Issue #668 -------
July 16, 2015
When in disgrace with fortune and men's
eyes I all alone beweep my outcast state, and
trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
I would imagine most of us are quite familiar with the passages in both OT and NT writings dealing with sexual behaviors deemed by our God as contrary to His revealed expectations for human beings. Not everyone is willing to accept our Creator's will in this matter, but it is hard to deny the fact that His will has been expressed in the Bible in no uncertain terms. He is very clear in what He says. "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable. Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion. Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways. ... You must not do any of these detestable things. ... Everyone who does any of these detestable things must be cut off from their people. ... Do not defile yourselves with them. I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 18:22-30). "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death" (Leviticus 20:13).
The apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, spoke of people consumed by "shameful lusts" -- "Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion" (Romans 1:26-27). Paul told the brethren in Corinth, "Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you!" (1 Corinthians 6:9-11a, ESV). The impressive thing about this latter text, which is often overlooked, is that Paul shows the redemptive love of the Lord for those who struggle with attitudes and actions contrary to His revealed will for our lives. He reaches out to us and offers us hope. Regardless of which corner of the darkness may draw us individually, and with which we may struggle mightily, He is there to challenge us to emerge from that darkness and embrace the light of His loving forgiveness. "And such were some of you" is true of each of us before we were cleansed by grace through faith (Acts 15:9, 11). No one lies beyond the reach of our God's compassion or beyond the parameters of our Father's mercy. Redemption is for all who desire it; none will be refused. Such is the nature and beauty of divine love.
Jesus frequently shocked the religious elitists of His day by associating with the "outcasts" of society. This confused many people because they assumed, mistakenly, that by this association Jesus was either condoning or endorsing their wayward lifestyles. Indeed, they at times even suggested that perhaps He Himself was also a participant in these transgressions of social and religious norms. They said of Him, "Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!" (Matthew 11:19; cf. Luke 7:34). Jesus often dined in the homes of such people, and this drew sharp criticism from those who were watching His every move. "While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with Him and His disciples, for there were many who followed Him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw Him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked His disciples: 'Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?'" (Mark 2:15-16; cf. Matthew 9:10-11). Jesus really riled up these religionists when He declared to them, "Truly I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you!" (Matthew 21:31). I like the way this is phrased in The Message: "Crooks and whores are going to precede you into God's kingdom!" When these same prideful leaders brought a woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus, hoping He would condemn her, Jesus refused to pass a judgment of condemnation against her, but instead challenged her to a higher standard of living, one more in keeping with God's will for her life (John 8:3-11).
Our Lord was in no way condoning the sins of these people with whom He chose to associate, nor was He giving approval to their lifestyles. But neither was He willing to turn His back on them and abandon them to the consequences of their choices. Jesus did not come into this world condemning, but redeeming! He sought out those whose lives had taken turns away from God, and He called them back toward the welcoming embrace of the Father. He came for prodigals in pig pens, and pointed them back home! It's easy to look at the life choices of others around us and pass harsh judgments against them ... until we take a long look in the mirror and realize many of our own life choices are just as inconsistent with God's will and abhorrent in His sight as those we arrogantly condemn in others! "You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things" (Romans 2:1). "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10). "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). The historian James Truslow Adams (1878-1949) rightly observed, "There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us." If we all got what we deserved, none would be saved. Thank God for His grace and mercy, and for loving even the unlovely.
