What is the Church?

People in America are “joiners.” The majority love being part of clubs, associations, and other organized groups. Hobbyists, collectors, civic clubs, business and trade organizations are examples of this.

One organization that is still going strong is the church. I have read that there are over 350,000 congregations in America. There are more churches than post offices; more churches than McDonald’s restaurants. Approximately 20% of Americans attend worship services weekly.

What distinguishes the church from other associations? What makes the church distinctive? The church is not a building, no matter how beautiful or impressive it may appear. It is not a denomination. The New Testament says nothing about denominations. These are fellowships of churches, and they are not forbidden by the Bible. But neither are they mentioned.

A small prayer or Bible study group may be part of a church, but it is not the same thing. Nor is a large gathering in a stadium or arena for an area-wide evangelistic witness. These are good, but they are not the same as local churches.

The church is not a mission society or para-church ministry. These are ministry structures which are task-oriented and highly selective. They are set up to complement and support the work of local churches, but they are not churches. We may discover a working definition of the church by reading Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The letter is addressed to “the church of God in Corinth” (1:2).

An assembly of Christian people

The word “church” means a “called-out assembly.” Paul also called these people at Corinth “saints” because they had put their faith in Jesus as savior. We learn from reading the letter that they were not perfect people. But they were Christian believers, set apart for God.

In geographical proximity to one another

the fact that it was “in Corinth” reminds us that the church is placed in a local context to be a witness. It is true that the New Testament speaks of the church a s universal body of Christ. But the majority of references to the church have to do with specific people gathering in specific local congregations.

United in covenant relationship

This becomes clear when we read the rest of the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. Paul gives the reason why he wrote the letter. He wants these believers in Corinth to be unified in their commitment to their doctrinal confession. This confession centered on the gospel, the message of the cross (1 :17, 2:2). This is the basis of the church’s unity. It is the bond which holds the church together, “united in mind and thought.”

Building up one another by the cooperative use of their spiritual gifts

The Corinthians, Paul says, were endowed with spiritual gifts. These gifts were to be used for the building up of the church in knowledge, unity and strength (1 :5-7 and chapters 12-14). Spiritual gifts are divinely-given abilities to minister to the needs of the church, which is Christ’s spiritual body.

For the proclamation of holy scripture

Paul wrote about his preaching. “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you  except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on the wisdom of men, but on God’s power” (2:2-5).

For the purposes of worship and witness

The Corinthian church was far from ideal. There were problems that Paul needed to address: controversies, divisions, immorality, and doctrinal errors. Their immaturity and disobedience were hindering both their worship and their witness. So Paul wrote the letter to correct errors  and abuses in both. That is why he clarified his teaching about the ordinances of baptism (1:10-17) and the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34). Both of these ordinances given by Jesus are for the church’s worship and witness.

The information we gather from 1 Corinthians helps us to see that a New Testament church is an assembly of Christian people in geographical proximity to one another, united in covenant relationship, to build up one another through the cooperative use of spiritual gifts, for the proclamation of holy scripture, and for the purposes of the worship of God and witness to the world.

African theologian Conrad Mbewe wrote that every Christian should become an active member of a local church. He is right. What about you?

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Zooming to Africa

For the past two weeks I have been teaching in Africa. I didn’t cross the ocean to do this. Instead, through the magic of the internet I was connected to a classroom at the Evangelical Seminary of West Africa where twenty students gathered to study pastoral theology with me for three hours a day.

I am not a professional educator, so I prayed for guidance as I prepared for this. I spent months getting ready for the course, reading and indexing books on pastoral theology, then writing lectures on the science and art of pastoral practice. I’ve been working on this all year long.

It was not easy, but I was glad to do it for these worthy young men who are dedicated servants of the Lord. They are in seminary working on master’s degrees, in addition to holding down jobs and pastoring local churches. It was an unexpected privilege to serve the Lord in this way.

