Knowing God

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As most of you know, I love books. Reading is a passion of mine and has been for a long time. I usually will read a book or two a week. The vast majority of books that I read are theological or Biblical in nature, but occasionally I will venture into the realm of Fiction and History. While I understand that most people are not like me and do not read as much, I do find it extremely helpful in my walk with the Lord to read good Christian books and I would encourage everyone to read as well. These books constantly convict, refresh, and teach and that is why I can’t get enough of them. Since I do believe reading Christian non-fiction books are very profitable in the life of a Christian, I would like to write on that subject in this year’s Voice articles. Each month I am going to take a book that I have read that has had a profound impact upon me, or that I just think is extremely helpful for our church members to read, and explain what the book is about to inspire others to read it. Basically, this year is going to be about Mark’s Recommended Reading List. This month’s book is the classic: Knowing God by J.I. Packer.

While I attended a Christian church throughout high school, I was not actually converted until I went off to college. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area but went off to school to Orange County and Long Beach State. I was out on my own, away from home, but somehow by God’s grace I found a Bible teaching church and it was there that I came to know the Lord. If you haven’t heard, college campuses can be a place that is not very welcoming to born-again Christians. Yes, I had my church family, godly pastors, and even a Christian club that I regularly attended, but the vast majority of my time was spent around unbelievers who encouraged ungodly lifestyles. I knew it was my responsibility to work hard on my spiritual growth and I resolved to settle down and read Christian books during my breaks between classes and other portions of free time.

I can’t even recall how Knowing God entered into my possession. I’m pretty sure I bought it at the local Christian bookstore in Long Beach probably at the suggestion of someone in the church I was attending or because it had a little sticker on it that said it had sold over 1,000,000 copies. That meant it had to be good, right?

The book is exactly what you would expect from the title. It is basically a theological book, written in layman’s terms, to help Christians understand who God is. Each chapter covers a different attribute of God and explains those attributes in ways that help the reader ‘know God.’ There are chapters on God’s love, God’s majesty, God’s wisdom, God’s wrath, etc.

In reality, this is what we are doing when we read or study the Bible. We are trying to learn about God more, to know Him. The Bible was not written as a manual for our life. It contains that, of course, but that is not why it was written. God wrote the Bible to reveal Himself. That’s what the Scripture is. It is a revelation of the Divine, Perfect, Glorious, All-Knowing God. The infinite God has made Himself known to His creatures, and so when we read the Bible, we are discovering more and more what God is like. And because God is infinite, our knowledge of Him is able to grow and grow without ever being exhausted.

Packer does a great job taking these profound theological truths and explaining them in ways any Christian can understand. I remember taking 15-20 minutes between classes and finding a bench somewhere to read a chapter and being amazed at how God can be completely unlike us, but also, command us to be like Him. We can never be unchanging or majestic like God, but we can be loving and wise like God. This is where Knowing God is so helpful. I think over the years I have read through this book numerous times.

I encourage you to get this book and make your ambition in life to know God more and more. There are a lot of things we spend our time trying to know. We try to know about sports, or the stock market, or movie stars. But knowing God should be our ultimate goal. This book will help in that endeavor, but it is not the final stop on that journey. It is merely a help that guides us into knowing Him more and more.

- Pastor Mark Scialabba

One Another's

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This is the last Voice article for the year of 2018 and so that means we come to an end of our study this year of the Characteristics of a Healthy Church. To summarize, here are the previous eleven entries in this list: Passionate Worship, Expositional Preaching, Sound Theology, Qualified Leadership, Converted Membership, Persistent Evangelism, Continued Growth, Heartfelt Prayer, Humble Service, Missions Minded, and Individual Accountability. Any time we write a list like this there are of course some other topics that could be included. There is no absolute final list of THE 12 characteristics of a healthy church. I would have liked to include something about fellowship or the administering of the ordinances (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). It is important for me to note this just to make sure if you don’t see something on this list that should be, it doesn’t mean I don’t believe it is necessary or Biblical. It just means I chose the top 12 for what I would think I would see in a healthy church. With that in mind, let’s get to our characteristic for this month: One Another’s.

