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Posts from March 2018

The Danger of the "Hebrew Roots" Movement

After leading five trips to Israel, spending time with and having deeply meaningful conversations with Jewish friends, learned teachers, guides, and theologians, I acknowledge that most Christians (myself included) have much to learn regarding Jewish traditions and the Hebrew roots of Christ and Christianity. Each trip to Israel reveals more that I had not previously known or acknowledged. Yet, the joy of these trips and these conversations is that the message of Scripture and the good news that is the Gospel is affirmed more and more, even as I seek to know more. 

It is true that during the days of the Byzantines especially and following, there was an effort by Christians and some in the church to erase the Jewishness from Jesus' story and the message of the New Testament. A cursory reading of the New Testament makes that assertion implausible.

The Jewish Jesus

Despite the ignorance and racism that precipitated such teaching, the facts remain - Jesus was Jewish. He spoke Hebrew. He likely spoke Hebrew more than has been acknowledged. He did not come to erase Torah (the law) or the teachings of the prophets but to fulfill them. 

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 5:17-20 (ESV)

To discount the Jewishness of Jesus is ignorant at best, sinfully racist at worst.

What is the Hebrew Roots Movement?

Despite the need to acknowledge and understand the Jewish heritage of Christ and the teachings within scripture that begin with the creation of humanity and celebrate the one true God through his covenant relationship with his chosen ones, there is a dangerous theology emerging (actually not new, just a modern version, albeit wrapped in Hebraisms, of gnosticism) categorized as the Hebrew Roots movement.

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Photo credit: CodyAHoffman on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

Here's a good overview of the belief system as taken from gotquestions.org...

Hebrew Roots movement is the belief that the Church has veered far from the true teachings and Hebrew concepts of the Bible. The movement maintains that Christianity has been indoctrinated with the culture and beliefs of Greek and Roman philosophy and that ultimately biblical Christianity, taught in churches today, has been corrupted with a pagan imitation of the New Testament gospels.

Those of the Hebrew Roots belief hold to the teaching that Christ's death on the cross did not end the Mosaic Covenant, but instead renewed it, expanded its message, and wrote it on the hearts of His true followers. They teach that the understanding of the New Testament can only come from a Hebrew perspective and that the teachings of the Apostle Paul are not understood clearly or taught correctly by Christian pastors today. Many affirm the existence of an original Hebrew-language New Testament and, in some cases, denigrate the existing New Testament text written in Greek. This becomes a subtle attack on the reliability of the text of our Bible. If the Greek text is unreliable and has been corrupted, as is charged by some, the Church no longer has a standard of truth.

Benefits of the Hebrew Roots Movement

As with many religious groups that claim their genesis in biblical Christianity, there are beneficial qualities of what many Hebrew Roots teachers proclaim. This is not unlike other groups who promote healthy living and morality, yet hold to biblically unorthodox theology. For Christians, learning details of Jewish life adds insight into many of the biblical stories, especially the parables and teachings of Christ. It is beneficial and good for believers to understand and study the feasts of Israel, the covenant teachings, and other aspects revealed through scripture, and even Jewish celebrations and teachings that are extra-biblical.

A study of Torah can enhance believers understanding of the teachings of Christ. Yet, while good for Gentile Christians to identify with Israel, it is not beneficial to identify as Israel. It is disingenuous at best.

Ultimately, the benefits of the Hebrew Roots movement are few and far between, and outnumbered by the dangers.

Grafted Branches

Gentile Christians have been grafted into God's chosen people. This is expressed by Paul in his letter to the Romans.

"But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, 'Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.' That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you." Romans 11:17-21 (ESV)

It should be noted, however, that the grafting in of Gentile believers is not into the Mosaic Covenant, but "they are grafted into the seed and faith of Abraham, which preceded the Law and Jewish customs. They are fellow citizens with the saints (Ephesians 2:19), but they are not Jews."(gotquestions.org)

The Danger of the Hebrew Roots Movement

Over the past few years, an increase of those who hold to the Hebrew Roots theology has occurred. Some Christians are abandoning traditional biblical orthodoxy and orthopraxy (justified by Hebrew Roots believers since they believe the church corrupted beyond repair.) Seminary students, pastors, and self-taught theologians have joined the movement. The dangers are expressed well here...