Please do not misunderstand -- I am in no way, nor was our Lord Jesus, suggesting we should overlook or condone those attitudes and actions in the lives of others (or even ourselves) that are in violation of God's will. When God declares something to be wrong, we have no choice but to declare the same, no matter how unpopular or "politically incorrect" such a proclamation may be. Jesus did not hesitate to point out the sin in people's lives and call them to repentance, but He always did so with LOVE, and that is a truth that must not be overlooked. Jesus did not shun sinners; He sought them out and associated with them. He also used these opportunities to call them to a higher standard of living. But, again, He did it in love! We must do no less ... and, frankly, that can be a tremendous challenge for many of us who have, sadly, been too often conditioned to condemn. This is especially being seen today as a result of the growing acceptance in our permissive society of behaviors clearly contrary to the teachings of Scripture. I'm talking about the growing acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle, which is being daily imposed upon the people of our nation (not to mention other nations as well). It has reached somewhat of a climax earlier this month with the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States, which has essentially made "gay marriage" legal in all fifty states. Needless to say, this will result in a number of significant confrontations between "church and state" as couples begin approaching pastors to perform weddings, and as they enter churches seeking approval and acceptance. What do we do? How do we respond? Courts are already preparing themselves for the flood of cases that will inevitably be coming before them in the months and years to come as the convictions of Christians come under assault by a secular society.
I certainly don't have all the answers, and am not even sure of all the questions at this point. I'm not sure anyone is. But, I am convinced of one thing: hatred is not the answer! What would Jesus do if He were here in our communities and congregations today? I'm convinced He would do two things: love the sinner and lament the sin! He would not shun any sinner who sought Him out, nor would He refrain from using that association to share with them God's will for their lives. He would challenge them to turn from that which God Himself has declared to be detestable in His sight, and to embrace instead that which He has declared to be desirable. And He would do all of this with LOVE! Brethren, we must show that same love, and we must show that same willingness to associate with those who fall short of God's glory, and we must also show that same willingness and even boldness to call these men and women to repentance (i.e., a turning away from that which God condemns, and a turning toward that which God condones). And may we always do so with humility, knowing that we ALL have fallen far short of the glory of God, and thus are ALL in need of loving redirection in our lives.
With this in mind, let me get very practical ... very "real." The day after the SCOTUS ruling on "gay marriage," an individual sent an email to our church web site stating that he was raised in the Churches of Christ, and that he and his "husband" desired to remain within this faith-heritage, but that they were not welcome in his home congregation (which was in another city). He asked if they would be allowed to enter our building to worship with us. This is a situation many churches and pastors are going to be facing in the days to come, and we need to do some serious reflection on just how we are going to respond, for although some of these people may genuinely be seeking spiritual guidance, or may simply desire to worship with others, there are some who will be "baiting believers" in hopes of taking them to court. It is in times like these that we must take counsel from Jesus Himself: "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard against men, for they will hand you over to the local councils" (Matthew 10:16-17). After much prayer and reflection, I composed the following letter and sent it to this couple (from whom we have yet to hear back). In sharing it here, it is my hope that this may prove helpful to some of you when/if you are approached with a similar request. I pray it reflects the spirit of Christ Jesus, and that each of us will be enabled by His Spirit to stand strong against the spirit of this world that is increasingly coming against us.
Your comments were forwarded to me by our congregation's web master (one of our deacons). Thank you for writing and letting me know of your situation and concerns. First, I can assure you that we don't turn anyone away from our doors, nor do we "grill" people before they enter. Every person who comes through our doors, including me, falls short of God's ideal in one way or another. Thus, we seek not to be a judgmental community of believers, but rather a redemptive community of believers. We believe that our God, in His inspired Scriptures, has identified areas of behavior that He considers right, and areas of behavior that He considers wrong. Each of us, in our journey through life, struggle with one or more of those divine expectations. Thus, we come together to encourage one another, and even to challenge one another (in love), to rise above our own desires, and to seek to live according to HIS desires for us.
I do not single anyone out in my classes or sermons, nor do we "pound people from the pulpit." On the other hand, I do seek to proclaim the full counsel of our God, and there will be times that I (and others who teach and preach here) will seek to convey what we believe to be God's will on a number of life issues. At times this may be uncomfortable for some in attendance ... and, yes, I often step on my OWN toes as well. God's will and His Word are somewhat like a mirror into which we are all called to look for the purpose of aligning ourselves with His expectations. That is not always easy for us to do (I can speak from experience), for we all fall short of what He desires for us.
