Please preserve the unity

In the last two months around the Dallas area, I have heard that various churches have split due to various reasons. There is a time and a place for church split. For example in church history, there have been three main church splits all for fundamental doctrinal reasons: 553 over the incarnation of Christ, 1054 over the authority of the church and Scripture, and 1517 over redemption/soteriology. Fundamental doctrinal reasons should be, in my opinion, the only reason for churches to split. In today’s culture, churches split for selfish reasons: different visions, money, location of a new church building, the new senior pastor, wanting to be a senior pastor, and so many more. If we can’t have it our way, then we will try to make it our way one way or another. How dumb of the body of Christ. We have let the mantra of our culture shape the church. What a pity. We are the light of the world shining in the darkness, but because of endless church splits, our light is being dimmed.

The church is the body of Christ, why are we dividing the body of Christ? The plea of the apostle Paul is “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3). The battle cry of the apostle Paul is twofold. First, Paul calls us to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit. The idea of being diligent is to spare no effort, to do our best, and to take/make every effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit. This is counterculture. We are too quick to give up and split the church. Paul urges us to give it our all to what… preserve the unity of the Spirit.

The second part of the battle cry is to preserve the unity of the Spirit. The word preserve has the idea of to keep, to preserve what is already in existence. It is not the establishment of a new entity, but rather to keep and not lose or destroy something already in our possession. We are the body of Christ and we have to make every effort to preserve the body of Christ.

The local church must do everything within her power to be diligent to preserve the unity of the church. The church is one body. When one part of the body hurts, the whole body does not function as it’s supposed to. In like manner, if one part of the church hurts, then the whole church is not going to function as it’s supposed to.  One would not cut of an arm if it suffers a broken bone, rather one would do everything in one’s power to restore it. If that arm, however, suffers from a flesh-eating bacteria that would spread to the whole body if it is not cut off, then yes, it would be better to cut that arm off ­­–– only after all possible remedy have been tried –– than risk death. In the same way, the local church has to do everything in her power to preserve unity in the Spirit when “petty” differences exist. Fundamental doctrinal differences such as, half the congregation does not believe in the Trinity and the other half does, without any possibility of reconciliation, then yes, split the church. I am not promoting church split. I hate it. I abhor it. I detest it, yet I am not callous to the fact the sometimes it is necessary. We have taken church splits too lightly. The battle cry is to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Oh love ones, please preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

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Reading Scripture, Remythologizing Love

God is Love

I recently picked up a copy of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship. As an amateur reader, I’m not qualified to comment at length about his argument (I’m also barely 1/3 of the way through). Vanhoozer’s remythologizing is actually a response against certain strands of liberal theology, which “demythologize” God, debunking the idea that God is some supernatural being “out there.” To quote Rudolf Bultmann: “The question of God and the question of myself are identical.” Thus, liberal theology collapses the God/world distinction. In contrast to the demythologizers, Vanhoozer starts with the fact that God speaks. God is a God who communicates to us and says things about Himself. But Vanhoozer is not only serious about what God says, but also about how God says what He says.

At least, that’s what I’ve gathered so far (my apologies if you stumbled onto this blog expecting a review/critique of Vanhoozer’s work).

Well, all that heavy theologizing got me thinking about the relationship between God’s Word and my main area of service (youth group). In particular, I wonder whether the conscience of our upcoming youth takes its cues from culture or from the sound doctrine of Scripture. There is evidence, I think, that we’ve been lulled into thinking about God on our terms, rather than thinking about ourselves on His terms.

Take, for example, the way we talk about God’s love. As a volunteer in my church’s youth group (myself being a graduate of evangelical youth culture), I have seen how middle-school, high-school, even college age students latch onto the idea of love as the preferred way of thinking about, talking about, and relating to God. God loves us, we say, and we ought to love God back. Love is the catch-all term. No doubt, “God is Love,” as 1 John 4:16 says. Unfortunately, I fear that our concept of love is derived not from Scripture, but from our favorite worship song/band, Christian book, or (even worse) pop culture. Instead of seeking to understand the covenant-keeping love proclaimed in the Word, we content ourselves with speaking of God’s love in romantically-driven, politically-correct, or moralistic terms.

