Every field of knowledge has its own words meant to help people communicate and make that communication more effective. However, these technical descriptions can also make the field more difficult for outsiders to understand. They also can leave the impression on insiders that they know what they mean when in reality they are repeating jargon they don’t really understand.
This is especially a problem in religious faith. Churches and parents can easily adopt religious language that they hear repeated without really knowing what it means. This keeps their faith shallow, makes their attempts to share the gospel dramatically less effective, and confuses the church’s children into disinterest in the spiritual convictions of their parents.
For example. two of the most important concepts in the Christian faith are glory and grace. You will read these words in the Bible and hear them in churches and spiritual conversations. It is easy to convince yourself that you understand these words clearly – even if you don’t. Further, these words — grace and glory — are often not found together in many modern churches. To many Christians, the words seem to have cross purposes rather than beautiful and clarifying union. Yet if you misunderstand these two concepts, you cannot understand the gospel, or the message of salvation in Jesus, at the level of depth that produces full freedom and transformation. The gospel won’t change you that much, because you won’t know God that well.
So, let me try to give fairly brief clarifying explanations of the meaning of these two words.
Luke 22:35-38 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied.
As we come to the end of the Gospel of Luke, one of the passages most people would rather skip over quickly is Luke 22:35-38. This is because in it Jesus commands his disciples to buy swords, which are no doubt instruments of violence. This passage is confusing to most modern Christians for a variety of reasons. First, why does Jesus command this? He seems to be something of a pacifist, and within a few hours, he will reproach Peter for actually using a sword on the high priest’s servant—likely one of the same two swords mentioned in this passage. Further, the commentaries on this point are puzzling. Virtually all of them interpret the passage in strange ways that strike me as cop-outs. This modern commentary by Robert Stein (1992) is typical of most that are presently in print:
“And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. Even if the exact interpretation of this verse is uncertain, it is clear that a new situation is envisioned. The disciples would soon encounter greater opposition and even persecution (cf. Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–2; 12:1–5). The reference to the purchase of a sword is strange. Attempts to interpret this literally as a Zealot-like call to arms, however, are misguided and come to grief over the saying’s very “strangeness.” Understood as a call to arms, this saying not only does not fit Jesus’ other teachings but radically conflicts with them. Also if two swords are “enough” (22:38), war with the legions of Rome was certainly not envisioned…The “sword” is best understood in some metaphorical sense as indicating being spiritually armed and prepared for battle against the spiritual foes. The desperate need to be “armed” for these future events is evident by the command to sell one’s mantle, for this garment was essential to keep warm at night (see comments on 6:29).”
Or to go further back, this is from John Calvin, who I often find very helpful:
“And yet he does not call them to an outward
conflict, but only, under the comparison of fighting, he warns them of the
severe struggles of temptations which they must undergo, and of the fierce
attacks which they must sustain in spiritual contests. That they might more
willingly throw themselves on the providence of God, he first reminded them, as
I have said, that God took care to supply them with what was necessary, even
when they carried with them no supplies of food and raiment. Having experienced
so large and seasonable supplies from God, they ought not, for the future, to
entertain any doubt that he would provide for every one of their
Over the years, some commentators have even sought to show that when Jesus says “that is enough” in reference to the two swords, he is not saying, “Two will be plenty,” but “Enough talk of swords. Literal swords isn’t what I mean! Quit talking about literal swords.”
I disagree with all these approaches for a number of reasons. Let me list a few, but that is not my main interest. My main interest is how and why we accept certain interpretations of scripture.
When I was in college, I came to talk to one of the pastors at my church about how we could reach more college students. We talked about moving our only service from 9am to a later time. We talked about including applications and questions relevant to college students, as well as some other possibilities. He listened politely and expressed his concern for the college students I was working with. However, when I finished, he had a fairly brief answer for me. He said something like, “Nic, I know that you want to reach students and give them answers to their questions. But you need to understand that at bottom, their rejection of the gospel isn’t about philosophy, apologetics or better preaching; it’s about unbelief. They don’t want to believe. And when people don’t want to believe there is no reason good enough and no information complete enough. And the university is septic with that kind of unbelief.”
I knew there was something wrong with that answer, but I had a hard time teasing it out. On the one hand, I knew he was partly right. Unbelief is the most recurring sin in the Bible and the most predictable attitude of the human heart. God talks about it constantly, and the narratives of the Bible show us everywhere what it looks like. The prophets explain its fruit and Jesus attacks it regularly. Unbelief is the great sin.
Yet I also knew he was partly wrong. Not every difficulty believing in the Bible is unbelief. Jude says to be “merciful to those who doubt” (Jude 1:22). Even where the word “unbelief” (apistis) is used, there are situations where is it not considered a sin. Like the father that said, “I do believe! Help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Yet, even for Christians, unbelief is still the greatest enemy in the mind and heart. It says it this way in Hebrews 3:12-15:
“See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.”
The author calls the unbelieving heart the “sinful” heart and says that it is the result of our hearts being hardened by “sin’s deceitfulness.” That is, unbelief is a kind of dishonesty and unreality. It is a rebellion against God’s truth: a “turning away from the living God.”
Five biblical categories for difficulty believing in God
Ignorance: A lack of education. Not knowing about God’s truth.
Doubt: A weakness of heart. When knowledge fails to strengthen the heart with the courage of faith.
