Why I Won’t Date You (an imaginary letter to a non-Christian)

Dear …

I am writing this to let you know why I won’t date you. It’s not because I don’t like you. I do. I really do. And it’s not because I don’t care about you. That goes without saying. In fact, it’s because I like you and care about you so much that I would like you to know why I can’t and won’t date you.

I know a decision like this is open to so much misunderstanding. I sincerely hope and pray that you won’t misunderstand me. I’ve thought hard about this and would like to share with you what are not the reasons why you and I can’t have a romantic relationship:

1. It’s not because I am judging you as a non-believer. 

I know it may seem so judgmental that I would exclude you as a potential partner over the issue of belief or non-belief. But please hear me that I don’t think less of you because you’re not a Christian. This is because being a Christian doesn’t make me or anyone superior in any sense. We recognise that we are all hopelessly broken before God and it takes the generosity and grace of God for anyone to be a Christian. I can’t judge you any more than Jesus judged those who were considered by his contemporaries to be on the ‘outside’.

2. It’s not because I don’t think you can change for me.

I do believe that a degree of change and compromise is possible and necessary in any intimate relationship. However, to expect you to change the most fundamental orientation of your heart to embrace Jesus as a believer is something that takes more than just superficial adjustments. It’s neither fair nor loving for me to put that pressure on you or to give you the impression that you have to become someone you’re not in order for our relationship to thrive.

3. It’s not because I’ve been pressured by my Christian friends.

The Christian community (church) I belong to has lovingly taught us about the kind of relationships that God wants for his children. However, I have not been pressured or guilted to make a decision like this. My Christian support network are there to help me and I am glad that they are doing what’s most loving, both for me and for you, in helping me make a decision like this. But this is no cult. It’s not brainwashing. It’s not control. It’s simply my wonderful church family giving me the strength to make a decision I am personally convinced is the right one.

I hope that clears up some of the potential misunderstandings. Those are not the reasons why I won’t go out with you. Let me now share with you what are the reasons why this decision is important for both me and you:

1. Dating is not an end in itself. Marriage and family are my goals for a romantic relationship.

I’m not going to date anyone just because it’s a bit of fun. That would be selfish of me and unloving to you. No. My view of dating is on the road towards something more permanent and more wonderful: God’s gift of marriage and children. For me to date you with the condition that I would marry you only if you became a Christian would be a way of ‘using you’ in the meantime for my own romantic indulgences. You need to know that for me, dating is the beginning that has an ending.

2. There are choices that you won’t want me to make when we are married.

As a Christian, Jesus isn’t just a part of my life: he is my life. He is my first love, my greatest joy and the source of my identity and happiness. Were we to have a successful and happy marriage, either I would have to put Jesus beneath my love for you, or I would have to put you beneath by love for Jesus. Unless we both share a love for Jesus, it cannot be both. I take it that you don’t want me to have to make a choice like that every single day of our lives together as husband and wife.

3. While you may be happy just being supportive of my love for Jesus, I want more than support to make a family work.

I have no doubt that you won’t get in the way of my faith. In fact, I know that you’ll even make the effort to occasionally come to church with me. I have no doubt that my Christian friends will love and accept you as one of their own. But consider this: one day we will have children. As a family, I don’t want my children to be confused about the importance of Jesus in our lives. I can only be a good parent if I am lovingly leading my children to share in my passion for Jesus. As any parent knows, children know how to ‘divide and conquer’. If our children know that Jesus is important to me but not to you, they will use that to their advantage. I don’t want to fight you every Sunday when the kids don’t want to go to church and cite our difference of beliefs as an excuse. I want us to work together for the growth of our children: not just physically and educationally, but spiritually as well.

I know that perhaps from where you’re standing now, these aren’t going to seem like insurmountable problems. It’s because you like me and are attracted to me. And nothing seems insurmountable at this stage. But I want us to take a longer-term view of our relationship. What happens when the attraction wanes and the grind of making a marriage work sets in? What happens when your willingness to go along with me to church now is tested by busyness, career, tiredness and hobbies? I don’t ever want to have a niggling sense that my spouse wishes I were someone else or had different beliefs or was less passionate about Jesus. Conversely I don’t ever want you to think that I would love you more if you had different beliefs or could be more accommodating to my beliefs.

