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How Important Are Doctrinal Differences?


Let us begin by making it clear that doctrine is very important to God. The basic Greek term for doctrine is didaskalia, and is translated in the more modern versions simply as “teaching.” With either translation, the word most often refers to God’s teaching, to teaching or doctrine that is inspired by the Holy Spirit. For our purposes, several quotes from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) will make the point well that doctrine is indeed important to God and following it as written is necessary to pleasing him:

Matthew 15:9 – “But In Vain Do They Worship Me, Teaching As Doctrines The Precepts Of Men.”

Ephesians 4:14 – “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming…”

1 Timothy 4:6 – “In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following.”

1 Timothy 6:3-4a – “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, 4  he is conceited and understands nothing…”

2 Timothy 4:3 – “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires…”


But What About Holding Differing Beliefs?

In spite of the Bible’s emphasis on holding to sound (healthy) doctrine or teaching, men have always had differences in interpretation. How should we view that phenomenon? The best answer is perhaps, “It all depends.”

It Depends on the Teaching Itself

The Bible itself makes it clear that we will have variations in areas of beliefs, convictions and conscience. Romans 14:1 speaks of “disputable matters” and mentions two such matters, the observance of certain days as special and avoiding certain foods out of convictions (likely based almost entirely on one’s pre-conversion background practices). Paul’s bottom line directives regarding these differences are that we shouldn’t condemn those who differ with us in such matters and we shouldn’t violate our own consciences in what we believe and decide to practice regarding them.


Moses made a remark in Deuteronomy 29:29 that has application to our present discussion. He wrote: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” In other words, God did not address some things at all, while he revealed other things that are important for us to know and to guide our relationship with him and others. In-between these two ends of the spectrum are things that are mentioned but not fully explained. Among these topics would be the exact nature of heaven and hell, for example. When topics are not fully clarified, differences in how we view them will obviously occur.

The church has always been striving to find the balance between which topics are essential to pleasing God, thus demanding unity in both belief and practice, and which are among those disputable matters or incompletely explained ones. On a personal and practical note, I have always thought that when good brothers who believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures disagree on a given topic, then that topic was thereby shown to be a matter of judgment or opinion.

Often these areas are simply matters of preference, such as the choice of music types in our church assemblies. Sometimes they are strongly held beliefs, and yet others do not hold the same beliefs. For example, we have among us those who are non-resistant in terms of the military (conscientious objectors or total pacifists), based on Jesus’ command to love our enemies, and others who see using force as an obligation to protect the innocent. It is a complex subject to be sure.

When it comes down to deciding what essential beliefs are, the ones necessary to salvation that thus demand absolute unity among disciples, certain teachings have historically found their way onto lists. With no attempt to be exhaustive, some things consistently on lists of orthodox beliefs would include the following: the virgin birth of Christ; his literal death, burial and bodily resurrection from the dead; the Deity of Christ; his substitutionary death for mankind; salvation by grace accepted by our faith response to that substitutionary death; the reality of a final Judgment and eternal salvation for the saved; and many more. Failure to accept such essential beliefs would result in a failure to please God and would bring one’s salvation into serious question.

Although these fundamentals have been accepted for centuries by most groups and individuals claiming to be Christian, we now live in an age where liberalism has disavowed many of them as being necessary to pleasing God. One of my high school friends was once among those who accepted the Bible as the inspired Word of God, and was very dedicated to those truths as a teenager. He later attended a liberal theological Seminary (one I would call a “cemetery,” a place where faith is buried). In talking to him as an ordained minister in the Methodist fellowship, he explained away not only the truths of the Bible, but the very existence of absolute spiritual truth. When I questioned him about the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead, his answer went something like this: “It really doesn’t matter if Jesus was raised literally from the dead; what matters is the resurrection spirit.” Although 1 Corinthians 15 flatly denies any such fanciful interpretation, to those like my friend who don’t accept the Bible as God’s inspired Word in the first place, they think nothing of rejecting its truths. That conversation produced one of the saddest memories stored in my memory banks.

It Depends on the Stage of the Believer

All believers must begin their journey of faith at the beginning. This means that they have to learn many spiritual truths one step at a time. It also means that they will be ignorant of vast amounts of truths while they are learning, and will in fact hold some beliefs in the earlier stages of their faith development that they will later reject as they continue to learn. That being true, hearing someone state a belief that is contrary to the Bible’s teaching is not overly concerning if they are simply growing, learning and open to being mistaken about some things in the process.

