Obeying God’s Commands as the Body of Christ

This part of the Bible wasn’t written for me.

I’m not an older woman, so why should I pay attention to Titus 2:3–5? I’m not a preacher, so what relevance does 2 Timothy 4:1–5 have for me? It almost feels like opening my neighbor’s mail.

The Effect of Individualism

We have a great temptation toward this thinking in the United States, as we breathe the air of individualism from an early age. Our sinful hearts hardly need any help, but our culture insists at every turn: be true to yourself, take care of yourself, believe in yourself. It isn’t long before our lungs are full of that toxic cloud and we lack the oxygen to think about others.

But God has called Christians to a different reality. We are the body of Christ, a people vitally connected to each other and to Jesus.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12–13)

The books of the Bible were composed for all the people of God. Even when a letter was written to a church or an individual, the intention was public reading and instruction for the whole church.

So when we say that a part of the Bible wasn’t written for us, we’re actually wrong. If the Bible applies to anyone in the body, it has implications for all of us. We must not check out.

We Need Help From Others

Christians readily acknowledge that we need God’s help to obey his commands. (Though we always do well to remember!) It’s easier to forget how much help we need from other saints.

We need others praying for us, encouraging us, and giving us counsel. We need to talk with older saints who have stood in our shoes. We need the bold, clear-eyed enthusiasm of younger Christians to strengthen our wills to do what is right.

Finally, we also need correction from Christian friends when we sin. A gentle, loving rebuke is not often what we want, but we should seek and embrace this discipline. (See Proverbs 12:1.)

We must also view this truth—that we need others—from the other side. Others need us too. The experiences and wisdom God has given us are not just for our benefit; they’re also for the church.

An Example: Husbands

Let’s look at an example from 1 Peter. This command for husbands is found in 1 Peter 3:7.

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

Husbands need the prayers of the saints to obey this command. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, husbands will not love and sacrifice in the ways God requires.

Husbands should also talk to married men and women of all ages and experiences. Though understanding and honoring one’s wife will look different from one marriage to the next, husbands can learn of helpful habits to develop and dangerous pitfalls to avoid through the counsel and stories of others.

Each husband needs a few close friends who will ask him difficult questions. Are you honoring your wife? How are you living with her in an understanding way? Good friends will remember a prayer request or a confession of weakness and ask specific follow-up questions the next week. These friends will offer encouragement when they see fruit. A husband may also need a loving rebuke when neglect or selfishness continues without repentance.

And, of course, husbands need to listen to their wives. A wife will know if her husband is working to understand her and live with her accordingly. She will feel the presence or lack of honor.

None of this help is easy or natural to give, and none of it is possible without the work of the Spirit within us.

Called to Obey as a Body

The key to this obedience in community is love. It takes seeing and experiencing God’s love to lift our eyes off ourselves and recognize our corporate calling.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15–16)

God didn’t call us just to each other, he called us to himself. Through the atoning work of Jesus, God has forgiven his people and the Spirit is working to change us. Though withdrawal may be our default mode—wanting neither help from others nor to give aid ourselves—we are no longer slaves to this sin.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:24–25)

The wounds of Jesus have set us free and given us a new identity. We’ve been healed of our sin so that we might live to righteousness.

By God’s power, let’s do just that. Together.

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Ask Questions to Expose Idols

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What is an idol? I’ve addressed this at greater length elsewhere, but here’s a quick definition. An idol is anything we worship that is not the true God.

This definition of an idol includes the statues and poles shaped from wood and metal that we read of in the Old Testament. But it also includes more common things—even good things—we see and enjoy around us every day.

Family. Church. Reputation. Lack of conflict. Influence. Wealth. Knowledge. Success.

Because our hearts are expert in twisting and fashioning idols from good, God-given parts of our lives, identifying idols is a difficult task. In fact, it’s a task we cannot do on our own.

Idols Kill Relationships

Andy Crouch’s book Strong and Weak has some excellent advice for Christians who long to kill their idols.

The first things any idol takes from its worshipers are their relationships. Idols know and care nothing for the exchange of authority and vulnerability that happens in the context of love—and the demonic powers that lurk behind them, and lure us to them, despise love. So the best early warning sign […] is that your closest relationships begin to decay. It is those relationships, after all, that could grant you the greatest real capacity for meaningful action. But they also demand of you the greatest personal risk. — Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak, pp. 106–107

The more we give ourselves to an idol, with its false promise of success or peace or power or happiness, the more our closest relationships wither.

