Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Where Wages are Due

If you are reading this article, there is a good chance you are either not part of an institutional church or are considering leaving the one you currently attend. The closer we get to truth, the farther we get from organized religion. It goes without saying that many things change when we leave the religious system; but while the majority of those changes are for the better, some have the potential to be the opposite.

This article will focus on one of the habits common to organized religion that believers often neglect after leaving their "churches." That habit is the practice of paying teachers. It's no surprise that after engaging in the unscriptural practice of tithing for years, paying a high salary to a pastor who's taught lies, and having little to no say in where their money goes, people are not thrilled with the idea of giving any of their money to faith related pursuits. The notion of paying individual men is especially off-putting as men often have a tendency to be wasteful or unwise with the money they are given. While these concerns are certainly understandable, they do not absolve us from financially supporting those who are worthy of their calling, teaching truth in full commitment to the evangel.

In 1 Timothy 5:17-18, Paul writes, "Let elders who have presided ideally be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who are toiling in word and teaching, for the scripture is saying: 'A threshing ox you shall not be muzzling,' and 'Worthy is the worker of his wages.'"

Paul gives special emphasis in this passage to paying (and honoring) those who teach. Fortunately, many of the expenses that eat up money in institutional churches (massive building loans, utilities, insurance premiums, fancy sound and lighting equipment, etc.) are non-existent to us when we leave; but teaching is still every bit as prevalent and necessary. When Paul wrote to Timothy, the church members throughout the various regions managed their funds very differently (and much more responsibly) than the churchgoers of today. They met in homes instead of expensive buildings and provided for others' needs instead of securing fancy material possessions. They focused on growing in faith above growing in number. In short, their methods enabled them to spend their money on the priorities that really matter, and Paul made it a point to stress the payment of teachers as one of those priorities.

So we know that paying the teachers God has blessed us with is still important when we are no longer part of an institutional church.  Just how important is it, though? Should faithful laborers be paid a small amount for their work, or should they be paid more? Should they make enough money to be able to make their living entirely from teaching, or should they make only enough to help supplement another income?

Fortunately, Paul gives us the answer to this question as well. In 1 Corinthians 9:14, he says, "The Lord has commanded that those who preach the evangel should receive their living from the evangel." It doesn't get much clearer than that. Teachers should earn enough from those they teach to make a living. Why? Because this allows them to dedicate themselves fully to their teaching, thus leading more people into a greater knowledge and deeper understanding of God.

Of course, God has placed us all in different financial situations and we all make different amounts of money. One person may be able to comfortably contribute $100 a month, while another may be able to give only $10. Paul does not advise us on a set amount to give, and teachers are paid by members of the Body collectively rather than by one person alone. The expectation, then, is not for anyone to give beyond his or her means, but to provide as much as they are able to support those who herald the evangel for their benefit. When everyone contributes some, the total contribution should be sufficient for the recipient.

Paul addresses varying capacities for giving in 2 Corinthians 8:13-15. He writes, "For it is not, that, to others ease, yet to you affliction, but by an equality, in the current occasion, your superabundance is for their want, that their superabundance also may be coming to be for your want, so that there may be coming to be an equality, according as it is written: the one with much increases not, and the one with few lessons not."

In other words, the structure for giving produces an equality of care within the body of Christ. Paul is saying that we should not give so much to someone else that we can no longer meet our own needs, but that the goal is for those who don't need more to ensure that those who do need more are taken care of. He points out that while we may be helping others less fortunate for the time being, it may be them helping us later if we fall on hard times. The question, then, is: How much can we give to those in need (such as teachers) without placing ourselves in need?

When asking this question, it's important that we distinguish between what we need and what we want. With every expense, we should determine if what we are spending money on is justified. To that end, what expense could be more justified than aiding the proclamation of the evangel? When placed against other costs, the evangel clearly wins. It is more important than a new television, a new pair of shoes, eating out, vacations, an xbox, movies, jewelry, and a new computer or tablet (to name a few). This true, we should prioritize paying teachers above paying for these things. If we refuse to sacrifice other expenses to fund the heralding of the evangel, it is the evangel we are sacrificing.

Payment does not always have to be in the form of cash, either (although cash typically provides the most immediate help). If a teacher has written books, produced audio recordings, or done something else in a tangible form, purchasing the material for personal use or for distribution to others is a great way to support the teacher's ministry and to further the message. After all, teachers don't produce useable material for it to not be used.

