Monthly Archives: March 2010

The elevation of singing devalues it

Evangelical churches are often in danger of elevating singing, and by extension, the worship leader, to the position of bringing them into the presence of God.

If you ever wonder whether this is the case for you, ask yourself the following questions:

1) What do you think brings you into the presence of God in a service?

2) When do you feel most in the presence of God in a service?

3) Do you feel inauthentic singing lyrics you don’t mean, like “All to Jesus I Surrender”?

4) Do you think that people who are physically inexpressive in their worship are less spiritual?

5) Do you have a compulsive urge to put on your music during your quiet times?

These are but a sample of questions we ought to ask ourselves. The church today is in danger of elevating singing to a religious ritual. There is an assumed theology that we sing ourselves into the presence of God. Or the worship leader takes us into the presence of God. The implication is that when we feel our hearts don’t match what our mouths say, we condemn ourselves for being hypocritical. The implication is that we stop listening to God speaking to us through his Word, and listen to songs instead. The implication is that singing becomes a performance, and every Sunday we feel judged on the basis of our singing.

Singing is a good gift of God. God has wired our hearts to be stirred up by music. But like any other good gift, it is devalued when it is made ultimate. It is entirely possible to idolise Christian singing. We idolise it by thinking it will save us. We think that the songs we sing, and the way we sing, and our motives for singing, and our heart when singing is judged by God, and if we are worthy, he will admit us into his presence and send his Spirit upon us. But singing, like any other work we do, doesn’t save us. Only Jesus does. We are entirely reconciled and accepted by God because of the worthiness of Christ. When we let Christ take ultimate position in our hearts, and are thus reconciled to God, singing is redeemed. We sing because we are saved. We sing because we have a God who hears our praises on the basis of what Christ has done, and not what our hearts feel like.

What are the implications of this?

There is no place for inauthenticity in the Christian’s heart when singing. He shouldn’t stop singing because he feels fake. If he is thinking that, his response should not be to stop singing. It is a good reminder that we are still sinners in need of the grace of God day by day. His response should be to repent of his sin, trust in the righteousness of Christ, and sing heartily because he has been saved and his sins have been covered!

Singing is also another way of letting the word dwell richly in us. Well written songs will allow the word of God to dwell in our hearts as we sing them. Everyone knows it’s easier to remember a song then a passage. And through the word, we see Christ and are transformed from one degree of glory to another as we contemplate his beauty. Similarly, see it as a service to other Christians. Sing the truths of God over each other and remind each other daily of the glories of Christ.

Don’t elevate singing. Let your singing elevate Christ and his triumph over sin and death. There is no worship on earth that is unacceptable to God if offered through Christ. Despite what our hearts may say, our worship becomes a fragrant offering when offered through Christ. Such truths will stir the heart to sing more and more about Christ. If you elevate singing, you devalue its God-given purpose to encourage us as a church to continually turn away from sin and turn to Christ.

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Why biblical theology is important.

A peculiar post to classify under thoughts on church ministry, but I think that biblical theology is immensely important if one is to teach or preach or cite from the Old Testament.

What is biblical theology?
Biblical theology is an approach to studying the bible which attempts to place individual texts in their historical context. History is not static, but is a series of unfolding events, in which God progressively reveals himself and his grand plan of redemption, ultimately terminating on the person of Jesus Christ. Simply put, biblical theology is about historical context. We cannot read the book of Deuteronomy this side of the cross in the same way the Israelites did. However, this sort of dislocation of individual texts from their historical context happens regularly. As a result, many Christians wrongly spiritualise OT texts. The key to interpreting the Old Testament is the person of Christ. Jesus himself points out how all Scripture pointed to him: And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. Note that it was everything in ALL the scriptures. All things in the OT point to Jesus Christ. We need to recognise him when he is present in the OT text, without wrongly imposing him onto it, or wrongly ‘spiritualising’ texts and learning the wrong biblical lessons from them.

An example: 2 Chronicles 7:14
Here’s a classic example of a text that I think is often dislocated from the historical context – or perhaps even the context itself!

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. – 2 Chronicles 7:14

On face value, this can be understood as simply an exhortation to Christians that they need to humble themselves and pray to God, seeking him and repenting, that he might hear them and forgive their sin and heal their land.

But let’s expand the text, and see what the context is:

“I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 2 Chronicles 7:12-17

Note that the oft-cited verse is located in a much bigger story. God appears to Solomon at night (probably in a dream) and tells Solomon that he has heard his prayer. This should automatically get us thinking – what did Solomon pray for? We won’t go into detail on Solomon’s prayer, but Solomon basically pleads with God to hear prayers offered up in the house he has just built for God. He cites various situations, and asks that God would answer accordingly to the prayers offered up to him in these situations. Therefore when God is saying that his eyes will be open and his ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place, the place he speaks of is the temple Solomon has just built!

The place of prayer, not the act of prayer, is the first main point
The first thing of note is that prayer must be made in a certain place. Before the arrival of Christ, God chose and consecrate the temple as this place of prayer. With Christ having died and risen, he is the temple to whom we go to where God will hear our prayers. The temple and God’s hearing of prayers points to the future reality of Christ being the One through whom God would hear all our prayers. This is where biblical theology is important. We must understand that it is not simply prayer and the condition of our hearts that invites the answer of God. It must be prayer in the right place! For the Israelites, it was the temple. For us, we would be foolish to go looking for a geographical temple. The true temple is Christ.

The pattern of sin and redemption is the second main point
The second thing is that I’ve often heard this verse cited in the context of praying for the nations. Now, we are asked to pray for all the nations, and we can pray for the healing of land, but this is not the point of this verse. To see this, note the context in which God says he will answer prayer: when he shuts up the heavens so that there is no rain, or commands the locust to devour the land, or sends pestilence among his people. Solomon’s prayer in the previous chapter makes it clear why God will bring such calamity on his people and the land they live in. Because of sin. Sin brings about the judgment of God. In this period of redemptive history, God’s judgment on sin is acted out on his chosen people. Yet he also offers a way of redemption – sacrifices, prayer and repentance. God is clearly setting out a pattern he wants his people to learn. First, they will sin. Solomon is not naive about this reality in any way (6:36). And God will judge them. Second, God in his mercy has offered a way of redemption. He has established a place for his people to repent – by offering sacrifices for their sins, and praying for mercy.

This is a pattern, a shadow of the reality that is now found in Christ. First, we are all sinners. Jesus affirms this time and time again. We are all under the judgment of God. Suffering and death in this world are not the primary judgments of God. Christ warns us to fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Mt 10:28) But God, who is rich in mercy, has offered a way of redemption – Christ. He is the sacrifice for our sins. He is the conduit of mercy. He is the high priest who offers up our prayers to God. He intercedes for us before the throne of God. He is the temple through which we might approach God.

Using biblical theology to interpret the OT in both a timeless AND historical fashion
Therefore biblical theology again teaches us that this verse cannot be obeyed to the letter. There are some timeless truths in there, namely about the condition of man and the nature of God. But there are things that must be interpreted according to their historical context. I’ll give a little summary of what I mean:

The condition of man is still the same. We remain sinners. This is a timeless truth.

During the time of Israel, God clearly showed his people that sin resulted in judgment, and made this judgment manifest in various calamities on the land and on his people. In our time, Christ has made clear to us that the judgment of God that sin brings is not geographical and temporal, but eternal. This is biblical theology at work, to understand that our historical context differs from those of the Israelites.

Another timeless truth is that God has offered a way of redemption. Yet again, the nature of this redemption has changed across history. In the time of Israel, this was centered on the temple. In our time, this is centered on the true temple, the person of Christ. This is important because the temple is merely a shadow of the true redemption that can only be found in Christ. We are fools to keep focusing on the physical temple when the true temple is amongst us. It’s akin to staring at a picture of the person you miss most while  he sits in your living room.

