I can be obsessive. The Bible says that whatever our hand finds to do we should do it with all our strength, and doing so is hardwired into my psyche. When I focus on something, I really dig into it and don’t rest till I fully get it. While my kids might tell you this can lead to some over-the-top board game competitions in my family, I don’t think on the whole it’s a bad personality trait.
The Bible also tells us to be wise and to take our thoughts captive. Doing the one without the other – that is, committing fully to something without being strategic about it – is a surefire recipe for a misspent life. In my youth, I gave myself to all sorts of projects and causes that, sadly, will not stand in light of eternity.
As a result, over the years I’ve learned to be deliberate about my obsessions, to guard my passions. I realize I’m past the midpoint in my life and I don’t want to waste my remaining years pursuing random, meaningless or selfish things.
As my recent string of blog posts reveals, for quite some time I’ve been focused on getting to the heart The Way that God desires for us to function as a Body of believers. Some folks have asked why this is so important to me, as it can seem like an obscure topic. No doubt it’d be easier for me to follow the herd and focus my attention on the latest football stats, celebrity gossip or political drama, and then sit in a pew and baaaa in unison with the rest of the sheep.
This pursuit has proven to be a challenge and a sacrifice, as it’s taken me into a territory where I often feel the need to tiptoe and whisper, lest I incur the wrath of those who are content with the status quo. But try as I might, I simply don’t think there’s anything more important for me to be obsessed about. This is where the Lord has called my attention, and I can’t rest till I complete my assignment.
As I see it, there are three main reasons why this is so important:
First is practical. For years I sat in pews, served on committees and paid my tithes at a local “church,” going through the motions of churchianity. All the while, we heard messages, sang songs, and participated in studies based on the Bible, which was said to be the inerrant Word of the God (the same God, we were told, who established this “religion” to begin with).
Call me a rebel, but I figured, if I’m going to give so much of my life to my “church” and abide by its rules for living, I should probably read its Holy Book and see what it says. In it, I found a number of crystal-clear promises like if I seek first God’s Kingdom and righteousness, He will provide for all my physical needs, and if I trust and acknowledge God above my own understanding, He will guide my steps. I also read that the Christian’s life is supposed to be marked by true and abiding peace, love, joy and contentment in all situations (which I certainly wasn’t feeling despite my devotion to “church”).
And so I decided to see for myself if all this stuff was legit. I mean, if the Bible is true and God is real, then He should be able to keep those promises, right? And if He can’t, then it’s all a big joke and we’re wasting our time with all this “church” stuff. If it’s not true, and there is no eternal judge or afterlife, then we’re fools not to live large and make the most of our time on earth. On the other hand, if it really is true, then we’re fools not to do every single thing He tells us to do, every step of the way. Living in the twilight zone in between these, as I did for so long, is a meaningless, pointless existence.
To get to the bottom of it all, I jumped into my part of God’s promises with both feet, and it wasn’t long before I saw first-hand that God is real and His promises are true. He’s given me everything He promises and then some, and has demonstrated His reality in countless, miraculous ways.
Grounded in this certainty, I’ve made my pursuit of the Living God and His perfect will my overriding obsession. I want to know Him more and understand – and obey – His Word as deeply as humanly possible. I’d be a fool not to. And since the thing we call “church” absorbs the lion’s share of the time and money we dedicate to God, I figured this was a good place to start digging into His will.
Fact is, if I found out “church” as we know it today is aligned with God’s desire, then I’d want to do it will all my strength. (And I’d want to know which one is right, because most claim all the others are wrong.) On the other hand, if the way we practice “church” is not what God desires, then why do it? If it’s for tradition alone, that’s a terrible reason. Think about it: If we’re off target with this, we’re flushing a massive, tragic amount of human time, talent and treasure down the toilet – and missing the full realization of the blessings God has in store for us.
So my quest for the truth of Church is, in part, fully practical. I want to know how God wants us to live, and I want to follow it to the best of my abilities – because I want to grab hold of all that He has in store for me, and I don’t want to waste my time on an activity He doesn’t endorse.
The second reason I believe this is a worthwhile obsession is because we are called, as ambassadors of Christ, to truly serve the needs of others, as He served us. This is the true religion that pleases God, and we are falling terribly short of it.
We were designed by God to fully thrive only when rightly connected to the Body, according to The Way put forth in Scripture. It is in and through the healthy Body of Christ alone that all our needs are truly met: financial, physical, emotional and spiritual.
