Attitude of gratitude

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The quote shown above, though funny, is all too true! I have a copy of it on my desk and often chuckle when reading it. It reminds me of the stupid things we humans sometimes do. A case in point is seen in the picture at right. Where is this guy’s eye and ear protection? He apparently never read the instruction manual!

Reading (and heeding) instructions can save lots of self-inflicted pain and heartache in life. Consider these instructions from the apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Thessalonica:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
(1 Thess. 5:16-18, ESV)

Practicing what he preached, Paul maintained an “attitude of gratitude.” At all times and in all circumstances, he remembered that God was always with him and for him, and so he gave thanks.

When I typed the phrase “attitude of gratitude” into a search engine, millions of results popped up. I read several of the linked articles—some sharing stories and others quoting Bible verses. Some noted the physical benefits of cultivating such an attitude. One put it this way:

Over the past decade, numerous scientific studies have documented a wide range of benefits that come with gratitude. These are available to anyone who practices being grateful, even in the midst of adversity, such as elderly people confronting death, those with cancer, people with chronic illness or chronic pain, and those in recovery from addiction. Research-based reasons for practicing gratitude include:

  • Gratitude facilitates contentment. Practicing gratitude is one of the most reliable methods for increasing contentment and life satisfaction. It also improves mood by enhancing feelings of optimism, joy, pleasure, enthusiasm, and other positive emotions…. Gratitude also reduces anxiety and depression.
  • Gratitude promotes physical health. Studies suggest gratitude helps to lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, reduce symptoms of illness, and make us less bothered by aches and pains.
  • Gratitude enhances sleep. Grateful people tend to get more sleep each night, spend less time awake before falling asleep, and feel more rested upon awakening. If you want to sleep more soundly, instead of counting sheep count your blessings.
  • Gratitude strengthens relationships. It makes us feel closer and more connected to friends and intimate partners. When partners feel and express gratitude for each other, they each become more satisfied with their relationship.
  • Gratitude encourages paying it forward. Grateful people are generally more helpful, generous of spirit, and compassionate. These qualities often spill over onto others. (Dan Mager, Psychology Today, November 2014)

For Christians, an attitude of gratitude flows from rejoicing in the Lord—praising him for his goodness, love, faithfulness, mercy and grace. Since our Triune God oversees all things and works all things together for our good, we can give him thanks, no matter our circumstances. This grateful mindset helps us see more clearly how God is working in our lives. As noted by James, the half-brother of Jesus, the closer we draw to God, the closer he draws us in (James 4:8). As King David noted while thanking God, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy…” (Ps.16:11 ESV).

Being thankful to God in times of trouble and hardship involves humbly surrendering to him—acknowledging that we need him, remembering the words of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ:

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)

As Paul noted in his first letter to the church in Corinth, part of following Jesus involves a willingness to “die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31, KJV). We do that by following him in close communication—listening to his Word, responding to him in prayer and in other forms of worship. Then when we encounter difficult or troubling situations, we know that whatever suffering is involved, we can trust him to draw our burdens up into his sufferings on our behalf at the cross. He then redeems our sufferings, leading us to share, by the Spirit, in the new life of his resurrection. Throughout this process of redemption and transformation, we experience an attitude of gratitude, for the Spirit reminds us of our Savior’s invitation:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30, ESV)

The more closely we follow Jesus, surrendering to him and trusting him, the more grateful we become as he takes our burdens upon himself and gives us his peace—his rest—even in the midst of life’s storms. This brings forth in us a life-giving “attitude of gratitude.”

Thankful for Christ and the rest he provides,
Joseph Tkach, GCI President

PS: Due to the publishing of GCI Equipper on July 11, and the July 4 (Independence Day) holiday in the U.S., the next issue of GCI Update will be published on July 18. I’m grateful to God for the freedoms we enjoy in the United States. I pray that our citizens will not take them for granted.

Ordering our worship

This “From the President” letter is by GCI Vice President Greg Williams.

Dear Pastors and Ministry Leaders:

Greg and Susan Williams

Is there a particular way that worship services in the church should be conducted? That’s not a new question—the apostle Paul addressed it in his first letter to the church in Corinth. Their services had become contentious and chaotic, and Paul wanted to help them solve the problem. He did so by noting that, while their desire to exercise their spiritual gifts in worship was commendable, they must do so in ways that build up the church rather than causing division and confusion (1 Cor. 14:26, 33). Paul exhorted them to conduct their worship in “a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor. 14:40). Believing that Paul’s exhortation is relevant for us today, I encourage all our pastors to gather with their leaders (including those who plan and direct worship) to evaluate their worship services.

History of worship liturgy

Let me share some relevant history. As various worship traditions developed, some churches and whole denominations adopted a “liturgical” approach to structuring their worship services, while others adopted an approach called “non-liturgical.” By definition, liturgical churches follow a set liturgy (order of worship). Some utilize a “high liturgy” that is fully-scripted while others have a “low liturgy” that, being less-scripted, allows more flexibility. Non-liturgical churches, while still having an order of services, are even more flexible. Historically, many Protestant churches became non-liturgical—not because they were against order in their worship, but because they did not like what they felt was the excessive ritual of the liturgy practiced in their day.

Whether liturgical (high or low) or non-liturgical, all churches (whether acknowledging it or not) have a liturgy—some sort of “order” to their worship. That’s good because a lack of order can lead to the chaos Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians 14. Interestingly, there is a movement today among some non-liturgical churches to return to certain elements of the ancient, more formal liturgy of the church (click here and here for more information). They find that this shift makes their worship more appealing and inspiring to both regular attenders and visitors.

