Leadership: Pleasing God First

1 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Acts, Church, Galatians, Leadership No Comments »

“We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts.” ~1 Thessalonians 2:4

“We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else.” ~1 Thess. 2:6

Paul and Silas and Timothy tell the church in Thessalonica that they all ought to follow their model of Christian leadership: We “make ourselves a model for you to follow (2 Thess. 3:7, 9). A critical component of their leadership style is their commitment to pleasing God instead of people. Paul’s ministry — his whole life! — is characterized by this attitude.

“Am I trying to win the approval of people, or of God? Am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” ~Galatians 1:10

Paul is not one to take a vote or check the opinion polls before doing what he knows needs to be done in his capacity as a Christian leader. President Harry Truman had a similar disdain toward catering to the whims of the people:

“I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he’d taken a poll in Egypt? What would Jesus Christ have preached if he’d taken a poll in Israel? Where would the Reformation have gone if Martin Luther had taken a poll? It isn’t the polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It’s right and wrong and leadership, men and women with fortitude, honesty, and a belief in what’s right that makes epochs in the history of the world.”

We’ve been entrusted with the Gospel (1 Thess. 2:4) as stewards of God’s Good News. So we are responsible to God, not people. We seek to please God first, not people. This was Peter’s leadership style, too. In Acts 5, Peter tells the Sanhedrin in the face of Jewish persecution, “We must obey God rather than people!”

But there’s such a strong temptation to please people. It’s human nature. We want to please people, not just to be popular, but because we don’t want to make anybody mad. We don’t want to make enemies. We don’t want to come across as mean. We want to keep the peace. Elders want to keep their members. Preachers want to keep their jobs.

Well, hold on. We don’t want to offend or upset our weaker brother. We’re responsible for our weaker brother.

You know, that passage in 1 Corinthians 8 is one of the most grossly misapplied passages in all of Scripture. The weaker brother Paul’s talking about is a brand new Christian. He’s just been baptized. He’s still wet behind the ears, figuratively and literally. He’s from a pagan, idol-worshiping, bacon-loving background. He doesn’t know anything. He hasn’t had time. He’s just a baby. That’s the weaker brother of the Bible. But I’m afraid sometimes it’s the men and women who were born and raised in the faith, baptized 20, 30, or 40 years ago, who are using weaker brother arguments to thwart Christian leadership.

When I was interviewing here at Central almost six years ago, the leadership told me, “We’re a Church of Christ. We’re always going to be a Church of Christ. We’re proud of our Church of Christ heritage and we uphold our Church of Christ traditions. But when those traditions come into conflict with the Gospel, we’re going to go with the Gospel every time.”

Sold! I love that!

Strong Christian leaders keep their eyes on the goal, they’re focused on the big picture. They lead with courage in the will of God, to please him. What’s going to challenge us and mature us? What’s going to lead to Christ-likeness? What’s going to move us toward more sacrifice and service? What’s going to make us more accountable to God and one another?

Well, that makes me uncomfortable. I’m not comfortable with that.

Who said anything about comfortable? That’s why they put crosses up in church buildings, to give you a clue that this is not about being comfortable!

Leaders worth following don’t pay much attention to the polls or public opinion. Pleasing God, not people. Remember, Jesus was OK with letting the rich young ruler walk away.

Peace,

Allan

In Spite of Severe Suffering

1 Thessalonians, Acts, Christ & Culture, Church No Comments »

The early church in Thessalonica is described as a “model” church by the apostle Paul. In the opening lines of 1 Thessalonians, the author says they have become a “model to all the believers,” while explaining why he finds them to be so ideal and receives from them so much joy. There are many reasons listed in the first ten verses of this letter. Among them is this line about their commitment to Christ in spite of the hardships it brings:

“You became imitators of us and of the Lord in spite of severe suffering.” ~1 Thessalonians 1:6

This Thessalonian church was persecuted early and often. Luke tells us in Acts 17 that Paul was run out of town right after he established this church, maybe within just a few weeks. The church was meeting in Jason’s house in Thessalonica. He was arrested along with several other believers. And persecuted. It was serious. And real.

A lot of it had to do with economics. If I’m running a burger joint or a chicken shack here in town, I don’t need you and some group stirring up a bunch of low-fat, vegetarian fanatics. That affects my business, my bottom line. It impacts my way of life. So the makers of idols and religious trinkets rose up and opposed Christianity.

