Working for Healthier Churches in the Bible-belt: The “Letter Transfer”

Pastoring a church in the Bible belt has exposed me to some interesting cultural experiences. The Bible-belt is that swath of states across the southern US which are still home to many cultural Christians. Cultural Christians (those who are Christian only in a cultural sense) share several characteristics with biblical Christians (i.e. true Christians), but cultural Christianity consists of more simple routine and mindless tradition by comparison.

A biblical Christian will commonly seek to know and follow Christ according to Scripture, reading the Bible and striving to align with its teachings, even in the face of cultural opposition. But a cultural Christian will generally adhere to and promulgate the “Christian” traditions he or she has seen or heard from other professing Christians who share the same culture. For the biblical Christian the Bible is functional; its content is authoritative and prescriptive for beliefs and practices. For the cultural Christian the Bible is a sacred religious object, much more akin to a good luck charm than an authoritative text.

One cultural Christian tradition in the Bible-belt is an activity called “transferring your letter.” If you read a lot of church history, or if you’ve ever been involved in a Bible-belt church, then you may know exactly what I’m talking about. But if you don’t know what “transferring your letter” is all about, then allow me to briefly explain.

Many cultural Christians are members of local churches.

As a matter of fact, the Southern Baptist Convention may consist of at least twice as many cultural Christian church members as biblical ones, based on the most recent numbers. Most cultural Christians do not attend church very often (usually less than 3 times a year), but they still count their membership as something of value. And, for some strange reason, many Bible-belt churches are still glad to count these non-attending and non-functioning people as members.

Over time, Christians (biblical and cultural alike) will regularly want to stop being a member of one church and become a member of another. A Christian might move to a new town, he or she might want to help support a new church planting effort, or there might be another good reason for the switch. The most common reasons I’ve noticed in the Bible-belt for members wanting to leave one church for another is (1) to avoid dealing with some personal sin that may be exposed, (2) to protest some action of the old church’s leadership, or (3) an effort to gain in social standing with a new church’s members.

Frequently in the Bible-belt, when a church member wants to make that move, then he or she will request to “transfer” his or her membership “letter.” The “letter” is referring to his or her official membership, and to “transfer” the “letter” is to move his or her official membership from one church to another.

Historically, a “letter of commendation” was regularly given to church members who left a local church in good standing as they moved from one town or area to another.

The “letter” was intended as a kind of passport among like-minded churches. A new and unfamiliar church could basically know that the “letter-carrying” Christian moving into town had been a good church member elsewhere. The pastors and the members of the new church would be generally assured that he or she would likely be a good addition to their church.

Today, “transferring your letter” is more of a perfunctory act between churches who are merely shuffling members as though they are numbers on a score board.

Many churches still vote on whether or not to “approve” of a request for a “letter transfer,” but almost no church member could tell you why he or she would ever vote against such a request, and a request is almost never denied. Often, churches simply gain some and lose some, while they hope for a net increase over time.

Anecdotally, the vast majority of church members who request to “transfer a letter” today are unhealthy church members who deserve no such praise or approval. They have decided to leave their old church for some superficial (or even sinful) reason, and they quietly disappear until the old church office receives a request for a letter from some other church nearby.

Today’s “letters of commendation” often go to the least commendable among professing Christians in a community.

As a pastor, I have been observing this peculiar phenomenon among Bible-belt Christians for nearly eight years now. I believe the practice is grounded in good ecclesiology and historically worthwhile. But I also believe the practice has become a severe threat to the health of local churches and to the witness of the gospel.

While the practice may have been constructive in the past, I believe the current practice of “transferring letters” (over the last 20-50 years) is broken beyond repair. This practice has effectively devalued church membership, encouraged cultural Christianity (i.e. unbiblical or false Christianity), assured many hell-bound sinners that they have nothing to fear from God’s judgment, and usurped the role of careful pastoral consideration of those who desire to join a local church.

I believe the practice of “transferring membership letters” today makes local churches far less healthy, I believe it makes the gospel far less clear, and I believe it makes Christian discipleship far more difficult.

I urge local church pastors to stop receiving church members “by letter” of recommendation. Do the hard and necessary (and fruitful) work of getting to know people before you invite them to become new church members. Don’t rely on a “letter” to commend a stranger to your church family; get to know the stranger so that he or she will no longer be a stranger.

I urge church members to communicate directly with churches and pastors, instead of asking a new church to “request a letter” from your old church. Tell your current church members where you’re going, and tell them what church you plan to connect with when you get there. Tell your old pastor or pastors about your new church, and invite your new pastor(s) to contact the old one(s). The church and pastors you’re leaving behind will be glad to know you are being cared for by another good church, and your new church and pastors will be glad to hear about your past spiritual growth.

I urge church members to stop voting to approve the “transfer of a letter” for any member who is not leaving on commendable terms. If you are part of a church that votes on members coming in and going out, then it is your responsibility (as a church member) to participate in these votes conscientiously. If someone has been an uncharitable, divisive, selfish, and/or inactive member of your church, then he or she will likely be the same kind of member of the next church. Don’t tell a church they are getting a commendable new member when they are in fact dealing with a person who ought to be reproved instead of praised.

