On Law and Liberty

Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. Romans 15:1-2

We walk according to the law of liberty as James calls it (James 1:23). The word of God has set reasonable guidelines for behavior in which we can live robust lives.

On the perimeter are gray areas that require circumspection. The question is how will my activity be viewed by others in and outside the faith, particularly weaker brothers or sisters?

There are times when what you might do is not prohibited but you do not want to risk even the appearance of evil. Other times, like Jesus dining with tax collectors, what is done is strategic to furthering the gospel, for edification (Matt. 9:10).

I always think of Paul purifying himself and underwriting the expenses of four Jews so that they might take their vows (Acts 21:23). His goal was unification using an act that did not conflict with his already clearly communicated gospel message. In this way he was all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:22).

On close inspection, Paul demonstrated to others that symbolism, ceremony and vows can still have a place in one’s religion, if they are not thought of as pathways to salvation.

The Spirit of God helps us sort all this out.

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On Weaker Sisters…

4580847B-7BB5-4FF1-B87F-8063B0A8AC29Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. Romans 14:20-21

 

Here’s a good role model for your young daughter or granddaughter. Champion of the world. Doing what all do when you reach the pinnacle of life. You sit on the floor and get drunk.

This is expected these days and obviously aided and abetted by the team. One problem though, this player (Julie Ertz, along with her Super Bowl winning husband Zack) associates with Christianity, and now adds yet another possible example of the hypocrisy of our faith.

Now the Bible absolutely does not prohibit imbibing in alcoholic beverages, but it does command against getting drunk. Worse though is the impact of apparent “wanton” behavior on the consciences of weaker believers. In no way does downing a bottle of champagne alter one’s eternal destiny once faith in Christ is sealed, but it may derail a weaker brother, or sister in this case, on a path to saving faith.

What might be perfectly fine in private can become devastating to our testimonies in public, and with social media, if we regard pleasing God as important, we must be doubly careful if a red light is showing on someone’s iPhone.

Christian dads and moms of young soccer-playing girls, don’t rely on sports figures to inspire your kids to higher heights. You may be extremely disappointed.

This dad is.

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Don’t Forget Your Coat

But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts. Romans 13:14

Here are two approaches to battling fleshly lusts. The first is Paul’s.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. Gal. 5:16

Being a pragmatist, he says, “Hey look, walk in the Spirit and you’ll not have to contend with them.” It’s that simple! We can’t do both—walk in the Spirit and in the lusts of our flesh—at the same time.

“Fleshly” Peter promotes proactivity, because he knows who’s lurking around the corner, i.e. the roaring lion. (1 Peter 5:8)

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. 1 Peter 2:11

Truth is, we must do both.

Paul’s admonition in the preceding verses (vv. 12-13) involves “laying aside” the deeds of darkness and “putting on” the armor of God, implying action and effort on our part. There is a concerted effort necessary to resist—stand firm against—sin, but it’s empowered and equipped by the Spirit of God.

So, we go out to brave the cold but we don’t leave the house without our coats.

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Tell Tale Sign

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Ephesians 4:29 (NASB)

There’s an old song that goes something like this: “They will know we are Christians, by our love, by our love, they will know we are Christians by our love.”

I’d say it’s more like they’ll know we are Christians by the meticulous choice of words we use, and by the words we choose not to use.

A believer controlled by the Spirit is constantly aware of the power of words. Following the instructions in this verse, every word is voted on before it leaves the gate. The deciding factors are always whether it’s the truth, it’s good (not “rotten” as the Greek indicates), it will edify, it’s needful for the moment, and it will dispense grace to those who hear. This may seem a painstaking process, but not for the Spirit who is able to make these decisions on the fly.

The very first sign of the Spirit’s control of a person is the tongue. What was loose and profane—wild—becomes obviously tame, civil and gracious. I’ve seen this time and again, and it’s nothing short of miraculous for those previously known for their salty language and caustic tone.

But if one professes to be a Christian and his or her speech does not show any signs of such control, it forces fellow believers to wonder and question about the authenticity of that person’s faith. Certainly the body of Christ is not benefiting from what that person says. Worse though, the world sees nothing different in a person proclaiming to be a Christian, and the foundation of his or her testimony, and ours for that matter, has been lost.

May it never be, as Paul was prone to say, that the world will rule out the possibility that our random acts of kindness are motivated by Christ when we open our mouths.

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I Owe You One

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. Romans 13:8

This verse was not written by or for Dave Ramsey. The Bible does not prohibit acts of borrowing and lending (Matthew 5:4).  If such was the case, we’d all be living under an overpass.