If you saw my recent announcement for my new book, Making the Most of the Bible: Lessons on Understanding God's Word, you will remember my statement that I do not keep the money from my books for personal use. I make my living in another profession and am not currently engaged in ministry on a full-time basis. In other words, this article is not an encouragement to pay me. It is, however, a charge to pay the men who are currently engaged in heralding the evangel on a full-time basis - men like Martin Zender and Clyde Pilkington, for example. These teachers, and others like them, make their living proclaiming the evangel and are in great need of our continued support (and well deserving of it). Please DO buy Making the Most of the Bible, however, for yourself or for anyone else you know may benefit from reading it.

If you currently donate money to certain teachers, rest assured that you are fulfilling a vital role in promoting the evangel. If you are able to give more than you currently are, make it a priority even if it means sacrificing other luxuries or non-essentials. When you are faced with the decision to spend money on an unnecessary luxury or a faithful teacher, be sure to put the teacher first. If you benefit from the teaching of several people, be sure to give to all of them as they all need financial support to continue their ministries on a full-time basis. Consider committing to a number to donate each month and make it part of your budget, if need be, just as you would any other expense. It is, after all, worthy of being deemed a "need," not merely a "want."

Let's all follow Paul's advice by paying our workmen their due wages so they can continue their important work. The reward for ourselves and others is worth far more than the cost.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Food for Thought

There is an old adage which says, "Fellowship begins with 'F' and ends with 'O-O-D.'" When we meet with family and friends during the holidays, food is a common denominator. We gather around the table to break bread together, and something special takes place. In that moment, there is no place on earth we would rather be.

No one would deny the importance of food for physical well-being, but how often do we neglect to recognize the significance of food in terms of our spiritual well-being? A close examination of food in the Scriptures reveals that God has given us food not only for our bodily nourishment, but for our spiritual nourishment as well.

Food itself is not spiritual, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 8:8, but the act of sharing meals does play a role in spiritual growth - especially fellowship. Meals are noted for spiritual significance from the very beginning of the Bible. The Garden of Eden is depicted as a paradise not only because of its beauty, but also because of its endless food supply. God's one rule for man pertained to food, and man's failure to obey that rule had physical and spiritual consequences. Esau gave up his birthright in exchange for one meal, which also led to spiritual consequences as his brother, Jacob, became a Patriarch in his place. Joseph's power in Egypt revolved around his authority to control the food supply, which led to an encounter of spiritual significance with his wicked brothers. In each case, the significance of food proved to go far beyond the physical element alone. 

In dealing with the Hebrews, God continually emphasized food in connection with His providence and promises. He instituted the Passover meal to mark their deliverance from bondage and fed them manna in the desert on their way to a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. The law He gave them detailed which foods they could and could not eat as well as dietary restrictions during certain periods. Fasting - the act of abstaining from food - was often practiced by faithful men for spiritual enlightenment. In the Psalms, David praised God for preparing a feast in the presence of his enemies.

While on earth, Jesus constantly emphasized the spiritual impact of food. His first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana. He later fed the multitude of 5,000 with another food-related miracle. In the parable of the prodigal son, He cited a feast with a fatted calf as the celebratory event upon the son's return home. In several other parables, He used food images such as seeds, sowing, working in fields, attending banquets, and storing grain to communicate a spiritual message. At the end of His earthly life, He shared a meal with His disciples in which He used bread and wine as symbols for His own body and blood, and He broke bread with those He encountered immediately after His resurrection.

In nearly every case, the spiritual significance of food is directly linked to fellowship. Partaking in meals together promotes unity, friendship, and celebration. Following Pentecost, the faithful were "continuing stedfastly in the teaching of the apostles, and the fellowship, and the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Acts 2:42)." Eating together was one of four foundational practices they engaged in on a regular basis for spiritual growth. Is it any wonder God has planned the marriage supper of the Lamb as a grand future event?

Understanding the spiritual relevance of food and its relation to fellowship directly impacts our daily lives. God has given us food not only as a means of sustenance, but as a tool to strengthen unity and friendship. There is no better place to gather than around a table for a shared meal. Whenever possible, families should eat together. As often as friends are able, they should share meals. We should take advantage of our Father's wonderful gift of food for its physical and spiritual benefits as we fellowship with one another in unity and love.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Thursday, November 22, 2012

What's in a Name?

