Why I Pulled a Knife on My Congregation

Meat Cleaver

Well, it was more of a meat cleaver than a knife:

 “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.  For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

-Jesus (Matthew 5:29-30)

I don’t understand why there are so many Christians walking around with both eyes and both hands.  Maybe I’m the only one who has struggled with sin.  And I feel like Jesus makes himself pretty clear.  So, this morning I brought an actual meat cleaver to the pulpit and offered to help us all grow in obedience to Jesus.  Was that wrong?  Should I not have done that? (name that show).

I preached this passage in the context of a sermon on Anger, Lust, and Divorce, and I know, you are wondering how I squeezed so much guilt into one sermon, but after a couple of hours of preaching I felt like I’d done a pretty good job.  So often this section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-ff) is taught as though Jesus intends to make us as Christians feel guilty.  You don’t murder?  Well, are you angry, cuz that’s just as bad.  You don’t commit adultery? Well, if you’ve lusted you deserve hell.  You divorced your wife? Game over.

Is Jesus taking the position of King Rehoboam?  Is he really saying, “And now, whereas [Moses] laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke.  [Moses] disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions!” (1 Kings 12:11)?  But what about Matthew 11:28-30?

No.  Jesus is contradicting the commonly held belief of his day that God desired heartless obedience.  “If I can just obey God’s law perfectly, I will please him.”  We wish that Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount was a “New Law”.  Unfortunately, the message of this Sermon is not “Do this, don’t do that.”  The message is: “You need Me.”

We all have a little Pharisee in us.  We think it is easier to be God’s robots.  If only Jesus’ sermon was the LAW 2.0 upgrade, then our lives would be complete.  If only Jesus got up on the mountain and said, “Struggle with anger?  There’s an app for that.  Struggle with lust?  There’s an app for that.”  If only Jesus would just input the right command so that I will not sin, then I could be his robot. Unfortunately, Jesus is pointing out how foolish it is to try to come up with a law for every sin.  Even if we could (which we can’t), and even if we could keep them all (which we can’t), the law would never generate anything in us other than cold obedience on its own.  Is that what God wants?

We don’t cut out our eyes or lop off our hands because our eyes and hands don’t cause us to sin.  Our wicked heart does.  That’s the point.  What we as Christians need to be doing, rather than feeling guilty all the time about getting angry, or trying to make up laws for our life that will please God, is to look at our struggle with sin and allow it to point us to Christ–“let us draw out greater love to Thee” (Arthur Bennett).

We need a meat cleaver, but not for cutting off hands.  We all need the Holy Spirit to take a meat cleaver to our dark black, dead heart, and to replace it with a heart of flesh.  God’s desire is not that we mindlessly obey his law (as if we ever could).  His desire is to make us children with hearts that love him and love others.  We don’t need a New Law.  We need Jesus.

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The Pastoral “Three-Year Glitch”: Ecclesiological Divorce

Tom EwellAs I prepare this week to preach from Matthew 5:21-32, I have been thinking about divorce.  Having only pastored for five months, other pastors always say to me, “Oh, you’re still in the honeymoon phase!”  They mean well, and they’re being honest.  A pastor’s ministry in a church is quite similar to a marriage in many respects.

Which is why I believe the tenure of the typical SBC pastor is around 3.6 years (according to a poll done by Thom Rainer, head of Lifeway Research).  Dr. Terri Orbuch, a psychologist specializing in marriage relationships, says 3.5 years is just about the time that any lingering effects of the ‘honeymoon’ phase of a marriage have worn off.  She has coined the phrase “three-year glitch” because it is around this point that many marriages begin to head toward the slaughterhouse of divorce.

Most of us recognize the fact that men and women today seek that “in love” feeling in their relationships.  Once it wears off, and the troubles of fitting two completely different (not to mention sinful) people together in a crazy one-flesh union, they begin to chafe, argue, and squirm at the ill consequences of the rash commitment they made when their clear thinking heads were clouded with the butterflies and emotional highs of heady romance.  Throw a screaming baby into the mix, and stick a fork in it.  That marriage is DUN.

I wonder whether this same thing doesn’t happen all the time in a pastor’s relationship with his church.  He meets the search committee, the church puts on its best makeup, covering any problem areas with a bit of powder, and the pastor’s shining resume speaks volumes to the fact that he is the answer to their every need.  The first year, everyone is so excited to get to know the new pastor, they love his family, and they are excited about his vision.  Then, as a couple of years go by, a few bad confrontations occur, and the pastor steps on a few toes, the pastor falls out of love with his congregation, and the congregation likewise.

Fortunately for him, infidelity to his congregation is not so much a sin as it is “business as usual” in the modern ministry, so he begins to send out his resume in search of a new bride.

