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Midweek FR articles
This past Sunday afternoon, the Skyview Church of Christ in White House, TN held their final service. The group reached a point where membership status and the cost of the facility were incommensurate, so it was time to disband at that location. And while I know that a congregation permanently closing their doors isn’t a super unusual event, it means a lot to me because that was the first church where I served as the preacher. So their closing up has had an impact on me. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. With that being the case, here’s my tribute—simple as it is—to Skyview.
60 Christians. Then 90. Then 60 again. 2 elders. 4 or 5 deacons, depending on the year. 3 and a half years. 3 VBS’s. 7 gospel meetings. Approximately 160 sermons. An unknown number of Bible classes. And one tremendous experience for me and my wife.
The Skyview church was planted in May of 2001 by Wilson Adams and a handful of other Christians. Wilson preached there for approximately five years, then Shawn Bain preached there for approximately five years, and then I came. I started working there 10 days after Kaitlin and I got married, and we were there for three and a half years, long enough to bring our first son into the world. The church members supported us so well through those early days of marriage while we adjusted to life and work together. They put up with some hilariously bad preaching mistakes. They humored many of my ideas that had no business seeing the light of day. They rebuked and corrected in a near-perfect spirit of gentleness. And they encouraged the good that they saw in me and my wife, making us far better when we left there than we had been when we arrived. I’m grateful to all of them, and tempted to mention all of their names here so that they receive some the thanks they deserve. I'm thankful, also, for Bobby Blackburn, who preached at a nearby church and took me under his wing and helped me minister to my wife and to the church in more ways than he'll ever fully realize. I’m especially grateful to John Case, Tom Reed, and Paul Porter—the elders whom I was blessed to know and work with there. They took a significant downgrade in preacher skill level when they hired me to follow Wilson and Shawn… and by doing so, they did me so much good. I can only hope that I did their spirits some good in return.
I know that there are always transitions in life. Solomon said that there is “a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl. 3:1), and he went on to describe how the path of life often takes us through times of great effort, then times of the opposite effort. Derek Kidner noted how these verses teach us that, “We have to dance to a tune not of our own choosing.” Such is the case with Skyview closing up. It is “a time to pluck up what was planted… a time to break down… a time to cast away stones… and a time to lose.” And yet, as Wilson said in the final sermon preached there this past Sunday afternoon: “A church isn’t brick and mortar. It’s not a building. It’s not an address. That’s not what it’s about. What it’s about is SOULS.” And so I am assured that the saints—the SOULS—who faithfully served God together at Skyview will continue to serve him wherever they worship now. The thing that stays constant while many other things change is the command to, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13), and I feel certain they will continue to live up to that divine mandate.
I think the history of a church is important. Our individuals stories, family stories, and church stories matter. A lot. I’m grateful to God that I was able to be part of the Skyview church story for those years. To all of you whom we worshiped with and who loved us then and continue to now: Thank you. And God bless you. I love you.
- Dan Lankford, minister
This series of articles has covered most of the basics of Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality. In fairness to the Bible’s overall teaching, let’s consider this one final discussion in the series: the matter of polygamy (or polygyny), which is the practice of being married to multiple spouses at the same time. This practice hardly needs to be warned against in the cultural moment of twenty-first-century America, first because it’s illegal in all 50 states, and second because the practice seems almost inhumane to us. America’s sensibilities are trained by a Judeo-Christian thought heritage in which the thought of marriage usually carries the idea of exclusivity with it, and we are so accustomed to that thought that we even struggle within the Bible to make sense of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, and other men who had multiple wives at the same time.
I don’t want to over-explain something which seems obvious to so many, but it bears saying out loud: Genesis 2:24 says, "Therefore a man [singular] shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife [singular], and they shall become one flesh" (clarifications added). From that statement and plenty more, Biblically speaking, it’s wrong for more than two people to be married to each other, and that’s all that needs to be said in direct address of the matter. But let me make three quick and relevant observations that are slightly more indirectly related to this practice.