The real concern comes when they have spent much time studying a given subject, but have come to an erroneous conclusion about it and are no longer open to considering alternatives. The very definition of a disciple includes being a continual learner. All of us, even long term serious students of the Bible, will find ourselves altering our beliefs as we continue to learn and grow.

Some subjects, as we have already established, are within the realm of disputable matters. Other subjects are not discussed in detail in Scripture and any conclusion we reach is an opinion, which we should just accept and state as such. But dogmatism and close-mindedness, particularly when dealing with subjects that would be included on those fundamental, essential lists, is yet another matter. Those fall into the area of salvation issues. When we reach unorthodox conclusions in these areas and are unyielding in our conclusions, we have ceased to demonstrate the attitude of disciples and have entered dangerous territory indeed.

It Depends on What the Believer Does With Variant Beliefs

Even if our beliefs are questionable or unorthodox, what we do with them is a fundamental issue regarding church membership. In any church fellowship, some members will have beliefs that vary from those held by the majority of members and even by the leaders. If these beliefs are simply held privately, the issue is between them and God. On the other hand, if they attempt to spread these variant beliefs, then the possibility of divisiveness enters the picture and poses a threat to church unity. This would certainly be true if the beliefs were in the essential, orthodox category. But even if they weren’t, making any teaching an issue or “hobby” could affect the unity of the church. Romans 14 addresses that possibility quite clearly.

Years ago when I was a ministry staff member in Boston, a man who had been studying with some of our members asked to meet with me. He explained that although he had learned much in the studies and agreed with almost all of it regarding the plan of salvation, he had a different view of Revelation and the “end times” than he had heard me teach to the whole church. He asked if he could be baptized and be a member of our congregation if he didn’t agree with our generally accepted view of this subject. My answer was, “It all depends on what you do with your differing beliefs. Can you hold them in private, or will you feel compelled to share them with others in an attempt to convince them of your views?”

By the way, although I have written many articles and even a book on this subject, I do not view it as a salvation issue. But I was concerned about the possibility of him being divisive with his views, since for many, the “end times” teaching becomes an obsession. His answer was that he would not share his views in an attempt to persuade others, and I was fully satisfied with the answer. He was baptized into Christ and has been a very faithful and outstanding member of that congregation for decades. Plus he has been a very good friend of mine during almost all of those years, until this very day. I have no idea if he has changed his views of this subject during the intervening years or not, nor do I care.

On the other hand, I have seen church members make some peripheral issues matters of discussion and debate, thus producing disharmony and disunity. That is another matter entirely and must be dealt with directly. Turning any disputable matter into a “hobby” simply cannot be tolerated because of the disunity it produces. Keeping what might well be viewed as variant and generally unaccepted beliefs between us and God is our personal choice. He will judge us in this regard. Making those same beliefs issues that affect relationships within the church is where the problem comes in. Thus the question of what someone intends to do with their variant belief is the ultimate issue.

The Bottom Line

Doctrine is important to God, to us as individuals and to us collectively as a fellowship. In Paul’s letters to evangelists (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), he speaks of “sound” doctrine. That term in Greek means simply “healthy.” Correct doctrine or teaching makes us healthy spiritually and false doctrine makes us unhealthy. Sound teaching is about helping us go to heaven, not helping us major in intellectual discussions and debates. Being truly disciples will keep us on track in our teaching and in our living. We are followers of Christ and we are learners, both of which qualities demand copious amounts of humility. Humble people stay on track as they learn about Christ and follow his example.

The Mystery Solved!

The Mystery Solved!

I first met the group of churches in 1981 that was later to be called the ICOC movement (International Churches of Christ). I was highly impressed with their evangelistic effectiveness and level of commitment, and figured out almost immediately that those two things were a result of discipleship. Bottom line, our lives should be all about discipleship, from both the vertical and horizontal perspectives.

Up, Down, and Sideways

Vertically, we are Christ’s disciples, totally committed to him and his purpose for our lives. To help people climb that lofty pinnacle, we not only have to preach commitment, but also love for Jesus. We cannot obey just out of fear or duty, but out of love for him because of his ultimate sacrifice on the cross for us.

Then we have the horizontal discipleship – our “one another” relationships within his Body, the church. This “discipling” relationship is also focused on Jesus – helping each other to become more and more like him and working in his power to carry out his mission to seek and save the lost. We have to not only teach it, but leaders must expect it, which means that we must have a return to clear expectations and accountability – applied in the right ways this time. The Bible has become an ideal for far too many, rather than a standard of what God actually expects of us.