In short, I urge pastors and churches to treat church membership as a serious and meaningful relationship. The Bible describes what church membership is supposed to look like (1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Colossians 3:1-17; Hebrews 10:23-25), and it tells us that the ultimate goal is Christian maturity (Ephesians 4:15-16). The Bible commands Christians to love one another in real and substantial ways in the context of meaningful relationships (1 John 3:16-18), so that the whole world will see the authentic love of Christ on display (John 13:34-35).

May God help us, and may He bless our efforts to live faithfully as witnesses for Christ in this world.

Does the Bible Contradict Itself?

The short and direct answer to this question is, No… the Bible does not contradict itself.

But if the answer were so simple, then such a question wouldn’t gain much traction or keep making laps around the racetrack of theological and biblical discussion.

I might be worthwhile for the reader to take a moment to really think about the fact that Christians throughout history have not been complete idiots (well, at least not all of them). The point is: intelligent and careful readers have searched the Scriptures far more than you or I, and these men and women have not been so quick to throw the Bible out on the basis of unresolved contradictions.

Furthermore, non-Christian and critical intellectuals (and those who like to regurgitate their ideas and phrases) have been making this accusation against the Bible for at least the last 200 years. But Christians too have written many books and articles in order to candidly deal with the supposed contradictions (HERE is a great example).

The reader is charged with the responsibility of thinking carefully through the matter before walking away with a half-baked answer to suit his or her preconceived notions about the validity and trustworthiness of the Bible.

This subject is dear to my heart as a pastor, and it came up again as I was preparing to preach through Exodus 9. God’s fifth plague or strike against Egypt (beginning in verse 1) and God’s seventh plague or strike (beginning in verse 13) seem to contradict one another. They both refer to “livestock” in a way that seems impossible to harmonize. However, I’d like to argue that there are at least a few options for the reader to resolve this apparent contradiction without accusing the Bible of error.

In the fifth plague, we’re told “all the livestock of the Egyptians died” (Exodus 9:6), but a short time later (thirteen verses to be exact) we read about Moses warning the Egyptians to “get [their] livestock… into safe shelter” in order to avoid the falling hail (Ex. 9:19).

“And the next day the Lord did this thing. All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one of the livestock of the people of Israel died” (emphais added).

Exodus 9:6

Moses said, “Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them” (emphasis added).

Exodus 9:19

So the question is, if “all the livestock of the Egyptians died” (Ex. 9:6), then where did all this other Egyptian “livestock” come from (Ex. 9:19)?

This is the kind of question Bible-believing Christians need to be prepared to engage with, and Bible-believing Christians need to be prepared to give some kind of an answer.

Christians believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God (at least those who are grounded in historic Christiantiy do). We do not believe there are any contradictions in the Bible. We believe the Bible (in so far as the text of Scripture is compiled translated faithfully) is an utterly truthful and consistent compilation of God’s trustworthy words.

So, what do Christians do with this apparent contradiction? Well, first, we don’t melt in fear… and we don’t run away.

We must first acknowledge that there are some passages in the Bible that do appear (at least at first glance) to contradict other passages. It is no surprise that someone antagonistic to the Bible would point to several Bible-passages and accuse the Bible of contradiction.

But, second, we must also remember that the Bible is fully capable of enduring skepticism. Bible critics are not new, though the modern ones often fancy themselves as more sophisticated than those who have come before. 

Marcion was a man born before the Apostle John died, and Marcion accused the Old and New Testaments of contradicting one another. He invented a whole theological system around his flawed perspective of the Bible, and he was roundly rejected as a formal heretic at the first official Christian council.

See two helpful introductions to Marcion and his recurring ideas in modern Christianty HERE and HERE).

Bible-skeptics have been around as long as the Bible. Satan’s first attack on humans was an attack on the word of God. The ancient snake asked Eve in the garden, “Did God actually say…?” (Genesis 3:1). And we hear the devil’s hiss in the mouths of others throughout history as well as today.

Third, when dealing with an apparent contradiction in the Bible, we must recognize that any supposed error we see in the Bible springs from our own misunderstanding or ignorance (or maybe some mixture of both). 

Let’s think about the apparent contradiction in front of us here.

Did “all the livestock” in Egypt die from some kind of disease (Exodus 9:6)? And, if so, where did the “livestock” in Egypt come from that died later from falling hail (Ex. 9:19-21, 25)?

One possible explanation is that the Egyptians kept some of their livestock “in the field” or “in the pasture” and the rest they kept in stalls or closer to their homes. A careful reading of Exodus 9:3 does allow for a specific “plague upon [the] livestock that are in the field.”

We might say the livestock that didn’t die from this fifth plague upon Egypt were those which were not out in the field, and these were the livestock later threatened by the seventh plague.

Another possible explanation is to understand the word “All” in Exodus 9:6 to refer to “all kinds of livestock” and not “each and every one of the livestock.” As a matter of fact, this is exactly how verse 2 seems to present it.

“behold, the hand of the Lord will fall with a very severe plague upon your livestock that are in the field, the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks” (emphasis added).

Exodus 9:2

From this perspective, one might paraphrase verse 6 by saying, “Death came to every kind of grazing animal in Egypt, but not a single cow died among the people of Israel.”

Still another possible explanation is to understand the language in the popular sense and not the absolute. In other words, “The quantity of livestock left in Egypt was nothing in comparison to what was there before.”