Compared to the integrated, inter-dependent, egalitarian, dynamic, immersive, organic fellowship experience of the early Church, our “churches” today offer very little. Sure, there are often “fellowship” opportunities in the “fellowship hall,” and many are making headway with “home groups,” but these are insignificant in light of the richness of true Body life as God intends it.
The lifestyle of the early Church, as recorded in Scripture, is so foreign to us that we simply don’t know what we’re missing and how badly we’re failing. If only we knew how much better things could be for all of us – especially for “the least of these” – I believe we’d drop everything to grab hold of it. If the Body were to stand up in its full potential, we would transform the world overnight.
Instead, we live lives of disconnectedness … superficiality … lack … competition … fear … pride … despair. Scratch the surface of just about any “church” today and – if you are sober-minded and humble enough to admit it – you will find these in abundance. We should stop accepting this as our lot in life! It doesn’t have to be this way!
(Please understand, I say this in comparison to The Way that God desires for us. I’m not pointing fingers at anyone; I’m just trying to point us all towards Him. No doubt there are a huge number of “churches” that are much better than the cruel world. It’s just that to me, “better than” is not satisfactory when Christ came to give us the best.)
Here’s a hard truth: If you’ve sat in the same “church services” as someone for a long time, and you’re not integrally connected to each other – sharing possessions, truly serving each other’s needs, praying insightfully for each other, enjoying frequent fellowship, and so on – then you can call that place a lot of things, but please don’t call it a Church, because God sure doesn’t. Deep, all-in, intimate interconnectedness, where we come together to fully meet each other’s needs, is the heart of the Biblical definition of Church. But it’s virtually unheard of in “church” today.
This kind of interdependence is such an inborn need that throughout history countless millions of people have fought and died for corrupt, counterfeit versions. In reality, the promise behind communism and socialism is nothing more than an empty, evil, God-less version of the promise of true Church. There’s a reason this political paradigm is a continual, global force to be reckoned with. The meteoric rise of “social networking” is another testament to this universal human need. God made us to crave Body life!
We will never have our own needs fully met, or be able to meet the needs of others as we are called to, until we rediscover The Way. We will never be able to fully practice the true religion that pleases God, or unleash our full potential, until the living Body of Christ rises up, free from the shackles of division, human control and traditionalism.
Until we do our job, fake, shallow and harmful counterfeits will continue to flourish, and the people of the world – even “churchgoers” – will continue to needlessly suffer.
The third and most important reason I’ve focused so long on this topic is because I believe it’s central to God’s Big Picture, His original intent for creation and mankind.
God’s first words to mankind were the instructions to establish dominion, to conquer. Some of the last words in the Bible say that “he who conquers will inherit all things.” From beginning to end, and all points in between, the Bible gives us examples, instructions, promises and commands from God all pointing to His overriding desire for us – His children – to establish His Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven.
Creation exists, and we are here in it, for this one purpose, and the end won’t come till we are done. We are not here just to “do our best” or enjoy “prosperity” until some random “end of the world.” We are instead here to conquer the kingdom of darkness; to follow His step-by-step guidance, and make use of His divine provision and power, to continually and successfully advance His Kingdom into every sphere.
The more I dig into it, the more I realize that God’s Kingdom is synonymous with His Body. The uprising of the Body of Christ is the same thing as the manifestation of the Kingdom come. The Body is the Kingdom – the Kingdom of righteousness, love, peace, joy and contentment in the Holy Spirit. It is the living entity that will emerge when we all let Christ live in and through us, and allow Him to knit us together in the unity of the Spirit.
His Kingdom cannot advance separate from true, organic Body life. It will come not by might or power, but by the Spirit of God – inside-out and from the bottom-up. Ultimate victory will not come through building projects, committees, mass-market campaigns, strident activism, or any amount of time and expense sunk into the institutions we call “church.” These things only get in the way.
We’ve been doing “church” our way for centuries, and yet we’re increasingly mocked, marginalized and fragmented. I’m passionate about God’s Kingdom, and so I am passionate about rediscovering God’s strategic plan for His Body on earth.
Advancing the Kingdom is our God-given mandate and purpose, and our only path to an eternal inheritance. By His design, there is only one way to advance the Kingdom, and that is by following The Way.
