The Most Important Part of Church

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A patient came in recently who I had not seen in a few years. I have known him for quite a while as we met 10 years ago at a church we attended in Irvine. We weren’t particularly close back then but he apparently thought enough of me to select me as his physician. 

As we had met a church it seemed appropriate to ask how things were going at the church he attended. He shared that they had switched churches recently and that he was now going to a different church in town. Ironically, it was a church my family had attended 15 years ago.  When I asked him why they had changed to this church his answer was a common one, that his kids were comfortable in the church's youth group.

After the visit I found myself pondering how it is that people choose a church. The common answers I have heard over the years include style of music, size of the youth group, and "relevant" or entertaining teaching from the pulpit. An answer that I have never heard is the one that should be the most important- church doctrine, the specific beliefs taught from the pulpit.

In the last few years I have seen firsthand the impact bad teaching can have on a congregation. Not too long ago I  heard a pastor in town demean the struggles some Christians have with their faith. "If reading the bible is a chore, if prayer is a struggle for you, you do not know God," he proclaimed. His casually false teaching made it difficult for people to speak truthfully about their struggles. Patients who attend the church have told me stories of having their faith questioned if the shared of any personal challenges. Guilt and shame have at times taken the place of grace.

A well known North Orange county pastor recently came to the conclusion that the Bible wasn't fully accurate. He shared with his church and his online followers that the Bible was written for specific people at a specific time and place in history, and that much of it no longer applied. I know some of his young followers took his words to heart. They "discovered" that the parts of the Bible that spoke of sexual purity no longer applied to their lives.

Both of the churches led by these pastors have been "successful." They are well attended and the pastors are loved and praised by their church members. In spite of their apparent success I fear for them. To be successful in God's eyes requires pastors two accurately proclaim God's word. Doctrine matters. Correct theology is important.

I know this is important because it was important to the Apostle Paul. When he penned letters to the pastors he trained, when he instructed them on the things to which they needed to be faithful, sound doctrine was high on the list. Several times in his letters he mentioned the importance of correct teaching. He was clearly aware that a faith filled with new believers would be susceptible to error. There was a significant danger that the tenets of the faith could be altered or lost. In this environment faithfulness to the truth was essential.

The importance of sound doctrine remains to this day. A faith without consistent beliefs is not a faith worth believing in.

Unfortunately Paul’s admonitions about sound doctrine have lost emphasis in many churches. The focus is on acts of service and self improvement instead of on right thinking about God. As important as good deeds are, the reality is that if our theology is not correct we are nothing more than a social club. Why we do what we do matters. What we believe matters. We cannot be people of faith if we do not even know what we believe in.

-Bart

Ulcers, Easter, and Truth

Truth is at times unbelievable.

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By the early 1980’s medical experts were certain they understood the causes of gastric ulcers. As the stomach is an acid secreting organ, and because acid can damage tissues, everyone knew that acid was the reason people got ulcers. Because ulcers were more often found in urban businessmen, doctors concluded that stress had a role. This theory was “confirmed” by studies in rats that showed ulcers developed when rats were wrapped in straight jackets and dropped in ice water, and when research showed antacids prevented these ulcers.

Enter Barry Marshall, an internal medicine doctor in Perth, Australia. Along with a pathologist colleague, Robin Warren, he gathered evidence that ulcers were the result of a bacterial infection. Further, he found evidence that the bacteria was a root cause of stomach cancer. He started treating ulcer patients with antibiotics, with remarkable results.

The medical community refused to accept his findings. They thought they knew the cause of ulcers, and could not believe that a bacterial infection could be the cause. It did not make sense. Bacterial infections were the cause of acute infections, of pneumonias and ear infections and sinusitis and cellulitis. They did not cause chronic infections, and they definitely did not cause cancer. Marshall’s theory was simply unbelievable.

It was unbelievable, but it was true. Convinced of the truth of their claims, Marshall and his colleague fought for their findings. The medical community took longer than they should have to accept their research, but the eventually did. In 2005 Marshall and Warren, were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine. They changed the world of medicine forever.

