Category Archives: Theology

Worship or Service?

There is a recent trend in churches to conduct church-wide service project days. Every church member is encouraged to participate in some kind of service project. To facilitate getting as many people involved in these events as possible, the Sunday worship service is cancelled. Instead of meeting together for corporate worship, the church is closed. I’ve included a few Facebook screenshots with the identifiable information left out.

I contend: this is not what church is about. Church-wide service projects are an unbiblical substitute for corporate worship.

Biblical pattern of what is right

In the set example of the early church, we see devotion to the apostles’ teaching (preaching), to the fellowship (gathering together), to the breaking of bread (communion/Lord’s Supper), and to prayer (Acts 2:42). Along with corporate singing (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16), these practices comprise the core elements of the Sunday act of worship. To use the categories of “Word-ministry” and “deed-ministry,” the Sunday gathering focused on Word-ministry.

This, of course, is not to suggest that deed-ministry was unimportant. On the contrary, the physical needs of the congregation were so important to the apostles that they commissioned the church to appoint the first deacons (Acts 6:3). As the apostles handled Word-ministry (Acts 6:4; see also 1 Timothy 3:2 “able to teach”), so the deacons committed themselves to deed-ministry.

So, church leaders had defined roles, but what of the church as a whole? The Bible does mention acts of charity toward fellow church members. They shared what they had with one another to support each other (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-35). Even the special offerings that were taken up by Paul (2 Corinthians 9) were for believers in need. Those with whom those Christians shared spiritual blessings, they saw fit to likewise share physical blessings.

Modern pattern of what is wrong

By contrast, church-wide service projects in place of the corporate worship gathering invert the priorities of the early church. Rather than gathering for Word-ministry (Hebrews 10:25), the church is given no choice other than to scatter for deed-ministry. Rather than attending to the needs of fellow believers (Matthew 25:40 “least of these brothers of mine“), more often than not these projects concentrate on those outside the church. Rather than proclaiming a message that is distinctively Christian (i.e., the Gospel of Jesus Christ), believers are tasked with the type of community service projects that do not even require one to be a believer to participate.

Churches like the ones screenshotted above no doubt do what they do out of a professed heart for the lost and a love of neighbor. They may even cite the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) as the exemplar par excellence, the greatest example possible. What these churches fail to recall is the context in which Jesus gave the parable in the first place: He was answering a teacher of the Law who probed Him on how to inherit eternal life by what he himself did. By telling this parable in response, and finishing with the command, “Go and do likewise,” Jesus placed an impossible hurdle in the teacher’s path, a morality that transcended morality. As the following story of Martha and Mary demonstrates (Luke 10:38-42), there is no amount of service on one’s own that can equal a heart of devotion to the One Lord and Savior.

Maybe the leaders of such churches believe they do these projects to build relationships so that they can show what Christianity is all about. This seems inherently misguided. The Word of God is powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). We Christians have our marching orders: preach the Word, in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2). Paul did not say, “Woe to me if I do not dig water wells, or paint the local school, or participate in this Dumpster day.” What he said was, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16).

A good example

I have one more Facebook screenshot to share, this one from a church in Port Charlotte, FL, a city which was heavily damaged in the recent Hurricane Ian.

This church is commendably serving its community in a time of need…

But first comes worship.


The Heir to the Throne: A Gospel Allegory

One upon a time, there was The High King, The Great Prince, and The Royal Advisor.

The High King ruled over The Kingdom with wisdom and justice. While He often consulted with the other two members of The Council, and they all deliberated in concord with each other, The Kingdom properly belonged to The High King.

In time, The Council determined that The Great Prince should receive a kingdom of His own. They settled on The Domain, a wild plot of land adjacent to The Kingdom.

But The Chief Herald, an exalted servant of The Council, learned of The Council’s plans and was jealous that The Great Prince would have a kingdom whereas he himself never would. So he incited a coup among his fellow heralds, laid illegitimate claim to The Domain for himself, and turned the inhabitants of The Domain against their rightful ruler.

