Imaginary Entities

We deal with a number of people and institutions that don’t really exist. I’m sorry, but it’s true.

Think about the emails that you may have received from Nigerian princesses needing help getting a few million dollars of their money out of a corrupt African economy, and they needs your help and are willing to share their wealth. I hate to be the one to break the news to you, but there is no wealthy Nigerian princess in such dire straits. That’s a hoax.

Or what about Santa Claus? Millions of American kids write self-centered letters to Santa and leave cookies and milk by the Christmas tree every year. But regardless of how “real” he seems to them – or to the toy advertisers who sponsor his TV shows every winter – there is no jolly, overgrown, philanthropic elf with flying reindeer living at the north pole. It just isn’t real.

There is another imaginary entity with whom most of us relate. These groups can be found on a map, and you really can visit their offices or call them on the telephone and they will explain in patient detail how real and how important they are in your life. And unlike Santa Claus or Nigerian princesses, these groups do have legal status under our government (which in my case is American), but they seem to have no legal status under their home government (which is not American). But despite their protestations to the contrary, these, too, are not real.
I’m talking about your church. But then, I’m talking about my church too.

For clarification, I am not talking about the Body of Christ on this planet, or in this community, which Jesus referred to as His Church: His Church has a legal foundation in Heaven, which is its home government. The Church (capital C) was established by Jesus who called it “My church”. He seems pretty proud of it.

The Bible acknowledges (and therefore authorizes) the Church in many places, fifteen in the NKJV. Maybe half of the time, the Book acknowledges “the Church of God” but the rest of the time, it’s talking about the part of the Church in a city. I live in a city called Olympia, so from Heaven’s perspective, there is a “Church of the Olympians” or “the Church of God in Olympia.”
But here comes the challenging part: I’m not convinced there is any heavenly authority behind the autonomous congregation or the Christian denomination. There is no heavenly acknowledgement of “First Baptist” or “the Second Church of the Sunday Brunch” or any other local congregation. From Heaven’s perspective, there are no congregations, no denominations: just His Church. (By way of acknowledgement, there is likewise no heavenly foundation for other “Christian organizations”: missions agencies, or Christian radio stations, or “Evangelistic Associations”.)

I am absolutely not saying that any of these groups are ungodly or unbiblical. Most are not. I am also not saying that such organizations are evil; in fact I am very happily a member of a couple of these imaginary organizations. I am just saying that I’m becoming increasingly convinced that these organizations are not established by God, or by Heavenly authority. (Yes, I’ve heard the stories about God helping someone establish this group or that work; that’s not what I’m talking about here; there are exceptions to every generalization, and I am aware that I’m making generalizations; please read them as such.)

In point of fact, I believe that many churches (and many other Christian groups) are very much good things: they are tools to facilitate the work of Heaven. Human beings have from time to time, over the last couple millennia, looked at the very daunting task laid upon them by Divine mandate. And then they’ve panicked and they have cried out to God and come up with tools to accomplish those goals, and it’s wonderful how God helps us with those tools. People gathered can always accomplish more than individuals scattered.

(Have you ever wondered why there are so many “First Assembly” and “First Methodist” churches, and so few “Second Presbyterian” or more honestly, “Ninth Baptist” churches?)
But when we make the transition from “This congregation is a tool to help us as leaders to shepherd the people of God” to the perspective of “If you’re not part of a local Sunday morning congregation, then you are outside of God’s will,” or worse, “If you’re not part of this congregation….” then we move at least into error and perhaps into heresy. When we declare, either verbally or by our attitude, that “Members of this group are better [or “more spiritual” or “more biblical” or whatever] than Christians who are not members of this group,” then we are in danger of judgment. I’ve even met congregations and denominations that say, “If you’re not part of our group, you’re not even saved.” I’m sorry, but no.

Is there a benefit from being part of a gathering of believers? Absolutely! Heck yes! But that doesn’t necessarily mean I must be part of a “Sunday morning church” gathering. Whether I’m part of a church congregation, a home church, a “parachurch” group, or whatever, there is much benefit for me to gain from associating with the gathered Church. Christians gathered are God’s plan; Christians isolated are part of the enemy’s plan, like a wolf isolating a particular sheep. My goodness, Christians gathering together is even commanded. Heaven acknowledges no such thing as The Lone Christian (“Hiyo Silver Away!”).

Think of it this way: in the OT, the entire nation of Israel was blessed. Every tribe carried the blessing of the nation. It didn’t matter if you were in a big tribe like Judah, a little tribe like Benjamin, or a special tribe like Levi: if you were a part of a tribe, any tribe, you were part of the blessing. We need to be in a tribe to get all of the blessing God is giving out. Christians must gather together in order to function properly. Don’t let this article be an excuse for you to cut and run!