First: As mentioned above, we struggle to make sense of the many examples of polygamous unions throughout the Bible, especially by men who are held up as great examples of faith in God. A couple of realizations can help us reconcile this. First, we should pay careful attention to how the stories are written and what those men are actually commended for, because we will search the Bible in vain to find a place where their polygamy is commended. Second, we should keep in mind that those Bible characters are not held up as examples of perfection, but of faith in crucial moments. And that helps us to see that they were imperfect like we are, which makes us all look to the one example of human perfection: Christ. The Old Testament narratives are often not telling the stories of what should have happened, but rather what did happen. They show us the human players in God’s grand drama with honesty; not as morally whitewashed men who did all things right.
Second: You may occasionally hear the term ‘polyamory’ bandied about in the cultural conversation about modern sexual ethics. You should know that this term does not refer to polygamous marriage, but rather to multiple unmarried sexual partners. Obviously, in a world where many are calling evil good and putting bitter for sweet (cf. Isa. 5:20), we expect this behavior from the world and yet we see it for the sin that it is.
Third: There is a lingering thought among many religious people that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints endorses the practice of polygyny. According to official teaching from the church, this is no longer true. It was accepted by that religious organization over a century ago, but it is strongly condemned in their official teachings today, and it has been for a long time. I point that out here for the benefit of any of us who get into conversations about the Gospel with a Mormon friend: we would do well not to criticize their religious beliefs regarding this matter, because while their church once taught that it was okay, the person that you’re talking to probably has a strong belief in one-man-one-woman marriage.
Again, it’s easy to see that polygamy/polygyny is a sinful practice. It appears to have been one of the many things in “the time of ignorance [which] God overlooked” (Ac. 17:30), but it was never given divine approval. And so we are thankful that this sinful practice is largely out of fashion in our time and place, and we pray that our culture will be reformed to see all other sexual and marital sins with the same sort of repulsion with which this one is generally viewed.
- Dan Lankford, minister
PS – I had thought that this article would hardly be meaningful in our cultural context, but then the matters of monogamy, polyamory, and sexual infidelity came up in this article from USA Today on Monday of this week, which just reminded me that these matters of right and wrong are always relevant.
So far in our series of articles about marriage & sexuality, we’ve addressed the biblical sexual ethic, the need for permanence in marriage, the problem with adultery, the nature of divorce, and the righteous regulations for remarriage after a death or divorce. In this writing, we’re bringing some of the darkness of human thought into the light of God’s word. We’re talking about lust—a sin of the will which is prone to lead to other sexual sins.
By its simplest definition, the word “lust” only means desire. But in common usage and in Biblical usage, it almost always means an ungodly sexual desire. This is clearly what Jesus was talking bout in these words from the Sermon on the Mount: “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.” (Mt. 5:27-28) This kind of unholy sexual desire is also what David was experiencing when he saw Bathsheba on a far rooftop and then continued the process that eventually brought them to bed together (2 Sm. 11:2-4). It’s also what the prophets had in mind when they used the word to accuse Israel of their “whoredom” with gods other than YHWH (cf. Ez. 16:36ff, 23:11-17ff, Jr. 2:24ff).
Jesus’ words, quoted above, are the clearest moral statement on the matter to be found in the Bible. Obviously, there is such a thing as temptation which arises, as one author said, “like a hiccup, unchosen and unwanted.” Christ even said in another place that, “temptations are sure to come.” (Lk. 17:1) But in Matthew 5:27-28, he is addressing unrighteous thoughts or fantasies that each person can control—those that indulge in a moment of temptation, choosing to dwell upon what our senses desire even though we know it is unrighteous. That is what Jesus means by looking at someone “...with lustful intent.” (ESV). The unchosen temptation is not inherently sinful; the knowing and willful dwelling upon our desires is. Each of us have to be honest with ourselves and with God about the difference and choose to do what’s right, rather than making excuses for our thought behavior. Especially for those of us who are married, the choice (and it is a choice) to look at or dwell on someone other than our spouse adulterates our faithfulness to him and to his perfect design for marriage. Jesus’ words about “adultery in his heart” should not be taken as an additional exemption for righteous divorce, but they should teach us the seriousness with which we should control our thoughts.
