This is the fifth in a series of occasional posts from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, where I have the privilege of serving with Michael O’Neal, a church planter/pastor/teacher from Tennessee, and missionary Scott Carter to teach Christian apologetics to fellow believers and assist local pastors in their discipleship and church-planting efforts.
Oct, 1, 11:45 p.m. — The Off-House, Subang Jaya
The Q&A is simultaneously the most terrifying and invigorating part of any apologetics presentation — at least for me. It’s affirming to field a question for which you are prepared, and a bit sickening to get one that’s so unexpected you wonder if the person is serious. Such as: “What do you know about a secret society called the Illuminati that is Satanically inspired and plotting to take over the world?” A safe answer seems to be the one given to the question about the meaning of life in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:” Forty-two.
But the question I have gotten nearly every night at various student centers and churches in Kuala Lampur is one I would not have guessed to be much of an issue in a nation that is officially Muslim but celebrates its religious diversity: “If the Bible is true, why are there so many Christian denominations?”
Here are some thoughts:
The Handbook of Denominations in the United States (12th Edition) lists more than 200 Christian denominations in 17 broad categories, from “Baptist Churches” to “Community and New Paradigm Churches.” If Jesus prayed that His followers would be one (John 17:11), and if there is to be “one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-5), why can’t Christians get along? Even within denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention there have been major splits over issues such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the role of women in the church. Doesn’t all this contentiousness prove a fatal flaw in the Bible, since even people who study it and say they believe it can’t agree on what it teaches?
First, it should be noted that many of the disagreements among Christians are over matters of conscience, such as which day of the week to worship, dietary restrictions, or which translation of the Bible to use (see Rom.14:1-23; 1 Cor.10:23-33), or they focus on lesser points of doctrine, such as church polity or the manner in which missions activities are organized and funded. “The point of these divisions is never Christ as Lord and Savior, but rather honest differences of opinion by godly, albeit flawed, people seeking to honor God and retain doctrinal purity according to their consciences and their understanding of His Word” (“Why are there so many Christian denominations?” found in www.gotquestions.org).
Second, it should be acknowledged that Christians often have engaged in petty squabbling, internal power struggles and political wrangling, resulting in unnecessary divisions in the body of Christ, not to mention damage to the church’s reputation. The New Testament implores believers to be gracious toward and forgiving of one another (Eph. 4:32); clearly, this has not always been the case.
Christian denominations generally developed out of a desire for fellowship and joint ministry between individual churches – a biblical concept (Acts. 11:27-30), according to Charles Draper (“Why So Many Denominations?” The Apologetics Study Bible, p. 1709). In addition, denominations many times began as renewal movements. The Reformed movements of the 1500s sought to restore the doctrines of the sovereignty of God and justification by faith to the church, which had all but abandoned these biblical teachings. In time, some Presbyterians drifted toward liberalism and new conservative Presbyterian groups emerged to preserve the Reformed teachings. Baptists came along within the Reformed tradition. Pentecostals and Charismatics formed new unions based on their view of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts.
There is a rich diversity among Christian denominations, and the differences between them often are not as wide as they appear. This is not to say that all differences are minor, or that all should be set aside for the sake of unity, for in Scripture Christian unity is the product of God’s Spirit working in the hearts of regenerate people and anchored in the truth of God’s Word.
Some separations are, in fact, necessary. In the New Testament, many false teachers are disciplined or leave the churches (see 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 1 John 2:19). In addition, the apostle Paul warns the church that false teachers will rise to prominence in the church in the days before Christ’s return (2 Tim. 3:1-9). The church today should be on guard against those who preach “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4). For example, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to be Christian in their theology and practice, yet both organizations deny the central teachings of Scripture, particularly those having to do with the person and work of Christ, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel.
In fact, it is important to differentiate between: (1) denominations within the body of Christ; (2) cults (or counterfeit forms of Christianity); and (3) non-Christian false religions. Southern Baptists, Presbyterians and Lutherans, for example, are Christian denominations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania (Jehovah’s Witnesses) are cults (religious organizations whose members claim to be Christians and who use the Bible and Christian terms, yet who deny the central beliefs of historical Christianity). Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are non-Christian false religions.