  • Romantically-driven: For example, how many of our favorite worship songs might as well be love songs? It’s a problem when replacing every occurrence of “God” or “Jesus” with your girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s name doesn’t really make a difference in the song.
  • Politically-correct: When we, in the name of love, condone lifestyles (not just homosexuality, mind you, but also, say, premarital sex) that are clearly prohibited in Scripture, we can be sure that our concept of love comes more from culture rather than from Christ.
  • Moralistic: Too often, our practice of Christianity amounts to being “nice” to each other so that we can all be “happy.”

This will not do. To quote Vanhoozer (quoting another author), “Projecting even our best thoughts about love falls short of the divine reality: ‘When we equate God simply with anything that is true, good, or beautiful, then it is those things which define God, rather than God who defines them’ ” (176). We must not make God in our own image, constructing a bigger version – an idol – of ourselves. Romantic love blown up to superhuman proportions is not the love of God. This is to commit the mistake of the Greeks, whose gods were merely humans, super-sized. It is to demythologize God, collapsing the distinction between Creator and creature.

Humans are prone to idolatry. To counteract this tendency, our patterns of thought must always be renewed by Scripture. Vanhoozer puts it well (161-2):

The solution is to focus on the form of Jesus Christ. While human individuals and societies image God inconsistently, the person of Jesus – and this includes his way of relating to others – is the “image of the invisible God” (Cor 1:15). The New Testament fills out with specific content what would otherwise remain abstract, identifying the image that Jesus makes visible with “true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24; cf. Col 3:10-15). Even these notions need to be “earthed,” and we do this by identifying them with the concrete pattern of action, reaction, and interaction that characterizes the life of Jesus. That means attending to the Biblical mythos that renders his identity.

To understand God’s love rightly, we must look at Jesus Christ, and this means paying attention to what God has said in the Bible. Again, this is not the Jesus of pop culture, the buddy Jesus, or anyone other than the Jesus attested to and revealed in Scripture. Vanhoozer takes God’s speaking seriously, and so should we. To speak truly of God, we must allow His way of speaking of Himself to shape our way of speaking of Him.

This is not to say that worship songs or other secondary sources are unhelpful. These should serve a ministerial (pointing us towards God) rather than a magisterial (defining God for us) function. Songs extolling God’s love will lead us into the heart of worship only if our knowledge of His love is constantly being informed and renewed by Scripture. There is no true worship without an understanding of His Word.

So I’ll end this post where Vanhoozer begins his book – with God speaking in the Scriptures. Working through Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing has reminded me of the importance of reading the Bible and reading it well. “All Scripture is God-breathed” and has the power to change the way we live, think, and act. That’s something we all need to hear. May God have mercy on us, for unless He first speaks to us, our best thoughts will still fall short of His glory.

Saying “Yes” to Jesus…

Saying yes to Jesus

One of many favorite things about the church I serve at is that we have certain Sundays we call “Wild Card Sundays”.  These are the Sundays in which we are encouraged to visit other churches and see how God’s body worships Him elsewhere.  On one of these recent “Wild Card” Sundays, I randomly decided to visit a local young Asian American Church that is close to my house.  In many ways, this place was similar to our church, but in many ways completely different as well; I guess that’s how faith communities are and how God makes each community unique so as to better minister to the diverse world out here.  What was crazy was that my mentor and former Pastor/boss whom I shall call “Captain” was guest-speaking at the church and I was in for a blessed treat as I got to listen to him preach God’s Word.

Anyways, since this message was a few months ago, I believe that the essential main point was the importance of continuing to stay connected to God’s mission.  In life often, it is easy to be excited for God and continue to be fresh… but as time progresses we become comfortable and as a result, it’s easy to simply get into a place of no life or power as we become stagnant or even rigid because we haven’t moved or continued to lubricate our joints.  I liken this frozen-ness/woodenness to old age (those that I see that tend to be less flexible)… but is often an affliction that affects many believers of all ages and experiences as we start to become comfortable with where we are at in our lives.