GCI’s history and a challenge for us today

Historically, worship in GCI (reaching back to WCG and beyond) followed a highly structured, standardized order. With our reformation came greater flexibility in how our congregations ordered their worship services. However, it is my observation that in adopting a less structured approach, some of our services have become somewhat chaotic and thus not as edifying as they need to be. Given that situation, I ask all our pastors and fellowship group facilitators to gather with their leaders to examine how they are conducting their worship services. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Do our services focus on who God is as revealed in Jesus?
  • Do they reflect the communal nature of our triune God who exists in harmony and unity?
  • Are our services uplifting and hope-filled, or are they uninspiring?
  • Do all aspects of our worship build up the church, or is there confusion and chaos?
  • Do all who are open to hearing the gospel (including non-Christians) feel welcome in our services?

Conducting this evaluation and making needed changes will take careful and intentional effort. That’s appropriate since the root words of liturgy mean “the work of the people.” Wanting to assist you in that work, we have published in this issue an article that addresses worship in GCI congregations. It includes a standard order of services (liturgy) that, though not required, is strongly recommended. Over the next six months in GCI Equipper, we’ll publish additional articles that will provide further guidance to help you discern the Spirit’s direction concerning your worship services. As you go through this time of discernment and restructuring, I encourage pastors to discuss their insights and plans with their Regional Pastor (U.S.) or Regional Director (elsewhere).

Points to ponder about congregational life

Though our worship services are vital, they are only one part of a congregation’s life. With this broader perspective in mind, as pastors gather with their leadership teams to evaluate their liturgy, I challenge them to also evaluate some other key issues. To help them do so, I’ve listed below some points to ponder. It’s my observation that we’ve tended to overlook some (many?) of these issues. Perhaps that’s because we’ve been (necessarily) focused on doctrinal and theological renewal over the past several years. I believe it’s now time to attend to these other issues as we enter a new season of living out of the loving, inclusive relationship we have through Jesus in the power of the Spirit.

  • If your congregation is functioning more like a small group (with high levels of interaction and sharing of the leadership/facilitation role), it’s likely that you should consider yourself a “fellowship group” rather than a “church” that provides a well-planned and executed worship service. Healthy churches need to have a combination of both well-executed worship services as well as small group gatherings where disciples are enriched, and depth of community is built. Please be satisfied with what you can currently offer, and trust the Lord for the future growth you desire.
  • If you are holding your primary worship service on Saturday, that puts you out of step with most of GCI and the rest of the Christian world. Doing so sends a misleading signal about who GCI is. While circumstances may have prevented some GCI congregations from moving to Sunday services, making that change should now be a priority. In my far and wide GCI travels, I have rarely experienced a strong, vibrant and growing GCI church that is meeting on Saturday.
  • If you are meeting at an awkward time of day that makes it hard for people to gather, then you need to make a course correction.
  • If you are gathering in a hall that is difficult to locate and is out of the flow of normal activity, then consider how to improve your location, and find a target community to be immersed in.
  • If you are renting space in a church building that is owned by another congregation/denomination, consider the problems you face with identity. Is it clear that you are a congregation of a separate denomination?
  • If you have a rotating speaking schedule with multiple preachers, it’s likely that you are in “maintenance mode,” lacking cohesive leadership and vision for your church. The lead pastor should preach a minimum of three times per month, and it is even better if they preach five out of six weeks.
  • If your lead pastor also fills the role of “chief deacon,” then members need to step up. Perhaps the pastor needs to let some things go.
  • If you have people conducting the musical aspects of your worship (instrumental and/or vocal) who are not musically gifted, something needs to change. Get people involved in worship, but in accordance with their giftedness.
  • If your weekly worship service is structured in accordance with GCI’s past tradition, and hasn’t been examined in a long time, now is the time for a “come to Jesus” meeting! Take a good, hard look and have the difficult conversations. You will be glad you did!

Once again, I encourage pastors to discuss their findings concerning these points with their immediate supervisor. Let us work together as a team to bring improvements to the worship and other aspects of congregational life in our churches and fellowship groups. Thank you for your cooperation.

Your brother in Christ,
Greg Williams, GCI Vice President

Honoring our parents

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach

Though I was told that I was my paternal granddad’s favorite grandchild, it didn’t always seem that way to me—he was a strict disciplinarian. Because he died when I was young, I didn’t know him well, though I did know he was something special by the way my parents, aunts and uncles honored him—especially on his wedding anniversary and on Father’s Day.

Father’s Day is celebrated in the U.S. and 69 other countries on the third Sunday in June (some other countries celebrate it in September). Last year in Australia there was quite a furor over the notion of changing the name to “Special Person’s Day.” Some reasoned the change would ensure that children without dads would not feel excluded from the celebration. While it behooves us to include children who don’t have at-home dads, I don’t think a name change would help much—we’d also have to change the name of Mother’s Day and several other holidays to avoid exclusion or offense. My only complaint about Father’s Day is that, because it falls on Sunday, we fathers don’t get a day off work!

Father’s Day and Mother’s Day celebrations give us opportunity to obey the commands given in the Bible to honor our parents. However, those commands present a problem for people who have had abusive parents. What are they supposed to do? While there are no easy answers, it’s important to remember three things: First, that God fully understands what those who were hurt by their parents endured—he sees and cares. Second, that giving honor does not mean condoning or continuing to endure abuse. Third, that the ability to honor those who have abused us does not come from within—it’s a gift from God that involves sharing in the mind of Jesus who willingly died for undeserving sinners (Romans 5:8). With Jesus, by the Spirit, we can give honor to those who don’t deserve it. We do so by looking beyond the pain they’ve caused, and instead of seeking revenge, seeing them as a child created by God. Don’t get me wrong, God does not love the pain they have caused, but he does love the child he created.

