Are Christians Persecuted?

I’ve been preaching a series titled “Leaving Good Things Behind.” Acts shows us that for a church to thrive, Christians must even leave good ministries

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The Martyrdom of St. Stephen, Gustave Dore

behind. The apostles delegated their ministry for widows to 7 men so they could focus on preaching. One of them, Stephen, was killed on the job. He spoke out against the authorities and became the 1st Christian martyr.

On May 11, Vice President Mike Pence warned a crowd of Liberty University (my alma mater) students to prepare to be shunned for their faith: “Throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian, but things are different now.”

Globally, Christians face incredible discrimination. In North Korea and many Muslim-governed countries, Christians risk imprisonment and death for their faith. The Christian community in Mosul, Iraq, was exiled, and many Christians are still persecuted by ISIS. American Christians with a global perspective on their faith rightly identify themselves as a part of a persecuted people even today.

American society grows more secular, while public symbols of Christianity disappear from the public square. Christian influence has disappeared from public education.  We hear stories of college faculty shaming Christian students, zoning laws that restrict building expansion, tensions between Christian values and public policy, and of course the war on Christmas.

Films like God’s Not Dead and Persecution, and books like Todd Starnes’ God Less America and the Left Behind series reinforce this American persecution complex.

But American Christians should not confuse their gradual loss of political influence and privilege with persecution. They still receive deference that is taken for granted: holidays in the academic calendar, prayers at presidential inaugurations, and the right to a hearing when unfairly treated.

The New Testament tells stories of actual martyrs who did not play the victim: As Paul died in prison he writes to a young preacher, “share with me in the sufferings for the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:7-8). When Peter and John were beaten for their faith, they “rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). Stephen showed boldness and compassion as he became the first Christian martyr (Acts 6-7).

Jesus did not promise a life of fairness and privilege, so let’s not complain when we don’t get it.

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Are There Zombies in the Church?

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

Several years ago a parishioner recommended that I watch The Walking Dead. I found season 1 mildly entertaining, but could never understand why there was a 2nd season. How many stories can you tell about people who think they are alive, but are actually dead?

Jesus didn’t use the word “zombie,” but he seemed to have a category for religious people who do not realize they are spiritually dead.

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Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Jesus has a late night conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who recognizes that Jesus was sent by God (John 3:2). Rather than affirm Nicodemus for his insight, Jesus bluntly tells him that he is spiritually dead and needs to be brought to life (John 3:3). Pharisees were the most religious group at that time. They took prayer and purity very seriously. Nicodemus was not just a member of this group – he was a leader. And Jesus says he is a walking, religious dead person.

This isn’t the only time Jesus used this category.  He used it when he spoke with a would be disciple in Luke 9:59-60, and to describe the prodigal son in Luke 15:24. They were spiritually dead, and needed to be brought to life.

Nicodemus devoutly practiced his faith and taught other people how to, but he was among the walking, religious dead. He didn’t need to improve his religion, he needed new life. He needed to be born again.

We can be a faithful Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran or Catholic and still be among the walking, religious dead. To those, Jesus would say, “You don’t need a new or improved religion, you need a new life. You need to be born again.”

The prophet Ezekiel provides a wonderful image of becoming spiritually alive (36:26-27):

 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws  (36:26-27).

The heart of stone is unresponsive to spiritual truth, the need for repentance, the power of Jesus Christ and the glory of God. In the new birth, God replaces our heart of stone with a heart of flesh.  Our dead, spiritual boredom with Christ is replaced by a heart that responds to spiritual truth, experiences the healing power of Jesus, and lives a life that glorifies God.

Since the way we experience all of this is through faith, the walking religious dead are invited, in the name of Jesus and by the power of his Spirit, to receive Christ as the sin-forgiving, life transforming Lord of their lives.

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Is the Resurrection Ridiculous?

Many people think so.

Artwork in the 18th century reflected the growing skepticism towards miracles. Halos and angels began to gradually disappear. Only what can proved by reason or scientific experience can be trusted. While there is openness to spirituality, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is still a hard thing to swallow, even for many Christians.

It always has been, and understandably so.

