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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

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James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.

If you’ve been in almost any Christian bookstore or card shop, you’ve probably seen a plaque or bookmark, print or wall-hanging, featuring a story called “Footprints in the Sand.”

It tells of a man who dreamed that he saw his life in terms of a walk along the beach with God. Throughout the years, there were two sets of footprints. One was his, and the other was God’s. Yet he noticed that during the most difficult times of his life, only one set of footprints appeared in the sand. In his dream, he asks God about the single set of footprints and is told that those were the times God carried him.

“Awww.”

Let me give you a new and improved version that a friend once e-mailed me:  

One night I had a wondrous dream,
One set of footprints there was seen,
The footprints of my precious Lord,
But mine were not along the shore.

But then some stranger prints appeared,
And I asked the Lord, “What have we here?
Those prints are large and round and neat.
But Lord, they are too big for feet.”

“My child,” he said in somber tones,
“For miles I carried you alone.
I challenged you to walk in faith,
But you refused and made me wait.”

“You disobeyed, you would not grow,
The walk of faith, you would not know.
So I got tired, I got fed up.
And there I dropped you on your butt.”

Because in life, there comes a time,
When one must fight, and one must climb,
When one must rise and take a stand,
Or leave their butt prints in the sand.

For some reason, I don’t think I’ll see that one hanging from a wall, much less printed on a greeting card. But it probably should be, because it speaks to one of the most critical barriers to the transforming work of God in our lives, the sin of sloth.

We don’t hear about sloth much these days, but it’s a good word, one we ought to get reacquainted with, because it holds a major key to life-change through the power of God. As described by Dorothy Sayers, sloth is that “...which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive only because there is nothing it would die for.”

Or in a one-word assertion that many in our day put forward, sloth merely says, “Whatever.”

Yet as all-encompassing as these descriptions might be, sloth is specific in its manifestations. The usual face we put on sloth is that of laziness. But consider the other faces of sloth, such as the face of tolerance, which leads us to accept how we are without any attempt at change. 

Or the face of apathy. Soren Kierkegaard once declared, “Let others complain that the age is wicked; my complaint is that it is wretched, for it lacks passion.”

Or the face of procrastination, the persuasive whisper that there is no need to hurry, robbing us of a proper sense of urgency. Procrastination is knowing what we need to do, but never quite bringing ourselves to do it.

Or the face of activity. This is an ironic side to sloth, but very real. We can fill our lives with busy-ness, events and recreation to the point that we never attend to the matters that most need our attention.

Finally, sloth can carry the face of circumstance. It’s easy to exaggerate the power of circumstances, allowing the situations we encounter to dictate our lives – and specifically, dictate what we do not do. Sloth tells us not to bother, to just give in to the situation.

But regardless of its face, we must journey from sloth to diligence,

…or leave our butt prints in the sand.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Dorothy Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” The Whimsical Chrisitan.

Soren Kierkegaard, A Kierkegaard Anthology, Robert Bretall, editor.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Just hearing the two words, “religion” and “politics,” and the blood pressure rises, doesn’t it?

All the more reason to be surprised by a recent Pew Research Center study finding that an increasing number of people actually wish there was more religion in politics.  Research points to a “growing appetite” for such things as church-endorsed candidates and other church-state intersections.

It’s not difficult to see why this desire is rising.  While three out of four Americans – a record high – believe that religion is “losing its influence on American life,” a majority believe that this is for the worse.

So now fewer Americans believe churches should stay out of politics (only 48% in 2014, down from 52% in 2010), and about half believe that churches should express views on social and political questions, an increase from only 42% expressing that sentiment in 2010.

As for mixing religion and business, such as whether business owners opposed to same-sex marriage should be required to provide flowers, food or photography for such weddings – Pew found that Americans are almost evenly split (49% said they should, 47% said they should not).

Perhaps even more startling is that the number of Americans in agreement that homosexual behavior is sinful has actually risen.  45 percent agreed in 2010, and now it’s climbed to 50 percent.  Whether this is a sign of a reversal of cultural opinion, or simply a leveling off, is unclear.  But the rise remains statistically significant.

So what to make of these new findings?

To my thinking, the mix of findings point to a rising concern for the moral and spiritual condition of our nation.  There’s enough “Christian” in the “post-Christian” nature of our context that a freefall into an amoral milieu is being met with alarm.

This is no call for a return to the days of the Moral Majority, which remains a period in time that is distasteful to almost all.  Instead, the desire seems to be for an increase in winsome conscience and compelling conviction that is religious in nature. 