“Picture of Faith” by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)

Though we may not know all the factors that led a parent to be abusive, we know God did not create them that way and does not want them to remain that way. We also know that our Lord says, “love your enemies,” “pray for those who persecute you,” and “turn the other cheek.” Jesus also says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32). The apostle Paul adds in 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 that we should regard no one (parents included) from a merely human point of view—instead, we should see them in relationship to Jesus, who intends that they become new creations in him, by the Spirit. When we ask God to help us see an abusive parent in that way, our hearts begin to change. We find ourselves less focused on their bad behavior and more focused on the person God created them to be.

Let me emphasize that we are not called to honor our parents on our own power. Instead, enabled by the Holy Spirit, we see them in the light of Christ—the light of what our Lord intends for them. In that light, we are able to honor our parents because we know that Jesus, as Mediator, stands between us and them—he is Lord and Savior of that relationship. We also know and trust that Jesus’ purposes for us cannot be thwarted by bad parenting. Through him and by him we have a heavenly Father who graciously rules over all earthly fathers (and mothers).

Giving honor to a parent is not mere emotion—it’s an attitude that comes from faith, hope and love in God through Christ and by the Spirit. Also, giving honor does not require a positive relationship (in some cases, a face-to-face relationship with a badly abusive parent is not possible). Nevertheless, Jesus calls upon us to rise above the bad relationship to extend honor, even if from afar. We do so by focusing on our relationship with Jesus, who enables us to grow into his maturity, including his ability to love the unlovely. We do so remembering how Jesus showed incredible honor toward us when we were completely dishonorable.

One last thought: When children see parents honoring their parents, they will likely imitate that behavior. Despite the challenges, honoring others is a healthy activity for others as well as for ourselves.

Happy Father’s Day,

Joseph Tkach, GCI President

Sanctification: relational, not legal

Dear GCI Preachers,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach

When we preach, we must always make it our aim to proclaim the biblical gospel—the good news about Jesus and his saving work. This Christ-centered approach to preaching focuses much more on the grace of God than on human works. Though our sermons should address sin (the pain and hurt sin causes, and thus why God hates it), in doing so we must not imply that we are to rely upon ourselves for salvation. As James B. Torrance often said, we must not “throw people back upon themselves.” Gospel-focused preaching turns people away from themselves and towards Christ where, by the Holy Spirit, they can participate in Christ’s good and right relationship with the Father.

In The Claim of Humanity in Christ, Alexandra Radcliff points out that in their writings, James B. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance emphasize the relational nature of all aspects of Jesus’ atoning work on our behalf. They note that God, in love, created us for sonship—a filial relationship in which we find our true being in communion with God, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit. This means that our justification (right standing) with God is relational, not legal. It also means that our sanctification (our growth in Christ) is relational, not legal. Instead of merely imitating Jesus’ example (his life of obedience), we actually participate in our Lord’s relationship with the Father in the Spirit.

Because human nature tends to prioritize law over relationship, a relational view of sanctification is not easy to grasp. As a good friend of mine likes to point out, it’s easier to keep the law living alone in a cave than to sustain a dynamic, loving relationship. Why? Because relationship requires proximity, which brings with it the risk of sinning against the other person. Though living alone may be easier, a life devoid of relationship would be relatively meaningless. When it comes to sanctification, relationship trumps legalism.

Just as our standing with God is relational, not legal, our standing with each other as Christians should be based on the relationship we share together with God, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit. When we view the church for what it truly is—people-in-community being transformed together in Christ—the church becomes far more than a social club that shares certain moral principles. While moral principles are good, they cannot transform us. Our transformation, which is the fruit of our sanctification, comes only in Christ as he, by the Spirit, leads us into personal, interactive relationship with the Father. In and through that relationship, we receive and respond to all that God has for us, including all that Jesus has accomplished on our behalf. Our transforming interaction with God occurs as we read and hear the Word of God, pray, worship and otherwise live out our lives in communion with the Father, Son and Spirit.

Those who view sanctification as primarily legal tend to be burdened by a fear of being condemned by God for not “measuring up.” Though they likely understand that we are justified by grace, they think that we are sanctified by our works (obedience to law). However, knowing that none of us exhibit full  sanctification (we are not perfect), they carry this fear of God’s rejection. Though they surely know what is said in John 3:16—God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son—it seems they are unaware of John 3:17—For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. This fear of God’s condemnation-rejection tends to arise from a common misunderstanding where justification is equated with the gospel and sanctification is equated with Christian living, as though the two are separate or sequential. According to this misunderstanding, God justifies us by grace, but then we must sanctify ourselves through our own works. In contrast, the apostle Paul teaches that justification and sanctification are both complete in Christ, and are to be received from him as we trust him to give them to us as gifts of grace (1 Cor. 1:30. NASB).

Sanctification is also sometimes misunderstood as involving our independent response to Christ’s saving work, which “maintains” our salvation. The truth is that sanctification is a gift that comes from our new life in Christ. The only responses God is interested in are those enabled by the ministry of the Spirit who frees us to receive and share in Christ’s own responses made for us. So, while we do respond, we never respond alone. Our responses are the fruit of our fellowship with Christ by the Spirit. Our primary response is one of trusting in the ministry of the Spirit to provide us a share in Christ’s own sanctification—and even that trust is a gift of God’s grace!