Exposing Idols

Relationships may be a casualty of idolatry, but they also offer a strong defense against the same. The strategy is as simple to state as it is difficult to implement.

Ask your friends, consistently, about their closest relationships.

By asking your friend about her relationships with her sister, her mother, her best friend at work, or her husband, you may help her identify some idol currently gaining a foothold in the dark.

Part of the beauty of the church of God is that we’re not alone in the battle against sin. Indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we have a valuable role to play in our friends’ spiritual lives. Having these conversations can be uncomfortable and awkward—they involve real risk!—but these interactions are a tangible way for us to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess 5:11).


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Photo Credit: Christian Battaglia (2015), public domain

Ordinary Ingredients of Christian Growth

Fad diets exist because healthy diets are boring. We don’t like to hear about vegetables and exercise; we’d rather lose ten pounds in a week by taking some radical step.

But fad diets don’t work. The most reliable path to a healthier body is the one doctors have been recommending for decades.

Ordinary Means

So it is with our spiritual lives. We think mountaintop experiences will provide the jolt we need to grow closer to God.

But the truth is both more mundane and more wonderful. We don’t need to climb the mountain; God has come down! By his Son and by his Spirit, he dwells with his people. As a consequence, God uses ordinary means to make us grow.

Four Ingredients

My recent Bible reading has shown me four ingredients of Christian growth. (This list isn’t comprehensive.)

The Word

God’s word gives us growth.

Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. (1 Peter 2:1–3, NASB)

We need the Bible like newborn babies need milk: desperately!! Surely you’ve seen a hungry baby. We should long for God’s word with the same urgency. Without the Bible, we simply won’t grow.

Community

God has created a healthy interdependence within the church.

  • God gave the apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11–12). God gives people to equip the saints, and the purpose is the body’s growth.
  • The goal of this building up is “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Paul wants us to aim for “mature manhood” and “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). In the growth of the body, we will find maturity, fullness, and unity. Notice that Paul mentions “knowledge” specifically, so community is not just about emotional support. We are to help each other grow in understanding as well.
  • We are to grow past the adolescent stage, where we are “tossed to and fro by the waves.” Instead, “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:14–15). Much has been written about the phrase speaking the truth in love, but in context it must involve steadying, correcting help that leads to growth. By definition, this cannot be done in isolation.
  • The “whole body” is “joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped.” Every single part of the body is necessary to join and hold it together, and “when each part is working properly,” the body grows and “builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:16). Every part of the body is necessary for the body’s growth, and no part grows without the body.

Repentance

Christians are not to walk as the Gentiles walk. Instead, they have been taught

to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22–24)

This is the process of repentance. Note the three distinct parts: put off, be renewed, put on. We identify and turn away from our sin, we remember our new God-given identity, and we adopt the godly behavior or thought that replaces sin. To help us, Paul lists five examples of this repentance in Eph 4:25–32.

Beholding the Lord

There is a glory present in the new covenant that was veiled in the old. The veil keeping people from God is removed for those who turn to Christ.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17–18)

As we behold the glory of the Lord, we are transformed from glory to glory. Though “beholding” sounds mysterious, it must include a few actions.

We cannot behold the Lord without delighting in the Bible, the unique place where we hear of Christ’s glorious work. We meditate on God’s glory—thinking about his character and work, thanking him for his love and grace, anticipating the excellencies of his presence. The word leads to our meditation which leads to prayer.

Powerful Means of Growth

It may not be flashy, but God faithfully causes growth from the most ordinary of means: regular Bible intake, membership in a local church, repentance of sin, and beholding the glory of the Lord in meditation and prayer.

God takes weak and ordinary people and uses them in extraordinary ways. He does the same with the ordinary ingredients of Christian growth. They may not be radical, but they are powerful.


Photo Credit: Rohit Tandon (2016), public domain

My View from the Worship Team

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I’m on the worship team at church, so when it’s time to sing, I’m looking out at the congregation. I see it all—the joy, the struggles, and the boredom. I’m reminded how Jesus welcomes all of us, that his body is made up of all sorts of different people.

