Culture or Scripture?

In the Lord’s church, “change” in worship practices and other areas continues. We have been realizing and attempting to deal with these changes for decades. In essence, as Solomon indicated, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). A current trend introduces and allows practices based on cultural acceptance. In other words, a practice may be performed in one place, but not another simply because of culture. In this writer’s opinion, in many issues that which is deemed acceptable passes the test of acceptability because of cultural acceptance rather than allowing God’s word to determine whether or not something should be practiced.

The online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides the following as one of the definitions for culture: The customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious or social group; also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversion or way of life) shared by people in a place or time. Let us look at a few examples of those things that may be partaken of or practiced based on location or cultural situation. I proudly profess that I am a “southerner.” I like grits with my eggs (I like a little mayo with mine, but some prefer butter). Sweet tea is its own food group here. We are said to have a little more “laid back” lifestyle. We like our barbecue. We pronounce words differently (often dragging words out and adding more syllables just by the way we pronounce our vowels). And, yes, “y’all” is a real word and is totally accepted in this culture.

This is all well and good as it relates to purely secular matters. However, that is not what we are discussing here. A problem arises when we indicate that those things of a cultural nature supplant what God’s word reveals as an acceptable practice or doctrine. As an illustration of what I am attempting to get across, I want to relate a few things that are culturally acceptable in Tanzania. If culture were the sole determining factor as to the viability of a practice or doctrine, notice what would be considered acceptable there.

• It is acceptable for a man to know that his wife is capable of bearing him children before they marry. Therefore, premarital sex is defended on a cultural basis.
• Polygamy is practiced and is culturally acceptable.
• The Massai tribe drinks cow’s blood mixed with milk as a religious practice.
• Numerous groups, including the Massai, dance as a part of their “worship.”
• It was discovered that, at one of our brotherhood schools of preaching, a student’s wife made an alcoholic drink called “pombe.” That practice was defended as culturally acceptable if one didn’t drink it themselves.
• Robert Stapleton, while working as a missionary there, related a conversation with a man who said, “If you will allow us to drink and have multiple wives, the church will grow.”

Notice things that are becoming more culturally accepted in this country. If culture is our guide, how long before these are deemed acceptable? Gambling is on the increase. Not only are there numerous casinos, but the purchase of lottery tickets and raffle tickets is on the increase, even among members of churches of Christ. Unless one has been totally oblivious to news of recent months, we see that calls for gay marriage continue to be heard. This will be a case that Supreme Court will decide. If that becomes culturally acceptable, what will our approach be? Recently, a congregation in Abilene, TX decided to open a “bar church.” It is alright though, because it was announced that they could not serve drinks during services (notice that tongue is planted fully in cheek).

This writer acknowledges that some will say that these are extremes and therefore ridiculous. However, let’s not be too hasty to rush to such a judgment. If the “cultural door” is opened (allowing practices because of cultural acceptability) where will it end? If handclapping during singing in worship or in response to something a preacher says is deemed acceptable because of the culture, then other considerations can be made based on other cultural conditions.

What we must consider is that culture has never been allowed to supersede or trump God’s will as revealed in Scripture. Adam and Eve set a cultural precedent by wearing fig leaves after “discovering they were naked.” That was not acceptable to God and further instruction and provision resulted in more suitable attire. Numerous Scriptures show that it is God’s will, either delegated to Christ or penned through inspiration, that serves as the sole basis for the acceptability of a doctrine or practice. Jesus said that “all authority” had been given to Him (Matt. 28:18). Paul related that everything we do must be done based on such authority (Col. 3:17). The Bereans were considered more “noble or fair-minded” because they searched the Scriptures to ascertain if something was authoritative (Acts 17:11).

What must our approach to such matters be? Again, we look to Scripture for the answer. John indicated that we should “test the spirits”, to see if they are of God” (1 Jno. 4:1). Paul instructed those in Thessalonica to “test all things” and to “hold fast that which is good” (1 Thes. 5:21-22). In other words, anything and everything that we do should pass the test of Scripture for its approval rather than using a man-made standard such as cultural acceptance.

May we be those who search the Scriptures and operate on God’s authority on these matters. If we deem something to be an expedient or a cultural situation, let’s be sure that the Scriptures authorize a practice before we engage in such things. This writer has long operated on a simple perspective: there is a way that can always be right and never be wrong. May we be those who seriously consider such things and determine that what is being done has God’s “stamp of approval” regardless of what man deems acceptable.

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God Is In Control

People are waking up to the news about our president. Nothing has changed as President Obama was re-elected yesterday. You can all but hear both cheers, from those voting for him, and groans, from those who voted for Romney. Many things will be said in the coming days and we, as Christians, must be careful of what we say and how we say it.

One statement I have read on many Facebook posts is “God is still in control.” That is a true statement, but what do we mean by it? Do we mean that God approves? Do we mean that who is serving really doesn’t matter? We have  difficulty “reading” expressions and tone changes in a Facebook post. What does it mean that God is in control?