These are three possible explanations, and maybe you can see others.

I should note that I am heavily indebted to Philip Ryken for his consideration of this text and these options.

The point is: The Bible doesn’t contradict itself. And any apparent contradiction can be explained (usually pretty easily) if we will take time to think about it.

The practical application of this answer is that the reader must address the greater issue of what to do with the God of the Bible. Because the Bible truthfully and consistently reveals God as He is, the reader is responsible to seek God there.

“Word-Centered Church” by Jonathan Leeman

The following is a sort of mixture, both a book review and a personal commentary on some particular applications of the book’s substance.             

In his book, Word-Centered Church, Jonathan Leeman argues for a church theology and practice inundated by Scripture… in other words, a Word-centeredor Scripture-centeredchurch. Leeman writes, “[A Word-centered church] is a church where the words and teachings of Scripture reverberate back and forth, from mouth to mouth and heart to heart” (93).

So, he is not merely calling pastors to preach the Bible, he is calling all the members of a local church to participate holistically in the reverberating word-centeredness of their particular body. In this book, Leeman contends for what he calls a “faith proposition.” He says, “trusting God’s Word to build our churches is an act of faith” (29).

And yet, as any contender should, Leeman notes that many church leaders and members today are not seeking to build Word-centered churches. Numerous evangelical leaders and parishioners (Maybe the vast majority?) are seeking to build their churches by catering to a particular demographic.

In my own Baptist association in East Texas there are several “cowboy churches” and even a “biker church”! I have often wondered why some pastors haven’t stopped hiding the fact that they are seeking to build “affluent churches” or “white-urban-professional churches” or “hipster churches.” If we are targeting these demographics, why pretend we are doing something innovative or clever?

I have personally (to my shame) been a part of a collaborative effort in local church ministry to target a certain demographic on many occasions. As a matter of fact, the evangelistic parachurch ministry I once helped lead was largely built on the supposition that non-Christians needed to be drawn to church services by something other than the Scriptures and the gospel.

In addition to this parachurch experience, I was also one of four pastors on staff at a Southern Baptist church in North Texas who openly employed the Rick Warren model of targeting Saddleback Sam. This is a way of building local church practices, buildings, ambiance, and programs that would suit the tastes of a majority demographic geographically near the local church building. Leeman admits, “in the short term, this will build churches. Demographic and cultural loyalty is genuinely, empirically, demonstrably powerful” (73). I’ve heard this phrased many times as the argument by church leaders advocating for such practices.

 But Leeman is interested in more than just pragmatic strategies, and he effectively brings the reader into the place where the important question can be asked. Leeman sets the scene, inviting the reader to envision himself/herself visiting a church for the first time. He helps picture the imaginary venture, bringing the reader right to a seat in the auditorium, immediately before the start of the service.

Then Leeman asks, “What’s most important to you as you consider whether you will come back to this church?” (84). Every Christian – especially church leaders – must ask this question.

What is the most important thing about a local church?

Borrowing language from the Reformers and the Puritans, the two marks of a true churchare (1) the right preaching of God’s word and (2) the right administration of the sacraments or ordinances. Therefore, the most important thing about a local church – if it seeks to be a true church– is that it faithfully preaches God’s word. God’s word must be preached, taught, explained, believed, and treasured. This is not merely referring to the Sunday sermon, but to the whole life and ministry of the entire congregation. Still, the centrality of Scripture among a congregation certainly starts with the preaching.

In what follows, I will focus on the role of expositional preaching in the local church. I will first observe the divine authority of expositional preaching, then the expected response to expositional preaching. In each of these areas, I will point out the distinctiveness of expositional preaching from other forms of preaching I have experienced and the effects I have seen of expositional preaching under my own pastoral efforts.

Divine Authority

Expositional preaching happens when the main point of the Scriptural text is the main point of the sermon. An expositional sermon helps the hearer understand the Bible better and apply biblical truth to his/her life. In this way, expositional preaching is driven by God’s word, causing some to understand that the preacher is (in effect) speaking on God’s behalf, even as he speaks with his own words on a Sunday.

Leeman asks an important question when he writes, “How can ‘our words’ be ‘His Word’?” Indeed! How can a preacher – especially a cessationist preacher who believes in the sufficiency of Scripture – think that he is preaching “a word from God” as he preaches with his own words from his own mouth? 

I think the answer Leeman gives is helpful. He says, “God speaks through us whenever we plainly and modestly relate whatever He has already said in the Bible” (100). Thus, the preacher engages in something Leeman calls “re-revelation” (Leeman attributed this jargon to D.A. Carson) when he reads and explains God’s singular special revelation (i.e. Scripture). And this is the only grounds for any preacher to claim divine authority when he speaks.

I have noted a bizarre dichotomy of feelings in my own heart as I stand to preach behind a pulpit each Sunday. On the one hand, I am terrified. I am fearful of God’s judgment against my own sin and shortcomings. Who am I to stand before God this day and speak on His behalf?! I am fearful of the people’s judgment against my lack of knowledge and skill. Who am I to speak commandingly to so many people, some far more knowledgeable and skilled than I am?!

