Category Archives: Church Unity

[GULP!] …I Might Have Been a Legalist

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us…The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written… Acts 15:6-8, 12-15

Have you ever noticed that the process of spiritual discernment is often much more complicated than merely examining the evidence logically?  The more background I read about the Jerusalem Council and its crucial considerations in Acts 15, the more I worry I might have voted the wrong way, if I had been among them. As it turns out, being a legalist is a lot easier than we would like to think.

Circumcision, to the very first Hebrew Christians in Jerusalem, was a big deal…every bit as big a deal as baptism is to the Christian church today.  It was clearly not an act “stumbled upon” through some twist of tradition and men’s preferences…it was an act given to them by God Himself.  There was a plethora of Holy Scripture which required it [insert your favorite among a half dozen or so Old Testament stories showing God’s clear directives about circumcision here].  It was a non-negotiable to them, because …

This Changes Everything

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.  Acts 2:1-4

To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Colossians 1:27

Of all the miracles referenced in the Bible, the Pentecost miracle in Acts 2 may be at the top of my list of moments I would love to have seen.  The tongues of fire ushering down God’s Spirit to indwell God’s people…wow!

In terms of their impact on this world and the ushering in of a completely new chapter in God’s story, I tend to think of the crucifixion, the resurrection and Pentecost as three aspects of a single, “this changes everything” moment in history.  All are significant in themselves, but all are necessary to bring about the age of the church.  It is a little like a three-legged stool in that regard.  Take any one of the legs away and you have an entirely different situation.

These three events (which all happened within just a few weeks of each other), taken together, changed forever the way God would relate to his creation…AND the way we, His children, would relate to each other.

Follow the history with me through the Bible…

In the garden, God related to Adam and Eve through an interpersonal relationship (yes, I am quite the literalist in my interpretation of scripture). …

The Missing Piece in our Social Discourse

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!” Philippians 2:5-8

“We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Our culture is in great need of reconciliation. The divisions between us just seem to grow larger and larger every day. Likewise, the Christian church is in need of reconciliation. The same cultural and political divisions which have wreaked havoc outside the church seem to have had a similar effect even within the church. And as long as we use social media to try and resolve it, we will only make it worse. You see, there is a huge missing piece in our social discourse these days, one that is critical to human relationships. However, this particular missing piece is, by design, missing from social media. In fact, its presence makes for horribly boring–even ineffective–communication in the realms of social media. That missing piece is humility.

In every genuine reconciliation, there is a point where both parties have softened their hearts enough to be able to begin seeing the issue through the other party’s eyes.  It happens to a person when he/she is humbly willing to admit to himself that maybe, just maybe, his/her perspective is not complete.  It is a moment of sudden clarity, when he/she understands (probably for the first time) that he/she has been a bit arrogant and self-centered.  This softening represents a profound shift in the relationship.  …

The Truth about Spiritual Gifts

Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed… to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.  1 Corinthians 12:1, 7

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.  1 Corinthians 13:1-3

I wish I could see exactly what the question was from the Corinthian church.  I mean, I wish I could know exactly how they reported their issue with spiritual gifts to Paul.  The mediator in me has watched Paul call out three of the four factions in that church in the first part of this letter (“I follow Paul”, “I follow Apollos”, and I follow Cephas”), and I wonder if the “I follow Jesus” faction was representative of the culprits here, because that is the way it comes across in so many of our church conflicts today where spiritual gifts are at issue.  Somebody is making a practice of doing something that is causing all kinds of havoc in the church, i.e., ripping the church apart, and their excuse is that “I am just exercising my spiritual gift…it is the Spirit of God Himself working through me…I am just following Jesus.”  I am troubled by that for several reasons, not the least of which is that spiritual gifts are ALL ABOUT UNITY and bringing …

Man-made Unity: Moths to a Flame

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words… Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Genesis 11:1, 4-6

There is something utterly intoxicating about banding together with others and overcoming obstacles as a team to achieve something significant. Perhaps you have experienced it. If you have ever been on a team during a championship season, or a part of a military division who survived under daunting circumstances, or shared some life-changing scenario with a group, you know the feeling. I felt it having survived the rigors of law school with my classmates. There is this overwhelming sense of everyone having pulled together and accomplished something bigger than any of us thought possible. Working together, everyone pulling their weight, fighting through struggles, and winning. It’s a good feeling…one which often binds a group together for life.

We have a lot of names for it: team chemistry, “family”, camaraderie, esprit de corp.  But no matter what you call it, it is a good thing…a powerful thing. There have been times when we felt it as a country here in the U.S. The last time was probably just after 9-11, when we had identified a common enemy and we banded together as a country, building (short lived) bridges across …

Church that Defies Conventional Wisdom

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. Genesis 6:13-14

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. Proverbs 3:5

When it comes to building churches, there is no shortage of conventional wisdom. And in matters of church growth, church finances, and (alas) church conflict, the “church world” is loaded with advice and counsel. Moreover, add to that the wisdom of the secular world about how to build a corporation or how to lead an army or how to have a winning team (much of which wisdom gets imposed on church leadership), and you could fill a library with all the ways that it makes sense to build a church.