Captain pointed out that because we are on God’s mission to this world… that we are as a body or church existing for the purpose of His work.  As a result… when we miss out on this mission, we miss out on God’s work.  He reminded me of this call by quoting John 20:21 … when Jesus said to His disciples: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  So what is this mission of God?  The mission of God is the kingdom of God touching & renewing everything and everyone in our world through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is in joining with this wholesome message of grace that we are a part of His Missio Dei … and as a result it changes us and fills us.

Using John 4, and referencing Jesus’ interaction with the Woman of Samaria, he continued to talk about how this lady had learned to drink of the living water.  This living water nourishes and satisfies in such a complete and perfect way… and truly, if one was to simply live like that, it’d be fine, but at the same time, this lady left everything and proceeded to go forth and share in Jesus’ mission… that is the witness to her whole village despite her low social status.

The way of Jesus then can be seen in John 4:27-34.  When the disciples returned back with food for Jesus, they saw him talking to the woman and they wanted to ask him questions; no one did of course.  So after she left, they offered Him something to eat, and Jesus goes into Yoda-mode and basically replied “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” Can you imagine how that must’ve felt if you were his disciple and Jesus said that to you?  What did you possibly eat?!  You see, Jesus was operating on a whole different level of thinking from His disciples… rather than seeing the tangible realities of hunger and feeding, Jesus was saying was that what fills His soul truly was to be doing God’s will and His work.  Basically, He was being satisfied by being in harmony with God’s mission.  Have you ever felt or experienced that?  What was that moment when you were able to be in so harmony with God’s mission in your life?

I think we all encounter such moments throughout our lives.  Perhaps it is a time when we respond to the tugging by the Holy Spirit to speak to someone.  Perhaps it was the speaking to someone that God had put a burden on our hearts.  It could even be the simple small gestures of love towards another that may mean so little to others, but meant the world to the person you loved.  Truly, it is totally satisfying and fills you in a completely satisfying way.  More often than not, we eat of this wonderful fulfilling feast in God when we coincide… when we harmonize with God’s melody… which usually is directed towards the helpless… the poor, the oppressed, the orphans… the widows… and those lacking others to be there for them.  This is the joy of mission!  It is the ability to feast and partake in that infinitely satisfying goodness of God.

Captain then pointed out that we often don’t hear from God… because we aren’t listening to God and doing what He wants.  Rather we desire to hear and determine that tone/frequency or melody of God in our lives… but more so than not… God’s audible frequency is completely different and so much harder than what we dare or want to commit to.  Rather, we would like to be comfortable or self-reliant. It is in these times that we become more “wooden” or less flexible; we become less stretchable.  It’s only when you get out of the ruts of our lives… the comfortably cozy places that we can be stretched and to have opportunities to have a child-like faith.  This child-like faith is those places where we can’t rely on our own experiences and abilities but where we really have no confidence and strength in our own abilities.  God wants to stretch us, but more often than not… it requires us to count the cost and to consider and turn away from the comfort and safety of what we understand and know so well.

So what does this look like to be more on mission and in tune with God?  I think the one little quote I wrote down that made so much sense is this: “A life of obedience and faith is a life of saying ‘yes!’ to Jesus.”  It is learning to take not 1 HUGE step, but learning to simply take small steps of obedience and faith.  It is after taking these steps that perhaps prepares us to take big steps… but more often than not… when we look back… looks like some huge fantastic steps.  It is in learning to say “yes” to God that I think we grow and continue to be refreshed and to drink from that living water that rejuvenates and keeps us flexible.  It is also in the midst of these times of saying yes, that we see that the road that lies ahead.

One final thought I jotted down as I was listening to my mentor’s sermon was this… what are the dreams we live for?  Do we live for our dreams… imperfect and flawed… or do we allow God’s dreams which are infinitely better/perfect/complete… to be our dreams?  I think God wants us to dream His dream… to dream His story… He wants our hopes and all that we are… to be after that perfect dream… and it is in doing so that we become a part of His mission.  How will you say “yes” to Him today?

God’s Plan for You is the Church

Having finished my sophomore year in college, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I should do with my life. Pondering questions about God’s will and such. Over the past year or so, I’ve gradually developed a crazy thought, which is simply this: God’s will for me, for everybody, is the Church. Before I explain why I think it’s crazy, I think I should first try to describe why God’s will is the Church (by will, I mean something like “God’s plan for your life”). And then, I’ll try to say something about how this thought might play out in real life.

