Previous month:
July 2019
Next month:
September 2019

Posts from August 2019

Christians, Depression, and Mental Illness

Through my recent studies in the book of Ezekiel for Sunday sermon preparation and 1 John for my mid-week Bible study, I have been speaking on the tendency for us to either justify our sin or not acknowledging it for what it is. This is part of human nature (i.e. sin nature) and we all do this at some point. 

In 1973 psychologist Karl Menninger shocked many with his book Whatever Became of Sin?

He writes about the seeming absence of the word sin in modern English. He stated that churches and pastors who were known to preach against sin and used the world prolifically now seemed to avoid it. He was speaking of many in the mainline Protestant denominations and even the early 1970s genesis of what became known as political correctness.

He states this regarding the word “sin”...

It is surely nothing new that men want to get away from acknowledging their sins or even thinking about them. Is this not the religious history of mankind? Perhaps we are only more glib nowadays and equipped with more euphemisms. We can speak of error and transgression and infraction and mistakes without the naïve exposure that goes with serious use of that old-fashioned pietistic word “sin.”

We love sanitized words. That way we can pretend sin isn’t real. 

Mental Illness and Sin

Sometimes we like to call our sin something other than sin. In the past, I have stated "We may call it a mistake, a challenge, or even call it mental illness or a disorder in a way to excuse sin." I now realize that by categorizing mental illness and disorder as I did, I presented these as synonymous with sin. They are not. 

Lonely-man-sits-on-bench-in-park

To claim that someone's illness is a sin is akin to what the disciples asked Jesus when they came upon a blind man.

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” - John 9:1-5 (ESV)

There is much division among evangelical Christians regarding mental health. The spectrum of mental illness is wide and when spoken of among Christians, various opinions arise. For years the concept of depression or mental illness among Christians was seen as a sign of sin or wrongdoing. In some cases, the prescription was just to "be positive and pray more, go to church more, trust God more, be happy, etc." None of those recommendations are wrong. However, the Christian in your church who sincerely desires help, who reads the Bible more, prays more, and everything else that good Christians are supposed to do, often experiences an "almost there, but not quite" reality and wonders if it will ever get better.

What is mental illness?

When speaking of mental illness or depression, a clear definition is difficult to find. Biblical counselors often state that mental illness is not a disease but a construct. Psychologists Herb Kutchins and Stuart Kirk who have served on The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) committees (the group that decides what is and is not a mental illness), state:

The category of [mental illness] itself is an invention, a creation. It may be a good and useful invention, or it may be a confusing one. DSM is a compendium of constructs. And like a large and popular mutual fund, DSM's holdings are constantly changing as the managers' estimates and beliefs about the value of those holdings change.1

That description may cause frustration for some. At first glance, it appears that they are saying mental illness is not real. That is not what they're stating. What they are emphasizing is the mystery of defining that which is seemingly understood by the masses as clearly defined, most often as biological. 

Sadly, the church often becomes the place where those who suffer from mental disorders or depression feel less safe than elsewhere.

Dr. Jeremy Pierre stated this in an article about mental illness and the church, following the suicide of Saddleback Church's Pastor Rick and Kay Warren's son, Matthew...

Everyone knows the unpleasant impulse to hide something about himself that others wouldn’t approve of. For those who experience overwhelming emotions or find themselves caught in patterns of unusual behavior, this impulse is more than unpleasant—it’s terrifying. We are aware of the general standards of normalcy around us, and when we don’t measure up to those standards, we feel shame. The easiest way to stay included is to hide those things about us that don’t measure up. Lest we demonize the church, let’s admit that this is true in any sphere of relationships—the neighborhood, the workplace, the rec league.

Nevertheless, it’s right to recognize that the church should be different. And, at least in some churches, it’s not. Sometimes it’s worse because the standards of normalcy are mixed with standards of morality, and the stakes get even higher. The thought of a guy at work finding out you take meds might be unpleasant to you, but the thought of your pastor finding out might be downright distressing. In your mind, your coworker might think you’re a little screwy, but your pastor might think you’re screwy and sinning. And so you may be more tempted to hide stuff from your pastor than from your coworker.2

To equate mental illness, mental disorders, or depression as sin is inaccurate. Yet, as believers, we know that all illness (physical, emotional, behavioral, etc.) are results of the fall of man. Sin is the ultimate source. Our brokenness impacts all of creation. The sin nature within all leads to suffering and that suffering is meant to make us groan for the life to come, when all of creation will be set free from corruption (Pierre). 

