...and that ye be renewed in the spirit of your mind (Ephesians 4:23).

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28 June 2010

BR: "After You Believe," by N.T. Wright

There has been a fundamental disconnect in the presentation of what Christianity is all about: obtaining salvation and the ultimate reward for the believer are often emphasized, while precious little has been reinforced regarding the Christian life that is to exist between those two events.

Part of this disconnect exists because of the fundamental unease that can be felt when it comes to talking about the life of the Christian. The Reformation premise of "faith only" salvation has to come to terms with the fact that the New Testament is replete with comment on how Christians must diligently strive toward holiness. The matter becomes more complicated when it comes to consequences of disobedience among Christians when so many in Protestantism believe in some variant of "once saved, always saved." This leads to a parting of the ways, with some returning to the New Testament way of speaking and making exhortations to obedience, willing to cast aside whatever qualms that they may feel regarding their theological claims, and others willing to remain theologically consistent and therefore declaring that God is the only or the most active Actor in the sanctification of the believer.

This disputation has existed ever since Augustine, let alone the Reformers, and it has taken on new urgency in our day. In the midst of all of this disputation, N.T. Wright has continued to further explicate his view of the Christian faith with After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.

The development of thought in After You Believe is heavily indebted to Wright's previous works, including the series on Christian Origins and the Question of God and especially his Surprised by Hope and Justification. Looking back to Jesus and His work in the first century, and looking forward to the redemption of creation and the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God in the resurrection and the new heavens and earth, Wright attempts to re-establish a Biblical view of the Christian life.

Wright establishes the conversation between two poles of thought: Christianity as a set of rules vs. Christianity as the "natural" and "authentic" intuitive life. He takes what is commendable from each and wraps it in a more commendable and coherent whole, focused on "virtue" and "character."

In short, After You Believe is N.T. Wright's attempt to justify a specifically Christian form of virtue that is to be developed and lived by those who are redeemed by Jesus and who are participating in His "fresh work" in the Kingdom (Wright loves everything "fresh"). He uses the recent efforts by Captain Sullenberger in the landing of the plane in the Hudson River as an example of virtue: being able to do exactly what is necessary because of proper training and understanding. The model of Aristotelian virtue is used throughout, with necessary and significant modification in its Christian form (which Wright takes to be the "ultimate" end of virtue, the reality of that which the pagan Greeks saw dimly, the ability to be truly human).

This view is commendable: it makes the best sense of what Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and others are attempting to inculcate in Christians in the New Testament. Wright explains the existence of rules and yet demonstrates how Christianity is not all about rules-- the rules are there, they are important boundary markers, bu this is not the same endeavor as the reviled and condemned Pharisees and lawyers. The goal is not to just follow the rules for rule-following's sake but instead to have developed the type of character where one is following the rules without having to be conscious of it. Wright does similar things with the other pole-- the goal of believers is to live authentically Christian lives, but that requires the development of a second nature, because what "feels natural" to the believer is likely of the world and really sinful. This fits perfectly with the picture of Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 5:17-24, and Hebrews 5:14, among other passages.

Wright shows how this virtue is both individual and communal and the importance of the body of Christ-- a functional church. He posits a circle of virtue, including Scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices-- all necessary for developing the virtuous Christian life. Much is made of the eschatological perspective set forth more fully in Surprised by Hope but explained a little in After You Believe, and Wright shows how this view of virtue and character, rooted in the idea of the "royal priesthood" of Exodus 19 and Christianized in 1 Peter 2, integrates with his eschatology. He also demonstrates how the problem of sin is more than just an issue of transgression but also a failure of being truly human-- sin dehumanizes and degrades, while righteousness leads to true humanity. He attempts to present a more Biblical view of the Christian life with as few transgressions of orthodox Protestantism as possible.

The book does pose some difficulties. His attempt to render arguments regarding the form of baptism as irrelevant is disappointing and all too Anglican. Wright remains wedded to the faith only position, and many of the challenges from which he attempts to extricate himself would not exist if the New Testament understanding of obedient faith were properly held. His explanation of 1 Corinthians 13 certainly sounds very wonderful and high, but I am not quite sold on love being the "perfect (neuter) thing" when it would properly be the "perfect (feminine) thing." His attempts to justify the continued existence of faith and hope after the resurrection continue to seem to run afoul of Romans 8:24-25.

Wright does not intend to provide all the answers or discuss all matters in this book, and there are many questions that will hopefully be addressed at some time. There are two particular matters that stick out to me.

First of all is this insistence of understanding the Christian life in terms of virtue as defined by Aristotle et al. I understand that Wright is trying to establish a larger conversation with both Christian theologians and virtue ethicists, but I am not sure about the wisdom of attempting to define what the New Testament is trying to teach in terms of the pagan virtue tradition. This is not an attempt to reject the substance of what Wright is saying about Christian virtue and character, but more a question of the best way of presenting what it is that the New Testament is teaching. As Wright himself establishes, arete, the Greek word used in such conversations about "virtue," is rare in the New Testament. Wright must constantly be "correcting" and clarifying the true view of virtue as opposed to what Aristotle and others were saying about "virtue."

As one who holds fairly strongly to the view that the best way to talk about what God teaches in the Bible is to use the Biblical descriptions, I look with suspicion on the enterprise as established. I have no doubt that if Paul wanted to explicitly contribute or re-direct the pagan virtue tradition discussion, he could have easily done so. Perhaps that is part of what he is doing in many of the passages that Wright notes, but it seems a bit too subtle. I am concerned that we enter dangerous territory when we attempt to use pagan Greek perspectives and try to Christianize them-- not a few false doctrines have begun and have been perpetuated because such was done. Instead I would be more interested in seeing how one could present a coherent explanation of the expected character development of the Christian in purely Biblical terms-- perhaps based on discipleship, or even the "royal priesthood" imagery that Wright cites.

The second matter involves the process of maturity. I again believe that Wright is mostly on the correct track when it comes to Christianity as involving the development of virtue/character. But this seems to be based, at least partly, in maturity, as Hebrews 5:14 would indicate:
But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
What shall we say, then, to those who are not yet mature, who are still working on training their powers of discernment? Wright speaks about the discomfort and the felt hypocrisy of trying to develop the proper "second nature," but I wonder if part of the reason for the "rules" in Christianity is to assist those who are younger in the faith in understanding what is and what is not to be done in order to help develop that character. This is consistent with how small children are trained-- we tell them what to do and not to do to make sure that their behavior is consistent with the values we are attempting to inculcate, and as they grow and develop, we explain the inner logic of those rules and hope that they become part of their character.

In short-- can we expect those who are spiritually small children to be able to properly develop the Christian character without early insistence on the "rules" as they are growing and developing in the faith? Paul manifestly recognizes that certain issues and matters will cause shipwreck of faith if they are introduced before the proper level of maturity is obtained (1 Corinthians 8)-- is this not true with the entire conversation about rules and character development? When the worldly character of people is carnal, an attempt to do whatever can be done without consequence, is there not a need to have some fixity in guidelines to provide proper direction until the proper spiritual perspective and character is developed?

These questions should not detract from the overall excellence of After You Believe. The book will provide many challenges to traditional Protestant and Evangelical theology; nevertheless, those who tend toward legalistic views will find little comfort. It is a book worth considering in (what should be) our attempt toward developing a better balance between legalism and antinomianism in the Christian life.

Ethan R. Longhenry
June 2010

The Prosperity Myth

Over the past few months we have seen one of the largest economic shakeups in American history. Large financial firms that everyone thought were "too big to fail" failed. Many others survived only by being bought out or through government takeovers. Investors have seen their holdings lose considerable value; no one really wants to open up their 401(k) statements anymore. In a matter of months, we have seen one of the most pervasive myths in American culture exposed: the myth of prosperity.

The myth of prosperity gained great traction from the period following World War II until the modern day. People put great faith into the stock market. Surely America learned its lesson from the Great Depression. Surely there would always be a "safe haven" for investment if matters got bad. People trusted that those involved in investments would act wisely and not engage in unacceptable risk. Then again, people trusted that their investment brokers knew what they were doing.

Yet, as we can clearly see now, there is no "sure thing" in money matters. This should not be some new lesson to Christians.

Charge them that are rich in this present world, that they be not highminded, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on the life which is life indeed (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
Riches are indeed "uncertain." Investments that took years to build up can vanish in a matter of weeks. Cherished plans for the future are dashed quickly when the money dries up. Steady incomes are reduced, yet expenses keep adding up.

