Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Sunshine Vitamin - Why Christians need the Holy Spirit.

One afternoon when I was twelve, my grandmother drove me to a friend's house. She asked me, "Have you ever spoken in tongues?"

I didn't know what she meant, so I told her I hadn't. "What is that anyway?" I asked.

"Well, some people say it's praying, but they speak in gibberish over and over again. If anyone asks you to do it, don't. It's not right. Matthew 6:7 says we shouldn't babble like the pagans do."

Since none of it made sense to me, I let it go. A few months later, I read 1 Corinthians and wondered why my grandmother didn't talk about this part of the Bible when she mentioned speaking in tongues.

Growing up in the Baptist tradition, we didn't talk much about the Holy Spirit. Then, when I began attending an Assemblies of God school at the age of thirteen, I heard about the Holy Spirit all the time. On one hand, the Holy Spirit was the part of the Trinity we talked about during baptism, or He was the thing that helped me make sense of the Bible. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit made church a party and everyone got awesome gifts. It was hard to know which side was right.

Emotions can run high with a topic like this. I've written on the Holy Spirit before, once or twice, but today I want to talk about some basic reasons why Christians need the Holy Spirit.

Yes, yes, I know. The gifts and work of the Holy Spirit have been abused or counterfeited enough to freak out some more conservative Christians. And yes, some of their objections are legitimate. Of course, some of those objections have caused people to overreact. I've seen something of both sides in this conflict. That's why I want to look at what scripture says and see how it can answer some questions from both sides.

First, the Holy Spirit is a part of the Trinity. He is not only a distinct person but also the active presence of God in the world. Genesis 1:2 notes the Spirit separately from God the Father in verse 1. Verses like Exodus 35:31 with the Hebrew craftsmen, Numbers 11:25 with the tribal elders, and Judges 6:34 with Gideon show the Holy Spirit coming upon men and giving them special ability to do God's work in the world. Priests, judges, prophets, and kings were typically men who moved in the power of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. More than this, though, the Old Testament gives a very special key to understanding the importance of the Holy Spirit.

The Tabernacle in the law of Moses, and later the Temple in Jerusalem, served as the place where God's Spirit dwelt with His people. God instructed Moses to build the Tabernacle for this purpose in Exodus 25:8, "Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them." In a world where sin separated man from God's presence, the Temple was the only place where man could come into the presence of God.

Terry Virgo noted this as the primary reason why the disciples followed Jesus. They wanted to be with Him. When Jesus told His disciples of the day when He would leave, He said in John 16:6-7, "But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper (that is the Spirit) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you" Sorrow filled their hearts, said Virgo, because of the thought they wouldn't be with Jesus, God the Son, anymore. Jesus understood this, which is why He knew it would comfort them to know, "I'm leaving, but God the Spirit will come in my place." And this was better, said Virgo, because though Jesus could be with some people some of the time, the Holy Spirit could be with all believers all of the time.

In the New Testament church, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would give His followers power to spread the gospel (Acts 1:8). This was first demonstrated on Pentecost in Acts 2 when the Spirit moved among those praying in the upper room. The Apostle Paul taught on the gifts of the Spirit, ways in which the Holy Spirit manifested among people to glorify God, in 1 Corinthians 12-14. In this section of scripture, Paul talks of prophecy, speaking in tongues (or other languages unknown to the speaker), interpretation of tongues, and healing. These are just some of the gifts mentioned throughout the epistles.

It's obvious that Christians should value the Holy Spirit, not only as God, but also in terms of His presence at work among them. Jesus thought it important enough to encourage His disciples with the coming Spirit. Paul felt it essential for the Ephesian disciples in Acts 19 to be filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. In the Acts 2 sermon, Peter said those who believed in Jesus would receive the Holy Spirit.

My objection to some of the things I saw in the charismatic movement had nothing to do with the gifts themselves, but rather the lack of fruit I sometimes saw in people. By that, I mean the fruit of the Spirit Paul listed in Galatians 5:22-23. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law"

In The Holy Spirit And You, Dennis and Rita Bennet made an appeal for maturity in the charismatic movement. Bennet said he heard some say they couldn't control themselves when the Spirit came upon them. First, he quoted 1 Corinthians 14:32, "the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets." That's not to say we control The Spirit, but rather people experiencing a legitimate prophetic gift should exercise self-control, one of the Galatians 5 fruits of the Spirit. Bennet compares it to how a person responds to a dirty joke. A mature person will exercise self-control and keep himself from laughing if it's inappropriate.

What have your experiences been? If you grew up in the church, did you have any experience with the Holy Spirit? Or was the experience of God your only topic? Do you know if you've received the Holy Spirit into your life, allowed Him to work in you? Or, if you're not a Christian, do you have some confusion between the Holy Spirit and any other spiritual experience you might have encountered? Do you think there's a difference? At this stage, I hope you now know we can't ignore the Holy Spirit. He is as essential to Christian life as sunlight to vitamin D, our faith isn't much good without Him.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It's Not The Band I Hate, It's Their Fans - Why Christians need the church.