My good friend Dr. Rick Calenberg is president of the seminary. He retired as head of the missions department at Dallas Theological Seminary and promptly went back to Africa to invest in the lives of Liberian pastors and leaders. When he invited me to teach this course, I could not say no.

Because of COVID-related complications that arose back in the summer, we decided that it would be best for me to try to teach through a Zoom connection. The system worked fine, despite a few glitches along the way, due to my clumsiness with technology. Teaching through my laptop required intense concentration, but it was good to interact, back and forth, with these men of God.

The main source of authority for this course was the Bible. It is as theologian Thomas Oden wrote, “Scripture is the primary basis for understanding the pastoral office and its functions. … Pastoral theology lives out of scripture.” Among my first classes was an expository survey of 1 Timothy, a pastoral epistle.

I wanted to convey the joys as well as the responsibilities, of being a pastor. I taught lessons on the calling, duties, and character of the pastor. There were other lessons on worship, church officers (elders and deacons), the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the priority of preaching. I emphasized pastoral care, discipleship training, and leadership, among other subjects. The last lessons were about the pastor’s family life and self-care and personal renewal.

I hope this training helped shape the thinking of these good men. I hope it strengthened them professionally, emotionally, and spiritually. I  hope it was an eternal investment in their lives, but I also hope that it was an investment in their churches, and their families. I hope it was an investment in the spiritual life of the West African nation of Liberia, for God’s glory.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Living Life Under the Threat of Terrorism

The daily newspaper and television documentaries have been reminding me that we are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our nation. Newscasters have been interviewing survivors and family members of those who were killed. They are reliving before the cameras the terrible events of that September day in 2001.

Some of them fought back tears as they remembered fellow first responders, family members and co-workers who had died. Some testified to the new lease on life they had been given as survivors. Some shared deeply moving stories of their struggles with permanent injuries and PTSD.

Like you, I will never forget where I was and what I was doing when news of the destruction of the World Trade Center reached me. I was at Glen Eyrie, the home of the Navigators in Colorado Springs, attending meetings of a mission board. Flying home was out of the question. All commercial airlines were grounded for several days afterward. I remained at Glen Eyrie until I could get a flight home to Oklahoma City three days later.

Tomorrow we will remember the tragic events of September 11, the porous airports, the hi-jacked airliners, the heroism of the passengers on United Flight 93, the crash into the Pentagon, the rush to protect government officials, the confusion in the streets of New York City. We also recognize the profound changes to American life that have ensued, especially the willingness of Americans to trade privacy and personal freedom for increased security.

The precipitous withdrawal of American forces from Afganistan and the subsequent resurgence of the Taliban, has thoughtful people speculating about the possibility of new terrorist organizations emerging to threaten the United States of America. Some say that there have been “sleeper cells” of terrorists in our country all along, awaiting the opportunity to strike again with renewed confidence and deadly force. Is their signal to strike the anniversary we commemorate tomorrow?

What should we do? Should we close our borders and close our hearts? Should we load up on guns and ammo  and fuel our passions with suspicion, fear and prejudice? Should we hunker down and hide out until the second coming? What is our duty to one another, to ourselves, and to God as we seek to live healthy lives in a dangerous world?

You and I are not the first ones to ask such questions. At the beginning of the Second World War, the Oxford University scholar C.S. Lewis was invited to give a sermon at St. Mary’s Church in Oxford. This was occasioned by the uncertainty caused to Oxford undergraduates by the coming war with Germany. Lewis, himself a veteran of World War I, was asked to put world events into perspective for the young men of the university. How could they continue with their studies when war was imminent?

What Lewis said to those students about the war in Europe could apply as well to us living under the threat of terrorism. Permit me to extract just a few of the points he made. (To read his address in its entirety, you may find it online, or you may order the book of Lewis’s addresses edited by Walter Hooper, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses.)

Lewis said we must remember that the world has always been a dangerous place. Life has never really been “normal.” The war (or terrorism) “creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” We must accept it.

He reminds us that the great Christians of the past “thought it is good for us to be always aware of our mortality. … We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it.”

