Archive for January, 2008

Is Your Church Stylish?

Evangelical churchgoers desperately want to be on the leading edge of whatever is currently in vogue in the evangelical community. For a while, any church that wanted to be in fashion had to sponsor seminars on how to pray the prayer of Jabez. But woe to the church that was still doing Jabez when The Purpose-Driven Life took center stage. By then, any church that wanted to retain its standing and credibility in the evangelical movement had better be doing “Forty Days of Purpose.” And if your church didn’t get through the “Forty Days” in time to host group studies or preach a series of sermons about The Da Vinci Code before the Hollywood movie version came out, then your church was considered out of touch with what really matters. It is too late now if you missed any of those trends. To use the language of the movement, they are all so five minutes ago. If your church is not already experimenting with Emerging-style worship, candles, postmodern liturgy, and the like (or—better yet—anticipating the next major trend), then you are clearly not in a very stylish church.

—John MacArthur (The Truth War, p. 148)

The Freedom of Integrity – Part III

Not As Pleasing Men 

Paul’s second non-negotiable of integrity is to serve with spiritual courage.  The Thessalonians were being told that the missionaries spoke bold words to gain manipulative power over the new converts, and that at the first sign of opposition they would abandon the sheep.  Essentially, Paul was being defamed as a mere hireling.  Jesus had chided hirelings who feign protection but are cowards in the face of danger (John 10: 11-15).  Self-preservation at all costs is a weakness, not a virtue.  But was it true of Paul and the others?  Again, he appeals to the spiritual courage they had demonstrated some one hundred miles to the northeast in the city of Philippi.  Even after they had “suffered and been shamefully treated”, they “had boldness in…God to declare…the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict” (1 Thess 2:2).  Paul literally hobbled into Thessalonica—blood still drying on his body from the beating in Philippi—and began to teach in the synagogue, the most confrontational and dangerous environment the truth of Christ could infiltrate.  After several weeks (perhaps even 2 to 3 months by some calculations) of unvarnished gospel ministry, the truth hit hard upon stony hearts, at which point the missionaries were secretly whisked away by the new believers who wanted to preserve the lives of their only trusted shepherds.  I can almost hear Paul, reluctant to be sent away, strongly contending for the opportunity to remain and teach yet again in the synagogue.

Are these the actions of a man without integrity?   The answer is a resounding “No!”  A godly man has nothing to fear because his conscience has been “approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel,” and he speaks “not as pleasing men, but God” who sees what’s in the heart (1 Thess 2:4).  Solomon, not to be outdone, declared that “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion” (Prov 28:1).  Check spiritual leaders!  Do they demonstrate spiritual courage?  Do they trust the work and the word of God?  Do they unfold the scriptures without shrinking back?  Do they give an answer with biblical clarity?  Do they willingly invite questions about doctrine, ministry, character, service, etc?  If not, the sheep will become vulnerable, and accusations will eventually have a legitimate target.  Integrity marked by courageous leadership is a tremendous safeguard. 

Battles Only God Can See 

A third non-negotiable of integrity gleaned from Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica is an unashamed transparency before God.  A leader must consistently win the battles of his own heart if he is to lead with sincere and genuine effectiveness.  Obviously, Paul knew that his heart was blameless in the war against his flesh.  Though subject to failure like any sinner, he wasn’t in the habit of rationalizing or excusing infractions of God’s holy standard, and therefore freely summoned the incisive witness of His Creator.  In 1 Thessalonians 2:4-5, Paul states, “Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.  For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness.”  As to questions of doctrinal error, prurient interests, flattering speech, or greed, Paul and the missionaries proved to be earnest and truthful among the new converts.  If the case was otherwise, how could Paul speak strongly in the face of opposition without fear of contradiction?  Were his heart set on using the Thessalonians for personal gain, he could have no such confidence, no such liberal invoking of divine examination.

Those who neglect the issues of the heart must develop elaborate ways of working around the truth.  Like a master chess player, a leader who rationalizes sin carefully calculates every evasive move and counter-argument.  He may appear composed to his followers, but deep within there is a cauldron of desires being cleverly excused in a deadly game of cat and mouse.  Rationalization is the well-worn tool of the dishonest and insincere.  Its familiar progression is easily sketched:

Temptation arises and the conscience warns of impending danger—

Rationalization: “Because I already hate sin as a general rule, I can be near temptation without desiring it or becoming vulnerable”

Temptation intensifies—

Rationalization: “I’ve been doing well spiritually, what possible damage could result from merely ‘noticing’ trouble?”