The Hebrew Roots movement is dangerous in its implication that keeping the Old Covenant law is walking a "higher path" and is the only way to please God and receive His blessings. Nowhere in the Bible do we find Gentile believers being instructed to follow Levitical laws or Jewish customs; in fact, the opposite is taught. Romans 7:6 says, "But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code." Christ, in keeping perfectly every ordinance of the Mosaic Law, completely fulfilled it. Just as making the final payment on a home fulfills that contract and ends one’s obligation to it, so also Christ has made the final payment and has fulfilled the law, bringing it to an end for us all.

Ultimately, the Hebrew Roots followers, though well intentioned I'm sure, have believed in teachings that are not grounded in scripture, nor affirmed in the teachings of Christ, but sound biblical (as opposed to being biblically sound.) Inerrancy of the Word of God is abandoned by those who believe in a "better way" or who have slid into what is also called Yahwism or the Sacred Name Movement.

Can the Hebrew Roots believers line up alongside evangelical Christianity? Apparently not, by their own admission. At this point, Ephesians 4 and other passages are ignored and forsaken and unity in Christ is abandoned, as division grows and falsehood is propagated. This is grievous. 

Some good insight on related issues:

What is Yahwism? What is a Yahwist?

What is the Sacred Name Movement?


Your New Church Has Great Music, a Trendy Logo, and Looks Great On Instagram...But, That's Not Enough

Laura M. Holson recently (March 17, 2018) wrote an article about a young, large, fast-growing church in southern California for The New York Times. Dr. Albert Mohler referenced the article and church in his podcast The Briefing, posted on March 23, 2018.)

As I listened to Dr. Mohler's podcast and then read the article, I could not help but think "I know churches just like the one in the article!"

Pastors serving in a metropolitan or suburban (and perhaps in some rural) areas have noticed an uptick in new church starts intent on reaching the next generation. I am excited to see more churches in our city. I am so glad to see men step up, not just as a career choice, but due to a God calling (BTW - not all who seek to pastor, should. I wrote about that in the past here). That's why I serve in our city network as a church planting assessor, offer our facilities for new works, and seek to help those called into pastoral ministry as best I can.

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Now that I amazingly am an "old-timer" in our community since I've pastored here for over two decades, I often am asked about some of the new starts that pop up from my peers. Normally the question is something like "What's up with XYZ Church?" Sometimes I know the new pastor and have great things to say. Other times, I have yet to meet the new pastor and have no information to offer. Then, there are the other circumstances when I do know the pastor, know of his theology and focus, and seeking not to be negative, will just encourage others to pray for them (while never encouraging anyone to attend their church.)

Referencing the article from the NYT and Dr. Mohler's assessment once more, I noticed some things that stand out and should be addressed by evangelicals (based on a solid definition of the term). I list some of these below, in no particular order:

The Term "Evangelical" Has Become Almost Unusable

In America today, the term evangelical is used by some who understand the meaning to be related to an identified subset of Christianity that holds to biblical authority and the desire to reach out, or evangelize (thus, the name) those who are non-believers. This is a valid definition. It lines up with the explanation of the National Association of Evangelicals on their site:

Evangelicals take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” Thus, the evangelical faith focuses on the “good news” of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.

However, most recently the term "evangelical" has been muddied. The media uses the term to identify any church or Christian that cannot be categorized as Catholic or Protestant Liberal. More troubling, the term has become an identifier of a perceived political ideology. Christians are likely to blame for this.

Marketing Is Celebrated More Than Message

To be clear, I love specialty marketing stuff. I have no real issues with churches creating attractive logos and plastering them on shirts, hats, or other items. Maybe that's a hold over from my business classes in college. A well-designed logo becomes identifiable in a community. Churches seeking to connect with Millennials often utilize social media (Instagram and Snapchat primarily) to spread the word and create a sense of "coolness" for what they're doing. I'm not opposed to it. Just call it what it is. It is not evangelism. It is not discipleship. It is marketing. While not a bad thing, the church must remember that we have not been called to market well, but to be "salt" and "light" in the world (Matt 5:13-16), commissioned to make disciples of Jesus Christ (Matt 28:19-20).

In some churches, especially the ones referenced in the article, music is incredible, complete with the best sound systems, incredible musicians and smoke machines.