The High King threatened war. Though The Chief Herald knew he could not withstand an all-out assault by The High King’s forces, he stubbornly refused to surrender.

Through a dramatic rescue of a select family, The High King established The Enclave within The Domain. The Enclave was meant to serve as a people representing The Kingdom within the borders of The Domain. The other inhabitants of The Domain were frequently antagonistic to the citizens of The Enclave. To forestall hostilities, the citizens of The Enclave oftentimes adopted the shameful practices of The Domain.

The High King sent messengers to the citizens of The Enclave, asserting His law as superior to the tyranny of The Chief Herald (now sometimes calling himself The Overlord), and that not even His citizens would be exempt from retribution in the case of sedition. Yet the citizens of The Enclave rarely honored The High King’s messengers.

So The High King sent announcements of war against His enemies and peace to His faithful servants, both at the hand of a promised coming ruler. Seeded throughout these forewarnings were clues and hints about this ruler’s true identity.

When the time was right, The High Prince appeared to the citizens of The Enclave, having become a citizen Himself. Many followed Him; some even understood who He really was. Others, however, saw Him as a threat to the tenuous peace they had with The Overlord. These citizens of The Enclave joined forces with the inhabitants of The Domain and carried out His public execution.

But then…

The High King decreed that the Great Prince’s execution be overturned, and The Great Prince’s life was indeed restored. He told His followers that He would return, and that they were commissioned to carry His kingly message–not only to the citizens of The Enclave, but also to the inhabitants of The Domain. Then He returned to His Father’s throne room.

These devotees would come to be known as members of The Assembly, joined together by their allegiance to The Great Prince and their conviction that He Himself had secured their future citizenship in His kingdom by His death and resurrection. Guided by The Royal Advisor, the members of The Assembly supported one another and rehearsed The Great Prince’s tale to one another. The members of The Assembly were prohibited from engaging in direct conflict against either the inhabitants of The Domain or the citizens of The Enclave. Rather, merely by heralding The Great Prince’s tale, they opposed The Overlord himself. They became an eclectic people representing The Kingdom within the boundaries of The Domain.

As of yet, The Great Prince has not returned to claim what is rightfully His. The Domain has not yet been remade to resemble The Kingdom.

But rest assured, The Heir to the throne will return. He will conquer The Overlord, He will judge every one of His enemies, and He will reward every one of His faithful servants. Only then will the story end happily ever after.

The Problem with Pavlovitz

During the episode “End of the World” of the TV sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” the plot revolves around a cult that predicts the world will end that very night. City manager Chris Traeger (played by Rob Lowe) asks, “Why does the cult call themselves the Reasonableists?” To which main character Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler) replies, “Well, they figured if people criticized them, it would sound like they were attacking something very reasonable.”

To put the matter bluntly, John Pavlovitz is a Reasonableist.

For those unfamiliar with the name, John Pavlovitz is “a pastor, writer and activist from Wake Forest, North Carolina.” He is known for his personal blog and contributions to Relevant Magazine.

Recently he wrote a blog post entitled, “I’m Not The Radical Left, I’m The Humane Middle.” In it, he goes through a number of his positions that other unnamed parties have opposed and asserts that his positions are perfectly reasonable.

Which, of course, means that his opponents are unreasonable. Or worse.

Near the end of his post, he writes, “I suppose humanity feels radical to inhumane people.” Did you catch that? Anyone who disagrees with him is “inhumane.” The Latin terminology for this logical fallacy is Ad Hominem, attacking the people who disagree with him rather than dealing with the positions they hold.

Pavlovitz appeals to the emotions of his readers, presenting his position with stirring words like “compassionate, humane,” or casting himself as uncontroversial with words like “normal, ordinary, usual” and “mainstream.” It is for people who “want more humanity.” He draws his readers to join him against “the cruelty of these days.”

By contrast, he subjects his ideological opponents to the worst kind of Straw-manning. He paints himself as the victim of small-minded bigots. No, he didn’t write that exactly; he did write about people who are “so filled with fear for those who are different, so conditioned to be at war with the world, so indoctrinated into a white nationalistic religion of malice.” Like I said, small-minded bigots. He foments the very divisiveness he claims to oppose.

