Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Dishonesty in the Church? Never.

Have you ever noticed something that preachers did regularly? They preach almost exclusively on those texts that are capable of giving a pro-denominational emphasis! These carefully chosen texts do not show up the denomination's weaknesses, failures, compromises, unfaithfulnesses, etc. You just do not hear those things, do you?

But you will hear those texts that reinforce the denomination's position on its distinctive beliefs. What can you call that? Sheer dishonesty with the text of Scripture.

What about this 'rightly dividing the word of truth' business? Why are we scared to expose our denomination, our church, to the search light of God's Word, to His awesomely and penetratingly holy gaze? Why are preachers so adept at using the Word to expose others, instead of turning it on their own excuse for spiritual life and devotion?

Then we wonder why our church members are so sectarian in their attitude, so comfortable in Zion, so confident that everything our church does pleases God, but what other churches do does not please Him. What a privilege we have to belong to this denomination, the perfect church! And what deprivation others experience who belong to those terrible imperfect churches and denominations!

Do preachers do, or not do, these things because they want to do well, be liked, get on, impress others, etc? Do they want to be congratulated for what they say, or do not say? Is the motivation of their preaching and their ministry to win the approval of men, or of God (Gal.1:10)? If it is to keep in with men, especially the men that count in the congregation and Presbytery, they need to re-visit their motives for entering the Christian ministry!

Is it because deep down inside, ministers love the veneer of church life, the cosmetics, the polish, the glitter, the prestige, the power, etc? But how the real situation beneath the veneer scares them! Do those of us who are ministers really want reality? No thanks. What I see pleases me, but what I do not see frightens me. "Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart," on what is beneath the surface and away from public gaze.

Theology, especially of the orthodox variety, can provide the perfect cover for sin. We must then ask ourselves, "Is theology for us something that lures us into the presence of God to worship Him, or a religious technique that enables us to keep away from God and justify ourselves?

Is it an incipient idolatry that prevents us being honest in our dealings with Scripture, the Church, men's souls, ourselves? Have we made graven images that have now become substitutes for the real thing? Are we living in some kind of fantasy world? What is it that is colouring our view of things and preventing us seeing reality? What filters have we put in place that keep out what is uncomfortable, and allow through what is comfortable and easily lived with?

Gratitude nurtures fidelity. Is its absence in the Church and in our lives the reason for our infidelity to the Lord? Have we forgotten "all His benefits"? (Ps.103:2).

Remember, forgetting the Lord's benefits is tantamount to forgetting the Lord Himself. And when we forget the Lord, replacement takes place because spiritual nature cannot tolerate a spiritual vacuum. And the result? Idolatry - of the worst kind. Is this essentially our problem in today's church?

And when we forget the Lord's benefits, we have nothing for which to thank Him! Perhaps that's why our thanksgiving is so heartless! Just correct words! As I meditated on these things, I found myself deeply disturbed, and moving to confess my sins, and then to worship "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."

Thanksgiving and thanks-living. This is about only doing those things that we know please the Lord, and show genuine gratitude. For example, when old Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was brought before the Emperor in 155AD and demanded to recant, he replied, "For eighty and six years I served Him and He did me no harm. How then can I do this evil thing against Him?" (Paraphrase mine). Gratitude provides an excellent antidote to idolatry. We need to spend more time at the Cross.

Further, we need to beware that theology which leads us inexorably to the Lord Jesus Christ, does not become a substitute for Him in our lives and affections. It can happen so easily. Theology can cover sin in our lives, and the love of theology can become a respectable and unnoticed lid on our sin. But we so often spend more time in theology than we do with our blessed Lord, because theology covers our sin, but Christ exposes it. That's why we can concern ourselves more with theology than we do with the searching Christ. The thirst for orthodoxy can be idolatrous, and systems can effectively replace Christ in our affections.

Is that the real reason why we avoid those texts of Scripture that convict us and show both us and our denomination up for what they really are, rather than exposing ourselves to the searching and penetrating gaze of the all-seeing and all-knowing God? Worth thinking about, isn't it?

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Reformation and Revival - the Needs of the Hour!

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is to be commended for remembering the great revival of evangelical religion in Ulster in 1859, when some 100,000 people were brought under the saving influences of the Holy Spirit, and joined the churches.

The desire to mark this important anniversary with a call to the entire denomination to prayer for another awakening of vital religion, is welcome, and is a call that every Christian ought to take with utmost seriousness. Both the Ulster and the Welsh revivals of 1859 were 'born in prayer,' and if ever we are to see the like again, and God's knows we need it, the people of God must become burdened to pray to the Almighty to grant us another visitation of His Spirit. It is "not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit," says the Lord, that this will be accomplished. The ingenuity of man will accomplish nothing, try as he may. He might try to manufacture revival by the creation of all sorts of 'spiritual' things, but all to no avail. He might try to inculcate spiritual feelings and emotions in church members, but it is not by this means that much needed revival will come to our desolate churches.

