One Pastor’s Perspective on Christians and Government

Note: I’m sure there will be Christians who disagree with this post. I would be grateful if this were part of a larger conversation rather than a monologue. If you have a different, and biblical, way of thinking through this issue, I’d be grateful to hear from you. Or if you want clarification on something I’ve said, I’d welcome that too.

Over the last year churches have had to deal with restrictions on gathering because of COVID. Depending on where in the world you live, your church has been unable to meet in person for long stretches of time or only if those attending adhere to certain guidelines. Where I live in Nova Scotia, Canada, we’ve been able to meet in person since last July if we socially distance. Though due to a significant rise in COVID cases in our province, we are currently on a two-week shutdown.

Am I going to insist, despite our provincial government’s policy, that our church gather in person anyway? I am not. And even if I were inclined not to follow our government’s mandate, there’s a very good chance that I’d be alone in church on Sunday. My congregation, perhaps because they are largely older, are particularly cautious.

But we are already aware that there are churches who have refused to follow any of the guidelines. The claim is that doing so would be a violation of not only their specific convictions but actual biblical teaching. Furthermore, restrictions on faith gatherings are sometimes being characterized by those who refuse to abide by them as discrimination or even persecution. 

The question is whether or not this a fair assessment of the situation. Or to put it another way: when and on what basis can people of faith legitimately engage in the refusal to abide by such government mandates? 

And before I get to what my understanding of this is according to Scripture, let me underscore the fact that I am not an expert of any sort when it comes to the issue of church and state, what the Bible says about governing authorities, and when believers and other citizens can and should responsibly engage in civil disobedience. What I am about to say is based on my current best reading of Scripture. To that end, I am open to being corrected if I am misinterpreting Scripture or misapplying it. However, anyone who seeks to correct me would need to convince me of their interpretation of Scripture and not simply assert that their position is more sound than mine. 

One passage we need to consider is written by the apostle Peter:

Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves. Honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Peter 2:13-17

Perhaps the first point to make concerns the form of governmental authority which was in place at the time Peter wrote these words. That is, we’re not talking about a democratic government system to which we are accustomed. People in Peter’s day didn’t vote for their emperors or governors. Not only that, but the authority in question here is Emperor Nero, a corrupt and violent leader who, according to the ancient historian Tacitus, burned Christians alive.

This makes it all the more curious and perhaps alarming that Peter uses the word submit. The word means to “place ourselves under” or in this case to live according to the governing authorities. As one commentator notes, “there could be few rulers indeed whose claims on loyalty would be sustained by less personal merit” than Nero. Why, then, would Peter exhort his readers to submit not only to the authorities generally, but Nero specifically?

For Peter to tell believers to honor an emperor such as Nero, the standard for civil disobedience must be especially high for those who claim allegiance to Christ. Indeed, the exhortations in 1 Peter are meant to emphasize that Christians are also called to be law-abiding citizens and that their compliance with the governing authorities is one component of their witness to the gospel.

Peter is not the only New Testament writer who writes of the relationship between believers and the governing authorities. Quite possibly the pre-eminent passage on this matter is written by another apostle, a contemporary of Peter’s:

Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the one in authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor. 

Romans 13:1-7

Much like Peter, Paul emphasizes the duty of Christians to be good citizens. But Paul goes further here than Peter by saying governing authorities are instituted by God. He refers to the state as “God’s servant.” Those who resist governing authorities are “opposing God’s command.” 

Whatever else we say about the relationship between Christians and governing authorities, we have to contend with what both Peter and Paul are telling us. If a Christian holds the conviction that they need to disobey a particular law or mandate of the government, they need to have an especially compelling reason to do so. 

Perhaps we can put it this way: The most fundamentally compelling reason is if Christians are being forced to choose between obeying God and obeying the governing authorities. In such cases, Christians are obliged to disregard the governing authorities. 

In Acts 4:19-20, Peter and John were told under threat not to tell people about Jesus anymore. While these were religious and not governing authorities, how Peter and John responded is instructive and important. This is what they say: “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. The authorities were asking Peter and John to stop telling others about Jesus. Peter, John, and other followers of Jesus were compelled to share this good news with anyone who would listen. Not only that, they were expressly commissioned by Jesus prior to his glorious ascension to do precisely that. So even if the governing authorities of the time had made such an act illegal, the disciples of Jesus would have been compelled and even obligated to proclaim Jesus anyway. 

