Giving Our Money – Promises and Problems

Giving Our Money – Promises and Problems

5338013478_90877c1abdWe’re on the home stretch in our series on giving, having looked at the Practice, the Perspective, and the Big picture.

We’ll wrap it up by looking at some of the promises that God makes in regards to giving and then consider some problems that come up when we talk about giving.

Promises:

As the bible makes clear and as Christians throughout the ages have known, God blesses our obedience.  Sometimes it is in direct correlation and other times the relationship between cause and effect is hidden.  Sometimes the blessing of obeying God in your finances is not reflected in your finances just as obeying God in your job is not always reflected in career progress.  When it comes to giving money (or really anything), the adage “you cannot out give God” points us to his incredible generosity and his desire to encourage us in obedience.  There is all sorts of teaching out there that distorts this basic principle of God blessing our obedience, but misuse does not negate the truth.  In the following passage I see such a balanced picture of God blessing our obedience without promising ease or exact returns.

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Mark 10:29-31

The great and final goal of eternal life, found in God himself, is weighed against our own preoccupation with somehow coming out on top.  Even when God says he is going to bless our efforts in obeying him, he knows how quickly we can distort it helps us maintain a right perspective.

Another passage that comes to mind is from 2 Cor 9, which I often cite when I write thank you notes to those who have supported our ministry financially.  Reflecting on this passage leads me to pray that those who give will be supplied with even more resources to wisely use and that ultimately God will receive all the credit.  Below is this amazing section where the promise of God’s blessing on generosity fit right alongside a heartfelt and purposeful commitment to giving.

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.  As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”  He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. 2 Corinthians 9:6-12.

It is possible to go on and on, looking both in the bible and through the history of the church to see how God rewards us as we follow his ways.  Again, it is not simply for the reward that we obey, but I know that I can use every encouragement that God gives as I strive to love him.

Problems: (These are twenty reasons people do not give.  I came across this list in some materials from MNA, our denominational office that oversees church planting and similar works in North America.)

1. They do not grasp the vision.
2. They don’t know what is going on with the leadership.
3. They don’t understand the connection between money and faith.
4. They see other needs that are more compelling.
5. No one asks them.
6. No one says “Thank You” when they do.
7. No one explains what happened to the money they gave before.
8. No one asks their opinion about how their money should be used.
9. They aren’t sure the church is “worthy”.
10. They have too much debt.
11. They don’t understand the tax implications.
12. They don’t know who to call for advice.
13. Too many requests are made for specific projects.
14. Too many appeals come in the mail.
15. They only give when they attend.
16. They pay all their bills online.
17. They lack the spiritual commitment.
18. They don’t believe their gift will make a difference.
19. They don’t hear stories from others who have given.
20. The pastor didn’t ask.

I think this is a great list and covers so much.  As I look at these different reasons why people don’t give three are some things which I cannot change (i.e. how many appeals come in the mail) but for most of these three central solutions come to mind.

1.  Communication:
It is the responsibility of leaders ask people to give, to tell people where they are headed, specific and general plans, the difference that contributions make, and describe in some ways the effectiveness of the ministry that is being supported.  On the other hand, people who are reluctant to give because of unanswered questions should ask.
Money is an excellent motivator to do the things we should already be doing.  Leaders should lead regardless of the financial consequences.  People should ask questions about direction and use of resources because they want to see God’s kingdom come.  If someone is concerned about the church’s use of resources they should not “vote with their pocketbook” or “vote with their feet” but see themselves as part of God’s solution to the problem.  Again, the more exacerbated a problem becomes the more significant the response is required, but these are the minority of the cases.

2.  Teaching:
So many of the above problems can be addressed by straightforward teaching on money in general and giving in particular.  This is different than the ongoing communication of vision or maybe a semi-annual review of how money is being spent and how this fulfills the church’s mission.  In my mind at least numbers #3, 4, 6, 9, 11, 15, 17 will be significantly helped by straightforward teaching from the bible on giving.

3.  Time and Maturity
Some of the issues listed above will only change in the course of months, years, or even decades.  Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile and necessary process.  Christian leaders and individuals must do all that they can to move towards honoring God in every area of life.  This means repeated communication, repeated teaching, and the patience to wait on God for the maturation of others and to seek God for our own growth and renewal.

Photo Credit: becca.peterson26 via Compfight cc


Giving Our Money – Practice

make it betterOne of the ways we “make things better” is through the generous use of our resources – money, knowledge, time, emotional energy, etc.  Can you imagine a  world without philanthropy, generosity and charitable giving?  It would be terrible.  Is it possible to add up all the ways that your life as an individual, and as a member of a society, has been bettered through the generosity of others?
We’re in a series on what the Bible says about giving our resources.  If you’re curious on the broader background of the bible and money or more specifically the bible’s perspectives on giving read the related blog posts.  This week we’ll tackle some of the specific practices.