I love the church, that’s no secret. I think it is the greatest organization that there is (even though it is more of an organism rather than just an organization). It is the only thing that Jesus promised to build. It is the only group called the Lord’s Body, giving it an extreme importance to the Lord. It is the only collection of people the Lord promised to sanctify and make holy; not the culture or the nation. It is the only crowd that is promised eternal life in heaven. These details are what make the church so great and so important in the Lord’s eyes.

But there is one more practical detail about the church that makes it so great and that makes it very personal in experience; it is the relationship of the people of the church to one another. It is an absolute blessing to join together on Sunday mornings with all kinds of different people from all different kinds of backgrounds and personalities and gather to praise the same God who gave the same salvation to all of them. But it is an even greater blessing to then share life with those other people and do ministry together.

The Bible calls on us to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice’ and ‘weep’ with those who ‘weep’ (Rom 12:15). How many of you reading this can testify to your personal experience to this exhortation? When joy and excitement happened to you, people from the church came to celebrate with you. When sorrow and hardship happened to you, people from the church came to weep with you. I can testify to both of these. From seeing the joy of our girls being born and having church people coming to rejoice with us to receiving cards of sympathy or calls of concern when a relative passed away or when a trip to the hospital was needed. This is what makes the church so special.

Over and over again in the New Testament there are commands upon believers to do various ‘One Another’s.’ 59 times in the New Testament the church is called on to ‘one another’ one another. From commands like honor one another, to instruct one another, to forgive one another, to encourage one another, the ‘one another’s’ are everywhere and they are varied. The most common ‘one another’ is to love one another which occurs 12 times. The New Testament sees a believer in Christ with a responsibility to live in relationship with other believers.

I don’t know how some believers think their Christian life can be lived in isolation away from the church. Those who don’t attend church regularly not only miss out on the blessings of being in relationship with others, but they also consistently disobey the ‘one another’ commands of Scripture. How can you obey those commands if you are never in relationship with other believers in the church?

The highlight of membership and ministry in the local church is the relationship you can develop with other believers. The connections, the shared lives, the joys and struggles are all a blessings we receive from the Lord here on earth. I can’t imagine a life without relationships with others in God’s family. Our final characteristic of a healthy church is a church that genuinely involves themselves with the other members and form lasting encouraging relationships. So, dive in, get involved, start serving and begin ‘one anothering’ one another.

Pastor Mark Scialabba

Individual Accountability

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When I first became a Christian, in my college years, the Associate Pastor of the church I was attending took a particular interest in me. He would drive about a half hour once a week to meet with me and ask me how things were going; usually taking me out to eat (which college students love). While there was the usual casual conversation about the weather or sports, the primary thrust of the meeting was for him to ask me how my walk with the Lord was going. To keep up with me and see if I was growing, staying faithful, struggling, or sinning. This type of 1 on 1 meeting is a great example of what real discipleship looks like, but I would classify it more specifically as Accountability. He was keeping me accountable in my walk with the Lord. He was asking specific questions about my behavior and my lifestyle, and that is holding someone accountable. This is the characteristic of a healthy church for this month: Individual Accountability. There are a few reasons why we need to be held accountable.

First, our tendency to fall into sin is very real. We know the tug of the world, we know the temptations of the enemy, we know the lust of the flesh is powerful and strong. We all admit that we are sinners, so what do we do when we sin? Are we confident enough in ourselves to just repent and fix the problem in our own power? What if that sin is secret and hidden and it is not easy to repent of? Pretty soon that hidden sin becomes a habit, then becomes a lifestyle. How will we be called back to obedience and righteousness if we never confess it or admit it? If there is no one in our life to ask us about our walk or call us back to obedience, then we could remain in sin and become the sheep that goes astray. That is not a good place to be with the Lord. But to have a brother or sister who we trust ask us about our walk and about our life is a sure guard against remaining for a long time in a state of sin.

