Friday, May 18, 2018

How much is an image-bearer of God worth? (Part 1)

"How much is a little girl worth?"

This question from Rachael Denhollander in a courtroom in January continues to reverberate. She asked it regarding the crimes against humanity committed by Larry Nassar and enabled by others at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. Nassar, team doctor for both institutions, sexually abused girls who apparently numbered in the hundreds over a two-decade span while his employers refused to believe or act on the reports of molestation brought them by victims. A devoted follower of Christ and a lawyer, Denhollander courageously became the first person to go public to report Nassar's assault on her, which occurred when she was a 15-year-old gymnast. Her email to The Indianapolis Star in 2016 set in motion an investigation that resulted in a sentence of 40 to 175 years in prison for Nassar.

She was the last of more than 150 Nassar victims to give her impact statement in court before the sentencing, and her question still looms over not only that case but our culture: "How much is a little girl worth?"

More expansively, we would ask: How much is an image-bearer of God worth?

Sadly, the sexual abuse of girls -- and boys -- is not found just in the secular world. Nor are sexual assault and harassment. They have happened too often in the evangelical church, and too often those who courageously reveal their devastating, life-altering ordeals have been greeted by disbelief and scorn from the church. Or church leaders have refused to report criminal allegations to law enforcement authorities. Or pastors and elders have failed to shepherd the victims and their families with mercy and understanding.

Rachael Denhollander and others have pointed out this painfully true reality -- it is abuse, as well as assault and harassment, by those within our own community we find most difficult to address. It is easy to believe the reports of abuse and coverup in an institution we are not a part of and to denounce them emphatically. When it comes to our church or our section of the evangelical landscape, we become much more hesitant to trust the ones bringing the charges against people we hold in high esteem. These allegations may come from young victims of abuse or adult victims of harassment. We may not want to believe them because we don't want to countenance such sinful, maybe criminal, behavior by a Christian leader we have trusted. And we may dismiss out of hand such allegations because we think they would harm our faith or the church or the gospel or even the reputation of Christ.

If we would follow Jesus and rest in His strong name, however, we must repent of and forsake such thinking. We must think biblically about sin and its pervasiveness. We must not carve out exceptions for our favored leaders. We must not fear that the call for us "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God" (Micah 6:8b) will undermine Jesus, His gospel or His church.

As Denhollander said in a January interview with Christianity Today, "[T]he gospel of Jesus Christ does not need your protection. . . . Jesus Christ does not need your protection; he needs your obedience."

Let's make certain our knee-jerk reaction is not to side with the powerful because our interest is wrapped up in them being innocent. Let's make certain we listen to and extend mercy to the powerless -- whether it be a child or adult bringing reputable allegations. Let's make certain we seek truth and justice whoever the parties involved may be.

Let's make certain to ask ourselves: How much is an image-bearer of God worth?

-- Photo by Joseph Gonzalez on Unsplash

Thursday, April 26, 2018

We don't give up on others

Maybe the retail, restaurant and business area nearest your home is like ours. Many buildings once busy with activity now stand vacant -- monuments to failed dreams or corporate bottom line.

These empty shells once were inhabited by a Best Buy, Dick's Sporting Goods, Famous Dave's BBQ, Mimi's Cafe, a bank, a party store, a gym and others. Meanwhile, other retail outlets and a restaurant now stand nearly ready to open in this same area booming with new residences.

I think I understand why businesses build new stores instead of renovating empty ones. Reclaiming vacant space doesn't appear to make sense. There seems to be no profit in it.

But it strikes me as sad. These were once destination points for people who had needs -- none that may have been greater than coming in contact with fellow image bearers of God at a time when it is possible never to leave home to work and shop. These were once locations where people gathered to serve and be served. These were once places where people unexpectedly became friends, whether as fellow employees or as workers and customers. Now they know only the sound of silence, their walls possibly never again to echo with the fulfillment of human voices.

But in contrast, there's the church of Jesus Christ. It's made up of previously empty shells. Each part of this building (Eph. 2:21), metaphorically speaking, has been reclaimed. You and I. God has reclaimed us from our fallen state as his image bearers. He has "rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son" (Col. 1:13).

Because He has reclaimed us, we don't give up on others -- before or after they trust in Jesus. We might be tempted to think there is no use in continuing to love, serve and appeal to some people. We may be tempted to think some such attempts are unprofitable, even hopeless. We may think our efforts to help a brother or sister aren't worth it because that person won't heed our advice and direction.

We don't give up on people, however, because we don't set the limits of God's grace. With our brothers and sisters, this is true for multiple reasons. For one thing, God has promised He will complete the work He has begun in His children. Also, Jesus has promised never to forsake us.

