Healthy Church Life

Why I Defend Women Preachers

My friend Abby Olufeyemi is one of my favorite pastors. She’s a Nigerian living in England, so her British/African accent makes her sermons all the more fascinating to listen to. Besides her obvious anointing as a preacher, she’s also a model of Christian integrity. She’s been tested through serious trials—including the loss of her husband, Alfred, who died in a plane crash—so she leads with grace and compassion.

Thankfully, Abby finds support from her denomination, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, the largest indigenous church network in Nigeria, and one of the fastest-growing Pentecostal groups in the world. But when I tell people that I work alongside women pastors I get puzzled looks. Many Christians who love God and the Bible believe women are not allowed to serve in pastoral roles.

This is especially obvious whenever Charisma publishes an article on the topic. Three weeks ago, my column, “Six Gender Myths in the Church,” sparked a firestorm of protest. But I don’t argue with people in online forums because (1) I respect anyone’s right to his opinions, and (2) I can’t spend all my time answering critics when there are souls to be reached for Christ—and so many women who want to reach them.

But being with Abby in London made me realize that many Americans oppose women leaders because they just haven’t seen very many examples. At the risk of sounding simplistic I will list the reasons why I believe we need more women on the front lines of ministry today:

1. The Bible endorses women in leadership. Paul’s first epistle to Timothy seems to limit women’s roles in leadership (see 1 Tim. 2:12). Yet Paul also gushed with praise for the women who served with him as co-laborers—women such as Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), Junia (Rom. 16:7) and Priscilla, who helped lay foundations in the early church (see 1 Cor. 16:19). In Phil. 4:2-3, Paul expresses solidarity with two women leaders, Euodia and Syntyche. And he refers to other women who obviously led churches, such as Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11) and Nympha (Col. 4:15), and he does not try to silence or restrict them.

Traditionalists who insist on barring women from leadership positions always refer to 1 Tim. 2:12 as an ironclad rule—yet they ignore the women who served with Paul. The obvious question is: Why did Paul tell Timothy to clamp down on the women in Ephesus when he allowed Priscilla to teach? The most sensible interpretation is that the Ephesian women were teaching heresy. They had no business teaching the Bible or leading the church, yet Paul encouraged faithful women.

2. Churches need women’s gifts and perspectives. God created both male and female, and His nature is revealed through both genders (see Gen. 1:26-28). This is why the biblical definition of a family is a father and a mother. If a child needs both parents to learn the ways of God (see Prov. 1:8-9), then surely we need instruction from both men and women in the church. If only men are allowed to function in leadership or teaching roles, the church itself will be male-dominant—and this can lead to issues of control, abuse or sexual sin (the problem of child abuse in the Catholic Church is just one obvious example).

3. We can’t address women’s problems without empowering women to address them. In the 1800s women were not allowed to go to medical school. Some men believed the female brain was smaller than a male’s (!), and that women had no business being doctors. What happened when women entered the medical profession? Suddenly there were breakthroughs in medical care, including improvements in gynecology and obstetrics. Women began addressing problems that had been ignored by a male-dominated medical establishment.

Take a look at the world today and you will see millions of girls and women suffering because of sex trafficking, forced child marriage, gang rape, genital mutilation, domestic violence, eating disorders, depression and denial of education. What might happen if we opened the doors wider to empower women in their spiritual gifts? Do women hold a key to solving these problems? I believe we could see social change on an unimaginable scale if we remove gender limitations in ministry.

4. Women leaders don’t hinder men, they help them. Many Christian men I know seem to fear women’s influence. Some gripe about the “feminization” of the church, and they threaten to ban flowers from altars to make the sanctuary look more like a man cave. That’s goofy. My Bible says God made flowers as well as antlers and rawhide. He also created women, and He made them to do more than bake cookies and nurse babies. He gave women intelligence, discernment, prophetic insight, gifts of mercy and compassion, leadership abilities and spiritual authority.

When I listen to Abby Olufeyemi preach, or when I see how she shepherds her growing congregation, I receive truth from the Holy Ghost and learn valuable lessons about leadership. She doesn’t threaten me; she encourages me. Strong men are not intimidated by gifted women. And strong, gifted women who have Christian character would never try to compete with men or undermine them.

We are all called to be partners and co-heirs in God’s kingdom. Let’s grow up and embrace biblical equality.

