Friday, December 23, 2005

2005 Book List

Here are the top 10 books from this years reading list for Steve Cook (in no particular order, and excluding the Bible which is essential reading every year):

  1. The Theology of Paul the Apostle, James D.G. Dunn
  2. Jesus Remembered, James D.G. Dunn
  3. The Jesus Creed, Scott McKnight
  4. The Lost Message of Jesus, Steve Chalke and Alan Mann
  5. Contagious Holiness, Craig L. Blomberg
  6. Planting Churches in Muslim Cities, Greg Livingstone
  7. The Barbarian Way, Erwin McManus
  8. The Conversations of Jesus, Simon Kistemaker
  9. The Bubble Will Burst: Jesus is building something new, David M. Newby
  10. Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, Patrick Holford
and then there were the Inspector Rebus novels by Ian Rankin. I managed to get through 7 this year and am now on my eighth. The best so far was his latest: Fleshmarket Close.

"I will build my church"

Have you ever wondered why Jesus hardly ever talked about "church"? In fact, the word church occurs only twice in the Gospels, both times in Matthew. What Jesus talked about repeatedly was the Kingdom, and it's not until we get to Acts that the word ekklesia/church is used as the usual way to describe the people of God.

I'd like to explore what Jesus meant by "church" when He said "I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18).
  • What exactly did Jesus intend to build?
  • Is this reflected in the way anyone actually does church?
  • Is it reflected in Christadelphian ecclesias?
I may not actually post very much on this over the holidays, but when I do it should also tie in with what I'm posting about the characteristics of Christian leaders (i.e what leadership means in the church Jesus is building) and the earlier posts on the Gospel of the Kingdom and the Lord's table.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Characteristics of Christian leaders (7)

When discussing leadership or eldership the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy invariably come up, and rightly so (and I've already referred to this letter a number of times).

It's important that we look at the BACKGROUND and the CONTEXT of the list of qualifications so we understand the reason for it.

There was obviously a serious problem at Ephesus and Paul was instructing Timothy about his role in solving the problem. The problem centred around some of the leaders and was actually foreseen by Paul years before when he spoke with the elders of the Ephesus church on the beach at Miletus:

"Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears." (Acts 20:28-31)

From 1 Timothy we discover certain features of these bad leaders:

  • they were guilty of bad behaviour as well as bad teaching (1:3-7; 6:3-10).
  • the bad behaviour included being argumentative and quarrelsome. They were proud, arrogant and divisive.
  • the false teachers believed they had a superior knowledge of doctrine (6:20-21), but it was not based on an intimate relationship with God.
  • these "knowledgeable" teachers are possibly of the same type as the people "in the know" (gnostics) in Corinth who set about making rules for believers - Judaizers and legalists.
  • money was a major part of the problem (6:5-10). Some people love to have control over church funds, not necessarily because they want to use it to feather their own nest, but for the CONTROL it gives them over other believers.

Timothy is not being instructed in how to appoint leaders. Rather, he is to tell the elders how they SHOULD be behaving! Many of the characteristics Paul describes are in contrast to the bad behaviour of the existing leadership.

This highlights a problem which the church has faced since the start. There have ALWAYS been bad leaders, so we should not be surprised when we are confronted by the same issue today. The challenge for us is how to deal with bad leadership when we recognise it.

Monday, December 19, 2005

An evening with Handel

Last Wednesday evening Stephanie and I attended a performance of Handel's Messiah by the Sydney Philharmonia choir and Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the Sydney Opera House.

Since then I have learned that when Handel composed this work in 1741 he was swimming in debt and it seemed certain that he would land in debtors' prison. On April 8 that year he gave what he considered his farewell concert as he felt forced to retire from public activities at the age of 56, going out only at night so that he could avoid his creditors. However, two things happened that would change his life. He was given a libretto based on the life of Christ by a wealthy friend, Charles Jensen, and he was commissioned by a Dublin charity to compose a work for a benefit performance.

He feverishly set to work, hardly leaving his room and rarely stopping to eat. In 24 days he composed the 260 pages of Messiah. It premiered on April 13, 1742, and raised 400 pounds for the charity and freed 142 men from debtors prison. A year later it was performed in London and attended by the King. As the first notes of Hallelujah Chorus
began the King rose to his feet in honour of his king ("King of kings"), and, following royal protocol, the entire audience stood, initiating a tradition that has lasted for more than two and a half centuries.

Handel went on to become a huge success. He was known for his generosity and concern for the suffering, donating freely to charities even in times when he faced personal financial ruin.

One of the amazing parts of the story is that Handel's greatest work was criticised by church leaders of the day. "Far too repetitive" apparently (I'm told that the word "Hallelujah" occurs more than 60 times in one chorus!) It's a strange irony that the contemporary Christian music criticised by one generation is praised by a subsequent generation as a classic.

You can read more of the story, and about Handel's religious convictions, here.

Intimacy with God - a quote

Erwin Raphael McManus in The Barbarian Way (Nelson Books) has this to say (p.61):

Somehow Christianity has become a nonmystical religion. It's about a reasonable faith. If we believe the right things, then we are orthodox. Frankly whether we ever actually connect to God or experience His undeniable presence has become incidental, if not irrelevant. We have become believers rather than experiencers. To know God in the Scriptures always went beyond information to intimacy. We may find ourselves uncomfortable with this reality, but the faith of the Scriptures is a mystical faith. It leads us beyond the material world into an invisible reality. We become connected to the God of eternity. ... God is Spirit. To walk with God is to journey in the spiritual realm.

What Erwin McManus says about Christianity in general is true also of Christadelphians: "It's about a reasonable faith. If we believe the right things, then we are orthodox. Frankly whether we ever actually connect to God or experience His undeniable presence has become incidental, if not irrelevant." I used to think that one of the best descriptors of the Christadelphian faith was that used as the title of a booklet (published, I think, by CALS or perhaps CMPA) - "A religion that makes sense". The main point of our preaching was that it made sense. We didn't preach in a way which helped people to connect with God, to encounter Him in their daily lives, or to experience the touch of heaven. So long as it made sense it must be true, and ought to be accepted. So we argued and debated and tried to convince people through logic and reasoning that it must be true because it made sense. I discovered that that wasn't enough, and it was the realisation that God was actually listening to my prayers, that Jesus was actually beside me as I went about my life, that the Gospel is real, relevant and life-changing, that friendship - intimacy even - with the Almighty was not only possible but that it is God's desire, that my life took a sudden turn and I set out on a new direction in my spiritual journey. That was over 25 years ago, and life has never been the same! My faith still makes sense (mostly - although there are a lot of things I simply don't fully understand, yet), but it has taken me beyond the merely intellectual and into relationship with God.