1.  Proportional: Rather than a designated “cut” there are two lear instances in which giving is related to income.  In response to the upcoming famine which would affect believers in Palestine “the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea” (Act 11:29).  In a similar vein Paul urges the Christians in Corinth, “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come ” 1 Cor 16:1-2.  This fits with Jesus’ principle that the more that is entrusted to someone, the more that is required of them (see Luke 12:48).

Under the  Old Covenant (God’s relationship with Israel) the tithe (10%) was the normal proportion for giving.  I do not think this requirement carries over to Christians for four brief reasons:
1.  The tithe was directly associated with the Old Covenant system of priests and temple worship which has been fulfilled in Christ.  2.  The tithe was part of a larger economic legislation and as part of this economic legislation was adjusted to the realities of poverty and destitution in a agricultural society.  For example, many sacrificial offerings have gradations that take into account poverty and the same is true of the “tithe” in that if you are to give every tenth sheep that passes under the shepherd’s staff (Lev 27:32) and you only have three sheep there is no tenth that you pay.
3.  In all of the New Testament’s teaching on giving there is no reiteration of the tithe.  The closest we get is Jesus’ rebuke of the religious leaders,  “Woe to you… for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Mat 23:23).  Jesus says they are right in tithing their spices, but this makes sense as they are still operating within the Old Covenant.  When Paul appeals to Christian churches to support the ministry of the gospel he gives various reasons but does not appeal to the tithe.
4.  While we see both Abraham and Jacob making 10% gifts there are features of these accounts that are different than tithing within Israel – i.e. Abraham giving a tenth of the spoils of war, Jacob’s giving in response to a vision.

This emphasis on proportion is both challenging and freeing.  There is not a magic number, but a task of discernment in which various God given responsibilities must be weighed and the heart examined.  I think it can be helpful to start with a percentage (be it 2%, 5%, 10%, or 20%) towards which you budget and work.  Another approach is to consciously not to increase your lifestyle as your income increases.  If you get a raise, change jobs, go from one income to two, pay off your house or car, wrap up student debt, or finish sending a child to college – there are a variety of ways in which our income can grow, and make significant increases in income.  On the other side, there are times when income decreases and we give a smaller proportion.  We can much more easily imagine these scenarios.

2.  Ecclesiastical:  The New Testament is straightforward in it’s expectation that Christian’s giving supports the “local church.”
Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches (Gal 6:6).
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.  For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1Ti 5:17-18)
In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1Co 9:14)
While there are countless noble and worthwhile causes out there the starting point should be the church where a Christian is both cared for and committed.  While Christian generosity does not stop at the local church (Acts 11:29 – above) it must begin there with the goal of providing for the needs of its leaders.  I can imagine this raising questions, some of which we’ll address in our final installment in this series.

3.  Regular:  In 1 Cor 16:1, cited above, Paul commands a regular practice of setting aside money each week.  Our giving should not be sporadic, haphazard, but according to a plan (1 Cor 9:7) to which we strive to adhere.  This attention and thoroughness rises from the seriousness of our calling to generosity (see last week) and coheres with Scripture’s emphasis on planning, diligence, and faithfulness to commitments.

4.  Responsive:  When Christians hear of pressing needs in Acts and in the ministry of Paul in the gentile world, they respond with financial assistance (Acts 11:29).  This principle of giving in response to both local and broader needs fits well with Jesus command to “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Mat 5:42)

5. Sacrificial:  In both Mark and Luke the account is recorded in which

“Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums.  And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny.  And he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.  For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.'”

In a similar vein, the Apostle Paul points to the generosity of the church in Macedonia

“for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord….” If giving does not affect our lifestyle, lead us to rogue something we have wanted, or force us to make hard choices then we have not given enough.

*Again, my thoughts here are indebted to others.  In this particular post I draw specifically from T. David Gordon’s “The Tithe in Biblical-theological Perspective“, as well as work from our Sr. Pastor in Providence, David Sherwood.

Photo Credit: opensourceway via Compfight cc


Giving Our Money – Perspective

This stained glass depicts Jesus in the regalia of a Byzantine emperor.  While Jesus clearly rejected the power and authority of the state, this image helps remember that he made claims to greater authority than any human being or institution.

When talking about money and the perspective which the bible gives, the starting point is the “Lordship of Christ.”  Basically this refers to Jesus’ claim of being Lord, Ruler, or King of every aspect of life.  There are not some areas in which he is deeply concerned then others towards which he is indifferent or mildly interested.  He says all of your life belongs to me.  If such claims to authority or influence happened in any relationship we might say that such a person is controlling to the point of obsession.  But if Jesus is God – the one who made us, the one who upholds the universe moment by moment, the one who knows what is best for us, the one who laid down his life to redeem us, and the one who conquered death – then his rule over every bit of our lives begins to make sense.  Thus, there is no area that is off limits, no categories in which we can say, “Jesus, this is none of your business.”  As I’ve done a quick mental inventory, every New Testament author speaks about money in one respect or another.  In this way, money is just another area of which the Christian must manage according to God’s blueprint.

