Toxic Christianity

“These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage.” Jude 16

We come to the end of Jude’s lengthy and detailed description of the false teachers who had crept into the church to twist the gospel of God grace in Jesus Christ into a license for sensuality and a rejection of the Lord. Through the main body of his letter, Jude draws upon examples of their sure and certain judgment in the Lord because of their conduct and their message, but before turning to the instruction to the faithful, he gives one last look at their character. This final blow may strike the hardest, and identifies what may still be prevalent in the Church today, that which I would call Toxic Christianity.

There are 4 descriptions given here. These false teachers are:

  1. Grumblers – Like the Israelites of old, during their journey from the Red Sea to the promised land, they are grumblers, murmurers, complaining constantly about their condition, their leaders, and even about the Lord’s provision. The Greek word here (pronounced gongustes) is an onomatopoeia – a word that sounds like what it describes – the low mutter of resentful discord arising from perpetually unhappy people. It’s the sound coming from the corner of the room when the elders make an unpopular decision, when the sermon hits a little too close to home, or even when the air conditioning is too cool (or not cool enough). This grumbling spirit is like a termite nest, slowly eating away at the foundation of Christian fellowship.
  2. Malcontents – The Greek here is a combination of two words: blame and life. It is that attitude which is always complaining about one’s lot in life. I knew a man back in Kansas who’d come into the church every morning for a cup of coffee, always complaining about how little rain we had gotten. One night, a thunderstorm blew through, so I thought surely he’d come in the next day happy. When he came for coffee, you guessed it, he was complaining again; we got too much rain and the land was too dry for it to do any good. Spiro Agnew once spoke of the “nattering nabobs of negativism… who have formed their own 4-H Club — the ‘hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.’” These are the malcontents.
  3. Following their own Sinful Desires – Rather than being governed by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, these false teachers are following their own passions and are led by their own desires. This is the mantra of the day, “Whatever makes you happy, whatever feels right, just do it.” We are right to criticize this when it is revealed in immorality and sensuality, but that’s not where this ends. It’s that attitude that says, “Well I know what God’s word says, but…” Whether its the way we worship, how we honor the Lord’s Day, our attitude toward offerings and tithes – when the driving force is my own pleasure and happiness rather than the holiness of God, the influence of the false teachers shows.
  4. Loud-mouth Boasters who Show Favor to Gain Advantage – The scriptures are clear in their rebuke toward those who show favor in making judgment (Lev. 19:15; Deut 10:17; James 2:1). What jumps out here is who is getting the glory and honor. Loud-mouthed boasters are all about self-promotion. Those who flatter others for self-gain are also all about self-promotion. The honor of others, the glory of God, never come to the mind of these false teachers. They will say what they have to in order to receive the praise and adoration of man.

These are the characteristics of the false teachers, and sadly, we see their descendants in the church even today. I think, if we’re honest, and if we allow the Spirit to help us to see ourselves in the mirror of God’s Word, we’ll find all of these traits, this toxicity, coursing through our veins even still. We come under the conviction of God’s Word, and must fall upon Jesus Christ for forgiveness and peace.

What’s amazing, is that all of these things that Jude points out in the false teachers, Paul has also addressed in his letter to the Philippians.

To those who grumble, Paul writes:
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. (Phil. 2:14–18)

To the malcontent, Paul writes:
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phil. 4:11–13)

To those tempted to be led by their sinful desires, Paul writes:
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. (Phil. 3:17–4:1)

And to those who are puffed up in boasting and flattery, Paul writes:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:3–11)

SDG

The Dangers of Professional Christianity

Does anyone know that the liturgical calendar calls the Sunday after Christmas?

Answer – Assistant Pastor’s Sunday.

Okay, it’s not an actual liturgical day – but boy am I glad the Assistant Pastor could fill in for me.

The last time I had taken a full day off from work was when I was on bedrest following a week in the hospital – and even then I started back to work before the Doctor’s recommended timeline.  I was feeling burned out. I just had to make it through Christmas Eve – and Christmas day since it fell on a Sunday – then I could finally get away for a little bit.

I read somewhere that there are a couple of clues to when a Pastor needs to take a break:

  1. When he repeats the same sermon two weeks in a row and the congregation doesn’t notice, and
  2. When he repeats the same sermon two weeks in a row and he doesn’t notice.

I hadn’t gotten to that point, but I was close.  Spending time away from the church – which is difficult for me since I live directly across the street from it – helped me to see how close I had come to a burnout.  From the realistic understanding that the work of the Church is essential, important, and urgent, to the unrealistic expectation that I can do it all myself and in my own strength; I stood little chance of survival.  I was increasingly frustrated with myself, making careless mistakes, growing short-tempered, and becoming an overall “bah-humbug.”  (My apologies to my family for bringing this on during Christmas, too – we always hurt the one’s we love…) Getting away for a week and realizing that the church would go on, even thrive, without me gave me that little jolt I need to get back into the proper perspective.

The time away also helped me to see that while my walk with Christ is essential to  my pastoral ministry, my pastoral ministry may often be a detriment to my walk with Christ.   There are several traps that are easy to fall into as a Pastor, shortcuts that seem to help make discipleship and pastoral ministry go hand in hand, but in reality, destroy both.

Here are just a few examples:

(Warning – there’s some brutally honest self disclosure coming here!)

Substituting Spiritual Studies for Spiritual Life

My workweek usually requires writing two sermons, planning and leading two worship services, writing a Sunday School and a Wednesday night bible study, writing this blog, and the occasional bible studies, devotions, and weddings and funerals – not to mention visitations, meetings, and the administration responsibilities of pastoral care.  Oh, and did I mention I have a wife and 4 kids, too.

It is a joy to be called by a congregation to study, teach, and preach God’s Word, yet there are often times when the tyranny of the urgent, the never ending, relentless onslaught of Sundays overwhelms and incapacitates.  And then sacrifices are made.  The quiet time of study and reflection, listening to God’s Word for me personally is crowded out by the need to find something that I’m supposed to say to my congregation.  The time on my knees in prayer and fellowship with God finds its way to a prayer at the pastor’s desk.  Worship becomes work. Sanctification becomes sanctimony.  What should nourish and feed the Spirit becomes a drain, until you’re left, well, like this:

bilbo

Time away from the pulpit, from the office, from the demands of ministry, help me to find the peace and joy of stopping and dwelling in the presence of God.  Like that break in college when you went home, just for a bit, to be nurtured, strengthened, and rejuvenated for the return to reality – we all need moments when we can return to home base with God, resting and waiting upon Him.  Proverbs 18:10 says, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.” I’m not one to run from my problems, but there are times when all you can do is drop everything and run to the Lord.  Only then can you find the strength and the wisdom to face what’s before you.

Worship as Perpetual Motion

I was sitting in worship in another Presbyterian Church on Sunday, with relative anonymity and no responsibility other than that I was there to worship God.  In that moment it dawned on me that I had gotten to the point where my preparation for worship, and my experience in worship on a Sunday morning had become an act of perpetual motion rather than heartfelt worship.  Like the “white-washed tombs,” I had fallen into a Pharisaical practice of having the name of God on my lips while He was far from my heart.

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit harsh, but maybe you know what I’m talking about.  Sundays came and went as a matter of course; I was going through the motions of worship, occasionally allowing my heart to actually break into what I was doing, but more often than not, that just took too much out of me – so I had to keep it all bottled up for the sake of moving forward.  When all the while, it was holding me back.

John Bunyan once wrote, “In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”  Amen. Worship isn’t really worship if you’r heart is a million miles away.  If you’r heart isn’t fixed on God in worship, it isn’t a praise song, no matter how many times you repeat the chorus.

It took getting away from leading worship for a Sunday to get myself back into the right perspective for worship.  I’m only too grateful that God saw fit to show me this and restoration a heart of praise.

Trusting What’s Works Rather Than The One Who Works

Finally, it is all too easy to rely on the tools of the trade, rather than the Hands of the Master.  I have a pretty framed degree from a rather prestigious seminary on my wall – that should account for something, right?  I know my Greek and Hebrew, and can exegete a text forwards and backwards.  I bring a natural comfort to the pulpit, an easy manner in speaking, and that helps me communicate with the congregation.  With all of that going for me, this whole ministry thing should come together pretty well, shouldn’t it.

The temptation in ministry is to rely on my skills, my professional development, my education, my talents, my resources… You see what’s happening there.  If that’s the source of ministry, then all you’ll get is me.  Trust me, no one needs more of me.

Instead, all of this pedigree for ministry is simply rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus.  How does Paul put in in Philippians:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7–11)

Interestingly, that was my foundation verse when I was in Seminary. Whatever I was confronted with, I would come back to this passage – I want to know Christ above all things, before all things, in all things.  It’s funny, that need never really goes away.

So – a huge thank you to my congregation and elders and assistant Pastor for making time away possible.  A huge thank you to my family and friends for bearing with me as I worked through all of this.  And a huge thank you to my savior, for being eternally patient with this work in progress.

SDG