Tuesday, January 16, 2007


"[Hezekiah] removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan." (2 Kings 18:4 KJV).

The lesson of Nehushtan is a difficult one to learn. Hezekiah learned it early: we frequently don't.

"Nehushtan" means "brass". Hezekiah showed considerable spiritual insight: he was able to look at something that was being worshiped---something explicitly given of God through Moses to Israel---and see that it was just "brass".

The Lesson of Nehushtan is this: it may be given of God, it may have been God's provision for a time, it may have been a tool through which God acted miraculously; but it's not God. It's not to be worshiped. It's just brass. The Lesson of Nehushtan is a difficult lesson, because it reveals our hearts in a painful way: it shows how quick we are to raise up an idol; and sometimes we make idols of very good things.

The children of Israel made an idol of the brass serpent God had commanded Moses to make. A painful lesson to learn is, idolatry comes naturally to the flesh. We all have the flesh in us, and idolatry is bound up in that: "Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are [these]; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told [you] in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God." (Gal. 5:19--21 KJV) The tendency for us to raise up idols is no less than it was in the Old Testament: "Little children, keep yourselves from idols."(1 John 5:21 KJV). And, just like in the Old Testament, we have a tendency to raise up idols thinking they are part of Scriptural worship of God. Remember Aaron at the bottom of Sinai? "And when Aaron saw [it], he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To morrow [is] a feast to the LORD." (Ex. 32:5 KJV). Aaron established the worship of the golden calf at Sinai, then told the people they were celebrating a "feast to the LORD". This is the pattern of idolatry in the Old Testament: it is repeatedly mingled with worship of the Living God.

The subtlety of it is the danger: we think we are worshiping the Lord, when we have actually set up an idol. With this in mind, the lesson of Nehushtan becomes even more painful: we tend to set up idols and confuse them with worship of the Lord, and we tend to make idols of good things the Lord has given us.

Of course I bring this up because of its relevance to us in "assembly circles" today. In particular, I think we have been especially plagued by various Nehushtans over the years; most of which are men that have been elevated to heroes and eventually idols. Take, an example, any one of many authors on my bookcase. I have a raft of books on my bookcase whose authors have been raised to the status of idol in "assembly circles": JND, WK, FWG, SR, JBS, FER, CAC, etc. Some of these men are almost seen as infallible in some "assembly circles." In fact, some are almost blatantly worshiped as modern-day prophets, successors to John the Baptist, Paul, or Christ Himself.

It takes a good deal of courage to say with Hezekiah: "they are Nehushtan!" They're brass, just men. True, they were men who brought some insight, and were used of God; but they're just men for all that.

I was speaking in assembly a month or two ago, and mentioned that I had made an idol of a man dead more than 100 years. People seemed interested until I mentioned his name was J. N. Darby. Suddenly, people were almost angry. After the meeting, one of the older men said to me: "If you're going to set up an idol, I suppose Darby is a good choice." The casual acceptance of what is frankly condemned in both the Old and New Testaments was shocking! But, I have come to believe it's systemic. This is the normal behavior of people in "assembly circles" these days.

Frankly, the hero-worship in "assembly circles" is a much bigger problem than most seem to realize. For all our talk of "clerisy", we've escalated it to a level unknown in a lot of mainstream evangelical churches. While the Baptist church up the street has a "pastor", we have men that are elevated in our minds to infallible. What's worse? a church that establishes a clergyman, thinking that to be the Biblical model; or an "assembly" eschewing "clerisy" in their doctrine, but esteeming some men above reproach in practice?

But idols can be other things too. Take another example: a meeting format. Personally, I would prefer to keep a very "traditional" format: remembrance meeting, Bible reading, "open" ministry. I like traditional "assembly" meetings. I like the spontaneity and freedom of them. But we have to be oh-so-careful that we're not worshiping them. We have the be careful to realize that we don't curry favour with God by having our meetings in a certain format.

Perhaps the worst form of idolatry is the one where people worship the God they think is there, who is not the living God of the Bible. We do this in a number of ways---and frankly it's a topic all of its own---but there are two opposite extreme examples of this: the one where God is some sort of sentimental Benefactor who sort of overlooks our sin, the other where God is a cruel, demanding Master who demands the last farthing. The first is typical of the so-called "liberal" Christians: the type who build "seeker-friendly churches". The second is more typical in so-called "conservative Christians", and often the type who flock to "exclusive assemblies". The truth is, God is "of purer eyes than to behold iniquity", but He is also "Him that justifies the ungodly". Both of these errors overlook the work that Christ has done: the "liberal" view makes Christ's work unnecessary, the "conservative" view makes it insufficient.