Sinful desires begin to consume the thought life—

Rationalization: “My life is very difficult, so how am I supposed to be strong all the time?  Can I be expected to hold off every powerful enticement when I’m under such pressure?”

The conscience screams reminders about truth, family, friends, and consequences—

Rationalization: “Since I’m alone, none of those I love will be affected; and besides, this is a small sin compared to what I’ve seen others do.”

Sin prevails with the attendant guilt—

Rationalization: “I’m not as bad as others; I know God will forgive me; I’ll just leave this between me and Him; I don’t need anyone’s help because they’ll just be judgmental.”

Sin continues as a pattern, truth becomes dull, and sensations of guilt fade—

Rationalization: “People can be so legalistic; they think they’re the only ones that do anything right; God is much more loving and he wants me to be happy.”

While the above doesn’t capture all the tactics of the heart, it does depict the general anatomy of compromise.  In the concise words of Proverbs 18:1, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.”  No matter what outward successes or popularity contests grace a leader’s trophy case, rationalization always gives birth to sin and ruin (Jas 1:14-15).  Halting this terrible process requires the radical amputation of sinful desires, the complete ownership of failure through confession and repentance, and mind-renewal by the saturation of scripture and submission of the will.  The prevention of sin, Jesus said, begins with radical surgery at the level of our affections: 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.  For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.  For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matt 5:27-30)

The moment our minds entertain a sinful desire we must “flee from these things” (1 Tim 6:11), running as fast as we can to take refuge in the cross of our Lord and Master.  Furthermore, rationalization cannot coexist with a full disclosure and ownership of sin.  David’s confession in Psalm 51 is filled with expressions of personal responsibility: 

“According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin!  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (vss 1-4).

True confession involves seeing sin as God defines it, without mitigation or blurring the lines.  Taking ownership of every nuance of offense caused by our sin and bearing the weight of it—this is the heart of the truly penitent.  The premier evidence that we have genuinely “owned” our sin is the desire to exonerate God’s character in the matter.  Rather than justifying himself, David extolled the justice of God in every consequence resulting from sin (“blameless in your judgment,”, v.4).  Lest we think otherwise, such personal responsibility was no picnic for the King of Israel!  Shortly after the writing of Psalm 51, rationalizing his sin plunged David into almost thirty years of devastating family turmoil and years of insipid leadership surrounding him.  Through it all, he never accused God of being overly harsh or unfair.  David’s heart was broken and sincere, the kind of repentance with which God is highly pleased (Psa 51:17).  When a leader is “a man after God’s own heart,” rationalization dies a natural death.

Finally, it is much harder to rationalize sin when our minds are saturated with the word of God and our wills are swiftly brought into subjection.  We need clear definitions of sin, lofty views of God’s majestic holiness, and the perfect guidance of the Holy Spirit to fashion in us the character of Christ.  If we desire divine power against temptation but neglect the “milk of the word,” the Spirit has nothing to work with since it is His truth alone that He uses to sanctify (John 17:17).  On the other hand, if we study scripture without yielding our will, our lives will change very little, and the risk of becoming a Pharisee will increase.  Ezra “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it…” (Ezra 7:10; emphasis added) because he knew there was no profit for his mind and heart otherwise.  Spiritual leaders cement their integrity by learning early the value of yielding to “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4).  If our motives for study and meditation are spurious, driven largely by curiosity, obligation, or intellectual pride, there will be, as A.W. Pink declares, “no real benefit to the soul.”  Integrity is an anchor for effective spiritual leadership and influence.  When truth is at home in our hearts, God smiles upon meager efforts, covering our limitations with His grace and wisdom.  As the people of Israel used to sing, “O Lord, who may…dwell on Thy holy hill?  He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart” (Psa 15:1-2; NASB). 

Dear Savior, help me to do battle where no one else can see but you.  If my conscience cries out, may I never suppress it in a foolish rationalization.  Make me see the subtle gymnastics of my heart, and compel me to take full ownership of my sin.  May your grace lead me to true repentance so that I remain highly truth-sensitive.  Amen.