Think William Wilberforce, or Martin Luther King, Jr.

Richard John Neuhaus wrote that we live in a “naked public square,” meaning that religious ideas and mores no longer inform public discourse.  It would seem we are finding that we would like to put at least something on.  Or at the minimum, to have those who are in the public square to at least have a loincloth.

But therein lies both the peril and the promise.  It should not be assumed that the clothing of choice will be Christian in nature.  It could be anything promising conviction or conscience, spirituality or transcendence, morality or character. 

So rather than culture looking to Christians to speak out and lead, it is more of an opportunity for Christians to do so in a way that contends for the Christian faith in the spiritual marketplace of ideas.  “We may talk of ‘conquering’ the world for Christ.  But what sort of ‘conquest’ do we mean?” wrote John Stott.  “Not a victory by force of arms...This is a battle of ideas.” 

Yet there are surprisingly few warriors. 

Those who follow Christ have too often retreated into personal piety and good works, or as one BBC commentator I heard over the radio while jogging one morning in Oxford, Christians have too often offered mere “feelings” and “philanthropy.”  Speaking specifically to the challenge from Islam, he added that what is needed is more “hard thinking” applied to the issues of the day. 

What remains to be seen is whether there will be any hard thinkers to do it.

But make no mistake.

People are more eager than ever to hear it.

James Emery White

 

Sources

“Public Sees Religion’s Influence Waning,” Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, September 22, 2014, read online.

“Pew Surprised by How Many Americans Want Religion Back in Politics,” Morgan Lee, Christianity Today, September 22, 2014, read online.

James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press).

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Editor's Note: This is the third of three blogs on the demise of a robust understanding of "church" in modern evangelical life. To read the first installment, click here.  To read the second installment, click here.

The earliest church, in the first forty or so years following the resurrection of Jesus, was essentially a movement within Judaism that believed that the Messiah had come.  But then, around 70 A.D., Jerusalem fell to the Romans, and the Christian church was dispersed.  The most important church that emerged, as you would imagine, was the one in Rome, which was the capital of the Roman Empire. 

During the next few centuries, the church defined itself by four very important words: one, holy, catholic and apostolic.  Each word carries great significance. 

First, the church was to be one, or unified.  Jesus, in His great and grand final prayer recorded in John's gospel, prayed fervently for unity among those of us who would embrace His name in years and centuries to come. 

Second, it was to be a holy church, meaning set apart for God and separate from the world, for God Himself is holy.  The church is to reflect this holiness to the degree that it can be identified with God as holy. 

Third, the church was to be catholic, which simply meant "universal."  The church was meant to be a worldwide church, one that included all believers under its umbrella.  So the word "catholic" was being used of the church long before any kind of institution within Christianity used it for its own. 

Finally, the church was to be apostolic, which means committed to the teaching handed down by Jesus through the apostles. 

Beyond being one, holy, catholic and apostolic, local churches were entities that had definition and form, structure and purpose.  They were not simply doing "community" in the broadest of senses, much less simply pursuing ministry. 

In the Bible, the church was a defined, purposeful gathering of believers who knew they were coming together to be a church.  There were defined entry and exit points to the church; clear theological guidelines navigating corporate and community waters; the responsibility of stewarding the sacraments; specifically named leadership positions; and, of course, a singular mission. 

Yes, one often hears that the church is where "the Gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered."  This is taken from the Augsburg Confession (1530), the primary confessional statement of the Lutheran Church, courtesy of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon.  Calvin said much the same thing in his Institutes.  But sensing the inadequacy of such a definition, in 1539 Luther wrote On the Councils and the Churches, and added five more distinguishing characteristics, including church discipline, ordination, and worship through prayer and singing. 

All to say, there are those who intimate that the idea of the church in the New Testament is either so embryonic, or so ethereal, that there is a license to define the church in any way desired.  This simply is not the case.  In trying to convey the specificity inherent within the nature and definition of the church to my seminary students, including a clear sense of when you know you actually have the church in operation and not just a pale imitation or even impostor, I came up with five "C's," beginning with community

To be a church, you must be a community of faith.  There is no sense that this community is to be segmented in any way, whether by race, ethnicity, gender or age.  In fact, the radical declaration of Paul in Galatians is that in Christ such divides are no longer to exist (Galatians 3:28).  There is clear instruction that within the church, such worldly divides are to be turned on their head.  For example with age, the young are not to be despised if called to lead the old, and with wealth, the ones with means should care for those without.  

But the community is to be defined in one way: it is to be made up of God's people.  Those outside of the faith are to be welcomed and spiritually served – even to the point of ensuring their understanding of the proceedings of public worship and being sensitive to their sensibilities (I Corinthians 14), but they are never to constitute the church itself, nor partake in its sacraments. 

As a defined community of faith, we read how the New Testament church had clear entry and exit points.  We see this throughout the New Testament not only in the address of the apostle's letters to defined groups of people in various geographic locations, but also in the prescribed exercise of church discipline.  Paul talks of those "inside" the church and those "outside" the church, and speaks of the importance of expelling those who are wicked and unrepentant (I Cor. 5:12-13).  

The second dynamic which constitutes the church involves confession.  The idea of "confession", in the sense being suggested here, is related to the Greek homologeo, which means "to say the same thing" or "to agree."  For the church to be the church, it must be a place where the Word of God as put forward in Scripture is proclaimed in its fullness.  If a Christian church is anything, it is foundationally confessional, for the earliest mark of the Christian movement was the clear confession that Jesus is the Christ (Mk. 8:29), or the Lord (Rom. 10:9; cf. Acts 16:31; I Cor. 12:3; Php. 2:11).

Formal confessions of faith, which are doctrinal summaries of essential Christian beliefs, have been developed throughout the history of the Christian church in order to verbalize basic doctrinal commitments.  Among the earliest of examples is what is now known as the Nicene Creed, so called because it was at the Council of Nicea [325] that it was adopted:

We believe in one God the Father All-sovereign, maker of all things visible and invisible;
           And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on the earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man, suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge living and dead.

           And in the Holy Spirit.
           And those that say 'there was when he was not,'
                      and, 'Before he was begotten he was not,
                      and that, 'He came into being from what-is-not,'
           or those that allege, that the son of God is
                      'Of another substance or essence'
                      or 'created'
                      or 'changeable'
                      or 'alterable,'
these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.

The third mark of the church is corporate.  The Bible speaks of defined organizational roles, such as pastors/elders/bishops and deacons, as well as corporate roles related to spiritual gifts such as teachers, administers, and, of course, leaders (Rom. 12; I Cor. 12; Eph. 4; I Pet. 4).  These corporate dynamics allow money to flow from one group to another (II Corinthians 8); decisions to be made by leaders as to doctrine and practice (Acts 15); and the setting apart of some individuals for appointed tasks, mission and church plants (Acts 13).  There are often disparaging quips made about "organized religion," but there is nothing "disorganized" about the biblical model.

The fourth dynamic of the local church is celebration.  The church is to gather for public worship as a unified community of faith, including the stewarding of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, for these are far from being "public domain."  In the New Testament, believers were to "come together" for the Supper, and its proper administration fell under apostolic teaching and direction which was then delegated to pastors to oversee.  Indeed, the refusal of the Lord's Supper by church leaders to church members has been one of the more common approaches to church discipline throughout history. 

The final mark of the local church relates to cause.  The church is on a very specific mission, given to it by Jesus Himself, to reach out to a deeply fallen world and call it back to God.  According to the Bible, this involves active evangelism with subsequent discipleship, coupled with strategic service to those in need, such as the poor.  We are to be the body of Christ to this world, and the twin dynamics of evangelism and social concern reflect Christ's ongoing mission.  And it is this "cause" that may be the most defining mark of all.  Theologian Jurgen Moltmann reminds us that the church does not "have" a mission; rather, the mission "has" us.  And it is the mission of Christ which creates the church.  God has sent Himself, and now sends us.  This is the "missio dei," the "sending of God."  Or as Christopher J.H. Wright contends, our mission "means our committed participation as God's people, at God's invitation and command, in God's own mission within the history of God's world for the redemption of God's creation."  So to engage the mission of God is to engage His church; they are inextricably intertwined. 

There is a phrase that runs in some circles.  When a glimpse of Christ's dream erupts, there is an exclamation, "This is church."  Much of it flows from the "asides" within Luke's narrative of Acts where he seems to pause in his history, full of the drama of the unfolding of Christ's dream, and writes a description of its power and majesty.  Perhaps his most well-known summation is in the second chapter:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, NIV)

That is church.  And it was a beautiful thing to behold.  The challenge is to so pursue it that we can behold it again.

James Emery White

 

Sources

The marks of the church were affirmed in both the Nicene (A.D. 325) and Niceno-Constantinopolitan (A.D. 381) creeds.

John Calvin, Institutes 4.1.9.

Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms

Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church.

Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit.

Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.

Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative.

Editor's Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of three blogs on the demise of a robust understanding of “church” in modern evangelical life.  To read the first installment, click here.

The word “parachurch” is built off of two words:  “para,” which means “alongside of” and, of course, the word “church.”  As conceived, the parachurch is meant to serve “alongside” the church - not in place of the church or in competition with the church. 

One could easily trace its roots to the early monastic movement and countless subsequent ministry endeavors since.  Originally embraced as a way to enlarge the boundaries of God’s work beyond the traditional church, it has often become a substitute entity; sometimes competitive, and occasionally antagonistic. 

The role of the parachurch has loomed so large in certain circles that it has led some to speak of the “potential” partnership of the church and parachurch, as if it might be a nice option, which speaks for itself as to the devaluation of our ecclesiology.

Suffice it to say, there are many, many legitimate and even strategic parachurch ministries. 

But there are also many that are not. 

When a parachurch group does little more than replicate what local churches are already doing,

...when they serve at the invitation of churches for a season but then, when the church proper is prepared and ready to invest itself, refuse to close up shop and move elsewhere,

...when they do not truly serve “alongside” any church, but rather show up with an announcement that they have arrived and a request to “pay, pray and get out of the way”,

...you do not have a healthy parachurch enterprise.

Yet this is precisely what you have with countless parachurch efforts. 

The free-market response is, of course, to point to success.  It is all too common to point to results alone and from that claim biblical justification.  This is no stronger of an argument than citing the amount of money raised for ministry during the telethon in Clearwater, Florida led by Jim Bakker on the day of his sexual tryst with a secretary. 

Though the Bible says to make judgments based on fruit, it is a common misinterpretation to assume this means legitimacy.  In truth, the Bible’s call to judgment is about individuals, not enterprises, and the “fruit” in mind has to do with the fruit of the Spirit.  The reality is that some parachurch groups are justified in light of this relationship with the church, and some are not, success notwithstanding.  But whether “legitimate” or not, parachurch groups are not the church, nor should they become a substitute for the church. 

So where is the church today?  When do you know the church is truly present?  Is my campus group the church?  Is my small group the church?  As a pastor, such matters are far from academic.  Knowing what is and is not the church is often at the heart of daily life:

...the energetic young man who makes an appointment, casts a vision for a parachurch marketplace ministry, and wants the church to support his efforts and platform his seminars;

...the small group that asks if they can take the Lord’s Supper together;

...the homeschooling family who asks about “home-churching”;

...the father who asks about taking it upon himself to baptize his son in their backyard pool;

...the opportunity to offer satellite campuses with video teaching throughout your city, and even around the world;

...the volunteer who is interested in leadership, but does not want to become a member.

It is precisely upon these questions – knowing when we do have the church and are being the church – that we must strengthen our grip.

The word “church,” from the Greek word “ecclesia,” literally means “the called-out ones.”  It was a word that was used in Jesus' day for any group that was gathered together for a specific purpose or mission.  Jesus seized the term to speak of a group with a very specific purpose or mission, setting it apart from every other group or mission. 

This is where “ecclesiology,” which is the theological term for the doctrine of the church, finds it origin.  The church of Christ, however, is anything but a man-made organization, but instead was founded and instituted by Jesus Himself (Mt. 16:18). 

In the Bible, you have three primary understandings of this church, the body of Christ:  the local church, the universal church as she exists around the world, and the church as she exists throughout time and history - incorporating all of the saints that will one day be gathered together in heaven. 

Without question, the dominant biblical use is in reference to a local church or collection of local churches as defined bodies of believers that were gathered with both intent and order.  Think of how the letters of Paul were written:  “To the church of God at Corinth;” “To the churches in Galatia;” “To the church of the Thessalonians;” and at the beginning of John’s Revelation, “To the seven churches in the province of Asia.” 

This church was to serve as the ongoing manifestation of Christ Himself on earth, being called His “body,” an idea of profound significance throughout the New Testament.  As the apostle Paul wrote:  "Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.  We each have different gifts according to the grace given us" (Romans 12:4-6).

And later in the New Testament, we read Paul reiterating this idea:  “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (I Corinthians 12:27).  And if the point hadn’t been made clearly enough, Paul writes the following words to the church at Ephesus:  “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:22-23; see also 5:23; Colossians 1:18, 2:19). 

Beyond the interconnectedness this suggests, it means that the church is the locus of Christ's activity and He works through the church now as He worked through His physical body during His 33-year life.  In the New Testament there is no ministry outside of the church, or at least its umbrella. 

But what is this “local” church that functions as the body of Christ?

That is for the next post.

James Emery White

 

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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