The Bible Only Tells One Story

gospel-1

These are (rough) sermon notes from last weekend…

Two verses – both spoken by Jesus…

“You search the Scriptures [Torah] because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me…” –John 5:39

When we go into a restaurant we are often greeted by a host/ess and directed to a table and given menus.  We use the menus to determine what we’d like to order.  One thing we DON’T do is eat the menu!  This is what Jesus is saying in the verse above – The Scriptures are a menu that guides us to Jesus.  Paul say it in another way in Galatians 3:24: “The Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ.”

“Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures [Torah].” –Luke 24:27

Flyover Version

What Jesus is saying is that the whole Old Testament bears witness of Him. Most people see the Bible as an interesting set of isolated stories, each story telling us something different about how to live. However, Jesus tells us the WHOLE Bible is really only one story. While there are great stories in the Bible, it is possible to know Bible stories, yet miss THE Bible story.

The entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation is ultimately about Jesus. From Genesis to Revelation God is unfolding the grace that culminates in Jesus leaving the comfort and perfection of heaven to come down into our brokenness. Therefore, the Bible is not fundamentally about what we do FOR God but what God has done FOR us.

“The Old Testament is a richly furnished but dimly lit room. Only when the light is turned on do the contents become clear.” –B.B. Warfield

Takeaway

The gospel of grace is THE central theme of the whole Bible – it begins in Genesis and travels all the way through Revelation.

Four Symphonic Movements

God’s story, or history (His-Story), comes to us as a redemptive drama in four acts. Or, we might think of it as a classical symphony with four movements building toward a grand crescendo. Here’s an overview and then we’ll come back and look at it more closely…

  1. Creation – When everything was as God meant it to be. (Gen 1-2)
  2. Fall – The tragic intrusion of sin and death, resulting in the pervasive brokenness of all people and everything God has made. (Gen 3)
  3. Redemption – God’s astonishing promise to rescue His fallen image-bearers and creation through the grace-full work of His Son, Jesus Christ. As we will see, the movement of redemption begins in Gen 3:15. (Gen 3:15-Rev 20)
  4. Fulfilment (or consummation, or, glorification) – The magnificent fulfilment of God’s plan to gather and cherish a people forever, and to live with them in a more-than-restored world, called “the new heaven and new earth” (Revelation 21:1).

Creation and Fulfillment As Bookends

We can think of Creation and Fulfilment as bookends. They are the first two chapters of Genesis and the last two chapters of Revelation. What we find in those bookend chapters is a state of perfection known as SHALOM. Shalom is the Hebrew concept for peace, which means so much more than our (Western) limited understanding of peace, which reduces peace to the absence of conflict.

Biblical SHALOM means a universal flourishing, wholeness and delight; a rich state of affairs…the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in equity, fulfilment, and delight. SHALOM is the way things ought to be.[1] — Cornelius Plantinga

An even more succinct definition would be: “Undefiled harmony with God.”

The Fall

In Genesis 3 Adam and Eve fall into temptation and SHALOM is replaced with a curse. Through Adam, sin entered into the world with its promised punishment (or, consequence), which is both physical and spiritual death. Adam and Eve are then plunged into alienation — both from God AND from one another. They are driven out of the garden, away from God’s presence.

In Genesis 3:15 we read the curse pronounced on the serpent devil: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel.”  Many people read this verse without understanding its meaning. What’s happening here is that God is initiating a rescue plan for humanity.  The “seed of the woman” is the promised Messiah/Jesus who will bruise the head of the devil (eventually it will become a fatal blow).

Verse 15 is such an important verse it has it’s own word: protoevangelium, which literally means “first gospel” and is the first mention/promise of the gospel in the Bible.  It is from this point forward the gospel of God’s grace and God’s rescue plan to bring about redemption in and through Jesus Christ becomes the central theme of the entire Bible. This Genesis 3:15 promise becomes an organizing theme for the rest of Scripture and the rest of human history.