Just as Lewis  believed the allied cause was just and that serving one’s country in the military was a legitimate duty, so it follows that he would agree that to oppose terrorism is a righteous cause. That said, it does not excuse or endorse every strategy, political, military, or covert that has been used in the war on terror. Those are prudential judgments to be made by the wisest of leaders under the guidance of God.

Ordinary people are not to suspend the ordinary course of life on account of the fear of terrorism. To the students living under the threat of war Lewis said that they should consider their work as scholars as work done for the glory of God. “The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.'”

Just as we are not to live in fear, we are not to give in to futility and frustration with the thought that life is so tentative and uncertain that there is no use pursuing one’s dreams and goals, marriage, children, career, serving God. No!

C.S. Lewis wrote, “A more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age, is leaving futurity in God’s hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to him or not. … Happy work is best done by the (person) who takes his/her long-term view somewhat lightly  and works from moment to moment ‘as to the Lord.’ It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.”

” Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs. He even assumes that they may go to dinner parties, even dinner parties given by pagans. … Under the aegis of his church and in the most Christian ages, learning and the arts flourish. The solution to this paradox is, of course, well known to you . ‘Whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do , do all to the glory of God.'”

One thing I noticed in the interviews with survivors of 9/11 is that they did not stop living. Nor were they living in fear. The were determined not to be defeated by the threat of terrorism. They embraced the gift of life.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Is God Judging America?

I have heard the question raised, “Is God judging America for our national sins? How else are we to explain natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and plagues?” I do not know how to answer that question other than to turn to scripture, which is the final authority.

What comes to mind is Abraham’s intercession for the city of Sodom. Genesis 18:20-33 records how the Lord met with Abraham on his way to investigate the grievous sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham proceeded to negotiate with the Lord on behalf of any righteous people he might find in Sodom: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”

What about fifty? Forty-five? Will you spare the city if you can find forty righteous people? What about thirty? Twenty? Then Abraham reached out in audacious faith, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

The Lord agreed to withhold judgment for the sake of ten righteous people if they could be found in Sodom. “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.” Unfortunately, there were not even ten and Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire.

This true story teaches . . .

  1. God is holy and his judgments are legitimate. Divine patience has a breaking point (Genesis 15:16). Abraham knew this as he was praying for Sodom, “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” Earlier events in Genesis reveal God’s willingness to exercise righteous judgment against entire civilizations.
  2. The Lord reveals his plans to his people. Just as he spoke to Abraham about what he intended to do, so he has given repeated warnings in scripture for us to read today. I think that is why God-fearing people suspect strongly that God is acting in judgment, warning our nation about the consequences of sin. The danger to America is only going to get worse if we do not repent in humility before God.
  3. God’s people are called to pray for the nation (Jeremiah 29:7; 1 Timothy 2:1-3). Abraham was convinced there were righteous people in Sodom, and so he appealed for the city on the basis of God’s justice. Those who were connected to the Lord by faith, as Abraham was, were considered “righteous” throughout the Old Testament. Those who rejected the will and word of God were called “wicked.”
  4. The implication in Abraham’s prayer and the Lord’s response is that the righteous remnant have a preserving effect upon society. They do this by living righteously and teaching their children to do the same (v. 19).
  5. God’s judgment of Sodom teaches us that social evils bring social consequences. Entire populations suffer for the evils that are tolerated by a society.
  6. God is willing to withhold judgment. The God of justice is also a God of mercy. He always does what is right. If he judges a nation for its hubris and arrogant unbelief, he is just. If he withholds judgment, for the sake of a believing remnant, he is just. If he rescues that remnant just before judgment falls, he is just.
  7. The righteous will ultimately be saved. The twin themes of Genesis 19 are destruction and deliverance. Lot was rescued just ahead of the destruction that fell upon his city. The fact that a man of Lot’s dubious character would be delivered, magnifies the grace of God in the rescue of sinners (2 Peter 2:7-9).