In any case, Christians, I think, can engage in civil disobedience or be non-compliant with a mandate or law that would either (1) contradict what we are clearly taught in Scripture and/or (2) prevent us from sharing the good news of Jesus with others. So, for instance, a governing authority cannot force a believer who is a medical doctor to perform abortions. Abortion, being murder, violates the clear teaching of Scripture. The government also cannot reasonably expect Christians to obey a law that would prevent them from telling others about Jesus. Jesus commands us to tell other people about him.

For our part, those of us who are followers of Jesus have to be willing to accept the consequences of our decisions. What was true of the early disciples, like Peter and John, and is also true, say, of Christians in China today, also has to be so with us. If obeying God and following Jesus means being arrested, so be it. Let’s not forget that the apostle Paul wrote a number of his letters while imprisoned. John had his vision recorded in the Book of Revelation on Patmos, an island to which he had been exiled.

Now, as far as I can reasonably tell, none of the current COVID restrictions prevent me from obeying what Scripture clearly teaches or from telling others about Jesus. In other words, I can very easily live out my life as a follower of Jesus even while abiding by the current guidelines put in place.

Now, whether the guidelines are reasonable in themselves, or absolutely necessary, is beside the point. Rather, if a Christian or a church chooses to ignore them, they need to look outside Scripture for their reasons.

But what might someone say in response to this? For instance, what Scriptural support might one give for violating the restrictions on gathering in person? 

Here is an example to which some may point. In Hebrew 10:23–25 we read this: Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.

The author of Hebrews recognizes that believers need spiritual support and encouragement to persevere in their faith. Living as a follower of Jesus requires community. Those who neglect Christian community are at risk of being much more spiritually vulnerable. And so the author exhorts readers to continue meeting in order to encourage one another.

However, let us be clear on this. Nowhere does this passage describe in detail how such meeting together should take place. Prominent pastors who have ignored gathering restrictions on the basis of this passage (but surely not only this passage?) seem to be interpeting it through the lens of how people in their particular cultural setting expect the church to gather. 

However, the writer of Hebrews wasn’t speaking about Christians gathering by the hundreds, much less thousands, in a modern church facility. Indeed, the early church met in one another’s homes. Pastors and others who conclude that they can gather their people in such large numbers in violation of government authority in our current situation cannot do so based on what we read in Hebrews. Put simply, we can apply this passage in Hebrews without having to gather together in large numbers in our modern church buildings.

Of course, I’m sure it’s possible someone can make a case as to why churches ought to be able to meet in large numbers despite COVID. My main point here is that it’s very difficult to do so on the basis of Scripture, from a specifically Christian perspective. 

At least as far as I can see, taking into account what the New Testament says of our relationship to government as instituted by God, alongside the apostolic example, means that, generally speaking, Christians can in good conscience abide by the COVID guidelines without the fear that they are disobeying God and his word. I think the burden of proof lies with those who posit otherwise.

What I want to say, too, is that I think those of us who are Christians need to be able to distinguish between obeying God even if it means disobeying a given law and fighting for religious freedom so that laws which put us in that position do not exist. We may or may not be able to change an existing law or how the governing authorities act towards people and communities of faith, but we should not conflate obeying God with the exercise of political power for the purpose of protecting religious freedom. 

It’s not that we shouldn’t work to ensure that citizens, whether Christian or otherwise, have the freedom to worship and live according to their beliefs and conscience. We certainly ought to do so. However, in an increasingly post-Christian culture we need to be prepared to follow Christ whatever law our government puts in place. While having religious freedom is always ideal, it’s never a guarantee. Plenty of Christians around the world know this all too well.

These are strange, challenging, and often confusing times. Christians in good faith are reaching different conclusions about how to follow Christ and the dictates of their consciences. Each of us is responsible for applying the teaching of Scripture to our everyday lives—including in our relationship to governing authorities. May we all exercise due diligence in this process, because though we are all called by God to live as responsible citizens, we are all also accountable to him for the manner in which we do so.

No One “Goes” to Heaven

Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.

N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

Now that I have your attention with the title of my post, let me explain.

In Western culture, talk of what happens when someone dies usually has to do with whether or not such and such a person will “go” to heaven. Often what gets the most attention in these conversations is who gets to go to heaven and why. Is so and so good enough? Did they live an admirable enough life? Or to make it more personal still, will my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds?