But that doesn’t mean that the gathering that we call “my church” is any more valid than any other gathering of believers in our city. That’s true whether “my church” is a country church with 50 people, a mega-church with 10,000 people, a denomination with several million adherents, or a Thursday afternoon gathering of four like-minded saints praying together at the coffee shop. We are the church, and wherever we gather with other believers is church, and mine isn’t any more holy, or any more recognized in Heaven, than yours. (I’m not talking about places where the people who you’re hanging out with happen to be believers; I’m talking about us gathering – as believers – for the purpose of being the Church gathered.)

The Book is clear that those who have been redeemed, those who know God through the work of Jesus, are first “the Church” and second are “saints.” (Have you noticed that “saints” is pretty much always plural? Ever wondered why?) We’re still “the Church of Olympia,” not “First Glory Pentecostal Methodist Church.” If I don’t consider the First Glory Methodists as much my brothers and sisters as my own home group leader, then I’m believing in things that Jesus doesn’t believe in, and I’m excluding people that my Father welcomes and loves as much as He loves me. Big mistake!

I probably should point out that I don't aspire to tell the whole story here; sure there are other perspectives on the subject. But over the last several centuries, we've told only one side of the story. My goal is not to find the ideal balance between multiple perspectives and declare it; I don't want these articles to be that long or complicated, and frankly, I don't think I'm qualified to say, “Thus and such is the right balance.” My goal is just to push the pendulum the other way a little bit. “Balanced” is not my goal; maybe “counterbalance” is.

My point is this: a local congregation – as separate from other believers in my area – is not a concept that Heaven has particularly authorized, not a concept that Heaven has mandated or supports. It was at best a tool for Christian leaders to shepherd a flock that’s too big (or too unruly), and at worst, it’s an abuse of Jesus’ beloved fiancĂ©.

This is a big paradigm shift for us, and the implications are significant, but they’re beyond the scope of this conversation. Right now, I just want to wrap my mind around the concept that I am part of this thing called The Kingdom of God. I am part of the Church in Olympia, and we represent Heaven here! My membership in a particular congregation or a home group or any kind of gathering of believers is strictly a convenience to help us – the Church – carry out our responsibilities for expanding the Kingdom.

I’m part of His Church. I like that.

Which Covenant Are You Under?

Christians would tell me, “Don’t go in that store, it’s evil!” like any evil of the place would jump out and grab me or something. Admittedly, the store in question was making good money promoting witchcraft and druidism and other things that are completely contrary to the gospel. But their wide-eyed “Don’t go in there!” unsettled me. I’ve been trying to understand.

First, I needed to come to grips with a truth that I have sometimes overlooked: sinners sin. The proprietor of the shop (I’ll call him James) is a nice guy, and he plays the didgeridoo better than anybody I’ve ever met. He doesn’t know the love of God, though he has told me, in all seriousness, that he’s “pledged his troth” to Thor. He’s a nice sinner, but he’s a sinner. So it shouldn’t surprise me that James is drawn to sinful things. He makes a good business off them, so I assume that there are a number of folks in our town who are also sinners, and who also sin. That's what people do when they don't know forgiveness. Let's deal with it.

There is room for the question, “What is the appropriate response of Christians toward sinners?” but I digress. I want to examine the concept of whether the “evil” of James’ shop is a danger to me, a saint of God.

The Old Testament teaches me that there are a bunch of ways to become unclean, and one of them is to touch anything or anyone that is unclean. For example, did you know that being dead makes you unclean, and anybody that has to touch your dead body will be unclean for a week. Leprosy is another example: You catch this, and you’re unclean for life. (Unless you get healed, but of course, nobody hardly ever got healed of leprosy.)

Worse, if you’re unclean, you can’t minister before God. If you ever do, you “shall be cut off from my presence” declares the Lord. Uncleanness is a big deal: God is holy, so we need to be holy if we want to hang around Him. It’s not like we’re going to make him unholy (ha!), but more that we’d get blown up if we showed up in His presence when we’re unclean. It’s a big deal, and the command is not just for our good, it’s for our survival!

So my Christian friends were trying to protect me when they warned me not to visit James’ shop. They were afraid that I’d become unclean from contact with the uncleanness of his store. Well, I appreciate their concern, but I’m not sure I want to live under that particular covenant. Those are all Old Covenant arguments, and are very important for someone living under the old covenant. I’m not living there.

Jesus was the embodiment of the new covenant. His words are words of the new covenant, His actions, actions of the new covenant. So if evil can get on me from unclean things, then I should be able to see that principle at work in Jesus, right?

So what did Jesus do when He came upon a dead person? He touched them and raised them to life. He touched them! How about the lepers? Same story: Jesus touched them and healed them. The pattern is repeated in the apostles. And unlike the OT, in the NT, I’m commanded to come into His presence!

