The Church And What It Has Become


I recently heard a partial quote about Christianity, but I didn’t catch the source. What’s more, I didn’t write it down—just the part I remembered of it because I thought it was pretty truthful, as far as it goes.

Christianity started in Israel and became a religion.

It went to Greece and became a philosophy.

Then it passed on to Rome where it became an institution.

From there it went to Europe where it became a culture.

Eventually it traveled to America where it became an enterprise.

Obviously it’s a statement about Christianity in America and in the West in general.

Since I live in the US, I don’t know the particular struggles the Church goes through in places like Asia and Africa. Has Christianity avoided some of the shifts and changes that have corrupted the Church here? I don’t know.

I do know that I wince when I think about Christianity as an enterprise. My mind goes to “snake-oil” preachers and TV evangelists who cared more for making a buck than for the people they were fleecing of their hard-earned money.

I think of the Christian trinkets a certain group of writers and editors and agents used to mock at the yearly International Christian Retail Show. I mean, someone figured out that they could stamp a Bible verse on a tee shirt or a mug or a plaque, and people would pay good money for them. They could make Testamints and Bible-verse bookmarks and Bible covers and pens or pencils with verses stamped on them. “Jesus junk” the critics called it, but the store owners called it “how to get out of the red.”

But the truth is, when I look around me, I see some of those same items in my home. There’s that plaque on the wall and that mug in the cupboard. I’ve bought those pencils to give out to my students. I have some of those bookmarks in my Bible. I am one of the consumers.

Beyond the trinkets themselves, I cringe at the way we have put the gospel up for sale—Christian music, Christian self-help books, Christian fiction, all sold in the Christian bookstore.

And here I am—writing what would likely be considered Christian fiction, trying, even, to make a living from it.

Should I?

Shouldn’t we be giving the gospel away for free?

Of course Scripture also teaches that the worker is worthy of his hire. And I have to say, I like seeing scripture when I look at the particular mug with it inscribed. I like the plaque and the bookmarks. I’m glad I gave the pencils as prizes.

I think there has to be a line. We live in a capitalist society. We aren’t necessarily called to life as if we lived under a different system.

Except, Christians DO live under a different system. We aren’t to be governed by greed. As consumers or as entrepreneurs.

I conclude then that money should never be an obstacle preventing someone from hearing the gospel. Money should not be the driving force behind our “ministries.” Christian schools, for example, once were an outreach of particular churches. They charged tuition to defray some of the cost but mostly staff viewed themselves as missionaries, doing the work of the LORD.

But now, Christian schools strive to compete with public schools by paying their teachers a comparable wage and offering lavish benefits. Tuition, as a result, continues to creep higher, and some schools are pricing themselves out of existence, because their middle income communities can no longer afford to send their children to such an expensive school.

Christian bookstores aren’t doing so well either. But most bookstores are in the same boat, so it’s not possible to say if Christians are doing better or worse than the norm.

The point is, or maybe the question—when did “ministry” turn into “business”? When did coffee shops go into churches? When did we decide to get rich from preaching the gospel, or quoting Scripture?

I don’t think there’s an answer for the culture. America is consumed by consuming. I don’t know if other parts of the West are too, but I don’t see it changing here any time soon. But we can make a difference in our hearts which is where all attitudes reside.

Colossians says that greed amounts to idolatry.

We Americans . . . we Christians, need to check our hearts and see if there is a love of stuff that resides right there as an idol along with our love of God. That’s the way the people of Israel lived for years. Their prophets were constantly admonishing them to destroy their idols and worship God alone. At some point, they thought they were. They built all kinds of altars on high places, never mind that God said they weren’t to do so.

Are the consumerist trappings of Christianity our high places? Are we trafficking in the stuff of Christianity without any true worship? I can only answer that question for myself, but I’m pretty sure, if the Church is to survive here in the US, we all who profess the name of Christ need to go before God and ask Him to do the work of burning the dross away from our faith.

Published in: on October 17, 2017 at 6:01 pm  Comments (26)  
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Jezebel In Our Midst


Seven_churches_of_asia.svgIn Christ’s fourth message to the churches in Revelation, He follows the familiar pattern established in the previous three. He catalogs both commendable traits and those which He counts against them. Then He delivers a warning and a promise.

Thyatira, home of Lydia, Paul’s first convert in Asia, receives some of Christ’s strongest words in each of those categories.

First comes the list of what these believers had right. It’s quite impressive:

  • Deeds.
  • Love.
  • Faith.
  • Service.
  • Perseverance.
  • Greater deeds now than at first—i.e. growth, progress, spiritual development, living out their faith more each day.

As great as this commendation is, Jesus says, “But I have this against you.” That’s an ominous opening to the next section—perhaps the most detailed of all the confrontations sections in these messages.

