Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Wedding Rings: Metal or Silicone?

Photo via Amazon.com
If you’ve ever attended a traditional wedding, you have likely seen the minister hold up the rings and explain the symbolism behind them. For example, the shape of the rings—a circle—represents the never-ending commitment between the two people. 

Sometimes, the minister will also reference the symbolism inherent in the rings’ material composition. The use of a precious metal—typically gold—signifies the purity, value and permanence of marriage. The metal has been tested by fire and purged of impurities, and marriages likewise must be kept pure as they endure many hardships. Similarly, gold does not tarnish or fade, and neither should the couple’s love toward one another. Additionally, the costliness of the ring denotes that marriage should be treated as a precious treasure and not carelessly discarded. And, finally, the strength and enduring quality of metal should symbolize the resolve and permanence that must characterize the marriage.

But does the substance of your wedding ring symbolize the substance of your marriage?
That’s the question I asked myself when I saw an online ad for silicone wedding rings, which are marketed to those who can’t or don’t want to wear traditional metal wedding rings to work or to work out because of the safety hazard. They’re perfect for the mechanic who’s afraid to get his ring caught on a piece of machinery and for the CrossFitter who wants to display her marital commitment even while hoisting a kettlebell above her head.

I assume that many of those who buy a silicone ring will only wear them temporarily and then go back to their original bands, but there are actually testimonials on the site of men proposing marriage with these rubber rings, which suggests it might be the only ring they wear. But, don’t worry, the rings only cost around $20; you can get them in all different colors to accessorize with your outfit; and instead of an endearing personalized inscription on the inside, you get the company’s logo.
Let me be clear, I’m not bashing the use of silicone rings. I understand the practical reasons for wearing such a ring, and I celebrate those who want to wear a visual symbol of their marriage at all times. After all, there’s no biblical mandate to wear a wedding ring, and the practice itself is relatively new on the timeline of human history.

I do, however, wonder if these elastic substitutes unintentionally reflect the way our culture views marriage today—cheap, flexible, temporary and disposable. While I’m sure the average couple planning their wedding these days fully expects their marriage to last, many have less hope than they let on.

I believe part of the problem for this is the romantic notions people believe about love and marriage—the kind of fairytale, star-crossed love stories found on the big screen. If you ask an engaged couple if they want their marriage to last, they will certainly say yes. If you ask them why they think it will last, you’ll probably either get blank stares or the idealistic “because we are in love.”
Those who live by this latter notion should remember that no matter how many times Captain and Tennille sang “Love Will Keep Us Together,” it proved insufficient in the end.

I prefer to follow different advice given to me in college: “You don’t fall in love; you fall in ditches. You choose to love. Love is an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person.”

If we want marriages that will last, we must take the vows “for better or worse … ‘til death do we part” seriously. This sometimes means standing by your commitment even when you don’t feel like it. Those who enter marriage with the mindset that divorce is not an option have a much better chance of seeing it through to the end.

Enduring love requires commitment, sacrifice and the grace of God. God demonstrated the ultimate expression of this love through sending his Son (Romans 5:8), and Paul points to this as the model for marital love (Eph. 5:22-33). It’s only by God’s grace and through his help that we can give and receive this enduring love.

Marriages that depend on warm feelings to carry them through have the shelf life of a silicone ring. Marriages that depend on God and practice Christlike commitment and love experience the golden joy of endurance.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Josh Duggar, Ashley Madison, and the Rush to Judgment

When news broke out recently that former “19 Kids and Counting” star Josh Duggar had not one but two accounts with Ashley Madison, a website that promotes extramarital affairs, the finger-pointing began.

Some fingers appropriately pointed at Josh. Others blamed his parents and their “oppressively strict religious upbringing.” Some criticized his wife for being too submissive and wanting to stick it out in their marriage rather than divorce his sorry self. Still others blamed “culture” for creating an atmosphere of acceptance that would allow a website the likes of Ashley Madison even to exist.

Let’s be clear, the sole blame for this sad tale belongs to Josh, who succumbed to his sexual temptations and willingly sought out adulterous relationships under the assumption that he would never be caught. The “secret sin” of pornography chipped away at his resolve for years, and then he deliberately acted on those fantasies. (James 1:14-15)

As the Scripture says, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.“ (Galatians 6:7-9)

It’s easy to rush to judgment. Many gloat as Josh reaps what he’s sown—a confirmation of their distaste for his seemingly wholesome upbringing. Even Christians are tempted to self-righteously wag their fingers. But our genuine response should be brokenness for him and his family. Even though he issued a public apology, life will never be the same for his family.

