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8 Signs of a Legalistic Spirit

Do you truly enjoy the grace of God? Many Christians know the Bible, attend church and even do ministry work while they struggle to understand the core of the gospel. They can quote Scriptures about what Christ did for them, but they still feel they must work to earn His love—and often they end up feeling unworthy and separated from God.

Even though Jesus died on the cross so we wouldn’t have to be judged according to the law, many Christians are still living in the Old Testament. They have never embraced the reality of New Testament faith. They are slaves to performance-based religion.

The apostle Paul wrote the epistle of Galatians to challenge us to make sure we remain in the grace of God. Do you struggle with legalism? Here are the most common signs of a legalistic spirit:

1. Lack of true joy. Jesus didn’t forgive us of our sins so we could be sour-faced and sad. Yet I’ve met hundreds of Christians who looked like they were attending a funeral when they came to a church service. Why? Legalism kills joy. When someone has an encounter with God’s mercy, their hearts always overflow with praise and gratitude. The apostle Paul wrote: “The kingdom of God is … righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). There’s no such thing as Christianity without joy.

2. No real victory over sin. All Christians struggle with temptations. But a person with a legalistic mindset finds it difficult to receive the grace of God to overcome sinful habits. Are you striving to break free from a particular sin in your own strength? You cannot do this on your own! We must admit our weakness and to invite the Holy Spirit to give us supernatural power to live a holy life. It is the indwelling Spirit of Christ who gives us victory—not your straining and sweating. Relax and let Him live His life in you!

3. Unhealthy performance orientation. God is a loving Father, and He wants us to lavish us with His affirmation and encouragement. Yet many Christians don’t have a revelation of God’s unconditional love. They feel they must earn His love by reading the Bible, praying and performing other religious tasks. Do you ever feel God is mad at you because you overslept and missed your morning devotions? He wants you to spend time with Him, but not to fulfill a duty. Chill out and just enjoy His love!

4. A critical, unloving attitude toward others. People who don’t understand God’s grace cannot extend grace to anyone else. This is why some Christians are hateful toward unbelievers. When you understand how much mercy God extended to forgive you, it’s easy to show mercy to other people who don’t deserve it! When you hear Christians using harsh language to condemn Muslims, atheists, liberals or gay people, you have just identified a legalistic spirit.

5. Obsessive focus on outward standards of dress or behavior. Some Christian denominations have taught that God demands strict conformity to dress codes. Some churches in the past have condemned makeup, jewelry, pants and short hair for women. Others taught it was wrong for Christians to play sports, play cards, dance, wear wedding rings, go to movies, wear jeans in church or even own a television! Yet God emphasizes inner holiness rather than outward conformity. When you walk in grace, the Spirit will lead you to dress and act in a way that honors Him, but this will not conform to a man-made religious code.

6. Bondage to religious tradition. The Pharisees rejected Jesus because they couldn’t leave Old Covenant religion behind. A legalistic spirit says, “This is the way we’ve always done it.” Some people rejected a new move of the Holy Spirit because they didn’t like a new style of music. Some churches today are in danger of missing God because they want to live like it is still 1973. Legalistic people tend to fight any new move of God. Remember: God is unchangeable in His nature, but He does new things. We must stay in step with Him.

7. A sectarian attitude toward other Christians. People who don’t understand God’s grace believe they have a corner on truth, so they cannot accept the fact that the Holy Spirit might be moving in other denominations. Some churches even teach that they are the only people going to heaven. If your church believes they are the only true Christians, exit quickly. Legalism is toxic! Find a church that embraces the whole body of Christ.

8. Little or no assurance of salvation. People with a legalistic mindset often doubt their salvation because they trust their own obedience instead of Christ. When you receive the grace of God, the Bible says your heart will cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15). One true encounter with Jesus will cause you to know that God has adopted you—and that He will never abandon you.

The apostle Paul wrote: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). If you haven’t experienced this freedom, ask the Holy Spirit to fill every area where legalism has distorted your understanding of God.

Don’t fall for a graceless Christianity. If you see any of these warning signs in your life, invite the Holy Spirit to set you free from legalism. Stop striving, repent of pride and ask God to open your eyes to the reality of His amazing grace.

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10 Biggest Mistakes Christians Make on the Mission Field

One of the greatest joys in my life is ministering in foreign countries. Since I surrendered to a call to missions 15 years ago, I’ve visited 29 nations and developed relationships with dozens of pastors and leaders who now consider me their friend and brother. Missions is at the heart of our Christian faith, and I believe every church should be actively engaged in both foreign and local missions so we can advance the gospel of Jesus in our generation.

But just like everything else in life, there’s a right way and a wrong way to engage in mission work. I’ve learned from my own mistakes—and I’ve also seen some sad examples of short-term missions gone awry. If you are considering a short-term or long-term mission trip, avoid these pitfalls:

1. Acting like a spoiled American. If you are traveling to a developing country, here is Rule No. 1: Prepare for delays, cold showers, big bugs and scorpions, power outages, unusual toilets, crazy traffic and strange food. Make a decision before you leave that you won’t let one complaint come out of your mouth. Be flexible and gracious. Focus on the positive, soak in the beauty of the country and come home with a renewed gratitude for your blessings at home.

2. Talking down to people. You are not going overseas to teach poor, ignorant foreigners what you know. If that’s your attitude, do everyone a favor and stay home! You are going to serve. Most of what I know about ministry I learned from humble people I met in other countries. Whether you are teaching, preaching, building orphanages or feeding the poor, get under the people and wash their feet. And expect to learn powerful lessons from the people you are visiting.