It was easy to fall prey to the myth of prosperity. Yet even with this steep decline, far too many people in our society put their trust in money, or the government, or in the things that they can see and touch. They may have received setbacks, but now they just want to recoup their losses and perhaps gain in the next "boom."

Yet, as the Preacher says, all of this is vanity (Ecclesiastes 5:10-15). We came into this world with nothing, and we will take nothing from it (Job 1:21, 1 Timothy 6:7). All physical matter will one day be destroyed (2 Peter 3:9-12): when that day comes, what will be left to show for all the energy expended to accumulate wealth? What will people have left to show for their lives and their efforts?

As it is written,
"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also" (Matthew 6:19-21).

We should be working to gain spiritual wealth, not necessarily physical wealth. The myth of prosperity is not that people can become rich; the myth of prosperity is that people can depend on their riches. The only place where we can depend on our riches is in Heaven, and our spiritual riches cannot be added up with a calculator. Spiritual wealth involves the knowledge and practice of God's will-- not how much is in your bank account, but whether you gave to those who were in need from your bank account. Spiritual wealth has little to do with your investments in companies and materials, but has everything to do with your investment in people and relationships. On the final day, those who trusted in the uncertainty of riches will weep when all that they had and trusted perished. On the final day, those who trusted in God and the certainty of His riches of love, mercy, and compassion will rejoice with the Father and the Son and see the full impact of their love and devotion to others.

Many people today cry out and wonder why God has done this to them. While we do not know the workings of the Almighty, we can see that in many ways, we are only reaping what was sown: reckless behavior and a reliance on unsound foundations has now led to collapse. In the end, we have not truly lost anything that was originally ours, since everything we enjoy are blessings from God, and we were not born with them, and we cannot take them with us after we die. Whether this was from God or not, we ought to learn and teach spiritual lessons from it. There is a whole lot more to life than money. Real security can never be found in steady paychecks or investments. Making money is not to be man's ultimate pursuit (1 Timothy 6:7-10). We should always count the human cost to whatever we say or do. And, in the end, things are not that important. God, His love for man, and His expectations for man, are.
"For what shall a man be profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and forfeit his life? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his life?" (Matthew 16:26).

Jesus' question is not merely academic. Jesus asks regarding the ultimate outcome of the philosophy of the world: so what if you could even gain everything on the earth? Is it still worth your life? Everyone knows what the answer to the question when they are confronted with the reality, yet by their actions and thoughts they betray their devotion to the myth of prosperity and materialism. They keep working for that which does not satisfy, and devote themselves to things that ultimately cannot profit.

Let us not be seduced by these myths, and let us do all we can to show the way of Christ, where people are more important than things, love greater than money, and faith more than the illusion of stability. Let us place our trust in the only secure thing in life: God and His love as expressed through Jesus His Son. Let us hold fast to the reality of prosperity: the riches of God's grace that He freely pours out on those who believe in His Son (Ephesians 1:7-9). Let us be rich toward God, even if that means we are poor on earth!

Ethan R. Longhenry
January 2009

27 June 2010

God's Kingdom Endures

Those of us who live in the United States of America find ourselves in another election year. Significant problems also exist with our current economy, and there are many people who are quite nervous, anxious, and scared about the political and economic future of the country. These impulses are entirely understandable. But we who are Christians are called to a higher path (cf. Colossians 3:1-2).

Isaiah set forth to comfort Israel in difficult times in Isaiah 40:6-8:

The voice of one saying, "Cry." And one said, "What shall I cry?"
"All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, because the breath of the LORD bloweth upon it; surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand forever."
Humans and their endeavors are as grass. Israel was suffering under the yoke of Babylon, and it certainly seemed that Babylon and her gods were ascendant. Yet within a century their glory was gone, and another empire had taken over.

Proud Rome also seemed to be quite ascendant and indestructible, especially in the first century of our era. Yet in those days God established His Kingdom, as predicted in Daniel 2:44:

"And in the days of those kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall the sovereignty thereof be left to another people; but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever."

Four hundred years later, the power of Rome was humbled. Ever since, kingdom after kingdom has arisen, and all have likewise fallen or have been greatly humbled. No government of man will endure forever. Yet the Kingdom of God remains and spreads, whether a given government is favorably disposed toward it or not (Daniel 2:44, Philippians 3:20, Colossians 1:13, Revelation 1:6).

There are many viewpoints regarding the Christian and his relationship with the government. Many believe that they have no authority to vote whatsoever. Many have no desire to get involved in politics in any way, shape, or form. Many vote for whom they believe is the "lesser of two evils." Exactly whom that represents is itself a matter of disagreement.

It is imperative for us as Christians to remember in the charged political climate around us that we serve a higher cause and a greater King (Philippians 3:20-21, Matthew 28:18). We must be Christians first (Matthew 6:33; 10:37-39). Whatever happens to the United States of America is of much lesser importance than what happens with Kingdom of God (Matthew 28:18-20, Romans 1:16). Our primary citizenship is in Heaven, a Kingdom not of this world (Philippians 3:20, John 18:36).

Therefore, we must respect the fact that in political matters there is liberty, and there is no room for condemnation of others (Romans 14:10-14). Some choose not to vote; others choose one or another candidate, believing they represent the best hope for a "tranquil and quiet life" (cf. 1 Timothy 2:2): "let each be fully assured in his own mind" (Romans 14:5). The politics of the American government are not worth destroying him for whom Christ died (cf. Romans 14:15), and are not worthy of becoming a stumbling-block in the way of a brother (Romans 14:13).

Likewise, we must learn the force of Jesus' command:
"And be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28).
We often focus on the second part of Jesus' charge, but the first part is just as important: Jesus commands us to not be afraid of other people. Politicians know that the politics of fear often influence votes; doomsday scenarios are often presented in order to get you to vote fo a given candidate to make sure that such things do not happen. Yet, as Jesus says, why should we be afraid? What's the worst thing that "Islamic fundamentalists," "crazy Evangelicals," or "godless humanists" or whomever else can do to you? They can persecute you, torture you, and kill you-- giving you the opportunity to suffer for the Name, and to ensure your place with the saints in Heaven (Acts 5:41, 1 John 3:16). We ought to remember that the Kingdom began in the midst of an empire that was at best ambivalent and at worst hostile toward the faith, and yet it grew exponentially in those days! The growth came because the brethren did not fear Rome. We should likewise not be afraid. As long as we walk with God, there is nothing that man can do against us that has eternal consequences (Romans 8:31-39). If we are afraid, perhaps we have placed our own comfort and "security" as an idol between us and God, and if so, it needs to be removed (1 John 5:23)!

We have also seen significant economic collapses occurring recently. Untold amounts of money have been lost, and uncertainty reigns in the marketplace. Such simply reinforces the teachings of Jesus and Paul:

"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also" (Matthew 6:19-21).

Charge them that are rich in this present world, that they be not highminded, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on the life which is life indeed (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
Worldly riches are always uncertain, and therefore they do not represent a strong enough safety net upon which to rely. It is indeed wise and prudent for the Christian to save their resources and to be good stewards of God's blessings (1 Corinthians 4:1-2, Ephesians 4:28), but even then these resources are to be used as blessings for others and not merely hoarded (cf. Luke 12:16-21).

Americans are too used to "stuff" and defining themselves by their "stuff." Yet everything we possess is not really ours, for as we came into this world with nothing, we also leave with nothing (1 Timothy 6:7). Likewise, a day is coming upon which it will all be destroyed with fervent heat (2 Peter 3:9-12). Nothing physical will last. That is why it is so important for us to put God and His Kingdom first, because it will endure. God's government shall never end. Heaven's treasury will never be empty. We can have security and confidence in the midst of uncertain times when we stand upon the rock of God's Kingdom, and build thereon (Matthew 7:24-27). Let us trust in God's enduring Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry
October 2008

The Imperative of Spiritual Maturation

For when by reason of the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need again that some one teach you the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of solid food. For every one that partaketh of milk is without experience of the word of righteousness; for he is a babe. But solid food is for fullgrown men, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:12-14).

The New Testament speaks many times about the need for Christians to grow and mature in the faith. We Christians are aware of them, and most recognize the need for spiritual growth. Yet do we truly understand the imperative of spiritual growth and maturation? Do we, consciously or unconsciously, delay or hinder our own spiritual growth or the growth of others?