And so, yes, I think that getting to the heart of this is a worthwhile obsession. I wish more Christians felt the same!
– You are the salt of the world. Stay salty, my friends!
The Bible says the Body of Christ is supposed to function under His headship, and be knit together by what every ligament supplies. It says we all have a role to play, and that it won’t work right until we do. It says it’s the saints’ job, in general, to do the work of ministry, and the leaders’ jobs to equip them, and not the other way around. It says God is giving to the Church “first the apostle, then the prophet.” That said …
What if the prophet of God is artsy, has long hair, and talks with a stutter? The one God has given the gift of clear Spiritual sight, and to whom He reveals the plans of heaven, has been beaten down emotionally all his life because he’s “odd” and so can’t bring himself to speak up during the organized, orderly Sunday Morning ceremony, and has never been invited to participate in “church” leadership?
What if the one called and gifted as an apostle has an MBA and left the organized “church” years ago because his gifts were unwelcome? Apostles, in the model God intends – the ones He says should be first in the Kingdom lineup – simply don’t fit well in the stiff, pyramid structures of todays “churches.” Just a little too passionate to sit quietly and play “nice” in the face of stubborn ignorance, I guess.
What if the smartest person in the congregation is a geek? The one with the gift of healing is a shut in? The one with faith that can move mountains smells bad because she has 100 cats? The deliverance warrior who can face demons head-on never sat through “membership” class because he finds the Sunday “sermons” to be like watching Barney reruns?
What if God gives a revelatory word to a child, or a divine vision to a newly recovering alcoholic?
What if God is calling a body of believers to do something the IRS would consider “for profit” (like make tents, or own a fishing company, as early apostles did), and so the “church council” is aghast at the very idea? (The infamous BTK serial killer was a respected member his “church council,” remember.)
What if we as a body defined our “religious service” as a ceremony we conduct on Sunday mornings, instead of as God does – and that is, rolling up our sleeves, working up a sweat, and giving sacrificially to help those in need?
What if we defined “worship” as singing? What if we thought “church” was a building, or a defined organizational structure, or a set time of meeting? (If you’ve sat for years during “worship service” in the same row with a person, and you don’t know the most intimate details of their life, you don’t know their true giftedness, and you’re not sowing into each other’s lives on a regular basis, then you can call that place a lot of things, but don’t call it a Church, because God sure doesn’t.)
What if the founder of our denomination or congregation was indeed called by God for a reason and a season, but because of our way of doing things, he went further and solidified his position for the long term through a formal legal, organizational or theological structure? What if the person wielding his positional authority today was selected by an appointed or elected committee, for who-knows-what real reasons?
What if the guy with a “seminary” degree and “ordination” certificate went that route because he was a failure at everything else, or because his fiancée wanted to be a “pastor’s wife”? They’re out there, I know them personally (you probably do, too, unawares), and today they’re good little “pastors” at nice little “churches.” (Not surprisingly, they’re often the first ones to claim that God stopped calling apostles and prophets 2,000 years ago … and the sheep just follow along out of empty, dangerous tradition, because “pastor said so, and he’s ordained.”)
Seriously, what if the nice, charming guy who is decent at administration and who is a great public speaker and fundraiser is really not the one God wants calling the shots? Those are gifts of a politician, not a shepherd. Yet our model of “churchianity” has thrust them to the top.
What if there is a growing body of passionate, faithful, mature brothers and sisters who are truly led by the Spirit, and who regularly gather with other believers to serve each other and advance the Kingdom, yet … they sleep in on Sunday mornings (to obey God’s command to take a real day of rest each week) … they don’t ever enter a steeple-topped building … they can’t stomach listening to the weekly McSermon … they don’t recognize the Spiritual authority of a man who claims it simply because he holds a man-made title and “ordination,” and … they don’t belong to one of the Christian country clubs that man calls “church”? (Darn back-door losses! What is this world coming to?)
I don’t have to ask “what if” for any of these questions, because this is the reality we live in today.
No wonder Christ is increasingly mocked and marginalized in the world. Look what we consider to be His “body” today!
No wonder we’ve lost our influence in the culture. We can’t even influence our own selves to clearly discern and be obedient to His Word, because “the old wine tastes better.”
No wonder we have to fake out folks with a Sunday morning rock concert and stirring motivational speech just to get them to join our “church.” We don’t offer them much else anymore.