At the end of his gripping performance in the film adaptation of Arthur Miller's famous play The Crucible, actor Daniel Day-Lewis reminds us of the significance of one's name. Playing the character John Proctor - an historical figure accused of witchcraft during the infamous Salem Witch Trials - he refuses to sign his name to a false confession. The clergy, frustrated that Proctor would be willing to speak a confession but not sign his name to it, demand his signature and question his unwillingness to sign. In response, he screams, "Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life... How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"

If you have seen The Crucible, you will recall how intensely dramatic this scene is. If you haven't, I recommend you watch it. No doubt, many who see the film or play do not understand John Proctor's concern for his name. They would likely reason that it is the man himself, not his name, which defines him. 

In reality, we all take names for granted. We view them more as mere titles for identification than embodiments of important meaning. When people name their children, they often scour baby name books in search of names that are cute or "sound good" rather than names which possess significant meaning. Others choose names based on how popular they are in the hopes that their children will be accepted as "normal." It's no surprise that the same male and female names rank at the top of the popularity lists every year.

When we search the Scriptures, we discover just how important names really are to God. The Hebrews named their children with careful and thoughtful consideration, often based on future aspirations or something related to the child's birth. When Abraham and Sarah named their son "Isaac," which means "laughter," they did so because Sarah laughed when God said she would conceive in her old age. Likewise, Jacob was given his name, which means "supplanter," because he was holding his brother, Esau's, heel when they were born. Unlike many today, the believers of the past did not spend countless hours deciding on names that may not be appropriate; they named their children with appropriate and significant meaning.

The Bible is full of references to the name of God, and we are instructed to praise His name. Why would God care about us praising His name, though, when a name in itself seems to be nothing more than a title to signify what it represents? The answer: a name is the embodiment of what it represents and signifies one's identity.

We praise the name of Jesus Christ because of what the name represents - the fact that Jesus, the anointed Son of God, saves the world. Mary was instructed to name Him Jesus because the name identified Him as the Messiah. We follow Paul as our apostle and his name, which means "humble" or "small," reminds us (as it did Paul) of our evangel of grace. It humbles us, as it did Paul, to know God saves us when we are completely unworthy.

God is especially concerned with His own name. His ineffable name is Yehovah (Jehovah), meaning "My God," and God adds qualifying titles to His name at times to express His attributes. When He wanted to demonstrate His provision, He referred to Himself as "Jehovah-Jireh" ("My God, the Provider"). When He wanted to express His care, He referred to Himself as "Jehovah-Ropheca" ("My God, the Healer"). When He wanted to prove His might and protective power, He referred to Himself as "Jehovah-Nissi" ("My God, the Conqueror"). In each case, God used His name to convey His identity to His people.

There is perhaps no better proof for the significance of names than the many instances in which God changed His servants' names upon a major transformation in their lives that made them entirely different people. Abram's name meant "high father," and when God changed Abram's life in a radical way by making him the father of many nations for his faith, He gave Abram the new name, Abraham, which means "father of many nations." Abraham was literally given an entirely new identity and, as such, was an entirely new person, as signified by his new name. 

Likewise, Jacob was given a new name after wrestling with an angel. His name Jacob, meaning "supplanter," was appropriately changed to "Israel," meaning "God contended." Jacob's new identity bore incredible significance as not only the name of himself, but that of an entire nation. Centuries later, Jesus changed the name of His disciple Simon (meaning "God has heard") to Peter ("rock") after Peter confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah.

In each instance in which God or Christ changed someone's name, they did so because names are incredibly important as markers of identity. At times, Jesus referred to Peter by his old name, Simon, in order to remind Peter that he was acting more like his former self than the new man whose identity had been rooted in his Savior.

Interestingly, name changes (even legally) are very common today. The majority of the time, women adopt the last name of their husbands when they marry in order to identify themselves with the husband's name and to signify the couple's oneness. Marriage is a sacred covenant, and the tradition of wives adopting their husbands' name is not an accident; it is of God.

God's habit of renaming His servants is not merely a thing of the past. Revelation 2:17 describes the new names that will be given to the faithful in the future when their new identities are fully realized. We would do well to keep this in mind as we attempt to understand the great importance of our names and our new identities in Christ.

