How Could a Loving God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?

poferamsesSometimes grace finds you in roundabout ways.

Recently, I was discussing the Exodus story with a couple of Ekklesia staff members, and one of them brought up a common question about Pharaoh. In Exodus, God says of Pharaoh, “I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (4:21). What is that all about? How could a loving God harden someone’s heart to keep them from belief? Why couldn’t God just let him be?

It’s easy to freak out when we read about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. But if you think about it, this sentiment assumes if God hadn’t hardened Pharaoh’s heart then he would’ve had a heart of gold. In the end we’re all reasonably good people, right? Shouldn’t God at least give Pharaoh a chance?

But later we read that Pharaoh also hardened his heart (8:32). Now we have God and Pharaoh hardening the same heart. How do we reconcile the two? Maybe you don’t need to.

We’re all hardened people like Pharaoh. If given the chance, we would choose to harden our hearts too. What’s surprising is not that God hardens some hearts but that he doesn’t harden all of them. That’s the crazy thing about grace. God chooses to soften a heart that wants to be hard.

“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.”
—Ezekiel 11:19

Where in The Bible Does God Attend Anger Management Classes?

Editor’s Note: I love to bring in different voices to this blog. Today, you have the privilege of hearing from Seth Clarke. Seth is one of my best friends in the whole wide world. He works on staff at Ekklesia with me and is an excellent Bible student. Also, I don’t think there’s a bigger Disney or Dirk Pitt fan on the planet earth than Seth. Enjoy!  -Kyle

Belief-in-an-Angry-God-Now-Linked-to-Mental-Illness-2I was friends with a guy who got into the Hollywood scene. He originally attended seminary to become a pastor, but decided that Hollywood was the way to go instead. Then one day he tweeted, “Jesus telling people not to cast the first stone would have been cool, if his dad hadn’t told them to do it in the first place.

Unfortunately, this is a viewpoint that many Christians and non-Christians hold. Many think that the God of the Old Testament was angry; He wanted blood! He wanted vengeance!! HE WANTED TO WATCH THE CAST OF JERSEY SHORE BURN!!!…But then came Jesus, the God of the New Testament. He was all about peace, love, harmony, and organic foods.

God the Father had a crew cut, was clean-shaven, and fought in Korea. Jesus rocked the long flowing hair, beard, and listened to Simon and Garfunkel.

Both these views are skewed.

Lets sort out the first problem. God is Jesus. Jesus is God. You cannot separate the two. How do I know? He says so.

  • “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30)
  • “I say unto you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)

So if God and Jesus are the same, why are they so different tempered? Did God have a change of heart during the 400 years between the Old Testament and New Testament? Did he attend anger management classes? Did he stop listening to rap music? Yoga?

No.

Understand that God never changes.

  • “For I am The LORD, I do not change.” (Malachi 3:6)
  • “Whatever is good and perfect comes to us from God above, who created all heaven’s lights. Unlike them, He never changes or casts shifting shadows.” (James 1:17)
  • “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)

Also understand that God’s anger in the Old Testament is a righteous anger aimed at evil. It is good. It is just. It is the proverbial Superman to the world’s Voldermort. (Calm down my fellow nerds, it’s just an example.)

And we even see Jesus use this anger.

In John 2:13-22 people were using the temple to sell stuff and make money. Jesus got so angry that he yelled, over turned tables, and whipped people to get out! Can you imagine going to the store when all of a sudden a man starts yelling, knocking things over, then pulls out his Indiana Jones whip to scare people out? That’s scary enough by itself, without the righteous wrath of God!

So if Jesus and God are the same person and never change, then what’s the deal with God’s anger in the Old Testament? I would like to argue that God is actually a very loving God in the Old Testament. He forgives a countless number of times. He loves the people of the world. He wants them to succeed in life. He wants what’s best for them.

You want some examples? I’ll give you some examples.