No wonder youth ministry today is typically little more than cheap, worldly, “cool,” entertainment with the name of Jesus occasionally slipped in when it’s not too creepy. We simply don’t understand the fact that their deepest desire is to be real, because we ourselves don’t know what real is.
No wonder the most popular “pastors” are either tradition-bound, toothless types who don’t want to shake things up, or prosperity hustlers who encourage their flock to live it up in the here and now. Give ‘em what they want, because what they really need might make them uncomfortable.
No wonder the general consensus among Christians today is that our best hope is for Jesus to come back soon and take us home, in some heretical idea of a sudden “rapture.” Kingdom victory is why we’re here. It’s our God-given assignment and destiny. But with today’s churchianity model, it’s simply not going to be possible.
“It is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said: ‘Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Be very careful, then, how you live–not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” Ephesians 5:14-17
– You are the salt of the world. Stay salty, my friends!
God has taken me far and wide in His service. I’ve been blessed to spend time in remote villages in Brazil and Honduras, the streets of Paris and London, big cities and rural villages in Tanzania and Nigeria, and communities all across America, including a recent mission trip with a group of young people to an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. I’ve dined in the Ritz in Paris and a thatch-roofed hut in a village that had never before been visited by an outsider. I’ve sat behind Billy Graham’s private desk and behind natives in dugout canoes; preached in opulent American sanctuaries and an overcrowded Third World prison; jetted in First Class and been sandwiched in rundown, foreign taxicabs. And along the way, I’ve been privileged to get to know presidents, governors, celebrities and billionaires … and indigents, addicts, lepers and hardened criminals.
Even as I write this, recounting these adventures feels like watching Forrest Gump share his life story. I never set out to travel or to experience all that I have; it’s only by God’s grace and good pleasure that I’ve witnessed so much of this world and met so many interesting people. Along the way, I’ve done my best to extract every bit of knowledge and wisdom from these experiences, and now I feel burdened to share as much as I can of what I’ve learned with others.
In my missionary travels, one thing I’ve seen over and over again is the tragic disconnect of American elitism. Don’t get me wrong – I’m proud to be an American, and I am thankful for our nation’s relative freedom, security, prosperity and Godly heritage. But sadly, it seems we American Christians – and the people we seek to reach – are deceived into thinking our material prosperity is somehow akin to godliness. It’s like everyone thinks we have it all figured out, and that our ways are the best ways, in every way. As a result, folks around the world tend to be drawn to us like moths to a flame. They generally come with their hands out, and we’re generally way too eager to fill them with stuff – and then consider our missionary work done.
Our money. Our technology. Our buildings. The way we do “church.” All these are craved by the “have nots,” who tend to think, like a cow straining for the “greener” grass on the other side of the fence, that material things and empty religion hold any real value.
Let me tell you, it’s true. The first thing you notice when you visit an impoverished area of the world – including here within our own borders – is all the things they lack that we take for granted. But if you spend enough time there, you begin to see the opposite – the things they take for granted that we lack. And when you step back and look at it all in perspective, you find that, in every important way, we’ve got our whole value system upside down. Because the society the world calls “rich” is one of the most impoverished in the world in the things that matter most – and the “poor” of this world are some of the wealthiest in every important way.
I just got back from a 3-week trip to Southern Nigeria. It is very similar to the other Third World countries I’ve visited. Every Christian I spoke with there has experienced and witnessed countless, authentic miracles. Try finding a mainstream American Christian who has seen one. The people in their “poor” culture put God first, value family, honor their elders, crave knowledge, walk with dignity and respect, and work tenaciously for a better tomorrow. (I visited a large, public, state university, and you know what? In every possible way, it was more of a Christian school than any “Christian” school I’ve ever seen in America!)
Sadly, these are mainly far-out, abstract “ideals” for Americans – and no longer the bedrock values upon which our culture is built.
And even sadder, they seem to think that if only we could be more like America, then everything will all be better.
Yet saddest of all is that we tend to think the same way, too! So our missionary goal is to export “Americanism” – the worship of stuff; the pursuit of physical comfort and stimulation above all else; the hollow sensational, showmanship of our churchianity.
Sometimes I feel like screaming, “STOP! We’ve got it all wrong!” We’re the ones who need missionaries from there! We need to go there with our ears open and lips closed. THEY have what WE need, and not the other way around!