The sad thing about all of this is that a marriage really starts to get good after three years.  Once two people finally let down their guard and begin to love one another, forgive one another, suffer together through trials, and experience hurt and redemption, God begins that painful yet joyfully rewarding process of “sanctification by way of spouse.”

I write these words as much to encourage other pastors to push through the tough times and to stick with their people, as I do to discourage myself in the future, when the honeymoon is over, from seeking the easy way out.  God’s church is a bride, and though imperfect, she gets better with age.  May we pastors treat her with the delicate love and tender compassion that the bridegroom Jesus Christ requires.

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Note: The inclusion of this photo of Tom Ewell from The Seven Year Itch (1955) is in no way meant as a promotion of the film, but as a visual commentary.  I personally haven’t seen the film, but its iconic status goes without saying.  Unfortunately, I felt compelled to include this disclaimer, as “subtlety” is only a stumbling stone in today’s public arena, and “generosity of discourse” is often exchanged for the rock of offense (in other words, these days you can’t leave things you wish to be unspoken for fear of your intentions being wrongfully misinterpreted!).

Is the Church the Place to Party Hard?–Part 3


My sister-in-law dug up a video from my days in college that brought back great memories of a week spent with nine other Christian young men.  Unfortunately for me, the video is mildly incriminating since it contains actual footage of us guys doing the equivalent of a “flash mob” style dance party in different areas of campus (no alcohol was involved in the making of this film. ha).  It is unfortunate because I have tethered myself to a denomination that was made notorious by films like Footloose and, um, Footloose (the remake) for its strong stance against dancing.  I had a Southern Baptist math professor in college who told this joke: “Why are Southern Baptists opposed to premarital sex?  Because it might lead to dancing!”

This post is the third and final part of a three part discussion (Part 1 and Part 2) on an article dealing with appropriate music in worship, and whether CCM ought to be discarded altogether.  The author of the article argues that churches should “discerningly avoid all swinging sounds, sliding (scooping) sounds and all syncopating sounds.”  There is no Scriptural authority to this claim, and I fear it is a Pharisaical fence, if you will, by which he and others wish to abolish any temptation toward dancing.  As the joke goes, “Why does the Baptist oppose CCM? Because it might lead to dancing!”

However, as I reread the article this morning, I came to realize another fundamental mistake in the article.  There is a blurring of the lines between what may be appropriate for private listening and enjoyment, and what is appropriate for corporate worship.  Have you ever considered that everything on your IPod may not be appropriate or practical for corporate worship?  Our author discards all CCM for all occasions because he believes it is unfit for corporate worship.  Even if I tend to share his love for hymnody, I do not agree with his conclusion that all other music must be deleted from our music library.

I would recommend the book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns by Dr. T. David Gordon.  He explains why we should not expect church to be just like what we listen to in our personal lives.  Private worship and corporate worship will look different, and that is okay, even proper.  In our churches, many of our worship leaders encourage us to close our eyes and imagine it is just us and God.  Why?  Can’t we do that all week?  The whole purpose of singing while we are with the church is so that we can…worship with the church.  Why pretend we aren’t with the church?

Paul tells us that when we come together as a church, our hymns are meant for building one another up (1 Cor. 14:26).  Additionally, we sing hymns as much to one another as we do to God (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).  Corporate singing is the only place where God’s people can actually unify with one voice; think about that.  Singing ought to be an audible representation of the unity of the church.  It is sad today that music style is one of the primary schism (pronounced “shiz’m” here in SC) causers in our churches.  Churches break into two services over it.  Churches break apart over it.  Church members judge one another based on it.

Rather than thinking about what music in the church shouldn’t be, think about it what it should be.  Corporate music ought to promote unity in the church.  The one voice of the congregation must be heard in the service–why would you want to eliminate this amazing symbolism?  Church members must see the music choices of their church as an opportunity to exercise 1 John 3:16 love for one another–we must be willing to lay down our preferences and very lives for our brothers.  (By the way, if you are a pastor, I would encourage you to take seriously your oversight in the area of music.)

I am sure music will become a recurring topic on this blog, but this short post cannot turn into a manifesto on aesthetics, church order, and church unity.  Besides, aren’t blogs supposed to be a medium of “light” dialogue?  Gee whiz, I’ve got to lighten up.

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Sensual Interjections of Religious Rock (CCM) — Part 2


Perhaps you are wondering what a lion-headed god serpent has to do with Contemporary Christian Music (CCM).  Well, stay tuned.  I have been mulling over the article I read and posted a few days ago, and the layers of that onion just kept coming off–to the point that a Part 3 to this topic may be necessary.

