God Says It Better Himself – Letting the Word of God Speak for Itself

One thing I try to do consistently when teaching from a book of the Bible is to start class with a full reading of the text at hand. It is important for scripture to be heard sans commentary. While we shouldn’t read the Bible so objectively that it might as well be arranged like an eye chart on the wall, each letter and word disconnected from the context and meaning of the surrounding words and themes, it is important for God’s Word to be heard on its own merit. It is important to realize that we can sit in class and discuss, interpret, make assumptions, and the like but in the end God says it better.

That being said it is necessary to point out that interpretation of the text is necessary. In fact, it is impossible to let the text stand on its own without interpretation. The only way to do that is to leave the Bible closed and on the shelf. Once the word is read our minds do what they do best. They begin sorting through the sensory experience of hearing. The words in the richness of their connections already present in our mind bring up sights, sounds, paralleled meanings and texts, stories and experiences. That is what our minds do. That is what God made them to do, especially when it comes to hearing His inspired word. John 20:31 tells us precisely that.

“But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

The text is to be actively engaged so that belief and faith might be produced through the process of interpretation of what God has said, recorded in scripture.

While I do believe scripture can and will speak for itself I don’t believe God wanted the Bible to be passively experienced. Instead it is meant to intersect our lives at a particular point in time and do something to us and in us and through us. That is why you can read the same story in scripture at different times in your life and walk away with different lessons each time. Each time something different jumps out that is relevant in your current life situation. It only makes sense that since the because we, the word, and the Spirit, are all living and active that all three would be designed to work in concert with one another in a way that grows our faith and knowledge of God.

But in the end, no matter how many great commentaries there are, how many wonderful application questions we can muster, and how many word studies we do, God always says it better himself.

Romans 12:3-21 – A Call to Christian Unity

Now that Paul has established that God’s promises are true to Jew and Gentile alike in the first 11 chapters of Romans, he moves toward the result that should follow in chapter 12. In case you missed it, Romans 12:1-2 was already discussed at length in this post and in this post.

Unity as a Body (12:3-8):
Paul now uses the metaphor of believers being assembled in a unified way as Christ’s body (12:3-8). A body does not war against itself. Body parts don’t try to “one up” each other. The parts of a body work in unison to accomplish the same goal and that goal is defined by the head (which is Christ). He is no longer talking just to Jew or just to Gentile. Rather, “every one of you…” (12:3) is now the audience. There is no mistake. Paul is not saying all Jewish Christians are in one body and Gentiles in another. They are all in the same body.

Think about the implications of that for a moment. Jew and Gentile now parts of the same body…that is radical thinking in their day! Due to cultural norms and traditions this is something that was not to be said. But Paul says it anyway because God made it so. We got hints of this in Jesus’ ministry (John 4 for instance). We see it building in Acts (Acts 9-10). But here Paul makes it very clear that what God is doing is more than just saving Jews and saving Gentiles. He has drawn them into perfect unity in the same body. This would be a humbling thing to think about and because of that Paul calls them to consider themselves with “sober judgment” (12:3) and not thinking of themselves too highly. What is ironic about that is, their status is actually much greater than they realized! They are in the body of Christ! Yet, pride can make a status much lower than that seem much higher than membership in the body of Christ. And that is what Paul warns them against.

When we understand our function we will find unity. When all the parts of the body come together, each trying to submit to the will of the head, unity can be achieved. But if we each come together trying to run the show, call the shots, and put the feet or hands or arms in charge we make a mess of it. Notice again, even the gifts we have been given are through grace (12:6). So even our very function is not something to be boasting in as it has all come from God.