Lest you think I am being harsh and uncharitable, I will concede one point he makes. John Pavlovitz is probably not part of the “Radical Left.” However, he is definitely part of the Ordinary, Everyday, Mainstream Left. Save for his insistence elsewhere on being a follower of Jesus, there is nothing remarkable about his blatant left-leaning tendencies—including his denial that his tendencies are indeed left-leaning. But if you are regularly platformed by “the left” and regularly opposed by “the right,” how honest is it to call yourself part of “the middle?”

If he really were in “the middle,” as he claims to be, why are all the positions he listed contrary to what is traditionally considered “the right?” Why does he not emphasize where he agrees with “the right” over and against “the left?” True, he gives lip service to being pro-life, but he redefines it as meaning “to treasure all of it”—whatever that means. (Actually, he rarely articulates or offers clarification on his positions; he just sort of shotguns them all at once with little definition and less precision.)

This then brings me to the matter of his status as a Christian and a pastor. He mentions “God” once and “Jesus” not at all. He makes many references to the Bible and Christianity, but offers no specific references or quotations. He is his own moral authority.

And in the middle of the list of his positions, he drops the bombshell to end all bombshells: “I believe all religions are equally valid.” Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is something no true Christian can say. Either Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” or He is not. We can defend the pre-political right for people to practice the religion of their choosing, but we cannot equivocate on the validity of any system of belief contrary to Christianity. If Pavlovitz—who, I remind you, has the self-descriptor “pastor” in his bio—cannot get this most basic tenet of Christianity right, what else has he gotten terribly wrong? Setting aside his politics for the moment, I plead with you, reader: Let this man have no influence in your Christian thinking whatsoever.

If you’re going to call yourself part of “the middle,” you need to have an accurate understanding of “the right” and “the left.” If you’re going to engage in political discussion, you must not automatically disparage all your ideological opponents as evil trolls. If you’re going to claim the moral high ground, you need to be sure you are standing firmly on absolute truth. And if you’re going to call yourself a Christian, you must point people to Jesus as Lord and Messiah, not yourself as the one who decides what is “normal.”

Reasonable enough?

P.S. Agree or disagree, I welcome your feedback.

This vs. That

First things first.

This post is inspired by the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel that stirred and spurred much discussion among Christians on social media. (By the way, I read and signed it, and I would encourage you to do the same.)

There are a lot of differences between Christians. It can be easy to distort such conflicts as simply an Either/Or binary. Some try to assuage the “other side” by asserting that the Either/Or must instead be understood as Both/And.

But a lot of these differences—at least between true Christians—are differences of emphasis. As I have thought about many internal conversations between Christians of various stripes, I theorize: Some issues truly are Either/Or. Some issues truly are Both/And. But too often overlooked is the possibility that the issue is actually what I have come to call First/Second. This is literally what it means to “prioritize”—to determine what comes first.

Look through this list and see if a prioritizing of the issues between “first” and “second” one way or the other might help to clarify both the division and the unity of various believers.

  • Believing the right things (orthodoxy) vs. living the right way (orthopraxy)
  • Preaching the gospel vs. applying the gospel
  • Worshiping God vs. serving God
  • Emphasizing God’s judgment against sin vs. emphasizing God’s mercy on sinners
  • Scrutinizing what is said (substance) vs. scrutinizing how it is said (optics)
  • Focusing on individual evil (contra righteousness) vs. focusing on societal evil (contra justice)
  • Tending the spiritual needs of people vs. tending the physical needs of people
  • Training up Christians (discipleship) vs. proclaiming the good news to unbelievers (evangelism)
  • Loving God vs. loving one’s neighbor

As I understand each of these vs. statements (and this list could be much longer), each side presents an important issue, and each side offers a complementary truth to its counterpart, but the second item in each pair seems to be contingent on its neighbor. In some way, I believe the items mentioned first must come first, and only then can the second items build on the foundation of the first.