The other part of it was the polytheistic culture of the day. It was dangerous to ignore or offend the gods. If there was a fire in town or a flood or drought or plague or some other disaster, the thinking was, “Our gods have always protected us from these things! These Christians must be ticking off the gods!” So they would torture and kill the Christians.

Now, trust me, I’m aware, there’s nothing easy about this. There are no simple answers. It’s complicated because we’re so compromised.

I wonder sometimes. I just wonder…

I wonder how we can proclaim the sanctity of all life and be opposed to the killing of men and women created in the image of God when our economy and our standard of living is so dependent on wars and rumors of wars. I wonder about the criticism we’ll receive from other Christians when we love and serve members of the LGBT community and the condemnation we’ll receive from the culture when we say pursuing the gay lifestyle is a sin. I wonder about the public rebuke we’re in for when we love and serve immigrants and refugees in the name and manner of Jesus. I wonder about the trouble we’re already in from other Christians for tearing down denominational walls in God’s Kingdom.

Imitating Christ requires hard choices and it results in suffering. Always.

A model church embraces Jesus and his ways, all the way, in spite of that certain suffering.

Peace,

Allan

Giving Central a Break

1 Thessalonians, Central Church Family, Church, Preaching No Comments »

I know when I’m out of town or on a vacation and somebody else preaches for me, it’s good for Central. I figure the church needs a break. The same can be said as it relates to our church staff and probably the elders: when I’m not there, it’s probably good. I think I can be overly intense and loud. I think I’ve mainly only got one speed and only one volume. And a lot of me for too long of a time is probably too much.

So I haven’t preached at Central in two weeks. We were so blessed to have Rick Atchley preach for us two Sundays ago and then my family and I were gone last Sunday visiting Valerie in Edmond. We missed Central’s annual baby blessing, but, again, I think our church needed a break.

As a church, we’ve also been blowing and going pretty hard since October with our Ignite Initiative. I’ve preached lots of sermons on giving, we’ve talked a lot about vision and mission. It’s been challenging. We’ve all been stretched. God has been faithful and our church has been fabulous. But, in a lot of ways, it’s been tiring. For me, for sure and, I’m assuming, also for Central.

So, my plan has been to start this Sunday on an eight or nine week expository series through 1 Thessalonians. I thought it would be good for all of us to dive into 1 Thessalonians and just relax in it together. I think I feel about Central the way the apostle Paul feels about this church in Thessalonica. When I read this ancient letter to that little church that was meeting in Jason’s house in Thessalonica, I think I could write a similar letter to Central.

1 Thessalonians is different from all the rest of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. In every one of his letters, Paul is responding to a crisis in some church. He’s correcting a false teaching or fixing a bad practice or criticizing some ungodly attitude or behavior. Except in 1 Thessalonians. Instead of rebuking and correcting, Paul writes to these Christians in Thessalonica: Keep doing exactly what you’re doing!

“We instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.” ~1 Thessalonians 4:1

This is a very encouraging letter. It’s very positive. It’s inspiring. And I figure it’ll be good for our church to just relax for a couple of months with this easy letter.

But after studying it for the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed it’s not going to be that easy.

The opening ten verses are all thanksgiving and praise, but every sentence is loaded. I have found myself writing a sermon that’s as much challenge and stretch as it is attaboys and praise. What’s wrong with me? I can’t read words like “power” and “deep conviction” without wondering if we feel that in us. I wonder about how well we imitate Christ under the threat of suffering. What does it take to be a “model” church? Have we turned from our idols? What’s wrong with me?

I can’t help it.

I’ll say it again: I feel about Central the way Paul feels about this church in Thessalonica. Central, I believe, is a model church. And we’re serious about this church. We’re reading the Scriptures and we’re fasting and praying. We’re paying more attention to formation. We’re focused on the vision the mission. I’m taking it seriously. And so is the whole church. We’re all walking together.

I just don’t want us to ever settle for surviving — let’s get to thriving! Let’s challenge “what is” for the sake of what could be and should be! If we dig deeper and climb higher and live better and serve others in faith, hope, and love, hell can’t put up gates big enough or strong enough to stop us!

