Archive for February, 2014

Love and Discernment

People too often turn biblical statements into cliches in order to wield them to their own advantage when convenient. One I’ve been noticing a lot recently, drawn from 1 Corinthians 13:7, is “love believes all things.” Because the biblical words have been turned into a free-floating cliche, some people seem comfortable using them in whatever way suits their purposes.

For instance, we are told to accept a person’s unverifiable and/or unverified claim because “love believes all things.” Or, someone who has severely broken the trust in a relationship uses “love believes all things” to guilt other people into accepting his word without question or doubt. Practically, those two approaches treat the biblical words “love believes all things” as if they mean “love suspends all judgment” or “love is gullible.” Is that really what Paul was saying to the Corinthians and us? Highly unlikely.

I say that because those two uses of “love believes all things” actually contradict other clear biblical teachings regarding both wisdom and love. In Proverbs, we find these words, “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” (14:15). Only simpletons accept everything without evaluation. Biblical love does not contradict biblical wisdom. It is not naive.

Think, too, about how Paul prayed for the love of the believers at Philippi, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (1:9-11). Clearly, there is no conflict between love and discernment. In fact, the proper exercise of one (love) demands the other (discernment). If love seeks the good of others, we have to know and understand what that good is.

So what does Paul mean by “love believes all things?” I’ll let Gordon Fee answer that: “Paul does not mean that love always believes the best about everything and everyone, but that love never ceases to have faith; it never loses hope” (“First Corinthians,” NICNT, p. 640). The NLT, while a little paraphrastic, captures the idea well, “Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” The key here is that instead of translating it as “all things,” the Greek word Paul uses would be better translated as “always” since it is being used adverbially (i.e., always believes vs. believes all things).

Biblical love does not require us to accept accusations without verification. Neither does biblical love mandate that we keep extending trust to someone who has flagrantly violated it. To the contrary, God’s Word stands solidly against gullibility and in favor of discernment. Don’t let someone falsely guilt you into bad judgment by using biblical words like a cliche!

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Staying Focused When Mud Flies

By virtue of the ministry I’ve been allowed to have, I often interact with ministry leaders who are facing intense ministry and personal challenges where they serve. It is not an easy day in which to serve the Lord, that’s for sure, but when has it ever been such? I suppose the difficulties in our day sometimes seem larger because of the magnifying glass called the internet. One person can sound like a thousand. A problem is broadcast around the world in minutes and remains on the cyber-shelf for all to see long after it has been resolved. Accusations can be flung with limited consequences and an incredibly low standard for proof.

It is the world we live in and it is probably not going to get any better, so all who aspire to leadership better accept the fact that it will happen and learn how to respond productively to it. There is a lot that could be said about productively responding, but in this post I want focus on one—don’t let it derail your ministry! Perhaps the only thing sadder than ungodly attacks is when those being attacked allow their attackers to set the agenda and redirect them away from fruitful ministry.

Thinking about some folks getting hammered recently, I was reminded of Nehemiah’s steadfast leadership in the face of much struggle and opposition. Nehemiah 6 records how he faced three serious challenges, yet remained focused on his purpose and ministry.

He faced the challenge of distractions (vv. 1-4). Two men, opposed to his work, invited him to a summit meeting—in fact, they sent him four invitations (v. 4). Rather than get caught up in their distraction, Nehemiah firmly replied, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (v. 3). Because their invitation had nothing to do with his mission, he refused to get distracted by it.

He faced the challenge of distortions—people said things about him that were not true (vv. 5-9). Those who did not like the work that Nehemiah was doing tried to discourage and intimidate him by spreading unfounded and baseless accusations. They accused him of promoting himself and of seeking an agenda of rebellion. Few things take the wind out of someone’s sails like these kinds of distortions. But rather than get discouraged and quit, Nehemiah rebuffed their accusation and remained steadfast in his mission. He prayed and pressed on!