But here I confess, I could very well be wrong. Maybe I have framed this handful of issues unfairly. I don’t think so, I hope not, but it IS possible. And I do not want to be wrong. So, I depend on you, faithful readers, to correct me if I err.

Or maybe I’m right.

Or maybe we’re both wrong, and the truth lies elsewhere.

Pastor Alistair Begg is fond of saying, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.” Similarly, my dad likes to say, “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” Brothers and sisters, here’s what I believe is the plainest, “main-est” thing of all: Jesus is Lord.

So, whether you are on “my side” or “the other side” of the debate, or even somewhere in the middle…

Let’s all get our priorities straight.

A brief word on politics and Christianity

For the most part, I want this blog to be a chance for me to encourage people to fix their eyes on Jesus. For that reason, most of my posts will be exclusively biblical or theological in nature. But for this post, I am going to say something political. Here it is:

The Christian church and the United States of America are two different things.

I know that may sound obvious, but I have noticed a general tendency for people to blur the distinction. I am both a Christian and an American; as such, my duties as both a Christian and an American are distinct. What I briefly offer below are a few reminders and admonitions to both groups with whom I share an affinity.  You may notice that each of the following sets are contrasting in some way; that is intentional.

Fellow Americans, we participate in a representative democracy.
Fellow Christians, we are subjects of a spiritual theocracy.

Fellow Americans, our government must protect the natural rights of every citizen and execute justice on law-breakers.
Fellow Christians, we must recognize that we are all sinners before God, yet His mercy is open to any who repent and believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and the atoning sacrifice who took our sins upon Himself.

Fellow Americans, let us be slow to believe whatever latest news story merely because it confirms our worst fears about “the other.”
Fellow Christians, let us be quick to believe all that God has proclaimed in His holy, true, clear, authoritative, and sufficient Word.

Fellow Americans, let us be open to investigating which (if any!) of the available political options would be most beneficial for our nation.
Fellow Christians, let us always trust that the Spirit of Truth promised by Jesus will guide us to know the truth for ourselves, to obey our Heavenly Master, and to love our fellow believers.

Fellow Americans, it is for our good that our nation elects different leaders—mayors and governors, congresspersons and presidents—on a regular basis.
Fellow Christians, it is for our good that our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Messiah, will never, ever, EVER be dethroned.

Fellow Americans, it may behoove us to realize humbly that not all of our problems are political.
Fellow Christians, it befits us to proclaim boldly the gospel of Jesus Christ as the healing balm to every painful situation and every broken heart.

Lastly, the church and the USA should be contrasted in one more important way: only one of them is eternal.

“To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.”

Revelation 5:13b, NASB

Who are the “Least of These?”

Matthew 25:40 NIV
Then the King will reply, “Truly I say to you, whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”

I have seen many internet articles just on this one passage (Matthew 25:31-46). Unfortunately, such articles tend to be written by someone telling Christians that they are not acting like good Christians, chastising them for failing to live in accordance with this verse. They share an underlying indictment: “How dare you claim to care about people’s spiritual condition if you won’t take care of their physical needs?”

On its surface, this passage looks like it means that one’s eternal salvation is determined by one’s acts of compassion. Whenever we help the disenfranchised and the downtrodden of society, our entrance into heaven is all the more assured. On the other hand, as I heard one famous teacher describe it, Jesus will turn away at the final judgment from self-identifying Christians who failed to help the poor during their lifetime, saying, “I don’t want to hear it!”

You, dear reader, may currently hold this view. So did I. You may not even be aware that there might be a better way to understand Jesus’ words. Neither did I. (And, neither do some commentaries!)

We will almost always misapply what we misinterpret, and we will always misinterpret when we ignore literary context. There are several problems with the view described above, but I will only highlight what I think should be most obvious—this view ignores the very next words that Jesus says.

Jesus doesn’t just say, “the least of these” (yes, He just says “the least of these” in v 45, but He clearly has in mind the same people about whom He spoke in v 40); He says, “the least of these brothers of mine” (or “brothers and sisters of mine,” as in the translation above). Jesus doesn’t just throw out the term “the least of these” as a poetic catch-all for every disadvantaged person in existence. It seems to me that He has a particular subset of disadvantaged people in mind.