Yet, Josh Duggar is not alone. The Ashley Madison data leak is not just a distant, pop-culture story. More than 30 million accounts were exposed, sending shockwaves around the country, as chilling reports surfaced of some who chose to end their lives rather than face the guilt, shame and consequences of their sin.

Painfully, the embarrassing ripple effects have also splashed against our churches, as the accounts of self-professing Christians are brought to light. LifeWay Research Executive Director Ed Stetzer even estimated that at least 400 church leaders (pastors, deacons, staff, etc.) would be resigning on one Sunday as a result—some publicly, some quietly.

Families wrecked. Ministries ruined. Churches broken.

Actually, this could be a lot worse. What if it wasn’t just Ashley Madison accounts that were exposed? What if Internet browsing histories, Netflix viewing records, texting conversations and flirtatious work relationships were broadcast for the world to see? I fear that an exponentially larger number of church members and pastors would be implicated.

Sexual sin is a pervasive evil. Internet pornography and websites like Ashley Madison promise anonymity but those promises are empty. As the Scriptures say, “your sin will find you out.” Any of us is susceptible to such sin. If you think you’re impervious, you might be the most in danger.

So how should Christians respond? Here are at least five ways:
  1. Examination – Scripture is clear that we must constantly be on guard against sin getting a foothold in our lives. Every one of us needs to ask the Lord to search our hearts and reveal any areas of sin.
  2. Repentance – If you have an Ashley Madison account or are caught up in some other “secret sin,” you need to repent immediately. You also need to confess it to others—your spouse; your pastor; your church, as appropriate.
  3. Forgiveness – You may find yourself on the other end, bearing the pain of a friend, a pastor, a spouse or a family member who has fallen to sexual sin. If they are truly repentant, you must forgive them as God forgives them. Yes, there are consequences. Yes, it will take time to rebuild trust. But Christlike love demands grace.
  4. Accountability – Those who fall must be held accountable for their actions. At the same time, Christians must establish accountability relationships with one another, where we dig into one another’s lives, in order to encourage holiness and protect against sin.
  5. Prayer – Pray diligently for yourself, your family, your friends, your pastor and your church. Satan is prowling around, seeking to take down believers. We must stand in the gap for one another and ask our Father to “deliver us from the evil one.” Prayer is our greatest tool against the lure of sin.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Singles in the Age of the Home Run

Photo by Adam Tarleton
Home run. Long ball. Dinger. Moonshot. Bomb. Going yard.

For baseball lovers, the home run in one of the most exciting feats in America’s pastime. My family loves baseball, and our hometown team is the Texas Rangers. Every time a Rangers player crushes a towering shot over the outfield wall, fireworks erupt above the scoreboard and speakers blare the theme from the classic baseball film, “The Natural.”

Everyone loves the home run. It can give a team the added boost they need and turn the momentum of a game around completely.

Some teams live and die by the long ball, as they say. Their lineups are loaded with players who either hit it out of the ballpark or strike out. While this strategy certainly provides entertainment and a few of these teams have experienced periods of success, most clubs would prefer players who maintain a high batting average, consistently hitting singles and doubles, because this ultimately generates more runs in a game and more wins during the season.

There’s nothing really exciting about hitting singles, but a steady string of them can prove more powerful than a home run. In more recent years, teams have executed this style of play—called “small ball”—with great success. This was clearly seen with the last season’s Kansas City Royals.
We live in a culture that thrives on fireworks, huge changes, big plays and momentous occasions. We like to be entertained. Major League Baseball’s All-Star Weekend features a Home Run Derby, not a Batting Average Derby.

Often, I’ve heard people refer to sermons with baseball language. Church members remark that their pastor hit a “home run” on Sunday. Pastors languish over the fact that a sermon didn’t live up to their expectations, and they feel like they’ve struck out.

One of the best pieces of ministry advice I’ve received has been to focus on hitting singles and doubles rather than home runs. Just like baseball experts would say, if you try to hit a home run every time at the plate, you’ll usually strike out, but if you focus on putting the ball in play, you’ll actually increase your chances of hitting one over the wall. It’s more about patience than power.

Long-term, consistently biblical preaching will better produce healthier disciples and churches. In this way, fruitfulness becomes a byproduct of faithfulness, not flashiness.