I will never condemn, nor will I discriminate against, a homosexual. That is not my place. Jesus wouldn't have done it, and neither shall I. On the other hand, I will (and must) at times, in the course of teaching from God's Word, speak to those behaviors that God Himself has condemned in His Word (and He does speak to this issue). Thus, in love, I will encourage all who attend here to rise above those attitudes and behaviors that constitute an active "falling short of" God's will for our lives. It will always be done in love, but will also be uncompromising. We can do no less than our Lord on this, who embraced in love those who had fallen short, and yet who at the same time challenged them to a higher standard.
Are you two welcome to enter our building? Absolutely. And nobody is going to be ugly or hateful to you. Yet, I need to be very upfront with you: it is our conviction that the homosexual lifestyle is contrary to God's stated will as revealed in the Scriptures. We are in no way "homophobic" -- quite the contrary. We love you and our doors are open to you. At the same time, it is because we love you (and everyone else who comes through our doors) that we will in the course of our teaching and preaching and personal interactions challenge one another in love to live lives more consistent with the teachings of Scripture (as best we understand them).
I hope this addresses your questions and concerns. May God bless you and guide you, and please pray that He will do the same for me as well.
Al Maxey, Pulpit Minister/Elder
Cuba Ave. Church of Christ
From a Reader in West Virginia:
Greetings from West Virginia (almost Heaven). I guess you had better send me a copy of your Sunday morning lessons on The New Covenant Church. My check is enclosed. I have been doing a series of lessons from Rubel's book "I Knew Jesus Before He Was A Christian -- And Liked Him Better." So, I guess I can follow that study up with a series (yours) on what the church was like before it became "a Church." Have a blessed week!
From a Reader in Oklahoma:
I knew a man who held to the very legalistic views you have exposed and discussed in your writings. He was radical and not very logical, to my way of thinking. So I asked him one day if it was possible that he might be in error on some things. Although I pressed the point several times, I could never get him to admit to the possibility. I later tried this same thing with another person with similar views, but encountered the same unwillingness to admit to even the possibility that he could be wrong or in error on some biblical understanding or practice. I wonder: have we discovered something significant here about these people through their unwillingness to admit that they just might be wrong about something?
You have indeed uncovered one of the primary problems with those who believe justification and salvation are knowledge-based and performance-based. If one's eternal salvation is directly tied to how much one knows and how much one does (and the "correctness" of his/her knowledge and performance as judged by some elusive and/or imagined "pattern," the particulars of which they will absolutely refuse to provide, becoming intensely irate if one should persist in asking for this "list of law"), then lack of knowledge and lack of performance equate to spiritual jeopardy. For the legalist and patternist, one must be right to be saved: i.e., know the right things, do the right things at all the right times and in all the right ways, be in the right church, have the right name on the sign, worship in the right way, etc. To be wrong is to be lost. Thus, to admit that they may be wrong about some biblical understanding or practice, or that they may have been wrong for years about such matters, is virtually impossible for them to do, for it is an admission (at least in their own minds) that they were, and perhaps still are, not in God's favor. After all, God only recognizes people as His children who are RIGHT, right?! This is the sad dilemma of the legalistic, patternistic dogmatists: they have to be right; they have to have "arrived" at full understanding. Their very salvation depends on it. This, of course, leads inevitably to religious arrogance, for if they are "right," then all others, who may differ with them on some understanding or practice, are thereby "wrong." But, if they are forced to admit that they too are, or could possibly be, wrong about some things, then HOW can they legitimately claim to be IN God's favor while others, who are also, in like manner, wrong about some things, are NOT in God's favor? It is an insidious inconsistency and a diabolical double standard that no rational person will long tolerate. Thus, their whole theology crumbles and collapses around them if they ever acknowledge that they, like all others, are most likely wrong about a great many things. What is sad is that many of them know this, but they try to hide it (even from themselves), for they simply can't bring themselves to ever abandon their