How to Practically Live Out Unity in the Midst of a Divided Church (12:9-21):
Then all of a sudden Paul shifts gears to take on a totally different and completely unrelated concept…love! If you know me or have been following this Romans series to date you realize I say that “tongue in cheek.” Paul is not starting some new and unrelated topic. Don’t let those uninspired section headings throw you for a loop. He is still talking about unity. In Romans 12:9-21 Paul gives them a list of concrete ways that they are to live out their unity with one another. In other words, this is the way a body lives healthily. He mentions love,  hospitality, mutual submission, and how to deal with those who may stand opposed to you (12:14-16). That last one may even be in reference of the Jews for the Gentiles and the Gentiles for the Jews. As you read these verses, you can’t help but think he is talking about how each cultural side should view and treat the other. Even if they view each other as enemies they have no excuse to treat those they disagree with, with enmity or evil. This is the ultimate call to unity and a very practical list of how to actually live it out!

In all things, Paul reminds them that the ultimate answer to evil in the world is good. But often we are tempted to answer evil with evil. Paul says that is a losing game, no matter how tempting it might be. We have churches that remain divided today. It might be helpful to put some of these things Paul is talking about in verses 9-21 into practice and just see how God works. Too often churches split without trying to put into practice godly/biblical principles of reconciliation. I think these principles are not just for divided churches but can also be preventative actions by churches that are still very unified. If we do these things, chances are we won’t be dividing so frequently and fussing and fighting with each other over petty issues.

How To Write In Your Bible Effectively

Do you write in your Bible? For some people writing in their Bible is like defacing something holy. The Jews, for instance, have so much respect for the scriptures that they have some set rules for handling them. Here is how one Rabbi describes how to handle the Torah:

The following are some basic guidelines for the proper handling of a Torah scroll, and appropriate behavior in its presence:

  • A special place should be designated for storing the Torah while it is in your home. One must always be fully dressed and respectfully behaved while in the room where the Torah is being stored, so the designated room should be chosen accordingly–not the bedroom or game-room…
  • One may not sit or stand on a chair, table or bed which the Torah is lying upon.
  • The Torah should always be held upright, resting against the right shoulder.
  • When the Torah is being carried from one place to another, those nearby must rise and remain standing until the Torah reaches its destination, or is out of sight.
  • When the Torah is being transported, ideally it should be held by a person, instead of being placed on a car seat or in the trunk.
  • A Torah scroll may never be placed on the ground.
  • No other item should be placed on top of a Torah.
  • A Torah should always be placed upright; never upside down or on its face.1

Best wishes,

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson

Needless to say writing on the Torah scroll is not permitted. While we carry this much respect for the words of God it doesn’t seem like most people don’t view the actual physical copies of our Bibles as something holy in and of itself. I don’t know about you but I am a confessed Bible writer-inner. Missy is as well. We were in the assembly a couple of years ago and I was turning to a passage when I noticed in the upper margin was written – If you see this say “Boo, Boo.” So I turned to her and said “Boo, boo” and she laughed, knowing exactly what had just happened. Another time I turned to 1 Corinthians 13 and the heading “Love” was turned into “I Love Matt.” I thought that was creative.

Over the last few years I have developed my own system of writing in the margins of my Bible that have been very helpful to me. So why not share?

Inside covers:
In this area I tend to write quotes that I have found helpful from sermons and Bible classes. I also use this area to write bits and pieces of history that are more lengthy but are helpful to have handy.

The Old Testament Page:
We all have that page that lets us know the OT is about to begin. This is the perfect place to write down things like the Three Divisions of the Hebrew Bible (Law, Prophets “Former” and “Later”, and Writings) with bullet points of what those include. I also include theological topics that are hard to find in the OT like resurrection and the Holy Spirit. I have also included what the word Testament means and where it came from as well as helpful passages concerning the covenants in the Bible.

The New Testament Page:
On the same page that starts the NT I write notes about translations and notes about the synoptics (numbers of verses that overlap each gospel, etc).

First Page of Each Book:
On the first page of each book I normally write proposed dates, author, and background information (audience, etc). When I read the introductory material in a commentary on a particular book I usually use the front page of that book in my Bible as a place to write helpful notes and make sure to reference that commentary with author/page #.