In the end it comes down to something I already mentioned: Jesus is my life. He’s more than a religious conviction; he is everything to me. If I am to grow in my passion for him when he isn’t your all-consuming passion, we will necessarily grow apart. How can I lovingly and knowingly subject my future spouse to increasingly occupy the fringes of my affections? I can’t do that to you and won’t do that to you.

So please understand why I’ve decided as I have. I would love nothing more than for you to one day share in my love for Jesus, but I don’t want to make that a condition for our future life together. That is a decision that you have to make independent of any pressure from me. That’s why it’s a decision you are most positioned to make if we weren’t already in a romantic relationship.

With love and prayer,

….

“Plain Reading” = Misleading

There’s a tendency in theological debate for people to appeal to the ‘plain reading’ of Scripture as some sort of trump card.

“This is the plain reading…”

“Oh if that’s the case, then it’s settled then.”

Really?!

Appealing to the plain reading very rarely settles anything. You end up having a debate about what exactly this ‘plain reading’ might be, as both sides want to claim that honour for their own point-of-view.

My suggestion: let’s abandon this whole method of argumentation altogether. Why should the ‘plain reading’ be the right reading or even the better reading?

In fact, what does the ‘plain reading’ refer to anyway?

Is the ‘plain reading’ the reading that deals only with the surface meaning of the text, without taking into account genre or literary devices or historical, cultural, linguistic factors or authorial intent? If that’s the case, then almost no Christian I know would argue that the plain reading is the best reading.

But if the ‘plain reading’ of Scripture is the reading that accounts for the complexity of genre, translation, background etc., then what purpose does it serve when we label it as the plain reading? Why use the term at all? Why not argue for the ‘best reading’, or the reading that makes most historical, linguistic and contextual sense?

Indeed, to use the ‘plain reading’ argument is, in my mind, just a way bullying the other person to accept your  position without actually having to defend your case. In other words, it’s an exercise of power. “This is the plain reading…” is not a neutral statement. It carries with it the assumption that the ‘less-plain’ reading is  automatically the wrong reading, and that somehow simplicity is self-authenticating. Where does this assumption come from? Is it actually true? Has the assumption itself been tested? (And if it has been tested and found to be true, I doubt that the test itself would be very simple.)

So I reckon let’s quit appealing to ‘plain readings’. It’s lazy argumentation and is a roundabout way of exercising power. By all means put your reading out there as the better reading but be prepared to defend it. Whether it’s the ‘plain reading’ or not shouldn’t matter.

Bible Talk vs. Preaching

A Bible-talk (on my understanding) essentially conveys the idea that the speaker wants to talk about the Bible. in other words, the term suggests that it’s a lecture about the Bible. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s quite legitimate to talk about the background, language and meaning of the Bible. The question is: is it enough? Is this what is meant by “preaching” in Scripture? I don’t think it is.

The difference between a sermon and a Bible-talk or lecture is that a sermon is meant to be a sharp arrow that is aimed at the heart. Paul says to the Thessalonians that the gospel he preached came “not in words only but also in power, in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”. Incidentally, the conviction that Paul refers to is not simply conviction in the hearers; it’s conviction in the preacher as well. A preacher must be absolutely convinced of the truth of what he is saying. Unless the preacher is convicted he is not going to convict anyone else. This means that preaching must be aimed at the heart whereas the terms “lecture” or “Bible-talk” suggest that their main aim is to impart information.

(The Rt. Rev. David Jones, Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. Quoted from the Spring 2012 edition of AP Magazine. For the full interview http://www.totalweb.com.au/AP/2012/AP8.12/AP8.12.pdf)

Is Multimedia the Death of Preaching?

