TREVIN WAX|12:10 AM CT
I grew up in a fundamentalist environment. The church I was baptized in believed it was inappropriate for Christians to go to a movie theater. To this day, my grandparents maintain this standard as a bulwark against worldliness.
The library at my Christian school had a variety of books for children, sanitized for Christian consumption. Encyclopedia Brown made the cut, but all the “goshes” and “gee whizzes” were marked out with a heavy black pen. No second-hand cursing allowed.
Films without anything objectionable were allowed at school, but looking back, I see how this analysis was applied simplistically. I still remember watching an old version of The Secret Garden – a movie with no cursing, thank goodness, but with a pseudo-pantheistic worldview that healing power is pulsating through all living things.
As a teenager, I discovered the work of Chuck Colson, Francis Schaeffer, and C. S. Lewis. These men had a different perspective on art and its merits. I began to see artistic analysis differently. I realized Disney movies weren’t safe just because they were “clean,” and PG-13 movies weren’t bad just because they had language or violence. It was possible to watch a movie with a critical eye for the underlying worldview.
I never subscribed to the fundamentalist vision that saw holiness in terms of cultural retreat or worldliness as anything that smacked of cultural engagement. I don’t subscribe to that position today.
But sometimes I wonder if evangelicals have swung the pendulum too far to the other side, to the point where all sorts of entertainment choices are validated in the name of cultural engagement.
Generally speaking, I enjoy the movie reviews I read in Christianity Today and World magazine. They go beyond counting cuss words or flagging objectionable content and offer substantive analysis of a movie’s overall message. But in recent years, I’ve begun to wonder if we’re more open than we should be to whatever Hollywood puts out.
Take, for example, Christianity Today’s recent review of The Wolf of Wall Street. Alyssa Wilkinson devotes nearly half of her review to the graphic depictions of immorality, yet still gives the film 3.5 stars out of 4. Another review counts 22 sex scenes, but can’t be sure since it’s hard to tell when one ends and another begins.
My question is this: at what point do we consider a film irredeemable, or at least unwatchable? At what point do we say it is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?
I understand there are complexities to this issue. Some Christians disagreed with the praise showered on the recent Les Miserables film. I am among the number who thought Les Mis showcased the glory of redemption. It was a movie in which the sordid elements only served to accentuate the beauty of grace and the dehumanizing nature of sin.
Les Miserables is not unlike the accounts we read in our Bibles. Sexual immorality, rape, and violence are part and parcel of the Scriptural narrative. If a movie version of the book of Genesis were made, it wouldn’t be for minors. It seems silly to cross out cuss words from Encyclopedia Brown when first-graders can discover some pretty adult-themed events in their Adventure Bibles.
So, please don’t hear me advocating for a simplistic denunciation of Hollywood films. I am not. But I am concerned that many evangelicals may be expending more energy in avoiding the appearance of being “holier-than-thou” than we do in avoiding evil itself.
Yes, Paul used a popular poet of his day in order to make a point in his gospel presentation. Cultural engagement is important and necessary. But church history shows us that for every culture-engager there’s also a Gregory of Nyssa type who saw the entertainment mindset as decadent and deserving of judgment.
Is there justification for viewing gratuitous violence or sexual content?
At what point does our cultural engagement become just a sophisticated way of being worldly?
I find it hard to imagine the ancient Israelites admiring the artwork on the Asherah poles they were called to tear down. I find it hard to picture the early church fathers attending the games at the Roman coliseum, praising the artistic merits of the arena even as they provide caveats against violence.
Yet now in the 21st century, we are expected to find redeemable qualities in what would only be described by people throughout church history as “filth.”
What’s the point in decrying the exploitation of women in strip clubs and mourning the enslavement of men to pornography when we unashamedly watch films that exploit and enslave?
I do not claim to have this all figured out. But one thing I know: our pursuit of holiness must be the mark against which our pursuit of cultural engagement is measured.
If, like me, you’re conflicted about this issue, maybe it’s because we should be.
Wherever you are today, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you are on mission with Jesus. This is intentional, not coincidental. Primary, not peripheral. Normal, not extreme. Created to fill the earth with His glory, we fell in Adam but as His newly created people in Jesus Christ, the last Adam, we have been “re-commissioned” to fill the earth with His glory. It is not a career choice for special people doing unusual things in far-away places. It is God’s call to all who wear His name. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ today. Make disciples of all nations.
