Church

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The Unchurched

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About 30 years ago, a young man came to interview me as part of his Master’s degree thesis on ‘The Unchurched’.

His research indicated that over 1.5 million committed Christians in South Africa were not attending church. I don’t know what the situation is today, but my impression is that in post-Covid19 South Africa, it is far worse than three decades ago. I have encountered many believers who either do not attend church or who do so only because their families drag them along. The reasons given tend to cluster around the following:

    • Sports and family activities take priority
    • There are many online alternatives available
    • Don’t see the need for church rather than private spirituality
    • Offence by church leaders or other church members
    • Disagreements over doctrines
    • Finding church services long, boring, and not relevant to modern life

Personal Experience

There could be many other reasons, but everyone has a personal story to tell. I have a story to tell because for the first time in my 46 years as a Jesus-follower I have experienced being part of the large yet invisible ‘Unchurched’. In the past, I have seen this ‘church problem’ from the perspective of a church leader, but now I have experienced it from the other side. I don’t believe there is much to gain from detailing just how I found myself on the ‘dark’ side, but my experiences may well help others who are part of The Unchurched.

The Value of the Local Church

I have always believed that the local church is very important to the Lord Jesus and, therefore, to every one of his followers. My recent experiences have not shaken this belief. Some of the reasons why the church is important are:

  1. Acts 20:28 Once a year for the 28 years that I led a local church I would read this verse to my fellow Elders: ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. This alone should settle the matter of the worth and importance of the local church.
  2. Hebrews 10:23-25Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching’.
  3. God designed the local church to be more organic than organisational in nature. In some mysterious, but very real way, it is a living manifestation of the Body of Christ in a particular area and culture. Each born-again believer is a cell within this body and can therefore only thrive over time as a functional part of this body.
  4. The church is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the ‘place’ of his presence. When believers come together as a church, they, in a wonderfully mysterious way, constitute this temple.

These are four reasons why the local church is important to God and should be important to all Jesus-followers.

What I Missed

Having spelled out the value and importance of the local church, the place I want to start, in setting out my experiences and observations, is by mentioning what I missed most by being unchurched.

  1. I missed the faces, voices, hugs, and simple presence of other believers. A properly functioning church is one in which the people get to know each other, interact, and over time come to love one another.
  2. Another feature of a properly functioning church is that it provides the opportunity to give and receive, to minister and to receive ministry, and to witness others experiencing this.
  3. I missed the spiritual stimulation of singing out praise and worship together with many others.
  4. I dearly missed the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit moving among his people and animating us all to become more than just solitary parts but co-joined living cells within something greater.
I have used the words ‘properly functioning church’ purposefully because not all churches function as an organic body. Many are self-serving organisations, leader-dominated means to control or self-enrich. Far too many are religious edifices that serve only to perpetuate traditions and superficial expressions of spirituality.

I filtered out these types of churches when I eventually started to look for a church to attend. Instead, I initially did two things – I prayed and I viewed the online services of several churches in the area. I later visited a few. This is what I observed:

  • Most of them had positioned themselves as alternatives to modern secular life. They turned off the main lighting during the worship and even during the preaching, much like a theatre. The leaders sported ‘with it’ clothing, trendy facial hair, and eerily similar styles of speaking. The services minimised worship, sharing, and ministry and maximised notices, offerings, and preaching. The preaching was mainly superficial and self-improvement-oriented.
  • However, I visited a couple of churches where the leaders were genuinely trying to create what they saw as authentic biblical church life. Here other questions rose in me – could I contribute meaningfully to this church? Could I accept the particular rules and doctrines that they thought important enough to insist on? Would they accept me for who and what I am, an elderly past church leader and theologian?

I did not find one that I could join and serve, but I never stopped being open to joining a local church. However, I needed the Lord to guide me because on my own it is so hard to find a place to belong.

What Surprised Me

There were some things that I just did not expect to experience when I left the church that had been my spiritual home for over three decades.

  • I didn’t expect to find myself “cancelled”. I knew of the cancel culture so prevalent in the world, but I did not expect it from Christians. In my case, I do not think it was a strategy, but rather just out-of-sight-out of mind.  In the months after leaving, very few people reached out to me, particularly among the men I had shared leadership with and regarded as genuine friends for so many years. To most, I became generally invisible and irrelevant. Not to all, of course, and most who were ‘house friends’ continued their relationships with me. I also have to note (with a wry smile) that when I was a leader in the church there was an expectation that the missing sheep also had an obligation to reach out to us. I can see how unrealistic this is because someone who is grieving loss just doesn’t know how to re-establish relationships without creating further problems.
  • I also did not expect to experience the severity of the resentment and emotional pain that came with severance from my church family. My wife and I have been married for 55 years and so I have never experienced the negative power of divorce, although I have often observed it. Well, leaving a church body seems similar in many ways to a divorce.
  • Although I had warned people from the pulpit how spiritually lonely it is to be outside of the local church, I did not expect it to take such a toll on personal devotions, prayer, and spiritual passion. It is a truism that a lump of coal cannot remain hot for long when removed from the fire.

What I Needed to Do

I cannot presume to say what other unchurched believers should do; all I can do is mention what I have done in the hope that this may be helpful.

  1. I resolved to continue to grapple with the difficulty of finding an authentic local church where I could belong. I tried to ensure that I was open to the possibility and I constantly asked the Holy Spirit to lead me to one. When I came across a new possibility, then I went there to see if it was ‘the one’. I widened my field of vision to include house churches or Christian fellowship groups that are not necessarily part of an established church.
  2. I continued to try to deal with offence, resentment and hurt. I wanted to respond to these realities in the way Jesus taught and demonstrated, but I found it difficult, complex, and full of lose-lose options. In the past, I might have said “Oh boo hoo, just get over yourself” but I won’t be making that mistake again.
  3. I refrained from bad-mouthing the church leadership to their members or saying and doing anything that could hurt the church. I did not volunteer to others the reasons why I resigned and only gave details if specifically asked.
  4. I continued to value the local church in what I said and wrote and I tried my best to keep my relationship with Jesus and his followers sincere and transparent.

Why I have Written This Article

 

I have shared my experiences transparently in the hope that what I have written will be helpful to both unchurched folks and, perhaps, church leaders. It was a painful experience living on the outside, but it would only have been a worthless experience if I and others could not learn from it.

Over the last year I have learned, and relearned, some important life lessons. One of these was the difficulty in grasping how others might view the things I said and did. For instance, I felt abandoned and did not realise that others might have felt abandoned by me. Another important issue I had to face was the destructive power of unforgiveness, which I knew had to be dealt with if I could but find a satisfactory way to do so.

I have written this article in the past tense because for the last several weeks I have been back at my ‘home’ church. The Lead Elder graciously reached out to me and we were able to forgive and reconcile. Things will probably not be the same as they were ‘back in the day’, but they never are, are they?

The Unchurched Read More »

The Man in the Middle: The Real Focus of Easter

Easter weekend is upon us again. I don’t much like the term ‘Easter’, but so many people refer to Passover Weekend by that name that I will let it stand … for now.

Please note that I have included the podcast along with this post, so scroll down or look out for it on your pocast listening device

The Sunday Service

 

See the scene played out at countless Easter Sunday services throughout the world. The place is packed with three types of attendees. There are the:

  1. Committed followers of Jesus,
  2. Christmas-and Easter-attendance-only religious folks,
  3. Reluctant agnostic relatives.

Some services are preceded by a hushed time of religious respect, but most are abuzz with happy and vocal people. The place is full of, “He has risen” with the response “He has risen indeed” accompanied by a brotherly hug, or the simple “Happy Easter” and a brisk handshake. There are happy hymns or clapping-accompanied spiritual songs, and then the preacher takes centre stage. Likely as not, he (or she) speaks about how Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead so that we might have life … or variations on that theme. Now my question is, how do the three types of attendees respond to this sort of message?

Different Responses to the Easter Message

 

The, hopefully, largest, group will respond with nods, beaming faces, and silent or proclaimed “Amens”. The Christmas and Easter brigade will most likely respond with self-satisfied semi-smiles manifesting a comfortable and pious “I don’t really care because I am a good religious person” attitude. The third group, the reluctant relatives, either doesn’t care or silently disagrees with the ‘gospel’ message. Members of both of the last two groups do not believe that they are sinners (Can’t even define true sin), doubt or repudiate the reliability of scripture, and don’t care much anyway.

So, what should the preacher be telling them that will cause them to comprehend and be open to accepting? Closer to the bone, what can you be saying to them when you, a believer, sit at lunch with them afterwards?

A Funny Story with a Powerful Message.

 

A dear friend of mine sent me a dated video clip of a man telling the following story:

One of the two thieves crucified to the left and right of Jesus arrives at the Pearly Gates. The angel on duty asks him why he should let him into heaven. The man replies that he really doesn’t know why. He had not read the scriptures, nor had he mixed with ‘church’ folk in Jerusalem. He hadn’t been baptised and he wasn’t even Jewish, so he just stared blankly at the angel. This flummoxed the angel who called for his supervisor. An important-looking angel arrived and asked the man: “Are you not clear on the doctrine of justification by faith?”. The man gave him the same confused look and so the Boss-angel said, “So why should I let you in?” And the man responded “I don’t know, but the man on the middle cross said I should come!

Jesus – It’s All About Jesus

 

OK, so it’s a mildly funny story (especially in the way the man in the video clip told it) but it conveys a profound truth – It is all about Jesus. It is not about church attendance, observance of sacraments, family affiliation, or correct doctrine – its about Jesus!

The Easter message is, or at least should be, about Jesus. Not the horror of the cross, nor the wonder of the empty tomb, but about the man who hung on the cross and who walked out of the open tomb – Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

What Paul Has to Say

 

In 1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:5 the Apostle Paul develops some of the things I have been pointing to so far in this article. Here are parts of three verses cobbled together for effect:

‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing … Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles … ’

In my example of the Easter Sunday service, Paul’s Jews would equate to the Christmas and Easter religious people and the Gentiles to the reluctant agnostic relatives. To religiously half-asleep people, nothing short of a palpable miracle will wake them up. To the agnostics the ‘Jesus died for our sins because the bible tells us so’ is foolish naivety bordering on delusion. They need persuasion that relies on more than what to them is an ancient set of stories. I understand both states of unbelief because before I was born again of the Spirit at the age of thirty I was an agnostic with a religious family background.

Well, here is the thing; both the wanted miracle and the persuasively compelling wisdom is found only in … Jesus.

Consider how Paul counters the two statements that I have quoted above. He writes in 1 Cor 1:18 ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’, andWhen I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor 2:1-2). And again, ‘My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Cor 2:4-5).

Jesus followers will understand the profound doctrines of Easter, but the religious and the agnostic need the simple truth of Jesus Christ accompanied by the miraculously transforming power of Holy Spirit.

Three Questions to Ask

 

Here are some questions to ask as part of either a sermon or a one-on-one discussion about the Easter message:

The first question is: “Do you believe that Jesus was a real historical figure who lived in Palestine who taught and performed wonderful deeds?” The initial response might be scepticism concerning both his existence and his miracles. However, there is quite a bit of non-biblical evidence to offer. For instance, here are just some of the things early historical figures said about Jesus:

Cornelius Tacitus (AD 109) makes the following reference to Christians and to Jesus: “Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius …”

Lucian of Samosta (second century satirist) wrote scornfully of Christians in the following terms: “The Christians, you know, worship a man who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account …”

Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan in AD 112 that the Christians “… were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god …”

Celsus (AD 150) wrote, “First, however, I must deal with the matter of Jesus, the so-called saviour, who not long ago taught new doctrines and was thought to be a son of God …”

Mara Bar-Serapion, a Syrian philosopher, wrote to his son in AD 70 and referred to the ‘wise King’ of the Jews whom they put to death.

Josephus, the Jewish historian for the Romans, referred to Jesus in his Jewish Antiquities (AD 93): ‘Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.’

So, as you can see, there is quite a bit of non-biblical confirmation that Jesus existed and was extraordinary in many ways and these historical facts can be helpful for you to draw on when speaking to folk who dont accept the authority of the bible.

The second and follow-up question to ask is: “Do you believe that the bible is a trustworthy record of what Jesus said and did?” Again, there may be push-back and comments about the bible’s mythical nature. However, once again, there are simple rejoinders to this. For instance:

Four different people wrote four Gospels, each corroborating, amplifying each other and giving differing perspectives. In a court of law, the testimony of four witnesses would be overwhelmingly compelling especially if there are minor discrepancies and perceived contradictions which are a mark of authentic personal witness. In addition, there is the recorded witness of Paul, Peter, and James. There is also compelling evidence that secular history records many martyrdoms of people who believed in the biblical Jesus and put their very lives on the line for this belief.

Third question: “What then does the bible record Jesus as saying about himself?”

Well, he said:

  • “I and the Father are one.” Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”. “We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:30-33)
  • ‘Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:8-9)
  • I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.’ (John 8:58-59) Lest some miss the point of the last quote above, the ascription “I AM’ was an ancient Jewish divine ascription.

The most personally relatable of the above quotes is Jesus’ response to Philip and this would be a good example to tell in full to a congregation or in a one-on-one conversation –  John 14:8-11

So, despite what critics claim, Jesus did declare himself to be God incarnate.

Logical Conclusions

 

So, there is compelling evidence that Jesus Christ lived, ministered, taught and died as reliably recorded in the bible, and that he declared himself to be God himself on Earth. To back up his claims Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, created substance from nothing (wine, bread, and new eyes), and even raised the dead. This is why he said, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” (John 14:11)

The logical observation to make is: “So, surely then we must believe what Jesus, God incarnate, said about things like salvation, eternity, commitment, love, faith, hope, and so on.” Well here are just some of the things he said about salvation:

  • I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John 10:9)
  • My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)
  • ‘Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
  • ‘Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”.  (John 14:6-7)

Once again, the most personally applicable account in that of John 3:1-21 where Jesus explains to Nicodemus that he must be Born Again if he is to be saved.

Conclusion

 

I realise that I have not explained terms like Salvation, Rebirth and so on, but I have written extensively on this HERE. The main point of this article is not to teach doctrine, but to point out that:

  • The focus of Easter is the ‘man on the middle cross’ and his invitation to all who will listen, and
  • The most effective and compellingly simple way of applying the Easter message to both religious people and agnostics is to explain who Jesus really is, that the bible is reliable, and that what it records of what Jesus said and did is of the uttermost significance and importance.

However, there is one more thing I must point out before I end this article: The anointing of the Holy Spirit in the whole process of explaining and interacting is VITAL! It is the Holy Spirit who breathes life into our words and backs them up with convicting clarity and power.

This is why Paul wrote, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”

Remember, the man in the middle is the real focus of Easter.

The Man in the Middle: The Real Focus of Easter Read More »

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The Theology Behind Spiritual Impotence

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Thirteen years ago I published a book called ‘Prayer, Power, and Proclamation’ in which I attempted to address the question:Prayer Power and Proclamation Book

‘Why do we see so few genuine miracles in our day?’

 

It is not that these do not occasionally occur, but they are scarce. I do not crave great and breathtaking acts of God, although they would be wonderful, but I do miss the regular powerful manifestations of his presence that I associate with genuine church experiences. Another way of stating the question is, ‘Why is there such general spiritual impotence in the church of our day?’ and this is what I specifically respond to in this current article.

There are several reasons for spiritual impotence that I can think of such as fear of fake manifestations, lack of expectation, and so on, but I suspect that there is a deeper and more theological issue underlying the lack of spiritual power in personal and church life.

Now, I do not want to lose you in many words and details, so before going any further, I need to state upfront what I believe a major part of the problem to be:

The theological stance of many church leaders is a barrier to receiving and ministering the power of the Holy Spirit. As a result, they replace spiritual anointing with animated presentations and church optics.

Theology is Important

What we say, do, and expect within the scope of our devotional and church lives depends largely on our theology. So, in this article, I want to explore aspects of doctrine that I suspect stand behind what I have presented as a major problem in the church of our day.

Teachings that have a profound bearing on a lack of spiritual anointing in individual and church life concern:

  1. The Infusion of power by the Holy Spirit and
  2. The Indwelling of the person of the Holy Spirit.

In April 2021 I published an article on The Nature of the New Birth, in which I explained much of what I am addressing here in this present article.  Here is an adaptation of part of what I wrote then concerning the Infusing and Indwelling of the Holy Spirit:

“A doctrine deeply entrenched in today’s theological world is the doctrine of the permanently indwelling presence of the person of the Holy Spirit in the believer. I want to approach this ‘holy cow’ doctrine now, but with great reverence for the person of the Holy Spirit.

The traditional and majority view of theologians is that upon spiritual regeneration the Holy Spirit takes up personal and permanent residence in the believer. There are several texts on which to base this belief, but perhaps the matter is not as simple and clear as it at first appears. For instance, Jesus told his disciples that he would send them another like himself, whom he called the Spirit of Truth who would be with them and in them (John 14:15-17). However, the Greek word ‘en’, translated in this verse as ‘in’, can also be translated as ‘among’ as in John 1:14 or ‘with’ as in John 1:26, 28, 31, 33). There is no clear contextual or linguistic reason why we could not translate what Jesus said in John 14:17 as “he lives with you and will be among you”.

John also wrote in 1 John 4:4 that ‘the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world’. That little Greek word ‘en’ appears twice in this sentence and could be understood as the Holy Spirit among the people of God being greater than the devil, who is in the world system.

Another text often cited is  James 4:5, which the NIV translates in a footnote as ‘God jealously longs for the spirit that he made to live in us’. This makes little sense if James is understood to be referring to the person of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Godhead, so in what way would God jealously long for God? But if the reference is to the spiritual power and seal of ownership that the Holy Spirit deposits in us at rebirth, then the idea makes sense. In his commentary on James, Douglas Moo writes that ‘it is not clear whether James thinks of the spirit which he has made to dwell in us as the Holy Spirit given to believers or as God’s creative spirit by which he has invigorated mankind’. Perhaps the matter would be clearer if we knew the scripture James claims to be quoting, but there is no direct equivalent anywhere in the Old Testament.

The text that most theologians develop to support the concept of the indwelling presence of the person of the Holy Spirit in the believer is Romans 8:9-11. Apart from the same problems with Greek prepositions that I have already mentioned, Paul connects the word ‘spirit’ to both God (the Spirit of God in vs 9) and Jesus (the Spirit of Jesus). He also uses the word ‘Christ’ several times and this word, particularly as used by Paul in Romans, is usually an epithet of Jesus. It seems easier to understand that Paul is speaking of the presence within the believer of the spiritual deposit/seal that the person of the Holy Spirit imparts upon rebirth. Indeed, Paul uses that language in 2 Corinthians 1:22 and Ephesians 1:13-14. He also uses the words ‘be filled with the spirit’ in Ephesians 5:18 as indicating the power of the Holy Spirit rather than the person of the Holy Spirit.

There is another way of looking at the matter of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and that is to consider that the term applies figuratively and representationally rather than literally. This idea finds a degree of support in texts such as Romans 8:10, 15 and Galatians 4:6 where the indwelling spirit is variously described as Christ, a spirit of adoption, and the spirit of God’s Son. Indwelling could thus refer to God’s presence with us and to his values incorporated into us. To put it another way, ‘in you’ could simply be a way of saying that God’s presence is with us intimately and permanently.

Over the centuries several theologians and philosophers have attempted to construct coherent models to explain the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

The philosopher William Alston described three models, one of which he called ‘Fiat’, although he settled on another model, which he labelled ‘Partial Sharing’. In terms of the Fiat Model, God implants a new disposition in the believer. This is similar to my proposals in this article. More recently, Ray Yoe of Prairie College, Canada, wrote a paper titled ‘Towards a Model of Indwelling’ in which he stated that  ‘for God to infuse his love within our hearts is for the resurrected and living incarnate Christ to partially share his ongoing human loving disposition with us by means of the Holy Spirit.’

My conclusion, drawn from these considerations and many texts, is that the bible contains numerous references to both the person of the Holy Spirit and the power that he provides.

The Holy Spirit speaks, directs, guides, reveals, grieves, and so on. He also provides the power by which healings, miracles, and creative acts are accomplished. In his capacity as the 3rd person in the Godhead, the Holy Spirit, by the application of his power, re-creates the dead/separated spirit of each person who qualifies (the New Birth). The ‘qualification’ is repentance of the sin of personal rebellion, belief in the deity and unique saving capacity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and asking for, receiving, and then testifying to the reality the new birth received. The Holy Spirit also, after the New Birth, empowers (fills, anoints) the believer with ‘power from on high’ to enable disciples to live Christ-like lives and to minister effectively in his power (Acts 1:4). Believers are progressively transformed through the activity of the Holy Spirit and his work of regeneration within.

I find this to be the simplest, most reasonable, and biblically faithful way of understanding and applying the doctrines of The New Birth and the Indwelling  and infusion of the Holy Spirit in the believer. However, having said all this, I freely and thankfully acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is a multi-dimensional spiritual being restricted by neither space nor time. He can be present with and indeed in all believers simultaneously anywhere and at any time.  He can be both in, with, and among with no contradiction to Christian philosophy or biblical revelation. The reason I believe that the distinctions I have been at pains to make are important, is that our understanding of these things radically affects the way we view salvation, conversion, ministry, and indeed life in general.

If the Holy Spirit personally and permanently indwells us, and we are not simply automatons without discretion, then it means that we can resist his will and determine what he can and cannot do in and through us. For me, this is an untenable idea! Equally, if the Holy Spirit personally dwells in us, then any infilling, anointing, or baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit is both redundant and illogical. This then makes a nonsense of the scriptures that speak of the spirit coming upon us, being poured out on us, and clothing us (1 Samuel 10:6, Luke 1:35 and 24:49, Acts 2:33, 8:16 and 10:45 et al).

I concede that I may be overstating my case and that there might be room for both-and thinking or other ways of understanding. However, I do not think that traditional concepts regarding the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit align well with what Jesus taught and modelled, nor with how the early disciples, Paul, and others ministered. These and other conceptions have distinct consequences in the life and ministry of believers and the witness and effectiveness of the church

Let me state in brief what I believe concerning the indwelling presence and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. 

I believe that the Holy Spirit is the 3rd person of the Godhead and not just a euphemism for spiritual energy. However, he is the person of the Trinity who generates and imparts supernatural power. Just as Jesus, the 2nd person of the Godhead, was tangibly with and among his people whilst on Earth, so the person of the Holy Spirit is with and among the people of God today. He is the one who regenerates the spirit of man at rebirth (New Birth) and he is the one who imparts spiritual energy to those who have experienced the New Birth.

I do not think that the scriptures are clear on the ‘location’ of the Holy Spirit as in or with believers and in and through the church. However, the way we understand these things can radically affect the way we minister and live our Christian lives. This is why I have set out my doctrine of the Spirit the way I have in this article and my other works.

We are beings who are limited by our lack of capacity to even perceive, let alone adequately describe, spiritual realities, but we can and do determine how we minister and live. God is real, sovereign, and essentially mysterious, whatever we think or understand. He has created us and set the parameters of how we live.

All of the matters discussed in this article would be quite irrelevant if God’s chosen way of dealing with man was inflexibly pre-determined. (Calvinism). However, I hold that the biblical evidence and the example of Jesus overwhelmingly teach that God has granted man a meaningful degree of discretion. That is why what we understand and believe is important. What we think determines what we choose to say and do and how we live and minister. To speak and act in the power of the Holy Spirit we need models and constructs that enable us to respond in faith and effectiveness.

If our primary understanding is that the Holy Spirit resides permanently in us, then spiritual ministry consists only of what God chooses to do through us and when he so wills to do it. If we understand that we can be filled with power from on high as an infusion into our re-created spirits, then spiritual ministry consists of imparting that power to others to affect whatever it is that is needed. We are dependent on the Holy Spirit for receiving this power and we can only give what we have received from him. We are therefore dependent on the Holy Spirit”.

I stated earlier that the theological stance of some leaders is a barrier to receiving and ministering the power of the Holy Spirit. In terms of what I have just set out, let me now state how I see this working in practice.

The Theological Barrier to Receiving and Ministering

Although the Holy Spirit can indeed be within as well as with us, the way we understand this affects how we behave. A leader who sees the person of the Holy Spirit primarily as residing within him (‘her’ also applies throughout) must surely feel constrained; he sees the Spirit as being responsible for how he ministers to others and he sees himself as unable to initiate ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. If he doesn’t see evidence of spiritual ministry then he may attempt to remove any personal obstacles to the Holy Spirit by attempting to make himself more transparent to the Holy Spirit by searching his heart for any sin issues he needs to deal with. On the one hand, he sees the Holy Spirit as responsible for initiating ministry, but on the other hand, he sees himself as responsible for allowing the Holy Spirit to minister. This stance will invariably lead to passivity, spiritual impotence and frustration.

However, if a leader believes himself to be filled with Holy Spirit energy as a result of receiving power from the person of God the Holy Spirit, then two things will flow naturally from this stance:

  1. He will repeatedly ask the Holy Spirit to fill him with power and
  2. He will feel personally accountable for how, when, and why he ministers this ‘power from on high’ to others.

This stance will usually lead to dynamic ministry and blessings to the people of God.

Three of the many glorious biblical examples of this principle in action are:
  • Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” (Luke 8:46)
  • I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49)
  • Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. (Acts 3:6-7)
Application

As already stated, I strongly suspect that a major underlying reason for spiritual impotence is the theology of the church leaders concerned. To change this situation they would need to do the following:

  • Review their theology concerning indwelling and infilling using the biblical revelation of the life, words, and works of the Lord Jesus as their main yardstick. Even if they still do not concur with me, they can at least acknowledge that their chosen position makes a profound difference in how they minister.
  • Realise that they need both to teach their people and to be an example to them. The leaders should surely be the first to be publically and privately asking the Holy Spirit to fill them with his power. They should also be the first to step out in faith and actively minister this spiritual power to those in need.
Conclusion

I have thought long and hard about writing this article at all. It is likely that those who need to take heed will either not read it or will read but not associate themselves with its content. Matters concerning the things I have been dealing with here are sometimes seen as peripheral and subject to personal preference and tradition rather than matters of vital spiritual life for themselves and those to whom they minister.

What I have written may appear critical but it flows not out of theological dogmatism, but from a deep sadness for ministers and their people who effectively, if unconsciously, have a form of godliness but deny its power (ref. 2 Timothy 3:5)

 

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The Importance of the Middle

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Bells and Wells

Many years ago Professor Len Sweet  spoke of a theory he called ‘the collapsing centre’, which he described as a ‘well’ curve as opposed to a ‘bell’ curve. He believed that society, technology, politics, and so on were polarising and becoming more extreme. Now, a bell curve is a graph depicting a distribution of samples where the majority gravitate around the average in the centre. For instance, most men are roughly as tall as the average in their population. Here is an example of a Bell Curve.

If we turn this graph on its head, we get a Well Curve where the greatest number of readings are found at the extremes of the curve. In the above example, this would occur if most men in a population were either very tall or very short. But, this article is not a probability statistics lesson, so let me rather discuss some more important examples of Well Curves in our world.

From Bell to Well

Gradually, over a couple of decades, well-stocked local general dealers have become overwhelmed by supermarkets and megastores. These commercial behemoths provide a wide range of goods at favourable prices, but they fail at offering specialist items and expertise. As a result, small operations have emerged to meet the demand for hard to come by items and professional knowledge. The Bell Curve has been replaced by a Well Curve. Monstrously big and influential corporations have arisen, particularly in the IT and social media space, the rich have become obscenely richer, the poor even poorer, and the middle-class almost non-existent. Even LED/LCD screens have grown big enough to fill a wall and small enough to be carried on the wrist. Churches have gone through a similar transformation with millions flocking to mega-churches in every Christian country. The initial counter to this was an upsurge of interest in house church movements and, once again, the Well Curve emerged.  We have seen the same sort of phenomena in national political life with extremist parties and movements gaining ground on both ends of a Well Curve.

Time to Ring the Bell Again

Things are changing now, though, as people of influence are identifying and experiencing the problems caused by the Well Curve mentality.

The family-owned stores that all but disappeared when the superstores muscled into their neighbourhoods are re-emerging and growing in popularity. Mega Churches are facing difficult times in the face of authoritarian government policies and COVID-19 regulations. The small house churches are struggling for a lack of financial support, member participation, and societal influence. And as these two ends of the Bell Curve reduce in size we are seeing the re-emergence of medium-sized local churches In politics, we are observing the rise of centralist parties and the negative effects of extremist movements.

The Truth of the Matter
However, a return of the Bell Curve to society will not be of any real benefit unless the rising centre stands on ‘truth’.

Not too many people in any country would want any form of political consensus if those elected consisted of thugs, murderers, crooks, and rapists! Democracies, of any sort, only work to benefit society when the ‘centre’ stands on good and true values and where its leaders are men and women of intelligence, honour, and goodness.

John Adams, the 2nd president of the United States of America and one of the founding fathers stated the case this way: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”.

I used the word ‘truth’ in the previously because how we understand truth determines our value judgments concerning government, economics, and so on. It should not surprise us then that the concept of truth is the most polarised domain of all. (I go into this more in my book Truth is the Word which can be found HERE if you are interested in more on Truth). Liberal theologians, politicians, and social thinkers have arrived at a compromised ‘negotiated’ idea of truth. So now truth tends to be determined by the consensus of any group of people. Extreme right-wing dogmatism is their ‘truth’ and anything-goes laissez-faire is the extreme left-wing’s ‘truth’. However, we cannot establish absolute truth by compromising or adopting all competing ideas of what truth is.

‘My truth’ is Christocentric and I hold that this view of truth is the biblical and enduring historical Christian position. The Lord Jesus made an extremely dogmatic statement when he said “I am the way, and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

This means that if we accept his divinity and the validity of the biblical record then we are compelled to understand truth in terms of who Jesus is, what he said and did, and what he revealed of the nature, character, and purpose of the triune Godhead. A centralist political party that stands primarily on this truth, irrespective of whether it calls itself ‘Christian’, will present a strong central pillar for society. A Church centred on this will bless its members and its community. The same goes for theology, business, government, business and so on.

I am glad to see the return of the Bell Curve to the various aspects of our national lives, but if it does not reflect Christicentric truth then it will surely be little better than extremism. For instance, a democratic government is not necessarily any better than a dictatorship if it is led by God-dishonoring and self-serving men and women. Singapore is essentially a benign dictatorship yet it is peaceful, prosperous and non-prejudicial. South Africa is a democracy governed, by and large, by incompetents and even criminals and is divided, violent, and spiralling downward. In which state would most people choose to live if given the choice?

Time to Ring my Bell

Now all of this, although it may be food for thought, is of little personal value unless you and I seek to live in a Bell Curve sort of way.

So, I invite you to examine the various aspects of your life (Church, family, business, education, politics, finances and so on) and ask: ‘what is the central pillar around which the data points of my life cluster?’

Ask yourself:

  • ‘Do I have a central pillar at all or do I stand at an extreme in this area (A Well Curve sort of person)?
  • Does my central pillar stand on biblical Jesus-centred truth or on something relative or socially conditioned?

Bell Curve people with Jesus at the centre can, over time, change the state of a nation, a business, or a church. Time to ring our little bells folks!

In the eighties, an advertisement for a certain type of processed meat became very popular here in South Africa. It was a sort of fillet with cheese inserted into its middle, much like chicken Cordon Bleu. The TV advert showed a man at a restaurant table with his fork in one of these steaks saying “Check the cheese china!” (very South African) and the waiter then responding by cutting the meat and saying “In the centre mister Venter”. Well, when it comes to most aspects of our lives it is all about what is in the centre, but that centre must stand on biblical Christocentric truth.

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His Amazing Wisdom

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The Lord Jesus possessed great powers of insight and I am constantly arrested by his amazing wisdom. The wisdom he displayed was far beyond normal common sense, and sagacity and I can only equate it to the Gift of Wisdom of which Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14.

The dictionary definition of wisdom is a combination of good judgement, knowledge, and experience, but Jesus’ wisdom goes deeper than this.

The biblical references to wisdom take it into the realm of life application where wise people are described as those who apply God’s revealed viewpoint to daily life. Jesus displayed this, but so much more.

Perhaps a better definition of the wisdom Jesus possessed is ‘supernatural insight applied perfectly to life situations’. The best way I can illustrate this and explain why his wisdom amazes me so is to give a couple of examples.

Paying Taxes

Matthew 22:15-22 records the story of how some Pharisees tried to trap Jesus. They came to him, and after flattering him, they asked, “What is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” They figured that if Jesus answered that it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, then they could accuse him of being a lackey to Rome and a traitor to the Jewish people. If he said that it was not right for a Jew to pay taxes to Rome, then they could turn him in to the authorities as an insurrectionist. They thought that they had him between a Roman rock and a Jewish hard place.

Jesus did not answer directly, but instead, asked them to show him the coin that was used to pay the Roman tax. They produced a Denarius, a coin that bore the head of Caesar on one side. Then he addressed them with the words: “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?“, “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.

The first part of his instruction is easy to understand. The coin was minted by Caesar as a means of paying tax and it bore his image and inscription of ownership. So, to give a Denarius to Rome as payment of tax was simply giving back to Caesar what was already his. In another sense, it was legitimately due to him because Rome provided law and order, military protection, and so on.

The second part of the statement is harder to understand without the benefit of a little biblical context. The basis of what Jesus said concerning giving to God what was his, is found in Genesis 1:26. This verse reads, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” So, humankind bears the image of God, not the image of Caesar and all people belong to God and not to the Rome Emperor. So, an amplification of what Jesus said would be, “Give your tax money to Caesar, but give yourselves to God”.

The account in Matthew’s Gospel concludes with the words, ‘When they heard this, they were amazed’. We should be amazed too because Jesus’ response was sublime and irrefutable.

However, when I dig deeper into this passage of scripture I become even more amazed by the Lord’s overall handling of the situation.

Consider the following: Jesus knew from the very start what the Pharisees were trying to do and he let them know this by saying, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” Having called them out, he refused to enter into a debate with them on the validity of the tax, citizen obligations, Jewish religious law, and so on. Then, in his short response, he incorporated another layer of meaning. You see, the Jewish Temple Tax was paid using the Sacred Schekel and this coin bore no human image of inscription of ownership. So, a second meaning of what Jesus said could be, “Pay your taxes to Caesar with the Denarius but pay your Temple Tax with the Sacred Shekel”. The Pharisees would not have been able to find fault with this ruling.

No wonder Jesus’ accusers were astounded by his wisdom and could only walk away. Amazing!

To Stone or Not to Stone

The second example of Jesus’ amazing wisdom also involves a situation where the Pharisees were once again trying to trap him. They brought to him a woman caught in the act of adultery with the idea of testing his adherence to the Law of Moses that commanded that an adulterous woman be stoned to death.

John 8:1-11 records the story and starts with the Pharisees’ words to Jesus: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now, what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, to have a basis for accusing him.