Redemption – Looking For Jesus and the Gospel Throughout the Old Testament

We’ve talked about the bookends of SHALOM and we’ve talked about the Fall and the first mention of the gospel in the Bible that initiates God’s rescue plan.  We’ll spend the rest of our time leaning into how we look for Jesus and the gospel throughout the OT. Let’s consider two examples…

  1. Most of us are aware of the David and Goliath narrative.  We need to ask, “What is the meaning of that narrative for us?”  Most of the sermons you’ve probably heard go something like this: “Be like David” or, “The bigger they come, the harder they’ll fall, if you just go into your battles with faith in the Lord.” Or, “You may not be real big and powerful in yourself, but with God on your side, you can overcome giants.” Yet as soon as we ask: “How does David show us Jesus?”  We begin to see the same features of the story in a different light.  The story is telling us that the Israelites do not have the strength or power to go up against Goliath.  They can’t do it.  They need a substitute. When David steps in on their behalf, he goes in as a vulnerable and weak figure.  He goes into the battle virtually as a sacrificial lamb.  But God uses David’s apparent weakness as the means to defeat the giant, and David becomes Israel’s champion-redeemer, so that his victory will be reckoned (imputed) to them. They get all the fruit of having fought the battle themselves. Jesus is the better David.
  2. Most of us know Nehemiah, he wrote one of the books in the OT.  Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the king, which means he tasted the food and drink of the king to make sure it wasn’t poisoned.  (In our modern parlance we would probably say he was the palace food and beverage manager.)  Nevertheless Nehemiah lived a comfortable life in the king’s palace.  So, how does Nehemiah show us Christ?  When Nehemiah heard about the broken-down walls and the broken-hearted people in Jerusalem, Nehemiah left the comfort, opulence, and convenience of the palace to step into the brokenness, desperation, and shame of God’s people.  Jesus left the comfort and perfection of heaven to come down into the brokenness of humanity.  Jesus, is the better Nehemiah, who came in obedience to the Father and out of love for humanity – and laid His life down as a sacrifice for sinners – to rescue us and spare us.  Our lives, like the walls of Jerusalem, need to be rebuilt so that the glory of God might be revealed.  (Nehemiah is not just a preview of Jesus but he’s also a preview of what the Church can be in a broken world.)

So, when we read any Old Testament passage we need to ask, “How does this passage show me, or point to, Jesus and the redemptive gospel?”  The whole Bible points to Jesus and the good news of the gospel – from Genesis to Revelation.  It’s not, “How do we be like David, or Moses, or Nehemiah?” it’s, “How do David, Moses, or Nehemiah show us (or reveal) Jesus Christ and the gospel?”  As we make this the focus of our reading and study we will begin to see the richly furnished room!

Concluding Theological Parameters

The theological descriptor of what I have just shared is, “Gospel Centered Hermeneutic.” What’s a hermeneutic?  Like your glasses, it is the lens with which we view the Bible.  There are, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: Is it basically about me or basically about Jesus?  In other words, is it basically about what I must do, or basically about what He has done?

“I have never yet found a [Bible] text that had not got a road to Christ in it, and if I ever do find one that has not a road to Christ in it, I will make one; I will go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master, for the sermon cannot do any good unless there is a savor of Christ in it.” –Charles Spurgeon (“Prince of Preachers”)

If we think the Bible is about us, we tend to view it as a rulebook – what we MUST DO to please God. But, if we see that the whole Bible is about Jesus – we will focus more on what Jesus HAS ALREADY DONE, rather than what we MUST DO, which is the essence of the gospel.

Here’s another way to think about it…Being gospel centered means we don’t fight FOR victory in the Christian life we fight FROM victory – it’s ALL GRACE.

[1] Cornelius Plantinga. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Eerdmans 1995:10.

Addressing the Underlying Causes of Conflict – Part 7

differentiation-psychology

A Biblical Response To Each Dimension (3 of 3)

  1. How To Be A Non-Anxious Presence In the Midst of Conflict To Help People Listen Well and Own Their Own Issues

The need to be strong, right, in control, and successful is so patently rooted in American evangelicalism that it is no wonder that our church members are the same way. If the interim comes in exactly the same way it can be like shaking nitroglycerin. “I’m here and I’ve got the answer, you can all relax now!” Who are we trying to kid? Unfortunately, this can be a real temptation to feel this way but it would not be an emotionally healthy way to respond.[1]

  1. Maintain a “shepherd’s heart.” Having been hurt by the Church we still love the Church.
  2. Walk in brokenness and humility. This flies in the face of our evangelical culture. In our attempts at being vulnerable, in various interactions as well as from the pulpit, we will have people use them against us. But without brokenness and and humility there is no blessing.
  3. Lovingly state (and remind people as necessary) that you are not the problem. While you certainly have your own problems the current problems in the church were there before you got there.
  4. Self differentiate, which involves knowing who you are and who you are not (in relation to others) and being able to act with the knowledge of who you are even when the anxiety of others tempts you not to.[2]

[1] Miles: 15.8-15.9.