First, the points of contact: I agree with the author that much CCM contains sensual, vague language suited as much for a love interest as for Jesus (perhaps less suited for Jesus).  This is one of the reasons I believe men specifically have been leaving our churches in mass exodus.  I agree with the author that there probably is a lot of immorality in the CCM scene.  Unfortunately for our author, the Corinthian church experienced rampant immorality, some of it “of a kind that is not tolerated even among the pagans” (1 Cor. 5:1), yet Paul still calls them “those sanctified in Jesus Christ, called to be saints together” (1 Cor. 1:2).  Saints.  You find me a church without immorality, and I will find you a group of liars (1 John 1:8).  Sin in a ministry is not necessarily an argument against it.

Before I continue, let me make a distinction.  CCM is a genre as much as Country, Pop, or Slow Jams is a genre.  There is a reason why you recognize a CCM radio station immediately–and it’s not because of the words.  CCM cultivates its own style with producers and musicians marketing to a distinct listener palate.  I believe the dichotomy Secular/Christian is so very unhelpful.  Rather, music is either glorifying to God or it is not.  Even some “Secular” music can be more glorifying to God than much CCM on the radio waves (I can already tell I’m gonna need a Part 3 to this).

To the primary issue (I will deal with lesser issues in a forthcoming article).  The distinction the author makes between the body and spirit is disturbing.  His arguments against the way rhythm, scooping notes, and syncopated beats affect the body immediately reminded me of the gnosticism fought by apostles like John, and early church leaders like Augustine.  One of the major tenets of gnostics, for instance the Manicheans whom Augustine dabbled with before coming to Christ, was dualism.  This belief insisted that the body and the physical world were created by a dark god, the Demiurge, who intended to trap or pollute the spiritual world which was created by the God of Light.

The result was a religion that sought freedom from the body; the physical realm needed to pass away so that the spiritual would fully thrive.  Our author’s understanding of music is founded in a similar view of the human being.  He decries any music that appeals to the body and  claims the words and the sung melody must take precedence.  The problem for our author is that such a sharp distinction between soul and body is impossible–for music by necessity must enter our soul by way of (gasp) the ears…a body part.  His argument that music must appeal to the spirit, soul, then body, in that order, is impossible.

What is even more disturbing are the implications of our author’s claims.  I do not wholly blame him, because American Christianity has bought (for what reason I do not know) into the lie that truly spiritual Christianity desires separation from the body.  Unfortunately, they are at odds with such lowly Christians as Paul the Apostle, who struggled, strained, and fought with all of his might to identify with Jesus “so that by any means possible I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:11).  It is the hope of all Christians, not to be separated from our dying bodies, but to see our bodies recreated, renewed, and resurrected imperishable forever.

I would challenge you to think about where you place your hope and faith.  Do you hope for the resurrection?  As a believer, does your future resurrection even cross your mind?  The image of God is both body and soul, and we do not have a hope to be half-humans for eternity, but whole body-and-soul images of God perfected in Christ.

I promise we will address less weighty, perhaps a bit more snarky responses to our author’s–quite bombastic at times–claims about music…but that will have to wait.

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Wilderness Wandering: Ash Wednesday


Today many Christians across the world will celebrate Ash Wednesday.  As a Baptist, the liturgical calendar has never been my strong suit, and I have to admit that I was confused the first time I saw the ashen crosses–which was while I was in college!  However, throughout the years, I have come to respect those who participate in this event, this partly due to my cousin-in-law (is that a thing?), a Methodist minister, who spends a lot of thought, prayer, and energy to explain the importance behind this date on the Christian calendar each year.

I was reading 1 John this morning and came upon this verse: “No one who denies the Son has the Father.  Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.”  And I thought to myself, why on earth would anyone want a Christ-less Christianity?  This is what Ash Wednesday is all about…a God who was willing to come down to earth and sympathize with lowly men.  The Son of God who went into the wilderness to be tempted and tried as Israel was, but to succeed.  A Savior who did not come to earth to lord it over mankind, but to identify with our every weakness, to be tempted in every way as we are, and to be without sin.

“Well, I don’t want a God who came down to earth just to stick it to us.”  But that’s not the point.  Jesus didn’t come to point out our sins, shortcomings, and failures.  The law does a fine job at that.  No, the righteousness of Jesus we see in the wilderness (Matthew 4) was not a showy display, but rather the demonstration of an obedient Son’s love for his Father.

You see, Jesus had to identify with us in our every failure, yet be without sin, so that he might become qualified as our high priest, offering his own blood as a perfect sacrifice in behalf of sinners (Hebrews 4:15).  The wilderness temptation of Jesus which we celebrate on Ash Wednesday is about identification.  It’s about a Savior who wasn’t afraid to become like us in every way, except one–he was without sin.  Not so that he could proudly judge us, but so that he might take that sinless life and hand it to us–as a gift.