The problem: the church in Thyatira tolerated a Jezebel—someone in their midst who called herself a prophetess. Bad enough, but here’s what she was on about:

she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.

Immorality and idolatry. These activities would be bad enough if someone in the church engaged in them (see Paul’s chastisement of the church in Corinth when they tolerated a man involved in incest), but this Jezebel is teaching others and leading others—Christians, mind you, believers Christ describes as bond-servants—into immorality and idolatry.

The amazing thing to me is that Christ then says He gave this Jezebel time to repent. Repent! She’s immoral, she’s idolatrous, she’s leading Christ’s followers astray, and what does Jesus want? For her to repent! What mercy!

What a stark contrast to some in the church in the West who call down God’s wrath on the disobedient, as if we know in advance that God will not extend mercy to them or that they will never repent. This Jezebel in Thyatira didn’t repent, but God gave her time to do so as an exercise of His mercy.

As an exercise of His judgment, however, He will bring her down, along with all those who “committed adultery” with her. James calls those who are friends of the world adulteresses, and the Old Testament prophets frequently used the image of Judah or Israel as an adulteress because of their unfaithfulness to God. So clearly Christians who act in this same faithless way—putting their own lusts before God or even “mixing their worship”—would be subject to the discipline Christ will bring.

It’s a sobering warning:

Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds. (Rev. 2:22-23)

What about the rest of the church, those who didn’t actually follow after what the people in that day termed “the deep things of Satan”? Christ told them to hold fast to what they had—their works and love and faith and service and perseverance and growth.

I think it’s notable that he didn’t call them to repent. I take it they were not endorsing this Jezebel or accommodating her. I suspect, instead, they were either not in a position to deal with her or were too small a group to make their voice heard.

As Christ did in the other messages, He promises something to “he who overcomes.” But this time He adds a little extra: “he who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end.”

This idea of doing something beyond overcoming reminds me of what Paul told the church in Thessalonica: “Excel still more.” I think this is why God gives us the admonition not to grow weary in well doing. The Christian doesn’t go on vacation from our service to Christ. We don’t retire from loving others or persevering or growing. Rather, we are to be like the sprinter racing hardest at the end, running through the tape, not slowing up.

The reward Jesus promises is particularly interesting. He quotes from Psalm 2—a Messianic passage. Here are the pertinent verses, with the portion which Revelation 2 utilizes in bold type:

“But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain.”
“I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to Me, ‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.
‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance,
And the very ends of the earth as Your possession.
‘You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware.
’ ” (vv 6-9)

In Revelation, Jesus says what God has given Him, He will give to those who overcome and hold fast. Interesting that those who did not follow the deep things of Satan or get drawn into the immorality and idolatry of Jezebel will one day be in positions of authority over the nations. In other words, there will be a time when they are not helpless to stop the waywardness currently surrounding them.

Christ closes by promising to give them the morning star. As one commentator notes

Jesus offers them a reward greater than the kingdom. He offers them the reward of Himself, because He is the Morning Star (Revelation 22:16). (“Study Guide for Revelation 2” by David Guzik)

Immorality? Yes, we see that in the church today in the rampant involvement in illicit sex. Idolatry? To our sorrow, yes, it’s there in our self-worship and greed. The “deep things of Satan”? We see the love of “mystery” and the twisting of Scripture so fitting of the Liar and Father of Lies.

But towering above all that Jezebel brings to the church is Christ, our true Reward. We will one day see Him face to face and know Him even as we are known. We will see His purity, His holiness, His righteousness—the same righteousness with which He clothes us.

Published in: on July 31, 2014 at 7:12 pm  Comments Off on Jezebel In Our Midst  
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Idolatry Masquerading As Greed


Durga_idol_2009“Consider your earthly members as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desires, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.” So said Paul in Colossians 3:5. But as I read that verse this week, I saw a little footnote next to “amounts to” I’d ignored in the past—a simple, terse statement, actually: “Lit., is.” The literal translation of the Greek which appears in the NASB as “amounts to” is, “is.”

The verse, then, would read “. . . greed which is idolatry.”

So I started thinking, in what way is greed, idolatry?

Well, that didn’t take long. Idolatry is putting something or someone in the place God alone holds. The people of Israel coming out of Egypt worshiped God, but they also held onto the gods they’d been bowing to for the last several hundred years. Even after they got the Ten Commandments that said, No other gods, no idols, they did not put away those false gods.

They worshiped God, no mistake. But they did not hold to Him exclusively as the One True God.

Hundreds of years later, Jesus told the crowd of people listening to Him, You can’t serve both God and wealth (Matt. 6:14). His statement was a reminder of the requirement of exclusivity God demands, but it also revealed the nature of idolatry. Serving wealth puts it in the place of God in the exact same way the Egyptian gods had taken God’s place earlier.