I promise you, Central, this sermon series from 1 Thessalonians will be a bit of a break. Just not as much of a break as I had planned and that you probably deserve.

Peace,

Allan

The Johnson Amendment & The Church

Christ & Culture, Church, Preaching 2 Comments »

SteepleCityYou would be so proud of me. I’m showing such tremendous restraint in my old age. Yesterday’s Amarillo Globe-News published a front page story on U. S. President Donald Trump’s oft-repeated promise to abolish the Johnson Amendment with this accompanying headline: “Many local faith leaders support president’s vow to ‘destroy’ political ban for churches.” The same issue’s editorial contained an over-simplified analysis of the amendment that more or less argued that, since we all know which churches are politically conservative and which churches are politically liberal, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t really matter. So why are we making such a big deal about it?

Steady… Calm… Serenity now… Serenity now…

I did not write a letter to the editor. I did not call the Faith reporter. I did not send out an email to my fellow Gospel preachers who are quoted in this story as being in favor of abolishing the amendment because our religious liberties are under siege.

I slept on it. And I’m responding with this post.

This will be short.

SilencePreacherFirst, there has never been and isn’t currently any kind of threat in this country against any pastor or church preaching and practicing the politics of the Kingdom of God which, by the way, are the only politics Christ’s Church should be concerned about. Love. Forgiveness. Mercy. Grace. Gentleness. Helping the helpless. Healing the sick. Worshiping in spirit and truth. Obeying the Law to love God and love neighbor. Would somebody please explain to me how any Christian is being told he or she cannot do those things?

Some of my fellow preachers in Amarillo are quoted in the paper as saying it’s an “overreach of the government’s authority to restrict what a pastor says from the pulpit on any subject, including politics” and that “freedom of speech shouldn’t stop at the local church doorsteps; The church… needs to be a voice to the community.”

So you think we should preach Christian values and Christian ideals and Christian beliefs and morals to the Christian members of our Christian churches? Me, too. Big time. What does that have to do with this country’s political parties or candidates? Our King tells us that bigotry and inequality and violence and discrimination and oppression — SIN! — are solved by love and grace and forgiveness, not politicians and votes and laws. Salvation from God in Christ is the only answer to what’s wrong with you and me and the Church and this country. The only thing a preacher can’t do in his or her pulpit is advocate for a particular party or candidate. My question is, as a preacher of the Good News of Jesus Christ, why would you ever? Touting somebody or some thing other than Jesus as the solution for sin would seem to disqualify one as a proclaimer of the Gospel.

MoneyBagBurlapSecond, Christians come across as really petty and small when they complain about government interference. Churches in this country don’t have to pay taxes!!!! Everybody knows churches don’t pay taxes. You knew that, right? Don’t these faith leaders know it? We stand out as arrogant and entitled when we say, as one local preacher did in the AGN story, the Johnson Amendment “should not keep the church out of matters of the state, but rather should keep the state out of matters of the church.”

We don’t pay taxes!!!! The state is very much “in the matters of the church.” I don’t think totally removing the state from church matters — doing away with the tax breaks — is what he has in mind. It would be the best thing that could happen to the Church in the United States; but something tells me that’s not what he’s advocating.

FistThird, the last thing God’s Church in America needs is any kind of political “victory” delivered in the name and manner of Donald Trump. Can you just imagine the misguided ways in which that would be interpreted and then used? Abolishing the amendment would not only compromise the voice of Christ’s Church, it would bring out the worst in the people of Jesus. We would lobby and petition, boycott and campaign, write letters and print posters and stump for particular candidates in a specific party. And then we’d get offended or angry if someone pointed out how unfair it is that U.S. taxpayers are forced to fund our political group but not anybody else’s political group. Yuk.

I’m so grateful for my brother Burt Palmer of Polk Street United Methodist Church, the lone voice of reason among the Amarillo preachers responding in print to Trump’s pledge. Burt told the Globe-News that the total repeal of the Johnson Amendment “may lead to religious organizations being consumed with advocacy for a specific party or platform. He adds that the Church’s role is “to rise above [party] affiliations… sharing the message and love of Jesus Christ.” Burt warns about Christians and churches “slipping and sliding into serving the god of a political party.”