The practical implications of applying biblical theology
Practically, understanding this verse in its historical context has implications for the way we pray. First, the Israelites prayed in the temple to God, hoping that he would hear them. Christians pray to God through Jesus Christ knowing that he is our Father and that he hears us, and will answer in accordance with his will and what he deems good for us. Second, our prayers remain prayers of daily repentance from sin, in accordance with the Lord’s Prayer. In the time of Israel, these prayers of repentance were accompanied by the sacrificed of an unblemished lamb. But in our time, the sacrifice of the perfect lamb, Jesus Christ, has been made. We can be certain of our forgiveness if we ask God for it. Therefore we do not have to pray for deliverance from judgment, because Christ has already been judged in our place. Third, our prayers for the nation are not centered on the redemption of our land and its people from temporal suffering, but are centered on their redemption from eternal suffering.

Handling criticism

Destructive criticism is often a regular part of our lives. This is a criticism that tears down rather than builds up the person it is targeted at. The more ‘public’ a person is, the more criticism he tends to face, simply by virtue of the fact that more people know him. Those leading a ministry are especially vulnerable to such criticism.

It is an unavoidable reality of ministry. Almost always, someone else will have a different method of doing things, or a different opinion on a matter, just as we have our own methods and our own opinion. We all like to impose our methods, as we think that we have the best method, and the best opinion on the matter. Our inherent pride only serves to increase the friction and spark division and conflict. This can easily lead to uncontrollable anger, a sense of injustice, insecurity from a lack of approval, or depression from being unappreciated. How can a leader biblically handle criticism in the ministry?

1. Gain some perspective on your flaws by preaching the gospel to yourself.
Christ is your worst critic, and your greatest lover. The cross testify to the heinousness of our sinful hearts. No one but the Son of God, the most valuable person in existence, could pay the price for our sins. As Jesus died on the cross, we are told that we are wicked, rebellious, detestable people. But he is also demonstrating the depth of his love for us. Though we are unworthy sinners, he chose to die for us. This is a liberating perspective! When faced with a deluge of criticism, we must cast them in light of the cross and tell ourselves that what our critics think of us pale in comparison to what Christ thinks of us as sinners. So we’re really discovering nothing new about ourselves. Our critics are merely confirming that we are fallible sinners. But instead of despairing in our sin, we too know that Christ has died for us so that there is no longer any condemnation for us, but only grace and love.

2. Constantly find your approval in Christ.
We like to be approved by people. We don’t like being unpopular. We desire to feel secure and loved and cherished. The approval of others is an idol leaders are prone to have. The gospel cuts through our idols, and tells us that we are approved, secure, loved and cherished by God because of what Christ did for us on the cross, and not because of what we are currently doing or what we believe on some matter. This gives us immense liberty and courage to press on in our work and keeps us from being discouraged and depressed by the opinions of others. We must constantly put to death the idol of approval and turn to the gospel of grace.

3. Humbly learn what you can.
There may be some truth behind what your critics say, despite their motivations. Be humble and be willing to listen and learn. We are not trying to put up a show of infallibility as leaders. Infallibility is reserved for Jesus. We are sinners prone to error. Our critics can be a means of grace by which we learn to be more godly, or wiser in some matter, or become more competent in some skill. So treasure them. (In fact we ought to be highly suspicious if no one seems to be coming to us to point out our mistakes)

4. Overcome unwarranted criticism with godliness.
When criticised, it is easy to want to get even. We try to dig up some dirty stuff on your opponent, and it becomes a mudslinging affair. But this is not the way of Christ. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” He tells us to “outdo one another in showing honour.” He reminds us to “overcome evil with good” and to remember that vengeance belongs to God. Therefore we ought to continue to conduct ourselves in a godly manner, with a gracious tongue and a gentle spirit. It makes no sense for one sinner to criticise another for being a sinner. It’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black.