[2] Adapted from Failure of Nerve: 236.

Addressing the Underlying Causes of Conflict – Part 6

Two businessmen having a tug of war

A Biblical Response To Each Dimension (2 of 3)

  1. How To Establish Scriptural Guidelines for Healthy Interaction?
  • Your contract needs to stipulate that you will have enough authority to do your job. Having said that, go in listening and build as much relational authority as you can. Exercising positional authority should be the last resort.
  • Teach, train, and model biblical conflict resolution
  • Lovingly but directly confront gossip and triangulation
  • Move congregants to be willing to own their own issues instead of focusing on the issues of those they are in conflict with (see Matthew 7:5). Conducting a Sacred Assembly is often helpful in turning a corner into a new season of fruitful ministry.

The Role of the Sermon In Conflicted Congregations

In an interim context using old sermons is often not helpful because they may fail to address the root or core issues in a conflicted church. The aim of preaching is to be faithful to the text and prophetic to the context.

  • “And so the resident minor poet of a congregation has to be disciplined to take the time necessary not only to dig for the mystery of a God with us, but also to write the poetic sermon in such a way as to invite the congregation to slow down. There is a reason why churches don’t have drive-through windows. No one grabs the Incarnation on the run.”[1]
  • Expository sermon series’ for churches in conflict:
    • Beatitudes/Sermon on the Mount (helps people begin to own their own issues and refocuses on the KOG)
    • Nehemiah (good and clear change-agent taxonomy that begins with humility, confession, prayer, and planning)
    • 1 John (back to basics Christianity after a church split)
    • Philemon (reconciliation)
    • A series on the “one anothers” can also be quite helpful.

[1] Barnes: 134.

Addressing the Underlying Causes of Conflict – Part 5

Conflict-4

A Biblical Response To Each Dimension (1 of 3)

  1. How To Identify and Address the Root Issue?

When Jesus (through John) addresses the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 the overall pattern is to identify the strengths of the churches and then to identify the sinful patterns:

  • Ephesus: “but this I have against you” (Rev 2:4)
  • Smyrna: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 2:11)
  • Pergamum: “But I have a few things against you” (Rev 2:14)
  • Thyatira: “But I have this against you” (Rev 2:20)
  • Sardis: “Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain” (Rev 3:2)
  • Philadelphia: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 3:13)
  • Laodicea: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.” (Rev 3:19)

Catalogue the strengths of a church and then address sins (i.e., conduct a strategic S.W.O.T.). We must identify the core congregational “sins of the fathers” (see Exodus 20:5, 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 1:6). This is particularly true of congregations born out of a split or involved in a prolonged or catastrophic conflict. Churches often face a multi-generational [sin] transmission process that will not be changed by the introduction of “new blood” – either lay or ordained.[1]

The VitalChurch Process

VC-Process

Therefore, it is quite helpful to employ some kind of diagnostic process. Engaging a third party, or as VitalChurch does — bring in a discernment team,  will provide an objective viewpoint as well as help the interim interventionist remain the “good cop.”

  • Our Responsibility: Nehemiah 1:6b – “I and my father’s house have sinned.”
  • Our Objective: 2 Corinthians 5:18 – “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
  • Our Standard: Romans 12:18 – “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all [people].”

A list of corporate sins one church confessed to in a church-wide Sacred Assembly:

  1. Conflict avoidance
  2. Poor processes and communication
  3. Subtle pressure/perceived pressure and unhealthy loyalty by leaders
  4. Lack of clear grievance procedures
  5. Poor discernment
  6. Lack of training for ministry leaders and participants
  7. Gossip and relational triangulation
  8. Moralism

 

[1] Friedman: 196.