Finally (this is longer than it should have been), a response to the paper’s position itself.

The AGN editorial piece claims that repealing the Johnson Amendment is inconsequential because most Christians already know which way their church leans politically. By extension, I suppose, the community, too, knows whether a specific congregation of God’s people is politically conservative or liberal. Because of the preacher’s sermons on social justice issues, because of the political candidates the church may choose to invite to speak, it should be clear, so the editorial argues, how the pastor or the church feels politically. So, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t really matter.

I pray that after listening to me for only a short while, my parishioners at Central have a clear understanding that my political beliefs line up first with our King Jesus. I pray that my sermons and my statements about current issues are completely confusing to anyone trying to peg me or our church to a specific party or a particular candidate. I am aware of no party in this country that is pro-life to the max: anti-abortion, anti-war, and anti-death penalty. I don’t know of any politician who is both opposed to gay marriage and for welcoming refugees. Is there any candidate who will denounce both the killing of unborn babies in abortion clinics in this country and the killing of born babies in war efforts in other countries?

Jesus Christ does not fit neatly into a nationalistic political party. God’s Church cannot be defined by the platform of a power-seeking coalition of politicians.

Survey after survey shows that young people and millennials are turned off by the Church’s affiliations with the political right. We’ve somehow aligned ourselves with a worldly party in a worldly kingdom with worldly goals and worldly means of accomplishing those goals, and it’s nauseating to lots of people who are conditioned to see right though it.

We are beyond this. We are above it. We do not want to be associated with it.

You’re right, Amarillo Globe-News, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t matter at all. But not for the reasons you believe.

Peace,

Allan

Bar Joke

Church No Comments »

barjoke

Strong Christians

Church, Discipleship, Giving, Grace, Romans No Comments »

oneheartbaptism

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself.” ~Romans 15:1-3

As children of God and followers of his Christ, the Church takes its example from Jesus. The Son of God is the one who calls us to live with each other the way we do. We realize that Christ Jesus never once did a single thing to please himself. Instead, he gave up everything, he sacrificed everything, to benefit others. And by choosing to serve others instead of please himself, Jesus sets the pattern that we must accept as our own: Putting others first, considering the needs of others more important than our own, never about me, always about you.

And Paul puts it on the strong. It’s up to the strong Christians, not the weak, to make sure this happens in God’s Church. It’s on the strong to bear with the failings of the weak sister or brother. That’s hard. It’s on the strong to make the concessions to our weaker brothers and sisters and that’s not easy. It’s easier to be the weaker Christian, drawing the lines and insisting that everybody cater to me. It’s the strong, Paul says, who are able to grasp the truth that our love and mercy and grace to others is like Christ.

“But I can’t stop doing this certain thing; not for him.”
“I can’t give up practicing this particular thing; not for her.”
“I can’t sacrifice this behavior or this privilege or this freedom; not for them.”

You call yourself a follower of Christ? Jesus gave up everything! Jesus sacrificed it all for you and me, for all our brothers and sisters, for the strong and the weak! That’s what makes a strong Christian strong: a faith that comes to the realization that a lot of the things you care so much about are really not that important to God. You love your weaker brother so much, you care about your weaker sister so much, you’re willing to keep those things between you and the Lord and sacrificially carry the burdens of the weak. And the stronger your faith, the easier it becomes. He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother. You can do this.

Bottom line, here’s what separates the strong Christians from the weak Christians: Strong Christians with strong faith know that the more you sacrifice and the more you give up for others, the more like Christ you are. The more you insist on your own way, the more you assert yourself for your own interests, the less like Christ you are. Pretty simple.

So, what if all of us, to a person, decided that we would put ourselves at the back of the line? What if we all vowed to bend over backwards to make everybody else happy and sacrifice our own feelings and opinions in order to build up others? What if we all did that?

If we all accepted each other like Christ accepted us, if we all bore the failings of the weak just like Jesus does, it still wouldn’t result in a perfect Church. It wouldn’t eliminate our differences of opinion. It won’t do away with our arguments and debates. But it would mean figuring out how to live together in the Gospel. And we’ll know for sure that the Jesus who unites us is greater by far than the differences that may divide us. And our grace-filled conversations and our mercy-laden interactions with each other will reflect and strengthen that conviction.

Peace,

Allan