Getting Off Track

When the challenges of 2003 came, for those familiar with our history, I knew immediately that several things would be discarded, and quickly. One of those was the practice of discipling and all that makes it function effectively. This one biblical concept and practice (even though it was too often practiced wrongly) was what drew me into this movement. I wrote a lengthy book about the topic back in 1997 and the book was later condensed in order to make it easier for younger Christians to use. It is still available after having gone through several revisions, and now carries the title, “The Power of Discipling.”

When the majority of our people stopped practicing discipling, I understood that a big part of the reason was because they had experienced wrong applications of it and been hurt. I was almost immediately hoping, begging, teaching and praying that we would return to what was a clear biblical teaching and expectation of God. You simply cannot dismiss the large number of passages that speak of our “one another” responsibilities. Yet, that is what many did and continue to do. But why?

Why, Why, Why?

The common answer, of course, is that people have been hurt and simply don’t seem to be able to get past their hurts and associated fears. I confess that I bought into that excuse too readily, especially when it kept being held up for so long as the main reason that people were not practicing what I believe the Bible clearly teaches. I recently read an article by a retired Methodist minister that jarred me. Keep in mind that the Methodist Church is not known for its evangelistic outreach with the concept of discipleship driving it. However, this one minister in that group makes his case strongly – more strongly than most of us who claim to still believe in the concept would make it.

So what is the real issue behind our all but missing ingredient of discipling? Is it the fact that we have been hurt and can’t get over our fears of a repeat experience? No, that’s not really it. The same people who cling to this excuse have also experienced wrong applications of marriage dynamics, parenting dynamics, and other interpersonal dynamics. Yet, they have worked through those challenges to try and correct these wrong applications and find smoother sailing in healthy applications of these other human relationships. They are not dumb folks; they realize that humans are imperfect and “bumps” between them in all types of relationships are a part of life that will take ongoing work to keep correcting. They handle those situations pretty well.

The Honest but Painful Answer

Why won’t they apply these same principles of seeing relationships to be an ongoing, learning process when it comes to discipling? The old Methodist preacher nailed it. Listen to what he wrote: (See his full article at: (

We don’t like being disciplined. The word “disciple” comes from the same Latin word discipulus as does the word “discipline.” The dictionary defines a “disciple” as one who is a pupil or an adherent to the teachings of another. Discipline is defined as the “training to act in accordance with rules.” It also means “behavior in accord with rules of conduct; behavior and order maintained by training and control.” Do you see the problem? We don’t like to discipline ourselves, much less submit ourselves to the discipline of others. We Americans are radical individualists. We don’t want anyone else telling us what to do or when to do it. We avoid accountability like the plague.

It is not rocket science, but people must have real convictions about what following Jesus is really all about. As interested onlookers outside of our movement have said of us, we are now a nicer, gentler, more comfortable version of our former selves. We are enjoying our comfortability, and enjoy no longer feeling the need to be radical in our religion. We have for the most part become just another nice little church on the corner of Main Street, USA. We thus have fallen prey to the American view of church and Christianity. We may not be fully engaged in the race to catch that “American Dream” of materialism and worldly success, but we are almost fully invested in the race to catch the “American Church Dream.”

Rather amazingly, the old Methodist bard sees this one pretty clearly also. Listen to him:

We have an unregenerate church membership/culture. The quote above comes from Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. Many leaders in today’s church are so concerned about attendance numbers they lower the cost, hoping more will be willing to buy. The results have been that with each new generation the American church culture has become less and less “disciplined” with fewer experiencing genuine spiritual regeneration. Once the church culture makes this transition it is extremely difficult to restore an environment where lives are truly being transformed… Making disciples is a process that takes a great deal of time and personal investment. Accountability is more important than entertainment. It requires submission and vulnerability and sacrifice.

Is this us? Are you getting defensive reading this? If yes, I have one word to describe it – Bingo! If it doesn’t describe you, you wouldn’t be getting defensive, now would you? The idea that past hurts are behind the loss of discipling one another is merely a smoke screen. The real reason is that we like having the freedom to pick and choose what we will and will not do as church members. We don’t like having people in our lives spiritually who have expectations of us and are willing to hold us accountable – even if those expectations are God’s!

