Wisdom from Mars Hill: Presenting the Unchanging Christ to an Ever-changing Culture

The 21st century presents certain challenges for those who want to present a clear and faithful witness for Jesus. Things are not what they used to be. Modernity was characterized by a belief that Truth existed and that we could discover it. Postmodernism on the other hand is convinced (at least tentatively!) that truths (small “t” with an “s”) are socially or personally constructed and therefore subjective, relative and changing. There is no great story, no grand meta-narrative that explains who we are, why we are here, and where we are going. However, there is no reason to be discouraged. The fact is while the 21st century is not a whole lot like the 20th century, it has a great deal in common with the pluralism of the 1st century and the world Paul effectively evangelized. In Acts 17:22-34 Paul ascended Mars Hill to engage the intellectuals of the day. In these verses we find a model for ministry to the skeptics and scoffers of our age, or for that matter, any age. Consider Paul’s strategy as he engaged the culture of his day.

1. Start where people are. (Vs. 22-23)
Paul initiated a point of contact by noting the fact they were religiously and spiritually minded. This is true today as well. Spiritual matters are inescapable because humans are incurably religious. We should begin where people are looking for a common point of contact.

2. Hit the creation question head on. (Vs. 24-26; cf. Romans 1)
Either God is eternal or matter is eternal. There really is no other option. Paul asserts that God made everything and that includes human beings. If He is our Creator and we are His creatures, it follows that we probably have a certain obligation to seek Him, know Him and worship Him. While He may be “THE UNKNOWN GOD” at present, He has not left Himself without a witness. Creation and conscience scream at us, “There is a God.”

3. Appeal to conscience and our sense of right and wrong. (Vs. 27-30; cf. Romans 2)
Paul affirms that God is actually quite near to each of us (v. 27) and points to our spiritual sensitivities as an evidence. Interjecting the idea of repentance, he wisely draws attention to our sense of morality, something unique to humans, which sets us apart from animal creation. We intuitively, as a properly basic belief, know that terrorist acts like 9-11-01 are wrong. But why? Where does that come from? In Romans 2:15 Paul expands his answer by telling us that God’s law is written on the human heart with our conscience bearing witness. Conscience shouts to our hearts there is a moral Creator.

4. Move to Christ, His cross, and His resurrection. (Vs. 31-34)
Ultimately it all comes down to Jesus. What will you do with Him? How will you respond to this man who lived a sinless life, died on a cross for sinners and rose from the dead as proof of His deity and victory? The offense to Christianity must never be in our methods and traditions. If people turn away, make sure what they are saying “no” to is a cross and an empty tomb. Some will say “no.” Paul was mocked the day he went to Mars Hill. But some will say “yes” as verse 34 wonderfully tells us. Somehow, some way, we must always get people to talk and think about Jesus: who He is and what He did.

A Concluding Story
Several years ago I was involved in a short-term mission trip to Thailand. While I was there a Buddhist man took us on a tour of Bangkok. While we were riding around the city I began to talk with him about spiritual matters telling him I was a Christian, a devoted follower of a 1st century Jew named Jesus. To my astonishment he was totally unfamiliar with Jesus. I quickly began with God and creation, moved to discuss conscience and sin, and then turned to talk about our Lord, His death and resurrection. When I told Him I believed this Jewish man named Jesus who lived 2000 years ago rose from the dead he literally stopped the car and turned around (I was in the back seat) to see if he had heard me correctly. When I explained to him he had, he sat silently for a few moments. Then he turned again and said words I have never forgotten, “If this Jesus truly came back to life from the dead and never died again, He would have the right to make a claim on my life and every life that no one else could.” He did not become a Christian that day, but he certainly grasped the significance of the issue and what was at stake. Paul said, “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Whether it is the 1st or 21st century our message remains the same. It is a message God will honor any time, any place and any where. This day is a great day of evangelistic and missional opportunity. It is our assignment to bear witness to the Truth and to pick up the pieces of broken lives, shattered dreams, and unkept promises. Jesus has always been the answer. He continues to be the answer today.

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 4: The Great Commission in the Home

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series will address biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist.

No place is it more difficult to live out the implications of the gospel than in the home. No place is it more essential and needful. We proclaim to a skeptical and cynical culture that they should come to our Jesus. After all, He will forgive you of your sins, change your life, and take you to heaven when you die. Never mind the fact He will not make any difference in your marriage and family. After all we divorce at a rate close to those who are not Christian. Our homes are racked with adultery, dysfunction, rebellion and dissatisfaction just like everyone else. Of course we never say this, but our family life too often betrays our confession.

In 1998 Southern Baptists added an article to the Baptist Faith and Message that addressed the family. We received a lot of heat and criticism from the liberal church and secular media, but the statement is a faithful reflection of biblical truth. The article was added because the times necessitated it. Confusion, even in the Church of the Lord Jesus, demanded that we speak and speak clearly to what the Bible says about God’s first ordained institution. Much could be said about how the gospel and the Great Commission should impact marriage and family, but let me highlight some non-negotiables that I believe must be at the heart of biblically grounded marriages and Great Commission homes.