Underlining/highlighting:
This is the lynchpin of most people’s systems. I am not much for an elaborate color-coded system. I just use this when I know I will be looking for a particular verse or phrase at a later time.

Side Margins:
In the margins I make notes about the text on that page. I want to share one trick that I think is exceptionally helpful. I found that if I just took notes at the top of the page and worked my way down the margin it was hard to find anything. I have found it more helpful to think of the margins more spacial. So the top 50% of the margin is for the left column of text and the lower 50% of the margin for the right hand column of text. Within those halves I write a note about a verse proportionate to where a verse is found in that column. I also put chapter & verse references with each note.

Bottom Margin:
In the margins beneath the text I write notes about structure and also use it for overflow for the side margins.

Top Margin:
I don’t typically write in the top margins.

What tricks have you found helpful for writing in your Bible?

A Couple of Blog Series to Enjoy

Michael Spenser (imonk) has been doing a series on the Gospel of Mark that is worth following. After 7 posts he is only through verse 15.

  1. Why Study Mark?
  2. The Beginning
  3. The Forerunner
  4. The Baptism
  5. The Temptation
  6. The Message (Part 1)
  7. The Message (Part 2)

Also Jay Guin has been reviewing Scot McKnight’s new book Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible about how we read the Bible and how we apply what we find. I was going to spend more time reviewing the book myself but since he has done such a fine job why reinvent the wheel for now?

  1. Introduction
  2. What is a Blue Parakeet?
  3. Reading with Tradition
  4. The Bible as Story
  5. Wiki-stories
  6. The Story’s Plot
  7. Relational Reading
  8. Missional Listening
  9. Discerning
  10. End Notes
  11. Restoration Movement Parakeets
  12. The Story and Our Salvation
  13. How Things Could Have Been Different – Race
  14. How Things Could Have Been Different – Division
  15. The Sermon on the Mount
  16. How to Teach Hermeneutics

Was the Law Nailed to the Cross?

Colossians 2:14 says, “having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.” The traditional interpretation of this verse is that the Law of Moses was what was nailed to the cross. Here is how David Lipscomb explained it,

“The whole of the Mosaic law, including the commandments written on stone (2 Cor 3:7), was taken out of the way, nailed to the cross, and is no longer in force as a law in any of its parts…It was taken out of the way when Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross [This is a very graphic way of saying that the obstacle to forgiveness which lay in the law–in the justice of God of which the law is an embodiment–ws removed by the death of Christ. Practically the nails which fastened to the cross the hands and feet of Jesus, and thus slew him, pieced and invalidated the law which pronounced the just condemnation of sinners.” (GAC on Colossians, 281-282).

There are two key words here that are used here and only here in all the New Testament. The first is what the NIV translates “written code.” Witherington and Wright both point out that this word is used in extra-biblical literature to speak of a book in heaven that has in it a record of all our wrong doings. This word is never used of the law in scripture, ever. The second word is “nailed.” This is its only used in the entire New Testament. In no other place do we have anything said about the law being nailed to the cross. Nowhere in this passage does Paul say the law. The word “written code” can also be translated “certificate of debt” which Paul says “stood against us.” Paul is saying that Jesus went to the cross, taking our indebtedness upon himself due to sin that was evidenced by a list of our sins that stood against us and by all rights should keep us from having a relationship with God and keep us out of the covenant community. Jesus took on his role as spiritual accountant by paying off the debt we owed and balancing the books to show our debt was zeroed out through his death on the cross.

Still not convinced? Here are some questions to consider.

  1. If the law was nailed to the cross at the time of Jesus death on the cross why was Peter still keeping kosher laws up through Acts 10, years after Jesus’ death?
  2. Why were Gentiles required to keep commands from the Torah to be part of the covenant community in Acts 15:19-21?
  3. Why were Jews still keeping holy days and the Sabbath even after Jesus’ death? (Acts 13:14,27, 42-44;  16:13; 17:2; 18:4; Col 2:16?)