Yet, the message is somewhere an afterthought. The message is toned down into a stream of tweetable thoughts of positive thinking, self-belief, with just enough Jesus sprinkled in to allow the gathering to claim to be Christian. But, it's dangerous.

From Holson's article:

Mr. Veach believes he can save souls by being the hip and happy-go-lucky preacher, the one you want to share a bowl of açaí with at Backyard Bowls on Beverly Boulevard, who declines to publicly discuss politics in the Trump era because it’s hard to minister if no one wants to come to church. Jesus is supposed to be fun, right?

“I want to be loud and dumb,” Mr. Veach said with a wide, toothy grin. “That’s my goal. If we aren’t making people laugh, what are we doing? What is the point?”

Asked about abortion rights, Mr. Veach declined to give a specific answer. “At the end of the day I am a Bible guy,” he said.

Mr. Veach’s father shrugged about his son’s equivocation. “Last thing you want to do is turn off a whole demographic,” he said of today’s pastors. “If you draw lines in the sand, people are going to think God hates them.”

And Mr. Veach wants Zoe to be a refuge for many, against the rhetoric of so many other dogmatic evangelicals.

“From the time I’ve entered, and, maybe, just what we grew up in, it’s, like, you don’t bring politics into church,” he said. “We’re here to preach good news. We’re here to bring hope to humanity. We’re here to talk about God. This is not the place for a political agenda. This is the last place. When I come to church, you know what I need? I need encouragement.”

Dr. Mohler responds:

Now before we dismiss that statement entirely, there's something profoundly true in what he said. People do not come to church in order to talk about politics. That's not what their souls need. But what he said is fundamentally wrong and it ends up being actually, not only allergic to politics but antithetical to the gospel because he reduces what people do need to exactly the wrong word, encouragement. There have been far too many evangelical congregations that have talked more eagerly and more clearly about politics and political issues than they have about the gospel and that is to their shame. But the inescapable fact is that if you are 'a Bible guy" then that means you have to teach the Bible and it means you have to believe the Bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God. It means that you have to preach the parts of the Bible that a contemporary society might find encouraging but it also means you've got to preach the parts of the Bible that a modern, very secular society will find anything but encouraging. Most importantly, if you claim to be committed to human flourishing, you have to be clear about whom the Bible identifies as a human and what flourishing would mean.

"Gospel Lite" with a Good Beat

Now, I do not know Mr. Veach. And, clearly, all I have to go on is what the church promotes online and an article written for The New York Times.

What I do know is that as I read the article about Zoe Church in southern California, as described in this article, I could not help but think of a few churches in our community that seem to have taken the exact blueprint for church launching and growth. They have great music, marketable goods, a trendy logo, an incredible social media presence. This is the Instagram and Snapchat generation and these churches are connecting well.

My concern is the sacrifice of good theology for the propagation of crowd gathering, bent solely on encouragement and good feels.

Many of these music-driven churches are based on others such as Hillsong, described in the NYT article as the "granddaddy of them all." Mohler says, "Hillsong is in many ways an updated millennial prosperity theology packed very well with contemporary music."

Worship Doesn't Have to Be a "No Smoking" Zone

To be clear, having a good band lead worship, complete with lights and even a smoke machine is not bad. Some lambast music styles, but I do not. I am firmly convinced authentic worship can take place through a variety of music styles. To argue otherwise is a waste of breath and ultimately moot.

However, just having good music does not excuse weak preaching. There are some incredible worship songs being written today and many have been sung regularly in churches throughout the world. Yet, the wise pastor would be careful to ensure the worship music (whether old hymns, country gospel, hip hop, modern praise, etc.) has strongly worded lyrics that affirm good theology.  A good rule of thumb is that if a band spends more time explaining why a lyric is biblical after being confronted by solid, biblically sound pastors regarding said lyric, the song should be deleted from the worship set.

I don't care if the band plays contemporary music. I don't care if there are lights and a smoke machine. I don't care that a trendy logo is slapped on various items. I really don't care if a church does that. My warning is to not major on the minors (all that stuff) and miss the main thing - the message of the gospel.

A Higher Standard

I care about these churches because I know some of their pastors and a good number of their members. I pray they will not sacrifice the good news for a good time.

However, if a local church proves to be more icing than cake, I will continue to pray for them and not recommend that anyone attend. 

And for those who counter "Well, they weren't going to church anywhere. At least that church is better than not going, right?" I say - "Probably not."