As in the previous case, Jesus did not respond immediately, but instead, he bent down and wrote something in the dust with his finger. The Pharisees kept on throwing questions at him and he then responded with the words, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her”. Then he continued to write in the dust.

No one knows for sure just what Jesus wrote, but it must have been appropriate to the matter at hand, it must have been short and easy to read, and it must have resonated with his adversaries. Now consider this:

  • Leviticus 20:10 instructs that the man and the woman involved in adultery must be stoned. But where was the man? They caught the two in the very act of adultery yet they did not present the man to Jesus for judgement. Why? Perhaps they had set the whole thing up with the man’s help and were willing to sacrifice her, but not him, for the sake of their wicked scheme. No matter their motive, they were themselves in violation of the Law of Moses.
  • Secondly, Roman Law only allowed for the execution of a woman caught in adultery if the involved man was also executed. Strike two – the Pharisees were also violating Roman Law and could be severely punished for this.

So then, given all this, what might Jesus have been writing in the dust with his finger? Whatever it was, it had the power to convict, not the woman, but her accusers. It must also have been something they readily recognised and knew that it applied to them.

My educated guess is that perhaps Jesus wrote the three Hebrew letters that formed the word ‘Tekel’. This word meant ‘weighed’ and featured in a well know and dramatic story from Israel’s history. The story is told in the book of Daniel Chapter Five where the finger of God wrote on the wall of King Belshazzar’s palace banqueting hall. The Prophet Daniel was summoned to tell the king what the words meant and he interpreted the word ‘tekel’ to mean “you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting”.

Now here, before another group of men, God in human flesh wrote in the dust with his finger what he had written some 500 years earlier. Surely, the Pharisees would have been aware of the historical significance, and they could not have failed to grasp its application to themselves.

When I first realised that this was most probably the fuller meaning of what John recorded, I was overwhelmed with wonder at the amazing wisdom of the Lord Jesus! He turned both the Law of Moses and the Law of Rome around to point directly at his accusers. He did this with both his spoken words and a written word they immediately recognised and understood. As realisation dawned in their minds Jesus challenged any one of them who was without sin to cast the first rock at the woman. What amazing wisdom!

A Personal Application

I have experienced what Paul described as the spiritual gift of ‘a Word of Wisdom’ many times in my Christian life.

Most often they come when I am in a counselling situation and listening to someone’s life problems that are humanly impossible to solve. However, rather than one of these occasions, I want to recount a series of events that demonstrate the inadequacy of my human wisdom when compared to the sublime wisdom of God.

In the early days of Lonehill Village Church, the community I pastored, a man came to me and asked for advice. He had committed adultery many years before and now was convicted that he should confess this to his wife. Drawing on my worldly wisdom, I advised against this – why cause his wife pain over something long gone and why risk damaging their marriage? He thanked me profusely, and went off… and did just the opposite to what I had advised. His wife had a mini-meltdown, but the next day came to him to say that his confession had released her to confess to him her own past indiscretions.

From then on their relationship became deeper and more loving and a few months later they came to ask me to baptise them together as a sacrament of a new beginning. I explained the biblical significance of water baptism but agreed to administer it to the husband because he had not previously made this witness-in-water to his New Birth. She was a little distressed because she wanted to be part of it and so I silently asked the Holy Spirit for a Word of Wisdom. A solution immediately came to mind and I suggested that she stand at the edge of the pool and reach out her hand to pray for her husband as he came up out of the waters of baptism.

So, that is what happened, but as I raised her husband up out of the water, I looked over and saw her collapsing in a pile on the concrete poolside. She explained to me afterwards that as she stretched out her hand towards her husband, the Holy Spirit had poured out his blessing on her. She had not been able to stand under the ‘weight’ of this experience and had collapsed. So, as I baptised the husband in water the Holy Spirit had simultaneously baptised the wife with ‘power from on high’.

Not many months later, the husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died shortly after that. During that period they were able to live in rich guilt-free companionship with one another and when the time came to say goodbye the wife was able to draw on God’s spiritual anointing to be strong yet compassionate. God is good!

The wisdom of the Lord Jesus is truly amazing.

I lacked wisdom, but he gave that conscience-stricken husband real wisdom from above. Because of that the couple had been freed from their sense of guilt and shame and had been able to live in harmony during the months leading up to his death. As part of the process, God had given me a Gift of Wisdom facilitating a life-imparting double baptism. I can only say again, the wisdom of Jesus is amazing!

His Wisdom In And Through The Church

My understanding of the wisdom that God gives those who ask, is as Lawrence Richards puts it, ‘the divine perspective available to and applied by believers to the issues of their lives’. However, in using the word to describe a gift of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:8) Paul extends the range of wisdom beyond a believer’s own life to the lives of others. Counsellors give gifts of wisdom to those who come to them, not just in what they say from the basis of their learning and experience, but more particularly when they cry out to and receive from the Holy Spirit his wisdom. Preachers impart divine wisdom when they speak out applications of biblical truth as the Spirit leads them.

Divine wisdom can be imparted to  Christians and non-Christians alike and can be dispensed in a church service or any secular setting. Whatever the context and the place, the response should always be amazement and a sense of the presence of the one ‘in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’; the Lord Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:3).

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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.