In my most recent mission trips, some simple truths have begun to crystallize in my mind. Everywhere I go, and everyone I meet, all share the same needs – and the same solution to their ills:
No matter who they are, their potential is inborn. It’s not something you or I can give them; it is a gift of God alone. Every single human being has the opportunity to be adopted as a full offspring and heir of the Creator and King of the Universe. They have royal blood and birthright! The very best thing we can do is simply recognize that in them. How do you recognize royalty? With honor and respect! These – nothing more, and nothing less – are the keys to unlocking their full potential. They cost us nothing, and yet we tend to find them the hardest to give.
Our Provider is their Provider, too. There’s not one thing you can give them that God can’t give them better and more abundantly. The same promise applies to them as to you: If they seek first His Kingdom and righteousness, He will give them everything they need, every single day. Of course, if God puts on your heart to give something – money or other – do it joyfully, only give credit where it’s due, and don’t go beyond His leading. Just remember, they don’t need another thing, they need the King! Introduce them, and He’ll take it from there!
They sure as heck don’t need to be indoctrinated into our traditions. Their unique way of doing “church” – whether it be through dancing to drums, or seemingly chaotic celebrations, or praying in sweat lodges – so long as it’s Christ-centered and Spirit led – may very well be superior to what you and I have come to call “church.” Once again, open your ears and close your mouth. You may very well learn something. If our forefathers had done this, our world would be a brighter place today.
Peace, joy and love are fruits of the Spirit, not byproducts of any material things. And they’re contagious! Just walk the path the Lord lays before you, step by step, and these things will be manifest in and around you.
Their best path forward is the one led by the Spirit. It’s not according to the “American Way,” because, as a nation, we’ve lost our way. Introduce them to the Father through the Son, and help them hear the voice of the Spirit, and you’ll be equipping them for an incredible destiny.
The best thing of all is, you don’t need to be rich, or eloquent, or brave to forever change the world. You don’t even need to be far from home. Don’t let your abundance — or your lack! – get in the way. Wherever you’re from, and whatever you have, “as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God.” (Romans 8:14). And when all is said and done, that’s all that really matters.
– You are the salt of the world. Stay salty, my friends!
After a month of mission trip travel, and then a couple weeks of recovery, it’s hard to get back in the pattern of writing. Here goes…
A lot of gadgets run in reverse if you put the batteries in backwards. The thing can be built just right and in top working order, and you can still get the exact opposite results than you desire if the energy is flowing the wrong way.
This is a spiritual principle for organizations, and not just a physical phenomenon. Sometimes the solution to a problem is not in changing the structure or mechanics, but in flipping our paradigms upside down.
Look at it this way: It is people who give energy to organizations, and paradigms that direct our energy flow. Jesus said, “the eye is the lamp of the body.” What we fix our eyes on determines our direction. You could say our vision of the way things are supposed to work – that is, the paradigm we hold – is like the polarity of a battery. When we’re properly focused, our institutions produce desired results. When we’re focused the wrong way, we can get the exact opposite results – out of the exact same organization, facilities and people.
If you know me or have kept up with my writings, you know I have a passion for God and His people, and I believe I share His righteous grief that our organized “churches” often produce results that are exactly opposite of what He desires.
There are those revolutionaries who advocate for complete abandonment of the religious institutions and liquidation of “church” facilities, and a wholesale return to the unstructured, unorganized, house-to-house fellowship of the first century. I’d be lying if I denied believing that this may well be called for in quite a few instances. If we want to see Book of Acts results from our faith, we need to go back to Book of Acts expression and manifestation of our faith. But revolution is not the only solution. In fact, I’m beginning to see that as a last resort.
Centuries of faithful effort and investment have been poured into Christianity’s enormous installed base of resources. God can and will use it all in breathtaking ways, if we will only get out of the way and let Him. Old organizations and resources do not have to be old wineskins! If we the people are flexible, open-minded, and malleable in the hands of our loving God, and let Him lead us in a new way, He will pour His new wine into us, and things can change overnight.
The revolutionaries are right about at least one thing: Owing largely to the output of our institutions, Christians have been losing ground – becoming decreasingly influential, relevant and respected in the world – for decades. Just as we can reverse the output of a gadget by turning the battery around, if we let God flip our paradigms, we can turn around the downward trends of our institutions, and put the Body back on path to victory.