And, yes, these kinds of mathematical attempts to g the likelihood of our getting into heaven need definite correction. The Bible certainly has a great deal to say on the matter. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. Instead, I want to draw attention to other cultural misconceptions, some of which are also shared and perpetuated by well-intentioned Christians. You see, even Christians often have wrong ideas about the afterlife or what the Bible means by heaven and what we can expect to happen to us when we die.

The first point is this: no deceased person is presently in their final eternal resting place. Whatever else we say of heaven, no one is currently in what will be their final state.

A lot of people can sometimes talk as if a deceased loved one is in heaven right now. A popular euphemism is that the deceased individual is in “a better place.” Yet according to Scripture we also know that with the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus there will be a resurrection of the dead, a final judgment, and, only then, will people enter their eternal state.

I would have to say that, though it’s difficult to understand (because Scripture doesn’t unpack all of the details for us), believers who have died are present with the Lord and that until the resurrection on the Last Day, this is not a bodily existence. Consider these words from the apostle Paul:

So we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. In fact, we are confident, and we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:5-8

Paul here is contrasting our bodily existence in the present with what our experience will be like when we have died and are, as he says, away from the body. He can’t be speaking about our final state, however, because that state involves bodily resurrection. See, for instance, what Paul says in his great chapter on all things resurrection:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have when they come?”

So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body . . . And just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

1 Corinthians 15:35, 42-44, 49

When a person places their faith in the person of Jesus, they are joined to him. Theologians call this union with Christ. And part of what this means is that we have both died with Christ and that we will also be raised like him too. So if Christ had a spiritual, resurrection body, so will believers joined to him when they are raised.

So in the passage from 2 Corinthians 5 he must be speaking about an intermediate state–one that is away from the body–that believers experience between death and their ultimate resurrection. I can’t see how else to make sense of what Scripture says.

This means that whatever else is true of people who have died in Christ, they are not currently experiencing what will be their final state: that of having a resurrected embodied existence like Jesus after he left the tomb. And, yet, Paul does say that people who have died in Christ are at home with the Lord. This means that somehow those who have died in Christ are in his presence now awaiting the final resurrection. To be with the Lord is what it means for a believer to be home. Those who are experiencing this intermediate state are experiencing comfort and peace and joy. But there is more to come. In fact, the best is yet to come.

My second point is this: heaven is not about some sort of eternal, incorporeal (non-bodily) existence. Though Paul speaks of being away from the body in 2 Corinthians 5, he is not speaking of what will be the final eternal state of believers.

When some people talk about heaven, they often talk as though our bodies have nothing to do with it. Instead, they conceive of it as some sort of weird, spiritual, ghostlike existence. Either that, or they conclude (altogether unbiblically, I might add) that people who have died, and perhaps were especially virtuous, get turned into angels. I think this in part because if they think someone can be in heaven in some final sense now, it is difficult to square that with the reality of a cremated or buried body. In other words, if when my Mother died in 2011 she went immediately to her final state of eternity, then it certainly can’t include her body which remains buried.

Might someone who has already died be given an altogether new, spiritual body entirely separate and distinct from their earthly and now deceased body? I don’t think so. And the reason I don’t think so is because of Jesus’ resurrection. His tomb was empty. His resurrected body bore the scars of crucifixion. There was continuity between Jesus’ pre-crucifixion body and his post-resurrection body. Resurrection is about transformation, not replacement. What was true of Jesus will also be true of those who are united to him in faith.

In any case, Scripture makes abundantly clear that whatever else we say of the final state of existence for those united to Christ, it will be a bodily existence. We will have arms and legs, fingers and toes, noses and ears. Jesus’ resurrection is an affirmation of the Genesis pronouncement over creation: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good indeed.

This brings us to the third point: those united to Christ don’t “go” to someplace called heaven; heaven and earth come together in the new creation. Heaven is not located up and away from earth. Heaven is where God’s presence is fully known and experienced. We’re not looking to escape earth; rather, we’re awaiting the renewal, restoration, and indeed, the resurrection not only of the earth but of the entire cosmos. Consider these words given to John on Patmos:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.

Then I heard a loud voice from the throne:Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new.”

Revelation 21:1-5

And the words of the prophet:

For I will create new heavens and a new earth;
the past events will not be remembered or come to mind.