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Can Single Guys and Girls Just Be Friends?

Recently I was rejoicing with one of my single friends, Roman, because he believes he’s found the girl he wants to marry. Naturally I’m excited for him and I hope I can attend his wedding. I want all my single friends to find mates.

But I’m also disturbed because I know many singles that would like to be married yet have very few close friends of the opposite sex. Something is built into our Christian culture that discourages normal guy/girl friendships. It’s as if we’re afraid they will hop in bed if they actually talk for an hour and share their hopes, dreams or struggles.

Meanwhile, we pressure guys and girls to marry if they become friends. (“Oooh, Gina, we saw you with Brad yesterday. Is something going on between you two?”) Why can’t Gina and Brad just encourage each other in their journey with God without turning their relationship into a big deal? Is it possible for Christian guys and girls to build healthy friendships without assuming they are headed to the church altar?

I believe it is absolutely possible. Here are six keys to developing these relationships:

1. View your friends as family. Paul told Timothy he should treat older women as mothers and younger women as sisters (see 1 Tim. 5:2). The same rule applies to girls: You should view your male Christian friends as brothers. Having this pure-hearted attitude makes real friendship possible. If a guy views his female friend as a sister he won’t be lusting after her body; instead, his instinct will be to encourage her. If a girl views her male friend as a brother she will care about him and pray for him without expecting him to have sexual feelings for her.

2. Avoid “pair pressure.” In many churches today there’s a nagging pressure to find “the one” so you can take yourself off the market. If you are carrying this burden, every friendship with a person of the opposite sex can be a drain. “Is she the one?” “Does he like me?” “How should I dress?” These concerns morph into worries that suck all the fun out of life. Trust God with your desire for a mate. If you don’t relax you will come across as desperate—and that’s a big turn-off. Stop trying to make something happen and just enjoy getting to know a new friend. Remember Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

3. Say goodbye to awkward. Before we married, my wife and I both dreaded the dating scene. Calling someone you barely know and asking them to dinner or a movie is scary—and it’s the reason a lot of Christian guys are still single at 35. Meanwhile Christian girls have been told to wait for the guy to make the first move, so they are conditioned to wait for “the call.” You can say goodbye to all this awkwardness by organizing group gatherings: Meet several friends for coffee, invite them to a cookout or throw a party. Then just enjoy each other’s company. And girls: Feel free to initiate the invitation!

4. Rediscover the art of conversation. In today’s media-soaked culture we’ve forgotten how to talk to each other. Many guys feel socially clumsy, so they become immersed in video games and become emotional hermits. They need friends—including female friends—to help them crawl out of their shells. Meanwhile both guys and girls are so addicted to their phones that they don’t know how to talk for an hour without checking for text messages. If you want to be a good friend, learn to focus on the person you’re talking to!

5. Don’t allow a hint of seduction. The message we get from media today is that it’s all about sex. But as a Christian you don’t have to bow to that idol. You can have a meaningful friendship with a person of the opposite sex without ending up in bed together. But if you plan to keep it pure, you will have to put up some obvious boundaries. Use common sense. Don’t wear revealing clothes. Don’t touch each other inappropriately. And don’t spend the night at each other’s apartments in the name of “friendship.” If you are true friends you will respect each other enough to avoid a sexual mistake that you will regret later.

6. Keep your friendships Christ-focused. Hebrews 3:13a says: “But encourage one another day after day.” This verse applies to single men and women, too. We need each others’ encouragement, and God wants the single members of the church to be involved in each others’ lives. Your phone calls, notes and honest counsel may be what propels your friend into their life purpose; your kindness and prayers may be what gets them through a difficult crisis. Keep Jesus at the center of your friendships and don’t miss out on the blessing those friends can be to you.

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How to Leave an Unhealthy Church

Recently I shared some practical guidelines on how to leave a church gracefully. I wrote this because I hear so many stories about people storming out of churches because their feelings got hurt. But an astute reader also pointed out that my guidelines really don’t apply when the church or its pastor have become abusive.

“Teresa” wrote that in her city, a popular leader of a megachurch was exposed for engaging in secret immoral behavior that affected countless members of his congregation for many years. “Thousands of people have been abused, broken, manipulated and controlled by [the pastor],” she wrote. “He has literally destroyed hundreds of families over the decades.”