The second perspective on giving money that we see in the bible is an emphasis on the heart.  Jesus statement, “where your treasure is, there your heart will also be” is recorded both in the Gospel According to Matthew chapter six and the Gospel According to Luke chapter twelve.  In Matthew, Jesus is talking about giving in secret for the praise of God rather than giving publicly so that others recognize you.  He then goes on to say that we cannot serve both God or money, as one must ultimately master us.  Thus, giving is always about the heart.  Martin Luther, the protestant reformer, said “there are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the conversion of the mind, and the conversion of the purse.”  True allegiance to Christ will involve all three, so that if the purse (i.e. use of money) does not change over time it is an issue of incredible concern because of what it implies about the soul. Giving expresses our love for God, for his people, and the progress of his cause in this world.

The third perspective on giving is that it is commanded.  In the sixth chapter of Matthew, which is cited above Jesus says, “when you give…” In this simple use of “when” he implies that his followers will give.  The apostle Paul roots the generosity of Christians in God’s own generosity to us in Christ, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”  With a clear precedent in the Old Testament Scriptures we see in the earliest records that Christians were marked by generous giving of their resources (See Acts 2-4).  It is also important to note that simply because something is commanded, that this does not exclude joy and heartfelt willingness.  The commanded to love God does not somehow impinge on us authentically responding in love to him.  Thus, being commanded by God to give in now way contradicts the bible’s command to give cheerfully and willingly.

The fourth perspective that the bible provides is that giving is a privilege.  Again, the apostle Paul in the second letter to the Corinthians,

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints–

Their generosity is attributed to the “Grace of God” being giving to them, which is an incredible privilege.  Furthermore they are held up as an example in “begging earnestly” to participate in the relief of poor Christians in Judea.  Whether in giving, or in any area of life, it is a privilege to obey God and participate in his cause in this world.  In serving God with our resources we become more like our savior, do good to others, store up eternal wealth, see God’s faithfulness, and are encouraged in our faith.  I remember a friend writing how he was so deeply encouraged in his faith by his own generosity.  It went something like this: “money was very tight, yet I still obeyed Jesus in giving of my meager resources.   Then in retrospect I looked at the situation and said, surely God has given me a new heart for I never would have done this before.”

Next week I’ll write about some of the practices of giving that we see in the New Testament.

*This is number 2 in a series on giving.  Week 1 is Giving our Money (and other precious things).
I draw on works from others, particularly David Sherwood, the Sr. Pastor of our mother church Trinity PCA in Providence, RI.


Giving Our Money (and other precious things)

Often the hardest things to talk about are the most significant.  It is no accident that we can easily talk about the weather, sports, or a movie.  But when it comes to subjects such as money, parenting, religion, and politics it is incredibly challenging.

Maybe we do not want to offend others, maybe we see our own inconsistency, maybe we are ashamed of our failures in the past, maybe we are unwilling to change, or maybe there is a lack of knowledge because no one else has been willing to talk about it.

One of the things that I love about the bible is that it does not shy away from anything.  The most significant and challenging topics are addressed with incredible wisdom.  People may think that the bible is a relic from the past or is simply held on to due to some tradition or a sense of guilt, but I find that as people read the bible they find it to be incredibly helpful.  One of the overarching themes of the bible is generosity, which is rooted in God’s own character and meant to be expressed in the lives of his people.  We’ll spend about four weeks looking at the bible’s teaching on giving: The Big Picture on Money, Perspective on Giving, Practice of Giving, Promises and Problems of Giving.

Before we outline the “big picture,” some of you will be curious why I’m talking about money.  I have a couple of reasons:
-The bible talks about money quite a bit and I try to talk about the subjects the bible talks about
-People think about money a lot (whether worrying, envying, working etc.) and I try to help people with their lives
-I have a running list of “things to teach about” and this is on the list
-Each fall is when I work more concertedly on Fundraising for the following year so it is on my mind as well
-In my reading about church plant survivability (i.e. not all new churches make it) a new church increases its odds of survivability by over 178% if it has a stewardship development plan in place so there is a clear path towards financial self-sufficiency.

So, here are three pieces of the Big Picture on Money and Possessions…
-Wealth is not an indicator of “spirituality.”  In the bible some people who love God are poor and others are rich.  Some of the “wicked” are also poor and rich.

-Wealth does not last.  The above painting by Rembrandt portrays a scene from Jesus’ parable in which a rich man has accumulated great possessions and is caught up thinking of them, unaware that he will die that very night.  Each of us is responsible for how we manage whatever resources are entrusted to us.

-The bible not only talks about giving but work, saving, debt, planning, spending, enjoyment, management, inheritance, and investments.  Gaining a biblical perspective on giving is one part of a much larger whole.