3. Building relationships based on money. People in poor countries tend to think all Americans are rich, and they will be tempted to look to us instead of God to provide. Don’t wave money around, don’t flaunt expensive watches or jewelry, and don’t hand out cash to everyone you meet. Let your new friends know you want a real friendship with them that does not hinge on finances.

4. Making demands. I know prosperity preachers who expect royal treatment when they go to foreign countries. One man told his host he needed a hotel that costs $1,000 a night—in a nation where most people live in cramped, Soviet-style apartments. The apostle Paul modeled a different approach, and he was willing to live among people at their level (see 1 Thess. 2:9-10). If Jesus was willing to enter this world in a filthy manger, we should be willing to set aside our expensive tastes.

5. Breaking promises. When you connect deeply with a local pastor or congregation overseas, you will fall in love with them and you will want to do everything possible to help them. But don’t promise things you can’t deliver. Always remind them, and yourself, that we must pray for His provision and wait on Him to answer. And if you do enter into a partnership, always honor the promises you made.

6. Taking team members who are not committed to Jesus. I know of a zealous young woman who went on a mission trip to Africa with her church and ended up sleeping with a guy from that country. How does that happen? Anyone who goes with you on a trip needs a background check and a pastor’s recommendation. Mission trips should never be viewed as opportunities for “religious tourism” by immature people who crave a globetrotting adventure. The behavior of your team members should honor Christ.

7. Working with people overseas without thoroughly investigating them. I get requests almost weekly from foreign pastors who want me to visit their church, support their programs or do evangelistic crusades in their villages. In Pakistan, some unscrupulous Christians troll the Internet looking for churches that will send them money. Some people posing as pastors talk naïve Americans into wiring funds for a trip—and then they vanish. If you are going to do mission work, you will need the gift of discernment. Don’t get bamboozled by a con artist posing as “beloved brother Najib.”

8. Using a “hit and run” approach to missions. When I visit a country I almost always end up going back because I build relationships with ministries. This week I’m on my fourth visit to Barranquilla, Colombia, where I am helping to develop a women’s shelter. Mission work should be a long-term partnership. If your church is planning to start a mission program, don’t just scatter your seed here and there. Prayerfully invest in a few places and let the Holy Spirit connect you with those people for a lifetime.

9. Misrepresenting your work. We laugh about the preacher who was “evangelastically speaking” about the crowds he attracted in Uganda. But exaggeration is lying. There is nothing more obnoxious than a Christian who inflates statistics to draw attention or raise funds. If you build your ministry on half-truths you will have cracks in your foundation. Be honest, be accountable and tell the truth.

10. Focusing on numbers. There is huge pressure in missionary work to prove our effectiveness by counting heads. But God’s kingdom is not about crowds—it is about making disciples (see Matt. 28:19-20). Some of my most powerful moments on the mission field were in small meetings where God changed a few lives forever—and then those people changed more lives. I’m not impressed when someone says 5,000 people prayed to receive Jesus. I want to know if those converts were followed-up and plugged into churches for discipleship.

I hope you will become more passionate about taking the message of Christ to the world. But as you pack your bags for your mission trip, leave your unneeded “baggage” at home and go with a humble, teachable heart.

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Don’t Ignore the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

My friend Rafael invited me to preach in his church in Humacao, Puerto Rico, last June. It was Pentecost Sunday, so I brought a message about the Holy Spirit’s power. Then I asked God to use me in a supernatural way because I figure we shouldn’t talk about the Spirit’s gifts if we’re not willing to demonstrate them.

After I finished my sermon I noticed a young man sitting in the fourth row. I’d never met him, but I could sense God’s love for him. I pointed to him and began to give a word of prophecy about how God wanted to use him. I then prophesied over other people and prayed for many others, and then I left Humacao.

Last week I returned to Puerto Rico to speak at a men’s retreat. Guess who showed up? The young man to whom I gave the prophecy came to the event. His name is John, and I learned that he had never visited the church in Humacao until the day I met him there. Because John felt God speaking to him in such a very personal way that Sunday, he has been attending that church ever since—and he has been growing spiritually.

One simple word of supernatural encouragement changed John’s life. But what would have happened if I had decided to “behave myself” that day and not step out in faith to prophesy? What if I had let fear stop me from flowing in the miraculous? What if I had just decided to stick to my notes, preach a nice sermon and play it safe?

I’m afraid that’s what a lot of us are doing today in churches that claim to be Spirit-filled.

We say we believe the Bible, but when it comes to the Holy Spirit, we’ve become cowards. In trying to be trendy and relevant, we’ve replaced spiritual anointing with cool music, graphics, sermons and programs that look and sound great but lack a spiritual punch.

If we are full of the Spirit, the nine charismata, or spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, should be manifested regularly. But few Christians today have even heard of these gifts; fewer have seen them in operation. We need a refresher course in the ways the Holy Spirit works. And we need these nine gifts in our churches today:

1. The word of wisdom. God can give us a supernatural solution to a problem that cannot be solved by man’s ideas. The American church desperately needs this gift so we can shift from man’s carnal ways to heaven’s wisdom.

2. The word of knowledge. The Holy Spirit will sometimes reveal information that could not have been known by man. Last week in our men’s retreat, the Lord showed me there was a man there who had never told anyone about the sexual abuse he had experienced. That prompted the man to come to the altar for prayer. He probably would never have asked for help without the nudge of the Spirit.