So how do you leave a church that is spiritually abusive? What if the pastor or other leaders are guilty of sexual misconduct, unethical or illegal financial activities or controlling behavior? The rules for leaving are different.

1. Get outside advice. Before you plan your exit, make sure you are looking at the situation rationally. Talk to two or three people who are not members of this church or ministry. You might even want to set up a meeting with another pastor from your city. Explain your concerns. They will help you see if you are overreacting, or if you really have a case.

2. Gather the facts. Never base your concerns on rumors or unfounded allegations. Can this improper behavior be documented? Is there a paper trail? Paul said in 1 Timothy 5:19: “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.” If there has been wrongdoing, there will be evidence. (If you find concrete evidence that something illegal is going on, such as extortion or child abuse, you should contact the police.)

3. Confront the issue. This will not be easy if the leader in question uses threats, manipulation or anger to run over people. I normally advise that meetings be in person, but don’t meet alone if the leader in question is a manipulator. Take people with you so that you can’t be bullied. It’s also best to put your concerns in writing and take the letter with you.

4. Make a clean break. If you know that the pastor or other church leaders are guilty of behavior that disqualifies ministers, and there are no signs of repentance, you don’t have to stick around. God gave you two feet, and you can use them to walk out. Some people feel guilty for leaving an abusive church, but you must renounce feelings of false guilt or displaced loyalty. God will help you start a new life. Don’t let anyone (especially extended family members) manipulate you into staying.

5. Get counseling and prayer from a mature Christian. Spiritual manipulation messes with your mind. People I know who were part of an abusive ministry were made to feel guilty for simply asking questions. They were told that God required them to be blindly loyal, and that if they ever left the ministry something terrible would happen to them. If you were under this type of toxic control, you need someone to pray for you—so you can break free from psychological abuse.

6. Find a healthy church. Never let the devil convince you to give up on church just because the one you attended went off track. You need God’s people in your life. Some frustrated saints who have been wounded by unqualified leaders have asked me, “Are there any good churches left?” My answer is always yes! The Great Shepherd always leads us to green pastures where we can be healed and comforted. If you isolate yourself from church, you are wasting your spiritual gifts and ruining your chances of being restored.

7. Help others to heal. In my work with abused women, I’ve seen that those who suffered the most became powerfully effective in helping others after they experienced healing. This can be true for people who were wounded in an unhealthy church. God does not waste our pain! He can use your testimony to help those who are going through similar situations.

Once you leave, it is possible that other members of your church will contact you—and some of them will be honestly seeking the same freedom you have found. You owe it to them to share the story of your exit. If you stay healthy during the process of leaving, God can use you to pull others to safety.

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6 Things That Block the Holy Spirit’s Power

Last weekend while I was preaching at a church in central California, a young man came to the altar to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. He was eager to go deeper spiritually. Someone prayed for him for a while, but nothing happened.

I walked over to the young man a few minutes later and told him I would pray for him some more after the meeting was dismissed. I’ve learned that sometimes there are blockages that can prevent people from receiving the fullness of the Spirit, so I always try to discern what must be moved out of the way.

In this guy’s case, his heart was in a great deal of pain because his father had abandoned his family. He wanted God to baptize him with the Spirit, but the pain of rejection was like a gaping wound that needed urgent attention. As soon as I began to address this problem, he began sobbing in my arms.

After we prayed about his father issues, and he got the healing he needed, he quickly received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. A fresh joy filled his heart. And a new heavenly language began pouring out of his mouth. I encouraged him to pray in tongues for a while as he received the Spirit’s anointing.

This next Sunday, May 24, is the official day of Pentecost—when Christians all over the world celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church. But Pentecost should also be a very personal experience for you. Have you, or someone you know, struggled to receive this supernatural infilling?

Here are some reasons why there might be a blockage:

1. Doubt or intellectual pride. In the 1960s a journalist named John Sherrill decided to write a book discrediting the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. But after he interviewed countless people about this experience, his doubts were shattered and he was baptized in the Holy Spirit himself. His book, They Speak With Other Tongues, became a Christian classic. Spiritual experiences cannot be figured out with the mind. To receive the Spirit’s infilling you must let go of your intellectual arguments and display childlike faith (see Matt. 18:2-4).

