Bullying has become a problem in schools across the country. It is talked about by the news media. Many books are available on the topic. Almost every state has passed anti-bullying laws and many schools are mandated by the state to adopt anti-bullying policies.
Despite all this attention and even legislation, bullying continues. As Christian young people and children we understand that this bullying is sin. We also understand that we must be lights of charity in the midst of this darkness of bullying. We must be sure that our schools are marked as different from the world, that they stand as places of proper conduct toward one another. Of course, the same charity must prevail in our relationships toward one another outside of school.
Over all, I hear good things about the way our young people and children treat each other. For that we thank God. But we are sinners and therefore need to be on guard against this sin so it doesn’t begin to develop among us. There are also, no doubt, occasional instances of bullying that do occur in our midst.
So let’s spend a few moments hearing from God’s Word with regard to our calling toward one another. First let’s be clear what we mean when we refer to this sin. Let’s understand what forms it can take.
Most directly it involves the sinful use of the tongue against someone. One chooses a person, for whatever reason, and speaks cuttingly to them to their face. Maybe the person spoken to is different in some way from the person who is doing the sinful speaking. Maybe the one speaking just wants a target and picks the person that appears most vulnerable. So he uses his tongue to mock his target to his face. He criticizes in a belittling way. Jokingly he says things that tear down.
But we remember, too, that the tongue can be used sinfully against someone even when that person is not present. Mocking, criticizing, joking about someone behind their back is still sin against them. It destroys their reputation and if they hear of what was said, it wounds them sometimes more than if it was said to their face.
This sinful use of the tongue is prohibited by Scripture. But we must beware, for each of us has a tongue that can be used in this way. James says “the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.” The tongue is not innocent then, or harmless. Rather, every tongue is connected to a dreadfully sinful nature and when used by this sinful nature destroys like fire. In this connection, James also says, “Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth!” (James 3:5, 6). Let us watch our tongues, then, lest a little iniquitous fire from them ignites a great matter among us or a great painful matter in the heart of even one of God’s elect children.
We need to be reminded, too, that the use of technology for sinful communication is also referred to by these verses in James (and in similar passages in Scripture). When James writes of the tongue, he means anything we use to communicate. Today there are many different types of technology we use to communicate and these can easily be used to “speak” sinfully to or about one another. In fact, it is often much easier to be cruel through these means than with our actual tongue. Though easier to do, it is just as sinful to communicate something hurtful using our cell phones or the internet as it is to use our actual tongues.
We must be careful as we speak on our cell phones. We must think twice (or thrice) before sending that text message. We must pause after writing an email and before we click “send,” to re-read what we’ve written and compare it to what James has written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We must ask if God would approve before we post our thoughts about someone on Facebook or another social networking site.
Such guarded carefulness must characterize all of our communication because the tongue is a fire and only a fool is careless with fire. As children of God, we don’t play with fire. For we know that the fire of an uncharitable tongue destroys. And destroying another is sin, hatred, murder. It’s not just what kids do. It’s not funny. It’s evil. And it kills.
The fire of a sinful tongue does not burn and kill the body. In most cases it does not kill in ways that we can see. But it kills something within the person who is sinfully spoken to or about. It lights a destroying fire within their heart. A fire that destroys their self-esteem. That burns down their confidence. That tears away their happiness, reducing it to ashes. That causes deep, and sometimes abiding pain. In fact, such deep damage can be done that a person may live with the effects of it all his or her life.
What further helps us to see the seriousness of the sinful use of our tongue against our Christian brothers and sisters is the consideration that they belong to God. James points to this too, when he writes about using our tongues sinfully against those “who are made after the similitude of God” (James 3:9). If we claim to love God, then how can we use our tongue against one who has been re-created to bear the image of God?
And this reminds us, also, that Christ died for each of his children so that they can bear that image of God. Christ valued them so much that he died for them. Then how can we act as if they have no value by speaking critically or mockingly to or about them?