But it is also true we are eternally intertwined with one another. God demonstrates this in the New Testament. For example:

-- We are one people group from many people groups. "[Y]ou once were not a people, but now you are the people of God" (I Peter 2:10).

-- We are in the same building. We "are of God's household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit" (Eph. 2:19b-22).

-- We are in the same body. "[B]ut speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love" (Eph. 4:15-16).

We don't give up on others who have been rescued from sin because we belong together. We are bound together. We are being built up together. And all of us are advancing together toward Christ-likeness.

In the church, let's don't give up on anyone. Let's don't leave anyone behind.

-- Photo by MarĂ­a Victoria Heredia Reyes on Unsplash

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Some reflections on the MLK50 conference

My wife and I had the privilege of attending "MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop" April 3-4 in Memphis -- she to listen and observe and me to file reports on in Baptist Press.

The conference -- co-sponsored by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and The Gospel Coalition -- was held in conjunction with other events to remember the life and legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his death. King was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis.

I have written about the event as a reporter. Now I want to offer some reflections as a pastor.

The conference was one of the most significant -- if not the most significant -- I have attended or covered. My hope is the gathering attended by about 4,000 people and viewed livestream more than one million times will help encourage racial justice, healing and unity. Such work is needed in and through America's churches, as well as in this country. Both the church and country continue to be plagued by the bitter fruit of the sins of slavery and segregation and the ongoing, yet often unrecognized transgression of racism.

The speakers and panelists -- primarily African American and white -- provided helpful, insightful and sometimes convicting insights. Here is a sampling:

-- Charlie Dates, senior pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicsgo, explained some of the frustrations black churches have with white evangelicals: “We have expected you to be our greatest allies in the struggle against injustice. We wanted you to tell your churches and your congregations that God was never pleased with segregation and the systems that segregation has created. . . . We wanted you all to unflinchingly denounce the politics of fear and the alt-right racism that elected playboys while denouncing a black man who was loyal to his wife all his years in office and took care of his kids and did not disgrace America. We wanted you all to preach a gospel that was bigger than the clandestine, provincial and colonial misread that told slaves to obey their masters as if Paul intended American slavery to be ordained by God. . . . But instead of finding allies in the fight for justice on the grounds of righteousness, we have encountered antagonists. Instead of understanding our plight, we have been met with demands to justify our sentiments.”

-- Russell Moore, ERLC president, said, "[King] is relatively noncontroversial in American life, because Martin Luther King has not been speaking for 50 years. It is easy to look backward and say, ‘If I had been here, I would have listened to Dr. King, even though I have not listened to what is happening around me in my own community.’ . . . [T]ime and time again in the white American Bible belt, the people of God had to choose between Jesus Christ and Jim Crow because you cannot serve both, and tragically many often chose to serve Jim Crow and to rename him Jesus Christ.”

-- Matt Chandler, teaching pastor of The Village Church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, said to white pastors, “You have got to say something. There is no way forward if white pulpits won’t talk. . . . Ethnic harmony is one of the great themes of the Bible. This is the refrain of the Bible over and over and over again."

-- Crawford Loritts, African-American senior pastor of predominantly white Fellowship Bible Church in Roswell, Ga., said on a panel, “This issue is going to cost us. Are we willing to pay that price? Love is expensive, and commitment is expensive. And I think God is standing back and saying to the church, 'You all know what to do here. You really do know what to do.' It’s the courage and will to do it and to be it and to pay that price.”

-- H.B. Charles Jr., pastor-teacher of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., said as a panelist, “Do not underestimate what God is doing in the local church. Local churches being faithful right where they are might not make national headlines, but God is changing communities and neighborhoods and cities through churches that are determined to be the church.”

Video of the keynote sessions and audio of the workshop sessions are available here.

If you have time to listen to only four speakers, I recommend Dates, Moore, Chandler and pastor/hip-hop artist Trip Lee. Their talks are from 20 to 36 minutes in length.

Time to listen to only one? Make it Dates.

Among the other speakers were Karen Ellis, John Piper and Jackie Hill Perry. Diverse teams from Fellowship Memphis and The Village Church led musical worship, and the Tennessee Mass Choir presented a rousing set of gospel songs.

Of course, the success of any conference is demonstrated in the effect it has on and the fruit it produces in the lives of those who attend or view it.

Here are a few takeaways for me from this conference and from talks at the Together for the Gospel conference a week later:

-- We should listen to and learn from those whose experience in America is different than ours.

-- White evangelicals should listen to and learn from black pastors and leaders and not wait for white pastors and leaders finally to say what African-American saints have long said about racial justice.