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Paul in Athens, Raphael

The 1st Christians weren’t illiterate peasants who in 33 AD were so gullible that they didn’t know that corpses don’t rise from the dead. Mary Magdalene assumes that Jesus’ body was moved (John 20:15). Most people continued to believe that (Matthew 28:13-15). The disciples dismissed her story as nonsense (Luke 24:11).

Even when the disciples believed, skepticism persisted. Religious authorities were horrified by the idea (Acts 4:2). Greek intellectuals mocked Christians for believing it (Acts 17:32). Festus, the regional governor, thought people were insane for believing it (Acts 26:24).

One reason I believe the disciples’ claim about a bodily resurrection is their disbelief – and that of their critics. There was nothing to gain from preaching such a ridiculous message: they paid a terrible price when they proclaimed the resurrection. Most of the disciples suffered and died for their beliefs.

In the end, Peter challenges each one of us to “judge for yourselves” (Acts 4:19). Not just if the resurrection is believable, but if Jesus is a resurrected Lord and Savior. If we truly accept this, it should change everything about our lives, just like the original skeptics.

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Can Churches Perform Miracles?

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. – John 14:12

I’m trying to imagine being one of the 12 disciples and hearing this. They had witnessed Jesus performing signs and wonders: Healing the sick, raising the dead, multiplying food and controlling the forces of nature.

That’s a pretty high bar, and Jesus was being serious in John 14:12. These greater works were related to both Jesus’ going to the Father, and the Holy Spirit’s coming (John 16:7). When the disciples received the Holy Spirit, they healed the lame, the blind, the paralyzed, and the sick, just like Jesus. They cast out demons. They spoke in unknown languages, were unharmed by poisonous snakes, and the ground shook when they preached. Even their shadows, and the handkerchiefs they touched produced miracles.

Peter and John Healing the Lame ManNicolas Poussin

Peter and John Healing the Lame Man, Nicolas Poussin

These works of the Holy Spirit are described throughout the book of Acts, as the church took root and grew rapidly (e.g. 2:4; 5:15; 8:39; 9:36-42; 19:12; 20:9-12; 28:3-6).

What if Jesus’ words were also meant for the modern Church? Not just his theology and ethics, but also His promises that His people will perform signs and miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit? His words in John 14:12 seem incredible to me, but not just because they test my faith in the supernatural and mess with my theology. They also force me to examine my own weaknesses, sins and shortsightedness.

I have seen churches use modern technology, management techniques, and creative programming, and they can produce positive results. They can also offer security and predictability. They allow the programmers a certain amount of control over the outcomes.

Is this what spirit-filled ministry is supposed to do? The Holy Spirit, as Jesus told Nicodemus, is like the wind – although we know it’s there, we don’t know where it is going (John 3:8). In other words, when and where the Holy Spirit moves is neither predictable nor controllable.   

There are no prepackaged programs that allow churches to set aside our seeking the direction and power of the Holy Spirit. We should take very seriously the implication of the book of Acts: ministry should not be attempted without the Holy Spirit.

Consider the inspired words of a Eastern Orthodox bishop:

Without the Holy Spirit…

God is far away, Christ stays in the past, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is an organization,  mission a matter of propaganda, Christian living a slave morality.

With the Holy Spirit…

The risen Christ is here, the Gospel is the power of life, the Church shows forth the life of the Trinity, mission is a Pentecost and human action is deified.

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Is Splitting Up All Bad?

They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord (Acts 15:39-40).

We need partners in ministry: The Great Commission is not a solo mission. Churches, not individuals, are God’s primary instrument for transforming the world. We need brothers and sisters in Christ, but what happens when irreconcilable conflicts occur?

In Acts 15:36, 3 years after the 1st missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas agreed to return to the mission field. They could not agree on whom to take with them. Barnabas wanted to bring John Mark but Paul wanted to leave him behind because he had abandoned them on a previous journey.

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Paul and Barnabas Split, Jacob Jordaens

Who was right? Barnabas seems to focus on giving a high potential leader a second chance. Paul’s seems to focus on the demands of the mission. Luke, the author of Acts, doesn’t take sides. He simply reports a sharp disagreement between friends, and the sad dissolution of a 15 year old ministry partnership.