Pastor Randy Faulkner

A Healing Puzzlement

Reading about the travels and earthly works of Jesus in the gospel of Mark has me puzzling over several details. Why did the Lord Jesus tell people not to spread the word about his healing miracles? Why did he heal comparatively few people when there were so many more who desired healing? Why did he compel his disciples to get into a boat to cross the Lake of Galilee when he knew perfectly well that a dangerous storm was brewing? What happened to the demons he cast out of people?

There are good answers to these questions, and some of them may be found in commentaries. But it is noteworthy that sometime the scholars skip right over the questions I would ask.

One such question occurred to me recently as I read Mark 7:33.  Jesus was asked to attend to the needs of a man who was deaf and speech-impaired. The verse says that Jesus took him aside. I get that. He was showing this disabled man that he had the Lord’s undivided attention. He cared about the individual.

Then the verse says he put his fingers into the man’s ears. Well, that makes sense too. The Lord was using physical touch to convey his awareness of where the problem lay and that he was doing something about it.

He sighed deeply. I don’t think this implies he had any difficulty healing the man. It shows that he was moved with compassion and empathy for the man’s predicament.

Then Jesus looked up toward heaven. This must have been a signal to the man that he was invoking the power of God. God had created this man and God knew about his problem. Jesus’ upward look was an indication to the patient that his help was from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Jesus spoke the healing word: “Ephphatha!” It was a command in the Aramaic language to the man’s senses to “to be opened!” Verse 34 says, “At this, the man’s ears were opened and his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.” 

But there is another detail, one that I do not fully understand. (Apparently the scholars do not either because many of them prefer to leave it unmentioned.) We read that Jesus did a strange thing. “He spit and touched the man’s tongue.” Spit? What did this have to do with healing?

Any suggestion I might give is speculative. Did the Lord want to impart something from his human DNA? This physical manifestation certainly undermines the Gnostic denial of our Lord’s full humanity.

Was he demonstrating that he, and he alone, was the one doing the healing? This healing came only through him, by the power of God. He, the Lord Jesus, transferred spittle from his own tongue to the tongue of the speechless man. Did this physical gesture signify that a physical healing was about to happen?

Another possibility has been suggested. Spittle was considered in ancient times to have healing properties. Now the Lord was certainly not imitating the practices of Egyptian and Babylonian sorcerers! But could it be that he was so fully entering the man’s cultural context that he was willing to use a means that was not unexpected in that day and time, because it had meaning for the patient himself?

This is not the only time Jesus used spit in a healing. In Mark 8:23 he put his spittle on the eyes of a blind man as he healed him. In John 9:6 he made a paste with mud and spittle and applied it as a poultice to the eyes of a blind man. What seems strange and unfamiliar to us, may have been familiar to the people of Jesus’ day. I remain puzzled.

Of these facts I am more certain. Jesus really did heal the man. The circumstances of the healing reveal his compassion, his power, his willingness, and his humility. The story also reveals to us one more convincing evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah sent from God. The prophet Isaiah wrote about the coming of Messiah:

“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6).

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

 

 

Intimations of Mortality

I am not sure why, but the words to a famous nineteenth-century hymn have been spinning around in my head for several days.

“When ends life’s transient dream/ when death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;/ blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;/ O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!” (“My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” by Ray Palmer)

I have been asking myself, “Why this sudden preoccupation with death? Where is this coming from?”

Maybe it is the repeated images on TV news: hospital ICUs crowded again with patients struggling against the resurgence of COVID-19 and the daily reports of the number of COVID-related deaths.

It may be the recent death of the young son of a friend of mine who died under tragic circumstances. His passing has been on my mind a lot as I have prayed for his family in their anguish.

Or it may be because I just had my 75th birthday and I realize the distance to the finish line is getting closer by the day.

I rather think it is because I have been studying the book of Ecclesiastes. One of the persistent themes in this ancient book is the fact that life is short and death is inevitable. This is not a morbid thought. Nor is it pessimistic. It is realistic. It is the inspired wisdom of God.