Spiritual growth, like physical growth, tends to come with growing pains. God was not foolish or naïve about His creation, and He recognizes that growth happens more in times of suffering or difficulty than times of peace and security (cf. James 1:2-4, Hebrews 12:4-13, 1 Peter 1:7-8). True spiritual maturation can be scary, discomfiting, and painful. Yet what are we to expect when we have been called to "take up our cross" and follow after Jesus (Matthew 10:38, Matthew 16:24)? Unlike physical growth, spiritual growth is not a given. Spiritual growth must be developed and encouraged if it will come to pass. Let us consider many of the imperatives regarding spiritual maturation.

Maturation comes with practice. Consider again Hebrews 5:14:

But solid food is for fullgrown men, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil.
I fear that too often we buy into the world's perspective about growth and development. The world expects people to devote the early years of life to abstract studies, and later to enter the workforce and apply that which was learned. To this end, I fear that many convert to the faith and maintain the same perspective: "well, I'm not old enough in the faith yet to do these things, so I'll spend some time learning about it and then do it." Such logic is misleading-- Christianity was never meant to be some fossilized concept to be studied abstractly. Study is not even mentioned in Hebrews 5:14-- it is assumed, since one cannot discern good and evil if one is not trained in what is "good" versus what is "evil"-- but the Hebrew author considers maturity as something gained "by reason of use," or "by constant practice." Consider what James says in James 1:22-25:
But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a mirror: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth away, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But he that looketh into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and so continueth, being not a hearer that forgetteth but a doer that worketh, this man shall be blessed in his doing.

Notice the contrast: those who "hear" versus those who "hear and do." Learning comes through practice. We recognize that the first few years of physical life are critical for the proper physical formation and development of human beings-- this is no less true for the spiritual life. When we were freshly baptized, did we establish good habits of practice? Did we go out and try to preach the Gospel, even if our efforts were quite feeble? Were we willing to have our faith challenged? How do we treat those who are young in the faith around us? Do we try to promote their growth through practice? Why should we be surprised to find people sitting in the pews and doing little else for decades if such persons did not establish good practices early on and were not encouraged to do so?

Maturation comes with encouragement. Consider again the need for assembling in Hebrews 10:24-25:
And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh.

Notice again where the Hebrew author lays the emphasis: provoking each other to love and good works. Assembling to exhort and encourage. Biblically-based encouragement and exhortation is food for the soul. Why do you think that Jesus uses the image of food and drink constantly (John 4, John 6, John 7:37-38?)? We need food and drink to live. Therefore, to live spiritually, we need spiritual food and drink-- and the source of such food and drink is God's Word. The message of God is to be preached to feed people spiritually!

What kind of "food," therefore, is being presented to the members? How are the opportunities for spiritual development being used?

Elders, what kind of thought is put into spiritual growth in terms of what is taught, preached, and encouraged? Is there an emphasis placed on maturation? Are classes being designed to challenge the members to grow, or are they just holding patterns? Are there other activities outside of the assembly that challenge the members to grow?

Preachers, do you consider the need for brethren to grow spiritually, or do you just preach that which is milk (cf. Hebrews 6:1-4)? I have heard many laments about "soft preaching" and how so many are now preaching only that which is "positive." The alternative to such "soft preaching" is presented as being "tough" preaching on "the issues" (defined as that which makes "us" distinct from "them"). But is that really the alternative? In reality, preaching on "the issues" exclusively is itself a form of "soft preaching," for those present in the church are more than likely already believe such things, and the preacher is preaching to the proverbial choir. The preacher will certainly receive great accolades for preaching such a lesson, and why not? No toes are being stepped on, and no challenge is really given for spiritual improvement. Paul, on the other hand, strove to preach the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:20, 20:27). Even when he was condemning false doctrine, as in Galatians 1-4, he found time to exhort the brethren to proper conduct in life (Galatians 5-6). Any kind of extremist preaching-- all positive, all negative, all "issues," all conduct, all anything-- is imbalanced and not providing good spiritual sustenance. Preacher, if the range of preaching topics were compared to food types, would your preaching be considered a balanced meal or is it too strong on some foods and too weak on others? Whether we like it or not, too many either get all of their spiritual sustenance or a good part of it from the preaching done in the pulpit and the teaching in Bible classes. If such is the case, would the brethren get a balanced meal? Would they be encouraged to grow and develop in the faith, or stick to a holding pattern?

The encouragement provided in our assemblies needs to fulfill God's purposes-- stimulation to love and good works, and growth in the faith. This can only be done when the brethren are being challenged to grow by the instruction and exhortation provided.

Encouragement is not limited to the assembly. Do we interact with each other outside the church building? Do we find other opportunities to strengthen each other and encourage each other to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Peter 3:18)? For plants to grow and flourish, they require the right climate in which to do so. Maturing in the faith also requires a climate that encourages it. Are we doing what we can for ourselves to grow and to encourage others to grow along with us?

Maturation requires challenge. On the whole, human beings are a stubborn lot. More is learned from mistakes than success. This reality has not been lost on God.
Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold temptations; Knowing that the proving of your faith worketh patience. And let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).

As humans, we tend to be averse to change, especially the forms of change that unsettle and disturb our current "peace." How many never obey the Gospel because they recognize that they would need to change in order to be servants of Christ? We cannot commit to Christ and yet act as if we will reach a point where change is unnecessary. As Paul says:

Brethren, I count not myself yet to have laid hold: but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded (Philippians 3:13-15a).
If Paul said such a thing, we should consider it also.

Consider also the challenges that Paul suffered. He speaks of the trials he experienced in 2 Corinthians 11:23-30: stoning, beatings, shipwreck, constant emotional turmoil and concern, among other things. He also experienced the "thorn in the flesh," according to 2 Corinthians 12:7-8, and it remained despite his protestations, for the Lord had something else in mind for him:
And he hath said unto me, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect in weakness."
Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Wherefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
"My power is made perfect in weakness." We can only grow in Christ when we are brought low, and rarely do we find the strength to bring ourselves lower without some form of challenge. We may have a physical weakness, a trying situation, a spiritual temptation, or a form of persecution-- what will become of our testing? Will we grow in our faith? That is the expected outcome, but it can only happen if we truly trust in God.

The Bible uses the image of the refiner's fire to describe maturity in 1 Peter 1:6-7, and the image is appropriate. It is only when we are put "in the fire" that we see what we are truly made of, and whether what comes out is precious or worthless. This is why persecution strengthens the church-- sadly, some will fall away under difficult circumstances, but such shows the shallowness of their faith. Such "were really not a part of us" (1 John 2:19). Those who remain are battle-tested, and will receive the crown of life (cf. Revelation 2:10).

Salvation requires maturation. Spiritual maturation is an imperative because without it few will be saved. Consider Jesus' famous parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23). There is the "road soil," the "rocky soil," the "thorny soil," and the "good soil." In Jesus' explanation of the parable, we see that all unbelievers are lumped into one category-- "road soil" (Matthew 13:19). This means that everyone else hears the word of God and accepts it. The challenge, therefore, is not in such persons becoming Christians, but remaining faithful as Christians!

What happens to the "rocky soil" and the "thorny soil"? There is nowhere for the seed to grow! The rocky soil has too little depth; when difficulties come to such a believer (and difficulties will come), such a one falls away (Matthew 13:20-21). The thorny soil is too preoccupied with the world; there is a willingness to mature but no priority given to it (Matthew 13:22). The seed finds its best home in the good soil, because the climate is right for growth-- that is, spiritual development (cf. Matthew 13:23)!

It is little wonder that Paul describes a day of testing that is to come, when the strength of the structure of faith of every believer will be tested by fire (1 Corinthians 3:11-13)-- our growth or lack thereof will be exposed by God! A lack of spiritual maturation is often the root of spiritual stagnation and death. Crises of faith will demonstrate whether one will be rocky soil, thorny soil, or good soil. What are we doing to prepare ourselves for such events? What are we doing to encourage others to prepare for such events, or to guide and encourage them as they experience trials? Spiritual growth and maturity are not to be taken lightly-- they are divine mandates, and our success or failure individually and collectively hinges upon its promotion and development. What shall we do so that we may grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18)?

Ethan R. Longhenry
June 2008

24 June 2010

The Condescension of God

What words or images come to mind when we read the word “condescension”? Generally, this word is used negatively. Perhaps we think of someone who is rich mistreating someone who is poor. Maybe we think of someone highly educated thinking the rest of the world to be less enlightened. This word means, “To descend to the level of one considered inferior; lower oneself” (Dictionary.com). People who act in a condescending manner toward others are viewed in a negative way because we recognize we are all on the same level. We are all human beings regardless of our economic or educational levels. Therefore, we should not act rude or impolite to anyone.

