Saturday, March 31, 2012

It's Easter … Again

I have spent the last four years in a presbyterian church that follows the liturgical calendar. After years in an independent Baptist background that deemphasized church history and liturgy, I am slowly coming to value the liturgical calendar. Easter doesn't spring up out of nowhere. We march toward it from Ash Wednesday through Lent until we hit Easter week. Then we focus intently through Passover, Good Friday, and Easter services. God Himself first instituted the yearly Passover reflection and celebration. There is something of value, apparently, in stopping and reflecting anew over things we've studied and celebrated for many years in the past.

So this morning, I'm reflecting on all I already know, yet what apparently both God and Church history teach me I need to review in depth again anyway. It doesn't take much to convince me why I need to review it, for I am well aware of the ways both I and the larger Body of Christ warp away from these truths when left to set the spiritual agenda for ourselves.

Instead of deciding what I want to pursue spiritually for myself, I review Jesus' last week. His intense instructions to His disciples in His last days. Their immature reactions to His teaching and naïve assurances of their devotion. The accolades of the crowds who want a Messiah that suits their temporal purposes and then turn against Him with amazing speed when He doesn't. His agonizing hours of prayer in the Garden. The outright betrayal of Judas and even more devastating denial by Peter. Jesus' quiet but stoic endurance of unjust accusations. His grace in the midst of unspeakable torture.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
I MUST think on these. Not in simple preparation of a Sunday school lesson or blog post but for MY DAILY HEALTH. I need to walk for weeks on end through His last moments on earth and the reality of His sacrifice. And I need to do it over and over again.

I need it so that I can understand forgiveness.
Matthew 18 21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. 
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Real forgiveness of the sins against me demands a context. Jesus didn't just tell His disciples to forgive. He gave them a context for this forgiveness that changes everything. This Easter season, I meditate again on this context, because it's clear from Scripture I'll never understand forgiveness without it.

Once I understand forgiveness, I can begin to process reconciliation.
Matthew 5 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Reconciliation requires naming truthfully the sin I committed against others or the ones they committed against me. Yet, once named, it requires forgiveness, and it is only the meditations of Easter week that empower that. My pastor preached a beautiful sermon last week on this from Jesus' last words to His disciples in John before His crucifixion.

This week of Church liturgy concludes next Sunday with great celebration. For after we walk through the dark days of Jesus' gracious sacrifice, we celebrate that death didn't have the last word over Him. And so it does not have the last word over us.
Ephesians 1 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,
The power that raised Christ from the dead is the same power at work in us. It is this power that enables us to tackle the next 40 weeks or so, overcoming the impossible—the sin within us, the sin without us, and all the ways our world is broken—with a power that defies understanding. The Spirit is real, living within us, empowering us, and bringing to remembrance all Christ did on the cross to make this possible. This meditation is the rhythm of the Christian life. Thank you, Father, Son, and Spirit, for Easter again.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Vulnerable Worship in a World of Cynicism

John 12 
12 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3  Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
Mary of Bethany had an emotional history with Jesus by the time of this story. She had believed in Jesus to the point of sending for Him in John 11 when her brother lay dying, confident Jesus could heal him. And she was deeply wounded when Jesus didn't come, sitting in her home in silence while her sister ran to Jesus with her sorrow. But Jesus moved in an amazing way, bringing her brother from death to life. What a roller coaster of emotions she must have experienced in her walk with Jesus the few weeks before this scene in John 12. 

Prior to Lazarus' healing, Mary had once before sat at the feet of Jesus, eagerly listening to His teaching. On that occasion, she was rebuked by her sister, but Jesus affirmed her. This time in John 12, she opened herself to even greater rebuke as she poured out expensive perfume on His feet, likely a family heirloom whose cost was estimated to be a year's wages. She then wiped Jesus' feet with her hair, which was her glory in that culture. She laid herself out with no protection in her worship of Jesus. She was completely vulnerable. Judas seized on it and tried to shame her. Yet once again, Jesus rebuked her accuser and affirmed her act of worship. 