I am obviously not proposing that we all go back to be followers of the law. I am pointing out that this is the wrong text to use when talking about what happened to the law following the death of Christ.

Understanding the Law Under the New Covenant

I am wrestling with Romans 2 & 3 right now. When you work through these texts you cannot help but wonder what is going on in Paul’s head when it comes to the Law (Torah) and its applicability to first century Jewish Christians. Growing up I always heard that the law was done away with, gone, nailed to the cross and had nothing to say for us today. I have been questioning that for some time now but haven’t really dealt with how to put all the pieces together in my head. First of all I think our logic has gotten the best of us. We have become reductionists. We read Romans 3:21 – “ But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known…” and we think to ourselves, “If there is righteousness apart from the law, then the law is no good and is over because we know that the only things that are important are matters of salvation.” Well, who is to say that just because righteousness doesn’t come from the law makes the law any less important or means that the law was dead in the water in the first century? But Matt, Jesus did away with sacrifices once for all, Hebrews tells us that right? Of course Jesus offered a more perfect, one time sacrifice but that doesn’t mean that first century Jewish Christians checked their Judaism at the door of the house church. Peter, Paul, James and many others were Christians who took their Judaism very seriously. What do you do with these verses?

Acts 10 – Peter is still keeping Kosher law. Of course we learn in this story that God declares all food clean but in the process we learn that the law is still a priority for Peter. We see it further when he has to interact with God-fearing Gentiles and needs some confirmation from God that those interactions are “Kosher.”

Acts 18:18 – Paul takes a Nazirite vow.

Acts 21:20-26 – Paul makes a vow and pays the ritual purity fees for four men precisely because accusations arose about Paul being apostate from the law and teaching against Moses, circumcision, and the customs. Paul goes headlong into a demonstration of how the law was still important to him.

Acts 25:8 – Paul is defending himself against accusations and says, “I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.”

Some would argue (including Jacob Jervell) that Luke’s purpose in Acts is to show that Paul is not apostate from the law.

What do you do with these verses in Romans?

2:25 – “Circumcision has value if you observe the law…” Well, Peter and Paul and those in Acts 15 were Christians who were still observing at least portions of the law.

3:1 – “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way!”

There are many more verses because even the verses that are traiditionally used to show that the law was dead in the water are actually pretty poorly interpreted (the most important being Colossians 2:13-15).

One reason we have been taught the law was dead is we have been sold a bill of good that the law was all about works righteousness whereas Jesus brought grace on the scene. That is far from the truth. There was plenty of grace and forgiveness in the Old Testament (Lev 4:20ff, Exo 34:6-7, Num 14:18-19, Jeremiah 36:3, Micah 7:18-19). God actually did forgive people in the Old Testament. Even in Gal 3:10 is not about obeying the whole law, rather, relying on the distinctive markers of the Jewish faith to save rather than faith in Christ).

When you put the pieces together, as best I can tell, there were still law practicing Jewish Christians in the first century (including James, Peter, and Paul) who still fully relied on Jesus Christ for their righteousness. Sure no more sacrifice and sure no more clean and unclean and sure the Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised to be “in” but that doesn’t mean that the law was tossed to the side once they heard about Jesus Christ. Notice Acts 21:20-22 “Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do?” There were Jews who believed in Jesus and yet still valued circumcision and the teachings of Moses (which were…the Law/Torah).

The key verse in all of this is 1 Cor 9:22 – Paul was willing to become all things to all men to win some. We get confused when Paul is writing to Gentiles it makes the law seem like it is in a negative light and so we downplay the law. Paul is trying to assure them that they don’t have to turn to fully obey the law and be circumcised to be “in.” They need Christ. But that doesn’t mean that the law was not valued and still had some value for early Jewish Christians.