All of this obviously prohibits all Christians—married or single, male or female—from looking at pornography (whether we consider it ‘hard’ or ‘soft’), “checking out” anyone other than your spouse, or allowing our daydreams to circle around an ungodly lust. It should also caution us heavily about watching shows or movies in which characters are dressed such that viewers are provoked to “lustful intent.”
All of this is a matter of keeping our minds and hearts pure for God’s glory. Are we faithful to him in everything, including “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hb. 4:12)?
- Dan Lankford, minister
In recent weeks, these midweek articles have addressed the Biblical ethics of sexuality and marriage. As a direct follow-up to last Wednesday’s article about divorce, let’s give some quick consideration the the New Testament’s statements about remarriage.
The first situation in which remarriage is Biblically validated is in the case of a spouse's death. A widowed spouse is free to remarry, and that is clearly not sinful or even morally suspect. Paul enumerates this truth plainly in Romans 7:1-3 and in 1 Corinthians 7:39. He even says that under some circumstances, younger widowers and widows should remarry (1 Tim. 5:14), especially if they will be excessively tempted to sexual immorality (1 Cor. 7:8-9).
The second situation in which remarriage is Biblically validated is in the case of a spouse against whom adultery has been committed. This is necessarily inferred from what the Lord spoken in Matthew 19:9. There, he said, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” The implication is that any remarriage which follows a divorce not brought about by sexual infidelity is unlawful. And therefore, any remarriage which follows a divorce brought about by sexual infidelity is lawful.
Beyond these two, the New Testament’s only other mention of the subject is up for some debate. Obviously, I’m talking about the same unclear section of 1 Corinthians 7 that I mentioned in last week’s article. This situation is one which needs to be worked out on a case-by-case basis, with much prayer and with as much fidelity to Scripture as we can achieve. I will avoid addressing that matter directly in this writing, and I will do so for this purpose: So that we can see the parts of the New Testament which are plain teachings. And so that we can align our hearts to believe them and live them out.
Is this a hard teaching? Yes. Even the apostles thought so (cf. Mt. 19:10-13). And yet, Jesus stated the truth on the matter. It’s a matter of what God wants for us, what pleases him, and ultimately what is righteous in the grand scheme of all holiness.
- Dan Lankford, minister
In our recent series of midweek articles, we have discussed the Biblical sexual ethic, the permanence and exclusivity of marriage, and the problem with adultery. Now, it’s time to discuss one of the hardest batches of truth in this series: what the Bible says about divorce.
This is a hard batch of truth for two reasons: 1) Because the Spirit has shown us the where hard lines of right and wrong are drawn on these matters, and 2) because many of us find that these teachings are fraught; emotionally hard to hear and hard to think about for a variety of reasons.
The Bible does have enough to say about this matter for us to clearly understand that divorces have never been God’s intention for married people. When Jesus was asked whether divorce is approved by God, the conversation went like this: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said:
‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Mt. 19:4-9)
His words call for little explanation or clarification. They come down to a few core points:
- Divorce is not God’s intention for married couples. It breaks a union that is put in place by God (see Gn. 2:24). The intent was always that they would be joined by God and therefore not separated by mankind.
- Divorces have happened often throughout the history of God-fearing people groups, but they are not an equally valid option in the plan that God put in place. Jesus’ perspective on the Law of Moses’ teaching about divorce was essentially: “Yes, Moses allowed you to divorce your wives under certain circumstances, but that was never what God intended for you.”