Characteristics of Christian Leaders (6)

If we compare the lists of qualifications for elders/overseers in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we will notice that Paul directs Timothy that an overseer "must not be a recent convert". However, this qualification is missing from Titus 1. Did Paul forget to mention this to Titus? Or, in the new church in Crete where everyone was a recent convert, would this have been an unworkable and impossible restriction?

I believe the absence of this qualification for the Cretan church means that Paul was flexible in how elders/overseers should be appointed. This is a good example of how cultural differences might have been accommodated in the early church. I wonder if Paul had been writing to a church where multiple marriages was normal if he would have insisted that overseers be the husband of one wife, and therefore left them elder-less. Perhaps in a church made up entirely of women married to non-Christian men he might have said the elders should be "faithful to their unbelieving husbands".

So, are the lists in 1 Timothy and Titus meant to be inflexible rules for all churches in all times, or as guidelines for choosing elders/overseers from the most spiritually mature in our communities?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

N.T. Wright in the news

From the Wall Street Journal comes this interesting article by John Wilson (Dec 9, 2005) about the influence of N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, in the ongoing debate about justification.

He writes:
This scholar contends that the leaders of the Protestant Reformation--Martin Luther especially--misread St. Paul on the subject of justification by faith. A self-described Reformed theologian, he proposes nothing less than a reformation of the Reformation, 500 years on--and he does so by appealing to the Reformers' own motto, sola scriptura, "going back to scripture over against all human tradition."
His article concludes with a comment about a shift within the theology of mainstream Christianity:
We may be in the early stages of the most significant internal change in Christianity since the 16th century--an exciting prospect. But Dr. Wright suggests that the key question for interpreters of Paul in the 21st century "may well turn out to be a matter not so much of comprehension," as an onlooker following the intricate debates over justification might suppose, "but of courage"--the courage to live as a follower of Jesus.
I might make some comments of my own later about Dr Wright's enormous contribution to theology, but in the meantime you might be interested in reading some of Edgar Wille's comments on the Truth Alive forum about the Christadelphian doctrine of God Manifestation and its similarities to some new perspectives on Christology and the Trinity, referring especially to some of Dr Wright's writings.

From blogs I read

There is a great story about Albert Einstein and Billy Graham on Ben Witherington's blog - worth a read.

Lukas McKnight (son of Scott, author of The Jesus Creed, etc) has a great comment about tithing our time.

And from Michael Bird's blog I like this line in his profile: "I got saved 2000 years ago, but only heard about it recently."

Characteristics of Christian Leaders (5)

The pastoral letters say elders/overseers should be "able to teach" (1 Tim 3:2; see also 2 Tim 2:24)

Elsewhere Paul emphasises the important role of teachers in the church (e.g. 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11).

In 2 Timothy 2:23-26 he explains what he expects from a teacher:

"Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will."

  • About the MANNER of their teaching he emphasises that they must be "gentle", "kind" and "not quarrelsome".
  • About their MESSAGE he says they must believe in and be dependant upon God as the One who grants repentance and leads people to a knowledge of the truth (v. 25). In other words, they must not hope to be able to lead people to "the truth" or to repentance through their own abilities or arguments. They must see themselves as the instruments of God; they must believe that it is God Who LEADS, and Who GRANTS repentance*.
  • About their MOTIVATION he emphasises that their role is redemptive - that is, the teacher can have no other motivation than to be God's instrument in the salvation of those who have fallen into the devil's trap. Their role is not to develop persuasive arguments to be used in cutting people off, or to enforce their own authority. Their sole motivation must be the salvation of all in their care.

Another illustration of how leaders ought to teach is in 2 Tim 2:15 - "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth."

The expression translated in the NIV as "correctly handles the word", is translated in the KJV as "rightly dividing the word" . What does Paul mean by "dividing" in this context? The Greek expression literally means "to cut straight" and occurs only here in the NT. It probably is a reference to the terminology used by the Romans to describe their method of "cutting roads". Their practice, which can still be observed throughout parts of the Roman world including Britain, was to take the most direct route possible between two points. Conseqently they would "cut through" mountains and obstacles so that travellers could follow a straight and easy road.

Similarly, teachers should keep their message clear and follow a straight and simple path.

  • They should not use terminology which makes them appear "scholarly" unless it genuinely makes things simpler.
  • They should avoid complex arguments which assume a knowledge many of their listeners will not have.
  • They should avoid going off on tangents which do more to show-off their knowledge than to lead their audience to the right conclusion following the most direct route.

William Barclay made the comment (I've forgotten where) that in the early church a copy of the NT would cost more than a years wages and was out of the reach of most people (and churches). They therefore relied on the teacher to explain things clearly and simply. He made the comment that "we still learn more about Christ from other people than we ever will from books". I know from my own experience that I have learned much more by observing and relating with faithful Christians than I have ever learned from books. That is why Paul puts such an emphasis on the importance of good character as the primary qualifications for leadership in the church.

* Note that repentance is seen by Paul as God's gift - every step in our salvation is the work of God, and we are truly saved by grace. Teachers must believe and teach the gospel of GRACE.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Characteristics of Christian leaders (4)

Most discussion on this subject usually centres on the list of qualifications for elders, overseers and deacons in the Pastoral epistles, and I'd like to return to these lists later, but first, notice that "leadership" is a gift from God.

"We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully. " Rom 12:6-8

So before we appoint people to positions of leadership in the church we should be checking if leadership is one of their gifts. We should not be appointing leaders simply because they are available, and we should definitely be cautious of people who desire to lead.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan

I just did a quiz called "What's your theological worldview?" - for a bit of fun. My score was a bit surprising, as it tells me I am an "evangelical in the Wesleyan tradition". Surprising because I've only ever been to a Wesleyan/Methodist/Uniting Church once or twice in my life; I've used John Wesley's Notes on the New Testament as a reference occasionally (but not frequently); and I remember being inspired by Howard Snider's biography of "the radical Wesley" years ago, but I've forgotten why; and that's been about my only contact with or influence by Wesleyans or the Holiness movement (unless you count the anabaptist roots of the Christadelphian movement in that - but that's too distant to be relevant really).

It might come as a surprise to some people that this test scores me higher as an Emergent Christian than a Charismatic/Pentecostal.

Well, I wouldn't put too much confidence in it, but do it yourself and tell me what kind of Christian you are - just for fun.

You scored as Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan. You are an evangelical in the Wesleyan tradition. You believe that God's grace enables you to choose to believe in him, even though you yourself are totally depraved. The gift of the Holy Spirit gives you assurance of your salvation, and he also enables you to live the life of obedience to which God has called us. You are influenced heavly by John Wesley and the Methodists.

Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan




Neo orthodox


Modern Liberal




Classical Liberal


Reformed Evangelical




Roman Catholic


What's your theological worldview?
created with

Characteristics of Christian leaders (3)


One of the terms used in the New Testament for Christian leaders is episkopos, usually translated “bishop” or “overseer”. It derives from skopos (from which we get words like ‘telescope’) = to look, and translates literally as over-seer. It derives its meaning from the Old Testament seers. “Seer” is a term applied to prophets who could see into the future, or have visions (almost exclusively in Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, e.g 1 Sam 9:9). The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament means “to see, to have vision” and describes the prophets who were able to look into the future.

The root word skopus is used in Phillipians 3:14 of the target or goal or end in view for which we aim.

An episkopus/overseer should be a person with vision and focussed on the goal.

Being a visionary is an important characteristic for a Christian leader. Vision is important for the church because it creates hope and enthusiasm.

Habakkuk 2:2-3 contains these important principles for visionary leaders:

Then the LORD replied:

"Write down the revelation
and make it plain on tablets
so that a herald may run with it.
For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
it speaks of the end
and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
it will certainly come and will not delay.

  1. The vision should be written
  2. It should be clear (“make it plain”)
  3. It should be motivating (“so a herald may run with it”)
  4. It should be communicated with an exhortation to patience (it “awaits an appointed time” and may “linger”, but “wait for it”).
  5. It should be communicated with certainty (“it will certainly come”).

In the NT the word episkopos is used of the overseers of the church and of our Lord Jesus (1 Peter 2:25 “the shepherd and overseer of your souls”). This should remind us that “titles” or “offices” in the church are modelled on the example of Christ Himself. Peter links episkopus with a word translated ‘shepherd’ (poimen). This word is translated ‘pastor’ in Eph 4:11 and is also used of the elders in Acts 20:28. Again, this should remind us that essentially the role of elders and overseers is not as masters over the church but rather to care for and nurture the flock, following the supreme example of the Good Shepherd.

It is important to note from 1 Timothy 3:1 that the designation of an “office” in the church moves quickly to the personal qualities needed for it, rather than to the duties of the office.

Characteristics of Christian Leaders (2)

In Romans 12:6-8 Paul lists several "gifts of grace" (Gk charismata - in 1 Cor 12:7-11; 28-30 he uses the term pneumatika and the list is different). They are (from the NIV):

  • prophesying
  • serving
  • teaching
  • encouraging
  • contributing to the needs of others
  • leadership
  • showing mercy

These almost identify personality types insofar as some people seem to be "born leaders" or naturally good at teaching or encouraging. However, we should be careful to note that Paul says these are gifts from God and while they may relate to "natural" strengths or abilities there is nothing "natural" about God's gifts. We tend to find that people will automatically function best in one or two of these areas. It's unlikely that anyone will be good at all of these, or even more than three. Personally I believe that when we surrender our lives to God and submit to the Lordship of Jesus He enables and empowers us to rise to a higher level for His glory, and His gifts of grace turn our "natural" traits into strengths which will help to achieve His purposes.

Hence, while everyone can serve we will find that some people are particularly gifted in this area and we should encourage them to "specialise" in this area in their work for the Lord. I've seen brethren put onto the platform, for example, who would much rather be mowing the lawns. My own late father used to suffer nervous dyspepsia for days whenever he had to speak because it was not his gift and he should never have been rostered on to do it. I've been a member of ecclesias where all the work is apportioned equally: everyone has an equal number of speaking appointments, and are rostered to mow the lawns an equal number of times. This is not God's way. God gives us teachers so they can teach, and the church will come to maturity by hearing our teachers teach rather than by watching them mow lawns (perhaps badly); and the church will come to maturity by letting the servers serve and the encouragers encourage, and by letting the gardeners tend to the gardens. We should keep the teachers out of the garden (unless gardening is their secondary gift) and keep the gardeners off the platform (unless teaching is their secondary gift).

I have found through my own experiences that the church functions better when we identify our members' gifts or strengths, and get them working for the Lord in areas where these strengths are needed. By pushing people into other areas we only create frustration and unnecessary tension, and no one benefits. But by folllowing God's way the whole church benefits.

Characteristics of Christian Leaders (1)

The prerequisite qualification for leadership in the church is servanthood.

" Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:26-28 NIV)

Paul applies this principle to various relationships, especially the husband-wife relationship. He says "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. ... Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5:21-25).

We should note from v. 21 that Paul teaches mutual submission, not just the submission of wives to husbands (isn't it strange that many marriage services start the reading at verse 22, not verse 21?). The wife submits to her husband in the same way that the church submits to Christ, and the husband submits to the wife in the same way that Christ served the church to the extent of surrendering His own life for it. In this way the husband demonstrates his leadership by following the example of the Servant-King.

The foundation of authority in Christian relationships is love. The husband does not seek to rule, but to give himself. The leader in the church seeks to serve, not to rule. If the husband does not love his wife and give himself for her, then he has no basis for authority. If the Christian leader does not become the servant of the church, then he has no real authority.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Reading the Word

Scott McKnight (The Jesus Creed) quotes M. Robert Mulholland Jr (Shaped by the Word) to make a helpful distinction between two approaches to reading the Bible: informational, and formational.

The difference has to do with how we read the Bible and why we read the Bible. Either we read the Bible informationally (to learn more) or we read the Bible formationally (to be changed). Robert Mulholland provides a set of comparisons of the two kinds of bible reading that can provide for us a checklist of what we do when we open the Bible.

In Informational reading we:

Cover as much as possible
Read line after line
Have a goal of mastering the text
Treat the text as an object
Read analytically
Solve problems

In Formational reading we:

Cover what we need to
Read for depth, perhaps only a word
Have a goal of being mastered by the text
Treat ourselves as the object of the text
Read receptively
Are open to mystery

His suggestions to read formationally push us away from the desire to know and shift us towards the yearning to become.

Saving truth

I came across this little gem from Charles Schulz earlier today. One thing I have learned over the years is that I have been wrong, more than once, and I expect I'll get some things wrong again.

One of the things I struggled with in my earlier Christadelphian life was the idea that to be "acceptable" to God we had to understand "the Truth" and that understanding some truths was "essential for salvation". Christadelphians have a concept of "saving Truth" - the idea that you cannot be saved if you get some doctrines wrong - and most of the divisions within the Christadelphian community have been over doctrinal issues which, to the outsider, appear to be about trifling details. However, if you believe that a knowledge of the truth is essential for salvation, then defining which truths must be understood in order to be saved becomes a life and death issue. Christadelphians in North America, for example, have been divided for 100 years over details such as whether the dead are raised mortal or immortal. To them, it's not enough to believe in the resurrection - how the dead are raised is an issue of such importance that most Christadelphians in North America won't fellowship or break bread with other Christadelphians who hold an opposing view.