Was it all bad that Paul saw wisdom in one strategy while Barnabas saw wisdom in another, so that two mission agencies were formed? Even today there are agencies with different standards, strategies and beliefs. Some agencies are like Paul’s, and have stringent standards for their candidates because of the rigorous demands of the journey. Some are like Barnabas’s, and are looking for anyone who wants a chance to go. Neither of these are necessarily bad, but different beliefs have given birth to new missional opportunities.  Is this all bad?

Christian ministry in local churches, denominations and missional agencies includes having these types of disagreements. The Bible is interpreted and applied differently to different kinds of situations. Sometimes members of a denomination or local church do not share a philosophy of ministry. Sometimes agreement doesn’t seem possible on this side of eternity.

Rancor, bitterness and resentment in churches, denominations and missional agencies are always bad. What if Paul and Barnabas had continued to fight and eventually postponed the second missionary journey? What if they stuck it out, and lived in constant tension on the mission field?

Let’s not quickly assume that different missional strategies and disagreements over biblical interpretation are all bad. Paul and Barnabas’ ministries continued and multiplied. They maintained friendship and Paul continued to affirm Barnabas’ ministry (1 Cor.9:6; Col.4:10). Even Paul and Mark were later reconciled (2 Tim.4:11). Most importantly, the mission of God continued and expanded.

Church and denominational splits are painful, messy and complicated. Discontinuing ministry with another person hurts, but parting with a blessing means that healthy ministry can continue and even expand. Relationships are strained for a season, but they do not have to end. Staying together and fighting produces pain and power struggles, but very few disciples.

 

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Is the Traditional Plan Biblical?

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).

By now the UMC’s Special General Conference decision to strengthen our church law regarding homosexuality is old news. Our official position still states that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Proponents of “The Traditional Plan” insist that the real issue is not homosexuality, but biblical interpretation.

As a pastor, I am reluctant to take a public stance on divisive issues. I worry that it will create controversy. People might distance themselves from a pastor whom they consider to be on the wrong side of the debate. A pastor’s opinion can inflict pain on parishioners.

My views regarding homosexuality involve so much more than collecting data and deciding if I am ‘for” or “against” it. I have inward struggles, personal anxieties and unresolved questions. I am not trying to please anyone here. In fact, I realize this blog post may not please anyone at all.

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The ‘Outcast’ Samaritan, Alonso Cano

We prefer a straight yes or no when it comes to controversial issues. We feel more comfortable with absolutes than with uncertainty. So, rather than have you wait until the end of this article, I”ll share my conclusion first:

I did not want the Tradition Plan to pass. It has inflicted pain on countless United Methodists. To me it is  inconsistent and unfair. The issue of homosexuality is not as black and white as proponents make it seem. If I disapprove of homosexuality based on Scripture, I need to be consistent and take all Scripture just as seriously. I am not afraid to reread Scripture and rethink any of my beliefs, including my beliefs about homosexuality.

Now here’s the struggle behind the viewpoint:

Am I ignoring God’s Word? I came to faith in a Baptist church, which taught that the Bible is the Word of God. Believing something contrary to Holy Scripture is to ignore God. Though my beliefs have changed since I was a Baptist, this is still my conviction.

There are 6 passages in the Bible (Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10) that say same sex relationships are sins. The Leviticus passages describe same sex relationships as an abomination. Romans 1:18-32 says homosexuality is not what God intended. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says that those who practice homosexuality will not inherit the kingdom of God. 1 Timothy 1:9-10 says it contradicts “sound doctrine” and the gospel.

The Bible is precious to me. Through Scripture I encounter a healing, risen savior. The Bible is God’s Word to me, so how can I ignore these passages?

Am I taking the whole Bible seriously, or just parts of it? There are many passages that I have not taken seriously.  I eat shrimp (Lev. 11:10) and wear mixed fabric (Lev. 11:19). In fact, there are many Levitical laws I do not observe. I don’t want homosexuals and adulterers to be executed, even though the Bible commands it (Lev. 20:10, 20:13). 1 Corinthians commands women to wear head coverings and to remain silent (11:2-16). I  don’t ask my female parishioners to do this. Women cannot wear jewelry, lead or teach men (1 Tim.2:8-12), and yet the UMC ordains women and I encourage women to lead ministry teams at HUMC.

