A Singing People

Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise (James 5:13).

The people of God are to be a singing people.

As James began to conclude his letter he set forth a series of exhortations for Christians in their walk with God (James 5:7-20). Christians who are suffering should pray; those who are cheerful should sing praise (James 5:13).

James’ exhortation should not surprise us. While in prison Paul and Silas sang and prayed (Acts 16:25). Christians are to speak, teach, and admonish one another in song (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Such exhortations build on the heritage and experience of Israel, singing the psalms before YHWH in the Temple and in their lives (1 Chronicles 25:1-31, Matthew 26:30). Thus, when things went well, the people sang praise; when things were not so well, they sang laments. They sang thanksgivings; they sang prayers. In all this they were singing before God. Thus we do well to consider: are we a singing people?

It seems that the voices of the people of God continue to grow quieter. In the assembly many can barely be heard; Christians will listen to secular and/or “contemporary Christian” music, get used to hearing singing, but do not share in that singing themselves. It is easy to believe that singing is better left to other people.

Bifurcation of life in terms of times of “worship” and the “rest of life,” along with an emphasis on the performative elements of singing, have proven very deleterious. We do well to note that James tells individual Christians to sing praises when cheerful (James 5:13). As there is no authorization for the use of instruments when Christians sing together (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), there is no authority for them in the individual praises of Christians, either (James 5:13). Attempting to suggest the problem features instruments “in worship” and not in the “rest of life,” as many are wont to do, simply beg the question. From where do these distinctions come? They are not in the pages of Scripture; singing in the assembly is not uniquely defined as “worship” over and against individual singing. No direct association is made in Scripture between singing together and “worship” as commonly understood. Likewise, while we all like to have good singing, and we would all love to sing well, performance should never be the driver when it comes to our singing, individually or collectively; the substantive message of the song should always be the driver. The best performed song that does not speak, teach, or instruct has no share in Ephesians 5:19 or Colossians 3:16; praise can be beautiful, but beauty without substance is not praise (James 5:13).

Abide with MeSinging is designed to build up and encourage (1 Corinthians 14:26); we can only do that when we recognize the profound value in the substance and singing of songs. Science has known for some time that people learn messages better when put to a tune; the best preached sermon can hardly match the visceral power of a well written hymn. Singing can change your mood; singing can help us keep our minds and hearts on Christ as they should be, even in difficult circumstances, just like Paul and Silas in Acts 16:25. We can sing praises when alone; we can join our voices together to praise God in song and instruct each other, audibly demonstrating the unity we share in God in Christ (1 John 1:1-6). From song we can derive strength in the moment of trial and reinforce the joy of more fortunate times.

Singing is not better left to other people; God intends for all of His people to sing. The quality of the performance is never nearly as important as the value of the substance. Singing edifies mind, heart, and soul. In good times we do well to sing; in distress we ought to cry out to God in prayer and sing laments. There is a song for every circumstance if we are only willing to sing it. May we be the singing people of God to His glory and praise!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Lawful vs. Profitable and Edifying

All things are lawful; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful; but not all things edify (1 Corinthians 10:23).

“If I can, I should.”

The above statement can never be found in the pages of Scripture but it has been accepted as if it were by many people in the world today. In science rarely are limits imposed on ethical grounds; present levels of knowledge and technology are the major hindrances and there are always researchers seeking to push ahead regardless of potential consequences. It is only when things go horribly wrong that questions are asked in retrospect, yet even then, the impulse to do because it was possible is rarely challenged. This is not only a matter of science; how many times have people decided to exercise a given liberty just because they could? How do most people celebrate their 16th, 18th, or 21st birthdays? They “celebrate” their newly gained freedoms, often to excess. If responsibility is ever learned it is only after many painful experiences of excess.