-- We should be devoted to thinking biblically -- not politically, culturally or tribally -- about racial justice and harmony.

-- We should be committed to developing friendships with Christians and non-Christians of other skin colors and ethnicities.

-- We should pay the cost required to achieve racial justice and unity in the face of criticism and resistance from others, including some in the church.

May God grant us grace to do all this and more, as well as to become diverse communities in our churches for the glory of God and the display of the gospel and kingdom of Jesus.

-- Photo by on Unsplash

Friday, March 16, 2018

Christian, please fight for your faith (Part 3)

We enter a war zone when we cast ourselves upon Christ and His saving work. We are no longer His enemies. Instead, we have a new enemy, and conscientious objection in this conflict is not an option.

As I said in Part 2 here, the Bible is one of the means of grace God has provided to help us persevere in the battle against falling into unbelief. Here are two more:

2. The gospel

We must not only know and believe the gospel. We must understand the gospel's benefits to us. We must remind ourselves of the gospel. As is often said in evangelical Christian circles, we must preach the gospel to ourselves.

The New Testament describes the gospel work of Jesus in His life, death and resurrection, and it also explains what our Savior accomplished for us. As a result of this saving work, we are counted righteous in Christ by God the Father. There is no longer any condemnation for us. All of our sins are forgiven. We are children of God whom He disciplines and loves with an everlasting love. We are united with Christ. Our identity is in Him. He is our life.

We must rehearse these gospel truths, as well as others, if we would survive and subdue in warfare. We must jog our memories regularly about our gracious salvation and all the benefits that flow from it.

In his book A Gospel Primer for Christians, Milton Vincent says the pieces of the armor of God described in Eph. 6:11-17 are essentially different ways of depicting the gospel. "That God would tell me to 'take up' and 'put on' this gospel armor alerts me to the fact that I do not automatically come into each day protected by the gospel," Vincent writes. "In fact, these commands imply that I am vulnerable to defeat and injury unless I seize upon the gospel and arm myself with it from head to toe."

The gospel of Jesus is a vital weapon in our battle against unbelief.

3. The church

The church isn't an option in or a supplement to the Christian life. Nor is it a frill in the fight for faith. The church -- the local church, that is -- is essential to the perseverance of each follower of Jesus.

The corporate gathering of the church in a weekly rhythm unites us with our fellow saints in confession of our faith in Christ. It involves us in a pattern of worship -- adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication -- we are wise to follow as households and individuals. We proclaim the gospel to one another in singing, praying, reading, preaching, teaching, serving and loving.

With our brothers and sisters, we enter into the kind of friendship and fellowship that provides a safe place for us to share our sins, fears, anxieties, burdens, trials, sufferings and losses. With one another, we learn we are not alone in the battle. With each other, we understand we can be vulnerable, because grace reigns. We need grace, and we give grace. With one another, we are reminded we are united in pursuing the goal of Christ-likeness. We encourage, challenge, pray for and even confront one another so that we all might continue to trust in Jesus.

Enduring in belief is a corporate project. The church plays an indispensable role in each saint's completion of that effort.

-- Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Christian, please fight for your faith (Part 2)

A Christian will "hold fast" (I Cor. 15:2) to the gospel of Jesus and continue in the faith to the end, but that does not mean he or she will do so without a fight. As I said in Part 1 here, the war we enter as Christians when we are saved is real, and it has no conscientious objectors who will survive.

I commend to you three vital means of grace God has provided to help us persevere until we are with Christ. While they apply to overcoming a variety of sins, I point to them in this series of posts as weapons in the fight against falling into unbelief. The first is this:

1. The Bible

If we would continue in the faith, we should maintain trust in God's Word. Our deceitful enemy, Satan, would have us question the Bible's infallibility and authority. Once we doubt -- and continue to doubt -- the trustworthiness of any part of the Word, we are vulnerable to a slide into mistrust of all of the Word, including its testimony to the saving work of Jesus. Such doubt left unresolved leaves us prey to the devourer, who will consume our faith and us.

Billy Graham, who passed away Feb. 21, faced a crisis regarding the Bible's truthfulness nearly 70 years ago. How he responded made all the difference for him and his ministry, and it serves as a model for us.

Some of Graham's friends and associates began to reject the inerrancy of Scripture, and he began to question intellectually if the Bible could be trusted. The crisis reached a climax one night, when Graham settled the issue once and for all in a forest. On one occasion, he said of that pivotal evening:

"And I took this Bible, and I said, 'Lord, I don't understand all about this Bible. There are many things I cannot explain.' And I remember laying the Bible out on a stump, and I said, 'Lord, this is Your book. I'm going to accept it by faith like I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ by faith and He saved me and changed me and transformed me. I'm accepting this as Your Word by faith.'"