2. Religious tradition. I knew an Episcopal priest who was filled with the Holy Spirit in the 1970s in New York City. He was excited about the new vitality he felt in his faith—and thrilled that his wife had experienced a physical healing. But when he shared his testimony with his bishop, he was told he was crazy! And the bishop referred him to a psychiatrist! Religious people who are locked into “the way we’ve always done it” find it hard to receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit. You must be willing to break free from tradition.

3. Fear of the supernatural. Some Christians grew up in denominations that taught against the infilling of the Holy Spirit. They were told that Pentecostals are all fanatics who go into trances, speak mindless gibberish and swing from chandeliers. Actually, the first disciples in the New Testament spoke in tongues and experienced miracles—yet their faith was not strange. It should be the norm! People who are afraid of God’s supernatural power will struggle to receive it.

4. Unconfessed sin. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit can be “quenched” as well as “grieved” (1 Thess. 5:19; Eph. 4:30). Because He is so holy, our sinful habits and attitudes can cause Him to withdraw. This is why it’s so important for us to walk in constant communion with God, and to be willing to repent quickly when we know we have sinned. Some people “stuff” their secret sins in the closets of their hearts. If you want to be filled with the Spirit, you must be willing to open those closets and invite the light of God’s holiness into every dark corner of your life.

5. Emotional wounds. Like the young man I prayed for last weekend, some people are just too burdened with emotional baggage to be filled with the Spirit. Some have been abused, others weighted down by anxiety, others grieved or depressed. They need healing first. Like Lazarus on the day he was raised from the dead, they are bound by the grave clothes of the past, and they need to be unwrapped before they can experience God’s full anointing (see John 11:44). Healing is often needed before a person can receive the blessing of Holy Spirit baptism.

6. An unyielded spirit. You cannot be filled with the Holy Spirit if you are full of yourself. Some people are too willful. They have not surrendered their plans, finances, relationships or time to God. They have their lives planned out and they don’t want God interrupting their agendas. Yet God is looking to fill hearts that have been emptied and surrendered. Only the fully yielded can experience the fullness of His power.

If you have not received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, or if the flow of the Spirit has been blocked in your life, empty your heart today and prepare for your own personal Pentecost.

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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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10 Occupational Hazards of Ministry

When I surrendered to the call of God several years ago, I did it soberly because I knew I was stepping into a dangerous assignment. Despite what you might hear from a few prosperity preachers wearing silk suits and pancake makeup, ministry is not glamorous—nor is it risk-free.

When you answer God’s call, you put your life on the line. Just ask the apostle Paul, who told the Galatians, “From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Gal. 6:17). The Greek word for “marks” is stigma, and it refers to the marks that were burned into the flesh of a slave to show who owned him.

Paul was saying, “I have the scars to prove I serve Jesus.”

Ministry has a long list of occupational hazards, and I do an injustice to any young leader today if I don’t warn him or her of what might happen on the job. I’m not sharing this to scare anybody. But if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can require businesses to display a poster to encourage workplace safety, we should at least read this list of ministerial hazards when leaders are ordained.

To all my young friends who are considering a ministry career, I offer these warnings:

1. The devil will attack you and your loved ones. I don’t focus on the devil or his demons, but it is foolish to be ignorant of hell’s schemes. Satan hates ministers. You are in a war, and your enemy plays dirty. You must learn to fight both defensively and offensively if you expect to win.

2. Religious people will hate you. Jesus and Paul both proved that persecution comes not just from worldly unbelievers but from self-righteous saints who think they are doing God a favor by discrediting you. Religious people hate change. Many pastors I know have been chewed up and spit out by mean-spirited people who love their sacred cows more than they love Jesus. God’s leaders must have the guts to challenge lifeless, status quo tradition.

3. You will face discouragement often. Preaching is a unique effort that requires you to lean wholly on God for a word from heaven. No wonder it is emotionally draining! Charles Spurgeon told his students that he often got depressed after intense ministry. He wrote: “How often, on Lord’s-day evenings, do we feel as if life were completely washed out of us! After pouring out our souls over our congregations, we feel like empty earthen pitchers which a child might break.” Don’t be shocked when heavy feelings come.

4. Your pride will be wounded. You may think your sermon was awesome, but some people will yawn, some will sleep and others will remind you of the points you missed. Don’t let the criticism make you bitter; allow it to nail your flesh to the cross so you can remember that ministry is not about you anyway.

5. Your heart will be broken. You may invest your time and energy into people who eventually walk away without even thanking you. Sometimes a close disciple may prove to be a Judas. Don’t let disappointment cause you to close your heart to people. Keep on loving and giving, despite the heartache.

