Alcohol, Tattoos, and Circumcision

What do tattoos, alcohol, and circumcision have to do with each other? I promise it wasn’t just a link baiting title that you see so often on Facebook and other places nowadays. Honestly, I think that Scripture has something to offer when dealing with all three of these topics in a similar way.

In case you’re new to church culture here in America, there is a constant debate going on as to whether Christians should be participating in certain things. Two of the things at the forefront of this debate are tattoos and alcohol. “Should Christians get tattoos? Is that something that a genuine disciple of Jesus could do? What about alcohol? Can someone love the Lord and still drink a glass of wine for enjoyment?” For some, the answer is no and for others the answer is yes. My goal with this post is not to provide an answer either way.

Rather, I want to look to a certain situation in the Bible that might can reveal some wisdom when dealing with such things. Whether it’s alcohol, tattoos, or some other activity that Christians debate over, how can we find a way work out our differences and find unity in disagreement? To find a possible answer, we look to our third category: circumcision.

In Acts 15, Christians do a really funny thing. They gather together ask basically ask the question, “Can God do what God just did?” It actually sounds eerily similar to what a lot Christians ask today. But, that’s besides the point. In Acts 15, they hold a council after Gentiles begin to receive the Holy Spirit and are saved. Their claim, in verse 1, was that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Repeating their point in verse 5, the Pharisees were claiming that circumcision is absolutely necessary in order to be a genuine believer.

However, Peter began to explain how God showed no distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles, the circumcised and uncircumcised. After all, God knows the heart and gave them the Holy Spirit that he had given to the Jewish Christians. Salvation wouldn’t come by bearing the “yoke” of their ancestors. Rather, all people are saved by grace through faith in Christ. Barnabas and Paul began to chime in and support Peter in his declaration. Circumcision was absolutely unnecessary in order to gain salvation.

They couldn’t have made their point any clearer. In order to be a genuine follower of Jesus, circumcision is of no importance. However, in the next chapter, something very interesting comes up. This is what Acts 16:1-3 says:

Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

What is this? It seems as if Paul goes back on everything that was said at the Jerusalem Council the chapter right before. Which is it? Is circumcision necessary? Or is it something Christians should practice? While this is a dramatic example, I think what we see here can help us a lot when we approach debated activity, such as alcohol, tattoos, and other things.

Again, I’m not trying to prove whether these things are acceptable. I have my opinions, but what I’m trying to find is something that can go beyond mere agreement and disagreement. And I think we that thing here in Acts 16.

What if this episode with Paul and Timothy shows us that, perhaps in order to reach a wider community of people, we have to make sacrifices that have nothing to do with our state of salvation? In other words, Paul obviously didn’t think that Timothy was any less of a Christian for not being circumcised. He proved that he believed such in Jerusalem. However, Paul wanted Timothy to have credibility with the Jews and knew that, since they knew his father was a Gentile, they might discount him.

Therefore, Timothy was circumcised. Not in order to be saved. Not in order to be more holy. Not in order to find favor in God’s eyes. But rather, for the result that “the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.” Timothy participated in something that had nothing to do with his salvation in order to be a credible witness to a group of people who both need Jesus and perhaps would have dismissed him had he not bore the signs of their image of a “faithful and genuine” believer. The point isn’t that they are justified in thinking that way. According to Paul a chapter earlier, they aren’t. However, Timothy loved this community of people enough to facilitate to their views at the time in order to be a better witness to them.

So what can we learn here?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking ourselves whether tattoos or alcohol or whatever is something Christians can participate in. Maybe we should be asking, “In this particular context, is the something we should be participating in?” For the record, I am of the persuasion that the particular examples I use, tattoos and alcohol, are okay if treated with responsibility. And I think that makes my point even stronger.

When we enter into the faith and become a Christian, we don’t embark on a private spiritual journey. We become a part of a worldwide community called the Church. Modeling after the founder of our faith, Jesus himself, we are called to live in a manner of self-sacrificial love. Perhaps we should examine what that might practically look like when it comes to issues like these.

For example, though I personally think that tattoos are fine, I probably won’t get one. Because I think it makes me more holy? Or because I think those who have them aren’t saved? Of course not! As Peter and Paul both said, we’re saved by grace through faith. However, I know for a fact that there’s many churches who wouldn’t allow me to preach or minister at their church if I were to get tattoos.

