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Sharing in Humility   Leave a comment

A friend of mine tells a story from when he was in high school. He was traveling with his father, a cop, on a commuter airline when a hijacker pulled a gun and demanded to be taken to Cuba (that was a thing in the 1970s.) Mark and his father were considering what they could do about this idiot when the stewardess talked him into allowing her to calm the passengers by plying them with alcohol. The hijacker agreed. Convinced that she was on his side, he turned his back on her and Mark watched as the stewardess turned from pouring wine into a passenger’s glass, kicked her shoes off, stepped up onto the edge of a seat and broke the bottle across the back of the hijacker’s head. Bleeding and dazed, he was pretty compliant as Mark and his dad disarmed and handcuffed him so he couldn’t cause anymore trouble. The news tried to paint them as the heroes, but they were clear that the stewardess who barely came up to Mark’s chin was the real hero.

Image result for image of humilitySometimes the most unlikely people use the most unusual means to protect and preserve others. I think that’s true of the preaching ministry of the local church. The ministry of preaching is conducted by unlikely people through an unusual means to protect and preserve God’s people.

Preaching Jesus Christ is one of the foundational tasks of the church. Few Christians will disagree that preaching is essential, offering up an internal “Amen,” followed immediately by a yawn will slip out, after which they tune out. Most of us don’t consider ourselves preachers, but the sobering reality is that God calls all of us to be preachers of Jesus Christ (see Romans 10:14).

In the opening chapter of 1Corinthians, Paul demonstrated that God deliberately chooses foolish and weak methods and messengers to shame those who are wise and strong. Then, Paul used himself as a prime example of foolishness and weakness.

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God. For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of powerso that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God.   1Corinthians 2:1-4

Paul began by reminding the Corinthians how he did NOT preach. Paul had not dazzled his listeners with his rhetorical or philosophical prowess. He had simply proclaimed the truth about God.

This was certainly unusual in 1st-century Corinth. In Paul’s day, Greek orators followed certain well-established conventions when they entered a city. Great crowds flocked to hear them because they spoke in the style of traditional Greek rhetoric—with extensive quotations, literary allusions, and a refined style that made them seem brilliant, witty, charming, and entertaining.

Image result for image of humilityPaul utterly rejected this approach to preaching, although he could have done it himself. As a well-educated rabbi, he knew Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. Trained at the feet of Gamaliel, he could hold his own in any argument. If Paul wanted to show off his intellect, he certainly knew how to do it. But he rejected that approach, instead proclaiming “the testimony of God.” The word “testimony” is a legal word that refers to something one presents in a court of law. Paul was conscious that God is a Judge. He was speaking in the presence of the Judge, presenting His witness (2 Timothy 4:1). He knew what the truth was and announced it boldly. Paul didn’t preach his testimony about God. Instead, he preached God’s testimony about God (“the testimony”). His message came from God, not himself.

For many today “proclaiming” is a bad word. They say, “Don’t preach to me!” Many preachers, afraid of being thought arrogant, avoid talking about preaching. They prefer to think of what they do as “sharing.” They’re making suggestions, offering their opinion. That’s arrogance. My opinions are no better than yours and, frankly, neither are my pastors or even Paul’s. My pastor is not and Paul wasn’t declaring their opinions.They were declaring God’s very words (see 1 Petet 4:11a).

Preaching isn’t just for pastors. You too can preach with authority to people in your life. I was a Sunday School teacher for about 15 years, leading a weekly Bible study for the church’s teenagers. I simply taught through books of the Bible with the goal of seeing those young people grow in Christ. Here in Fairbanks, there is a women’s Bible study during the lunch hour that people from all over town flock to. Whether we believe it or not, there are people who are looking for a man or woman to preach God’s Word with authority. For a while, Brad used to lead a Bible study in his truck at a construction site. You can preach wherever God has placed you to serve Him, if you’re willing to answer His call and proclaim His testimony.

In 2:2, Paul explained why he preached as he did: For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  The word translated “I decided” means Paul made a conscious choice to do things a certain way. He didn’t fall into it by chance or by force of habit. Paul preached as he did because he chose to do it that way. That same choice confronts every Christian messenger. It’s so easy to be sidetracked by good and worthwhile things. We can preach about social issues, the political debates of our day, the crisis in the Middle East, or the decline of the family. We can tackle Bible prophecy or we can major on predestination or the gifts of the Holy Spirit. There is a place for all those things, but that place is never at the center. For Paul the choice was clear: “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” He started there and that became the center of his preaching, every other truth could be arranged around it. But Jesus must be in the middle of all things and all other topics must be properly related to Him.