Here are some in just the first book of The Bible:

  • God gave man the whole world. Literally. “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)
  • God told man not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, not because he wanted to tell man what to do, but because he loves us and did not want us to die, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17)
  • God made woman so that man would not be lonely. (Genesis 2:18-22)
  • God agreed to spare an evil, vile, corrupt city of large population if there were merely ten righteous people in this city. (Genesis 18:23-32)

God demonstrates his love in other books of the Old Testament:

  • God freed the slaves of Egypt, who then complained, turned away from him, and worshiped idols, and he STILL forgave them. (Exodus 1-32)
  • God spared David. A king who had everything, who slept with another man’s wife, got her pregnant, tried to cover it up which failed, then killed her husband and made it look like an accident to try to cover it up again, then once the husband was dead he took her as his own wife. (2 Samuel 11 – 12:15)
  • God allowed the rich man, Job, to be tested but not killed, and then rewarded him with twice as many riches as he had before. (Job 1-42)
  • God continually offers redemption and grace to a stubborn and rebellious nation of Israel. (Isaiah 43)

But the biggest examples to me that the Old Testament God loves us are found in christophanies. Christophanies are God appearing in the pre-incarnate form of Jesus Christ. Again, if Jesus and God are one, then Jesus existed before he was born in flesh. Christophanies occur in the Old Testament when God wants to appear before man in a physical form. God the Father cannot appear before man, for he told Moses “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20) Some examples of chistophanies can be found in Genesis 16, 18, 32, and Exodus 3.

So why would God want to appear to us who sin against him daily? Simple. Because he loves us. Because he doesn’t want to abandon us. Because he wants to be with us. He is the Father who wants to be with his children, no matter how badly those children misbehave.

Therefore I would urge anyone who is reading the Old Testament to shift their paradigm and look at who God really is.

A God who loves us.

A God who created us. Not so we could be ruled over and punished, but be cared for and watched over.

A God who ultimately would send his one and only son to be brutally murdered, so our relationship with him could be restored once and for all.

“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

Seth Clarke is a theology student at Calvary Chapel Bible College, musician, movie-buff, husband, and disciple of Christ. He’s currently devising a plan to join the cast of The Avengers but he’ll probably get beat out by Ben Affleck. Follow him on Twitter @Seth_Clarke.

The Problem of Grace

I’ve been thinking a lot about grace lately and one verse has been stuck in my head the whole time. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

amazing-graceThere is no salvation without grace. Grace is God’s un-earned favor. It’s to receive something that you didn’t deserve. Most of us are familiar with the concept, but I think it’s important to make sure the familiar concepts don’t become stale in our minds.

Imagine a guy who skips a whole week of work. Thirty hours a week at Starbucks was really stressing him out—all that standing, moving, barista-ing, and whatnot—so he decides to turn off his alarm clock and sleep in every morning. At the end of the week, the guy’s boss still shows up on his doorstep and hands him a pay check for a full week worked.

The guy definitely did not deserve to be paid at all. In fact, he should’ve been fired. But instead of receiving the penalty he deserved, he got a reward. But that’s not how the world operates—that’s grace.

I have to be honest, grace is the hardest thing for me to accept in Christianity, even after having been saved for almost twenty years. Not miracles. Not God’s existence. Not the “Old Testament God.” Not hell. I actually haven’t struggled too much with those things. But grace I struggle with every single day.

I think as sinful humans we naturally don’t accept grace. It’s completely counter to how anything else in the world works. If I study hard, I pass the test. If I work hard, I get paid. If I don’t do those things, I receive the due consequences. Only when God comes crashing into the world does grace appear. And when it does, we run from it.

While I was attending the University of Oregon, I took a history class on the Reformation. For those of you unfamiliar with the time period, before the Reformation there really was just the Catholic Church and it preached a salvation of works. The church arrived at this conclusion after hundreds and hundreds of years worth of tradition, veiled corruption, and misinterpretation of the Bible had been heaped upon itself. They said, if you make these pilgrimages, say this many Hail Mary’s, and pay for these indulgences, then you might get to heaven or at least not spend too long in Purgatory. But there were some men, starting with Martin Luther, who looked at the Bible and saw that it preached a salvation by grace through faith. In fact, as Ephesians 2:8-9 shows, salvation is explicitly not by works.

