Do I Really Need to Go to Church?

A Different Church Building

A Different Church Building (Photo credit: justshootingmemories)

Question: I am a “new” Christian and I have a question that concerns me.  I do not have a church home and to be perfectly honest, I have not found one that makes me comfortable.  There seems to be too much politics involved, so to speak.  I pray, I believe that Jesus died for me, I study my Bible and I listen to various services on TV and have received much knowledge by doing so.  My life is dedicated to serving my Lord but I do not want to displease Him.  Is it necessary to have a church home?

Answer:  Yes, I believe it is necessary to have a church home.  I know that there are unpleasant interactions in any body of people gathered for a common purpose.  Politics, the practice or study of the art and science of forming, directing, and administrating states and other political units, is an inevitable part of any collective body.  But the politics of the church should be about implementing the will of our Leader, Jesus Christ.  His apostles, who were his authoritative spokesmen for the faith, planted churces wherever they went.  That is, they called together the believers for the purpose of meeting in unity around the authoritative gospel message and to worship together their Savior.  They appointed leaders to help govern the church.  But of course, from the very beginning there were leaders who did not lead well and plenty of opportunities for church members to get upset with each other.

It is in this kind of situation, however, that we learn that we are just as capable of the very errors we hate and in which we must learn to love and be loved.  Like marriage, which is also a very imperfect reperesentation of the ideal love we want to experience, the institution becomes a laboratory for learning love.  If we submit to the Lord and ask him to help us be shaped by love and be shapers of others by our love, he will certainly work that in us.  We need the accountability of others in our lives and to be those who offer accountability.

This is why it says:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV).

For further reading:

If Christians are forgiven, why are we going to be judged?

Question:  It says in the Bible that those who are in Christ are free from condemnation. If this is so, why then willLast Judgement, Triptych we face judgment? And child molesters, rapists, and murderers, are they also free from condemnation when they accept Christ and repent? What sort of judgment might they receive? We will be judged according to our deeds? What does that mean? Christians say we should be free from guilt and shame and accept the free gift of grace and salvation. Then they say we will be judged. This is confusing to me. Should I fear for my salvation or just believe all is well? And honestly, where’s the justice? For those who lived a life of abuse and neglect, hurt, and shame caused by another, God says He will make things right for us. But if the perpetrator is forgiven completely, where’s justice for the victim?

Answer:  There are several judgments mentioned in the Bible.  The final judgment is mentioned in Revelation 20:11-15 and is often referred to as The Great White Throne Judgment because if depicts Jesus sitting on a white throne as he carries out this judgment.  But only unbelievers are present at this judgment, only those whose names are not found written in the Lamb’s book of life.  They are thus judged for not having believed in Christ and they are also judged on their works.  This suggests that there are degrees of punishment in hell (see my article on this).  Dante, in his book Inferno, sought to describe what these different degrees of punishment looked like but there are no specific descriptions given in Scripture.

Believers, on the other hand, will appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10):

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

Though it may sound as if this determines whether we are saved or not, Paul makes it clear in all his writings, and especially in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, that this judgment is really about determining our reward in heaven.  Just as there are degrees of punishment in hell, there are degrees of reward in heaven.  There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1).  When we believe we “pass from death to life” (John 5:24).

But your question suggests that for those who have been abused the presence of their perpetrator or any perpetrator in heaven because they repented and were forgiven may compromise your sense of reward.  This assumes that the sin of the perpetrator is different in kind than your sin and less worthy of forgiveness.  And truly, the sin of the perpetrator is egregious and heinous, having devastated and tortured the life of the victim in extraordinary ways.  But we are also rebels against God’s kingdom and rule.  We too have rejected the love and grace of God until He visited us in grace and forgave us.  We are equally undeserving of heaven.

Besides, when we are fully enveloped in the love of heaven, we will be able to love the perpetrator the way God loves the perpetrator and the way He loves us.  We will be able to say as Christ did, “Father, forgive them.”  The perpetrator will be able to acknowledge how deeply and gravely he injured those he abused and seek reconciliation.  We have seen a bit of this miraculous transformation in the aftermath of the end of apartheid in South Africa and in the forgiveness offered after the slaughter of Tutsis and Hutus.

There is a need in human beings, generated by the uncompromising love and justice of God, to see justice done and to see hatred quashed.  God has figured out a way to do both.  If there is not justice for the least infraction, there is no justice.  If there is not forgiveness for the worst infraction, there is no forgiveness.

 

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Is Listening to Secular Music Wrong?