Question: Whom does Jesus consider “brothers and sisters?” Answer: His disciples in particular, and by extension all Christians in general*.

Matthew 12:46-50 ESV
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus most closely identifies Himself with His closest followers (Matthew 10:40-42), those who “[do] the will of [His] Father in heaven,” which means they believe that He is indeed the One the Father has sent (John 6:28, 40). Jesus has already foretold that those who follow Him will be rejected and even suffer overt persecution on account of their faith in Jesus and their proclamation of the gospel (Matthew 5:10-12, 10:16-25). These persecutors, along with those who passively approve of their actions, are the goats Jesus describes.

Conversely, those who helped the disciples with their physical needs counteracted against the persecution and ostracism the disciples suffered. Their acts of compassion were also acts of solidarity; they outwardly showed that they inwardly accepted the disciples’ message (Mark 9:41). These sympathizers are the sheep Jesus describes. Thus, in accordance with the rest of Scripture, this passage teaches that entrance into Jesus’ eternal kingdom is contingent on accepting the message of the gospel in all its fullness and acting in accordance with its implications. Faith that works, and all that (James 2:14-17).

In short, this particular passage is NOT about charity in general nor what is called “social justice.” I do not write this to denigrate or discourage you if your current practice is based on what I consider a flawed interpretation. This is not a call to exclusivity but a reminder of priority, not turning a blind eye but having a biblical perspective. I am not suggesting that we never do anything to help people in general who have serious need unless they pass some sort of spiritual litmus test, but that we make sure we are doing the most important things first. I cannot tell you what you should do about the guy on the street corner, but I will encourage you to pay more attention to Christians who are suffering as a direct result of their faith in Jesus. It happens, even today, even here.

Those who stand against Christians, stand against Christ; those who stand with Christ, stand with Christians. Christians who are not currently being persecuted are to support those who are. Because whatever we do for a Christian—even the least important Christian you know—who is suffering for the sake of Christ, we do for Christ Himself, the Lord of all Christians.

* I would argue that whenever the word “brother” is used in the Bible, if it does not clearly mean “male sibling,” then it means either “fellow Israelite” (God’s Old Testament people) or “fellow Christian” (God’s New Testament people). Go ahead, try that definition in Leviticus 25 or I John 3:10-18.

EDIT: Since this particular passage has gained a lot of attention in recent days, I am including links to some other posts that also come to similar conclusions, approximately in order from earliest to most recent.

On “Being Right”

My wife will tell you—I’m a bit of a know-it-all.

She’s right. And I love it.

How much do I love being right? I love being right so much that I will hold on to a “Scene It?” trivia board game for years, just waiting for the right unsuspecting victim to come along and foolishly attempt to prove they know more about movies than I do. (True story.) I love being right so much that, if I hear a conversation about Star Wars or superheroes, but it’s clear that the participants themselves are not nearly as into it as I am, I will engage in every non-verbal cue in my arsenal until they invite me into the conversation. (Also true.)

So I love being right. But, at times, I also hate it.

When do I hate being right? When Christians get theology wrong.

I hate being right when a friend on Facebook presents a “cutting-edge” idea about Christianity, but which has dire implications if taken to its logical extension, regardless of how many “likes” it garners. I hate being right when an author or celebrity with a broad audience tells others his opinions of what God is like, as though personal speculation were superior to biblical revelation. I especially hate when a pastor fails in his duty to present the Word of God as anything less than the clear, true, authoritative, and sufficient Word that it is, or to present Jesus as anything lower than the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Son of David, the King of the Jews, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Judge of the whole earth, the One who is and was and is to come.

Tragically, however, I have loved “being right” more than I have loved the person in error. How? I tended to keep the truth to myself. Rather than engage in a conversation about issues that have eternal consequences, I have seethed to myself and satisfied myself with the smug consolation: I’m right and they’re wrong.

