Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Where's the Meat?

An old commercial once featured the memorable line "Where's the beef?" An elderly woman was wondering why there was so little meat on the hamburger that she had just ordered, with the implication, of course, that the restaurant being advertised, in contrast, would give one ample food for one's money. I find myself asking a similar question today, with respect to many churches across America: where's the meat? Where is the meat of doctrine, of the teaching of the deep truths of the Word? Some churches are fortunate to have it, but a good number, at least in my experience, do not. Why is this? What ever happened to focusing upon doctrine? If doctrine is not the focus of a pastoral or teaching ministry in a church, then it follows that doctrine is not that important to that particular ministry. But this begs an obvious question: how much does doctrine matter?

Such a question is pertinent in times such as ours, times in which the Church is beset by an intellectual apathy against rigorous doctrinal thought on the one hand, and a postmodern assault against the absolute nature of truth, on the other. In response to the latter assault, most rational Christians will indeed assert that it is important to uphold the absolute nature of truth, so necessary to the tenets of our faith. As the Author of the Scriptures has Himself said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Matt. 24:35), and "Scripture cannot be broken" (Jn. 10:35). Indeed, postmodernists would break Scripture into a million different pieces - as many pieces as there are minds to conjure up fanciful interpretations that appeal to their own carnal desires. But among the mature and Biblically-grounded, this will not do - Christian truth and its doctrines are defended by such, and rightly so.

On the other hand, however, there seems to be an antipathy towards thinking and theologizing among many who reject the errors and absurdities of postmodernism. This expresses itself in many forms, which usually center around focusing less on doctrine, and more upon subjective experience. Thus, we have worship services whose goal and purpose to send the congregation away with warm fuzzies and good feelings while their heads remain empty and their hearts bereft of the awe and majesty that comes from encountering the living God in deep, rich, and bountiful exegesis of His Word. The excuses for such "services" are numerous, from trying to appeal to "seekers," to trying to be culturally-relevant, to being afraid that asking the congregation exercise their God-given mental capacities on a Sunday morning would be too great of a demand upon them. Whatever the case, I maintain that failing to feed Christ's flock is tantamount to spiritual abuse.

The Holy Spirit in several places compares the Word to food, with milk being the basic teachings, and meat the more in-depth truths (such as in 1 Cor. 3 and Heb. 5). A newborn babe needs milk, and indeed, cannot take meat. As such, milk is good and nourishing to him. But a babe should not remain one, but should grow and mature, and begin to take meat. Indeed, staying a babe for too long, and not maturing, is something to be ashamed about. Paul, writing to the bickering Corinthians, who were so spiritually immature as to place the teachings of Paul, Apollos, and Christ at odds with each other, said "But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh" (1 Cor. 3:1-3). And the writer of Hebrews, "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits" (Heb. 5:12-6:3). I tire of hearing appeals to teaching simple things over and over and over again, for the reason that the deeper truths of Scripture are "too hard", or "will drive people away," or "doctrine divides," or "studying doctrine kills the Spirit," or any number of similar excuses. By these Scriptures, it should be painfully obvious to any honest reader of the Bible that the goal for the Christian is to grow, and to mature in Christ, and that through growing in the knowledge of Him. As Peter once said, "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence" (2 Pe. 1:3). Our sanctification is dependent upon knowing our Lord, for it is through the knowledge of Him that we have all things that pertain to life and godliness. We cannot expect to grow in our walk with Christ apart from knowing Him, and we cannot know Him apart from His Word. In a similar vein, Paul writes "he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 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, 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. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 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" (Eph. 4:11-16). Our stability in the faith, our growth in unity, and even our very ministry, is all dependent upon growing in the knowledge of God through the teaching of His Word, by those He has gifted and appointed to this task.

In spite of the clear testimony of Scripture on this point, it amazes me to no end that many professing Christians have no desire to feast upon the meat of Scripture. Even more amazing (or appalling) is the duplicity of their pastors in this travesty. It is one thing for an immature Christian to stay immature, and to want to remain immature - such is the mark of immaturity. It is another thing for that person's pastor - his earthly shepherd, given the task by The Shepherd of leading and guiding and teaching such believers in bringing them to maturity, to abandon this pursuit in order to meet the demands of an immature believer. Who is more significant - Christ, or an immature Christian? Who will judge whom on the final day? Are Christ's commissions and commands to be overturned at the whim of immature, fallen, sinful, human beings? Or are such pastors simply people-pleasers? Or worse, are they immature themselves? I've had the distinct displeasure at various points of my life of sitting under the "teaching" of pastors, who had a great deal of theological education, even doctorates of theology, yet never gave more than a few morsels to Christ's flock - a little bit here, a little bit there. Some milk here, some milk there. Never anything substantial - but often very entertaining and culturally relevant presentations on this topic or that. Are such men incapable of delivering the Word as it should be delivered, or are they blind to their task? Or do they just disobey the commands of Christ to live up to some other standard? When Christ restored Peter, what did He command Him to do? To entertain His sheep? To give culturally-relevant messages to His sheep that will help them in their daily lives with work, relationships, and finances? To spend time telling the sheep stories that have some spiritual "application"? To bring in more sheep by being sensitive to seekers? To provide the sheep with upbeat worship services so that they can "feel" spiritual? No. His command is to "feed my sheep" (Jn. 21:17). So once again, I maintain that failing to feed Christ's flock is nothing less than spiritual abuse.

Now, I know that there are many pressures these days upon certain pastors to do other things in lieu of focusing upon providing the meat of the Word for Christ's flock. Some come from the busy schedules that pastors are forced (or pressured) into, that don't leave adequate time for preparing to feed Christ's flock on the Lord's Day. But, just as the Twelve declared that "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables" (Ac. 6:2), so also is it not right for pastors, gifted by the Spirit and appointed by Christ to teach His flock, to give up or compromise the preaching and teaching of the Word, in order to attend to other duties. There are other elders and deacons to whom such tasks can be given, according to their gifts. Let not the pastors and teachers be burdened beyond their calling. Some opposition also comes from formally professing Christians who are immature, who clamor for something to be done on Sunday morning other than the teaching of doctrine and the exposition of the Word. Some congregations seem to be full of such people, and indeed, some pastors might lose their jobs in such congregations if they actually faithfully exegeted a text on a given Sunday. But if the professing Christians in a congregation have no tolerance for the teaching of doctrine (reminiscent of 2 Tim. 4:3), then that proves them to be all the more in need of it - such are either immature at best, or false professors at worst. Is it good to withhold the nourishment of the Word from the few that desire it, in order to mollycoddle the rest that wish to do without? Is Christ's church His church or not? Has He commanded the teaching of His Word and the nourishment of His sheep, or not? Is the pastor a servant of men, or of Christ? Let him decide whose commendation he desires, and whose displeasure he can endure, for he cannot please both Christ and such a group of men. If he decides for Christ, let him say with Paul, "Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ" (Gal. 1:10). Even if a pastor were to be dismissed for teaching the Word, remaining faithful to Christ is worth more than any temporal "good" that would come from being unfaithful. And as Christ is the judge of all people, His church not excluded, He will repay everyone according to what He has done, and no less to those troublemakers who actively oppose the faithful work of His faithful servants.

In summary, to withhold the provision of meat for the nourishment of Christ's sheep, for fear of offending or driving away those who have no taste for the meat of the Word, is a grave abuse of the pastoral office, an abuse that I fear many pastors today are guilty of committing. But such things are ultimately not for me to decide. Christ is the judge of His Church, and the shepherds that He has appointed over her. As our Lord Himself said, "Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes" (Lk. 12:42-43). May our shepherds be found faithful in their God-given duties, not withholding the food from the flock that so desperately needs it, and may they who seek to be faithful receive superabundant grace and strength from the Lord to do so.

Now, there is a danger here of going too far in this direction, to focus so much on learning the doctrines themselves that we lose focus of Christ. Indeed, it is possible to become so focused upon the doctrines of Scripture, that we fail to behold the God who reveals Himself within it. This is a cosmic case of failing to see the forest for the trees. But it is much worse than that. The Church in Ephesus was guilty of this error. They could sniff out a heretic a mile away, but they had become so focused upon their doctrinal purity that they lost sight of Christ, and fell out of love with Him (Rev. 2:4). Lest they repent, Christ threatened to remove their lampstand from its place (Rev. 2:5), a terrible judgment indeed. Our purpose in creation is to glorify God. But we have been created to glorify God with all of our humanity - not just our minds, not just our bodies, not just our hearts, but with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mk. 12:30). Indeed, this is the greatest commandment, and rightly so, as it speaks to the heart of our created purpose. By this, then, any attitude towards the teaching of Scripture that results in a dead orthodoxy is not God-honoring, just as is any attitude that results in empty-headed emotionalism. If one works oneself up into an emotional frenzy or gives oneself warm fuzzies, this is not glorifying to God, as it is not according to knowledge. Indeed, one is setting one's affections upon something, but if it is not according to knowledge by the Scriptures, one is setting one's affections upon a work of one's own imagination, not God, and this is idolatry. At the same time, if one learns the doctrines of Scripture, but one's heart is not moved to worship Him and give Him glory, then this speaks of a deeper spiritual deadness or hardness, for the heart of flesh made alive cannot but help to worship, praise, and glorify God when He is revealed to it. So, the question so often asked today (in so many words), of "Should we teach doctrine, or stir up the affections?" is a false dichotomy. Properly done, the teaching of the Word will accomplish both. Properly done, the teaching of the Word will impress upon us the truths of Scripture, conforming our minds to the mind of Christ (Rom. 12:2, 1 Cor. 2:16). But it will not end here, for if we have the right mindset, then our hearts will follow. Knowing the truth about Christ will enable us to behold His glory, and beholding His glory will be to our joy in Him and His glory in us. Beyond simply teaching the statements of certain doctrines, the pastor or teacher should give his listeners Christ - he should reveal to them Christ is all His fullness, Christ in all of His glory. He should give his listeners a view of God such that they can see and behold His glory, and feast their souls upon it. True teaching and theology will enlighten the mind and enrapture the affections, capturing the whole man in the worship and adoration of His Lord and God. This should be the goal of all of our teaching and theologizing, and anything that falls short of it is not sufficient. Of course, such cannot be done apart from the work and power of the Holy Spirit, but this is fitting, so that God's glory should be found in Himself, and not rest upon us, such that it may be clearly seen that what has been done has been done in God (Jn. 3:21). But inasmuch as it is God's will for His people to know Him (Jn. 17:3), and His will for His ministers to make Him known to them through the teaching and preaching of His Word, then it follows that if we desire to glorify Him in this manner, that we can expect God to glorify Himself in this way, in the revelation of Himself to His people through the teaching and preaching of His Word.

In the end, this is why doctrine is important, because without it we cannot glorify God. We have been created to know God, and to be enraptured with and satisfy our souls in His glory, and this cannot be done if we do not know Him, or are ignorant of His Word. This is why we must teach the Word, and work to correct errors in our theological understanding. If we do not, we will not mature, and consequently we will not glorify God to the degree that we should. It is to our every benefit that we come to know Him and His revealed will more and more, and to our detriment that we do not. Let us seek then to know Him in all of His fullness, inasmuch as we can by the revelation of His Word, teaching His Word and expounding it in depth in all of His churches. If we do this, God will be glorified in us, and we will be satisfied in Him.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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