He faced the challenge of deception (vv. 10-14). Next, Nehemiah faced a challenge from an unexpected source—an acquaintance, someone he thought to be on his side. Shemaiah attempted to trick Nehemiah into acting wrongly by fleeing into the temple in self-preservation. Its seems that the plot was designed to cause Nehemiah to panic and act cowardly. If he fell for it, then the leader would be discredited and the people would be disheartened. Instead of turning to hide, Nehemiah “perceived that surely God had not sent him” (v. 12) and he kept pressing on.

Distractions. Distortions. Deceptions. I believe that anyone seeking to do something for the Lord will face these challenges. Like Nehemiah, if we are walking in obedience to the Lord (cf. 2:12), we must not allow them to stop us. The answer to the distractions, distortions, and deceptions was Nehemiah’s intensity, integrity, and insight. He was completely committed to doing what God put in his heart to do. He was focused on the work, not himself, so he refused to engage with character assassins. He would not violate God’s Word in order to protect himself and he knew that anybody asking him to disobey God was not acting on God’s behalf.

Ministry leaders can’t afford to mistakenly think that the echo chamber of a Facebook page or internet forum actually represents a “multitude” of concerned voices. A vocal minority should never be allowed control of the agenda simply because they can scream louder, fight dirtier, and use the internet to bully their way forward. Nehemiah understood that there is nothing to be gained by trying to pacify people whose sole ambition is to harm the work. His words should be ours, “Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (v. 3)

Friend, don’t become weary in doing well. Don’t let struggle and opposition sidetrack you from God’s will. Don’t get sucked into a squabble which is designed to derail and destroy the work. Keep praying and keep pressing on for the Lord’s glory!

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The Need for Polemical Preaching

Erik Raymond has an interesting post up at The Gospel Coalition entitled The Problem with Polemical Preaching. Although his opening lines suggest that polemic preaching impairs sermons and muffles ministries, he actually concludes that there is a legitimate place for it within one’s ministry as long as one does not become characterized by it. He draws counsel from David Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the matter that is mainly helpful and which all of us who preach regularly should consider.

I’d like, though, to toss out a few ideas to place along side of Raymond’s concerns, some of which differ slightly and some of which simply complement them.

Pauline Call for Polemics
I think that there is greater biblical warrant for polemical preaching than Raymond’s post suggests. It seems clear that Paul considered the ability to engage in polemical preaching to be a qualification for elders, based on his instruction to Titus, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (1:9). Paul goes on to say that these false teachers must be silenced and sharply rebuked (vv. 11, 13). If it is a qualification, doesn’t that mean our ministries must be characterized by it to some degree?

Win? Hopefully. Warn? Absolutely.
I’m not sure, either, that narrowing the outcome of polemical preaching to winning or losing your opponents is helpful. What about third parties who are listening to the preaching? Perhaps I’m off on this, but most of the polemical preaching that I’ve heard (and engaged in) isn’t exclusively aimed at winning over the “opponent” as much as refuting their position in order to protect others from their errors. Should we desire to win those who teach error back to the truth? Certainly, but they are usually not even present to hear the polemical sermon. For the sake of those being influenced by error, polemical preaching is a necessary activity that can help congregations grow to maturity “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14).

Most pastors use polemical sermons to tackle errors that threaten their own congregations, not to confront false teachers directly. Even well-known preachers who engage in polemics in a conference are usually only addressing the ideas of their “opponent” rather than the person. A sermon isn’t a debate; it is a declaration. There is no need to assume that all polemic preaching is grumpy. It is quite possible to be winsomely polemical. But, I’d quickly add, that OT prophets and our Lord seemed not to think that being bitingly polemical was somehow sinful (cf. 1 Kings 19, Isaiah 44, and Matthew 23).

Let’s Balance Our Polemics and Our Assessment
I share Raymond’s concern about imbalance on this point. I have seen men hurt their ministries by creating a culture of criticism within their congregations, and once you unleash that beast, you can never satisfy its thirst for blood. Yet, I’ve also seen men who would never challenge or oppose error and therefore failed in one of their basic pastoral responsibilities, resulting in great harm to God’s people. The easy answer, I believe, is to do systematic exposition of the biblical text since that allows the Scriptures to control your preaching. When it confronts, you confront. Where it is under attack, you expose the weakness of the attacks.