-The bible is realistic about both the temptations of money and the wonderful things that can be done with it.

I realize this is brief but as I was looking at resources came across this chart which has an excellent selection from various parts of the bible.  Rather than reading what I write, go to the primary source.

For a few thoughts on money itself.  money itself –

helpful workbook (that is much cheeper than other materials).  freed up financial living –

Financial Peace University – has been a great help to many.


Dedication – Leading in Prayer #7

arrowThis is the last in a series of entries on leading the church in prayer.  The last prayer of our services is the one following our celebration of communion (see here for context).  This prayer has been referred to as a prayer of dedication, which I find appropriate.  These thoughts draw on Leading in Prayer by Hughs Holiphat Old, which I’ve mentioned before.  Old, particularly draws on the Hallel Psalms (113-118)  traditionally used in the celebration of Passover, the Didache (one of the earliest post-apostolic documents available, which has a section on leading a communion service), and John Calvin.   Here are five themes, which have significant points of overlap but are worth addressing particularly…

1.  Response:  “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19) summarizes a recurring theme in the scriptures.  As we have just experienced the love of God in communion it is appropriate to respond with praise and thanks which reflects our love.  There are so many angels and avenues for rejoicing in God’s great love for us:

Psalm 116 What shall I render to the LORD for all his benefits to me?  I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD.  Psalm 118

Psalm 118 Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”  Let the house of Aaron say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”  Let those who fear the LORD say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me free.  The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?

2. Longing:  When we celebrate communion we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 10).  As Jesus instituted this sacrament he said to his disciples, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”  As Christians we are meant to long for God himself as well as the renewal of all things.  Communion, in a unique way, points forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19) such that expressions of Christian hope and expectation should pervade our prayers.  This is a great time to enlarge the vision of God’s people as to the incomparable worth of the glory that will be revealed to us.  What will it mean to see God face to face?  What will it be to have him wipe all tears from our faces and banish evil from this world?  What will it mean to be perfected in holiness?

3.  Dedicating ourselves: In response to God’s love we renew our commitment to him.  This can draw specifically on themes from the sermon or take a more general approach.  John Calvin in the Genevan Psalter prays…

“…Now, also, grant us grace, that we may need be unmindful of these things [Christ’s death for us]; but rather carrying them about engraven upon our hearts, may advance and grow in that faith that is effectual unto every good work.  Thus, may the rest of our lives be ordered and followed out to thy glory and the edification of our neighbors;”

4. Dedicating our church: In the Didache the minister prays for the gathering and perfecting of the church as part of the communion prayers.  This is an amplification of our individual prayers of dedication and alludes to to praying for our mission.  It is not enough for individual Christians to grow, as it is the whole body that is meant to grow in maturity and love (Eph 4).  Again there are general categories for praying for the church (apostolicity, sanctity, unity) and more specific requests based on the life and events of the congregation.  At this point it is worthwhile to pray for the church as a whole in Worcester and throughout the world.  Communion is a reminder of our union with Christ and his people across both space and time.

5.  Dedicating our mission:  In communion we celebrate Jesus’ sacrificial death for his enemies and should remember the great cause of proclaiming this good news in the world.  This ties into our individual and corporate prayers of dedication and our longing for the world to come.  Waiting for Christ’s return is not characterized by passive disengagement but active pursuit of his great cause in this world.  Thus we should pray for the conversion of the lost both locally and throughout the earth.  We should pray for the extension of God’s mercy in good deeds which proclaim his love and point towards his good reign.  Specifically we should pray for God’s increasing influence in our city and region, helping people to imagine what that might be.  Here are some of the specifics that come to mind…

Instead of money or power being the source of meaning and hope people know God’s grace in Jesus so that the wealthy are radically generous with their resources, those with political and institutional power share their influence for the betterment of the city and the inclusion of those on the outside.  Those struggling economically no longer envy or despise the wealthy, have a great sense of worth due to God’s love for them, and feel hopeful about the future since God is for them.

Rather than the usual tensions of town and gown there is mutual appreciation and collaboration with selfless investment in the good of the other.  College students are not simply a commodity which we use for city’s economic vitality.  Neither is Worcester a “scary place except for my campus.”  How can the city work to enrich the life of college students, regardless of whether they stick around after graduation as an expression of God’s hospitality?  As an expression of God’s commitment to the unlovely, students can stick around when they might have an opportunity in a more attractive place.

In contrast to the normal practice of burnout and fatigue the leaders and workers of the many service agencies and non-profits would be sustained in their service to the needy by a sense of God’s calling and increased success.  Hope would overshadow disillusionment and cooperation the need to build one’s own agency and reputation.  With long term leaders and workers more effective and lasting service in the city would improve the quality of life for many on the margins.

Photo Credit: liquidnight via Compfight cc


Not “if,” but “where” – church membership

4579243797_183432f005You are a professional football player, but you are not signed by a team.  Waiting in free agency, no one picks you up.
You complete medical school, but do not take boards or receive a license from the state.