That's the promise in Scripture.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. - Romans 8:18-19 (ESV)

Counselors such as Jay Adams, with his nouthetic (to confront out of concern for the change of heart) biblical counseling approach addressed from a biblical perspective the same issue that Menninger did from a secular one in his book referenced earlier. The context of sin minimization meant that the segmentation of the person was being addressed (i.e. behavioral, physical, mental, emotional, etc.) without taking a biblical perspective that we as image-bearers of God are not just one aspect of humanity. Adams noted that the the church seemingly lost its focus on sin and salvation and also the focus on sanctification. This ignoring of the daily growth in Christlikeness through the valleys and lamentable moments was ignored by many.

Ultimately, we know and affirm that Christ is the answer for all life's circumstances and for our sin. He is the redeemer. These are not questioned.

But, what about the one who is ill, the one struggling to get up in the morning, battling thoughts and feelings that seemingly paralyze them? 

Rather than simply declare that the person is in sin (they may be, but address that for what it is, not just because they are battling depression or suffering from a mental disorder) we should look to Christ for guidance and follow the Holy Spirit's lead in offering help as brothers and sisters. 

The mind can descend far lower than the body. For [the mind] there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour. - Charles Spurgeon

Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, had bouts of sadness. Perhaps even moments of severe depression. His words do not discount the Lord's helping hand, but also does not ignore his very real feelings. 

For the believer who is suffering with depression or other mental disorder, here's what Lieryn Barnett states on a post featured at The Gospel Coalition (full article here.)

  1. You are not alone.
  2. It is not your fault
  3. God sees you and is with you
  4. God's Word speaks to you

The thorn in the flesh is very real, and unique for different individuals. The feelings you have do not define you, though in the midst of the difficulty, they feel as if they do. God ultimately is the healer. Go to him, lean into him, trust him. Trust that he often provides others (pastors, doctors, nurses, friends) who can be very real help along the journey. 

Where there is sin revealed, confess and repent. 

Where it is not sin, it is a "thorn in the flesh" and we pray as Paul did that God would remove it. If he does, we will praise him. If he chooses not to, we will praise him and pray that you experience his grace as sufficient.

______________

           1Heath Lambert, "Can Jesus Heal Mental Illness? Part 1," Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, March 16, 2014, accessed August 28, 2019, https://biblicalcounseling.com/can-jesus-heal-mental-illness-part-1/.

         2Jeremy Pierre, "Mental Illness and the Church," Biblical Counseling Coalition, April 19, 2013, accessed August 28, 2019, http://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2013/04/19/mental-illness-and-the-church/.


"What Is A Girl Worth?" by Rachael Denhollander - Book Review

In 2016 after the IndyStar ran an exposé on USA Gymnastics (USAG) and how the organization turned a blind eye to sexual abuse perpetrated by coaches for years, a young woman in Louisville, Kentucky responded. She sent an email to the writer of the story stating that it was not just coaches, but one of the premier doctors for USAG who was also an abuser. When this email arrived at the IndyStar, it was soon answered by the reporter responsible for the story. It was at that moment Rachael Denhollander stepped out of private life and began the journey to become whom BBC News called "the five-star general in the army of survivors."

Rachael Denhollander, a wife, mother, attorney, former gymnast, and survivor of sexual abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar stepped into the public eye and became the voice for hundreds of women who had been victimized sexually. In many cases, these women felt they had no voice. Sadly, some felt they were to blame for that which was done to them.

The last few years have been a whirlwind for Denhollander, her family, and the other survivors. After a long, tedious, painful, and revealing journey of testimonies, interviews, and trial dates, the battle against a culture that often protects and enables abusers continues.

Yet, there has been victory–great victory. In January 2018, Larry Nassar was sentenced to prison for his crimes. The victory is that the voices of these victims survivors were eventually heard.

The battle continues because the reality of systematic, ignored, and enabled sexual abuse continues in our nation. It continues in organizations (businesses, schools, churches, etc.) where protecting the brand is more important than protecting people. It continues in states where laws designed to bring abusers to justice often do not have enough teeth to actually provide help for the abused. It continues in communities where subtle statements such as "Well, did you see what she was wearing?" and other heinous statements point the blame at the victims rather than the victimizers. It continues in a world where the depravity of sin remains and the only hope for true healing is through repentance and total surrender to Christ.

