LABELING IN THE RELIGIOUS CONVERSATION

Labels are an interesting way to categorise things into groups. They are particularly interesting when used to define groups of people in religion. Some of the more common broad-brush terms are: liberal, legalist, and conservative. Like it or not, and some just refuse to acknowledge any proper use of labels, they are not without value. Religious labels may certainly be misused, but religious people are not homogenous, they are different and their differences mean some have more in common with some folks than with others.
Essentially, once a biblical center is discovered, religious people tend to either over do, under do, or do. They bind where God has not, loose where God has not, or adhere to what God has revealed. I realise the trick is to find the biblical center and that everyone seems feel they are there, nevertheless, beliefs differ and the Bible does not necessarily teach what any particular person thinks is right.
With the acknowledgement that labeling takes us into hazardous and often rancorous territory, we need to venture into its risky environs. However, I want to venture into an aspect of the discussion not often entertained. Believing there to be a biblical center, I propose that both liberalism and legalism exist for one or more of the following reasons: pride, selfishness, loving the praise of men, or ignorance. Walking with Jesus, on the other hand, is the result of loving Him more than self, caring more what He thinks than what others think, and knowing Him as a friend.
I’m not a fan of labels myself. They are commonly misunderstood, misused, and all too easily employed. Yet, they do have a place in religious discussion. If we will remember what they really mean and why those characterized by them fall into the groups they do, we can begin to have more honest discussions. The only question then is, can we handle the truth (Jn. 17:17)?

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CIVILITY IN THE CONVERSATION

GETTING A GRIP ON OUR WORDS

Being from olden days, Modernity often seems strange if not disconcerting. An example would be how we speak. Once upon a time, there were silently agreed upon boundaries that preserved a certain sense of public civility. Times have changed. Today, insensitive remarks, crude words or phrases, and irreverent expressions have invaded the space once held by a less inflammatory conversation.

Presently, the idea of, “because I can” seems to be understood as an insistence to opt for, “therefore I will.” Many seem to think their entitlement to free speech gives license to use words without proper forethought. This seems very immature. Surely, the stream of “bleeps” commonly inserted into the media is not a sign of intelligent, mature discourse! Or for that matter, is the increasingly “non-bleeped,” coarse language often heard and seen actually a sign of enlightened liberation taking hold of a better way?
It appears to me that autonomous freedom, paradoxically, leads to an enslavement to selfishness. Additionally, me-centered positions certainly seem to bring about endless clashes between those determined to be tolerated and others equally determined not to tolerate.

Our choices in speech are indeed ours to make. We can say whatever we jolly well please. Nevertheless, we should not think our choices carry no consequences. We can easily incite and inflame, but we can also choose a course of peace and common courtesy. We can also opt to dismantle all vestiges of difference between words of carefully considered respect and words of thoughtless utterance. The proper choices seem obvious. Is it then possible to agree to disagree in such a way as to preserve our personal convictions and integrity without becoming disagreeable, coarse, and rude?

Maybe such concerns have become mere archaic remnants of foolish attempts to rise above the lowest human common denominator? If so, I believe, we are the poorer for the “progress” such a conclusion would create. However, with regard to civility and courtesy being anachronistic, I think not. Our minds allow us to create social constructs capable of giving a greater quality to everyday exchanges. Though I view such possibilities from a Christ-centered perspetive, choosing a higher ground is open to all. We can do better!

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

We Need Heros

One of my favorite books is Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. There are a number of reasons I hold the book in such high esteem, but there is one that easily rises to the top. Atticus Finch sums up my most valued attachment to the book. His character represents a challenge that continues to send chills through my soul!

In a culture whose social traditions held almost everyone in the cruel grip of racism, Atticus Finch uncompromisingly stood for justice. He towered over his cowardly peers as a man of rare courage. Atticus Finch is a hero to me; but he is a hero most especially because he reminds me of Jesus.

Jesus stood for righteousness as no man ever did or has. He stood for justice, fair play, valor, and courage. His utter indignation for every false way was surpassed only by His singular devotion to truth.

We desperately need men and women today who will dare to shun the compromise of “political correctness” and stand for truth! In 1960 with the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, a nation torn by racial conflict paused to notice Harper Lee’s portrayal of Atticus Finch. In a time when lesser men seemed to rule the day, Miss Lee gave us a much-needed hero. Today, though the triumph of unprincipled men may be less violent and is often disguised by hypocrisy, we still desperately need heroes.

We need Christ-like men and women who will dare to make the ever-unpopular decisions of the Christ. He was willing to live a life of principle regardless of the foes He faced (Mk. 12:14). How about you and me?

The Savior a Mechanic Could Love

A Certain Mechanic

            My Dad was an automobile mechanic—and a very good one at that. Religion, however, was not his thing. When I wrote him to explain why I was going to become a preacher, he told my cousin that he buried the letter under a rock.

            Why was my Dad like that? You don’t just wake up one day hating religion. Eventually I discovered some answers. First, he was raised in a hyper-strict religious environment; ignorance led to a very harsh, terrifying view of God. As a child my father saw God as an unloving tyrant, eager to send him to hell!

            In addition to this uninviting picture of God, my father grew to feel that Christians were a bunch of hypocrites—especially preachers! After learning this, I felt lucky he didn’t bury me under a rock.

            Obviously all people who claim to be Christians are not fakes. Nevertheless, we all know such “Christians” do exist. A hardened man close to the bottom of the social ladder tends, however, to have a finely tuned “hypocrite detector.” This is one reason I believe Jesus garnered so much attention from common people. They were tired of their hypocritical religious leaders.

            Very surprisingly, the story of my Dad and religion took a very unexpected turn. As time went by, I sent my Dad some books about the Bible. My Dad loved to read. He actually read them and made some positive comments about seeing God in a different light, but then he died. At his funeral, Mr. Shea, the only preacher my father ever respected, called me aside. I was shocked to learn that sometime before he died my Dad asked Mr. Shea to immerse him for the remission of his sins!

            My Dad never “went public.” Nobody but God and Mr. Shea knew about his most improbable religious moment. I wish Daddy had seen more of the real deal. Jesus was the kind of man even a certain poor, uneducated mechanic could love.

JESUS THE “SECRET” TO VICTORY

Transformed Into His Image

Part Two   

       As the crucified Christ draws people to be saved and added to the church (Acts 2:36-38, 47), so also does His crucifixion mold Christians into His image (Gal. 2:20; 6:15). Transformation, based on proper motivation, is the key.

Primary Source Material

      With the one sufficient motivation understood, the actual nature of the transformation must then be completely and clearly seen. Here the Gospels are again of greatest value. Christ is the true hub of the Bible. Though it has been said among us that Acts chapter two is the hub, surely the Christ is of more significance than is the beginning date of the church—no Jesus, no church. Before Jesus came, all Scripture looked forward to Him. In His Incarnation, the focus of the Bible fell uniquely upon Him. Since His Ascension, all revelation looks back to Him.

     By considering the incarnation of Jesus, we have a unique opportunity to see the only perfect life ever to have graced the planet.  Seeing such perfection in action takes us where merely hearing about right and wrong cannot go. As has been observed, seeing a sermon has a power that goes beyond hearing one. No one else could have said, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). Let us, therefore, take the advice of Phillip to Nathaniel and “come and see.”

The Model for Our Transformation

       What do we see? What principles do we see dominating the life of Jesus? What drove Him to be the man that He was? What aspects of His life might be referenced to best portray the essence of the Man?

     The starting place for our discovery must be the starting place honored by Jesus—the Father. He lived in submission to the Father in all things (Jn. 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; 8:28; 12:49; 14:10; Matt. 26:39). In other words, He perfectly followed the Great Commandment (Matt. 22:36-38). Without either compromise or apology, He was the Father’s man.

     This naturally leads to the next most important concern for Jesus, those created in the Father’s image (Lk. 19:10). He was sent by the God for this very purpose (Jn. 3:16-17). As with the Great Commandment, so with the Second that was “like it,” Jesus perfectly lived a life of service to mankind. He came not to be served, but to serve (Matt. 20:25-28).