While we typically think of condescension in a negative way, this word describes an exclusive quality of our God. Our God is a condescending being. With this thought in mind, we should view His condescension as a blessing for which we should be extremely grateful. There are numbers of examples of God condescending to humanity. First, the creation of humanity is an example of God’s condescension. God created Adam and Eve. He made provisions for their physical needs by placing them in the Garden of Eden: paradise. He made provisions for their spiritual needs by giving them law, the obedience to which enabled them to enjoy a relationship with God. Why did God do this? Did God have nothing better to do than provide for and interact with created, inferior beings?

God’s interaction with Israel is another example of His divine condescension. Their history is a lesson in God’s condescension. In Deuteronomy chapter eight, Israel was reminded of the blessings God had given them during their long journey from Egypt to Canaan. God fed them with quail and manna, their clothes did not ware out, and God gave them a land of great prosperity and substance. In this land, they would never endure famine (Deuteronomy 8:1-9). Did God have to do this? Certainly, Israel was not deserving of God’s blessings. Nevertheless, God provided for inferior beings.

Later in Israel’s history, God made a covenant with David. God blessed David at the end of his life by assuring the posterity of Israel (2 Samuel 7). Aside from David’s kingdom continuing through his heir, Solomon, his kingdom would continue from everlasting to everlasting. While David did not fully understand the plans of God, he did understand God was blessing him with an eternal kingdom. Why did God do this? Why would God promise to preserve Israel? Did God need Israel? Of course, He did not; however, He used an inferior nation for His eternal purposes.
A third example of God’s condescension relates to how He impartially blesses humanity. This was the line of reasoning Paul used to preach to the Epicureans, Stoics, and Athenians (Acts 17:22-29). God provided and continues to provide for humanity’s continual existence. He is the single explanation for life. When considering this indisputable truth, David’s question comes to mind: “What is man that thou art mindful of him…” (Psalm 8:4). This question sums the condescension of God towards humanity. What is it about the character of humanity, us, that causes God to lower Himself to the level of inferior beings to provide for their physical and spiritual welfare?

Finally, the supreme example of God’s condescension relates to deity being revealed in physical flesh and blood: Jesus coming to earth. The Bible describes Jesus as God in the flesh. John introduced the Messiah in his writing by stating, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14).

Paul also described Jesus’ humanity by instructing, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth” (Philippians 2:5-10).

According to our definition of condescension, Jesus lowered Himself to the level of inferior creatures: us. This is truly an image of Jesus worthy of our consideration. Like God and the Holy Spirit, Jesus dwelt eternally in Heaven. He was surrounded by the glory of God and His own illuminating light. He reigned in a place unknown to sin, pain, sorrow, and death. His divine existence was one of eternal joy and happiness. However, Jesus elected to leave this place and dwell in the realm of the created. While maintaining His deity, He chose to have His magnificence exposed to the ills of humanity. Why?

The apostle Luke answered this question by recording the words of Jesus: “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus acknowledged His condescension by identifying Himself as the “Son of man”, having reference to His humanity. However, Jesus stated His reason for leaving Heaven and coming to earth. He came to pursue and save the inferior: the lost. Without Jesus leaving Heaven and coming to us, we would be hopelessly lost, forever estranged from the redemption of God.

God’s condescension through Jesus is evidence of His love for us. Jesus taught this when He told Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16-17). How can we through faith know God is in Heaven wanting to have a relationship with us? God’s only begotten Son came to us.

In conclusion, the condescension of God should be viewed among the many great blessings He has extended to us. Without His condescension, we would be hopeless. Today, we remain beneficiaries of His condescension. To this point, John described Jesus knocking at our door, waiting for us to give Him entrance: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). God’s condescension can and will provide our salvation if we respond through obedience.

David Flatt
June 2010

The Importance of Association

Perhaps one of the most essential and yet greatly understated aspects of our religion is association with God and with our fellow brethren. Unfortunately, many do not understand nor appreciate the great value of spiritual association. Many fail to take advantage of the great relationships and support networks that God has naturally designed for His people, and many souls have fallen away by "falling through the cracks". How can we help to have the association with God and with one another as we ought?

The Bible is clear that we are to have association with God and with our fellow brethren. As it is written:

And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42).

That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3).

Association, or fellowship, is an essential term defining our relationship with God and with one another. Unfortunately, many difficulties arise when many misunderstand the nature of association. Fellowship is often understood in English not just as a noun but as an active verb, as if one can "do fellowship" somehow. The Greek word for "fellowship" is koinonia, defined by Thayer's as:

Fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation, intercourse; the share which one has in anything, participation...

Association, or fellowship, is a state of being; it cannot be an action in and of itself. The verb form means "to have association/fellowship." Association, strictly speaking, is not something that you can "do"; it is something you either have or do not have with other people.

This is not to say, however, that we do not manifest association in our deeds-- quite the contrary! How can there be "association" if one does not "associate"? As with other relationships in our lives, the relationships exist no matter how much effort we may or may not put into them. Nevertheless, we understand that the depth and quality of the relationship correlates with the amount of time and effort we put into it. So it is with our association with God and our brethren-- the relationship may exist, but association will not be the benefit God designed it to be if we put no time or effort into it.

Lack of association is a pervasive reality in modern "Christendom". For many years denominations have tried to solve the problem by involving the church, as if it is the responsibility of the church to manufacture social association of its members. Churches have built fellowship halls, gymnasiums, obtained camping places, and all kinds of other places and events all in the name of "expediting" brethren getting together. Where, in the New Testament, has the church been so burdened (cf. 1 Timothy 5:16)? Why is it the church's responsibility to help brethren get together in social functions? We recognize that the church is to come together for spiritual association-- after all, what is an assembly that never assembles? It is important for us to share in the spiritual association of the assembly; such is one of the purposes of the Lord's Supper, as seen in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion [Gk koinonia] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion of the body of Christ? seeing that we, who are many, are one bread, one body: for we are all partake of the one bread.

While spiritual association, at least in part, is vested in the assembly, the church is not responsible for facilitating periods of social association. Nevertheless, the New Testament provides evidence that social association among the brethren was taken up by the brethren, and cheerfully, as we can see in the following:

And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart (Acts 2:46).

Above all things being fervent in your love among yourselves; for love covereth a multitude of sins: using hospitality one to another without murmuring (1 Peter 4:8-9).

Social association with brethren, then, was expected to be part of the life of the Christian. I fear that too many, in their fear of being seen as participating in the "social gospel" and other forms of liberalism regarding the church, entirely neglect association with brethren outside of the assembly. Sometimes the impression is given that since the church has not been burdened with facilitating social association that Christians do not need to have social association. This is not God's intention for His people! The New Testament presupposes that Christians spend time with one another.

Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).

How can we bear one another's burdens if we do not know each other well enough to know what burdens them? How can we expect our brethren to be open to us regarding their burdens if we have not taken the time to get to know them? Can we really expect to get to know our brethren through our joint participation in the spiritual assembly alone?

For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many (1 Corinthians 12:12-14).

Would we expect our bodies to work properly if the different parts were entirely ignorant of each other and their functions? How can we expect Christ's body to work properly if we the members of it do not know one another well enough to work with one another?

How much time do we spend associating with our brethren? Do we spend more time with people at work or our friends in the world? We have association (albeit a different sort of association) with such persons; are our ties with them stronger than with our brethren? With whom will we spend eternity? Will Heaven seem to us to be a lonely place because we did not spend the time on earth getting to know our fellow citizens of Heaven (cf. Philippians 3:20)? We should cherish and nurture our association with the fellow saints of God above all others. Consider for yourself (2 Corinthians 13:5), and strive to have the association with your brethren both within and without the assembly!

Ethan R. Longhenry
March 2007

09 June 2010

Evangelism in the 21st Century (4): The Possibilities of the Internet

We have spent some time investigating the climate of evangelism in the 21st century, and the situation could seem quite distressing. We have seen that our world today mirrors the first century world of the New Testament, with many not knowing much about the faith and others being quite hostile to it. We have seen how isolationism and relativism has caused an erosion of trust in others and has contributed to a lack of willingness to be persuaded by the truth claims of the New Testament. We have also seen how many in denominations have attempted to evangelize in recent times, and demonstrated that such methods do all kinds of things, but rarely actually get to preaching the Gospel. While there are many reasons to be distressed, not all is lost, and not all is negative. Let us conclude by considering a great possibility for hope in the future: evangelism and the Internet.