"I believe in God, but I don't agree with organized religion."
"Isn't the church supposed to be anybody who believes in Jesus? Why do we need an institution to believe in Him?"
"The church burned me, so I don't go anymore."

You've probably heard this sort of thing on more than one occasion. You may even say it yourself. When I was a teenager, the men running the youth group compelled me to become the worship leader. I was sixteen. two years later, when I realized I had serious sin issues to deal with, I told the youth pastor of my decision to step down from leadership. He tried everything to get me to change my mind until finally he said, "If you stop leading worship now, you'll never lead worship again." He told me I would lose the gift. I tried attending meetings once or twice after this happened, but I couldn't handle the stress of people trying to force me back on stage. As a result, I stopped going to church altogether for a long time.

That's my burn story. I think just about everybody has at least one story telling of how someone in the church hurt them. Some are more subtle, like feeling overlooked and unloved. Some are just puzzling, like how my brother was kicked out of a youth group for smelling like smoke. Still others are horrifying, like the stories of molestation and other abuse.

In the last decade or so, I've seen a growing number of people tell me they love God but hate the church. At first, this sounds as logical as liking a band but hating their fans. "Lord, save me from Your followers," and all that. A few years ago, I worked on a film with director Rik Swartzwelder. He and I got to talking one day about the Emergent Church movement. He told me, "It seems like this whole thing happened because some people were hurt and decided they had an axe to grind with the church. But I wonder if what they're doing is going to turn out any better."

So what should followers of Jesus do? Should we respond to the failures of men by rejecting the church or by understanding and seeking a biblical church with good leadership?

To start, I think we should read the Bible and see what Jesus said. In Matthew 28:19, He told His followers to make disciples. That doesn't mean to simply make converts, dunk them in water, then move on to the next unbeliever. Jesus spent years pouring into the lives of his disciples, teaching and correcting them. For that to happen, the disciples had to gather. I think Jesus always intended to establish the church. He told His disciples of it when Peter proclaimed Him as the Messiah in Matthew 16. In chapter 18, He told them how to deal with conflict among believers, telling them to present a case before the church if the offender refuses to repent. Most importantly, Jesus repeatedly told His disciples to treat each other with humility. He did so in Matthew 18:4, John 13:14, and Luke 14:11.

Many of the epistles in the New Testament are instructions on how the church should function. Paul opened his letter to Titus with guidelines for appointing church leaders, or elders. James 5 says elders are to pray for those in sickness. Paul also told Titus and Timothy to teach sound doctrine to the church and warned them against deceivers.

I especially like 1 Peter 5:1-5 as a guideline for good church leadership. "Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for 'God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.'"

There are those who today would say the church shouldn't have leaders who hold office, that there's no hierarchy in God's church. I would agree that the church shouldn't have leaders acting like princes, lording power and influence from "the people". I don't think it should be a matter of control, but rather of servant-leadership, following Jesus' example.

A biblical church will have members and leaders who demonstrate humility and participation. I feel like this would be a good time to quote C.J. Mahaney from a section called Just Being Together Isn't Sufficient in his book Humility. "I hope you're meeting regularly with others for fellowship and accountability, but please know that for this to be a means of grace and growth in your life, two things are required as an expression of your faith.

"First, humbly recognize your need for others. I'm convinced that left to myself, if I'm seeking to grow by myself, I'll only be deficient in discerning the sin within, and I'll therefore experience only limited growth in godliness. That's why I need the care and correction of my wife and fellow team members, and why I must pursue their care and correction. I need help, and so do you. You can't effectively watch yourself by yourself; you need the discerning eyes of others.

"The second requirement for effective small-group fellowship and accountability is that you and I must aggressively participate. Don't assume that by merely attending a group, by merely associating with those who are godly, you're therefore satisfying God and growing in godliness. That is deception."

Participation is scary, though. It means letting other people into your life and having the courage to join people in theirs. After my own bad experience, I left the church and treated it with much cynicism. Only when I asked Pastor Craig Brown why anyone would want to become a "member" did I finally understand the importance of participation. He said, "Let me ask you a question. You have a lot of spiritual gifts, don't you?" I told him I did. Then he asked, "But you don't have anyone in authority over you teaching you how to use those gifts effectively?" I laughed nervously and admitted I didn't. Not only that, but I realized I had no place to use those gifts in a way that would bless others and allow for others to bless me. That's when I knew God wanted me in a church.

What about you? What's your experience? What do you think about the Bible's emphasis on the church meeting together? Are you like many, struggling to act with humility and aggressive participation? Know this: you're not alone in your pain and confusion with the church. The question is whether or not you plan to do anything good about it.