Thursday, August 31, 2017

Ask Me Anything (Family Devotions, Christian Comedy, Women in the Church, etc)

I continue to receive lots of Letters to the Editor, hence I continue to attempt to answer lots of Letters to the Editor. Here’s a new batch that include answers to questions on family devotions, whether church is for believers or unbelievers, Christian comedy, if and how women can serve in the church, and so on. I hope you find them helpful.

Could you suggest several options for material to help me stay on track leading family devotions with my wife and myself? We start well but it never lasts.

Probably, but I’m not going to. I’m not going to because I think you’re looking in the wrong place. I’ll shoot straight: It’s not a resource flaw but a character flaw; it’s not a lack of resources but a lack of self-control.

We are creatures of habit and I’m convinced this is a feature of our humanity rather than a bug. The reason you do not do family devotions right now is that you have not yet established the habit. To the contrary, you probably have other habits that interfere with your desire to do devotions together. You get started in building a new habit, but are unable to overcome the competing ones that are already well-established. The key to family devotions, then, is to build it as a habit. Here are some tips:

  1. Grow in your conviction that family devotions are important. Don’t do them simply to assuage your guilt or to be able to brag to friends. Pray, study the Bible, and come to a solid conviction that God calls you to them.
  2. Establish a time and place in which you plan to do your family devotions. Make sure it is a time and place you can count on being present and being together just about every day (such as immediately before breakfast or immediately after dinner). Decide how many days a week you’ll do them.
  3. Decide on a pattern for your family devotions. At minimum, read a short passage of the Bible together and then pray. You can also add discussion or a devotional book or singing or anything else that fits your family. My counsel, though, is to begin with something short and simple, then to add length and complexity later on.
  4. Exercise the self-control necessary to ensure you do them consistently enough to build a habit. Most people find it takes a month or two to establish a new habit, so expect to encounter some resistance early on. They will probably be simple for the first few days, tough for the next few weeks, and then gradually become easier and easier until they are suddenly the most natural thing in the world.

It’s really that simple. As a Christian, you have been indwelled by the Holy Spirit who promises to give you the good gift of self-control (Galatians 5:23). He is eager to help you exercise this gift. So in his strength begin this new habit, then build it, maintain it, and enjoy it.

I am wondering what your view is on who should be welcomed into a church. I used to think of church as a place for Christians to invite the lost to—an outreach. But lately I have seen that this often leads to the lost hijacking the church and this destroys church community and unity. The Bible mentions not having anything to do with some people. So what happens if they are at your church? How to “unwelcome” them at that point? I have even heard of instances where people purposefully attend a church while living an unbiblical lifestyle, simple to divide and conquer. I’ve begun to view church as something just for Christians. Can you share your thoughts on this?

I am convinced that church is primarily for Christians. Not only that, but church is primarily for Christians who are members of that local body. While guests (whether believers or unbelievers) are to be welcomed in, church exists primarily for the benefit of those Christians who make that church their home. This is in contradiction to the church growth movement which changed long-standing notions of church to make services all about unbelievers.

I believe the Bible makes it clear that churches are to be structured around membership. While there is no text that teaches this directly, we find several that discuss the distinction between people who are inside the body and people who are outside. Texts like Matthew 18 with its discussion of discipline are pretty much meaningless if we do not have an established body that people can join as Christians and be removed from if they prove themselves non-Christians. When a church has meaningful membership, it acknowledges there are essentially two kinds of people in the worship service on a Sunday morning: members and guests. Just as a family may welcome guests into its home, the church welcomes guests into its services. But like the home belongs to the family and exists primarily for their shelter and comfort, the church belongs to the members and exists primarily for their benefit.

There is an important implication here: Church services are not first a place for evangelism. Under normal circumstances, the primary purpose of a worship service is not to save the lost, but to edify and encourage the saved. While I trust and hope that the pastor preaches the free offer of the gospel each and every Sunday, still the primary audience for his sermon and the rest of the service is Christians. The ultimate hope is that believing guests either join the church as members or move to another one and that unbelieving guests soon come to faith and likewise join the membership.

There is much more I could say here, but I’d recommend doing some reading at 9Marks.org since that ministry has done more than any other to promote the kind of paradigm I have attempted to describe here.

I wanted to know your opinion about Christian comedy. I’ve never seen you write about that particularly, so would appreciate your input. While it can be fun watching Skit Guys or Tim Hawkins sometimes, or read The Babylon Bee, it always leaves me with a feeling that there is something wrong with these, especially in light of Psalm 1:1 (“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.”). It appears there is a thin line between humor and mockery and I have to say I believe in many instances the above-mentioned do cross those lines.

I’m not sure that Psalm 1 is the place to turn to. The scoffers of Psalm 1 are not people who crack jokes and satirize others, but people who deny God, either by their words or actions. If I were to make an argument along such lines, I’d probably turn to Ephesians 5:4: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” This instruction is not quite on-point either, but you may be able to get there through implication and application. I might also turn to the various examples of ministry in the Old and New Testament, none of which depended exclusively (or even more than occasionally) on humor.