I was given a copies of Rachael's soon-to-be-released books for review.

Denhollander's books
Rachael Denhollander's books

How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?

One book is written for parents to read to their little girls. How Much Is a Little Girl Worth? is a beautifully illustrated (by Morgan Huff) storybook showing images alongside a poem written by Rachael. I haven't read books written for little girls in a very long time (my daughter is now in her mid-twenties) but as I read this I could clearly sense a mother's love for her daughter throughout. I shared this with the preschool and children's ministry leaders in our church and they stated that every parent of little girls should have this. It declares clear messages intended to be preemptive strikes against the enemy's attack on a girl's identity. The world is a dangerous and a girl's identity is often attacked early, and continually. This portion on page 23 is a great example of the focus...

Your value is found not in what you can do

Or the things you accomplish and win.

It is found in how you were made, precious girl–

Created and cherished by Him.

What Is a Girl Worth?

What Is a Girl Worth? is the autobiographical account by Denhollander giving insight into her upbringing in Michigan, her desire to become a gymnast, and her eventual meeting with Dr. Larry Nassar at his Michigan State University clinic following an injury. Rachael's writing is clear, and narrative. The reader is quickly brought into her world and can begin to see how she transitioned from an innocent young teenager just wanting to become a gymnast to a young woman who, by no desire of her own, had to become the voice of silenced ones who have suffered abuse. 

The reader gets a first-hand view of the fear, frustration, risks, and reality of life that Rachael and her husband Jacob faced. For those who followed the story once it became a media firestorm, there really is no spoiler. Just as those who watched the film "Titanic" knew the ship eventually sunk, the readers know that Larry Nassar was eventually convicted. Yet, while reading (even knowing the outcome) there is a sense of nervousness and a need to turn the page to get to the next portion just to see how the next phase of the account plays out.

It is almost as if you want to read the book as quickly as you can just so you can be assured that Nassar gets convicted. You know he does, but Rachael's writing makes her story personal for the reader and suddenly, even if you never have personally been victimized sexually, you begin to hurt with those who have and want their voices to be heard.

I believe Rachael begins her book with the very best opening line she could have. 

Why didn't you say something sooner? (p. 1)

In this age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, I have heard many say similar things. Every accusatory statement made for those bold enough to speak about their victimization is referenced in Rachael's book. Suddenly, you discover how easily (maybe unknowingly) people accuse the accuser rather than believe the harmed. 

I have highlighted many portions of the book. There are numerous statements that stood out and made me think more clearly on the issue of sexual abuse and victimization. Here are just a few:

I couldn't choose what had happened, but I could choose how I responded. (p. 87)

Church wasn't safe. Nowhere was safe. (Related to how her Bible teacher chose to teach the David & Bathsheba story plus bringing up an abuse issue in her life that occurred in her church. p. 90)

I noticed that fellow Christians pretty much talked only about our need to understand the wrong things we'd done. No one talked about God's supposed hatred for the wrongs done against us. (p. 99)

Doing good didn't erase the bad. (p. 101)

I care about the survivors. I care about the church. I care about the integrity of the gospel. When we get this wrong, it does terrible damage. (p. 147)

The dynamics survivors have to navigate just to be heard are no-win situations. (p. 157)

"Little girls don't stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world." - Kyle Stephens, abused as a little girl by Larry Nassar while addressing him. (p. 298)

The book is filled with such nuggets of truth and clarity.

The phrase that Rachael puts in the book numerous times, as a reminder of her upbringing, her faith, and her resolve is "The more you love, the harder you fight." This is why she persevered and why she was called the "Five star general" of this army of survivors. 

This book is a systematic account of how God brought Rachael through her pain to be used by Him for His glory and the very good of many other women. It is also the story of how her own wounds found healing as God brought her husband Jacob into her life. I told my wife that the book is a combination of a legal thriller, a sports story, a battle between good and evil, with just a little Hallmark movie in the middle (Chapters 11 & 12).