Let’s also bear in mind that the fellow saint is a member of God’s covenant and therefore is a friend of God and a friend of Christ. What if Jesus were still on earth in his body and he stood next to the one that we were tempted to speak sharply to and Jesus put his arm around the shoulder of that person and said to us “This is my friend.” Would we dare to say the slightest thing against that person? And yet, by faith, that is how we always ought to view every one of God’s people. Remember Jesus’ warning about our brothers and his friends in Matthew 5:22 “Whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” Our Lord takes the sin of the tongue very seriously, and so, if we are wise, will we.
Have you fallen into this sin? Repent before God. Sincerely ask him for forgiveness and you will be forgiven. But then, too, apologize to the person you’ve sinned against. Put out the fire you’ve started in their heart. And if others are aware of what you’ve said, do what it takes to put out the fire with them, too, so it spreads no further. And finally, don’t continue in this sin. Pray daily for strength to guard your tongue.
Has it happened to you? Are you the object of someone else’s bullying and sinful speaking? Don’t retaliate. So often those who bully others have been bullied first themselves. Don’t become one of them. Rather follow God’s way for dealing with someone who has sinned against you. Go to them and talk to them privately, seeking to forgive them. If they apologize, forgive them. If they don’t, follow the steps of Christian discipline found in Matthew 18. Yes, it’s that serious.
Do you know of a situation where this sin is taking place, but you are neither the bully nor the bullied one? Then God has placed on you the solemn responsibility to help the one who is being picked on. Help him or her to deal the right way with the one who is hurting them. And talk to the person who is using their tongue as fire against a child of God. Help them see the seriousness of their sin and their need to make things right with God and the offended brother or sister. (Perhaps you could also give them a copy of this article if you think it would help.)
In the end, the best way to guard against using our tongue for sin is to use it for good. When we are actively looking for opportunities to use our tongue for the good of others, it is much less likely that we will fall into the sin of communicating sinfully to or about others. Let’s speak, personally and through the use of technology, in love toward one another. Let’s speak to build up one another in Christ. “Let all bitterness and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:31, 32).
The world continues to be tortured with the problem of bullying and cannot find a solution to their problem. But let us thank God that he has revealed to us that the problem is sin, serious sin. And that the solution is grace—grace of forgiveness, and grace that enables us to guard against and fight against this tongue of fire. By that grace of God, let’s continue to make sure that our schools and our circles of friends are safe, blessed places in which all of us can live.
What is most indispensable for a church institute is that its membership has a thorough and accurate knowledge of the truth. In previous articles we have seen that this is exactly what most churches are lacking today, while it is at the same time what we as Protestant Reformed churches have been so richly blessed with.
We have also seen why it is so important that churches have a knowledge of the truth in pulpit and pew. Knowing the truth, one knows Jesus. Knowing Jesus Christ, one knows the Triune God. And knowing God and Jesus Christ, one has life eternal (John 17:3). In order then, to enjoy life eternal, it is absolutely necessary to know the truth. In light of this, one can see that a lack of knowledge of the truth is indeed a serious thing.
In fact, it is dangerously serious. It is not as though one could opt to remain in relative ignorance of the truth, being content with a subsequent small enjoyment of life eternal and live without any other consequence. Rather, God’s judgment falls upon those who live in spiritual ignorance. Ominous are the words of the Lord in Hosea 4:6: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee…I will also forget thy children.” God will destroy those churches that have a lack of the knowledge of the truth. He will do so largely in their generations, by rejecting them in their generations and casting away their children into hell. That is the serious warning of God’s Word. And that is also what we see happening in many churches today.
What can these churches do to regain a knowledge of the truth and thereby escape the judgment of God? And how are we able to keep our knowledge of the truth so that we do not also fall under that judgment? Chiefly by faithful preaching of the Word of God. The only way for a church to regain or maintain a knowledge of the truth among her members is by the preaching of that truth.
