Over the years I’ve been asked my opinion on how the church should connect to culture. Of course that’s what I spend a great deal of time thinking and praying about. The question often arises in terms of how we maintain gospel witness with love and truth when it seems the world wants to tell the church what to do, but not have the church dare to presume it can do the same. The stakes don’t come much higher, eternities hang in the balance.
This kind of conversation usually comes when the headlines reveal what seems to be another change or accommodation to the spirit of the age, or a threat to religious freedoms in general or Christians in particular (we are a much easier target in the UK than other ‘minority groups’ which the latest census and even common sense must now categorise us as).
My answer tends to start, ‘Well I’m not really surprised.’
That’s not of course because I’m never shocked, and certainly that I am not concerned when increasingly as Rod Dreher states in The Benedict Option “We seem content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.”
While I find much in Mr Dreher’s books to inform me, albeit from a North American perspective, his solution which seems to be to withdraw the salt and light from the world to keep it salty and bright doesn’t chime at all. The world is a broken mess and has been since the fall – proximity and potency are required to join the Jesus mission to seek and save the lost, and his great Commission to ‘GO into ALL the world..’ not withdraw from it.
So as I said I am not surprised but I am concerned whenever in so many ways and places (at least in the minority West) the church drifts further into irrelevance and declines into oblivion because it stands for nothing and falls for anything. When there are those who tell us in effect that the world can be changed when the church becomes like the world, rather than becoming like Christ.
So yes I am concerned when I read the news, but because I read scripture first, I am not surprised.
For instance this week I read, in 1 Timothy Chapter 4:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times, some will depart from the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. 3 They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; 5 for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.
Notice that whatever the error, the source is spiritual, the means human. The ultimate origin is “deceitful spirits.” There will be ideologies which may unknowingly at first by those who propound them confuse, mislead or misrepresent reality and the truth and love of God as revealed in the scriptures he divinely inspired, but they will also be voiced through people who have abandoned moral scruples and no longer have a tender conscience. .
Be concerned, be aware, don’t be surprised.
Paul does not mince words as he addresses what this apostasy from faith looked like at that time in Timothy’s church in Ephesus – a prideful false spirituality through some forms of supposed self-denial that actually elevated self.
Spiritual choices cannot be divorced from what we do to and with our bodies. This version, a proto-Gnostic heresy, aimed and claimed God’s favour apart from faith in Christ and his free gift of salvation for sinners, “Look what I can do!’ – rather than obey the call of denying self, to take up a cross and follow Christ (Mark 8:34)– ‘Look what He has done for me!’
It happened there and then, it happens.
These times and seasons will come – throughout history. Read the letters of Christ in Revelation, there’s nothing new under the Sun. While the church has continued its faithful witness whether in persecution or brief periods of freedom in some places, errors will be taught and embraced in, about and through the church.
I don’t know for sure what the problems at hand were when Samuel Stone (great name considering the title!) penned in The Church’s One Foundation, but there are variations on the theme and it’s harder to find the real by comparing all the counterfeits than it is to know it by handling the genuine as the old tale about bank tellers goes:
Though with a scornful wonder
men see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed;
yet saints their watch are keeping,
their cry goes up, “How long?”
and soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.
So what do we do in such times if we want to be faithful? The answer Paul gives timid Timothy is not to retreat in fear, but to be ready to advance by going into training. We must train ourselves, in godliness!
6 If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed. 7 Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness, 8 for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
So what’s happening in the church in the UK right now? What’s God doing?
Let me tell you, just a little anyway.
Last night I was at the AO Arena here in Manchester, the largest covered arena in Europe, for Festival of Praise 12. Every year my dear friend Pastor Kamolafe – the humblest man I know – convenes this fantastic celebration. He is someone who has trained himself in godliness. The last few years have not been easy at all, but he is very strong in the Spirit and mighty in faith!
I arrived at 6pm a little late, but felt okay – it was billed to run until the morning!