So there is a huge difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, and the New is better. In the Old, when a godly person touched an unclean thing, the unclean trumped the godliness and godliness did not overcome evil. But in the New Covenant, the presence of God in me trumps evil.

So what does that mean for my life?

First, it means that I don’t need to be afraid to visit James’ shop. I’m not going to get jumped by the spirit of witchcraft on his sacred herbs or whatever. Heck, Jesus hung out with sinners, didn’t he? Did that make him unholy?

More, I see this as a New Testament extension of an Old Testament (or Old Covenant) promise: “Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours.” So now, I carry the presence of God with me, and everyplace I go, godliness trumps darkness, light shines in darkness and necessarily overpowers it. When I visit James’ shop, I leave footprints of the Kingdom of God behind me. When I visit with him, I leave something of the presence of God with him.

Now for the sake of clarification, this does not mean that I should be spending my time hanging out at porn shops and liquor stores and dens of iniquity. Specifically, if I have had trouble with porn, I’m not going to be submitting myself to the strongholds there; if I’m a recovering alcoholic, I’ll avoid the bars, not because I’m afraid of being touched by the uncleanness there (though the uncleanliness of their kitchen may be an issue), but because I’m not going to submit myself to temptation.

So no, don’t go looking for sin, don’t get cocky about darkness. But neither be afraid of darkness; someone else’s sin is not going to be a danger to me unless I’m not walking in the Presence of God. Let’s live holy and invade the darkness! How in Heaven’s name will they learn about the light if we don’t bring it to them?


Lessons From Philemon.

The book of Philemon (the last page before Hebrews) is a short letter with a big lesson for God’s revolutionary leaders today.

A little bit of background: Philemon, the guy the letter was written to, was a fairly wealthy Christian in the city of Colossae two thousand years ago. The book is a letter to him, from the apostle Paul, and about someone else: a slave named Onesimus.

Onesimus had belonged to Philemon, before he ran away from his master, which was a capital offense in those days. The moment Onesimus left, Philemon had the legal right to kill him as an example to the rest of the slaves in the household, so returning home was pretty much not an option for Onesimus: he’d burned his bridges; if he ever went home he’d be heading to the gallows.

Some time later Onesimus was arrested in Rome and thrown into jail, where he met Paul and of course Paul introduced him to Jesus. Onesimus gave his life to Christ, and Paul began – in the Roman prison – to teach him about the ways of the Kingdom. And as Onesimus grew in his understanding of God and His ways, he understood that he needed to go back to Philemon and make things right, even if it cost him his life.

Paul is a Onesimus’ spiritual father, and Onesimus is really helping him. Roman prisons are pretty ugly places (think medieval dungeon) and Onesimus – who was out of prison by now – is serving Paul, bringing him meals, relaying messages from believers outside, and generally making life bearable. But Paul sends him back to his rightful owner to resolve the issue of his crime of running away.

This letter went with him, a greeting from Paul to his brother Philemon, and it included some instruction for Philemon for this reunion. In the midst of that teaching, Paul reiterates how useful Onesimus has been, and he instructs Philemon on how to receive Onesimus (“…that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother.”). But he leaves the ultimate decision to Philemon. “I could order you to receive him, but I’m leaving the decision in your hands.”

There are two lessons here for today’s Christian leaders. (Please understand that I’m not talking about professional pastors; I’m talking about believers who lead or influence or mentor other believers, though that will include professional pastors.)

1. The people that minister with you or to you are not your people. They belong to another Master, and we need to be completely free with them; we must welcome their service and we must release them freely when their Master calls them to another place, regardless of what it costs us. Hopefully, we’ll send them to their next assignment as more equipped and able servants than when they came to us.

2. There are times when we know the answers better than those whom we’re mentoring; we understand what they need to do better than they do. And sometimes, we could functionally order them to do the “right thing.” But we must resist that! We must give them the freedom to make the decision for themselves, even if (even when) their wrong decision could hurt them and us. We can advise them; we can instruct them, but we cannot – we dare not – make the decision for them, else we make them dependent on us, not on Him. And woe unto us if we make someone dependent on us!

This was a tough lesson in Paul’s day. You can tell he really wants Philemon to make the right decision; Paul calls Onesimus “my own heart”; he really loves this guy, and he knows that he’s putting Onesimus’ life into Philemon’s hands, and if Philemon chooses what his world demands, what is legal and expected, Paul will lose a good friend, and the Kingdom of God will lose an important leader. But still Paul leaves the decision to Philemon. He still sends Onesimus back.

The Bible doesn’t tell the rest of the story, but church history does: Philemon did receive Onesimus back, and he went beyond forgiving him, and he freed Onesimus from his slavery. And Onesimus went on to become the apostolic leader over the church in the city of Colossae.

We can trust people to make the right decision, but even if it’s difficult, we still must make that choice: it’s their decision, let them make it, even if they make it wrong.