The Bottom Line

Here’s the real bottom line of this issue, and it’s not a pretty thought. We have missed the very foundation of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. “Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it’” (Luke 9:23-24). So there we have it; a refusal to deny self and embrace whatever Jesus asks of us, including even a cross – and certainly including the goal of becoming as much like Christ as possible in order to carry out his Great Commission of trying to help save a lost world.

Of course about now, I can just sense someone asking, “Are you saying that we are not disciples?” Listen, I’m just quoting Scriptures and sharing obvious observations; that’s my job. Your job is to examine yourselves, if Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 13:5 are going to receive due consideration. “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you–unless, of course, you fail the test?”

I’m also reminded as a preacher of Paul’s words to Timothy, when he commanded him to “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). Finally, as Jesus concluded his very strong admonition to a church that he described as being “lukewarm,” and about to make him vomit (the literal translation), he said this: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (Revelation 3:19).

The ball’s in your court; what will you do with it? What do you need to do with it? What does God want you to do with it? What are you going to do with it? Enough questions; you and God must provide the answers.

Was Apollos Re-Baptized?

Most Bible readers assume that Apollos was re-baptized as a part of being taught the way of God more adequately by Priscilla and Aquila.  Let’s begin by reading the end of Acts 18 and the beginning of Acts 19.

24 Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. 27 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. 28 For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 18:24-28)

1 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. 4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 19:1-5)

In spite of the normal assumptions, much discussion has occurred about whether Apollos was in fact baptized at this point.  The text does not say so, nor does it say anything more generally that would necessarily imply it.  A related question is whether the apostles or even the 120 in Acts 1 and Acts 2 were re-baptized.  If they had come into a saved relationship during the ministry of Christ (and they had – John 15:3), then his dying would not have made them become unsaved.  John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4), called in Acts 19:4 a “baptism of repentance” which had to be followed by belief in Jesus.  Since the Israelites were born into a covenant relationship with God, the forgiveness through John’s baptism was not the forgiveness of initial salvation, but rather the forgiveness of repentance for those in the covenant, much like prayers on the part of Christians accomplish today (1 John 1:9).

My opinion is that those who had experienced John’s baptism before Christ died and maintained faith in him were not re-baptized.  I don’t think the 3,000 baptized on the Day of Pentecost included the apostles.  If the principle is true that those receiving John’s baptism before the cross and remained faithful would not need a re-baptism, then Apollos would not have needed another baptism.  However, John’s baptism would have been invalid if experienced after the cross, for it was superseded by Great Commission baptism, and that was likely the case of those described in Acts 19:1-5.  The probable scenario is that Apollos was baptized with John’s baptism before the cross, but then taught and baptized the dozen men in Ephesus with John’s baptism after the cross, which was no longer valid.  Hence, Paul re-baptized them with the baptism of the Great Commission.  The whole issue is mostly a moot point, for it cannot be applied in any way to those living today.  Even if John’s baptism remained valid for men who were baptized before the cross and who maintained faith in Jesus, no such person is alive today!  Therefore, while such discussions may be interesting, they tend to produce more heat than light, and have no direct application today.  However, in the interest of honest inquiry, I am glad to provide the answer that seems to me most likely correct.

The Holy Spirit and Man’s Salvation

The Indwelling Spirit of Promise

Ezekiel 36:26-27, in an apparent Messianic prophecy, gives a wonderful promise of the Spirit’s presence in our hearts and lives as Christians.  “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”  (Ezekiel 11:19 uses the term “undivided” heart instead of “new” heart.)  In the Old Testament, people did not have the indwelling Spirit, and as a result, did not consistently follow God’s decrees and laws.  Now, however, we have the Spirit to move us in the right direction.

Paul describes this impetus of the Spirit in Romans 8:1-4 in powerful ways.  Through Christ, the law of the Spirit sets us free from the law of sin and death.  Jesus was our perfect sin offering to take away both the guilt and power of sin in our lives.  The righteous requirements of the law can be fully met in us, who live according to the Spirit, which is not sinlessness on our part, but absolute faithfulness and consistency plus God’s continual forgiveness as we walk in the light (1 John 1:7) with the aid of the Spirit.

The Spirit and the Message of Salvation

The Holy Spirit and the Word of God are closely associated in the salvation of mankind.  First, the message was inspired by the Spirit in the OT prophets, as they foretold the message of salvation by the Spirit (1 Peter 1:10-12), and in the NT apostles and prophets who had their message revealed to them by the Spirit (Ephesians 3:2-5; 2 Peter 1:20-21).  Since the Spirit expresses spiritual truths in spiritual words (1Corinthians 2:13-14), they can only be understood by spiritually-minded people (See also Ephesians 5.17-18).  Such a person readily accepts what is written, rather than looking for and praying for an “understanding” which fits his preconceived ideas and desires (2 Timothy 3:2-4).  Refusal to accept the Spirit’s inspired message leads to God sending those who refuse a powerful delusion which leads to their condemnation (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12)!