So let's keep ourselves from idols. It takes a lot of courage to look at an idol---especially one that was made of a bona fide blessing from God---and call it brass; but that's precisely what we are to do. We are to not allow other things to take His place in either our worship or our hearts.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

It's About Him

OK, so I looked at my last post "It's About the Individual", and realized that while that made sense in the context, there's a greater point that I really missed: it's all about Jesus.

I think this is an important point that's not just theory: it needs to be our reality.

The fact is, that we as believers have been called to something that has been unknown previously: Christ is our life. "When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory." (Col. 3:4 ESV). In fact, this relationship is to completely define our focus: "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory." (Col. 3:1--4 ESV) And it's this relationship that provides the motivation for personal holiness (see v. 5).

What is striking about the passage in Col. 3 (by no means the only one, but perhaps the clearest) is the totality of effect this relationship is supposed to have on us. It details several effects we are to see as a result of this relationship:
  1. our focus is to be in Heaven because Christ is there
  2. we will be revealed with Him in glory because our life is hid with Him
  3. we are to mortify our members on the earth: lust, etc.
  4. we are to put on the new man
These are all presented as effects of our having Christ as our life. We are risen with Him, having died and been buried with Him. This separates us from sin, from the world, and from the men and women we were.

At least as far as Colossians is concerned, this is to be the guiding fact of our lives.

So far, this is all individual, which brings up again the point I made in the last post: it is the individual relationship with the Lord that we so sorely lack.

And we can look at another aspect of this: the Lord Jesus is not a means to an end. He is the end. It is for His glory, His honour that we are to live here. It took me a long time to realize that God didn't call me and save me so that He would have another "good" man here. As far as He is concerned, there is only one Man who matters in that regard. No, He called me purely out of love. Not with a goal to perfect me per se (although that's part of the plan), but with the goal of showing His love to me. Thus, my life, my growth, my attainment of godliness---these things are not the central thing. The main thing is, that I learn to love Him. It is my place to love and honour Him. The rest of it is all just by-product.

One brother said it like this: "it's more important to bask in Christ's love than to serve Him".

To be sure, loving and honouring Him have the effect of driving us to the spiritual growth and personal holiness and maturity we all crave. But it's easy to confuse the goal with the means to get there. Or with the outcomes and by-products we get along the way.

Christ is to take the same central place in the assembly: the corporate gathering. If Christianity were merely individual, then Colossians 3:1--4 would really sum it all up. But it isn't: the baptism into One Body really characterizes the other side of things: Christians are part of a new work of God.

As an aside, there is a corporate vs. individual tension all through the Christian world. Each Christian group takes a position somewhere on the spectrum: on one extreme is the "only corporate" camp that is exemplified by Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, on the other extreme is the "only individual" position typical of Evangelicals. Somewhere between them you have most liturgical churches (Anglicans are certainly more individual than Catholics, but Lutherans are probably more corporate than Presbyterians). So-called "plymouth brethren" lie somewhere in the middle too, with "exclusives" much closer to the "corporate" side, and "opens" close to the "individual" side.

This, incidentally, is one reason why I don't consider myself to be Evangelical. I'm much more liturgical in my beliefs than my Evangelicals. I suppose that would put me in a similar position as "Evangelical Anglicans" or "Evangelical Lutherans".

So there is a tension that all Christians have between our individual walk with the Lord and our corporate calling as members of the One Body.

But in Scripture we see that tension too---there is the place Christ has to the individual: He is our Life, He is our Lord, He is our Saviour. But there is also a role He has to the Assembly. He is her Bridegroom (and Lover). This is not ever stated in terms of the individual believer: it is a corporate truth. He is to be the Center of our gathering: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." (Matt. 18:20 ESV).

So no matter what the aspect of the Christian life is under discussion, the Lord Jesus is to be the Center of it.

I think one place where a lot of churches or assemblies fall down is, they focus on good things that are not the Center. Our Center ought to be the Lord Jesus, not doctrines (however correct), policies (however Godly), or the people there (however good). In effect, we ought to be going to the assembly (not the building, the actual gathering of believers) to meet with the Lord Jesus in a way we can't as individuals.