3. The gift of faith. This is not the normal kind of faith we need daily. The gift of faith is a special ability to believe for big things. A person operating in supernatural faith will motivate others to pray until the answer comes.

4. The gift of healing. Paul told the Corinthians that there are actually gifts (plural) of healing. I have met people who have a special gift to pray for infertile couples; others have faith to pray for those with cancer; in my own ministry I have seen people healed from depression and the effects of abuse. The exciting part is that God is still in the business of healing bodies, minds and broken hearts.

5. The gift of miracles. The book of Acts is a series of miracles—so why would we ever assume God pulled the plug on that power? He still opens prison doors, breaks chains, releases angels, opens blind eyes, changes weather patterns and delivers people of demons. If we remove the miraculous from our Christianity we portray a puny God to the world. He is still a miracle worker!

6. Prophecy. This is a special gift because God loves to speak to His people. And He wants to use us to relay His message. I consider the gift of prophecy “supernatural encouragement” because it always edifies the person who receives a word from the Lord—even if it is corrective. Will you allow God to use you to speak His direct message to others?

7. Discernment (or “discerning of spirits”). I am grateful that when the Holy Spirit gave His gifts of power, He also provided a way for us to tell the difference between God’s work and a demonic counterfeit. Not all that is supernatural is from God, so we need discernment to protect us from false prophecy and occultic fakery. We also need this gift to set people free from demonic bondage.

8. Speaking in tongues. There are “various kinds of tongues” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:10. Believers can have their own private prayer language, but some people are also gifted to speak in tongues in a church meeting. I know of situations where Christians received a special ability to speak in a foreign language so they could communicate the gospel.

9. Interpretation of tongues. Similar to prophecy, this gift can relay a message from God that was spoken in a foreign or angelic tongue. I love the fact that linguistic barriers don’t limit our God; He loves the entire world!

The apostle Paul told the Corinthians: “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts” (1 Cor. 14:1a). God wants His gifts flowing through us, but He never forces us to use them. He is looking for availability, courage and surrender. Please allow the Holy Spirit to jumpstart His power in your life.

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How to Find the Right Mate

Thirty-three years ago I stood at a church altar in Gainesville, Fla., and pledged my life to Deborah Delk. We didn’t have a lot of money since I was working for a Christian campus ministry, but Deborah didn’t care that all our worldly possessions could fit easily in my 1980 Honda Civic. She loved me, I loved her, and we knew Jesus had brought us together. That’s really all we needed to start life together.

Our marriage has never been perfect (we had our first argument after we got back from our honeymoon), but we learned to keep Jesus in the center of our relationship. He is the reason our marriage has been able to withstand 30 years of storms and challenges. And when my younger friends ask me for advice on how to find the right mate, I share from my experience.

Here are 10 things you should do if you want to find the right person to marry:

1. Keep Jesus first in your life. Some Christians want marriage so bad, they make it an idol. You must yield your desires to God. I waited until I was 25 to marry Deborah, and I told God many times that I would remain single if that’s what He planned for me. I wanted to get married, but I knew Jesus must be my priority. I held on to Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart” (NASB). That verse ended up on the cover of our wedding invitation.

2. Expect God to bless you with a wonderful mate. Some people worry that if they submit to God’s choice for them, He will make them marry a person they are not attracted to. That’s crazy! Your Father wants to bless you. The person He brings into your life will not be perfect (neither are you!), but you will be content if you wait on His choice for you.

3. Be led by the Holy Spirit. I don’t believe there’s only one way to find a mate. Some people meet each other at church; others meet online through services like eHarmony or Match.com. I even know men in India whose marriages were arranged by their parents! But the key is to allow the Holy Spirit to lead you in the process. As a young man, I was inspired by the story of Isaac and Rebekah in the Bible, and I expected God to show me who my wife would be. He ended up doing just that. I knew Deborah would be my wife before we went on our first date.

4. Wait on God’s timing. I know guys who made the mistake of falling in love before they realized they were with the wrong girl. Slow down! Marriage is the most important decision you’ll ever make. Look at all your options and apply discernment. If you are impatient in the area of marriage, you will seriously regret it later.

5. Look for a person who is spiritually compatible with you. Hopefully you already know you shouldn’t marry an unbeliever. But you can’t just marry any Christian! There are plenty of people with questionable morals and shaky faith sitting in church pews and trolling Christian dating sites. Beware of imposters, and run as fast as you can from Satan’s decoys. Keep your standards high. If you settle for less by marrying a lukewarm Christian, you will end up dragging them around for the rest of your life. Marry someone who will challenge you to stay hot for God!

6. Look for confirmation. After dating for a while, you may feel you have found the right person, but don’t make a snap decision. Ask God to confirm your choice. You can also ask mentors and pastors to pray with you for guidance. If you have found the right person, the Lord will give you a green light. But if spiritual people who love you are warning you to avoid the person you are dating, don’t reject their advice. God may be trying to spare you from a relationship disaster.

7. Make sure you are ready for marriage. Even after you have found the right person, don’t assume it’s time to call a wedding planner. Count the cost first. Do you have some unresolved anger issues? Get some counseling. Can the two of you afford to be married and pay your bills on your combined salaries? Do you need to pay off some debts first? Be practical. Love is great, but it does not pay the rent.