The writer says: “So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny — the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them. . . . The same destiny overtakes all . . . and afterward they join the dead. . . . For the living know that they will die” (Ecclesiastes 9:1-6).

This is, of course, the language of appearance. It is how things seem to be to limited human experience. The author of Ecclesiastes is not commenting on life after death. For the exposition of that glorious theme we must fast forward to the New Testament. Here he is taking a somber look at life “under the sun.” In a hundred years the majority of us will have been forgotten (v.5).

What happens at the time of death is worth pondering. The writer asks, “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward, and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth”(Ecclesiastes 3:21)? On our own we cannot know. Yes, God has put “eternity in our hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). This is the universal hope for immortality. But who can know apart from a revelation from God?

The writer of Ecclesiastes answers his own question: “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to the God who gave it” (12:7). This is an intimation, a hint of continued existence with God after death. These words of wisdom were “given by one Shepherd” (12:11). The writer is conscious that he was inspired by God to write about the destiny of the sprit of believers at death. “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23:1).

Ecclesiastes says the prospect of death produces one of two responses. On the one hand there are those who say, “Let us eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” On the other hand there are those who “fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it be good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

The book of Ecclesiastes  teaches us to live life to the fullest as long as we have life, to enjoy it while we can. “Go, eat your food with gladness and drink your wine with a joyful heart for God has already approved what you do” (9:7). This life-affirming word is a reminder that the blessings of life are to be enjoyed as gifts from God: food and drink, love and marriage, vocation and purpose (vv. 8-10). We should not let the fear of death hover over us like a dreaded specter.

Those who are in Christ can look death in the eye without fear. Jesus takes away the fear of death because he has broken the power of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).

I have attended several funerals lately. Every funeral I attend is a reminder of my own mortality. But my faith is in Jesus the Savior. So, I can be sure that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Life “Under the Sun”

I have been studying the book of Ecclesiastes. The English title of the book is derived from its anonymous author (Solomon?) who calls himself a qoheleth, or teacher of an assembly. Thus, the translators of the Greek version  of the book gave it the title Ecclesiastes which is derived from the word “assembly.”

The book is enigmatic because it is a collection of observations about life on earth “under the sun,” which apart from God, appears “meaningless,” or futile and empty. Yet the author recommends the enjoyment of life’s opportunities and pleasures, because life is the gift of God.

The tone of the book is sometimes dark and pessimistic. It is as if the author is saying to the unbeliever, “So you want a life without God? Okay then, grab all the gusto you can, while you can, because death is inevitable and life is meaningless anyway.”

At the same time, he is saying to the open minded inquirer, as well as to the true believer, “Remember your Creator and live life in obedience to him” (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 13-14).

In fact, whether a person is a believer or not, the book is an invitation to take an objective look at the obvious futility, injustice, and disappointments that come to everybody living “under the sun.” This phrase is repeated throughout the book as a figure of speech denoting the limits of life in an imperfect world.

The author of Ecclesiastes makes use of poetry, proverbs, and parables to illustrate his point. An example of this is the little parable in Ecclesiastes 9: 13-18. “I saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it and built huge siege works against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than strength.’ But the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are no longer heeded.”

That is how it is in this imperfect world. The little man’s wisdom saved the town. But no one expressed appreciation. There was no citation, no medal, no appointment to a position of honor in government. He was forgotten. The town ignored him and moved on.

In the news reports that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks there appeared a story that shook me. I was saddened to learn that one of the terrorists who flew a passenger jet into the Pentagon in Washington twenty years ago had taken flying lessons at an aviation school in Arizona. The manager of the flight school had reported concerns three times about the man to the FAA. Nothing was done. Her wise warnings could have saved lives, but her cautionary words went unheeded, with disastrous results.

This is not always the way things turn out, but it shows how things can be in an imperfect world. Life “under the sun” has both sorrows and blessings for both believers and unbelievers.

