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What The Bible Says - Good Samaritan's Penny Pulpit by Pastor Ed Rice
What The Bible Says - Good Samaritan's Penny Pulpit by Pastor Ed Rice
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It's hard to read James 1:27 and see it meaning anything less than exercising compassion toward those in need: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” Christians throughout history have left us a rich heritage of modeling this kind of “pure religion” as they have sacrificially given of themselves to care for the exploited, rejected, and abandoned. Historical examples—such as George Muller, Amy Carmichael, and William Wilberforce—are the easiest to give, because they are the most widely known today. But I personally know Christians around the world—from Sunday school teachers here in our church to missionaries such as Rick and Becky Martin in the Philippines—who serve the poor and marginalized in sacrificial ways. I know missionaries who have established children's homes for orphans and schools for the illiterate. I know Christians here in the States who have opened their homes to foster children, advocated for unborn children, or worked to combat human trafficking.Where the gospel has gone forth, acts of mercy and compassion—including hospitals and schools around the world—have always been a result. Christians and local churches by the thousands give benevolence daily in America. Many Christians are involved in hands-on efforts to minister to people as well as to enact legislative policies to help with some of the great tragedies of our day, such as human trafficking, abortion, homelessness, and a broken, overwhelmed foster care system.But there is a significant difference between Christian compassion and the social justice movement of today. Caring for people and involving oneself in policy changes to counter the sin and brokenness in our world is needed. Supporting organizations and causes that include anti-biblical ideology is wrong.I see the first (caring for issues and loving your neighbors) as involvement in social issues. I see the second (aligning with questionable groups and causes) as the social justice movement. Someone else might define the terms differently—and I won't quibble over semantics—but for sake of clarity in this article, that is how I'm using these terms.One of my concerns with the larger social justice movement of our day is that it finds a ready home in theological liberalism. For instance, consider this tweet from Raphael Warnock, a progressive pastor and United States senator, that he posted (and later deleted) on Easter Sunday 2021:“The meaning of Easter is more transcendent than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whether you are Christian or not, through a commitment to helping others we are able to save ourselves.”—Raphael Warnock, April 4, 2021To biblical Christians, this statement is outright heresy. There is nothing more transcendent than the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. And there is no ability to save yourself through a commitment to helping others or any other way. Salvation can only be found in Christ. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Furthermore, to make the atoning death and resurrection of Christ anything less than a substitutionary sacrifice for our sin is not only incorrect, but it is blasphemous. Have you ever noticed that the strongest voices in the social justice movement are either non-Christians (and often outspokenly so) or theologically-liberal Christians? Some point to that reality and say, “See, Christians aren't involved enough.” I disagree. As mentioned earlier, I know many Christians who are deeply involved in social issues and needs. Christian compassion is always an appropriate and needed response to a world that is suffering. But I believe there are reasons that biblical Christians are not the strongest voices for the social justice movement: First, they mostly aren't welcome in the mainstream social justice movement because much of the movement has philosophical roots that run directly counter to Christianity, including pro-LGBTQ and pro-Marxist ideologies. (See my little book Which Justice? for more on the connection to Marxism.) Second, they aren't as likely to broadly align with the movement because their theological belief system sees different answers to social needs—namely, the gospel. The social justice movement of today reaches back to the social gospel movement of the early twentieth century. Both have been championed by professing Christians with progressive ideologies and, in many cases, with progressive theologies. In some circles, progressive Christians insist that engaging in acts of social justice is a requirement for preaching the gospel. Some even go so far as to say that if a church does not do works of social justice it is not preaching the full gospel. (Both of these positions were also espoused by proponents of the social gospel movement.) Eventually, these ideas give way to a belief that involvement in the social justice movement is part of how one earns salvation. (In personal conversation with a pastor of a church in Los Angeles a few months ago, he specifically told me his hope for salvation was based in his involvement in social justice.) Remember that theological liberalism is rooted in unbelief, namely unbelief in Christ as the only way of salvation and the Bible as the infallible, preserved truth it claims to be. But these theological systems of unbelief often find footing in lives and churches that desire cultural acceptance more than they desire the approval of God. Unfortunately, a desire to be liked by the world leads to a willingness to be like the world. Where this desire for acceptance by the world connects with the social justice movement is in its unwillingness to define sin as “the transgression of the law” as God does (1 John 3:4). In the modern social justice movement, “sin” has nothing to do with God or His law but everything to do with whatever contributes to a negative outcome someone may experience. The obvious cultural problem is that this thinking leads to a lack of responsibility, but the larger theological problem is that it leads to a lack of accountability before God. How can someone see his need for a Savior if he doesn't even believe he is a sinner?This unwillingness to call what violates God's law “sin” extends even further as the social justice movement as a whole rejects the Bible's clearly stated commands concerning marriage, gender identity, and human sexuality. Biblical convictions in these areas are not popular or welcome among the mainstream social justice movement, thus they are often downplayed or denied by Christians seeking to model involvement in social justice. As biblical Christians, we must be careful that we speak from God's Word to the issues of our culture rather than attempting to adjust Scripture to culture. In his book The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture and the Church, author Albert Mohler gives an example of the radical nature of the social justice movement and how it can fundamentally change the very doctrinal moorings of the church. In fact, he describes how this exact thing happened to an entire denomination, the United Church of Canada, through a theological downgrade beginning in the 1960s. He concluded, “Social justice concerns propelled the denomination rather than theological commitments. As such, this church became a servant to secularism and liberalism in Canada. It pioneered transgender ministers, supported abortion, and championed same-sex marriage, even before it became legal in Canada.” (Nelson Books, 2020, page 24)When culture becomes our gauge for what is offensive or helpful to the gospel, we will give an uncertain sound concerning truth, righteousness, and the Bible itself. The church will never please the world when it is living according to the New Testament. Our goal must not be to appease an angry culture; it must be to please God and declare the gospel. One of my great concerns with the social justice movement is that, while cloaked in a veneer of compassion, underneath lie worldly philosophies and anti-Christian agendas. The warning of Colossians 2:8 applies, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.”Are the physical needs of people relevant to Christians? Yes! If we believe James 1:27, we are to practice sacrificial compassion as an expression of the love of Christ. But we who know Christ personally also know that the soul of man matters most. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). With this in mind, if we engage in a movement that, while espousing a form of worldly compassion, denies personal sin and the vicariously atoning work of Jesus Christ, we are not helping as we may think. Justice matters, so give sacrificial compassion. Jesus matters most, so stand firmly committed to Him and to His unchanging truth.
Anyone who tells you that they have local church ministry during Covid-19 figured out is either delusional or far wiser than I am. Because after thirty-four years of pastoring, I am finding this season the most challenging—by far. I have never seen anything like it. The health, political, and social challenges are real.Additionally, as a pastor, I am engaged in a work in which a primary aspect of my responsibility is calling people together to hear God's Word preached. Literally, my job is to gather crowds in a time when that is highly discouraged!I'm sure there has never been a time in my life when I have prayed more earnestly for God's wisdom nor sought clarity and counsel as frequently.As an undershepherd of Christ's church, I feel responsibleTo teach and preach God's Word to our church family.For the safety of our members and community.For the health of our church family.For the spiritual wellbeing of Christ's flock.To continue to reach out to our community with the gospel.Balancing all of these concerns is challenging, to say the least. Other pastors I have discussed these issues with have expressed the same challenges.Some pastors, church staff, or church members may look at just one issue—perhaps scientific data—and think the answers of how to proceed are clear as day. But I can assure you, it's not that simple. The Bible tells us, “In the multitude of counsellors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14). Something similar could be said for there being safety in seeking guidance on multiple facets of these issues.In the midst of such conflicting information in the news and multi-level concerns for the church, how can a pastor make wise decisions regarding when and how to hold services, how to minister to the community, and how to biblically care for the spiritual wellbeing of his church family?There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. Here in California, we're still in a position to have to make new decisions almost every week as varying types of data emerge. But in making these decisions, there are several aspects I consider.1. Biblical ObedienceThis is where it starts and ends. My primary and ultimate concern is to obey Christ and follow His Word.God's Word commands us to assemble: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).As I shared in a blog post, because assembling is a biblical mandate for the church, I do not see a scenario in which a church can refuse to assemble for an indefinite amount of time and be obedient to Christ. Obviously, there are emergency situations in which a temporary pause or change of venue (such as we all believed would be the case at the beginning of this pandemic) are not an abdication of assembly. But an ongoing, indefinite cessation of assembly cannot be an option on the table.While we will take every precaution possible to keep our church family and community safe—out of love for them and respect for government leaders working to protect public health—at the end of the day, we say with the apostles, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). And the general rule of weekly assembling is a biblical mandate.2. Spiritual ConcernI am concerned for our church members who want and need spiritual encouragement during what has become one of the most difficult times of their lives. These people—from medical professionals on the front lines of exposure to the virus, to widows and singles living alone, to young couples faced with the challenges of raising a Christian family during job losses, to men, women, and teens struggling with various emotional challenges—need the spiritual encouragement of preaching and fellowship more now than perhaps any other time.Every time our church is required to pivot in some regard to our services—outdoor or indoor location, service times, in-person or online group studies, etc.—I think of these people and how the options available in the decision could impact their access to spiritual growth.3. Legal GuidanceThe politicization of this pandemic has undoubtedly made the medical issues fuzzier than they would have been otherwise. Even so, there are public servants who are genuinely doing their best to protect public health.I respect the office of these leaders (as Romans 13 instructs us to do), and I appreciate the efforts of those who want to keep our community safe. To whatever extent we can comply with legitimate orders that do not conflict with God's commands, we absolutely will (and have done so).Over the past several months, I've spent much time trying to understand and follow the latest guidance. This has included frequent calls with legal counselors as well as with our local leaders at the city and county level. It has often been frustrating to receive conflicting counsel at federal, state, and local levels. But we have done our best to understand and work with those in authority. And we have been careful to question if our decisions are sound according to legal counsel.4. Physical NeedsI have concerns for those with underlying conditions. I'm legitimately concerned for Covid patients. I have had pastor friends experience serious cases of Covid-19. And even, one of our dear church members with Covid-19 went to be with the Lord. I don't take the physical needs lightly.When I speak to younger leaders, they sometimes tend to be dismissive of the health implications of the virus. Some hope for it to spread quickly so we can develop herd immunity. When I speak to older leaders, they usually tend to be concerned about taking as many precautions as possible. I pastor a church with people from infants to the elderly. I can't take a flippant attitude, and I can't take a fearful attitude. My practice has been to try to hear all of the concerns and be learning and understanding the best medical and safety procedures.5. Medical InformationThe medical information on Covid-19 is all over the map. Some outlets lead us to think that half of America is dying. Others seem to take it too lightly. Over the past several months there has been conflicting information, sometimes seemingly released at opportune moments to further one or another agenda.But because this is a real medical issue, I can't just assume no medical information matters. As a leader, I try to understand the dangers and needs for caution. Obviously, this varies from one state or local community to the next.6. Perception of Those Concerned Scripture commands me to show concern and deference, even to someone who is more concerned than I am. Romans 12:10 says, “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another.” And Philippians 2:3–4 says, “…in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.”If I, as a pastor, blow off the concerns of those in our own church who are fearful of contracting the virus, my brashness could limit the ability of some to receive spiritual encouragement because they do not feel they can come to services.Whether or not it is medically relevant, there is a real sense in which wearing masks, making careful provision for and following social distancing guidelines, and taking every precaution possible in church services becomes a matter of humility and deference. Even if I didn't think it was necessary for protection, I would gladly do it to facilitate spiritual support and encouragement for others.7. Testimony with CommunitySince I came to Lancaster, California, just over thirty-four years ago, it has been my prayer that no honest history of our community could be written without mentioning Lancaster Baptist Church. Our church's desire is to impact our community for Christ with the gospel.For thirty-four years, our church has reached out to every home in our valley with the gospel. We have served law enforcement and medical professionals. We have built relationships with our city and county leaders.So when those same leaders find themselves in the middle of a pandemic, I want to be a team player who helps serve the public health of our community. I want to be someone who listens to concerns and is part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.But beyond our relationship with community leaders, our church members are still inviting their friends and co-workers to come to our socially-distanced, masked, sometimes-outdoor services. Some have been saved. So, I don't want to brazenly defy the health concerns of an entire community and leave the people I want to reach with the gospel fearful of coming to our church.8. The Leading of GodEven with the seven considerations listed above, there are many variables from one church to the next and from one community to the next. For us, there have been variables from one week to the next! There's no special formula to make the perfect decision in such a challenging time. At the end of the day, as the senior pastor of our church, I must seek the wisdom of God and obey His impulses.If you're a pastor, seek God's face. Ask Him boldly for His wisdom. I've been claiming the promise of James 1:5 more now than at any other point in my ministry: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”If you're a church member or church staff, pray for your pastor. And trust God to lead and direct him. Although the context of Hebrews 13:17 is primarily spiritual, the reality of the phrase, “For they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account” is weighty. Speaking from the heart of a pastor, I can tell you that the physical pandemic overlaps real spiritual concerns for the flock. With this in mind, follow the guidance your pastor provides, even if your personal concerns or medical intuition would be less cautious.This pandemic has dragged on for a long time. And there are some indications that aspects of it will continue for some time to come. But it won't last forever. We will get through it. And if we are following the Lord and receiving His grace, we'll be stronger for it.Meanwhile, our church is having services, witnessing, finding ways to engage our community with the gospel, and, most of all, desiring to be found faithful to Christ.
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