8. When the time is right, turn on the charm. God created romance. When you know you are in love with the right person, the two of you can celebrate with that special moment of engagement. Whether it involves roses, chocolates, fancy dinners or walks on the beach, you can make a memory that the two of you can share for decades. Romance will strengthen the bond you share.

9. Keep your clothes on and your feet on the floor until the wedding. The worst way to spoil an engagement is to get involved in premarital sex. As soon as you are engaged, discuss with your future spouse how you are going to respect sexual boundaries until you say your vows to each other. My wife and I stayed pure throughout our engagement, so when we stood at the altar to seal our union, we did it with a clear conscience. Don’t let lust rob you of that blessing. People who have sex before their weddings don’t trust each other afterward.

10. Enroll in a premarital counseling class. Many ministers will not marry a couple unless they agree to premarital counseling. Find out if your church offers a marriage preparation class or if an older couple you trust can meet with you regularly to discuss issues such as communication, finances, sex, family planning and basic marriage principles. Don’t assume you know how to be married. You need all the advice you can get!

Remember: A successful marriage is not just two people. Ecclesiastes 4:12 says, “A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.” The most enduring marriages are made of a husband, a wife … and Jesus. If you invite Him to hold your marriage together from the beginning, I believe it will endure.

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7 Ways to Keep Your Marriage Hot

When I married my wife, Deborah, 30 years ago I had a tiny salary and no money in the bank, so our honeymoon was a budget affair: four nights in Miami Beach, four nights in Orlando, and then back to work. Deborah didn’t complain at all, but I always wanted to make it up to her. So this week we are enjoying an anniversary trip to Hawaii—and thinking a lot about God’s faithfulness.

How do two people stay in love for 30 years? I don’t consider myself a marriage expert, but I can tell you what has worked for us—and what I always advise the younger people I mentor:

1. Pray together. Marriage is more than an emotional and sexual union. It’s a deep spiritual bond. I believe the best way a couple can nurture that connection is to pray together regularly. Set aside time each week to pray for your children, extended family members, financial challenges and life decisions. Pray even more often when you are going through difficult spiritual battles. Prayer will knit your hearts like nothing else.

2. Avoid resentment. All couples fight from time to time, but if you don’t learn how to kiss and make up, your marriage will unravel. Marriage is like a school of forgiveness. Paul’s rule to the Ephesians, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph. 4:26, NASB), is best applied by husbands and wives. When your spouse hurts you, talk about it, forgive and let it go. Don’t keep a list of offenses. If you bury your resentments without resolving them, they will explode like land mines later.

3. Treat each other as equals. Many Christian men believe they are the “head” of the marriage, and they assume this means they can boss their wives around and demand submission. This can lead to physical or verbal abuse, and it is one of the primary reasons so many Christian marriages end in divorce. The Bible actually tells husbands to treat their wives as “fellow heir[s] of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7). If you view your wife as inferior, or if you order her around like she’s under your control, you are guilty of abuse. A husband’s “headship,” as defined by Ephesians 5:23, requires him to be humble, tender and sacrificial—not macho or bossy.

4. Stay involved in a church community. Many couples try to survive in isolation. Either the husband has no friends or the wife has no support network. And I know many couples that don’t have mentors to talk to when they hit rough patches in their relationship. This is dangerous! If I started going off course spiritually, I know my wife would immediately call some of our close friends—and one of them would be at my doorstep demanding my repentance. I have given my friends permission to get in my face! Accountability provides a safety net for your marriage.

5. Keep dating each other. The Bible tells guys, “Rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Prov. 5:18) and then goes farther to say, “Be exhilarated always with her love” (v. 19). That exhilaration might be easy during your honeymoon, but what about when babies arrive, bills pile up, the workload at your job increases and the kids need braces and car insurance? The sizzle can turn to ice if you don’t spend the time necessary to regularly stoke the fire of romance. When we had four little kids at home, my wife and I always tried to go on a date every week—even when we didn’t need the extra expense of a babysitter. We still try to live by this rule now that we are empty nesters. If you invest in your marriage now, you will reap the rewards later.

6. Maintain sexual intimacy. I have counseled many married guys with sexual problems, including porn addiction and adultery. In almost every case, these men stopped having regular sex at home before their problems began. Sex is a totally natural part of marriage, and it is unhealthy for couples to deprive each other of sex or to use it as a manipulative weapon. Paul told the Corinthians, “The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and also the wife to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:3). Healthy sex is like glue that holds a marriage together.

7. Honor your vows. Many couples in the church today don’t have a clear understanding of what a marriage covenant means. We pay a lot of money for weddings, and we take a lot of expensive photos so we can remember the moment. We say our vows in front of an altar, and those vows are solemnly confirmed by a pastor holding a Bible. But many couples still don’t take their vows seriously. Marriage is a promise made in the very presence of God! If we view that vow casually, or if we don’t keep God at the center of our relationship, a marriage can go from hot to cold in a matter of months.

My wife keeps some of our framed wedding photos on the wall of our family room. Even though the 1980s hairstyles and clothes are horribly out of date, we display those pictures to remind ourselves that we made a covenant with God and with each other on April 28, 1984. We invited Him to make us one, and we know that the grace He gave us to stay married for 30 years can last a lifetime. He can do the same for you.

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7 Reasons We Don’t Empower Women for Ministry

This week the Church of England overturned centuries of tradition by voting to allow women as bishops. Anglicans already approved women priests 20 years ago, but on Monday they opened the door for women to serve in the highest office in the church.

Reaction to the landmark decision was mixed. Government leaders in England applauded the move. Others vowed to fight it. And some observers scratched their heads, wondering why it took this long. After all, Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, served as Prime Minister for almost 12 years, and Queen Elizabeth has been on the British throne since 1952.

Here in the United States, the issue of women in leadership is a hot potato. Many conservative denominations bar women from top positions, citing a biblical mandate that men must always be in charge. Meanwhile, Pentecostal and charismatic groups, while biblically conservative, allow women to function as top leaders—yet their policies are reflected more often on paper than in actual practice.

Many Spirit-filled women still feel resistance if they volunteer to lead anything other than a women’s Bible study. Why is this? During the 14 years that I have been a vocal proponent of women in ministry, I have observed these key reasons why conservative evangelicals tend to limit women in the church:

1. We misunderstand Scripture. Conservatives who bar women from leadership typically cite 1 Timothy 2:12 or 1 Corinthians 14:34 (“women are to keep silent in the churches”), and yet they ignore verses affirming women’s spiritual gifts. Deborah, who served as senior leader of ancient Israel, is ignored, and New Testament women leaders such as Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche, Junia or the daughters of Philip are dismissed. We also conveniently forget that Peter announced on the day of Pentecost: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17b). Scripture actually calls certain women to leadership rather than banning them from it.

2. We are bound by religious tradition. Martin Luther was a prophetic voice to the church when he exposed religious corruption and heresy. Yet he was still so bound by his own 16th century bias against women that he believed God created females only for the purpose of childbirth. Many conservative Christians still hold antiquated ideas about female inferiority. This explains why so many churches didn’t allow women to wear pants or makeup a decade ago, and why women today are still expected to serve only as cooks or babysitters in some denominations.

3. We don’t give the Holy Spirit full control. Paul the apostle wrote: “There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28b). He understood the amazing equality of the Holy Spirit, who gives spiritual gifts to “each one” (1 Cor. 12:11)—not according to gender, class or race but simply according to God’s choice. Scripture teaches that God chooses whom He wills; He does not qualify based on human criteria. This means we must affirm the valid gifts and callings of our sisters. If God calls an Esther to lead, we should not hide the scepter from her.

4. We are afraid of “feminizing” the church. Some insecure Christian guys have complained that there are already too many women making decisions in the church. One author even demanded that flowers be removed from church altars because they are feminine! My response: The same God who created deer antlers and buckskin also made carnations and orchids. Genesis 1:26-28 says God created male and female in His image. Only when we have men and women functioning in their full capacity in the church will we see His image fully manifested. It’s silly to try to rid the church of women’s influence when God appointed both fathers and mothers to run a family. It took Abraham and Sarah to give birth to Israel; God wants both genders involved in His work.

5. We associate women leaders with a liberal agenda. In the United States many of the women who hold political office do not reflect Christian moral values. For this reason some people automatically associate women preachers or pastors with a radical feminist agenda. This is unfair. In America’s past, some of the greatest leaders of social change were women who held Christian beliefs—brave women like Harriet Tubman, Phoebe Palmer and Sojourner Truth—and they would have never advocated abortion or same-sex marriage. We need an army of women leaders who will speak as prophets on the national stage.

6. We don’t see enough positive examples of female leadership. In the early Pentecostal movement it was not uncommon to see women preachers traveling across our nation planting churches and conducting evangelistic campaigns in roadside tents. Women preachers including Aimee Semple MacPherson, Carrie Judd Montgomery and Myrtle Beall made a huge spiritual impact on their generation. Today, while there are significant numbers of women pastors and missionaries in the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal groups, the most prominent Christian women featured in mainstream media tend to stay in their place. They are incredibly gifted, but they are viewed as Bible teachers to women only.

7. Some Christians hate women. It’s sad but true. Misogyny is alive and well, and sometimes it is even preached from pulpits. In one prominent evangelical church in a Central American country, the pastor often jokes about women and seems to trivialize adultery. It’s no wonder domestic violence thrives in that country. Until some brave men have the guts to challenge the sexism of the good ol’ boy network, abuse will remain a problem among Christians. (I am not saying that there aren’t women who hate men, or that men are never abused—but statistics show the majority of abuse cases involve women victims.)

Why am I so passionate about women in ministry? When our spiritual enemies are attacking and the hour is late, both Deborah and Barak are needed on the battlefield. This is an issue that is on the Lord’s heart. I pray we will affirm and celebrate all women who sense a call from God to lead.

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When Is It Right to Leave a Marriage?

Recently when I wrote a column titled “10 Men Christian Women Should Never Marry,” readers shared some heartbreaking stories of their marital mistakes. One woman admitted, “The man I married is six of the 10 things you listed!” Many other readers also asked this honest question: “If my husband is one of those men, can I divorce him?”

I don’t enjoy recommending divorce to anybody. God instituted marriage, so it’s sacred. It’s a holy bond that we should protect. Jesus Himself said, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6, NASB). Yet in the same passage He mentioned immorality (v. 9) as an allowable reason for divorce. In a fallen world full of sin and unfaithfulness, divorce is not always avoidable.

It’s true that many Christians are too eager to bail out of a marriage after their first big argument or when the flame of romance dims. Too many people view divorce as a convenient escape hatch. Yet this flippant disregard for covenant vows is not acceptable for a follower of Christ. Any Christian couple that stands before God to seal their union should be committed to staying together through thick and thin.

At the same time, I have counseled with both men and women who were trapped in severely dysfunctional marriages—and it was obvious some of these relationships simply could not be restored. In those cases, I had to ask them to prayerfully seek a divorce—and find support, counseling and prayer as they walked through the traumatic aftermath of a painful breakup.

