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Mining For Gold: What I’ve Learned from Reading Christian Biographies

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During a class in my final year in seminary, Dr. Howard Hendricks said something that jumped out and grabbed me for life. The gist of it was, “You will be leaving here soon. Ten years from now, there will be a great difference between each of you in your personal lives and ministries. Some will have failed miserably. Others will be doing very well. Two factors will have the greatest impact on where you find yourself in ten years: the books you read and the friends you make. Guard them both very carefully!”

I’ve been out of seminary about 15 years now. I got to thinking about what, apart from the Bible, has most influenced my Christian walk and ministry. I concluded that it is reading Christian biographies. The people I have read about have become my friends, even though I won’t meet them personally until I get to heaven. Hendricks was right: the friends I have made through the books I have read have had a profound impact on my life.

It’s a gold mine available to all but mined by few. The pressures of ministry and family life in our fast-lane lives crowd out the time for settling down with the greats of the past. What can they teach me about dealing with difficult church members, raising offerings, and other problems of modern church ministry? Plenty! I’ve found that the mine is rich and worth the effort many times over.

W. Robertson Nicoll, the learned British writer, editor of The Expositor’s Greek New Testament and other works, had 25,000 volumes in his personal library, including 5,000 biographies! He wrote, “I have for years read every biography I could lay my hands on, and not one has failed to teach me something” (cited by Warren Wiersbe, Walking With the Giants [Baker], p. 108). Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who has been called the greatest preacher in the English language in the 20th century (no small compliment!) said, “There is nothing more important for preaching than the reading of Church history and biographies” (Preaching & Preachers [Zondervan], p. 317).

The Bible As Biography

There is biblical warrant for studying the lives of great men and women of faith. The rabbis said that God made people because He loves stories. Much of the Bible--far more than the didactic portions--consists of stories about people. God knows that we learn by example. Seeing how different people succeeded or failed in real life situations helps translate faith into practical insights to guide us through life’s many difficult situations and decisions. Bible stories show us that God saw a need to wrap theology in human flesh--the incarnation of Jesus Christ being the supreme example.

Lessons From Reading Christian Biographies

I began reading Christian biographies in the summer of 1970 when I read George Muller of Bristol by A. T. Pierson. God used that book to show me that I could trust Him and that He is a God who answers prayer. Since then I have read about 50 biographies or books on church history--a bit short of Nicoll’s 5,000--but it’s a start! It is rare that I come away empty. Sometimes the lessons are examples to avoid, but that also can be profitable! Here are four ways that reading Christian biographies has helped me:

Heritage: Christian biographies give me a sense of my place in the Christian drama.

A few years ago, Alex Haley’s Roots touched a nerve in our society--the need to know our family heritage. We live in a rootless society where most of us don’t know our family history much beyond our grandparents. Many are decrying the fact that we are losing our grasp of our nation’s history and that this could lead to the disintegration of our society. The stories of our past are a cultural heritage to pass on to the next generation so that they can appreciate the sacrifices made and the lessons learned to forge and preserve our common values in our journey as a nation to this point.

Reading Christian biographies has helped me appreciate my spiritual roots. It helps me put our times and my particular circumstances in perspective. It makes me realize that I am carrying the torch handed to me by those who went before, and that I must hand it off intact to those who come after me.

For example, we live in a culture that values tolerance and open-mindedness. Many pastors have capitulated and tiptoe around difficult doctrines like church discipline, divorce, or hell. Reading the lives of Luther and Calvin and how they stood fearlessly against the establishment of their day gives me courage to take a stand on the truths that really matter.

I’m not deluded into thinking that my convictions and choices will influence history as the reformers did. But I do believe that taking a stand on the common issues of everyday ministry in my small corner of the vineyard matters in shaping God’s kingdom in our day.

One small example: About five years ago, I had a sudden rash of disgruntled marriage partners come to me, independently of one another, informing me that they were going to divorce their mates. When I inquired why, I discovered that in each case the unhappy mate had read a popular book by a well-known Christian psychologist which encouraged them to issue an ultimatum in an attempt to bring their partners to repentance.

Some of the cases involved sexual immorality, but one case involved an alcoholic husband. But in my judgment, none of the situations were beyond hope if the partners were willing to forgive and live in a godly manner with their sinning mates (in accordance with 1 Peter 3:1-12). My understanding of the biblical grounds for divorce does not include alcoholism as a legitimate cause.

The woman whose husband had the drinking problem had come to see me with two of our elders’ wives who had been giving her counsel and who had recommended the approach of this book. When I explained (gently, I thought) that if she wanted to obey the Lord, she could not leave her husband, one of the women exploded at me because of my “insensitivity” for “coldly applying the Bible” to this hurting woman. I calmly, but firmly, held my ground, explaining that counseling someone to obey God’s truth is always the most compassionate approach, even though it may be the most difficult.

The wife of the alcoholic followed my counsel and dealt with her own sin in the marriage. Her husband eventually faced his problem and stopped drinking. She recently thanked me profusely for holding my ground under fire that day, saying that she and her husband would not be together today if I had caved in to the pressure.

As far as I know, even the marriages where there was sexual infidelity are still together today because I counseled the wronged partners with the need for forgiveness and commitment to their marriages in spite of their mates’ sin. My commitment to hold to the Word in the face of strong cultural currents to the contrary, has preserved several families from destruction.

I realize it’s not on a par with Luther at the Diet of Worms, but it helps me to stand firm when I feel pressured to compromise to know that I am linked in an unbroken chain of faithful witnesses who have held to God’s unchanging truth before me.

Modeling: Christian biographies give me great examples to follow.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer was asked what is the best way to raise children. The learned doctor replied, “There are three ways: 1) By example, 2) By example, and 3) By example.” He was right. God has made us so that from our earliest days, we learn from models. We pick up attitudes and actions by watching how our parents and other significant people around us live.

The same is true spiritually. We learn by watching models who “flesh out” Christian principles in their daily lives. When I was younger in the faith, I wanted someone to disciple me. I tried several different men, but it never seemed to work out the way I had hoped. But in a very real sense, I have been discipled by some of the greatest Christians who have ever lived, by reading their biographies. Here are some who have helped me most:

Three of my most influential models have been Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Charles Spurgeon, and Jonathan Edwards. Lloyd-Jones is from the 20th century, Spurgeon from the 19th, and Edwards from the 18th. All three were pastors and strong preachers. Their ministries affirm the power of biblical preaching backed by godly lives.

I have always admired men who can combine solid biblical scholarship with practical, down-to-earth preaching. These pastors had that gift. Each drank deeply from the Reformers and Puritans. But their theological depth was combined with a vibrant, practical love for God. Through their deep study of the Scriptures, they knew God and they knew the hearts of people. They were able to bridge that gap with powerful preaching.

Each man had a passion to see lost people coming to faith in the Savior. They each faced times in which many pastors were turning aside from the simple gospel message. There was pressure on them to soften their belief in the depravity of the human race and in the necessity of saving faith in Jesus Christ. But they held the line.

Each was involved in painful controversies which took an emotional toll on them. Edwards was removed from his pastorate and he and his family (ten children at that time) nearly starved, because he came to hold that communicants must give evidence of salvation. Many attribute Spurgeon’s final decline in health to his grief over the famous “Downgrade Controversy.” Lloyd-Jones paid a price by standing alone against what he saw to be the encroachment of liberalism into British evangelicalism.

Reading the lives of these men has motivated me to deepen my theological roots. They have shown me the shallowness of my love for Christ and the need to walk in daily reality with Him. I’ve been strengthened to take a stand on the theological issues that really matter, rather than go with the tolerant mood of our day.. I have worked harder to base my preaching on solid biblical scholarship, rather than the latest pop psychology, but to communicate it in a way that connects with the average person. They’ve shown me that in whatever century, the simple gospel is still the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes.

Although Lloyd-Jones, Spurgeon, and Edwards are my favorites, I have many more models. Francis Schaeffer has reinforced the need to blend compassion with truth, scholarship with evangelism, and orthodoxy with spiritual reality. His model of strong family life in the midst of fishbowl living has been of great help.

George Muller impresses me with the practicality of a life of prayer and faith. Hudson Taylor, Jim Elliot, and Bruce Olson all give me examples of men who bucked the Christian establishment and endured hardships to further God’s work in difficult areas.

Adoniram Judson has shown me a model of endurance and faithfulness through horrible trials and discouragements. Judson served 33 years without a furlough, often working 12-hour days. It took him 14 years of disciplined translation work after his first wife’s death (not counting the many years with her at his side) before he sent the completed Burmese Bible to the printer. He endured a horrible two-year imprisonment and torture, after which he lost his wife and baby daughter and went through a time of severe depression. He later lost another wife.

Thinking about Judson helps me put in perspective the lumps and bruises I endure in pastoral ministry! Maybe I don’t have it so bad. If Judson endured all that, I can survive a rough board meeting!

Spirituality And Doctrine: Christian biographies give me theological perspective and balance.

We are all limited by the fact that we are creatures of our time and culture. We tend to view issues from the grid we almost subconsciously absorb from the theological and social climate in which we come to Christ and begin to grow. It’s as if we’re born in the forest and start walking, not quite sure where all the various trails come from or lead to. Reading Christian biographies is like climbing a high mountain so that you can get a feel for the lay of the land.

Reading biographies of men and women who grew up in different times under different cultural influences, broadens me. To read of Anglicans, Lutherans, Plymouth Brethren, Baptists, Presbyterians, and others who loved and served the same Lord widens my understanding of what God is doing. It makes me more catholic (in the sense of “universal”), less sectarian, less consumed with petty issues and narrow viewpoints.

It also gives me perspective on how the Christianity of our day has drifted. For example, take the matter of observing the Lord’s Day. In our day, especially in laid-back California, most Christians view Sunday the same as any other day, except that you go to church if you’re not doing something else. But after church, it’s a day to do whatever you please: Wash your car, work in your yard, go shopping, play soccer, watch TV sports, or whatever. And, if you decide to take the weekend off to go camping or to go to Disneyland on Sunday, it’s no big deal. We’ve lost any concept of Sunday as the Lord’s Day.

