Saturday, August 23, 2014

Inviting Jesus into your conflicts - Matthew 18:15-20

Years ago, a large statue of Jesus was erected high in the Andes Mountains on the border between Argentina and Chile. Called "Christ of the Andes," the statue symbolized a promise between the two countries that as long as the statue stands, there will be peace between them. Not long after it was built, the Chileans got angry and wanted to forget that promise – you see - the statue had its back turned to Chile. Just when tempers were at their highest, a newspaperman saved the day. In an editorial that not only satisfied the people but made them laugh, he simply said, "The people of Argentina need more watching over than the Chileans.”

A cute story illustrating a shameful reality – how quickly we can get bent out of shape with one another. Often over something silly, we can forget our relationships and treat people as enemies. We wear our feelings on our sleeves… words that linger in our minds… actions we suspect for the worst… and the next thing you know, we are all wadded up with each other. And what’s WORSE, the Lord’s people choose to behave no differently than the world when these disagreements arise. We want God’s blessings… we WANT the Lord to hear our prayers… but we DON’T want Him telling us how to manage our conflicts. Any restraint the Holy Spirit offers us we set aside in favor of getting in the last shot or letting everyone else know how we’ve been wronged. But here’s the deal, if we fail to obey the Lord’s directions regarding how we handle conflict, what RIGHT do we have to expect His blessings?? Why would we assume things would turn out well for us?

So… what would Jesus have us do?? When our feelings are hurt, when there is tension in the air, He would have us do 3 things that may not ALWAYS lead to peace with people – but at least we will have peace in our hearts knowing we did what the Lord expected us to do. 3 things. What are they??

1. First, He would have us Be Proactive in settling conflict. Proactive. Jesus said in v. 15, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault” You can’t get any clearer than that.

Typically, when WE have been offended, we EXPECT the OFFENDER to come to US. In fact, to think otherwise seems almost ridiculous. So WHY would the Lord tell us that the obligation is on OUR part when we didn’t do anything wrong? I can think of three reasons:

First, because it is pride in us that demands an apology. It is the flesh that causes us to choose STRIFE over peace… to value the last word over unity. And because PRIDE is the exact OPPOSITE of what we OUGHT to be and do, the Lord would have us take the first step towards reconciliation.

Second, because the Lord demonstrates grace so freely towards US, when we are unwilling to forgive, we fail to see our OWN sin – the many times WE have failed - and how often we have been forgiven. Grace demands us to release people from the debt they owe us – Just like Jesus did for US.

And THIRD, we ought to be proactive in settling conflicts because JESUS TOLD US TOO. It is NOT a matter of emotion – or whether we FEEL like it – it is a matter of OBEDIENCE. Without which, we cannot please the Lord. Get in the habit of handling things QUICKLY before they take on a life of their own

As a Child of God, the responsibility is on YOU not THEM. BE proactive.

2. Second, Be Private in settling conflict. Private. Jesus said in v. 15, “go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” I wonder how many brothers and sisters we have LOST because we failed to keep our conflicts private?? What would be the rationale behind keeping it between the two people involved?

Well FIRST, keeping the dispute private shows respect to the individual. It says we care more about THEM than we do spreading malicious gossip about them or rallying troops to our cause.

Secondly, It gives them a fair chance to explain their behavior. Have you ever considered the fact that they may not have intended to offend you? They may not even have a CLUE you are upset about something they did. Many times, our offenses are simply misunderstandings based on assumptions.

Third and even MORE importantly, sharing the disagreement with others only forces people to choose sides. Jesus would have UNITY in the family of God – our sharing with others makes that virtually impossible. (psalm 133) It’s nobody else’s business. Sharing our disputes with uninvolved friends only drives wedges, and makes unity impossible.

But by keeping it private, you are giving the offender an opportunity to make things right before this thing gains momentum and takes the conflict to a deeper, personal level, where bridges are burned.

We say, “I’m only speaking the TRUTH…” as if THAT is all that matters. But Paul taught us to “speak the truth IN LOVE.” The next time you are tempted to let your tongue get the best of you, ask yourself three important questions: (1) What do I hope to gain by sharing this? (2) Would I have the courage to say these things if the person was present? And (3) Would I feel convicted if I said these things in front of Jesus?