Here are four situations in which divorce may be an advisable option:

1. Unrepentant adultery. If a husband or a wife is unfaithful to their partner, it’s possible to forgive and reconcile. But that’s only an option if the person who committed the adultery is willing to admit their sin and break off the illicit relationship. If the affair was a one-time experience, and the guilty spouse is broken over their sin, then healing is possible. However, a man who is constantly cheating on his wife (or vice versa) is deceived, and he is also putting his wife at risk of disease. If your spouse is having sex with someone else, you are not required by God to tolerate that behavior.

2. Domestic abuse. I never counsel a woman to stay in a physically abusive marriage. The wife needs to get herself and her children out of the house if her husband is beating her or making violent threats. It is irresponsible for any Christian minister to tell an abused woman to stay in a domestic situation that is physically dangerous. Separation is an option for a season; if the husband is willing to receive counseling, it might be possible to save the marriage. But God does not expect you to stay married to an abuser. He wants to rescue you out of that situation!

3. Emotional cruelty or control. I know women who have endured years of verbal abuse from husbands who claim to love God but don’t understand that their dominating attitudes are slowly killing their wives. Some husbands think they have the right to monitor and analyze their wives’ every move. Others scold their wives, scream at them or subject them to constant profanity and angry tirades. For victims, this can lead to depression, addiction and even suicide. If the abuser is not willing to repent of such toxic behavior, the spouse needs to get out before the abuse destroys what’s left of his or her self-image. This principle also applies to spouses who are involved in drug abuse, alcoholism or criminal activity.

4. Spiritual incompatibility. Many times one spouse will come to faith in Christ before the other. In the best situations, the believing spouse leads the unbelieving spouse to the Lord. But what if that spouse never embraces Christianity? Paul told the Corinthians that they can stay together but that it is not wrong to allow an unbelieving spouse to leave (1 Cor. 7:12-16).

In some conservative churches, leaders teach that divorce is never acceptable and that a person who chooses to divorce—even if they have been abused—is in sin if they leave the marriage. These hardliners will typically declare, “God hates divorce,” quoting Malachi 2:16, and then suggest that even the innocent party in a divorce will be judged by God. That’s an unfair use of Scripture. God’s mercy is bigger than that!

God certainly hates the pain, shame and family disintegration that accompanies divorce, but He also offers healing, restoration and freedom to people who have endured a marriage breakup. As we work to protect marriages and encourage strong families, let’s also leave room in our hearts—and in our theology—for people who simply cannot stay in irreparable relationships.

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Why Physical Fitness Is a Spiritual Priority

One year ago I faced a sad reality in the mirror: I was getting fat. I was beginning to resemble the fat preachers I had seen going back for third helpings at the Sunday afternoon all-you-can-eat buffet line.

At first I tried to ignore my weight gain by cropping photos and adjusting my belt. But the numbers on the scale weren’t lying. I told myself I didn’t have time to exercise or eat right because my ministry kept me too busy. I had more “spiritual” things to do than exercise.

But finally I made a powerful decision to reclaim my life. I got ruthless, sort of like when Jesus went into the temple with His whip. I slashed all white bread, sugar, junk food and sodas from my diet. I joined a gym. And I started an exercise routine that I can do anywhere, even in a hotel room.

After one year, I’ve lost weight and gained muscle—and I feel better than I have in years, even though I’ve faced enormous stress this year. My progress has motivated me to get even more fit in 2017. And it has helped me realize that physical fitness is not something optional.

I won’t win a popularity contest for saying this, but it’s true: The American church is fat—and ministers are sometimes the biggest sinners when it comes to overeating. This may be one key reason we don’t address bad eating habits from the pulpit. If a preacher is hiding his huge stomach with his Sunday jacket, he’s certainly not going to deliver a sermon about gluttony.

So here’s my attempt to confront the issue. Here are three reasons why physical fitness needs to move up your priority list in this New Year:

1. Because you should glorify God with your body. I know Christians who would love to go on a mission trip, participate in a three-day fast or lead a weekly discipleship group for teenagers. But they never do these things because they are limited by their physical abilities. Some of us are simply too overweight, too tired or too out of shape to engage in any type of rigorous ministry.

Yet the New Testament teaches that our spirituality can’t be separated from the physical. The apostle Paul wrote: “What? Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19).

Paul’s powerful words, in their context, refer to the importance of sexual purity. Sexual sin is wrong because we should never do with our bodies what would offend the indwelling Holy Spirit. So if this is true for immoral types of sex, is it not also true when we fill our bodies with drugs, alcohol or unhealthy food?

In New Testament times, Gnostic heretics taught that a Christian can love God and yet engage in any kind of immoral sin because it is physical, not spiritual. Yet Paul denounced this by saying: “Therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20b). Today we still preach against sexual sin, yet gluttony is no longer considered a sin in most churches. Instead, we laugh about it while we pass the cheesecake and the onion rings.

2. Because how you control your appetite affects every other area of your life. Part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit is self-control (see Gal. 5:23). Yet in the church today, we have created a culture of overeating—and then we wonder why some Christians fall into porn addiction, adultery or gambling. The truth is that we have sanctioned food addiction as “acceptable flesh”—and we are reaping the consequences.

Jacob’s brother, Esau, sold his birthright for a bowl of stew because his appetite controlled his judgment. Many Christians have done the same. We forfeit certain spiritual blessings simply because we can’t say no to food.