The frightening thing about this is that many Christadelphians live in fear of the fact that because of their faulty understanding of some of the details they may be rejected at the Judgment Seat. (One ecclesia in Australia made a fellowship issue of where this Judgment seat would be - Mt Sinai, or Jerusalem!). It's so important to many Christadelphians to get these details right that error or "wrong doctrine" is often treated as a more serious issue than moral failure, and while "errorists" are disfellowshipped (excommunicated) moral failure is often tolerated (after all, with our sinful human nature sin is inevitable. Ironically, people who believe that sinlessness is theoretically feasible and that sin is not "inevitable" have been disfellowshipped, demonstrating that correct belief is more important than correct conduct).

However, at the foundation of this common belief among Christadelphians that God will only accept people who have first worked out the doctrinal details correctly, is a view of God which is itself perverse. The Bible teaches that we are saved "by grace". There is nothing we can do which will make us deserving of salvation - not even a perfect understanding of "Truth". Salvation is God's gift, and He gives it freely to people who turn to Him. He forgives sin, He overlooks failure, and He ignores ignorance. If God can save murderers, adulterers and thieves, He can save people with dodgy theology.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

God speaks to our hearts (2)

When we are led by the Spirit God sometimes asks us to do 'unpleasant' things - things which are contrary to our natural inclinations. That's one way of testing whether we are really being led 'by the Spirit' or just giving into a natural desire. I can well imagine someone thinking that "God has called me to do missionary work on a tropical island, to give up my life in the rat-race and to witness to people in the sun and surf" and being really convinced that they are "led" by God to do that because the 'call' keeps coming back again and again. However, if we're in a difficult situation, having to tough it out and facing despair, opposition and ridicule, then we may possibly be more inclined to want to ask God to lead us out of that situation when He may, in fact, have been the One Who led us into it.

"Surrendering" to God means doing the tough stuff He calls us to do. It means listening to Him and obeying even when what He calls us to do seems irrational or unpleasant.

I have found, through personal experience, that when I 'surrender' and follow where He leads me - even though it goes against my natural inclination - that ultimately the place to which He leads me is much better than I ever imagined, although the journey there may have some rocky moments. But if I hadn't stepped out in faith and obeyed I would never have known that.

Too many Christians mouth the words "Jesus is Lord" without stopping to think that Lordship means He has total control of our lives - Lordship is not a partnership. He rules - we surrender. But it's in surrendering that we find true freedom.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Unity or uniformity

I came across this quote today, attributed to General George S Patton:

"If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Intimacy with God (8) - God speaks to our heart

We learn from the Bible that God can communicate with us directly by putting things in our hearts.

Here are some examples:

  • The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart. (1 Kings 10:24)
  • In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing. 2 Chron 36:22 (also Ezra 1:1).
  • I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. (Nehemiah 2:2)
  • I thank God, who put into the heart of Titus the same concern I have for you. (2 Cor 8:16)

We don't know exactly how God worked in putting something in the hearts of these men. Luke gives us a clue:

"Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." (Luke 1:1-4 my emphasis).

Notice what Luke didn't write: “The Lord led me; the Lord spoke to me; I felt impressed by the Spirit to write.” Luke simply had a good idea, and that good idea caused him to write inspired Scripture. When God wanted Luke to write an account of Jesus' life which would become part of the canon of Scripture - what we call "the Bible" - He put it in Luke's heart simply as a good idea.

Some people will argue that this may have been the experience of people "in Bible times" but God doesn't do that sort of thing today (and they say this without any Scriptural evidence that God has stopped communicating with His people in this way). What does the Bible say?

"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33 my emphasis).

The writer of Hebrews quotes these words twice and says first that this prophecy is fulfilled in the "new covenant" which was instituted by Jesus (Heb 8) and then quotes the same prophecy again in 10:14-16 when he says we are "being made holy" through the priestly minstry of Jesus.

So when God says He will put His words into our hearts and minds, He is speaking about something which is accomplished through the work of Jesus and which will become the experience of those who are "being made holy".

Through Ezekiel God says: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezekiel 36:26). He is telling us here that this transformation of the heart is the work of His Spirit.

Paul takes this up when writing to the Corinthians and says: "Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." (2 Cor 1:21-22)

We should expect as a result of the work of Jesus that God will put things in the heart of His people even more so than "in Bible times".

Intimacy with God (7)

In her book Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God's Transforming Presence (InterVarsity Press, 2004), Ruth Haley Barton writes:

What I'm learning these days is that a lot of our God-talk is like the finger that points to the moon. The finger that points to the moon is not the moon; pointing to the moon, talking about the moon, involving ourselves in study and explanation about how the light of the moon is generated is not the same thing as sitting in the moonlight, letting the moonbeams fall around us illuminating what they will. It is not the same thing as noticing how everything is transformed in this numinous light. When we sit in the moonlight, we don't try to figure it out, explain it, or force it to be anything different than what it is. We just enjoy it.

It is the same with God. Our words and mental constructs about God are not the Reality itself. They only point to it. In silence we give in to the fact that our words can never contain God or adequately describe our experiences with God. We give our minds permission to just stop and rest themselves in the experience of the Reality itself. The willingness to be silent in God's presence results in quietness, confidence, and clarity beyond what the human mind can generate. This is a very deep kind of rest indeed.

Mother Theresa of Calcutta once wrote:

Prayer is simply talking to God.
He speaks to us: we listen.
We speak to him: he listens.
A two-way process: speaking and listening.
The more you pray, the easier it becomes.
The easier it becomes, the more you'll pray.
Pray at home every day even if it is only for five minutes.
At a 1999 Prayer Breakfast, President Clinton reported that someone once asked Mother Teresa, "When you pray to God, what do you say?" She replied, "I don't say anything. I listen." The interviewer persisted, "Well, what does God say to you." She answered: "He doesn't say anything. He listens."

To hear the voice of God we need to set aside time to be quiet, to simply be still. In this busy world I wonder how many of us do this. Maybe we're just "too busy" to allow ourselves the luxury of an hour alone with God.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Characteristics of a genuine church

Commenting on 1 Thess 5:16-20 ("Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."), William Barclay wrote:
"Verses 16-18 give us three marks of a genuine Church.

(i) It is a happy Church. There is in it that atmosphere of joy which makes its members feel that they are bathed in sunshine. True Christianity is an exhilarating and not a depressing thing.

(ii) It is a praying Church. Maybe our Church's prayers would be more effective if we remembered that 'they pray best together who also pray alone'.

(iii) It is a thankful Church. There is always something for which to give thanks; even on the darkest day there are blessings to count. We must remember that if we face the sun the shadows will fall behind us but if we turn our backs on the sun all the shadows will be in front."