I think a lot of churches on the extreme "individual" end of the spectrum (like some Baptist churches I have seen) see the assembly as nothing more than a support group for individual Christians. There's a sermon or so every week to equip the saints, Sunday School to teach the kids, and maybe some other programs or activities to encourage some socializing in a "Christian" environment. But really, these are all insufficient reasons for the gathering. It's not merely to be taught that we ought to gather, but to worship. And teaching---no matter how good---isn't worship. Consider 1 Corinthians 11--14. There is a place for teaching, but there is also the Lord's Supper, singing, praying. These are all part of the corporate gathering. In fact, the Corinthians were to come together
to eat the Lord's Supper. How many churches do that?

I think if I were ever to leave "brethren", I would seek out some sort of liturgical church for this one reason: liturgical churches have a "worship first, teach second" attitude that lines up with Scripture.

Now, don't take this as a "brethren are right, everyone else is wrong" thing. I think this is one area where "brethren" have the right idea. But as I mentioned before, we tend to completely ignore the other side of things: individual responsibility. You need both oars in the water to get your boat where you're going.

But the point of bringing up the Lord's Supper and worship is this: the assembly ought to be consciously Christ-centered. We are called as priests to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God, and to show forth the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness. These are both Christ-centered activities, where we take the lower place to Him. We fade out of focus, as the Lord Jesus is raised up to prominence.

There is a place for ministry and teaching. A big place, and we are sadly lacking in them (that's another topic for another post); but we need to have our priorities straight. First we gather to honour the Son of God, then we minister to one another's needs and teach one another.

And that's no different than the all-consuming passion for Him that ought to mark our individual lives.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

It's about the individual

I think the first thing I need to establish in my Angst-ridden assembly quest is, the Christian life starts with the individual. Not that it exalts the Individual in a humanistic sense, but that it starts with an individual's need: justification with God. Then it moves onto God's provision for the individual: eternal life. The vast majority of Christian struggles are individual. Take Romans 7, the archtypical Christian struggle. Who has the struggle? Not "we", but "I".

There is a sense where the Christian life is incomplete without the corporate. We have been baptized into one Body by one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). This is easy to overlook, especially in our self-centered culture in the West. But in the end, to focus on the corporate to the exclusion of the individual is just as much a mistake.

I think one of the problems we've developed in so-called "assembly" circles is, we've adopted the idea that we can fix assembly problems without the time, effort, and pain of fixing individual problems too.

Let's be blunt: greed, slander, laziness, and lust are rampant in Christianity today. It appears from my personal experience and observation that we have some epidemics that are largely unnoticed. Pornography comes to mind: I can't tell you how many Christian men who have admitted to me that this is a major battle for them. Me too. I understand: I make a living on the Internet, and it's pervasive, available, and so very tempting. And don't think I don't battle it too. I speak as someone who knows both the allure and the damage it does.

Or what about TV? It's hard to find a day where I hear Christians not talking about something they saw on TV. That's got to have an effect on us! We can't be living that tied into the world without it getting in the way. If you want a modern illustration of idolatry, you need look no further than the Superbowl or the Stanley Cup. Where Christians once condemned sports as "worldly", it's hard to find a group who doesn't embrace and celebrate them. Is pornography going to be accepted in the same way someday?

As I read books and articles written by the Christians of 100 years ago, I notice a separation from the world that we just don't hear about today. Not a cult-like almagamation into a subculture (think the Watchtower Society or the Amish or the Taylor brethren), but a conscience-driven separation.

I don't think the problem is that we don't know we ought not to do these things: I think the problem is that we have an unrealistic idea that we can compensate other ways. We in "assembly circles" have this idea that if we get the corporate form right, the individual problems will somehow not affect us.

I don't think we honestly expect we don't need to fix them; I think we have an idea that the correct principles and practices in gathering will somehow preserve us corporately from the individual's sins. And I think we engage in a little magical thinking that someday the individual problems will "get better".

The bad news is, it won't.

Don't get me wrong, I firmly believe Phil. 1:6 is for us today: "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." (ESV). It is most certainly God's work in us to bring us to perfection. It's not through our efforts that these things are overcome. On the other hand, a casual sweeping of sin under the carpet doesn't deal with it.