I believe this is God’s heart. In the Book of Acts, when the Apostle Paul went into a new city, he was sent “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” His hope, and the hope of the One who sent him, was that the institutional people would turn around and accept the proper paradigm, The Way. Only when they refused did God lead Paul down the revolutionary road.
I expect I’ll be writing more along this line in the future. For now, I’d like to touch on three institutional paradigms that I believe need to be flipped around, back to the way God intends them to be:
1) Who equips who? Often it seems the flow of energy in our churches is to equip the pastor for greater works of ministry. The way we typically practice it today, we see the pastor as the gifted orator, the designated minister, the point man of the enterprise. And so we put more money in the plate to advance his vision, get him a bigger staff and more resources, expand his broadcast reach, and enlarge the facility so more people can hear him speak on Sunday. It’s all about equipping him. But this energy flow is opposite of what God intends! Ephesians 4:11-12 says that, properly aligned, pastors exist to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. When we let this energy once again flow the proper direction, things will change!
2) Coming or going? We seem hung up on the whole Sunday “service” thing, as if attending some traditional, officially-sanctioned music/lecture/fundraiser event on a weekly basis somehow qualifies as having “done church” for the week. As a result, our energy flows into trying to get more people to come into the building to hear about God. But this is 180 degrees opposite from God’s paradigm. To God, it’s not about receiving the Word, it’s about doing it. It’s not about coming into a building every week to hear, it’s about going out into the world every day to tell! We are to send out the workers, not call them in. Church is who we are, not where we go. (And if we think it’s where we go, then clearly it’s not who we are!) Flip this over, and the world will change overnight.
3) Giving or getting? Many believe that if we give to God, then we stand to receive more from others. This is the basis for the whole “prosperity gospel” shtick. The energy flow is all behind the thought that “if you give to God (that is, put it in the right offering plate, of course), your business will prosper.” This is why, after 41 years on the earth, I’ve learned the hard way never to do business with anyone who has a Christian fish symbol on their business card: In my experience, they generally feel entitled to “prosper” a little too much from their dealings, if you know what I mean. God’s paradigm is 100% different, and it’s time we flip. It’s not “give to God and get from people” – instead, it should be give to people and get from God. Jesus said if we give “to the least of these,” then we’re giving to Him. True religion is helping widows and orphans. When we do this, with all our heart – with our time, talent and treasure – God will make sure we have the means to keep doing so. (I encourage you to find out what percentage of the money you put in the offering plate actually goes to widows, orphans and “the least of these.” You may be shocked.)
Let’s flip our paradigms, back to what God intends … and let the world marvel at what He can do!
– You are the salt of the world. Stay salty, my friends!
In Part One, we saw a fellow shoot down a traditional “churchy” evangelist-type who knocked at his door. Now here’s the same guy, the next day, in a different setting.
Hey Joe, do you have a moment?
You know, we’ve been working alongside each other for several years now, and I’ve gotta ask you something. I’ve got something in my head and I just can’t shake it. I know this sounds funny coming from me, but I don’t even know quite how to express it.
Lately it’s like I’ve hit a wall, Joe, and I just can’t seem to get over it. I don’t even know why I’m asking you, and it doesn’t really make sense to me. But it’s just that … well … you seem have something that I really want, and I just can’t find IT anywhere else – and I’ve tried everything!
You know, folks say, “life sucks, then you die,” and I’ve always thought that was just a joke. But damn it, Joe, that’s what’s happening to me, and I don’t want that! I don’t want life to suck, and then I die. When I look at you, your life doesn’t seem to suck at all, and I gotta tell you, that’s sorta frustrating as hell to me.
You see, that’s what doesn’t make sense. I mean, you know that over these years, I’ve played the system, virtually lived here at work, and made a lot more money than you. (No offense there, right? … ok…) And my wife works, too – and I know yours stays at home with your kids. So here we make, what, two or three times what your family makes? We’re able to buy everything we’ve ever wanted, and then some … the best of everything. But you know what? It’s all just so empty! There always seems to be something more, just out of reach, that if we get it, then we’ll have IT. So we work harder and get it, and then there’s something else, and we never really find what we’re really looking for. I’m beginning to think the whole “American Dream” thing is more of a nightmare!
Ok, so when I realized that wasn’t working, I thought, maybe there’s more to IT than that. But I just can’t find what it may be! I’ve slept around, drunk my share – and even tried cocaine. And it’s all just like the other stuff – like I’m almost there, just one more woman, one more drink, one more snort and I’ll finally find IT … and then, well, then there’s always just one more, and one more, and IT always stays just out of reach!