Second, the message also was sent by the Spirit.  Once the Spirit came to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth, the apostles had the task of being witnesses to all nations – Acts 1:1-8.   The Spirit was to testify about Jesus (John 15:26); the apostles were to testify about Jesus (John 15:27); and, all other disciples were to do the same (Matthew 28:19-20).  Through this preached message, the Spirit offers the invitation to salvation; the church does the same, and every individual who accepts the invitation must pass it on (Revelation 22:17).  Obviously, the Holy Spirit loves to preach!  But He can only preach through those whom he indwells.  How fired up is he about dwelling in you?  Does He find you exciting or boring?

Third, the message was directed by the Spirit, as he opened doors of opportunity for evangelism.  These doors were to individuals (Acts 8:26-40, especially verse 29) and to entire areas (2 Corinthians 2:12).  This being true, Paul admonished us to pray for such open doors (Colossians 4:3).  Sometimes, the Spirit directed some doors closed in order to lead to more open doors (Acts 16:6-10).  Therefore, we must take advantage of every opportunity (Colossians 4:5-6) as we trust the Spirit to direct our paths to fruitful service!  When your evangelism does not seem successful, do not get frustrated nor discouraged.  Keep on sowing the seed, and trusting the Spirit’s direction.  You will bear fruit!

The Spirit and Initial Salvation

When we find God, it is because he has first found us, seeking us through the Holy Spirit.  In Acts 8:29, the Spirit sent Philip to meet a non-Christian (who had an openness to God).  The Spirit is definitely involved in divine providence, both before and after we become Christians.  Our being met and taught is never an accident – it is the plan of God brought about by the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit draws us to God initially by convicting us of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:7-8).  Because we are blinded by sin, we must first deal with this malady if we are to appreciate and accept the abundant grace of God.  But how does He bring about this conviction?  First, he inspired the Word of God (1 Peter 1:20-21; Ephesians 3:3-5).  This explains why the Word of God is called the “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17), for through it he brings people to conviction.

Look at this convicting process in Acts 2:36-41, as the people were convicted of the sin of crucifying Christ (verses 36-37), convicted of the way to righteousness with God (verse 38) and then convicted of judgment (verse 40).  In Acts 24:25, Paul reasoned with Felix about righteousness, self-control (sin), and the judgment to come, which left this hardened ruler convicted (afraid) but not obedient.  Thus, the Spirit convicts the world through his Word, whether shared individually, preached publicly, or read privately.

The Spirit and Continual Salvation

When we are baptized into a saved relationship with Christ, the Spirit comes to indwell us (Acts 2:38; 5:32).  According to Galatians 4:6, he is sent into our hearts by God because we became children of God, thus signifying this new relationship (tie this in with Galatians 3:26-27).  Back in John 7:37-39, Jesus had promised this indwelling.  Several truths are connected with this indwelling.  One, the Spirit is our seal (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13).  A seal was an official sign of ownership.  When we become Christians, God stamps us as his property!  The world may not be able to tell who is a child of God simply by looking, but the spirit world now can.

Two, the Spirit is the deposit of our inheritance (2 Corinthians 5:5; Ephesians 1:14).  The deposit here carries the idea of earnest money put down for a purchase as a pledge that the full amount will be paid at the proper time.  Therefore, the Spirit is God’s deposit in us, guaranteeing our future blessings with him (Philippians 3:20-21).

Three, he strengthens us (Ephesians 3:14-21), which is more than being strengthened by the Word (which definitely strengthens us).  He also helps us to follow through with our convictions.  Of course, he will not force us to do right against our will to do otherwise, but he will strengthen us to do what we really want to do for God.  Once I was jogging a much longer distance than I ever had before, and near the end of the run, I came to a formidable hill.  When I was tempted to give up, a friend ran behind me with his hand in the middle of my back pushing me.  Had I quit running, he could not have helped me, but because I was trying, he could assist me in completing the run.  Similarly, the Spirit assists us to complete what we could not complete without his helpful and vital “push.”