In both of these situations your professional status is murky.  There is training and skill, but no actual connection to or acknowledgement by the governing body of your profession.

I put these two scenarios forward as I think about church membership.  Every analogy breaks down in some respects but these two examples help push back against a highly individualized approach to Christian spirituality that comes so easily.  This is a brief overview that I’m going to use as part of our membership process at Grace.  I’d encourage you to read a wonderfully written and more thorough treatment “Re-membering the Body.

What is church membership?  Church membership then is a formalization of a relationship between a church and an individual (or family) with certain privileges and obligations explicitly laid out or at least implied.

Biblical Rationale:*

The “church” is of incredible significance in the bible.  Jesus deliberately gathered followers around himself, connected them to each other,1 imparted his authority to them,2 and set the expectation that they would establish defined communities of faith as his representatives in this world.3  When the first Christians begin following Jesus in his mission they establish churches4 and then establish leaders in these communities of faith, giving them a distinct shape.5
Underlying the significance of the church is the Bible’s understanding of salvation in which someone with faith in Christ is united to him spiritually and thereby united to all those who also have faith in Christ.6

Three ways to argue for formal membership:

1.  Lists:  In the bible there are various references7 to names written in God’s book of life.  It is a way of describing those who belong to him and gives the concept of a membership roll.  There is a distinct list, as it were, of those who are God’s people.  I think it is an arguable corollary that churches should have some sense of who belongs to the people of God.  While this will not perfectly reflect the “heavenly list” we should try.  If the means of knowing who belongs is not some process of membership, what is it?  I think of the progress of the gospel recorded in Acts where new believers are “added to the number”8 (i.e. the church) lines up with the biblical concept of a defined membership.

2.  Leadership:  There are clear instructions to leaders to watch over those whom God has entrusted to their care9 and for all in the church to honor and follow their leaders10.  How is this possible without some defined sense of who the church is?  Furthermore, if there is to be any practice of discipline, as Jesus expects11 and the early church carries out12, this necessitates some type of membership which can, as a last resort, be rescinded.

3.  Love:  While Christians have a broad and far reaching command to love there is meant to be a particular focus on fellow Christians.13  Membership in an actual church gives further clarity to this command as Christians consider their responsibility to adequately fulfill their responsibilities to God and not pass them off to others14.

There is a compelling biblical rationale for church membership.  Practically though, there are many questions both practical and deeply personal…
-What if I don’t find a church that I “fit with” in my community?
-I’ve experienced church leaders misusing their authority, isn’t church membership a veiled attempt to control people?
-I have faith in Jesus.  My name is written in his book of life and I belong to his universal church.  How can some person corroborate this reality?  Why do I need him or her to do so?

*These arguments draw on the article from the article by Henegar as well as writings from Rev. Preston Graham, Dr. TD Gordon and a pronouncement from our denomination the Presbyterian Church in America.

1. Matthew 10:1-5
2. Matthew 16:19
3.  Matthew 28:18-20
4. Acts 5, 8, 9, 13ff
5. Acts 13:  1 Timothy 2:
6. 1 Cor 12:27, 1 Peter 2:4-10
7. Exodus 32:32-33; Daniel 12:1; Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Revelation 13:8; 20:12,15
8. Acts 2:41,47; 6:7;
9. 1 Peter 5:2
10. Heb 13: 7, 17
11. Mat 18:15-18
12. 1 Cor 5:2 and 2 Cor 2:6-7
13. John 13:35, Gal 6:10
14. Gal 6:2,5 1 Tim 5:9

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Reliability

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There are a variety of questions about the internal consistency of the bible, that is, how well its constituent parts fit together.  Then there are the questions that arise from comparing the bible with other historical sources, be they archaeological or the records of other historians.  This past Sunday I was preaching through Acts 12, a portion of which describes the death of Herod Agrippa:

And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there.
Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.

Now the following account from Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century:

Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Cesarea, which was formerly called Strato’s Tower; and there he exhibited shows in honor of Caesar, upon his being informed that there was a certain festival celebrated to make vows for his safety. At which festival a great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons, and such as were of dignity through his province. On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, “I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.” When he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad every where, that he would certainly die in a little time. But the multitude presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king’s recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself forbear weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign… (Antiquities XIX.8.2).

The points of overlap in terms of place (Cesarea), setting (public ceremony), response (divine praise), and consequence (death) are significant.  Furthermore I think the differences actually fit together rather well and will point out a few:

-The Portrait of Herod:  Josephus and other Jewish writers tend to portray Herod in a positive light while the bible does not.  This is primarily due to the widening rift between Judaism and Christianity as something distinct from its Jewish roots.  It would make sense for someone favorably disposed towards Judaism and doing his best to maintain order in a delicate and complex part of the Roman Empire to take action against this “sect” developing within Judaism that seems to challenge central Jewish teachings about God, the Messiah, the hopes of Israel, national identity, ethical purity, and the place of gentiles.

