by Mark Robinson
Excitement was in the air as the crowd started to grow. It was a Friday night. The guest speaker was a man with outstanding credentials and exemplary speaking skills. My wife and I were blessed to be a part of this evening coming together. The occasion was the first public meeting of a new church plant in north San Diego County in California.
We chose Friday night for our first meeting for a number of reasons. One, because we wanted the help of the local church that had been supportive of our church plant. Our speaker was also not available on Sunday because of his present commitments. The speaker was the man we recently called to be the pastor of this new church plant.
This new church plant was to be an independent Baptist church. The man God brought us to help guide this new church had planted 4 or 5 churches through the years and all grew and were blessed by his solid biblical expository preaching. Personally, I was thankful that this man had a love for Jewish people and Israel and was supportive of Jewish missions. My wife and I would eventually be the first missionaries supported by this new church.
The new church took out advertisements in the local paper and prepared flyers announcing its inaugural meeting. I was thrilled to receive telephone calls asking about the church. One telephone call, in particular, was a blessing. A woman, a Jewish believer, called and expressed interest in the new church. Although I didn’t know her, she knew me because of my public ministry in the San Diego area in Jewish evangelism.
This Jewish believer peppered me with questions about the pastor and the church’s love for Jewish people, Israel, and reaching Jewish people for Messiah Jesus. I assured her I would do all I could to promote these biblically necessary positions in the church and that the pastor was a firm proponent of these positions as well.
About 15 minutes before the start of the evening the Jewish believer arrived and I met her. She asked me where the pastor was and I pointed him out. She made a beeline for him and engaged him in conversation. The next thing I saw was her making an abrupt turn and leaving the building immediately. I had no idea why she left. I wouldn’t find out until later why the quick exit and her not staying for the meeting portion of the evening.
What was the conversation that made her leave the premises immediately? What did the pastor say that so upset her she wouldn’t even stay for the music and preaching?
It was the answer the pastor gave to the first question this Jewish woman asked. The question? Will you have Christmas trees in your church building? The answer? Yes.
Majoring on Minors
My guess is most of you are thinking, “How stupid and foolish!” You might be thinking, “That was her first question?” Perhaps you’re thinking, “Wouldn’t a better first question be does the church believe the deity of Jesus, the Tri-unity of God, the inspiration of Scripture, salvation by grace through faith alone, or a number of other vitally important doctrinal questions?”
Yes, the question showed spiritual immaturity on the part of this woman. Certainly this question should have been far down the list, if even asked at all. BUT, this was the question on her heart. This was the question she asked. AND, the answer sent her fleeing from the building as if the pastor denied some major doctrinal truth.
What can pastors and churches learn from this experience? Much, I believe, in many ways. We are told in 1 Corinthians 10:32, “Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God.” By the grace of God we should strive to live in such a way that unsaved Jewish and Gentile people AND Christians are not offended by what we do.
There are some obvious areas that will offend people and do not apply in this command from 1 Corinthians. For example, Isaiah 8:14 says the LORD will be “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense…to Israel.” Many Jewish people are offended when the gospel is shared with them. Should we stop sharing Jesus with Jewish people so as to not offend them? Absolutely not!
Paul asks in Galatians 4:16, “Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?” Clearly, Paul offended some people by telling them the truth. Should we stop sharing the truth? Absolutely not!
So, how are we to apply this command to not offend people, saved or unsaved, in our lives, and the life of our churches more specifically?
Liberty not License
When a person accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior, they enter into a new life and oftentimes, certainly for those saved from a background of worldliness and sin, a new lifestyle. A biblical lifestyle can be a cultural shock for many people. With their new nature, 2 Peter 1:4, the desire for a godly lifestyle is present, but the old nature, Romans 7:17-25, fights against what they now are learning what God wants of them. This process of growth and change in lifestyle is called sanctification.
For a variety of reasons people mature in the Lord at different speeds. Numbers of factors cause some Christians to struggle with issues that other Christians have no problems with. Some of these problems are caused by years of being taught one thing and the need to biblically realign their thinking. This is Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:2 when he challenges, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind…” Don’t let the world’s culture form your thinking and lifestyle is the command. Rather, have your mind, where you learn and process what to do, changed, transformed, and this ONLY comes by reading the Word of God, finding out what God now requires of you, and changing your thinking and, ultimately, lifestyle to confirm with God’s will for your life. This does not happen overnight. It is a lifelong process for the child of God.
Christians have much greater liberty in this age than those under the Mosaic Law had. As children of God we are no longer under the law of Moses. The Law was given to Israel and is not the governing authority for the church. Christians are free from the constraints of the Law. This does not mean we have license to do whatever we want. Although we are under grace, there are still scores of “laws” that God wants us to follow. A quick reading of the epistles of the New Testament make this very clear.
Maturity vs. Immaturity
“But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.” 1 Corinthians 8:9
“Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.” Romans 14:19
The culture of a society certainly has an effect on the practice of the Christian community. At times the culture can be neutral in our following a biblical lifestyle. There are things, in and of themselves, that are not sinful to practice. But, is it always wise to participate in activities in our culture that may offend someone else? The above verses would suggest there are times we are to forsake a practice though our liberty in Christ allows us to do it.
For example, consider the opening illustration of the Jewish believer who was offended because a Christmas tree would be used in a church building. There is nothing in the Bible about Christmas trees. Although some will appeal to Jeremiah 10:2-4 to condemn all use of Christmas trees, the context of these verses (Jeremiah 10:1-10) shows these trees were cut down and made into idols. Christmas trees are not used in our society as idols (false gods). This passage in Jeremiah is not applicable to the use of Christmas trees today.
The use of a Christmas tree is neither prescribed nor prohibited by the Scriptures. It generally is used by families to add a colorful and festive look to the Christmas holiday season. I believe all who embrace the Bible as the Word of God, and rightly understand it, would agree that the Scriptures don’t directly address Christmas trees.
I need to be clear that what I am addressing here is not whether the Christmas season is too materialistic, whether the focus is too much on gifts and parties and not Jesus, or even whether December is the month Jesus was born. The focus is on the use of a biblically neutral cultural activity, especially in a church.
How then would one apply the biblical concern about not offending a weaker brother with the use, or non-use, of a culturally neutral activity such as having a Christmas tree?
Individually we have greater liberty as Christians than we do corporately. What we do, for example, in the privacy of our homes and family may not be appropriate in the church. Whether a family decides to have a Christmas tree or not will change with each Christian family. The gathering of a diverse group of people in a church is a different matter.
A local body of believers comes from different backgrounds. Some may be Jewish and come from religious Jewish homes; others were raised in a Christian home; others, perhaps, have come out of cults like Jehovah Witnesses or Mormonism. Each of these people bring cultural baggage that may or may not line up with Scripture. In a local church there are different levels of maturity. Some are well grounded in the Word of God and are mature Christians, while others are newly saved and are basically ignorant of what God wants in their daily walk.
With such a diverse group of people we need to be careful not to offend a brother or sister in the Lord by exercising liberties that we take for granted as individuals, which we should shun corporately because of the possibility of offending a weaker Christian.
A Christmas tree in a church is a good example. For most Christians it is not a problem. But it is a problem, for example, for some Jewish people and Jehovah Witnesses. If someone who has culturally never used Christmas trees, and equates these with a Gentile pagan practice, such as the Jewish woman in the above illustration, or a Jehovah Witness who has grown up being taught celebrating Christmas, let alone having a Christmas tree, is sin and unbiblical, is it wise to have one in a church where these people, perhaps newly saved, will stumble in their walk with the Lord? I think the answer is obvious.
There are practices in the Christian world that are not right or wrong biblically but can offend others. In the use of these in a corporate setting, a church, wisdom says to follow the teaching of 1 Corinthians 8:9 and Romans 14:9. The best practice, as it pertains to our Christmas tree illustration? Don’t use Christmas trees for decoration in a church.
It is difficult for Christians to break out of ingrained practices. I have talked with godly, mature Christians – lay people and pastor alike – about this issue. Most thought it not a problem. In most churches using a Christmas tree for decoration will never be an issue. I must ask, though, does the probability that your church will never have a problem having a Christmas tree on the premises address the biblical command to not offend a brother? What if a Jewish person or Jehovah Witness does come to your church? Is a cultural expression, one that is not based on the Bible, worth the possibility of offending an unsaved person or a new or immature believer?
A church building is for the purpose of corporate worship, prayer, Bible teaching, fellowship, and the practice of the ordinances of the church. Our biblical guide is “let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.”