- A divorce is always a bad thing. Sometimes, it is the lesser of two (or more) evils that can present a path through a particular situation, but it’s never morally neutral or morally good. That doesn’t mean that every person who experiences a divorce is at fault for it. Nor does it mean that every divorced person has sinned by getting divorced. But it does mean that in every divorce situation, something has gone wrong. It is never a thoroughly good thing in the eyes of God.
Jesus’ teaching on the subject is a concise recapitulation of what we would learn from elsewhere in the Bible. Jesus quoted the words from Genesis and showed how they ought to be instructive to all of his followers. And Malachi said, “the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts.” (Mal. 2:16) And it’s the same in the New Testament. Admittedly, some of what the apostle Paul wrote about marriage and divorce is unclear, especially in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. But even in that context where some things are unclear, the apostle’s underlying assumption is that married Christians will stay together (“To the married I give this charge… the wife should not separate from her husband…and the husband should not divorce his wife.” [1 Cor. 7:10-11]). The choice—and it is a choice—of whether to stick with one’s spouse or not is something about which God has spoken clearly. The command, with one exception mentioned in Scripture, is to stay with our spouses through the whole of life.
Now, there is one circumstance of which the Lord spoke in which a person may divorce their spouse righteously (the exception previously mentioned). It’s this: one who is the innocent party in a marriage that has been adulterated may righteously divorce the guilty spouse. Jesus said this in Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:9, and other passages in the Gospels which repeat these same occasions (cf. Mk. 10:1-12, Lk. 16:18). And it’s important that our awareness of this righteous exception leads us to be compassionate toward our Christian brothers and sisters who have suffered a divorce resulting from a spouse’s infidelity. Theirs is a pain that should be handled with compassion and care by the church. We will address the topic of the difficulty that many of them face in overcoming a perceived stigma from their Christian family in another venue, but for this writing, let it suffice to say that those whose life pathways have led them through this door should NOT be treated as guilty, damaged, or spiritually inferior because of it. They have suffered the consequences of someone else’s sin, and they are not the guilty ones. The Lord said that their divorces are righteous ones.
Divorce is something that married Christians should not even consider as an option, except, as Jesus said, in cases of sexual immorality. Among those of us who are married, our default position should be total devotion to faithfulness in our marriages, with no consideration of a way out. Does that sound like a lot to ask of a person? Yes, it does. And we’re not the first people to think so. The apostles answered Jesus’ words in Matthew 19 by saying, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Mt. 19:10) Essentially, they were saying that if marriage is going to be so permanent, even in bad times, then maybe it’s better to just never enter one. While that wasn’t what the Lord was teaching, it does belie the great weight of commitment that is the warp and woof of godly marriage.
A few other things are worth a quick, passing mention:
- Divorce is a sin of which a person can repent and be forgiven (like any other sin).
- People have often said that, “Half of all marriages end in divorce,” but that isn’t true any more. In fact, it may never have been true. The method used for the initial study that revealed that truth were almost certainly mishandled, and things have actually trended in a better direction in America since that stat was first published.
- Christians should think of being committed to our marriages rather than stuck in our marriages. One can understand why the difference in verbiage would make a big difference in our daily lives.
- Homosexual “marriages” are not something that God recognizes as holy; likely he does not even recognize them as marriages. And so in the case of two people of the same sex who are ostensibly married to each other, when one or both of them come to Christ, that “marriage” would need to be ended, including a legal filing of divorce if that was what was required by the laws pertinent to them at the time. A similar rationale would apply in cases of transgender people’s relationships when they come to Christ and repent of the old ways of their former life.
- If you and your spouse find yourselves struggling to make good things happen in your marriage, and especially if you worry that your only options are either divorce or a life of marital misery, then make some time to click here and listen to this sermon for some good starting guidance toward repairing the relationship.
As God’s people, we want to protect ourselves from the evil of divorce. God’s intent was that a man and a woman become one flesh, cling to each other through all of life, and that mankind does not separate what God has joined together.