Addressing the Underlying Causes of Conflict – Part 4

I'm glad we settled our conflict

The Upside of Conflict

The study by Psychometrics Canada, based in Edmonton, Alberta, concludes that conflict can actually benefit an organization when managed properly. The study finds that conflict can be a catalyst for better solutions, major innovations, increased motivation, and other workplace benefits. Specifically, the more than 350 HR professionals across Canada surveyed said conflict can lead to:

  • Better understanding of others (77%)
  • Better solutions to problems and challenges (57%)
  • Higher work-team performance (40%)
  • Increased motivation (31%)
  • Major innovations (21%)

Addressing the Underlying Causes of Conflict – Part 3

Parting-of-Lot-and-Abraham-cropped

THE THREE DIMENSIONS OF CONFLICT

  1. The Perceived Issue

Most of us have heard it said: “The presenting issue is [hardly ever] the real issue.” If that is true what does it mean? As an intentional interim pastor I am called to intervene[1] in the life of a congregation, continually searching for the deeper, truer understandings of what we experience — both in the biblical text and in the sub-text of our congregants’ lives.[2]

Defining conflict…

  • Conflict is when there is a difference, plus tension.
  • Conflict is a dispute between two or more persons over values, goals, processes, and/or facts.
  • Conflict involves uncooperative attitudes and unaccommodating interactions and exchanges.

In a conflicted congregation the goodwill is gone. People can no longer agree to humble, prayerful, and civil dialogue. Poor conflict resolution skills within a congregation are a strong indicator of superficial relationships and struggling marriages. (Keep in mind that like attracts like.)

The Bible indicates that both wisdom and discernment are gifts and ours for the asking. For each there is a caveat that invites our participation (an imperative to the grace indicative). For wisdom the biblical caveat is that it is often found in the context of community – there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors (Pro. 15:22). For discernment the caveat is that it is tied to a growing understanding of biblical truth, which divides between the soulish and the spiritual (Heb. 4:12). With whatever wisdom and discernment are available we must ask God to reveal the “sin beneath the sin,” asking: What is at the root of this current conflict?

  1. Unhealthy Ways People Interact With One Another

We must see, understand, and deal with the unhealthy emotional processes that are at the root of almost every congregational conflict. What we find in the vast majority of N. American and U.K. churches is that emotional health has not been integrated into the discipleship process. As a result there are several unhealthy emotional processes, including: gossip, triangulation[3], resistance to change, compliant behaviors (“yes-man/woman syndrome”), the “sudden” eruption of conflict, the proliferation of “non-issue” issues in conflict (“vitriolic pettiness” defines one congregant I recently had to deal with), unjust projection of blame (usually aimed at the pastor), unwillingness/inability to “own up” to one’s actions, highly reactive and unstable relationships, clergy sexual misconduct, short-term focused, and the inability to build spiritual momentum.

There are (at least) three interlocking emotional systems that fuel congregational conflict:

  • Family of origin issues
  • Nuclear family issues
  • Congregation issues

Unresolved issues in any of these can produce symptoms in the others. This is true for all combatants.[4] Churches, like families, often sweep their issues under the rug. When conflict conflagulates within a congregation it is time to shake the rug.

  1. The Capacity of People To Talk In Non-Distorted and Non-Anxious Ways To Resolve the Root Issue/s

This capacity is called “emotional health” (or EQ/EI). Emotional health is what occurs when our feelings are put under the power of the cross so that they are acknowledged as present (as opposed to denying them), listened to for what they communicate about us, expressed adequately and appropriately to others, and acted upon in ways that are appropriate. They exist, but they don’t dominate our behavior. They are recog­nized and given their rightful place in the course of godly conduct.[5] In too many churches sanctification is only focused on the mind and the will – not the emotions. It’s as if church leaders acknowledge grace for salvation but sanctification is more about gaining knowledge and strengthening the will.

[1] A term coined for the Church by Lyle Schaller. The Interventionist, Abingdon Press 1997.

[2] Adapted from Barnes.

[3] The proliferation of in-direct communication between two principle parties by involving an additional third party to carry the messages between the two principle parties.

[4] Adapted from Friedman: 195.