This advice reduces the weekly stress of producing buzz-worthy sermons with tweetable lines and humorous illustrations. It encourages pastors to prioritize explaining and applying the text of Scripture. Pastors begin to realize it’s more important to feed the sheep than to wow them with your wit. Church members leave each week with a better understanding of God and what it looks like to follow him. These singles and doubles help “advance the runners” toward spiritual maturity.

This not only applies to preaching but also to a myriad of other avenues of the Christian life. In the church, do we judge the value of our worship services by whether the Lord “moved powerfully and visibly” or whether the gospel was faithfully preached and Christ was exalted and worshipped? Are we more excited about a great week of VBS or youth camp than we are at the consistent disciple-making of children and teenagers?

Certainly we pray for visible demonstrations of the Lord’s power, such as revival, but Jesus’ Parable of the Sower explains that it’s more desirable to have good soil that produces fruit with patience than rocky soil that generates quick growth with no root (Luke 8:4-15).

Consistency and faithfulness find value not only in the local church but also in our everyday lives, at work and home. It’s more important to demonstrate daily, sacrificial love toward your spouse than just springing for an expensive date or gift every once in a while. Likewise, epic family vacations have some value, but the week-in, week-out time spent talking with and discipling your children will bear more fruit in the long run.

In your own quiet times with the Lord, focus on a steady diet of the Word and prayer rather than being discouraged if you don’t have an epiphany every time you turn the page. Often times, this consistency tills the soil in our hearts that ultimately produces the greatest spiritual growth.

Life and faith truly are more about hitting singles and doubles. With this as our focus, we’ll strike out less and see more fruit over the long haul. And who knows, as we are faithful in the small things, we’ll likely experience a moonshot or two along the way.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How to Evaluate Your Pastor's Preaching

We live in a culture of critique with entertainment-driven evaluation and instant feedback:
  • Celebrity judges on reality television evaluate people’s talents, singing, dancing, cooking, etc., offering witty comments and cutting judgments.
  • Talking heads on sports and political broadcasts argue with each other, second-guessing every decision and analyzing others’ performances.
  • Social media provides instant feedback loops on articles, photos, videos, and everything else. Many an ego has been stroked and many a heart has been broken by the comments (or lack thereof) that stream into one’s feed
In the church, we must walk the fine line between critique and criticism. I was recently asked to write an article for 9Marks on "How to Evaluate Your Pastor's Preaching."

Read the article here.

Friday, June 05, 2015

What James MacDonald and Matt Chandler Can Teach Us About Humility in Church Leadership

In the span of six weeks, two prominent megachurch pastors offered humble apologies for matters related to church government.
The first came in a blog post by James MacDonald, pastor of Harvest Bible Church in Chicago. MacDonald, who received criticism for a blog post four years ago that said congregationalism was from Satan, apologized April 16 for his “inflammatory,” “unbalanced,” and “unfair” analysis of churches who give final authority in decision-making to its members.
MacDonald says while he still holds to an elder-ruled church polity—not to be confused with elder-led churches, which still give final authority to members—he admits, “What has changed is my confidence that elder rule is a better protection against satanic attacks on a local church than congregational governance that attempts to be biblical in distributing authority among mature church members.”
Further, MacDonald says, he has realized that with both elder-ruled and congregational models, “The potential for damage to a church seems likely in both models if a lack of humility is resident in those participating in the governance.”
The second apology came from Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Dallas. After concerns related to several church discipline cases went public on news outlets and the blogosphere, Chandler told Christianity Today May 28 that elders at the Village Church were guilty of a “domineering” approach in some cases and that he would be publicly apologizing to his church the following Sunday morning.
“We have sinned against some people—and we are owning that before God and specifically before the people we have hurt,” Chandler said. He issued a lengthy, convincing apology during his sermon May 31.
I’m thankful for the humility by both of these men to own up to prideful comments and actions in such a public way. They did what was right and in the right way. I believe each of them to be sincere apologies.
Both of these scenarios are a striking reminder of the need for humility in the church. As Paul exhorts, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 2:3-5).
The relationship between church leadership and members can easily be fractured when we fail to reflect Christlike love and humility toward one another.
Likewise, the Apostle Peter exhorts elders to shepherd the flock that God has entrusted to them with carefulness and tenderness rather than compulsion and tyranny. He also urges church members to submit themselves to the elders’ care. (1 Peter 5:1-5). He concludes, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” Here, the call to humility is applied to both leaders and members.
Additionally, the scenarios with MacDonald and Chandler remind us to think critically about church government.
The church growth, or seeker-sensitive, movement of the 1990s encouraged churches to take a businesslike approach to leadership and structure, with CEO pastors steering the ship in a “more efficient” system that avoided the liabilities of too many hands in the decision-making pot (i.e., congregationalism). Even congregational churches that adopted this approach essentially relegated the members’ decision-making solely to approving a budget and calling a new senior pastor.
In recent years, more churches have adopted a plurality of elders as leadership. But, while I believe having elders is more biblically supported than the CEO-style of church leadership, I fear that some of the same “business principles” that guided the CEO model have filtered down into the elder model as well. For example, elder-ruled churches simply swap out the CEO for a board of trustees and minimize the biblical role of the congregation in matters of doctrine, membership, and discipline. (see Matthew 18:15-17; Acts 6:1-5; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2:6-8; 2 Timothy 4:3). But even in elder-led, congregational churches, these business practices can find expression when elders overstep their authority, choosing control over compassion and policies over people.
Baptists have historically been advocates of both congregational polity and, prior to the 20th century, a plurality of elders (see Mark Dever’s By Whose Authority: Elders in Baptist Life). Even the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, W.B. Johnson, spoke of this in his book The Gospel Developed. The two can co-exist provided both the elders and members exercise the humility of Christ.
But, ultimately, MacDonald is right—regardless of the model of church government (elder rule, elder led, single pastor, congregational, etc.), abuses abound when we do not demonstrate Christlike concern for and submission to one another. So, brothers and sisters, whichever camp you find yourself in, let’s practice this kind of humility and love. When we do, Christ will be glorified as the gospel is put on display to a watching world.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Friend Closer Than a Brother