I was reading the life of Hudson Taylor and was shocked to learn that his wife, Maria, who was desperately trying to get home to be with a sick child, would not travel on “the sabbath” (Sunday). She would get off the riverboat and wait to catch another boat on Monday, rather than travel on that day. I’ve discovered that if I had lived in colonial America and behaved the way I do now, I would have spent time in jail, my arms and feet locked into the stocks in public humiliation. Why? Because I have traveled on Sunday. It just wasn’t done by respectable people!

C. H. Mackintosh, a popular Plymouth Brethren devotional writer of the last century, wrote, “The idea of any one, calling himself a Christian, making the Lord’s day a season of what is popularly called recreation, unnecessary traveling, personal convenience, or profit in temporal things, is perfectly shocking.” (Miscellaneous Writings [Loizeaux Brothers] Vol. 3, “A Scriptural Inquiry as to the Sabbath, the Law, and Christian Ministry,” p. 6.)

I’m not saying I endorse these views. My point is that by reading about these people from the past, I’ve learned that “we’ve come a long way, baby!” There’s a fair chance that we are out of balance. That drives me back to the Scriptures to seek God’s mind on the matter.

You gain the same kind of perspective on other social issues. For example, what did Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Robertson Nicoll, G. Campbell Morgan, C. S. Lewis, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones all have in common? They smoked, some of them as pastors! In most American Christian circles, that’s enough to brand you as unspiritual, if not to question your salvation. And yet Spurgeon would be aghast that Christians watch TV and go to the movies. He disapproved of attending stage plays and reading secular novels. Such “worldliness” was unthinkable in his day!

In Jonathan Edwards’ colonial America, there was an uproar because the young people of the town got together in groups of “both sexes for mirth and jollity, which they called frolics.” As far as I can tell, these weren’t sexual orgies, but just parties consisting of unchurched young men and women together! Again, “we’ve come a long way, baby!”

Take another contemporary issue of a more serious nature: the debate over “Lordship salvation,” which concerns the nature of saving faith. Must a person believe in Jesus as Lord, meaning submission to Him, in order to be saved? Or, is faith equal to mental assent to the facts of the gospel? Or, is saving faith somewhere between these extremes? By reading Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ The Puritans I discovered that the same questions were debated about 200 years ago (“Sandemanianism,” pp. 170-190). There is nothing new under the sun.

So reading Christian biographies and church history has taken me up the mountain for a clearer view of my own and others’ theological perspective. This has helped me sort through which issues are crucial and worth fighting for and which issues are more cultural, where I need to be more tolerant.

Humanity: Christian biographies give me an understanding of people and of myself.

I’ve discovered that there are two types of Christian biographies. Many of the older works fall into what I would call the “eulogy” genre. They approach the subject as we deal with the deceased at funerals: They emphasize his good points and overlook his faults. But more recent biographers tend to take a more honest look at their subjects, exposing warts and all.

If you uncritically read biographies of the “eulogy” genre, you can get pretty depressed, thinking, “That guy almost walked on water. I’ll never attain the high level of spirituality he had.” But if you read more honest biographies (and read between the lines of the eulogy-type), you discover that God has used some very rough instruments. You find that the great strengths of some of the giants were also the flip side of great weaknesses and blind spots. Men and women who were unswerving in their commitment to Christ were sometimes stubborn and ran roughshod over people. And yet God used them greatly!

This is not to excuse their problems and sins, nor to excuse my own. But, like many pastors, I am a perfectionist. I tend to be very hard on myself. When I read of others who did great things for God, it helps me to realize that they weren’t perfect. Far from it!

Some of the greats, such as John Wesley and William Carey, had difficult marriages. Carey’s wife didn’t want to go to the mission field, and when she finally got there (due to her husband’s pressure), she went insane. Jonathan Edwards had trouble relating to people socially and tended to stay holed up in his study. I wonder if he would have weathered the theological controversy which cost him his pastorate if he had been warmer relationally.

David Livingstone was a loner who had numerous conflicts with fellow workers. He packed a revolver and sometimes brandished it in the face of belligerent African chiefs. He essentially abandoned his wife and children, who suffered greatly without him. Yet God used Livingstone to open Africa to the gospel!

One of the most tragic stories is that of Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision. It is told by his daughter, Marilee Pierce Dunker, in Days of Glory, Seasons of Night (first published under the title, Man of Vision, Woman of Prayer). Bob Pierce loved the world but couldn’t relate to his own family. He preached the gospel to huge crowds in the Far East and saw thousands respond. He founded World Vision to help the many hurting children he encountered.

Yet his oldest daughter committed suicide. He and his wife were separated at several points in their marriage, apart from the numerous separations due to his incredible travel schedule--he was gone an average of ten months each year! He never tamed his explosive temper, and eventually World Vision fired him. Yet he loved and served the Lord to the end of his life.

Ruth Tucker’s excellent From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya [Zondervan], a biographical history of the missions movement, lays bare the human side of some of the giants. Many great missionaries sacrificed their families for the cause. Some were unable to relate well to people, including their own mates and children.

C. T. Studd, famous for the quote, “If Christ be God and died for me, no sacrifice is too great for me to make for Him,” left his wife in poor health and went to Africa, returning to see her only once in the final 16 years of her life. He worked 18-hour days and expected everyone else to do likewise. His intense dedication to the cause of Christ made him intolerant of anyone who wasn’t equally committed. He alienated everyone around him, including his daughter and son-in-law, and was finally dismissed by the mission he had founded.

My point is not to take pot shots at these servants of the Lord nor, by justifying their sin, to excuse my own. But seeing their shortcomings and failures helps me accept imperfect people, including myself. It helps me remember that there never has been a perfect church, so mine probably won’t be. The saints who are extolled as attaining such a high level of spirituality struggled with many of the same problems I do.

And yet God did some significant things with these imperfect men and women. Thousands of lives have been changed. In some cases, the history of nations and of western civilization has been altered through these godly, yet very human, instruments. Maybe there’s hope that God can use even me!

Conclusion

Phillips Brooks wrote, “A biography is, indeed, a book; but far more than a book, it is a man.... Never lay the biography down until the man is a living, breathing, acting person to you.” (Cited by Warren Wiersbe, Walking With the Giants [Baker], p. 13).

Many of the greats from the past have become my living, breathing, mentors and friends as I’ve read their biographies. They have given me a sense of the heritage I have in Christ. They have provided me with models to live by. They have given me theological and spiritual perspective to navigate the tricky waters of our times. They have helped me understand others and myself, as imperfect human beings called to serve the perfect Savior. The gold is there for the mining. Happy prospecting!

Related Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Library and Resources, Sanctification, Spiritual Life, Testimony & Biography

Steak And Arsenic: A Review of Neil Anderson’s "Victory Over the Darkness"

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Reading Neil Anderson’s Victory Over the Darkness [Regal Books, 1990, 245 pp.] is like eating steak laced with arsenic. The steak tastes great and makes up the major portion, but the arsenic, imbedded throughout, will kill you.

First, the steak: Anderson strongly sets forth the believer’s position in Christ and the beneficial effects of believing this truth. He underscores the many Scriptures affirming that believers are saints, new creatures, forgiven, righteous, etc. Certainly these are crucial truths for every Christian to believe and act upon.

Anderson rightly affirms that right thinking produces right emotions: “... feelings are a product of the thought life.... Anger, anxiety and depression are usually the result of a faulty belief system. The greatest determinants of mental and emotional health are a true knowledge of God, and acceptance of His ways and the assurance of His forgiveness” (p. 236). Amen!

Sadly, though, the book is laced with arsenic. An undiscerning reader will swallow the poison with the steak. The outcome will be worse than not eating the steak at all!

The main error is that Anderson repeatedly asserts that believers are not to view themselves as sinners, not even as sinners saved by grace, but as saints who occasionally sin. If unsuspecting Christians buy into this aberrant view, they will end up minimizing what Scripture presents as the major enemy against which we must daily fight: the ongoing power of the flesh. Here’s how he puts it:

Many Christians refer to themselves as sinners saved by grace. But are you really a sinner? Is that your scriptural identity? Not at all. God doesn’t call you a sinner; He calls you a saint--a holy one. If you think of yourself as a sinner, guess what you will do: you’ll live like a sinner; you’ll sin. Why not identify yourself for who you really are: a saint who occasionally sins (pp. 44-45).

Satan will try to convince you that you are an unworthy, unacceptable, sin-sick person who will never amount to anything in God’s eyes (p. 56).

(Note the truth and error mingled in that single sentence: We are unworthy, unacceptable, and sin-sick. But by God’s grace we will amount to something in His eyes.)

If you believe that you are part light and part darkness, part saint and part sinner, you will live in a very mediocre manner with little to distinguish you from the non-Christian (p. 71). (See also pp. 69, 83; and his book, The Bondage Breaker [Harvest House], pp. 44, 81, 156).

There are numerous problems with these overstatements (which amount to a serious denial of biblical truth). First, they depend upon picking and choosing certain Scriptures, but ignoring others. For example, on pages 45-47 Anderson has a long list of verses giving the positives of who I am in Christ. Great! But why did he leave out other verses, often in the same context, that aren’t so pretty (Matt. 6:30; 7:5, 11; 5:4; Luke 17:10)? Anderson conveniently skips such “negative” verses.

Concerning Paul’s late-in-life claim to be the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), Anderson explains it as referring to his nature before conversion. But a study of the text in its context shows that Paul was talking about his ever-deepening awareness of his own sinfulness as he grew in grace. As Donald Guthrie comments, “Paul never got away from the fact that Christian salvation was intended for sinners, and the more he increased his grasp of the magnitude of God’s grace, the more he deepened the consciousness of his own naturally sinful state, ...” (The Pastoral Epistles, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Eerdmans], p. 65).