The same mentality has infected the religious world thanks to the strong American emphasis on freedom. People want to justify what they want to justify; they look to Scripture for “authority” so they can do what they want to do. It is important to have Biblical authority for what we do (Colossians 3:17), but Biblical authority is not an end unto itself as Paul seeks to explain to the Corinthians.

Corinth was a Greek and pagan city. Most of its residents continued to participate in idolatrous observances; its practice was so prevalent that the meat sold in the marketplace had been previously sacrificed to the town’s idols and most everyone had no problem with that. Paul wanted to make it clear that eating the meat was not a problem in and of itself; the problems came in when either a fellow Christian who did not have understanding was tempted to honor idols or if pagans were making an issue of it (1 Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:27-30). Meanwhile Christians must flee from idolatry, not partaking of the table of the Lord and the table of demons as well (1 Corinthians 10:1-22). It is not as if the Corinthians were unaware of these things; they just seemed to feel as if they were fine.

The challenge is laid down in 1 Corinthians 10:23. There is some question as to how the verse should be understood: is Paul actually saying that all things are lawful, or is it a quotation of the statement or premise of the Corinthians? Strong arguments can be made either way. For our purposes we can be confident that such was the basis upon which the Corinthians acted; if Paul is making the statement he does so accommodatingly, always recognizing that matters of sin are not lawful (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21).

Thus “all things are lawful” was the operating mode of the Corinthians: we can do these things, therefore, we should. To the Corinthians eating meat sacrificed to an idol was lawful; the matter was thus settled.

Paul does not argue about the authority or lawfulness of the behavior; he has already affirmed that an idol is nothing (1 Corinthians 8:4-6). Eating meat sacrificed to an idol is thus “lawful.” Yet Paul wishes to go further: is it expedient (or profitable)? Does it build up? He makes one thing evident: just because something is lawful (thus, authorized) does not make it profitable or edifying (1 Corinthians 10:23). After all, Christianity is not about doing whatever one pleases; Christians should be looking out for the good of his neighbor (1 Corinthians 10:24).

Eating meat sacrificed to idols may be lawful, but causing a brother to stumble because of it is not (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). Christians may be able to eat meat sacrificed to idols but should not cause pagans to think they are honoring the idol (1 Corinthians 10:25-33). If eating meat sacrificed to idols brings you back into an idolatrous orbit, it has become a stumbling block, and is no longer lawful (1 Corinthians 10:1-22). Christians cannot just go around doing things just because they can; they have to give consideration to themselves and to their neighbors. Is it profitable? Does it edify?

Paul’s lesson is sorely needed today. We need to have Biblical authority for whatever we do; all must be done in the name of the Lord (Colossians 3:17). But the analysis does not stop there. The goal is not just to find Biblical authority, let alone to invent Biblical authority to do what we feel like doing. It is not enough for something to just be authorized; it must be profitable; it must edify, for all things ought to be done unto edification (1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16). How will this practice influence my fellow Christians? Will it be a cause of stumbling? Will those outside the church think I have compromised myself by the way I exercise my liberty?

Even if “all things” are lawful, they may not be profitable; they may not edify. We should never do anything just because we can; we should do it because it glorifies God in Christ and is profitable unto edification. Let us seek the good of our neighbor, live under Biblical authority, but seeking to edify the Body of Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Speaking for Understanding

But now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation, or of knowledge, or of prophesying, or of teaching? Even things without life, giving a voice, whether pipe or harp, if they give not a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain voice, who shall prepare himself for war? So also ye, unless ye utter by the tongue speech easy to understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye will be speaking into the air (1 Corinthians 14:6-9).

There are times when people practice something so long or in such depth that the basic point and purpose has been forgotten. This seemed to plague the Christians of Corinth in terms of the assembly.