How many friends do you have? No, I’m not talking about the number of Facebook acquaintances. I’m talking about close personal friendships—the people that you talk with at least once every couple of months. It could be neighbors, coworkers, church members or lifelong friends.
Now, how many of those close friends are solid, biblically grounded Christians? These are people in whom you see a genuine, vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ. Of course, this criteria likely narrows your pool of relationships. For me, this smaller list includes friends from college and seminary as well as individuals in my church small group.
Now, let’s drill down another level. Of these close Christian friends, how many of these relationships go beyond the surface level, past generic discussions about weather, sports, mutual interests, children, etc.? These are people with whom you can share the most personal details of your life, both good and bad. They reflect the type of person referred to in Proverbs 18:24 when it says, “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” They encourage you when you’re down and challenge you in your walk with the Lord.
Taking it a step further, are there people not just whom you can talk with but whom you actually do talk with about these things? You don’t just have them on speed dial in the event of an emergency, but you are regularly walking in close community with them.
I’ll admit that in my busyness, I’ve neglected this deepest level in recent years. Yes, I have good friends in our church small group, and I know most of them would be willing to help at a moment’s notice. But other than a few prayer requests here and there, I haven’t intentionally shared my life with them. I say hello and make small talk on Sundays, but I haven’t personally invested the time and energy into sharing my personal struggles and getting to know theirs as well.
Two scenarios have reawakened me to our desperate need as Christians for a few close godly friends.
The first is a husband and wife I know who have faced difficulties in their marriage and recently filed for divorce. This came as a shock to friends and family because they never saw it coming. When asked if they had any close Christian friends with whom they’d shared their struggles or who could walk through this with them, offering counsel from God’s Word and praying with them, this couple said “no.”
Now these are not fringe church attenders. They are active volunteers in their church and teachers in the children’s ministry. But they have never developed close personal friendships with strong believers in whom they could have shared their marital struggles and received godly counsel and encouragement.
The second is a friend who battles with bouts of anxiety and depression. He is a strong Christian and a leader in his church. For a time, he kept his struggles to himself because he was embarrassed and did not want others to think he was “crazy.” Eventually, though, he shared this struggle with a few close friends who were able to listen, pray and encourage. He admits that sharing his weaknesses was difficult but freeing. Now he’s on the road to recovery with friends by his side.
I fear that too often in churches the first scenario is more likely than the second. Scores of church members are hurting but have isolated themselves from other believers. Facing financial crises, troubled relationships, spiritual dryness, etc., they slap on a happy face and attempt to fight these issues alone.
Maybe that somebody is you.
The writer of Ecclesiastes said it well: “But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up” (Eccl. 4:10).
We were not meant to walk through life alone. Even in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall, God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone. Yes, this has implications for marriage, but it also demonstrates how we are created for community. Throughout the Bible, God gathers his people in community.
If you’re like me, God has already surrounded you with at least a few close personal friends with whom you could dive deeper. Give them a call this week, invite them for dinner or coffee, and open up about your life. You may just find a friend closer than a brother.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Brothers, We are Not Brands