Question:  I would like to know if it is alright for a Christian to listen to secular music. I’m not talking about that rap music or singing that degrades women or uses profanity. I’m talking about artists like Luther Vandross who sang nothing but love ballads. And other artists that are gifted who sing some really wonderful songs outside the gospel arena. My brother believes that if the music isn’t honoring God it’s wrong to listen to it. I totally disagree with that. I love the LORD and I love my brother, and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt him. But I don’t think he is looking at the big picture. The Bible said every good gift and every perfect gift cometh from the father of lights. So whether that person chooses to honor the good LORD or not it’s still a gift from GOD. Paul said everything is lawful but not everything is expedient. If it’s something that’s going to make my brother fall I’ll take it somewhere else. But to say secular music is wrong, I beg to differ.

Answer:  I am in agreement with you on this.  God has gifted human beings with God-likeness and part of that likeness is creativity in musical expression.  I have heard some beautiful music (lyrically and in quality of music).  I can celebrate God’s greatness as I see it expressed through human giftedness.  Psalm 8 says we were created a little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honor.  That does not contradict the Biblical message of man’s sinfulness, but rather complements it with a message of man’s glorious nature.

Besides, just because something isn’t explicitly Christian does not mean it is false or evil.  Some music is simply a description of a particular struggle or a particular joy.  Otis Redding was “sittin’ on the dock of bay” wasting time because he was lonely.  He was describing a particularly low point in his life with this song.  No, he didn’t give a Christian answer to the problem, but he accurately described a common problem people suffer.

So, of course, I must be careful to evaluate the message of the music.  Most modern songs, for example, are about love relationships and commonly “teach” that a love relationship with another human being is the answer to life.  That is an ungodly message.  But I can celebrate a loving human relationship in the right way using that song.  Also, listening to the world’s music shows me what people are thinking and gives me an avenue into their thoughts and beliefs and into their lives that might help me share the gospel with them.

Martin Luther created one of his greatest hymns, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, using a tune from a bar song.  The apostle Paul adapted a Greek poet/philosopher’s saying into his sermon (Acts 17:28).  He also wrote using a lot of athletic imagery (for example, Philippians 3:12-14), signalling his familiarity with the Greek games.  Being a part of the human community includes honoring that which is positive about the human community as much as decrying what is evil.  Human beings, even unsaved one, do an incredible amount of good things.  We need to affirm this.

When we try to remain aloof from any and every human endeavor that is not specifically proclaiming the gospel, we will find ourselves very much divorced from the life of our community and also very much divorced from opportunities to proclaim the truth.  Building relationships requires common ground.  Appreciating what is good in the arts is one platform of common ground.  I must watch to be careful that I am not so influenced by that common ground that I depart from the uncommon gospel.  But given that warning I can and should learn to appreciate what is good in secular music.

Is John Shelby Spong right that the Bible is unreliable?

Question:  I read an article by John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop, who seemed to question the historicity of the Bible and its authority over our lives in areas of morality.  Can you help me with his views?  Here is a link to the full article: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/29/my-take-the-3-biggest-biblical-misconceptions/?hpt=hp_c2.

Answer:  Reverend Spong sees three misconceptions people have about the Bible.

Misconception One

Spong’s  initial statement is,

To me, three misconceptions stand out and serve to make the Bible hard to comprehend.  First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it.

Let me fill you in on a little secret.  When someone says that “every” biblical scholar or pastor or parent or politician or whoever says or believes the same thing, you can know for a certainty that this is an overstatement that is hiding contrary views.  And believe me, there are contrary views among biblical scholars on Spong’s position.

There have been many books written by reputable scholars for both the Old and New Testaments that support the historicity of the Bible.  But let’s deal with some of the examples Spong uses.

Spong notes,

Abraham, the biblically acknowledged founding father of the Jewish people, whose story forms the earliest content of the Bible, died about 900 years before the first story of Abraham was written in the Old Testament.

From this disputed fact (disputed because there are reputable scholars who believe Moses wrote the account of Abraham 400 years after his life) Spong draws the conclusion that too much legend has grown up over that amount of time to give a realistic picture of a hero in Israelite history.  He makes the same argument about Moses and Jesus and the accuracy of their life stories.  Because the account of Jesus includes miracles this must surely be, in Spong’s mind, a padding of the account to make Jesus look more powerful than he was.