legalistic, patternistic, knowledge- and performance-based path to salvation. To "level the playing field" by acknowledging that ALL God's children are flawed, and ALL lack complete understanding of ultimate Truth, is to acknowledge that these other disciples of Christ are just as likely accepted by God the Father as they are, and that grace does indeed trump law! And there goes their claim to spiritual exclusivity ("We alone are the one, true church; the only ones who are saved; any and all who differ with US are damned to hell" -- and they are only too happy to regularly inform others of such). Yes, brother, you exposed a key fallacy in their theology. What is sad is that most of these people, when this flaw is exposed, will either flee or fight; few will change to embrace Truth. What a sad, miserable way to journey through one's life. No wonder there is so little joy and peace in the lives of such misguided rigid religionists. -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Georgia:
I was in a conversation today with a person on some Church of Christ group on Facebook, and was trying to address his claims one-by-one, when he, in frustration, finally pulled the old "you are a false teacher" accusation out of the hat. I'm sure you are no stranger to having that tactic used on you as well (LOL). Anyway, I asked him which one of the dozens of factions within the group "Church of Christ" (each of which still use the name "Church of Christ') has it all perfectly "right," and I got a new response that made me laugh out loud. He said the problem was that all these "others" who had "strayed from the truth" were refusing to "change the name" on their signs. Wow! Sometimes you can stomp out the fire of ignorance, but other times it's just better to walk away and let it burn out on its own! Your article on "Growing in Grace and Knowledge" was good, brother!
From a Reader in [Unknown]:
Thank you so much for your latest Reflections article: "Growing in Grace and Knowledge" (Reflections #667). It has helped me so much in studying with my husband on this subject of baptism.
From a Reader in Louisiana:
Good, honest people often study themselves out of error. I have done so myself, at least on some issues. So I am optimistic, with regard to growing in grace and truth, about many whom I know and respect. Patience is required. After all, children do not grow up in just a few weeks. Thank you, brother, for continuing to contend for the faith.
From a Reader in Alabama:
Sadly, many today, who wrote and read those hardline Church of Christ books "back when," no longer believe all that anymore. They have moved forward in their minds, but outwardly stick with what they wrote/read for fear of being called out for "teaching error."
From a Minister in Tennessee:
I have heard some state, "I believe the same thing I did forty years ago. I have not changed on any doctrine." What is interesting is that Peter, an inspired apostle, said, "This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him -- speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:15-16). If some things were "hard to understand," then Peter is admitting he needed more study and also more growing! If he did, don't we all?! If we need more growth, doesn't that mean we have not "arrived" at perfect understanding?! If we don't have perfect understanding or perfect knowledge, then how can "we" claim that we have fully and completely restored the church?
From a Reader in Alaska:
Al, your article in Reflections #667 ("Growing in Grace and Knowledge: Reflecting on the Reality of an Ever Evolving Understanding of the Truths of God's Word") prompted me to offer the following thoughts: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards" [Soren Kierkegaard]. No matter how much I understand about the past, the future remains challenging, since it's the application of past life-lessons that complicate living a sacrificial life faithful to Jesus. Children only understand binary thinking: good/bad, yes/no, saved/unsaved, and must be taught accordingly. Grownups understand that life's complexities don't always lend themselves easily to categorization. Some adults haven't grown up beyond childlike thinking, due to internal or external developmental problems, and their windows for learning gradually close at some point, so they are incapable of further understanding. Many of us also age to the point where our bodies outlast our brains. We're alive, but can't think much, so we only have memories of past certainties, and we defend them with all our being, using the standard win-lose thinking that isn't willing to admit our limited grasp of reality or truth. Much of broadly defined Christendom sells certainty: do this to convert and you'll be saved from the eternal, conscious torment of Hell; put up with this on earth and you will go to Heaven. I agree with author Dave Burchett who suggests that Jesus says, "Follow Me," not "Figure Me out!" I heard one brotherhood college president say, "I've never heard of a church split on a mission trip."