To the passionate, early 40s woman—It lifts my heart to see you worship God. You close your eyes, lift your hands, and focus on every word. Not all of us are so demonstrative with our bodies in worship, but your love for God can’t come out any other way. I see the joy in your face and I see the children around you—they’re watching. You’re giving them a picture of devotion to our Savior. I’m so glad you’re part of our family.

To the young father near the front—I love to see you teach your son to sing. You crouch down and point to the words on the screen, helping him to follow along now that he is starting to read. The church needs men who sing, and it’s great that you’re training him in these early years. You’re helping build up the body of Christ; I’m glad you’re part of our family.

To the silent man in the back pew—you sit as far away from the preacher as possible. You stand during the songs, but you don’t sing. You don’t look bored as much as you look angry. You sit by yourself, though you act like someone is forcing you to attend. I hope you find our church is a safe place to doubt, to ask questions, or to simply show up as you are. I don’t know you well, but I’m glad you keep coming back.

To the two older ladies in the back—you are a treasure! You have trouble standing during the praise songs, and you might not be able to see the screen. I know we don’t always make our services easy for you, but I love seeing you here. You are models of faithfulness, wisdom, and grace, quick with a hug or an encouraging word for anyone that needs either. You point me to our Savior with your steady trust in him. I want to be like you as I grow older; I’m glad you’re part of our family.

Our church isn’t perfect. We’ve got a lot of learning and loving and growing to do. But as God gathers his imperfect people around his perfect Son, I’m glad to be a part of this family.


This post is an imaginative essay. I don’t sing on the worship team, and none of the people in the essay are specific individuals in my church. These characters are amalgams of people I have seen and known (and imagined) over time.


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Photo Credit: John Price (2015), public domain

My View From the Back Pew

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I sit in the back pew on Sunday mornings. Some people sit in the back to hide, to slip out the door while the last hymn is ending. Not me. I sit there because I love seeing so many of God’s people as I worship. It’s my weekly picture of heaven.

Every week, I see more sorrow than joy. I see struggles and frustrations, snapshots of pain—spiritual as much as physical.

I’d love to talk to these people on their way out of church. If I could, I’d pull them aside and emphasize this: God is full of grace.

To the mother with the unruly child—I see how much you want your son to sit in worship with you. This morning, he was noisy and distracting, and when you took him to the nursery you looked ashamed and defeated. You’re exhausted, and I’m guessing you think you’re a terrible mother. Please know this: God is full of grace.

To the disheveled man in your mid-thirties—I’m so glad you’re here. You smell like smoke and you’re a bit awkward in conversation, so most people don’t talk to you. You sit by yourself and don’t have a dime for the offering. It looks difficult for you to sing or pray or maybe even believe you should be in this building. But it’s good for you to be here. I wish we all knew our need for Jesus as you do. Continue to seek the Lord; he is full of grace.

To the parents of the absent teenage daughter—you’ve had a terrible time these last few months. Your daughter turned 18, moved in with her boyfriend, and turned away from church. I know you feel powerless and devastated. And now the empty seat next to you is a painful reminder. Please remember: God is full of grace.

To the teenage boy—I know you don’t want to be here. Your parents bring you against your wishes, and you probably can’t wait to be on your own. You used to love this place; I wonder what happened. You don’t sing or even lift your eyes from the floor. Maybe you think Jesus is irrelevant or just a nuisance. I’m praying you realize God is full of grace.

To the early-forties father in the front—You have a beautiful family, and you know it. You soak in the compliments about your children. You’re well-dressed, put together, and respectable. You’ve gone to this church your whole life, and your parents are pillars of the congregation. But while you seem pleasant on the outside, I wonder about your heart. I’ve seen the fear in your young son’s eyes when you correct him. I wonder how much obedience and performance and appearance dominate your thoughts. I wonder if you know that your need for Jesus is the same as mine. I hope you rest in our God who is full of grace.

I’m grateful for everyone in my church. We’re part of the same body. Don’t be scared of your flaws, doubts, and failures. We all have them in abundance. This is why Jesus is so precious.

We all depend on God’s grace. Let’s remind each other how gracious he is.


This post is an imaginative essay. I don’t sit in the back pew myself, and none of the people in the essay are specific individuals in my church. These characters are amalgams of people I have seen and known (and imagined) over time.


Photo Credit: Michael Gaida, public domain

You Are Not the Bride of Christ

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You won’t find the phrase “bride of Christ” in your Bible. Just like the Trinity, this concept appears in Scripture without the wording we now use.