Though gratitude is a primary way we show our thanks for God’s redeeming work, it can easily collapse into a work (an effort we work up) to maintain God’s grace (to keep us on God’s “good side”). Certainly we are grateful, and we should show gratitude, but not as a work of sanctification that we generate in response to the gift of our justification. Sanctification, and the gratitude that goes with it, is the fruit of our participatory relationship with God, in Christ, by the Spirit.

Christ the True Vine (public domain)

The New Testament uses various metaphors, images and parables to describe our relationship with God as being relational rather than legal. For example, we are branches nourished by Christ, who is the vine (see the picture at right); we are stones being built into a holy temple; we are the body of Christ. These illustrations show that as we grow and share in relationship with God, the working of our sanctification follows spontaneously and organically.

Perhaps you had a teacher with the gift of bringing out the best in her students. Through your tutoring relationship with her, you flourished and blossomed. I had a teacher like that who taught me math in elementary school. Going to a new level of understanding in algebra was the by-product of the respectful relationship I had with that teacher. I worked hard, not merely for a good grade, but because, with that teacher’s help, I was able to solve more problems and thus no longer feared taking formerly-dreaded math tests.

This example from my life shows what it means to “fix our eyes on Jesus” rather than on the law and our works. We join in with Jesus, so to speak, not because we have to (legalism) but because we want to (loving relationship). As Paul notes, the law was not given to save us—it was given to show that we don’t measure up. It is Jesus, not the law, who offers us life-giving fellowship with God. This communion, which is a gift from God, comes to us through the Holy Spirit’s ongoing ministry. By the Spirit, we trust Christ to give us a share of his new (resurrection) life, which means our participation in Jesus’ own righteousness—his perfect, good and right relationship with God and with all people. This participation involves obedience “from the heart” (Romans 6:17), which Paul calls “the obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 1:5, 16:26).

Let me put it this way: ethical behavior is a matter of following God’s will as we trust in the ministry of the Holy Spirit to enable and empower us to daily receive the gift of our new life in Christ and then, living it out, having fellowship with Christ by the Spirit. In other words, sanctification is not about self-motivated will—it’s not about trying hard to meet the demands of God’s law. Rather, sanctification is a gift of grace that we trust God to give us—the gift of participating in Jesus’ own obedience, which flows from his loving and faithful relationship with the Father by the Spirit.

As Paul tells us, our response to this gift of grace is to “work out” our salvation (Phil. 2:12). We do so by placing our faith and trust in God’s Word and Spirit to transform us, with the result being the fruit of Christ’s own righteousness being born in our lives. We can count on this happening, for as Paul also tells us, “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13).

Sanctification provides us the benefit of our union with Jesus in which God, through the power and presence of the Spirit, delivers us from our broken, sinful natures, transforming us into the holy image of Jesus through our participation in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. This is how we become transformed and thus conformed to Christ. This is our sanctification.

Rejoicing that the gift of our sanctification is making us closer to God,
Joseph Tkach


PS: Looking for additional insights from the Torrances concerning our sanctification in Christ? Click here for a series of Surprising God posts on Dr. Radcliff’s book from GCI Update Editor, Ted Johnston.

Retreating to go forward

The President’s letter this issue is from Greg Williams, GCI Vice President.

Dear Pastors, Ministry Leaders and Friends,

Greg Williams

The four Gospels tell us that Jesus regularly withdrew from the crowds with his inner circle of disciples to relax, recharge, refocus and deepen their relationships. Following the example of our Master, I recently led a two-day retreat with our five GCI-USA Regional Pastors (known affectionately as “the 5 Guys”). We gathered at a cabin near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Instead of following a fixed, demanding agenda focused on strategic planning, our retreat gave us time to deepen our bonds as brothers in Christ, and to revisit and refresh our shared vision for “healthy church” (and, yes, we did discuss some matters related to planning and organization).

The 5 Guys (L to R): Randy Bloom, Paul David Kurts, Mike Rasmussen, Rick Shallenberger, Tim Sitterley

In the spirit of “what happens at the cabin stays at the cabin,” I will not share a blow-by-blow account of what happened during our retreat. However, here are three things I learned from the time I spent with my five colleagues:

  • They are committed to being team-based. This was seen in how they eagerly deferred to each other as they worked together unloading supplies, preparing meals, and cleaning up. It isn’t that these five men always agree, but through their commitment to Jesus and by his empowerment, they are committed to being the close-knit team that the Holy Spirit has made them. Interesting side note here: though the cabin was equipped with billiards, foosball, table tennis, a pinball machine and other games, the group did not use any of these. All our time was spent talking, laughing, sharing and praying—beginning with breakfast preparation and ending each day with time together around a fire.
  • They are devoted promoters of unity. They all strive to be leaders worthy of being followed. As the Holy Spirit creates unity among them as careful stewards and guardians, they work diligently to spread that unity to others (Ephesians 4:1-3).
  • They are given to prayer. They don’t limit their prayer to giving thanks at meals and offering opening and closing prayers to bookend meetings. They practice deep intercessory prayer for each other and for the church. The prayers I heard from them expressed high levels of transparency and vulnerability with utter dependence on our Triune God. One of our times of prayer, lasting two hours, brought the healing and assurance we all needed. I do not have words.

Our retreat in the Smoky Mountains was transformational, setting the pace for retreats the 5 Guys will be hosting in 2018 in their respective U.S. regions for pastors and their spouses. I know that the participants in these “cabin retreats” will benefit greatly from their time together (see the report in this issue from RP Paul David Kurts about the two retreats he has already held in his Southeast Region). I’m praying that each retreat will be as life-giving and refreshing as the one I experienced with my dear friends, the 5 Guys.

Retreating together, so we may go forward in Christ’s power!