Think of this saying, “I owe you an apology.” You shouldn’t! The Bible teaches the concept of “keeping short accounts.” If you practice this, the sun doesn’t go down before you make things right. Sincerely saying “I’m sorry, I was wrong,” discharges one’s debt to another and expresses love tangibly.

This practice is not confined to the church. It involves “anyone.” We Americans tend to get in “each other’s faces” to express our disfavor or disapproval. Witness a typical Twitter thread. In God’s economy, we keep “the law” by the now surprising act of showing love to everyone.

Practically, this can be done with compliments, a Facebook “like,” sympathy expressed, a door held, an honest inquiry, a pat on the back, forfeiture of your place in line, a thumbs up, or simply a smile.

I’ve made it a practice of asking God to bless a person I see in passing who might be struggling or pained. Jesus walked the earth dispensing love. So should we.

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Can’t Fight City Hall

God’s instructions are counter-intuitive. You’d think he’d call for us to resist immoral and evil leaders, but he doesn’t. Instead he calls us to subject ourselves to them in obedience. It’s very hard to do this when you know they’re on the wrong track, or morally corrupt.

But you can’t be a conscientious objector and expect a cakewalk with authorities. They don’t carry swords as fashion statements, but to wield them to force compliance.

As Jesus taught, our response should involuntarily be to pay taxes to whom they are due, despite unfairness. Paul seconds the motion.

“Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” Romans 13:7

It’s not a bad policy, really. Paul wanted us to fly below the radar in order to increase our effectiveness and influence where and when it counts. Marching against city hall gets us nowhere in influencing others to follow Jesus.

“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.” 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

The problem is, it’s easy to lay low in some corners of the globe (back here in the USA), but most Christians live in constant fear of incrimination and physical harm and even death from authorities around the world. Paul, for example, was reading the press clippings of a guy named Nero.

So here’s the bottomline. For many of us, we are repulsed by actions of government that are diametrically oppose God’s laws. It boils down to this in the final analysis. Unless you’re forced to reject a clear directive from the Lord, i.e. God’s word, you comply, but if forced to break one of God’s immutable laws, you resist unto death.

If backed into a corner, like many others before us, we may expose ourselves to an unsheathed sword. It’s then upon God’s mercy that we throw ourselves.

One additional note of commentary. If the king requests your presence to honor you, not him, why would you refuse the invitation?

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Square Pegs, Round Holes

Modern “megachurches” are normally led by a powerful pastor aided by a huge staff. His power is vested by the people, the majority of whom recognize a collection of spiritual gifts in their leader suitable for pastoring, and consider him “called.” But no one seems effective in these environments without being a bit of a rock star.

There’s no hiding the fact that these organizations need to be run like businesses to survive because of size and budget. On the other hand, expectations of parishioners are very high. It’s  typically then, “my way or the highway,” when setting the pace as a church CEO. Yes, there are corporate votes cast all the time, but no one ever stands up and gives a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” speech. The “ayes” always have it.

As a congregation, if you don’t particularly like something promoted by leadership, all you can really do is vote with your feet, but the majority commendably settle for the “necessary evils,” loving the brethren more.  In the end, it may seem that the best you can hope for in a “senior pastor” is a benevolent dictator who rules with a velvet hammer. But you pray for a man of God to rule in subjection to the Spirit of God. Blessed is the megachurch with such a man calling the plays.

Practically, the challenge with so many members is to mobilize the varieties of gifts in the body, not pay the power bill.  The problem is that once your pastor and staff are set, what do you do with those in the congregation who possess pastor-like gifts? Not all are gifted with what Paul calls “helps.” In an elder-led church that problem is potentially solved. In theory, men with discernment and wisdom who are godly and irreproachable should rise like cream to the top. But the leadership of a “megachurch” can hardly afford anyone “off the page.” Undoubtedly, those with pastor-like gifts will not be best used keeping the nursery or spreading mulch. They won’t complain about it, but they may be shelving their giftedness to teach and offer wise advice and counsel.

Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Romans 12:16-18

Somehow, the smart leader of thousands and controller of millions needs to seek out and tap men who’ve mastered the art of “not thinking more highly of themselves than they ought to think,” who are not wise in their “own estimation,” and who manage to remain “at peace with all men.” And remember they’re not normally the rich donors or top executives who might have the capacity to stroke big checks!

Every megachurch should try this experiment. Fill up your committees with elder-qualified “humble” types rather than CPAs and CEOs and see if you suffer. Don’t give vocations a second thought. I think you’ll be surprised with the results.

The writer attends a Bible-teaching megachurch north of Tampa known for its extraordinary work ethic in spreading the gospel and meeting the spiritual and physical needs of its city. Its pastor is beloved by all, having filled the pulpit for 30 years. The church has more than 20 pastors on staff and a congregation in excess of 10,000.

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