Thirty-to forty-minute sermons don’t work with Gen-Xers. Doing a service which does not incorporate video and contemporary music for the most part does not work with Gen-X. […] Some of the fascinating churches I have visited that are trying to reach Gen-X and are doing so well may have a thirty-minute sermon, which is broken into three segments during the course of the service. You have a ten-minute introduction to the topic, then you have an eight-minute video on that topic. Then the preacher comes back and preaches another ten minutes. Then you have a drama sketch for five to eight minutes, and the service is closed with ten minutes of preaching. That fits their communication style. It fits their attention span. It fits their style of thinking — the “mosaic” style of thinking. (George Barna)

George Barna wrote this a generation ago, but his words still have application to the modern church context. Preachers today are under enormous pressure to make preaching more savvy, more visual, more multisensory, or perhaps just get rid of preaching altogether in favour of multimedia presentations. What are we to make of this?

In my previous post I began a three-part series trying to answer the question: ‘why privilege preaching?’. In this next post, I want to tentatively suggest that preaching as a medium best corresponds with God’s primary medium in revealing himself to humanity.

Marshall MacLuhan famously said that ‘The medium is the message’. In other words, how we communicate effects what we communicate. For example, the evening news on TV – which is primarily driven by 30 second to 2 minute news segments mostly consisting of fragmented video footage, strung together by brief commentary, then broken up by commercials and ending with a heart-warming story about puppies being rescued from Chinese restaurants (joke) – communicates something about the news in addition to communicating the news. It’s saying something about the nature of life and the relative importance of world events – i.e. life is rather fragmented; news = sound bites; and puppies are as important as massacres in Syria. The medium is the message.

When you begin asking why God chose a particular medium of communication in revealing himself to humanity, it may have implications for the medium of communication we privilege to deliver his revelation.

In short, God chose words. More specifically God chose to speak his words. Even the words that he caused to be written in Scripture are, to a large extent, intended to be read aloud, re-preached, re-told, and re-verbalised, especially in the public assembly (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:1). I don’t think it’s just a matter of God choosing the lowest common denominator in a predominantly pre-visual and pre-literate age (though that is true to a certain extent). I think it has to do with the nature of spoken communication.

Compare the spoken word with visual communication – e.g. radio vs. TV; a phone call vs. a text message. The spoken (and heard) word is more intimate than purely visual forms of communication. That’s why radio is called a ‘warmer’ medium than TV. The spoken word is also more relational. The further one gets from face-to-face verbal communication the ‘colder’ communication becomes, since so much of communication is meta-communication such as intonation (i.e. how we say it). Visual images and the written word have to find ways to “code in” that meta-communication in a way that the spoken word doesn’t (just think about how much more likely an email is misunderstood than a spoken word!). And lastly, spoken words have an immediacy about them that images and written words don’t. Images especially need higher levels of interpretation that are circumscribed by one’s culture. It’s not that spoken words don’t need interpretation, it’s just that since language and culture have a symbiotic relationship, once a word is spoken (or for that matter, written) in a particular language, the interpretation is more ’embedded’ in its actual usage. That’s why if you’re wanting to warn people, you’re more likely to use spoken words than simply show a picture or a sign. (A red sign in our culture means danger because that’s how we interpret the colour red, but for a Chinese person, red symbolises prosperity.)

So isn’t it interesting that when God wants to relate to people – variously to befriend them, bless them, expose their sin, judge them or give them hope – he uses words? He speaks. He preaches. He declares it so we can hear it and heed it. And note how the declarative speech-acts (such as prophecy and preaching) carry with them a certain authority. They are uniquely suitable mediums for God to communicate his words since when God speaks there’s a certain non-negotiability about it. He doesn’t leave his words open to uncertainty and leave postmodern audiences to interpret them however their personal or cultural biases might take them.