Denhollander is a Christian and her book is replete with messages related to biblical truths such as sin, grace, forgiveness, true love, and justice. While Christians will connect well with these stories, even non-believers will be able to relate. In other words, while What Is A Girl Worth? is not a "Christian book" (I'm not sure books can become Christians) it is a book written by a Christian and since one's Christianity is not something that can be turned on or off, biblical truths resonate throughout. 

In addition to the pointed story regarding USAG and Larry Nassar, there is a subtext related to the Denhollanders church and how sexual abuse among God's children is often addressed wrongly. Sadly, this was their experience, but as stated in the final chapters, God has brought healing there as well.

I highly recommend Rachael Denhollander's books. For those with little girls, the storybook is a must buy. The autobiographical account in the adult book is for all who have been victimized, know someone who has, or is part of an organization or institution (church, team, business, etc.) that could easily be positioned to protect the "image" of the organization rather than the image-bearers of God within. It is a must read. It will challenge you. It will grieve you. Hopefully and prayerfully, it will be used as a catalyst for change so that other little girls don't find themselves taking the blame for horrendous acts perpetrated on them. 

How much is a girl worth? They are infinitely worthy. 


How You Teach the "David & Bathsheba Story" May Cause Harm

You know the story, I'm certain. David is the king of Israel. He's the "man after God's own heart." He has risen to the throne after years of service to King Saul, a daring escape and hiding out from the king who sought to kill him. His entire life plays like an epic film. That's why there have been many films made about him.

Bathsheba is a beautiful woman bathing on the roof of her home. 

It just so happens that her roof is viewable from the king's palace and David is home. He shouldn't be home. He should be out with his army fighting battles and leading them.

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. - 2 Samuel 11:1 (ESV)

"But David remained at Jerusalem." This is bad. Really bad.

5939733457_49a5e510e4_b
Photo credit: corrine klug on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Imagine you're in Sunday School. You're a teenager and the teacher reads the rest of 2 Samuel 11 and you hear how Bathsheba, the wife of one of David's warriors, is home, bathing and is seen by the king. She's desirable and he calls for her. He has his way with her and sends her home.

Who sinned?

That's the question. I have heard it asked before. I have heard sermons preached on this. 

The obvious answer is that David has sinned. 

But...what about Bathsheba?

It's mentioned by someone in class. The pastor may be making a point about the sins of bathing on the roof. (BTW - despite how this has been taught for years, the Scripture doesn’t say that she was on the roof. She could have been inside near a window. It was David on a roof looking at her.) Regardless, there's this message given that she was complicit in the sin. She did the deed with David and it's her fault.

Bathsheba's fault?

But, wouldn't a person in an ancient Middle Eastern kingdom be basically stating "kill me" by refusing a request from a king? That's referenced in other books, even in the story of Esther and the Persian king. 

I get it. Bathsheba is not perfect. She is a sinner. There's no doubt there. Oh, not because of this story, but because of what Scripture states regarding everyone's sin. We're all sinners. So, the sin nature of humanity is not in question here.

What I am speaking of is how we teach this lesson. So often I hear points made related to the great sin of Bathsheba. It is almost as if her rooftop bathing caused the sin perpetrated against her. Really? Her bathing caused David to stay home when he shouldn't have been home. Her bath caused him to do the ancient equivalent of surfing the web for porn? Her rooftop bathing made David send for her and plan out an encounter that was about his pleasure alone. 

That's how it is often presented. 

What's the big deal?

Imagine you're teaching this class and unbeknownst to you there are women (it could be men) in the room who were stalked, groomed, seduced, and sexually assaulted in the past by someone in authority. Maybe it was a parent, a pastor, a teacher, a coach, a relative, or someone else. It doesn't matter who it was. What matters is that a person of authority took advantage and greatly harmed someone sexually for their own desires and personal pleasure. 

That survivor in your class hears your Bible lesson and doesn't hear anything else than, "They think it was Bathsheba's fault." This leads them to think "I guess it was really my fault, too."

And that's how victims remain victimized and how, even unintentionally, our teachings of inerrant Bible stories and truth can state things the Bible does not say and things we don't intend.

David sinned greatly. He was also confronted by God's prophet Nathan. Look how Nathan refers to Bathsheba in his confrontation...

1And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” - 2 Samuel 12:1-4 (ESV)

The "lamb" was innocent. Bathsheba is the innocent lamb in this story. She had been taken advantage of, used for the pleasure of the king, and violated. As we see her in this story, she was taken from her home and was little more than a possession the powerful king desired.