Difficulties abound in 1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40. From the text we can tell that God has poured His Spirit out upon the Corinthians and they are able to exercise spiritual gifts. God gave those gifts with one specific purpose: to build up the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:11-16). In order to build up the church, the Body of Christ, those gifts would have to be used in love primarily for the benefit and encouragement of others. Yet it seems that the Corinthians were much more excited about the ability to use and manifest spiritual gifts than to exercise them for profitable functions. Christians would speak in tongues, that is, foreign languages, with none to interpret. More than one would do so at the same time. Perhaps some people were trying to prophesy at the same time as well. It seemed like madness!

Thus Paul is attempting to set the Corinthians straight about how the gifts should be exercised in an orderly and profitable manner. Love for one another should inform everything they do, especially the exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). Yet Paul feels compelled to spend much time in 1 Corinthians 14:1-26 on one primary point: all things must be done for building up. The only way that such building up can take place is when those who hear actually understand what is being said.

Part of this argument is seen in 1 Corinthians 14:6-9. Paul wants to know: if he comes speaking in a tongue (e.g. German, Scythian, or the like), what benefit will they gain (1 Corinthians 14:6)? He would have to come with some specific message from God which they could understand in their own language. He then provides parallels with instruments: how can one know what a pipe or horn is playing if there is no distinction in the notes? If a trumpet is not sounded out boldly, who will get ready for war (the trumpet being a summons for an army; 1 Corinthians 14:7-8)? The point is emphasized in 1 Corinthians 14:9: the Corinthians need to speak in comprehensible language. They must speak so as to be understood or they are just speaking into the air. Speaking into the air is not edifying.

In their zeal for the exercise of spiritual gifts the Corinthians missed out on the core purpose of what they had come together to do: build one another up. God had not given them spiritual gifts merely for the purpose of using them haphazardly. He certainly did not grant them for them to speak so as to not be understood. He gave them so that Christians could encourage and build one another up. Edification demands understanding.

It is lamentable that many who would claim these gifts remain for the church persist in the same distortion of God’s purposes as the Corinthians did. Nevertheless, Paul envisions the day when that which was prophesied “in part” would be subsumed in its completion and thus see the end of prophecy and speaking in tongues, and so it occurred with the demise of the Apostles (1 Corinthians 13:8-10). Nevertheless there is much for us to gain from this passage; edification and understanding remain high priorities for God’s people to this day!

Even though “speaking in tongues” through supernatural means empowered by the Holy Spirit may be a in the past, many are essentially “speaking in tongues” in the assembly. Some speak in the “tongue” of unnecessarily complicated language or over-reliance on Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, seemingly more interested in impressing fellow Christians with their studiousness, Bible knowledge, or fancy speaking than in actually facilitating comprehension and thus edification. Frequently well-meaning Christians also speak in the “tongue” of “Christianese,” using jargon understood only by their fellow Christians. Who else knows what a “gospel meeting” is? How does the “watery grave of baptism” sound to someone who is not well-versed in the language of the church? It might sound to them like a horror film! Granted, there are times when it is best to use very precise words, refer to Hebrew or Greek, or use “church language,” but whenever we do so we must make sure to explain what we mean so there might be understanding.

Edification demands comprehension: this is the theologically compelling aspect to 1 Corinthians 14:1-25. Far too often “edification” is defined as “a warm fuzzy spiritual feeling received when going through some kind of spiritual experience.” That seems to be the very definition the Corinthians are using, and for that Paul chastises them. True edification demands actual comprehension of God’s message; when God’s message in Christ of salvation, redemption, righteousness, and hope is understood, it builds up to strengthen faith not just in the assembly but throughout life. An experience may feel great on Sunday, but what will sustain your faith on Monday? God intends for us to know Jesus His Son so as to believe in Him and do what He says (John 20:31, 1 John 1:1-2:6); thus, to build one another up demands that we instruct and exhort in His truth.

Paul’s presupposition remains profound: since edification demands comprehension, and all things we do in the assembly are to be unto edification (1 Corinthians 14:3-5, 9, 26), it is clear that God intends for His message to be communicated in comprehensible ways, and thus that all men should understand the truth about God in Christ. This truth must never be taken for granted; far too often in human history some have attempted to keep others from having a full knowledge of what God has made known. In the past people would assemble to hear God’s message proclaimed in a foreign tongue, Latin, and none to truly interpret. To this day some demand Scripture to be understood only in the straitjacket of antiquated language, according to a church tradition, or assume that since they are just “regular” people that the message of Scripture cannot be understood by them but only by specially religiously trained or called individuals. 1 Corinthians 14:6-9 proves that none of this ought to be! God has always intended for His message to be understood. He wants it to be communicated so that the people hearing can understand it and put it to work in their own lives. He communicated to people in the language of their time in ways familiar to them. We do well to take this message to heart, seek to communicate the Gospel to one another and those outside of Christ in ways they are able to understand so that all can be built up in Christ. Let us speak so as to be understood to the glory of God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Casting Down to Build Up

For this cause I write these things while absent, that I may not when present deal sharply, according to the authority which the Lord gave me for building up, and not for casting down (2 Corinthians 13:10).

We all know of people who are very good at tearing others down. They exist in every facet of life. We see politicians who are convinced that their opponent is wrong but does not necessarily have a lot to say about what is right; likewise there are voters who are definitely against one particular candidate even if they are not really “for” any of them. In families there always seems to be a relative or two who can say nothing good about anything and is full of complains and criticisms. What workplace would be complete without the employee who is constantly grumbling about what is wrong and why things are not getting better? And, sadly, even among Christians, there are many who focus entirely on the negatives. They are very quick to point out the flaws in other Christians, in local churches, and in the church as a whole. They are always confident in the demise of Christianity, a local church, and so on and so forth.

Oftentimes such people are really masking their own insecurities. By focusing on everyone else’s problems they can conveniently forget about their own. Anyone who would challenge their critical attitudes are maligned as not being sufficiently concerned enough about various dangers, or are slandered as being “soft” on “the truth.”

Yet, in reality, such people are not as spiritual or as mature as they would like to think. They are filled with the spirit of judgment and condemnation, which ends up always being hypocritical, and it often sets at nought fellow people for whom Christ died. There is a reason why the Scriptures consistently witness against such attitudes (Matthew 7:1-4, Romans 14:7-12, James 4:11-12)!

Nevertheless, there are times when there does need to be concerns about various challenges– doctrinal error (1 Timothy 4:1-4, etc.), Christians and churches not seeking to reflect the Lord Jesus accurately (cf. Romans 8:28, Revelation 3, etc.). Yet, in such things, perspective is critical.

Paul has plenty of reason to criticize the Corinthians– and he certainly does criticize them. They are being persuaded by false teachers to discredit Paul and his testimony (2 Corinthians 11:1-33). There is great concern that many of the Christians are acting in ungodly ways without repentance (2 Corinthians 12:20-21).

Paul does not go soft on the Corinthians. He rebukes those in sin and warns them that they will not be spared (2 Corinthians 13:1-3). He will not sit by idly while Satan devours the church in Corinth. He clearly sees the problems in Corinth. But notice that his resolve does not stop there!

Paul does not use his authority to tear down and walk away– he uses his authority to tear down so that he can build up again (2 Corinthians 13:10). That is what Christ intends for him to do. Anyone can criticize. Anyone can point out problems. But God’s work, ultimately, is edification and encouragement– building up and strengthening (1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16, Hebrews 10:25).

Even though the processes may seem to begin in the same way, there is a world of difference between casting down for the sake of casting down and casting down for the sake of building up again. There is much more investment and concern when we are seeking to build up, a greater resolve for things to work out well, and greater concern about precisely how things are cast down. The ultimate end is in view, not just the short-term.

We need to seriously consider ourselves in our faith as to whether we are one of “those people” who are good at tearing down but not at building up (2 Corinthians 13:5). How well has that gone? How many people have you pushed away or hurt, regardless of your intentions? Were you really seeking the best interest of your neighbor, or were you just trying to put on the sanctimonious pious face (cf. Philippians 2:3)?

If anyone ever had the right and the ideal circumstance in which to tear down just to demolish sin, it would have been Paul with the Corinthians. Nevertheless, even with that flawed group of people, Paul’s intention was to build them up. Yes, he had to cast down sinfulness, false doctrines, unholy thoughts and attitudes, and other difficulties. But the goal was not just to tear down and leave a gaping hole– his purpose was to have the opportunity to then rebuild in a more holy and suitable way.

Our goal must be the same. Whenever we have to cast sin down, we must do so only after considering ourselves and our own challenges (Matthew 7:1-4, Galatians 6:1-3), after much prayer and deliberation, and making sure that it is being done for the ultimate benefit of those whom we are challenging, and not of ourselves in rivalry or empty conceit (Matthew 18:15-20, Galatians 6:1, Philippians 2:1-4). We must then make sure that we strengthen and build up such a one in their faith. Pointing out problems is easy; seeking to understand challenges so as to improve and to make things better is quite another. If we are ready to critique, we must be ready to repair and rebuild.

The world, this country, the workplace, the family, and the church will sadly never lack people who tear down. Tearing down just for the sake of demolition has never been, is not, nor ever will be God’s way or God’s intention for us. Let us have the same spirit as Paul and cast down for the purpose of building up, seeking the best interest of our neighbor to ultimately strengthen him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Encouraging Words

Heaviness in the heart of a man maketh it stoop; but a good word maketh it glad (Proverbs 12:25).

Contrary to the feelings of many, no man is an island. No man (or woman) is entirely impervious to their environment or their circumstances.

We all go through times in life when our hearts are heavy. The reasons for heavy hearts are legion. Loved ones may hurt us or betray us, or we invest a lot of our emotional time and energy in their distress. They may pass away. We may be hurt by the words or actions of people around us. We may lose a job, develop a debilitating illness, or be in the midst of a very stressful period in life. Many times we allow the influences of the outside world and its continual panic to get us down.

Whatever the reason the distress is quite real. It is not as easy to live with a heavy heart as otherwise (cf. Proverbs 18:14). There is less motivation to engage in the simple functions of life, let alone anything else. It is hard to concentrate. It is hard to be civil and put on a false face in front of others. And it is especially difficult to “keep the faith” and believe that better times are ahead.

There is a natural tendency, in such circumstances, to retreat. It seems easier to not feel at all than to feel distress.

But the “unfelt life” is not really life at all. We all enjoy the highs/peaks of life. If there are highs/peaks, there must, at some point, be lows/valleys. We all experience them; we all have to live through them.

Yet there is something that makes it all just a little more tolerable, and that is a “good word.” Can we all not think of times when we were in distress (or perhaps just stress) and someone took out the time to encourage us and to build us up? Have we all not had experiences where we were laid low but the strengthening words of another lifted us up?

Words of affirmation and encouragement always have value. Little wonder, then, that God commands believers through the Apostles and others to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:25, Jude 1:20). Words of encourage sustain and uplift in times of distress and trouble. They reinforce us in the good times. There is no circumstance in which truly encouraging words cannot provide some benefit!

But for there to be good words there must be people who understand their value and are willing to freely provide them. Encouraging people are always in the minority; there is a superabundance of critics, cynics, and pessimists. Nevertheless, we all know the superior value of having a “Barnabas” in our life than the pessimists and cynics (cf. Acts 4:36-37). If we understand the value of having a “Barnabas” in our lives, how much more should we then strive to be the “Barnabas” for our fellow man!

There are few things that we can do that have a more lasting impression on others than to be there for them in times of distress with good words of encouragement, affirmation, and strength. Let us be a “Barnabas” and speak good words to all!

Ethan R. Longhenry