6. Your knees will become calloused. Any good leader knows that prayer is the fuel that keeps him or her going. As long as hands are raised to heaven and hearts are bowed low, heaven’s oil will not run out. Never let the flame of prayer go out in your personal life.

7. Your priorities will be turned upside down. For me, God’s call included traveling—which meant spending lots of time away from home. I would personally rather sleep in my own bed than in a strange bed in Nigeria or India, but when you pray, “Here I am, Lord, send me,” you do not have the luxury of running your own schedule. Your life is not your own.

8. Your dreams and ambitions will be misunderstood. Joseph was thrown in a pit after he shared his dream. David’s brothers questioned his motives when he came to the battle to challenge Goliath. Anyone who attempts great things for God will be maligned. If you are worried about your reputation, or you want everyone to say nice things about you, don’t pursue a ministry career.

9. Your faith will be stretched to the breaking point. God gave Moses a stick and told him to split the Red Sea. He told Gideon to win a battle with 300 ill-equipped soldiers. Leaders who are following the Spirit will be constantly challenged to look beyond natural circumstances and believe in God’s supernatural ability. This is never comfortable. Jesus calls us out of the boat and onto the water. Get used to it.

10. Your character will be tested in the heat of God’s furnace. The work of the Refiner is never finished. You are engaged in a heavenly process, and you go from one level of glory to the next. The Spirit will regularly turn up the heat to test your motives, adjust your attitude and chisel your character until you look like Christ. The best leaders have learned to live in the fire so they can be examples to the flock.

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How to Guard Your Heart from Bitterness

Recently a friend of mine hurt me deeply. I felt betrayed and disrespected. I tried to pretend the insult was no big deal, but inside I was seething. I can always tell when resentment has invaded my life because I start obsessing about the pain. When I went to bed that evening, I literally felt sore. All I could think about was retaliation.

But just before falling asleep I mouthed a prayer. I meant what I said, even though my feelings begged me to retract the words. I prayed: “Lord, help me to forgive _____.” Then, during the night I dreamed that I was enjoying a friendly conversation with this person. When I woke up, it felt as if we had really been talking!

It was a miracle. I realized the dream was God’s way of softening my heart and taking out the offense. The Lord gave me the grace to forgive.

Perhaps you’ve been insulted, overlooked, stabbed in the back or mistreated—and now bitterness is poisoning your soul. Don’t let it spread any further. You can nip your offense in the bud by following these guidelines:

1. Don’t nurse your grudge. It feels good to our flesh when we replay an offense in our minds and then fantasize about hurting the other person. But if you star in and direct this dramatic movie in your head, you are going to be making sequels for months and years until bitterness makes you sick. Pull the plug on the whole production now.

2. Let go of all revenge. C.S. Lewis said: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” No matter how a person offends you, be humble enough to recognize that you’ve probably done the same thing to someone else before. Quit sharpening your knives. You will be tempted to think about hurting the person, but remember that those knives are hurting you worse than anyone else.

3. Don’t spread your bitterness. Sometimes you may need to vent to a close friend about what happened, but this isn’t so you can ruin the reputation of the person who hurt you. If you share your pain with someone because you need advice, don’t seek sympathy or go to those who have animosity toward the person who hurt you. That’s like mixing toxic chemicals! Instead, go to mentors or friends who are mature enough to tell you the truth. You may feel mistreated, but the speck in your brother’s eye may actually be a log in yours. A true friend will tell you that you are overreacting or being unreasonable.

4. Pray for good things to happen to the person who hurt you. Jesus urged His disciples to love and pray for their persecutors (Matt. 5:44). That’s a foreign concept in this age when we unfriend people on Facebook just because they forgot to invite us to a party. Calm down, let go of your petty outrage and ask God to bless the person who offended you. Forgiving prayer will feel like a warm salve applied to your wound.

5. Reach out and expect to repair the relationship. Jesus places a high priority on reconciliation. He wants us to get along. If you are praying and you remember that someone has something against you, Jesus said, “First be reconciled to your brother” (Matt. 5:24). On the flip side, He said if someone has sinned against you, “go and reprove him” (Matt. 18:15).