- Dan Lankford, minister
In the last two midweek articles, we started an exploration of the entire framework of Biblical teachings on marriage and sexuality. First, we talked about the Bible’s teachings on righteous sexual behavior, and then we addressed the importance of permanent and exclusive marriages. The plan is to continue to explore these topics in the next several writings, making a straightforward—and hopefully concise—case for what the Bible has to say on the following topics: adultery, lust, polygamy, divorce, and remarriage.
Adultery is what’s commonly called “cheating” on a spouse or “having an affair.” It’s when a married person has sex with anyone who is not his or her spouse. And there’s no wondering whether it’s a behavior that the Bible considers right or wrong—the Bible is clear that it’s wrong, and speaks in volumes on that subject.
The Ten Commandments forbid adultery (Ex. 20:14, Dt. 5:18). The Law of Moses exacted punishments on both adulterers and adulteresses (Lv. 20:10ff, Nm. 5:11ff). The wisdom of Solomon warned in strong terms about the damage that adultery can do to the one who commits it (Pr. 5). The prophets used the obvious wrongness of adultery as metaphor for Israel’s long-term unfaithfulness to their covenant with God and their worshiping other gods (Jr. 3:9, Ez. 16:38ff, 23:37ff, etc). And Jesus spoke clearly on the subject, noting that adultery (“sexual immorality,” Mt. 5:32) dissolves a marriage and releases the righteous spouse from it if they so choose to be released (19:9ff). He also added greater depth of heart to the Law of Moses’s command that, “You shall not commit adultery” by warning that, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt. 5:28) And even though Jesus once released a woman who was caught in adultery from the hypocrisy of those who wanted to put her to death, he still admitted that she had sinned by committing adultery, saying, “Go your way and sin no more” (Jn. 8:11). And the apostles also spoke with a firm understanding that the act of adultery is sinful in the eyes of God, no matter which of God’s covenants a person may live under (Rm. 2:22, Rm. 13:9, 2 Pt. 2:14, Rv. 2:22).
So it’s clear that adultery is a sin. And that knowledge might bring about different reactions from different people, depending on what point in life we’re at.
- For a person who has committed adultery, it may seem that such a thing is too damaging and too bad to ever be forgiven. But there is forgiveness available for those who have committed adultery and then have repented and confessed that to God, just like with all other sins.
- For those who are currently married and trying to serve God, all of this reminds us of the same truth from last week’s article: That it’s crucial for married people who want to serve God faithfully to protect our marriages and to be faithful to our spouses.
Whether the world around us thinks that such a thing is right or wrong, God says that it’s wrong, and we must fight any temptation to commit adultery. Our families depend on it, society at large depends on it, and each of our souls depend on us being faithful to God by resisting the temptation to commit this sin.
- Dan Lankford, minister
The Bible speaks clearly about the importance of faithfulness to a marriage covenant. As long as it is within our power to do so, those of us who are married are commanded to be enduringly faithful to our spouses, as the traditional vows say, “forsaking all others.”
This is a simple truth stated by Christ himself when he said, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mt. 19:6) And unfaithfulness is one thing for which God gives very strong criticism of his people during the time when they were rebuilding after Babylonian exile. In Malachi 2, he said, “the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant… So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (Mal. 2:14-16) And in many of the prophets’ words, the idolatry of God’s people is held up as a parallel evil to the unfaithfulness of a spouse who forsakes their marriage vows by committing adultery (cf. Ezk. 16 and Hos. 3).
There are a few notable exceptions to the permanence of a marriage that God proclaims to be righteous, but this writing is focused on what ought to be the rule among Christians: that in attitude, in action, in word, and in prayer, we are devoted to healthy, lifelong, exclusive marriages.