I care because I want people to come to Christ. I want the unreached reached. I want the lost found. I just don't want a fluffy, weak, watered-down version of Christianity to propagate.

There's too much at stake. 


Live for God and You Will Face a Sanballat & Tobiah

I have been leading our church through a study of Ezra and Nehemiah on Wednesdays recently. We have discussed much about the rebuilding of the Temple and walls of Jerusalem. We looked at the significance of rebuilding these structures and of the gates of the city as well.

As you who have studied these books know, there are a few characters who show up early in the book of Nehemiah that seek to discredit Nehemiah's leadership and put a stop to the work being done in the city. These men are Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem.

The main protagonists are Sanballat and Tobiah. At first, they start hurling insults at Nehemiah and the people. Then, the threats lead to potential physical attacks. They are opposed to the work of God and are doing their best to stop it.

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Photo credit: alvaro tapia hidalgo on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Nehemiah is seeking to lead God's people well and honor God through the work. The enemies seek to place themselves first, not God nor his people. This is clear in the writings. 

Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem were men of influence. They had authority in the community due to their roles as governors and leaders of their regions. They represented people groups that were originally expelled from the Promised Land of God's people centuries prior. 

While it's not necessarily a good thing to ask "Where am I in this story?" when it comes to biblical narratives, primarily because that seems to place self at the center of God's stories. In this case, there are some things that are not only clear historically, but applicable for churches and Christian leaders today.

There are always Sanballats and Tobiahs

Most pastors I know have experienced this reality. When a pastor or Christian leader seeks to do great, impossible, God-sized things for the glory of God, there is always opposition. In other words, there's always a "Sanballat" and "Tobiah" in the midst. These may be community members or neighbors. Sometimes, they are actually members of the church. 

Over time they become easily recognizable. Here are some things that occur within the church that reveal a Sanballat and Tobiah may be in the room:

  • A sense of "me first" or "our group first" rises to the surface when community engagement and mission expansion are presented.
  • A pervasive negativity fills the room and is stoked by the Sanballats and Tobiahs. Negativity is like a cancer and can turn a joyous gathering of Christians into a complain-fest that sees nothing positive happening.
  • Vision dissipates.
  • A desire to go back rather than forward is often expressed.
  • An "us versus them" mentality is expressed, either overtly or covertly. The confusion may come in identifying the "us" and the "them." 
  • New ideas (or even old ones cemented in biblical truth) are opposed.
  • A number of pastors have heard the "We were here before you came here. We'll be here after you're gone." expression regularly.
  • A continued reminder of how big a failure you are as a pastor or leader (i.e. "You didn't visit enough," "Your sermons are negative diatribes," "You love 'them' more than 'us,'" "You're changing things and we don't like it," "Your family is rude/mean/loud/unruly/undisciplined/etc."

Here's the good news - your Sanballats and Tobiahs are just members of a long-lasting club. It's a club no one should want to be a member, yet continues to grow in number, it seems.

Pastor, be encouraged. There's no pastor who has not faced this. You are called to shepherd and serve. You are not perfect. You will make mistakes. Believe me, people will let you know when you make mistakes. Just remember that God called and equipped a king's cupbearer for an impossible task of rebuilding a stone wall with large wooden gates around a city. This task he (Nehemiah) was given was impossible. Then, while continually facing opposition, even from those who were working with him, he was opposed by Sanballat and Tobiah. Yet, he finished the task. The city was restored. God's good hand (Neh 2) was upon him. It is on you as well. Stay focused on the task, grounded in the gospel and respond to the negative attackers as Nehemiah did...

And I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” Nehemiah 6:3 (ESV) 

I love that! When Sanballat and Tobiah were working once more to distract and stop the work Nehemiah was called to do, he responds with "Can't talk now. The work of God I am doing now is too important." 

Take heart. You're not the first to face opposition. You' won't be the last. Don't waste time talking about it to those who are direly opposed to God and his work (regardless their position or title) and press on. Yes, this is easier said than done, but then most vital things are.

One other warning: Be careful not to become a Sanballat or Tobiah. It's really easy to slide into that mode, even justifying one's own sin while doing so.


Why We Let Other Churches Use Our Building

Among western, and especially American evangelical churches, a sense of territorialism has been a reality for as long as I can remember.