Though the biblical authors use this image to refer to the collective people of God, many today misapply it to individuals. This error has far-reaching and unexpected consequences.

The Old Testament

Let’s begin with the Bible. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was the people of God by virtue of God’s gracious covenant. In Isaiah 54 (and elsewhere), God used the language of marriage to describe his relationship with his people as a whole.

“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the Lord has called you
like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
For a brief moment I deserted you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing anger for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:4–8)

The Israelites understood marriage, so God employed this language to explain his covenant. The prophets regularly used this image to point out Israel’s many idolatries. So we read of the people “whoring” after other gods and abandoning their faithful husband. (See Ezekiel 16 for a detailed and graphic example.)

The New Testament

With the coming of Jesus, the people of God are no longer confined to one nation. Now those who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior make up God’s community, the church.

The theme of the church as the bride of Christ comes from three New Testament passages. The famous passage about marriage in Ephesians 5:22–33 compares husbands to Christ and wives to the church. Paul tells the church in Corinth that he bethrothed them to one husband, Christ (2 Cor 11:2). Finally, the picture John develops in Revelation 21 shows the New Jerusalem as the bride of the Lamb (see verses 2 and 9–10).

Whether Old Testament or New, these references are all collective, not individual.

The Importance of Getting it Right

Teaching that individuals are the bride(s) of Christ is not just an innocent mistake. It can have serious consequences for our worship, our outreach, and our own sanctification. I see at least four reasons why it’s important to cling tightly to what the Bible says about this image.

1. Biblical accuracy is important.

When the Bible speaks about something, even by way of images, illustrations, and metaphors, we must interpret accurately.

2. We use this language in worship.

When we worship God corporately, we naturally use language that captures our relationship with him. This is true in prayer, preaching, and singing.

The church has been infected with Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs for many years now, and I wonder if a misunderstanding of this biblical image is to blame. When we urge our congregations to sing about being in love with God (instead of loving God), we evoke a romantic image that echoes the brides-of-Christ mistake. I see these solitary, romantic notions nowhere in the Bible.

3. We risk emasculating men.

Some men already feel the church is too feminine. When we ask men—especially men new to (or outside) the faith who don’t yet know our strangeness—to profess being in love with Jesus, they may not come back. Since this brushes against the hot-button topic of homosexuality, we need to be clear about the sort of love men should have for Jesus.

4. We risk sending the wrong message to women.

Some of the single women in our churches long to be married. Trying to encourage them by teaching that they are “married to Christ” now is not helpful. It’s dismissive in addition to being unbiblical.

I suspect the Catholic church’s teaching about nuns has crept into the larger church culture on this point. The Catholic church’s catechism (scroll down to paragraph 923) teaches that nuns are “betrothed mystically to Christ” and that they are “an eschatological image of this heavenly Bride of Christ.”

This is nowhere in the Bible. We need to care for the single women in our churches with biblical comfort and love.

A Beautiful Image

The image in Scripture is clear: God is preparing and purifying his people for a great gathering at the end of time. The victorious Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, will meet his bride, the church, and there will be a great feast of celebration.

Let’s not dilute or distract from this great biblical image. You are not the bride of Christ; we are.


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Photo Credit: Andreas (2008), public domain

How to Fall Through the Cracks at Church

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Many churches are looking to welcome visitors and help them get connected. They want an active congregation, involved in both the work of the church and in the lives of others.

But let’s be honest. That’s a real drag.

Between work and family, you have plenty of people making demands on you. You want the church to be there for you on Sunday and in the event of a crisis. Otherwise, you don’t want to be bothered.

It’s easy to find advice on connecting with a church. It’s harder to locate help resisting this type of connection. I’m here to serve.

The Most Important Principle

Let’s put the best advice on the table: keep to yourself. As much as possible, dodge every opportunity for a deep conversation or friendship.

This is more difficult that it sounds. Avoiding others is easy in an office setting, but most churches are full of people who want to nose their way into your life.

You’ll need to walk a thin line. While you don’t want extra people around, you need to convince the church you’re on the inside. The last thing you want is someone to “evangelize” you. That’s the worst.

Practical Matters

To keep those church folks at arm’s length, consider these practical matters.