These are good points, but I personally believe that there are also other additional marks of a genuine church (e.g. the two subsequent verses reveal two more). The Christadelphian community has always emphasised the importance of sound doctrine, but what other characteristics distinguish a "genuine church" from the others?

Worship is central in a genuine church.

I believe another characteristic of "a genuine church" is that Worship is a central part of the life of the church and its members. Worship is not optional. It is not an "add-on". Worship, if it is true worship at all, should reflect a major commitment on the part of the worshipper(s) to give glory and honour to God.

Whether we sings hymns or use contemporary music styles, there should be a commitment to excellence. Musicians should select music appropriate to the occasion and take time to rehearse it. Teachers need to spend time in meditation and preparation. It saddens me when I see musicians choosing hymns or music only minutes before a meeting which will incorporate worship, or hearing teachers say they have not prepared their message for a meeting on the following day. This shows a lack of respect for the One Whom we worship, and for our fellow-worshippers.

A genuine church will grow.

A living church is a growing church. Any living organism will grow. When it stops growing it begins to die.
The same is true, I believe, of the church.
  • "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." (Acts 2:47)
  • " ... more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number" (Acts 5:14).

Is there any good reason top believe that a dying church is a healthy church?

A genuine church grows because it takes "the Great Commission" seriously.

There are a couple of versions of this Commission by Jesus to His church:

Matthew 28:19-20 "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Mark 16:15 "He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation."

Similarly, Jesus also said:

John 15:16 "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit - fruit that will last."

Luke 14:21 "Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame."

A genuine church is Christ-centred.

I have been criticised by some Christadelphians in the past for saying that the church should be Christ-centred, and have been told that the church should, in fact, be "God-centred".

However, Scripture says that:
  • Jesus Christ is the head of the church (Eph 4:15; 5:23; Col 1:18). In fact, He is "the head over every power and authority" (Col 2:10) and "all power in heaven and earth" has been given to Him (Matt 28:18).
  • Jesus has been exalted to the highest place and has been given a name above every name (Phil 2:9-11).
  • "In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Col 1:19; 2:9).

Because Jesus is "the image of the invisible God", "the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being" (Col 1:15; Heb 1:3; cp. John 1:18; 14:9; 2 Cor 4:4) a church which is Christ-centred is therefore God-centred. We cannot be God-centred unless we are Christ-centred. Jesus said "He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him" (John 5:23).

John made a powerful allusion to the tabernacle in the wilderness which was positioned in the centre of the camp of Israel, when he said of the Word-made-flesh that He "made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14), which literally means He "tabernacled" among us, or "pitched His tent with us". As the tabernacle was at the centre of the camp of Israel, so Jesus Christ is the centre of the church, the place where God dwells among His people.

What does this mean in practice? A Christ-centred church will honour Him with its praises, giving Him glory (e.g. Rev 1:6; 5:12; Heb 13:21; 1 Peter 4:11; 2 Peter 3:18). A church which honours the Father alone with its praises does not practice the Truth in relation to the supremacy of the Son.

I personally feel that it was a backward step when the revisers of the Christadelphian hymn book changed a much-loved hymn, "Allelulia, sing to Jesus" to "Hallelujah, sing of Jesus." The change suggested that we should not address our praises to Him who is the Head of the Body, to Whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given, and Whose name is above every name. If so, then the revision is a sad denial of a foundational Truth, and an indication that the doctrine of God-manifestation is either ignored or not understood by those in the Christadelphian community who should know better.

Let's give Jesus His rightful place as the object of our praises.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Lord's table (8) - the Last Supper

The celebration of Communion, or the "Breaking of Bread", is a Christian tradition which is based in the words of our Lord at His final meal with His disciples before His crucifixion: "do this in remembrance of me" (1 Cor 11:24).

But in response to Jesus' words "do this" we should ask "do what?" Did Jesus intend that thereafter the church should obey this instruction by eating a small piece of bread (or wafer) and a thimbleful of wine as part of a structured religious service?

Jesus could have chosen many ways in which to be remembered, but he chose to be remembered by a meal. What He considered memorable and characteristic of His ministry was His table-fellowship, and that table-fellowship was itself characterised by its openness to all. The marginalised, the 'sinner', those who were excluded from society and fellowship, those considered by the religious leaders and 'the righteous' to be beyond the pale, were all invited and welcomed at His table.

How then should we follow His instruction to "do this in rememberance of me"?

If we follow the Lord's words, and example, we should invite all those who are excluded or marginalised in society. We should be generous in our hospitality towards them. We should regard them as equals, not as inferiors.

Jesus used table-fellowship as an opportunity to then talk with those at His table about the need for repentance and forgiveness. The pattern in many churches is to try first to convince people that they need to repent, and then, only after they have demonstrated their repentance and confessed their faith, they are admitted to fellowship. In Christadelphian meetings, for example, "outsiders" are invited to attend "the Lecture" on Sunday evenings, or a programme of seminars. Only after they have gone through "instruction" can they be baptised. Traditionally, on the first Sunday after their baptism, the ecclesia "extends the right hand of fellowship".

But Jesus' pattern was quite different. He invited the "outsider" to come in and fellowship with Him, and then He showed them their need for repentance.

What can we learn from this for the way we parctice "fellowship" today?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Lord's table (7) - causing offence

There is a remarkable incident in Luke's Gospel which provides a wonderful insight into our Lord's methods.

"When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee, noticing that Jesus did not first wash before the meal, was surprised." (Luke 11:37-38).

Luke says simply that the Pharisee 'noticed' that Jesus didn't wash his hands, but the preceeding statement that Jesus "went in and reclined at the table" implies a deliberateness on Jesus' part to avoid the ritual purification of hand-washing. Jesus' involvement with the crowds immediately prior to this would have left him 'impure' in the Pharisee's mind, so to a righteous person hand-washing was an absolute necessity.

There are two possibilities as to what happened here. Either bowls of water were standing ready for handwashing, and Jesus passed them by, or, bowls were passed around the tables and Jesus may have deliberately handed them on without using them. Either way, His actions would have been deliberate and would have been a breach of the social etiquette. The Pharisee was surprised/astonished. The Greek word (from thaumazo) suggests almost shock.

But the biggest shock is yet to come! Jesus berates his host. He begins with these words:

"Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you." (vv. 39-40).

This leads into a catalogue of "Woe to you Pharisees" statements. His listeners understandably feel insulted (v. 45) as Jesus unleashes a critique which leaves his audience angry and ready to mount a counter-attack. It was a radical challenge both to their conventions of ritual purity as well as to their table-fellowship practices in general.

In an incident with some similarities in Mark 7:17-22 Jesus "declared all foods clean". Here, by refusing to wash after contact with the crowds, He is declaring all people clean!