Denominations will call meetings of committees and establish commissions to debate what is wrong with the churches today; they will look at the image that the church presents to the world, and do a make-over of it through the good, and expensive, services of a PR guru; the church will try to rebrand itself and its associations in order to attract people into them; but all to no avail. Some of these initiatives will work, but they will 'cut no ice' when it comes to stopping the speedy drift away from the teaching of Scripture. The downgrade is progressing at break-neck speed, and few, it would seem, are spiritually alert enough to see what is happening.

Yet, the call to prayer, and the interest in prayer for revival amongst some evangelicals, is being sounded. This is good, and proper, and a wise response to the current ecclesiastical situation.

However, one looks in vain at PCI's new prayer diary for revival, and listens in vain to sermons on revival, to hear any recognition of the need for a thorough-going reformation of the church. All the promoters of this call to prayer want is for people to be converted to Christ, but the church allowed to continue on in its chosen way. The fruit of revival will make a good 'add-on' to the church's other ancillaries, and will also keep Presbyterian members minds off the serious business of thinking biblically about what goes on in God's house.

But reformation of the church is not something that is sought for, or even invited, for or by the church, and one must ask why this is the case! Would it be much too costly if ministers were to pursue the reform of the church according to the Word of God? Have otherwise good ministers been effectively 'neutered' by the fear that if they were to pursue reformation of congregational and denominational life, they might find themselves in trouble with the authorities, local or national?

There appears to be an almost willing blindness to the historical facts that when reformation comes to the church, there is a revival of vital religion that is co-terminus with it. Take the great Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century in Europe, for example. Was there ever a movement to even match the far-reaching benefits of the reformation throughout Western civilisation? None. We are living today with the marvellous fruits of that revival of biblical religion, and many are throwing these all away for nothing.

Small minds do not see the need for revival/reformation in the church. Indeed, revival is viewed by not a few, it would seem, as something that will solve the church's enormous problems. But they do not realise that with revival comes reformation of church life, and those who have been encouraged by evangelical ministers to clutter congregational life with 'all kinds of everything,' will find their pet innovations disappearing, or being removed from church life altogether.

But does the church NEED revival of true religion? Let me describe some church scenarios that will help you think through this important matter.

Observing contemporary church worship, it is obvious that God has not told the church how He is to be worshipped. If He had, then worship would be very different from what poses as worship today.

On the Radio Ulster Sunday morning service that came from one of PCI's large evangelical congregations in Belfast, the congregation was worshipping God using words sung to the signature tune of "The Flintstones." The words could not be heard, and the only thing left after the singing ended was the tune of "The Flintstones." And this is worship!

There was no prayer until near the end of the service, and the Bible was not read until well into the service. Indeed, the service was more like a current affairs programme on Radio Ulster, only not nearly as good. The sermon lasted only a few minutes, much of the time being taken up with interviews of church members.

Another church announced that it was starting a ministry for men, and the man making this announcement stressed that this would not take the form of a Bible Study - this may happen in two or three years time (but obviously there was no guarantee of this, either) - all in a bid to deceive men into coming to something that was to be an evangelistic tool in the hands of the congregation. At all costs, the Bible must be kept out of sight when it comes to evangelism and fellowship!

This is reminiscent of a similar attempt by PCI Youth almost 20 years ago to evangelise their Roman Catholic contemporaries by being careful not to disclose their denominational affiliation. Deception of the worst kind. Is this where the PMS people learned how to do business? And the congregation referred to is doing precisely that! Indeed, so ignorant are the organisers of this ministry for men that they talk about "having fellowship" with people who are not even Christians! Paul obviously got it all wrong in his second letter to the church at Corinth, for he teaches that such fellowship is impossible! Poor Paul! A man of his time, I guess!

Now, let me ask, "Does the church need revival?" It NEEDS revival, whether or not it really wants it. The life of the church is so perverted that anything short of a Holy Spirit revival will accomplish absolutely nothing. Has the church deliberately departed from the Bible? Has she forsaken her 'first Love'? Has she deserted her Husband? YES.

Before the church will know the acceptance of the church as His Bride, she will have to make radical changes. Reformation will have to take place within her ranks. The rubbish that has accumulated within her, will have to be removed. The wells that our fathers dug to get that living and life-giving water will have to be cleared out, for the Philistines within the church have blocked them up with rubbish and debris. But no one wishes to do this very thing. Why? Because no one really cares enough about the church to clean her out, and make her presentable and useful again to the Almighty.

May God have mercy of her; for only He can or will!