And perhaps the problem is not necessarily outright sin. Perhaps it's just a lack of spiritual maturity. Why are assemblies weak? Because the individuals in them are weak. We're not going to have worthwhile, meaningful ministry in a Bible Reading (for example) when the individuals aren't spending time in their Bibles. It just doesn't work that way.

I'm not saying that the Lord can't give us a word in season, that He can't give us something to say when we're sitting there. But I am saying that the Holy Spirit works by bringing things to remembrance (consider John 14:26). We can hardly expect Him to give us another revelation when we haven't bothered to read the one He already had written down for us!

In 2005, there was a "Shepherd's Conference" at Greenwood Hills in Pennsylvania (http://www.greenwoodhills.net/). They've taken down their audio files of the event, but for a while, all the messages given in the conference were available via mp3. The conference was for "elders" and "overseers" in so-called "open assemblies" in North America.

I've listened to the audio of that conference many times, and am still amazed by what I hear. The speakers give some good advice, but on the whole, they seem to totally miss the point. It's obvious they see the problems---anyone who's honest sees them---but their answers are all superficial. With one exception, they fail to see that the problems stem from individual walk. It's not a reception policy, or a written statement of faith, or clear strong leadership that's lacking: those are all available in mainstream churches doing every bit as poorly as we are. It's the failure of the individual to walk with the Lord. It's the lack of personal conviction and growth.

Don't think "exclusive" assemblies are faring any better: we aren't. We have the same basic problem, but we hide it a little differently, and our proposed solution---while not the same as our brothers and sisters in the "open" assemblies---is equally futile. We try to solve our problems by re-iterating doctrine (usually on the level of minutia), and (more often that not) convincing one another that we are the "One Place", so it really doesn't matter how bad things are, "it is a day of small things".

What's really sad is, the younger people (i.e. people a few years older than myself and down: my peers) see the problems, eventually learn the futility of our attempts to fix them, and decide to chuck the whole thing. So we have all sorts of people leaving "assemblies" to go try out "seeker-friendly churches", "emergent churches", and whatever the church du jour happens to be.

One of the hardest lessons I have to learn (apparently over and over) is, there is no silver bullet. There is very rarely some magical cure to a problem. Problems are as hard to fix as they are. "It is what it is."

I think the same lesson applies here.

We can play all sorts of games to try and compensate for our spiritual state: we can formalize things (the "open" solution) or simply convince ourselves that our correctness will make the problems irrelevant (the "exclusive" approach). In the end, we'll have the same problem, and we'll probably have added new ones on top. And if we try to run away from them (the young liberal approach), we buy all sorts of different symptoms, but the same underlying problems. Willow Creek may seem like they've got it together, but they don't. Don't mistake popularity with spirituality.

I was severely disappointed with several Christians and assemblies over the past few years who seemed to think the problem in various assemblies were of the nature of format. Some "exclusive" assemblies went "open", many individuals left and went to one church or another. But all seemed to miss the point. I know the grass is greener over there---believe me, I know! But the problems we have are not how we meet: the problems we have are how we are content to not walk with the Lord 24X7.

One incident stand out in my mind: there was a Bible Reading where we decided to study Revelation. I was the youngest in the group, but I suggested we each read it through as many times as we could that week, before the next meeting; that way, we'd each have a working familiarity with the book before we opened it up together. One older brother balked "you mean read the whole thing in a week?" This same older brother would grouse about how the Readings weren't teaching him anything. Perhaps, I thought, if you were willing to put some sweat in, you'd get something of value out. No wonder the meetings weren't very good, if one of the older ones---who should have been a leader---was unwilling to read 22 chapters in a week!

Starting Out

Another blog? You barely keep up with your old one!

I know, but there is a method to my madness. Or something like that.

There are some issues I'm trying to work through in my spiritual life. These aren't necessarily things that anyone else is interested in, but I'm trying to articulate concerns, challenges, and convictions to myself. I find a blog the perfect medium for writing to myself.

I haven't linked to this blog from anywhere, but I'm not going to restrict access either. This is a semi-private blog in that sense. It will be interesting to see whether anyone finds this, and whether it actually gets read. It really doesn't matter in the long run: if I can get my thoughts somewhat organized here, it'll have accomplished its goal.