Monday, July 28, 2014

The Chief Membership Objection Answered

Two weeks ago (July 13) one of our elders (Chris Kuehn) preached a sermon about the importance of membership. He did a fantastic job laying the foundation for it and also showing why it is important. Yet, I know that regardless of how well someone does at preaching a sermon like that, objections will always arise.

With that in mind, what I would like to do in my next couple of posts is try and address the most common objection to membership, namely, that the New Testament did not ractice a formal membership process as many congregations do today. If they did not, why should we?

Now, before I continue, I must say that I would agree with that—there was not a formal process as we know it (other than baptism—as Chris called attention to in his sermon [see Acts 2:38, 41]). So, again, if the New Testament Church did not have formal membership, then why should we?

The short answer to this question is this:  Because all the aspects of what our formal process of membership involves were present in the New Testament and, in fact, are demanded for a Christian and a congregation who desire to live faithfully before Jesus Christ. Also, I would go on to say that when our situation is similar to the New Testament Church we can probably go without formal membership also. However, when our situation is not like theirs (we are not facing the real possibility of strong outward persecution) we need formal membership.

Now, let me seek to prove both parts of this short answer with more detail. In the rest of this post I will set forth the New Testament principles behind formal membership. Then, in my next post I will address why persecution or its absence makes a difference.

The Principles Behind Formal Membership Are Demanded In the New Testament

1. Affirmation Of A Person’s Faith Profession
In Matthew 16:19 Jesus says to Peter as a representative of the church (see Mt. 16:18): “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Keys are for locking or unlocking doors—here more specifically the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is not saying that what the church looses or binds is decisive for who is part of the kingdom of heaven or not—as if God follows our lead. Instead, the sense seems to be that the church seeks to affirm what God has announced about a person. In other words, if the person has come to receive and rest upon Jesus alone for salvation and thus is following him, then, as God reveals in the Bible, he is part of the kingdom. If he hasn’t, then he is not. The church helps verify or falsify such faith professions. In fact, we can say this is a key aspect of the church’s mission!

This role of the church affirming or not affirming a person’s profession is also addressed two chapters later (18:18) when Jesus deals with an issue of sin in which a person is unwilling to repent and thus must be treated as an unbeliever (which implies his profession can no longer be affirmed). Jesus says, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” In this passage two or three witnesses to the person’s lack of repentance (the sense is the more witnesses the better) affirm that their profession of faith can no longer be trusted and so they cannot be treated as one who represents Christ and his reputation. In such a situation heaven agrees that this person’s faith affirmation can no longer be substantiated.

Why is this role of faith affirmation important? It is important since it reduces the risk of people thinking they are truly saved when they are not—the kind of situation found in Matthew 7:21-23, where people profess to know Jesus and be known by him, but their lack of true salvation is demonstrated at the future judgment by their lack of obedience. Second, it is important for the preservation of the reputation of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 5:1-13; 6:18-20). Part of the reason the church gives a mixed message and weak witness to the world is because many people who profess to represent Jesus Christ are not even truly saved and thus are not new people. What is more, some who truly are saved, but currently hardened by sin (Heb. 3:12-14) are giving a mixed message to others about what it truly means to follow Jesus.

Now, if this authority of faith verification or falsification that is given to the church collectively is to be exercised, then professing Christians must be part of a local congregation, they must avail themselves of relationships with other Christians, they must be known well by other Christians, and the local congregation must know they are part of that congregation as a professing believer or not. All of these things are necessary to discern whether or not they are to be treated as a fellow Christian who should be corrected (e.g. 1 Cor. 5:1-8) or whether they should be treated as one who is an “outsider” (1 Cor. 14:16, 23) and is merely trying to wrestle with what being a Christian is, but they are not yet a follower of Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-10, 12).

This first principle, then, leads to a second.