Recently, Forbes announced that NBA legend Michael Jordan has become the first billionaire professional athlete. Jordan’s net worth certainly can be attributed to his prowess and accomplishments on the basketball court, but what really made him a billionaire is his ownership stake in the Charlotte Hornets and, more importantly, his brand.
Jordan was arguably the first and most successful athlete to leverage his name as a brand. His partnership with Nike to create the Jordan line of athletic apparel was a game changer in its day and has paved the way for a myriad of superstars to follow in his wake.
Today, celebrities, athletes and business professionals alike seek to advance their personal brands and build their platforms in order to increase influence and affluence. Where entourages used to consist of trainers and accountants, they’ve now been replaced by “brand strategists” and “platform gurus.”
Social media has become one of the primary vehicles to accelerate one’s brand. Twitter and Instagram followers represent influence, and self-promotion is the name of the game. In fact, the very idea of social media carries with it at least a slight hue of narcissistic presumption.
Of course the church is not immune to the cult of personality and the culture of self-promotion. High-profile Christian celebrities and pastors are easily criticized for manipulating book sales, buying Twitter followers and using speaking engagements to promote their brands.
But what if I told you this allure toward pride is not limited just to the big shots? At the root of this is every man’s sinful desire for self-importance. Each of us seeks his own way. Each of us craves attention, significance and recognition. Even in a wholesome desire to serve the Lord and to make a difference for his kingdom, we can be easily sidetracked to make much of ourselves, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
I don’t think most Christians have a calculated, self-conscious plan to build their brands. At first blush, we recoil at the thought of pride and self-promotion. But the incipient nature of pride works its way into our thoughts and actions quietly. What we think are noble aspirations to build his kingdom can sometimes be tainted with a desire to build ourselves up. It’s a vice we must all fight.
Added to this is the relative newness of social media. For most of us, we’re still evaluating this phenomenon’s virtues and vices. This article is not a knock on social media. I’ve used Facebook and Twitter for years. I enjoy the personal interactions afforded, and I’m fascinated by the way it’s woven into the fabric of our relationships. Social media can be a powerful and helpful tool, even for Christians. As with any tool, we must be wise how we use it.
Simply stated, Christians are not brands. We are disciples. And as disciples, we should emulate our Lord. In Philippians 2:3-5, Paul exhorts believers to reflect Christ through humility, doing nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.
The Bible is clear that God is the one who raises up individuals to places of influence. In his sovereignty, he often gives us platforms, but they’re to be used for his glory, not our own. I’m always encouraged to see Christians who get this. The Lord obviously has his hand on them and has given them a strategic voice, and they aren’t trying to leverage it for their own glory.
How do we guard against pride in our uses of social media? How do we emulate our Savior’s humility across a medium that tempts us toward self-promotion? To some degree, this is a matter of conscience, but here are a few places to start.
  • Check your motivations. Before you tweet something, stop and consider your goal. Are there any hidden desires to make yourself look good or important?
  • Take inventory of your social media posts. Occasionally, I look over the last six months of Tweets, Facebook posts and Instagrams and ask the questions, “If someone only knew me by what was posted here, what would they think? Is this an accurate portrayal of my life, or is it what I want people to think about me?”
  • Avoid sharing or retweeting good things about yourself. If someone posts something nice about you, it’s OK to like or favorite it or even to reply with a thank you. But reposting kudos is self-congratulatory. This includes putting a period in front of the reply or quotes around it followed by “//Thanks” so others will see it.
  • Beware of the humble brag. This may be a new term for you, but it’s basically when someone publicly pats himself on the back in a seemingly humble way. For example, someone may tweet, “Grateful to give $1 billion of my own money to a local charity.” The line here between thankfulness and false humility can be fuzzy. He may be genuinely thankful, or he may just want to tell everyone how awesome he is.
Honestly, I’ve been guilty of all of these. Pride knows no bounds in our self-conscious, depraved hearts. But by God’s grace we can guard against pride and build the kingdom instead of building our own brands.

--This article appears in the March 10, 2015 edition of TEXAN Magazine.