It is remarkable that a woman in that culture would pour out so much of herself in worship of Jesus– financially in the form of such costly ointment and culturally in the form of soiling her valued hair. The vulnerability of her worship is threatening, yet I personally find it deeply encouraging as well. We have good reason to fear opening ourselves, so naked emotionally, in worship of Jesus. For we too risk the same type of rebuke she faced first from her own sister and then Jesus' disciple. Women especially can be open to criticism in such devotion—mocked for being too emotional or irrational. I often feel constrained by how society will judge my worship and devotion if it appears too costly or too vulnerable. It's different than Pink Fluffy Bunny emotionalism, yet as a woman I find the deep things of Christ and the Word sometimes result in deep emotion and passion in me, and that can raise the disdain of cynics. Mary's sacrifice in worship is notable, but what actually empowers her worship is even more important, for it is the thing that enables me to find example in John 12 for myself. She was empowered personally by the object of her vulnerable worship, Jesus Himself. For shortly after Mary washed His feet with her hair, He hung naked on the cross for her and us. Her vulnerability towards Him in worship pales in comparison to His vulnerability in sacrifice for her. He laid Himself bare in every way, and it is through His shame we now have access to the Father, bold and confident access according to the author of Hebrews. 

The only way I have found to stay engaged in honest, vulnerable worship of Jesus in our day of skepticism among outright unbelievers and cynicism among others who claim a Christian heritage is daily meditation on Christ's sacrifice as He laid down Himself so vulnerably in love for us.
Isaiah 53 3  He was despised and rejected by men;  a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces;  he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 
4  Surely he has borne our griefs  and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5  But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
My pastor preached a beautiful sermon on this passage. You can listen to it here.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Husbands who love their wives as Christ loved the Church

A few years ago, a friend shared with me the sacrificial love her husband had shown her early in their marriage as they encountered the effects of her sexual abuse as a child on their own sexual relationship in marriage. Her husband is a very physical, masculine pastor (I shouldn't have to note that but do to pre-empt anyone who would write him off as less than a man). She had been sexually abused as a child and subsequently experienced fear and tension in sex with her husband their first year of marriage. Her husband talked with an older, wise counselor who encouraged him to love her unconditionally without pressure to have sex, building up a relationship with her that made her feel safe until she was ready to initiate in sex. She told me she didn't even realize that he had stopped asking for sex, but several months later, it dawned on her, and when she asked him, he told her the counsel he had received and what he was trying to do. He hadn't put pressure on her or put out the vibe that she was disappointing him sexually that entire time. It worked, and they eventually resumed a healthy sex life. It ministered great grace to her heart to see her husband's sacrificial love for her and his willingness to lay down his longings because he didn't want her to feel exploited by him as she did by her abuser. That story reminds me much of Ephesians 5's exhortations of sacrificial love for husbands toward their wives. 

That husband endured a hard thing. It is not easy to love someone with such sacrifice. Actually, it would be more precise to say it is simply not easy to love someone. The term love when used as it is defined in I Corinthians 13 automatically implies sacrifice. We often qualify the term love with the adjective self-sacrificial. But when Paul (and Jesus) use the term, the self-sacrifice is understood. It's part of the definition. "Love suffers long ...."

The love to which Paul calls husbands in Ephesians 5 is this kind of love. It's not a manipulative kind of love. It's a sacrificial love. I recognize well the difference because my husband loves me this way. It's not so much big gifts, though I do like those. Gift-wrapped presents aren't really sacrifices, per se. He's being thoughtful in a low-level sense when he buys me a gift I like along with a sweet card. There's a deeper, bigger sacrificial aspect of his love that I am coming to respect and value with maturity. I could give examples, but they would likely ring hollow because his expressions of that love towards me depend in many ways on ME. Authentic, biblical love towards you requires an understanding of you.
I Peter 3:7 ESV Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
If you wonder what the “likewise” refers to, Peter says this in the previous chapter.
I Peter 2 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22  He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23  When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24  He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
In I Peter 3:7, Peter is basically saying to husbands to continue in the example of Christ. The specific practical application he gives to husbands of Christlikeness is living with their wives in an understanding way. He uses several key words. First, there's understanding. It's sometimes translated knowledge. It means understanding who she is, what makes her unique. It's not what the husband WANTS her to be, but who she is herself. That's why my practical examples of what this looks like in our home are irrelevant. So what if my husband is willing to take a week off work so I can go study whales? The larger question is what are your own wife's giftings and burdens (for the occasional man who reads this blog)? What is important to her? What would help her flourish? For what does she deeply long? Nourishing the soul is of much greater value than symbolic gestures.