But oddly, when we read the account of Moses on the life of Abraham we do not find a glorified Abraham.  We see a very “warty” Abraham who lied about his wife being his sister, who married his wife’s servant at Sarah’s suggestion in order to circumvent what God told him would happen, and who expressed fear despite God’s promises to him that he would have a son through Sarah and that God would make a mighty nation from him.  Rather than glorifying Abraham we see him in his fallen human nature struggling to believe God.  By Spong’s account we ought to see him performing miracles and walking on water after so many years of legendary addition to his life story.

But this is not the way Bible history is written.  It defies the tendency Spong fears and gives us real people.  The other assumption Spong is making about the Bible is that God did not or could not guide the transmission of Abraham’s story, or Moses’ story or Jesus’ story, for that matter, accurately, protecting it from inaccurate accretion.  Spong’s naturalistic perspective, ruling out God’s purpose and power, taints all of his alleged concerns about the Bible.

Still dealing with the historicity of the Bible, Spong then asserts,

Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.

First of all, there is no reason to believe that Jesus did not speak or write in Greek, but even if he didn’t, how does that make an account of his life written in Greek therefore and of necessity inaccurate?  The logic is baffling!

It is of utmost importance, in fact, to recognize that such accounts of the life of an important person written only 40-70 years after his life and contained in thousands of existing manuscripts (there are over 5,000 existing New Testament manuscripts alone)  is unheard of for other famous individuals in history.  And it is likely that the accounts of the New Testament were written in some cases only 20-30 years after Jesus’ death.  This means there were people still alive who could refute or exonerate the accounts.  This is why Paul mentions that there were over 500 people who saw Jesus alive, or why the Gospels mention Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross, or other individuals who could be asked about these facts.

Spong’s last historical jab is this,

Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.

Spong is here assuming a view of Mark’s Gospel that sees it as a deliberate attempt to conform the life of Jesus to Old Testament prophecies.  He assumes what he wishes to prove.  But there is ample tradition and indications within Mark’s Gospel itself that it is based on eyewitness account.

Misconception Two

The second misconception Spong mentions is “the distorting claim that the Bible is in any literal sense ‘the word of God.’ Only someone who has never read the Bible could make such a claim.”  Well, of course, there are many who have read the Bible and claim exactly that.  But Spong’s evidence is that God endorses the violent judgment of unbelievers and this could certainly not be attributed to the God “everyone” knows is the true God.  And because people have misused these passages they cannot be from God.  Huh?  Again, the logic escapes me.  Has anyone misused Spong’s words?  Then they cannot be true.

Misconception Three

“The third major misconception,” according to Spong, “is that biblical truth is somehow static and thus unchanging.”  And there is something to what Spong is saying here.  There is a progression through the Bible of understanding and perspective, but it does not seem accurate to portray this as changing truth.  Because God deals with Israel in a way He does not deal with the church does not mean He is changing truth.  We deal with our children one way when they are minors and another as they mature into adults.

Spong’s final statement is,

The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that that life is capable of being. The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human. It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully and to have the courage to be our most complete selves.

But this only seems another way of saying that Spong has decided what being fully human is apart from Scripture, keeping the parts that fit with his perspective and explaining away those that don’t.  This kind of subjective handling of Scripture leaves one feeling that it would be best for him to simply say what he thinks is right and holy without appeal to the Bible at all.

For other articles exposing the poor logic and facts of John Shelby Spong see:

What’s Wrong with Bishop Spong?
William Lane Craig vs. John Shelby Spong on the resurrection of Jesus

John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels: A Critique

Randall Johnson

What is the value of water baptism?

Question:  What is the purpose of water baptism? Is it a sign of the believer’s covenant  with the Lord, similar to circumcision? At the very least, it seems valuable to me as a   tangible memory or similar to building an altar of remembrance of one’s new commitment to Christ. However, many today wait a long time to be baptized; this is in contrast to the New Testament times where people seemed to be baptized quickly.

Answer:  There are those who believe that water baptism is essential to salvation.  They will point to such passages as Acts 2:38 in which Peter says “repent and be baptized for the remission of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” and Acts 22:16 where Ananias instructs Paul to “be baptized and wash away your sins.”  But Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 1:13-17 that this is not the case.  He writes:

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name.  (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.)  For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

If baptism was essential to salvation, Paul could not and should not have separated it from preaching the gospel.  Christ, indeed, would have sent him to baptize if it were required.

But if it is not essential for salvation, or doesn’t actually wash away sins, then what does it do?  And I believe it does what you suggested.  It is a symbol that is an aid to faith.  Faith is what saves us, is what washes away our sins, but baptism gives visible and tactile expression to that faith.  Human beings need to give such expression to our inward beliefs to help solidify them in our souls.