On the other hand, I am overwhelmingly confident. I am confident in God’s trustworthiness, His wisdom, His justice, and His grace. I am confident of the people’s need for God’s truth, their need to understand it, to believe it, to submit it, and to be nourished by it. The reason for this dichotomy is that I feel the weight of my own ineptitude and the weight of God’s own majesty. As a preacher, I can speak with divine authority when (and only when) I faithfully read, explain, and apply God’s holy word.

Therefore, expositional preaching plays the role of giving divinely authoritative direction to a particular local church. Who are we? What shall we do? How shall we live? All of these questions are answered on the pages of Scripture, and it is the job of the preacher to expound the Scripture in the context of a particular church family so that they may be hearers and doers of God’s word.

A Right Response

Because expositional preaching is the kind of preaching that best displays divinely authoritative preaching, it is also the best kind of preaching for leading the hearer toward a biblical response. Preaching is not essentially guidelines for living, steps for improving, or suggestions for success. Preaching (when it is faithfully expositional) is a divine word from God that must be believed and heeded. Leeman notes that “the Bible does two things: It announces what God has done, and it confronts its hearers with this news and its implications” (110).

Expositional preaching, then, announces the indicatives and imperatives of God’s word and confronts the hearer in his/her error. The assumption here is that the hearer is in error, and Leeman addresses that in the book as well. But, for the sake of space, I want to focus on the response that expositional preaching expects from the hearer. It expects divine transformation.

Among my congregation in rural East Texas there may be a number of Christians who are struggling to hear expositional preaching. Their palates have been trained to lap up nutrient-sparse messages of moralism and self-improvement. Many churches within a 20-mile radius of our church building continue striving to package a better therapeutic or culturally-traditional model of doing church.

Because this is true, expositional preaching has been somewhat off-putting to some church members and many visitors. They do not like the emphasis upon propositional statements over motivational ones. They sometimes wonder why there isn’t the same stress upon southern and rural American values, and they chafe at some words of admonition against cultural conformity.

Some, however, have begun to see that it is life-transformation we are after. Some exhibit the fruit of the Spirit’s work in their lives through the reverberation of the Scriptures. Some have joyfully embraced the higher goal of transformation, leaving behind the worldly goal of self-affirming spiritual guidance.

I think of Steve, who read between the lines of my gentle admonition, now looking for ways to read Scripture together with his adult daughters who are grown and gone, all three seeming to be nominal Christians. I think of Kathy, who started reading Scripture together with her mother and three sisters one night each week. Kathy heard her mother pray for the first time about a year ago, and we baptized Wanda (Kathy’s 80-yr-old mom) into membership in 2018.

I think of David, who became a deacon about 2 years ago and joined a weekly study of systematic theology in order to understand the Bible better. I think of Donald, who seems like a 70-yr-old “cage-stage” Reformed guy because he has just begun to grasp what it means that God is truly sovereign and that sound doctrine is life-giving.

Conclusion

God’s word alone has the power to transform lives. In the local church, the role of expositional preaching is to unleash the beast of God’s word without any of the trappings we might try to place upon it in our effort to dress it up a bit or make it more desirable for our modern culture. Christ is King! His word of grace saves! And His Spirit works through His word to transform all those who love and trust Him.

May God raise up many more preachers who humbly believe the “faith proposition” Leeman calls for in this book, and may God glorify Himself through the ministry of many Word-centeredchurches.

What is a “good” pastor?

If you have been part of a local church or among the leadership of a local church, then you have probably thought or said something about the quality of a pastor or pastors.

I love my pastor because he showed great care for me when my daughter was in the hospital last year.”

That pastor is not so great because he doesn’t seem to connect well with guests and first-time visitors each Sunday.”

That pastor is awesome because he doesn’t seem like a typical pastor.”

Whatever you might think about your pastor, or pastors generally, I’d like to invite you to consider the reality that pastors do indeed have a tremendous impact on the local church. In fact, one way to know if a church family is healthy and if they will grow healthier over time is to learn about the pastor or pastors who lead them.

Biblically qualified pastors or elders or “undershepherds” is one mark or feature of a healthy church, and Christians are wise to think more about this subject. Learn more about building healthy churches by visiting 9marks.org.

What are the biblical qualifications of an undershepherd (i.e. pastor or elder)? When you think of a well-qualified pastor, what comes to mind? Do the qualifications you are thinking about have any Scriptural support or are they based on your life experience or your preferences? How would you know if a man was qualified to serve as a pastor? How would you know if a man should be removed pastoring your local church?

Thankfully, the Bible gives a thorough list of pastoral qualifications and the Bible provides examples of good pastors.

  • A pastor or elder should have a clean reputation (1 Tim. 3:2, 7; Titus 1:6-7).
  • If He is married, he should be a faithful husband and his wife should be godly and faithful as well (1 Tim. 3:2, 4; Titus 1:6).
  • He should manage his household well (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Titus 1:6).
  • He should be self-controlled and financially temperate (1 Tim. 3:2-3; Titus 1:7-8).
  • He should be hospitable and mature in his Christian walk (1 Tim. 3:2, 6; Titus 1:8).
  • He should be doctrinally sound and able to teach sound doctrine to others (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9).

If you see men among your church family who meet these qualifications, then you should praise God for them. For such men are a gift from Christ to His people (Eph. 4:11-12), and they are a blessing to your soul (Heb. 13:17). If, however, you are sitting under the shepherding care of a man who fails to meet one or more of these qualifications, then you should have grave concerns.