Four, he aids us in godly living.  Just knowing that he dwells in me keeps me from wanting to sin (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), for where I go, he goes!  Galatians tells us that we “live” by the Spirit in a number of ways:  by refusing to gratify the desires of the sinful nature (verses 16-17); by being freed from a legalistic works orientation (verse 18); by avoiding a life directed by the sinful nature (verses 19-21), by developing the fruit of the Spirit (verses 22-23); by crucifying the sinful nature (verse 24); by keeping step with the Spirit (verse 25); and by maintaining loving relationships with our brothers (verse 26).

Romans 8 also promises that as we set our minds on spiritual living, the Spirit helps us control our minds and lives for God.  We have life and peace (verse 6); our spirit is alive (verse 10); life is given to our mortal bodies (verse 11); we put to death the misdeeds of the body (verse 13); we are led by the Spirit (verse 14); we have a Spirit of sonship, not fear (verse 15); we have the assurance of salvation (verse 16-17); and he intercedes for us (verses 26-27).  The Holy Spirit is vitally concerned about every aspect of our lives and needs.  He loves us.  He cares how we feel.  He intercedes because he is an Encourager (Acts 9:31) and a Counselor to us (John 14:16-18).  In that latter role, he joins Jesus in speaking in our behalf (1 John 2:1).

Five, the Spirit acts providentially for us, often leading in ways that are very delightful to us as we are led directly into the blessings of God.  However, he also leads us into the desert of trials (Matthew 4:1)!  In this gospel context, Jesus was thus led right after a time of great commitment to God’s will.  Don’t be surprised when spiritual mountaintops seem to be followed by some rather intense valleys.  Passages like Lamentations 3:38 inform us that everything which happens to us is either directly caused by God, or at the least allowed by him.

But why does a loving God allowing such painful testing in our lives?  The Bible supplies abundant answers to that question.  It develops character (Romans 5:1-5; James 1:2-4); it breaks us of self-sufficiency (2 Corinthians 1:8-9; 12:7-10); it makes us into Christ’s image (Romans 8:28-29; Galatians 4:19; Hebrews 5:7-9; 12:4-13).  However, knowing why we suffering doesn’t remove the pain!  Suffering is tough, producing what men call stress (the difference between our agenda for our lives and God’s agenda for them!).  It may lead to our questioning God, as did the Psalmist on many occasions (Psalm 13:1-6).  Such struggling with God is natural at first, but if we don’t work it through, we can end up like Job, who found himself facing a God who had worn thin on patience!

Rest assured that God is not sentimental.  He gives us what we need rather than what we think we need.  We especially struggle with accepting testing through people (who make mistakes), but following Jesus in the way of the cross is still the only answer (1 Peter 2:18-25).  The key is to trust God no matter what occurs (Romans 8:31-39) and to decide to be thankful in (not necessarily for) all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).  Note that nine of the ten lepers cleansed by Christ were not even thankful for the good things in their lives.  We seem to expect the good, thus taking it for granted, while being shocked and dismayed at the not-so-good.  Shedding the idea that we are somehow God’s gift to creation would help us be more thankful and more accepting of the challenges of life!  Only Spirit-filled disciples can be thankful for the hard times in their lives.  Bottom line, God is allowing you to be tested in order to become more spiritual and more prepared for deeper spiritual service in the future.  Trust him and trust the Spirit who leads you through both the storms and through the sunshine (and each has its own inherent danger!).

The Holy Spirit and Conscience

We often speak of conscience, but what is that?  Biblically, it is an inner voice which sits in judgment over our attitudes and actions (Romans 2:15).  It is not infallible, for it is only as good as it is trained.  Since we all receive worldly training as non-Christians, the conscience must be retrained, by the Scriptures.  Two vital lessons regarding the conscience must be kept in mind.

One, we must always strive to keep our consciences clear before God and men (Acts 24:16; 1 Timothy 1:15,19).  However, a clear conscience does not guarantee our innocence (Acts 26:9; 1 Corinthians 4:4).  It can be weak (accusing us inaccurately – 1 Corinthians 8:7, 10); seared over (1 Timothy 4:2); corrupted (Titus 1:15); and guilty (Hebrews 10:22).  Two, in the situation where conscience is not trained properly, it nonetheless must not be violated in the process of retraining it (Romans 14:22-23).  Although religion per se cannot clear the conscience (Hebrews 9:9),  the blood of Christ, properly applied, can (Hebrews 9:14).