—Greg Williams, GCI Vice President

Honoring our mothers

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach

In a recent online search, I learned that 54 countries, including the United States, celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May (May 13, this year). Other countries celebrate something similar on other days of the year. For example, the UK celebrates “Mothering Sunday” on the fourth Sunday during Lent. The roots of that celebration are the tradition of visiting one’s “mother church” (where you were baptized). As time progressed, the day became a time to give honor to one’s birth mother. While I believe it’s appropriate to take a day each year to give honor to our human mothers, I also think (in the spirit of what Jesus said in Matthew 12:46-50) that it is good and right that we give honor to our spiritual mother, the church.

Honoring our mother, the church

Though some Christians ignore and even dishonor the church, Scripture teaches us to give her the highest honor. Protestant reformer and theologian John Calvin did just that, teaching that the church is necessary for the spiritual growth and well-being of all believers:

John Calvin (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Let us learn even from the simple title “mother,” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her…. I shall start, then, with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith… so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother. And this was so not only under the law but also after Christ’s coming, as Paul testifies when he teaches that we are the children of the new and heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4:26). (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.1)

In a couple of books on evangelical theology, Sung Wook Chung (Professor at Denver Seminary) notes that Calvin identified six functions of the church as our mother:

  • Conception: God’s people are conceived in the womb of the church through the power of the Spirit and the Word.
  • Birth: God’s people receive life (regeneration) by the Spirit within the context of the church.
  • Spiritual nourishment: The church “nourishes us at her breast” (Inst. 4.1.4).
  • Care and guidance: The church takes care of us throughout our lives, offering direction and counsel.
  • Forgiveness and salvation: We cannot hope for either forgiveness or salvation “away from her bosom” (Inst. 4.1.4). As bearer of the gospel and as led by the Spirit, the church is God’s agent of forgiveness and salvation in the world.
  • Cultivation of godliness and piety: In the fellowship of the church we are shepherded by and for good works.

The apostle Paul, whom God used to establish the church among the gentiles, compared his ministry to that of a nursing mother caring for her children (1 Thess. 2:7). He also compared Christ’s relationship with his church to a husband’s relationship with his wife (Eph. 5:25-32). Closely aligned (though not perfectly parallel), Jesus, the head of the church, compared himself to a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings to provide protection (Luke 13:34). Down through the ages, teachers of the church, including Calvin, added these biblical images and metaphors up, and recognized how fitting it is to identify the church’s ministry as spiritual “mothering.”

Happy Mother’s Day!

As Mother’s Day draws near here in the U.S., I am remembering my baptism and the care I have received from my spiritual mother, the church, and the good works of my human mother who nurtured me in the ways of God. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you reading this who are human mothers, and also to our spiritual mother the church.

—Joseph Tkach

PS: In the We’re Often Asked section of the GCI website, we addresses the importance of our mother, the church (also referred to in Scripture as “the body of Christ”):

God calls sinners into the fellowship of the saints, which is the body of Christ. Regardless of denomination or choice of Christian congregation, the spiritual nurture of fellow Christians is essential for a faithful life in Christ. It is from Christ that “the whole body [is] joined and held together by every supporting ligament… as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). Speaking of the importance of the church in the lives of Christians, Paul wrote: “It was [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).

For more about the nature and functioning of the church, see Section 9 in GCI’s new publication, We Believe.

Are we “evangelicals”?

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach

I was talking recently with a member who was wondering where Grace Communion International fits within the larger body of Christ. Noting that GCI is not Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, they asked, “Does that mean we’re Protestant?” I answered yes, and they continued: “Since we’re not liberal or fundamentalist Christians, does that mean GCI is evangelical?” Again, my answer was yes, though as I’ll point out in this letter, the term “evangelical” is widely misunderstood and misrepresented. Note this comment from Christian scholar and professor Mark Noll:

In the rough and tumble world of American politics, the label [evangelical] is now often used simply for the most active religious supporters of President Donald Trump. By contrast, in the rarified world of professional scholarship, academics now sometimes treat it as a term with so much ambiguity, fluidity and imprecision that it cannot meaningfully designate any single group of Christians. (Source)

Despite the ambiguity and controversy swirling around the term evangelical, Professor Noll believes that it does have continuing value and should not be abandoned. He concludes: “When used with responsible attention to history and careful focus on generally accepted norms of… definition, [it] can still communicate reality and not just confusion.”

A related question is this: Who gets to define who and what an evangelical is? Often overlooked in answering that question is that, first and foremost, evangelical is a theological identifier. Before it identifies a group of people, it identifies the gospel (the evangel) of Jesus. It is first Jesus’ gospel, not ours—it is first about him, not about us. Those who rightly call themselves evangelicals are careful to point first to Jesus and his gospel, and then to what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Faithfulness to the gospel is measured by faithfulness to the Bible, whose authors were appointed by Jesus. Central to the Scriptures are the four Gospels authored by the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As these authors show, Jesus is the gospel—he is the true evangelical!

Sadly, for many in North American society, the term evangelical is defined not by Jesus and his gospel, but by the media and entertainment industry, along with politicians, psychologists, sociologists and historians—people often with little or no understanding of the biblical and theological roots and meaning of the term evangelical. The result is the confusion, controversy and outright misrepresentations that swirl around the term in our culture today.

To add to the problem, there are religious leaders who call themselves evangelicals but, at best, are on the extreme edges of what theologically can rightly be called evangelical. Some of these leaders are hypocrites who, wanting to justify themselves or cover up their unfaithful ways, co-opt the label evangelical. Though these pretenders are rightly criticized, the media often portray evangelicals as a monolithic group that is largely white, privileged, ultra-right-wing, racist and homophobic. The unfortunate result is that all who call themselves evangelical are tarred with the same brush by the media, casting a spell of guilt-by-association on those who, in actuality, rightly bear the name evangelical.