What first brought me to begin considering this idea was a puzzling verse in Galatians, where Paul writes that through Christ, “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (6:14). Despite spending most of the letter arguing for justification through faith rather than works, here, Paul seems to suggest a very real participation in the crucifixion, even saying that he bears on his body “the marks of Jesus” (6:17). Hence, although Paul no longer bears the burden of works righteousness, yet he does bear some other burden, one related to the crucifixion.

I think that Paul’s references to the crucifixion are related to the command in 6:2 to “Bear one another’s burdens.” This is also an interesting passage, for having refuted a righteousness that comes through the law, Paul now refers to bearing burdens as fulfilling the “law of Christ” (6:2). However, the idea of bearing a burden is not completely strange, precisely because Christ Himself bore the burden of the cross, becoming “a curse” for our sake (see 3:12). Hence, as Christians, we are called to bear a load–not our own burden, but the burden of another. This, I think, is true love, for it follows after Christ’s example that “[g]reater love has on one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

The community that Paul envisions in Galatians 6 can only be actualized in the Church, for the Church is the Body of Christ. The idea of bearing another’s burden is made possible only because Christ bears our burdens on the cross. Apart from Christ, our individual lives are demanded as payment for our sins. Any sacrifice we make for someone else would mean nothing, because we have nothing to give. But since Christ bears our sins on the cross, we are free to give our lives in loving others, to suffer like Paul for the sake of the gospel. We are called a Body not merely because we share the same beliefs, but because faith unites us to Christ Himself. By sharing in His Body, we also participate in His death and resurrection, giving us the freedom to give our own lives in serving others. That is why Paul can claim to bear the “marks of Jesus,” since Paul’s obedience to the Gospel to the point of suffering and persecution is the imitation of Christ on the cross (see Philippians 2:5-11). Christlike love can only occur when one has been united to Him, and to be united to Him is to be a part of His Body.

So here’s why I think our lives ought to revolve around the Church. The kind of life that is described in the Gospels and Epistles is one that can only occur when an individual is deeply committed to the Church. It is only in the Church that we have the basis for loving others in the same way that Christ loved them. We cannot bear one another’s burdens unless Christ has first borne our burdens. Apart from the Church (that is, apart from the BODY OF CHRIST), we are isolated individuals, incapable of bearing another’s burden, because we have our own burden of sin to bear. More than that, however, the Church isn’t just how we “ought” to live, it is the very fabric of who we are in Christ. Christ is the New Man, the Second Adam. The Church is where we live out the new humanity in anticipation of the second coming.

Hence, I think our commitment to Christ entails a commitment to the local church. And the first area that will affect is probably our decision-making. Try this thought project: What if our career choices weren’t based on salary potential or personal fulfillment, but on what would help us best build up the local church, given our God-given skills and talents? What if our decision to stay single or get married was based on what would allow us to best serve our local church (note: some people serve better single, others married)? What if we chose to settle down where our local church is, instead of where the best jobs (or schools) are? What if we made our lives about the church, instead of making the church about us?

Sure, this sounds crazy. Even impossible. I’m not saying we should do those exact things, but its clear that we’d have to give up a lot if we’re going to center our lives around the Church. Personal comforts. Personal ambitions. We’d get stuck with people we can’t stand. We’ll feel like we missed out when our friends are living the lives we thought we could have had. Regret. Suffering.

None of this is worth it if it isn’t for Christ. I’m saying that it is worth it, because the Church is the Body of Christ. “Truly, I say to you,” says Jesus, “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). In this time says Jesus! Dietrich  Bonhoeffer points out that the only way we can receive a hundredfold in this life is when we become part of a local church body. In the church, we gain new family, new riches, new promises.

I could spend the rest of my life searching for God’s will for me (me, me, me…is it always all about me?), but the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that God’s will for me, for all humanity, is the Church. Of course, that will look different for different people. I confess, this is an underdeveloped thought, but I hope it encourages us to think about how life would look if we seriously shifted our focus from me to Christ, from the individual to the community. Friends, fall in love with Christ, and in doing so, fall in love with the Church.