Many thousands were there already, prayed up and expectant. Thousands more were coming in all the time to the 15,000 capacity. From the first speaker through every singer and band, though I knew some names and not some others the talk was all about Jesus. Faith was high. Joy infectious.
I loved one of the songs with the repeated line:
‘You love us too much ! You love us too much! Excess love!’
What a thoroughly biblical beautiful message! How much does the world need to know this?!
How great is the love that the Father has lavished upon us that we should be called the children of God and that is what we are and we are – the reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him…’
Nobody was looking at their watches. It was the best place to be in the city.
Various of us friends in leadership from other churches in the city were there to support, intercede and call out for a great move of God, as the spiritual temperature here is rising following the regular gatherings for Greater Manchester Prayer at Audacious Church that helped birth last year’s Festival Manchester. As always in these meetings, worshipping the Lord, unity for his purposes and the urgent need for everyone to hear the gospel was the singular focus.
Some time around 10pm (I think) a singer put down his trumpet and said, ‘The Holy Spirit is here, let’s be silent and welcome his presence.’
Within a few minutes, we all knew the anointing, overwhelming, presence of God – come to counsel and comfort, to convict the world with regard to sin and righteousness and judgement.
The singer shared a simple gospel message, in about a minute.
He told us the world is broken, we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, yet in love God sent his one and only Son into the world not to condemn it but to save us. He can give any of us power to change what we can never change ourselves, to live a new life through his death on the cross and resurrection from the grave he invited anybody who had drifted away from faith to turn from sin, to come to God.
He clearly called all who wanted this new life to make a first time commitment to Christ right there and then, and indicate this by raising a hand – so we could pray with them too.
As I looked around I saw hundreds, many hundreds, all kinds of people around the Arena where not long ago death and horror reigned doing just that men and women and young people coming back to life! Hands up everywhere. Many were in tears and others smiling broadly as they did business with God in what was now surely a holy place as he made himself present where he had been so royally welcomed and honoured. The King had come.
I prayed with a few people in front of me as I felt led to by God. One young man in his early twenties, Danny – was open mouthed throughout much of the time and just smiled saying, ‘It’s real! It’s real!’ as he received and was filled with the excess love of Jesus. TOO MUCH LOVE!
Some would say these days ‘Attractional doesn’t work’ and tell us the only legitimate form of church is incarnational. Last night Jesus was incarnated in a crowd of many thousands and it was glorious. I love small church, medium church and large – as long as Jesus is Lord there, the Word is preached and his Spirit is not grieved. That’s what matters most, not the strategies, not the structure, the Spirit!
One thing anyone who knows Kamolafe will tell you is that one of the ways he has trained himself in godliness is through combining fasting with prayer. I never met anyone who fasts as much as him, yet he always looks great! The demonic lie that the liars aiming to destroy the church in the season Paul wrote to Timothy led seemed in some way at least to involve food. Their fasting was done in pride, to show how close they were to God, rather than in humility to draw themselves closer.
Those of us who like to keep fit know while it’s not true that you are what you eat, the more you eat the more there’s likely to end up being of you. A healthy diet is of course vital and intrinsic to health.
How do you have a health body? Don’t eat rubbish.
Learn to discern what is being offered and by whom and what you nourish yourself with. Don’t just consume whatever the culture tells you. Don’t conform to the pattern of this world, be transformed by the renewing of your mind, through the washing of the Word. This applies to the body we call the Church too. We will never change the world by becoming like it. We can only be changed, by the Word, to become like Jesus. That’s how he uses us to change the world.
So the apostle urges his apprentice leader to give himself instead to that which really feeds his spiritual life.
When you’re training for godliness to be ready for God to use you, what do you essentially need, on which to feed? Paul tells us: “the words of the faith, and good, sound teaching,” in other words true doctrine not false. That’s what Christians need. But knowing it isn’t enough. Notice he combines knowledge and action. Know the truth, and live by it. Learn what God says, and change your life accordingly. Don’t just say ‘Lord, Lord!’ – do what He says. That’s true theology.