The reality is that evangelicals are not a monolithic group—in fact, they are quite diverse, including racially and ethnically, as shown in this chart:

In an article published by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Ed Stetzer notes that research on evangelical identity has tended to focus on three measures: behavior, belonging and belief. The article quotes NAE President Leith Anderson who, in weighing up the research, notes that “evangelicals must be defined primarily by their beliefs rather than politics or race.” Stetzer then offers this:

Dr. Ed Stetzer

In the hopes of crafting a consensus definition of core evangelical beliefs, we evaluated the statements of a diverse group of sociologists, theologians and evangelical leaders. In weighing the insights of these leaders, LifeWay Research developed a definition of evangelical belief around strong agreement with these four statements:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation. (Source)

GCI agrees with these statements, though we would locate them within the larger theological context of our whole Statement of Beliefs. Our agreement is reflected by our membership in the National Association of Evangelicals (in the U.S.), the World Evangelical Alliance, the Evangelical Alliance (in the UK and Philippines) and similar organizations elsewhere. The beliefs and ideals that characterize these evangelical organizations are addressed in The Capetown Commitmentan 80-page document that resulted from deliberations at the Third Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization. If you’d like to learn more about what it means to be evangelical, I highly recommend that you read this document.

Sue and Don Lawson

As a denomination, churches and individuals, we are healthy when we are living out our biblically based, evangelical beliefs. With that in mind, I close with the admirable example of one of our retired pastors, Don Lawson. For many years Don served GCI-USA as a pastor then as a district superintendent. Following retirement, Don experienced severe health problems, had to be hospitalized, then spent time rehabilitating in an assisted-care facility. Don sent me a note recently, letting me know he had returned home. His note included this:

About a month ago, the nurse in charge of memory care, where [my wife] Sue lives, asked if I would do a church service each Sunday for the Alzheimer’s patients in her ward. I agreed, and have spoken to them for the last three weeks. What a challenge for an 81-year-old, but I enjoyed it. We have had an average of 15 attending and I will continue to help them as long as I am able. My purpose is to try to find a level of teaching they might understand. I begin with He knows my name. Second: Jesus loves me this I know (and some sang along with me). Third: What is Jesus doing now? (I talked about a place of eternal joy and happiness, with no sorrow or tears).

That’s what being an evangelical looks like, and that’s the gospel evangelicals love to share!

Gospel blessings to you all,

Joseph Tkach

PS: Is the evangelical movement in the U.S. and elsewhere perfect? Of course not, and its leaders know that. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, a denominationally, racially, ethnically and politically diverse group of 50 prominent evangelical leaders met at Wheaton College, west of Chicago. Their purpose was to discuss the current condition of the evangelical movement in the U.S. According to Skye Jethani, a meeting participant,

We gathered to have an honest, and at times uncomfortable, conversation about the current state of American evangelicalism. The focus of the dialogue was not the [U.S.] President or any current policy matters. The focus was how to have a consistent Christian public witness that affirms the dignity of all people as created in the image of God. We explored our history and affirmed when evangelicals did this well, and when necessary we lamented when we have not. There were extended times of prayer, confession, repentance and open discussion.  (From a post on Skye Jethani’s Facebook page, 4/20/2018)

For an additional report on this meeting, click here.

The apostle to the Apostles

This letter is from GCI Vice President Greg Williams.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Greg and Susan Williams

Several early Christian writers call Mary Magdalene “the apostle to the Apostles.” We learn why in John chapter 20:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
(John 20:1-18)

Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene After the Resurrection
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Mary Magdalene was among several women who were followers of Jesus. She had been present at Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, and with some other women had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body (Mark 15:47-16:8; Luke 23:55-24:11; Matt. 28:1-10). She was also the first person of either gender to encounter the risen Lord, and the first to testify to the resurrection when she informed the apostles that Jesus was alive. No wonder she is called “the apostle to the Apostles”—a title that highlights how Jesus held women in high esteem and included them in his ministry.

In a culture where a woman’s testimony was not legally valid, it was shocking that Jesus chose a woman to be the first person to testify to his resurrection. This was even more shocking when you consider Mary Magdalen’s background. She is thought to be the unnamed penitent woman who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears and hair, then anointed his feet with expensive perfume (Luke 7:36-48). From that passage, plus the statement in Luke 8:2 that Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary, the tradition arose that she had been a prostitute before becoming a follower of Jesus. Mary is thus a powerful demonstration of the redemption and transformation that comes to anyone who in faith, and with repentance, follows Jesus.

The penitent, Mary Magdalene
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Can you imagine how Mary Magdalene felt that Easter morning? She no doubt excitedly testified to Jesus’ resurrection—doing the work of an evangelist! In doing so, perhaps she shared the story of her own life. Understanding that Mary had been a demon-possessed prostitute prior to becoming a follower of Jesus highlights the amazing power of Jesus to redeem and transform people. Her life was a powerful witness to the gospel of God’s grace. What a wonderful example of how God reaches out to all people, inviting them to receive Jesus with an open heart and mind, trusting him as Lord and Savior.

Just as Mary played a foundational role in the ministry of Jesus, in GCI we have hundreds of women who faithfully serve as ministers of Jesus Christ in various roles, including that of lead pastor. I thank God for these women. I also thank our triune God who, in love, reaches out to all humanity, calling all sorts of people in all kinds of situations to worship him and to share in his ongoing mission to a sin-sick world.