What Happened to the Law for Jewish Christians in the First Century?

I am teaching Romans 3 tomorrow in the men’s class and I have some questions that you might be able to help me with. I don’t want to spend much time on this in the class but I do want to make sure that I am not just making assumptions on some things about what people have learned regarding the law and what happened after Christ was raised from the dead. I know many of you have been to school to study Bible and theology so I am more so asking what you have typically heard about these things in teaching and preaching at church.

  1. What have you heard taught in churches happened to the law after Christ rose from the dead?
  2. What response were the Jews supposed to give so that the door could be opened to the Gentiles (especially as seen in Acts)?
  3. What was nailed to the cross besides Jesus and our sin?
  4. Was the law totally done away with after the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
  5. What was the accusation leveled against Paul in the book of Acts?

Just gut level reactions to these questions would be helpful. I believe I know how the average or even advanced Christian would answer these questions (not certain they could answer #5) but I want to make sure I am not making assumptions here. How do you think the average Christian, if they gave an answer, would answer these questions? We will talk more later about the real answers to these questions and how many of the things we have heard are misperceptions and misinterpretations on the law and the early church based on a handful of misapplied scriptures.

Studying Romans – 2:1-29

Who is Paul addressing here?

As I read this chapter I cannot help but think Paul is writing to Gentile Christians within the Roman church who have been in sin and yet condemn their fellow Christians for the very acts they themselves are doing unashamedly. I just don’t see how Paul would be writing to people who wouldn’t be reading this letter (e.g. non-Christian Gentiles). It would seem by default that his audience would be a Christian one and yet his words in Romans 1 seem to be toward people who do not know God. It would appear that those he addresses in chapter 1 are not Christians, or at least one would hope, because of the seriousness of their sin condition and total rebellion (including the exchanging of natural sexual relations for unnatural ones – 1:27). Why would he bring all of this up? Probably because the Gentile Christians at Rome have come out of exactly this type of background and thinking before coming to Christ.

In 2:1 he writes, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever pint you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” Maybe Witherington gets this right when he writes, “V. 5 seems to reaffirm the conclusion that Paul in the main is addressing non-Christian Gentiles here (but with an implicit warning to Christian Gentiles who act the same way). (BWIII, Romans, 81). This would make Paul hypothetically addressing people not in his audience in order that those who are listening might perk their ears at Paul’s warning. I am not sure that I buy that. It seems to me the reason they are without excuse when they judge others is because they have struggled with the same things (e.g. the list in 1:28-32).

Hypocrisy and the Judgment of God
Much of the content of the remaining verses have to do with the failure of the Gentiles and the Jews to do an adequate self-examination prior to examining the lives of others. The Gentiles are pointing fingers at immorality when the reality is they are condoning those very acts by the way they live (2:1-5). The Jews are guilty of hypocrisy because they hold up the standard of the law and find the Gentiles guilty for failing to keep it when they never have kept it in its entirety (2:12-24). The last word is that both the Jews and the Gentiles have placed the emphasis in the wrong place. God is not desiring people who are self-righteous and not in need of the love and mercy of God. God wants us to recognize our own failure at doing what is right so that we will understand our need for Him and result in having circumcised hearts (2:25-29). Have a look at the story Steve Furtick tells about two ministers that goes well with this point and the standards we use to judge.

What We Do Actually Matters
Another valuable take home point in this chapter is that our actions do have consequences. We often get so caught up in talking about the grace of God and the evils of works righteousness that we don’t give a fair shake to the whole of Paul’s theology on this point. How about this verse, “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” (Rom 2:7-8). That is a difficult passage to reconcile with many other parts of Paul’s theology. But to me the point is our actions matter. Don’t think you can abuse the grace of God because it will find you out. Don’t think that you have checked the box of circumcision or baptism or taking the Lord’s Supper each week and so you can go along your merry way scott free. It doesn’t work like that. You are baptized? Great. How is your heart today? Are you seeking self or God? Oh, but God will forgive…sure he will when you do what Paul said in verse 4-5 – “Repent.” Paul is talking to unrepentant Christians here. They have done all the right things. They have checked all the boxes and yet they are still warned of God’s wrath.