But having said that, how do our consciences and the Spirit work together?  Paul said that his truthfulness was confirmed in his conscience by the Holy Spirit (Romans 9:1).  Since a clear conscience does not guarantee innocence (it is the Lord who judges – 1 Corinthians 4:4), to be approved by the Spirit has to mean that our actions or thoughts are based on God’s Word (which the Spirit inspired).  The real danger comes when trusting our emotions and attributing them to an inner prompting of the Holy Spirit.  Emotions and conscience are not the same thing.  Emotions can be very selfishly directed, leading us to violate our own consciences (with the help of our rationalization process).

In making decisions, conscience should move us to stay surrendered and open-minded, and to get plenty of advice.  Emotionalism moves us to be very independent and untrusting of others.  Bottom line, if you feel like making a decision without wanting advice, Satan is using your emotions.  If you want advice to insure a godly decision, God is using your conscience.  This line of reasoning does not rule out prompting by the Spirit, but it does raise a proper caution.  The Spirit will never prompt us in a direction which violates biblical principles, and such prompting must then be confirmed by advice from mature spiritual people (Proverbs 12:15;13:10;14:12; 19:20; 20:18; Romans 15:14).

The Holy Spirit, the Word, and Spirituality

The Holy Spirit works very closely in conjunction with the Word he inspired.  Note the following parallels:

  • We are born again by the Spirit (John 3:8) and by the Word (1 Peter 1:23).
  • We are sanctified (set apart) by the Spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:13) and by the Word (John 17:17).
  • We live by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25) and by the Word (Matthew 4:4).
  • We are strengthened by the Spirit (Ephesians 3:16) and by the Word (Acts 20:32).
  • We are filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-19) and in a parallel passage, indwelt by the Word (Colossians 3:16).

Being full of the Spirit (Acts 6:3, 5; 11:24) is to be full of desire to love and serve God, and to be directing that desire in accordance with the Word of God.  One can be knowledgeable without being spiritual.  One can be pious in heart, yet deficient in knowledge, and still not be spiritual.  The need is always spirit and truth – to possess both zeal and knowledge.  When we are truly Spirit-filled, Spirit-led disciples, we live in the very atmosphere of the Holy Spirit!  As Paul put it in Romans 14:17, the kingdom of God is a matter of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  We are to pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers (Ephesians 6:18).  We love one another in the Spirit (Colossians 1:7).  In spite of severe suffering, we have joy given by the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:6).

In conclusion, with Paul let us say:  “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit by with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).

—Gordon Ferguson (May 1998)

The Big Black Brother’s Club

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28).

Spiritual thinking means that we are colorblind in one sense, but it means more than that.  It also means that we are both color-aware and color-appreciative.  The Galatians passage above affirms that in some sense, physical distinctions are ended in Christ.  Regardless of race, social status or gender, we are all equally valuable to our Creator.  None is superior and none is inferior, for we are all made in the image of God and saved by the blood of Jesus.  But we do not cease to be who we are racially, socially and sexually.  Men are still men and women are still women.  We must remain aware of those differences if we are to be effective evangelistically.  Read Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 on the principle of becoming all things to all men to reach as many as possible.

We must also be appreciative of the differences that remain.  America is a blending of cultures like few other countries.  Of course, in our cosmopolitan world, the cultural and racial composition of most nations is far more varied than in the past.  However, Americans generally relish the variations more than the norm, since we were built with this diversity from the beginning.  We are the big melting pot, and the acceptance of this diversity is at least a part of the reason many from other countries would like to migrate here.  The attraction of financial opportunities is the biggest draw, but even more because these opportunities are found in a setting where backgrounds don’t mean too much.

However, in spite of this relatively accepting atmosphere, prejudices abound.  I was raised in a part of America at a time when blacks and whites were quite segregated.  I did not attend school with blacks until post-graduate studies when I trained as a minister.  (Thankfully, that all seems so strange now.)  When I was a teen, I did construction work in the summers as what was called a common laborer, and most in that category were black workers.  Being around black men on the job was the first time I was able to closely associate with them on a peer basis, and frankly, both they and I loved it.  We had a blast acting more than a little crazy together.  I enjoyed their fun-loving ways no end, and my life was enriched by close association with those who were different from me racially and culturally.  Since I was a young adult, some of my closest friends have been from different minorities.  As I learned from their cultures and backgrounds, I grew to delight in our differences.  