It was not her fault.

It's that simple. In this story where we are first introduced to Bathsheba, based on what God's prophet Nathan reveals and what we have in Scripture, this woman was not to blame. 

I guess it's the "naked woman on the roof" (or at least visible from a roof) that just makes people want to blame her. Amazing how that becomes the focus for so many when studying this story.

And those who have been sexually victimized sit in our churches remaining silent, because they blame themselves for what someone else did to them. And, they reason that no one will believe them anyway. I mean, in Sunday School they blamed Bathsheba.

Sometimes the way we teach Scripture leaves our learners unable to hear the truth, much less receive it. 

___________________

This post was prompted by a story in Rachael Denhollander's soon-to-be released book What Is a Girl Worth? Available for preorder here.


No, You Don't Have a Right to Join the Church

Growing up in various Baptist churches (my father was in the Air Force, so we lived in numerous cities) we would prayerfully consider where to attend church and when the "right" one was found, we would join. In those days, the process of becoming a member of a church was quite common.

  1. You walked down front at the close of the worship service while the music minister led the congregation in "Just As I Am" or another "come on down" hymn. 
  2. You introduced yourself to the pastor. If you had your family with you, you introduced them as well.
  3. The pastor would ask "Why are you coming down today?"
  4. If already a Christian, you would say "I'm coming to join this church by moving my letter here."
  5. Then, most often, it was a "Well, amen! We're glad to have you." The pastor would have you turn around and face the congregation. He would introduce you and say something like "If you approve of having John Doe join our church, say 'Amen!'" 
  6. The congregation always said "Amen" and boom, you're a church member.

There was a longer process if you hadn't been baptized by immersion or were coming from another denomination. Yet, by and large, it was often a very simple process.

I grew up thinking this was correct. While common, it certainly was not the best understanding of church membership. In fact, looking back now, this process was terrible and terribly problematic for the local church.

Is Church Membership Biblical?

Sometimes you will hear the argument that membership in the local church is not biblical. There are newer churches who "don't do membership" and see it as a man-made administrative step that leads to legalism. To put it bluntly, those churches are wrong, regardless how spiritual their reasonings may sound. 

The church universal is often spoken of when seeking to minimize the membership expectations of the church local. Some "seeker sensitive" churches of the 1980s and 1990s built models that left membership in the margins, if referenced at all, in an attempt to be "relevant" and grow a crowd. 

Matt Chandler, Pastor of The Village Church in the Dallas, Texas area wrote of this a few years back. he stated:

With conflicts already brewing over other doctrines that I viewed as far more central, I wondered if we should let this church membership thing slide and come back to it later. I was preparing at the time to preach through the book of Hebrews and “happened” to be in chapter 13 when verse 17 leapt off the page: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Two questions occurred to me. First, if there is no biblical requirement to belong a local church, then which leaders should an individual Christian obey and submit to? Second, and more personally, who will I as a pastor give an account for?

These two questions started my search for a biblical understanding of the local church, and they began around the ideas of authority and submission.

Regarding the first question, the Scriptures clearly command Christians to submit to and honor an elder body (Heb. 13:17, 1 Tim. 5:17). If there is no understanding of local church membership, then who are we to submit to and obey? Is it anyone with the title “elder” from any church? Should you as a Christian obey and submit to those loons at Westboro Baptist? In order to obey Scripture, must you picket soldiers’ funerals, as the pastor of Westboro seems to imply?

Regarding the second question, the Scriptures clearly command an elder body to care for specific people (1 Pet. 5:1-5; also, Acts 20:29-30). Will I as a pastor be held accountable for all the Christians in the Dallas Metroplex? There are many churches in Dallas that I have strong theological and philosophical differences with. Will I give account for what they teach in their small group, how they spend their money, and what they do concerning international missions? (9Marks Journal, April 28, 2011)

In addition to this, the concept of church discipline falls apart when there are no clear membership roles or expectations. Paul's confrontation of the church at Corinth clearly reveals an expected behavior of those who claimed to be part of (members of) the church body.

While church membership may not seem cool for some, it is biblical.

Lightstock_74961_small_david_tarkington

What Is Church Membership?

A clear understanding of what it means to be a member of a local church is essential. Pastor Dean Inserra stated that years ago following a new member's class at his church a potential member asked him "What changes for me on Monday if I join the church today?" It's a challenging and needful question. It led Dean to clarify the membership process and expectations in his church, to the benefit of the church body.