I want to share a particularly spot on quote by BWIII in his Romans commentary – “The message is, then, not only about the impartiality of God, though that is emphasized, but also about the fact that all humans are equally in need of mercy in view of their sin, including particularly those Jews who should have been teachers to the blind but in fact proved to be less than good exemplars of what the Law required. Having the Law is no guarantee of doing the Law, and merely having it is no protection against God’s judgment on disobedience, for all human behavior will be judged by God. Even being a Jewish teacher does not exempt one from God’s righteous judgment on sin and so from the need to hear and heed the gospel proclamation,” 85

Those are powerful words for those of us who have been in the church for decades. We have no claim to moral superiority over others because we have to recognize our own need for grace and mercy from God. When you understand that it is impossible to hold sin over the head of a brother or sister in Christ. Those are also powerful words because we live in a culture that says do whatever you want and don’t even worry about the consequences. If it makes you happy, do it. Don’t think about anyone else. Just do what you want. Be your own standard. You set the rules. God has been left hanging.

Why circumcision?
Again, we are hearing one side of the conversation and so we make assumptions about what Paul must have been addressing to have written what he did. If you heard me say on the phone “Well, it’s about 65 degrees and sunny.” you could imply that I had been asked the question, “How is the weather.” When Paul writes, “Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised (there were Jews, by the way, who underwent an “uncircumcision” process in order to blend in with the broader society better – See Fergusson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 405 or 1 Macc. 1:13-15, 2 Macc 4:10-17). We infer that the Jews must have been holding circumcision as a trump card over the Gentile Christians, perhaps in order to reestablish their roles as leaders in the church (for more on the background of this see this post). Why circumcision? In Genesis 17:9-14 God established circumcision as an everlasting sign of his covenant with Abraham. So when did God say his people no longer had to be circumcised? God doesn’t. Paul comes to the conclusion (after the council at Jerusalem and their decision not to bind circumcision on the Gentiles in Acts 15) that what God was really after was the heart all along and so the Gentiles who turn to God, even though not circumcised, will be made righteous by God through the Gospel of Christ even though the outward sign of the covenant with Abraham is not made evident in their flesh. Now how the whole “circumcision, of the heart, by the Spirit” works I am clueless. The only guess I have is that Paul’s theology of the indwelling of the Spirit is such that he sees the Holy Spirit as a commonality between Jewish and Gentile Christians and as such unites them all even though they are from diverse backgrounds because God doesn’t show favoritism (2:11). See also Gal 3:14 & 5:18

Does Bible Class and Preaching Format Affect the Message?

I am wondering if I am alone on this one and would love some feedback. I am discovering more and more what I think is a product of our teaching and preaching formats. The average Christian is hearing from the Bible on Sunday anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half. The Bible content they are getting is typically broken into small chunks (one chapter at a time or one story at a time or one topic) and I have come to believe that this is having an affect on people’s understanding of the message itself. Someone comes to Bible class and they hear about David and Goliath or Jesus calming the storm. They only get what is in the confines of the story itself and rarely much of the broader context of the unfolding narrative that the story itself is a pivotal part of. Biblegateway sure doesn’t help us by giving us a verse “in context” meaning one verse on either side of the verse we are looking up.

The Bible is a complex work of broader and broader contexts which all add layers of meaning to any given text. There is the cultural context, the immediate context, the context of genre, the context of how this fits the broader context of the gospel and salvation history, etc. It is really difficult to get a teacher to take these things into consideration and pass these things on to students in an understandable way because Bible class teachers have generally not had this modeled for them, don’t always have the tools to do it, and are under tremendous time constraints to get in the story or topic at hand, include discussion and prayers, and facilitate the class as a whole.