The book of Ecclesiastes does not tell the entire story or complete the narrative of life. There is another, bigger perspective. Derek Kidner quipped, “Ecclesiastes asks the questions. Christ is the answer.” He was right. Believers do not look only at life “under the sun.” Believers follow Paul’s suggestion in Colossians 3:1. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Be a Friend

I read about a man whose lawnmower had broken down. He struggled for a long time to get it running. Nothing worked. His neighbor appeared unexpectedly with a handful of tools.

“May I help?” he asked. In twenty minutes he had the mower functioning beautifully.

“Thanks a million,” the man said. “Say, what do you do with all those tools?”

“I make friends,” he answered. “Call me anytime.”

Making friends is a great way to share our faith. In today’s world it may be the best way. After all, how much attention do we pay to addressed-to-occupant junk mail or to bumper stickers about Jesus? How do we react when strangers show up at the door uninvited?

Real friendship is different. By building friendships we build trust. When people trust us, we can freely talk about what’s important in our lives.

Summertime is an opportunity to make new friends. We see our neighbors out-of-doors. We can fire up the grill and invite them over for burgers. Or invite them for a walk in the neighborhood. Or a round of golf. Or a Labor Day block party. Or PTA back-to-school events.

I once heard Howard Hendricks say, “I’ve never found a verse of scripture that tells unbelievers to go to church. But I have found lots of verses that tell Christians to penetrate the world.”

He quoted pollster George Gallup as saying, “Never before in the history of the United States has the gospel of Jesus Christ been professed by so many while at the same time making so little impact upon society.”

If we who follow Jesus will simply do what he told us to do and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we can make a difference in society, and for eternity. The key is friendship, building relationships of trust.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Communion Does More Than We Realize

One of the things Connie and I appreciate about the church we attend is that we get to receive the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. It never gets old. It does not devolve into an empty routine. We are glad for the fellowship of the local church in the expression of our common faith.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The Lord’s Supper confers bodily fellowship and communion with the Body of the Lord whom we receive, and through it the bodily fellowship with the other members of his Body.” Christians of all denominations the world over meet around the Lord’s table in remembrance of his sacrifice for our sins.

I read about a church leader whose ministry took him around the world. He said he received Holy Communion three Sundays, one after the other, on three continents — Australia, Asia, and Europe.

“The first service was a Methodist one held in a cinema in Sydney, Australia. The second service was in the historic Carey Memorial Baptist Church in Calcutta, India. The third was in the glorious Anglican sanctuary of Westminster Abbey in London, England. … I was equally at home in each of these services, in spite of differences in tradition and distance.”

The famous British evangelist George Whitfield testified to the same sentiment. In America he sought the opportunity to worship and observe communion with evangelical Presbyterian, Baptist, and independent churches. He did this because in some of the churches of his own denomination, “Jesus Christ was not preached in the church.” He enjoyed sharing communion with brothers and sisters in Christ of other traditions because of their common faith in the gospel.

The Lord Jesus established the Supper to remind us of his sacrifice for us. His apostles knew he wanted his people to come together for this purpose on a regular basis. This is because the Lord’s supper is effective. It does something. We come together for thanksgiving, for confession,  for renewal of our faith, for restored relationships and for remembrance. More than anything, we come to the Table to meet God, to receive his love and forgiveness. In prayer we come to God. In the Lord’s Supper he comes to us.

Thomas a Kempis said, “In this Holy Sacrament God can do more than we can understand.”

What does it do? Communion pulls us, however reluctant we may be, out of our selfish individualism and isolation. It draws us into the awareness that as believers in Jesus, we are part of his spiritual Body, symbolized by the “one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:15-17).

It brings us back to the cross, reminding us of of the sacrifice that redeemed us. I think this is what it means to “discern” the Lord’s physical body (1 Corinthians 11:29). To discern is to recognize and to remember.  “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

To whom do we proclaim it? To ourselves, to each other, and to the world. And, I might add, to the invisible realm of angels and evil spirits, we proclaim the Lord’s victory over evil and death itself.