Perhaps we can look back at biblical history and make that same statement regarding those events. God was in control when Adam and Eve were banished from the garden. God was in control when He destroyed the world by flood. God was in control when both Israel and Judah were carried away into Assyrian and Babylonian captivity. God will be in control when the world as we know it will be destroyed.

I understand the need to placate ourselves, especially when dealing with disappointment in the coming days. We must realize that God has always been and will always be in control. We must also understand that He does not approve of all that we do. When the people demanded a king like the nations around them, God let them do so. Our society is bent on a lifestyle that is contrary to that of God. If the people want to elect a man who has policies that are contrary to God’s Word, He will allow us to do so. If we, as a nation, choose to depart from His will and pass laws that are contrary to His will, He will allow it, even though He is in control.

Yes, God is in control. I am thankful that God is our standard and our judge. We have nothing to fear if we are walking in His light. Let us continue to pray for our country. Let us continue to pray that hearts will be changed when confronted with God’s Word. Let us continue to take His word to a nation bent on violating His will.

The sun will set this evening and rise again tomorrow, unless the Lord returns. Nothing has really changed regarding the “big picture.” Our goals have not changed, as we are still heaven bound. Our task has not changed as the Great Commission is still in effect. We will still take our places in pulpits and Bible classes, charged with the greatest of works, proclaiming His Word. May we do so with a gusto that is not based on who is serving as president; rather may we be motivated by a love for God and the lost souls dependent upon us as God’s servants.

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The Church’s Greatest Threat

In his book Seven Things a Loving God Hates, Allen Webster uses a great illustration that should wave a red flag as we contemplate problems in the Lord’s church. The story is told of an experiment involving a glass beaker. The one conducting the experiment took a glass beaker and drove a nail into a board, doing no damage at to the beaker. Then, he took a small metal ball and dropped into the nect of the beaker. The beaker shattered when the metal ball hit the bottom. The point made in the illustration/experiment is that the beaker was not threatened by an external force, yet was extremely sensitive to an inner blow.

The same principle holds true for the New Testament church. There are numerous forces that have been brought against the church since its inception. False teachers challenged the integrity and authority of Apostles and teachers through New Testament times. In our day, atheists continue to bombard the church, using every means available to them. Enemies today use many facets of the media to ridicule an attack those claiming to be Christians. Even recent developments in our government seem bent on challenging the faithful, especially as it relates to moral issues (abortion, homosexuality, etc.).

Yet, there is not a single one of these forces that can bring down the Lord’s church. Many attempts have been made, but we are still here and are actively promoting God’s will in a hostile environment. We have been promised success if we continue to do what God expects and demands of us (Isa. 55:11; Matt. 13:1-9). God has indeed promised us victory, despite the forces that set themselves against us.

Though this is true, we still have a major threat. Sadly, the greatest threat we face comes from within. Just as the metal ball did the work that driving a nail could not do, the church can be destroyed by internal forces. The internal threats can come from any number of sources. There are congregations where disharmony is crippling their efforts. Other congregations are facing leadership crises.

Here we want to address a threat that has manifested itself in recent years, and should be a growing concern. At one point in Israel’s history, Hosea indicated that God ‘s people were being destroyed because of a lack of knowledge (Hos. 4:6). We are experiencing an alarming situation in the church today. Why are we still fighting the battles of instrumental music, women’s role in the church, and a denominational understanding of Christianity in the Lord’s church today? Why is liberalism running rampant and on the increase in so many places? The problem is an internal one. Somewhere and at some time we have “dropped the ball” in educating our members. At some point, we have become convinced that there is no place for “first principles” and we have shifted in the nature and intensity of our teaching of biblical principles in these areas.

Yes, our greatest threat is from within. We have to choose to allow external forces to cause harm. The same is true with the internal problems as their solution is as readily available as it was in the days of the first century church. We must return to the Bible as our source for dealing with all situations and take the teaching of it more seriously on the congregational setting. We have been promised victory (1 Cor. 15). Let us lay hold of that which God has provided for that victory and overcome those internal problems that would hinder our efforts.

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The Lack of Leadership

Congregations of the Lord’s church often (and rightly so) pause and take stock of the situation in a given congregation. Numbers continue to go down. The contribution continues to dwindle. There is little, if any, involvement. There are sinful conditions that continue almost unchecked.

When such situations are considered, finger-pointing begins almost immediately in seeking to discover why such things are happening. Often, the preacher becomes the scapegoat. The mentality is that, if a different preacher were there, things would be vastly different and all problems would be resolved. The preacher may be ineffective. However, history seems to indicate that this far from the case as such problems continue, even after the preacher’s departure.

In my opinion, the problem always comes back to a lack of leadership. There may be symptoms that need to be dealt with in resolving these issues, but the symptoms are merely a byproduct of the true problem. The leadership in a given congregation must bear the brunt of the blame if problems are apparent in the congregational setting. If the problem is indeed with the preacher, the leaders must take action. If numbers are falling and contributions dwindling, the leadership must discover and resolve the issue through biblical means. If sin continues to go unaddressed, we need look no further than those in whose charge such souls are placed.