I often think of what believers' lives would be like if our names were to be changed after coming to a realization of the evangel. Would we feel like entirely different people if we had different names? Would our actions reflect what our new names would signify? Our identities are connected with our names, and the important thing to remember is that our new identity is in Christ!

At the very least, we should learn to appreciate the importance of names and not take them for granted. Upon studying God's treatment of names in the Bible, we should come to a place of humility in which we praise the Father in thanks for the gift of faith and our wonderful new identity in His Son. We should be thoughtful in our approach to naming things - especially our children - focusing more on significance and meaning than on accepted norms. When we ask the old question "what's in a name?," we discover that the biblical answer is "an awful lot!"

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wisdom, Defined

Robert Frost's famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," is a poem about wisdom. The poem depicts a man who comes to a fork in a road attempting to decide which of the two roads to take. The poem famously ends with: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

When you hear the word "wisdom," what, exactly, comes to mind? Wisdom, like many qualities, is an ambiguous and near unattainable virtue in the minds of most people. Some think of intelligence when contemplating wisdom, while others associate it with old age. Others would define wisdom as good judgment or a commitment to act morally. You have likely known several people you would consider wise, and if you were asked to label the characteristics you deem wise about them, what would they be?

As believers, we are called and empowered to be wise. It is crucial, then, that we properly define and understand what it really means to be wise.

Wisdom is defined as "the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment." Our wisdom, then, is apparent by our judgment, and our judgment is ultimately dependent upon our experience and knowledge. Proverbs 2:6 reiterates this fact by equating wisdom, in part, to knowledge and understanding.

While experience varies greatly from one person to the next, all of us learn from our experiences in the same way. One person may experience financial hardship after amassing debt while another may experience money related trials from living a lifestyle they can barely afford. In both cases, the lesson learned is to prioritize saving above spending and to live below your means. Likewise, one person might have few friends because she treats them badly, while another is lonely because she refuses to get close to anyone out of fear that she will be hurt. Again, in both cases, the realization is the same: it is necessary to maintain healthy relationships.

While our experiences vary, they all serve to teach us the same lessons. None of us can claim that we do not possess the ability to be wise because of our past. 

The other contributing factor, then, is knowledge. Just as we all have different experiences, we all possess different God-given levels of capacity for retaining information. Fortunately, as believers, though, we have God's Word which we can continually reference as the embodiment of all worthwhile knowledge. We are, therefore, without excuse when it comes to our knowledge.  

The Bible figure most known for wisdom is King Solomon. The third chapter of I Kings depicts Solomon's prayer for wisdom and God's response. In his request, Solomon asks specifically for "an understanding heart to judge [God's] people, that [he] may discern between good and bad." God defines Solomon's request more succinctly as "discernment in administering justice."

We see from this passage that wisdom involves discernment - especially between what's right and wrong - and that it leads to justice. We do not rule nations as Solomon did, but our wise choices still have a significant impact on ourselves and others. As a husband and father, I am responsible for leading my family, and that responsibility is similar to Solomon's, albeit on a much smaller scale. My desire for wisdom should be every bit as strong.

Of course, none of us wants to be unwise, but wisdom is a daunting task in a sinful world in which the evangel is deemed foolishness. Believers possess the ability to discern right from wrong, but few could be readily labeled as "wise." Why is this?

One of the primary culprits that prevents us from acting wisely is emotion. We tend to allow our emotions to overpower logic, reason, and truth. Strong emotions like anger, jealously and fear are especially powerful in blocking our better judgment. Jeremiah 17:9 says the heart is "deceitful above all things." Basing our decisions on how we feel is often a recipe for disaster because our feelings are fleeting and tend to cloud the truth. When you have an argument with someone, you may feel like hurting that person or writing him out of your life, but truth and reason demand the opposite. If you act on your feelings the relationship may be ruined, but if you put your feelings aside in light of what's right, the relationship will flourish. It's no surprise that one of the most frequently cited characteristics of wise people is calmness and a demeanor which is slow to anger. One of the first steps toward wisdom is committing to doing what's right, regardless of how you feel.

Another deterrent to wisdom is the lack of foresight. Most people base their decision on the "here and now" and what will bring them immediate gratification. Because they do not plan with an eye on the future, they continually set themselves up for surprising disappointment. Wisdom requires the ability to always be forward-thinking - to responsibly plan for whatever may occur down the road.