Isaiah 55:10–11 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

In other words, there’s a reason why God speaks his revelation, tells his revelation, preaches his revelation, even sings (?) his revelation. The reason is the message – the gospel (by this I mean the gospel in the fullest and widest sense: i.e. God’s message of Christ’s Lordship and salvation in the whole of Scripture). In fact, the word ‘gospel’ itself reflects this since the gospel is news. News needs to be declared, announced, proclaimed and preached. When you preach the gospel (medium) you are saying something about the message – i.e. that it’s personal and relational, and yet urgent and authoritative. Thus on the flip-side it’s worth asking the question: if we decide not to preach the gospel but privilege other forms of communicating it: visualise it, enact it, multimedia it, Q&A it, does something get lost? (I’m not saying here that there aren’t many different and helpful ways to communicate the gospel; there certainly are. I’m just asking the question of ‘what do we lose?’.) Does the gospel message itself privilege the spoken medium over others?

So coming back to my initial point about preaching: I believe that because God himself privileges a particular medium of communication to deliver his gospel message, this, in some measure, constrains us also to privilege spoken and declarative communication – i.e. preaching. Multimedia may be helpful supplements to our teaching and preaching, but I think were the church to downgrade the privileging of preaching, we would lose not only a Biblical medium, but perhaps a whole lot of the message along with it.

Why Privilege Preaching?

An interesting opinion piece in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald, ‘University Lectures Are A Legacy of Our Pre-Digital Past’, got me thinking about preaching. Is preaching as a medium of communication also a legacy of the pre-digital past? This one-person monologue, delivered in countless churches week-by-week – isn’t it also something we should reconsider given the proliferation of the type of instant, multi-sensory digital means of communication that we are consuming every other day of the week? If university lectures need re-examination, then surely so does preaching, right?

I guess a broader question is: of all the different kinds of valid means of reading and teaching the Word of God (e.g. public reading of Scripture, personal encouragement, one-on-one Bibles study, small groups, video and net-based ministries), why privilege preaching?

In the next series of posts, I thought I’d rehash a seminar I delivered at a preaching conference last year and get the conversation going (so please comment away).

In this first post, I’d like to begin with definitions. What do we mean by Biblical preaching?

Here are a number of definitions I came across:

  • Sociological: ‘A public formal monologue to the congregation.’
  • Peter Adam: ‘The explanation and application of the Word in the assembled congregation of Christ.’
  • John Stott: ‘To open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and God’s people obey him.’
  • Phillip Jensen: ‘Preaching the gospel by prayerfully expounding the Bible to the people God has given me to love.’

Not ever content with just going with what someone else said, I feebly attempted my own amalgam of the above and came up with this as a definition of Biblical preaching:

Biblical preaching is declaring God’s Word to people by faithfully expounding the Scriptures through the power of the Holy Spirit for the glory of Christ.

With my definition I’m trying to capture three elements:

1. I want to define BIBLICAL preaching. Preaching as a means of communication is pretty universal. Parents can preach to their kids; sales-people can preach to their prospective buyers; other religious leaders can preach to their congregants; motivational speakers are preachers too. But I want to attempt to capture what Biblical preaching is. It is, first of all then, tied to faithful exposition of the Scriptural text.

2. I want to capture the VERTICAL dimension of Biblical preaching. God is actually speaking his Word through the preacher. There is therefore a power that must be at work for hearers to change. I guess this vertical dimension is what old-school preachers (like Martyn Lloyd-Jones) would call ‘unction’ or ‘anointing’. John Calvin wrote:

It is certain that if we come to church we shall not hear only a mortal man speaking but we shall feel (even by his secret power) that God is speaking to our souls, that he is the teacher. He so touches us that the human voice enters into us and so profits us that we are refreshed and nourished by it.

3. I want to capture the HORIZONTAL dimension of Biblical preaching as well. The preacher is preaching to God’s people in order to edify them. As he expounds Scripture and applies it, he is simultaneously exhorting his hearers (Peter Adam). Both the vertical and horizontal dimensions are key. Without the vertical, preaching is powerless. Without the horizontal, preaching won’t grow the church and bring about conversions.