For some reason, western Christians don’t seem too concerned about greed and its true identity: idolatry. Just this summer I read an article in my alumni quarterly magazine in which the author referred to himself growing up as a greedy little kid. Granted, he called himself greedy in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way, and the point of the article was how to teach kids NOT to be greedy.

But I can’t help but think, we would not be so cavalier about other sins: I was a snarky little racist growing up or I was a spoiled little baby killer at age five. Such admissions of sin would not be great opening lines for a cute little childhood anecdote.

But greed is?

It ought not be. Not if we truly understood it to be idolatry.

Honestly, it’s pretty much the perfect idol for a capitalist society.

We Christians have Biblical admonitions about being good stewards and working with our hands that fit nicely with the concept of earning more to make more to earn more. Consequently we can be greedy and believe we are doing what we ought to be doing—investing wisely and saving for our children’s education, for the down payment on a bigger home, for a second honeymoon, for retirement.

All the while, we’ve also accumulated a second car, two or three TVs, a laptop computer and a tablet and an iPhone, closets filled with clothes, rows and rows of shoes, a collection of DVDs, books, games, and music. In fact, most of us have so much stuff, we have to store some of it in a garage or shed or basement or storage facility.

And yet we want more.

When the next cool techno gadget comes out, we want to be in line. When the newest style replaces what’s in vogue today, we’ll shop til we drop. When the upgrade becomes available, we have to have it.

In fact, our entire economy is built upon “consumer confidence”—the idea that people feel secure enough to keep spending money on stuff they may not need.

In what way, then, are Christians choosing to serve God and not serve wealth?

Don’t get me wrong. God has placed us in the culture we’re in, at the time when greed is rampant. I don’t think the solution is for Christians to sell all and move to the desert. Not unless God calls someone to make such an extreme move. I don’t think He’s done that in His word, surely.

I do think we need to see greed for what it is: idolatry. We need to unmask it, shine the light of truth on it, see it as the tool of the enemy intended to unseat God from the throne of our hearts. We need to hate it—as much as we do racism, murder, child abuse.

We need a little holy jealousy on God’s behalf—we should be angry that loving stuff has wormed its way into our lives so that our first love, our love for God, isn’t as strong as it once was.

Most of all, we should repent.

Then we should lay our wealth before God. We should give it all to Him. All of it. Every dime. Then we can ask Him what He wants us to do with His stuff.

Published in: on July 11, 2014 at 6:36 pm  Comments Off on Idolatry Masquerading As Greed  
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Is Reading Romance Idolatrous?


What a question—is reading romance idolatrous? Some bloggers have suggested that some of the “quieter” Christian fiction (read Amish) can be idolatrous, so why not romance? Why not Christian romance?

Some things we do are clearly forbidden in Scripture. Lust, for example, and greed. So a novel that elicits those sinful desires as its raison d’être should be avoided, right?

Which, I think, is why a number of readers turn to Christian romance. Those stories exist for a greater reason, not just to evoke sensual thoughts and desires.

But I think we might be missing something important: things that end up being idolatrous aren’t necessarily bad.

The Israelites made an idol, for example, of a bronze serpent—the one God told Moses to create and to lift up on a standard in order that those in the camp dying from snake bites could look at it and be healed; the same one the gospel of John references as a metaphor for Jesus being lifted up in crucifixion so that all who believe in Him might be saved.

Clearly there was nothing sinful about that serpent statue—until the people started worshiping it. In the end, that good object designed for a good purpose became a means of disobedience and needed to be destroyed.

[Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan.
– 2 Kings 18:4 (emphasis mine)

But let’s face it, none of us have seen our friends burning incense to a romance novel, at least not in the last decade or so. 😉

Yet we also recognize that making an idol of something entails more than outward worship. There’s that inner attitude that says, this thing or this person is more important than any other person or any other thing.

The danger comes in not recognizing our own attitude shift. When does reading romance—or playing golf, watching ESPN, gardening, shopping, school extra curriculars (you know what I’m talking about—scheduling your child’s piano lesson sandwiched between soccer practice and ballet), even serving on the deacon board—become idolatrous instead of something good and wholesome and fun?

I don’t know that any of us can decide that for others. It’s hard enough to recognize an attitude of idolatry in ourselves. But here’s the thing. I think we need to know that the enjoyments of our lives have the potential to become idols. We need to hold them with open hands, willing to give them up if God asks us to. We need to maintain our focus on things above, not on things on the earth—our enjoyments must not change that focus.

Is reading romance idolatrous? Maybe. It never hurts to do an attitude check and see if something I love is crowding out my love for the One who gave me the capacity to enjoy it.

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