[5] Miles: 15.5.

Addressing the Underlying Causes of Conflict – Part 2

Path Broken Between People

There are three dimensions of conflict:

  1. The perceived issue
  2. The often unhealthy ways in which people interact with one another
  3. The capacity of people to talk in non-distorted and non-anxious ways to resolve the root issue.

In these posts I will consider a systemic view of conflict and a biblical response to each dimension:

  1. How to identify and address the root issue
  2. How to establish scriptural guidelines for healthy interaction
  3. How to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of conflict to help people listen well and own their own issues.

A Systemic View of Conflict

Systems thinking is a framework for seeing the interrelationships and behavioral patterns within a church or organizational culture rather than (simply) seeing a collection of individuals. A systemic view of conflict (and the goal revitalization) seeks to identify root issues, not just symptoms – and leverage them with well-focused actions and changes that can produce significant and enduring improvements.[1] When the interconnected systems of a human body (e.g., circulatory system, skeletal system, respiratory system, central nervous system, digestive system, etc.) are all working well together we call that health. When these are systems are not working together we call that disease. Organizations are similar; when the interconnected systems are not functioning together it creates dis-ease. Wherever a church experiences dis-ease it is a systems issue.

Congregations are organizations that are multiple, complex families made up of smaller family units. People bring their family problems and backgrounds into the mix of church life. For that reason, everything that happens is related to everything else. When leaders understand this, their perspectives on situations change. They can no longer accept simple, single-answer explanations for church behavior. They must look at the whole and see the parts as affecting the whole. Scripture is replete with examples of family systems issues and patterns of sin that were passed down from generation to generation (Exodus 20:5). For example, Jacob’s sons functioned deceitfully throughout the course of their lives because Jacob himself had been deceitful. Jacob was deceitful because Isaac had been deceitful and Isaac saw deceit first hand in the behavior of his father Abraham (Genesis 13–50).

The antidote is found in Leviticus 26:40-42:

“But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, 41 so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, 42 then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”

In his book Making Peace: A Guide To Overcoming Conflict, Jim Van Yperen makes some sweeping statements:

  1. Church conflict is always theological, never merely interpersonal. Efforts to restore and reconcile personal relationships without addressing the underlying systemic and theological roots will always be inadequate.[2]
  2. All church conflict is always about leadership, character, and community. Conflict reveals who we really are. A leader will respond to conflict out of his or her own character far more than knowledge – revealing the true character of the leader.[3]
  3. To be redemptive we have to think and discern systemically. To change the system the underlying structure, or system dynamic must be changed (or leveraged) or the “fix” won’t last[4] – and homeostasis[5] or “snap-back” will occur.

For revitalization to take place (at least) five biblical mandates need to be implemented:[6]

  1. Examine, identify, confess, and repent of past failure/s
  2. Identify root needs, causes, or flaws in character, behavior, or thinking
  3. Through gospel clarity unlearn negative habits and dysfunctional behaviors practiced over time
  4. Through gospel clarity relearn new habits of behavior and thinking
  5. Reconstitute personal character and church culture

A model of organizational change that many have found helpful is the (Kurt) Lewin 3-Stage Model of Change: Unfreezing –> Changing –> Refreezing.

Seven basic family/congregational concepts that have particular relevance:[7]

  1. Resist homeostasis (see footnote #5)
  2. Resist overfunctioning
  3. Become a non-anxious presence
  4. Resist triangulation attempts
  5. Resist becoming the identified patient (i.e., The ‘scapegoat,’ ‘symptom-bearer’ or ‘presenting problem.’ The shame and toxicity of the dysfunctional family system is ‘dumped’ on the identified patient.  An example, on a large scale, would be the Jewish people who became the identified patient of the Nazi regime.)
  6. Resist becoming part of the broken system/s
  7. Expect sabotage

[1] Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Doubleday; Rev & Updated ed: 64, 114.

[2] Van Yperen: 24.

[3] Van Yperen: 24-25.

[4] Van Yperen: 38.

[5] The tendency of the body to seek and maintain a condition of balance or equilibrium within its internal environment, even when faced with external changes.

[6] Adapted from Van Yperen: 37-38.

[7] Adapted from Friedman: 202-219.