So then I thought maybe that “religion” was the answer. We even went to church for a few years – yeah, me, in church, can you believe it? And Joe, I wasn’t playing around, I really gave it a shot. I raised my hand, went to the front, said “the prayer.” We joined the committees, went to the classes, sang the songs, sent our kids to youth group, and even put money in the plate. Heck, I even started listening to “Christian” music and my wife put a fish on her car! I even quit partying and chasing skirt, for the most part – I really tried to walk the walk and talk the talk. You now, I really liked the services – great music, a heck of a show! – and that pastor really seemed like a heck of guy who really had IT. He can sure get you motivated!
Joe, I wanted it to work. I really did. I grew up going to church, you know, and a lot of my good childhood memories are from there. But you know what? In the end, it was just like everything else! What I really wanted, what my family really needed, was still just one step away! Sing a little louder, memorize a bit more Bible trivia, serve on another committee, sit a little closer to the front … and of course, give a little more money! … and so we did. And did. And did. And we never found what we were looking for!
I really didn’t want to give up, I figured this MUST be the right ladder to climb. But then I stepped back and looked at all the other folks, the ones who seemed to really have IT together, and you know what? While they acted like they had IT, they really didn’t! What’s sad is I recognized those same folks from before — we went to the same titty bars, shopped at the same liquor stores, and even bought coke from the same dealer – yet then on Sunday they’d deny they ever knew me. It was all such an act!
What’s sad is, not even the pastor really had IT! I really do think he meant well, but he was the biggest actor of all! I know I shouldn’t have, but I overheard him one time talking to his wife at the hardware store. I was on the next aisle and they didn’t know anyone was around. And you know what? They actually wanted to get a divorce, but were afraid of how it would look to the “congregation.” You shoulda heard the stuff that came out of their mouths! I was shocked! This was the guy who was trying to tell me how to get IT, and he didn’t even have IT!
And I still didn’t give up. Instead, I went to one of the elders — they’re bound to have IT, right? And you know what? That was even worse! He started talking church politics, about keeping up appearances, and even said that he was afraid that if we had a scandal it would hurt “giving,” and we couldn’t do that, especially in the middle of a building project!
I gotta tell you, Joe. After that I ran like hell, and I’ve never looked back. That was three years ago, and brother, I’ve pretty much quit. My marriage is on the rocks, my kids don’t respect me, and well, I figured I should just quit looking for IT. Life sucks, then you die, right? Might as well make the most of it. Maybe if I stop acting like I believe IT exists, then I can get through my days ok. But that’s not working!
And then I started watching you. I know it sounds crazy – I mean, you don’t make much money, you don’t drive a fancy car, you don’t party. You don’t have anything that the world says will give you IT. But of everyone I know, Joe .. . of anyone I’ve ever seen or met .. if there’s really an IT in this world, you have IT! Joe, you gotta tell me, is IT for real?
I mean, all I’m looking for is just … well, I just want some peace! And hope! Maybe even true love, if it’s not just some myth. Darn it, I want to be content, Joe! That’s all. Is that possible? Please, brother, you gotta tell me. Tell me if IT’s real, and if IT is, tell me where I can find IT! I’ll do anything ….
What’s next? Go to Part Three
–You are the salt of the world. Stay salty, my friends!
Context is key: How slicing and dicing Scripture can lead to all kinds of goofy and dangerous teachings
That headline alone is one big can of worms. There are SO MANY well-established teachings embraced by Christians today that simply do not stand in light of full, deep, contextual reading of Scripture. I just want to point out today two bits of the Bible that all too often are taught together (often by teachers who simply don’t know any better), with the end result of twisting quite a few believers in knots.
These two passages are favorites of teachers of the modern “Prosperity Gospel.” Some call this type of pastor a “Prosperity Pimp.” Now, I’m sure many of them are simply parroting what they were taught, so I won’t paint them all with that damning epithet. It probably applies to some, but I prefer to let God sort all that out. I’ll just call them misguided.
The first is 3 John 1:2. This passage is from the greeting of a brief (only 13 total verses!) letter from John to a friend of his named Gaius. As a cordial introduction, John says, “beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.”