-Oration: There is no speech mentioned in Josephus’ account.  However when political figures are introduced, especially on such a public occasion, they are rarely silent.  While Josephus highlights Agrippa’s appearance, which is also recorded in Acts, this does not preclude Herod giving some sort of speech as would seem appropriate for this occasion.

-Angel: Josephus also indicate that Herod’s death is divine punishment for his acceptance of such flattery “…Providence thus reproves the lying worlds you just now said to me…”.  Angels were commonly understood as God’s servants fulfilling his purposes in this world, either directly or through secondary means (ie. worms).

-Worms:  In the ancient world many people carried parasites due to what we would describe as unsanitary food storage and preparation.  With sufficient time intestinal parasites could multiply and grow to the point of forming blockages in the intestines which would be incredibly painful and in some instances lead to death.  Acts describes Herod as being eaten by worms and this accurately matches the manner of death we see Josephus describing.

-The delay in death:  In the account from Acts it seems like an angel simply appears, strikes Herod, and he dies immediately.  I think immediately refers to the quick response of God’s judgment, which directly follows Herod’s assumption of divine status.  The rest of the verse describes his death attributing it to divine judgment but not necessarily giving a time frame.  A contemporary example would be if someone was shot in gang related violence, remained on the edge of death in the intensive care unit for five days, but ultimately dies of his gunshot wounds.  We would accurately describe this person as “shot to death” and could even refer to that moment five days ago when the gun was fired to when he was killed.  Again, these two accounts seem to corroborate each other.

This brief jump into history should prompt us to look at the bible with a greater sense of it’s historical reliability.  What such a jump into history also does is raise complex questions about who God is.  If this is merely an ancient fable or some religious lesson detached from this world then we don’t have to take it very seriously.  If however there really is a God, who objects to us pretending to be more than we are, we must pause.  Why would God strike back at Herod in this way?  Once we have my sermons uploaded to our website you can listen to the one on Acts 12, or simply fast forward to the last third where I discuss this specific question.

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The Shape of our Worship

4484801596_1c1fe31d8cOur worship services would be described as “liturgical” that is having a regular shape, set parts that occur each week, and some sense of formality.  In fact the word “liturgy” actually describes what happens when Christians gather publicly to honor God in praise, prayer, instruction and commitment.  A liturgy can be very simple, just a few songs and a brief message from the bible, or very complex. I’ve written before about the general priorities and shape of our worship, and want to talk more specifically about why our worship service is shaped the way it is with specific elements, their content, and their arrangement.  For reference, check out Grace Presbyterian Bulletin Aug 24 (Even having a printed bulletin, rather than projecting words or lyrics on a screen is a choice.) Below is our rationale for the shape of our worship* 1.  The medium effects the message:  You have to choose a medium.  How does the minister dress?  You have to wear something and your appearance speaks.  The architecture of the building, the decorations (or lack thereof), the type and placement of seating – they all communicate something.  How you shape your worship must be thought through from the big stuff to the little. 2.  The elements and the order:  each week we have a call to worship, songs of praise, some type of confession of sin, a declaration of forgiveness, an offering where people give money, a sermon, and communion.  These are all included because they reflect biblical emphases of worship.  When we worship God he is the one who initiates the relationship and so in some way we want to reflect that he calls him near.  When we worship God we realize that he is God and we are not so we confess our sins.  The above elements reflect the essential features of the Christian life. 3.  History:  From as early as the second century there were specific arrangements of worship services to reflect what the church considered essential in its meetings (word and sacraments).  From a historical perspective there is a rich tradition of the elements of praise, confession, offering, scripture reading, prayer, preaching and sacraments which were a regular part of worship services.  While we should not be unnecessarily ruled by tradition we should learn from centuries of church history, especially when many of these practices are rooted in scripture. 4.  Cementing: Our patterns of call to worship, praise, confession, forgiveness, parching, offering, and communion retell the Gospel every week.  This can be done in a free flowing service that includes five songs, sermon, a song, an offering and then dismissal.  The reason we have these patterns so clearly laid out is so that people will take notice and be shaped by them.  If we always include a confession to sin in response to God’s greatness and majesty this should work its way into the hearts of our people.   Having an actual bulletin allows someone to take the worship service home with them and use it to read and pray through the week.  In our family we use old bulletins to sing together and I know newer Christians who use them to get “used to” worship. 5.  The Word of God:  Having different elements like a call to worship, declaration of forgiveness, or scripture reading provide avenues for interacting with more of the bible.  In a given service we will work through a page or two of scripture texts in addition to the passage being covered in the sermon and this is incredibly important because of the declining biblical literacy in the church. 6.  Involvement & Accessibility: In our bulletin we have responsive readings so that there is greater involvement from the congregation.  It is not simply someone up front talking or leading in song.  Every single person participates and by participating learns.  Furthermore, our “liturgical” format is more familiar to many in our region who have Catholicism in their background.  This is one of the ways that we can build bridges with those potentially visiting the church and even having a physical bulletin (which tells them what we’re going to do) is an effort to make church less intimidating.  I realize that for some people being handed a twelve page pamphlet full of writing, may be just the opposite and make them very uncomfortable but I don’t think that is the case for those we are striving to reach. Qualifications: -It is hard to change styles or get used to different things.  If you have been worshipping a certain way for years something else will feel strange, potentially inauthentic, or even like it’s “not worship.”  In all honesty, it takes six months or a year for a church to gel together in it’s worship and that is where our focus must be on offering our hearts to God and letting our emotions catch up. -Some of what I have described is logistically impossible for different churches.  Some may not have access to a reliable printer.  Others may have a congregation in which few can read.  For us, I think it would stress me out more to have a projector and a screen because technology seems to go wrong with me. -Knowing who you are and who you are called to reach is so important in shaping your worship service.  I believe that biblical principles for worship can be expressed in a variety of worship services and styles.  What we’re doing is a fit for us and flows from our convictions and my hope is that every church has a strong sense of clarity based on the scriptures and their unique mission as they consider how they will worship. *These thoughts have been significantly influenced through the churches where I have regularly worshiped over the past fifteen years and specifically draw from Christ Centered Worship by Bryan Chapel which has an excellent introduction laying out similar ideas. 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Tell Me About Your Standards or “Just under the surface”