3. But not only should we be Proactive and Private in settling conflicts, we should also Be Pure. When we have handled things the Lord’s way, if the person who has offended us is unrepentant – intentional and determined to leave the situation in turmoil, THAT’S when you involve someone else and bring a WITNESS with you. Jesus said, “ But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

WHY is this step important?? Sometimes it’s good to have a spiritual person with you who only wants peace and unity who can keep things calm – who can be impartial and see the situation from both sides.

What’s more, those people who have no interest in peaceful resolutions can make up stuff about what you said and how you said it. Having another set of ears in the conversation covers you in the case of slander. Because, trust me, not everyone will respond positively when you point out their sin.

And if they are STILL unrepentant, it is CLEAR that NOT ONLY have they rejected YOU - they are guilty of rejecting the teachings of Christ and couldn’t care LESS about how their actions affect others or reflect on the church – therefore, they should be put out of the church. Jesus said in v. 17, “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Does that seem extreme to you?? I mean, shouldn’t we be concerned with getting people IN church?? And here we are kicking people out?? Understand, TRUTH is more important than NUMBERS. Holiness and unity are more important than losing a family or two. BESIDES, if they refuse to do what Jesus said, they have a much BIGGER problem than being upset with you.

Their attitude, their behavior is like a cancer that will spread and infect others. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen these things handled with HUMAN reasoning snowball and taint others – so much so that the whole church is infected by the dissension that existed between 2 people or 2 families. Whole churches divided and the Spirit quenched and the gospel given a black-eye because two people refused to do the right thing?? Huh uh… put them out.

If you are wondering “how it will make us look to OTHERS if we take this kind of stand??” you are asking the wrong question. How we look to JESUS should trump ANY CONCERN we have about our reputation… because only THEN will we have HIS blessing. Which leads us to our final thought…

4. Not only does this passage teach us to be Proactive, Private, and PURE when handling conflict, it gives us a PROMISE in settling conflict when it says in v. 20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” No matter HOW OFTEN this is misquoted, this isn’t a promise that we will have the presence of Jesus in a poorly attended church service. It is a promise directly tied to church authority and the discipline of a rouge member who is more interested in being a tool of the devil than in pursuing peace. We have the promise of HIS blessing when we follow proper protocol in disciplining fleshly members.

What happens when we DON’T do this?? I can take you on a tour of hundreds, if not THOUSANDS of dying churches that failed to do things the Lord’s way and the hand of God has stopped blessing. There hasn’t been life in them for a very long time. Why?? God isn’t bound to bless disobedience – no matter how NOBLE our excuses sound.

BUT – BUT when we put a higher premium on honoring God than honoring man, when we are focused on keeping Christ first in all that we do… we have the promise of His presence, in all of it’s powerful, life-changing glory. We can’t get any better than THAT, folks. Pleasing HIM is all that matters.

I believe there are soooo many life-lessons that come from conflict. We don’t like it, but it is valuable to us nonetheless. We learn so many things about God, about others, and about ourselves when we are wounded.

If THAT’S true, what lessons are your conflicts teaching you about yourself right now? Sometimes, we just need to get over it. Sometimes, you just need to decide in your mind that their offense was unintentional and just let it go. Not every aggravation rises to the level of confrontation.

Sometimes I learn that I am too proud and that God is using a conflict to root pride out of me – and I need to humble myself and handle things HIS way instead of being stubborn and giving place to the devil.

And sometimes I learn that people just aren’t everything they claim to be… and really, their failure to repent is not hurting ME – it’s hurting THEM.

Maybe God has allowed you to have this disagreement to send a wake-up call to that brother or sister who needs to get their stuff together before they do something even MORE catastrophic to their testimony and the reputation of the church. Maybe God wants you to do this for THEM. You need Courage. You need Prayer. And BOY, do you need the Spirit of God there when you have this talk you’ve been avoiding.

Are you in that place right now?? Maybe you need God’s help in a situation YOU are going through? Would you invite Jesus into your conflict?

Friday, August 8, 2014

Three things I didn't learn in Bible College...

