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Is God Anti-Gay? (Review Thursday #2)

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71gwlJNkHoLSam Allberry. Is God Anti-Gay? And Other Questions About Homosexuality, the Bible and Same-Sex Attraction. The Good Book Company, 2013.

This short book, part of the Questions Christian Ask series published by The Good Book Company, is worth well over its weight in the wisdom it contains on homosexuality. Perhaps more than any other subject, homosexuality is the “hot topic” of recent years both in American evangelicalism and in the broader American culture at large. Not only unbelievers but also Christians have been asking the question, “Is God anti-gay?” So Allberry’s answer is timely. More importantly, Allberry’s answer is biblical.

Allberry’s biblical answer to the titular question is most evident in his constant grounding of the issue of the Bible (and God) on homosexuality in the gospel. In Allberry’s own words: “God’s message for gay people is the same as his message for everyone. Repent and believe. It is the same invitation to find fullness of life in God, the same offer of forgiveness and deep, wonderful, life-changing love” (10). No one is reducible to his or her sexuality, so the gospel–although it addresses our sexuality–addresses our whole persons. This truth resurfaces repeatedly in this book, most notably in the final chapter when Allberry answers the question, “What’s the best way to share Christ with a gay friend?” (75-76). The central strength of Is God Anti-Gay? is its tight focus on the gospel of Jesus, which is good news for both heterosexual and homosexual people.

Allberry’s book is superb from first to last. The introduction builds Allberry’s rapport with the reader: he is a Christian who has struggled with same-sex attraction (SSA) since his teenage years (10-13). Chapter one appropriately begins with the broader issue of which homosexuality is but a part: sexuality. Specifically, Allberry reviews how God ordained all people to express their sexuality exclusively in monogamous, heterosexual marriage. From there, Allberry notes how the Bible specifically addresses homosexuality in chapter two. After concluding that the Bible consistently condemns homosexuality, Allberry counsels Christians who struggle with SSA to pray, think about homosexuality biblically, and seek others’ support. He also affirms the application of the Bible’s teaching on sexuality for Christians who struggle with SSA. The sexual options for them, as for all people, are either heterosexual marriage or chaste celibacy. Himself celibate, Allberry does an excellent job highlighting the healthiness of singleness, going so far as to call singleness (rightly) a “blessing,” just as much a blessing as marriage is for married couples (54). The final two chapters of the book go hand-in-hand because Allberry offers practical advice to Christians on how to relate both to homosexuals within the church (whether visiting nonbelievers or Christians who struggle with SSA) and homosexuals in the world. Allberry concludes these chapters well:

It will be the quality of our community life as a church, as much as our ability to speak clearly into the public square, that will most visibly show a watching world that the Christian stance on sexuality is the most compelling. (79)

To reflect on the conclusion of the book is to return to the gospel-saturated nature of Is God Anti-Gay? because the conclusion is itself a meditation on John 6:35, where Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (ESV). Allberry’s main point about this verse is that Jesus is the bread of life. In Allberry’s own words: “The great gift that Jesus gives us is himself” (83). Amen. The gospel is the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, who promises everyone who repents–turning away from sin, whatever forms it takes in an individual’s life–and believes this good news that Jesus has given himself to us and for us to save us from our sins by his life, death, and resurrection.

For all these reasons, I cannot more highly recommend to Is God Anti-Gay? to every Christian I know. This book is accessible and gives great returns for the less than $10 investment to purchase it. The wisdom Allberry shares in this book is valuable because it is biblical–and being biblical, this book is first and foremost gospel-saturated. The gospel of Jesus Christ undergirds every page. May Is God Anti-Gay? help Christians respond biblically not only to the ideology of homosexuality but also to homosexuals. May this book help Christians “speak the truth in love” to homosexuals, for they are no worse sinners than we.

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The First Century Ephesian Church and the Twenty-First Century American Church

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What is the most pressing problem that the American church currently has? Some might identify the twenty-first century American church’s biggest problem as the ongoing sexual revolution in our society. Respected Christian leaders have consistently decried the sexual slippery slope that our society is racing down, especially with the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA earlier this summer. Others might identify the church’s worst problem more broadly as the anti-religious liberty tendencies of President Obama’s administration or the anti-Christian bias of both news media and pop culture. I deny neither that these problems exist nor that they are pressing; however, I would identify a different problem as the most pressing problem that the twenty-first century American church faces.

The other proposed pressing problems all share this common trait: they are problems that are pressing the church from the outside. I believe that the church’s most pressing problem presses her from the inside. This problem is not new. It is a problem that has plagued the church since New Testament times. The most pressing problem that the twenty-first century American church faces is false teaching.