All pastors should contemplate that question. What is the big deal? What changes?

If the answer is "Well, you get to vote in our business meetings," you likely are not fully understanding the need for people to be church members. And...if someone joins the church just to vote in a business meeting, you likely have more issues, or will, you have deeper problems.

Jonathan Leeman of 9Marks gives a concise definition of church membership here...

Church membership is a formal relationship between a local church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church. (9Marks Journal, August 22, 2014)

When a person seeks to join a local body of believers (the local church) the church, or designated pastors, elders, and leaders are not to just say "Come on and join. It's easy. There's nothing to it." but to clearly delineate what the covenant relationship means.

Church Membership Is a Relationship

The relationship between men and women in a local church is covenantal. It is relational. The relationship begins with God and is centered upon him. God is relational. The Trinity expresses this clearly.

The relationships Christians are to have with other believers flow from this relationship with God. Within the local church, those relationships are even more connected. The "one anothers" of Scripture are played out within the body. There is no mistaking this. The "Jesus and me" mentality that sees church as the place where I go to get my fill of weekly spiritual teaching so that I can get through my week, tends to place "me" at the center of everything. 

No wonder so many get bored and tired at church and are seemingly always looking for the latest edition or version available. 

This me-centered, independent mindset prevails in our culture. It leads to the shopping for churches and consumerism disguised as Christianity.

It also leads to a belief that people have the right to be a member of the local church.

Church Membership Is Not a Right

As Americans, we love our personal rights. We even have a "Bill of Rights" in our Constitution that have allowed freedoms to be expressed and experienced that are unavailable in other areas of the world. We truly are blessed to have these. However, sometimes we transfer what we believe to our rights to aspects  of life where they do not apply.

When it comes to becoming a member of a local church, no one actually has a right to be welcomed in as a member.

I know this sounds like we have some super-exclusive club where certain people will not be welcome. That becomes some of the pushback for churches who require membership. Truly, in the past, some have used unbiblical guidelines (such as race) as determining factors regarding who can or cannot be a church member. I am not speaking of such vile circumstances.

Some basics are expected and those must align with the church's declared and shared doctrine. A person should not be admitted into membership if certain doctrinal differences exist, especially if they're first- or second-level theological issues (view of Trinity, justification, mode of baptism, meaning of Lord's Supper, etc.)

For a person to be accepted in membership of a local church, there are definitely expectations that should be understood. These are not only things expected from church members, but things the potential member can expect from the church. This is a relationship and therefore, there are expectations.

When churches minimize what it means to be a member and lower the standards expected of church members, membership not only becomes unbiblical but troublesome.

What About Members Who Abandon the Church?

Most churches I know have a list of church members who never attend. This list includes a small percentage representing those who are incapacitated or unable to leave home and attend worship services or other activities. Their health is failing or they have physical or other disabilities keeping them from the local gathering. For those individuals, membership has not been abandoned. In fact, the church has expectations to continue the relationship (remember, it's a covenant relationship) and to help when family members are not able to do so.

What about the rest of those disconnected "members"?

Most pastors know this passage in Hebrews, yet we often only focus on a portion of it.

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17 ESV)

I fear that we love the "obey" and "submit" portion, but skip over the "those who will have to give an account" portion. Simply put, the displaced and non-attending church member should be contacted and sought to be drawn back in to the fold.

Why? Because we (pastors and leaders) will have to give an account to God for our care.

However, there are likely members who haven't attended in years and would not want to come back into the fold simply because doing so would put them immediately into a process of church discipline. Yep, that church member living opening in sin cannot just slide back into church. Therefore, they seek to hide away from church, while simultaneously keeping their membership in the church.

It's bogus. It's sinful.

Some may not even know they're still considered members of the church. Maybe they've been attending elsewhere. Perhaps they moved away. Some may actually be members at another church that either "doesn't do membership," is of a different denomination, or simply is poor in their administration that they never saw fit to reach out and connect with the former church.

We actually had some church members who were serving at a sister church as deacons and Sunday School leaders years ago. Why? Mainly because our membership process at the time did not allow us remove members unless another church sent for their "letter" (membership) or the individual requested to be removed from the church roll.