     But what does it look like when the two most important commandments are perfectly kept? Indeed it is in the “in fleshing” of truth (Jn. 1:14) that we see what has never been seen before or since. He got it right. He was the one and only perfectly balanced human being to ever live. We need to see this man in action!

It Looked Like This

     He chose fishermen, one was impetuous to a fault (Matt. 16:22-23), two were “sons of thunder” (Mk. 3:17; Lk. 9:54-55). He called a tax collector (Matt. 9:9) to serve with a zealot (Matt. 10:4). Yet, He turned away a man who kept the commandments “from his youth up” (Mk. 10:20), and told “the teacher of Israel” that he must be born again (Jn. 3:3-5, 10). His greatest complements were for a Roman centurion (Matt. 8:10), an “insignificant” foreign woman (Matt. 15:21-28), a poor, unnoticed widow (Mk. 12:41-44), and an “unclean” woman (Matt. 9:19-22). His most pointed rebukes, however, were reserved for the religious leaders (Matt. 23:1-39), and people of power (Matt. 11:8; Lk. 16:19-31).

     He cared for those who received no attention (Jn. 5:1-9). He took notice of the unnoticed (Lk. 21:1-4). He had compassion for the harassed and downtrodden (Matt. 9:36-38). In this wonderful man’s life He rewrote the book on how others, not self, are to be the focus of service (Matt. 20:28).

      He preached what most felt should have been left unsaid (Matt. 15:12). He cleared out corruption that others fearfully chose to ignore (Jn. 2:14-17; Matt. 21:12-13). His pointed rhetoric laid bare the hearts of those who sought to please self rather than the Father (Jn. 5:39-44). He went where he wasn’t supposed to go, talked to those His culture said He should ignore, and brought salvation to those who others condescendingly rejected (Jn. 4:3-42).

     He offered no compromises with regard to the truth (Matt. 5:17-20), always requiring a recognition of the true intent of every command of God (Matt. 5:21-48). He resorted to Scripture to resist Satan (Matt. 4:1-11), correct His detractors (Mk. 12:24-27), and nurture His disciples (Matt. 13:1-58). And yet, while maintaining an unwavering loyalty to God’s word, He showed us the inescapable place of mercy (Matt. 9:10-13; 12:1-8). He used truth to afflict the comfortable (Matt. 23:1-39), and to comfort the afflicted (Matt. 11:28-30). In His singular example of how justice and mercy were to work together, His forgiveness was never separate from repentance (Jn. 8:1-11).

   In these qualities of Jesus that we have just recalled, we see real life. His ministry was no mere cardboard, one-dimensional checklist isolated from the challenges and struggles of life in the flesh (Heb. 4:14-16). No, Jesus was real. He was: completely knowledgeable, yet no mere academician (Matt. 7:28-29); uncompromising, but not unfeeling (Jn. 11:35); God, yet man (Jn. 1:1, 14).

     Therefore, our transformation must also be real. In this radical change we are not speaking of just being able to quote Scripture (Jn. 5:39). Similarly, our goal must never be concerned merely with being right (Matt. 23:1-7). Our transformation must be a complete package (Matt. 5:48). It is incompleteness, we must see, that causes people to misunderstand the nature of God (Matt. 9:13; 12:7); it is Christ-centered completeness that awakens us to a knowledge of the Father (Jn. 14:7-9).

A Biblical Imperative

     This transformation to Christ-likeness is no small thing. The Bible, therefore, places the concept on center stage. Christ-likeness is imperative! It is an absolute necessity because there is no better way to attend to the business of God than to address it in the spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9).  Consider, therefore, the following evidence to the importance of conformity to the image of Jesus:

     Paul reveals to the Roman church how God had purposed that a time would come when men and women would be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). The Scriptures, he wrote to the Corinthians, presented the very mind of Christ (I Cor. 2:16), and, with a daily introspective walk, would transform a believer into the image of the Lord (II Cor. 3:18).

     To the Galatians Paul told how he had died to self that he might live to Christ (Gal. 2:20). He further pointed out the need for the Galatian Christians to follow his example and form Christ in themselves (Gal. 4:19). The Ephesian church received no less an emphasis as they were told that Christ needed to be formed in their hearts through faith (Eph. 3:16-17). They were to grow up completely in all that had to do with the Christ (Eph. 4:15).