Isaiah 65:17

And of the apostle Peter:

But based on his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

2 Peter 3:13

What we are invited to anticipate as believers is not being able to leave this world behind for a disembodied existence in some other heavenly location but rather a new heavens and new earth, where we will enjoy physical lives free of all that limits and destroys life on this side of eternity. It will be creation as God has always intended it to be, free from the stain of sin and disease and the curse of death.

Put simply, God will resurrect us and the rest of the creation he made. Pastor Tim Keller says this: “The resurrection of Christ assures us that God will redeem not just souls but bodies, and will bring about a new heavens and new earth.” And, dare I say, it will be very, very good.

And so the fourth and last important point (at least for this post): heaven is not simply about living forever but about living forever in the presence of our Creator. And this is not an incidental point. As we saw in Revelation 21, what we can look forward to with hope is that God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God.

The point is relationship, indeed, perfect fellowship, between human beings, all of creation, and the very One who gave everything existence in the first place. Shalom. Complete and total flourishing. No hint of trouble or tears. Not a whiff of sin or dysfunction.

The upshot of this is that, unlike what many in our culture would like to believe, only those who confess faith in the risen Lord Jesus will be able to participate in this new heavens and new earth. Consider the following words from famous preacher and pastor John Piper:

The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?

John Piper, God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself

In other words, if you think you could enjoy heaven without God, then you will not be there. We cannot separate God and heaven. Where one is, so is the other. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that it is in being in the presence of God that the experience of heaven primarily consists. Or to put it another way: getting to heaven is not the goal; getting to God is. The apostle Peter expresses it this way:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God.

1 Peter 3:18

So why did Jesus suffer, die, and rise? To bring us to heaven? No, to bring us to God, which is, in Christian terms, the precise same thing as heaven.

Now do you see what I mean when I say no one goes to heaven?

What do we do with all this, then?

The first thing is to stop thinking about heaven according to a false cultural narrative–one that affects people both inside and outside the church. Christians are called to be biblically minded, to have their thinking on these matters shaped by what Scripture actually says, not what we assume or wish it says.

Another takeaway is that the physical world–our bodies, the ground we walk on, the food we eat, the beauty we admire–is good. Inherently good. And one day it will be perfected and eternal. The so-called afterlife is not an afterlife after all. It is life as it was always supposed to be. It is not a consolation prize. It is the jackpot. Imagine the very best of this life brought to perfection. Contrary to what some think, we will not find ourselves bored in heaven.

Lastly, there is hope. With all that ravages our world, from the various forms of violence and dehumanization, disease and disaster, most of us long for a world without any of these things. We want to be free of pain. We don’t want to worry anymore. We want to know what real, lasting peace is like. We want our relationships to be healed of anger and regret.

And all of this is what God is going to accomplish by creating a new heavens and new earth, by making all things new. Indeed, this is what he began to do in raising Jesus from the dead. That was but the beginning, the utimate signpost to an available new reality which we can start to experience even now, but we can only fully experience on the other side of our resurrection. And to know that we will participate in this new reality, we need to acknowledge that it was indeed inaugurated through the empty tomb of Jesus. As he says in John 11:25–26, I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

How do you answer Jesus’ question?

So, sure, no one “goes” to heaven. But doesn’t all this sound infinitely better?

Thoughts on Prayer: Learning to Pray from Scripture (Part 1)

There is a wide variety of literature in the books of the Old and New Testament: poems, historical narrative, letters, and Jewish apocalyptic writings, to name but a few. And, amazingly, God in his grace and wisdom divinely inspired the various authors of the Bible to reveal himself and his purposes through all of them. Indeed, Scripture is our all sufficient well-spring of truth to draw from to be obedient people of faith.

And woven throughout many of the books of the Bible are passages of a particular kind that, while not a genre of literature all their own, have the power to inform and transform our relationship with God. I speak here of the many passages that feature people praying or that talk about prayer. Prayers feature in many narratives, prophetic books, epistles, and books of wisdom. Abraham prays, Samuel prays, Hannah prays, Jacob prays, Hagar prays, Job prays, Isaiah prays, Jeremiah prays, Moses prays, Miriam prays, Deborah prays, King David prays, the apostle Paul prays, Elizabeth prays, Mary prays, and, of course, Jesus prays.

And we can learn from their prayers.

We even have a whole book of the Bible that consists of prayers: The Book of Psalms. These 150 chapters of praise, confession, lament, and petition are themselves enough to keep us busy learning about prayer.