A second problem with not viewing ourselves as sinners is that it destroys the basis for growing in humility before God. The most godly men in the Bible all were deeply aware of their own utter depravity in the presence of God (see Gen. 18:27; Job 42:6; Isa. 6:5; Dan. 9:4-19; Luke 5:8).

It is significant that in none of these cases did the Lord say, “That’s not true! You need to see yourself as a saint, not a sinner!” Once the man realized the truth of his sinfulness, the Lord graciously gave words of encouragement to restore (Job 42:7-8; Isa. 6:7; Dan. 9:23; Luke 5:10). But it can be argued that God’s specific intent in every case was to bring these sinner-saints to this lower (and more accurate) estimate of themselves in God’s holy presence.

Third, Anderson’s view undercuts the need for self-distrust. The more I realize my own sinfulness, the less I’m inclined to trust myself and the more I’m inclined to cling desperately to the Lord, lest I fall into sin (1 Cor. 10:12). When I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

Fourth, Anderson minimizes the need for ongoing self- examination (2 Cor. 13:5). But this is the requirement for every Christian, especially before partaking of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:28).

Fifth, Anderson’s view will lead to an anemic view of God’s grace, which is the chief motivation for holy living. If I do not grow to see my own sinfulness in a deeper way, I will not grow in appreciation for the “mighty gulf that God did span at Calvary.” Those who love God much know that they’ve been forgiven much (Luke 7:47). Jesus’ point was not that some are forgiven more than others, but rather that those who realize how much they’re forgiven are those who love God much. If I’m not growing to see more of the depths of my sinfulness, I will not love God more.

Sixth, Anderson minimizes the major hindrance to holy living. If I am “a saint who occasionally sins,” then “No big problem!” That is precisely what Satan would have me believe! God wants me to see the gravity of my sin problem so that I will take responsibility to put to death the deeds of the flesh. The more I grow, the more I discover that my problem is much bigger than I ever realized! (This error is magnified if you add Anderson’s book, The Bondage Breaker, which places much of the blame for Christians’ problems on evil spirits, not on the flesh.)

Seventh, if I am not to see myself as a sinner, then how can I deny myself (Mark 8:34)? Clearly, self-denial is to be a daily, ongoing exercise (Luke 9:23). Do I deny a slight tendency I have toward an occasional sin or do I deny my continual propensity toward selfishness, pride, and the deeds of the flesh?

Eighth, Anderson’s error runs counter to the experience and teaching of the most godly men in church history. Augustine, Calvin, Luther, John Owen (the great Puritan theologian), Jonathan Edwards, Charles Simeon, J. C. Ryle, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and many others all taught the ongoing depravity of the human heart, even after conversion. How then can Anderson claim that if you see yourself as a sinner “you will live in a very mediocre manner with little to distinguish you from the non-Christian” (p. 71)! Those men were hardly mediocre Christians!

Ninth, Anderson’s false teaching denies the facts of every revival in church history. As Lloyd-Jones points out (Revival [Crossway], p. 231),

And there has never yet been a revival of religion, but that the moment that God’s people have this experience, though they may have been Christians for years and years, they feel utterly unworthy, they see themselves as sinners as they have never done before. Some of them have even doubted whether they have ever been Christians. They are wrong, of course, but the sight of the holiness of God, the realisation of it, has made them see nothing but their own sinfulness and their own unworthiness. It is invariable.

Indeed, Dr. Lloyd-Jones makes this point repeatedly (see pp. 41, 70-71, 80-83, 101, 156-157), thus showing how far Anderson is off.

Tenth, not seeing myself as a sinner would lead to my shrugging off the many repeated Scriptural warnings against the power and dangers of sin. Why worry about it if I’m just a saint who occasionally sins? Why should pastors preach against sin if Anderson is right? Just preach positional truth. Why preach the need for an ongoing life of repentance? Occasional repentance for occasional sins will do!

Thus Anderson’s unbiblical assertion that believers are not to view themselves as sinners is the major dose of arsenic in the steak. But other minor traces can be found in his penchant for overstatement. Some examples:

Feelings “are neither good nor bad; they’re amoral, just part of your humanity” (p. 182). If so, why does the Bible label certain feelings as sin (lust, selfish anger, bitterness, jealousy, etc.)? Anderson encourages a counselee to vent sinful anger and uses one of David’s imprecatory (and Christological) psalms as justification for “being honest with our feelings” (pp. 186-187)!

Concerning sharing with a grieving friend, he overstates what would be sound counsel if it were in balance, namely that we’re to respond to emotions with emotions, not with words (p. 189). He cites Jesus’ weeping with Mary and Martha as biblical warrant. But he conveniently omits Jesus’ pointed words (not just emotions) to Martha from the very context he cites as “proof” (see John 11:23-26).

Anderson argues (p. 215) that it is always wrong to defend oneself, since if we’re wrong, we should accept the criticism; if we’re right, God will defend us. Please snip 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians 2, and many other portions from your Bible (excuse my sarcasm). Paul defends himself rather vigorously in those places, sometimes with sarcasm, even!

We’re told that it’s always wrong to judge character; we’re only supposed to judge actions (p. 221-222). But don’t repeated deeds reflect inner character? In the same context that we’re told not to judge we are told to discern and avoid false prophets who inwardly are ravenous wolves (Matt. 7:15). Paul often judged the motives and character of his critics, based on his observation of their deeds (2 Cor. 11:13-15; Gal. 1:8-10; Titus 1:10-16).

Anderson draws a false dichotomy between being and doing (pp. 237-239). The subtle implication of his teaching here is that we can’t (and perhaps even shouldn’t) obey God (“doing”) until we’re squared away with who we are in Christ (“being”). He states (p. 237),

One of the great failures of Christian ministry is to expect people to behave as Christians ... before they have matured as Christians .... In so doing we are asking people to behave in a manner that is inconsistent with their perception of their identity and their level of maturity, and that’s an impossible task.

No! Obedience is always right, whether I understand “who I am in Christ” or not. We grow to understand our identity in Him as we trust and obey (see 2 Pet. 1:5-11).

Overall, the book, in common with many modern “Christian” books, has an underlying selfistic bent: “You will be motivated in life by what you believe will bring you success, significance, fulfillment, satisfaction, happiness, fun, security and peace” (Table of Contents description of Chapter 7, which elaborates on this bent). That’s a far cry from the self-denying faith of the martyrs! I have trouble imagining Latimer and Ridley thinking about success, significance, fulfillment, satisfaction, happiness, and fun as the flames were lit around them!

In short, Anderson’s book contains a lot of good ol’ American selfism wrapped in a lot of truth to fool the unsuspecting—steak laced with arsenic! Dear brethren, do not be deceived!

Related Topics: Book Review

The Real Shock In The Presidential Scandal

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Arizona Daily Sun,

October 9, 1998

The real shock for me in the current presidential scandal is not the President’s behavior, as bad as that is. The real shock is the public reaction to the scandal. The Arizona Daily Sun recently ran the responses of a random sample of Flagstaff residents. One 27-year-old woman said, “I think it’s much to do with nothing. He gets (oral sex) in the Oval Office—so what? I don’t understand the uproar. Why is everyone making such a big deal out of someone’s sex life? I don’t care who Clinton had sex with.”

A retired U.S. District Court judge basically concurred and added that his friends abroad cannot believe that America is willing to destroy its president because of an extramarital affair, especially when the country “is doing so well economically.” A recent National Public Radio report echoed the judge’s sentiments. It said that people in France don’t understand why are Americans so upset over a little adultery. That country used government funds to support former President Mitterand’s mistress and her child by him.

Others will go so far as to say that the President was wrong (as he himself has publicly admitted), but since he is doing a good job running the country, he shouldn’t be impeached. Others say things like, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” “Judge not, lest you be judged.” One political cartoon showed Clinton being judged by congressmen who were themselves guilty of former affairs and other shenanigans. The caption read something like, “At least he will be judged by his peers.” Many portray Kenneth Starr as a puritanical attack dog who is prying into this poor man’s private life. The clear implication is, “Lay off!”

These public reactions concern me more than the President’s failure because they reveal that America is morally adrift with no compass. Even the honorable retired judge doesn’t seem to have a clue about the moral (if not legal) issues involved!

Setting aside the sexual moral issue for a moment, why are Americans not concerned with a President who lied under oath? Did he not swear to uphold our Constitution? Isn’t telling the truth under oath an essential part of our legal system? And, clearly it’s not the first time Mr. Clinton has lied until he was forced to admit it. Remember Gennifer Flowers? Why isn’t the public concerned about a public leader whose word cannot be trusted? Are we so naïve as to think that the man carefully restricts his lying to “his private life”?

Why are Americans not holding our Commander-in-Chief to the same standard that was imposed on Lieutenant Kelly Flynn, who was relieved of her commission and discharged from the military for adultery? Why are we not concerned about a President who uses his power to obstruct justice and to obtain special favors (a well-paying job) for his mistress to keep her quiet? Richard Nixon abused his power and lied and we forced him out. Why are we hesitant to give Clinton the heave-ho? Perhaps the judge’s comment about the economy reveals America’s true god!

Where is the outcry from the feminist camp? We’ve heard so much about sexual harassment on the job lately that men hesitate to complement a female employee on her new hairdo for fear of losing their jobs. What would happen if a local 50-year-old male school principal had sex in his office with a 22-year-old female student teacher? Wouldn’t the whole community demand his resignation, and rightly so? Would he be able to argue that the community should not interfere with his “private life”? If the improper behavior took place in his office during working hours, could he rightly claim that it is none of our business?

Why isn’t the American public concerned about our President’s poor example for the institution of marriage? Are marriage vows passe? What kind of example does this set for our children?