The teacher in the class (himself a special blend of neo-Lutheran and New Age agnosticism) actually did a great job of objectively showing both viewpoints. Near the end of the semester, the teacher asked the class, “Now that you understand the different viewpoints—that the Catholic Church taught a salvation by works and the Reformation taught a salvation by grace—which one would you choose?” 98% of the class raised their hands for salvation by works. Only my wife, another guy who went to my hometown church, and I raised our hands for salvation by grace. Seeing the disparity, the teacher asked why so many chose the Catholic viewpoint. They answered, “I cannot accept the fact that my personal salvation is outside of my hands.” None of them wanted grace.

Why do we naturally reject grace? It’s because of pride. It’s all about me. We want to hold our fate in our hands. I want to do it all on my own steam. I want people to know I was strong enough. I want to be sufficient. I want to be independent. I don’t want to need anyone. Ultimately, what I’m saying is, I want to be my own god—my own savior.

It’s Genesis 3, Adam and Eve trying to make themselves “like God,” forgetting about the Tree of Life and what it was like to walk with God. It’s Romans 1, all of mankind exchanging the “truth about God for a lie.” It’s Matthew 19, and the rich young man walking away from Jesus because discipleship means choosing Christ above everything.

We cannot earn a right standing before God. Grace forces us to admit that we’re not sufficient. That we’re not strong or good enough. That we’re sinners. That we need someone else to save us.

It’s the problem of grace. We all need it but won’t accept it. And yet, Jesus pursues us anyway.

Rethinking Apologetics

One of my fellow pastors calls me “Cult-Killing Kyle”—to my nausea-inducing chagrin—because I’m really passionate about apologetics. (But to be clear, not about killing people from cults. That’s bad.) Apologetics is the art and science of defending the Christian faith. The term comes from the word “defense” (in the Greek, apologia) used in 1 Peter 3:15, which says, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Many Christians try to accomplish this through carefully crafted arguments. Their ultimate goal is tear down an opponent’s objections, hopefully concluding with a conversion. This mindset holds that if people were shown sufficient evidence for Christianity, then they could not help but believe.

No one's going to get this joke at all, but I still think it's funny.

No one’s going to get this joke at all, but I still think it’s funny.

But with the advent of postmodernism, people are no longer concerned with finding the truth but their truth. They see truth to be based on experience not evidence. The good thing is people are more open to hear opposing viewpoints. The problem is you can answer all their objections and they will walk away totally unfazed about their beliefs.

Being a pastor in Eugene, Oregon—a city fueled by the University of Oregon and known as the hippie capital of the Northwest—I get to interact with many who’ve taken postmodernism as far as it can go. One student told me with a straight face that morality does not exist and that Hitler and the Holocaust was a neutral matter. I then asked him, perhaps inappropriately, how he’d feel if his family was brutally murdered in front of him. Same answer. Morally neutral. I slowly walked away a little afraid.

How do you argue with someone like that? Perhaps there isn’t a way.

Through my many failures in apologetics I’ve become a firm believer that you cannot argue someone into heaven. I’m not saying throw out apologetics all together. I’m calling for us to rethink how we go about it. Of course, if someone has burning questions about the faith, they should be answered. But that is not sufficient. If someone is to be convinced of the Gospel, something deeper must be touched. You have to hit the heart.

Unbelief is not an intellectual problem but a heart problem (Psalm 14:1; Matthew 13:15). People don’t have trouble believing Christianity because they haven’t seen the evidence. They may say that, but that’s not what’s going on. They don’t want to believe. They willingly choose something else over God, exchanging the truth for a lie (Romans 1:18-25). Pharaoh had evidence in the form of vicious plagues, but he still hardened his heart (Exodus 8:19). There were some who saw the risen Christ and still didn’t believe it (Matthew 28:17).

When people convert to Christianity, it’s not because they finally saw all the proof. It’s because their heart was changed. Even C.S. Lewis wasn’t converted from his atheism because of rational arguments. He’d heard everything there was to hear in support of Christianity and was not convinced. It wasn’t until he was “surprised by joy”—the joy he realized he was meant to experience—that he reluctantly chose to follow Christ.

This doesn’t mean our faith is based on zero evidence. Christianity has mountains of evidence. Because people choose not to believe in God, they also choose not to see the evidence.

So, how do we share and defend the Gospel in this postmodern age? We must engage a person’s heart. What is their deepest desire? How are they trying to fulfill themselves? What is their deepest hurt? How are they seeking to save themselves?

