Saturday, March 25, 2017

Christian snobbery and perfect credentials

“Oh, so you’re a part of this church? You know pastor so-and-so? You attended the conference for ministry and evangelism sponsored by that group? You attended that seminary? Then you must be a real Christian.” We don’t like to admit that we carry little mental checklists for who is “good enough” to be considered a real Christian and who isn’t, and it’s usually based on superficial labels and not on faith at all.

In countries where Christianity is well established, the ugly side is religiosity and pride. It manifests in a desire to judge, condemn and ostracize anyone who doesn’t appear to fit the norms of the ruling culture. The Bible has clear requirements to discern what is true salvation, and who belongs to the true Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, and of course we need to be wise to stand against the lies of cults. But in church social gatherings, few Christians take the time to “test the spirits.” Instead, they’d rather use that list of labels and “who-knows-whos.” If people don’t fit the list, they are usually ignored, gossiped about and socially rejected within the church. Those who do fit the checklist are proudly displayed, given positions of responsibility and spiritual authority in churches. And some of these well-qualified leaders with perfect credentials have also been the cause of infighting, ugly power struggles and church divisions. The checklists are basically meaningless.

But on the other hand, how many people did God choose to represent Him who didn’t match the perfect checklist of their culture or religious climate of their time? God saw the purity of their faith and the motives of their hearts and said, “Yes, these are My children.” Moses, Joseph, Ruth, Gideon, David, John the Baptist, the twelve disciples, even Jesus Himself were outcasts or rejects in some form or other. They were eyed suspiciously, but God didn’t care. In fact, it seems that God often chooses those that don’t have the perfect resume to be used for His glory. He chooses those who are even offensive to the religious powers-that-be.

We need to be careful not to snub anyone who reaches out to us because of a label or rumors we’ve heard. The Holy Spirit gives us discernment as we see others with the eyes of compassion, no matter what has been said about them. Are they from a troubled background and need help to find God? Is their bitterness against God just a mask to hide deeper pain? Is their zeal for a certain religion a sign that they are searching for the truth and haven’t found it yet? Or maybe we’ve totally misinterpreted who they are because we’ve labeled them out of our own ignorance. Maybe God wants to teach us something through them. Neither should we feel offended if religious people snub us. If they slandered Jesus, why should we deserve better treatment? A natural consequence of being a true believer is to be misunderstood by false (or weak) ones, and God expects us to deal with it in grace and forgiveness.

If I am certain of my salvation, why should I be afraid to speak to anyone else? Why would I be intimidated by an atheist, a Satanist, a cult member or a false Christian? If I know the truth, then no one can steal it from me, and perhaps my assurance of faith can even help someone else find salvation. And if they dislike me or pressure me to change? No problem. It’s a positive challenge to show the love of God to them while also speaking the truth boldly, in the faith that the seed I plant would eventually bear fruit. And if you think I’m being deceived by false doctrines, don’t gossip about me to others without knowing the truth, and please don’t run – try to save me! Maybe you’ll discover that your preconceived ideas about my faith were totally wrong.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world, and therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.  We are of God, and whoever knows God listens to us. Whoever is not of God does not listen to us. This is how we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.  1 John 4:1-6, MEV

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Why I do what I do

Their booming voices would raise the roof at the Mponela Bible School in central Malawi. Dad was training men, young and old, to become pastors of that tiny African nation sandwiched between Rhodesia and Mozambique in the 1960s, and they were so full of zeal that they would sing all night long. Dad’s missionary work kept him at the school for weeks at a time, leaving Mom to deal with us four kids in a land where the largest city had only one traffic light. It was tough, but we would never have traded those 12 years for anything.

I was an American, a foreigner, a stranger to that culture and country – but I was completely at home. Sacrifice for the gospel was our daily life. Though my parents felt the pain of it more than my siblings or I, it was clear that sacrificing one’s life for God was not an option. It’s what real Christians do. And in that limitless joy of the young Bible students and in the village churches made of mud and straw, it was easy to see how sacrifice brought new life. Sacrifice resulted in joy. 

Then the tide changed and we were suddenly back in the US. The wealthy churches in Texas that had supported Dad’s missionary work were stranger to me than I had been to the Africans. It wasn’t just culture shock, it was a shock to our spirit. Instead of raw faith, joy and gratitude for God’s amazing love, it was luxury cars, expensive homes, social status, back biting and church politics. The few Christians who were sincere were hard to find. 

But Dad and Mom were determined to never let the fire of faith die. They accepted the call to spread the gospel among immigrants in New York City, teaching English with the Living Bible as a textbook. Dad led a church in a rundown corner of the Bowery District in the lower eastside of Manhattan in the 70s, holding services where drunks, beggars and conmen considered churches as soft spots for handouts. Once, after a long day of helping other people, Dad was given a black eye from a beggar who refused to take no for an answer. But Mom and Dad stayed, they served, they cared for the lost, they changed lives, and I watched and admired their every move.

I wanted to serve too, but becoming a traditional pastor, majoring in Bible and Psychology to be ordained in a church as dry and unspiritual as the American churches I’d known, was something I just couldn’t bear. I dropped out of a Christian college in Texas to seek another path. Where were the Christians with the same quality of faith that I saw in Mom and Dad? Why did no one value the joy that comes from sacrifice? 

The answer came years later in such an upside-down manner, that only God could have orchestrated it. With my newly earned degree of Doctor of Chiropractic, all set to open my practice in New Jersey, I was called to give it up and go into the ministry. I did. I left it all to serve in a church that was completely unknown in the United States, but had impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands in Brazil and South America. I learned Portuguese, I submitted to the church leadership of a totally different culture. I learned spiritual warfare, to confront witchcraft, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to preach a radical faith, and to fight against the forces of hell to save souls. I witnessed the healing of my wife’s blindness, the raising of my infant son from the dead, and the transformation of thousands of lives that no one could deny were from God. Not only had I found sincere Christians, I had found the First Century church active and alive, and the God of the Bible revealing Himself in my everyday life the more I surrendered to Him. 

This has been my life since 1987, in both North and South America, in Africa, Europe and Asia, planting churches, preaching, teaching, counseling, healing and learning more each day about the joy that comes from sacrifice. Funny thing is that it was Dad and Mom who led the way for me as they gave up 30 years of ministry in their old denomination to serve in this new church. Again, they were my examples as they left behind the comfort of their home and family to go back to Africa decades later. Mom was buried on the mission field in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1995, and today, well into his 80s, Dad reaches out to prisoners and ex-cons in his home state – giving demons black eyes instead. I have seen firsthand that yes, sacrificing for the gospel is what Christians do, and from it springs miracles, healing, deliverance, salvation and pure joy. There’s no other option.

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”  Matthew 16:25