Choose your seat carefully. — You might be tempted to sit in the last row, but this is a rookie mistake. Seasoned church-goers know this is where avoiders lurk, and they’ll pounce. Instead, aim for 2/3 of the way back in the sanctuary. Here you’ll sidestep the over-eager, way-too-nice families in the front half of the room, but you’ll escape the target that comes with the last row. Grab an aisle seat for a quick exit.

Greet the pastor. — That preacher dude is fast. You’ll never beat him to the exit, so resign yourself to a handshake. Compliment his sermon. Most pastors obsess about their preaching, so this flattery gives you cover to slip out the door.

Act busy. — Nosy Christians will shift into gear when you attend the same church a few weeks in a row. Be prepared: they’re going to start inviting you. To what? To everything. Extra services, prayer meetings, Sunday school, small groups, Bible studies, fellowship meals, you name it. It’s exhausting. The key here is to act busy. Feign interest in the group or class or project they’re promoting, and decline with an apology. After all, you have work/kids’ activities/family time, right?

Attend irregularly. — Don’t attend every week. Make it a point to miss at least one Sunday each month.

Hide. — Not literally, but practically. Wait as long as possible to fill out a contact card, because then they have you. With your phone number, address, or email, they can visit or get in touch with you. Ick. Be polite but withdrawn. Make sure you’re slow to return calls, texts, or emails. With apologies, of course.

Keep conversation fluffy. — Sooner or later, you’ll get trapped in a conversation. Try to steer discussion toward work, weather, or sports. If that doesn’t last, lean on Christian clichés: Mention how much God has blessed you, but focus only on health and safety. Complain about how little regard our culture has for Christianity. Give off an aura of thoughtfulness, but don’t get specific—that might open the door to a follow-up question next week.

Bad News Ahead

Now, for the bad news. You’ve got difficult work ahead of you. In fact, the only foolproof way to slip through the cracks at a good church is to stop attending.

See, those church people aren’t just reaching out because they want a bigger club. They actually love you and want good things for you. They know that connecting with Christians can have a profound spiritual impact on your life.

Brace yourself.


Photo Credit: Nathan, Creative Commons License

Praying for Five

At the end of December, many people focus on goals and resolutions for the next twelve months. For a moment, let’s move beyond personal ambitions.

What are your hopes for your church in the new year?

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Instead of fixating on a single number (attendance, offering, VBS involvement), think of the health of your church. What areas of weakness or sickness could be prayed for and addressed in 2016?

My Church

I don’t intend this post to be prescriptive, so let me tell you one of the ways I’m praying for my church in 2016. (Other small, Reformed churches may find this diagnosis familiar.)

Washington Presbyterian Church is a small church in southwest Pennsylvania that has seen exciting growth over the last three years. Our Sunday morning congregation and church membership have both swelled a bit as committed Christians have joined us. Some of these believers are new to the area, some are just new to our body. These are awesome folks and God has blessed our church through them.

Though our numbers are up, we haven’t seen much growth in the realm of conversion—unbelievers confessing Jesus as Lord for the first time. So, while my church has lots of room for growth, I plan to pray repeatedly about this weakness through the next year.

Lord, Give Us Five!

I’m praying that—as a result of my church’s witness to and proclamation in our community—God would bring at least five people out of darkness into light. That he would transfer them from the kingdom of the devil into the kingdom of the son that he loves. That he would give spiritual sight to at least five people who are blind. That, where there is hopelessness, at least five people would find hope and eternal life. That at least five would know forgiveness where they currently know only guilt. That they would know God as a loving, merciful father and not as a scolding judge. That at least five people would speak the name of Jesus with reverence, joy, and gladness.

Why five? Attaching a number to this request makes my prayer more specific and tangible. The number itself is arbitrary—some may think this number is far too big or far too small. For my church, five conversions would be more than we’ve seen in a while. If it happens, it will be clear both that we needed God and that God moved. This didn’t just come about as a result of our normal ministries, interactions, or personalities.

How will I react to success or failure? I plan to pray regularly, earnestly, and publicly about this. If God grants this request, I plan to be quick to glorify him. If 2016 ends with fewer than five conversions, it won’t be a failure. Though God wouldn’t have granted this request, it won’t alter the substance of my prayers. Conversions, the spread of the gospel, the proclamation of Jesus as Lord—this is always a central mission of the church.

What do you dream for your church in the next year? How will you pray and act to bring it about?


Photo Credit: John Phelan, Creative Commons License