We are warned in Scripture about false teachers (2 Pet. 2:1-3; 1 Jn. 4:1) and false gospels (Gal. 1:6-9). Furthermore, God blames congregations for listening to those who lead them astray (Gal. 1:6-9).

It is vitally important that every member of a local church understand these qualifications. If some church members measure the quality of pastoral leadership by some other standard, then an unqualified man may seem more valuable than he truly is, or a highly qualified man may seem less than desirable.

May God raise up more qualified pastors/elders and may He cause many churches to be healthier through the efforts of such men. May God also help church members to value and appreciate good pastors/elders by measuring them by biblical standards.

Loving God and Keeping His Words

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (Deut. 6:5-6).

Love from the heart may sound like the theme of a Valentine’s Day card, but there is much more for us to consider in such a phrase. It is the expression of love, the authentic and tangible reality of love, in focus here. After all, God directly follows His command to love Him with a command to intimately know and apply His words.

What does it mean for any human to love God? It may mean more, but it certainly means no less than giving God – especially His words – attention and affection. Don’t we listen carefully to the wise words of a loving friend? Don’t we read kind and thoughtful notes from our spouse with great care? In the absence of someone’s presence, we cherish and attend their words. However, God is present with us in and through His words.

God’s words are more than mere instructions; His words are life-giving, healing, invigorating, and enlightening. God’s words are perfect, sure, right, and true; they are clean, pure, desirable, and rewarding (Ps. 19). In God’s words, we may find God Himself (Jn. 1:14-18), and we may gain the great joy of genuine love for the God who made and sustains us by His word (Heb. 1:1-3).

The Inspiration of Scripture

It would not be an overstatement to say that God’s revealed word has been a source of controversy from nearly the beginning of time. The serpent of old asked Eve, “Did God actually say…” (Gen. 3:1), and that question has been an incessant refrain ever since.

One of the central topics of the conversation, especially during the last 150 years, is inspiration. What do we mean when we say that God inspired the Bible? How has God inspired the texts we understand to have been written by various authors over the course of about 1,500 years?

There are many more questions that arise in this kind of conversation, but it is helpful to begin by asking, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” Of course, even this question will require some explanation, but here is a constructive starting point.

Basil Manly has written a fantastic work on exactly this topic (The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration), and I found it to be extremely productive. Surprisingly, it was also food for my soul.

Manly sets the stage by helpfully arranging the stuff of Christianity. He writes,

“Christianity is the Religion of the Book. It is not an external organization, nor a system of ceremonies, nor a philosophy, nor a vague inquiry and aspiration, nor a human invention for man’s own convenience or advantage. It is a definite system divinely given, consisting primarily of Facts, occurring both on earth and in heaven; Doctrines in connection with those facts; Commands growing out of both these; and Promises based upon them.”[1]

The ideas Manly presents here are beneficial for any context, but it seems especially so in the context of contemporary American culture. Remembering that Christianity is about propositional truths concerning real historical events, from which we derive indicatives and imperatives regarding the most important issues of human existence, should keep Christians from attempting to minimize the Christian Faith. But many still try to make it something of lesser substance or merely subjective experience.

There may be greater or lesser doctrines, and there are definitely experiences accompanying the Christian life, but the Bible is essential and foundational. And, critical to our inquiry here, it is highly interested in informing its reader that God has spoken.

Because Christianity is so dependent upon the Bible, the nature of this particular book is of great importance.

If the Bible is simply one good book among many, then it may still be of great value. While it may come as a surprise to some, there could still be a Gospel for sinners – we may still know of the person and work of Jesus Christ – even if God did not inspire the Bible. However, there are some serious problems that would arise if one were to demonstrate that the Bible is not the word of God or inspired by God.

Explaining the deficiencies of an uninspired Bible, Manly says, “It would furnish no infallible standard of truth.” Truth may still be known with an uninspired Bible, but we would have no objective standard or rule as our guide.

He goes on to say, “it would present no authoritative rule for obedience, and no ground for confident and everlasting hope.” One may still have hope, and one may still find the ‘tips’ or ‘principles’ in the Bible helpful, but there would be a lesser confidence in any promises it contained and it would have no solemn authority that any sinner must obey.

Lastly, he says, “it would offer no suitable means for testing and cultivating the docile spirit, for drawing man’s soul trustfully and lovingly upward to its Heavenly Father.”[2]

Manly touches on the nature of Scripture well here when he conveys the reality that it is precisely because the Bible is the word of God that it cultivates submission in the heart of a sinner and draws him or her near with love and trust.

Manly’s defense of Verbal Plenary Inspiration is excellent throughout this text. He articulates the doctrine well, and affirms both divine and human authorship. Both authors are vital to this doctrine. Manly writes,

“The Word is not of man, as to its source; nor depending on man, as to its authority. It is by and through man as its medium; yet not simply as the channel along which it runs, like water through a lifeless pipe, but through and by man as the agent voluntarily active and intelligent in its communication.”[3]

As with other doctrines, such as providence and the hypostatic union of Christ, there is a paradox here that requires adherents to maintain a tension without a contradiction. Manly argues for a view of inspiration that neither obliterates the human participants nor lessens the divine authority. God is the decisive source and author of the Scriptures, and intentional contributors wrote the Scriptures according to their own education, experiences, and understanding. Indeed, both of these truths are simultaneously affirmed from the Scriptures themselves.