But the most disturbing thing is the way the American public shrugs off biblical standards of morality: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4). If God judged Sodom and Gomorrah, the Canaanites, and the Roman Empire for moral perversion, can America go on much longer? Those who shrug off Mr. Clinton’s behavior as no big deal had better prepare to meet God! Remember, He didn’t give the Ten Suggestions!

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, Sexuality, Worldview

Promise Keepers: A Perspective

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February, 1995

Promise Keepers (hereafter, PK) began in 1990 through the vision of then Colorado University football coach, Bill McCartney. Aimed at discipling men, PK “is a Christ-centered ministry dedicated to uniting men through vital relationships to become godly influences in their world” (from their purpose statement). They have an orthodox, though brief, statement of faith. They have attracted ever-increasing crowds of men to stadium-filled rallies around the country. They also provide leadership seminars for pastors and lay leaders, along with various training materials (video & audio tapes, a monthly magazine, and various printed materials).

At the core of the movement are the seven promises that every Promise Keeper commits himself to:

  1. Honoring Jesus Christ through prayer, worship, and obedience to His Word, in the power of the Holy Spirit;
  2. Pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises;
  3. Practicing spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity;
  4. Building strong marriages and families through love, protection, and biblical values;
  5. Supporting the mission of his church by honoring and praying for his pastor and by actively giving his time and resources;
  6. Reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity;
  7. Influencing his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment (Mark 12:30-31) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).

Except for one statement that needs further clarification, every evangelical pastor would subscribe to and promote these commitments. That statement concerns the extent to which the “denominational barriers” statement is taken. Would this include not making any vital distinctions between Protestants and Roman Catholics? While some Catholics are truly saved, the official teaching of the Catholic Church contains numerous serious heresies which should be problematic for any Bible-believing Christian. Are we supposed to “reach beyond” the beliefs of liberal Protestant denominations which would deny the absolute authority and inerrancy of Scripture? (PK’s statement of faith includes belief in the Bible as authoritative and without error.) Some of these denominations tolerate the denial of Jesus’ miracles, bodily resurrection, and literal second coming. They deny the reality of hell and the need for genuine conversion. They also allow for practices that the Bible clearly condemns, such as homosexuality, sexual immorality, abortion, lax views of divorce and remarriage, etc. PK needs to clarify what they mean by “reaching beyond denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.” I am quite uncomfortable with proclaiming to the world that I am one with the above-mentioned beliefs and practices.

“Reaching beyond denominational barriers” is proper and, I believe, commanded by our Lord, if it means putting aside minor doctrinal differences such as the mode of baptism, the validity of the sign gifts (tongues, healing, etc.), views of the end times, etc., for the sake of fellowship and public witness. It is dangerous and wrong, however, if it means downplaying crucial biblical truth for the sake of “unity.”

It also is dangerous if it leads men in the direction our society has already headed, namely, to believe that there is no such thing as absolute truth; or, to believe that doctrine is both divisive and irrelevant and that it doesn’t really matter to the common man. Scripture puts a major emphasis on the crucial importance of God’s absolute truth. See, especially, Paul’s emphasis on “sound doctrine” in his final letters (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus).

Coupled with this potential de-emphasis of doctrine is the danger of the PK movement to foster the emotional at the expense of solid theology. The stadium rallies produce an emotional experience, as almost every man who has attended will testify. Don’t misunderstand: There is nothing wrong with being caught up in our emotions before God. We are to worship and love Him with our total being, which includes emotions. But I would argue (I’m indebted here to the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression [Eerdmans], pp. 51-62, “Mind, Heart and Will”) that we must always appeal to the heart and will through the mind first, and that any other order is bound to produce anemic Christianity. He argues forcefully (based on Rom. 6:17) that the total man must be involved, beginning with the mind grasping God’s revealed truth. It is wrong, he contends, to approach the heart or the will directly without going through the mind first. To get men hyped up emotionally and to make decisions based on mass euphoria, without engaging their minds in solid doctrine will disappoint and not sustain men in the long run.

What I’m saying is this: If a man who is marginal in his daily Christian experience goes to a rally like PK and gets emotionally high, he’s still got to come back to face reality. He will have the same daily hassles, family problems, and personal sins to deal with. What the man needs is daily discipline unto godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). He needs to learn to be in the Word and walk in the Spirit each day, living by faith and obedience whether he feels up or down. But what he got at PK was the impression that Christianity is a good feeling that he had when 50,000 men got together at a rally. When this feeling wears off and his problems don’t go away, he’s going to be tempted to think, “I tried Christianity, but it doesn’t work for me like it seems to work for everyone else.” The sad reality is, he never tried biblical Christianity at all. He was just exposed to an emotional Christian pep rally.

This is why God ordained the local church, not para-church organizations, as the place where Christian discipleship is to be worked out in daily life. It may not be as exciting on the surface, but it’s where we live. If a man is truly walking with God in the daily grind, serving in the local church, living the life at home, then a thing like PK can be an encouraging gathering of men from many backgrounds and locations to come together in an affirmation of our common faith. But if a man looks to something like PK as that which “pumps him up,” he’s looking in the wrong place. I think even PK would agree with this assessment.

In addition to the above dangers, my main concern is that PK is shot through with the psychologized Christianity that has flooded into the American church. Many of their main speakers at the rallies and authors they promote are psychologists who mingle many false teachings of the world with God’s Word. PK handed out the awful book, The Masculine Journey, by Robert Hicks, at its 1993 Boulder, Colorado, national conference. The book is nothing short of blasphemous, although it purports to be based on the Hebrew words for “man.” (I can provide reviews with damning quotes from the book.) PK was confronted with this and, instead of admitting the unbiblical nature of the book, they issued a statement standing behind it. They are clearly committed to psychologized Christianity. (See my booklet, “Christians & Psychology: Some Common Questions Answered,” for more on this topic.)

Beyond this, I have concerns that PK is simply another example of Christians watching the world and saying, “We need to imitate what they’re doing.” The world has a feminist movement; Christians develop their own version. The world gets into encounter groups; the church promotes a Christianized version. The world is into 12 Step groups; Christian versions spring up everywhere, complete with verses and even a “Recovery” Bible, showing that this was “Christian” all along. The world gets into the men’s movement; here we go with our Christian version. Couldn’t the church set the pace for the world instead of vice versa? I’m not saying that Christian men shouldn’t get together and form vital relationships. Obviously, Scripture says we should. But let’s not imitate the world. Even the major national news magazines recognize PK as an evangelical version of the secular men’s movement. Unfortunately, it’s often not a whole lot different, especially when it promotes getting in touch with our feelings rather than learning to obey sound doctrine.

Because of these concerns, as a pastor I’m not comfortable with PK being promoted as a church-endorsed function for our men. If some of our men choose to go, it’s between them and the Lord. They are free in the Lord, under the biblical guidelines, “Does it edify? Does it promote healthy, biblical Christian living?” I encourage each man to be a “Berean” by comparing everything with Scripture (Acts 17:11). If you think the positives outweigh the negatives, then participate with discernment. If the negatives outweigh the positives, then abstain. Each of us will answer to the Lord. We are accountable to Him to become men of God.

Related Topics: Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Men's Articles

Reading Christian Biographies

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Revised, April, 2004

A Selected Bibliography

The following books on church history and biographies of great Christians have been helpful to me. I have tried to list the individual biographies in rough chronological order under each section.

Reference Works:

  1. Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity [Eerdmans], ed. by Tim Dowley. An excellent all-round reference work, with many short articles on key people and movements.
  2. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church [Zondervan], ed. by J. D. Douglas. Short biographical articles on thousands of people and movements in church history.
  3. Dictionary of Christianity in America [IVP], ed. by Daniel Reid, Robert Linder, Bruce Shelley, & Harry Stout. Short articles on key people and movements in American church history.
  4. Great Leaders of the Christian Church [Moody Press], ed. by John Woodbridge. Short biographies of the leaders of Christianity from Peter to Francis Schaeffer.

Church History:

  1. Christian History Magazine, published by Christianity Today. Each issues treats a different person or era in church history. Well done, informative, & readable.
  2. Christianity Through the Centuries [Zondervan], by Earle Cairns. Concise (500 pages) readable church history.
  3. Worldly Saints [Zondervan], by Leland Ryken. The Puritans as they really were. First rate! Don’t miss it!
  4. Light From Old Times [Evangelical Press], by J. C. Ryle. A history of some of the 17th century martyrs under Bloody Mary. It will impress you with their commitment to the gospel.
  5. Christian Leaders of the 18th Century [Banner of Truth], by J. C. Ryle. Brief biographies of George Whitefield, the Wesleys, and other lesser known but greatly used servants of God.
  6. By His Grace and For His Glory [Baker], by Thomas Nettles. A historical, theological, and practical study of the doctrines of grace in Baptist history. Shows how the early Baptists were solidly Calvinistic.
  7. Revival & Revivalism {Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray. Subtitled, “The Making & Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858.” I’ve read it twice. Gives much insight into the evangelical mess we’re in today and how it came about.
  8. Evangelicalism Divided [Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray. Subtitled, “A Record of Crucial Change, 1950-2000.” He traces the theological compromise of men like Billy Graham in American evangelicalism.