Their story came to mind today as I thought about Good Friday and the Easter Story. The Gospel accounts tell an unbelievable tale. The Bible declares that Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish teacher of dubious parentage, was actually the Son of God. This Son of God, instead of asserting his right to rule and demanding that all honor and worship him, allowed himself to be put to death at the hands of the Romans who governed the conquered Jewish nation. He was publicly executed in brutal fashion, nailed to a wooden cross where he hung until in agony he died.

The story did not end with Jesus’ death,  the New Testament writers report that 2 days later he appeared alive to many of his followers. He had risen from the dead, in so doing proving to the world that he was indeed who he had claimed to be, the Son of God and the savior of the world.

What an unbelievable story.

So much of the story does not make sense. Why would God decide to live as a man? Why would he choose to die? Why couldn’t he just choose to forgive everybody without going through such suffering? How could someone come back to life after two days in a tomb. There are too many “whys” and “hows”.

The story flies in the face of so much that people know. The story is unbelievable.

That does not mean it isn't true.

- Bart

 

Christmas Story, or Christmas History?

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Most of us have heard the Christmas story dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Even the unchurched and irreligious among us are familiar with the story of the angel appearing to the shepherds on the hillside outside of Bethlehem telling them of the birth of the Savior who would be found wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger,  of the declaration of the heavenly host, “Peace on earth and goodwill to men”, and of the shepherds hurrying to the city to discover the child exactly as promised.

We see the Nativity scenes as we drive through our neighborhoods and display them in our homes. We know the words to all of the Christmas carols and cheerfully sing “Christ the Savior is born”, “Glory to the newborn king”, “Born the King of Angels”, and that “This, this, is Christ the King.” We love the story of Christmas.

The question we need to answer is, “Is it just a story, or is it history?” Are the events of which we sing a fairy tale or fable, to did they actually happen?

This is not just an academic question. It is a question of supreme importance. If the story of Jesus’ birth is not real, if it is a folk tale on the same level as the story of Santa Claus or A Christmas Carol, then it requires nothing from us or of us. We can forget about it on December 26, Set it aside for the next 11 months. We can file it away with our Christmas decorations and store it in the attic.

Yet if the story is true, if the events described in the gospels happened as described, then the message of Christmas must endure all year long, every year. The message of the Angels that the Savior was born carries deep meaning, for it implies that we are lost and broken. Saviors are only born to those in need of salvation! The appearance of a heavenly host confirms the existence of a heaven, that this life is not all there is. The proclamation of Peace on Earth implies a world filled with conflict, between nations of men and between men and God. A world waiting for the Prince of Peace.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus was no ordinary baby. He was no ordinary man. Born of a Virgin, conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Bible teaches that Eternal God entered time on the first Christmas, clothing Himself in flesh, taking the form of a baby. 

If the Biblical account is true, then we should respond to the Christmas story in the same manner as did the Shepherds- “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” If the account is true, we have little choice but to spend the rest of our lives pursuing a greater understanding of who this Jesus is, why he came, and how we can best honor him with our lives.

What we should not do is allow another Christmas to pass without honestly addressing the question.

- Bart

PS: Merry Christmas!

The Most Expensive Wedding Cake Ever.

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Wedding cakes are awesome. Most of the time. They are usually beautiful, almost always delicious, and a highlight of the reception. One wedding cake however, a cake that was never even made, is at the center of an argument surrounding the role of government in regulating religious faith. An argument summed up in a simple question- Where does religious life end and secular life begin?

To devout Christians with a Biblical worldview the question is absurd on its face. Committed believers know there is no distinction to be made and no line to be drawn. Our faith in Christ is at the center of every part of our lives. The Apostle Paul made this clear in his letter to the church at Corinth when he wrote, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Paul’s “whatever” is an all inclusive term. It is not limited to works done in church or done in formal Christian service. It applies to how we conduct our relationships, the words we speak, and the jobs we perform.