This incident tells us some interesting things about how our Lord confronted the errors of the religious leaders.
  1. It tells us that Jesus deliberately took advantage of an opportunity to confront and challenge them regarding their religious practices.
  2. He did so in a way which completely disregarded social etiquette and good manners, and as a guest He confronts His host in his own home.
  3. Jesus insulted, shocked and offended people who were wrong (so much for "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild"!)
All too frequently people with an alternative view about how things should be done are told by their religious leaders (possibly 'Arranging Brethren') that they should submit to people who might be 'offended' if the alternative view was adopted. For example, men have to wear suits and ties and women have to wear hats in church ('Meeting') so as not to 'offend' those who think this is the only appropriate way to dress at the Meeting. A brother cannot pray using 'you' and 'your' if it 'offends' people who prefer 'thee' and 'thou'. Reading from a modern translation might 'offend' someone who prefers the King James Version, and contemporary Christian music is 'offensive' to some people, so only the Hymn Book from the CMPA can be used.

What would Jesus have done? Well, our Lord could certainly be 'offensive' when He needed to make a point! He would have done things the right way, not the way which gave in to those who were 'offended'.

Monday, November 07, 2005

God speaks through the Bible (3) - Are we following the Pharisees?

Jack Deere asks the question "Are we following the Pharisees?"

The Pharisees read, studied, amd memorized the Bible more than most churchgoing people today will ever do, but unlike Moses and the other Old Testament heroes, they could not hear God's voice. Jesus said the Pharisees never heard his Father's voice at any time (John 5:37). The Pharisees claimed to be looking for the coming Messiah, but they never really expected the Old Testament examples of supernatural phenomena to be repeated in their lifetime. They had a theoretical belief in the supernatural - they believed in angels and the resurrection of the body - but expected nothing supernatural in their own lives. They did not listen for God's voice apart from the Scriptures, and they never heard his voice in the Scriptures.

He goes on to say:

There are a number of examples from the New Testament that show us that God still speaks today in ways other than the Bible - examples from the lives of Jesus, the apostles, and others. It would be easy to discount these examples by saying these were special people living in special times. But this would be a very unbiblical way of reading the Bible. A more biblical way is to think of Jesus as our supreme example of both how to live and how to minister.

Think of the apostles as James said to think of Elijah, "as men like us who prayed earnestly." Consider the possibility of angelic visitations as suggested in Hebrews 13:2. Remember what Paul said of the miracles and judgements that happened to the Israelites in the wilderness, "These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come" (1 Cor 10:11). The miracles of the Bible are still examples and warnings for contemporary Christians.
I think I wrote somewhere earlier on this weblog that there is something seriously faulty with the way that many modern Christadelphians discount parts of the Bible as having no application for today. "Oh, that only applied in the first century" we might hear someone say; "that was for them, not for us". While this may be true about some Scriptures, the big problem with the way many Christadelphians use this method of interpretation is that they have no rules for deciding when something applies to us and when it doesn't. If it doesn't fit with their own experience, then "it doesn't apply to us".

One thing we discover from the way the Old Testament is quoted in the New is that God can use the same words which were used in one situation and apply them to a completely new one. So it is that the words of the prophets might be taken completely out of their context and given an entirely new meaning in a new context. In doing this the Holy Spirit shows us that the words of Scripture can be recalled and applied in new situations. The Bible reveals God's truth; but the Holy Spirit can reveal new applications, or apply the words of Scripture to specific situations in the lives of individual believers.

I want to give just one example of this from my own experience. Some time ago there was a serious issue at the church where my wife and I had been members for several years. Without giving details, try as much as we did not to take sides we found that the tension eventually became intolerable for us. We hated going to church on Sundays. Our children hated going, and our spiritual lives were suffering. One day we were on our way to visit some good Christian friends who lived quite a long way away. On our way my wife and I were discussing what we should do and while we felt that we would have to leave that church we also felt that we couldn't leave until we had found an alternative - until we knew where to go. We decided to pray about it and ask God to show us where we should go, and until He did we would just stay in that unbearable situation. Later that night at our friend's home our host asked if we would like to do a Bible reading with them. For no particular reason he chose Hebrews 11 for the reading. We started to read around. My friend read verse 8: "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going." He then stopped reading and said, "I've never noticed those words before, but I sense that God has a message for you there. We should stop there." The amazing thing was that we hadn't discussed our dilemma with our friends - in fact, we had decided earlier not to discuss it with them but that we would simply pray about it. There is absolutely no way they could have known what we had been discussing and praying about. But my friend (who is very receptive to the voice of God) had "sensed" that God was speaking to us through this Scripture.

The solution to our problem became clear: like Abram we were to leave "not knowing where we were going" and trust God to show us the way. The results of that journey have been truly amazing for us and we have been blessed in many ways by trusting God to how us where He wants us to go. The journey has become as exciting as the destination.

I learned very powerfully through this that God can take the words of Scripture and apply them to me personally in a way which is relevant to my particular situation, and in a way which I may never have discovered simply through "Bible study".

God speaks through the Bible (2)

In a chapter titled "The Problem of the Unreal Bible" Jack Deere* writes about how some people read the Bible in a "de-supernaturalizing manner".

He writes:
So many of us have been conditioned to read the Bible in terms of our experience rather than in terms of the experience of the people in the Bible. If we don't hear God's voice today in special ways, we assume he is not speaking in special ways anymore. If we don't see miracles today, we assume he's not doing miracles anymore. Yet the Bible is filled with dreams, visions, miracles and many other supernatural experiences. Liberal churchgoers simply deny that these things ever happened. They say these stories are myths that were never meant to be taken literally, they were just meant to illustrate great theological truths.

Many conservative churchgoers are appalled anyone would ever read the Bible like this. They want nothing to do with the rationalistic unbelief of liberals. They are certain every miracle in the Bible took place just as it's recorded. Yet when it comes to applying the Bible to today's experience, many conservatives are filled with the same kind of unbelief as the liberals. For many orthodox Christians [and Christadelphians - Steve], the Bible is a book of abstract truths about God rather than a guide into the supernatural realm of God's power.

Two sad effects invariably result from reading the Bible in such a de-supernaturalizing manner. First, we experience very little of God's supernatural power. Why? Because we have neither the faith to pray for miracles nor the confidence that God can speak to us in any supernatural way. Why do we lack faith? Because our method of reading the Bible has taught us not to expect these things [my emphasis]. This leaves us with a moralistic version of Christianity that believes discipline is the key to the spiritual life.

Jack Deere notes that as a result of reading the Bible this way "we don't expect too much from God. And usually we get what we expect."