This morning I held in my hands the greatest book in all the world, the bedrock of truth when all else is shifting sand. The Word of God gives us the will of God and shows us the ways of God. It does not need an update like our phones to be current.
No book is more important to feed upon, nothing will nourish me more than the Word of God and I aim to imbibe it every day, at least four chapters a day, as I have done for more than thirty years and in many ways I feel I have only just started it’s still so fresh to me.
The more I read it, the more I want it. The more I study it, the more I am amazed by it, the longer I meditate on it, the more I know I have yet to learn about the Author there with me bringing me revelation of what it means and how then I shall live – words that change my life and give me hope and lead us into fullness, freedom, and faith that moves any mountain.
That’s why Paul tells Timothy, training for godliness, watch your diet – keep on learning and living out the Word. The truth will protect you from counterfeits and help you stand and say no to lies, because you already fed on truth you won’t swallow poison.
And of course because Timothy is a leader in the church there, this is what he is to teach and pass on to those he serves Christ by serving. Because as a servant-leader there Timothy is like a waiter who must of course only serve good and healthy food to the people he serves.
A Good Minister of Christ Jesus
When Paul calls him, “a good minister of Christ Jesus,” the word was probably not about a title, as in pastor or clergy. I believe it was later that the word “deacon,” became an office. “A good deacon of Jesus Christ” was commonly translated in many places in Scripture as simply “a servant.” That is what a deacon is – because it’s what one does to follow Christ who came among us as One who serves.
Paul says a good servant watches carefully what he serves to others. Don’t you want a waiter like that, rather than finding a fly in your soup and asking, “Is this some kind of bad joke?!”
So diet is important (an apple a day…) build your spirit up as you watch what you are nourished by – but he coaches that exercise matters too. Not self-flagellation like the proud false ascetics, but genuine daily disciplines that make all the difference over time.
We have to exercise, and it’s resistance that makes us stronger.
The church in Christendom has become flabby and lazy. Comfort, sitting around, even on an exercise bike does not help a healthy body get stronger. God knows we need resistance! Our daily disciplines are what make all the difference for the end result. Paul used athletic analogies a lot. Boxing, wrestling, running the race. I don’t know if he was ever a sportsman or a sports fan but if you track his journeys and how far he walked he perhaps would not have needed a device to help him do his 10,000 steps as he followed the Lord’s plans and directions.
It’s no good just determining to get fit and having a frenetic burst like all those resolution breaking January 2nd Gym joiners. You know if I go to the gym today for seven hours and try to get fit on the treadmill and rower I’m more likely to end up in hospital than the Olympics. But 20 minutes a day, most days, pushing myself a little more gradually as I gain strength – makes all the difference all the time. Dallas Willard said that disciplines enable me to do what I could never do by effort alone. That’s true both physically and spiritually. It’s why I read the Bible daily too.
This week as I was thinking about this passage and how vital it is for us to train for godliness, something popped up on a daily e-letter I recently subscribed to by someone I have to admit is a bit of a hero of mine, Arnold Swarzennegger. (Yes – really!).
In yesterday’s edition of his new daily ‘wellness’ newsletter The Daily Pump Arnie was asked by a guest,
“What are your goals, and what daily actions did you create that brings you closer to them?”
The action movie star’s reply?
- ‘Goals for this year:
- A) Read the bible from cover to cover at least once. To achieve this goal, I am reading from 3 to 5 chapters every day (with some days dropped occasionally).
- B) Exercise more than last year…’
I love that he even got the priorities right! Arnie’s the BIBLEATOR!
How many of us will join him?
How many church leaders are that disciplined to actually read and learn and live out the scriptures daily? We’d better train for godliness guys. The little things, repeated over time, are what are what make us or break us. You are what you eat. Don’t swallow anything but the truth.