This consistency along the continuum of religious life played a crucial role in the Protestant reformation. 500 years ago, Martin Luther launched the reformation with a notice posted on the door of a church in Germany. While his emphasis on faith, personal relationship with God and the right of individuals to read and know scripture changed the way people understood religion, his teaching on vocation had a profound impact on culture outside the church.

Prior to Luther the Catholic church considered vocation, or divine calling to service, as applying only to those serving in full time ministry. Monks, priests and nuns were called, farmers, bakers and laborers were not. Luther changed this. He taught that people were called to serve God and live for him in the work they did outside the church. He supported this position in his famous teaching that a priest could not give a poor man a loaf of bread unless the farmer first sowed the seed, teaching that faithfully fulfilling the duties of one’s job was a way people honored God and furthered His kingdom.

Luther’s teaching had two major impacts. The first was in the way it gave honor and value to the work of every man. For the first time in centuries poor people were taught that their work had worth in the eyes of God. The second was in the way people viewed work itself. Everyday labor was now a divine call, which meant people needed to perform their work in a manner consistent with their faith. There was no room for halfhearted effort, dishonesty or compromise. People knew they would one day give account to God for the work they did. They knew they had to approach work differently because of their faith.

500 years have passed and the question of faith and work is still being debated. On the morning of Tuesday, December 5th, the question will be argued before the highest court in the land. On one side will be a man who believes that his work is the expression of his faith and must therefore be fully consistent with it. On the other are those that say faith must yield to culture in the marketplace. Whichever way it rules, the Supreme Court decision in the case of Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission will have profound consequences.

Jack Phillips is a Christian baker in Colorado who views his work as did Martin Luther, as an expression of his Christian faith. He takes this attitude seriously, so much so that he refuses to make cakes for Halloween, refuses to make cakes celebrating divorce, refused to work on Sundays, and refuses to make custom wedding cakes for same-sex weddings. It is as a result of this last position that he finds himself before the Supreme Court of the United States. The State of Colorado thinks all bakers, regardless of their religious beliefs, should be required to make cakes celebrating gay marriage. When Mr. Phillips refused to bake a custom cake for a same-sex wedding the couple took Mr. Phillips to court, and Mr. Phillips was ordered to pay a fine and make custom wedding cakes for all customers.

Mr. Phillips chose another option. Unwilling to compromise his beliefs, he decided to get out of the wedding cake business. This decision was costly, as weddings comprised 40% of his bakery business and the loss in revenue forced him to lay off several employees. The decision was costly for Mr. Phillips, but it was not difficult. He would rather be poor than perform his work in a way he believes would dishonor God.

As Mr. Phillip’s case has wound its way through the court system passionate arguments have been made on both sides of the case. Some call it a free speech issue and side with Mr. Phillips, others call it a discrimination case and side with the state of Colorado.

I see a more important question, the question of who decides the limits of a man’s faith, of who decides the extent to which a person’s beliefs are allowed to influence his behavior in the marketplace. Whether or not one agrees with Mr. Phillips one thing is certain. The right of each Christian to determine for themselves how to incorporate faith into their work is being challenged. If our highest court decides that it is up to government to determine the limits of faith, Mr. Phillips will not be the only Christian forced to make a difficult decision. Photographers, florists, educators, therapists, and physicians may all be one day asked to say or do things contrary to their beliefs.

Our culture is evolving in an increasingly secular direction and previously questioned behaviors and values are now being endorsed and protected. Those who hold to a Biblical understanding of Christian living will need to be prepared to make a stand for their faith.

- Bart

Thanks for reading. I welcome your thoughtful questions and comments. Feel free to click on one of the buttons below to share this with others, or to click on the subscribe button to receive future blog posts via e-mail. For those interested in a detailed discussion of what it means to make a stand for one's faith, the message on Daniel 1 on the sermons page of this site is particularly relevant.