This requires a high level of devotion, akin to the devotion that is called for in a life of faithfulness to God. It reminds us that marriage is a commitment of the will to the other person, regardless of how our emotions toward them may undulate over time. This requires us to protect our hearts and our marriages from flirtation with others, from lustful intent, and from all-out adultery. It requires us to be willing to repent of our own sins against a spouse and to forgive a spouse’s sins against us. It means that we should pray for God to give us all the good blessings that come from a righteous marriage. It requires that we must each make up our minds from the very beginning that we will truly “forsake all others” and cling to our spouse, putting a hand to the plow and not looking back (cf. 9:62) as God has called us to.
Again, there are a few notable exceptions in which the permanence of marriage may be undone with God’s approval, but let’s be clear that they are exceptions—not the rule. And so may God bless his people more and more with married couples who keep the vows that we make to him “until death parts us.”
- Dan Lankford, minister
There are some ideas within the framework of Biblical Christianity that long-time believers assume everyone among us just knows. And yet, if we aren’t deliberate about teaching the whole counsel of God (cf. Ac. 20:27), we may find that some among us simply don’t know certain Bible doctrines that we had assumed to be common knowledge. Additionally, when commonly-accepted doctrines are questioned or rejected by the world, some Christians can become convinced to go the world’s way unless we periodically make plain statements of Biblical truth.
So, in the interest making sure that the the whole counsel of God is spoken with conviction among us, consider these straightforward reminders of some basic morality of Christians’ sexual behavior.
The Bible is clear that sexual activity is right in only one relationship: a righteous marriage between a biological man and a biological woman. This is implicit in the creation story (cf. Gn. 2:24-25), and it is made explicit in the Ten Commandments (cf. Ex. 20:14) as well as many of the laws that God gave to the Hebrews after they left Egypt (cf. Lv. 18 & 20:10-21). With only a very few exceptions, these rules are restated by the Apostles in the New Testament (and good arguments can be made in favor of the unmentioned ones), with the apostles often just assuming the righteous ways in which Christians would behave in these ways (cf. 1 Cr. 5:1, Rm. 7:1-4, 1 Cr. 7:15, and other examples).
The bottom line is this: According to the Bible, sexual activity outside of a righteous marriage between a man and a woman is sinful. That means that a dating couple sleeping together before marriage is sinful. It means that homosexual activity by either gender is sinful. It means that sex with someone other than a person’s spouse is sinful. And the Lord himself added to all of that a prohibition against lustful thoughts about a person of the opposite sex, noting that such sexualized thoughts are also sinful (Mt. 5:27-28).
Does all of this really matter? Yes. A great deal. And we’ll talk in another writing about the many deep reasons why that is, but it’s one area where Christians ought to be exceedingly clear and convicted about who we are and how we are to faithfully serve God our king.
- Dan Lankford, minister
Occasionally, I hear preachers and religious teachers talk about the importance of keeping the message that we teach simple. And there is a sense in which that’s right. Paul apparently thought it necessary to keep the truth simple enough that it could be clearly understood, and so he said that Christ had sent him into the world, “to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” (1 Cor. 1:17) Just a few paragraphs later, he continued the same thought, noting how his speech and the concepts in it were not the lofty, esoteric discussions that one would expect from the philosophers of his time: He just taught Jesus and all that comes with knowing him (cf. 1 Cor. 2:1-5).
But all Bible teachers need to be aware that there is a difference between Paul’s ideal of simplicity and the ideal that we repeat regularly. I have heard many modern preachers and teachers advise that, “You need to preach down at the kids level,” or “Y’know, people can’t process as much as you think they can; you should simplify everything as much as you can,” or “I have one very important philosophy about how to preach and teach from God’s word: ‘Keep it simple!’”
Yet that isn’t what Paul was saying. Paul’s priority wasn’t just to simplify the message at all costs. Paul’s priority was 1) to preach the truth in all of its power and 2) to do that in such a way that people could understand it (cf. “power” in 1 Cor. 1:17 & 2:5). When our first priority in teaching is simplicity, truth necessarily gets moved to a lower priority. And we know this is possible because we’ve probably all heard sermons or classes in which the truth was so simplified that it was no longer true.