Put simply I believe that Biblical preaching is PROPHETIC TEACHING. By this I am referring to prophecy in the broadest terms. (Note: I do believe in the continuation of the gift of New Testament prophecy as a smaller subset of this, but that’s for another post on another day perhaps). Here I simply mean prophecy in the ‘men spoke from God’ sense of the term (2 Peter 1:21). This is the vertical dimension in operation.

But preaching is also teaching because of that horizontal dimension. Therefore preaching is anchored in study, preparation, understanding and analysis of both the world of Scripture and the world of the hearers (John Stott).

Now the mix of prophecy and teaching can vary from preacher to preacher or even from sermon to sermon. It’s unimportant to distinguish which bits of a sermon correspond to which. However, I believe that Biblical preaching must have both elements. In other words, it is not just a spontaneous prophetic message; nor is it just a prepared lecture or seminar or workshop. It is God speaking to his gathered people through a prophetic teacher who expounds and applies the Bible. Nothing less than that will fulfil God’s mighty purposes for this ministry for the glory of Christ.

(Another note: different church traditions seem to privilege one over the other. Charismatic/Pentecostal traditions tend to emphasise the prophetic element of preaching and will tend towards spontaneity and less systematic exposition of the Biblical text, while Reformed Evangelical traditions tend to emphasise the teaching element of preaching and will sometimes be indistinguishable from a lecture. Which does your church tradition lean towards?)

So why privilege preaching? Well, I’m not quite at a full answer just yet. Next post I’ll be proposing that preaching as a mode of communication best reflects God’s own primary speech-act. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear your comments and critiques, so fire away!

Why Satan Doesn’t Need To Persecute Us

By ‘us’ I mean comfortable Western Christians like myself.

The reason why Satan doesn’t need to persecute us is because he’s having such success at destroying us without persecution.

Let me put it another way with a question: What would it take to make us deny our faith? If we were under actual and severe persecution, like what many Christians are enduring at this very moment in history, what would it take for us to deny the Lord who saved us?

I ask because whatever that ‘thing’ is, you can bet that Satan is already using it to compromise your faith NOW.

Is it comfort? security? your children? your spouse? your house? your lifestyle? your pleasures? the approval of your peers?

Whatever would make us give up our faith under duress is the very thing that Satan is subtly using to entice us away from total devotion to Jesus, RIGHT NOW.

You see, the enemy doesn’t need to persecute us. He’s already succeeding in destroying our allegiance to Christ without it.

(Want to hear more? I preached on this last week at: www.sermon.net/swccc/sermonid/119957584)

My thoughts on unmarried Christian couples holidaying alone together

I’m going to get straight to the point: unmarried Christian couples holidaying alone together is a really bad idea.

Before I go on, let me clarify. I am talking to Christian couples. I assume that Christian couples are committed to sexual purity before marriage. If you are reading this and not Christian, this isn’t a word for you (though by all means keep on reading). I am also talking about unmarried couples. That includes engaged but not-yet-married ones. Furthermore, the issue is holidaying alone. I have less of an issue if they are with other Christian couples and definitely no problem if they are holidaying with one of the couple’s family, or if there’s a chaperone. No problem there.

Okay, now that’s settled, let me keep going…

I know all the arguments for this practice. And it seems to me that it’s growing in popularity among young adults in churches. Some of the reasons I’ve heard are: “It’s not like we’ll be sharing a room.” “Don’t you trust us?” “I know couple x and y and they did it and they were okay.” “Where in the Bible does it say we can’t do this?” etc. etc.

Here are some reasons I would still strongly advise against it: (And at the risk of sounding harsh, I may actually remove someone from leadership if, against all advice, they still went ahead and did it.)