Our prayers for the success and future of the Lord’s church today must include prayers for effective leaders. We must also realize the need to train them for future surface. Someone has said, “As the preacher goes, so goes the congregation.” I cannot disagree more. We should see that, “as the leaders go, so goes the congregation.”

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What Do You Stand For?

In recent weeks, we have been watching the uprising known as “Occupy Wall Street” (or Philadelphia, or Dallas, etc.). I have been listening to their message, if you can call it that. The conclusion that I have reached is that their message is that they are against something. They are not unified at all; rather, there are numerous things they disagree with, resulting in a mixed and confusing message.

We can be guilty of the same thing in the Lord’s church. We have a message to present to the world: the gospel. However, far too many times we simply express what we are against doctrinally. I realize that the truth must be defended and error must be confronted. But, I don’t want to be known as the man who disagrees with and stands against _________ (you fill in the blank). I believe we should be known for what we stand for.

In 1 Peter 3:15, we find that which both authorizes and gives us the duty to be clear as to what we stand for. We are to be ready to give an “apology” (“defense” in the NKJV) for our faith. We should be able to give Bible answers to the questions and problems faced by so many in the world today. We must be those who are willing and able to present the truth in such a way as to best state the case built by God in the Scriptures. Our message must be a unified one if it is to have any impact on a lost and dying world.

May we be those who can develop the ability and the courage to present God’s truth in a straightforward and rational manner. We must let people know what we stand for, and that it is based solely on God’s Word. Only then will our message resonate throughout the world.

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The “Two Sides” of Communication

In both the political and spiritual world today, there are obvious signs of decaying communication skills. We often hear people say, “That is not what I said”, “You have misrepresented what I said” or “You have misunderstood me.” In reality, these may be valid assessments of a given communication.

The problem may well be two-fold. First, people often speak in ways that are vague, opening themselves up to being misunderstood or misrepresented. In a politically correct age, people may be afraid of communicating their views in a straightforward manner because they either don’t want to or may not be able to defend their views. On the other hand, there are those who hear what they want to hear, regardless of what is actually said. To borrow a line from the movie Cool Hand Luke, “what we have here is a failure to communicate.”

We must understand that there are at least two key elements in communication. First, one must clearly delineate their views, defining their terms as they so as to help avoid misunderstanding. In short, we must “say what we mean” in a clear and intelligible way. If I want someone to understand my views on a given topic, I must take great care to enable them to properly understand exactly what I am saying. Then, we must be hearers who actually listen to what is said and allow a person to state his state his views and define his terms. As I listen, I cannot listen with my own definition in mind if the speaker has clearly articulated what he means in the use of a given word or phrase.

An example is seen in the recent news involving a Baptist minister. While supporting Rick Perry in his campaign, he indicated that Mormonism, the belief system of Mitt Romney, is a cult. He has on more than one occasion defined what he meant in his usage of the word “cult.” I firmly believe that many have heard the word “cult” and have assessed his statement based on their own definition of a cult (i.e., the James Jones tragedy) resulting in a public outcry against the speaker. He can rightly say that his views have been misrepresented. He defined his terms, but communication failed on the part of the hearers.

To avoid the same problems today, as communicators, we must be those who state our views clearly, defining our terms so that others will not misunderstand. As hearers, we must allow the speaker to define his terms and avoid listening through whatever filters we have set up with our definitions of terms. We may disagree with his definition, but it is dishonest to “put words in his mouth.” Communication is a vital part of our work as preachers and teachers. Therefore, we must take great care that we communicate in such a way as to best get our message across to a generation that needs biblical instruction.

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“They Dropped the Ball!”

Often when preaching I hear brethren refer to a certain element or age group in the church and indicate that they “dropped the ball” in relation to a given area of discussion (evangelism, defending the truth, etc.).  I must admit that I was once among them in pointing fingers of blame.

It may well be true that this has occurred. Many of our congregations have not grown as they should as little or no evangelism was occurring. There are congregations that have once been sound, but have fallen prey to those calling for doctrinal change and unauthorized changes in worship practices. However, pointing fingers of blame is not rectifying the situation. If we continue with this analogy, if someone has dropped the ball, it is still laying on the ground.

Rather than moan about what could have been or continue point fingers, we need to grasp the urgency of picking that ball up off the floor and “running with it.” We can no longer be content to pass our problems and failures off to a previous generation. Imagine the foolishness of standing before God in the judgment and attempting to put the blame on a past generation for failures for which we, and we alone, were responsible.

Brethren, there is so much work to do. We need to defend the truth, but stay from petty squabbles. We must evangelize, rather than merely complaining about the sales pitches others are using in their promotion of a social gospel. We need to pick up the ball and run with it to affect a generation with the gospel. Let’s stop moaning and pointing fingers and “pick up the ball and run with it.”

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