The church in the Bible was made up of equals, but equals with some pretty significant differences.  Learning to love each other and live together in one Body was not always easy, but it will always be God’s way.  All white churches or all black churches or all Asian churches or all Hispanic churches stand in stark contrast to the early church that Jesus built.  Variety is the spice of life.  We need each other, and we need to be enriched by the differences in each other.  I rejoice in the true kingdom of God, because it is such a conglomeration of different types of people.  We have the rich and the poor; the educated and the uneducated; the young and the old; the social adept and what the world might call the social misfits; the blacks, the whites, the Asians and the Hispanics, and then mixtures of all of these.  We are the same in heart and purpose, but not the same in so many other ways, and these differences are cause to rejoice.  Only God could bring such a group together in love and harmony.  Our unity is the demonstration to the world that we are true disciples of Jesus (John 13:34-35; 17:20-23).

On my desk is a very unusual picture of seven men, affectionately called the BBB Club ─ the Big Black Brother’s Club.  A number of years ago, several brothers in the church started coming over to our house on select Monday nights during the fall to watch Monday Night Football on TV.  Most of these brothers were black, and gradually, the moniker of “the BBB’s” started being used.  So, by mutual agreement, I was also black on Monday nights.  (Actually, I always thought that I had too much soul to be a white man anyway!)  On the nights when we are going to meet, we would discuss whether to invite a “token white” for the evening (remember, I’m black on Mondays).  It was quite a group.  Although a number of different “brother-brothers” (black disciples) have attended at different times, our club ended up with seven members:  Bob Peterson, Walter Parrish, Curt Garner, Keith Avery, Jon Williams, Arthur Conard and me.  My wife said that she could hear us out in the street, even though we met in the basement.  Gin Rummy or Spades card games often competed with the football game, and to say that it was a lively meeting would downplay the true nature of the atmosphere considerably.

These brothers seemed to understand that I needed some setting where I don’t have to be a church leader of any type, but only one of the brothers, able to let my hair (what I have left) down completely.  I needed these men and I cherished our times together.  Now that others have heard about us, they are clamoring to get into the fray.  With good-natured but raucous humor, we give them a hard time and let them know, that according to our by-laws, visitors have to be approved by a majority of the club members.  None of those little white skinny guys have much of a chance of approval!  Actually, those who do come have a great chance of losing their skinniness, since the food items are not exactly of the low-fat variety!

The picture to which I referred earlier is very unusual because it was taken after Arthur died suddenly of heart arrest last fall at age 38.  (With the help of a friend, Arthur’s picture was scanned into a computer along with our picture taken later, and now we have the seven originals in a BBB Club picture.)  He had a heart condition and realized that he would not live a normal life span.  Yet he was as full of zest for life as anyone I have ever known.  Deeply in love with God and people, he spent his last hours out sharing his faith.  Returning home on the bus, he simply went to sleep and woke up with God.  About 700 people attended his memorial service from all walks of life.  The BBB’s, along with several of Arthur’s closest brothers wept together at his casket, but during the day, laughed about as often as we cried.  Our tears were not for him but for ourselves.  He will be missed greatly by his faithful wife, Joyce, and by a vast throng of friends and family who loved him deeply.  Life for us will not be the same, both because he leaves a void and because he changed us by his copious love and laughter.  My background was about as different from Arthur’s as one could imagine, but we were (are) brothers, and on Monday night, brother-brothers.

In our racially tense society, people are more than impressed at our camaraderie and deeply appreciated love for one another.  Where else can you find such outside the family of God?  We are in no way up-tight about our differences; we glory in them.  God made us as we are and he expects us to enjoy each other to the full.  Any family in which all the children were exactly alike would be boring at best.  The diversity of nature demonstrates God’s belief in the special place of variety in his plans.  When visiting our son and his family in Hawaii, I usually go snorkeling at least once.  The numbers of fish species I see is astounding.  It is often claimed that no two snowflakes are alike.  (Of course, those making the claim must have done a rather enormous amount of research, and they will have to be satisfied with tentative conclusions at most.)  God obviously is trying to tell us something important, even by the design of nature.

Spiritual thinking is colorblind in its absence of prejudice, but color-aware and color-appreciative in making us a family.  I have often said that the ultimate effectiveness of spiritual leaders is found in their ability to lead different types of people.  If we can only relate well or become emotionally close to people like us, we are missing out on one of the greatest possible blessings of life.  May God grant you the perspective of family that he has taught the BBB’s, for then your life will be enriched more than you can imagine!  And thank you, my unique brothers of the club, for allowing me to be one of you in far more ways than simply being members of the same church.  Praise God for his plan for his kingdom!