2. Clear Knowledge A Person Is Part Of A Local Congregation
In the early days of the New Testament church it was more easily known who was joined to Jesus Christ and thus was part of the church and who was not. For example, in the church in Jerusalem Luke could speak of “the whole church and…all who heard…” (Acts 5:11). In other words, he could differentiate between those part of the church and those not. Just a couple verses later “the rest” is distinguished from “them” and from “believers…added to the Lord” (13-14).

Some 20+ years later when Paul was writing to the church in Corinth it also was clear that the church knew more readily who was part of them and who was not. The church had a responsibility to exercise church discipline (keys of the kingdom) against the former, but not the latter (see 1 Cor. 5).

In both Jerusalem and in Corinth this distinction was made because some professed Jesus Christ, were baptized, and thus assembled together with the church to worship and to serve (cf. Acts 2:38, 41, 42-47; 5:12; 1 Cor. 1:13; 12:13). These were viewed as part of the church, members of the body of Jesus Christ. As we will see in my next post, though it was possible people could be false professors of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 13:5), it was less likely to make a flippant claim of salvation when hostile surroundings could put a person in peril.

When we fast forward to our own day, we see a situation in which people are mobile—moving from town to town or state to state, but also can visit from church to church within a town. Often people in a congregation will not be close enough to some guests or even short-term regular attenders to know: Have they professed faith in Jesus Christ? Have they publically professed Jesus Christ through baptism? Do their lives and beliefs suggest their profession is valid? Similarly how does a local church today help exercise the keys of the kingdom on those whom they know have committed to Christ to serve him in this local congregation and to be subject to the accountability and authority of the church? A tool that helps with all these matters is the formal membership process.

3. Believers Must Submit To Serve Christ In A Local Congregation
Here is the principle in which we see that Christians commit to each other and acknowledge others need them and vice versa. It is because of this need the author of Hebrews (20-30 years after Paul wrote to the Corinthians) exhorts believers, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…” (Heb. 10:24-25). In these intervening decades some believers had become slack in assembling together, but they are corrected since we need others and others need us. This comes seven chapters after the same author commands us to “exhort one another every day…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13).

The New Testament Church understood that Jesus not only saved them as individuals, but saved them to gospel community in which they were to live out their new lives and serve him. To seek to do otherwise (just live as if it’s Jesus and me without any others) was virtually unheard of.  After all, the New Testament calls us to love one another, pray for one another, exhort one another, encourage one another, build up one another, accept one another, etc. How can we carry out this kind of walk with Christ without being committed to serve our Lord among other believers? How can we show the world we are disciples of Jesus by our love for and unity with one another (John 13:34-35; 17:20-23) unless we regularly assemble together and live out life together in a way that the unsaved are invited in to witness this. This is done through committed church life together.

4. Believers Must Be The Ones Who Exercise Authority And Make Decisions In The Church
We discover in Acts 15 that when decisions about issues of conflict had arisen it was “the apostles and the elders, with the whole church” that made a decision (15:22). Most likely the church consisted of the same group of folks we read of early in Acts: those who had repented and trusted in Jesus Christ—professing this in baptism. They did not bring in outsiders. Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 5 it was the church that was to make decisions regarding issues of discipline, not those who were only guests or visiting.

This practice in the early church has led churches through much of history to allow only officially recognized members to make decisions about the congregation and its direction. This only makes sense. Again, in a very mobile society in which many people move and in which people often visit different churches it would not be wise to let just anyone cast a vote. It is more likely that a non-member would not have a vested interest in the church and may not be around long-term. As such, typically, they are not in as good a position to be involved in such decisions.

What we see from this sampling of New Testament principles is that the key ingredients of membership were present in the New Testament Church. Each New Testament fellowship exercised the authority to affirm one’s faith profession or not, they knew who was part of the church or not, they taught the importance of living out one’s walk with Christ within a local congregation, among other believers in a committed fashion, and they seemed to limit decision making to those who were part of the church and not merely outsiders.

So, though the New Testament Church did not take its members through a formal membership process, the principles that make up formal membership all were present among them.

