The Harlot’s Child

Written in 2007

Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son who is living, and your son is the dead one’; and the other says, ‘No! For your son is the dead one, and my son is the living one.’ ” 24 The king said, “Get me a sword.” So they brought a sword before the king. 25 The king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.” 26 Then the woman whose child was the living one spoke to the king, for she was deeply stirred over her son and said, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him!27 Then the king said, “Give the first woman the living child, and by no means kill him. She is his mother.” 28

1 Kings 3:23-28 (NASB)

Early in Solomon’s reign a situation arose that proved God had granted Solomon’s request for wisdom. Imagine, make the wrong choice and a woman loses her child and the child itself is placed in the care of a neglectful mother. Solomon’s ruling demonstrated his favor with God. We need that wisdom today in the issue of “relevancy” or “contextualization.” On one hand to err is to hurt fellow Christians and the expansion of the Kingdom, to err on the other is to allow a false gospel and cause many “converts” to suffer eternally. Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:21-23 necessitates discernment instead of naiveté.

Recently several of my church planting students attended a conference. They returned with more concerns than answers. The conference objective was to facilitate launching potential mega-churches which would in turn promote evangelization. Unfortunately, the message seemingly focused more on business models, marketing strategies, and financial plans than evangelism. In fact, the students were concerned because evangelism was not mentioned, and the lost were referred to as “the disconnected.” Instead of presenting the gospel they learned their task is to help people become “connected,” and, except for one speaker, prayer and the Bible were not discussed. The students’ concerns are not new; in fact, it is hard not to read an issue of our denominational publications without encountering comments or articles on the topic of contextualization and relevancy. The debate takes many forms, the most common of which deals with methodologies of evangelism relating to corporate service formats and “emergent leaders.”

Both sides of the debate insist on the legitimacy of their concerns. Many established leaders including the former head of the denominational publishing company have expressed concern that younger leaders are being ostracized over trivial issues such as preaching in a Hawaiian shirt or not singing hymns. On the other hand many express concern that we communicate the gospel faithfully, clearly, and compellingly. How do we preach a contextualized gospel without compromise? Are “younger” leaders faithfully preaching the gospel in a contextualized way, or are many of those preachers compromising the gospel message? Based on my experiences as a pastor and professor; “Yes” answers both questions. There are many younger ministers who are doing a great job of reaching our culture with the gospel. Their choices of clothing, music, or other methods may not be my cup of tea, but they are preaching the word. Unfortunately, there are also many who equate drawing a crowd with making disciples. So, how do we determine the validity of a ministry? How do we determine the substance of the book instead of judging the cover?

Over the years I have developed a series of “filters” to evaluate situations, methods, or teachings in an attempt to remain an acceptable servant to the Lord. Much like a swimming pool water filter which uses various layers of diverse materials my ministry filters employ series of questions. One of those filters fits the ongoing debate of relevancy. This series of questions do not have to be asked in any particular order. The first two questions are more subjective and therefore debatable, but final two questions are non-negotiable.

Has the minister developed his ministry approach from much time in God’s word and prayer? I can not count the number of people I have encountered that base their ministries on conferences. There is nothing wrong with cross pollination of ideas and you do not get bonus points for reinventing the wheel. I have been blessed by conference speakers and workshops. But, in our “shake and bake,” fast food culture many ministers would rather copy than create. Copying is an anathema to contextualization. Why spends months struggling with a ministry strategy when you can down load one from a successful ministry (substitute mega-church pastor). I must respect someone who has spent time with God and reflects it in his ministry and life. He has a stability that does not vacillate or change with every new trend. Cutting edge is fine; just remember 8 track tapes were cutting edge.

Is the ministry approach biblical? This is a trick question because I have never met a minister who will ever admit otherwise. There are some in the Church Growth Movement who hold to the standard “If it works and the Bible doesn’t prohibit it; then do it.” This provides tremendous latitude in ministry. The Bible doesn’t specifically prohibit being a nudist, but I would not consider the annual North Carolina Christian Nudist Conference (no joke) as a biblical ministry. Instead ask, “Can I find specific support for the activity in Scriptures?” Again, the Bible does not deal with many aspects of modern culture and ministry, but this filter can be passed with integrity. When I know God’s plan for His church in completing the Great Commission then many activities come into question. The church’s task is to make disciples. Evangelization, glorifying God, worship, and other activities all flow from discipleship. So, the question becomes “How does this activity promote discipleship?” Related to this is the question, “Does this ministry enable the membership to minister outside the walls?” The vast majority of Christian churches have reduced the evangelism and ministry time of the church to Sunday morning. When we spend the majority of our energy, budget, and abilities on the Sunday morning production we have left the biblical model.

Does the ministry glory God? Much in church planting today runs afoul of this filter question. We have become so market savvy, business model attuned that God is not needed. We can talk about how God gave us a great interest rate for our loan, but how does that glorify God? The Mormons can say the same thing. That is actually another question I often ask, “How is this different from the Mormons?” The first century church did not have buildings, social standing, multimedia presentations, or extensive financial resources, but they had the power of God. Go back and read how many times the church would pray, the Holy Spirit would work, the lost would be converted, and God would be glorified. There are two starting points for all we do, God or man. Either we design our services, craft our sermons, and develop our ministries focusing on God or on man. You can not straddle the fence. If you focus on God then the Holy Spirit will connect to the people, if you focus on man God will leave you to your own designs. American Christians envy the rapid growth of the Chinese church and try to replicate that explosive growth by better marketing, cultural exegesis, and everything but focusing on God and glorifying Him.

Does the ministry clearly communicate the sinfulness of man and his need for salvation? The largest church in America, according to some sources, is pastored by Joel Osteen. Osteen will come to your local arena and pack the house while charging admission. He makes no apology for his message of self-fulfillment. He does not believe we should make people feel bad; they already have low enough self-esteem. Osteen is successful. He has a mega-church. He draws thousands to “Christ.” Unfortunately, it is a Christ of Osteen, Schuller, and others’ creation, a Christ who died on the cross to make life better, not the redeemer of sinful man. It seems that every generation thinks that it needs to repackage the gospel to make it more relevant. The Judaizers probably thought that they were just contextualizing the Gospel while Paul was perverting it. The cross has always been offensive because it declares mankind’s rebellion and depravity. Any ministry that does not clearly proclaim the necessity and sufficiency of the cross can not be supported. If we do not present our faith up front then how long do we wait to reveal our beliefs? Are we guilty of a spiritual bait and switch? Do we believe God the Holy Spirit can draw people or must we ease them into the Kingdom?

North America is the only continent in which Christianity is failing to grow in proportion to the population. Simultaneously the number of mega-churches is growing. I will not, and can not, judge the motives of my fellow Christians. The individuals I know who practice the methods I can not accept sincerely love the lost. So, what do we do in the current debate? Do we accept every ministry labeled “Christian” without critique or question? Or, do we condemn all but our cookie cutter ministries?  What would Solomon do? The beauty of the Church’s diversity and unity must be cherished while contending for the faith (1 Jn 4:1, 1 Cor. 5:12, 2 Cor. 11:13-15, 2 Peter 2:1). With that in mind I must evaluate each ministry and if they pass the above standard then I need to allow them flexibility in methodology for contextualizing the gospel. I need to pray for them and rejoice with them as God blesses. If the ministry fails the test then I need to pray that God will correct them. I will love them, but not support them. Solomon displayed his God given wisdom in the case of the harlot’s child. To paraphrase another teaching involving babies, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, but the water has to go.”

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