A few years ago, a couple friends and myself were in a debate with two Mormon missionaries. I’d compiled a literal binder full of stuff to discredit everything, ranging from the Nephites all the way to the magic onesies. It didn’t work. After a few hours of getting nowhere, one of my friends asked them, “If you got hit by a bus today, do you know with absolute certainty if you’d go to heaven?” Both the missionaries hung their heads low, staring at the ground, searching for an answer. After about thirty seconds of silence, one of the men answered with a quivering voice, “I don’t know.” My friend had cut straight to their hearts—in a belief system where salvation is earned through good works, you can never know if you’ve done enough. What a heavy burden to carry.

One of the best ways to speak to another person’s heart is just by sharing yours. You don’t need a Ph.D. in theology. You know how you’ve been transformed. That story will resonate with people because their heart is longing for the same thing.

I once spent forty-five minutes arguing with an atheist on the UO campus, answering all his questions. After every reply instead of relenting, he kept bringing up more arguments. Answering one question would spawn three more. I had a guy with me I was training in ministry who hadn’t gone through any formal theological schooling. The atheist, tired of hearing my voice, turned to my friend and asked him to speak up. He nervously said, “I don’t know much about all this science and creation and stuff. But this is what I do know.” He then shared about his redemption out of a brutal life, about how Christ came crashing into his world and wrecked him. By the end of the story, tears were streaming down the atheist’s face. He longed for the same redemption.

The Apostle Peter is not wrong that you should be ready to defend the truth. Do it with “gentleness and respect,” declaring why you have hope—because Jesus gave you a new heart, a new life. Be honest, be open, and trust the Gospel to do the rest (Romans 1:16).

How to Filter Everything with the Bible

Last Wednesday I had the privilege to preach at Ekklesia’s midweek service on the subject of the Christian mind, a subject I’m obviously passionate about. I ended the sermon talking about how we need to use the Bible to filter everything that comes our way, in order to find the truth and spit out the lies. I didn’t quite get to say everything I wanted to say on the matter, so I decided to discuss it here.

Elemaris_Cool_schwarz_300dpiI cannot overstate how important it is that believers try and filter everything through the lens of Scripture. Because the devil is constantly tempting us, the world is constantly preaching to us, and our flesh is constantly blinding us, we must use the Word of God to navigate through all of this. Our guide cannot be our intuition or our own logic. It cannot be our experiences. We are people of the Book and so all our arguments must come from the truth of this Book.

THE MARK OF MATURITY

We need to learn to discern between truth and error. Albert Mohler says, “The absence of consistent biblical worldview thinking is a key mark of spiritual immaturity.” What that means is that if you are unable to decipher through things happening around you and determine if it coincides with the Bible, then you are spiritually immature. Now, that doesn’t mean you are going to have all the answers, but that does mean you know how to find them, or at least the fact that you need one.

Hebrews 5:11-14 says:

“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”

Who does he say is the spiritual child? The one who does not know how to handle the Word of God. The one who does not know how to discern between good and evil, right and wrong teaching. The one who does not know how to filter what they hear and see.

So it’s not only the super-Christian (as if they existed) who should know how to wade through the moral and ethical complexities of life. All Christians are called to grow up, just like all babies are called to become adults.

FILTER THE WORLD

We cannot be passive thinkers. If you’re watching TV, don’t just sit there and let your brains ooze out your ears. The world is constantly preaching sermons to us. Every movie, song, book, blog, and political speech, is preaching a message to you, inviting you to come and believe. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up agreeing with the lies and miss the truth.

As you go throughout your day, you shouldn’t just let any old thought pass in and out of your head. You have to be vigilant and aware, constantly. We are most vulnerable when we are most aloof.

I hate to break it to you but you’re actually going to have to work at this. I know this is hard. Sometimes I just want to zone out and let my mind wander. My mind can run off so badly that I sometimes don’t even realize what’s going on around me (which really annoys my wife). When that happens, I just have to remind myself, if you didn’t want to think hard then you should’ve never allowed yourself to graduate kindergarten.