Most importantly, wisdom is rooted in love. God is love, and if we are to be successful imitators, we must prioritize love above all else. Love is the foundation of Godly wisdom.

We see, then, that a wise person is someone who knows and understands God's ways, prioritizes love, plans accordingly, heeds life's lessons, and always acts in accord with what's right and true instead of how he or she feels. In short, wisdom is doing the opposite of what the world deems wise. Let us pray that God will grant us all the ability to be wise according to His standards, not the world's - to take the road less traveled by, as Robert Frost's poem so beautifully conveys.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Suicide & The Bible

Have you known anyone who has committed suicide? Have you contemplated it yourself? Statistically, you would be in the minority if your answer to either of these questions is "no."

In North America, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young adults fifteen to twenty-five years old. Most of these commit suicide either during college or upon facing sexual confusion such as homosexuality. Still more shocking is the data for youth. Even among children between only five and fourteen years of age, suicide is the sixth leading cause of death! On average, an American commits suicide every seventeen minutes, bringing the annual total in the United States to over five hundred thousand.

Without a doubt, far more people contemplate suicide than actually commit it. Suicidal ideation is associated with nearly every psychological disorder, including depression. When we account for the fact that depression is the most commonly diagnosed disorder throughout the world, it is clear that nearly all people have at least contemplated taking their own life at one time or another.

The Christian response to suicide has always been the same. Suicide is labeled a mortal (condemning) sin by the Catholic Church, and an "unpardonable" sin by nearly all mainstream Christian denominations. At the very least, it is said to only be committed or pondered by people who are not truly saved.

As with most issues, Christendom has taken the "fear is the best motivator" approach with suicide. This logic supposes that the more people fear committing suicide, the less likely they will be to do it. Regardless of their circumstances, no amount of suffering is said to be worthy of taking one's own life.

Now, before I continue I must state that this article is certainly not a condonation of suicide. On the contrary, it is an effort to shed light on the failed system that only serves to exacerbate the tragedy and a call to action for preventing it.

As always, we would do well to consult the Scriptures to see what they teach us in regards to suicide. When we do, we discover some interesting facts. 

There are six biblical accounts of suicide. They are Abimelech (Judges 9), Samson (Judges 16), King Saul (1 Samuel 31), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17), Zimri (1 Kings 16), and Judas (Matthew 27). In addition, there are several other cases of men asking God to take their life or begging another to take it. In Numbers 11, Moses, in despair, said to God, "Kill me here and now." In 1 Kings 19:4, Elijah pleaded with God to "take away [his] life" for his shame. Likewise, Jonah asked God to take his life after His change of heart toward Nineveh. 

Moses, Elijah and Jonah - all great prophets and men of God - asked the LORD to kill them. True, they did not ultimately take their own lives as several others did, but they wished for it and even requested it. No doubt, if God would have acted on their request, they would have willingly endured it. If the common Christian argument that a true believer can't even think of suicide is true, then these great servants of God would certainly have some explaining to do.

Ironically, the dominant catalyst which led most of these men to kill themselves - or at least wish for death - was shame, not merely despair. They viewed suicide more as the just punishment for their sin than as a convenient way out of their problems. After all, is there a greater acknowledgement of personal failing or a more devoted way of paying restitution for it than to take your own life?

Today, we place so much emphasis on the notion that all people who commit suicide do it out of hopelessness, despair and hatred toward the world. While this may be true much of the time, is it possible that we are missing something? Could it be that people who commit suicide are often so ashamed, self-loathing, and guilt-ridden that they view ending their lives as an atoning form of righteous self-punishment? 

Whatever the answer, one thing is certain: rather than deter people from suicide via fear, we should take the time to genuinely listen to their struggles and bear their burdens. Rather than make them feel even more ashamed than they already feel for their thoughts, we should remind them of the glorious fact that Christ renders them completely guilt-free. If we view suicide and even suicidal ideation as cardinal sins, how can we help anyone struggling with these fears? Help demands compassion, and compassion must be free of judgment.

If you know anyone who is in despair and contemplating suicide, do not follow the common Christian model of warning them that suicide is an unpardonable sin that will eternally damn them. Not only is this not true; it is likely to make the person's resolve to kill himself even stronger by crushing his hope. Take the time to listen, bear people's burdens, and remind them of their identity in Christ. Encourage them with Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 10:13 that no trial is ultimately too difficult for them to endure. Remind them that every trial they encounter is given to them by God, out of love, for their ultimate good, knowing they can look forward to unspeakable happiness in the future.