Or, occasionally, I have failed in the opposite direction. I have interpreted their theological error as a character defect, and I have let them know as much. This is a rarer occurrence, but usually by this time I have built up a lot of animus and vitriol compounded with confirmation bias, and heaven forbid I should let this “righteous indignation” go to waste. I will not only definitively show you everything wrong with what you have said/done, but how this further proves that you are a terrible person.

By withholding the truth, I have not loved my brother in Christ. And by ascribing evil to the one in error, I have not loved my brother in Christ. And if I do not love my fellow Christian, I am disobeying Jesus (John 13:34-35).

Paul famously wrote about Christians “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) in the context of members of a church growing together in spiritual maturity. Well, in my mind, I’ve got the “truth” part down, but that still leaves “love” and “speaking.”

So here is my resolution going forward. If I hear a fellow Christian teaching something that seems off-base, I will pray that Jesus would give me the opportunity and the words to speak in response, whether they are words of seeking clarification, of offering a perspective that he/she perhaps had not considered, or even of rebuke (if it directly contradicts the gospel) and entreating this brother/sister to return to the good news “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

And I ask that you, my fellow Christians, would do the same for me.

Because, in the end, it does not matter how “right” I am; what matters is that we all come to grow in our knowledge of the Truth Himself (John 14:6).

What’s the big deal?

I think Jesus is a big deal.

You may be thinking, “Well, duh. You’re a Christian, so of course you like Jesus.”

To which I respond, “That’s not what I wrote.”

My general impression is that Jesus, functionally speaking, is not that big of a deal to a good number of people who call themselves Christians. Thus, my fear is that, because too many Christians do not make a big deal out of Jesus, too many unbelievers will continue to treat Jesus as though he were not that important. My hope is, to the infinitesimally small degree that I can, I might rectify this situation.

But what makes Jesus a big deal? Why is Jesus important? Why him rather than anyone else who ever lived in the history of the planet?

Because, as Peter correctly identified, Jesus is the Christ (Matthew 16:16).

You may be thinking, “So? What does that mean?”

Or maybe you have been a Christian for a while. Maybe you are already familiar with the terminology of “Christ.” Maybe you know that “Christ” comes from the Greek word which literally means, “Anointed One.” Maybe you have some working knowledge of the Hebrew language and recognize that the word “Messiah” also literally means, “Anointed One.” So maybe you have put the pieces together and see that the words “Christ” and “Messiah” are just the Greek and Hebrew versions of each other.

And maybe—as was the case for me—this information means nothing more to you than a piece of trivia you learn from watching Jeopardy.

In case you don’t know, my dad Dr. Gary Tuck is a professor at Western Seminary in San Jose who has taught (among other subjects) biblical interpretation and New Testament for over twenty years. He has taught me one of the most simple yet profound theological teachings that I have ever encountered.

I am going to share this life-changing notion with you, free of charge.

Are you ready?

Jesus. Is. King.

The words “Christ” and “Messiah” mean… King.

A king has supremacy in relation to his kingdom. A king has authority over his subjects. A king receives glory when his subjects acknowledge his rightful rule over them.

When you read or hear the words, “Jesus Christ,” I want you to think, “King Jesus.” And when you think the words, “King Jesus,” I want you to be reminded of the ultimate supremacy Jesus has, of the unlimited authority that He wields, of the unending glory that is due to Him.

So whenever you encounter the words, “Jesus Christ,” I want you to be reminded how big of a deal Jesus actually is.

If you are a Christian who is likewise convinced that Jesus is a big deal, I pray you will be encouraged to continue in your faith. If you call yourself a Christian but do not regularly make a big deal out of Jesus, I pray your conscience would be stirred by the Holy Spirit to consider why this is so. If you would not consider yourself a Christian or if you are not sure what the big deal is all about, I hope that you would just keep reading this blog nonetheless, and that you would consider one last thought.

Philippians 2:10-11 teaches that, one day in the future, every knee will bow to Jesus and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (read: King). The word “every” includes you. The question is not whether you will bow on that day; the question is whether you will bow today.

That seems like a pretty big deal to me.