But, this raises a question: Why could the New Testament Church exercise these principles without a formal membership process, but such a process is needed for us? The answer to this is found in a difference between their setting and ours—a difference that centers around the presence or absence of outright persecution. I will address this in my next post.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Barnabas: A Model Joyful Follower

This past week I was studying Acts 4:36-37, where a man by the name of Barnabas is introduced for the first time. As I meditated upon those verses and also what the rest of the New Testament says about this little known Bible character I was reminded anew and afresh just how great a model for us he is.

What follows are some of the traits in his life that make him a helpful example.

1. He Was A “Regular Guy”

Some biblical characters can leave us feeling like they are out-of-our reach. The Apostle Paul is one of those. Paul was a leader among leaders, a person who rose to the top quickly and became well-known. He was like the figures we might listen to at some conference or hear on the radio. If we are not careful, we can conclude that there is little we can learn from them by way of example because we are not that kind of “superstar”.

Yet, Barnabas wasn’t like that. In fact, many of us probably have no idea who this man was. Luke, the author of Acts, introduces him as one whose real name is Joseph, “a Levite, a native of Cyprus” (Acts 4:36) who had come to trust in Jesus Christ as Savior. In other words, he was a temple helper, a Jew whose was born on a small Mediterranean island. Though he was a prophet and teacher for a while in Antioch (Acts 13:1) and though he was Paul’s partner on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:2-14:28), he soon faded away into obscurity. Other than a mention by Paul some 15-17 years later to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:5-6)—a mention by the way that lets us known Barnabas has a strong reputation throughout the church—nothing more is said about him.

Barnabas appears to be a regular guy like us. He is not well-known, his name is not up in lights. Rather he is content simply to serve Christ whether others notice or not.

2. He Cared About People, Especially Those In Need

The reason Luke introduces Barnabas is that he serves as a concrete example of a believer who sold a piece of property and then brought the proceeds to the apostles so that they could be used to help fellow believers who were in need (Acts 4:36-37).  Then over fourteen years later he, along with Paul, took relief to famine-stricken believers in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30). More than this, when Paul was converted, Barnabas was the first one to reach out to this former persecutor of Christians and he was to the first to extend fellowship to this one who desperately needed it and to encourage others to do the same (Acts 9:27).

This same compassion was also shown to his own cousin, John Mark (Col. 4:10), who deserted Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:13). Barnabas wanted to forgive him and have him continue in missions work and Paul did not. So sharp was their disagreement that Paul went on this second missionary journey with Silas and Barnabas teamed up with Mark (see Acts 15:39-40). Without taking sides here on who was right and who was wrong, we cannot help but admire the mercy and compassion of Barnabas towards all kinds of people who had needs of various kinds. What is also of note is that that this future author of a Gospel that bears his name (Mark) was eventually reconciled with Paul by the early to mid sixties A.D. (Col. 4:10; Philemon 24; 2 Tim. 4:11). Though it may be going too far to suggest that Barnabas had something to do with that reconciliation, I don’t think it far-fetched to conclude that Barnabas’ willingness to persevere with John Mark had some impact on his future usefulness in the Church and maybe even his reconciliation with Paul!

So loving and encouraging was this man that his fellow believers did not call him by his given name (Joseph), but rather Barnabas (which means son of encouragement, Acts 4:36). In the Hebrew mindset to say that someone was a son of _ (fill in the blank) was to describe the essence of their character or being!

3. He Was Sold Out To Gospel Ministry

The love Barnabas had for others was also translated into his zeal for introducing people to the good news of Jesus and helping them live out the effects of that gospel. He encouraged the church in Antioch to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose when they first responded to the gospel (Acts 11:22-23), he spent another year teaching these new believers in Antioch along with Paul (Acts 11:25-26), he went on the first missionary journey with Paul where he preached the gospel (13:5, 6-12; 14:1, 14-18, 21, 25), he was persecuted for the gospel (13:46-52; 14:4-7), he most likely witnessed his partner and friend being stoned almost to the point of death for the gospel (14:19-20), and after that trip he stood up for the integrity of the gospel when others wanted to change it (Acts 15:1-2).