Young and Without a Voice in Church

When Lisa and I were newly married we became a part of an adult group at church dedicated to our demographic. Each Sunday we gathered together with other couples under the age of thirty for conversation and fellowship. It was a remarkable group. It seemed almost everyone there had a passion for the Bible and knew it well. Several had degrees from Bible colleges and many had attended seminary. In this group my knowledge was unimpressive. I did not stand out at all.

In spite of the wealth of Bible knowledge and spiritual commitment there was something we lacked compared to young people today. None of us felt entitled to a voice in church leadership. No one talked about being an elder or leading a ministry and all of us accepted the fact that it was not yet our time. We knew we needed to grow and learn, that leadership positions were in our future, not our present. We were willingly taught each week by older men in their fifties and sixties, confident that they possessed wisdom and experience we lacked.

This is in stark contrast to the current young generation, many of whose members are quite antagonistic to mature church leadership. A friend of mine recently shared a post on why it is that Millenials are not going to church. Written by a Millenial, it unintentionally clarifies the arrogance of the current generation.

Here are some of the reasons given for young people turning away from the church-

-  Millennials value voice and receptivity above all else. When a church forges ahead without ever asking for our input we get the message loud and clear: Nobody cares what we think.

-  Millennials are told by this world from the second we wake up to the second we take a sleeping pill that we aren’t good enough. We desperately need the church to tell us we are enough, exactly the way we are. No conditions or expectations.

Throughout the post runs the theme that the current millennial generation has something special to offer, a special insight into the church and the culture that is being missed by the older generations. The author is confident in his assertions that older believers are driving younger believers away and believes himself to be offering effective solutions. He appears to be sadly blinded to the arrogance of his assertions.

When I was 24 the church didn’t care what I thought either. No one sought my input on anything. I didn’t mind because I recognized the truth- At the age of 24 my opinion wasn’t worth much. I lacked the experience and wisdom that comes with age. I understood that as a young person in church it was a time for me to hear and learn. The time for being heard and teaching would come later, if I was faithful. If I wanted a voice I could earn it through a life of service and godliness. Even though I was a bright young man at the time 30 years later I look back and see the foolishness of many of my young thoughts and opinions. Passion and commitment were not substitutes for wisdom and experience.

Millennials have grown up being taught that they are important and deserving of attention and praise. Parents and teachers have celebrated modest accomplishments. Christian youth have grown up in an "everyone gets a trophy" world that teaches them their youthful opinions matter, that they have something to say and deserve to be heard, and that they are enough "just the way they are." They have embraced this worldview without realizing that these are the teachings of the world and not the teachings of Scripture. Passages such as 1 Peter 5:5-6, “Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time", are a clear reminder of how God moves within the church.

Just as Millennials are struggling with where they fit into the church so is the church at large struggling with how to respond to them. To the church at large I offer this warning- Do not try to appeal to or appease wrong thinking. The brilliant Christian author Michael Horton, in his book Ordinary, says it well-

“It is nothing new when young people want churches to pander to them. What is new is the extent to which churches have obliged. In previous generations elders- both officers and simply older and wiser members- wouldn’t let that happen. They took young people under their wing and taught them by word and example what it meant to begin to accept the privileges and responsibilities of membership in Christ’s body.”

Horton then identifies the core reason young people are abandoning church-

“For the first time in the history of the church it is now possible to go from the nursery to children’s church to Sunday school to the youth group and college ministry without ever actually having experienced church membership. Shocking surveys abound reporting that many of our children are dropping out of church by their college years. But maybe it shouldn’t be so shocking if they were never actually involved in church to begin with.”

The generation that has been taught it is all about them desperately needs to be confronted with that lie. It is not about them. It is about God. It is about what God says, what God proclaims and what God commands. God’s commands, while never burdensome, challenge our comfort and disrupt our lives. 

Bart

Thanks for reading and sharing. I can be followed on Twitter @bartbarrettmd, and many of my sermons can be watched on my vimeo page, www.vimeo.com/bartbarrett. In addition I am available as a guest speaker and can be reached through this website via the contact page.