This is neither a contradiction, for God is the author in a distinct sense and men are also authors in another distinct sense, nor is this a denial of any essential participant, for these are both the words of men and the words of God. One is not required to leave his rationality behind when he affirms this doctrine, but he is required to believe something that is ultimately a mystery to him. The mechanics are not explained in such a way so as to be understood easily by humans, but this does not necessarily mean that there is a problem with anything other than human cognitive ability.

Verbal Plenary Inspiration has been the assertion of Christians for millennia, though not necessarily under this title, but a recent question has caused the conversation to take a speculative turn.

After hearing this doctrine articulated and defended, one may still ask the question, “But how has God done this?” This question gets to the heart of many liberal and speculative arguments against Verbal Plenary Inspiration, and it may be the source of intellectual frustration for some sincere Christians. But Manly reminds us well of what we must know and remember when he says, “If we undertake to go beyond, and to explain how this was accomplished, we leave what has been made known to us for the barren and uncertain fields of conjecture.”

This question gets to the heart of many liberal and speculative arguments against Verbal Plenary Inspiration, and it may be the source of intellectual frustration for some sincere Christians. But Manly reminds us well of what we must know and remember when he says, “If we undertake to go beyond, and to explain how this was accomplished, we leave what has been made known to us for the barren and uncertain fields of conjecture.”[4]

God does not tell us how He inspired the biblical writers; He simply told us that He did.

Manly’s text masterfully and passionately defends the doctrine of inspiration. God has spoken, and He has made Himself known through human agency. The individual Christian need only believe what God has said, just as the Christian should believe that God has said it. This is the only way that a sinner may enjoy the right relationship with God that once was experienced by humanity when the question was first asked, “Did God actually say…”

May God help us to answer with confidence, “Yes, as a matter of fact, He did.”

 

 

[1] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Locations 6-9). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Location 27). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

[3] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Locations 124-126). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

[4] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Locations 138-139). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

Is Church Membership in the Bible?

This is a question that deserves as much time as you have to give it. But you are reading a blog, so it is likely you don’t want a lengthy dissertation. Allow me to point to a few passages of Scripture, and in this way provide you with an introductory answer to the question.

Matthew 18:15-20. In this passage, the church/assembly is defined by:

  • “brother” (a designation often referring to “brother in faith”) in close relationship with “brother” (v15)
  • accountability regarding sin and striving towards holiness (v16)
  • the requirement of ongoing repentance in the lives of sinners (v15)
  • communal care and concern for consistent living (v16-17)
  • a weighty responsibility to make serious judgments about who is in and who is out of the fellowship (v18)
  • Christ’s presence and authority (v20)

Colossians 3:1-17. This passage is found in the midst of a letter from the Apostle Paul to the “saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae” (1:2). While Paul does not explicitly call the Colossian Christians a “church,” the designation is implied by the way he closes the letter (4:15-16). In chapter 3, Paul defines their relationship as one in which:

  • all worldly designations are obliterated (v11)
  • all worldly living is to be renounced and resisted (v5-8)
  • the Christians are to be patient and bear with one another in love (v13-14)
  • the Christians are also responsible to actively teach and admonish (i.e. correct or rebuke) one another according to the Scripture (v16)

Hebrews 13:17. This passage is one of the most terrifying in all of Scripture to me as a pastor. Church membership is more defined in this passage by answering the questions that anyone should ask when they read it.

  1. Which leaders should I obey?
  2. Whose souls are those leaders keeping watch over?
  3. Which leaders will Christ call to account, and for whom will those leaders give an account?

Much more could be said about each of these passages, and many more passages should be able to weigh in on our understanding of church membership. My hope is that anyone who reads this will at least recognize that the Bible does, in fact, say quite a bit about church membership. Furthermore, I pray that God will help local churches become healthier as they seek to be more faithful to the words of Christ.

Introducing​ Inductive Bible Study

Anyone who reads their Bible knows that it can sometimes be difficult to know how to get from “I think I understand what I am reading…” to “I know what God wants me change about how I live/believe because of what I have just read.”

Many people have found the Inductive Bible Study method as a very helpful way to bridge that gap. This method is not new, and it is not complex. In fact, is a simple way for even the least knowledgable student to get the most out of his or her study of the Bible.

The inductive method follows a progression from observing what is in the text all the way through to implementing the application of the text. Each student may vary the structure slightly, but my own is outlined as follows:

  1. Observation
  2. Interpretation
  3. Generalization
  4. Application
  5. Implementation

The following is a basic outline that anyone can follow to study a passage of Scripture. Please feel free to copy this content and practice the method regularly.

Begin by selecting a passage of Scripture, usually at least a paragraph but not more than a chapter. Read your selection 5-10 times all the way through (I would say that reading it out loud is best). Then, with your Bible open, thoughtfully answer the following questions in the order which they are listed.

May God bless your efforts and the study of His word!

 


 

I. OBSERVATION: WHAT DOES IT SAY?

  • Setting Questions
  • Note: Some of these questions can be answered by reading the first chapter of the book where your passage is found. Some of these will best be answered by consulting the book introduction of a Study Bible or basic commentary.