Are they justified in that belief? I personally think not. But, that isn’t my point. My point is that I don’t mind demonstrating self-sacrificial love for them and avoiding getting a tattoo in order to be a better witness to them. Not to mention that in many foreign countries, tattoos are seen as a sign of evil. If I were to go to a Muslim country and they were to write me off immediately because I had tattoos, I would start to feel pretty selfish.

The same applies with alcohol. Though I personally think alcohol in moderation is acceptable, there are many churches who think alcohol is inherently sinful. In fact, my own church leans in that direction. However, I respect the pastors of my church and want to be an effective witness in my church body. Therefore, I abstain alcohol, especially around those whom I know are personally convicted that it is a sinful thing. Whether or not they are justified in their belief is a different matter. Since I’m called to have self-sacrificial love for them, I’m okay with participating in abstinence from alcohol, just as Timothy was willing to participate in circumcision.

My point, then, is that maybe we should treat alcohol, tattoos, and other things similar to them in the same way that Paul treated circumcision. Abstaining from those things don’t make us any better or holy or acceptable to God. Salvation comes through faith by grace! However, in a community that is so much larger than ourselves and with a call to live in a sacrificial way, no matter our thoughts on those issues, we should be at least willing to metaphorically go under the knife and be circumcised, if our particular situation calls for it.

Perhaps, our actions may even make it possible that our church are “strengthened in the faith and increas[ing] in numbers daily.” Isn’t that the goal? Let’s focus less on what we can do and worry about what love has called us to do.

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Considering the Church in Your Relationship

How do you consider the Church in your relationships?

I got asked to speak on this a while back and whenever I did, I instantly thought about this time at a church youth group I used to go to. There was this guy in the youth group with me. I was about 12 and he was like 18. I was in 6th grade and he was a senior in high school. He was dating a girl (we’ll call her Jane) in the youth group as well. They had been dating for almost 2 years. That’s like 50 years in high school time. Now, the guy’s dad absolutely thought his son’s girlfriend was just amazing. He loved her. He adored her. He always talked her up to everyone and bragged constantly. Basically, he thought that she was like God’s gift to mankind, and that his son was just lucky enough to snag her. It was kind of awkward actually. We always used to joke that the dad more into Jane that his son even was.

But one night at the beginning of youth group, the guy’s dad busted in the youth room and he was just bawling his eyes out. He was sobbing, tears running down his face, snot coming out of his nose. He couldn’t even pronounce his words right. He finally got himself together enough to say some words. He said, “Guys… I have some bad news…” so we’re like freaking out! Just wondering what in the world he’s crying about. He goes, “It’s… it’s Jane…” And we all begin to ask him if she had got into a car accident, been diagnosed with cancer, or died, or something. He said, “No… no… they… they… they broke up!” And he just began to lose it while we all were like, really? Your son broke up with his girlfriend and you act like this? We just kind of laughed at him.

But the thing is, Jane never came back to youth group. Jane didn’t go back to any youth group. She didn’t go back to any church. It was a super tough break up for those guys. Not only did they suffer emotionally when they broke up… but Jane, since she stopped coming to church, suffered spiritually.

I told that story to say this; your relationship isn’t isolated. Guys, it’s not just you and your girlfriend against the world. You are part of a church family. Girls, it’s not just you and your boyfriend in some fairy tale adventure where you go far away and live happily ever after. You are part of a body of believers. There is a purpose for each of you in the body. There should be no division there. Paul says so in 1 Corinthians 12:25 “that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.”

So, when you date, when you’re in a relationship with someone,  you’re not just dating a girl or a boy. You are dating a member of the body of Christ, if they’re a Christian. And if they’re not, well then you shouldn’t be dating them in the first.

So, let’s consider these questions.

Does your relationship pull you away from others and isolate you?

This is a real question. You might be defensive and say, “Of course it doesn’t! I mean, I spend every winking moment of my life with her… but if I wanted to be with others, I definitely could!” Well, here’s my advice; if you can, then you should. Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with spending time with your significant other. But, hear me. Don’t take a relationship with one person and sacrifice it for the community of the church. You can be in a relationship and still be and commune with your friends, family, and your church family.

If you break up, will hurt feelings destroy your friendship?

This is a big one. Now guys, I’m not going to lie. I’m not a fan of dating in high school. And it’s not like I don’t know about it either. I wasn’t that awkward kid that wanted to hold a girl’s hand in high school but she didn’t want to hold it back, and now I’m bitter against dating. I dated a few girls in high school. Back in 9th grade I dated this one girl. I was thinking about how long ago that was. You wanna know something? Neither of us had texting! I had a piece of crap Nokia phone that called people and had solitaire, that was it. And, I must say, I was a beast at solitaire, so I liked it. So you can quit judging me. You’re probably like, “How did they stay in touch? You couldn’t have possibly called her… could you?” One word. Myspace. 2006. That’s how we did things back then.