I was a young father when I felt God calling me to pastoral ministry.  At the urging of my pastor, I moved to Nashville to learn how to be a "pastor."  While my experience there was invaluable, learning from great men like Bro. Forlines, and Drs. Miley, Pic, Outlaw, Woodard, and Reed, there were some things I was left to get on my own.  What are they?

1.  Stay out of debt - In the interest of self-preservation, colleges don't simply INFORM students about loan options, they actually ENCOURAGE indebtedness.  Recruiting tactics include more than the benefits of a Bible College education, they are now aimed to eliminate financial concerns parents might have as their child forgoes local, more affordable options for the much more expensive private college. College costs across the board have skyrocketed and Bible College is not the "exception."  In an attempt to appeal to more students, Bible Colleges have broadened their offerings and found "painless" ways to pass on the costs to future decades (and yes, I mean 'decades.')

This poses quite the conundrum for ministry students.  Expected by family, pastors, and churches to receive a quality Bible College education in order to "qualify" for God-called ministry, young people rack up 40 or 50 thousand (or more) in student-loan-debt.  Upon graduation, however, they are told by prospective employers (churches) "This is a ministry... and as such, you need to be willing to sacrifice salary for the Lord and His work."  <crickets> Such cases often lead young people to view their Bible College diplomas as 'boat anchors,'  forcing them to forgo ministry positions suited for their skill-set, in pursuit of larger churches they are not capable of leading (at the moment).

Do everything in your power to stay out of debt.  If it means going to school for 8 years instead of 4, do it. If the Bible College experience is worth the sacrifice, then commit to staying debt free.  It is better to sacrifice for an additional 4 years than to sacrifice for the next 20.

2.  Please God, not people.  Don't seek man's applause.  Your significance comes from Him, not them. We have too many man-pleasers in the pulpit today... and sad to say, I was one of them.  When you let your hunger for approval drive your ministry, you will find yourself in the unenviable position of compromise often. If you are pleasing the Lord, you WILL please the right people.

3.  Your family is more important than your work.  Success is an idol... an unrelenting false-god.  When this idol is present in your life, it will force you to choose between IT and your character, your family, and everything else that is important to you.  Many talented men have lost everything chasing after nothing.  That isn't God expecting you to sacrifice your family in order to be successful - that's your idol.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Are we as a denomination in trouble?

"Having given ourselves to God, by faith in Christ, and adopted the Word of God as our rule of faith and practice, we now give ourselves to one another..."  Recognize that statement?  It's the opening line of our covenant - a document expressing the desire of our forbearers to work together for the greater good of the kingdom.  Our covenant calls us to lay aside petty differences voluntarily... for the purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission on earth.  As a fundamental denomination tracing it's roots deep into church history, we have had our fair share of disagreements and divisions that threaten our success.  Still we continue to affiliate, we continue to work cooperatively, convinced there is strength in numbers and that the good accomplished by our collaboration far outweighs the bad we've tolerated.

Is that fellowship on the verge of failing?  Are lines being drawn in the sand, are powerful personalities forcing brothers to 'choose sides' demanding 'uniformity' rather than unity?  From my perspective, we have arrived at a critical crossroads as a denomination.  I do not boast special insight or great wisdom or to have so much respect in our movement that I can effect change.  But I do see trouble on the horizon - and the things that threaten our success and survival have nothing to do with Biblical Doctrine.  Our denomination isn't suffering from worldliness as much as our unwillingness to love one another.

We have two camps who have dug in their proverbial heels in our denomination that threaten our success as a movement.  The first group looks for things to be disagreeable about - things that divide, so that they may further marginalize our denomination through infighting and separation, pulling support, forming their own movement within a movement.  To them, disunity seems a badge of honor.  The smaller the pond, the bigger fish they can be. The other group consists of those with little courage, who think greener pastures await them elsewhere, who have no stomach for the fight or enough love for the denomination to stick around for it.  I read a former FWB pastor's blog about why he left our denomination and how we need to modify our position on alcohol if we want to be successful.  DUDE! FIX YOURSELF!