Christ reigning – Westminster Abbey

 

Worcester has a significant Catholic population and often folks will ask me who or what a Presbyterian is. While there are many of ways to answer this question – and I’m still figuring out which is best – one of them has to do with the Westminster Standards.  This is a set of documents (a “Confession of Faith” and two catechisms) written in the 1640s in Westminster England. These seek to systematically summarize the major teachings of the bible and function, along with the Book of Church Order (BCO )* as the constitution of our denomination the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America).

What do these documents mean though in the daily life of the church? I can best liken them to submarines. Most people are aware of the presence of submarines only in times of celebration (4th of July, Naval ceremony, exploration, etc) or difficulty (warfare, rescue operations, oil spills) though in fact they are always active. How are our confessional standards like submarines?

The constitution comes out in times of celebration: 
1. Leadership: When a minister is being tested to make sure he knows his theology and can actually explain it to others the Westminster Standards play a significant role. Many being examined for ordination in the PCA memorize large portions the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) using it in both written and oral exams. Furthermore, those who would enter the ministry must explain any significant exceptions they take with the Standards and demonstrate a working knowledge of the BCO. Both the process and actual ordination service rely heavily on the PCA constitution. When new leaders are being trained within the congregation any who would be elected to office must engage with and abide by these standards.

2. Membership Classes & Reception: When people decide to become a member of our church this normally involves a weekend class going over the identity and mission of Grace Presbyterian Church. In this we will give a brief overview of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) as a whole, give reading that addresses some particular areas, and provide a copy as part of the membership packet. While we have pieces of this membership teaching put together, other parts still need to be written. Like many things at a new church, this is in process.

3. New Churches: When new churches are first initiated and then eventually formalized both the process and “ceremonies” draw on these founding documents. In the special service where a church is formalized this is highly visible, but in the essential steps beforehand it is just as essential though less seen.

The constitution comes out in times of difficulty:

1. Enduring Truth: Like the world of fashion, there are always doctrines that seem more in style and others which don’t seem to fit the times. The purpose of having established beliefs is to protect the church from simply being a weather-vein always mirroring the winds of the current consensus. There are new insights which emerge from, build upon, and actually enrich our understanding of previously held truths and our historic confessions help us sort out what are healthy developments which need to be embraced and which are dangerous winds which must be resisted.

2. Guidance: Most, if not all, public buildings have emergency exits marked and warnings not to take the elevator in case of fire. These signs, and the planning underneath, help us navigate the unexpected and potentially tragic. In a similar vein both the WCF and BCO give frameworks and specific processes should something go terribly wrong. The church, like every human institution, has its flaws and is made up of sinful people. If a minister cheats on his wife, a treasurer runs off with money, a member is defrauding her employer or a church disputes with the denomination, these need to be dealt with and it is better to have a framework in place than figure it out in the moment. Our constitution gives us this framework, springing into action in time of difficulty.

The constitution is active all the time:

1. A Grid: If you study something enough, incorporating signification portions to memory, it becomes part of the grid in which you think. Like the boundaries of a football field the Westminster Standards help you think as you study and communicate the biblical materials by excluding certain possibilities and suggesting others. In a challenging passage where God’s power appears to be limited historic reflection on the nature of God and his attributes will offer excellent guidance. This grid will filter out in the way the bible is taught so that often when people read the Westminster Standards for the first time, they will mostly say, “yeah, of course.”