Within Christian denominations, diversity is a good thing, but disunity is not, according to Gotquestions.org: “If two churches disagree doctrinally, debate and dialogue over the Word may be called for. This type of ‘iron sharpening iron’ (Proverbs 27:17) is beneficial to all. If they disagree on style and form, however, it is fine for them to remain separate. This separation, though, does not lift the responsibility Christians have to love one another (1 John 4:11-12) and ultimately be united as one in Christ (John 17:21-22).”
So what is a believer to do when looking for a church home? “The most important thing to do is to examine a church’s teaching and practice to see if it is consistent with Scripture,” writes Charles Draper in The Apologetics Study Bible. Gotquestions.org adds the following recommendations: “Pick a church on the basis of its relationship to Christ, how well it is serving the community. Pick a church where the pastor is preaching the Gospel without fear and is encouraged to do so. Christ and His church [are] all about your relationship to Him and to each other. As believers, there are certain basic doctrines that we must believe, but beyond that there is latitude on how we can serve and worship; it is this latitude that is the only good reason for denominations. This is diversity and not disunity. The first allows us to be individuals in Christ, the latter divides and destroys.”
This is the fourth in a series of occasional posts from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, where I have the privilege of serving with Michael O’Neal, a church planter/pastor/teacher from Tennessee, and missionary Scott Carter to teach Christian apologetics to fellow believers and assist local pastors in their discipleship and church-planting efforts.
Sept. 30, 10:15 p.m. — ConneXion Nilai (university student ministry center)
For the third night in a row, I have the privlege of meeting with college students who have come to Kuala Lampur to study from all over the world. And tonight 47 students, representing nearly a dozen countries from Uganda to India, have gathered in the student ministry center to hear about the uniqueness of Jesus. After presenting an hour-long Bible study on Jesus’ outrageous claims, convincing proofs, and finished work on the cross, missionary Scott Carter and I open the floor to questions.
They come non-stop: If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world? If God knows who is going to be saved, what’s the point of evangelism? If a baby dies in her mother’s womb, does she go to heaven or hell? As was the case last night at Nottingham University and the night before at ConneXion Subang, I am worn out before the students are and the student ministry leader has to call the Q&A to a close. But not before a series of questions about Islam, including: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?”
The short answer is no. While there are some similarities between Yahweh and Allah, the differences are so significant that it cannot be said Christians and Muslims worship the same God. It’s not necessarily what people want to hear — especially in a multicultural world that increasingly values the concept of many paths to God. But it is the truth, and even our Muslim friends would agree that the Christian God and Allah cannot be reconciled.
As yourself: Does God know me (and can I know Him)? Does God love me? And did God die for me? Only Yahweh, the God of the Bible, answers all three questions affirmatively.
This is the third in a series of occasional posts from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, where I have the privilege of serving with Michael O’Neal, a church planter/pastor/teacher from Tennessee, and missionary Scott Carter to teach Christian apologetics to fellow believers and assist local pastors in their discipleship and church-planting efforts.
Sept. 28, 11:32 p.m. — ConneXion Subang (university student ministry center), Subang Jaya
The question was inevitable. After two and a half hours of teaching on the uniqueness of Christ and addressing a series of challenging issues with university students who have gathered here for Bible study and prayer, a coed raised her hand and asked sincerely, “But what about those who have never heard of Jesus?” She and her fellow Christian students from countries in Africa and Asia are serious about effectively sharing their faith with their Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and atheist classmates, and for them this question is key.
But it’s not a question given to soundbite responses — or easily dismissed as an unbeliever’s barb. True believers wrestle with this question as well, and I doubt that any of us can fully plumb the depths of God’s mind on this issue — at least on this side of heaven. However, here are some important biblical truths to ponder:
- Christ is the only Savior (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
- God loves all people and desires their salvation (John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).
- God is truly just and will judge all people justly (Job. 34:10-12; Ps. 9:8; 98:9; Jer. 11:20; Acts 17:31; Rom. 2:5-11).
- All people are aware of the existence of God (Rom. 1:18-23). They have failed to act responsibly on what God has already revealed to them, whether through the light of creation (Rom. 1), the light of conscience (Rom. 2), or the light of Christ (Rom. 3).
- All people are sinners and know it. God has written His law in their hearts and all people are aware that they have violated the law of God (Rom. 2:1-16). No one will be able to stand before God in judgment and claim that they never willfully did wrong.