But God is not impressed with our conventional wisdom…never has been. At a time when the world had never even seen rain before and over a project schedule of some 100 years or so, God had Noah build an ark. On dry land. In the middle of a wilderness. There was absolutely nothing conventional about it. In fact, Noah was surely considered to be a crazy old drunk by pretty much anyone who knew him during this time, and his “project” was 100 years of sheer nonsense.

So, as I consider how incredibly closely Noah had to be walking with the Lord in order to rightly understand his assignment and to then fulfill it, I am captivated by the thought of just one church, one local body of believers, equally sold out and tuned in to God. Can …

The Blinding Power of Bitterness

Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” Genesis 4:6-7

blind bitternessAt the very front end of Cain’s anger and frustration, before it had lead to anything permanently damaging, God warned him.  “Cain, you better get control of this anger, or it will get control of you.”  Well, that’s my paraphrase.  God was warning Cain about a part of the human condition to which we often turn a blind eye: anger is not something to leave unattended.  Unresolved anger, you see, turns into bitterness.  And bitterness, over time, is a disease that spreads into our heart, our eyes, our brain, and a host of other places.

I have seen it way too many times in my ministry to churches in conflict.  When passions get high and anger is left to fester over time, finding the truth about what really happened can become nearly impossible.  That is because anger makes for a horrible historian.  It twists the truth and blinds us to what really happened.  The longer we stay angry, the less credibility we have for reporting what happened.  However poor our retention rate is for facts and figures we have seen or heard, our retention rate for what we felt is almost perfect.  So, in situations which anger us, if that anger is left alone to do its dirty work, we later remember how we felt and then back into the rest of the facts in a way which supports how we felt. In other words, our brain fills in the gaps and recalls events in a way …

Who Will Carry You?

And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:3-5

Who, in your life, are you certain would do this for you? What relationships have you nurtured and developed to the point you can now count on them to be there for you when you most need someone to carry you? And you will, at some point, need someone to carry you…we all do.

carrying-a-personIn his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know ThemJohn Ortberg refers to it as “the fellowship of the mat”: that hard reality that, at some point, every one of us will need to be carried…will need to be loved by a few people who will go above and beyond the call of normal friendship duty and will carry us extraordinary lengths in order to get us through whatever dark season awaits us. We will all be called upon to do it for someone else at times and we will all need someone to do it for us.

But having those kinds of relationships in our lives does not happen accidentally. Whether it is family or just close friends, the truth is, those relationships are hard work, and not all of us are necessarily up to the task. This reality does not sit well with our current culture. Much of the cultural pressure today is toward a kind of love or acceptance or affirmation that is devoid of any hard conversations or difficult truths (or any truth at …

The Key to Your Church’s Strength

And he told her all his heart, and said to her, “A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man.” Judges 16:17

 I in them and you in me,that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. John 17:23

strength relationshipsI remember Samson (of the Bible) holding “superhero” status in my mind as a child. Studying his tragic story now as an adult, I realize his character flaws throw a very different light on his super-human power. Isn’t that what intrigues us about God’s story? It is told through the lives of so many horribly flawed–even dysfunctional–people. 

That is one of the ways of God: to use markedly flawed people to accomplish His will. It is intriguing about Samson and it is intriguing about the church. We are all flawed, and yet (like Samson) we, the church, are filled with God’s Spirit and collectively empowered to represent His spiritual authority in this world. Samson was a tragically flawed hero of God’s story, and Christ’s eklesia is likewise embarrassingly flawed. I’ve written about that here.

But also like Samson, the church has a peculiar source of its strength…a “lynch pin”, if you will, to all that empowerment God promises us. For Samson, it was his hair. But for the church, it is our relationships with one another.

We can talk about the power of prayer (if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven); we can talk about …

Small Groups are Key to Church Unity

Looking back at the hundred-or-so conflicted congregations with whom I have been called to consult over the last couple of decades, here is an important observation: only a small handful (or so) of them had a strong small group ministry. The vast majority of them either had no small group ministry or they had a tired, ineffective small group or Sunday School ministry. I believe there is a correlation.  I believe there is a direct relationship between small group ministries and church unity.

small group

For some decades now, church leaders have been recognizing the importance of small groups as a critical tool for Spiritual formation (or for Spiritual “transformation”, depending on whose vernacular you favor). We have all begun to see that, only in the intimacy and accountability of a small group of friends gathered together around the Word of God, can we live the life God has called us to live and become the Christians God has called us to become. It was true in the lives of the apostles (the first small group ever) and it is still true today. Whether you call them Sunday School, Bible Study, home groups, cell groups, prayer groups, gospel communities, support groups or recovery groups doesn’t matter. They all have slightly different aims, but one reality is the same for all of them: creating a safe environment with equal parts grace and truth and where we “lean into” one another’s lives is where real Spiritual transformation occurs.

But I will take this observation one step further. Because small groups are such a powerful tool for Spiritual transformation, they are also a key ingredient to unity in a local body of believers. Why? Because Spiritual formation is a key ingredient to unity. If the Spirit Himself is the central figure in all questions about …