2. Practice: The way that we worship, our observance of the sacraments, the structure of leadership all specifically reflect the beliefs laid out in our doctrinal standards. Each week that we do something I will not explicitly say, “we are doing this because…” and if I do give an explanatory remark I usually reference the bible. The scriptures have greater weight than the human documents which summarize them and I’d rather have people begin there in their understanding then eventually see how the bible’s teaching is encapsulated in our standards than the other way around.

3. Surfacing: My guess is that if you’re on the ocean enough you will see a submarine surface. The same thing will happen with our doctrinal standards if you stick around and keep your eyes open. In the bulletin some Sunday when there is silence during a portion of communion there will be a few sentences from the WSC to help us reflect on the nature of communion. At some point when we have formalized Christian education for kids teaching and memorizing some type of catechism will be a part of it. When there is adult Christian Education, at some point down the road, I’m sure we’ll cover portions of the WCF. As a newly begun church there are all sorts of things that I would love to teach to our congregation. So there is always the matter of time and prioritizing.

*The BCO was written in the early 1970s with the founding of the PCA and is updated most years at the annual denominational gathering called “General Assembly.”  While written in the 70’s the BCO draws on historic documents and practices dating to the time of the Westminster Assembly and earlier.

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The Body and the Blood – Leading in Prayer #6

 

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 Each week at Grace we participate in the Lord’s Super.  (This sacrament is also know as Communion or Eucharist and I will use “Communion” because it’s the shortest.)  There are two prayers which are connected to the celebration of communion, both of which have different emphases.  This week we’ll tackle the prayer before the sacrament.  

As I’ve said before prayer reflects theology so what I’m praying reflects my belief in Christ’s real presence (also called “spiritual presence”) in Communion.  So I do not pray that the bread and wine before us will somehow be transformed into the body and blood of Christ.  Neither do I simply pray for a more accurate or enlightened memory of Christ’s death on our behalf.  Both of these prayers flow from different theologies of communion (Catholic & Zwinglian) whereas I would look to the tradition as articulated in this short quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith (doctrinal standards for the Presbyterian Church in America, PCA, my denomination)  

Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace. They were directly instituted by God to represent Christ and his benefits and to confirm our relationship to him. They are also intended to make a visible distinction between those who belong to the church and the rest of the world, and solemnly to bind Christians to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.

Five Pieces to Praying Before Communion

1.  Rescue:  In Communion we remember that “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring you to God” – 1 Peter 3.  We also remember that Jesus is risen and reigns at God’s right hand.  There is so much that God has done for us in sending his son to rescue us through his life, death, and resurrection.  I call to mind some of these benefits and thank God for all that he has done for his people.   

2.  Embodied:  In communion we experience our salvation communicated to our physical senses in the bread and wine.  I thank God that he is both creator and rescuer and that these two roles are not at odds.  Salvation does not take us out of the world God has made, but comes into our physical reality, even promising restoration of the created order.  I think about all that has gone into the bread and wine before us: sun, rain, soil, cultivation, harvest, and processing.  God nurtures our souls, not only with created things but with products of human culture.  It is not water and seeds but bread and wine.  Sadly there is usually not time to pray through all of this. 

3. Consecrate:  I ask God to set apart this regular bread and wine to his holy purpose.  Much of what has been prayed thus far could fit with praying before a meal (i.e. thanking God for his rescue, being Lord of all).  Yet at this point, I ask for the secret power of Holy Spirit so that as we speak the words of institution and administer communion according to Christ’s command he would be present.  This request flows from my theology in which sacraments are not merely symbols for something, but in some sense confer that which is symbolized.  This is where the mystery comes in, but even if I do not fully understand how this works I can still ask for, and even expect, God to do it.  So I thank him for once again pledging his love to us and renewing his promises to us. 

4. Faith:  I ask God to give us faith so that we do not mechanically participate in some ritual.  Instead, as we eat and drink, we believe again all that Jesus has done for us and actively rest our souls upon him.  I pray that that as we participate by faith our souls would be nourished and we would grow in grace.   

5. Affection:  In anticipation of receiving God’s grace through this sacrament I express our love for God and joy in him.  As God says, “I love you” and we see the great cost, it is right to say, “we love you” in response.  

The shape of these prayers arises from practice, reading, and reflection over the past ten years:
Memorial Presbyterian Church – the first congregation where I experienced the practice of weekly communion and learned so much.  
Given for You – I read this in seminary and it was foundational for shaping my theology of communion.
Leading in Prayer – mentioned already in this series, a summary of church practice through the years with contemporary examples.  
Ordination – in studying for ordination in my denomination (PCA) I memorized the Westminster Shorter Catechism which has some brief but deep sentences about the meaning and practice of communion.  Also since being ordained in 2008 I’ve helped lead communion services about every other week.  

Photo Credit: Efrafan Days via Compfight cc

  


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