If you have considered - or are considering - taking your own life, heed these same words. Know that in Christ you are free of guilt! No shortcoming on your part can separate you from your Father's unfailing love. Recognize that your thoughts are not necessarily indicative of a shameful lack of faith, but may actually be a sign of your desire to make restitution for your shortcomings, similar to Moses, Elijah and Jonah. The good news is that Christ has already accomplished that goal for you!

If you or someone you know is suffering so much that God seems distant or uncaring, think again. Christ's sacrifice - the most noble act ever committed - provides us with every hope and ability to overcome any struggle. When words mean little amidst the struggles of this life, think of what Christ has been through. No problems we face can begin to compare to what He has endured for our sake. Run the race with the prize always in full focus and with the realization that God's promises are every bit as real as the hardships you're currently enduring in this wicked world. No hurt you experience is beyond what the Son of God has personally known. Trust that no matter how bad things get, they will get better. In every struggle, whether someone else's or your own, conquer fear with love and despair with hope, keeping your eyes fixed upon Christ!

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ecumenism: An Enticing Lie

In recent decades, efforts to unify Christians and believers of all religions throughout the world have been on the rise. Among Christians, this movement is referred to as "ecumenism," whereas the movement to unify people of all religions is known as "interfaith pluralism."

At first glance, these movements - especially the ecumenical movement - seem like long overdue answers to a growing problem of religious division and intolerance. Adherents of ecumenism aim to focus more on the common ground between people of different beliefs than on the differences that divide them. They promote their agenda by encouraging unity on the beliefs they label as "important," "significant," or "central to faith," and dismissiveness on the issues they label as "minor" or "insignificant." Their mantra is essentially "agree to disagree" in order to find common ground, arrive at a compromise and move forward together.

While this mentality seems logical and appealing, it is actually very dangerous and is yet another clever way the adversary has discovered to deceive believers. When we consider the "important" and "significant" doctrinal issues "central to faith" on which ecumenism claims all Christians should agree, we find that many of them are anything but easy to agree on. These are primarily the trinity, eternal damnation of unbelievers, water baptism (in some form), and the existence of one gospel, among others. The varying beliefs held on these topics are deemed "divisive" and not worth arguing over. One person believes in paedo (infant) baptism while another believes in credo (believer) baptism, and ecumenism says, "Rather than focus on when baptism should be done, find common ground in the fact that you both believe in water baptism and don't get caught up in the petty details."

Could this supposedly unifying method sound any more appealing? Putting aside our differences, we make friends and find peace... or so it seems.

In reality, neither side is challenged on what it believes which prohibits either from coming to true knowledge, understanding, or maturity. In Ephesians 1:17, Paul reminds us that our greatest need as believers is "the spirit of wisdom and understanding in the knowledge of [God]." Ecumenism exists as a giant roadblock that stands in the way of truth.

That isn't the only threat it poses, though. The drive to "unify" believers acts as a gateway drug of sorts which leads to worse problems. Its appeal is intoxicating for those who buy into its message of tolerance and oneness. This euphoric mindset ultimately causes many in the ecumenical movement to take their unification message beyond the scope of fellow Christians in an effort to unify people of other religions, citing their "spiritual unity" because of their belief in a higher power. Pope John Paul II famously invited Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious leaders to the Vatican for a major event promoting spiritual unity. He was praised by the world for this seemingly mature and wise gesture. 

The real question is: should believers be ecumenical or stand firm in truth? Clearly, the latter is the answer, although many find this hard to accept. Throughout all history, God has called out a small few to know and herald the truth. When we adopt an ecumenical attitude, the boundaries of truth disappear and we become increasingly lost. We begin labeling anyone who claims to believe in God a true believer, regardless of what they believe. We start viewing all our beliefs as petty and unimportant when the supposedly greater goal is unity.

Indeed, unity should be our goal, but only among true believers and not at the expense of truth. How, then, do we recognize true believers? The answer: by what they believe!