He goes on to write:
I was the pastor of a Bible church for a number of years. During that time I did not believe God spoke in any reliable way except through the Bible, nor did I believe he was doing miracles or healings today. My number one prescription for the people was, "Read your Bible every day". The most frequent confession I heard from my church members was, "I don't read my Bible".

It is hard to read a book every day that tells how God supernaturally intervenes in the daily lives of his children, and yet see no practical relevance for these supernatural phenomena in our present experience. Once the supernatural element is taken out of the Bible, it becomes merely a moralistic life guide. And God becomes a remote God who helps his people, but not very much [my emphasis].

The Bible is more than a theological treatise. It is a guide to dynamic encounters with a God who works wonders. The Bible was given to us that we might hear God's voice and respond to that voice with life-changing faith. Yet it is all too common for Bible-believing people to read the Bible without ever hearing that voice.
Still more to come.
* Surprised by the Voice of God, Zondervan, 1996

Intimacy with God (6) - God speaks through the Bible

I am returning to an earlier series of messages about developing intimacy with God. I had been looking at some of the ways God communicates with us, and how we can become more receptive to this. I said earlier:
Over the next few posts I would like to explore some of the ways God communicates with His people, including:

- through His Word (this is where cessationists would start - and end - but I'll leave this one to later)

- through angels

- through other people

- through dreams and visions

- by placing things in our hearts

- by speaking directly

I got about half-way through that list and then went off on a tangent. I'd like to return to it with a couple of posts about how God speaks through His Word.

First I'd like to explode the misconception amongst some Christians that whenever we read "Word of God" the writer is referring to the Bible. There are several places in the Bible where this expression cannot mean "the Bible". For example, the most frequent use of the expression is in describing incidents like these:
  • "the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision" (Gen 15:1)
  • "the word of God came to Nathan" (1 Chron 17:3)
  • "this word of God came to Shemaiah the man of God" (1 Kings 12:22)
  • "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert" (Luke 3:2)
  • "In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions." (1 Sam 3:1)
  • " Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD : The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him." (1 Sam 3:7)
  • " Then the word of the LORD came to Samuel" (1 Sam 15:10)
  • "the word of the LORD had come to Gad the prophet, David's seer" (2 Sam 24:11)
  • " The word of the LORD came to Solomon" (1 Kings 6:11)
  • " By the word of the LORD were the heavens made" (Psalm 33:6)
  • "The word of the LORD came to me, saying ..." (Jeremiah 1:4; also 1:13; 2:1; 13:3; 16:1; 18:5; 24:4; 29:30; 32:26; etc. The same or similar expressions occur even more frequently in Ezekiel, as well as in Hosea, Joel, Jonah, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.)
In all these places the reference is to a spoken word or vision from God and not to the written Scriptures. In fact, when the Bible refers to itself it uses expressions like these:
  • The Scriptures (more than 50 times e.g. Daniel 9:2; Matt 21:42; 22:29; 26:54; Luke 4:21; 24:27, 32, 45; John 2:22; 5:39; 7:38, 42; 10:35; Acts 1:16; 8:32; 17:2; Romans 1:2; 4:3; 10:11; 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4; Galatians 3:8, 16, 22; 1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 3:15; James 2:8; 1 Peter 2:6; 2 Peter 1:20; 3:16).
  • The Law and the Prophets (about 10 times in the NewTestament, refering to the Old e.g. Matt 5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; 22:44; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; Romans 3:21).
In at least two places the Bible uses the expression "the Word [of God]" to refer to Jesus as the living embodiment of God's word:
  • "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning ... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:1-2, 14).
  • "He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God" (Revelation 19:13).
There are other places in the New Testament where it is highly improbable that the writers were thinking about "the Bible" when they referred to "the word of God". For example:
  • "For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do." (Heb 4:12-13 KJV). Not only does the writer use the personal pronoun ("his") when referring to the Word, but we could ask how "the Bible" can be a "discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart"? A later usage in Hebews 13:7 ("Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you") reveals that the writer had a spoken, rather than written, Word of God in mind when writing this letter.
  • " After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly." (Acts 4:31).
  • "The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God." (Acts 13:7). Did he want to hear them read to him from the Bible, or did he want to hear the word of God directly from men of God?
  • "Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: 'We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles'." (Acts 13:46)
More to come.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Lord's table (6)

Of all our Lord's miracles only one is recorded in all four Gospels. That unique position would suggest that all four writers considered this incident to be a central part of our Lord's ministry.

The feeding of the 5,000 appears in all the Gospels because its message characterises the primary focus of Jesus' teaching. The Pharisees and "the righteous" had an obsession with their ritual purity, especially at meals. They washed their hands before meals, and were particular about with whom they ate. Yet here, in this remote place, Jesus tells a group of more than 5,000 people to sit down and eat with Him. There was no possibility of washing hands, and certainly no way of checking if there were any sinners, tax collectors, or "unrighteous" in the crowd. The Lord dramatically and miraculously breaks down these religious barriers between people and invites them to eat with Him at His table. No one was excluded.

The early Christians took up this practice and "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer ... They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts" (Acts 2:42, 46). Their meetings were based around a shared meal (called "love feasts" in Jude 12) - commonly called "breaking bread". This term is used elsewhere to describe sharing a meal together, any meal, and is not a unique descriptor for the Christian ritual called Communion, Eucharist, the Lord's supper, or Breaking of Bread. The meal probably began with the host saying a blessing over bread (kiddush), and ended with a cup of wine after supper (1 Cor 11:25). From beginning to end it was "in memory" of Jesus and was a re-enactment of His open table fellowship.

There is not a hint of a suggestion anywhere in the New Testament that children or visitors were excluded from any part of the meal. No where does the Bible say that this Christian ritual is for baptised "members only", or that people were excluded from it because of some sinfulness on their part.

Luke records a remarkable incident when Paul "broke bread" with his fellow-survivors of a ship wreck. After the storm "he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves." (Acts 27:35-36). These words are almost identical to the way Luke records the last supper: "he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them" (Luke 22:19) and an incident when Jesus broke bread with some disciples after His resurrection: "When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them" (24:30). In fact, Luke highlights that it was through this breaking of bread that these disciples recognised Jesus (v. 35) - no doubt because table-fellowship was such a central part of our Lord's ministry. Notice how each record has these words: (1) took bread (2) gave thanks (3) broke it and (4) gave it to them. (See also 1 Cor 11:23-24 where the same words are carefully recorded as the foundation for the celebration of Communion by the church). The breaking of bread after the shipwreck followed the same form as the breaking of bread ritual of the believers.

