06 June 2007

The Jell-o Parable

by Frank Turk

I'm going to lead off with my goofy analogy so that when I invoke it in the post, below, I hope you'll have had time to, um, digest it and not be distracted by it. That should make Phil happier about my distracting analogies, anyway.

Think about Jello for a minute. Jello looks a lot like dust when you open the packet, and if you blow on it, it will dust up your kitchen real good. And just like it is, Jello out of the packet is not good for much. It's a lousy dessert that way, even if you have room for it.

But Jello is a colloid -- a substance that consists of particles dispersed throughout another substance which are too small for resolution with an ordinary light microscope but are incapable of passing through a semipermeable membrane. In English, that means that Jello plus water equals something which is solid enough to be called a solid without actually being a solid.

Jello plus water hangs together. In order to actually be Jello, it has to do what Jello does. If it's just a lot of dust in a bowl, nobody's going to want to add fruit to it. Nobody's going to say, "dude, that would be great with some whip cream". Nobody's going to layer it into a fluted glass with pudding and try to dress it up for a fancy party. Jello not hanging together in water is just sweet-smelling dust. It's only good for the trash.

Whew. I feel better already.

Yesterday's post lifted from Mark Dever is actually part of my series on how to read the Bible, but only as an example of what happens when you do such a thing. You know: because the question will now come up, "hey: why make such a fuss out of church membership? Jesus didn’t keep a roll for the Disciples; the early church didn’t keep a roll. Aren’t you demanding something extra-biblical when you say that people ought to have their names on a list someplace?"

It is extra-biblical – but by that I mean "has more than the average amount of Bible in it" rather than "it doesn’t appear in the Bible".

The reason is simple, people, but you have to do more than roll out of bed to take a stab at it. The modern method of church membership may be more, um, modern than what we read in the book of Acts, or in Titus, or in Timothy, or in either letter to the Corinthians, but the intention -- especially as spelled out by Dr. Dever – is clearly the same intention of the NT. That is, to keep the faithful together, in doctrine and in relationship, in order to demonstrate something which is called out of the world.

Now, honestly: not a lot of churches are doing this. That's why 9Marks exists -- to exhort the local church to be a church and not a club or a civic organization. But why all the fuss? Isn't it OK for people to like Jesus and all that and then have a place where they do daycare or have parties or whatever? Can’t the church just be nice and that be enough? And can't I just have a church in my house with my wife and kids and call it even?

Um ... no.

The reason is that we must not only read our Bibles, and then understand our Bibles: the reason is that we have to do what our Bibles say to do. The Bible is not an ornament for the Christian life. Carrying one in your purse or on your PDA or whatever is not some kind of passport or shibboleth. That does not make you a Christian. The Bible is something that we are given in order that we become a people who have something much more than a secret.

And this church thing is a great example of this matter. I have an internet nemesis who has a propensity for hacking at Baptists unfairly (and he shall remain nameless to reduce the number of controversies in one post), but he makes one good point even if he takes it too far: what Christ calls us to do through the Bible – particularly through the New Testament – is not to be a church of one, or even of one family. The Bible tells us explicitly that we are to be joined together to other believers, even when there is some controversy involved.

If you want examples, look at Acts 2 for a starter:

"Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" And Peter said to them, "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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, "Save yourselves from this crooked generation." So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
The example here is what I would call the seminal example – the one which is the first of the kind.

And here, people are not just saved and then run off, or saved and handed a scroll like they just got their wish fulfilled by the Wizard of Oz. These people are joined together and added to the number and had all things in common.

"That's all well and good, cent," says the guy who left his church because his pastor was preaching from the Gospel of Jabez, "But after all, these people were following the Apostles who were writing Scripture and prolly weren't all that confused over what the Gospel was or was not. My pastor was preaching from the Gospel of Jabez, and I tried to tell him, but he didn' wanna listen to me."

Indeed. Let me say that you are right to leave a place where the Gospel is not only not welcome but is actively being stoned when people bring it up. But you are not free to be a Christian without the church. See: one grain of Jello makes a lousy dessert, and one lone Christian can make no witness of the church at all. One grain of jello in a dessert cup full of water can never be Jello per se, and one Christian hunkered down against the forces of all the worldly evils is not a church or part of such a thing.

In the Book of Acts, we have so many examples of the church coming to grips with the fact that people don't always agree. Take this for example:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Now, think on this: the apostles were saying, in effect, that they were simply not going to wait tables. They were not going to take on food distribution rather than the ministry of God's word. So their solution was to establish some guys who would make sure that those who could not stand up for themselves would have someone to stand up for them.

Which seems pretty good, right? But what happened in the first place happened while apostles were running the church. Injustice was happening in the church when the guys Jesus chose to be his witnesses were left to run things in what seems to be the first pass at this church stuff.

Listen: if the apostles could have a church where people were treated badly, you probably will, too. The question is if that's enough to go shop around for someone you like better, or can you meet with the leaders of your church to seek a resolution to the problem?

And there are other examples in Acts – Acts, people! The first 30 years of the church! Think about the council at Jerusalem (isn’t eating meat offered to idols idolatry?), or the controversy over Paul's conversion (can we let a man who was a murderer and a blasphemer evangelize gentiles?), or the controversy over evangelizing gentiles (has Peter lost it? These people are unclean!). And the one example where two church guys separate in a tiff – Paul and Barnabas (Barnabas who was his only friend to start with; Paul the guy writing the NT through the Holy Spirit) – we can deduce from the rest of Paul's writings that he regretting this in the end, and thought he did wrong by Barnabas and Mark.

None of these things caused splits in the church – and even worse things, like the Galatian controversy, or what was going on in Corinth after Paul established that church, were not subject to the admonition, "brethren dude: get out of Dodge. That place has gone belly-up."

The admonition is stay and contend for the truth with the whole Gospel, both doctrine and life. And if we are honest with ourselves, that's the admonition we receive in Scripture about our lousy churches in America and we ignore it for a self-righteous choice to stay at home.

If you want to know how to read Scripture, the last step is implement what you find there. Do the doing. A faith without works is a dead faith – and that includes your faith, if it is without the works of faith.

Don't "yeah but" me: there's a vast difference – an ocean-sized difference – between being in a church that suddenly ordains a [place the disqualifying sin here], redefines sin and denies God's wrath, and being in a church where the pastor with a hard heart would rather preach about the "end times" as they are unfolding in Iraq instead of Christ as Victorious Lord of Lords and Worthy lamb upon the Throne. The latter may be watering down lime jello to try to stretch it out, but the former places rat poison in cherry jello and calls it fruit cocktail.

Know the difference. Read your Bible in order to obey the whole thing, or stop kidding yourself and just join a club where the reading isn't so invasive.



29 comments:

Sam B. said...

Just a quick clarification: are you saying that everyone should be a part of a church, or are you taking that further and saying that people should not switch to a different, more biblically based church if their current church is failing in some (or many) regards? In other words, are you saying it is bad to change churches or just bad to not be in a church at all?

Pastor Steve said...

Would you apply this to the SBC convention too - staying as a member of their organization despite some pretty apparent theological problems? , in hope of re-establishing the truth?

I know it's not apples to apples, but just asking for your thoughts.

I think on the whole I agree with you. Membership is important, and we downplay the aspect of the church as a family. We would never change families as much as we change churches. The idea even sounds ridiculous to us, but all too many Christians leave churches or abandon going to church for rather insignificant problems.

centuri0n said...

Since you asked, I'm saying all of the following things:

-- it is wrong to belong to no church at all. Fooling yourself that you are part of the "invisible church" when you can't find it in yourself to be part of a visible, local body of believers is just a fancy way of disobeying the Bible.

-- if you belong to a local church, the burden is on you to do what the Bible commands you to do, especially when it comes to resolving grief between yourself and your fellow Christians.

-- Every disagreement is not a doctrinal disagreement upon which the whole Gospel hangs. Living as if it is is being contentious, and I'm sure everyone has read enough of their Bible to know what God thinks of people who make every issue into a matter of saving Jesus from certain destruction.

-- That said, there is a way to contend for truth with love. I know a guy who is a confirmed Baptist who belongs to a conservative Presbyterian church and is happy there, in spite of all the paedobaptisms going on. If that can happen -- and it is happening today -- then leaving a church over something less than the method, mode and right receiver of Baptism is not contending for the truth in love.

-- Every church is a mixture of wheat and tears. The question is if the wheat are going to surrender the field to the tears. You can look at my comments about finding one's self on an uncharted island in yesterday's post to flesh out what I mean there.

-- If you plead the truth in love, and you are met with something else, you are doing the Lord's work on a hard-hearted people. That sounds a lot more like the work of the church than staying at home and listening to podcasts and reading blogs.

-- I think you can leave your church for Biblical reasons, but the reasons the Bible outlines for leaving (cf. Mat 10:14; Luk 9:5; Acts 18:6 as a very brief scope of the matter) are not about how you feel but about open rejection and (as the NT says) "reviling" the Gospel. Lazily doing the 40 days of purpose is not in the same league, for example, as refusing to allow anyone with a Reformed view of the Gospel to preach or teach in one's church.

-- If a church can be 100% pure, and your church is only 43% pure, and you're leaving for a church which is (at least, in the 4 visits you made) 80% pure, I think you are leaving for superficial reasons. If you can recognize that your church has room for improvement, put your hand to the plow in gentleness and reverence and do something about the church you are in. If you are leaving because of blasphemy or revilement of the Gospel or God's people, remember that you have joined to God's church for the purpose of serving God and not for the purpose of serving your own perceived needs or gifts.

If you have any other questions, I'll answer them here.

centuri0n said...

Steve:

On the one hand, the convention is not a local church; on the other, it looks like a very ripe mission field.

I'm SBC, and I stay we stand for the Gospel. What say you?

:-)

David said...

Generally speaking from my experience, people who are actively involved, ministering with real, affirmed spiritual gifts (not self-asserted gifts of discernment and prophecy), and connected in fellowship with the life of the church rarely leave a church unless they move to a different city.

People who are tangentially involved, convinced of their own rightness and righteousness, consumed by being "fed" by a preacher or program, or involved in sin without the desire for accountability will almost always find an excuse to leave.

The church is not the pastor. The church is not the staff. The church is not the building. The church is not the elders. The church is the body of Christ, and Christ is the head.

Amen, and thanks to you, cent, for continuing on this topic. You have been a blessing to me.

centuri0n said...

David:

In spite of your glamor shot, I'd give you a blue ribbon for that comment if this were my blog.

David said...

If it were your blog, you'd have my canine gravatar.

Pastor Steve said...

Cent,

All good, solid, biblical thoughts on this topic and I appreciate it.

I'm a part of an association that has separated in certain ways from those who choose to still remain and fellowship with the SBC. I see both points of the argument. I can say that it does bother me that the SBC allows significantly wrong doctrine in their seminaries and member churches without any sort of repercussion (that I am aware of).

Unless you are in a church run by the Nazi party, you can usually still do what you should do as a believer and remain in a flawed church. If they don't evangelize or disciple the way you would, you can still do those things on your own to a certain extent. I know that sometimes I can concentrate too much on the minor differences and allow them to irritate me, rather than concentrate on the important commonality we have. That is to my shame.

Libbie said...

Frank, you are a prolific blogger, and you have said much that I agree with, much that I have been challenged by, and yep, you've even taught me stuff.

But I honestly think that this 'go-to-church' drum that you keep beating is your defining mark of brilliance. If I never sent anyone to your blog for anything but this topic, I'd say they'd be reading one of the most important ideas to get straight as soon as possible.

The shorthand is: "this rocks", but I felt like expanding on it today.

donsands said...

"The shorthand is: "this rocks",.."

Amen. And it "country & westerns" too.

David said...

But does it "praise and worship?"

Jay said...

Amen.

I've never felt fully comfortable with my church's stand of "no membership roles", but "here sign this covenant" during the "101 Class"

Dave said...

"The Bible is not an ornament for the Christian life."

WORD.

The times in my Christian life when I tried to reduce the Bible to an ornament, it was because I was too afraid of letting it be a catalyst.

Sewing said...

Agreed that this is solid stuff. If ever end up in a difficult situation church-wise in the future, I can only hope and pray that I remember your counsel, Frank.

Thanks, by the way, for the side-note reminding us that church matters were messy business even for the Apostles.

Sharon said...

"All Your Church Are Belong To Us"
Perfect!

And yes, I've had these conversations many times, specifically with my not-sure-if-he's-even-saved friend (Remember? The one who thinks Yanni glorifies God with his music?). Since some church members have been mean to others, therefore he's abandoned the whole idea. He spews out all the same "rationalizations" that Dan cites.

It's like Democrats and their playbook. Rationalize with the same ol' same ol' and maybe some day it will stick. *sigh*

Sharon said...

Oh, and he thinks meeting a Christian friend at $tarbuck$ is just as valid "worship" as attending the Body of Christ. How can you reason with someone like that? I guess you can't.

Sewing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sewing said...

Yanni!? Sheesh, your friend needs help.

centuri0n said...

Sharon:

ALL YOUR CHURCH ARE BELONG TO GOD.

-GOD-, sister.

ALL YOUR CHURCH ARE BELONG TO GOD.

FOR GREAT JUSTICE.

Sharon said...

Cent:

Job 42:6

centuri0n said...

All your Job are belong to us.
ha. ha. ha. ha.

Michael Spencer said...

>I have an internet nemesis....

And you were doing so well...

Cindy said...

Some churches are too "clickish", just like some Christian blogs.


Too much High School mentality or worldly mentality.

centuri0n said...

iMonk, you poor, conceited wretch. I meant Tim Enloe.

It's amazing how it's all about you, isn't it? I am always amazed.

centuri0n said...

Cindy:

I'm glad this series has been helpful to you.

DJP said...

But does it "praise and worship?"

No.

Because then he'd have to repost the silliest part, like, 10-12X.

DJP said...

This is really awfully good, Frank. Your point about the apostolic church, in particular, is just golden. Thanks so much.

separateunion said...

Cent,

Thanks for this. You are really clearing up these issues for me very well.

I grew up in a family that was always church jumping because they were never happy with the direction of the church. I don't think I was at one single church for more than three years of my life. Granted, we moved a few times, but even when we were established for a good ten years, we probably tried at least 20 different churches in that time.

On the plus side, my parents knew there was something wrong with the modern church and this ultimately led them to Reformed theology, which ultimately led me there. However, the negative side is that I never had stability in a church and have taken on some of my parents flippant attitude towards a church that doesn't suit my needs.

I'm very greatful that I found this blog. It gives me a different and solid perspective on what I need to be striving toward.

Brian said...

I agree- silly divisions are all too common, and church shopping is often an excuse to feel better about your own sin.
But what about those denominations which have doctrines of salvation that are incompatible? If they both claim to be "the church" how is the non-believer to sift through this?