This verse cannot be taken absolutely, as if the only doctrine Paul taught on was the crucifixion, but refers to its centrality in his preaching. It is not enough for us to say that Jesus was a great moral teacher. He was, but the world largely believes that already. And it is not enough to say that He came down from heaven. Many already believe that. It’s not even enough to say that He was born of a virgin. We must go all the way and declare that God Himself came down to earth in the person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We must say that when He died on the cross, He paid the ultimate penalty to deliver us from our sins.

We live in an information saturated age where we can follow thousands of channels for secular information, but if you want to know how to be right with God, how to have your sins forgiven, and how to go to heaven, you need the message Paul preached:

Jesus Christ and Him crucified

Note that Paul used the perfect tense here for “crucified” (also 1Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 3:1), which suggests that his focus was not as much on the historical event of the cross but on its ongoing effect for those who believe in Jesus. This event provided us with personal justification, redemption, and sanctification (1:30). The death of Jesus Christ covers everything. Jesus is the one person that fixes everything!

To give people what they need sometimes means you must not give them what they want. Most parents learn this early on. When your daughter is sick she may want another cookie, but what she needs is the medicine the doctor prescribed. If you love her you’ll give her what she needs, not what she wants. The same is true as we speak to others about Christ. They may want to hear other things, but we must tell them about Jesus, for He alone can save them. We have to stay on topic.

Paul used his own personal example again. “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of powerso that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God.” Paul did not come to Corinth with any degree of self-confidence, but “in weakness and in fear and with much trembling.”

Corinth was a hard city for a minister. Paul’s reception there had discouraged him to the point that preaching was difficult. He responded to the local hostility in a totally human fashion, which I personally find encouraging. Like Paul, we live and serve in a difficult society. We want to serve Christ and speak up for Him but sometimes it can be downright scary. But God doesn’t give us the option to be silent. Even when we find ourselves tongue-tied or just plain forget what we were supposed to say, we must strive to proclaim the gospel.

Paul was all about the power of the Spirit. In 2:5, Paul explained that the power of God is the word of the cross (1:18). What a striking contrast—the wisdom of men versus the power of God! If you build on one, you cannot have the other. Paul’s concern throughout this passage is self-reliance. It’s not that he didn’t want us to preach to the best of our ability. He just didn’t want us to rely on our own gifts and strength.

To be foolish preachers for Christ, we 21st-century Christians need the following:

Pray for a prepared heart. Ask the Lord to supply you with opportunities to proclaim His Word. Pray for boldness to be willing to walk through an open door (Colossians 4:3). Pray that those you speak to will be receptive.

Meditate on Scripture. As you read God’s Word, ask the Lord to speak to you. Pray for insights into the text. Think about this Scripture continually. Let the Word sit, soak, and simmer in you. This will ensure that you are always prepared (1 Pet 3:15).

Listen to people. When we listen to people’s hurts we can learn a lot. Often the felt needs of people will well up sermons within us. God will actually bring a Scripture passage to mind that we can share.

Focus on the essentials. Don’t get lost in the minutia of theological details. Instead, focus on the testimony of God and Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Paul says that the power is in the gospel. Make sure that you keep the main thing the main thing.

Syncretism   Leave a comment

This is part of a series. Check it out.

A quick search for the word “contextualization” on Google brought up the word “syncretism”. I believe it is really important for Christians to be in the world, but not of the world, which means that we recognize our culture and are comfortable with the redeemable aspects of it, but we don’t accept culture’s corrosive influence as inevitable.

When it comes to issues of Christianity in a cultural context, Christians and churches we form must be careful to not fall off the fine line we walk. I’ve previously described what I believe to be perhaps the major issue plaguing American Christianity: obscurantism. Simply defined, that would be obscuring the gospel by emphasizing things that are actually external to the gospel as being central to it. The clothes we wear, the way we cut our hair, the food we drink and our political party are examples where we sometimes confuse culture and Christianity. While it is fine for the Amish to choose to live in insular communities that they feel protect their faith, it would be unBiblical for them to insist that all Christians do so, because what they are really protecting is their culture, of which faith is an integral part. The Amish actually do a very good job of setting rules for their own groups that they don’t expect the world to follow. Read Amish Grace if you want a further discussion of this.