First, we need Christ-centered gospel saturated homes. Husbands and wives need to find their sufficiency in Christ, and love and serve their mate in His strength. Out of an overflow of love and devotion to Christ, and then one another, we must share verbally and live out consistently the implications of the gospel. Children should be taught the gospel from infancy onward as their parents pray for their conversion, and as their parents put on full display the glory of Christ in the home.

Second, we need to regain the biblical concept of marriage as a divine covenant meant for life. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 says marriage is, “the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for life.” In this context we must be pastorally preventative and redemptive. With courage and conviction we must make it clear that God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16) and that He has not changed His mind on the matter. Divorce is sin of a most serious sort. We should work diligently and strive mightily to prevent it at all cost. Too many pastors have avoided this difficult topic out of fear of offending those who are divorced and who attend our churches. Truth will offend. Deal with it! However, and this is where the faithful shepherd must come forward, we must be clear that divorce is neither unpardonable nor unforgivable. It almost always has painful consequences, but God’s amazing grace and forgiveness is available to every sinner who repents. No one has the ability to turn back the clock and change history. It would be nice if we could, but we can’t. Those who have suffered the pain of divorce need love and care. They need faithful, biblical ministry. They should never be treated as second class citizens in the kingdom. But, the people we preach to and teach today can be reminded of God’s expectations for marriage now and in the future. They can be reminded and consistently taught that marriage is intended to be a picture and proclamation of the gospel and the relationship that exists between Christ and His church (Eph. 5:21-33). Thus, it is to be a permanent and faithful union until separated by death. Christian marriage is to end only one way!

Third, we need to be clear that men and women equally bear the image of God (Gen. 1:26-31), but that there are distinctive roles and assignments divinely ordained by God for the home and the church. Men are given by the Lord the leadership assignment in both. Such leadership is not autocratic or dictatorial. It is shepherding and serving. It is sacrificial and it is sensitive. It is satisfying and it is specific. Men are called to love (Eph. 5:25-33; Col. 3:19) and know (1 Pet. 3:7) their wives. Women are called by God to submit to and respect their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24, 33; Col. 3:18). They follow the leadership of their husband as the Church follows Christ. First Peter 3:1-6 is remarkable in its counsel and Great Commission focus. There a saved woman is instructed to submit to an unsaved husband that, “they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear” (NKJV). It is no accident that Paul and Peter both ground their theology of marriage in the atonement! Paul, in instructing husbands, points to the sacrificial death of Christ (Eph. 5:25). Peter, in his counsel to wives, emphasizes Christ as our example (2:21). The “likewise” of First Peter 3:1 makes this connection crystal clear.

Fourth, and here I will be intentionally practical. We must affirm the value and necessity of premarital counseling and mentoring. Any church that allows a single marriage to take place on its property without requiring intensive premarital instruction should be ashamed of itself. There is simply no excuse considering all that is at stake. We must also begin to implement in an intentional and comprehensive approach the mentoring principles taught in Titus 2:1-8. Never has there been a greater need for older, godly men to mentor younger men, and for older godly women to mentor younger women. The potential such an emphasis has for marriage, family, evangelism and discipleship is enormous, the impetus for a Great Commission Resurgence tremendous.

Fifth, we must acknowledge the gift of singleness that God gives to some (Matt. 19; 1 Cor. 7), taps into their tremendous potential for service, and stop harassing them simply because they are single. This may be God’s will and calling for them. We should not forget the significant singles of Scripture: persons like Elijah and Elisha, Daniel, Simeon, Anna, Paul, John the Baptist, and, of course Jesus. Our churches should rejoice and take advantage of what God can and will do through godly and dedicated singles.

Sixth, in a culture that seems to be going in the opposite direction, we must affirm in word and practice the gift of children as a “heritage from the Lord” (Psalm 127:3). Godly parents will be disciple-makers beginning in the home. They will understand that no greater investment can be made than that they would raise a brood of godly children who will live for Jesus just like they saw in Mom, and especially Dad. Our churches must train parents to evangelize and disciple their children. Men who live out and put into practice Deuteronomy 6 and Ephesians 6 have never been more important. Both are Great Commission to the core. Both place tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of fathers.

Finally, parents should be challenged and encouraged to pray and ask God to use their child and grandchildren (!) for His greatest glory. Like our friend Al Gilbert at Calvary Baptist in Winston Salem, my wife Charlotte and I have prayed for our four sons, and now we are praying for our grandchildren, that God would call them to ministry and, if He would be so gracious, to the ministry of the mission field. Heaven and hell are real and Jesus is the only difference (John 14:6). What a blessing for any parent, any grandparent, to be used by God to raise a generation of faithful missionaries and evangelists for our King. This is what a Great Commission Resurgence might look like when the power of the gospel is unleashed in the home. I am fervently praying for such an awakening in our churches and in our homes. Would you consider joining me?!

A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 8: Church-A Concise Exposition)

A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 8: Church-A Concise Exposition)

Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.