Second, Peter says to show her honor, which could also mean respect according to D. A. Carson. We often talk about Paul's command for wives to respect their husbands. Respect is my husband's love language, and I value Paul's instructions to wives on the subject. Yet husbands too are called to respect/honor their wives. I gave this illustration on the blog and in my book when I wrote on wives respecting their husbands. An education professor during my undergraduate studies told of a junior high math teacher who, on the first day of class, mistook her students’ locker numbers for their IQ’s. For the entire school year, she treated the students as if they were only as smart as their locker numbers indicated. Sure enough, at the end of the year, they had consistently lived either up or down to her expectations. I know without a doubt that my husband's respect for me and honor of me has affected me similarly.

Peter says that the woman's position as the weaker vessel is crucial to this need for respect. Does he mean physical weakness? I don't think so. It seems he's referring to her role in marriage. If a wife willingly embraces submission to her husband, it puts her in a weaker, more vulnerable position in the home. Hence Peter's serious warning—so your prayers, husbands, will not be hindered! She is a fellow heir of the grace of life deserving of your honor and respect because of all God says over her in Christ.

Wives, if you don't feel this kind of love from your husband, you can still love him this way. Maybe you don't feel loved by him at all. Or maybe the love he thinks he's demonstrating seems to you more manipulative than sacrificial. Christ's love for us is the gift that enables our love for Him and others. And your love can be a conduit of God's grace to your husband. The commands of love and respect flow both ways, but each requires that someone start first.
Luke 6:31 Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Gospel-centered Timeouts

The gospel changes everything, my pastors often say. I wrestle daily with exactly what that means, especially how the gospel changes my parenting style. I've written before about the difference in discipline and punishment. Christians and non-Christians often use those two words interchangeably, but the Bible doesn't, and that is the focal point for me of what is and what is not gospel-centered parenting. I cannot believe the gospel changes everything and then continue to punish my children (read the article to which I previously linked for a Biblical defense of that statement). However, I can and must disciple them. I proactively train them in righteousness and reactively guide them in how the gospel equips them to reconcile with the one to whom they have done wrong. Christ bore all their punishment (payment of sin) on the cross, and there is no condemnation for those who are in Him. I can't believe the gospel is sufficient for my children and then heap shame and condemnation on them in punishment for their sins. Yet, I cannot disengage either. God has tasked me with the responsibility of training them.

These are all nice words on paper, but they mean little until I apply it practically in the mud pit of daily life. I've found Give Them Grace (and all of Elyse Fitzpatrick's writings) helpful on this topic. [Although I will say that I have some push-back on the chapter from Give Them Grace on spanking. I'm working on an article on that topic, and Elyse has been gracious to interact with me on the issue. When I finally get my article written, I'll post her response as well. I am looking forward to that edifying discussion. Here's an older post on the subject.]

In my ongoing attempts to apply the gospel to the discipline of my children, I've found that a simple tweak to the Super Nanny style timeout better fits my doctrine than traditional timeouts. Please don't feel constrained by my practical application, though if it's helpful to you, that is great. The simple change I've made is that I no longer put my sons in timeout for a specific amount of time. In times past, if they didn't obey me on a specific issue, my temptation was to punish them with a 5 or 10 minute (or longer) timeout, depending on their age and the severity of what they did. But that reminds me of a punitive jail sentence. “You took your brothers, toy? Verdict: guilty. Your sentence is to sit in that chair for 10 minutes.” But the gospel teaches that Christ took their guilty verdicts on the cross and bore the punishment for every last one of them. I struggle then with punishing them a second time. It makes Christ's punishment seem irrelevant, and I sure don't want to teach them that. Yet, as I said before, I have to disciple them through it! 

In light of that, time-outs have become a tool for getting my boys' attention so we can DEAL with the problem. Many times (not always), the way this looks is that I put one or the other in time-out until they have calmed down and are ready to deal with the problem. I'll sometimes say, “when your attitude has changed and you're ready to talk to me respectfully (or repair with your brother, or clean up your mess, or whatever the issue is), you can come find me.” Sometimes, right then, they'll say, “I'm ready,” though it's obvious they aren't. In that case, I repeat my instructions with some additions (when you are no longer angry, or when you have finished crying, or when your tone of voice has changed). Then when they come find me and I can tell they really do seem ready to address/fix the problem, then we start talking about it. I ask them, “What did you do?” Because if they don't understand or admit what they did wrong, we won't have an effective discussion about fixing the root issue (what a big problem this is among grownups too!). Once they admit the real problem, we can start addressing the solution. What does God say to do? Usually, we start with the greatest command and golden rule. True to how Jesus addresses the greatest command, most every other issue they have in life stems from its root. Next, how does the gospel equip us to deal with this problem? Well, it enables us to receive forgiveness from God, and God's forgiveness equips us to then forgive the next person (Eph. 4:32). From there, what can do we do to repair the problem? That question often takes some thought, yet it is a crucial point of reconciliation. I enjoy watching my boys try to answer that question and love those moments when they sincerely face the problem and genuinely start caring about fixing it. Repairing and reconciliation are beautiful things to witness.

The discussion of discipline verses punishment has to address both negative punishment and positive reinforcement. Consequences and incentives. I don't want my consequences to be punishment. But I don't want to set my boys up for failure, which is what I do if I don't address problem areas in which they tend to sin and disobey. I've found a simple tweak in how I communicate consequences to my children to be particularly helpful in practically applying my beliefs. We now talk about consequences as more about removing stumbling blocks than punishing behavior. For instance, I won't take them to the playground if they can't listen to my instructions and keep other kids safe. It's not a punitive jail sentence. It's removing a stumbling block for them until they've grown some on the issue. We have a particular problem with morning negativity when it's time to get ready for school. One of my sons likes to play games in the morning and had a very negative attitude when it was time to stop for school. So we took time off from playing those games in the morning. I didn't talk about it as punishment against him in retribution for his attitude. But I was clear that playing these games was causing him problems in the morning, so we were going to stop for a while because it set him up for having a bad day. After a few weeks of that, he asked if he could play them again, and we had a good discussion about it. He recognized that we had stopped because it caused him to have a bad morning when time to get ready for school. We discussed if he could now do it but have a good attitude when time to turn them off. And we talked about needing to stop playing them again if they became a problem for him that caused him to have a bad attitude. It's just a minor change in how I communicated consequences to my son, yet I have much more peace about the consistency of this with what I'm trying to communicate to him about the gospel, grace, forgiveness, and repentance.

If this sounds like an easy system or method, don't let the simplicity of a short blog post confuse the complexity of any given situation in real life. I've outlined my best case scenarios, targets I only rarely hit myself. And again, please don't read this and feel constrained to discipline your children the way I do mine. But if this encourages you to think more deeply about how the specifics of your discipline techniques reflect the gospel to your kids (as it has for me), then that is a good thing.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Authoritarian verses Complementarian

My Things That Undermine the Complementarian Position post got WAY more attention than I expected. I want to return to some gospel-centered parenting topics that are more in line with the lectures to myself that this blog normally represents. But I read some other articles last night that I think add to the discussion of complementarian problems and distinguish what is and is not healthy submission. Hopefully, this will be my last post on this subject for a bit.

Bob Bixby at Pensees analyzes the Biblical story of Ananias and Sapphira.
“The tragedy is that because Christians don’t view submission in lesser unions as subservient to the ultimate union, the Church today is afflicted with child abuse, extortion, prideful division, and immorality. The same apostle who said, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13) also said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). I think that Peter would say to wives today, “Yes, be subject, but didn’t you read what I said? For the Lord’s sake.” This precludes meekly standing by with knowledge about your husband that no one else has when he is lying against the Holy Spirit in the face of the Church. Be the Church, lady, and expose the lie. 
Or die with your man. 
It’s hard to believe that Peter would ever want a women to be a Sapphira. I’m persuaded, however, that the Church today has many an Ananias who counts on his Sapphira to prop up the lie.”
And Andy Naselli writes of Abigail here. Andy and I don't agree on everything, mutual submission in particular, but I respect him and have learned from his study on the subject. His exploration of Abigail was very interesting to me.

I talked about Peter's words to wives when their husbands sin here (particularly the problem of deluding ourselves from acknowledging their sin because we are too threatened by the consequences) and about the serious issue of wives allowing or sometimes even enabling abuse of either their children or themselves here.

All these qualifiers have to be in place to distinguish healthy submission in the image of Christ from unhealthy authoritarian practices in the image of Satan. I am glad to see this discussion growing.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Dysfunctional but Cherished Church

The last few days, I've been meditating on phrases from Ephesians 4 that caught my attention when working through Ephesians for By His Wounds You Are Healed. Here are some thoughts on the dysfunctional (though cherished by God) Church, which were first published in that study.

4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Here it is the great summary of why we must eagerly pursue unity with other believers despite the dysfunction we have likely witnessed in our church experiences—because there is only ONE Body. Paul is talking about the Body of Christ, which is made up of all those Christ has reconciled to Himself—i. e. the Church. How do you define the Church? It is not church membership or denominational status, nor is it the building or the programs. What Paul is talking about here is simply all those who are IN CHRIST as he has described in Ephesians 1-3. The church is the people—not the building, the programs, the denominational bylaws, or the membership roles. You and I have an obligation that extends well beyond the boundaries of our particular “church.” We have an organic union with all those who are in Christ no matter where or when they lived. All believers, past, present, and future make up one Body. The ramifications of Paul’s point here are extensive.

The Church is notoriously unlovable. Consider the picture of God’s people painted in the book of Hosea. By God’s own order, Hosea marries the harlot Gomer and has a child with her. She then has two other children with different men. Hosea takes Gomer and her children back despite her adultery. But she leaves him again, returns to harlotry, and eventually becomes a slave. Hosea buys her back in public auction and brings her home, not as his slave, but again as his wife. God uses Hosea’s life story as a picture of His pursuit of His own people. God’s people have broken their covenant with Him throughout history. In return, God has relentlessly pursued His people, the Church, not because of her beauty or worthiness but for His own glory. As Paul said in Ephesians 1, God has lavished His love on us to the praise of His glorious grace. He is sanctifying His Church, rooting out her sin, and transforming her into the beautiful bride that He will present to Jesus at the marriage supper of the lamb in Revelation.

God is certainly doing a beautiful thing in and through His people. The Church will one day be presented spotless before God. But she is not there yet. The Church is a mess. This should make sense to us since she is made up completely of individuals who are all messes. The problem with the Church is that you and I are in it! Each of us in Jesus’ Body were by nature children deserving of God’s wrath. Each of us has no righteousness to offer God on our own. Each of us was saved by God’s grace and not our good works which Isaiah likened to filthy menstrual rags (Isaiah 64:6). It is important that we have a Biblically informed understanding of just who exactly the Body of Christ, the Church, is. If we do not, we are going to be disappointed and disillusioned, likely to the point that we give up on the whole idea altogether.

However, if we understand the Church, both the good and the bad, as Scripture presents her, then when she fails us, we understand that this is just her nature. We fight for unity in her anyway because we know she is Jesus’ Body. There is a great line from a song by Derek Webb in which he sings as Christ would about His church. “You can not live for Me with no regard for her. If you love Me you will love My church.”

You cannot say to Jesus, “I like your Head, but your Body disgusts me.” It is His BODY. God chose this picture to communicate to us something deep and beautiful about His people. We are one with each other and one with Christ. Therefore, we have to deal with the Church. We cannot cut ourselves off from her and expect a healthy relationship with Christ. It is all one glorious, supernatural entity. To believe the gospel means that we are in Christ, and to be in Christ means that we are supernaturally connected to His Body. Therefore, to reflect well on the gospel, we must diligently pursue unity with his Body for we are ONE.
13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

In dealing with our Christian community, it is essential we keep our eye on the prize—the end result of the Body of Christ growing together in unity and maturity in the true knowledge of God. As the daughter of a cotton farmer, I remember a farming illustration I heard growing up. If a farmer wanted to plow a straight line for a row of crops, he needed to keep his eye on a fixed point at the end of the row. If he looked down where he was, he would make a crooked line. But if he kept his eye on the spot that he wanted to reach at the end, he would maintain a straight line for his row of crops. That is a helpful illustration for us as we deal with issues and relationships within the Body of Christ, the Church. We have to keep our eye on the goal. What is the end result of all God is doing now? It is a church that is unified in the faith and the knowledge of God, measuring up to the stature of Christ. God is moving us toward the goal of Christian maturity in which we are no longer weak Christians easily deceived by every new doctrinal error. We will be a Body that works together in harmony and unity, each part doing its job. And what does fully realized Christian maturity look like? It looks like Christ! (Eph. 4:13)

As we discussed before, the Church is NOT there yet, but God calls us to choose the proper place to fix our focus. He calls us to focus squarely on the goal to which He is conforming his Body. This does not mean we stick our head in the sand and ignore the Church's failings. That is not Christian unity either! But our perspective on the current failings of the Church must be informed by the end result that God promises He will accomplish—a beautiful, mature Body steadfast in correct doctrine where members work together and support each other. Knowing where we are going is a great help to making choices now on how to respond to current struggles.