Let’s be careful, though, of drawing faulty conclusions about how polemical other preachers are. It seems to me that the picture is easily distorted by the fact that polemical issues tend to generate a lot more attention than normal pastoral preaching. If I may risk an example, let’s consider John MacArthur’s ministry. My guess is that many readers of the TGC blog might think someone like MacArthur fits the bill of Raymond’s concerns, especially in light of the Strange Fire conference brouhaha. Is MacArthur a polemical preacher? Definitely at times. Most of his decades of preaching ministry, though, has been devoted to the chapter by chapter exposition of God’s Word from the pulpit of Grace Community Church.

The polemical side has shown itself, it seems to me, when he is addressing issues outside of Grace that threaten, in his mind, the health of evangelicalism. The only reason people even hear him speak at that point is precisely because of some threat to biblical truth that needs to be confronted. Since that is all some people hear, they might wrongly conclude that he is mainly (or exclusively) a polemical preacher. That would be a very shallow conclusion.

From a personal standpoint, I have experienced the tension this produces. Because of my connection to DBTS, I’ll get asked to speak at conferences that focuses on some issue and am assigned (or chose) an issue to address for the conference. If all anybody ever heard of my preaching was in that kind of context, they would be inclined to think I’m a polemical preacher. But if they showed up Sunday after Sunday at Inter-City Baptist Church, they’d have a very different picture as we walk through books of the Bible (currently, the Gospel of John).

My point? All faithful pastors must engage in polemics as they faithfully preach the Word. Some men, with access to a megaphone outside of their own congregation, will need to speak regularly about issues that matter and do so polemically. While that may be only a fraction of their overall preaching ministry, it may be the only part that most people see. As for me, I’m thankful that God puts watchmen on the walls. They have helped me. I hope they never stop sounding warnings about danger simply because they might be labeled as polemical preachers.


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Getting Our Ears in Gear

I think the case can easily be made that no day compares to ours in the amount of opinion which showers over us each day and as for the avenues in which you can express your own (print, internet, radio, personal interactions). If value rises according to rarity, then never has talk been as cheap as it is now!

The abundance of talk can open doors for believers to speak God’s Word to the issues of our day and, hopefully, point people to Jesus Christ. But it also can suck us into worldly and careless use of our words—something that ought to cause genuine concern for us in light of the Lord’s warning about being accountable for “every idle word” and the wisdom of Proverbs that tells us “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise” (10:19).

In the course of my life, I have never seen a tool more susceptible to trouble on this point than the internet. Discussion groups, chat rooms, and weblogs have opened the flood gates of talk for anyone with internet access. It doesn’t matter what the topic or one’s qualifications for discussing it, the microphone is open and people line up to share their thoughts. The same is basically true for talk radio, although the flow is slowed a little by the number of available phone lines and the mysterious “call screener” (which often seems to mean a person who selects the most radical and outrageous callers!).

The overall effect of this phenomenon on our culture, and on the church, is difficult to measure, but it also is difficult to miss. Since controversy and conflict draw crowds, that is what abounds on talk radio and the internet. The “conversation” generally consists of a very disjointed flow of opinion and counter-opinion, with very little offered as proof or analysis. This kind of conversation has its place, but it also has real dangers. Idle words can be dangerous. Remember, “many words” makes “transgression unavoidable.”

Proverbs 18 contains at least two principles that can be helpful in a world like ours which is full of words. While Proverbs says a lot about our speech, these two texts mainly address our listening. By helping us listen better, they provide valuable wisdom for life and for speaking.

Listen First (v. 13)
“He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.”

The point of this text is that we must seek to understand a question before we try to answer it. It is probably best understood within the larger proverbial contrast between wisdom and folly. A fool is generally not interested in knowledge, only his own thoughts (18:2). He also rushes ahead without consultation and seeking knowledge (12:15; 19:2). People who do not restrain their speech, but utter all that passes through their minds, are even worse than fools (29:20). To guard your words is to guard your soul (21:23). Wisdom is marked by careful thought and restrained words; folly is marked by careless thought and impulsive speech.