So, it is really important that Christians meet regularly to observe communion. How regularly? The Bible gives no explicit instructions about that. But I am glad Connie and I get to do it every week.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

The American Flag and Christian Faith

Many American houses of worship proudly post our nation’s flag. We place the American flag in our churches out of respect for our national ideals. We do this to encourage prayers for the nation and its leaders. We do this for the same reasons citizens of other nations have the flags of their countries in their churches.

It is not because we believe America is or should be a theocracy. It is not because we believe America is a covenant nation the way ancient Israel was. In fact, Christians hold dual citizenship, and our primary loyalty is to God’s kingdom. Philippians 3:20 says, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Most churches have two flags, the American flag, and the Christian flag. This does not mean that we think that our earthly citizenship is as important to us as our heavenly citizenship, or that the two are equal. They are not equal.

On this weekend in which we celebrate our nation’s independence, we are praying for our nation with gratitude for our liberties. Liberty depends on the ability of citizens to govern themselves. Self-government depends on an informed and intelligent electorate. For that to be true we need good schools that teach civic responsibility. We need a free press that shines the light of truth into hidden places and holds leaders accountable for their decisions and actions.

Most of all we need healthy churches that will produce citizens of a strong moral character whose lives are shaped by the gospel of Christ. What is the church’s role in helping to encourage an informed and intelligent electorate? It is to produce a biblically informed and intelligent electorate.

It is not to tell its members who to vote for. It is not to be aligned with any political party. It is not to assume that to be an American is to be a Christian. Theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote, “We must not confuse the kingdom of God with our country. To put it another way, we should not wrap Christianity in our national flag.”

If there are American flags in our church sanctuaries, let it be for the reasons we find in Romans 13:1-7, where Paul wrote about the Christian’s relationship to the state. There he stated his belief in the sovereignty of God. “There is no authority except that which God has established” (v. 1). God rules. All powers, governments, and human authorities are subject to God whether they know it or not.

At his trial, Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “You would have no authority over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar was humbled and forced to acknowledge that “the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whom He wishes” (Daniel 4:3, 17).

Romans 13 goes further and states that God has authorized human government as an institution. God established the family as the foundation of society. God established the church to proclaim his truth in the world. And God established human government to create an orderly society where the family and the church can flourish in freedom.

Thus we are commanded to submit to the lawful authority of government and to do what is morally right. We should be respectful of the God-given authority of those who serve in government and pray for them, whether we personally like them or not. We know from scripture how a sovereign God can and does work his will through leaders who do not acknowledge him.

The ideal that Paul sets forth in Romans 13 is that the proper role of government is to commend and approve good behavior (for public safety and peace) and to punish wrongdoers. Governments and their leaders do not always get this right. Sometimes unjust rulers arise and impose unjust laws and tactics of oppression. The question arises, “Are we to obey laws that violate our consciences and contradict God’s word?”

The answer is an emphatic, “No!” Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s law, then civil disobedience becomes our duty. This is borne out in several examples from scripture. Think of the early apostles who refused the order to stop preaching in the name of Jesus: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

But the basic principle stands: There are duties of citizenship which Christians are to observe as matters of conscience. Some of these duties are enumerated in Romans 13: 5-7. These include obeying the law, paying taxes, and respecting the authorities. To these are added the duty to pray for our governmental leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

Several years ago my wife and I were worshipping with a congregation in her hometown in Southwestern Virginia. It was a Sunday morning which happened to be the fourth of July. On Independence Day, the people of that church honored America by spending an extended time in prayer for our nation and its leaders, asking God to heal our land.

There was an American flag displayed in its usual place in that small church sanctuary. But the people were not worshipping the flag. Their primary allegiance was not to Americanism. They were worshipping the sovereign God, the ruler of all nations, and Jesus Christ, the King of kings.

I was deeply impressed by the sincerity and honest faith of those prayers. I was reminded that it is just such humble dependency on God that is our nation’s greatest strength. I thought to myself, “This is truly the hope of America.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner