Zealous Mediocrity

I suppose if there were ever an oxymoron to be considered, the title of this article would be within the top ten. It would be there along with apathetic concern, charitable covetousness, and slothful industriousness. We generally use oxymorons when, in our language, we fail to find the appropriate description for something in terms of non-conflicting vocabulary. Oxymorons also generally serve to provide a measure of both entertainment, and rebuke. In short, an oxymoron takes one extreme to describe its opposite. Hence, the title of the article.

The word zealous is really just the positive aspects of the word jealous. When a person is jealous, they are generally consumed with desire for something that someone else has, whether it be a material possession, wealth, a relationship, or personal attention. Generally we think of jealousy as a bad thing. However, one can be jealous for something that is good too, but we use the word zealous to describe the good aspects of jealousy. Being zealous is just the opposite side of the coin of being jealous. The same attributes apply, but the object of the jealousy is noble instead of contemptible.

When we think of someone that is zealous for a cause, we think of someone who is a real go getter. We think of someone who applies every ounce of energy they have to their work. We think of someone who is burning up with motivation to go out and get the job done. We look a sports teams at all levels, high school, college, and professional, particularly football, and we see examples of zeal. Before the game they are out on the field getting pumped up. They meet in a huddle and cheer themselves on to victory. They growl and grunt and grate their teeth giving their every ounce of energy to the effort. It is a true picture of zeal.

On the other hand, we have mediocrity. You can almost hear the balloon of zeal deflate merely at the sound of the word. The word mediocrity has within it the word medium. It is neither hot or cold, neither black or white, neither at one extreme or the other, but squarely ensconced in the middle. In a sense, there are no opposites to mediocrity because the true opposites of mediocrity are both miles away from where mediocrity sits.

Mediocrity is not something that is generally desired. When was the last time you heard someone say, “Boy I really enjoyed dinner tonight, it was so . . . mediocre.” I expect that you would have one angry host or hostess on your hands should you say something like that. Or when was the last time you went out with your significant other and said, “I really had a mediocre time tonight. Let’s do it again.” Doesn’t quite make sense, does it?

So what do we get when we have “zealous mediocrity” or “mediocre zeal”? We get a whitewashed version of something that nobody really wants. That is, everyone “believes” in zeal and disdains mediocrity. But, of course, more often than not, our actions in this area speak louder than our words. So if you look at what we say, there is zeal, however, if you look at what we do, there is mediocrity, hence, we have zealous mediocrity. We go out onto the field and we give a good pep rally, but when it comes to playing the game, we haply turn the ball over every chance we get-zealous mediocrity.

The church at Laodicea had a similar problem. Jesus said to them, “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. . . . As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent” (Revelation 3:16-19). The church at Laodicea was zealous for mediocrity. They had works, but they were mediocre. They thought they were rich, but they were really poor. They thought they were clothed rather well, but they were naked. They thought they could see, but they were blind. Mediocrity takes the things around us and transforms them into apparently beautiful things. And we become zealous for that deceptive beauty. A lot of times, we see what we want to see and hence become self deceived to the true situation. This is exactly what had happened to the church in Laodicea. They were zealous for mediocrity, desirous of a situation where they were satisfied with their “work.” Instead of being zealous with mediocrity, they needed to be zealous with repentance.

The great rivers of our country provide us a picture of zealous mediocrity. The waters of the Missouri, Ohio, and Mississippi constantly churn and twirl as they make their way toward the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. When we look at the waters of those rivers, in places they appear very zealous, but ultimately they follow the course of least resistance. They are zealous for mediocrity. The true source of zeal lies not in the waters that occasionally churn on the surface of the river, but in the rocks that hold steadfast to its bottom. It is not that which follows the course of least resistance that creates zeal, but that which resists the course of least resistance. What path are we on, Christian friend? The path of zealous mediocrity? Or the path of zeal that leads to salvation?

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Free Union

One might think upon seeing the title of this article that we are about to discuss something extremely positive. After all, what could be more appealing that freedom and what could be more motivating that unity? However, we have an adversary who is very deceitful and rejoices in calling wicked things by righteous names. This is exactly the case with the title of the article today.

As many of you know, we (five of us) took a mission trip to Costa Rica at the beginning of December, 2003. Being in a different culture for a week is enlightening because you can see how different people do things differently. However, there are some things that are universal to mankind. One of those things is the problem of sin. Changing cultures did not imply that we changed standards for what is right and wrong. Sin is as much a problem in Costa Rica as it is in the United States, Europe, Russia, or anywhere in the world.

One interesting thing, however, that did not change from our culture to theirs, is the desire to place a nice sounding name upon sin by those who engage in sin. We see this happening in our society as well. Abortion has been changed to “pro-choice.” Homosexuality has been changed to “gay” or “an alternate lifestyle.” The murder of the elderly has been changed from euthanasia to “death in dignity.” And the sin of fornication has been changed to “recreational sex.” The effort to change the name of something that is evil to something that sounds good is merely an effort to justify that which is evil.

Isaiah 5:20 says, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” Without a doubt we live in a world that would make sin appear palatable so that the masses would swallow it whole. This is, in fact, the very goal of Satan himself. He deceived Eve at the beginning and he continues to deceive today.

So what is deceptive about “Free Union?” “Free Union” is what the non-Christian people in Costa Rica refer to what we would call “living together” or “living in sin.” But “free union” certainly doesn’t sound like such a bad concept upon the surface of it. In fact it sounds pretty good, and herein ought to be the warning for us. Just because something sounds good or looks good, doesn’t necessarily meant that it is. Even Satan would change himself to appear as an angel of light if he thought that it would advance his cause (2 Cor.11:14).

Let us take warning and be sure that we give ourselves to things that we know are right (Phil.4:8); things that we find approved within the word of God (Col.3:17). Let’s make an effort to avoid trying to have our ears scratched with soothing words (Isaiah 30:10). The alternative, of course, is to have the honestly to grapple with our own failures and seek the appropriate changes in our life regardless of how difficult it may be.

Which will we choose? Deceptive words which make us feel good? Or words of truth and sobriety that cause us to examine our lives? Would to God that we choose the later because the situation that sin presents to us is anything but free and united.

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It’s Not Personal

We have all seen one version or another of the mobster shows where the “hit man” walks up to his good buddy who has had a contract put on his life and say, “Sorry, Rico. It’s not personal, it’s just business.” At which point, Rico’s left ventricle gets very personal with a 32-mag bullet. How can the man say such a thing–“Its not personal”–when the truth is that it doesn’t get much more personal than that!

More recently, I have seen the ads for a new “reality show” called “The Apprentice” where several people are competing to work for Donald Trump. The winner gets a job with a six-figure salary. The losers get fired. One ad has Donald saying, “Its not personal, its just business!” This is all too common a mentality in our world today. When it comes to dealing with personal relationships, we seek to depersonalize them thinking that our “objectivity” will excuse us from the responsibility of our decisions in that relationship. But no matter how many times the phrase “It’s not personal” is said, there is a person on the other end of the relationship.

Christianity is about a personal relationship with Jesus. The personal Son of God, came to this earth and was crucified on a very personal cross so that the world might be personally saved. The genius of God’s plan to save is that it is a very personal plan. Each unique person has the opportunity to personally accept or reject this plan. Acceptance means that you have a very personal relationship with Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Paul wrote, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Notice the personal pronouns in this verse. Christianity is a very personal religion that depends upon individuals having a personal relationship with Christ.

When we are blessed with a personal relationship with Jesus, then He expects us to take our relationship with Him personally. In part, this means that we seek to help others have a personal relationship with him too. Jesus said, “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations�” (Matthew 28:19ASV). Making disciples means that we teach others to be crucified with Christ and to give themselves over to a personal relationship with Him. In turn, when these others have a personal relationship with Christ, then we have a personal relationship with them. Fellowship with other Christians is about acknowledging the personal relationship that they have with Jesus. John writes, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Too, when a Christian leaves their personal relationship with Christ they leave their personal relationship with other Christians. Jesus takes such a situation personally, and so should we. Christianity should be taken personally.

How is it, then, that someone can say, “It’s not personal” when dealing with personal relationships? Those who say such are simply not being honest. They fail to recognize that personal actions are created from personal beliefs. Jesus upheld this concept in Matthew 15:19. He said, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” The actions of our lives, whether sinful or righteous, first originate within the heart with our own personal beliefs. The truth is that when we truly and personally believe something, we will act personally upon that belief and our actions toward other people tell them what we believe. The apostle John draws on this principle through his first epistle. He states, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). John tells us that mere words do not necessarily reflect the fact of our love. When someone says, “Its not personal,” and proceeds to affect you, by their actions, in a personal way, their words are not agreeing with their beliefs. John calls it lying (1 John 4:20).

Christianity is a personal religion that demands personal belief that results in personal actions. The relationships that we maintain, both with God and other Christians are personal. When we honestly examine those relationships, we will understand that they are built upon our own personal faith and the actions that result from that faith. When we recognize this, we will not try to depersonalize our application of the gospel. We will not think that our “objectivity” will excuse us from the responsibility of our decisions in that relationship. Instead, we will recognize that true objectivity requires of us a personal effort toward maintaining and building better relationships both with God and with one another. The expression, “its not personal” is not an expression that should be uttered from the lips of a Christian because with Christianity, its always personal.

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What is a Denomination?

When I took my logic class in school, one of the things that we learned was how to define our terms. One way to define something was to simply point to it and say, “That is it!” This method, of course, assumes that you indeed know what it is that you are trying to define, and that the thing being defined conforms to that definition. This method generally works until you find something that fits the definition, but looks different from what you originally defined. For example, suppose I pointed at a red apple and said, “Apple.” That would be quite sufficient until, at least, I came across a green one, and then I might be at a loss. At that point, I need a different method of defining what it is that I was trying to communicate. However, there is always something specific about what it is that you are trying to define that includes everything of that class and excludes everything not of that class.

This is exactly the problem that we run into when those outside of the Lord’s church point at us and say, “Denomination!” They see that we have a “church,” worship God, have a “pastor,” believe in Jesus, study the Bible, meet at about the same time that they meet, have a sign in front of the “church,” which bears a name that they see on other “churches,” and conclude that we must be something similar to them. “If we are a denomination, then they must be one too,” or, at least, that is the kind of thought process I would expect goes through most people’s minds when they see our building with our sign on it that says, “CHURCH OF CHRIST.” It’s not until you really start to look at the churches of Christ that someone starts to understand that there are major differences in how things are done from the way denominations do things. The churches of Christ partake of the Lord’s supper every Sunday. The churches of Christ don’t use instrumental music. The churches of Christ baptize for the remission of sins. The differences add up eventually. But there is that one attribute that includes all the denominations in the class “denomination,” and excludes the churches of Christ from the class “denomination.”

Think about this for a moment. When we speak of the term denomination in reference to money, you have the dollar bill, the five dollar bill, ten dollar bill, twenty, fifty, and the Benjamin Franklin. What is it about these bills that makes them a denomination? They are all different, but profess to be of the same kind or class–the class of legal tender. They all bear the inscription, “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.” Now, suppose that I’m head of the federal reserve and I decide that I want to print another denomination of money. Let’s say that I wanted to print up a twenty-five dollar bill. That would be handy. Four of them would make $100.00. So I print up the bills, but I don’t put the inscription on the bills. There may be some who would “buy it” so to speak, but most would not take it because it is the belief in that statement, if you will, that makes those denominations valuable. Without the belief in that statement, then the denomination would only be worth the sum of the ink and paper with which it was printed. It would not be able to settle any debts, whether public, or private. That’s what makes a denomination of money just that, the belief that it will settle debts. That’s the defining trait that excludes it from everything else, and includes it in the class it is in.

So what is that attribute that excludes the churches of Christ from being a denomination and includes all of the denominations within the class, “denomination?” It is the belief, that all “churches/denominations” are all part of the one universal church. That belief can be illustrated with the following graphic, which, by the way, is not original to me. This is the denominational model of the church, which, to be a denomination, one must believe.

You will notice that the largest circle represents the church universal. The medium sized circle represents the denomination, and the smallest circle represents the local church. This is what one must believe in order to be a religious denomination. This is the defining aspect of what it means to be a denomination. This defining aspect includes everyone with this belief, and excludes everyone without this belief. The only problem with this is that you will not find this organization in any part of the Bible. If you want to be a denomination, then this is how you do it.