The Bible is trying to get us from Point A to Point B. Biblical narratives are not haphazardly thrown together but are woven very specifically to take us on a journey of faith and understanding. Because of that there is often a tremendous interconnection of stories (in the Gospel) and thoughts (in the epistles) that lose something when they are not seen in light of what led up to it and what followed.

Do you think this is a reasonable concern? If so, how do we deal with it? Teacher training would certainly help. More time for Bible study would be a plus. Is this something worthy of considering how we might alter some of our structures to allow a better presentation of God’s Word? Is it reasonable to deal with the stories and teachings of the Bible in context or do you think people get just enough out of them without being concerned how they fit in the bigger picture?

One last thought. The times I have incorporated the broader context of a teaching of Jesus or a Biblical narrative into a Bible class or a sermon I cannot tell you how many long time Christians have come up to me and said, “I have studied that story dozens of times and never thought of it that way.” I think there is a desire for this but I think the traditional structures we have been handed make it difficult to accomplish on a regular basis. I don’t really know what the solution is or if there even is a better way but I wanted to toss this out there and see what kinds of thoughts/feedback it generated.

Change in Churches – What is Healthy?

There is a fine line we walk when we talk about change. The line is between relevance to a lost and dying world and being pleasing to the God who has made us our own. When people try to swing too hard in either direction the results are often disastrous. Those who seek to please outsiders may lose their identity and distinctiveness and the very reason why outsiders come (to find something new, different, and life changing). Those who want to get behind closed doors and study their Bible and worship God with little concern for those outside the church become and end to themselves and will fail to accomplish several of their major objectives as the people of God.

Ronald Heifetz, who I have mentioned several times before, talks about how to produce healthy and growing change in an organization. He says that all growing organizations need to experience productive tension in order for change to take place. If a group of people has zero tension they will have zero change/healthy growth. If they have too much tension people will bail out on you and will have zero change/healthy growth. You have to find the change sweetspot where people feel challenged to try to do things better without pushing them so hard that they want out.That is why one size does not fit all in ministry because not all churches can accept change at the same pace. You cannot necessarily take a ministry that has been thriving at one church and map it directly onto another church because congregations experience change and rates of change differently. You probably get those emails, “10 Ways to Guarantee Church Growth in 3 Months or Less.” Delete. Change does not work the same in all places and is not accepted as quickly everywhere.

We also have doctrinal concerns when it comes to change. We don’t want to change things that are core to the gospel. When making decisions and casting a vision for a congregation the leadership must determine which things are gospel and which things are opinion and tradition. Some lines don’t have to be drawn in the sand. It is okay to have a difference of opinion on some things. But what we cannot miss as a church is to live out the mission of Jesus Christ. If we are not doing what we are here to do and being who we are here to be then it really doesn’t matter if we cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s because we become Pharisees.

Change is important and inevitable. Change is essential to the health and growth of any group of people. I am not necessarily talking about radical changes in the way we do worship or the way we do the Lord’s Supper or anything like that. But I do think it is important to realize why we do the things we do and understand which things are non-negotiables and which things are flexible. Change also needs to be about identity and practice. We often think of change as being about what we do and how we do it. But there is another component that must be taken into consideration – who we are. Are we the people God wants us to be? Is our identity as the people of God producing the kind of impact on the world that He desires us to have? If not there are some changes in our approach and underlying assumptions that need to be made and at a rate that people will be able to tolerate without jumping ship.

Change has been a dangerous word in our churches. Many see anyone who pushes any kind of change as a “Change agent” who is to be shunned and spoken against. I think that is warranted in some extreme instances where people push for change with little regard for what God thinks about it but that doesn’t make all change bad. Isn’t repentance a change? Scripture is full of “change agents” and we owe a debt of gratitude to those who saw that there was a better way and who pushed with all their might for a better, more God-centered vision of the church/Christianity.