Jesus, of course, teaches his disciples to pray by giving them the words of The Lord’s Prayer. He also instructs his disciples about prayer in other ways.

So over the next few posts, I want to suggest three ways we can learn about prayer from Scripture.

The first is this: we learn about the God to whom we pray. This is no small thing. Often when our prayers are hindered by confusion or doubt or worry, it’s in part because we fail to grasp the character of the God of Scripture. If we are worried that God is angry or disappointed with us, this will affect the manner of our prayers. If we think that God doesn’t care about the everyday details of our lives, we will likely avoid praying altogether or pray without any assurance that God hears us.

To take one basic example, look at the prayer of praise and thanksgiving of Psalm 136:1:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His faithful love endures forever.

Psalm 136:1

Here we see that God is good. His goodness is a reason for gratitude, because his goodness means, in part, that he seeks our good. He is therefore trustworthy. His will towards us is not ambivalent, much less malevolent; rather, he looks upon us with love.

And not only that, but he embodies faithful love. That is, his love is not dependent on us or our circumstances. It’s a reliable, consistent love, not the sort that’s fickle or subject to the whims of the moment.

Think about praying while knowing these things about God. Here is a God who you can trust with the deepest cries and longings of your heart. He cares for you. Such truths ought to instill our prayers with confidence. Knowing that God is good and loving ought to open us up to prayer. Think about what the apostle Peter says:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your cares on him, because he cares about you.

1 Peter 5:6-7

However, if the picture of God in our heart and mind ever begins to drift away from these foundational aspects of his character–his love and goodness–what would happen to our prayers? Maybe we would find ourselves asking: “Will God listen to my prayers?” “Does he really care about me?” Who God is matters to how we pray.

But there’s more. Scripture also reveals that Christian prayer is trinitarian in nature. That is, we pray not to some vague, non-descript God, but to the God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Spirit. We see this, for instance, in the prayers of the apostle Paul:

For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit,  and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:14-19

All three Persons of the trinitarian Godhead participate in our prayers. And we can’t fully understand what it means to pray without knowing God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We pray to the Father in the name of the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our God is irreducibly personal. He is intrinsically relational. He is not the impersonal Force of Star Wars.

The basic Old Testament affirmations of God’s goodness and faithful love (that we see above in Psalm 136:1) also come to full flower in passages such as the one from Ephesians. Here Paul expresses in a beautiful, profound way that we can know and experience the fullness of God’s love only through the Son; and that it is the Holy Spirit who makes that love real to us.

So when you and I pray, we pray to a personal, relational God who is actively seeking our good, who seeks to pour out and make known his love for us, and who wants his love and goodness to be the driving force of our prayers for ourselves and for others.

In other words, we don’t have to convince, persuade, or manipulate God to listen to us. He is firmly predisposed to listen. He is the listening God. He is infinitely inclined to listen; and the more this reality takes root in our hearts, the more inclined to pray we will be.

This leads us to a third way we learn about God from the prayers in the Bible. Scripture shows us the good news that God seeks to have intimate fellowship, a genuine relationship, with us.

Consider the language of Genesis 3:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.

Genesis 3:8

Though this happened after the man and his wife had listened to the serpent, the portrait of God here is of one who seeks out human beings. He came to the man and woman even after they had disobeyed him. Not even their sin would ultimately keep God from graciously reaching out.

This is also true for us. Sometimes we think that because of stuff we’ve done, things for which we feel ashamed or embarrassed, that we’ve cut ourselves off from God. Now, in a sense that is the case. Sin breaks our fellowship with God. It becomes an obstacle to the intimacy he seeks to have with us. Yet just as God reached out to the man and woman in Genesis, he also reaches out to us. In the Scriptures we also see that through the good news of Jesus God makes possible the restoration of this fellowship.

When the time came to completion, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then God has made you an heir.

Galatians 4:4-7

Based on what Paul tells us here, God the Father sent God the Son into the world precisely in order for us to receive God the Spirit so we could have this most intimate and personal of relationships with the very One who created us and sustains us.

So, in other words, God redeems us through Christ and he does this so that we might be adopted as sons (and daughters) and enter into a profoundly personal relationship with him. The Holy Spirit prompts us to cry out to him as a child would to a loving, reliable parent.