  • Don’t trust yourselves. Friends, the heart is deceitful beyond all things (Jer. 17:9). The devil, your flesh and the world are against you. 1 Peter 5:8 tells us that ‘your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.’ In sum, no, I don’t trust you and neither should you trust yourself. Don’t trust yourself that, in a place of no accountability, under some beautiful starry moonlight night, when you’re both tired and maybe had a few drinks, you’re not going to seriously compromise your sexual purity. Don’t trust yourself.
  • God doesn’t want us just to be minimalists in obedience. The ‘how far before I cross the line’ mentality behind these kinds of holidays is flawed to begin with. This is what the Pharisees did. In contrast Jesus called on them to go for maximum heart-obedience. You might set all these artificial lines for yourself, such as: ‘If we were sharing a bed/room, then that wouldn’t be okay; but if we’re not sharing a room, then it’s okay.’ Jesus said, ‘If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out.’ (Matt. 5:29-30) Elsewhere, we’re called to flee temptation (2 Tim. 2:22). Friends, don’t be a legalist and a minimalist. Figure out the kind of life that pleases the Lord and pursue that maximally.
  • We are called as Christians to be above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 2:7-8). This is a call for church leaders in particular (and that’s why I may remove someone from leadership over this). Our reputation with outsiders matter… a lot! When your unbelieving friends hear that you’re holidaying alone together, their assumption is that you’ll be sharing a room, having a ‘romantic time’, sexually compromising in all sorts of ways. Now of course you can take the time and effort to explain: ‘No, we’ll be sleeping in separate rooms; we’ll keep our hands off each other; we’ll have a curfew; we won’t get drunk…’ But are you going to be able to explain that to all the outsiders you know? Furthermore, is it going to be convincing, or just sound to them like you really want to do what everyone else does but want to save a little bit of moral integrity? Again, why not aim for ‘above and beyond reproach’? Your Lord Jesus’ reputation is on the line. Why not instead give no one any cause to whisper or doubt?
  • You can wait. You really can. Our generation is particularly bad at ‘delayed gratification’. My fear is that God’s people are, on this issue, just becoming more and more like the world. Why can’t you wait for marriage to have that holiday alone? It really is much more gratifying then, believe me! You can share a room, share a bed, share lots of romantic moments, and (sorry for the crassness) ‘go at it like rabbits’… all for the glory of God! Is waiting a year, two years, however long, really that much of a problem given you might have a lifetime together?
  • Fight the idol of pleasure at any cost. Yes we Christians are being sucked into the hedonism of our world. And we need to actively fight the idolatry of pleasure, which in recent decades, because of wealth and cheaper airfares, is this thing called ‘travel’. Travel isn’t wrong. There are lots of good and pleasurable things about it. But any good thing becomes a ‘god-thing’ when you are willing to sacrifice more important things for it. What are you putting on the altar of this false god? Your reputation? Your purity? Your example and model to younger Christians? Friends, it’s not worth it. Know that there is a greater pleasure in waiting and pursuing God’s will for you with all of your heart.

Okay, over to you. Comments?

Sorry but…

I came across two unrelated articles in the Herald this morning. Both of them got me thinking about the nature of apologies and how often we say we’re ‘sorry’ but try to protect ourselves in the process.

The first relates to a series of racist tweets fired off by a South African model (here). After the remarks on Twitter that cost her sponsorship and an award, she tweeted back her ‘sincerest apologies’, but stated that it was ‘not in her nature’ to be racist. However, according to the Herald, this incident was not isolated and the twittersphere erupted with the discrepancy as soon as she tweeted it.

The second relates to a slanderous tweet by writer Catherine Deveny about Cardinal George Pell (here). The context was the Q&A debate where Cardinal Pell had paused between saying “We were preparing young English boys”, and, ‘for Holy Communion”. Deveny pounced on that paused and insinuated in a tweet that Pell condoned pedophilia. As a result, Pell threatened to sue Twitter, at which point Deveny issued an apology. However, her apology seems to me to be loaded with hidden barbs. Read it for yourself:

“Clearly it was significant enough hurt and embarrassment caused for him to lawyer up and spend the Catholic Church’s money to pursue defamation action against Twitter and me,” she wrote.

“There must have been deep deliberation over the decision to spend thousands of dollars of parishioners’ money on legal fees.