The Freedom of Integrity – Part II

 Integrity and the Conscience

A heart of integrity is cultivated by striving to maintain a clear conscience.  Our conscience is the internal mechanism given to us by God to drive us toward sincerity.  Like an internal accountability partner, it acts as a witness in our heart and mind to either “accuse or even excuse” our actions (Rom 2:15).  When we inform the conscience with biblical truth we are telling it to accurately hold us in check against the standard of scripture.  The conscience itself is not our benchmark, but if kept clear and clean it becomes a powerful instrument of integrity as it drives us toward the grand, inflexible benchmark—God’s word.

There is grave danger when a leader ignores the cries of the conscience.  All discernment is lost, pride blooms aggressively, and self-deception spins out of control.  The young pastor, Timothy, was warned by the Apostle Paul to keep “a good conscience” (1 Tim 1:19), citing Hymenaeus and Alexander as two contemporaries who regularly violated the convictions they smugly affirmed (1 Tim 1:20).  Paul knew that an insincere faith and marred conscience would lead to “fruitless discussion”, sinful ambition, and the propagation of heresy (1 Tim. 1:6-7).  He spoke often about the spiritual devastation resulting from the conscience being repeatedly snubbed:

“For If anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?  And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.  Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” (1 Cor 8:10-12; emphasis added)

“This charge I entrust to you,… wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience.  By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith,…” (1 Tim 1:18-19; emphasis added)

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith… through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared,…” (1 Tim 4:1-2; emphasis added)

“To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” (Titus 1:15; emphasis added)

Paul’s language is unmistakably that of spiritual detriment.  Each time our conscience “sounds off” we can either muffle or unleash the volume of its impact.  Prompt obedience sharpens the clarity of truth’s familiar sound, causing our spiritual senses to go on high alert.  The more we obey the greater affirmation that we are honest and genuine.  A highly trained, truth-sensitive conscience will give us no rest when we edge toward compromise.  If, instead of resolutely fleeing sin, we suppress the truth in rationalization and compromise, the clearest resonation of right and wrong will become faint.  Do this enough times and no bell of truth will ring at all!  What appears to others as a life of faithfulness will merely be the calm before the storm.   Time and truth always go hand in hand, and the small, seemingly insignificant compromises of today will erode tomorrow’s resolve.  What’s so astonishing about a leader like Paul are his many bold claims about having a completely clean conscience.  At his defense before the Jewish Council, he asserted, “I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1).  A short time later, at a public hearing in Caesarea, Paul told the Governor, “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16).  He frequently appealed to the internal witness of God as the ultimate answer to questions of honesty (2 Cor 1:12; 4:2; 1 Thess 2:4; 2 Tim 1:3).  It seems clear that, for Paul, maintaining a life of integrity involved the strict discipline of protecting a truth-sensitive conscience at all costs.  Hard work and personal vigilance were a given if his ministry was to experience maximum blessing.  In fact, he once told the Corinthian church that he strikes out against the appetites of his flesh to bring his life into “slave[ry],” lest he be disqualified from leadership (1 Cor 9:27).

What were Paul’s non-negotiables for cultivating and preserving leadership integrity?  We get a glimpse of his heart from the study of First Thessalonians.  After approximately three months of explosive ministry in Thessalonica, some of the Jews had begun a sophisticated smear campaign against the character of Paul and his friends, claiming that they had served for personal power, prestige, and money (2:3-12), that they had abandoned this new church in its hour of need (2:17-20), and that they had deceived the new converts by concealing the trouble such new beliefs would bring (3:2-4).  Paul was no stranger to scurrilous charges, but defending his personal honor was never his agenda.  On the contrary, he always met accusations by appealing to the life-on-life interaction of his ministry.  Repeated phrases in chapter two such as “You yourselves know,” “As you know,” “For you recall,” and “You are witnesses” exemplify Paul’s transparency in everything he said and did. 