Notice Paul says that those who receive the Spirit will cry out Abba! Father! The term Abba is an Aramaic term for Father that has a much more informal, personal tone, like “Daddy” or “Papa.” It is the word for Father that Jesus uses when he is in the Garden of Gethsemane before going to the pain and humiliation of the cross: And he said, “Abba, Father! All things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, not what I will, but what you will.”

Put another way, being adopted as sons and daughters of God the Father means sharing in the intimacy that exists between the Father and the Son through the Spirit.

Imagine trying to pray without the knowledge that God is good and loving, that he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that he even entered his own creation to restore the relationship he has always intended us to have with him.

Here’s the thing: we needn’t imagine such a scenario. Because our prayer can rest on the bedrock of what Scripture teaches us about him. This is the good news.

And this is why our understanding of God needs to be the foundation for our prayer.

Next time I’m going to look at how in Scripture we learn what we are to pray about.

What Church Is and Isn’t (Sort Of)

What is church?

I suppose there are thousands of answers to that question. It’s an institution that’s been around for roughly two millennia. There is a bewildering variety of denominations and variations of ecclesiastical communities. Needless to say, every one and their pastor has an opinion. Some hold their views loosely; others adamantly; and still others, vehemently.

Even so, I want to suggest a few things church is not (sort of!). Far from exhaustive, my suggestions merely play off some common misunderstandings of church. Nothing I say here is being said dogmatically.

Before I get into my suggestions, I think it’s important to point out that many reduce church to its ABCs: attendance, buildings, and cash. It’s a convenient acronym of sorts, if nothing else. But obviously it looks mostly at the surface, the measurables, and the immediate. It misses much, yet reveals much as well.

But what are my suggestions? Here’s my first.

The church is about people not programs.

Most congregations have various regular activities that take place regularly: Bible studies, Sunday School, youth groups, home groups, VBS, etc. The Sunday morning worship service(s) is often viewed as the core or centre of church activity. All good stuff. Mostly.

I remember being in a ministry seminar where the person leading said something to the effect that programs are essentially a reason to get people in the same room.

I like it.

But of course the people getting together in the same space, if the purpose is discipleship, have to have something to do. Hence, programs.

At the same time, programs can outlive their usefulness. Keeping a program running when it’s run out of gas and goals can leave volunteers weary and discouraged. Even though it’s often harder to stop a program than start one, it can sometimes be an act of wisdom and mercy to pull the plug.

The church is about engagement not attendance.

More butts in the pews—it’s what most pastors dream of (and think they’re supposed to) strive towards. In these days of declining churches and struggling congregations, those who’ve attended for years and even decades are no doubt confused and discouraged by the absence of upcoming generations in many a sanctuary.

You can have a full sanctuary with little actual engagement. You can also have a smaller group of people who are more deeply engaged and motivated to grow.

It’s not necessarily about numbers. So without discounting numbers altogether, they can be deceiving. That said, without some people, it’s hard to have church! It’s just as easy to dismiss the importance of trying to engage new people—thereby shirking our evangelistic responsibility—by pointing out the superficiality of ecclesiastical arithmetic.

Some have commented that the numerical decline in churches simply represents the elimination of the “mushy middle,” those who used to attend out of a sense of obligation. Those remaining are the truly committed.

Perhaps. But we still are called to engage others and to be engaged ourselves with intentional spiritual community.

Last, the church is a holy people not a holy place.

Or to put it another, more obvious, way: the church is not the building. We don’t go to church; we are the church.

This almost goes without saying, and much of time I think we (sort of) get it. But our language can betray us. Words matter. Our vocabulary reveals.

We’re being built into a spiritual house, the Scriptures tell us. Brick by brick. All of the building language from the Old Testament is used of people—the gathered family of God—in the New Testament. Peter puts it this way:

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:4–5

We need one another. There’s a blessed mutuality at work in the church, where each one brings their particular gifts and passions. And God assembles us into a holy place.

And, yes, we still have to meet somewhere. Churches meet in coffee shops, school auditoriums, movie theatres, homes, and, of course, church buildings. Whether it’s better for a group of Christians to rent or lease a space or have one all their own, that’s a matter of legitimate debate.

But there’s no such thing as a holy place apart from a holy people.

So there you are. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. That’s ok. My point is simply to say that at the heart of what the church is are relationships: between us and God, between individual believers, and between believers and their surrounding community.

Indeed, God himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is relationship. It makes sense to me, then, if that’s what the church is all about too.