But, the older I got, through each year of high school, the worse the relationships became. And I can honestly say, sadly, that I’m not friends with any of the girls I dated back then. I’m not friends with one. Now, they’re not going all Carrie Underwood on me and threatening to key my car and set my dog on fire or anything. But we’re not friends! That’s what matters! Some people ask me if I regret it… and I wouldn’t say I regret it, because it taught me a lot for the future and made me who I am today. But, personally, I’d rather learn from other people’s mistakes, not first-hand. So, I offer my experience to you. Don’t date someone if you know it will end badly. Hear me, trusting someone else with your heart and then letting them take it away never ends good. Consider that dating can likely end in break up, and how will that end up?

How will your relationship impact the unity of the Church?

This can be thought of in two different ways. First, will your relationship, will you and girl or boy coming into a relationship, ultimately cause bitterness in your church? Will it ultimately bring drama? Even though it’s going to bring you two guys together, is it going to tear more people apart? Is it ultimately going to do more harm than good? If the answer is yes to any of those, then I’m gonna be blunt. Going into that relationship is both selfish and stupid. It’s selfish and stupid. A relationship is meant to edify the Body. Not break it down.

Secondly, like we’ve said earlier, is your relationship going to lead to severing ties from the church? Either during or after break up. It does so during your relationship if you put your boyfriend or girlfriend as something ultimate above God. If they are more important than God, then that will lead to harm to the unity of the church, not to mention harm to yourself. Also, like I’ve said, If you know that things will be awkward if/probably when you break up, then you need to take that into consideration. Everything you do is to honor and please God… not yourselves.

So, I’m going to be real. If you date in high school, in all probability, your relationship will not lead to marriage. It probably just won’t. There are exceptions and praise God for those who meet in high school and live their whole lives together! But remember, they’re just that… exceptions. They aren’t the rule.

And another thing, I know that a lot of you have this Jerry McGuire attitude with your boyfriend/girlfriend and you’re like, “Oh no, Blake… you don’t understand! They complete me!” Please. No they don’t. That’s the thing that kills relationships! We elevate them to be something that they aren’t and expect them to do something that they were never meant to do! Our fulfillment is to come from God and God alone. We don’t search for that in others. Ecclesiastes 3:11 talks about how God has placed an eternal hole in our hearts. Now, human nature is prone to try and fill that hole with the things of this world. Sometimes, it’s drugs, food, success, acceptance, self-harm, sports… you name it. But sometimes it’s another human. Sometimes it’s a relationship. What’s the problem there though? A human isn’t eternal! A relationship isn’t eternal! Only God is eternal and only He can fill that hole.

So, after this break up, how will you guys return to being just friends in a godly manner?  I know it’s hard guys. And I don’t have much room to talk, since I haven’t done the best job at it. But, as I said earlier, I would rather you learn from my mistakes than you have to experience them yourself.

Maintaining the friendship is very difficult, especially if certain feelings have been expressed prematurely or if physical boundaries have been crossed. It’s weird seeing the person you said I love you to a month ago walk down the hall and them not say even hello, right? It’s strange being in youth group, and sitting close to the guy who touched you inappropriately not too long ago, and now he won’t even shake your hand? It’s awkward being in a relationship with someone who you thought was “the one”, but now they won’t even give you a passing glance! What do you do with that? How do handle things like that? It’s tough… man, is it tough. But remember, you’re forgiven. God has forgiven you! And if holy, almighty, sovereign, omnipotent God can forgive you, then you sure as heck can forgive your boyfriend, and you can surely forgive your girlfriend. And, most importantly, you can forgive yourself. You belong to Him. You’re His. And If God doesn’t hold anything against you, then no one can.

Remember guys, relationships shouldn’t cause division. In anything. Consider the Church. Consider the Body. Consider the community. Date wisely, my friends. Date wisely.

Church Numbers: God’s Favored Statistic or Non-fruitful Instrument of Hades?