“Spending money that could have been spent feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless or alleviating suffering, instead of on defamation litigation, clearly illustrates how serious the breach I allegedly committed was in the eyes of Cardinal Pell.”

In both incidences, “sorry” does seem to be the hardest word (thanks Elton John). Why couldn’t the South African model just apologise unreservedly? If racism wasn’t it her nature, then where did it come from? It’s not good enough to assert, as she did, that it happened when she was frustrated and angry. I would have thought that it’s in times of stress that our true nature comes out. Clearly, racism was in her nature and she should have just stopped with a repentant ‘I’m sincerely sorry and I have no excuses.”

In the other case, why couldn’t Deveny just swallow her pride and say an unreserved ‘sorry’ without simultaneously taking a swipe at the Catholic Church once again? To me, her apology was so passive-aggressive that I commend the graciousness of Cardinal Pell even to accept it.

All of this turns the question back to us: do we apologise with a series of ‘but…’s and excuses? How many times have I apologised to my wife only to subtly (or not so subtly) defend myself in the process? In so doing, not only are we undermining the sincerity of our apology, we’re also heard as saying “it’s your fault”, or, “you (or the situation) made me do it”.

Those who have been liberated by the gospel to receive God’s grace don’t need to make excuses. As Tim Keller is often quoted: ‘We are more wicked than we ever dared believe but at the same time more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope.” When we sin, whether against God or others, we ought to come with unreserved apologies: “I’m sorry. I have no excuses. This was in my nature and my broken nature needs God’s grace and yours. Please forgive me.”

Jesus calls that spirit of mournfulness and brokenness ‘blessed’ (Matthew 5:3-4).

Five Most Challenging People You Will Minister To

The longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I find that not everything nor everyone is as it seems. Call it naivety or inexperience, but my view of people in earlier times tended to be far more black-and-white. Now I find that layers of complexity tend to lie beneath almost every person that I meet and minister to.

However, if I had to put into categories, these five kinds of people below are the ones I find most challenging to minister to. They can be vastly different to one another, and yet simultaneously, a person can fall into more than one category. What’s common to each of them is the fact that all of them are more than they appear to be. In each case, there’s the person you meet and perhaps even come to know, but there’s something more that lies beneath the surface. And in each one of these cases, what lies beneath the surface tends not to want to be addressed or ministered to or challenged.

Ok, it’s getting a bit too conceptual so here are the five types of people I’m thinking of:

1. Religious but unregenerate

There are loads of these in every church: those who appear to be Christian, have been baptised/confirmed, receive the sacraments, confess the right creeds, are church members, active in church, and yet beneath it all, they’re simply not born again. The difficulty with this group is that they will deny that they are unregenerate. In fact, when put under pressure, they will gladly give the right answers and cite their Christian resumes to demonstrate that they are ‘really Christian’ but show little or no evidence in changed hearts, behaviour or lifestyle.

2. Converted but undiscipled

By this I don’t mean the newly converted who need to be followed-up on but those who have been Christians for years, perhaps decades, but  have never really ‘grown up’ in the faith. And almost always, they’re still immature because they weren’t properly discipled when they were first converted or first understood the gospel. These Christians may have drifted from church to church, with prolonged periods of absences between churches. They will be semi-regular in their attendance and you will see some latent desire to be godly, but because they’ve never known anything but spiritual immaturity, in all sorts of ways, the Word of God will more often than not be choked out by the worries in their lives. Their thinking, feeling and doing have never been properly shaped by Christian discipleship, the church community and healthy modelling. And it’s more difficult because these spiritual babies are really hard to motivate and encourage years down the track to form discipleship relationships, because by now, they are busy parents with young or school aged kids, and spiritual immaturity and laxity in church involvement have become hard habits to break.

3. Hurting but hiding

These Christians know the church too well to be honest with their pain. Theirs is the ‘stained glass masquerade’, often because they’ve tried to be vulnerable and have been shot down with judgement or moralism in the past. They’ve become resigned to the fact that no one will understand, no one will still accept them if their secrets were shared, and in fact, they’re the only ones struggling the way they are. It’s very difficult to identify who they are, let alone gain their trust in order to minister to them, because they’ve become so adept at hiding.