I wish you all a wonderful Holy Week as we gather to prayerfully reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death, and to joyfully celebrate his resurrection.

Greg Williams

PS: Due to Holy Week, the publishing of GCI Equipper on April 4, and the closure of our Home Office from April 5-22 (as we complete the move to Charlotte), GCI Update will not be published again until April 25. See you then!

Glendora mission complete

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach

Twelve years ago, we relocated our International Headquarters from Pasadena to Glendora, California. I’m amazed we’ve been in Glendora that long! Though we have discussed moving out of California for several years, the financial reasons for doing so became even more compelling recently. We are joyful about the upcoming relocation to Charlotte, North Carolina, understanding that our Home Office mission in Glendora is complete. The move to Charlotte, already underway, will be completed late next month. For that reason, the Home Office will be closed from April 8 through 22, and GCI Update will not be published on April 11 and 18.

Not all of our Home Office employees will be relocating to Charlotte. Most who are not moving are retiring, though a few, wanting to stay in Southern California for family reasons, are seeking new employment. I’m among those who will not be moving—as we’ve announced previously, I’m retiring at the end of this year and Greg Williams will replace me as GCI’s President.

I’ve been richly blessed to work alongside our Home Office employees—some for many years. Please join me in thanking them for their faithful service! Below are short descriptions of the church-related employment of the eight full-time Home Office employees who are not moving to Charlotte (part-time employees Thena Pla, Kenny Ryan and Mike Butterfield are also not moving):

Deborah Paz, my Executive Assistant for 31 years, will be retiring at the end of this year. Dependability, attention to detail, concern for others—all three are apt descriptions of Debbie. She was first hired part-time in May 1984 as Deb Nickel, a student at Ambassador College in Pasadena working in the Telephone Response Department, with a second job in the Ambassador Auditorium. In May 1987, Deb took a full-time job in our Publishing Department as a Production Services Assistant. Deb then transferred in 1988 to Church Administration, where in 1995 she became my Executive Assistant. More than an excellent assistant, Deb is a dear friend to Tammy and me. When our children were young, Deb would often babysit them, and remains their friend to this day. Having said that, I can’t resist sharing with you a picture from several years back that shows Deb hard at work babysitting my children:

Celestine Olive has been in the church’s employ since October 1992 when she was hired as an on-call worker in our pool of clerical staff. She worked as Secretary/Receptionist for our Fleet Department until August 1996, when she became a full-time employee. She then worked in our Plain Truth Magazine Customer Service area, and in the Executive Office as an Administrative Assistant. In December 2005 Cella transferred to be in charge of Cash Accounting in our Accounting Department. Cella also serves in our Eagle Rock congregation where she was ordained an elder in July 2007. Though retiring from GCI employment, Cella will continue serving on the GCI Board of Directors.

Maureen Warkentin was hired part-time as an Ambassador College student where she worked in the kitchen and on the custodial crew. She also worked in Mail Processing and in June 1974 was hired full-time as a Terminal Operator in the Mail Processing Center. She took a second job in 1990 as an usher in the Ambassador Auditorium. In November 1996 Maureen began full-time work in Human Resources as HR Assistant, then Administrative Assistant, then Human Resources Generalist and Pension Coordinator until 2015 when she became Manager of HR and Pension Coordinator. Even though Maureen is retiring, we know her as a diligent, seemingly indefatigable worker. Tammy and I have been on ocean cruises with Maureen and her husband Dennis where we saw them dance every night till the band quit! Maureen told me they take dancing lessons and still dance every week. Congratulations Maureen on 43 years of full-time employment with the church!

Gwen Schneider was hired in September 1990 as full-time Accounts Payable Clerk in the Accounting Department. In 1994, she took a second job as an usher in the Ambassador Auditorium. In 1995 Gwen was promoted to Assistant to the Accounts Payable Supervisor and then Assistant to the Payroll Manager. In 1997 she was promoted to Payroll Supervisor. In the Home Office, Gwen has the nickname of “plant lady”—her office resembles a greenhouse, distinguishing it as the best-decorated in our building. Gwen will be joining her husband in retirement. Congratulations Gwen on nearly 28 years of full-time employment with the church!

Steven Morrison was hired as an on-call Website Assistant in May 2010. In April 2013 he was hired full-time as a User Support Analyst and promoted to Support Specialist in June 2017. Steven was a tremendous help with running our audio-visual systems at the GCI International Conference in Orlando last summer. He plans to remain in Southern California, using his computer skills wherever God leads him. Last month he and Jillian Caranto (see below) announced their engagement with their wedding scheduled for this summer. We pray blessings upon them both!

Mitchell Vasseur was hired full-time in June 1987 to serve as a Telecommunications Dispatcher in our Telecom Department. In 1988 he took a second job as a driver in the Ambassador Auditorium’s Special Services Department (he has many interesting stories about working in that department!). In 1989 he took on a third job as Dispatcher for PBX Operations. In 1990 Mitch was promoted to Telecommunications Assistant Manager. In 1993 he took on an additional part-time job as stagehand in the Ambassador Auditorium. In 1997, Mitch became Supervisor of Telecom Operations and in 2002 was promoted to Manager of Telecommunications. In 2005 he was transferred to become the Manager of Facilities Administration. Mitch has long been active in worship ministry and plays drums for several praise bands. Mitch will not be relocating to North Carolina, but neither is he retiring. Congratulations Mitch on nearly 31 years of full-time employment with the church!