Many Christians are apprehensive about the Internet. There are some good reasons for this, but other reasons are more based in exaggeration and misunderstanding of the resource. As with every tool of man, the Internet allows for people to do good things, bad things, and ugly things. Sadly, the works of the flesh are indeed on the Internet in full force, and the relative anonymity the Internet provides does not help matters (cf. Galatians 5:17-24). On the other hand, the Internet mirrors real life in many ways: if you desire to seek out sin, you will find it; if you desire to avoid sin, you will find ways to avoid it online.

We need to be careful about ourselves and what we do on the Internet. Nevertheless, the Internet provides for opportunities for evangelism that represent great potential-- if we are only willing to consider them and use them.

Recent research has come up with some startling conclusions. Not a few of the members of the younger generation, when seeking information and knowledge, go online. Many Americans indicated that they had searched the Internet for religious information.

This may be surprising to many people who find the Internet to be rather untrustworthy. Unfortunately, it is still true that you cannot believe everything you hear on the Internet, and in fact you cannot believe much of it. On the other hand, the Internet provides the perfect opportunity for our isolationist and individualist society to investigate, learn, and discover: they can visit websites at their leisure, learning whatever they seek to learn, and remain anonymous. They do not feel pressured, pushed, or cajoled into accepting anything. Most such persons have decent discernment abilities, and will not just accept and believe whatever they hear on the Internet.

While impersonal forms of evangelism may not be as successful in the "real world" today as it perhaps was in the past, the Internet provides the opportunity to put forth the truth of the Gospel of Christ, and people very well may come and consider it. Basic websites are often free, and many tutorials are available to help people figure out how to make the website work. Websites can be as simple or as complex as desired. If such websites are known to search engines like Google or Yahoo!, then if people want to search for a given subject, they just might well come upon your website. Who knows what may come of it?

As the technology develops, we are better able to connect with people on the Internet. Websites can have question and comment fields, allowing visitors to ask questions, make comments, or seek additional information from you. Podcasting now allows for sermons and other audio files to be made available for people across the world to hear and to consider.

Special mention should be made about weblog systems and social utility websites (Facebook, MySpace, etc.). While we must always be on the lookout for sin, and to seek to avoid participating in it, there is also the potential for doing good on these websites. Weblog systems allow people to interact with each other in ways that are like communities, and that can have great value for Christians seeking to associate with fellow Christians at many opportunities. MySpace and Facebook and other such social utility websites allow Christians to connect with each other or with people they may know in other contexts; both websites provide ways of promoting the truth of Christ and even to post sermon audio files and other related matters.

As Christians, we should always seek to discover ways by which our light may shine, and ways in which we can have positive impact on others (Matthew 5:13-16). The Internet is a place that needs the light of Christ, and there is much good that has already occurred on account of it, and greater good is possible. Let us seek to use the Internet-- and other opportunities in life as presented-- to promote the Gospel of Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry
March 2008

Evangelism in the 21st Century (3): Modern Evangelistic Methods

We have spent some time considering evangelism in the 21st century. We have surveyed the modern religious climate and have demonstrated how the first century offers many parallels with the twenty-first century. We also considered the modern trend toward isolationism and the need for the church to be the community of God's people that God desires it to be. Having seen the religious condition of the twenty-first century, what can we do to promote the Gospel in this day and age? What methods are currently being used, and do they really accomplish what God desires?

As we survey the religious landscape around us, we see many different groups attempting to promote their given brand of Christianity by many different methods. All kinds of evangelism fads are present; many persevere, others go by the wayside after awhile.

Some of the current fads involve "seeker friendly" services. A given church will go "all out" to attract potential members, using the entire assembly and everything surrounding it to make the seeker feel "welcome". These services (along with many others) are designed to be entertaining, trying desperately to appeal to the vanity of average twenty-first century Americans. Very few, if any, negatives will be presented; much of what is said could easily pass as a self-help resource. The service is very comfortable and familiar for the twenty-first century American-but would it be familiar to God?

Assemblies of Christians in the New Testament were not designed to be "seeker friendly" or "seeker resistant": they were designed to encourage and edify the members of the church (Hebrews 10:24-25, 1 Corinthians 14:26). Unbelievers may enter the assembly and be present within it, and may even be convicted of their condition (1 Corinthians 14:23-25). The assembly, however, is never described as the vehicle of conversion-it is designed for the members, and if the service always focuses on "seeker" matters, it will never provide the spiritual meat so necessary for proper maturation and growth (cf. Hebrews 5:12-14).

Other fads involve small, focused groups, bringing together people in similar conditions. One can find community with fellow divorced persons, or never married persons, or married persons for that matter; if you can think of a group of people in a similar condition, there likely is a small group in some church tailored for such persons! After all, if you can get someone to feel as if they are part of that small group, they can become part of the larger community.

While there can be value in such groups, and building of community is important within the church (cf. Acts 2:42, Romans 12:10), the community is to be based in a shared walk in the Lord (1 John 1:6-7). The Gospel does not discriminate or segregate (Romans 1:16-17, Galatians 3:28), and neither should its promotion.

Appealing to the needs of the flesh has been a constant in evangelistic programs in many places. Food, be it in a fellowship hall or through a food pantry, is often present. Many hospitals and other forms of medical assistance are provided. Gymnasiums are built to provide a place to exercise and to witness about Jesus. Some churches have even developed cafes and bookstores to these same ends. Not a few promotions are based on popular video games or big sporting events.

While it is necessary for individuals to do good to all men (Galatians 6:10), and Christians should be benevolent people, benevolence and evangelism are different tasks indeed (cf. Acts 6:1-7). The example of Jesus and the 5000 in John 6 clearly demonstrates this: people were easily converted to the fish and loaves, yet only the Twelve were converted to Jesus' spiritual nourishment. The good example of Christians living benevolent lives may open hearts to the Gospel (cf. Matthew 5:13-16), but we cannot confuse providing physical needs from spiritual needs. Attempting to provide spiritual instruction or guidance using fleshly appeals cannot properly succeed; the two are opposed to one another (Galatians 5:17-24), and we are quite deluded if we think that we can appeal to the flesh and then slip in the Gospel and fulfill God's mandate. If we appeal to the flesh, people expect to fulfill the desires of the flesh; if we desire people to be spiritual, we must appeal with that which is spiritual.

All of these methods, along with many others, miss the mark because they do not faithfully present the point. In all of these methods examined, the Gospel remains unpreached. It is as if there is shame involved in the message, and we must find other inducements for people to come! As it is written,
"By their fruits ye shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but the corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Therefore by their fruits ye shall know them" (Matthew 7:16-20).

If our message is a "seeker friendly" service that intentionally presents a disfigured Gospel, we will reap people believing a disfigured Gospel. If our message is to bring people in based on social connections, we reap people being present for social connections. If our presentation involves fleshly desires, we reap people desiring to fulfill fleshly desires. It stands to reason, therefore, that if we seek to reap people to be obedient servants of God, we must sow the Gospel message directly and fully.

This, then, represents our difficulty, for we are not inherently appealing to the vanity of twenty-first century Americans. We cannot promote Christianity like marketers sell products. It has indeed happened according to the words of Paul:
I charge thee in the sight of God, and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables. But be thou sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil thy ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5).

Myths are as popular today as they were in the first century. "Have it Your Way Christianity" is quite popular. "I deserve to be the focus Christianity" also has many adherents. Christianity that appeals to the desires of people here and now with only positive reinforcement is on the rise. There are more than enough people willing to preach these messages and satisfy itching ears. If we desire to be faithful to God, the message itself must be the focus, both in ways acceptable to the average modern American and also where it may offend his sensibilities.

The means of promoting the message are many. We have seen that direct preaching in the midst of large crowds, as done in Apostolic days, is not as feasible in our isolationist society; nevertheless, Bible correspondence courses, door knocking programs, Bible lectures or studies open to the public, bulletin or tract distribution, and other ways can be variously used to promote the message. Some methods are more successful in some areas and not in others, and different methods of course will appeal to different persons. Such means of promoting the message may bring in some who would otherwise be unfamiliar with the truth.