When it comes to humor, I’d want to first acknowledge that it is a gift of God. I see no reason to believe it is wrong to create or enjoy humor. If Jesus was fully human, we can be sure that he enjoyed a good belly-laugh every now and again. We have to utterly strip him of his humanity to believe he and the disciples never enjoyed a joke from time to time. Humor is a gift of God and is also sometimes a useful and appropriate means of making a point. Consider Elijah mocking the pagan prophets by suggesting that their god was not responding to their pleas because he was sitting on the toilet with his pants around his ankles. Or consider Jesus using absurdity and exaggeration to make a point in his sermons and parables. Humor has its place.

However, any gift can be misused, and humor is no exception. Thus I would want to be very careful about how I express it and what I intend to accomplish by it. Whatever else Ephesians 5 says, it warns we must not be crude. That means our joking must not tip into the dirty or sexual and must not use as a punchline those things Christ had to die for. Additionally, it must not be unloving or unkind. It must be in keeping with the commands that we show due respect to those who are older than us and that we honor governmental rulers and other leaders. There must be boundaries around our humor.

As it pertains to the Skit Guys, Tim Hawkins, or The Babylon Bee, I can’t say that any of them are wrong or unbiblical. However, I expect each one of them would admit there have been times when they’ve crossed a line and had to repent. I trust that each of them is aware of the specific temptations toward sin that come with those who try to be funny.

I believe there is an ongoing struggle in church about what to do with women and their gifts. The pattern I see is that a liberal denomination is fine with women pastors but that the conservatives, in order to show their biblical disagreement swing the pendulum the other way, permit women to do almost nothing beyond children’s ministry and maybe a women’s Bible study). It’s like women are to serve but not be heard from. We are all created in the image of God and we hear often from males created by God, but when do we hear from the feminine voice? Are women’s gifts needed, appreciated, or used in the more conservative churches?

It was Martin Luther who compared Christians to a drunk man trying to ride a horse. He climbs up, falls off one side, scrambles back up, and falls off the other. The point is that we are prone to go too far first in one direction and then in the other. Today I think some churches—and perhaps even many churches—have overcompensated when it comes to the roles of women in the life of the local church. And, without excusing this, I do think we can explain it. I’ll share my theory.

If we dial the clock back a few years, we come to a time when denominations were breaking apart over the issue of women in ministry. A good number of churches had come to the conviction that they ought to ordain women, and this caused a lot of dispute and grief. Many traditional congregations had to separate from their denominations and, as they did so, they defined themselves in opposition to egalitarian theology. I believe that some of them were so attuned to issues of women in ministry that they perhaps got over-protective of their position. Now any notion of a woman being at the front of the room or taking on any position of leadership (even if non-ordained) was considered a sure sign of the slippery slope to egalitarianism. While such a notion may be wrong-headed, I believe it is understandable within its context.

The way this worked out in many churches is that there came to be a kind of “demilitarized zone” between biblical convictions and actual practice. There was a kind of buffer or safe zone meant to protect against anything that even hinted at egalitarianism. While the elders in a church may have considered it biblically-acceptable to have a woman pray during a worship service, they may have prohibited it just to be safe or just to leave no doubt that they were not an egalitarian congregation.

Time has passed and I think quite a lot of churches are re-examining their position. This is not to say they are dabbling with egalitarianism, but that they are examining what it means to be fully complementarian! They are attempting to come to firmer convictions on the few ministries that are reserved for properly-qualified males and the many that are open to all members, whether male or female. As they do this, they are inviting women to participate in every role and ministry that God invites them to be part of. I believe our churches will be healthier for this.

Two years ago my husband and I sought a new church home when we relocated. We prayed. We attended a year before joining the congregation. A year later it is hard to imagine being more discouraged and disappointed. Is there a biblical method or insight in choosing a church?

It sounds to me like you followed a biblical method. You looked for a church before you moved, you diligently prayed about it, and you attended for a time before joining. Sadly, it sounds like the church was not all you hoped it was or all you believe a church needs to be. Unfortunately, this is sometimes simply the way it goes. It takes time to learn what a church is all about. It takes time to get to know the people and the pastors. And sometimes what you learn along the way is unsettling. In your case, that may mean it is time to move on.

Before you do so, though, perhaps you should ask these 3 questions: Have you been praying for the people of this church? Have you been serving the people of this church? Have you been with the people of this church? I’d encourage you to ask questions like that because we often want to move on when we feel weary of the people, when we feel like they aren’t interested in us anymore, when relationships feel cool rather than warm, when we feel like we need a fresh start. These questions are designed to help us identify anything we are doing that may contribute to our desire to leave.

If you are convinced that you still need to leave the church, here are some suggestions on searching for a new one:

  • The Gospel Coalition maintains a church directory that is open to any church that affirms their Foundation Documents. This at least narrows the search and can provide a few churches to visit and consider.
  • The Master’s Seminary maintains a Find a Church page which lists churches founded or pastored by their alumni.
  • 9Marks Church Search offers a similar directory for churches that wish to be affiliated with them.

Your recent “Letters to the Editor” contained several letters regarding the Proverbs 31 Woman. As a single young man, this got me wondering, what characteristics should I be looking for in a future wife? What would be an example of a godly woman displaying godly character?

Stick with Proverbs 31. Remember, the whole book of Proverbs is written primarily for an audience of young men. “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck” (Proverbs 1:8-9). This kind of instruction begins in chapter 1 and extends all the way to chapter 31. So while the excellent wife of the final chapter is certainly a model for women to aspire to, she is also meant to provide direction for men who are searching for a bride. She exemplifies godly virtue. Learn from her, then search for her.



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