I’ve heard this one brief, ancillary verse taken out of context and pounded into peoples heads over and over again. There’s a whole — well, I’m not going to call it a cult, but what is it? — “school of teaching” around this little snippet. The folks who teach this claim that it means GOD’s number one desire for EACH OF US is that we MAKE A TON OF MONEY. (Taken together with the second out-of-context verse I’ll mention in a moment, this is the first of a one-two heretical Bible punch that bamboozles countless believers, and fattens the bank accounts of way too many preachers.)
Of course, in context it’s plain as the nose on your face that this is a greeting, from one friend to another. The book of Third John is not about this at all. And from nowhere else in the Bible can this conclusion be deduced, that wealthiness is next to Godliness. Of course, too many itching ears are eager to absorb a message that justifies materialsm, and so too many folks don’t bother to dig deeper. It suits their purposes, and the pastor “prospers,” too … so what if it’s a false teaching?
Want to see if these folks want to practice what they preach, and really, truly live their lives around every single salutation in every recorded epistle? Then quote them this one: 2 Timothy 4:13, “Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come….” Now let me ask you, where’s the pastor who has inspired his congregation to go out and look for Paul’s cloak? Come on now, it’s in the Bible, right there in black and white. Of course, GOD wants US to look for His cloak, right?
Give me a break! There’s no MONEY in teaching this one, so they skip it (and every other salutation) and simply zero in on the one that brings in the Benjamins.
(I’d be shortchanging you if I didn’t mention that the Greek word we translate in the 3 John verse as “prosper” is EUODOO, which means “to have a successful journey.” It has nothing to do with material wealth, even if it COULD be taken out of context to apply to us today!)
The second out-of-context verse, which completes the one-two punch of the “Prosperity Gospel” is taken from Malachi 3:10 “‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.’”
Of course, this is taught to mean, “put one tenth of your money in my offering plate, and you’ll get rich!” The implication is that this is a current, stand-alone promise from God for every believer today. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.
To understand this, you need to put the book of Malachi in the context of the Old Testament, and this verse in context in the book. The Old Testament records the old covenant between God and His “chosen people,” the Israelites. A covenant, of course, has two parties, each of whom have obligations. In the old covenant, the Israelites were to keep God’s laws, and He would show them special favor when they did. Of course, they often abandoned their part, and when they did, they suffered the consequences — because God was no longer obligated to fulfill His part of the covenant.
Beginning not long after the covenant was first established, the people would rebel, and God would call them back to obedience. Starting with Moses, this was the job of the Old Testament prophets — to call the people back to their part of the bargain. Malachi was the last of these, the last chance of the Israelites to live as God’s chosen people, before He gave up on them and implemented a new covenant through Jesus Christ.
The book of Malachi is all about this: Calling the Israelites back to the law. Malachi 2:8-9 says, “‘You have departed from the way, you have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,’ says the Lord of Hosts. ‘Therefore I also have made you contemptible and base before all the people, because you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in the law.’” And in 3:7 it says, “Yet from the days of your fathers you have gone away from My ordinances and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you.”
Malachi is a call to the ancient Israelites to return to the law. The book enumerates many ways they must return, and confirms that God will once again favor them as a nation if they do. The tithe was a very specific law (like not eating pork or wearing clothing of mixed fibers), with the specific purpose of supporting the priesthood. The Old Testament storehouse, similarly, was a very specific, legalistic system of welfare that was administered by the priesthood.
For a pastor today to make the claims that 1) this verse is a stand-alone, universal promise to every believer, 2) that he serves in the same role as an Old Testament priest, and that 3) his offering plate is equivalent to the Old Testament storehouse, is simply beyond the pale. We are all a royal priesthood in Christ, and we are no longer bound by the law — including the law of tithe. (I’ll get into that more in a future post.)
I know many good, well-intentioned folks who teach these things, and they are simply and dramatically wrong. The promise in Malachi is super-contextual, purely legalistic, and explicitly applied only in conjunction with all the other aspects of restoration that God called for in that book. Moreover, just one book later — in the book of Matthew — God abolished the old covenant and established a new one on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ.
To paraphrase Paul, if you want the Malachi verse to apply to you, you can choose that — but then you will be obligated to follow every letter of the old covenant law. Good luck with that one!
So … like the title says, slicing and dicing Scripture can lead to all sorts of goofy and dangerous teachings. The Prosperity Gospel is but one example.
- You are the salt of the world. Stay salty, my friends!