Graham's trust in Scripture resulted in his constant appeal to its authority in his preaching. He became known for saying time and again, "The Bible says." The salvation of many in his meetings over the decades seems to testify to the power and fruitfulness that comes from believing Scripture's truthfulness.

While there are questions in Scripture we should try to answer, ultimately you and I are faced with this question: Do we trust the Bible's testimony of itself -- that it is the fully infallible, totally trustworthy Word of God? On numerous occasions since becoming a Christian, I have responded to questions that arise in my own mind about the Bible in this way: God, I don't understand this and I can't explain everything, but I reaffirm my belief that this book is Your Word and I will continue to trust that it is without error.

Trusting God means to trust His Word. The Bible is a gift to God's people. Trusting its truthfulness is critical in the life-long war in which we are enlisted. That means believing all God's promises therein and all He says therein about Himself, about us and about His saving work. Let's not waste the powerful weapon God has armed us with in His Word.

(Part 3 will address other means of grace in this battle.)

-- Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Christian, please fight for your faith (Part 1)

Christianity is warfare.

I have grown to appreciate that reality about following Jesus in an increasing way as the years have passed. My own need to win the battle in my mind and heart has sensitized me to this truth. So has my observation of others who seem to have failed to engage in the fight with the weapons Christians have been provided.

A few years ago I was able to visit with a friend whom I had heard no longer believed the faith he had long confessed. The two of us spoke while surrounded by many others, so the occasion did not provide me an opportunity to speak at length. After he explained his departure from following Christ, I said something like this: "I won't say a lot at this point, but I believe I should say this: 'We have to fight if we are going to continue to follow Jesus.'"

A phrase in the passage I preached on Sunday -- I Corinthians 15:1-11 -- points to this kind of combat. In the first two verses, the apostle Paul wrote, "Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain."

Paul was saying the fact a Christian holds "fast the word" he preached -- the gospel, in other words -- is evidence that person's profession of faith was not false.

This is certainly not the only such warning in the New Testament. Paul wrote to the Colossian Christians, "He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach -- if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard" (Col. 1:22-23a).

These texts testify to this reality: True faith results in continuing to believe the gospel, continuing to trust in Jesus, to the end. But that perseverance in the faith is not without opposition. We must recognize the conflict we entered when Christ purchased us for Himself. The war is real, and it has no conscientious objectors who will survive. We must fight.

(Part 2 will address how we are to wage this battle.)

-- Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

New desires for evangelicals in 2018

I started this post nearly a month ago and have finally decided to finish it. At the start of last year, I posted seven desires for evangelical Christians in 2017. Here is that list minus the comments made on each entry:

-- More evangelicals would realize Christ is their life and treasure Him supremely as a result.

-- More evangelicals would recognize the significance of the church in their lives.

-- More evangelical churches would be intentional in corporate worship.

-- More evangelical churches would base their ministry on the gospel.

-- More evangelical churches would be committed to expositional preaching.

-- More evangelicals would value the sanctity and dignity of each human being.

-- More white evangelicals would grow in understanding the perspectives of their minority brothers and sisters.

Those remain desires of mine for us as evangelicals, but I have two more to add for 2018:

1. More evangelicals would actually be, and act like, evangelicals.

Increasingly the last couple of years, the label "evangelical" has been up for debate. Some contend it should be discarded because it has come to have a political, cultural or even racial meaning rather than a biblical or doctrinal meaning.

LifeWay Research provided some clarifying information in an early December report. Its survey found less than half of self-identified evangelicals -- 45 percent -- strongly agree with foundational evangelical beliefs as defined by LifeWay, such as salvation by faith in Christ alone and the Bible as a Christian's highest authority. Many Americans identify as evangelicals who are not evangelical in their doctrine. Support for a president or a public policy agenda does not make a person an evangelical.

Yet, division exists even among those who hold evangelical beliefs. Some evangelicals seem to make a position on a controversial issue like immigration the basis for a divisive spirit with brothers and sisters who disagree. Evangelicals remain sharply divided over President Trump, especially his rhetoric. This leads to my second desire:

2. More evangelicals would focus on being the church instead of saving America.

It is clear to me the biblical priority for a Christian is to live in community with other disciples in a way that glorifies God, exalts Jesus, and displays and proclaims the true gospel before a watching world. The church -- not our country -- is to be our priority. The United States is important, and we should be faithful citizens as Christ-followers and work for policies that honor God and provide for human flourishing. But America is not ultimate. God's kingdom is. Each of our churches is an embassy of that kingdom, an embassy that reflects what God and His love are like.

-- Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash