Community

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“Behold, how good and pleasant it is 

when brothers and sisters dwell in unity!” 

(Ps 133:1)⁠1

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The word for church in Greek commonly used in the New Testament is: ecclesia (ἐκκλησίας;  Jas. 5:14 BNT) The word literally means called out ones.⁠2 The Apostle Paul, for example, writes:

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” (1 Cor. 1:2)

Paul’s usage conveys the idea of connection through Christ which Bonhoeffer (1995, 226) underscores in writing: “The preaching of the Church and the administration of the sacraments is the place where Jesus Christ is present.” Bonhoeffer’s statement echoes Christ’s own words (e.g. John 6:56).

Priesthood of All Believers

While this idea of the called out ones today evokes the image of a seminary, where everyone is specifically called to ministry, every member of the church is called to faith and ministry. As with Abraham, we are blessed to be a blessing to others (Gen 12:1-3). In this way, we are all priests serving under our great high priest, Jesus Christ, and are able to approach God through him (Heb 7:25).

Although the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is often interpreted narrowly to mean that church members should invite their neighbors and friends to church, the Apostle Peter links this priestly function specifically to sanctification:

“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander…As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet 2:1-5)

Note how he begins these verses with with a call to purity. Is it any wonder that scripture likens the church to a marriage?

The Scriptural Prominence of Marriage and Relationship to the Church

The prominence of marriage in scripture is unmistakable—the Bible begins and ends with a marriage—suggesting that marriage is God’s idea, not ours (Keller 2011, 13). 

Beginning in the Book of Genesis, we see a couple, Adam and Eve who are just made for each other and whose relationship is more important than the man’s relationship with his family. (Gen 2:24)  This idea that a man’s wife was more important than his family of origin was unthinkable in the ancient near east where siblings, not spouses, were one’s closest confidants (Hellerman 2001, 36).

Jesus treats the creation account of Adam and Eve as foundational in his teaching on divorce and remarriage. From the prospective of advocates of no-fault divorce, he significantly ignores the Law of Moses, which admits exceptions in divorce. If marriage is instituted by God in creation, then divorce cheapens marriage and is obviously not divinely sanctioned. More importantly, the formative aspects of marriage disappear if marriage only survives on sunny days.

Ending in the Book of Revelation, an angel informs us: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Rev 19:9) The church, which was betrothed to Christ on earth, is finally married to Christ in heaven. Because Revelation depicts many pictures of Christian worship in heaven with robes, trumpets, singing, prayer, visions, and processions, the analogy between marriage and the church is most explicit. 

The Formative Characteristics of Marriage

If the church’s relationship with Christ is compared to marriage, then what aspects of marriage are we talking about? 

The Apostle Paul highlights the formative character of marriage in his comments on mixed faith marriages. Paul reports that the believing spouse renders the whole marriage holy for the children (1 Cor 7:12–14). Paul also sees marriage as a witnessing opportunity. Paul asks: “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Cor 7:16) In other words, Paul clearly sees marriage possessing a sacrificial component. 

If marriage is formative, how does it draw us closer to God? At least three examples can be cited.

The first example is that God instituted marriage and commissioned marriage with a blessing and mandate: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . .” (Gen 1:28) God created marriage, blessed it, and said it was good—obeying God must draw us closer to him.

The second example is that it starts with an unconditional promise. God is the eternal promise keeper. In marriage we imitate our creator. Making and keeping good promises—even when it hurts—transforms us and draws us closer to God.

The third example marriage is that it makes us accountable. Our spouses know us in the biblical (covenantal) way! Our weaknesses and sin affect our spouses and they tell us. We sin less, in part, because our spouses make us more aware of our sin—a sanctification process that forms us—even if we are not believers! Part of this process is to learn reconciliation skills by practicing them daily. As the Apostle Paul wrote: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17)

This list of reasons why marriage is formative is especially interesting because God instituted marriage even before he instituted the nation of Israel or sent his son to die on the cross. God is not irrational. He knows that the biggest beneficiaries of marriage are our children. And he loves them as much as he loves us and, of course, as Christians we all God’s children. 

Formation of Character in Community

Just like in marriage, our Christian character is formed in relationship. Our first relationship in life is with our families. In faith, our relationship is with each of the three members of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Reinforcing these other relationships is our relationship with the church. Out of these relationships we develop a Christian identity that, in turn, becomes the basis for how we act.

The postmodern tendency is to play down the role the importance of Christian formation, especially in leadership, because of a deficient doctrine of sin and neglect of the heart. The New Testament treats the heart as a shorthand for the whole person—heart, mind, and soul. Sin begins in the heart and emanates into action. Acting out sin, in turn, pollutes the heart making future sin more likely, which is why the Bible treats sin not as an act, but as an act of rebellion. This polluting characteristic of sin undermines our Christian formation making the formative activities in the church all the more important.

Formed as we are in Christian relationships, our ethics arise from family, faith, and community of faith. As we mature in our faith, we naturally assume a leadership role in each of these domains.

Footnotes

1 Beginning Life Together with this scripture passage marked Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a dissenter in Nazi Germany where the Old Testament was considered un-German and Jewish (Metaxis 2010, 367-368)

2 Outside the church, it is also translated as assembly, as in a meeting of representatives or elected officials.

References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1954.  Life Together:  The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (Gemeinsames Leben).  Translated by John W. Doberstein.  New York:  HarperOne.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937).  Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth.  New York: Simon & Schuster—A Touchstone Book.

Hellerman, Joseph H. 2001. The Ancient Church as Family. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Keller, Timothy and Kathy Keller. 2011. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York: Dutton.

Metaxis, Eric. 2010.  Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson.

Community

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Character

Continue Reading

Character

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“You did not choose me, but I chose you and 

appointed you that you should go and bear fruit”  

(John 15:16)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What is a Christian?  

Is a Christian someone who has been baptized and confirmed or is it someone who draws closer to Christ with each passing day? The formalities of baptism and confirmation mark Christendom and the institutional church while the relational act of drawing closer to Christ is often associated with the Jesus (or pietist) movement.⁠1 Mission circles actively debate this question, in part, because formal church membership acts can bring persecution, arrest, and even death.

The Ancient Church

For scripture and for the ancient church, formality or relationship posed a false dichotomy. Jesus invited his disciples into relationship a long time before the church even existed:

“As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.” (Matt 9:9)

Still, even Jesus insisted on some formalities:

“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 10:32-33)

Later on the church’s indoctrination could take years before a new believer underwent baptism, suggesting that baptism was not a mere formality. Clearly, the early church took discipling seriously and engaged the inner life of the disciple beyond the reciting of a few Bible verses and a confessional statement.

Character Versus Personality

In his study of today’s moral dilemma facing the church, Wells makes a distinction between character, which arises from our inner life and virtues, and personality, which focuses on outward appearances. He writes:

“Today, we cultivate personality (a word almost unknown before the twentieth century) far more than we do character, and this is simply the concomitant to the way in which values have come to replace the older sense of virtue…Character is good or bad, while personality is attractive, forceful, or magnetic.” (Wells 1998, 96-97)

In some sense, the “hollowing out of the self” began with this emphasis on exterior characteristics and is exemplified by the rise of celebrities over heroes. Wells notes, citing Daniel Boorstin:

“The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media.” (Wells 1998, 100)

The focus on external appearances and the neglect of the inner life are akin to devaluing our experience of God, even if we believe that we take faith seriously. Wells observes:

“If the narcissist classically has a shrunken, fragmentary self, our culture has similarly become hollowed out and lost its core. If the narcissist covers up the emptiness by exaggerated self-importance and fantasies of power, our culture is covering up its hollowness by fads and fashions, ceaseless consuming, and the constant excitement of fresh sexual conquest.” (108)

While someone of strong moral character has no need of “buzz,” personality addicts live for public approval. Pastors are not the ones often guilty of being people pleasers. In Washington, the joke is that most dangerous place to stand is between a particular congressional representative (or senator or president) and the television cameras. 

Looking Beyond Personality 

 In the midst of a culture that constantly shouts at us, it can be hard to hear the still, small voice of God. If the shouting creates a crisis atmosphere that tempts us to ignore our inner life, to abandon our walk with Christ, and to evaluate our worth by secular standards, then our culture forms our character and our number one priority is not God, as required by the first Commandment (Exod 20:3-5). We commit idolatry and our identity lies in our family, work, gender, and other things. 

Identity is critical to Christian ethical practice. Just like fire fighters who run into burning buildings, not away from them, our identities shape our actions. This makes character formation a priority for Christian families and the church. 

Number One Priority

Jesus constantly talked about the heart and loving the right things—his way of talking about character formation and an allusion to the first Commandment—as we read:

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45)

For the Hebrew, heart and mind are undivided, components of a unified whole, as we are reminded in the Shema, the Jewish Daily Prayer, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:5) that Jesus repeats in his Greatest Commandment discourse (Matt 22:36-40).

If we act out of our identity, then obviously Christian ethics requires that we strive in our daily walk to make Christ our number one priority.

Footnotes

See, for example, (Gehrz and Pattie 2017).

References

Boorstin, Daniel J. 1962. The Image; or, What Happened to the American Dream. New York: Atheneum.

Gehrz, Christopher  and Mark Pattie III. 2017. The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Wells, David. 1998. Losing Out Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Character

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Character

Continue Reading

Living Expectantly

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Moral confusion pervades postmodern culture. This confusion directly threatens our persons and our way of life. While the Christian starts every conversation about morality with God, we can just as easily begin by observing that morality reflects not only a divine edict but the revealed experience of human beings struggling to make sense of life and survive in a sinful world. 

Normalization of Drugs

While our minds normally gravitate towards immoral sexual activity when moral confusion is discussed, the normalization of drug use probably makes the point even more clearly. According to a recent survey by the federal government:

“In 2014, 27.0 million people aged 12 or older used an illicit drug in the past 30 days, which corresponds to about 1 in 10 Americans (10.2 percent). This percentage in 2014 was higher than those in every year from 2002 through 2013.” (CBHSQ 2015, 1)⁠1

What is the response of the body politic to this serious social crisis? Because most drug use involves marijuana, Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington DC have as of this date legalized recreational use of marijuana.⁠2 This response suggests that, in spite of the negative medical impacts of marijuana use and almost universal opposition from police departments around the country, a majority of voters in these states approve of these legal changes.

Negative Impacts of Drugs

While we might have a “open minded” discussion about the morality of consuming illegal drugs, the criminal activity associated with providing these substances is devastating communities throughout Central American and has led to historically high levels of illegal immigration into the United States in recent decades. The inability of young people and rural people to pass random drug tests has made it difficult for American companies to recruit employees, especially among defense contractors. The flip side of this recruiting problem is that many Americans have systematically precluded themselves from a high-paying job in their chosen field or in their local community because of drug use.

Why the moral concern about drug use? Employers want nothing to do with drug users because drug use impairs mental concentration and is often associated with criminal activity, depression, and suicide. Record drug use is not incidentally associated with a thirty-year high in suicides (Tavernise 2016). Reinforcing this observation, alcohol intoxication is reported in about half of all suicides (Mason 2014, 34).

Christian Ethics

Christian ethics starts with God in whose image we are created (Gen 1:27). In the Old Testament God interacts with his people primarily through the giving of covenants. After a second giving of the Ten Commandments, we find God revealing his character to Moses:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6)

This description of God’s character provides a context for interpreting the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus, but for us as image bearers it also gives us a template for ethical behavior. Jesus endorses this image ethic in the Lord’s Prayer when he prays: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6:10)  The Apostle Paul says it even more directly: “be imitators of God” (Eph 5:1)

Later in Matthew when Jesus tells us to love God and neighbor (Matt 22:36-40), we embody this love first by imitating God’s ethical character and then by sharing this character with our neighbor. Remember that mercy, grace, patience, love, and faithfulness all require an object. The obvious object here is our neighbor because how exactly are we to show mercy or grace to God?

Role of Risk in Ethics and Judgment

Circling back to the moral confusion in postmodern culture, Christians are often accused of being judgmental and many are. But judgment and discernment differ substantially. As Christians we discern that most immoral behavior is also risky, suggesting a direct link with how we were created. 

Risk is an expected loss. In a sense, most moral behavior works like the premium on an insurance policy that protects us from a knowable and avoidable loss. Most people hate paying insurance premiums until they experience the loss for themselves. 

If we discern that a behavior places someone at risk of a future loss, we should inform them humbly of our insight, be it from scripture or life experience, and pray that they will not incur the loss or, should it be incurred, that they will turn to God in their loss. Such prayer leaves room for God’s sovereign grace and, if we are humble about it, we may also gain the confidence of that person in dealing with future issues.

Christian Distinctive

What sets Christians apart from others, especially secular people, is that we live, not expecting death, but expecting Christ’s return. Life is not a risk; it is an opportunity to prepare for our ultimate homecoming. We live life taking chances for the kingdom and leaving room for joy, because we know the end of the story is in Christ.

References

Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ). 2015. Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (Health and Human Services (HHS) Publication No. SMA 15-4927, NSDUH Series H-50). Retrieved from http://www.samhsa.gov/data. (Cited: 18 October 2018).

Mason, Karen. 2014. Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors. Downers Grove: IVP Books.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

Footnotes

1 This citation continues: “The illicit drug use estimate for 2014 continues to be driven primarily by marijuana use and the nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers, with 22.2 million current marijuana users aged 12 or older (i.e., users in the past 30 days) and 4.3 million people aged 12 or older who reported current nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers.” (CBHSQ 2015, 1)

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decriminalization_of_non-medical_cannabis_in_the_United_States.

Living Expectantly

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Character

Continue Reading

Preface to Living in Christ

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run,
but only one receives the prize?
So run that you may obtain it.” (1 Cor 9:24)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Christian walk begins with spiritual rebirth (John 3:3). On the Day of Pentecost with the founding of the church, the Apostle Peter described rebirth in these terms: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) The Apostle Paul describes this rebirth differently, saying: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9) Rebirth is a lifelong transition that starts with repentance, baptism, belief in the resurrection of Christ—our living role model—and proceeds under the mentorship of the Holy Spirit.

Character

Every journey has a destination. As in the Parable of the Talents, Christians live in anticipation of Christ’s return and to hear the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matt 25:21) Success in this context requires that we use our talents to advance God’s Kingdom to the extent we are able. Christian ethics requires modeling ourselves after Christ, striving to undertake our duty to advance the Kingdom, and living in the hope of Christ’s return in glory. In Christ, we live joyfully knowing who we serve and how the story ends.

Community

Although the tendency in our time is to interpret the Gospel as individuals, we live in a community modeled after a Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who live in perfect, eternal harmony. We are never alone in coming to faith, working out our gifts as we prosper in faith, and living in anticipation of Christ’s return. Being created in the image of a perfect and holy God, God himself models in Christ what it means to be good, be emotionally secure, and judge rightly. Our hearts and minds are wholly integrated and because we live in a community that values integration, we strive together to perfect our characters and our talents respecting spiritual boundaries provided by God himself.

Leadership

Part of our own maturation process is learning to live responsibly in community and to offer leadership in our families and the community of faith, and within society, regardless of our talents and roles. Christian leadership is rooted in humility which leaves room in our personal and corporate lives for God’s intervention. For this reason, inner strength, not physical strength, exemplifies the Christian leader because self-confident people are the ones willing to take up the wash-basin and follow Christ (John 13:3-15).

Four Philosophical Questions

The ethics question is one of four questions typically posed in philosophy that must be addressed by any serious spirituality. These questions are:

1.Metaphysics—who is God?

2.Anthropology—who are we?

3.Epistemology—how do we know?

4.Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)

As an author, my first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question and my third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. My fourth book, Simple Faith, examined the epistemological question. In this book, I explore the ethics question writing not as one with specialized training in philosophy but as one cognizant of the need, both as a Christian and an author interested in Christian spirituality, to have a reasonable answer to the question—how do we act out our faith, especially knowing that we are created in the image of God?

Christian Perspective

In examining the ethics question, I focus on ethics from a Christian perspective. Here I will not try to justify Christian ethics so much as explain them. At a time and in a place where people scoff at developing a theological understanding of their faith and refuse to teach Christian morality, ethics is almost a lost art in the church. At the heart of the ethical dilemma is the problem that theological principles are in tension with one another and always have been, something that is so obvious that it cannot be overlooked and requires serious discernment. For example, how do you love a sinner who refuses to confess their sin and forces you to pay their consequences? How do you practice forgiveness? Ethics training may not answer the question, but it will help you frame it appropriately for further reflection and future action.

Spirituality is Lived Theology

Ethics is never devoid of a context for acting out our faith, be it character formation within our own lives, being mentored within the community of faith, or learning to assume leadership. It is therefore useful to review case studies of each of these contexts both in scripture and in our present circumstances. If our spirituality is lived theology, then it is informed by our theology and, in turn, our life informs our theological reflection.

References

Kreeft, Peter. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine Press.

Preface to Living in Christ

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Lead

Continue Reading