False teaching espouses both wrong doctrine (heterodoxy) and wrong practice (heteropraxy). Any combination of the two can constitute false teaching, and a combination of one or both of these elements of false teaching has threatened the gospel integrity of churches since the first century. For this study, I shall examine the first century Ephesian church as described in Acts, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Revelation. In the mid-first century, Paul warned the Ephesian elders of false teaching that was to come. Within ten years, that false teaching had arrived in Ephesus, and it was marked both by heterodoxy and heteropraxy. By the end of the first century, the church at Ephesus had corrected its doctrinal problems but was still threatened by practical problems: they no longer loved the Lord. Whatever varieties of false teaching are prevalent in your specific local church, bad doctrine and bad living are the most pressing dangers your church faces in America right now.

Coming False Teaching

Paul founded the Ephesian church gradually. He first visited Ephesus with Aquila and Priscilla as recorded in Acts 18:18-21, but he did not remain in Ephesus long enough to establish a church there. The first Christian convert in Ephesus was actually  Apollos, who himself was from Alexandria. Aquila and Priscilla evangelized him while Paul was away from the city (Acts 18:24-26). Apollos did not spend a long time ministering in Ephesus, either. He traveled on to Achaia and Corinth, where he exercised a fruitful ministry (Acts 18:27-28; 19:1; cf. 1 Cor. 3:5-9).

Like Aquila and Priscilla before him, Paul found disciples of John in Corinth. As Aquila implicitly had done with Apollos, Paul explicitly “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” the disciples of John that he evangelized (Acts 19:5). Paul remained in Ephesus there building up the church through preaching and healing people for over two years until he left Ephesus following a riot (Acts 19:8-41; 20:1). Before traveling back to Jerusalem, Paul summoned the elders (the leaders who labored in preaching and teaching) of the Ephesian church to Miletus so he could deliver a farewell address to them because he would never see them again (Acts 20:17, 25, 38). The theme of Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders was the contrast between coming false teaching and his previous sound teaching.

And when they came to him, he said to them:

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to al the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night and day to admonish everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” (Acts 20:18-35)

Paul begins his farewell address to the Ephesian elders by reminding them of his faithful ministry in Ephesus. He reminds them that he faithfully preached the gospel and urged people to repent and believe for salvation (vv. 20-21). Despite the hardships he had faced and the hardships for him yet to face, Paul was determined to faithfully complete his ministry as an apostle (vv. 19, 22-24). In contrast to Paul’s concern for others, the false teachers will be concerned for themselves (vv. 29-31). Paul rightly prays that God would make the Ephesian elders faithful as they faced the false teaching once it arrived (v. 32), even though he knew that some of them would join the false teachers (v. 30). He thus rightly concludes his farewell address by reminding the elders of his own faithfulness and generosity, which should motivate them to be faithful and generous, as well (vv. 33-35).

Paul founded the Ephesian church on the true gospel of Jesus Christ. He had faithfully modeled a Christian lifestyle for the Ephesian believers to emulate. His three years of faithful gospel preaching and gospel living, by God’s grace, would be sufficient for the Ephesian Christians to withstand the false teaching to come.

Rampant False Teaching

Sadly, not everyone in the Ephesian church were true Christians. Unregenerate church members, now as then, sow false teaching in the church both in doctrine and in practice. Within a decade of bidding the Ephesian elders adieu, Paul’s prophecy had come true. False teachers had arisen in Ephesus. Paul has already excommunicated two Ephesians, Hymenaeus and Alexander, for their participation in the heresy (1 Tim. 1:19-20). False teaching is a prominent (if not the prominent) theme of 1 Timothy, and Paul bookends this epistle with extended charges to Timothy to correct the false teaching that was rampant in the Ephesian church (1 Tim. 1:3-20; 6:3-21). This false teaching espoused both false doctrine and false practice.

As a false teaching, the Ephesian heresy of the mid-first century taught false doctrine. This false doctrine was devoted “to myths and endless genealogies” (1 Tim. 1:4). The false teaching was essentially a “vain discussion” about the law, which the false teachers had no understanding about “either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Tim. 1:6, 7; cf. Titus 3:9). Since the Ephesian heresy concerned the Jewish law, it seems that the myths and genealogies were also Jewish constructs. Paul similarly warned Titus in Crete of “the circumcision party” (Titus 1:10) whose members “devot[ed] themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth” (Titus 1:14). Although Paul had excommunicated Hymenaeus before he wrote 1 Timothy, in 2 Timothy, we read that Hymenaeus continued to teach false doctrine in Ephesus: he taught that “the resurrection has already happened” (2 Tim. 2:18). The false teachers led “foolish, ignorant controversies” that Timothy was to “have nothing to do with” because “they breed quarrels” (2 Tim. 2:23; cf. 1 Tim. 6:3-5). The false doctrine that the false teachers taught in Ephesus seems to be an odd admixture of Jewish legalism and antinomianism. They insisted upon following the Jewish law of circumcision, but they participated in and encouraged greed, ecclesiastical disunity, and sexual immorality because they denied a future bodily resurrection. Mounce rightly characterizes this false teaching as not being “a well-thought-out, cohesive system of belief” (William D. Mounce, The Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary 46 [2000], lxix).

In responding to the false teaching, then, Paul emphasizes how the false teachers’ false gospel results in false living.

Paul must deal with the Ephesian opponents differently from those in Galatia who had a formulated teaching that could be described and evaluated. Paul cannot logically and theologically argue against empty chatter and quarrels about words. He must focus on the opponents’ behavior, which reveals the error of their teaching. (Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, lxxv)

In 1-2 Timothy, Paul warns Timothy that the Ephesian heterodoxy was so dangerous because of its heteropraxy. Consider Hymenaeus as a case study. In 2 Timothy 2:16-18, Paul warns Timothy:

But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.

Why should Timothy “avoid irreverent babble”? Why should he not join the false teachers in “saying that the resurrection has already happened”? Because such talk “lead[s] people into more and more ungodliness.” It upsets their faith. False teaching is dangerous because it leads people into false lifestyles that ultimately lead people astray into hell. Paul made this point specifically regarding greed:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim. 6:9-10)

As I have argued previously, “destruction” refers to eternal punishment. Wandering away from the faith, by extension, likewise results in eternal punishment because it shows that the apostate was never truly saved (cf. Mark 4:14-20; 1 John 2:18-19). False teaching is dangerous because it results in behavior that contradicts sound doctrine (Titus 1:9; cf. Titus 1:10-16). Behavior that contradicts the gospel is dangerous because it results in condemnation because it shows that such a person was never truly saved (2 Cor. 5:17; Heb. 10:39).

Within a decade of Paul warning the Ephesian elders of the coming false teaching, it had arrived and was rampant in Ephesus. In 1-2 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy, whom he had “urged” to “remain at Ephesus” (1 Tim. 1:3), to combat this false teaching both doctrinally and practically. The over-realized eschatology of the Ephesian false teachers excused them to indulge abuse of their power in the church by greed and sexual immorality. However, they insisted upon their followers getting circumcised. Timothy was to combat these doctrinal and behavioral errors in Ephesus so that the church would return to “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3).

The Residual Dangers of False Teaching

Timothy apparently enjoyed success in Ephesus to an extent. By the end of the first century, the Ephesians had corrected many of their doctrinal and behavioral problems. In the letter that he dictates to the apostle John, Jesus writes to the church in Ephesus:

“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. (Rev. 2:2-3)

The Ephesians had rooted out (and kept out) the false teachers for a few decades. They even “hate[d] the works of the Nicolaitans,” (Rev. 2:6) who ate meat previously sacrificed to pagan deities and practiced sexual immorality (David E. Aune, Revelation 1-5, Word Biblical Commentary 52A, 148). Since the false teachers in the late 50s/early 60s were sexually immoral, the Ephesians’ double rejection of earlier false teachers and the current Nicolaitans demonstrates genuine repentance of false teaching, both doctrinal and behavioral.

However, all was not well in Ephesus despite the Ephesians’ return to sound doctrine. “But I have this against you,” Jesus wrote them, “that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev. 2:4). As John MacArthur has commented:

the clear penetrating laser vision of Christ found a fatal fault that probably nobody else saw. Their hard hearts, that labor of passion and fervor was becoming the cold orthodox function. That was deadly, dangerous. The service had started to become mechanical.

Bad doctrine and bad works are always dangerous, but even good doctrine and good works are dangerous when they are done by someone who doesn’t love Jesus. We can depict this truth with the following diagram:

Love Spectrum

Genuine love for Jesus results in good doctrine and good works, but those who don’t love Jesus are either legalists (good doctrine and good works) or antinomians (bad doctrine and bad works), both of which are condemned for eternity. Paul had earlier warned the Ephesians of the antinomian danger of false teaching in Acts 20 and in 1-2 Timothy, but Jesus now decries the legalistic danger of false teaching in Revelation 2. Good doctrine and good works must flow from a genuine love for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, or else it is false. To put this truth another way, the gospel does not merely command faith that results in works; the gospel commands loving allegiance to Christ that manifests itself by faith and works. As Paul said in Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). As he put it even more succinctly for the Corinthians: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).

Implications for the American Church of the Twenty-First Century

False teaching is rampant in the twenty-first century American church. Depending upon your local church context, you may battle false teaching more at the doctrinal level, the behavioral level, or the motivational level. Whatever form false teaching takes in our contexts, it is the most pressing danger we American Christians face. Maybe for you the temptation is more legalistic, for another it may be more antinomian. Whatever form false teaching takes in your situation, be on guard against it because the consequences of false teaching are eternally disastrous.

Jesus warned the Ephesian church, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:5). “This is nothing less than a threat to obliterate the Ephesian congregation as an empirical Christian community” (Aune, Revelation 1-5, 147). “Christ threatens to ‘come’ to them (not in the Parousia but in an act of temporal judgment; see 2:16) and blot their community out of existence” (ibid., 155). Jesus had indeed promised his disciples that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the church (Matt. 16:18), but Jesus was referring to the universal church, not to local churches. Local churches, as not only Revelation 2-3 but also history and, all too often, personal experience testify, are subject to dying from unrepentant false teaching, whether coldly legalistic or passionately antinomian.

May we in our twenty-first century American churches take to heart the lesson the first-century Ephesian church is trying to teach us. False teaching is inevitable (Acts 20:17-38). False teaching may be antinomian in that it tells us to deny the faith and to live in sin (1-2 Timothy), or false teaching may be legalistic in that it tells us to keep the faith and do good works but apart from genuine love for Jesus (Rev. 2:3-5). Either way, unrepentant false teaching results both in eternal condemnation for apostate Christians (1 Tim. 6:9-10) and in the temporal nonexistence for apostate churches (Rev. 2:6). Nevertheless, Jesus ends his letter to the Ephesians with a note of resounding hope: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To throne who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).

A Different Kind of Pastoral Care

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Included in “the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4) that is one of the two main priorities of every church pastor is pastoral care. By pastoral care I mean the pastor’s private ministry of the word to church members as they need it. On any given day, such pastoral care may take the form of private counseling, (pre-)marital counseling, grief counseling, a hospital visit, or an informal meeting over coffee or lunch. But as sure as the Bible says that pastors are to care for their congregations, the Bible teaches that congregations are to care for their pastors. Consider the following verses:

Let the elders [pastors] who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. (1 Tim. 5:17)

Obey your leaders [pastors] and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. Pray for us [pastors], for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. (Heb. 13:17-18)

These are but a sampling of the New Testament verses that deal with this different kind of pastoral care: the congregation’s care of its pastor instead of vice-versa. I won’t even discuss the number of times that Paul, the pastor par excellence, implored his children in the faith’s to pray, support, and help him in various situations. All too often we Christians have the attitude that the pastor should be helping us–and he should within reason–but we should even more so have the attitude that we should help our pastor. Consider what Paul told the Corinthians:

God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. (1 Cor. 12:24-28)

Even before the roles of apostle and prophet had given way to the roles of pastor and teacher, God had given other Christians gifts of helping. Any pastor is a disciple of Jesus Christ in need of pastoral care just as much as his sheep are. Both a pastor’s fellow church leaders and his congregation as a whole are to minister to his needs. Jason Helopoulos, guest-blogging for Kevin DeYoung, recently listed many practical ways a pastor’s congregation and fellow elders can care for him. Below I give you some of the suggestions I most liked and felt most challenged by:

Hunger to hear the Word of God preached

Pray for him regularly–that he would faithfully preach the Word, seek the Lord, delight more in the Lord, and have a love for the people he is blessed to minister to

Refrain from Monday morning emails, unless they are an encouragement. Mondays are hard days for many pastors.

Respect his day off. Most pastors work long days and many evenings. They need a good day off.

Don’t expect him to come to everything. Your pastor still loves you even if he doesn’t make your child’s ballet performance, son’s honor society banquet, or even your mom’s funeral.

Send an encouragement card every once in a while

As tempting as it may be, don’t compare your pastor to “celebrity pastors”–Be thankful for him and his labor in your midst.

Babysit his kids for an evening, so he and his wife can go out on a date

If you have a new ministry idea, don’t propose it unless you are willing to do the hard work of setting it up and serving to see its vision realized

Speak well of him to others in the congregation

Understand that your pastor will not be gifted in every area of ministry and be content with that

Often remind yourself that he has a lot of different sheep under his care

Have his back. Don’t make him stand alone in the midst of conflict–dare to be disliked.

See yourself as laboring with him, instead of under or over him

Brainstorm, vision, and pray WITH him about the future of the church

Never talk about him in a derogatory or negative way with other members of the congregation

Assign an elder or staff person to help with administrative tasks. Administration can steal too much of a pastor’s time–time that could be spent in much more valuable ways. It is also an area that pastors can get lost in, discouraged by, [or] even seek to hide in.

Ensure that the congregation understands his main tasks are prayer, study, and preaching. Most individuals in the church will have different expectations. If that is the case–change them.

Regularly encourage him that you value the time he spends praying, studying, and preaching–ask for fewer policies, spreadsheets, and even visitations.

Ask what he is studying and praying about

As many suggestions as I included from Rev. Helopoulos, there were at least as many others that I didn’t include. You should check out both of his lists (linked to above) in full. May we all for our pastors even now strive to be like Luke and Mark were to Paul at the end of his ministry and life: faithful and useful friends and partners in ministry (2 Tim. 4:11).

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