Put simply, a believer is defined by his or her belief. To say you believe in the God of the Bible but to believe nothing that's true about Him is like saying you believe in America while describing China. To claim you understand the evangel when you possess an understanding contrary to it is like claiming to understand calculus while describing algebra. If much of what you believe about something isn't true, then your belief is in a lie and is false. Period. This doesn't seem fair and is certainly not politically correct, but God has purposed it this way in accordance with His plan and has chosen to reveal His truths to few in this age. We should count ourselves fortunate to be part of that few and avoid the enticing urge to unify with false believers. This, of course, does not mean never associating with them, but it does mean not appeasing them.

The alternative to standing firm in our faith is a denial of our faith. When we blindly tolerate and accept the false beliefs of anyone who claims to be a believer, we discredit the truth and dishonor God. If someone claims to be a believer but believes in eternal torment, free will, the trinity, and that he has to attend an institutional church every Sunday to keep favor with God, then he is, by definition, not a true believer because he believes in a false God. This statement is not judgmental, unloving or prejudice - it is factual. In reality, the truly unloving thing would be to show approval of this man's beliefs so that he continues believing a lie.

The more you believe and share the truth, the lonelier you will be. For myself, this post may even serve as proof of that fact as it may anger many readers. Accept that truth requires division in order to be made apparent (1 Cor. 11:19) and resist any urge to dismiss the truth in the name of unity with those who profess faith but believe a lie. Promote unity, but only among like-minded, true believers, knowing that the ecumenical movement is yet another clever satanic ploy.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Thursday, November 8, 2012

New Book!

I am using tonight's post to announce my new book, Making the Most of the Bible: Lessons on Understanding God's Word. The book is being published by Bible Student's Press (Clyde Pilkington & Sons) and will be available for purchase in the near future. Once it is available, I will post again on this blog and provide instructions for ordering.

Have you personally struggled with understanding the Bible, or do you know anyone who has?  I first announced this book at the recent Seneca Falls conference, and began by asking this same question.  Not surprisingly, every hand in the room went up.  This is because (from the book's synopsis)...

"To say most Christians have a difficult time understanding the Bible would be the understatement of the century. From the revered King James Version with its many 'thee's, 'thy's and 'thou's, to paraphrase versions like the Living Bible and The Message, coming to grips with the truths of God's Word seems like an exercise in futility. Frustrated and hopeless, countless believers give up entirely on trying to understand the Bible and rely instead on the teachings of others they view as more educated and credible. The end result is mass confusion and spiritual immaturity."

Even within the Concordant movement where truth is heralded, many end up relying on the teachings of leaders like A. E. Knoch, Bullinger, and Charles Welch instead of searching the Scriptures for themselves. Granted, this is far better than alternative options, but we can never recognize and fully appreciate the truths of God's Word for ourselves without knowing how to accomplish that task. The Bible is a tool - a roadmap of sorts - which guides us to truth, and our ability to read the map is a foundational skill in the life of every believer. Without that ability, we are literally lost.

Making the Most of the Bible is a practical guide which teaches that crucial skill. It is a short, step-by-step, easy-to-understand instruction manual of sorts for every serious Bible student who is eager to do just what the title says - "make the most of the Bible." 

So many of the truths we understand rely on a recognition of proper translation and sound methods for approaching the text of Scripture. Before we can begin to share these truths with people who have spent their whole lives in mainstream denominations, we have to help them understand how to approach the Bible. This book does just that.

The book's chapters review the Bible's history and organization, the common translation methods used in Bible translation, the importance of language, context and figures of speech, which versions are best for study, and dispensations.  In addition, several chapters deal with common pitfalls readers frequently fall into and how to avoid them. Taking all this into account, it provides a step-by-step practical guide for approaching Bible study in the most effective way, even in terms of details like writing in your Bible, deciding which version(s) to use, determining how much to read at a time, and knowing what to have at your desk for reference when you study.

Making the Most of the Bible is a "must have" for every serious Bible student and will make the perfect gift for the upcoming Christmas season. Even if you feel confident in your own method for study, you likely know several people who are greatly in need of this book.

I currently have no need for the money my books bring in, so I do not keep it for personal use. Your contribution will be for the person or people you buy the book for and, of course, the support of the Bible Student's Press.

Please reply to this post with any questions about the book and spread the word to all who may benefit from it!

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Sovereignty Excuse

Have you ever heard someone excuse a lack of action with the justification that actions don't make a difference because God is sovereign? Perhaps you've even done this yourself a time or two.