Here was just a “regular guy” who loved Jesus and delighted to follow him in all ways. What a great model for all us regular guys and gals today!

4. He Was Content With Playing Second Fiddle

When Barnabas and the younger, spiritually less mature Paul took off on their missionary journey, their ministry began in Barnabas’ homeland of Cyprus. Given the word order that Luke uses—Barnabas and then Paul (Acts 13:7), Barnabas most likely started out as the leader, but soon took a supportive role to the Apostle (see 13:13, 43, 46, 50). We have no indication this was a problem. This man wanted to serve Jesus no matter his role.

5. He Was A Good Man, Full Of The Holy Spirit And Of Faith

This final description of Barnabas comes as a direct quote, a rare word of praise Luke writes with his own pen in Acts 11:24. One of the major themes of Acts is that the coming of the Spirit upon and his filling of his people lead to fruitful ministry among others and for God’s glory. Barnabas was a man who was yielded to Jesus Christ and his Spirit.

The late New Testament scholar, D. Edmond Hiebert, in his 1973 book, Personalities Around Paul, summarizes well the life of this Spirit-controlled joyful follower:
Barnabas stands out as one of the choicest saints of the early Christian church. He had a gracious personality, characterized by a generous disposition, and possessed a gift of insight concerning the spiritual potential of others. He excelled in building bridges of sympathy and understanding across the chasms of differences which divided individuals, classes, and races. He lived apart from petty narrowness and suspicion, and had a largeness of heart that enabled him to encourage those who failed and to succor the friendless and needy. He did have his faults and shortcomings, but those faults arose out of the very traits that made him such a kind and generous man—his ready sympathy for others’ failings and his eagerness to think the best of everyone.

By the grace of God and the work of the Sprit may the same someday be said of you and me.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Like P's In A Pod, Part 2

In my last blog post I said that I would elaborate upon the first three of six total key areas of missions focus for our congregation I mentioned in my June 22 sermon. I just realized that something happened when I tried to post that discussion and it cut off part of focus number 2 and all of 3. So, because of that, I want to follow up in this post with repeating those two and then addressed the remaining three. Remember that our first area of missions focus I proposed was our proximate community. In addition to that focus here are the rest of the areas I am praying we will prioritize.

Present Missionaries
There are a number of missionaries our church supports and also others with whom the church has connections. With each of these God has orchestrated things such that he developed the relationship with them and the congregation and also led them to the place in the world he wanted them. One of the most important ways we carry out the missions call is to care for and to support these brothers and sisters on the front lines. Every missionary needs a home church and also supporters who are praying for them, encouraging them, and helping them carry what is often a heavy load.

I trust that in the future God will call others from our church into missions and will guide them to the places in the world where he wants them to serve. We have the privilege and the call from God to stand with them. May it never be said of us that we forget our missionaries. Instead, may they sense that we lavish love, encouragement, and grace upon them.

Peoples Unreached
One of the greatest needs in missions for our day and time is to send missionaries to reach those peoples who have no access to the gospel—some 27% of the world. We know that God has redeemed people from every tribe, language, nation, and people group (Rev. 5:9), we know that Jesus Christ will not return until the gospel is proclaimed throughout the whole world (Matthew 24:14), and we also know that for all people who never hear and/or respond positively to the gospel, they will face the eternal wrath of God (Mt. 10:28; Rom. 10:13-17; Rev. 20:14-15). For all of these reasons, one of the main areas of focus for us as a church should be to cast vision for sending people to unreached peoples and for supporting such missionaries.

One of the most strategic directions we can go in the future is to reach out to international students at UNK who can take the gospel back to their countries and who live among unreached peoples. This fall we will launch an outreach to UNK international students and you will have an opportunity to be involved. Be praying about this and be prepared for involvement.