    • Who is the author or speaker?
    • Why was this book written? What was the occasion of the book?
    • What historic events surround this book? What was happening in the world at the time this was written?
    • Where was it written? Who were the original recipients? What do we know about them?
  • Context Questions
    • What literary form is being employed in this passage?
    • What is the overall message of this book, and how does this passage fit into that message?
    • What precedes this passage? What follows? How does this passage fit the immediate context?
  • Structural Questions
    • Are there any repeated words? Repeated phrases?
    • Does the author make any comparisons? Draw any conclusions?
    • Does the author raise any questions? Provide any answers?
    • Does the author point out any cause and effect relationships?
    • Is there any progression to the passage? In time? Actions? Geography?
    • Does the passage have a climax?
    • Does the author use any figures of speech?
    • Is there a pivotal statement or word?
    • What linking words are used? What ideas do they link?
    • What verbs are used to describe the action in the passage? What is significant about these verbs?
  • Structural Model
  • Note: Outlining the structure of your passage may be one of the most frustrating aspects of this method. However, most of the frustration arises from the student’s expectations. There is not just one way to outline the passage, so don’t beat yourself up because you don’t feel that you have perfectly outlined the text. The goal is to simply outline the logical flow of thought, which you see from the text itself. For an example of this, see my own Inductive Study of Romans 8:28-31.

 

 

 

II. INTERPRETATION: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Note: This section will require careful thought and diligent study. Your approach to interpretation will dramatically affect what you get out of it. Take time to cross reference, think critically, and strive to let the text speak for itself (rather than merely impose onto the text what you already thought before you began your study). The marvelous joy of Bible study is that interpretation will get easier and become more vivid with practice. Dig in, and keep at it!

  • Continuity of the Message
    • In general, what does the Bible as a whole teach on the subject addressed in this passage?
    • Is this passage clear on this subject? Is there another passage that more directly addresses this subject? Are there other passages by this author that address this subject? What do they teach?
    • Is this passage intended to teach a truth or simply record an event?
  • Context of the Material
    • As you review your observations of the context of the passage, how do those observations help interpret this passage? What conclusions can you draw from the passage that are informed by its context?
  • Customary Meaning
    • In a paragraph or two summarize the teaching of the passage giving the passage it most natural, normal meaning.
    • What issues, questions, terms, or teachings in this passage are difficult to understand? Read commentaries to help with these and then summarize your findings.

 

III. GENERALIZATION: WHAT IS THE BIG IDEA?

Note: This section is designed as a place to bring all of your observations and interpretations together in summary form. Take time to be familiar with all that you have done so far, and this section will be much more fuitful.

  • Subject: What is the author talking about?
  • Complement: What is the author saying about what he is talking about?
  • Generalization: In a sentence, what is the exegetical idea (big idea)?

 

IV. APPLICATION: WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE? (2 TIM. 3:16-17)

Note: Application can be specific to an individual, but I am calling that kind of application “implementation” in the section below. This section is designed as a more thoughtful generalization of the broad application from what we have learned so far. It is helpful to think about the application especially of the big ideas noted above.

  • Teaching: Is there a teaching to here to be learned or followed?
  • Rebuke: Does this passage communicate a rebuke to be heard and heeded?
  • Correction: Is there a correction to be noted?
  • Training: In what way does this passage train us to be righteous?

 

V. IMPLEMENTATION: WHAT MUST I CHANGE?

Note: Here is where the rubber really meets the road. What specific things is God calling you do change about your beliefs, words, and/or deeds from the basis of what you have learned from the passage? Prayerfully consider and seek to implement the changes God is calling for and working towards in you.

  • What must I change about my beliefs?
  • What must I change about my speech?
  • What must I change about my actions?

 

I’d be glad to hear about your use of this method. If this has been a help to you, please comment about it below.

Also, share this with others who will benefit from its use.

Does Preaching Even Matter?

“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).

Monologue preaching is a thing of the past. No one wants to listen to someone talk at them any longer. Furthermore, Bible-thumping lectures are only going to cause division and derision. The fastest way to make your church irrelevant to this culture is to preach lengthy Bible-centered messages. “The Bible says” simply does not matter anymore. At least that’s what many people are saying.

Even many people inside of American Evangelicalism are leaving Bible-explaining and doctrine-rich preaching behind. But is this shift compatible with the Word of God and the church that Word creates?

There is one question that will clear away all our confusion: “Has God spoken?”

If the answer is “no,” then let every man and woman do as they please. But if the answer is “yes,” then how dare we do anything else but expose ourselves to God’s Word?

“Preach the word” is the command of God upon every preacher. And this command has implications for the listener too. God is known in His Word, and every Christian who delights in God will delight in His Word, and he or she will delight in hearing His Word eagerly explained and illuminated.

May God graciously grant that we would delight in Him, in His Word, and delight in the kind of preaching that stirs and challenges us to do so.

Is the Bible Reliable?

The Bible has been copied and translated so many times that no one can know what Jesus really said.

You can’t possibly believe the Bible is a reliable source of God’s truth! You don’t have the original documents, and no two copies of any manuscript are the same.

If statements like these worry you, infuriate you, or befuddle you, maybe this brief post will help. None of these reactions are necessary, and Christians can be comfortably secure in the tenacious reliability of the Bible. There are many ways one might argue for the reliability of the Bible, but the angle I am going to take here will address something called textual variants.