Matthew Henry offers this insight into this text, “It is folly for a man to go about to speak to a thing which he does not understand, or to pass sentence upon a matter which he is not truly and fully informed of, and has not patience to make a strict enquiry into; and, if it be folly, it is and will be shame” (p. 895).

Why is this the evidence of folly and why does it lead to shame? At the root is pride. The desire to be viewed as having a full and quick mind leads a person to fire off answers before fully hearing the question or understanding the issue. Thoughtful silence or asking time to consider a matter is viewed by some as a weakness, so their pride pushes them to speak when they ought not.

Pride also produces inflated views of our own knowledge and wisdom, (“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him,” 26:12). Only a proud person assumes that he understands something before he hears it, so when we speak before we listen we reveal our arrogance.

The most obvious application of this text is to put our mouths in park and our ears in drive! The exception to this is when you ask questions to help you understand someone better or to make sure that you have understood them properly (“Is this what you mean?”). And to listen effectively, we will need to suspend judgment until we have gathered enough information to wisely make a call. Sometimes, amidst the information overload in which we live, we may have to accept the fact that we simply can’t assess things well enough to speak wisely about them. It might be better to express no opinion than a half-baked one!

Listen Fully (v. 17)
“The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.”

The basic thrust of this proverb is similar to one we use in our culture, “There are two sides to every story.” The point here is that we should suspend judgment until we have fully investigated something. “This observation seeks to discourage hasty judgments, particularly in a legal proceeding. Appearances can be misleading, and so critical questions need to be raised to establish the truth or falsehood of testimony” (Longman, p. 358).

This is important to remember because we all possess a limited perspective. Not every disagreement is the result of intentional dishonesty. Sometimes it boils down to perspective—both are sincere in what they believe, but they are not looking at it from the same direction or with the same knowledge. It is unwise to simply accept the first version of whatever story you hear, even if it comes from a reliable source.

Often, sadly, the problem runs deeper than differing perspectives. Depravity being what it is, sinful people will yield to the temptation to state the case of things in ways that are favorable to themselves. Information is selectively chosen and carefully presented so as to give the best possible impression and to secure the desired result.

Whether intentional or not, half the story is more prone to error than the full story. Wisdom wants to hear the full story, or at least enough of it to exercise careful discernment. “The naive believes everything, but the sensible man considers his steps” (Pro 14:15). How can we listen more actively?

First, we can postpone decisions in order to gather more information. While not perfect, I have tried to follow the maxim that wisdom doesn’t come by rushing it. Someone who wants a decision immediately usually isn’t practicing wisdom, so I don’t feel any need to assist them in foolishness.

Second, we should be very clear with people that we cannot agree with them without hearing the other side of things. We don’t need to be rude about this, but should say something like “I have no reason to not believe you, but God’s Word tells me to make sure I hear both sides” and share this verse with them.

Third, we should learn basic principles for examining truth claims. What exactly is being claimed? What evidence and arguments are being made to prove this? Are these arguments valid? Are these arguments true?

Several years ago I was chided in a public forum for urging more caution in our speech with these words, “Yes, this is a talk-radio and anyone-with-a-keyboard environment where all of us can express how we feel about issues and events without having to worry about its correctness or our authority.” This is completely wrong from a biblical perspective. God’s children never are free from the responsibility to “worry about [the] correctness” of our ideas and words!

It is a dangerous thing when people, especially believers, adopt the notion that their right to say something is more important than actually having something truthful to say. These two texts in Proverbs go a long way toward refuting that false notion. If we all obeyed them, we would probably speak less. Given what Proverbs 10:19 says, that means we would probably transgress less too. More silence and less sin—sounds like a win-win solution to me!

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Celebrity and Gospel Witness

American culture is fascinated with celebrities. American evangelicalism, as a subset of American culture, is too. For some reason, there remains a persistent belief that the public testimony of a well known athlete or entertainer will be more effective than that of a regular Joe.

