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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Christmas - More For than Against!

Annual Agony
Every year, around this time, I find myself in an internal battle, which after the years have passed, has still not been resolved: what should we do about Christmas? The fact that the battle resurfaces regularly is a sign that my heart is not settled on the issue, but the older I grow, I sense the balance of my mind is tilting more for than against. 

Christmas secular western style has virtually nothing to do with Christ or Christianity. It is simply an opportunity to indulge in excess, excess drink, excess food, excess pleasure, excess debauchery, you name it. Christians are called instead to be sober minded (1 Peter 5:8-9). I could easily live in a cave from December 24th-26th (with my family and brothers and sisters in Christ, of course, but away from the maddening crowd).

And yet, there are many many good things about this season of the year, and here are half a dozen.

First, it is an opportunity to visit friends and relatives. My wider family, for example, have an annual get together over Christmas, and it's great to touch base - in some cases the only time in that year.

Second, it's a chance to get some rest.... well kind of, anyway.

Third, it's a time for family traditions. Nothing wrong with family traditions. In our home, for example, there is a particular "Christmas" scent which we put on potpourri only in December! If we didn't roll it out we'd have a riot on our hands.

Fourth, Christians have the liberty to remember the birth of Jesus Christ in a special way. It's not proscribed, but what can be found against finding some time to remember the miracle of God made flesh, dwelling among us, identifying with our joys and sorrows ultimately to win us and save us from our sins.

Fifthly, thank God, the mid-winter celebration is not focused on some pagan myth, which would bring with it the debauchery that normally attends such pagan myths. Thank God that even today, nativity plays are still at the heart of most school Christmas celebrations. What a salting effect traditional Christmas has upon our near-pagan culture. Think of how more excessive the 'celebrations' would be without the influence of the Gospel in our land.

But sixthly, what a fantastic opportunity to share the Gospel with a lost world! Let's take this opportunity to invite people to Carol services, give them a free Gospel tract, and spend time with them, and pray that God may give them the precious gift of faith.

Friday, 5 December 2014

The glory of tradition!

I cannot believe I am writing this....
I don't know of anyone who is more against tradition than myself. I see red every time someone says "this must be done this way, because we've always done it this way." I want robust - which means biblical - arguments for doing things.

The New Testament has no traditions
The genius of the Gospel is that it can find a home in any culture in any age. And thus there are no traditions for worship in the Scriptures.

"But what about 'when you come together, everyone has a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpreation' (1 Cor 14:26)?", I hear someone ask.

If anyone thinks this verse is the last word on corporate worship traditions they are making two mistakes. The first is a failure to note the difference between the descriptive and the proscriptive. Paul is not saying, "this is how to worship", he is not issuing a command (proscriptive), he is simply describing what they do (descriptive). The second mistake is a failure to set this letter in its historical context. The first believers had no NT (perhaps a letter here or there), they had no complete and final revelation. For that reason, the church was instructed by divine revelations, as through tongues: that's why Paul includes in their tradition, revelations, tongues and intepretations. Once Scripture had been completed, the church had the complete and final word of Christ which is able to thoroughly equip the man or woman of God for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17): I don't need a prophecy to guide me today, I have God's certain Word along with his glorious Spirit. 

The requirements/principles of the New Testament
The New Testament gives us broad outlines and principles, but by the genius of the Gospel it does not give us any of the little context-specific details that mark all man-made religions, such as pray five times a day, etc.

The guidelines of Scripture are broadly and briefly that church life ought to include (there are too many verses to include here by way of justification):
  1. fellowship
  2. breaking of bread
  3. apostle's doctrine(preaching)
  4. mutual building up
  5. singing God's praises
  6. prayer
  7. disciple-making/evangelism
How these are put together, is left utterly to the culture in general, and then the leaders in specific to determine.

Enter, "tradition"
So elders then must work out how these different elements can combine in a way that honours the Lord and builds his people up. And once these traditions have been established, they ought to be open to change, but only slowly and carefully and prayerfully. Why slowly and carefully and prayerfully? Because unity is perhaps the first requirement of corporate church life: woe betide the leaders who introduce division on account of rapid change.

Tradition is a wonderful thing, it enables a specific church to fulfil its Christ-given requirements to the sheep and a lost world in a stable framework which builds unity.

100,000 traditions
All this means that there will be an innumerable number of different, but authentic church combinations of 1-7, which are all capable of building up the flock. 100,000 good traditions!

Our tradition
At Manor Park for example, we have the following tradition for the 7 elements above; we think it is a robust, biblical and a Holy Spirit directed tradition.....
  1. how do we do 'fellowship'? We have an opportunity every Sunday to drink coffee with each other after morning worship, we meet in home groups each week, we have an evening Koinonia meeting, plus other opportunities to share with one another
  2. how do we do 'breaking of bread'? Once every month on a Sunday morning, once a month at Koinonia and sometimes in a home group
  3. how do we do 'apostle's doctrine'? Preaching every Sunday!
  4. how do we do 'mutual building up'? At home groups and other opportunities to meet such as Koinonia, spontaneity opportunity is there at home groups and Koinonia
  5. how do we do 'singing God's praises? Home groups, and Sunday mornings too
  6. how do we do 'prayer'? Sunday mornings, home groups and monthly day of prayer
  7. how do we do 'disciple-making and evangelism'? Through the home groups and through numerous evangelistic opportunities that we take, whether mission to farm workers, monthly guest services, Christmas service, you name it...
We judge this by the Scriptures to be an excellent (but not perfect!) tradition, wholly suitable for the building of the saints, and faithful to the Spirit.

What if you don't like our tradition?
If someone came to us and said "I don't like your tradition", our response would be three-fold: (i) show us how it fails to fulfil the Scriptures, (ii) it's not the only way to do things, we are the first to admit, but it is our way, (iii) if you don't like it, you are unlikely to change it, unless God calls you to be an elder, so it is best to find another church: we bid thee God-speed.

For a radical antitraditionalist, that's quite some blog!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Modern Day Gnosticism - and how to counteract it

Old fashioned Gnosticism
In the days of the apostles, gnosticism, old-fashioned, flourished. At root it was a view that you needed some higher knowledge (from God, of course) to reach the high dizzy heights of the Gnostic Christian..

Poor ordinary Christians, like you and I, languish in the low plains of spiritual ignorance; if only we knew what they knew!

The root of Old fashioned Gnosticism
The root of old fashioned Gnosticism was, of course, devilish pride. I know something you don't, I'm up here, buddy, and you are down there; poor languishing saint! It really is as simple as that. A Gnostic is someone who is filled with pride, pride in what they know (or think they know). But of course, one has to hide pride, for we all know pride is a devilish thing. So a Gnostic is normally an expert in false humlity - and that's how they take in many Christians.

Modern Gnosticism
Of course Gnosticism hasn't gone away. It turns up in every church at some point or other. Folk either come in from the outside (the most common source) or arise within the church, who know far far more than that local church knows about:

  • how to worship in song
  • how to bring up children
  • how to organise church life
  • how to evangelise
  • how to read the signs of the times
  • what translation is best
  • etc., etc.

Of course they don't actually have a clue about these matters in reality, they just think they do.

The results of Gnostic influence
Gnostics always divide a church.  They normally first attack the leaders, and if there is a pastor, they attack him first. Of course, very cleverly, they realise that attacking the shepherd openly is not a wise strategy, so the opposition is subtle. Eventually, when they discover that the leaders won't buy into their gnostic myths they leave, normally in a trail of division and stumbling, including the stumbling of those who are naive and young, of course to the Gnostic's great spiritual judgement (Matthew 18:6).

How to avoid their influence
How can a church avoid the pernicious impact of the Gnostics?

All believers note this, one of the surest marks of a Gnostic is a critical spirit towards their local church. This arises out of their proud hearts. Should they leave the church they will carry the same spirit into the next fellowship too, until eventually they find themselves worshipping in a "church" of one, or one family. Another mark of a Gnostic is that they think (falsely) that God has revealed things to them in a special way. It may not be through visions, it may be through their own study of the Bible which they are convinced somehow advances them far beyond the dozens of hours which their poor leaders/pastors undertake each week.

If you are a young believer, be on your guard against anyone who speaks against the teaching you have received from your church leaders - you can be sure that such false teachers are pursuing a Gnostic agenda:

"I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them, for such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.." (Romans 16:17-18)

If you are an older believer, don't allow the Gnostics to judge what you do and don't allow them to  tie your life down with their foolish man-made regulations and laws:

"Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration o a Sabbath day.. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions...."

The high-faluten teaching, says Paul is actually, nothing more than "idle notions", that's quite a balloon popper, right?

All believers realise that, far from being closer to Jesus, a Gnostic actually has no relationship with Jesus - he is frankly self-deluded! Paul goes on...

 "... He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow." (Colossians 2:16-19) 

All believers realise, that if the Gnostics leave you, they do so because they were never actually with you in the first place. This is of course not at all surprising because if they are no longer connected to Jesus, they can't be connected to his body, the church.

"They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us." (1 John 2:19)

This last truth is a great comfort. We would be saddened if dear and real brothers and sisters left us, but we are assured by no less than the Apostle John, the Apostle of love, if Gnostics leave, they show by their leaving that actually they were never with you.

A present danger
In the Internet age where it is all too easy to confuse knowledge with wisdom, outcrops of Gnosticism should not surprise us. Let's be on our guard and press on, knowing that His Kingdom cannot fail, in spite of all Satan's attacks.