Pastors Undertrained
In Ephesians 4 Paul teaches that grace has been given to each believer which can be used somehow in accordance with another gift Christ has given (7), and we find out later on that gift is leadership (11). If I understand this text correctly, pastors are tasked with equipping the saints for the work of ministry (12) and, as such, they help each saint live out the transforming grace given to each believer. Therefore, though each believer is empowered by the Spirit to live out the Christian life, they will be hindered or helped by those who are teaching and equipping them. I take all this to mean that a missions movement among any people group or in any location of the world will be helped or hindered by the leadership there. Are they teaching the Bible accurately (2 Tim. 2:15), which includes teaching the core of the Bible, the gospel and how it applies to believer and unbeliever alike (see Rom. 1:12-16; 16:25; Gal. 1:8-10)? Are they showing Christians how to share their faith and to make disciples (see Mt. 28:19-20; 2 Tim. 2:2)?

As I pray through the very helpful resource, Operation World (by Jason Mandryk), I discover that nation after nation and people group after people group is short on trained leaders or struggles in some way from poorly trained leaders.

All of this leads me to believe that helping to train the 3.2 untrained or undertrained pastors throughout the world (along with other leaders who lack basic training) can have a large impact upon the spread of the gospel throughout the world.

This area of focus is one in which there is heart-wrenching need. There are 145 million orphans worldwide. This is also a mercy ministry in which the gospel is displayed in a strong way. After all, every person who truly trusts Jesus Christ as savior has been adopted into the family of God (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:5-6; Eph. 1:5). Though at one time we were not part of the family, now we have received God’s mercy and are part of his family (1 Peter 2:9-10). What a great picture of the gospel adoption is and what a great opportunity to evangelize and disciple someone who may not otherwise hear about Jesus Christ!

So, for these reason alone this need is worthy of our attention, time, and resources. But, God is also doing a work in our congregation to give people a passion for orphans.  Some of this has come from God bringing families here who have adopted. Given what God is doing, this is also an area we will regularly focus upon here at MEFC.

Poor and Persecuted
This final area is also one that has been a passion of people who are part of our congregation and so seems to be a direction in which God is leading. This is true from Be The Gift Nebraska ministry to single parents here in Minden all the way to Mission II Haiti ministry with water wells and the Voice Of the Martyrs ministry to the persecuted.

Not only is it important to stand with those brothers and sisters around the world who are harmed and even face death because of their witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but part and parcel of following Jesus Christ is ministering to the needs of those who hurt (Isaiah 58:1-12; Mt. 25:31-46; James 1:27).

And So…
Each of the six missions areas I have chosen to prioritize here at the MEFC is an area of great need, is also the passion of someone(s) else in the congregation, and finally each is a passion of mine.

With all this in mind, let me make just a few more points about application.

First, no one congregation can do everything and focus on all the missions needs. I realize that even the six I have set forth is more than enough for us. My desire is to teach upon them regularly, cast vision, see what God does with each, and I fully expect that some areas will emerge as valued by more in the congregation than others.

Second, when we can engage in ministries that combine multiple focus areas, these should become priorities among the priorities. For example, reaching out to international students in our area (proximate community) so the gospel can go back to unevangelized areas (peoples unreached), and then eventually to be part of training leaders among those peoples (pastors undertrained) should be a ministry that engages much of our time, prayer, and resources in the near and far future. Another example would be working in and through Mission II Haiti in such a way we not only help those in need (poor), but also partner with those helping orphans (parentless), and seek to encourage the training of leaders in Haiti who can make disciples and build up the Church to multiply there (pastors undertrained).

Finally, remember that in the June 22 sermon I mentioned the six ways we can get involved in one or more of these focus areas: Learning, sending, praying, welcoming internationals, mobilizing Christians to be involved in missions, and going ourselves. I encourage you to begin praying and asking God to direct you in the ways that he would have you be involved.