In both cases Jesus commanded us to confront. And confrontation is never easy. We’d rather just avoid each other. We’d rather “bury our hatchets,” pretending that our nasty attitude is gone just because it’s well-hidden under our Sunday morning smiles. But true forgiveness is not burying a hatchet while we still hate a person inwardly; forgiveness requires us to surrender the hatchet to Jesus.

6. Ask for God’s forgiving love to fill your heart. One of my favorite preachers, Corrie ten Boom, struggled to forgive the Nazis who beat her in the Ravensbrück prison camp. After the Germans surrendered, she met a former Nazi guard in the street, and he told her he had become a Christian. He reached out his hand and asked her for forgiveness. She couldn’t look at him.

But then Corrie remembered Romans 5:5, which says, “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” She realized that when we don’t have the capacity to forgive, God gives us the love. Jesus changed Corrie’s heart.

Corrie added: “God’s love is stronger than my hatred and unforgiveness. That same moment I was free. I could say, ‘Brother, give me your hand,’ and I shook hands with him, and it was as if I could feel God’s love streaming through my arms.”

Jesus didn’t promise a life without offenses. Hurt happens. But He provided the way to keep resentment from ruining our lives. As we enter this new year, make a conscious decision that you will embrace a life of miraculous forgiveness.

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6 Wrong Ways to Leave a Church

My friend “Stewart” (not his real name) is one of the friendliest pastors I know—and his wife is also an exemplary leader. But a few years ago, they began getting emails from an anonymous church member. The messages were severely critical and laced with threats. Then a small package arrived at the church. It was filled with a white powder.

Stewart called the police to be on the safe side—and the powder turned out to be yeast. The pastor and his wife learned firsthand that the ominous messages and the package came from a former member who was upset. The person’s odd behavior proved that some Christians don’t act like Christians when they decide to leave a church.

Many of my pastor friends have similar stories of people who leave churches in dramatic and inappropriate ways. They all recognize that this is one of the most serious occupational hazards of ministry. Pastors are going to feel rejected when people leave, even when God is leading those people to make an exit. But if you are directed by the Holy Spirit to leave a church, please do it the right way.

1. Don’t leave mad. If you are leaving because you are angry at the pastor or another member, you are proving your immaturity. Offense is never a reason to leave a church. Jesus told us to go to the person who offends us (Matt. 18:15). And Proverbs 19:11 says: “The discretion of a man defers his anger, and it is his glory to pass over a transgression.” If you break a relationship every time you are offended, you will never grow up. Even if you are called to leave a church, you should never hold a grudge. Have the courage to face your offense and disarm it.

2. Don’t leave and make threats. Some people get so angry, they want to hurt the church when they leave. They want the pastor to suffer. One man told a pastor I know that he hoped the church would go bankrupt after he stopped tithing to it. (Instead, God sent other people whose donations more than covered the lost income!) Romans 12:19 says, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves.” Even if the pastor or church members are doing inappropriate things, it is not your job to punish them.

3. Don’t leave secretly. When I was a boy, my mother taught me to say: “I enjoyed my meal. May I be excused?” when I finished eating. I was not allowed to leave the table without this announcement. A similar rule applies to leaving a church. It’s rude to walk out with no explanation. Your pastor deserves to know why. You can write a letter, but it’s better to say it in person—and to include some words of thanks for the way the church has helped you in the past.

4. Don’t leave and talk about it on social media. Proverbs 6:19 says God hates the one who “sows discord among brethren.” Those are strong words! Some people actually think they are doing God’s work by badmouthing a pastor, but they are digging a ditch that they will soon fall into. Keep your judgments to yourself. Posting the details of your rant on Facebook only shows how petty and self-centered you are.

5. Don’t leave and try to take others with you. If God is calling you to switch churches, that’s fine. God will bless your transition if you do it in a healthy way. But if you try to stage a massive walkout, you are undermining God’s authority. Don’t allow the enemy to use you as an agent of division.

6. Don’t leave and stay away from church altogether. I have often heard people say they feel God is leading them to leave a church to go elsewhere. But then I find out, after three years, that “elsewhere” really meant “nowhere.” They quit church altogether! This is usually a sign of either deep disappointment or an unresolved conflict. You should never, ever give up on church. It is God’s family. No Christian should live in isolation.

Obviously there are times when we must leave a church. It happens because of job transfers, family issues, ministry preferences, driving distance and many other reasons. And some churches have unresolved problems that make them unhealthy—and God does not necessarily require us to stay there. The Holy Spirit is the one who directs us to the right congregation.

Good pastors know they cannot hold onto people in a possessive way. Healthy churches remind people that the exit door is unlocked, and that members are free to go as the Holy Spirit leads. Deuteronomy 28:6 says: “You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.” Pastors should bless people who leave—but members should leave in a respectful way that invites that blessing.

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6 Reasons You Should Never Give Up on Church

I’ve experienced heaven on earth the past few days. I found it in Durban, South Africa, while visiting one of the most joy-filled congregations I’ve ever encountered in my travels.

It’s called His Church, and this 1,000-member multicultural church has many wonderful qualities: a loving pastor (a brave woman, Fiona Des Fontaine) who is committed to preaching God’s Word without compromise; a powerful outreach to the community; a healthy team of pastors who serve with no signs of competition or ego; and a Bible college where many young leaders are being trained.

I know there are many churches around the world today that have qualities similar to His Church. Yet many Christians—especially in the United States—are giving up on church because they were hurt by pastors or wounded by other Christians, or because they simply decided to “go it alone.” They are knows as “dones”—people who are “done” with church.

“Dones” might watch an occasional church service on television or meet with a few Christian friends over coffee for a casual Starbucks version of “church lite.” They still consider themselves serious Christians, but they want nothing more of pastors, tithing, scheduled meetings or church drama.

If you or someone you love has given up on church, I’m not here to condemn you. I’ve had my share of disappointments in church over the years, including some spiritual abuse. But I want to offer six reasons why you shouldn’t let a bad experience end your connection to God’s people.

1. The church is Christ’s body on earth. With all its flaws, the church is still God’s Plan A. Jesus announced before He went to the cross: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Jesus intends to use the church—even in its weakness—as His primary tool to reach the world with the gospel. Heaven does not have a Plan B. Jesus is the head of his church (see Col. 1:18) and we are His hands and feet. To reject the church is to reject God’s ultimate strategy to bring heaven’s kingdom on earth.

2. The Holy Spirit has called us to work and flow together. When we were born again and baptized, the Bible says we were mystically unified with all other born-again believers and connected to each other by the Holy Spirit. The Lord also connects people in local congregations. This connection is holy and we should never make light of it or damage it. Paul told the Ephesians to “preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” by being in close fellowship with each other (Eph. 4:3). To reject this union of believers is to dishonor the work of the Spirit.

3. God accomplishes more through His corporate people than through isolated individuals. In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit worked primarily through the nation of Israel, and through individuals who had special callings and remarkable courage. But in the age of the New Covenant, the Spirit dwells in every Christian believer, and the corporate church makes a much bigger impact. This is why Jesus told His disciples after He went to the cross that we would do “greater works” than He did on earth (see John 14:12). And because healthy churches can pool resources and organize volunteers, they are able to offer ministry to children, youth, families, singles, the needy and the lost overseas—in a way you could never do while sitting home alone.

4. God’s authority flows through His church, not through “lone ranger” Christians. Some people who’ve been hurt by church leaders feel they can never submit to another pastor again, nor will they honor a person who is called by God to carry the authority of a minister. Yet God has delegated to certain people the task of building up the church (see Eph. 4:11-12). It’s totally acceptable for you to leave an unhealthy church with poor leadership, but you should quickly find a new church where you can be equipped to fulfill your ministry. It was never intended for a Christian to live with a my-way-or-the-highway attitude.

5. It is by living in Christian community that we learn to love and serve. The Book of Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish Christians who were thinking of abandoning their Christian faith because of persecution. Some of them even stopped attending church, but Paul addressed their disillusionment by saying: “And let us consider how to spur one another to love and to good works. Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but let us exhort one another, especially as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25). People who live in isolation find it difficult to develop character, and they often get discouraged; those who walk together in close fellowship inspire each other, and they improve each other just as iron sharpens iron.

6. If you leave the church because of hurt or resentment, you make it more difficult to find healing and reconciliation. It might sound spiritual to say you are pulling away from people to focus on God. But the New Testament says your relationship with God is directly related to how you relate to others. John wrote: “Anyone who claims to live in God’s light and hates a brother or sister is still in the dark” (1 John 2:9, MSG). People may have hurt you, but God will also use people to heal you. Don’t let the hurts of the past paint you into a lonely corner. Choose to forgive. Take a risk and keep loving.

Please don’t check out of church or give up on God’s flawed saints. There is no perfect church—and if there were, it would not be perfect after you joined! There is a place for you in God’s eternal family.

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6 Qualities of a True Covenant Friend

The Bible says Christians should experience deep connections with each other because we share the same indwelling Holy Spirit. In fact, the Greek word for fellowship, as used in Acts 2:42, is koinonia, which implies intimate communion and selfless sharing.

Yet as I travel and meet Christians all over the country, I find that the church today is actually a very lonely place. Many people have experienced a total relationship shutdown. Some have walked through painful church splits, others have been betrayed by friends they trusted, and still others have closed their hearts entirely to avoid being hurt. As a result, koinonia becomes a fancy theological word for something they will never experience.

It’s as if we forgot how to have true friends. I’ve even met pastors who’ve told me they just can’t risk building friendships. So they live in isolation. They bear their own burdens. They get no encouragement. Some end up in depression. Something is wrong with this picture!

Recently the Holy Spirit drew me to study the friendship that developed between David and Jonathan during David’s early years. It is clear from the biblical record that God put Jonathan in David’s life at a crucial time in his journey to the throne. And if it were not for Jonathan’s covenant relationship with his friend, David would never have been able to overcome the obstacles he faced during the reign of King Saul.

The same is true for all of us. You will never achieve your maximum spiritual potential without the help of those key relationships God places around you. Yet in order to benefit from these friendships you must open your heart and take the risk of being a friend.

How can you move from being isolated to developing close friendships? Proverbs 18:24 says: “A man who has friends must himself be friendly” (NKJV). You can’t wait for a friend to reach out to you. Take the first step and be willing to break the stalemate. British preacher Charles Spurgeon put it this way: “Any man can selfishly desire to have a Jonathan; but he is on the right track who desires to find out a David to whom he can be a Jonathan.”

Here are six qualities I see in Jonathan that challenge me to be a better friend:

1. Jonathan nurtured a spiritual bond. After David killed Goliath and moved to Saul’s palace, the Bible says “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David” (1 Sam. 18:1). This is the work of the Holy Spirit. All Christians should experience a sense of family connection, but there are certain friends you will feel deeply connected to because God is putting you in each other’s lives for a reason. Don’t resist this process. Let God knit you to people.

2. Jonathan showed sacrificial love. Jonathan loved David so much that he risked his life to help him fulfill his mission. Jonathan even dodged Saul’s spear in his effort to help his friend. He lived in the spirit of Jesus’ words about friendship: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). The world says we should only care about our own success. But the best way to become more like Jesus is to help someone else succeed!

3. Jonathan always offered encouragement. When David was fleeing from Saul in the wilderness, Jonathan traveled to Horesh to cheer up his friend (1 Sam. 23:16). There were times in David’s life when he had to encourage himself, but in this case Jonathan was God’s instrument. We need each other! If you allow the Holy Spirit to speak life and hope through you, your words can propel your friends into their destiny.

4. Jonathan offered his friend protection. When Jonathan realized his father was plotting to kill David, he not only warned him of danger but he concocted a plan to deliver his friend (1 Sam. 19:1-4). Friends don’t let friends get massacred in spiritual warfare. If you see a friend making a foolish mistake, or if you sense the enemy is targeting him, God can use you to avert a disaster. Speak the truth in love.

5. Jonathan kept his friend’s pain confidential. David confided in his friend Jonathan, and in some cases he poured out his heart in frustration. At one point he said to Jonathan, “What have I done? What is my iniquity?” (1 Sam. 20:1). When I’m going through a difficult trial, I sometimes just need to vent. And I have loyal friends who let me process my pain … and they don’t run and tell others else about my weakness. This is true friendship.

6. Jonathan harbored no jealousy. At one point in David’s journey, Jonathan realized his friend would one day be king of Israel. This was actually Jonathan’s inheritance, since he was Saul’s son, but he acknowledged that God had chosen David instead. So he gave David his royal robe, his armor and his weapons (see 1 Sam. 18:3-4). This is a beautiful picture of how we are to prefer and honor each other. Jealousy destroys friendship. If we have God’s love in our hearts, we will want our friends to surpass us.

If you’ve been hurt in previous relationships, break out of your isolation and ask God to heal your heart. Then choose to be a Jonathan to someone else.

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