Non-belief: Having information, we remain unpersuaded. Lack of persuasive reasons to believe.
Disbelief: A lack of conceivability. The gospel seems too good to be true, or too bad to be considered.
Unbelief: A moral failure to believe what should be believed. A refusal to believe and a subversive attitude. A turning away from God.
Any Christian of any orientation who is seeking to be faithful to the Gospel is going to find stiff resistance from the world generally and possibly even from self-identifying as Christians. Living this out faithfully requires more than the solution to a question. There is a deep tension here that must be managed. It is a brokenness that must be carried, a burden that we must bear together. The point where truth and gracious love meet always seems to land within this tension, and that’s how it will remain until that final day.
I have compiled below some of the best and most usable resources I know of that can help you learn about the issues related to faithful Christian belief and practice and alternate sexual orientations. Hopefully this page will grow and be refined over time. Feel free to make suggestions if you know of something helpful I have overlooked or am not aware of.
I returned from India a few weeks ago now and am finally fully back on Midwestern time…and diet.
For those that don’t know, my oldest daughter Abigail and I were in India for about ten days at the end of October through the beginning of November. One of the nonprofit boards that I serve on is a ministry called Serving Alongside. Serving Alongside is a supporting nonprofit for emerging Asian leaders engaging in church leadership development, especially in India. Manohar James, who is on the High Point staff team, is the executive director of Serving Alongside and a ministry in India called Redeem India. I serve as the president of Serving Alongside.
Part of my responsibilities as president is to go to our ministries in India to see them firsthand, to oversee their administrative and financial workings, and to do training with Indian pastors. This last trip we went to four locations and had more than 1,100 participants. Tom Flaherty, the pastor at City Church, also came as part of the teaching team. It’s not a glamorous trip: switching hotels most nights, eating food unfamiliar to your digestive system, sweating your way through pretty hot days, and trying to remain relatively unseen to a political climate in which we are unwelcome. But the effect of the work is profound. All pastors are in need of encouragement and further training. However, the pastors that we reach usually have no biblical training, and are basically making up pastoral ministry as they go along. They may have had some kind of mentor, but that mentor often had received no training themselves. The result, as I have heard from Indian Christians, is real weakness in the spiritual leadership of the church, especially in any area requiring training.
What we deliver is eight modular seminary courses that we believe are a basic training for pastoral ministry. These are each delivered in two day seminars. The goal is to have the seminars in each state of India, which has 25 states. This is mainly because most Indian states each have a different main state language. This means that the resources that we use and the teaching that we offer has to be translated into many languages, since we move among multiple regional locations.
Yet with all these difficulties and more, the hunger we find in pastors for encouragement and training draws them from everywhere. The content we offer them can be demanding and sometimes difficult for them to accept, because it is outside of what is normal (according to what is familiar to them) in the church. This is why we keep our teaching rooted directly in the Bible. When we are able to show that our teaching is the proper understanding of numerous Bible passages and is in keeping with the gospel, pastors overwhelmingly embrace the education we offer.
Although we are still sorting through the many evaluation forms, the trend seems to say that people were very encouraged by our most recent meetings. In most locations, we are seeing a groundswell of serious pastors who want to grow and meet the present moment emerging in India. It is a moment of great economic and educational transformation. It is a time in which government is increasingly condoning persecution, but this is also a time of profound opportunity.
I want to especially thank the church for making it possible for me to bring my daughter Abigail. Although Abby had to raise her support like anyone else, the church donated to her fundraising through the Global Missions Team. Additionally, many people worked hard to make it possible for me to go on this trip without any more added stress than was necessary. I imagine most people hardly knew that I was gone, and yet I am hoping that this experience was transformative to Abby in many ways. She says it was, and I trust the work of God in her. It’s easy to forget how hard it is to learn to trust God and walk with him in your teenage years. It’s hard to find your security in God at the very moment you feel most insecure in the world. But I think this trip helped: travel tends to help teenagers, and trips like this all the more. She also got to spend time with Tom, who was like a spiritual grandfather to her. Abby doesn’t have any believing grandfathers, and so spending time with Tom, Manohar, and myself on this trip was like hanging out with your dad, your little-bit-crazy grandfather, and your cool Indian uncle all at once.
In all, this trip was another great experience in India. We delivered vital ministry to pastors who greatly appreciated it. I believe that this work will effect fruit in hundreds of churches throughout the country. I spent time investing in an important relationship with Tom. We do a lot of work together between our churches and the Christian schools, and getting to know him on a deeper level is critical and strategic to God’s work in Madison. I had the privilege to observe Manohar’s diligence in his work in India. He works very hard to provide great training and also to be a careful steward over the funds given for this ministry. And lastly, I was able to spend precious time with my daughter. For all these things, I thank God. He truly gives back more and abundantly all of the things that we have given up in his service. We only need eyes to see.
Every church is changing. Even though the gospel is unchanging, every church is an expression of the gospel through their language, culture and time. But as the culture, language and time outside of the church continues to change, and each church’s cultural expression will fall behind if it does not change. No church that prevails in this culture can measure itself by other normal, or even “successful,” churches. Even growing churches tend to grow because they are “better” when compared with other churches, which means that often these churches grow because people transfer from other churches. There is some growth by conversion, but very little even in most growing churches. Continue reading Our Changing Church→