These are just a few examples. The Bible is God’s Word, so I need to understand and accept all of it – including the parts that confuse me and trouble me.

Do Biblical interpretations ever result in pain?

Women’s rights have been suppressed and children have suffered. Polygamy was assumed in the Old Testament, and Paul teaches that women must quietly submit to their husbands (1 Cor. 11:3, 14:34-36).

The Bible did not outlaw slavery, but regulated it (Ex. 21:2-6, 20-21; Leviticus 25:44-46).  It’s true that the Mosaic Law regulated slavery in such a way that it was immensely more humane than the practice of surrounding nations, but I consider all forms of slavery to be a horrible sin.

I was divorced 18 years ago, and my church leaders forbid me from remarrying and entering ordained ministry, despite my deep desire to do both. Jesus said divorce and remarriage were unacceptable. (Mark 10:2-12). Paul said that pastors must be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6).

Deuteronomy 22:28-29 requires a woman to live with her rapist. I can’t imagine the suffering when this law was implemented. Why not execute the rapist?

People have suffered because of a wrong understanding of Scripture. The Church has acknowledged this many times in history.

Who are my homosexual neighbors? Something that sounds fine in principle may not be so simple in practice.  Beliefs might seem right in my head, but they are challenged when I meet real people in the real world. As a pastor I’ve developed relationships with gay persons and couples. Their experiences are very different from mine. Their world views can be very different than mine. But we share a world and a church, and I want to understand them as deeply as possible. In certain ways, my homosexual neighbor is not so different:

They have God-given spiritual gifts. So do I. They want to compassionately serve the church and the world. So do I. They have been hurt by a local church and/or denomination. So have I. They struggle with sin. Like me.

Where have my struggles taken me?

The words of Jesus in Matthew 7:16 are stuck in my head: “You will know them by their fruits.” If my use of Scripture ever causes more pain than fruit, such as demonstrated by the recent General Conference decision, then I need to reread (not rewrite) the Scriptures.  All of them. Including the 6 passages about homosexuality. I want to reread them alongside those about Jesus’ immeasurable love for all who have ever been pushed to the margins (e.g. Mark 1:30-45; John 4:4-42; Romans 8:37-39).

I must listen to different perspectives. I can’t be satisfied with any conclusion that is based on the premise “I’ve always believed that….”

I must be sensitive to all human suffering. This is hard when my theological beliefs (or that of my denomination) are the cause of it.

In the end, I must love and accept those who arrive at different conclusions.

In the aftermath of GC2019, United Methodist bishops, lay and clergy leaders have flooded the airways with messages of unity in the midst of diversity. Let’s not hear these as we would the overhear announcements at the airport. Let messages like this be in our hearts and minds during these tumultuous times:

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:14–16, NIV).

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Is Prayer the Key to Unity?

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. (Acts 2:1)

As we get closer to the Special Session of the UMC is this weekend, churches, annual conferences and other United Methodist groups are calling for prayer. They are printing prayer guides and organizing prayer vigils.  Millions of United Methodists will pray for unity this weekend, even as delegates debate over human sexuality.

Sometimes a body of Christians pray and they find unity and agreement. Sometimes a body of Christians pray, and they come to contradictory conclusions and fight.

The New Testament provides a somber reality for churches and denominations seeking unity.  Things start out well enough in Acts, with “All the believers were together and had everything in common” (2:44)

The same is said in Acts 4:32: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.But the author of Acts also recognizes that it wasn’t always like this.

A few verses later there is the unedifying story of a couple (5:1-11), who die after withholding from this unified community that shared everything.

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The Death of Ananias, Raphael

There is an alarming account of racial and religious discrimination in the seemingly harmonious community at Acts 6:1-6.

As a result of corporate worship, the Holy Spirit sets apart Paul and Barnabas to be co-missionaries. prayer (13:2). After their 1st mission trip, they have a huge fight and split up (15:39)

Paul and Peter, the 2 pillars of the Church, had a fierce argument in public (Galatians 2:11-21

Paul writes letters to the Corinthian and Philippian churches because they couldn’t stop arguing with one another.

And this was before the days of denominational and theological labels. Church unity is a tricky thing to handle, so this should always be at the top of our prayer list.

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