Why Would Someone Want to Remain a Member and Not Attend?

The cultural Christian reality explains this well. Dean Inserra's book The Unsaved Christian covers this well. There are many reasons, but some that come to mind are...

  • Membership allows someone to use the building for a wedding at no or reduced rates.
  • Membership allows someone to use the building for a funeral.
  • Membership looks good on the postcard or website in some areas if you decide to run for office.
  • Membership allows for some to claim connectivity with others when there is no relationship.
  • Membership in the church is like membership in the Rotary, Lions, or any other community organization. It's good for business.

Church membership can be a mess.

While our church won't be dropping church members wide-scale, we will begin to delete the "Sunday School members" who haven't attended in months. We will eliminate names that have been passed and promoted for years.

People matter, but membership is more than a name on a roll.

Joining a church is a covenantal agreement. Anything less is superficial at best, and sinful at worst. So, no you don't have a right to be a member of the local church, but God desires that you be a member. It is good. It is right. It is holy and it allows for the believer to be a disciple who makes disciples. 

 

Oh yeah...

If you're actively attending another church and engaged in ministry there...join it. Don't keep your membership in one church and act like a member in another. :-)


Hope in a Culture Defined By Hate

"It has never been this bad" is a statement of despair that I have heard from numerous people over the years.

This cry echoes in our culture once again as we hear of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. These evil actions of two individuals (with seemingly unrelated motivations) have brought cries from various corners of society for fixes. Political pundits and creators of sound bites and spin have once again taken center stage in order to state their cases.

While cries of action come from some, cries of grief continue for family members and friends who are now planning funerals.

It is bad. There is no question that these events are terrible, horrific, and evil. The loss of life, even in a desensitized culture, is always tragic. It is even more tragic when deaths are not the result of accidents or illness (though those are tragic as well) but at the hands of deranged criminals. 

Thus we hear "Woe is us. It has never been this bad."

Hate Is "Normal" 

From a Christian perspective, we know the story of sin. We not only know it historically, but we understand it personally. Thus, the need for a Redeemer. 

The Enemy hates God. His hatred is revealed clearly in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden. His hatred for God is played out upon God's image-bearers, Adam and Eve. Sin enters the human story and separation from God results. Even so, in this separation, the love of God remains. It always has.

Shortly into the story of the first family, hatred between brothers is revealed as Cain kills Abel. 

The account of Noah is more than just a story about a large boat and animals. The destruction of humanity (except for Noah and his family) was due to the hatred and wickedness within the hearts of man. 

The human story continues with wars, attacks, jealousy, and hatred. The Scripture is replete with these accounts. Thankfully, Scripture also reveals the amazing love of God for those who, by nature, hate him.

So, hate is "normal." It's the factory default for humankind. Yet, it is not good. It is not acceptable. It is not excusable. It is not holy. 

Hate Is Historical

It does not take long to develop a list of heinous, hateful actions perpetrated throughout history. Globally, there are numerous accounts of terrible actions done against others. Sadly, in many cases, these have been done under the guise of religion or nationalism.

In our short history of the United States, we have more incidents than could be listed here.

Today, we face the reality of hateful actions perpetrated against seemingly innocent victims. In the case of the El Paso shooter, a manifesto has been found where he (Patrick Crusius) expresses his motivations and warped reasonings for driving hours from his home in Allen, Texas to the border-town of El Paso in order to murder and create mayhem in a local Walmart. His "manifesto" does little to provide insight as it presents little more than what has been stated for generations by those whose dark hearts see other image-bearers of God as enemies to be eradicated. 

Walmart shooting
Photo: Mark Lambie/El Paso Times

Crusius's actions have been described as "white terrorism" and that is not an incorrect assumption. There are some who would claim the color of his skin to not be relevant (though this is often only an argument when the criminals are white), but the fact is that in this case and others (Charleston for example) the declared reasonings for the attacks have much to do with old fashioned, sinful white supremacy and self-declared racial superiority.

"It's never been this bad."

Yes. It has. It has been this bad for a very long time. It has been this bad in the USA. It has been this bad as evidenced...