4. Keen but conniving

These are seemingly mature and zealous Christians, probably in leadership, whom you only find out later have been at it with their own agenda in mind. Because they’re keen and want to serve (and often have leadership gifts), they are sought after and placed in positions of responsibility. Only later do the pastor or elders find that that they are anything but servant-like. They’re proud, unteachable, don’t submit to loving authority, have their own agenda, gather their own followers, are great at talking behind people’s backs, and basically undermine the unity of the church when the decisions made or directions taken don’t suit them. What’s difficult about this group of people is that you often don’t know until it’s too late.

5. Busy but barren

Finally there are those who are busy serving in many ways, sometimes in leadership, but have been in a spiritual desert for years. They are the reliable and dependable people you keep turning to, and you turn to them because they rarely say ‘no’. But all the while, they’ve been serving out of duty without any delight, and their spiritual journey is like a car without fuel rolling down the hill towards a brick wall. A spiritual car-wreck is on its way but no one – not they, nor those who ask them to serve – is willing to pay the price of pulling them out of ministry and ask the hard questions. Usually these people will give out subtle ‘cries for help’ or send signals that things aren’t well, but their busyness and yours keeps them going ‘for just a little bit longer’ until the ministry they are serving in is in a better place and they can take a break. By then, it’s too late.

So there they are, and here we are. If you’re reading this and you fall into one (or more) of these categories, please know that nothing would please your pastor more than for you to allow him to minister to you, beneath the surface. This hasn’t been written out of frustration or to shame you. It’s just one pastor sharing to others about his desire to minister better to people like you, but being honest about what prevents it from being done as well as he would like.

But if you’re reading this and you’re a pastor or a church leader, I guess like me, you know how it feels to want to love and serve these people but feel helpless along the way. My encouragement would be to (and I need some of this encouragement too): pray more for them, persevere in ministering the gospel to them in the context of relationship, recruit and train others to look out for people like them and help you in your ministry towards them, and trust that the gospel can reach down deep enough to transform them.

Punishment, Discipline and Grace

Thinking aloud here:

  • Discipline is different to punishment.
  • The goal of discipline is restoration and growth; the goal of punishment is retributive justice.
  • Therefore discipline, when exercised correctly, is always in the context of grace, regardless of how harsh it may appear to be.
  • It is grace because restoration of relationship is always the goal. Justice does not and can not take into account relationship, or it would not be just.
  • Discipline stops when a person is restored. Punishment only stops when justice has been served.
  • The God-given role of government is primarily that of retributive justice (and therefore ‘punishment’). There may be disciplinary and restorative elements built into a compassionate legal system, but justice must be its primary function. Cf. Romans 13:4.
  • God’s stance over his children is always grace, and therefore he does not punish us for the sins that Jesus has already paid for but disciplines us for our good. This is not in opposition to grace, but because of his grace. If God were to punish us, then there would be no possibility of restoration and he would simply ‘give us over’ to our sins and let us suffer their consequences (cf. Romans 1:18-32).
  • Part of God’s discipline for us may be for us bear the legal ramifications (i.e. punishment) of our actions (e.g. when we commit a crime), but as far as God is concerned, he is exercising grace in his relationship toward us, because he is seeking our repentance, restoration, and growth.
  • Church discipline and parental discipline are mirrored on God’s discipline. We don’t punish our church members or our children for the sake of justice, we discipline them out of love. This is grace. Cf. 2 Corinthians 2:5-11.
  • To ask: ‘How do I show grace in discipline?’ is the wrong question. To discipline is to show grace. Seeking a person’s restoration after an offence is always more than that person deserves.
  • Therefore parents and church leaders need to remember that the same hand that deals discipline is also simultaneously dealing grace. They are not in opposition to one another; and you do not undermine discipline by showing grace, nor undermine grace by exercising discipline.