"Church A" has been in a community for a while. "Church B" exists in a neighboring community. A sense of ownership over a region develops, not unlike that which exists between school districts. The sense of ownership is not necessarily bad, especially when a church deems its neighborhood and surrounding community as their missional responsibility for engagement. 

The problems often develop when "Church A" gets upset at "Church B" for perceived encroachment on their domain.

A jealousy develops and negative thoughts and comments often result.

There are obviously issues in churches and at times, church splits happen and members leave to join another church. These rarely are the result of a Kingdom-mindedness and more often are the result of one or more issues (poor pastoral leadership, disagreements with doctrinal stances, consumer mentalities, seeking better ministries for kids, etc.) that are more prevalent among Christians than we'd like to admit. Sometimes sinful motivations are what push or pull members away from one church to another (or to none.) This is grievous and can be delved in more at a later time.

Nevertheless, the sin of Christian competitiveness rears its head at times and the church experiences jealousy or an isolationist mindset. 

As I write this, I am reminded that the sense of competitiveness and territorialism exists even within my own heart. Comparative ministry analysis between our church and others is an easy thing to do. Sometimes, it's helpful and healthy. At other times, it is simply an outgrowth of jealousy or desperation.

Acknowledging my own weaknesses in these areas, I continue to repent. I know that new works (i.e. new churches, church plants, church campuses, etc.) statistically reach people sometimes at higher rates than established churches. Why? I'll leave that for someone else to study. Sounds like a doctoral dissertation for someone, maybe?

We (our church) have joined others in our network of churches (Jacksonville Baptist Association), state convention, mission agencies and other groups throughout North America and the world lauding the church planting and new work efforts. I have served as a church planting assessor, have coached new pastors, sought to help new works get launched, find locations, funding, etc.

So, when a new church with solid doctrine, quality leadership, and a passion for the gospel seeks to launch in our community, I know to be frustrated, competitive or comparative is hypocritical at best.

That's why we have determined to work with new churches launching in our "territory," offering help when possible. Why? Because there are more unsaved people in our community than saved, and we know that we cannot reach them on our own. God continues to draw people to himself and we are honored and blessed to be part of his great story.

In the past, we have hosted other churches in our buildings. Some have been churches that met for just a few months. Others were focused on reaching people in our community who speak a different heart language than English. Some started as just a planter and core team seeking a place to pray and gather prior to taking their next steps.

DOXA CHURCH

We are honored to host a new church plant, pastored by Jeth Looney, for such meetings. Doxa Church is going to have some pre-launch meetings at our church building in Orange Park with the intent of planting in Orange Park soon. Jeth is a called pastor and gifted to teach and preach. His heart for the gospel and reaching this community for Christ is evident. Doxa will be part of our city network and convention moving forward and we believe that God is already at work through this new church as they have gathered in homes, and will do great things through them in Orange Park and beyond.

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Doxa Church Vision Meeting in the F Building of FBCOP on 3/18/2018

Do we really need another church in Orange Park?

Apparently, there are still unsaved, unreached, and unengaged people in Orange Park. So the answer is yes. Yes, we need more gospel-centric, unapologetic, missional churches in our community. We need these churches, and they need us. The mission remains and together we can do much more for the kingdom of God and the sake of the gospel than we can alone.

What if members of FBC Orange Park leave to join Doxa?

Hmmm, this is the real question isn't it? It's safer to host a meeting. It's dangerous to see church members leave to join another church in the community. However, unlike the common exits that are predicated by frustrations or doctrinal issues, if members of our church (well, it's really God's church, right?) leave to help launch a new work in Orange Park...good. In fact, "To God be the glory!" 

We have a choice - we can either continue to work on building our small kingdoms, believing that somehow this is good, or allow our actions to match our words and trust God to grow His kingdom through any means he chooses. Sometimes, he may call a church member from "Church A" to serve in "Church B." This is far different from the normal transfer member "growth." I do believe, however, that God never calls a church member from a church to another for the purpose of doing nothing but being served. I also believe that any "sent" members must be members in good standing, generous, service-minded, and action-oriented, not under church discipline, and not disengaged.

Pray for Doxa Church

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Pastor Jeth Looney

Join me in praying for Jeth and his team as they seek to launch Doxa Church in Orange Park. May we continue to be part of movements of God greater than ourselves.