  • When churches would segregate their gatherings so that the whites could worship in "unity" without having people of color in the room. it was bad. It was evil.
  • When self-proclaimed Christians would line up with those who peddled hate, it was bad. It was an abomination.
  • When self-righteousness and political power-mongering justified the devaluation of human beings as less than human (3/5ths of a human to be exact.)
  • When humanity was defined at beginning far after conception to enable the legal murder of unborn children.
  • When those who speak a different heart-language than English are denigrated as second-class.
  • When the elderly, ill, those with special needs, etc. are forgotten and deemed as burdens rather than image-bearers of God with value.
  • When churches have ignored the cries of victims of abuse in order to protect their brand.

...and more.

Hate is an equal opportunity offender. The "manifesto" from this killer seems to place him in contradictory and opposed camps so that all can be claimed, or disavowed, as the case may be. Pastor Bart Barber from Oklahoma stated it well in this tweet...

 

Hate Is Elevated

Perhaps it is not the worst it has ever been, but with the shrinking of the world through instant information via the internet and social media, polarization has seemingly increased.

Evangelical Christians are not immune to this polarization. This has become more evident than ever since the 2016 presidential election. Nevertheless, the polarization politically, ethically, morally, and communally did not begin then. It just seems more prominent. 

Of evangelicals with an opinion, 82 percent believe that since the 2016 presidential election, groups within the Christian church have become increasingly polarized on issues of politics. (Ed Stetzer, Christians in the Age of Outrage, p. 5)

You may say that the incidents in El Paso and Dayton are not political. I disagree. In the current culture, everything is political. Even the "manifesto" presented by the El Paso murderer references this.

The divisions among Christians were not created by a political win or loss. However, 73 percent of evangelicals believe that in the just the past few years, long standing divides hidden for years within "religious-speak" and "church-talk," have become more evident. (Christians in the Age of Outrage, p. 5.)

I believe that the current climate in our nation has not worked to quell the latent anger (often based on fear) among many, but has been used by the enemy to fuel the feelings of despair, frustration, and ire. 

People are being played. They are being manipulated and tempted by the same enemy of God who spoke first to Eve and offered the concept that God was holding out on his image-bearers and was not to be trusted. Individualism and self-defined "fairness" became a key to rebellion. 

Hate Is Healable

When I first read the news of the El Paso shootings, I was grieved. I knew it would not be long before "experts" began posting well thought out opinions on why this terror occurred. In many cases, they proffered fixes that were centered on legislation and political action. Then, statements regarding immigration, border walls, legal citizenship, etc. developed. These were often lead-ins to harsher opinions. Posts and statements turned south. The racial heritage of the victims and the Spanish-speaking, Hispanic, Latino culture was to blame for the attacks. Some even saw a justification for the acts based on certain beliefs related to race, laws, immigration, etc.

Before you begin posting responses understand that I am not writing this post with intent to enter into a discussion related to political parties, immigration laws, citizenship procedures, walls, or anything else that has been and remains as front-page fodder for those in Washington and beyond. I believe each of those subjects is legitimate and wish that level-headed, wise, humane, and constitutional conversations among lawmakers and influencers would occur (some have) and will lead to resolution.

This article centers on the very real hatred that was evidenced in the shooter in El Paso (and likely in the shooter in Dayton as well.) The shock of the attack hit hard. Being in a Walmart moved many Americans to realize "It could happen where I live."

It could.

I pray it won't ... wherever "here" is.

The ultimate answer for such depravity is not found in Washington DC. It is not found in any state assembly room. It is not found in protests, sit-ins, displays, or even by sharing thoughts online. It is not found in "sending our thoughts" to the families of victims. 

The answer is the same it has always been.

It certainly has been this bad before. It has been this bad since our perfect relationship with the Father was lost through sin in a garden.

The good news is that the answer and the healing for this hate, fear, emptiness, and lostness is the same God that we read about in Genesis. It is the good news, the gospel message, that Jesus Christ has come to redeem us. He took on all the sin, all the hate, all the evil in the history of humankind. He died...and so did the sin debt owed. He rose again. Through this glorious reality of resurrection, we can live too.

Church, we grieve with those who grieve. We lament the realities of evil in our world and the impact on the seemingly innocent. We sometimes throw up our arms and wonder where God is (the psalmist did this often, so we're in good company.) The answer we receive is the one we have known all along. God has not abandoned us. He is here. He is hope. He is the healer of the broken-hearted. 

In the midst of tragedies where evil seems to be winning, let's remain true to the calling which we have been given. Let us remember well that all is not lost. 

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 (ESV)