Edwin Leap is an Emergency Room Physician in a medium-sized hospital in Western South Carolina. He writes a weekly column in the Greenville News, and his blog is usually a re-post of that week’s article. Here’s what he, himself, says about his faith: “As an emergency physician who has seen almost every example of man’s fallen nature, as well as many of the wonderful ways we are indeed ‘in God’s image,’ I believe that Biblical Christianity is the most accurate explanatory theory for the human condition, and also the most rational cure available for the race of men. That’s why I write a great deal of material that touches upon my faith. I’m no Bible thumping madman, and I’m not here to scream at, threaten or demean anyone who disagrees with me. I don’t want to force anyone to believe anything. I do want to use this space to offer hope and meaning.”
The following is one of his weekly columns, and it touches on a subject that is increasingly visible in our convoluted society and troublesome to those who have some form of moral compass.
“Given that this is Sunday, I’ll pose a Sunday-School kind of question. Is there any such thing as sin? It’s a funny word, sin. It’s a concept deeply embedded in our culture and language. (Some of us would say, in our souls.) It implies wrong-doing, an offense against God. But these days, the very idea that people might be separated from ultimate good (much less God) by their hearts or behaviors, the very idea that humans do ‘bad’ things and need to confess and repent, well that’s a bit of a stretch for polite society, isn’t it? ‘Oughts’ are passe, and have been generally replaced with feelings and a kind democratic process in which we all rather vote on right and wrong (or let entertainers and pundits decide for us).
“However, sin is alive and well. Let’s face it, society may scoff at the church for saying fornication is a sin, or drunkenness or theft (or anything else proscribed in scripture). But society loves (and I mean loves) the concept of sin. And people love to condemn others; it’s quite invigorating to judge, even though we are all told not to do it. (Ironically, judging is a modern sin of the first order…unless judging those who are intolerant or judgmental, obviously.) Need an example? It isn’t hard to find, as American culture is absolutely full of modern sins. How about the ‘sin’ of racism? Ask Paula Deen if she committed a sin. Heck, she was more roundly condemned and castigated than any Mosaic scape-goat could ever have been. Years ago she used a racial epithet and because she confessed her sin of racism, she was required to repent on national television. And her penance? Loss of her cooking ‘empire.’ (No Hail Marys for Paula!) And what penance will the world require of Oprah’s Swiss shop-girl?
“How about disbelief? No, not disbelief in God. I mean disbelief in some popular idea. What about disbelief in global climate change? Why, you might as well be a baptist who doesn’t believe in casseroles! Environmentalism is its own religion to no small number of moderns, thanks to our tendency to worship something. And anthropogenic global climate change is an essential part of the catechism. In general, ‘Science,’ with a big ‘S,’ can never be doubted without opening oneself up to angry accusations of ignorance; despite the very real fact that it is the job of science to question science.
“What about big business and greed? Is greed bad? Well yes. But not just to people who think God says so. Greed is bad because big business and wealth are bad; and they’re bad because, well, greed is bad. The Occupy Wall Street movement was full of tent-dwelling ascetics with student loans, i-Pads and Starbucks cups who just knew it. Wealth and greed are fine if the greedy agree with the right ideas or donate to the right campaigns. ‘Greed: good for me, bad for you.’
“And to really push the hot-button, what about those folks who just aren’t on board with same-sex marriage? In modern parlance, they’re haters (even if they happen to love same-sex people). Or, to put it another way, they’re sinners. In an odd turn-about, the condemners of what was traditionally considered sin find themselves condemned; not by God but by man, the new arbiter of the New Law. And the new cultural priests spew their own fire and brimstone, and mark their ideological enemies with a scarlet B for bigot or F for fundamentalist. Although it’s not an exhaustive list of the ‘New Sins,’ there is something hopeful to be learned here. We all at least agree that some things are wrong. While we disagree in content, between ancient revelation and modern construction, the fact that the very idea of right and wrong still exists gives me a little hope.
“What’s hopeless is that there is no redemption from the new sins. There is no real forgiveness; there’s only surrender, complicity and endless sacrifice. Judeo-Christian faith tells us that God forgives and forgets if we ask in sincerity. But the New Law is never satisfied. No sacrifice is great enough and no repentance sincere enough and no past sin, however remote, is free of examination; unless you are a law-maker, of course. And any deviation, any heresy, is intolerable. As New Sins and New Laws continually emerge, I wonder if we’ll discover that the old ways, which called out sin but simultaneously offered repentance and redemption, were gentler than we ever realized.(Borrowed and quoted from Dr. Charles Wood’s post at “The Woodchuck’s Den.”)
Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’
Expediency ask the question, ‘Is it politic?’
Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’
But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’”
(Martin Luther King, Jr.)
People make decisions for a lot of reasons and most of them are not good. Of the four choices mentioned by Dr. King, only one – conscience – is right. All others lead to trouble and, in the end, destruction. While I counsel people to listen to their conscience, I also encourage them to examine the scriptures and their conscience side by side and consider the possibility that their conscience is not biblically trained. (All consciences need some reckoning with biblical truth regardless of how one grew up.) Nonetheless, when all is said and done, they must do what they believe is right.
There was a time, when with all the discernment of a proud Pharisee, I would glibly judge a man’s motive. Having been burned by my pride and the guile of others’, I try not to presume anymore. Being that we all struggle with our motives, we must judge ourselves and do so strictly and humbly. Especially leaders. Doubtless we’ve all made decisions as cowards, as politicians, and some with much vanity. Some have decided spiritual issues based on what’s good for business and many make choices simply to “save face” and stubbornly refuse to change course. We all have a lot of decisions to make and the first question one must learn to ask in decision-making is the question of their own motive. After all, this will come up at the Bema!
If pleasing God is our motive, then at some point, scripture and its principles enter into the picture. In decades of pastoral ministry, I have been unpleasantly surprised at the absence of biblical thinking going on in the lives of many outstanding people I have known. Little mention is made of biblical parallels, principles, or truths when arguing a point of view. The absence of biblical precedent in their thinking and discussion may indicate nothing at all or it may indicate a great weakness in the body – weak minds not renewed and not saturated with the Word of God. It is not expected that all would think like they had theological training but it is expected that believers who have sat under years of preaching and teaching should have some scripture seep into their thinking. Maybe that’s not the weakness though. Maybe it is just cowardice. Maybe many of our leaders are political. Maybe? It is a sad state of affairs when men of God put their agendas, their careers, and futures ahead of the glory of God, the name of Christ, and the welfare of His people.
Not all the things one can do are things that one should do. Paul, in addressing the Romans and the Corinthians on the matter of making difficult decisions, makes others the high priority. “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19). People matter to God. Do they to you? No, we’re not prisoners of others’ expectations, misguided convictions, and untrained consciences. That’s not the issue. But we are our brother’s keeper and we should not put him in a place of danger or temptation with our liberty. “It is good not to… do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (Rom. 14:21). Standing fast in our liberty is not a matter of protecting my personal liberty but a matter of living by grace. And doing so for the sake of God and for others. Restricting my liberty is not legalism, it is a matter of being a channel of grace and, thereby, extending grace to others. It is also a personal means to grace and growth – one that is sorely needed in the body of Christ today. Paul’s discussion on the matter of freedom in Galatians five includes a description of those who stand in freedom as producers of fruit akin to the nature of the Spirit and character of Jesus. This “standing fast in freedom” builds others and glorifies God. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity…, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself’”(Gal. 5:13-15). Those who don’t stand in liberty are a danger to themselves and others. They have a spiritually macabre propensity to “bite and devour one another” and to please their flesh causing strife and division. Such ugly behavior appears in all who abuse freedom – libertines or legalists. They both bite and devour because they are both selfish and self-serving. (And that style of “gospel living” will not attract even the most lost among us!)
Paul is not defending one side of an issue or another. He is jumping all over one’s motive. Motive matters. You can be right theologically and dead wrong in your behavior. You can also be wrong theologically but still be right in how you carry out your position. And how about the times where we’ve been wrong on both accounts? If your motive is the glory of God and the welfare of others, you will find the right way to come out at the right place. You will be a discerning steward of grace rather than an ugly opportunist. To claim your liberty at the expense of others in order to make a selfish decision is wrong. On any side of any issue.
Make your choices according to grace. Train your conscience in grace and discern how best to channel God’s grace to others thereby. Grace is not your privilege and license but God’s gift to be exercised in a wise stewardship. Steward wisely. You will rejoice now in this life and later at the Bema. I don’t know about you, but like Paul, “I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting” (1 Cor. 9:15).
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved (I Cor. 10:31-33).
As an “aged” PK married to a PK and who has raised four PKs, I find Andy Stanley’s words about PKs ring true:
“We see church different than anyone else. We see it from the inside out. We know that when people say they ‘felt the Spirit moving,’ it probably means the room was full and the music was good. We know that what goes on at home is the litmus test of a man or woman’s walk with God, not how well he or she does once a microphone is strapped on. We know the difference between giftedness and godliness. We know the two can be mutually exclusive. We know that the best performers usually build the biggest churches but not necessarily the healthiest ones. We aren’t impressed with moving lights, slick presentations, ‘God told me,’ ‘the Spirit led me,’ or long prayers” (from “Deep & Wide”).
Of course, the PK’s “inside out” perspective can make a cynic and rebel out of one but what a joy to have had a mom and dad who’s godliness came before giftedness and who passed the litmus test in front of their five kids sitting in the “front row.” Yesterday, was her 83rd birthday and she’s still being tested and still passing and still the Lady she has always been.
Thanks mom. God saved me but you were His earthly partner in divine rescue. I know that God can save the most cynical and does not need our help but I was spared so much because He found such help in you. Who knows, with you, I may not have been rescued at all.
It is amazing how many mistakes are repeated generationally. Of course, not in the same way and usually under a different name and in a different suit of clothes but — nonetheless, the same error is recycled in hopes of its purchase by a new and naive era. This insightful article not only speaks to this but serves as a good warning for us to remain true and authentic to biblical servant ministry in every era. Alas! Is there nothing new under the sun?
“The New Televangelists” Chris Nye
“Pastoral work is the aspect of Christian living which specializes in the ordinary.” —Eugene Peterson
I thought we were done with the Televangelists.
I grew up as part of a generation that scoffed at their expensive suits, golden watches, flawless smiles, and poufy hair. The sermons I heard growing up had lines about their cheesiness and insincerity. These sermons proclaimed a gospel that could not be bought, one that didn’t need vials of healing water or anointing oils that could be mailed to you after a small payment. I liked being part of that generation, one that stood for authenticity and rejected anything that smelled phony. And when it comes to being phony, Televangelists were Exhibit A. I believed our Christianity was moving away from the make-up encrusted, spiritual hucksterism that dominated the airways during our childhoods.
I was wrong. Sure, most members of my generation still have no time for Televangelists, but many of us have fallen prey to something just as pernicious.
Role Models under Shining Lights
During the first two years of church ministry, I was surrounded by some really wise older pastors. They met with me regularly, prayed for me, and kept me up to date on the business of the church. We all worked for a pretty classic suburban megachurch, but all loved one another. But there was one problem: I didn’t want to grow up to be like any of these pastors. The pastors above me were pretty normal guys. They had solid skills and were leading decent-sized ministries. They wore Hawaiian shirts or pressed dress wear and enjoyed golfing. But that wasn’t me. This was not my future, I thought.
I began looking for role models, for people I wanted to be like. Through the Internet, I was exposed to ministries from all over the country—pastors with 3,000 member churches preaching to multiple campuses and looking good doing it. They preached slick sermons under shining lights. Best of all I could watch it all on my laptop from anywhere.
I want to be a pastor like that, I thought. I just need to be like them, imitate them, and then I’ll have success—my ministry will grow. These pastors taught me how to teach, how to read Scripture dramatically, and how to hold a Bible the right way when making a point. It seemed like all these guys had to do was prepare a sermon for Sunday and deliver well and watch their churches grow—how rewarding! It all seemed to be working for them. Certainly, I thought, this will work for me, too.
This slowly became my vision of a life in ministry. But as I soaked up podcasts and sermon videos from famous pastors, I was unwittingly forming an inaccurate vision of the life of a pastor. The more I listened to and watched these dynamic pastors, the less I heard the voices of the pastors in my own church. They don’t know what they’re talking about, I would think as I loaded another video.
But two years into my ministry, I found myself with the same sized group. What’s more, they seemed to experience only marginal spiritual growth. I was frustrated with my ministry and annoyed at the small things I needed to get done and the people I needed to tend to. It was around this time that I realized what I was doing. I wasn’t sincere at all. I wasn’t authentic. Sure, I knew a bit about the Bible and knew how to sound good, but when it came to caring for people and guiding them toward spiritual maturity, I didn’t have a clue. The podcasts were teaching me a lot, but I wasn’t learning how to pray for the sick or counsel someone in a bad marriage or comfort the hurting. It wasn’t that I just needed to look at some different role models; I needed to figure out if I really wanted to be a pastor in the truest sense of the word. Was I committed to ministry even if it didn’t mean communicating to thousands of people from a stage?
Image or Identity?
We are not finished with the Televangelists, I’ve realized. We have simply rebranded them. We’ve changed the style but not the substance. When it comes to the habit of elevating certain gifted communicators, and trying desperately to be like them, little has changed. As our culture has moved from the television screen to the computer/tablet screen, the Televangelist has moved along with us. He now exists on his blog, his YouTube channel, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. He looks good too, better than any of his predecessors. He is groomed to look sincere, to preach with passion, and, of course, to never mention money like the old Televangelists did. But just like the Christian celebrities of yesterday these new Televangelists seem to live our ministry dreams. They have nice clothes, they write books, they hang out with famous people, and they always seem to be so happy.
And here’s the problem: holding them up as paragons of ministry leads us to become dissatisfied with our ministries. We get a distorted view of what life is like as a pastor. We lose sight of true spiritual leadership, of what it really takes to shepherd people. In the blogs and Twitter feeds of the New Televangelists, being a pastor looks entertaining. It looks fun, and kind of easy. We have lost the true vision of spiritual maturity: that suffering produces character, and that recognition and accolades rarely will.
The biblical vision of pastoral leadership is nothing like the Televangelists of the 1980s or the ones of the new millennium. It is not about fun or entertainment. In fact it is often painfully ordinary. The building blocks of a great ministry include such everyday things as a community meals, counseling sessions, and private prayer. It is about knowing the poor by name and praying for the people in your congregation when they ask. It is about calling people back and remembering the names of their children.
This is not about wealth or poverty, recognition or obscurity. It is not about big churches, small churches, or medium-size churches. The New Televangelists aren’t bad people. We just elevate their skills above their character. We love their image, not their identity. We want to emulate their personalities, not their personhood. We don’t really know them.
It was the faithful who our master celebrated (Matt. 25:23, 1 Tim. 1:12), and if we’re truly following Jesus, we will celebrate faithfulness as he did. We must check our fascination with good looking and success and learn to value of being men and women who walk with God and truly lead his people. Only a few of us will ever be in the celebrity spotlight. Only a small minority will speak at conferences and write books. But those “ordinary” men who spoke into my life during the early years of my ministry have experienced true success. They may wear Hawaiian shirts or boring suits beneath balding heads, but they have done something very few have us have: remained.
I continue to learn from the prominent pastors. But I no longer extol them as paragons of ministry. The truth is, most of us will lead small groups of people. We will be entrusted to lead a few people in the process of discipleship. We will learn their names, know their stories, and love their families. I am not aiming for the entertainment of masses anymore. I am seeking to be faithful with the people that God has given me. My role as a pastor has been simplified. My greatest contribution will not be preaching sermons that are watched on TV or downloaded by thousands. My mission is to love the people God has placed in my life for as long as possible.
(As printed in the March, 2013 issue of Christianity Today)
Living where there is a church on every corner and in every church a preacher, you would think we would find plenty of gospel preaching. Surprisingly, that is not the case. Since moving here a month ago, we have visited four different churches only to hear the gospel proclaimed in two. Though a conservative evangelical church, the preaching in one was so vacuous and indefinite the name of Jesus was not even mentioned except in prayer. It was mentioned that we needed forgiveness — which most everybody already knows – but from whom and how was not mentioned. In another pulpit, a text was opened up and briefly explained. The preacher emphasized the importance of “choices” without mentioning the most important choice of all. Although they were serious gospel believers, it was not evident in the preaching. Being a preacher, I know one can have an “off day” where Gospel truth is not central to one’s message and I did not leave the services thinking they were not Gospel preachers but I did wonder if the churches were Gospel centered. Worse yet, in another service, a psychologized, self-image “gospel” was preached. It diminished the cross, the atoning work of Christ, and barely mentioned Jesus as anybody other than someone you should “self-select” in order to “feel better about yourself.” The word “sin” was not mentioned in the message – not once – and did not seem to the preacher to have much to do with the human dilemma. Containing myself, I walked silently to the car. As the doors closed, my wife said – without a word from me, “I was waiting to leave whenever you’d had enough.” She had heard what I heard. The superficial treatment given Christ in the message was offensive to God and man. And on top of it all, his text was one of the most Gospel-laden in the New Testament!
What an author recently wrote about American preaching is apparently true. “In this present hour, preaching that is devoid of the person and work of Christ is all too often commonplace…. Rather than giving Him the central place of pre-eminence, Jesus is demoted to the periphery. Instead of being in the spotlight, Christ is left standing in the shadows.” I do not know about other preachers but I believe I have no hope to offer people other than the clear and uncluttered Gospel. Jesus’ deity, His sinless life, and His purpose in dying and rising again are what my heart burns to preach. One way we love God supremely is by giving a clear, accurate, and proper view of who He is and what He is like to others. Nothing reveals God like the Gospel work of Jesus. Does reducing Calvary to a dull chore carried out by a bored and bothered divinity honor God? Do we love God by lowering His motive to human sentiment? Pushing Him to the edge of the story and making man the cause and agent of it all is to offer earthly husks and not heavenly food to the flock. Such a gospel not only makes a caricature of God but sucks the love out of it also. What if one struggles with another bout of bad self-esteem? Will you persevere by turning to a “help yourself gospel” or to a great and majestic Savior? Is this even the gospel at all? When the most valuable, precious, and priceless person who has ever lived is made a minor player, it not only diminishes the value of Jesus but the quality of His salvation also. Cheap man-centered preaching produces cheap self-centered living. In an age when people need anchors, foundations, and wisdom based on truth, we need to hear the powerful, deep, and rich truths of the person and work of Jesus the Christ.
Spurgeon once preached, “A sermon without Christ is a horrible thing. It is an empty well; it is a cloud without rain; it is a tree twice dead, plucked up by the roots. It is an abominable thing to give men stones for bread and scorpions for eggs, yet they do so who preach not Jesus. A sermon without Christ! As well talk of a loaf of bread without flour in it. How can it feed the soul? Men die and perish because Christ is not there.”
I need to point out two positives. First, a guest preacher and not the pastoral staff preached that self-image gospel. After a conversation with church leadership, it was obvious that they too were distressed. Apparently, I was not the first person to contact them as members had also voiced concern. (We have heard the Gospel proclaimed more than once by others in that church.) Also, we have heard the gospel proclaimed clearly from another pulpit along with excellent exposition of God’s word but that church is 25 miles away from us. Proving that though it seems there is a church on every corner here in the Bible belt, and a preacher in every church, one cannot assume the Gospel is being preached.
If a Gospel preacher stands in your church’s pulpit this Sunday, rejoice and thank God… and thank the preacher.
 Stephen J. Lawson in The Kind of Preaching God Blesses
A Roman Catholic challenged me to explain how my non-sacramental view of the Lord’s Table provided any spiritual benefit. He was confident that Sacramentalism provided saving grace. He could not see how my Ordinance did anything at all. Further contemplation changed how I led worship at the Table. Provoked further by an excellent paper written by my daughter (for class at Central Baptist Seminary, VA), my study and understanding deepened. My Roman Catholic friend was correct – there is a grace to be found at the Lord’s Table – but not in the manner prescribed by his dogma. Rather, it is found in Christ. This article by Pastor Chris Anderson (found on ChurchWorksMedia.com) is a sound and biblical perspective. His exegesis shows that the Bible teaches Communion is not to be a ritual, a Baptist confessional, or a morbid, self-centered introspection. It is to be joyously centered in Jesus’ gospel work and should leave us much more aware of His power and grace. I know it’s a cliche now but — it’s not about us. It’s about Him.
What Does “Unworthy” Mean?
Gathering with the Lord’s church to remember Christ and His work is a vital part of Christian worship and an edifying exercise for both the corporate body and the individual Christian. Yet, Scripture protects the Lord’s Table in 1 Corinthians 11:27, where we are warned not to partake “unworthily” (KJV) or “in an unworthy manner” (ESV). That’s important—so important that people can suffer illness or even death for doing it (v. 30). But what does it mean?
For many, it means bondage. Countless believers have spent their entire lives afraid to partake of the Lord’s Table because they doubt their own worthiness. Communion has become a time when they remember themselves rather than (or at least more than) Christ. They’ve been trained (in part due to the KJV’s translation, in part due to careless teaching) to focus on their relative obedience or disobedience in the days preceding the Table. The result is pride, or despair, or fear—but not worship! Gordon Fee explains:
Unfortunately, this adverb was translated “unworthily” in the KJV. Since that particular English adverb seems more applicable to the person doing the eating than to the manner in which it is being done, this word became a dire threat for generations of English-speaking Christians. (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 560)
Many of you can say “Amen.” You’re there. I’ve been there. Let’s make sure we’re clear on this. This requirement doesn’t mean that you must be “worthy” to participate based on your performance as a Christian. You’re not ready to partake because you’ve “been good.”
- First, regardless of what you may think, you’ve never been good. The fact that you think you have just demonstrates that your standard of “good” is far different than God’s.
- Second, your spiritual performance doesn’t determine your worthiness. Whatever Paul is saying, that’s not it, for that would be legalism in the truest sense—the idea that your obedience makes you more or less acceptable to God. True grace welcomes the penitent one, not the worthy one.
- Third, the fact that you’re unworthy is the whole point! If you feel unworthy, you’re getting it! Your sinfulness—your unworthiness—is why Christ came and offered His body to be broken and His blood to be spilled in your place.
So if Scripture isn’t dealing with the worthiness of the Christian, what is it doing? Well, the word “unworthily” is an adverb, not an adjective. That means that “unworthily” is describing the partaking (“eats” and “drinks”), not the participants. It’s not saying that we must be worthy in ourselves, but that our manner of partaking must be worthy (as the ESV translation makes clear). The surrounding context tells us what that means:
- To promote or allow a factious spirit is partaking in an unworthy manner (vv. 18–20, 33).
- To partake selfishly and thoughtlessly is partaking in an unworthy manner (vv. 21–22, 33–34).
- To have a self-satisfied, flippant attitude is partaking in an unworthy manner (vv. 28, 31).
- To treat the Lord’s Table like a common thing is partaking in an unworthy manner (v. 29b).
What a privilege it is to fellowship with Christ’s church, worshiping Christ’s person, remembering Christ’s work, and awaiting Christ’s return! This is a precious time. The next time you prepare to partake, take pains to approach the Table as Scripture requires. Be reverent, humble, and thoughtful as you gaze on Christ through this ordinance. Examine yourself (v. 28). But make no mistake: you’re not worthy, and you never will be. Here, as on every occasion, you approach God on the basis of Christ’s merit, not your own. He is worthy. So partake in remembrance of Him, not yourself. Worship. Remember. And rest.
Chris Anderson is an author, hymnwriter, husband, father and pastor (Kilian Hill Baptist Church) and hosts ChurchWorksMedia.com.
Today was really strange. I do not remember a Saturday like this since … well, I don’t really remember a Saturday like this. Marcia and I got up early. We headed out in the rainy chill to a warehouse sale at the Bob Timberlake Studios in Lexington. Just the two of us. Alone. We picked out a nice table and a nice leather travel bag. (The bag is mine.) Got some help loading the table. Then we, just the two of us, headed south to check out a rumor of a fishing hole. Appears it was true and that’s a good thing. I tracked down a good boat landing while there at High Rock Lake. A return trip is in order. It was still raining and chilly. We stopped for some good old Lexington style North Carolina Barbecue while in town. Just the two of us. Then it was back to Mocksville to check out a possible rental. Just the two of us. She spied a “great-old-house” (as she called it) next door to the one we went to look at. It had a log cabin in the back yard. She was intrigued. Of course we looked at it. And in it. (Hey, the door was open.) Marcia loved the “great-old-house” as any restoration buff would but I reminded her that we’ve already done that once. After I grabbed a coffee from a shop on the town square, we – the two of us – headed down the 801 and over to Cooleemee to stop by the old mill where her grandfather worked the afternoon shift for decades. Of course, that was after he worked the day shift on his farm. It was the first time in years it was open to the public. A restoration of the mil is being organized. She loved it and I loved being with her. Just the two of us. Then it was up to Cana and the now empty site of her grandma’s family farm. This was important to her and that was important to me. And that’s why it was one of the best days ever. Of course, just her and I were there to unload the table from the car when we got back. Just the two of us. My phone didn’t even ring. I take that back. It did once. I ignored it though. Today was really strange. A good strange. Just the two of us. I Loved it.