Obviously, the title was a bit sarcastic on both ends. But this is a legitimate idea that needs to be thought about… how important are numbers when it comes to the church? Does shooting for higher numbers sacrifice the individual impact? Or does God want us to reach out to as many people as possible?
There is even an argument about this among many popular names in the evangelical world. People like author and preacher Francis Chan say, “God is not interested in numbers. He cares more about the faithfulness, not the size, of His bride”. But then there’s people like Steven Furtick of Elevation Church, who made a core value of his church, “We Are All About the Numbers – Tracking metrics measures effectiveness. We unapologetically set goals and measure progress through all available quantitative means.”

So which is it? As a leader, does God care about numbers? Or does He want faithfulness? My answer would be: yes.

Many times, I think churches see these two idea at odds with one another. The two become mutually exclusive. It is either one, or the other. We cling to the idea that either, God wants us to herd in as many people for His name, or simply focus on pouring in to a smaller group of people. I believe, however, that churches can effectively do both, if done correctly.

It can become a matter of the church existing to build attendance versus the church existing to build attendees. When you leave one of the two aspects out, dangerous things can begin to arise. Let’s look at a few.

When you leave out the idea of existing to build attendees, and only exist to build attendance, you run into these problems:

  • The leader or pastor may only be running the church for his own personal gain. He is not interested to personal relationships or lives changed by the power of the gospel, but simply how his ministry can benefit himself. He may end up becoming egotistical and narcissistic. And then, if something happens to him, the church will fall apart because it was all based on him, not something greater.
  • Many times, truth may be sacrificed in order to draw a crowd. If something doesn’t come across as “seeker friendly” or is something that the pastor thinks will not go over well with the crowd, then it may not get preached. Things such as sin, wrath, justice, and the law are often times avoided. This not only denies the Bible of its authority, but it only provides the people with an incomplete gospel.
  • When hard times in life come, the people of the church will suffer. Since the church was only about numbers and not providing the people will truth, they will have no solid foundation in which to base their hope. Hope is not found in a particular church, but in the gospel and truths of Jesus Christ.
  • Pride may set in and big churches will begin to judge smaller churches for not being as “fruitful” as they are. The bigger churches may think, “Well we have more people and bigger buildings, so we must be more favored by God!” No one would ever say that (or maybe they would), but they would be thinking it. However, numbers are no grounds for bragging rights. In fact, there’s an idea in scripture that even false teachers will still accumulate numbers.” “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” Matthew 24:11.

When you leave out the idea of existing to build attendance, and only exist to build attendees, you run into these problems:

  • They forget that numbers are not statistics, but represent actual souls. There is a quote by Josef Stalin (don’t worry, I don’t throw those out there too much) that says, “When one man dies, it is a tragedy. When millions of people die, then it is just a statistic.” Is that not terrible? But how true is it? However, it should be the church’s mission to put a halt to that attitude. Growth in a church does not equal lack of relationship. Growth in a church should equal more people being exposed to the good news that they so desperately need to hear.
  • The church may become like a private club. If you’re not dedicated to seeking to get more people to come to your church, then it can become very exclusive. Yes, you may be feeding the people that do come, but there is people all in your city that are slaves to sin and need the gospel in order to be saved. Do not ever sacrifice truth or cater to unbiblical desires, but strategize to get more and more people to come. The church should never become a place for certain people and it should never be content with the number of people that come.
  • Your church might cater to faithful members, instead of sacrificing for the kingdom. While the seeker sensitive churches stated above cater to seekers, churches that don’t emphasize reaching out may cater to those who pay major tithes or something. This is just as bad as the opposite route. The church should never cater to anyone. It should be faithful to proclaiming the gospel to all peoples.

So, we see that each end has its problems. This is why there must be a middle route.

Matt Chandler, who has a huge church in Dallas, TX, has a great philosophy on church numbers. He always emphasizes that the bigger his church gets, the smaller that they need to make it seem. This is why they do not have some huge arena that they have services in. They have four locations of somewhat modest sizes, and do multiple services at each location. They shoot for the small church feel while still impacting thousands of people.

Small groups are also an amazing tool to use. It is much like the early church, who met on the Sabbath together in the temple, but then met in each other’s houses during the week as well. It provides the coming together of the big church body, but then the accountability and relationship of a small church and group of believers.

So, we have concluded that the church should love numbers, yet not sacrifice truth in order to gain them. Each number represents a life to which the church is ministering. If a church is focused on numbers alone, then it will not sustain or impact lives with truth. If a church is focused on feeding truth to a small number of people, but not willing to reach out to others, then it excluding the good news that so many around them need.

I hope that those of you preparing for ministry can find this helpful and know that the Church is God’s way of impacting the world… now let’s do it right.