In addition, the outward demonstration of faith given in baptism helps others to be more aware of our faith and acts as an encouragement to their own faith.  The Bible does not emphasize this but it is a reality.  And you are correct that normally new believers were almost immediately baptized upon conversion.  This did not always give much opportunity for a crowd to gather.  So the symbol is much more for the believer than for his or her fellow Christians.

However, there is nothing that says we must be baptized immediately.  The early church began a process of teaching new converts to ascertain whether they were genuine followers of Christ before baptizing them.  This seems to go too much counter to the New Testament example.  But for us to make it a part of a community worship opportunity seems a judicious use of the symbol to help everyone rejoice with the new convert.

Randall Johnson

Other articles on baptism:

Is the Mode of Baptism Inconsequential?

What Does Your Church Believe About Baptism?

How Do Angels Interact with People Today?

An angel comforting Jesus before his arrest in...

Image via Wikipedia

Question:  Four questions my wife and I are discussing:

  1. Are there any examples of angels engaging in combat in the Bible?
  2. Are there any examples of angels engaging in a healing process in the Bible?
  3. What are the methods of angels interacting with humans and do you have any references
  4. Do angels deliver messages today to believers and if so, is there a limit here to what messages and could they deliver it through other people?

Answer:  There is a surprising amount of information in the Bible about angels.  In answer to your questions… 

  1. Daniel 10 depicts an angel who came to answer Daniel’s prayer with a message from God.  He related to Daniel that the “prince of Persia” resisted him until the archangel Michael’s arrival to help him get free to come to Daniel.  It seems the conflict between angels in heaven affects the lives of people on earth.  Various political entities have angelic and demonic beings associated with them seeking to accomplish things in and through them.  The demonic prince of Persia did not want the angel from God to encourage Daniel, but Michael made sure he got through.  In addition to this passage many others speak of angels as the Host of God and angels are seen in battle or ready for battle in such passages as Numbers 22; 2 Samuel 24; 2 Kings 19; and Matthew 25:63 among others.
  2. After Jesus’ temptation (Matthew 4:11) and his prayer in Gethsemane (Luke 22:43) angels came to Jesus and ministered to or strengthened him.
  3. Angels are seen in Scripture accompanying the Israelites in the Exodus (Exodus 32:34), bringing messages from God (Matthew 1:20; 2:13; Luke 1:11-13, 26-28; Acts 10:3-6; 27:23,24; et al), participating in the last judgment (all through Revelation) and various other activities involving humans.  Admittedly, these are few and far between, but they on occasion act on behalf of God to accomplish His purposes.
  4. It is entirely up to God as to whether He wants to use angels today to deliver messages to believers and He may indeed choose to do so, as many have attested.  Hebrews 13:2 encourages us to entertain strangers since they might be angels.  This isn’t the only reason Scripture gives for helping those in need, but it shows us that God may still use angels in this way.  The only limit I can think of as to what they might communicate to people is that it cannot be in contradiction to God’s revealed Word in Scripture.  As to whether they can communicate through another person, that seems a little too much like demon possession and the Scripture never represents angels as doing that.

The Christian and Alcohol

Question:  I like to enjoy a beer or drink every once in a while, but many Christians don’t drink at all and it makes me wonder if I am sinning by drinking. 

Answer:  The Bible is very clear that drunkenness is a sin (Proverbs 20:1; 23:20,21, 29-35;31:4,5; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:18, which associate drunkenness with poverty, injustice and poor decision making), but the Bible nowhere commends complete abstinence. 

It does teach that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17), meaning that if the indulgence of our freedom in these matters encourages another believer to violate his conscience and sin it is better to give up our freedoms.  Paul deals with this issue both in Romans 14 and at length in 1 Corinthians 8-10.  If my conscience doesn’t condemn me on an issue God has given no command on, I am free to follow my conscience.  If my conscience tells me it is wrong, even though God does not, for me it is as if I have sinned against God by sinning against my conscience and I should not do what my conscience condemns.  If my conscience becomes free at some point in this area, I can change my behavior. 

However, others who see me acting in a way that their own conscience condemns may, because of my example, think they should act that way, and they violate their own conscience.  I have become a negative example for them and encouraged them indirectly to sin.  This is less of an issue in other countries than it is in the United States because of our history of preaching against alcohol use and our era of failed prohibition.  Many Christians still believe it is wrong to drink any alcohol.