Of course, there never is a substitute for the Christian who is living according to God's standard, being the light in the darkness, and actively promoting God's message to those with whom he comes into contact (Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 1:16-17, Romans 12:1-2). Such Christians exemplify Galatians 2:20, and God's message is able to be delivered both in word and in deed. All of us can work to do better in this area.

As we have seen, there are many evangelistic methods present within our world, but anything that diverts from the core message or uses other incentives before promoting that message should be reconsidered. Paul never needed to use a potluck to get people to hear the Gospel. Peter did not go into a Roman arena to promote a Gladiatorial tailgate party with a little Gospel thrown in at the end. John did not encourage the churches in Asia Minor to develop "seeker friendly" services. All of these people went out and preached God's message to everyone who would hear, and did what they could to put that message into practice in their own lives. The same is expected of us, come what may.

In the end, any results-based evangelism program is almost certainly doomed to failure and is entirely against the point. God's message is sound and powerful not because of us, how we may present it, how novel the way of its promotion, or in any way because of our labors. God's message is powerful because it is His means of salvation (Romans 1:16). Our task is to preach it-to inform our fellow man of the Gospel and encourage him to obey God. Any conversion or growth is due to God, not to our own feeble labors (1 Corinthians 3:5-8). Evangelism is promotion-based, not results-based, and the message should not be altered due to the vicissitudes of culture or tradition. Let us do all that we can to promote God's saving message in Christ Jesus, that He may have the glory in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry
December 2007

Evangelism in the 21st Century (2): Isolationism and Community

Previously we began considering the nature of evangelism in the twenty-first century by considering the twenty-first century context and the different types of people that we find around us. We demonstrated that even though much has changed over two millennia, many aspects of the twenty-first century mirror the situation into which the Gospel was first brought back in the first century. Nevertheless, there are many glaring differences between our current society and society in the first century, and many of these differences represent significant stumbling-blocks to evangelism. Perhaps no stumbling-block is as acutely felt as the isolationist trend in our society with its subsequent loss of community. How can the Gospel overcome?

The trend toward isolation in our society has developed gradually and in many ways imperceptibly over time, yet ought to be manifest today. The way that technology has been used deserves a good share of the blame, but so also does the general American ethos of individualism and personal privacy. Consider the average middle- to upper-class American in his existence: he wakes up in his suburban house with his wife and 2.5 children, gets into his automobile to drive into the city to go to work, surrounded by thousands of other persons in their automobiles, all separated from one another yet sharing the same roads. He then gets to his place of employment, where he works in a cubicle or an office, and although there are hundreds of other employees around, he is shielded from them and interacts mostly with the telephone or the computer screen. On his way home he may stop at a supermarket or "big box" store where he is again surrounded by many other people and yet does not interact with them much at all. He then comes home to his fenced-in home in his subdivision, turns on the television, and wonders why his life feels empty.

It is indeed a sad irony-we live in an age where people can directly communicate across the globe, and yet we are more and more set apart from other people. It ought not to surprise anyone that we have so much more depression and other psychological disorders manifest in our society. Individuals were never meant to be islands, and yet that is what they have become.

How is this so? As human beings have become more isolated, the concept of community has significantly changed or has been entirely lost. As more and more people flock to cities, one's "community" is not defined by physical boundary markers as much as voluntary association. People have as large of a community as they would desire to have, and can change that community as they wish. Nevertheless, the ties that bind the communities of today are not as strong as the bonds of communities of old.

We have surprising evidence of these trends from the Amish. The Amish are renowned for their more simplistic lifestyle and how they are utterly different from "us". In the Amish community, all teenagers have the opportunity to either go out into the world or to decide to become full members of the community. These days, according to statistics, well over 90 percent remain part of the community (Steven Nolt, A History of the Amish, 284-285). While we could investigate all kinds of factors-brainwashing, familiarity issues, etc.-such do not really answer the more startling statistic: this percentage is higher than it has ever been in the past! In 1900, the Amish way of life looked like it would become extinct; the movement was absorbed into the Mennonite church in Europe, and half of the Amish in America also drifted into the Mennonite church. At that time, 79 percent of the teenagers stayed (ibid, 284). One hundred years earlier, only 40 percent stayed; in fact, in 1800, there was not one Amish family in the United States in which all the children remained faithful to their traditions (ibid, 74).

Such information confuses us-after all, the Amish in 1800 were not as distinct from the rest of the world as they are now. We have all these technological developments that make life so much easier; do they really want to do all that extra work? It is highly doubtful that Amish teenagers would not appreciate labor-saving technology; the reasons for the change in patterns do not lie with the Amish as much as it does with "us". When the Amish see our world, they see the isolation of our society and the lack of support structures. While they have to work harder, they at least have a tight-knit community that will make sure that everyone's needs are met. Twenty-first century America requires the government to do the things that the Amish community has been doing for their own for years-- Social Security, welfare, healthcare, etc. The Amish demonstrate to us the power of community and what modern society has lost.

How, then, does this impact evangelism in the twenty-first century? Much in every way. Realistically, we are not going to be able to do the types of things that Peter and Paul did, standing in a public forum and addressing the multitudes. First of all, such public forums rarely exist; even where they do exist, modern man has trained himself to ignore and avoid all such things with which he is unfamiliar. We still use such methods as door-knocking, direct mail, Bible correspondence courses, posting gospel meeting announcements and the like, and so on and so forth, to try to present the Gospel to those with whom we are unfamiliar. We certainly should still strive to reach such persons, but we must recognize that we will not achieve momentous results with such programs. We must work with the community structure that is in place today.

Polls that have been taken correspond with evidence "on the ground": personal evangelism is the best way to reach people in an isolated society. The focus can no longer be sustained on the evangelist, for most likely he is one of the least enmeshed persons within the community and for whom there are more boundaries raised. People have been "sold things" to death, but people are still open to hear about new things from their family, friends, and associates who have no vested interest in what they are promoting. When members talk to their friends, family, neighbors, and associates about spiritual things, inviting them to the assemblies, showing proper Christian love and care for them (Galatians 6:10, Philippians 1:14). More than ever, the life lived by each individual member is the best form of evangelism today (Matthew 5:13-16).

What should be done about the tendency toward isolation? Many have found success in using the tools of isolation-television, the Internet, etc.--but most are only truly successful when they provide the appearance of breaking down that isolating barrier. There is no problem with promoting the Gospel with many of these tools, but overall the church must stand against this isolationist tendency, and it does so by promoting the church as a community. Acts 2:42-47 describes the early church in Jerusalem, and one notable aspect of this church is how they devoted themselves to "fellowship", which is the Greek word koinonia, which also can mean "community". In this early church community, all the members had everything in common and were together, constantly in the Temple and in houses, praising God (Acts 2:42-46). Should we then be surprised to see that their numbers were constantly growing (Acts 2:47)? Consider again Matthew 5:13-16: we must be the light of the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. If the church represents the type of community it ought-brethren who love one another, working with one another, encouraging one another, bearing one another's burdens (1 John 4:15-21, Hebrews 10:24-25, Galatians 6:1-2)-many others will see how it is different and can see why they ought to participate. Maintaining a healthy church community is not evangelism per se, but evangelism will not be easy if a church does not provide the community that God has charged it to provide. If the church acts just like a social club or a dysfunctional family, how is it any different from the world at large? What makes it attractive to others?

If societal trends continue, isolationism and the loss of community will still be acutely felt for generations to come. These difficulties are not going to go away; we must consider them and how we must confront them. Let us do what we can to promote the Gospel in our own lives and increase the Kingdom in this age.

Ethan R. Longhenry
September 2007

Evangelism in the 21st Century (1): God's Message, Our Context

And Jesus came to them and spake unto them, saying, "All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Matthew 28:18-20).

Thus Jesus commissioned His Apostles and His followers after them to preach the Gospel throughout the world. Each generation of Christians is called upon to evangelize the world with the message of Christ. As we now move into the 21st century, how do we best go about presenting the message of Christ and Him crucified to our society? How can we present God's message in a way relevant to citizens of the 21st century? These are critical questions, and much hangs in the balance. Let us consider our current context, particularly the different types of persons we see in our society today, and look to God's Word for guidance on how to show them the light of the Gospel.

As we look around the world around us, we are confronted with an often dizzying array of people believing all sorts of things. We can develop some spectra based on certain characteristics that may be of value in our analysis.