How do we live in the tension between what God’s people currently are and the unified faith, knowledge, and maturity that God is moving us all toward? Paul has already given instructions on the necessity of humility and persevering love to maintain unity in the Body of Christ. Now, he gives us a concise summary statement we would all do well to make the guiding principle for all of our relationships within and without the church—speaking the truth in love.

The first thing I notice in this phrase is that speaking the truth is not necessarily loving in and of itself. I grew up in a segment of Christianity in which the greatest command was minimized while obnoxious methods of proclaiming the truth were promoted. During my teenage years, I asked one pastor why our church never talked about the greatest command to love. His response was that “liberal” churches had abused the concept of love so much that he was justified in rudely proclaiming truth without any effort to be loving and obedient to the greatest command. Paul is teaching here that both positions—love without truth and truth without love—are unhelpful to, and downright destructive of, the ultimate goal that God has painted for us of the mature, unified, doctrinally steady Body of Christ. We must both speak the truth and be loving. The two are not synonymous. We must not choose one or the other, and we must not delude ourselves into thinking that the fact we have one of them right excuses us from incorporating the other. We must do both!

We are not left with the task of determining what is or is not loving on our own because Paul does not deal with this concept subjectively. The term love is not used in Scripture the same way it is used in our culture. Biblically, it is not a mere emotion that leaves you warm and fuzzy but is otherwise hard to define. Instead, God gives us clear instructions in I Corinthians 13 as to exactly what He means when He instructs us to speak the truth in love. Did we speak truth kindly, patiently, and humbly? Or were we envious, proud, and boastful? Were we rude, self-seeking, and easily angered? Did we secretly take joy in evil? Did we give the benefit of the doubt, hope for the best, and endure with others? By the I Corinthians 13 definition, love is not simply a characteristic we should have when there is no sin, but it defines how we respond when there is sin. In fact, some of I Corinthians 13’s characteristics of love have no function at all except in response to sin and conflict.

In Ephesians 4:15-16, Paul continues drawing the picture of the finished product that God is making for Himself—the mature Body of Christ, with Christ as the Head and individual members joined and held together, growing and working properly together. At the end of this section he repeats the words that are becoming the central idea when we consider what distinguishes healthy church practices from unhealthy ones—in love.
John 13:35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (My pastor preached an excellent sermon on this verse last Sunday.  You can listen here.)

If you do not get Biblical love and exhibit it to others, John goes as far to say in I John 4 that you do not know God at all.

7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him…. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

Perfection in a church is a totally unreasonable standard to expect of a church right now. The Bible is clear that the perfection Christ promises to work in us is not going to be fully realized until we are seated with him in heaven. We are part of an imperfect Church—both corporately and individually. And imperfect churches only demonstrate the profound need for consistent love. Without love, every issue is potentially divisive. Love gives us a specific way for speaking the truth, for teaching correct doctrine, for calling others (and ourselves) to repentance, and it involves kindness, gentleness, humility, and patience. You cannot present truth without love and expect a healthy church.

I'll end with powerful words from John Stott's Message of Ephesians commentary.

Thank God there are those in the contemporary church who are determined at all costs to defend and uphold God’s revealed truth. But sometimes they are conspicuously lacking in love. When they think they smell heresy, their nose begins to twitch, their muscles ripple, and the light of battle enters their eye. They seem to enjoy nothing more than a fight. Others make the opposite mistake. They are determined at all costs to maintain and exhibit brotherly love, but in order to do so are prepared even to sacrifice the central truths of revelation. Both these tendencies are unbalanced and unbiblical. Truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love; love becomes soft if it is not strengthened by truth. The apostle call us to hold the two together, which should not be difficult for Spirit-filled believers, since the Holy Spirit is himself ‘the Spirit of truth’ (John 14:17), and his firstfruit is “love” (Galatians 5:22). There is no other route than this to a fully mature Christian unity (p. 172).