But we should also note that Paul "broke bread" with people who were strangers to him, "sinners" and non-Jews alike. They had been through a common experience and been saved. They were invited to the Lord's table in celebration. Perhaps we need to re-think what it is we celebrate at the Lord's table, and with whom.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Lord's table (5)

This morning I read yesterday's daily update from Charisma Online, with a message from J. Lee Grady. He wrote about how he needed a haircut and 'accidentally' ventured into a shop that catered for African-Americans. He realised he had two options;
"I had an awkward choice to make. I could turn and walk out, and risk sending the message that I didn’t want to be in a black hair salon. Or I could do what Jesus would do. I quickly decided that He had led me to this place."
After describing his experience (he titled his message "A White Guy In a Black Hair Salon") he ends with a comment which is relevant to this thread about the Lord's table:
"Jesus went out of His way to break social barriers. He even went to Samaria—a place no other kosher Jewish rabbi would dare visit. After He ministered to the divorced woman at the well, He stayed there two days—eating Samaritan food, living in a Samaritan house and soaking in Samaritan culture (see John 4: 40). Who knows—maybe He even got a Samaritan-style haircut."
It's time for Christadelphians to break through the barriers that divide them from other Christadelphians, and then the barriers that separate them from the Lord's people in other denominations. As J. Lee Grady says, "I hope you will venture outside your safety zone and start crashing through the cultural blockades that separate people in your community."

By the way, you can subscribe to Charisma Online here.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Lord's table (4) - restoring the inclusiveness of early Christianity

Christadelphians have been a divided community since at least 1884 when the Birmingham ecclesia split sending shockwaves throughout the Christadelphian world. Several splinter groups have formed during that period. Some have eventually disappeared; others have dropped the Christadelphian name entirely and formed new denominations, or groups of independent churches; and some have maintained their differences for over 100 years.

Why is it that reunion efforts have failed so often? The recent failure of the North American reunion discussions, after 30 years or more of trying, and the failure of the Unity Agreement in Australia to bring opposing sides together in a lasting or meaningful way, have clearly demonstrated that the current methods for achieving reunion do not work. There are several factors for this, including:
  1. An insistence that the Birmingham amended Statement of Faith must be the basis of fellowship. Considering it was the Birmingham ecclesia's insistence on their Statement of Faith as the basis of fellowship which created the 1884 division it seems strange that many people are still insisting that the very document which produced division must be the basis of a reunion. It will not happen.
  2. Explanatory statements which rely on the BaSF are doomed to failure for the same reason that the BaSF can never be the basis for the reunion. The day after the Australian Unity Agreement was signed, with its Cooper-Carter addendum as an explanation of certain parts of the BaSF, some Australian Christadelphians began accusing others of signing a document they did not agree with. Reunion didn't last a day.
  3. Attempts at reunion have relied too heavily on elaborating the BaSF and trying to find unity by adding a set of words which will bring together all the conflicting parties. The only way to find common ground is through simplification, rather than elaboration.
  4. Just a quick look at several Christadelphian websites will easily demonstrate that for preaching purposes the brotherhood usually relies on a number of simple summaries of 'core' doctrines. The vast majority of Christadelphians over the last 100 years have been baptised without even seeing the Birmingham Statement of Faith. Christadelphians throughout the world already have common ground in these 'core' doctrines without the need for a detailed Statement of Faith, especially when there is so much disagreement about several details in the BaSF. Most of the disagreeement in the Christadelphian community which has led to division have been about matters which go beyond the 'core' doctrines. All Christadelphians know what the distinctive core doctrines are - they probably don't even need to be written down, because everyone knows what they are.
The biggest obstacle to reunion, in my opinion, is a sacramental view of the 'Breaking of Bread' which is based on the unScriptural idea that a believer will somehow be 'contaminated' or 'defiled' or held guilty if they break bread with someone whose ideas are not correct in every detail. It is thought by some that breaking bread with someone who has different views on some matters is somehow an endorsement of their views.

The New Testament is clear that our Lord had table-fellowship with sinners and with people who had all sorts of wrong ideas , yet He was not 'contaminated' by the association. On the contrary, His holiness reached out to them and brought about their healing and sanctification. The practice of the early church was to maintain the same inclusiveness in their table-fellowship. The various groups within Christadelphia should realise that the only way they will be able to influence others is to associate with them, not to 'withdraw fellowship'.

I propose a 'strategy' for Christadelphian unity which includes the following:
  1. Brethren should accept each other at their word. If someone says they are a Christadelphian because they believe in the core Christadelphian doctrines, then we should accept their word.
  2. Every ecclesia is entitled to adopt a Statement of Faith if they want one, as a condition of membership in that ecclesia, but no one is entitled to impose their Statement of Faith on others or insist that a 'true' Christadelphian is only someone who accepts their SoF. No ecclesia has the right to insist that other ecclesias must accept their SoF before any fellowship or association can take place.
  3. An ecclesia can make decisions only for its own members. No ecclesia has the right to decide who another ecclesia should or should not fellowship.
  4. The guiding principle for who should be able to take communion ("break bread") at the Lord's table should be "Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat ..."

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Lord's table (3)

John Thomas is usually attributed with being the founder of Christadelphianism, as it was he who coined the name in 1864. Many of the churches in the United States and Britain which adopted the name had been in existence since around 1848 or 1850 and had held the same principle beliefs during that time. During this period they were known by various names, including simply "Believers" and "Baptised Believers". Some of the churches in this association or movement joined other groups such as the Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith, the Christian Connexion, the Advent Christian Church, and the Churches/Disciples of Christ from which John Thomas had come, rather than the group which adopted the name "Christadelphian". To this day people in all these denominations share many of the same doctrinal distinctives which characterise Christadelphianism.

In 1854 John Thomas was a member of a church in New York known as the Royal Association of Believers. In that year he published the Constitution of the Association in his magazine, The Herald of the Kingdom and the Age to Come.

The Constitution included these clauses on membership and "the Lord's table":


"The wisdom from above being first pure, and then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy" - we cordially invite all immersed believers of the gospel preached to Abraham, Israel, and the Gentiles, by the Angel of Jehovah, Moses, Jesus, and the apostles, who are disposed to illustrate this "wisdom from above" in word and deed, to unite with the undersigned for the purposes set forth in No. 3.


Being the Lord's table, and not the table of the Association, all of good report within the city or without it, who, believing the gospel of the kingdom, have been immersed, are cordially invited to worship with us; the only privileges withheld being a participation in the direction of our affairs, and speech without previous invitation.

We should first note the distinction that is made between membership of the association, and fellowship at the Lord's table. Any association has the prerogative to make rules about its own membership, but John Thomas and his fellow-elders in the Association of Believers rightly recognised that they did not have a prerogative to exclude good Christian men and women from the Lord's table.

In this respect the earliest Christadelphian practices were in line with our Lord's teachings and His table-fellowship practice of inclusiveness.