FILTER BIBLE TEACHINGS

Along that same note, Ephesians 4:13-14 says:

“Until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

Once again, it’s the spiritually immature who’s tossed to and fro by every kind of teaching they hear. They are helpless. My daughter Madeline is only ten weeks old, and her head is so big compared to the rest of her body that when she tries to sit up she just falls over. Imagine a baby like that in a sailboat, with waves tossing to and fro. Helpless. The baby is not in control, the ocean is.

It’s the same with a spiritually immature person. They hear something that sounds slightly spiritual and they think it’s so awesome and they put it up on Facebook. They think, Well a pastor said it, so it must be true!

Most Christians put down their guards when they hear vaguely spiritual language or they see the label “Christian.” It must be good because they mentioned God! This is why if you look at most of the best-selling books in Christian bookstores, they are written by authors who are peddling false teachings. And the Christians gobble them up like they’re Olive Garden breadsticks.

Don’t take in anything blindly. I don’t care if it’s a sermon, a song, or a book endorsed by Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant. It may make you feel good, but is it true? Search the Scriptures.

In Acts 17, Luke writes about the Bereans and their reactions to Paul’s teachings about Jesus. Instead of just accepting his word blindly, they searched the Scriptures to see if such things could be true. Luke says that they were more noble than the Thessalonians for their diligence.

I can’t do the thinking for you. Mark Driscoll, John Piper, or Tim Keller can’t do the thinking for you. You are free, no encouraged, to check everything we say with the Scriptures. You don’t have to agree everything said or written. If you’re confused or don’t understand, that’s okay. Search for the truth.

FILTER YOUR EXPERIENCES

Don’t even interpret your own experiences with a passive mind.

You may think that a certain worship experience was so mind-melting and heart-stopping, but 1 John 4:1 says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

If it does not coincide with Scripture and if it does not affirm Christ, then I don’t care if it gave you the biggest spiritual high you’ve ever experienced. False teachers don’t come from outside the church but inside, and they are deceiving many.

As I’ve written earlier  spiritual highs and experiences are not unique to Christianity. You can get the same high at a Coldplay concert. What’s unique to Christianity is the truth of the Gospel. Stick with that.

FILTER WITH QUESTIONS

You may say, but I’m not a theologian. I don’t think I am able to filter all this. What’s the point?

Everyone is a theologian. Theology literally means “words about God.” Everyone has some sort of idea about God, even atheists.

Everyone is a theologian. The question is whether or not you are a good one. A good one searches for the truth—for how God wants to be represented.

I want to encourage you to ask questions. When someone comes your way, don’t accept it blindly. Also, don’t reject it right away. Ask questions. Is this true? What does the Bible say about this? Are there actual verses (taken in context, of course) that would support this?

I don’t necessarily think questioning is a bad thing. Questions are good and fine if you have the right attitude. The best place to ask a serious question or voice a doubt should be church (sadly it’s often not). Where questions can go wrong is where you don’t like the answer you find in Scripture, so you go looking for something else to tickle your ears. That shows you are not concerned with the truth but with yourself.

The mark of a Christian is that they will uphold and defend the truth. 1 Timothy 3 calls the church the “pillar of the truth.” If we don’t stand for the truth of the Gospel, that Jesus is God who became a man to save sinners like you and me, that He died on a cross to take the punishment we deserved, and that He rose again to give us new life if we trust in His work, then no one will stand for it.

Let’s take back our minds and use them for Christ.

A Response to Rachel Held Evans and the Millennial Exodus from the Church

Rachel Held Evans, popular blogger and best-selling author, has an article on CNN.com that’s created quite the frenzy on the interwebs. The last time I checked, the article had been shared 163,000 times on Facebook. The piece is titled, “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church,” and it’s striking more chords than a youth worship leader. Evans has also invited people to join in the conversation, hence my blog post.

In the article, Evans seeks to diagnose why so many young adults are fleeing much of America’s churches. She believes the cause of the exodus is because millennials are finding less of what they value in the church—and please don’t suggest to her that it’s found in “hipper worship bands.”

Evans states:

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.
We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.
We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.
You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

In short, the church needs to change or it will become obsolete.

Personally, I’m smack in the middle of millennial generation (24). I’m also pastor at a church, so I have some stakes in this game. I know my voice is just a drop in the blogosphere ocean and that there have already been some great responses to Evans herehere, and here, [and here] but I wanted to add my two cents.

WHERE EVANS IS SORT OF CORRECT

Not everything Evans has to say is incorrect. I agree that many churches do need to change but not because millennials are leaving. They need to change because they’ve wandered from the truth of the Bible.

Many churches rely on the power of politics to save them, not the Gospel. Many churches rely on emotional experiences to fuel their worship, not an intelligent faith. Many churches care more about preserving their own comfort, not the souls of those around them. Many churches believe they are without sin, not sinners saved by grace. Many churches care more about the amount in attendance, not the individual.

There are many things wrong with the churches in our country and in the churches around the world. In my own church. People sin, therefore the church is full of sinners. Sinful people will jockey for positions. Sinful people will gossip and commit adultery. When a church is full of sinful people then the church will be full of sin. But then again, that’s kind of the point. Isn’t it? Jesus didn’t marry a spotless bride. He married her to make her spotless. We are all in process of healing and the church is the hospital.

Does that excuse the sin that occurs in the church? No. Churches should continually evaluate themselves and repent of sins committed. When repentance does not happen in a church, that’s when you can tell something is really off.

When I talk to people who have left the church, millennial and all other, many times it turns out because they were never shown that church was worth it. They were always preached to about the truth but they never saw the truth actually lived out.

I have friends who have grown up every day of their lives in church, hearing that marriage is sacred. Then they get to college and find out their parents are getting divorced because the father or mother had an affair. It’s no surprise that they are repulsed by all the traditional marriage talk. All they’ve seen are empty words. In their minds, all this church talk is pointless.

Enough with empty words. The church needs to first believe that the truth does work—that the Gospel has enough power within itself to save anyone (Romans 1:16). It’s a message that has sparked revival regardless of persecution or zeitgeist. Jesus promised that if the church was built on the Gospel, then the gates of hell could not even prevail against it (Matthew 16:18-19). I think it can survive a few angst-filled twenty-somethings.

WHERE EVANS IS INCORRECT

I think one of the biggest problems with Evans’ evaluation is she doesn’t recognize that millennials are at least partially responsible for their own exodus from the church.

Yes, I know many have been hurt by people in the church. Yes, I know the church can be frustrating at times. But millennials need to stop playing the victim. Regardless of what’s happened to them in the past, they still get to make their own choices. They have the same Bible that their parents have. And millennials are willfully leaving the church.

Why are they leaving? Whenever I talk to someone who has vacated the church, they typically voice one of the reasons that Evans states in her article. But I’ve found there’s usually something deeper going on. Even if all those things Evans listed in her article were found in a church, I still don’t think a large majority would go to church. This is proven by the fact that there are whole denominations who meet her criteria and they’re actually seeing a decline in attendance across the board.

Millennials are not leaving the church because they have no other choice but to desert the sinking ship. They’re leaving because they don’t care about the church. They don’t like being under authority or having someone call them out for their sin. They want an institution that looks just like them and when they can’t have it, they huff off the basketball court, ball in hand. It’s individualism and consumerism to the core.

This is quite the pickle, if you think about it. Millennials are choosing to abandon Jesus’ bride. They’re leaving the only institution Jesus said He would build (Matthew 16:18-19), the people Jesus chose to die for (Ephesians 2:16), the family they were adopted into (Ephesians 2:19-22), the body they were called to function in (1 Corinthians 12:12-27), the pillar of truth for the whole world (1 Timothy 3:15), and the bride Jesus is coming back for (Revelation 21:1-7). Most of the New Testament is about Christ working in and through the church. Most, if not all, of the epistles were written to churches or their leaders. If you look at the New Testament, I think you’d have a hard time justifying that you can love Jesus but not the church.

Perhaps it’s the millennials who need to change.

If millennials truly love Jesus and want to please Him, they should choose to stay with His bride, not abandon her. If not at their current church, then they should dedicate themselves to find one they can at least tolerate to be in. If they see problems, instead of whining about them, they should do something about it. They should be the change they want to see (to loosely quote someone millennials love to quote). We always talk about making a difference. Here’s our chance to impact the only organization Jesus promised to build. In His mind, there is no plan B to reach the world.

One final thing I think Evans missed is all the millennials who haven’t left but are instead trying to make a difference in the church. I get to see them every day.

The overwhelming majority of the 1500 person church I serve at (named Ekklesia) is made up of millennials. And we are in Eugene, Oregon, one of the most unchurched states in the nation. Ekklesia is also a diverse crowd. Some grew up in the church but many didn’t. Many got saved through hearing the Gospel preached day after day. We are racially diverse (especially for Oregon, one of the whitest states in the Union). We are economically diverse.

And we do do just about everything society would advise against. Get this, we preach the Bible for 45-60 minutes every Sunday and Wednesday—and they’re expository sermons. We believe in the exclusivity of the gospel. We believe in traditional marriage. We believe in the inerrancy of the Word. Yet millennials come. And it really has nothing to do with us because we haven’t tried anything special—unless you count our hip, Greek, one-word name. Both our campuses meet in middle school gyms. We don’t use formal liturgy. We don’t have wine for communion. We didn’t have strategy meetings and focus groups to try and figure out how to best reach the young crowd. We just opened the Bible. They just showed up and never left.

There are churches reaching young people. I could name off more in our city and more in Portland who are doing the same thing. They are faithfully preaching the Bible and wondrously seeing people changed.

As we look at trends like the one Evans has pointed out, we also have to remember that being a Christian is not going to be considered cool. Persecution is guaranteed all throughout the Bible (John 15:18-20, 1 Peter 4:12-19). The Gospel is going to be seen as foolish to most people (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). We don’t need to freak out when these verses are realized in our lives. Instead of capitulating to the spirit of the age, we need to hold fast even stronger to the truth, trusting that Christ will see His church through.

Out of Context: Matthew 18:20 – Where Two or More Are Gathered

carpool_sign_500To continue our series looking at commonly taken out of context verses, I wanted to take aim at one of the most famous of them all, Matthew 18:20.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Typically, I’ve heard it quoted in church services by pastors and worship leaders praying in front of the congregation: “Lord, thank you so much that You are here with us right now as we worship. Your Word says, ‘Where two or more are gathered, there I am also.’ We have at least three hundred here just to be safe, so we know for sure you’re here.” I’ve also heard it in small prayer meetings: “God we know you can hear our prayers right now because Sebastian and Helga are praying with me.”

It’s used as an encouragement to the others listening that God approves of their worship. We know something really extra-special and spiritual is going down because God is actually here with us.

I’m definitely not innocent in my use of this verse. This verse is so commonly used that it’s become another prayer-ism that people naturally say along with “Heavenly Father,” “Place a hedge of protection,” “Bless this food to our bodies” (Because you know, of course, nutrients only travel through your bloodstream if you pray—especially fast-food), and “In Jesus’ name.” Sometimes we don’t even think about it. We just say it.

This is a public service announcement to not take all our Christian-ese as given truth. We need to think through what we say and do in the Christian life, even if it’s been said or done by pastors, and see if what we’re doing is actually founded on the Bible. If it is, then that’s great! If not, then we need to reevaluate our spiritual habits.

(1 + 2 = God) is an equation we really don’t need.

THE CONTEXT

Here’s the context to Matthew 18:20. It’s a little long, but stick with me.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Jesus here is teaching His disciples how things are to work in His kingdom, in His church. He has just finished teaching the disciples about true greatness (18:1-6), how to fight sin (18:7-9), and God’s heart for the lost (18:10-14). Then in verse 15 (our context), Jesus transitions to talk about how we deal with others who sin against us. Justice is not found in taking matters into our own hands but in an orderly system of checks and balances, and in restoration. Jesus gives the disciples four steps to follow in such a situation.

1. Talk about it

Jesus tells His disciples that if they’ve been wronged by someone else in the church, first and foremost they are supposed to confront that person one-on-one (18:15). Not gossip. Not put passive-aggressive statuses on Facebook. Lovingly face-to-face. The goal in all of this is restoration and redemption.

2. Take one or two witnesses with you

If for some reason the perpetrator does not believe you or is not sorry for their sin, you must take one or two people to again confront them (18:16). This shows the person proof that the accusations are not the result of a grudge but in reality seen by multiple people. Jesus says, “every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (18:16). Does that number sound familiar?

3. Have the leadership confront them

If the perpetrator again rejects your loving correction, Jesus says you and the witnesses are to bring it before the “church” (18:17). I don’t have time to explain it all, but I take this to mean the church leadership and not the entire congregation. Hopefully having all the pastors confront the person will make them see the severity of their sin.

4. Send them out of the church

If they still won’t repent, even after multiple confrontations, the church is to send the person out because they are willfully rebelling against God’s Word (18:17). They will bring others down if you don’t (1 Corinthians 5; 2 Timothy 2:16-19; Titus 3:10-11).

Then Jesus ends this sermonette with a reassurance, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (18:18-19). He’s saying, if you go through this process correctly then God agrees with you. This is encouraging because proper church discipline is not a fun deal for anyone.

As a part of His encouragement Jesus ends saying, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (18:20). Remember that number? It’s the same amount of witnesses needed to properly confront a person in sin. Jesus isn’t saying you need two or three people praying to Him to have Him present. Jesus is encouraging believers that if they go through this process of church discipline properly then He supports their decision.

It’s almost hilarious how different this is from the common misinterpretation of this verse.

IMPLICATIONS

So, is Jesus present when two or more gather in His name? Yes.

He is also present when only one gathers in His name. Or none. God is always with you (Psalm 139) and you can call out to Him at anytime or anyplace. He wants you to. He’s not waiting for a magical number of people to appear.

If that were the case, then what do you do if you have two people gathered but one secretly and nefariously has not gathered in Jesus’ name? Is fellowship broken? No.

Instead, we can come to Jesus at any time, knowing that He is ready and excited to hear from us.

Other Out of Context posts:
Philippians 4:13 – Can I do all things through Christ?
How to take a verse out of context

We Were Created to Work

danger-man-at-work-hiMany people have a love/hate relationship with the word “work.” They like the idea of accomplishing goals and earning their keep, but the actual sweat and effort makes them squirm.

I often hear men boys complain about their workload—the hours are long, the work is menial, their boss is a tyrant, the amount of homework stresses them out, it hurts their fingers—but then with a little bravado in their voice they announce, “Well, it’s just my cross to bear. Work is a part of the Fall. Thanks a lot, Eve,” and then they’re applauded for their perseverance.

CREATED TO WORK

Those guys are wrong. Work is actually not a part of the Fall. Adam began working the very day he was created. Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”

Work has always been a part of God’s original design for mankind. We were created to work. We were created to cultivate. We were created to create.

What comes with the Fall is not the reality of work but the cursing of our work (Gen. 3:17-19). Now what we create resists. What we cultivate rebels just like we did to God.

Sin has entered into our work. Instead of working to spread the glory of God, we gravitate towards two different extremes—laziness or idolatry. One man may hide between his parents’ couch cushions to avoid working too hard at Taco Bell. The other works 90 hour weeks, neglects his family, his faith, and his health, all for a corner office.

Both are sin.

Work is a lot more difficult now, but we are still called to work and that work can still be good.

WHO’S THE BOSS

We were created to work but not for ourselves and not to create our own meaning. We work and create because—being made in the image of God—we are to reflect the God who created the world and works in human lives.

Our work is worship to Him. Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

You can be a pastor, a lawyer, a mailman, a student, a plumber, a stay-at-home mother, an accountant, or a barista and work hard and well, remembering the whole time your true employer is Jesus Christ. Negative attitudes and half-hearted service wouldn’t please an earthly boss, let alone our Heavenly One.

Jesus died that we would reflect Him in every aspect of our lives. How we flip burgers is not of little value. Everything matters.

That truth should encourage us to make those lattes or crunch those numbers to the best of our abilities—to the glory of Christ. Through your work you can show others how great your God is, that His transforming power infiltrates even the littlest of actions.

You don’t need a seminary degree or a title for permission to minister full-time as a vocation. A banker can make just as much an impact for the Kingdom as a pastor. But this is only possible if our work is for Christ and not ourselves. He is our Lord and Savior and He is the only One who can give our work true meaning.

For further reading check out Tim Keller’s book, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work.

This post was adapted from a previous post by me on the Ekklesia Eugene blog.