Spectrum of belief/conviction. There are still some in our world who believe strongly in a religion, be it Christianity or something else, and who have devoted themselves to understanding their belief system and can well defend it. There are many more, however, who have a more nominal belief system-- they have a bit of understanding of what they believe, perhaps, but not much. Many more may attend a church and not even know what it teaches; they go because they always have gone or think they need to go to a church and that one is it. A large segment of the population profess belief but have little knowledge of the basic ideas of that belief, let alone go to church or an such thing. Many have no belief more out of a lack of concern or care for spiritual things. Finally, of course, there are those who claim no religious belief and act militantly against any such expression of belief.

Spectrum of participation. Likewise, there are some who are very active in their religious systems and devote their lives to that particular cause. Many are willing to participate whenever they have spare time to do so but do not actually devote their lives to the belief system. Many more are willing to present the external elements so as to appear as if they participate but do little else. Many others participate very little in terms of religious belief, and plenty out there have no participation whatsoever.

Spectrum of attitude. There are many who believe that all belief systems lead to the same source and therefore there can be no condemnation. There are many who have a view of the love of God that prohibits any idea of negative judgment. There are many who will find value in certain beliefs but believe that some belief systems will lead to condemnation. There are many who believe in a given religious system (like Christianity) and believe that most groups within that system are fine but not other religions. There are some with a more particular view of what it means to be part of a given religious system that exclude others. Finally, there are many who have no use or value for anyone outside their own system.

These are just some of many different spectra that we could consider in this context. While it would be nice and convenient for us to have simply one spectrum upon which to plot all persons, such is not feasible in our current world: we can find people who are on very different parts of the various spectra. How, though, can we apply this information and inform the way we promote the Gospel of Christ?

These spectra hopefully demonstrate that we are working with individuals who are rather different. We cannot expect to have any "one size fits all" approach that will be effective. Different people with differing belief systems, level of participation within those belief systems, and attitudes regarding beliefs will require different approaches. While 150 years ago we could assume common ground in belief in the Scriptures and in Jesus Christ, that assumption is no longer automatically valid. Yes, there are some members of denominations who know much about their faith and have an exclusive attitude with whom we can speak as we would in 1850, but such persons are now few and far between. These days, however, most people do not really know the Scriptures (even within the Lord's church, to our shame!). Many people are relatively unconcerned about the Scriptures, viewing them as a quaint novelty of a previous day. Most people who may have beliefs regarding Jesus may have an ecumenical outlook. We cannot forget, of course, that there are many people who profess atheism, agnosticism, or other religions like Islam or Hinduism. The vast bulk of the people, however, have very little knowledge nor concern about religion. If they went to church, it was when they were younger, and they most likely do not have too strong of any attachment to any system. Their belief has been shaped more by modern media than by religious instruction proper, and such persons end up being extremely confused about Christianity. How, then, can we work with so many different types of people?

We should not believe, however, that we are left without guidance within our twenty-first century context. As our society become more pluralistic and "tolerant," the more our society mirrors the first century society in which the Gospel was first promoted with great success. We can consider the example of Paul and how he approached different people in different contexts.

We begin in Acts 13:14-41. Paul is in Antioch of Pisidia in a synagogue of the Jews and proclaims the Gospel message (vv. 14-15). We see that his message is replete with citations and examples from the Old Testament. He appealed to the history of the people from Abraham through David (vv. 16-21), and appeals to the fact that Jesus is the descendant of David according to the promise (vv. 22-23). Paul appeals to John the Baptist, clearly known to these Jews, and his preparatory role (vv. 24-25). Paul then turns to the story of Jesus proper, how He was tried, executed, buried, and raised (vv. 26-31). Paul then says how God fulfilled the promises made through the psalms and prophets in the Christ, Jesus (vv. 32-37). He concludes by appealing for them to believe and warns against unbelief from the prophet Habakkuk (vv. 38-41; cf. Habakkuk 1:5).

We may also consider Acts 17:22-31. Paul is in Athens, a Gentile city; he is provoked by all the idols he sees, and begins presenting the Gospel (vv. 15-21). He begins by finding the common ground of religiosity, mentioning the altar "to the unknown god" (vv. 22-23). He establishes that this is the God whom he preaches to them-- this is the God who made the world, does not live in temples made with hands, and made all mankind from one nation to seek Him (vv. 24-27). He then quotes two Greek poets, Epimenides of Crete and Aratus, to demonstrate the truth of the matter (v. 28). He then concludes that this God is not to be seen in terms of an idol, something made by the hands of man, and implores his audience to repent, since God has overlooked their past ignorance and has established that there will be a judgment day, with the resurrection of Jesus as its assurance (vv. 29-31).

We see here two examples of preaching by the same man promoting the same message, and yet consider how differently the message is presented! Paul has not changed or compromised the message: he is simply attempting to communicate the message in a meaningful way to his particular audience. He established the common ground he could find with those to whom he preached: to the Jews, the Old Testament and its promise; to the Gentiles, a common concern for spiritual matters. To the Jews who believed in and highly respected the Scriptures Paul quoted and referred to them; to the Gentiles who could care less Paul used the same ideas present within the Scriptures but explained it using Gentile poets and in a way that Gentiles would understand.

We can easily apply Paul's example to our own day. If those to whom we preach the Gospel believe in the Scriptures, let us use the Scriptures in full to demonstrate God's truths. If the people have no concern about the Scriptures, let us use God's message, promote it in a way that they can understand, and thus lead them to the Scriptures. Work from the common ground so as to create more common ground-- that seems to be how Paul desired to promote the Gospel.

This article is not designed to provide specific answers as much as to stimulate thinking regarding these matters. How can we take Paul's example and apply it to our own circumstances? How can we promote God's message in our context? Let us strive to, as Paul, be "all things to all men" (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23), so that we may lead some to salvation!

Ethan R. Longhenry
June 2007

07 June 2010

Putting on Christ

We often hear that as Christians, we are to "put on Christ" (Galatians 3:27). What exactly does that mean? "But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof" (Romans 13:14). Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul pleas with the saints to totally transform their lives (Romans 1:21-32; 8:4-8; 12:1, 2; 13:11-14, etc.). He says, ”it's about molding your life after Jesus Christ"! In the sermon on the mount, Christ told us some things that must be evident in our lives. Let's take a look at a few of those and how Jesus used them in His life:

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:4). Jesus was not one who generally had a spirit of mourning. In Luke 15, Jesus made it clear that everyone's spiritual condition is important to Him. He rejoices over just one penitent sinner (Luke 15:7, 10)! If He never wants to let us go (John 10:28), it must give Him exceeding pain and sorrow when we choose to sin and separate ourselves from Him. If there was something Christ ever mourned over, it was sin. Some people's hearts are so hardened to sin they wouldn't know it if it slapped them in the face! We should have deep sorrow when we look at the world and especially our own lives and see sin. This attitude will cause us to want to fix the problem (Acts 2:37). The comfort comes from knowing there is something we can do about it (Acts 2:38; Romans 6:1-4)! There needs to be more people who mourn over sin.

"Blessed are them which do hunger and thirst for righteousness..." (Matthew 5:6). When Jesus was twelve, He and His family traveled to Jerusalem for the passover. After it was over, His family left. A day into the journey they realized Jesus was not with them. They returned to Jerusalem and found Him in the temple listening and asking questions. When they asked Him why He was not with them He told them they should have known He would be “about His Father's business“ (Luke 2:42-49). It should be a given that no matter where we are or what we are doing, we are probably doing something to fulfill our service to the Lord. It was evident in the church at Corinth that ”in every place“ they were doing the Lord's will (1 Corinthians 1:2). Do we, like Christ, desire to serve God our every waking moment? Think about it.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8). Jesus never sinned His entire life (2 Corinthians 5:21). Why do you think that is? I can tell you why. Jesus was a pure thinker. He gave no thought whatsoever to sin! Jesus was tempted just like we are today. We can see that the devil came to Him specifically three times. Christ declined every temptation leaving no room “to fulfill the lusts thereof” (Matthew 4:1-10, Romans 13:14). Paul sums up how to put on Christ in his letter to Titus: "Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world" (Titus 2:12). We need to be more like Jesus. We can do that by studying His Word and molding our lives after Him.

Heath Robertson
October 2007

Duration of Qualifications of Elders

Let us spend some time considering an important aspect of the qualifications of elders as established in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9-- their duration. There are many who believe and teach that these qualifications are more introductory qualifications, especially those regarding marriage and family. In such belief systems, a man could still serve as an elder even if his wife or children die or if his children depart from the faith. Is this what Paul intended in these passages?