- Men and women are not sentenced to hell based upon whether they heard of Jesus Christ. Rather, they are justly and fittingly condemned based upon the fact that they are sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23; 6:23).
- It appears that if people respond to the light they do have, God will send them the light of the gospel (the Ethiopian eunuch, for example, in Acts 8:26ff, and Cornelius in Acts 10:25ff). Because no one has been kept in the dark about God’s existence, we’re all accountable directly to Him (Luke 12:47-48).
- Evidently, God will judge people based on their response to the light He has given them as expressed in their deeds (Rom. 2:6), words (Matt. 12:36-37) and thoughts (Heb. 4:12). This does not mean people are saved by good works; rather it means their response to God in faith, or lack thereof, is evident in their thoughts, words and actions.
- It appears there will be stricter judgment for those who have rejected the gospel than for those who have never heard (John 3:36; 12:48). Jesus also told the Jewish leaders – who had greater degrees of knowledge of the Scriptures – they would receive “greater damnation,” and He pronounced many “woes” on them (Matt. 23).
- Christian evangelism is essential for three primary reasons: 1) God commands us to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:19-20); 2) the preaching of the gospel is the means by which people hear and are saved (Rom. 10:13-17); and 3) all people should share in the blessings of eternal life, not only in eternity, but now (John 10:10).
Some other considerations:
- People in Old Testament times were saved even though they didn’t know the name of Jesus (Heb. 11). Consider, for example, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Rahab and others, who are considered “heroes of the faith.”
- Christ’s substitutionary and sacrificial death on the cross works forward and backward in time to pay the sin debt for those who respond to the revelation God has given them. His death once and for all paid humanity’s sin debt.
This is the second in a series of occasional posts from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, where I have the privilege of serving with Michael O’Neal, a church planter/pastor/teacher from Tennessee, and missionary Scott Carter to teach Christian apologetics to fellow believers and assist local pastors in their discipleship and church-planting efforts.
Sept. 27, 5:45 a.m., guest house in Subang Jaya
I am learning that I don’t need an alarm clock here. Yesterday it was jet lag that awakened me at 4 a.m., followed by the neighbor’s cat, then a flock of screeching birds. Today I made it to 5:45 and the Muslim call to prayer blaring from nearby Masjid Darul Ehsen mosque.
I roll out of bed, slip on my running shoes and head for a jog through the waking streets of this sector of Kuala Lampur. The sun rises, traffic picks up and the merchants open their doors. I pass a park where a solitary woman engages in tai chi while a dozen others exercise to the music from “Mama Mia.” Street vendors prepare their kiosks for the breakfast crowd. The pungent smell of raw fish cuts through the pleasant aroma of rice, noodles, spices and cooking meat. Tempting, but I think I’ll stay with Starbucks this morning, or maybe the McDonald’s or 7-11, all within easy walking distance of the guest house.
The temperature is in the low 80s and quite pleasant but the humidity has me oozing sweat as I round the last curve and catch a glimpse of the mosque – a mustard-colored building with multiple minarets and a beautiful golden dome. I get to thinking about the people I have met the last two days while preaching and teaching in area churches.
Malaysia is officially a Muslim country, although there is freedom of religion and one does not need to look hard to find Christian churches or other places of worship for Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and others. There is an important caveat, though: Evangelizing Muslims is off limits. This creates a tremendous challenge to my Christian brothers and sisters who love their Muslim friends and want to tell them about Jesus.
Some are fairly new Christians who have discarded their idols, abandoned their empty rituals and discovered the simplicity of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But not without cost. One Chinese-Malay couple attends a Sunday evening Bible study in a neighbor’s home despite stern warnings from their parents, who culturally are to be respected and obeyed. Another couple has faced job loss and other hardships directly related to their faith in Christ. And the man who hosts the Bible study has forfeited a considerable family fortune since trusting in the Lord.
Over lunch yesterday with a local pastor and several of his congregants I am peppered with questions about politics, culture and faith in the United States. American music, film and television dominate Malaysian culture, and I find I know less about health-care reform and the Tea Party movement than my friends who live halfway around the world.
