  like the one to the American flag – does not belong in a worship service.” But I disagree with his assessment that, when these emphases on country take place, “what is being highlighted and foregrounded is an earthly allegiance.” Again, this doesn’t need to be the case, and this hard line doesn’t need to be drawn. God’s rule through the Spirit/Word/gospel and His rule through governments can be celebrated together. But it’s God’s rule. And because it’s God we celebrate, the emblem of a particular state should not be the icon for our worship.

I had the privilege of serving as a pastor in The Netherlands. Needless to say, we didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July! More to the point, we didn’t celebrate specific national governances, not even that of the Dutch. You see, it was a strikingly international community. To celebrate one sister’s nation would make us feel obliged us to celebrate the nation of every brother and sister in the church. (Churches in the Southwest, where I live now, would probably not think of having a special September 16th service to celebrate Mexican Independence Day — even though many aliens and immigrants are a part of our number.)

Instead, we can take a day to focus on and celebrate the Lordship of Christ, which He exercises through all nations, including our own.

– EO

These thoughts are influenced by Martin Luther’s theology of the two realms/kingdoms, and by a desire to see these ideas once again fleshed out in the life of local churches, particularly Lutheran churches.

 

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False Teaching – God’s Truth Isn’t Relative

There are so many warnings against false teaching in the scriptures.

false_360_189_90“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matt. 7:15).

“At [the end times] many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:10-13)

“False messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. So be on your guard” (Mark 13:22-23).

“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people” (Rom. 16:17-18).

“Such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:13-15).

Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith (1 Tim. 6:20-21).

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth (2 Tim. 2:15-18)

“The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:24-26).

ear tickleIn the presence of God and of Christ Jesus … I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth” (2 Tim. 4:1-4)

“There were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping” (2 Peter 2:1-3).

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:1-3). 

This is “a thing”. A big thing! We can tell, because it’s repeated over and over in scripture. It’s like the incessant nature of gravitational pull – for some reason (I would say the fall), we have this inclination to drift from the pure truths laid out by Christ. And the consequences are fatal.

Pillar and FoundationOur cities, littered with denominational church institutions of numerous stripes, stands as a testimony to this reality in our day. Clearly, all “truths” are not created equal. In a culture where truth is relative, and everyone’s truth “ought to be honored”, it may be politically incorrect to insist on doctrinal purity … but it is no less important, and perhaps never more urgent. Churches need to be more effective at being the “pillar and foundation of the truth” in our world (1 Tim. 3:15). But individual believers also need to be relentlessly thorough in their knowledge about God. 

(To be continued…)

-EO

 

 

 

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Why People Don’t Like Christians – Part 1

Christians aren’t very popular these days. Never have been, really. This is no mystery, for people who have called themselves Christians have given the world plenty of reasons for a less than favorable review.

ghandi-quoteOne of primary reasons people don’t like Christians is because they think us to be hypocrites. We regularly fail to live up to the high standards to which we aspire, and about which we preach. We compound the world’s frustration when we lobby to see those standards embraced by everyone (e.g., championing “family values”, even political legislation) when we do such a poor job of living them out ourselves.

Genuine Christianity, however, is not hypocritical. In fact, it is the only faith that isn’t.

You see, all other religions are built on the idea that we must muster up a righteous life in order to please God. In all other faiths, the assumption is a) we are good enough to live right, and b) we are committed to living right. I can, and will. If you truly can, then claim you will, and then don’t … that’s being a hypocrite.

(And some people think this is what Christianity is: A group of people who have decided to live as the Bible describes, and who tell others they should, too. Sunday services, then, are a combination ethics class/pep rally, designed to motivate people to get it together. Then, when they go out and live poorly yet again during the next week, the world brands this approach to religion as a failure. And they’re right.)

But genuine Christianity, rooted in the teachings of Jesus and the other manning-quoteBiblical writers,is totally different.

We believe that man is not good enough to live right. God describes right living in the scriptures, and affirms in those same scriptures that it’s unattainable. Sadly (for us), He also said that only the righteous are compatible with heaven. We can’t, and won’t. Wait … we can’t do what we need to to get to heaven? What hope do we have?

This is where Jesus comes in: He lived among us as the one and only man Who lived a righteous life. (Have you ever heard someone say something bad about Jesus?) He then told us how if would be possible for us to be righteous (and get to heaven), too. Quite simply, He has to do it … in us. This is what Christianity refers to as the Holy Spirit – God Himself, living in us, being righteous through us. Jesus refers to this phenomenon as being born again in the Spirit. He can, and will. It’s the only way. And this is totally different than any other religion.

You may say, “so, if Christians have God living in them to be righteous through them, why are they still so lame?” You’ve got us there. We ought to be living our lives at a very high quality, but often look no better than our neighbor, and sometimes even worse. A few reasons why:

  1. Counterfeit Christianity abounds. As I already mentioned, there are many people practicing “a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). Sadly, they claim to be able to live well, but can’t. They’re hypocrites. I’m afraid this group makes up the majority of Christians in our churches today.
  2. Appropriating divine empowerment is a discipline. Theologian J. I. Packer says this: “The agent of [making us live well] is the Holy Spirit who works in us to make us will and act according to God’s good pleasure. Again and again we need to go down on our knees and admit our helplessness and ask to be empowered … If this sounds easy, it shouldn’t, because [it] is a battle. We never have our hearts entirely set on the things of God, so that even if our actions are right by external standards, our hearts are never quite right. It is struggle and conflict all the way.” The Spirit is available and willing, but we must “walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16ff) in order to experience Him at work in us. And we often don’t.

This is why we are supposed to gather as a church. It isn’t primarily get a coffee, get emotionally “fired up” through faux rock-concert experience, and to recommit our hearts and minds to a series of best-intention propositions dispensed by a life coach. This approach to church will never fail to produce hypocrites.

No, church is so much more than that! We gather in the presence of God to recalibrate our spiritual relationship with the God Who can lead and empower us to live well. That’s why we confess our sins (primarily the sin of not living in the Spirit in the days prior), hear His Word (Heb. 4:12), receive empowering grace through His ordained sacraments, and experience the Holy Spirit through the yes-x-no-bettergiftings all our brothers and sisters around us.

People who practice this type of Christianity (e.g., real Christianity) are still fickle, still bumble, and will still likely disappoint the non-believing world by their less-than-Jesus-like lifestyles. But they’re not hypocrites — at least in the traditional sense. They know that they’re in a battle (“struggle and conflict all the way”), and they make no claims that they’ll bat 1,000%. They are not too surprised when they fail. Still, they forget yesterday, and press into today, prayerfully clinging to the God Who can bear the fruit of righteousness in them now.

On behalf of Christians everywhere, I apologize for the poor examples given by people who call themselves Christians, but are simply powerless moralists. I don’t like them either.

dont-like-selvesMy encouragement is for all to look beyond those poor representations of an incredible faith. See instead the real deal, the substance of genuine, classical Christian living. I am sure that, if our churches were full of these humble, prayerful, fruitful people, that Christianity would have a much better name in our world. You might even be interested in joining their ranks.

– EO

 

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