Now what makes the churches of Christ not a denomination is simply this, members of the churches of Christ do not hold this belief. Just as that twenty-five dollar bill is not a member of the denomination of legal tender. It is the belief in that one defining factor that makes it so. Without that belief, it simply isn’t so. Someone might ask, “Well, why do you not believe this?” The answer is really amazingly simple. This belief is not found in the pages of the Bible. The denominational model is completely foreign to the New Testament. There were only two types of organizations discussed within the Bible in relationship to the church. There was the local church, and there was the universal church. There were no denominations under the faith for which Jesus bled and died. You will never find a single one. Moreover, you will never find Jesus or any of his apostles advocating such a situation. In contrast, they advocate absolute unity of the church (John 17:20-23; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13; Ephesians 4:3-6). What is the model for church unity in contrast to the denominational model? There is the universal church and there is the local church. That’s all that is there. The following illustration shows this.

This is the model of the church for which Jesus bled and died. This is the model for church unity. We invite all of our friends who may be members of denominations to study these matters. We exhort them to demand the same kind of unity within the church for which Jesus prayed (John 17:20-23) and for which Paul contended (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). We encourage them to search the scriptures to find those things upon which we MUST be united in order to be the Lord’s church (Ephesians 4:3-6). The church of Christ is NOT a denomination. There are other differences between churches of Christ and the denominational world, but this is the one key difference that defines what a denomination is, versus what the church of the Bible is. Here is the key to getting beyond that old point and look way of defining a “church” and defining the church in the terms that the Bible defines it in. It starts with this one belief–the unity of the body of Christ based upon what the scriptures authorize her to be. Here is where denominationalism ends and where the church that belongs to Christ, the church of Christ, begins.

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How Do I Study the Bible?

There are many people who ask this question today. It is difficult to answer such a question in so short a space as I have in the bulletin, but I am going to try to give a few practical bits of information that I hope you will find valuable as you purpose to study the scriptures on a regular basis.

First, when you study the Bible, you should pray. Prayer sets the right tone for your Bible study. It places you in a respectful position of God’s word and invokes God’s guidance. Prayer focuses you on the task at hand. Prayer will cause you to shut out all other purposes you may have in mind. Prayer helps Bible study!

Second, reading the Bible properly is important. John pronounced a blessing upon those who read (Revelation 1:3). Ezra read from the book of the Law to all the people (Nehemiah 8:8). You can’t study without reading in one form or another, but be warned, reading is not necessarily the same thing as studying. Many people “read” the Bible without studying. To truly study the Bible, we must put on our thinking caps and meditate about what we have read. Reading out loud will help you to think about the words you are reading.

Third, when studying the Bible, ask yourself questions. Who am I reading about? What is he doing, saying, teaching? When is he doing it? Where are they at? Why is he writing this? Asking questions about the text is a good way to help yourself find the answers in the text that you are looking for. Get out a piece of paper when you study and write down questions that come to your mind. If you don’t understand something, then write down why you don’t understand it. Many times when you write these types of things, the answers become more evident.

Fourth, keep a good dictionary handy. When studying we often come across words that we don’t understand. We need to understand those words in order to study. That’s what a dictionary is for, to help us understand the meaning. Bible dictionaries are even more helpful, because they tend to define words in the context of the original culture in which they were used. Bible dictionaries also offer help in understanding weights and measures of Bible times, as well as giving information regarding proper names in the Bible. Understanding the meaning of words and names goes a long way in helping us study the Bible and learn more about God.

Fifth, try studying the Bible by topic. There are several helps and aids that you can acquire that will expedite your study this way. Most Bibles have a abridged concordance in the back. A concordance groups Bible verses based upon key words. So if you want to know more about the topic of “love,” you just look up that topic and study the scriptures in which that word is found. You can also acquire more comprehensive concordances that index every single word in the Bible. These books are great when you are trying to study the Bible by topic.

Sixth, another way to study the Bible is by cross reference. Many Bibles have cross references in the text. These are often indicated by small letters. When you see one, look up the associated scripture and try to think of how those two scriptures relate. Maybe they speak about the same person; maybe the same subject; maybe they just have the same word, but it is used in a different sense in each passage. There are also larger books that contain nothing but cross references to Bible verses. Studying cross references can give you valuable information regarding one particular passage of the Bible.

Now, what are you waiting on? Get out there and study that Bible!

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