I have to admit that I don’t personally know a single American being persecuted for his faith. And the reason most Americans don’t share the gospel has more to do with apathy or fear of rejection than the threat of imprisonment. But my friends want to know: What are they to do when the Bible tells them to share Christ but the government forbids it or the culture discourages it? The apostle Peter was clear when faced with that question: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Simple. True. Powerful. But I don’t quote that verse for my new friends. The words would seem hollow coming from my lips because I have never had to live them, while these dear brothers and sisters in Christ must weigh carefully their words and actions each day.
Scott, our host and a career missionary here, responded wisely to a similar question at a workshop a few days ago. While God has granted us salvation and given us the Great Commission, He also has provided each of us with a measure of discernment to deal discreetly with our Muslim friends. Pray always for them, Scott says. Live a Christ-honoring life at all times. And when asked why your life is different, point to the One who makes it so.
This is the first in a series of occasional posts from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, where I have the privilege of serving with Michael O’Neal, a church planter/pastor/teacher from Tennessee, and missionary Scott Carter to teach Christian apologetics to fellow believers and assist local pastors in their discipleship and church-planting efforts.
Sept. 22, 7:50 p.m., Los Angeles International Airport, Tom Bradley International Terminal
We’re standing in a long line of passengers waiting to get boarding passes on the Cathay Pacific flight that will take us non-stop from LAX to Hong Kong, then on to Kuala Lampur (KL). Nearly 20 hours of flying time await, and Michael and I hope we’ll be able to get some sleep as we prepare to hit the ground running in KL with teaching assignments the first night. Our casual conversation is interrupted by the man in front of us. He is growing increasingly agitated. The line is moving slowly and only one agent is working behind the counter.
Profanities stream from his mouth, and the smell of alcohol drifts our way as he turns toward Michael and me and strikes up a conversation. “I better get on this flight,” he tells us. “I was supposed to fly last night but missed my flight. I was drunk.”
For the next 45 minutes the man entertains us with salty language, a few magic tricks, and snippets of his life story, a sad saga of marriage and divorce, alcoholism, a successful career as a building contractor, and a journey from the Christian faith to Buddhism. He calls himself the “drunk monk.”
He’s on his way to Thailand, he tells us, to visit his three wives. They live in different villages and are unaware of one another but wait for his visits every other month and watch for the wire transfers of supporting funds from their husband in the U.S. He pulls out a fat wad of cash – mostly 100-dollar bills – and makes one disappear in one of the many sleight-of-hand tricks he uses to entertain his friends in Southeast Asia. “I wish this line would move,” he snaps. “I gotta get to the bar.”
The drunk monk tells us he was raised Baptist by a Bible-thumping dad who dragged him to church and ultimately drove him from the faith. Now, he says, he’s an old-school Buddhist who believes death is the end of life. “What happens if it’s not?” I ask him. “What if there’s life beyond the grave?”
“I don’t worry about it,” he slurs, running his nicotine-stained fingers through a shock of black hair. There is a glint of mischief in his dark eyes. And a lot of pain. “Geez, c’mon … I wish this line would move.”
Our friend the monk is not very serious about religion but is dead serious about draining every moment of pleasure out of life because, he says, that’s all there is. He pulls a tattered photograph out of his wallet. “My daughter,” he whispers. “Good kid. She’s 24.” She was an accident, he explains. Evidently the monk and his wife did not want kids, but his estranged wife has remarried a Bible thumper not unlike his own father and his daughter is all that’s holding him to the States.
We sense that the monk doesn’t want to hear too much about our Christian faith – two Bible thumpers from the U.S. – but he listens as we talk about Jesus and His redeeming work on the cross and resurrection from the dead. “I believe in Jesus,” he tells us sincerely.
And perhaps he does. We are no man’s judge. But as the monk finally works his way to the front of the line and staggers toward the counter, Michael and I are saddened by what we have witnessed. If, along the twisted course of his life, the drunk monk trusted in Christ as Savior he is wasting his Christian life in pursuit of pleasures that the apostle Paul said would last only a season, and one day he will stand before the judgment seat of Christ as a man escaping a burning house (1 Cor. 3:9-15). If, however, our friend rejected his father’s teachings about Jesus – however heavy handed they may have been – he will not find redemption in the villages of Thailand, the eight-fold path of Buddhism or the bottom of a bottle.
Two hours later Michael and I are waiting to board our flight when our new-found friend shuffles past, a successful stand-by passenger holding his precious ticket. “See you on board,” he tells me. “Geez, I wonder if there’s time for a beer.”