Jillian Caranto was hired part-time in 2014, serving first as an Intern in the GCI congregation in the San Diego, CA, area and then as a Pastoral Resident in GCI congregations in Glendora and Los Angeles, CA. In April 2017, Jillian was hired full-time as the Registrar for Grace Communion Seminary while continuing as a Pastoral Resident. In July 2017 she received her Master’s Degree from GCS and helped organize the GCS graduation at the Orlando Conference, along with participating in the ceremony herself! Jillian, who chose not to relocate to North Carolina, is training Georgia McKinnon to replace her as GCS Registrar. Jillian plans to continue serving as a Pastoral Resident and wherever else God sees fit. We extend early congratulations to her and Steven Morrison who, as noted above, will be married this summer.

I’m grateful for these wonderful employees, and all the others who have served our church family so faithfully out of the Glendora Home Office. Please join me in praying for them all, especially those seeking new employment. Though our mission as an international denominational headquarters out of Glendora is now complete, there is much work to be done. In future letters here in GCI Update and also in GCI Equipper, Greg Williams will fill us in on his vision for that mission and introduce the employees who will be working out of our new Home Office in Charlotte.

Love and blessings to you all!
Joseph Tkach

PS: Though our Home Office is leaving Glendora, we will continue to have a wonderful, loving congregation in that community. Its Lead Pastor is Bermie Dizon and Michael Morrison is an Associate Pastor, while also serving as Dean of Faculty at Grace Communion Seminary.

Our amazing God

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach

God challenged Abraham: “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them” (Gen. 15:5). Abraham couldn’t, and neither can we—only God knows the number, though astronomers estimate there are 100 billion galaxies in the universe, with about 100 billion stars added annually. God’s challenge to Abraham points out the limitations we have as humans in contrast with God’s omniscience. In this letter we’ll look at three additional characteristics of our amazing God: his uniqueness, his self-existence and his incorporeality.

God’s uniqueness

Maimonides (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The truth that God is unique is the bedrock of both Christianity and Judaism. Renowned Jewish rabbi Maimonides wrote that God is “perfect in every possible way… the ultimate cause of all existence.” Though a piece of candy can be said to be unique, there are many candies to delight our palates. I have a unique painting in my office, yet there are many unique paintings. Each fingerprint and snowflake is, in a sense, unique, yet they are in the same class with many others. Moreover, they are created. In contrast, God, who is uncreated, is in a class all his own—there are no other eternal, uncreated things. All that exists other than God is created or is the product of creation. God, alone, is truly unique, one-of-a-kind. Understanding that truth exposes as heresy the idea that our destiny as humans is to become God.

God’s self-existence

God is self-existent. He cannot create another God because the second would be dependent for its existence on the first, creator God. Understanding God’s self-existence exposes another heresy—the idea that there are two separate “God beings.” That belief is called ditheism (two Gods). But the Bible declares in no uncertain terms that there is one and only one God—a self-existent being. Therefore, God says in the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3).

God’s incorporeality

God is incorporeal in that he is not a creature—he is not limited to bodily existence. Therefore, God is not comparable to anything that has physical or empirical existence. Yes, it is true that the Bible has hundreds of descriptions of God as having corporeal characteristics. However, all of them are metaphorical descriptions, and are not to be taken literally. God is not literally a rock, a mother hen, or a door. God is spirit, and in talking about God, the Bible often uses anthropomorphisms—descriptors borrowed from human experience such as walking, standing, sitting and speaking. Such descriptors, when used concerning God, are intended to help us understand something of God’s character and nature—they are metaphors that convey who God is and what his will is in ways we can grasp. As the Jewish Midrash explains, “The Torah speaks the language of man” (Sifre 112). Calvin addressed this by noting that God “accommodates” himself to us—he speaks to us as a mother might coo towards her newborn infant.

Beware faulty reasoning

Athanasius (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In attempting to define God, some people (even some Christians) mistakenly begin with themselves and then compare God to what they know about themselves. Through this wrong-headed attempt to fit God into their own frame of reference, they distort the biblical view of God, turning God into an idol that is congenial to their own liking. Fourth-century theologian Athanasius saw this problem in the teachings of Arius, recognizing that Arius was thinking out of a center in himself—seeing God in terms that apply to creatures, not God. According to Athanasius, Arius was teaching mythology, not proper theology. In doing so, he was rationalizing away God’s true glory.

In our day, some teachers are doing the same thing in teaching various heresies about God including the claim that God is a family. That false teaching is a form of polytheism—a pagan doctrine found in the pantheon of gods worshiped by the Akkadians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and found in the ancestor worship of the Far East.

Other misperceptions concerning the true nature of God are prevalent in our day. Two that are growing in popularity are open theism and process theology. Both limit God’s foreknowledge and omniscience, and process theology denies God’s omnipotence and the biblical teaching of creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). Process theology also affirms classical panentheism—the idea that God and the world are mutually interdependent. These and other theological errors arise out of thinking about God as if he is a creature. As forms of mythology, these teachings are idolatrous.

Conclusion

God not only created all the stars, as the psalmist says, he “gives names to all of them…. His understanding is infinite” (Ps. 147:4-5 NASB). Because our human understanding is limited, we are subject to error. As Albert Einstein said, we humans have “been endowed with just enough intelligence to be able to see clearly how utterly inadequate that intelligence is.” Yet, despite our human limitations, God, in his love and mercy, will not let us remain blinded by heretical teachings concerning who he is. In his time, he reveals himself to us in accordance with his self-revelation in Jesus Christ, who alone knows and has seen the Father (Matt. 11:27).

Thankful that God in his freedom has chosen to reveal himself to us,
Joseph Tkach

PS: Because GCI Equipper will be published on March 7, the next issue of GCI Update will be published on March 14.