3. Because you want to live a long and fruitful life. I decided to get serious about fitness last year because I’m getting older, and I want to make the biggest possible mark on my generation before I die. It’s a lie that you can’t be fit in your 50s or 60s. I want to be like the biblical Caleb, who testified that he was as strong at age 85 as he was at age 40.

God has promised the righteous a long life, but that isn’t an automatic guarantee. Long life requires wisdom, which includes healthy eating, regular exercise, proper rest and stress management. When we binge regularly on pizzas, sodas and glazed donuts and fill our bodies with processed foods full of chemicals, we shouldn’t be surprised when we end up with diabetes, heart ailments, high blood pressure and an early funeral. Don’t eat for the moment. Always keep tomorrow in mind when you are looking at the menu.

Jesus called His followers disciples, a term that means “disciplined ones.” Yet how many of us would honestly say we are disciplined in the area of food and fitness? I challenge you to make this your goal in the coming year. Be a disciple. The decision you make today to get healthy will reap countless benefits—not only for you, but also for those you love.

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Breaking Free from the Spirit of Inferiority

I grew up in the South, where football is a religion. Every boy I knew dreamed of becoming a star quarterback. When my relatives gathered for meals, the conversation usually revolved around whether Auburn would beat Alabama this year.

I felt like sliding under my chair during those moments. I was not a football player—and there was no chance of me becoming one. I didn’t have big enough biceps to throw a 50-yard pass, and I didn’t have the frame to tackle a 200-pound guy. I felt like a total wimp. I assumed that when God handed out physical talents, I was stuck at the back of the line.

Thankfully my lack of athletic skills didn’t cripple me entirely. I had other abilities, like writing—and I ended up being the editor of my high school yearbook. But a cloud of inferiority followed me everywhere. No matter how successful I was in other areas, I branded myself a failure because I didn’t measure up as an athlete.

It was only though the power of the Holy Spirit that I eventually overcame this painful sense of disqualification. But now I meet people every day who are slaves of inferiority. Some feel intellectually challenged; some struggle with a physical disability; others are terrified of speaking publicly because they are insecure about their appearance or weight. Others were bullied or abused, and the cruel words they heard on a playground or at the dinner table were stamped into their brains with a hot iron.

What about you? Do you find it difficult to describe your positive qualities? Are you haunted by labels that were pinned on you by parents, siblings, teachers or classmates? Were you ever called “stupid,” “fatso,” “dunce,” “dork,” “lazy,” “slut,” “queer” or the N-word? Words are like knives, and they can leave permanent scars. If inferiority is hindering you in your relationship with God and others, consider taking this journey toward healing:

1. Let God change your self-image. The Bible is full of stories of insecure people who ended up doing heroic things. God loves to use “powerless” people “to shame those who are powerful” (1 Cor. 1:27, NLT). Sarah was barren, yet God called her a mother of nations. Moses was a stutterer, yet God called him to confront Pharaoh. David was an embarrassment to his father before he became a king. If you feel inferior, you are in good company!

2. Bury the lies you’ve believed. False beliefs will not collapse without a fight. You must identify the lies you believe about yourself, and then renounce them. This is not something you can do alone; you must be willing to talk about your inferiority with a counselor, a pastor or trusted friends.

When I was in my 20s, I asked two friends to pray with me because I felt so inferior. This deep insecurity made me shy and fearful, but I wanted to be confident so that I could grow spiritually and discover my calling. That prayer meeting put me on a path toward full-time ministry that has taken me to 30 nations! I would have stayed in my prison of insecurity if those men had not helped me see that God had something important for me to do with my life.

3. Confess your new identity. Gideon felt like a weakling when the angel of the Lord came to him and announced: “The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior!” (Judges 6:12). At that point, Gideon was looking around and wondering, Who is this guy talking to? He did not believe he was a warrior! Yet God redefined Gideon’s identity and eventually changed his name to Jerubbaal, which means (my paraphrase) “The devil is in trouble.”

But it is not enough to simply believe in your heart that you are God’s chosen instrument. You must boldly proclaim who you are now. Joel 3:10 declares: “Let the weak say, ‘I am a mighty man.'” You must say it! If you were told you are a failure, say: “I am more than a conqueror.” If you were told that you are fat and ugly, say: “I am my Beloved’s, and His desire is for me” (Song 7:10). And keep saying it until you believe it!

4. Stop comparing yourself with others. At the core of sinful human nature is the desire to have what isn’t ours. That’s why one of the commandments God gave Moses was “Do not covet” (Ex. 20:17). We live in a culture that celebrates perfect beauty, athleticism, celebrity and wealth—and our media constantly reminds us of what we don’t have by bombarding us with images (actually they are idolsof “perfect” people. Don’t let those idols control you!

The media doesn’t set the standard for us—God does. Instead of focusing on what you aren’t, celebrate who God made you to be. If I had spent my life lamenting the fact that I couldn’t make the football team, I would have never discovered the other talents God gave me.

5. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. You can never overcome mental strongholds of worthlessness and inferiority in your own strength. It is the Holy Spirit who changes us. Just as He convicts us of sin and purifies our motives, He also strips away the lies we have believed about ourselves and heals us from the words and experiences that crippled us. Ask Him to fill you so full that those lies can’t hang around any longer.