I heard a joke a while back that deals with this very issue. You may have heard it, but I'll tell it now in case you haven't.

There was a man standing on the roof of his home after a devastating flood turned his yard and street into a river. The waters continued to rise as rescuers went from house to house in boats, picking up stranded citizens and carrying them to safety. While everyone else called to the boats and got in them right away, this one Christian man sat on his roof and refused every boat that came by, telling the rescuers in confidence that he didn't need rescuing because God would provide an escape.

Eventually the waters rose too high, and the man, having denied every opportunity for help, drowned. Once in Heaven, the man asked God, "Why didn't you help me in the flood? I trusted you to save me and you never did!" In response, God asked, "What did you think all those boats were?"

As believers, we recognize the awesomeness of God's sovereignty. Every particle of dust and grain of sand is under His complete control. Nothing in the universe happens apart from God's will. This being true, it is easy to sit back, relax, and rest in the comforting knowledge that everything is progressing exactly as it should be.

Unfortunately, this comforting mindset can also produce an attitude of laziness. After all, if God's will is going to be done regardless, do our actions really matter?  

Indeed, God's plan will unfold regardless of circumstances that seem to contradict His will, because God Himself is dictating every action; but our Father never allows us to use His sovereignty as an excuse to not live up to our high calling. As ambassadors of Christ, we are charged with doing things related to our faith, not merely knowing about them. God uses us as instruments to accomplish His purpose, and that use requires action on our part. In this sense, God's will doesn't unfold "in spite of" human action; it unfolds, in many ways, because of it. We, the clay, cannot escape the Potter's hand.

Read every verse of Scripture, and you won't find a single passage where God says or implies that it's acceptable to sit back, relax and do nothing because He is in control. On the contrary, He commands us to do things, as does Paul, our apostle. Trusting in His control gives us peace of mind, security and hope, but neglecting to act in light of God's control is a mockery of the charge God has graciously granted us.

I often hear Christians cite God's sovereignty as an excuse for their lack of action in pretty surprising ways. They get diagnosed with cancer and refuse treatment because "God will cure their cancer without human medicine." They refuse to help someone in need because "God will help that person somehow if He wants them to be helped." They neglect to discuss their faith with anyone because "If God wants that person to believe, He will put it on that person's heart to believe at some point." Never mind that God instructs us to help those in need and to share our faith unashamedly.

It's ironic how easily foolishness can be disguised as faithfulness. When we witness someone refusing to look for a job because he has faith that God will miraculously provide one, we may initially stand in awe at that man's level of "faith." In reality, though, his motives are anything but faithful. They are foolish and indicative of a complete lack of faith. Paul told the Thessalonians that a man who will not work should not be allowed to eat (2 Thes. 3:10). "Working" would certainly include the effort to obtain work for someone who is unemployed.  

We are slaves to Christ, charged with obeying our Lord, and ambassadors, required to act on His behalf. An ambassador, by definition, is "an official representative of another who promotes a specific message or activity." When we neglect to act and hide behind God's sovereignty as an excuse, we do the opposite of what our ambassadorship demands. In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul reminds us that our duty as ambassadors of Christ is "beseeching for Christ's sake, 'Be conciliated to God!'"

In reality, people who foolishly excuse themselves from acting on their faith do so more out of fear or laziness than a belief in God's sovereignty. They are scared to approach others, so they pass the buck to God and hide behind a deceitful excuse. They would rather continue driving to their destination than take time to stop and help a stranger stranded on the road. They would rather sit at home collecting a free check from the government than work for their own money. All of these disgraceful habits are easily defended with the deceitful claim of faith in God's sovereignty.     

When Paul instructs us to carry our salvation into effect with "fear and trembling" in Philippians 2:12, he reminds us that a life devoted to following Christ is anything but easy. For, to us "it is graciously granted, for Christ's sake, not only to be believing on Him, but to be suffering for His sale also (Phil. 1:29)." As a general rule, the harder our lives are, the more we can be confident that we are living faithfully.

If you are one of the many who has neglected to act and hid behind God's sovereignty as an excuse, commit to forsaking that deceitful mindset in the future. God is, indeed, in control, and this article may be an instrument God is using to remind you of your purpose as one of His chosen ambassadors. Take comfort in God's control, but be active in your high calling as an ambassador for our Lord. Never use God's sovereignty as an excuse for a faithless lack of action.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill