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That we live in strange times is akin to saying the sun is bright. Conservative Americans have seen their country’s moral universe turned inside out, especially with the 5-4 edict of the Supreme Court last summer pronouncing same-sex marriage the law of the land.

Not only is same-sex marriage now law, we are seeing that sexual freedom trumps religious freedom. Christian bakers and florists have been targeted by same-sex marriage folk in order to force those Christians to embrace homosexual weddings or face legal retribution. Under threats from the National Football League and big entertainment and big business, the governor of Georgia vetoed a state bill that would have protected ministers from having to perform such weddings. The Wall Street Journal described the bill in this way: “The ‘Free Exercise Protection Act,’ passed earlier this month, allows faith-based organizations to decline services or fire employees over discordant religious beliefs. The bill also aims to protect religious officials from having to perform marriage ceremonies or other services ‘in violation of their legal right to free exercise of religion,’ according to the legislation.”

North Carolina’s state legislature passed and its governor signed a law that requires persons to use the restroom of their biological gender. That is hardly radical, is it? The state has come under fire from liberal groups who think that transgender persons should be able to use the rest room of their perceived psychological gender, not biological.

So this is the slide into radical depravity down which western culture is descending and, in truth, should not be unsurprising. The apostle Paul wrote almost two millennia ago: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:24–27).

As sad it is to watch our culture’s collapse into moral degeneracy, not to mention what this will mean for our children and grandchildren, it is beyond sad to watch professing Christians follow the culture. Have breathed the philosophical air of secular education and popular entertainment, many professing Christians, including both younger and older persons, see little, if anything at all, wrong with sexual intimacy (either heterosexual or homosexual) outside of marriage, same-sex unions, or people changing their sexual identification. Others, who are more traditional about such matters, openly and proudly support political candidates who support abortion rights or who boast about their sexual “conquests.”

Why is this? Why do the folk next door who are in church on Sunday follow the popular trends of culture? Many right answers could be offered, but one stands out: the Bible simply is not viewed as authoritative over our lives. It may be “the good Book,” but it is held as a book of general guidelines instead of specific precepts.

It really does not matter how much of the Bible we know, how much we memorize, how many times we read it, or how much we revere it if we do not believe that it is the written Word of God that has authority over our thinking and our actions. Jesus’ condemnation of the religious leaders of his day could be given to many of our day: “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matthew 15:7–9).

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The idea that the local church is more than an organization which people join and for which there is little, if any, accountability is a foreign one to the twenty-first century American church. Tom Ascol commented on the high tolerance for sin in the fellowship with these observations: “The corporate discipline of the church has gone the way of the Mastodon in the thinking of most Southern Baptists. There was a time when church discipline was recognized by Protestants in general and Baptists in particular as one of the distinguishing marks of a true church. The teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 was not only regarded as inerrant, the steps which he outlined there were actually practiced by the churches. Today it is tragically common to have church members living in open immorality with absolutely no response from the congregation of which they are a part.

“Thus it hardly even shocks us to read Hollywood badgirl and former Playboy pinup Shannon Doherty describe herself in TV Guide as ‘just a nice, Southern Baptist, Republican girl.’ Of course she is! Why should shameless immorality stand in the way of being a church member? Somewhere along the line, Southern Baptists have lost their moral nerve. The world’s relativism (‘nothing is always right or wrong’) and sentimentalism (‘because I love you I will let you’) have displaced the Bible’s moral absolutism and genuine love that cares enough to correct.

“John Dagg, the first Southern Baptist theologian to produce a systematic theology textbook . . . , argued that ‘when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.’ If Dagg is correct, what does that say for the state of our churches today?” (Thomas Ascol, “Southern Baptists at the Crossroads: Returning to the Old Paths,” The Founders Journal, Winter/Spring 1995, 3).

Jesse Mercer was one of the most renowned of Georgia and Southern Baptists during the first four decades of the 1800’s. Historian Charles Mallary noted: “Mercer firmly held to the necessity of church discipline. He maintained that ‘all divisions are the fruit of contention and strife, originating in pride and ambition, the agitating of “unlearned questions,” or departures from the true faith and order.’ He continued: ‘I consider the causes of these divisions, which have rent our churches and spoiled our beauty, as a denomination, are to be found in the neglect of a godly discipline, and the consequent results’” (Memoirs of Elder Jesse Mercer, 248).

Avoiding church discipline has always been the easy way for churches. L. Fletcher, in the December 12, 1855, issue of Kentucky’s Western Recorder, recounted how believers are to “Let their light so shine before men as to exert a healthful and saving influence upon the community around them.” He reminded readers that Christians reveal their love for the Lord by their obedience. He noted pointedly that “as Baptists, we glory in proclaiming to the world that the Word of God is our only rule of faith and practice. And yet, we fear that very few of our churches either believe or practice all the teachings and requirements of the Son of God!”

The cause of Fletcher’s concern was the failure of some churches to exercise church discipline. “Our principles and practice when legitimately carried out and rightly understood, commend themselves to the judgment and understanding of all honest and unprejudiced minds; but, when there is a glaring discrepancy between what we profess and practice, our doctrines become unsavory and our name a reproach.” Churches which refuse to discipline members of known sins greatly hinder their influence in the world for the cause of Christ: “Can we think it strange that, under such circumstances, we have so few revivals of religion, or that so many that profess conversion under the high pressure system of protracted meeting, return again to the beggerly elements of the world?”

Fletcher reminded his readers that discipline is not for revenge, but “with a view to the well-being of the offender, the purity of the church, and the honor of Christ.” His concluding remarks need to be broadcast to Baptist churches in our day, churches unfortunately more concerned with numerical success than with biblical faithfulness: “Let all our churches, instead of glorying in the number of their membership, go to work with the pruning knife of discipline, and disencumber themselves of their unfruitful branches, and thus purge out the old leaven of unrighteousness that has hitherto paralyzed their influence for good, and then they will become as beautiful as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, and as terrible to evil-doers as an army with banners.”

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This video by Paul Washer accurately, yet sadly, reveals what goes on in far too many, if not the majority, of churches in the United States. Washer is right in saying that there are godly people in such churches who want to learn truth and lead godly lives. Many of these people remain in carnal churches in hope of turning things around. Rarely does that happen. Should true believers remain in carnal churches?

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Even as a dispensational premillennialist, I taught that one’s view of the end times should not separate Christians. To the chagrin of many dispensational premillennialists, historic premillennialists, postmillennialists, and amillennialists, I do not see the Scriptures presenting a particular millennial view with the precise clarity that many folks dogmatically declare.

That said, a pastor cannot cop-out by declaring that he is a “pan-millennialist,” that it will all pan out in the end! A pastor must teach what he understands the Scriptures to teach. Anything less is an abdication of the responsibility laid upon him to teach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). In addition, he will expose those blatantly non-biblical beliefs that are found among fringe elements of any particular system. I have warned people for over a decade not to get their theology from the Left Behind series of end times novels, and I will not hesitate to post a video containing teaching which I find particularly egregious.

While I have come to believe that amillennialism is most faithful to the Scriptures, I am sympathetic to points in historic premillennialism and postmillennialism. I am much less sympathetic to dispensational premillennialism, as I have pointed out for at least a decade. Nevertheless, I would not separate from another believer over his view of the end times, as long as it is within the bounds of one of these four widely accepted views among orthodox Christians.

Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, made a provocative statement when he preached on Revelation 20 in July 2009. Here is a transcribed excerpt found in Justin Taylor’s “Between Two Worlds” blog (the entire blog is a good read):

I think that millennial views need not be among those doctrines that divide us. . . . I am suggesting that what you believe about the millennium—how you interpret these thousand years—is not something that it is necessary for us to agree upon in order to have a congregation together. The Lord Jesus Christ prayed in John 17:21 that we Christians might be one. Of course all true Christians are one in that we have his Spirit, we share his Spirit, we desire to live out that unity. But that unity is supposed to be evident as a testimony to the world around us. Therefore, I conclude that we should end our cooperations together with other Christians (whether nearly in a congregation, or more at length in working together in missions and church planting and evangelism and building up the ministry) only with the greatest of care, lest we rend the body of Christ for whose unity he’s prayed and given himself. Therefore, I conclude that it is sin to divide the body of Christ—to divide the body that he prayed would be united. Therefore for us to conclude that we must agree upon a certain view of alcohol, or a certain view of schooling, or a certain view of meat sacrificed to idols, or a certain view of the millennium in order to have fellowship together is, I think, not only unnecessary for the body of Christ, but it is therefore both unwarranted and therefore condemned by scripture. So if you’re a pastor and you’re listening to me, you understand me correctly if you think I’m saying you are in sin if you lead your congregation to have a statement of faith that requires a particular millennial view. I do not understand why that has to be a matter of uniformity in order to have Christian unity in a local congregation.

The last two sentences quoted above are what have been considered particularly provocative: “So if you’re a pastor and you’re listening to me, you understand me correctly if you think I’m saying you are in sin if you lead your congregation to have a statement of faith that requires a particular millennial view. I do not understand why that has to be a matter of uniformity in order to have Christian unity in a local congregation.” Provocative, but worth thinking about.

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Often persons think that being a member of a local assembly of Christians makes them right with God individually. If that were true, the apostle Paul would not have admonished: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5, ESV). Just because we are associated with others who are following Christ does not necessarily mean that each one of us is following Christ individually.

The Bible clearly tells us to “repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). If anyone in an evangelical church is asked whether he has repented of his sins and believes the gospel, he is likely to answer in the affirmative. One cannot help but question the sincerity of a person’s repentance and belief if that person is known to sin without concern. Far too many professing Christians miss worship on Sunday because they had rather hunt or fish or even do work that is not required to be done. Church members make ungodly statements on Facebook, fail to return things borrowed, fail to acknowledge all their income when paying taxes. In these and many other ways, professing believers reveal the insincerity of their repentance.

Thomas Manton (1620-1677) gave us this warning: “If an unregenerate man should leave off sin under fear of death or hell, it would not be out of hatred to sin, but out of the fear of the punishment, as the bird is kept from the bait by the scarecrow.” Similarly, William Gurnall (1617-1679) wrote: “Take heed thou prayest not with a reservation, be sure thou renounces what thou wouldst have God remit. God will never remove the guilt as long as thou entertains the sin. . . . It is desperate folly to desire God to forgive what thou intends to commit. Thou hadst as good speak out, and ask leave to sin with impunity, for God knows the language of thy heart, and needs not thy tongue to be an interpreter. . . . Hypocrisy is too thin a veil to blind the eyes of the Almighty. Thou mayest put thy own eyes out, so as not to see Him; but thou canst never blind His eyes that He should not see thee.”

Someone may immediately protest: “You have no right to question the genuineness of my repentance and faith in Christ just because I attend worship irregularly or because I make some comments you disapprove.” The purpose here is not for any of us to examine anyone else. The purpose before us is to examine ourselves. Paul wrote: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.” We need to ask ourselves: “Do I truly repent of my sins? Am I really trusting in Christ? If I am, what does my life say about my profession?”

Matthew Henry (1662-1714) provides counsel as applicable today as when he penned his thoughts: “By repentance we must lament and forsake our sins, and by faith we must receive the forgiveness of them. By repentance we must give glory to our Creator whom we have offended; by faith we must give glory to our Redeemer who came to save us from our sins. Both these must go together; we must not think either that reforming our lives will save us without trusting in the righteousness and grace of Christ, or that trusting in Christ will save us without the reformation of our hearts and lives. Christ hath joined these two together, and let no man think to put them asunder. They will mutually assist and befriend each other. Repentance will quicken faith, and faith will make repentance evangelical; and the sincerity of both together must be evidenced by a diligent conscientious obedience to all God’s commandments. Thus the preaching of the gospel began, and thus it continues; still the call is, Repent, and believe, and live a life of repentance and a life of faith.”

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In our entertainment-driven “worship experiences,” the life of William Cowper (1731-1800) points us to a radically different, and dare I say, more biblical understanding of the gravity of our coming before God on the Lord’s Day. Suffering acutely from prolonged bouts of depression, Cowper understood his own unworthiness to enter God’s presence. In the conclusion to his The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd, John Piper makes a timely observation:

The fruit of William Cowper’s affliction is a call to free ourselves from trite and chipper worship. If the Christian life has become the path of ease and fun in the modern West, then corporate worship is the place of increasing entertainment. The problem is not a battle between contemporary worship music and hymns; the problem is that there aren’t enough martyrs during the week. If no soldiers are perishing, what you want on Sunday is Bob Hope and some pretty girls, not the army chaplain and a surgeon.

Cowper was sick. But in his sickness he saw things that we so desperately need to see. He saw hell. And sometimes he saw heaven. He knew terror. And sometimes he knew ecstasy. When I stand to welcome the people to worship on Sunday morning, I know that there are William Cowpers in the congregation. There are spouses who can barely talk. There are sullen teenagers living double lives at home and school. There are widows who still feel the amputation of a fifty-year partner. There are single people who have not been hugged for twenty years. There are men in the prime of their lives with cancer.There are moms who have carried two tiny caskets. There are soldiers of the cross who have risked all for Jesus and bear the scars. There are tired and discouraged and lonely strugglers. Shall we come to them with a joke?

They can read the comics everyday. What they need from me is not more bouncy, frisky smiles and stories. What they need is a kind of joyful earnestness that makes the broken heart feel hopeful and helps the ones who are drunk with trifles sober up for greater joys (167).

We need to be pointed to the thrice-holy God who is reconciled to believing sinners through the sacrificial death of the Son of God. We need to remember that, left to ourselves, we deserve an eternal hell for having violated this Sovereign’s demands. We need to enter his presence reverently, worship soberly, and leave aware of his blessing because we are reminded that Christ suffered and died for rebels such as we are. And yes, perhaps we need a little suffering during the week for the cause of Christ. A touch of Cowper’s gravity would do us good.

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More books claiming to contain the secret for helping churches grow and influence their communities are written annually than any pastor has time to scan, much less peruse. I sometimes wonder if we pastors and other church leaders too often look to the latest writing of a church-growth guru than we seek to understand what the Bible itself says about the church.

In the short epistle to Titus, the apostle Paul delineates how the church can successfully fulfill its divine role. He points not to programs and activities but to people and beliefs. He realizes that leaders must be faithful, doctrine must be pure, and living must be godly before methods and projects can be effective.
Paul writes to Titus that it is vital that churches have pastors who meet godly criteria (1:5-9). They must exhibit blamelessness in their family relationships by being morally pure men who lead their homes in a faithful manner. They must demonstrate blamelessness in their relationships toward others by not being self-willed, quick-tempered, given to alcoholic beverages, violent, or greedy for money. Instead, they must be hospitable, promoters of good causes and good people, sober-minded, just, holy, and self-controlled. They must illustrate blamelessness in doctrine by being devoted to God’s Word.

Believers must also recognize the characteristics of false leaders and expose them for what they are (1:10-16). Those who claim to come in the name of Christ and yet are insubordinate, subversive, greedy, disreputable, unsound, defiled, and hypocritical reveal that they are not true men of God.

Christians comprising the local church must behave properly as the people of God in their relationships with each other (2:1-10). Regardless of age, gender, or social status, they must lead godly lives, motivated to do so because of God’s grace, the Lord’s soon return, and his sacrificial death (2:11-15).

They are also to fulfill their role in society as good citizens (3:1-8). They must willingly submit to the laws of the state, unless those laws contradict the laws of God. Christians must treat their fellow citizens with courtesy, honesty, and respect, realizing that at one time they themselves were without Christ, living contrary to God’s will. When believers reflect upon the grace of God in their salvation, they are able to give evidence of that grace in their relationships with their fellow citizens.

The church must be careful, however, to present one voice to the listening world (3:9-11). Those within the church who are guilty of spreading false doctrine and divisive talk must be totally avoided. They are not to be debated; they are to be rejected.

Finally, godly leaders are to recognize some significant principles about their roles within the church (3:12-15). They must realize they are replaceable, must give needed support to faithful ministries, must provide proper leadership by their encouragement and example, and must demonstrate appropriate affection to other believers.

If we endeavor to fulfill God’s role for us as a church, we will follow the lessons learned from Paul’s letter to Titus. These instructions are not to be shunned because they were delivered to another culture during another era. They transcend the centuries of time, the boundaries of geography, the impressions of culture, and the superficiality of yet another method.

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