Great Preachers & Christian Leaders:

  1. Walking With the Giants [Baker], by Warren Wiersbe. Outstanding! Numerous short biographies of great preachers you should know. Part 2 deals with “Classic books on the ministry.” Every pastor and church leader should read this and the next one.
  2. Listening to the Giants [Baker], by Warren Wiersbe. Similar to the book above, plus a sample sermon from each preacher. The chapter, “A Basic Library,” is worth the price of the book.
  3. The Company of the Preachers [Kregel], by David Larsen. A lengthy history of preaching, consisting of short biographies of preachers from the Old Testament to the modern era. Flawed by the author’s aversion to Reformed truth and at times sounding like a doctoral thesis, but a useful survey with many interesting details of some of the characters God has used to preach His Word.
  4. The Man Who Shook the World (new title, The Apostle), by John Pollock. A readable biography of Paul.
  5. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free [Eerdmans], by F. F. Bruce. A more scholarly treatment of Paul.
  6. The Legacy of Sovereign Joy [Crossway Books], by John Piper. Subtitled “God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, & Calvin.” Excellent reading!
  7. The Life of William Farel [Bible Truth Publishers], by Frances Bevan. Farel was Calvin’s predecessor and mentor at Geneva, a bold preacher of the gospel.
  8. Here I Stand, a Life of Martin Luther [Abingdon Press], by Roland Bainton. Hard to follow the details at points, but a classic biography of the great reformer.
  9. Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought [P & R Publishing], by Stephen Nichols. A recent, helpful introduction to Luther.
  10. Martin: God’s Court Jester [Fortress Press], by Eric Gritsch. Many interesting facts as he tells Luther’s story and theology.
  11. This Was John Calvin [Baker], by Thea Van Halsema. A basic introductory biography of the great reformer.
  12. John Calvin [Lion Publishing], by T. H. L. Parker. The best treatment of Calvin by a leading 20th century Calvin scholar. His Calvin’s Preaching [Westminster/John Knox Press] is an excellent study of Calvin’s emphasis on the Word. Highly recommended!
  13. The Life of John Calvin [Evangelical Press], by Theodore Beza. Beza was Calvin’s successor at Geneva, so this is a firsthand look at Calvin.
  14. God’s Outlaw, William Tyndale [Evangelical Press], by Brian Edwards. The story of William Tyndale, who was persecuted for putting the Bible into English.
  15. The Life of John Knox [Free Presbyterian Publishers], by Thomas M’Crie. The life of the bold Scottish reformer.
  16. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (in volume 1 of The Works of John Bunyan) [Baker], by John Bunyan. The autobiography of the author of Pilgrim’s Progress.
  17. John Bunyan [Banner of Truth], by Frank Mott. A short biography.
  18. The Hidden Smile of God [Crossway], by John Piper. Subtitled, “The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd. Really good!
  19. Richard Baxter [Christian Focus], by Richard Baxter. Autobiography of the influential Puritan pastor.
  20. John Owen, Prince of the Puritans [Christian Focus], by Andrew Thompson. Biography of the most scholarly Puritan theologian.
  21. John Owen: The Man and His Thought [Evangelical Press/ P & R Publishing], by Sinclair Ferguson & others. Essays on various aspects of Owen’s life and theology.
  22. Out of the Depths [Moody Press], by John Newton. The fascinating autobiography of the slave trader turned pastor, author of the beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
  23. The Roots of Endurance [Crossway], by John Piper. Subtitled, “Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce.” Really good!
  24. The Journal of John Wesley [Moody Press], ed. by Percy Parker. Wesley was an interesting bundle of contradictions. John Pollock also has a biography of Wesley that I’ve read, but it may be out of print.
  25. Wesley and Men Who Followed Him [Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray. Murray is more lenient on Wesley than I would be. His life shows that God can use some imperfect vessels!
  26. George Whitefield [Crossway Books], by Arnold Dallimore (2 vol.). (A one-volume edition by Dallimore is published by Good News Publishing, although I haven’t read it.) Whitefield was a mighty Calvinistic evangelist, friend of the Wesleys and Edwards.
  27. George Whitefield [Lion Publishing], by John Pollock. Whitefield was an interesting man, zealous for souls, and greatly used by God.
  28. The Life and Times of Howell Harris [Need of the Times Publishers], by Edward Morgan. An 1852 biography of a remarkable Welsh revivalist preacher who lived 1714-1773. Harris knew Whitefield and the Wesleys.
  29. Howell Harris and the Dawn of Revival [Evangelical Press of Wales], by Richard Bennett. A detailed account, based on Harris’ diaries, of the first three years of his spiritual pilgrimage.
  30. Jonathan Edwards, a New Biography [Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray. An excellent treatment of the great revivalist preacher and theologian, called the greatest mind ever in America.
  31. Jonathan Edwards, a Guided Tour of his Life and Thought [P & R Publishing], by Stephen Nichols. A recent, helpful introduction to Edwards and his theology.
  32. Marriage to a Difficult Man: The Uncommon Union of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards [Audubon Press], by Elisabeth Dodds. Their story from his wife’s perspective. He was difficult because he was a genius, not because he was hard to get along with. They had a wonderful marriage. Recently back in print!
  33. Cotton Mather [Barnes & Noble], by Barrett Wendell. An American Colonial Puritan preacher. You will be amazed at his education and intellectual output.
  34. Asahel Nettleton: Life and Labors [Banner of Truth], by A. A. Bonar. Nettleton was a Calvinistic evangelist, opposed to Finney, who saw upwards of 30,000 conversions under his preaching.
  35. Robert Murray McCheyne [Zondervan], by A. A. Bonar. Devotional Scottish preacher who died at 29, but has had lasting impact on many.
  36. C. H. Spurgeon [Moody Press], by Arnold Dallimore. The best shorter biography of this godly pulpit giant.
  37. C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 2 vol. Long, but well worth reading. A remarkable man!
  38. Spurgeon, Heir of the Puritans [Eerdmans], by Ernest Bacon. Short, but good treatment.
  39. A Marvelous Ministry [Soli Deo Gloria], by Tim Curnow & others. Subtitled, “How the All-round Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon Speaks to us Today.” I learned several new and interesting facts.
  40. The Forgotten Spurgeon [Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray. Deals with the three major controversies of Spurgeon’s life. Read after you’ve read Dallimore.
  41. Spurgeon & Hyper-Calvinism [Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray. How Spurgeon battled those who took Calvinism too far. In some of his views, I think that Spurgeon was inconsistent with all of Scripture.
  42. Spurgeon & Son [Kregel], by Craig Skinner. A biography of Spurgeon’s son, Thomas, a preacher who later succeeded his famous father at the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
  43. A Passion for Souls: the Life of D. L. Moody [Moody Press], by Lyle Dorsett. The author (as well as Moody) is critical of the doctrines of grace, but it is still an interesting read on a man God used to reach thousands.
  44. Moody [Evangelical Press], by John Pollock. May be out of print (I saw 2 on Amazon.com). I like Pollock as a biographer.
  45. John Charles Ryle: Evangelical Bishop [Reiner Publications], by Peter Toon. Godly 19th century Anglican bishop, known for his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels and other devotional writings.
  46. George Muller of Bristol [Revell], by A. T. Pierson. Written in early 20th century, biography of the godly man of prayer who founded orphanages in England. This book changed my life when I first read it in 1970.
  47. George Muller: Delighted in God [Harold Shaw], by Roger Steer. Best recent biography of Muller. Great!
  48. George Muller Autobiography [Whitaker House]. Now back in print.
  49. Answers to Prayer [Moody Press], by George Muller. Excerpts from his diary, showing dramatic answers to prayer.
  50. A Man of the Word [Baker], by Jill Morgan. The life of her father, G. Campbell Morgan, well known preacher and author.
  51. Ordained of the Lord [Loizeaux Brothers], by E. Schuyler English. The life of H. A. Ironside, another great Bible expositor.
  52. J. Gresham Machen [Eerdmans], by Ned Stonehouse. Machen stood firm against liberalism in the Presbyterian Church. He founded Westminster Seminary when Princeton went liberal.
  53. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones [Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray (2 vol.). The first volume covers the first 40 years of the man who has been called the greatest preacher in the English language in the 20th century. Vol. 2 is 800 pages, but I was sad when it ended. You ought to know this great man of God!
  54. The Sacred Anointing [Crossway], by Tony Sargent. A good treatment of Lloyd-Jones’ preaching.
  55. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a Family Portrait [Baker], by Christopher Catherwood (Lloyd-Jones’ grandson). A shorter treatment of his life if you don’t have the gumption to tackle the 2-volume work.
  56. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: Chosen by God [Crossway], ed. by Christopher Catherwood. Essays on Lloyd-Jones’ life and ministry by men such as J. I. Packer, Carl Henry, John Stott, and others that knew him.
  57. Daws [NavPress], by Betty Lee Skinner. The story of Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators.
  58. That Man Barnhouse [Tyndale], by Margaret Barnhouse. The life of Donald Grey Barnhouse, an influential Presbyterian pastor, radio speaker, and author. He was quite a character!
  59. The Tapestry [Word], by Edith Schaeffer. The interesting life of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, founders of L’Abri in Switzerland. He was a Christian philosopher and writer. She wrote this before his death from cancer in 1984.
  60. The Letters of Francis Schaeffer [Crossway], ed. by Lane Dennis. Reading these letters gives you insight into the pastoral heart of this Christian thinker.
  61. What is a Family? [Revell], by Edith Schaeffer. Not strictly a biography, but she weaves their family into this helpful book on the Christian family. Read after you’ve read The Tapestry.
  62. A Severe Mercy [Harper & Row], by Sheldon Vanauken. Moving love story of a couple who met Christ through C. S. Lewis. You will need Kleenex nearby!
  63. Billy Graham [McGraw Hill], by John Pollock. This is a 1966 biography of Graham. A more recent one is now available. Graham is an influential and interesting man, who has done much good and some bad.
  64. J. I. Packer [Baker], by Alister McGrath. The life of the popular theologian, author of Knowing God.
  65. Joni [Zondervan], by Joni Eareckson Tada. A powerful story of God’s grace triumphing over tragedy.

Missions Biographies/Histories:

  1. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya [Zondervan], by Ruth Tucker. A history of missions, giving short biographies of many missionary heroes. This is a powerful, life-changing book. Read it!
  2. Guardians of the Great Commission [Zondervan], by Ruth Tucker. A biographical history of women in missions. It is similar to the above, except that the author is grinding an axe for feminism, which I strongly disagree with. But the stories are still inspiring and informative.
  3. A Heart for Mission: Five Pioneer Thinkers [Christian Focus], by Ron Davies. He covers the mission thinking of Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, Richard Baxter, Jan Amos Comenius, & Count Zinzendorf.
  4. William Carey [Zondervan], by Mary Drewery. The “Father of Modern Missions.” Quite a story. His reluctant missionary wife went insane. He translated the Bible into over 35 languages!
  5. To the Golden Shore [Little, Brown], by Courtney Anderson. The moving story of Adoniram Judson, pioneer missionary to Burma, who endured incredible trials and setbacks. Read it!
  6. The Life and Letters of Henry Martyn [Banner of Truth], by John Sargent. Martyn went to Iran in the early 1800’s, and died of tuberculosis in his early 30’s.
  7. David Livingstone: the Truth Behind the Legend [Christian Focus], by Rob Mackenzie. Livingstone had amazing perseverance in spite of overwhelming difficulties.
  8. David Livingstone: His Life and Letters [Harper], by George Seaver. A thorough treatment, but the author is a theological liberal who did not understand the need for conversion.
  9. Hudson Taylor [OMF], by Roger Steer. The most recent and readable treatment of the great pioneer missionary to China. Read it and be changed!
  10. Hudson Taylor & Maria [Zondervan], by John Pollock. Honest treatment of Taylor’s life up to Maria’s death. Moving!
  11. J. Hudson Taylor: God’s Man in China [OMF], by Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor. An out of print earlier version is in two volumes. This is a sympathetic “eulogy” type biography written by his son and daughter-in-law. Very challenging.
  12. John Paton Autobiography [Banner of Truth]. An amazing story of commitment and courage. He left Scotland to go to the New Hebrides Islands, where cannibals had killed and eaten missionaries. There is also a recent biography on Paton by Jim Cromarty, but I haven’t read it yet.
  13. Anthony Norris Groves [??], by G. H. Lang. Out of print, hard to find. Groves was George Muller’s brother-in-law. He went overland to Baghdad in the 19th century.
  14. Borden of Yale [Moody Press], by Mrs. Howard Taylor. Borden gave up his fortune to go to Cairo, where he got sick and died at 25.
  15. A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael [Revell], by Elisabeth Elliot. A strong woman missionary and devotional writer who suffered greatly, but took in needy children and built a caring community in India.
  16. The Small Woman [Dutton], by Alan Burgess. The story of Gladys Aylward, featured in the film “Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” starring Ingrid Bergman. She went to China, lived by faith, and led a group of orphans on a long survival journey during the Japanese invasion. Quite a story!
  17. Fire on the Mountains [SIM], by R. J. Davis. Story of an amazing revival in Ethiopia during WWII.
  18. Against the Tide, the Story of Watchman Nee [Christian Literature Crusade], by Angus Kinnear. Nee was a powerful preacher and church planter, imprisoned by the Communists.
  19. Three of China’s Mighty Men [OMF], by Leslie Lyall. The story of David Yang, Watchman Nee, and Wang Ming-dao, three men of great faith in the face of persecution.
  20. Bakht Singh of India [International Students], by Daniel Smith. Hard to find, and my copy is missing! Story of a powerful evangelist and man of God. I heard him speak once at Biola.
  21. The Flying Scotsman [??], by Sally Magnuson. The story of Eric Liddell, of “Chariots of Fire” fame.
  22. A Boy’s War [??], by David Michaelson. Story of a missionary boy separated from his parents, interned in a Japanese POW camp in China, where Eric Liddell was also a prisoner.
  23. Gold Fears No Fire [OMF], by Ralph Toliver. Not strictly a biography, but a novel based on a composite of true stories in China. Shows what the saints there are going through. Gripping!
  24. Foreign Devil in China [WorldWide Publications], by John Pollock. The story of Dr. Nelson Bell, father-in-law of Billy Graham, missionary doctor to China.
  25. Mission to the Headhunters [Christian Focus], by Frank & Marie Drown. Missionaries to the tribes in Ecuador. (The parents of Ruth Mortenson from our church worked with them.)
  26. Through Gates of Splendor [Spire], by Elisabeth Elliot. The story of the five missionaries to the Aucas who were martyred, including Jim Elliot, the author’s husband.
  27. Shadow of the Almighty [Zondervan], by Elisabeth Elliot. The story of her husband Jim, martyred at 28. This story will challenge you spiritually.
  28. The Savage My Kinsman [Harper], by Elisabeth Elliot. The story of how she and her young daughter lived among the tribe that murdered her husband.
  29. Uncle Cam [Wycliffe], by James & Marti Hefley. The story of Cameron Townsend, founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators.
  30. Days of Glory, Seasons of Night [Zondervan], by Marilee Dunker. The story of Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, told by his daughter. An agonizing story of a man who badly wounded his family, but accomplished much for the cause of missions.
  31. Bruchko [Creation House], by Bruce Olson. Story of a 19-year-old boy who went to South America and reached a murderous tribe. He is still living there, in his early 60’s now. Gripping!
  32. Peace Child [Revell], by Don Richardson. Story of how he and his young family reached a headhunting, cannibalistic tribe in Irian Jaya. (Also in video.) Amazing story!
  33. Lords of the Earth [Revell], by Don Richardson. Another amazing story of missionary courage in reaching a savage tribe in Irian Jaya. This should be a movie! The turn of events at the end is one of the most amazing stories in missions history!
  34. And the Word Came With Power [Multnomah], by Joanne Shetler with Patricia Purvis. How God used one woman to transform the Balangao people of the Philippines.
  35. Revolution in World Missions [gfa books], by K. P. Yohanan. The author’s testimony and appeal to support native missionaries in India.

Related Topics: Christian Education, Discipleship, Spiritual Life, Testimony & Biography

Why You Don’t Need More Self-Esteem

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WORLD, “Soul Food” column (7/12/97)

One of the most popular ideas to emerge in Christian circles in recent years is that we all need to build and maintain proper self-esteem. Dozens of best-selling Christian books are laced with this theme. It is frequently mentioned in sermons and on Christian radio shows. It is a fundamental assumption underlying most Christian counseling. For example, one well-known Christian treatment program, endorsed by top Christian leaders, states in a promotional brochure, “Part of [this program’s] success is found in the unique ability to target and resolve problems of low self-esteem. At the core of all emotional problems and addictive disorders is low self-worth. It is never the only problem; but it is so major an issue that, if not dealt with adequately, one is kept from experiencing lasting, positive results.”

An article by a Christian psychologist on the problem of pastors who commit adultery stated that one reason pastors fall into sexual sin is low self-esteem. If they would just love themselves properly, they wouldn’t have a need to find “love” from another woman. Another article asserts that low self-esteem is a major factor behind homosexual behavior. A popular Christian author even used the story of Lee Harvey Oswald to illustrate how low self-esteem led this man to shoot President Kennedy!

The question Christians need to ask is, does the Bible teach this? Does it teach that we need to build our self-esteem? Those who say yes usually support it with the verse, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). They say that you must properly love yourself in order to love your neighbor. But that is not the meaning of the verse. It assumes that we all love ourselves just fine, thank you. If we would show the same regard for others that we do in fact show for ourselves, we would be loving them as God commands. Even those who go around dumping on themselves don’t need to focus on loving themselves. Their problem is precisely that they are too self-focused. They need to consider the needs of others ahead of themselves. The mark of biblical love is self-sacrifice, not self-esteem (see Eph. 5:25).

Even in the case of a suicidal person, the problem is not that he does not love himself. Rather, he loves himself more than he loves anyone else. He is not considering what his death will do to family or friends. He is only considering himself: he is in pain and he wants out of his pain.

Consider the adulterous pastor. He was esteeming himself above everyone else. He certainly was not esteeming God or he would not have dragged His name through the mud by committing adultery. Nor was he loving and esteeming his wife, his children, or the woman he defiled. He was esteeming his “needs” above all else.

The Bible teaches that love of self is at the root of all our sins. It warns that “in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self” (2 Tim. 3:1, 2). This is followed by a list of terrible sins. You can’t find a single command in the Bible that even hints that we need to esteem and love ourselves more than we do. To the contrary, Jesus explicitly said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). Many Bible verses tell us to humble ourselves and not to think too highly of ourselves (see James 4:6-10; 1 Pet. 5:5-6; Rom. 12:3), but none tell us to focus on how wonderful or worthy we are. In fact, God operates on the principle of grace, and grace is for the unworthy, not for the worthy.

In his devotional classic, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law writes of the “monstrous and shameful nature of sin” and then asks rhetorically, “Shall we presume to take delight in our worth, we who are not worthy so much as to ask pardon for our sins without the mediation and intercession of the Son of God?” (Westminster Press, pp. 106-107).

My analysis is that most American church-goers need to grow in a sense of their unworthiness, not their supposed worthiness. They need to see what the old Puritan writers called “the exceeding sinfulness of sin.” Then perhaps we would see how much we need the Savior. Being forgiven much, we would love much.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Devotionals, Discipleship, Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life, Temptation

Separation Versus Cooperation: Some Thoughts on the Limits of Cooperation with Other Christians & with the World

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May, 1987

One of the difficult issues for every Christian to work through theologically and implement practically is the degree of separation from professing Christians and from the world. All Bible-believing Christians would acknowledge that Christians are called to be in the world, but not of the world, even as our Lord was (John 17:14-17). He Himself had that perfect blend of grace and truth which enabled Him to be the friend of sinners without becoming stained by their sin. And He has called us to be like Him. We are to be known by our love for our fellow Christians (John 13:35); yet we are to come out and be separate from evil persons and activities, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). We want to be known by what we witness for, not by what we witness against, and yet we must witness against certain things in order to witness for the Lord.

Historically, Christians have struggled to maintain this balance. Some, in their desire to reach out to the world, have become so much like the world that they have been swallowed up by it. Their accommodation has resulted in a diluted testimony and in great harm to themselves and to the church of Christ. Others, in their desire to maintain their holiness, have isolated themselves from the world. This often has resulted in a loss of witness to the world, misunderstanding among believers, and in spiritual pride among those who separate themselves from others.

Being sinful and fallible, we are always in danger of the peril of the pendulum. We need God’s balance and we need at all times to seek Him in His Word for guidance on these difficult matters. And we must be careful not to judge the motives of brothers who disagree with us on where to draw the line of separation, realizing that we all must answer to the Lord. We are all growing in our sensitivity to the Lord and in our understanding of these matters. We must grant our brothers the freedom to be where they are at in the growth process, while seeking to stimulate one another to further maturity. I discuss these matters in this spirit. This paper represents my thinking at this time, not necessarily where I will be in ten years. I offer the following points for consideration:

1. Accommodation is a greater danger than isolation.

Accommodation with the world is a very subtle danger which believers are warned about repeatedly in the Bible. (See, for example, Eph. 5:3-12; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; 2 John 8-11; and many OT passages.)  On the other hand, I can think of only one (although there may be more) warning against being too isolated: 1 Cor. 5:9-13. Ironically, it is directed to the carnal Corinthians, who were anything but holy.

Since our enemy, the devil, is very cunning and deceptive, we can assume that he will lead us into unholy alliances gradually and without our awareness of the danger whenever he can. He will get us to use ungodly means to accomplish godly ends. Saul spared the best of Amalek to sacrifice to the Lord--a noble end, but an ungodly means (1 Sam. 15:1-23). Jehoshaphat joined with godless Ahab to recapture Ramoth-Gilead (a noble end, since it was one of Israel’s cities of refuge) and almost got killed (2 Chron. 18, 19:1-4). Jehoshaphat was a godly man with a big heart who probably had right motives. Most likely he sincerely wanted to see the northern and southern kingdoms reunited. But his unholy alliance with Ahab resulted in the wicked Athaliah (Ahab’s daughter) seizing the throne and almost annihilating the Davidic line (the line of Christ) from Judah. Much of this happened after Jehoshaphat’s time, so he didn’t know the damage he caused.

But this underscores all the more the danger of wrong alliances with the world. We often don’t see the evil results in our lifetime, but there is great spiritual devastation in following generations. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in church history with regard to doctrinal compromise. For example, giving up inerrancy in the first generation leads to full-scale denial of the authority of the Bible in succeeding generations, as Harold Lindsell argued in The Battle for the Bible, and Francis Schaeffer in some of his writings.

Our Lord warned us, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15). Obviously, deception and subtlety are involved in the methods of such false prophets. Paul warned of “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14-15). Of course, the end times will be marked by widespread spiritual deception, in which even the elect are in danger of being fooled (Matt. 24:24; 2 Thess. 2:9-11).

For these reasons, I would rather err on the side of being too isolated from dubious alliances than on the side of being too friendly with the enemies of God. Of course I would rather not err at all. But what I am saying is, I favor a conservative approach when there is room for doubt.

2. Christians need walls of separation, both individually and as a church.

Walls keep out harmful intruders and allow those inside to go on with their work without fear. Yes, walls divide; but as long as we live in a fallen world under the dominion of the prince of darkness, we must erect walls. But where do we draw the line of separation?

Among professing believers, we must accept all whom Christ has accepted, both personally and as a church (for membership and/or fellowship). Life in Christ, not light in Christ, is the measure of acceptance. This is our broadest principle. If a person is truly saved by grace through faith (we determine this by verbal testimony coupled with works which demonstrate saving faith), then we must accept him as a brother, unless there is reason for church discipline (1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; Titus 3:10; 2 John 7-11; 3 John 9-10; Jude 22-23).

It is helpful to distinguish between those who are actively promoting error and those who are naively ignorant of sound teaching. The former must be confronted and perhaps separated from; the latter can be accepted and instructed. Teachability is the key here.

I would not be comfortable working with those who are actively promoting error, such as liberal pastors. I am not opposed to sitting down and discussing theology with them, if I sense an openness on their part. But I am strongly opposed to doing anything to connect our church publicly with any church which is weak or in error on major doctrines and practices of the faith. When Jehoshaphat joined with Ahab, he said, “I am as you are, and my people as your people, and we will be with you in battle” (2 Chron. 18:3). When a leader commits himself to another leader publicly, it necessarily commits his people. Undiscerning people under his leadership will assume that there is no difference between “us” and “them.”

For this reason, I cannot participate in the community ecumenical Easter service when it includes the Catholic Church and a liberal Presbyterian church. I am not “one” with them, even though the pastors of those congregations may be truly born again men. To join with them would be to use an evil means to reach a good goal (to win some to Christ). I do feel free to speak to any group which will listen to the gospel, as long as there are no other strings attached and it does not wrongly involve our church.

I can work cooperatively (joint evangelistic projects, community Easter services, etc.) with any who affirm the fundamentals of the faith, even if we do not agree on less important matters (baptism, prophecy, etc.). By the fundamentals of the faith I mean foundational Christian doctrines which every true believer who has been properly instructed would affirm. This would include the trinitarian nature of God; the person and work of Christ, including His deity, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, ascension, and second coming; human depravity; salvation by grace through faith alone; the future judgment of all living and dead; and, the full inspiration and authority of the Bible.

A man may be truly saved and yet greatly deceived on some important (though not fundamental) doctrinal or practical issues which would hinder my working with him in cooperative ventures. I would be uncomfortable being identified publicly with the practices of the “health and wealth” fringe of the Pentecostal movement, for example. I would not want to work with someone who had no regard for biblical principles for carrying out the Lord’s work. For example, I would find it difficult to work closely with a “promoter” type who wanted to utilize worldly principles of marketing, but had no regard for the seeking the mind of the Lord. Under no circumstances would I cooperate in spiritual work with those who are not regenerate, no matter how much they propose to help (see Ezra 4:1-3).

On the matter of cooperation with other churches, I always want to ask, “Why do we want to work together?” Is it for community image? Is it for the greater good of both churches? Is it to pool resources for a project that would be too expensive or require too much manpower for either church to do individually? It often isn’t accomplishing our goals as a church to spread ourselves too thinly by a lot of joint church ventures. It is easy to lose our focus and be distracted from that to which God has called us. Nehemiah was wise in keeping his focus on building the wall and not being distracted into “ecumenical” meetings. He said, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down” (see Neh. 6:3).

3. Individual walls of separation may be different than the church wall.

As we grow in personal holiness and knowledge of God and His Word, our boundaries of separation will probably change. For someone from a “fighting fundy” background, the boundaries may widen. For most others, the boundaries will constrict as we grow in our understanding of the schemes of the devil and the offence of the cross. We must give one another the personal freedom to hold such matters of conscience at varying levels, allowing for differences without casting judgment on motives.

But the church must take a more conservative position than some individual members may take. For example, we must grant freedom to individual members to drink beer or wine in moderation, if they feel free before the Lord to do so and if they are sensitive to the weaker brother. But in my opinion, it would be wrong for the church to provide beer or wine at a social function. To do so would be to make an endorsement which would offend the conscience of some. The same would be true of other doubtful areas (dancing, movies, etc.). Thus I have no objection to members of our youth group going to a secular movie (or renting a home video) if they can do so in good conscience before the Lord. I am bothered by our church youth group doing so as a church-endorsed activity, because it imposes that activity on some who may not be comfortable participating.

I am not advocating legalistic adherence to lists of forbidden activities, nor am I promoting the rule of the most narrow-minded. I am saying that our clear goal must be holiness before God and we must not allow any doubtful activities to hinder that goal.

Conclusion

I am greatly concerned that the 20th century American church is in danger of blending in with the world, of being both in and of the world. We’re not in danger of erring on the side of holiness. We are in danger of compromising doctrinally and practically in this day of watered-down grace.

The fine distinction is often made that God hates sin but loves the sinner. And yet His Word says, “You hate all who do iniquity. You destroy those who speak falsehood; the Lord abhors the man of bloodshed and deceit” (Ps. 5:5-6; see also Ps. 11:5). Apparently, we also are to hate not only evil (Ps. 97:10), but some evil people, who are enemies of God (Ps. 15:4; 139:21-22). The greatest enemies of the gospel are not usually those who are immoral or godless, but rather those who are religious, but deny the necessity of the cross. The Lord’s prophet rebuked Jehoshaphat because he helped the wicked and loved those who hated the Lord (ie., Ahab, who had a form of religion [see 2 Chron. 18]). By doing this he brought the Lord’s wrath on himself, even though he was in other ways a godly man (2 Chron. 19:2-3).

In order not to fall into the same error, I believe I must separate myself from any who deny the centrality of the cross of Christ, “through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). At the same time, with David I must be quick, after acknowledging my hatred of those who are God’s enemies, to pray, “Search me, O God, and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Ps. 139:23-24). I must guard against any self-righteousness. I must love fervently all who love the Lord.  And I must preach Christ from a loving heart to those who are lost.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Boundaries, Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Ecclesiology (The Church), False Teachers, Fellowship, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Pastors

Sermon Preparation Process: Steven Cole

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Regarding sermon prep, I had Haddon Robinson at DTS, and his course is basically contained in his book, “Biblical Preaching.” I don’t follow his method to a “T,” but I do generally follow it, with many shortcuts that are necessary for ministry survival. I begin just with the old observation, interpretation, application process that we learned in Bible study methods. I try to jot down any issues that need to be resolved, to figure out why the Lord included this passage in this context, etc. I try to determine what the subject of the passage is, and what it is saying about the subject (Robinson explains this process). If I can, I take an initial stab at a main idea.

Then I start reading commentaries. I start with the more technical ones first, trying to figure out interpretive issues, textual problems, history and background, grammatical matters, etc. After reading a half dozen or so, I generally know what the various problems are and what the major views are. I save the more devotional writers for last (Morgan, Spurgeon, Maclaren, Boice, etc.). With them, I’m looking to see how they applied this text to their congregations. All through this process, I’m throwing thoughts onto the computer screen in pretty much random order.

