Dr Jim McClure, noted theologian, writes about two more current dangers …
Church leaders ‘must stick to the true message they were taught, so that their good teaching can help others and correct everyone who opposes it’ (Titus 1:9 CEV).
This article concludes the series Confusion in the Church in which I have turned the spotlight on issues in the contemporary church that misrepresent biblical teaching or question dubious practices that result in causing confusion in the church and bring discredit to the Christian message.
Paul’s comment above to his young friend Titus is relevant to church leaders in all generations. Note that the words ‘good teachings’ (or ‘sound doctrine’ NIV) may also be literally translated ‘healthy teaching.’
Healthy teaching – healthy Christians
The church today is in great need of healthy teaching to counter the flood of false, fictional and foolish teaching that is finding its way into the church. Indeed ‘healthy teaching’ needs to be an ongoing commitment by preachers and teachers, not just to counter the unhealthy teaching that has plagued the church since its inception but also to ensure that the true message of the scriptures is made known.
Healthy teaching makes healthy Christians! And healthy Christians significantly contribute to a healthy world. Jesus said, ‘You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. … let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:13, 14, 16, emphasis mine).
Theological confusion is not caused by God who is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33); nor is it caused by his word which can be trusted (Psalm 33:4). Confusion is caused by preachers and teachers who, for a variety of reasons, fail in their responsibility to give ‘healthy teaching.’ It is also caused by Christians who are more interested in a kind of Christianity that has more of an emotional base than a sound theological one.
In this respect the late Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones has been quoted as saying, ‘The whole emphasis has been placed upon religion as a power which can do things for us and which can make us happy. The emotional and feeling side of religion has been over-emphasised at the expense of the intellectual. Far too often people have thought of the Christian religion merely as something which gives a constant series of miraculous deliverances from all sorts and kinds of ills…. The impression has often been given that we have but to ask God for whatever we may chance to need and we shall be satisfied.’ (Ian Murray in David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, vol. 2).
When compromise with clear biblical morals is confused with God’s command to love others
Political correctness is a powerful force. In the PC tidal wave of gay and lesbian demands, for example, we have seen some respected Christian leaders cave in to that force and have rejected clear biblical principles regarding homosexual practices. Many of those who have been arguing in favour of same sex marriage have adopted the slogan ‘Love wins.’ By this they mean that love is always good and should always be encouraged rather than opposed.
At first sight this view appears to harmonise with the Christian message. Let’s look at some biblical quotes that appear to support it:
- Jesus said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself ‘’’ (Matthew 22:37-39).
- Paul wrote, ‘Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. … Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law’ (Romans 13:8, 10).
- And he succinctly wrote, ‘Do everything in love’ (1 Corinthians 16:14).
It may rightly be said that love is the heart of the Christian message. The New Testament word for ‘love’ is agape which is not associated with warm and fuzzy feelings, romantic love or sexual desire. Agape does not require a response but can exist even when met with hostility. It is love that is selfless, compassionate and self-sacrificial. Agape is a choice. Paul describes it in this way:
‘This love of which I speak is slow to lose patience – it looks for a way of being constructive. It is not possessive: it is neither anxious to impress nor does it cherish inflated ideas of its own importance. Love has good manners and does not pursue selfish advantage. It is not touchy. It does not keep account of evil or gloat over the wickedness of other people. On the contrary, it is glad with all good men when truth prevails. Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a JBP).
However a tension arises when we are confronted by an apparent conflict between loving others (as we are required by God to do) and living by divinely revealed moral standards (as we are also required by God to do.)
Apart from the fact that ‘love’ is not always inherently a good thing (as, for example, the love a stalker has for his victim, or the love an obese person has for volumes of food), it may simply also be equated with an emotion that makes us feel good (such as, romantic love or the kind of love people have for their pets) or used as a synonym for lust.
Loving others does not require us to affirm their values, accede to their demands, accept their opinions or agree with their lifestyles. It does, however, require us to treat others with respect, to be considerate and compassionate and to treat them the way we ourselves would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12). Agape is the kind of love that always seeks the highest good for other people – even if those to whom it is given are offensive or abusive to us!
In fact there is no conflict between practising love (agape) and Christian morality. Showing love and standing against immorality are compatible! Compromising Christian morality on the basis of a misunderstanding of the nature of divine love is not only disappointing but also a betrayal of biblical revelation.
Should love win over morality or should morality win over love? In truth neither should win over the other. Paul wrote, ‘The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith’ (1 Timothy 1:5).
When motivational talks are confused with preaching
The goal of a motivational talk is so to influence the listeners that the result will be a change in their behaviour. In their book 180 Ways to Walk the Motivation Talk the authors comment: ‘When individuals and teams are motivated, extraordinary things happen. The group seems to be on fire. Employees don’t simply perform their jobs, they attack them – eager to make contributions. Walk through a highly motivated workplace, and you can feel the buzz of excitement. People are engaged. Smiles and other signs of enjoyment are everywhere. Also found everywhere are the diligence and attention of getting things done.’
Motivation is not a bad thing as anyone can all allow apathy to overtake us. Apathy does not suddenly appear. It surreptitiously develops over time. Because of the fickleness of human emotions, feelings of apathy or disinterest can replace the fervour we once had for the things of God.
Apathy in the church is a deadly thing! It is important that we ensure that our faith is continually grounded, our love for God unmixed and our passion for the things of God vitally alive. Even the once fervent Christian can slip into the arms of apathy.
When Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus he commended the Christians there for the vitality of their Christian walk. … ‘ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers’ (Ephesians 1:15-16). Yet about 30 years later the risen Christ rebuked the Ephesian church, ‘I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first’ (Revelation 2:4-5).
Overcoming apathy is necessary for continuing our walk with God, so we all need to be motivated.
However, today motivational talks are increasingly replacing the proclamation of God’s word. In fact, a motivational talk can be given without any reference to God or to the Bible – although many such talks given in churches sometimes include biblical quotations (often with disregard to the context).
Let’s be clear about this – giving a motivational talk is not the same as preaching! Preaching is not, per se, principally about motivating people. It is not about giving good advice or life-style lessons or encouraging ‘Smiles and other signs of enjoyment.’ It is not about making people feel good about themselves. It is about hearing from God and then proclaiming that to the people. It is about clearly, directly and unapologetically declaring the word of God. In other words, true preaching is a prophetic act, not in the sense that it foretells the future but in that it forth-tells God’s word.
- While the goal of motivational talks is to cheer the hearts of the hearers, the goal of preaching is to make known the heart of God.
- While motivational talks are ‘feel-good’ messages that encourage optimism and well-being, preaching gives biblical and theological insights that challenge the status quo and calls for a response.
- While motivational talks encourage optimism and well-being, preaching declares that, regardless of circumstances, hope will never perish for God is always in control.
Prophetic preaching is not always popular and the preacher may be tempted to avoid preaching the message God has placed on his or her heart. Certainly spiritually lightweight motivational talks are much more popular with congregations, and those who give those talks are much less likely to experience the cold shoulder of disapproval of their audience. But for the preacher, the praise and admiration of the listeners is irrelevant for the object of preaching is faithfully to proclaim what God is saying and thus receive the approval of God.
I believe that there are many who are self-called to preach (that is, they themselves want to preach for a variety of reasons) rather than God-called (that is, God has chosen, called and commissioned them to serve in this fearsomely responsible ministry as his herald).
Today, in a gathering of Christians, just about anything that takes place in a pulpit or from a platform is called ‘preaching.’ But giving neither ‘a motivational talk’, nor ‘a word’ nor even ‘a sermon’ is the same as preaching. No one needs to be called by God to give a talk, but an essential aspect of preaching is divine calling and commissioning (… how can they preach unless they are sent? – Romans 10:15).
Paul also said, ‘I am compelled to preach.’ (1 Corinthians 9:16). And the ‘reluctant’ preacher Jeremiah expressed his compulsion to preach in these words, ‘… His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot’ (Jeremiah 20:9). This powerful conviction to proclaim God’s truth and a steadfast commitment to it bears no resemblance to motivational or any other kind of talk.
This concludes this series of Confusion in the Church. The purpose in writing it was not to disparage the church in any way but to ask Christians not to be deceived or confused by some of the strange and non-Christian (or sub-Christian) things happening in the church today.
We need always to be alert and on our guard. As Paul has written, ‘So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled’ (1Thesslonians 5:6).
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from concerned Christians. In his well-researched Grace Revisited he reveals grace as having a strong active meaning and is like a many faceted diamond out of which shines a greater understanding of the great God we worship.
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