If inferiority has gripped your soul, you can say this prayer now: “Lord, You are more powerful than any label that has ever been put on me. I renounce the lies that I have believed about myself. I am not weak; I am strong in You. I am not stupid; I have Your wisdom. I am not worthless; You died on the cross to redeem me. Thank You that because I am in Christ, I am a new creation. I am not bound by my old identity—I have a new identity in Jesus. Help me to see myself the way You see me—as Your beloved child and as a powerful, anointed, gifted disciple. Amen.

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A Practical Checklist for Your Next Mission Trip

Twenty years ago I prayed a dangerous prayer. I said to God: “Here am I, send me”—and I knew He would take me seriously.

Since that holy moment, I have traveled to preach in 29 countries, and I will leave tomorrow for Iceland. Last year I slept in 58 different beds, some of them extremely uncomfortable, because I surrendered to the call to share Jesus in other cultures.

Missionary travel is biblical. Ever since the Lord called Abraham to leave Ur, God’s followers have been hitting the road to carry His message to foreign places. (And many, like the prophet Jonah, have resisted the call!) The early disciples carried the gospel from Israel to the entire known world in the first century without the benefit of airplanes, smartphones and credit cards. So today we have no excuse when it comes to fulfilling this amazing global assignment.

Perhaps you are preparing to go on a short-term missionary journey this summer. A mission trip can change your life, but it can also turn into a disaster if you fail to plan. Here are a few reminders to help you prepare.

1. Don’t go alone. Jesus sent His disciples two by two. It is best to go on mission trips in teams. There have been times when I flew alone and met other people in the country I was visiting. But my preference is to always have companions with me. And a mission trip is a perfect opportunity to take disciples with you so you can mentor them along the way.

2. Be sure you are covered in prayer. It’s vital that you have intercessory support while you are on a missionary trip. I always send a prayer letter to my supporters before I leave, and I give them specific information so they can pray effectively. It’s also a great idea to have your pastor and other church leaders lay hands on you and pray before you depart. You will feel the support!

3. Get the right documents. You can’t travel outside the United States without a valid passport. You may also need a visa in your passport depending on what country you are visiting. To find out if you need a visa, check out the country’s embassy website. In some cases you will have to mail your passport to the embassy with a fee. In other cases you simply need to pay a fee at the airport when you arrive at your destination.

4. Get your shots! Some countries require travelers to have certain immunizations. Go to the U.S. State Department website to find out if you need these. It’s cheaper to get these at your local health department than from a doctor. You will receive a yellow health card with official documentation of your shots. Keep this card with your passport on all trips. Do not be foolish and presume that God will automatically heal you if you didn’t protect yourself from disease.

5. Pack wisely. Find out from your hosts how they want you to dress. In some countries preachers are expected to wear suits even though it is extremely hot! Don’t assume you can dress however you want. Be sensitive. You should dress in a way that honors your hosts. (In some countries it is considered inappropriate for men to wear shorts, for example, or for women to wear pants.) Also, be sure you research what type of electrical plugs are used in the country you are visiting. If you don’t take the right plug adapter, you will not be able to recharge your phone or other devices.

6. Take the right amount of cash. I avoid using my credit card in developing countries because some vendors will steal your number. Determine before you leave how much cash you need, and store the cash in a concealed pocket. Go to a bank to exchange currency. It is unwise to use currency vendors on the street unless your host is with you and he feels the rate is good.

7. Take interest in the people you are ministering to. Mission work is incarnational. To be effective you must identify with the people. Eat with them, laugh with them, be affectionate with them and serve them. Set your cultural differences aside and be relevant. I do this by learning some phrases in the local language, learning facts about the country and eating the local food. I also try to build lifelong relationships and I stay in touch with the people after I get home. Never engage in “hit and run” missions. Stay connected!

8. Learn to use a translator. If the people you are visiting do not speak English, you must depend on a good translator when you teach or preach. Usually your hosts will provide the translator—but you should make sure this has been arranged before you leave. You may have the best translator in the country, but if you don’t know how to speak properly using a translator the people will not benefit from your message. Speak in short, clear phrases or complete sentences, and then let the translator translate. Don’t use slang or American expressions. And don’t scream or be theatrical. Remember: The people need to hear your translator, not you.

9. Prepare your heart to be a servant. The last thing the world needs is a spoiled American traveling to a developing country. We are called to deny ourselves as we follow Christ. Don’t make demands when you are with your hosts. It is wonderful if you have hot water in your shower, Internet access or a nice bed. But don’t go expecting to be comfortable, and don’t complain about anything when you are there. You might suffer a little from heat, mosquitoes, broken toilets, thin walls, noisy roosters, leaky roofs or gross food, but I promise those inconveniences won’t kill you.

10. Be flexible! In most foreign countries, especially in the developing world, people think differently about time. Church meetings start late. Schedules change. Transportation is unreliable. Electricity goes out often. It is easy to get frustrated if you are used to American efficiency. You must learn to relax and rest in God. Your hosts may tell you the meeting starts at 9 a.m., but don’t get upset if everything is two hours late. This is the reality of the mission field. Remember the old adage: “Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be broken.”

And finally, when you return from your trip, it’s important to debrief. Don’t just jump back to your office job. Take some time to process. I minister to many abused people when I travel, and I hear a lot of horror stories. I also see a lot of poverty—and this can weigh heavy on my heart. It’s important to talk to some friends about what you experienced after you return.

Don’t just bottle up your feelings. What did you learn? Share what troubled you. Cry if you need to. Be open and let God speak to you about what you saw during your trip. He will expand your compassion so He can love a broken world through you.

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