So our goal is teach the truth with clarity. Often, the simplest explanation of that will be the most helpful, but only when it retains all of the truth. If God has revealed a complex truth, then we dare not simplify it to the point of corrupting it. And yet, if there is a way to communicate complexity clearly, then let’s try our best to not overcomplicate it. In both cases, our first priority and our “one very important philosophy about how to preach and teach from God’s word” should be: Teach the truth.
- Dan Lankford, minister
On Sunday, we talked about the importance of following the divinely-spoken words of the Bible as the authority for all things, both in our personal lives and our church practices. We said in that message that we must be careful to do things God’s way and not our own. But tradition, philosophy, and personal preference are all sources that we sometimes look to for authority alongside or above the objective truth of God’s word. Here, I’d like to add one more channel thru which we often receive guidance contrary to God’s way: tribal knowledge.
Tribal knowledge, in one sense of the term, refers to the way that some principles, policies, and procedures get passed by word-of-mouth through an organization and inevitably get corrupted in the passing. In the restaurant where I work, it’s things like how sick pay functions, what to do in order to get shift coverage, and the specifics of our uniform policy. But the specifics aren’t the issue: the mentality is. Over time, like in a group of people playing a game of Telephone, legitimate elements of our work get passed from team member to team member and gradually become corrupted with each verbal transmission until they are flat-out wrong and a wholesale correction has to be made by the leaders. When we leaders become aware that it’s needed, we typically just open up the company handbook and point straight to the actual words that describe the requirements and remind everyone that they are going to be held to that standard. It’s simple and effective: an appeal back to the authority of a written standard that is accessible and knowable to all involved. And even though it must happen fairly often, it’s typically the only correction needed to the tribal knowledge that has led us astray.
As God’s people, we must have a clear and correct understanding of what the Bible says: not just the tribal knowledge of a community of believers. In Ezekiel 18, Israel had begun to use a proverb to explain why they were in Babylonian captivity. The proverb blamed the current misfortunes of God’s people on the generation that came before them (cf. Ezk. 18:1-2). But God told them, “As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel” (Ezk. 18:3), and he went on to explain that he is righteous and holds each generation responsible for their own sins. The tribal knowledge that they had was wrong, and the authority of God’s prophetic word corrected it. The same thing is at play in the passage where Jesus condemns The Jews for “teaching as doctrine the commandments of men” (Mt. 15:9, Mk. 7:7). It’s a problem common to all humanity: when the amassed and embedded knowledge of a culture guides us more than the truth from the Holy Word.
The takeaway for us is simple and weighty: The general senses of Christianity and the verbiage that we accumulate from church services, YouTube videos, commentaries, and podcasts are not enough to compensate for a lack of thorough Bible knowledge. This warning applies to our general conversations with other believers: we may pick up phrases and figures of speech common among believers in our time, but we should have ears that are trained by the word of God to be discerning as to whether these things are objectively true or they are just tribal knowledge. This warning also applies to the guidance that we often hear from the realm of psychology: some beliefs that are accepted among the psych community aren’t biblical (for example: that our decisions are not actually ours—all is determined by external factors of our upbringing, experiences, etc.), but some are right and biblical, and we need to be able to tell the difference. And there could be more places where we heed the tribal, cultural voices. We just need to have our hearts trained to hear to the words of God above all of them.
Tribal knowledge creates a lot of inconsistency in a restaurant environment. It creates confusion. It even causes conflict as some who know the real policies butt heads with those who operate on the tribal knowledge. And the same sort of things can happen in a church family. If our knowledge of spiritual things is only tribal—not carefully aligned with the actual words of Scripture—we’ll face many of the same problems. So let’s go back to the authoritative written standard and agree to uphold that as our first commitment. As the Hebrews writer said, “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard” (Heb. 2:1) as God has spoken through his angels, his prophets, and especially his Son.
- Dan Lankford, minister