In my view, Jesus does more than save, He transforms those whose life-purpose is to follow Him. Like the increasingly mature agape-love in a godly marriage, sacrificial experiences shape and deepen relationships. It's no accident that Jesus teaches so many spiritual lessons in terms of family life, and it's also sad that healthy family life has diminished in increasingly narcissistic modern America. That makes it more difficult to help people understand and learn about God's unknowns from the various teaching touchstones that used to be routine experiences of life. Religion tends to traffic in ritual, routines, doctrinal boundaries, and certainty. Relationship with Jesus rests on God's grace, but it's often messy, given common trials encountered during a sacrificial life. The nature of a relationship with Jesus isn't limited to church-building behavior or doctrinal belief, but involves every waking hour as a disciple or follower continually and increasingly learns to be like Him. As I've asked various brothers, who have had to endure much over the years, how they did it, they've typically answered that they have endured by keeping their eyes on Jesus. I can find no better advice, and think that John 5:39-40 suggests that it's our relationship with Jesus that nurtures us to eternity. Blessings in your ministry, Al.
From a Reader in Arizona:
Al, I read Reflections #667 hoping you would turn our attention to Peter's words about knowing Jesus. We know that we are to discern Scripture with advancing knowledge, but Peter wrote of growing in the favor and knowledge of JESUS. Years ago I finally saw Jesus' emphasis upon Himself in John 5:39-40. Coming to Jesus changes our faces and voices to reflect His love. Because we are creatures, our greatest need is to be loved. If we do not convey HIS love, we are like other hawkers, and why should anyone listen?!
From a Reader in New Zealand:
AMEN to your article on "Growing in Grace and Knowledge." Some of the conclusions I have come to are: 1) Some people want just enough religion to get them to Heaven, but not so much righteousness that it cramps their style, 2) a study of the life of Caleb shows that he had a different spirit and followed the Lord fully, where many were/are not prepared to do so, and 3) it is a case of where our "want to's" are. Someone asked one time why Imelda Marcos (wife of the former president of the Philippines) had so many pairs of shoes. The simple answer was: because she wanted to! Changing one's "want to's" is seemingly too much to ask of some people! God bless you, Al.
From a Minister/Author in Kentucky:
To be a disciple of the Lord means that we go with Him wherever He leads. It doesn't mean to take up residence in some comfortable abode alongside a wide, well-worn road. The Lord was always taking His disciples into different and sometimes dangerous territory. It truly is sad that many preachers count their "faithfulness" to the Lord in terms of having never changed their thinking and/or teaching throughout a long career. I think I know why some do not like challenge and change: Fear. They prefer the same "safe," comfortable scenery to the widening vistas they could be viewing. They are afraid of losing their popularity, their position, or, more to the point, their pay check. The pressure against change is tremendous, especially as one grows older. When I was much younger, I well remember hearing of older preachers who had "gone soft" on some "issue." People would cluck their tongues and talk about what a shame it was that they had lost their effectiveness. I now realize that those men may have simply grown in their understanding of what the Truth really is. The real shame is that people do not avail themselves of the opportunity to learn and grow with those wise enough to change when they find they are being led to a better view of that to which the Lord has called us.
From a Reader in Texas:
"Growing in Grace and Knowledge" is another great Reflections detailing that growth does mean change, and, yes, 20 years of being exactly the same probably means one is pretty dead spiritually.
From a Reader in California:
Thanks for your article on "Growing in Grace and Knowledge." Yes, I agree totally with what you wrote. It is why I love so many different kinds of Christians, with so many different doctrines, because my own doctrine is always subject to change too. And that's a good demonstration that we are indeed saved by faith, and not by doctrine.
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