Eventually, I try to nail down the main idea in succinct form. For example, I just finished this Sunday’s sermon on the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-11), and I’m taking it in the direction of when unity is wrong. My main idea (I’m going here from memory) is something like, Unity is wrong when it compromises the gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Then my major points develop that theme. So I come up with an outline. Then I go back and move all of my notes around to fit under each point or subpoint. Some of my observations are interesting, but don’t fit, so I leave them out unless I determine that they really need to be said. Once I get my outline with my observations arranged, I print out those notes (usually one to two pages). I use these printed notes to work out my manuscript.

I type the whole thing out, as you know from looking at our web page. I find the discipline of manuscripting it forces me to be concise and precise. I usually have far more than I have time for, so I go back and chop out stuff that may be interesting, but isn’t crucial to the point. I’m always aiming at application–how should this affect people’s lives? I usually try to come up with an introduction that grabs attention, creates a need so that people want to listen, and introduces the body of the sermon. I also have an extensive illustration file (3×5 cards, a la Robinson). I began it long before computer days, so it’s all on cards, not on a computer data base. If I were starting now, I might figure out a way to scan them onto a computer. I’m always reading looking for illustrations and quotes (Reader’s Digest, books I read, etc.). I cross reference them, too, so that I can track them down.

Anyway, once I’ve typed out the manuscript and edited it to the right length (3500 words for a 35-40 minute sermon), I take the printed copy (face up, half sheet size, so I don’t have to be flipping pages in the pulpit), highlight and underline key words and quotes, and go over it several times, especially Saturday night, so that I know it well enough not to be tied to my notes. I do take the manuscript into the pulpit, but I never read it, unless it’s to give a quote verbatim. I glance at it and see the highlighted words and remember where I wanted to go, but I try to maintain eye contact with the congregation as I speak. I haven’t mentioned it either, but the whole process is shot through with prayer, both in preparation and prayer for delivery and the results.

I don’t feel very gifted at the process, like Spurgeon was. He was incredible! I have to work hard at it and it usually doesn’t flow easily. But that keeps me dependent on the Lord.

Related Topics: Administrative and Organization, Bible Study Methods, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Pastors, Speaking, Teaching the Bible

The Best Show In Town?

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(Published in Pastoral Renewal, December, 1985)

Say, Mary, how about if we go over to First Church this Sunday morning? I see in the paper that they’re having that famous Christian speak.”

“Well, honey, I don’t know. I noticed that Second Church is having that recently converted rock star, and I think the kids would enjoy that. And we can catch the sacred concert and prophecy film over at Third Church in the evening.”

Let’s face it: we live in a spectator society. From football to the movie theater to the ubiquitous American altar known as television, we are programmed to sit passively while the performer croons, “Let me entertain you.”

Quite often the church unwittingly caters to this mentality. We assume that we are called to compete for spectators. So we attempt to put on a better show. We advertise in the papers, we put our current attraction on our marquees, and pray for a packed house.

After all, if our goal is to cram as many people into the building as possible, then we had better have the most entertaining show in town. (God help us on Super Bowl Sunday!) The church with the most people wins.

To plan, staff, and implement such successful programs requires a team of ingenious leaders. We rack our brains and comb through ministry magazines to garner the latest ideas. If we want to succeed (which, being translated, means have a large audience) we know we’ve got to keep those hits a comin’! The bottom line is growth. The staff had better perform. Annual reports are just around the corner!

I’d like to suggest a radical alternative to the approach which views the church as an entertaining program: The church is the household of God (1 Tim 3:15; 1 Peter 4:17). We are God’s family.

Everybody knows that. But I’ve been to enough churches and talked to enough of my pastor colleagues to know that very few churches operate primarily on that premise. But make no mistake about it: the two approaches have very different implications for church leaders.

Families gather for fundamentally different reasons than audiences do. Families don’t come together primarily to be entertained. They enjoy sharing life in an atmosphere where every person—young or old, successful or not-so-successful—belongs by virtue of birth or adoption or marriage into the family.

Family leaders don’t feel pressured by family members to come up with creative programs for every gathering. The members don’t threaten to join another family if the entertainment doesn’t meet their expectations. Indeed, the only expectation for families is to be together, to share life openly, and to love and be loved.

To be sure, family gatherings require some organization and leadership. Someone has to plan the menu, buy the food, prepare it, and clean up after the meal. But that is a far cry from producing a program. If all the members do their part, the planning and work can serve to deepen relationships in the context of life.

The Main Attraction

As the family of God, the church should gather primarily unto a Person, not a program. Christ is our main attraction. He has promised us his presence as we gather in his name. And we gather with persons, the other members of the family, to enjoy and edify one another.

Many Christians today assume that by attending the program at a local church they have fulfilled the command not to forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:25). But in the context, that command entails stimulating one another to love and good deeds and encouraging one another. An audience doesn’t have much chance of obeying that command; a family does.

So how, as pastoral leaders, do we turn the corner? First, the change must start with the leadership. If we encourage the entertainment approach to ministry, our people will fall in step. It’s the cultural mentality. So we must teach people that the church is primarily family, not attendance at a program. Since we’re talking about swimming against the cultural stream, it will be a constant struggle to re-educate.

As pastoral leaders we must provide structures where family-type gatherings of God’s people can occur. If our only official church gatherings consist of auditoriums filled with passive spectators watching the performers on stage, our talk about the church as family will fall on deaf ears. We need gatherings small enough for people to act like family. We need meetings structured for every-member-ministry and open sharing (as in 1 Cor. 14:26). How else can we stimulate and encourage one another?

Could we have lost something the early church enjoyed by our insistence that if we don’t gather at the church building, it isn’t officially “church”? The early church saw itself as God’s family, and they met primarily in homes. Most families do.

Gathering in homes isn’t binding on us today. But if the church is primarily family, not program, then it may be of more than antiquarian interest that the early church did gather in homes. In our church we provide such an opportunity on Sunday evenings. We have divided up the congregation into somewhat geographic groupings. We gather in homes to meet with the Lord and one another. There is freedom for singing, encouragement or exhortation from the scriptures, the sharing of personal experiences and concerns, and prayer. We climax the time around the Lord’s Table, followed by light refreshments.

Of course, not everyone will like meeting in homes. Many enjoy the comfortable anonymity and escape from responsibility afforded by attending the program in the auditorium. It can be threatening to open your life to other believers. It demands a lot of commitment to take the priesthood of believers seriously and make a personal contribution to a meeting. It’s much more fun to be entertained.

But we’ve never been commanded to put on the best show in town. We’re called “shepherds,” not “program directors.” We’ve never been told by God that success is a full auditorium.

Our task is to shepherd God’s flock, giving oversight to his household, the church. We must lead God’s people to experience the church primarily as family, gathered unto the living Christ. So what’s playing at your church this week?

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, Ecclesiology (The Church), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Pastors

Spending The Days Of Your Life

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Arizona Daily Sun, January 1, 1999

What if Uncle Sam issued a sum of money to each citizen at birth? You would know the average national allotment, but not how much you had been given. It could be average, above average, or below average. You don’t know. But what you’re issued is all you get. You can’t earn any more. When you run out, you’re out! And you don’t know when your allotment runs out until that moment! I’ll bet you would spend your money carefully!

But instead of dollars, think of days. If you live to be 70, you get about 25,550 (depending on leap years). You may get a few more, but you may get considerably less. You don’t know when your allotment will run out. But once you spend one, it’s gone and subtracted from your total. It can’t be retrieved. Viewing time like that makes each day a precious gift that needs to be spent wisely. You never know how many more you will be given.

Studies show that the average American spends over 11 percent of his time watching television! In 70 years, that’s almost eight years spent sitting in front of the tube! Even if you select only the best programs, I can’t imagine anyone at age 70 looking back on your life and saying fondly, “I’ve seen some great programs in those eight years! What precious memories!” Come on!

It was a New Year’s Day many years ago that made me swear off the tube. I got up and watched the Rose Parade, followed by the Cotton Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, and the Orange Bowl. By the time I went to bed, I had probably spent 12 hours in front of the tube! I felt sated, as if I had eaten junk food all day (maybe I did that, too!). I realized that I had completely wasted the first day of that new year. I can’t remember who played in any of those bowl games, let alone who won. I can’t recall a single exciting play. All I know is that I wasted a day of my life. But, maybe it wasn’t wasted, since it made me quit watching TV!

Over the years, I’ve never seen a single episode of Dallas (who cares who killed J. R.?), Cheers, Seinfeld, or NYPD Blue. Amazingly, I don’t even feel deprived! My kids grew up basically TV free. We do own a set—we just rarely watch it. But as the kids were growing up, we read out loud through most of the Bible. We read C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, Heidi, and many other wonderful stories. My kids don’t feel like something vital was missing from their childhood because they missed the inane sitcoms.

The apostle Paul challenges us, “Be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16-16). The Bible also affirms, “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). None of us knows exactly when we will check out, but we can know for sure that we will stand before God and have to give an account of how we spent our lives. That’s why Moses prayed, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

I once read a fascinating account of a man who went into the Alaskan wilderness to photograph the beauty of the tundra. He made elaborate preparations. He had plenty of photo equipment, film, food, and emergency supplies. But he forgot one critical item: He didn’t make any arrangements for the bush pilot to come back and fly him out! He waited, but no one came to his rescue. In November, 1981, he died about 225 miles northeast of Fairbanks. He had made elaborate plans for his stay, but none for his departure. Pretty dumb, huh?

But, how about you? If your allotment of days runs out this year, are you prepared to meet the holy God? If not, I recommend that you shut off the tube and read the Bible. It tells you how to live in a manner pleasing to God. In the light of eternity, you really won’t care who won the Fiesta Bowl!

Related Topics: Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Devotionals, Spiritual Life, Wisdom

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