However, some American “Christian” groups believe that they speak for God and that God has placed them into the world to force all Americans to look and act like their group. The end result is a false gospel that becomes a stumbling block to those Christians and our churches are trying to reach the world around us.

When we’re obeying the Great Commission, we want to make sure that we’re preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and not the concepts of Western culture. Missionaries certainly got that confused in the past and even today on the foreign fields, but we also get it confused in working with our neighbors. Although I personally consider tattooing to be a form of self-mutilation, I don’t think God cares and I need to separate my personal dislike from the gospel message. I have to be clear about my evangelism … for the gospel’s sake.

I’ve spent some time discussing this with regards to the early church — that Peter and Paul both set aside Judaic forms of worship in order to reach a Gentile world for Christ and Paul spent considerable effort in explaining to his disciples the difference between the gospel and the law of Moses.

If delivering the gospel in a cultural context is somewhat of a tight rope act, obscurantism might represent falling to the right side of the rope, but syncretism is an equal danger waiting on the left side.

Syncretism is the mixing of Christianity with something else such that they become a different gospel. We see this in cults around the world, most notably in Islam, but positive-thinking gospel, a nationalist emphasis, or emerging churches (mostly) are also examples. Syncretism happens more than we might know.

When anything is added to the message of the gospel, the uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ is compromised and another gospel can be created that is actually not the gospel. Yes, syncretism and obscurantism end up in the same place.

Syncretism can be most easily seen when two or more starkly contrasting religions are mixed. Around the world, examples are readily available where Christ has been preached in places with long and various religious traditions. In many cases, pieces and parts of the traditional religion will remain while Christ is added to the mix.

We recently had some South African Baptists at our church. Both grew up out in the townships. They explained that traditional religion among the indigenous people often included visiting witch doctors and other types of healers for physical healing and spiritual direction. New Christian believers often want to continue visiting the spiritual healers around them. Sonny and Patience recognize that visiting those who actively practice witchcraft for healing or spiritual direction dilutes dependency on Christ, changes the gospel, creates a mix of multiple gods, and thereby denies Christ His rightful place as the one and only Lord in the life of the believer. Those who would mix these practices, if not moving away from them, end up with a false, syncretistic gospel, not the gospel of Jesus.

Santeria is an example of syncretism that mixes African animistic religious practice with Christianity. The Bahai and various neopagan religions also draw from Judeo-Christian belief and mix it into various belief systems and theological structures to create something that is obviously not Biblical Christianity.

But why stop at obvious examples of cults when there are other syncretistic belief systems that hit far closer to home? Many seeker-sensitive churches, in an effort to reach the pragmatic Boomers, have become largely devoid of the gospel, exchanging it for practical positive thinking without gospel transformation. That’s synscretism.

I am NOT saying all Boomer or seeker churches are this way. I left the broad brush in the bucket, but there are churches that emphasize trying harder and being a better person over the gospel of grace. “Living a good life as a good person,” particularly under your own power, is not the gospel Jesus announced.

It is actually quite the opposite, and it has created a gospel that dilutes dependency on Christ and denies His lordship. That is syncretistic.

Likewise, some emerging churches have contextualized the gospel by softening difficult theological truths, which also changes the gospel, leading to syncretism.

Error awaits on either side. If you don’t care about contextualization, you end up obscuring the gospel and confusing it with culture. If you engage in contextualization too much, you end up losing the gospel by adopting pagan practices and even theologies. Both errors are dangerous as each leads to a false gospel. The difficulty is that when you are more afraid of one, which most churches are, you almost always fall into the other.

Each error is dangerous and fearing one more than the other often leads a church directly into the one that is less feared.

Some churches are so afraid of syncretism (they use the word “compromise” rather than the technical term) that they push back against any change from the tradition they’ve known. They define syncretism as changing musical styles, getting a tattoo or body piercing, or having different hair length.

Alternatively, there are those who are so upset with the established church that they run away from it and everything connected to it, including some parts of the gospel. They fear irrelevance to the point they bend and shape the gospel to fit nicely within the culture. In the process, the true gospel is lost and a syncretic version of it emerges.

The truly Christian challenge is charting the course down the middle. Context matters. A lot. So much so that we must work to avoid the pitfalls.

Would You Pay People to go to Church?   Leave a comment

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