Other things may not be allowed to take the place of the preaching. A church will not grow in its knowledge of the truth through dramatic presentations in the worship services, through puppet shows, or Superbowl viewings. It will not be led into God’s truth by the lying “gifts” of healings, miracles, speaking in tongues and other supposed demonstrations of the Spirit very common in some churches today. And the people will only be left in dangerous ignorance when music becomes the emphasis in the worship service so that choirs, soloists, and repetitive ditties replace the sounding out of the saving Word of God.
But not only must a church have the preaching, it must have sound, faithful preaching of the Holy Scriptures. A church will not benefit from hearing motivational speeches by celebrities and politicians regarding how her members “can make a difference.” But neither will she grow in her knowledge of the truth by pulpit messages from ordained preachers who address social ills and push political agendas. It is not the preaching of Scripture either when ministers spend their time in the pulpit telling stories that stimulate emotions or being humorous with jokes they gleaned in the past week from books containing “pulpit helps.”
No, churches need the Word of God preached to them. They need called and ordained preachers who open the Scriptures to them and work hard to explain that Word of God (Romans 10:15). They need to hear that preaching of the gospel which makes known the “word of the truth” as the apostle Paul says the Colossian church had heard (Colossians 1:5, 6). They need, after all, a knowledge of the truth. And the only place to find that saving truth is in the Scriptures. And the only way for a church to learn that truth is by the preaching of the Scriptures (Romans 10:14, 17).
The preaching of Scripture, then, is the only way for a church to regain or maintain a knowledge of the truth. This is true because preaching is the very voice of Him Who is named Truth, and Who by that voice reveals Himself to His people. Preaching is Christ Himself speaking. He speaks through the called and ordained preacher, but it is Christ Himself who speaks.
That Christ Himself speaks in the preaching is clearly the teaching of Scripture. In the original, Romans 10:14 asks: “How shall they believe in him whom they have not heard?” The point is that those who believe in Christ believe because they have heard Him personally speak to them through the preaching.
The same is taught in John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Jesus says His sheep literally hear His voice. This was not only true of those sheep that lived on the earth during the time that Christ in the flesh lived among them. But this text is a general statement that applies to all the elect people of God through all time. They all, we all, hear the very voice of our Shepherd and because we hear His voice, we follow Him. Today we hear His voice in the preaching.
And yet one more important text in this regard is Ephesians 4:20, 21 a. Again, according to the original, we read: “But ye did not thus come to know Christ, seeing that ye did hear Him…” Here the apostle tells the Ephesian church that they heard Christ and the result of their hearing Christ was that they came to know their Savior. They heard Christ in the preaching.
Why it is so essential that God’s people hear Christ Himself in the preaching is because Christ’s voice alone is able to impart a knowledge of the truth of spiritual things. In order for sinful, unbelieving man to come to know spiritual things in a spiritual way—that is, with a knowledge of faith—a divine wonder-work of grace must take place. That wonder-work takes place through the voice of Christ.
The voice of Christ is mighty, effectual, irresistible. When the elect, then, hear that voice in the preaching they are made, by the power of God, to know the Truth. Apart from the voice of Christ, one cannot know the truth with a believing knowledge. But by Christ Himself speaking to them in the preaching, churches will regain and/or maintain that indispensable knowledge of the truth.
And that’s what churches need more than anything.
We rejoiced together in our previous article in the fact that God has given us as Protestant Reformed Churches the one thing churches need more than anything: the knowledge of the truth. It is only by God’s grace that we have this precious gift, but how blessed and privileged we are to have it! For we also saw that many other churches are lacking in this today, are unwittingly suffering the consequences of this lack, and are attempting all sorts of things to counteract the consequences of their ignorance of the truth. And all of this will be unsuccessful. For God alone can determine what His church needs and He has determined that her greatest need is knowledge of the truth.
But how shocking is the breadth and depth of the lack of knowledge of the truth in churches today. The author of a recent article in Christianity Today, in referring to a sociologist’s book on American religion, says that “doctrinal ignorance is one feature of American religion” that amazes this sociologist the most. The author says, “He sites familiar statistics: 58 percent of Americans cannot name five of the Ten Commandments, and just under half know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible.”1In another article, Charles Colson reports “that most church and lay leaders—90 percent, according to one survey—have no understanding of worldview.” He also notices “signs that the church is dumbing down, moving from a word-driven message to an image—an emotion-driven message.”2
There are others, of course, in the modern church world who do know a bit more doctrine than is reflected by these statistics. But even among these, how many can clearly explain basic historic truths of Christianity? How many are there who cannot correctly explain, and therefore do not understand the Trinity, the Atonement, Predestination, the Origins of the universe, etc.?
Why does this ignorance exist in the church world today? There are especially two reasons. The first is that the church simply does not value intellectual knowledge anymore. The culture in which we live places more importance on an individual’s feelings, emotions, and experiences than on seeking and finding an absolute and logically knowable Truth. (This phenomenon is known as postmodernism.) To its shame, the church has allowed itself to be infected by this worldly philosophy rather than living antithetically opposed to the thinking of the culture in which she lives. Being infected with this thinking, then, churches do not value intellectual knowledge of the truth, and therefore do not bother to learn and at the same time are not taught by their ministers.
The second reason for this ignorance is the reality of false doctrine, false teaching in the churches. With widespread and rapidly increasing progress the lie is displacing the truth in so many churches today. And this despite the fact that the Scriptures are replete with texts (and even whole chapters) which explicitly warn the church against false doctrine and false teachers. One of these clear passages is Matthew 24:11 and 12, “And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” In another place we read, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies…” (II Peter 2:1). And referring to only one more, a text which describes exactly what we see in the church world around us today: “… the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine…and they shall turn away their ears from the truth” (II Timothy 4:3, 4).
But is it really so simple? Is it true that simply a knowledge of the truth is what churches need today? Is it true that the churches’ lack of knowledge of truth is what is causing them to shrink rather than grow? Is a knowledge of the truth really the only thing churches need to regain in order to grow and thrive once again? It is. It is, with but one point of clarification. When we speak of a knowledge of the truth, we mean a believing knowledge of the truth. This means that first of all, and very importantly, one must have an intellectual, mental acknowledgment that the facts presented in Scripture are true. But then, also, for this knowledge to be real knowledge of the truth, one must also have a firm confidence that those truths mean something personal to him. A real knowledge of the truth is always this kind of knowledge, a knowledge of faith.
Having said this, we return to the question, is it really true that this knowledge of the truth, this believing knowledge of the truth, is so vital to churches today? Answer this: would you say that it is important for churches today to know Jesus? Of course it is. Since it is true, then, that it is vital for churches to know Jesus, it is equally true that churches must know the truth. For Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6.) Jesus Christ Himself is the Truth of God embodied. Everything He thinks is truth. Everything He does is in harmony with the truth. Everything He says is truth. So Christ is Truth, and because He is such, He reveals Truth (John 1:14, John 18:37). The Truth reveals the truth. Christ reveals the truth, and in doing so, reveals Himself. Knowing the truth, one knows Jesus.
You see then, knowledge of the truth is this fundamental, this serious. One who doesn’t know the truth doesn’t know Jesus. He simply cannot. This is so because one who doesn’t know Jesus, doesn’t know Him because he doesn’t know the truth with a believing knowledge. If you, as a believer, know Jesus, then you know the truth. And, if you, as a believer, know the truth, then you know Jesus. And the more you grow in the knowledge of the truth, the more you will grow in the knowledge of Jesus.
This truth that Jesus displays reveals Himself to us and also reveals God Triune to us. To Philip’s request, “Lord, show us the Father,” Jesus responded “…he that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:8,9). He that “sees” or knows Jesus with a believing knowledge, “sees” or knows the Father; and the Father here refers to the Triune God. He that knows Jesus knows God. So knowing the truth, the truth of the Scriptures, the doctrines of the Word of God, we know Jesus. And knowing Jesus, we know God.
This knowledge of God that is ours through our knowledge of the truth is a knowledge whereby we not only know about Him, but we know Him personally, as a Friend. And knowing God in this warm and personal way is life eternal, is salvation. “This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God” (John 17:3). This deep, warm knowledge of God gained only through a knowledge of the truth is what churches need so desperately today. And by God’s grace, this saving knowledge of God is what we have in our churches. May we be faithful to it and thankful every day.
1Christianity Today, October 2003, p. 34.
2Christianity Today, December 2003, p. 72.
Generally speaking, churches are in trouble today. Many congregations and most denominations are losing members. They are shrinking rather than growing. Especially tragic is the fact that they are losing their young people, so that there is a gradual graying of the pew. Many of these shrinking congregations are also not very attractive to those outside of the church, so that they are not gaining great numbers of members from the outside either.
In order to counteract this problem, churches today are trying many different things. They are trying to find what they need to continue thriving and growing. Some of the things that they believe will ensure that they thrive and grow include more youth programs; multi-million dollar additions to their church buildings for gymnasiums, rec. rooms, etc.; and becoming more involved in various community social programs. In addition to this they attempt to reinvent a proper worship of God on the Lord’s Day, including all sorts of unbiblical and foolish activities in worship calling all of this “liturgical renewal.” Many are even open to what is called by some “theological pluralism,” meaning simply, that any theological idea or system of theology is permitted in the congregation as an equally valid interpretation of the truth of the Scriptures.
For the most part, these things are not working. Despite much energy expended, much money spent, these things are not achieving the desired result. Churches try one of these ideas after another only to find that each new change leaves them ultimately unsatisfied and leaves them without the desired result. Admittedly, in some cases, these attempts to counteract the problems of the church seem to be working. Some of the churches employing these tactics have developed into “mega churches,” congregations numbering in the thousands, and continue to grow. But that which seems to be success is not real success. And even these apparent successes are only temporary. This is the case, because all these things are not what churches really need.
On the other hand, there are churches that are growing without resorting to these previously mentioned tactics. By God’s grace, among these churches are the Protestant Reformed Churches. For the most part, our church buildings are full for services on Sunday. In fact, they are full for services twice each Sunday. Our churches are retaining their youth; many strong young families can be found taking their places beside gray-haired saints in the pew. Our churches are also being joined by others from outside the denomination. The Protestant Reformed Churches are small in number as churches go, but nevertheless growing, young, strong and healthy.
We are not this way because we are simply great people, or because we are more brilliant than others, or because our ministers are so holy or so nice. Rather, we have what churches really need today. We have a knowledge of the truth in the pulpit and pew because that truth is included in and taught by faithful preaching of the Word of God. And this is what churches need more than anything else.
Note this well—we have this in our churches by God’s grace alone. We do not mention that we have what churches need in order to brag or boast. But we do not clothe ourselves in a false humility either, pretending that we do not notice God’s tremendous blessings on us as churches. Rather we rejoice in this gift of God to us. And in gratitude to Him we want to thank Him, to speak of it among ourselves, and to tell others, too, about this gracious gift. God has given us the truth! God has given us faithful preaching! And we see the blessed result of these gifts.
But how does one know that this is what churches need more than anything? How do I know what churches need? The only way to know what churches need is to listen to what Scripture says. The Word of God—indeed, God Himself—tells us what His church needs. It is not up to any man to decide what churches need. It is not up to any theologian, pastor, youth group or worship leader, or anyone else to be imaginative or creative regarding what their church needs. This is where so many churches go wrong today. They see there is a problem and then rely on their own ingenuity to find a solution. But the church is not a business or any other man-made organization. And therefore does not benefit from human ingenuity that does not submit itself to God’s Word.
God tells us, and God alone tells us, what His church needs in order to thrive and grow. If you remember anything from this article, remember this: God decides what His church needs. No man may decide.
God in scripture tells us what His church needs. He tells us that she needs the truth. He tells us why she needs the truth. He tells us why it is so serious not to know the truth, and why the tendency toward ignorance of the truth exists in the church. He tells us what this truth is at its heart, and He tells us how a church can gain and keep this knowledge of the truth in her midst. These are the subjects we will explore in future articles.
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