     The Philippian brothers and sisters were admonished to have the mind of Christ in them. The Colossians were informed that Christ in the heart of a Christian was their hope of glory (Col. 1:27). For that reason, Paul labored and strove to present every convert complete in Christ (Col. 1:28-29).

     Simon Peter was, as we would expect, of one spirit with Paul in this critical point of inner transformation. He challenged all Christians to set apart Jesus as the Lord of their hearts and thus be able to offer a proper defense of their faith (I Pet. 3:15). Consider the transformation we would witness in the church today if every Christian were personally committed to Simon’s instructions.

   Additionally, John’s words about walking in the light are surely to be understood as a walk of transformation (I Jn. 1:7), as James’ teaching on receiving the word implanted are to be understood by the Christ-like implications they require (Jas. 1:21). Yes, New Covenant reverberates with the theme of Christ-like transformation!

Applications for Our Day

     What are we to do with this pervasive, vital teaching on transformation? How do we come to be known for our Christ-likeness and for the inevitable evangelistic zeal it will produce? What are practical steps we can begin to take to insure that this teaching that is so close to God’s heart will come to be a priority in our hearts?

     Transformation must be preached and taught. What we do not know, we cannot do. What we do not hold up in our words and deeds as being important, we will not succeed in passing on to others. From pulpits, to Bible classrooms, to our homes, to our schools,  and work places, conformity to Jesus must be seen as our uncompromised imperative. What we write, how we write, and the importance we attach to acquainting the world with what we have to say, these things will need to be revitalized. Could a transformed people behave any other way?

     Factual knowledge will be required if we are to succeed. But facts that do not lead to a transformed heart are but words that have not attained their God-given purpose (Rom. 2:17-29). There must be a hierarchy here; Jesus is to be the end or goal of our teaching (cf. Acts 2:22-38). Love for Him must compel us to live as He directs (II Cor. 5:14-15). The Jews knew facts; they did not understand that the facts spoke of Jesus (Jn. 5:39-47). We can go to heaven without knowing the length of Og’s bed; we cannot enter there without knowing the Christ (Jn. 17:3).

     Transformation is a restoration thing. We who teach others, are we teaching ourselves (Rom. 2:21a)? Will we restore church government, the forms for New Testament worship, the steps of faith leading to Christ, and yet not restore the imperative of transformation? Will we go out from our church buildings motivated   love of Christ, with Jesus sanctified in our hearts, ready, willing, and able to make our case for the Christ? Or will we just go back to the house?

PRIDE KILLS

JESUS AND HUMILITY

         God intends for Christians to be humble, “… do nothing through faction or vainglory” (Philippians 2:3a).  With this in mind, revealing questions are in order. Are we attempting to do anything to show our superiority of intellect or for the sake of recognition? Are we doing things with the ambition to exalt self by showing we have more talent than others? Is there a minister, elder, deacon or bible school teacher who ever pridefully seeks to “show what they’ve got”? Do we find ourselves preferring secular accomplishments over how well we can serve God and others? Do we serve to glorify God or to keep some of that glory for ourselves?

         What can we do to help prevent inappropriate motives and actions? As we serve God, we need to be sure we are doing a large number of our deeds in private rather than in public (cf. Matt. 6:1-18). If everyone knows about almost every work we are doing for God, we probably have a problem with pride. Are we driven to air our good works?

         No matter what our position, we should first see ourselves as servants of Christ and of others. We must remember that all our talents, intellect, even our existence are things we owe to God—leaving no room for pride. Recognizing we are sinners and that we will never be saved on the basis merit, we should be humble, “… each counting others better than himself” (Phil. 2:3b).

         Good things such as secular accomplishments, Christian service, and an increase in our knowledge of the word can all lead to pride. Jesus, however, shows us the way. Paul said Jesus was God, thus equal with God. Jesus chose not to retain His prerogatives (Phil. 2:6-7). Though He had the right to everything, He gave it all up to share our lowly condition (Phil. 2:8).

         The example of Jesus shows that humility results in the highest kind of exaltation. Jesus was the best illustration of His own teaching “He that humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11, 18:14).