Missiology is inextricably intertwined with ecclesiology; one cannot be discussed properly without the other. It is probably for that reason that there are so many controversial issues at the intersection of the two disciplines. In this post, we will give a cursory overview of some of the main themes of ecclesiology. This concise biblical ecclesiology will give us a “place to stand” as the next post will speak to some significant and controversial ecclesiological issues in contemporary missiology.

Being the Church

Scripture does not give us a dictionary definition of the nature of the church. What it does instead is give us images and analogies that help us to understand the nature of the church. The church cannot be defined apart from its relationship to God, which is evident especially in the following three images.

In I Pet 2:9-10, the church is described as the people of God, which serves to remind us that we are God’s possession, and that we are a community rather than a collection of individuals. Second, Paul instructs us that we are the body of Christ. Sometimes he uses the image to refer to the church universal (Eph, Col) and sometimes to the church local (Rom, 1 Cor). This image helps us to understand that we are many members but one body (unity and diversity) and that each of us belong to the other members of the body (mutual love and interdependence). Third, we are told that the church is the temple of the Spirit. Our body is a temple of the Spirit (1 Cor 6:19); we are living stones built into a spiritual house (1 Pet 2:5). This image not only evokes the memory of Christ who “tabernacles” with us, but also the idea of relationship. We are held together by the Spirit.

As the Fathers and the Reformers reflected upon the Scriptures, they came to identify the church with certain marks. The church fathers spoke of the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We are one, in that we are indwelt by the same Spirit. We are holy, in that we seek to allow as members only those who profess faith in Christ and show visible signs of regeneration. We are catholic, in that the gospel is universally available for all people, in all places, at all times. We are apostolic, in that we hold to the same gospel proclaimed by the apostles. Moreover, the Reformers noted that the church is marked by the right preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the ordinances, and a commitment to church discipline.

These marks, however, are not exhaustive. There are many ways we can describe the church. For example, as John Hammett has pointed out, the church (1) is organized and purposeful, (2) is primarily local; (3) is by nature, living and growing; (4) is centered on the gospel; and (5) is powered by the Spirit.

Hammett also correctly and persuasively argues that the church is composed of regenerate members (1 Cor 5:11), that this is the center of Baptist ecclesiology, and is directly linked to the purposes of the church. While, on this side of eternity, we will never know for sure the state of another person’s soul, we may keep diligent watch over the church, discipling and disciplining toward the goal of faithfulness and holiness.

Doing Church

The way that the church functions is a direct outworking of who the church is. Scripture gives us specific guidance as to how we are to live as the church. Among these are four.

Because the church is defined by its relation to Christ, we are actually connected to one another. Our union with Christ connects not only to God but also one to another. This is evident especially in the Eucharist and in the “one another” commands. For example, we must live in harmony with one another (Rom 12:16; 15:5), forgive and bear with one another ( Col 3:13) and must not pass judgment on one another (Rom 14:1). We must admonish and encourage one another (1 Thess 5:14) care for one another (1 Cor 12:25), and comfort one another (2 Cor 13:11). Perhaps all of the many “one another” commands could be summed up in 1 Thess 5:15: “Always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”

These commands are given to all of the members of the church. It is not just that the leaders are responsible for the church. Rather, we are all responsible to one another, and ultimately to Christ. The church is congregational (Acts 6:3; 13:2-3; 15:22). While recognizing Christ as the ultimate divine authority, we recognize the congregation as the human authority. We follow Christ as he leads the church. This is not at odds with the appointment of pastors, to whose leadership we submit, unless for doctrinal or moral reasons their leadership is rescinded.

As to leadership, Scripture teaches that the church has two offices, that of the bishop/elder/pastor and that of the deacon. The officers are chosen by the churches (Acts 14:23). The bishop/elder/pastor much be able to administrate (bishop), teach and nurture (pastor), must be mature in the faith (elder), and must meet the requirements laid out in Scripture (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1). The deacon is a servant (Acts 6:1-6) and must meet the requirements laid out in Scripture (1 Tim 3:8-13). The pastors, in particular, are to equip the saints for the work of ministry. The church’s ministries are manifold and may be summarized in five categories. Hammett points out that these five ministries may be seen together in Acts 2:42-47. Those ministries are teaching, fellowship, worship, service, and evangelism.

The Scriptures speak of churches that meet in houses (Rom 16:5) as well as house churches that were connected to one another as city churches (Acts 13:1). Further, the Scriptures speak of these churches, together, as a sort of regional church (Acts 8:1), and of the church universal (1 Cor 1:2). The universal church includes believers both living and dead, is not synonymous with any one institution, denomination, or network of churches, and is not entirely visible at any time.

Conclusion

It is difficult to overstate the significance of ecclesiology for Christians in general and for missiologists in particular. We must agree with Mark Dever, who writes in A Theology for the Church: “The enduring authority of Christ’s commands compels Christians to study the Bible’s teaching on the church. Present-day errors in the understanding and the practice of the church will, if they prevail, still further obscure the gospel. Christian proclamation might make the gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the gospel visible (see John 13:34-35). The church is the gospel made visible.” May we not obscure the gospel by neglecting the church.