When I look at our denomination, I see a looming crisis.  Veteran leadership retiring, fewer men answering the call, churches closing their doors because they can't pay a preacher a livable salary and too proud to unite with other struggling fellowships.  I see a leadership crisis - young men coming out of college ill-prepared for awaits them but expecting to have good churches given to them on a silver platter just the same.  Men who are too pragmatic in their thinking - grasping at whatever passing fad available to save their dying work.

Can anything be done to stop this pending implosion?  I think its time our pastors quit being so selfish and prideful and started thinking about the bigger picture instead of only focusing on their church, their control, their power.  We need a grassroots, bottom up change in our movement.  We need guys who are successful in ministry mentoring young men.  We need leaders who are more interested in helping, building, and reaching than in receiving big paychecks.  We need power in the pulpit.  We need a zeal for souls.  We need a commitment to work together regardless the trivial things that divide us.  Do we have it in us to do the right thing?  I certainly hope so.

I prefer to be us than any other denomination I know - even WITH our problems.  We are not of those who spend their national conventions arguing whether the Bible is inspired or if we should ordain homosexuals to ministry.  Whew!  I'm glad we are not them.  But that doesn't mean we should tolerate our own failures as a movement.  

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Facing the difficulty of ecumenism as a FWB Pastor

I have a confession to make.  Please don't judge me for this.  I went to an ecuminical service last night. There.. I said it.  I realize in our ranks there are those who would tell me to 'Lighten up!'  "It's no big deal!!" And there are others who would tell me I should turn in my FWB credentials.  One side might need a bit more wisdom in such things.  The other, well, I don't really know what to say to them.

If you are like me, it's hard to find a comfortable balance between being Free Will Baptist and joining in with others who might disagree with our doctrine.  We don't have any trouble buying their commentaries or reading their books - but  is there a difference between going to an event with them and owning their church growth materials?  What if your church is invited to participate in a men's event where there will be ten or twelve denominations present?  Where do we draw the 'theological line' of separation?  Here are a few questions only YOU can answer:

1) What are the Risks?  If you are spiritually mature, the risks are likely minimal.  You are confident in your faith, grounded in the word, settled in your doctrine.  It isn't likely you will find yourself struggling with pentecostalism simply by being exposed to charismatic people.  But what about those who go with you? What about the excitement of fleshly worship and the natural desire your people might have for that kind of thing in YOUR church?  What about the layman who was saved out of the Catholic Church who hears there were Catholics assembled with those who are born-again?  Will this overthrow their faith?

2) What about your Example?  Akin to the above, are there people you might offend through this affiliation? Paul addressed something similar in 1 Corinthians.  The church at Corinth was a fractious church - personalities and personal liberties had them so divided that the reputation of the church was being sullied in the community. When Paul spoke to those "with knowledge," he challenged them to remember to love, to show deference to those who are weaker AND EVEN sacrifice their personal liberties for the good of others. Attending these events may not rise to the level of eating meat offered to idols - but then again, it might.

3) What might be Gained?  Maybe you are trying to build a relationship with a man who is out of church and you go to an event with him to grow your influence with him.  Maybe he has no problem attending a nondenominational concert or men's event on a Friday night, but can't get out of bed in time for Sunday Worship.  Maybe you will be exposed to some things that will actually help hone your own skills and ministry.  You might even learn what NOT to do in your ministry as you expose yourself to the way others are doing it.  There are things to be gained by exposing yourself to others ideals.

Some of us need to learn that chasing after the latest fads, the lights and fog machines, the comedy or the latest techniques to grow are often like chasing a mirage.  They might SEEM like the answer to our dying churches thirst, but in the end, they are only so much sand in the mouth.

Others of us need to learn that holding to tradition to the detriment of truth is what the Pharisees were guilty of.  And I distinctly recall that these were the people Jesus called "blind leaders of the blind."

How about we all exercise spiritual maturity and Christian love and take some of these things on a case-by case basis.  I might not have benefitted personally from the things at the event I attended - but I DID greatly enjoy the fellowship of one of my close friends I seldom get to see.  I did get to tell him, "No matter what, I've got your back."  Could I have done that WITHOUT the event?  SURE!  But I might have forgotten to do it.  Don't throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater as you decide what you should do in good conscience.  Pray for wisdom.  Check your motives.  Follow the Spirit... and you will be fine.