A textual variant is any difference in spelling, wording, or word order when comparing one manuscript to another (see Dr. Wallace’s article HERE). When we compare each manuscript of the New Testament with the others, we notice textual variants. Copyists differed from one another… often.

The number of textual variants among the New Testament manuscripts currently total about 400,000. This may be staggering (especially if you are new to the idea of textual variants and manuscript comparison), but you can take a deep breath. I’d like to argue that the Bible is tenaciously reliable, and I’ll try to do that through a closer look at textual variants.

First, textual variants are additions, not subtractions. I do not mean that no manuscript copy leaves anything out. I do mean to say that no textual variant removes any information from our treasury of data.

Quite simply, the textual variants in the New Testament manuscript tradition provide 1,074 pieces (not a technically precise number) to a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. We do not have to wonder if we have all the words of the original authors; we are merely left with the task of fitting the pieces together appropriately and leaving the extras on the side.

Second, textual variants are numerous because we have so many manuscript copies of the New Testament. 400,000 is a lot! Yes, that is true, and it is also to be expected. We currently have nearly 6,000 Greek manuscript copies of the New Testament. That is about 10 times as many as copies Homer’s Iliad and 600 times as many as copies as Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars.

In addition to the Greek manuscript copies, we also have Latin, Slavic, Syriac, Armenian, and others, totaling nearly 20,000. That’s over 25,000 manuscript copies! And, while most copies are not complete New Testament manuscripts, the average length of the content for each one is about 450 pages of written text. The sheer volume of text makes the number of variants (even 400,000 of them) much less surprising for any honest observer.

More manuscript copies (not less) is a very good thing, and these numerous manuscripts are going to contain variants. However, variants do not have to mean uncertainty or confusion. Allow me to illustrate with a very simplistic exercise.

Consider the following copies of an original sentence, and see if you can deduce the original text from the copies I have provided below.

Tha dog ran.

The dag ran.

The dag run.

Tho dod ran.

What is the original sentence? Do you know it? If so, how can you be sure? Not one of these copies is without error, and there are five textual variants in all. That’s five textual variants compared to only three words! How could you possibly know the original statement?

Well, the original is “The dog ran,” of course. You knew that already because the textual variants were understandable errors which did nothing to meaningfully change the text. You also benefit from having more than one or two copies of the original. In fact, more copies would only give you greater certainty as to the original statement – even if every one of those copies added more variants.

This crude and simple illustration helps us to begin to understand the treasure we have in the numerous New Testament manuscript copies. Yes, there are many more variants than we would like; but these variants do not have to obscure the original text, and the greater amount of information only benefits the inquirer.

Third, less than 0.5% of the total number of textual variants in the New Testament manuscript copies are viable. The viability of a variant is measured by the reasonable possibility that the variant could be the original. In other words, the textual critical scholars are not particularly sure if the standard word is original or if the variant word is actually the original (and, therefore, should be the standard). It could be either one, but there is usually a greater possibility of one rendering over another.

Furthermore, only a small number of the viable variants are also meaningful. If a viable variant is meaningful it would change the meaning of the passage or verse, depending on which rendering is original. For example, if my copies listed above would have included “runs” and “ran” an equal number of times and each variation had come from a broad spectrum of sources (date and location), then the variant would be both viable and meaningful. One transmission would be present-tense, singular, indicative and the other would be past-tense, singular, indicative. This would, at least slightly, change the meaning of the text.

Consequently, we can be highly confident that 99.5% of the words in our New Testament are exactly what the original authors wrote. This is incredible accuracy and confidence!

Fourth, all viable textual variants are documented. It is bothersome that there are any viable textual variants, much more frustrating is the idea that some of those are meaningful. However, most modern translations include their textual critical notes as footnotes on each page of Scripture. This means that the reader can know the possible renderings and interpret the passage accordingly.

As was mentioned above, we have too many pieces of the puzzle, not too few. We have 100% of the original New Testament text, plus a handful of potentially authentic alternate renderings in the footnotes. This is a treasury beyond compare!

Fifth, no doctrine or historical fact of Christianity is at risk in any of the viable and meaningful variants. Even today’s best-known textual critical scholar in opposition to biblical Christianity cannot find any significant evidence of doctrine at risk. Dr. Bart Ehrman is certainly not the first textual critical scholar to express antipathy towards orthodox and historic Christianity, but he has proven himself uniquely capable of popularizing such antagonism.

In a brilliantly-worded article (see it HERE), Dr. Ehrman argues that there are significant and meaningful variants. However, the evidence he provides is utterly laughable, especially when it comes from someone of such a sharp intellect. Dr. Ehrman is quite capable of spinning a tale, but he is not able to demonstrate that anything faithful Christians have learned from diligent Bible study is untrue or even at slight risk.

In conclusion, the manuscript copies we have are an “embarrassment of riches” not a problematic heap of chaotic errors (see Dr. Wallace’s argument HERE). Christians can celebrate manuscript discoveries and the clarity we continue to gain from them. Christians can also trust that the Bible they have in their hands is an accurate and faithful transmission of the God-breathed original text of the prophets and Apostles.

Of course, there are good, bad, and better translations, but that is a topic deserving its own treatment…