I’ll concede that for the value of gaining attention, a high profile name works better than an unknown. People will watch, for example, Mark Driscoll interview Russell Wilson because he is a pro quarterback who won a Super Bowl. I get that. And whenever a clear word of testimony about Jesus Christ is given, I rejoice.

What concerns me is the tendency to think that having someone like Russell Wilson give his testimony is more powerful than a regular Joe. The thought seems to be that since Russell Wilson, or some other big name personality, has more influence, his testimony will be more likely to convert people. Without even recognizing it, we shift the power away from the message (the gospel) to the messenger, from what is being said to who is saying it.

This is the Corinthian problem repackaged for the 21st century. They were about big names and making the good news look more attractive. And the biggest names in our culture belong to athletes and entertainers, so evangelicals seem to be in love with these high profile testimonies. The slightest sign of “faith” becomes an instant point of celebration.

Please don’t misunderstand my point. I sincerely rejoice in anybody’s testimony of saving faith in Jesus Christ, and I have no desire to minimize the genuine faith and testimony of celebrities. The ground, though, at the foot of the Cross is level, so I have no desire to elevate them either. The salvation of any person is cause for great rejoicing in Jesus Christ, not the popularity of the one saved.

While it is true that the credibility of the messenger has an impact on the message, being popular or well known isn’t the same as being credible. High profile testimonies are more like celebrity endorsements in a commercial than they are expert testimonies in a court room. How does playing football or being a former child actor make you any more credible on the claims of the gospel?

Celebrity draws attention, and I suppose there is something to be gained by getting attention to an important message. As long as the method used to gain attention doesn’t obscure the message. Sometimes the practical outcome looks more like, “You should become a Christian because [insert celebrity name] is a Christian!” The content of the gospel is muted because the packaging gets all of the attention.

We need to hear and heed the words of Paul:

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Let’s not try to outsmart God. It is the message of the Cross that saves and God’s chief means of glorifying Himself is through simple, common believers who have been graciously redeemed by Him.

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Appearance and Leadership

I have been fighting a bad cold the past few days, so when I got home from a road trip, I took some medication and headed straight to the couch to try to get over this thing. It’s Super Bowl weekend, so there seems to be almost non-stop coverage of all things football. Amidst my incessant channel surfing (which, btw, my wife just loves!), I spotted a segment in which a panel of NFL insiders were taking questions from random people, but now was getting a question was from Rex Ryan, head football coach of the New York Jets. His question focused on his brother, Rob Ryan, and wondered when his brother would finally get a chance at being a head coach in the NFL.

The answer, given and confirmed by another panelist, really surprised me. Both men acknowledged that Rob Ryan is an excellent NFL coach and should get a shot at being a head coach. Both men, though, also pointed toward Rob’s appearance as being a significant obstacle for his ascension to head coach (I’ll let the pic at his wiki page suffice). In their minds, since the head coach is the CEO of the football team, that makes him the face of the franchise and most teams want someone whose appearance communicates something different than Rob’s does. One of them said that Rob is something of a rebel and his looks confirm that.

Now, I’m not trying to make a theological point here–even though a couple really are low-hanging fruit–as much as I am a practical one. Regardless of whether we like it or not, our appearance communicates something about us. Just to be clear, the point wasn’t whether Rob Ryan is good looking or not, but whether Rob communicated the kind of leadership traits that a NFL team wants at its helm. Rob’s appearance, at least in the minds of these NFL insiders, communicated values that weren’t attractive to teams. Perhaps the thinking is this, “If he defiantly maintains that look even if it hurts his career, then can we trust him to make the self-sacrifices that are necessary to lead this team?” Probably more likely, “We can’t put that look in front of our fans without ticking everybody but the bikers off!”

There is a lot that could be said as spin-offs in a conversation like this, but my only point is to get young men who aspire to leadership among God’s people to think about what their appearance communicates. And I would urge them to do so as part of the process of contextualization, i.e., understanding your cultural context and living wisely within it. Rob Ryan may be finding out that being counter-cultural in non-essentials hinders leadership.

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