It is important for us to understand exactly what Paul says in both 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 in terms of the qualifications. All of the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and the relevant qualifications of Titus 1 are all governed by an opening clause, seen in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6:
The bishop therefore must be without reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, orderly, given to hospitality, apt to teach…

If any man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having children that believe, who are not accused of riot or unruly.

In both verses, the listed qualifications are modified by the opening clause: the bishop must be without reproach, the bishop must be the husband of one wife, the bishop must be temperate, etc. in 1 Timothy, and the elder is (to be) blameless, is (to be) the husband of one wife, is (to be) having children that believe, etc. in Titus.

The key to understanding may be found in the Greek tense used in both 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:5 for the phrases under discussion. In 1 Timothy 3:2, Paul literally uses the phraseology "it is necessary to be"; "to be" is, in Greek, einai, and represents a present infinitive. In Titus 1:5, the verb "is" is Greek estin, a third person singular present indicative active form of the same verb. Greek tenses do not just give a sense of time-- they also give a sense of aspect, or how the action relates to the subject at hand. The present tense maintains a "progressive/repeated" aspect in Greek, indicating either that the action is continual (i.e., "I am a student" indicates that one is, over a given span of time, continually a student) or that it happens often (i.e., "I assemble with the saints" indicates that one repeatedly assembles, even if the person is not presently assembled with the saints). While it may not be the clearest in English, the Greek is evident: an elder is to continually manifest the qualifications.

Most people recognize that this is true for most of the qualifications. If an elder becomes contentious, covetous, loses self-control, or no longer meets many other qualifications, he will most likely be asked to step aside. An exception, however, is made for the qualifications of being the husband of one wife and for having believing children, and this exception is most often based on the fact that such things are outside of his control and that it is unfair for him to lose his position because of such.

This reasoning, however, is not based in the Scriptures. Paul does not distinguish between qualifications; it is as necessary for an elder to be temperate as to be apt to teach, to be the husband of one wife is as necessary as to be given to hospitality, and so on and so forth. If there is any distinction, especially in 1 Timothy 3, it would be for "above reproach": in his sentence structure, Paul singles "above reproach" out, and one can view the qualifications as various ways in which an elder can be considered "above reproach" (the same concept is true with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:21-22: "love" is singled out by structure, and the rest of the fruit can be viewed in terms of love).

Nevertheless, is there any merit in weighing the "fairness" of qualifications? Such a view betrays a more fundamental difficulty-- how we understand the position of an elder. In the church, we (rightly) emphasize the need for young men to make it their goal to become elders. While it is true that few will become elders without making it their goal, we must also make it clear that not everyone will become elders or elder's wives. One can be an excellent Christian and never an elder, Paul himself being a prime example (cf. 1 Corinthians 7). Being an elder is not a prize or a guaranteed path to salvation or even necessary for salvation-- as Paul indicates in 1 Timothy 3:1, it is a "work". The eldership represents responsibility and labor that is to be conducted by men who meet certain qualifications. If this is clear before they begin the work, it should be clear as they do the work. If we would not install a man as an elder whose wife died two years before (by no fault of his own), why should a man be maintained as an elder when his wife dies? It is not a statement of indictment against the elder-- it is no negative at all. The man's salvation is not at risk because his wife dies or because his children die. He simply no longer meets the qualifications for the particular task of the eldership.

The qualifications of the eldership are there to make sure that elders are "above reproach", and therefore there are some qualifications present that are beyond what God requires for salvation. God established the qualifications in His wisdom, and whether we find it "fair" or not, God established them to be continual. God did not distinguish between qualifications that are "under the elder's control" from those "outside the elder's control", and therefore neither should we. Elders must continually be above reproach, apt to teach, hospitable, not covetous-- and the husband of one wife with believing children. Let us understand God's truth in regards to these matters, and have a proper understanding of the eldership of a local church.

Ethan R. Longhenry
October 2007

05 June 2010

Worshiping With A Renewed Spirit

A midday break while walking from Judea to Galilee resulted in a significant conversation. So weighty were the matters discussed, that the Holy Spirit had John record it for all future would-be worshipers.
“The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).

True Worshipers of God

In context, Jesus spoke with a woman of Samaria. She had at least a cursory interest in spiritual things, for she willingly chatted with the Lord. In fact, she is the one who raised the issue of worship. Of Samaritan worship, Jesus said, “You worship what you do not know. We know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). He meant no offense in these words, but conveyed concisely and accurately that which was fact. The Samaritans rejected all Old Testament Scripture except the Pentateuch. They had developed a system of worship much akin to the Jewish worship, but failed in the simplest of matters. Rather than worshiping at Jerusalem, as God has prescribed (Deuteronomy 12:11-14; 2 Chronicles 6:6), they set up a temple at Mount Gerizim, overlooking Shechem.

Jesus made a distinction between Jewish and Samaritan worship, but the primary matter the Lord is conveying is a change from Jewish to Christian worship. Jewish worship, if conducted properly was both in spirit and truth, but it was exclusive (in both place and people). Jesus was about to reveal a better way (Hebrews 8). In verses 21 and 23, Jesus acknowledged that a time would soon come when worship would neither depend upon location nor nationality. Then “...the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth...” That is not to say that the Jews were not true worshipers, but others would be added (John 10:16), perhaps even this Samaritan woman. This new system of worship which was “...coming, and now is...” would allow all honest worshipers to come to the Father, whether Jew or Gentile.

Worship in Spirit and in Truth

The Old and New Covenants share a relationship of type and antitype. The Old had a physical temple (1 Kings 6:2), the Levitical priesthood (Exodus 29:9), animal sacrifices (Exodus 29:36-41), and so on. The New has a spiritual temple, priesthood, and sacrifices (1 Peter 2:5). No longer do the genuine worshipers of God serve through the shadow of the law, but now in the substance of faith.

The Covenant revealed through Christ is more intimate than its predecessor, which was God’s instrument to bring the Jews to Christ (Galatians 3:23-25). In this new and better writ, we find that God’s nature directly influences the nature of our worship. This reality has been expressed by various commentators, “...men must offer a worship corresponding with the nature and attributes of God1.” And again, “Since he is Spirit, he must receive spiritual worship2...”

Of New Testament worship, Bales wrote, “Its expression is preeminently in spirit and is directed and controlled by the truth instead of the carnal ordinances and shadows of the Old. Worship now more perfectly corresponds to the nature of God who is Spirit than did the temple worship3.” True worshipers today are those who glorify the Father with a sincere heart, filled with gratitude and adoration which is expressed through their observation and application of the divine revelation supplied through Christ Jesus.

Be Renewed in the Spirit of Your Mind

If we expect to worship God in spirit and truth, we must first be renewed in our spirits. This rejuvenation of the heart is a familiar topic through the New Testament letters, especially in those penned by the apostle Paul. It first takes place at the time of conversion (Titus 3:5), and is thereafter a perpetual responsibility of the child of God (1 Peter 1:13). Only the renewed spirit can worship in spirit and truth.

In the epistle to the Romans, we read, “...do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2). Paul said that the Colossians had “...put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him that created him...” (Colossians 3:10). To the Ephesians, having identified various characteristics which have no place in the Christian life, the apostle admonished the Christian to “...be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:23-24).

It has been remarked, “The Greek (ananeousthai) implies ‘the continued renewal in the youth of the new man.’ A different Greek word (anakainousthai) implies ‘renewal from the old state4.'" Barnes agrees, observing, “This was addressed to the church, and to those whom Paul regarded as Christians; and we may learn from this, 1) that it is necessary that man should be renewed in order to be saved, 2) that it is proper to exhort Christians to be renewed. They need renovated strength every day, 3) that it is a matter of obligation to be renewed. Men are bound thus to be renovated. And 4) that they have sufficient natural ability to change from the condition of the old to that of the new man, or they could not be exhorted to it5.”

Through continual meditation upon (Philippians 4:8) and application of the will of God (James 1:22), we will ever be renewed in the inward man, and made fit for service and worship before the Lord. From a pure heart, directed by faith in God’s word, worship which is in spirit and truth will proceed. God will be glorified and saints will be edified.

William Stewart
June 2004


(1) McGarvey, J.W., The Fourfold Gospels.
(2) Johnson, B.W., People’s New Testament.
(3) Bales, James, Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship.
(4) Jamieson, Robert, A.R. Fausset and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible.
(5) Barnes, Albert, Barnes' New Testament Notes.