An Open Book

 The first of Paul’s principles of integrity, therefore, is to invite open scrutiny.  Integrity is cultivated “out in the open” where others can observe whether your words match your actions.  Paul was willing to appeal to the specific history and details of his ministry, offering them up to a full examination of the facts.  He had no worry that the Thessalonians would find even the slightest lack of genuine care, personal sacrifice, and humble service.  If they would carefully weigh each slanderous charge against the evidence from his leadership, they would be compelled to see the situation rightly.  “But surely Paul failed at times, didn’t he?” someone may counter.  He is human after all, and we would expect him to miscue on occasion—speak a harsh word, act selfishly, or take credit for achievements.  But Paul was so consistently characterized by humility about his Apostleship that if someone discovered a flaw, they found his brokenness and contrition as irresistible as his strengths.  Consequently, he was free to invite open scrutiny because his ministry, theology, and effectiveness were not a sham or “personally-derived”.  Likewise, our theology and character should not be about our success or achievements, but about finding the clarity of the truth and living it.  When someone disagrees or misrepresents our life and ministry, we won’t be personally threatened by the resulting scrutiny.  Paul was truly free of all such concern, and so he boldly asked that the Thessalonians check the slanderous claims against their experience with him as a leader in their midst!

The Freedom of Integrity – Part I

It is critical that spiritual leaders strive to maintain a life of integrity. Boiling it down, integrity is the consistent harmony of convictions and conduct. Leaders who unswervingly live according to the principles they claim as inviolable are full of integrity. The opposite, of course, is hypocrisy. For spiritual leaders, the word of God is our incontestable standard! Our convictions must come from scripture and our conduct brought into conformity with its directives. Where there is doctrinal compromise there has already been a contentedness “with unbiblical notions that raise [the] comfort level and either justify or overlook…sins.”[1] Integrity is having an untarnished moral character both publicly and when no one else is around.

Years ago, I heard a story about a traveling salesman who was delivering a compelling presentation to the executive manager of a large company. As he was about to unveil the “bottom line” cost of his offer, the executive excused himself for a brief moment. In his absence, the salesman’s eyes caught his rival company’s letterhead on the desk. Noticing that it was a proposal, he strained to see his opponent’s cost figures at the bottom of the page, which were unfortunately covered by the executive’s soda can. Unable to restrain his curiosity, and seeking to gain an advantage, he quickly lifted the can which suddenly unleashed hundreds of tiny steel pellets, sending them all over the desk and office floor. The shocked salesman hung his head, promptly packed up his proposal, and slipped away in shame. His integrity had been tested, and he failed. The anecdotal tale graphically illustrates the importance of cultivating a heart of honesty and sincerity—a reputation for saying and living the same thing. Leaders can become adept at disguising reproachable conduct, hiding behind moral slight-of-hand techniques, intimidation, or important titles. Eventually, dishonest men convince even themselves of their “invincibility” until their hypocrisy is exposed in some scandal. When a spiritual leader’s mask comes off and God’s people are forced to deal with the fallout, there often is the recognition that certain “signs” of diminishing integrity were overlooked. During the months following a character-crisis at the leadership level, it’s been a common tendency to imagine that an otherwise decent leader simply stumbled one day into moral weakness, caught of guard by an overpowering temptation. Such conclusions are naïve.

A close ministry mentor and friend, John MacArthur, has said to me on numerous occasions that “when a man falls, he doesn’t fall far.” In other words, a serious breach of leadership integrity does not occur in a vacuum. Men who have, by the grace of God, forged a pattern of moral veracity are not suddenly seduced by a life of lies and hypocrisy. Betrayal of this sort slowly percolates in the heart over time with a host of smaller, undetected compromises. When an integrity scandal breaks, the fall of that leader is more like a short hop! This is not to suggest that godliness makes us immune to Satan’s schemes or our own fleshly appetites. MacArthur is right, however, implying that where genuine biblical integrity has been refined there is the strong traction of spiritual discernment and fortitude which prevents sudden moral plunges. Before enticing interests gain a foothold, pure men have already unmasked the lie and fled the scene as fast as possible (1 Tim 6:11; 2 Tim 2:22; Heb 5:14). On topic, Spurgeon’s eloquence is unmatched: “When we hear of a man who has ruined his character by a surprising act of folly, we may surmise, as a rule, that this mischief was but one sulphurous jet from a soil charged with volcanic fire; or, to change the figure, one roaring lion from a den of wild beasts.”[2]

[1] John MacArthur, The Power of Integrity, 30.
[2] Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry, 137.

David Brainerd on Desiring God:

“When I really enjoy God, I feel my desires of Him the more insatiable, and my thirstings after holiness the more unquenchable. And the Lord will not allow me to feel as though I were fully supplied and satisfied, but keeps me still reaching forward.”

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