Ash Wednesday is a call to repentance.  We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us have turned to his own way, but the LORD has laid upon him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6).  Going astray is not merely a mistake; it’s sinful.  Jesus’ back was laden with stripes, his hands were pierced, and he was killed because his sheep went astray.  However, he was willing to chase us into the wilderness.  Like Israel, we all wander in the wilderness bitten by snakes and prepared to die in sin.  However, if we will look to that serpent on the pole (Numbers 21:8), that Man whom God made to be sin for us, we can become the righteousness of God (1 Cor. 5:21).

To heck with Christ-less Christianity.  I’ll have my Jesus and love Him too.

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The Sensual Injections of Religious Rock (CCM) — Part One


Sorry, Louis.  You have no place on the IPod of the truly religious Christian.

Part of taking a new pastorate means you inherit all of the junk mail of the previous guy.  There is an independent Baptist newspaper that shows up in my mailbox–sort of like a letter from Paul–that contains all kinds of…”articles”.  The most recent edition contained an article dealing with music, and I thought I would let the author (who shall remain nameless) speak for himself.  Think about what he says, and I’ll write my response tomorrow:

Without question, outside of preaching, music has always been the most important feature in…congregations.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Satan is subtly, but also viciously, attacking this spiritual stronghold via his sensual injections of religious rock, a mode that has become more popularly known as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) than by its real name and nature.

The author then explains how music is meant to stir the individual:

All good spiritual music has three component parts: melody, harmony, and rhythm–in that order.  The melody proceeds from the spirit, the harmony is centered in the soul, while the rhythm proceeds from the body (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19; 1 Thess. 5:23).  The Devil does not concur with God’s divine order; therefore, he has reversed the process, playing the rhythm (beat) first, the harmony (a discordant one) second, and the melody (main line) last.  Now God desires our bodies to respond to music in the proper manner, but when the rhythm comes first, the bodily response takes precedence!  Any music, therefore, that places the rhythm and beat first is sensual music.

After laying down the ground work, the author takes on CCM and “religious rock” in our worship:

I have noted an increasing tendency for supposedly traditional music to take on a heavy rock beat, a dangerous trait that must be vigorously resisted if Bible-believing churches are to retain wholesome music in their services…

CCM appeals to the depraved flesh, not the regenerated spirit…to put it bluntly, CCM often resembles the sounds of a sensual nightclub!…In summary, the methods of the CCM songsters are always unbiblical as they follow the premise of Jesuit casuistry that the ends justify the means…The morals of the singers are sometimes undesirable.  While there are unquestionably some morally decent CCM entertainers, adultery, moral uncleanness and loose morals abound among the CCM crowd.

Here is the author’s advice to Christians:

Believers cannot take the Devil’s weapons and successfully utilize them for the glory of God (2 Cor. 10:4).  To avoid and “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22), saints must discerningly avoid all swinging sounds, sliding (scooping) sounds, and all syncopating sounds.  They should also beware of slurred notes, heavy bass beats, and New Orleans honky-tonk, nightclub-dinner-style music.

And before he is done, he attacks my precious pre-recorded special music CDs:

Before leaving this battlefield, a warning flag must be issued about the indiscriminate use of canned music, prerecorded background CDs, without any live accompaniment.  Most canned music is produced by charismatic and worldly sources, much of it from Nashville-based companies where the music specializes in sensual heavy rock-beat background.

Not my prerecorded CDs!

Well, as CCM and all “religious rock” lay bleeding, he kicks it one more time:

In reality, CCM (religious rock) is part of the basic preparation for the coming Antichrist and his future dominating control over the minds of the world’s naive population.

Get behind me, CCM, I mean, Satan!

Any response?  I’ll be back tomorrow.

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Getting Knocked Out by a German Youth Pastor


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Have you ever been dissatisfied with your church?  Have you, pastor, ever wished your church was more…awesome?  Are you astounded by how far your church falls short in the “obeying the Bible” category?  Do members of your congregation let you down–over and over and over again?

Meet Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He’s about to take you to the gym of hard-knocks:

How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?  If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.

As a church member, those words were like a one-two combo, and I was down for the count.  But like a UFC match gone bad, Bonhoeffer disregards the ref’s whistle, and keeps coming with a heavy barrage of fists:

This applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors…about their congregations.  A pastor should never complain about his congregation…a congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men.  When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament…Let him rather accuse himself for his unbelief.

We have dreams about what our fellowship at church should look like (myself included).  The problem is that we still see through a mirror dimly, and we let our grandiose dreams breed discontentment in our hearts.  The best way for our churches to grow in our fellowship is to give thanks for the fellowship that we already share.  If you are up for the bloody lip and black eye, Life Together by the humble German youth pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a great read.  May we all be reminded: “What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God!”