Second, our flame can become dim and needs to be engulfed again. Our walk with the Lord becomes bland and cold. You know the times I am talking about. It’s not gross, unrepentant sin with no hope. It’s not outright rebellion against God. It’s just a staleness and coldness in our walk with Christ. It’s going through the motions. How do we get shaken out of this complacency? How do we get stirred again so as to prevent us from falling into sin? By keeping accountability with another believer. To be able to talk through these times and have him/her praying for you and continually encouraging you to being on fire again. A good talk about our spiritual state with another brother/sister can be like adding gasoline to a smoldering wick.

Third, as the Scripture says, iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17). A positive walk with Christ will encourage someone else’s walk with Christ. Maybe your walk with the Lord is doing great. Maybe you are really on fire for God. Then, you go talk with someone else and they are the same way! How encouraging is that? How exciting is that? Doesn’t that motivate you to continue on? To not slip up? One of the best encouragements we can have in our walk is to hear about someone else pleasing God with their life and living rightly, and that can spur us on to even greater maturity.

When we meet as men at the Pillars Bible study, we have a time of accountability. When we meet as elders, we have a time of accountability. We genuinely ask one another how our walk with Christ is going and hold each other accountable to a life that pleases the Lord. That is a great help for me and I would assume for the men involved as well. But, I would encourage everyone to find a person, or a small group, where you feel comfortable sharing about your struggles and your trials in your walk with Christ. It could be me, another leader, or simply another believer. A trusted Christian friend can be a great help and a great encouragement in your walk. Churches that do this really show their love for one another and their care and concern about the spiritual side, which is the most important part of our lives. Be open, be willing to share your life with another believer to hold you accountable. But also, be ready to be the one that someone can come to.

-Pastor Mark Scialabba

Mission Minded

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As a pastor, there are some questions you get asked more often than others. One of those questions usually has to do with the eternal fate of people in the world who have never heard the gospel. For example, some group of indigenous people somewhere in the world who have never touched a Bible, never met a Christian, and have never even heard the name of Jesus. What is the fate of those people? Do they get to go to heaven because they have never heard the gospel and not had a chance to respond? This is a serious question and should not be ignored; we need to answer it. The Bible does say that faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17). So my answer would be that people only go to heaven by placing their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as their own personal Savior, and that comes from hearing about Him. They need to hear about Christ in order to be saved.

Now, this Voice article is not about discussing all the ramifications and implications of that truth and how the answer could stir up certain positive or negative feelings in Christians. But there are some Christians who are so burdened by the reality of people who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ before, that they do something about it. They become missionaries. That is a term that Christianity has coined to describe someone who takes the gospel overseas to the people of the world who don’t have a regular chance to hear the gospel like we do here in the United States. The work of a church in supporting that global gospel reach is called Missions. The next characteristic of a healthy church that we see this month is: Missions Minded. This characteristic is different than Persistent Evangelism in that this characteristic is focused on the gospel reaching the nations of the world, rather than just believers sharing the gospel in their everyday life. A church should have a strong Missions program to see the gospel reach the entire globe.

The call for Christians to take the gospel to all nations is not in doubt in Scripture. Jesus called together His disciples after His resurrection and gave them what we call the Great Commission in Matthew 28. He said to make disciples of ‘all the nations.’ There is not one country that should be left out of that work. All the nations must hear the gospel because the Lord told us to go make disciples there. But what if we don’t actually live in a foreign country? Then we take the gospel to those places: missionaries. A form of the Great Commission is found near the end of all 4 gospels. In the book of Acts, Jesus lays out the pattern for missions work: starting in their hometown and working outwardly to the ends of the earth. Yes, the Lord commanded it, but it was also understood that this glorious message of salvation would be proclaimed. It is not a message to keep to oneself.

Throughout the Bible we find story after story that shows God’s global plan. Although He worked primarily through the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, He has always had a heart for all peoples. From Rahab to the task of the prophet Jonah, God is bringing people into relationship with Himself from all the nations. When we see the glimpse of heaven in Revelation 4 and 5, we see people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. How do those people come to know the Lord? Through the work of missionaries.

Now we know that all Christians are not called on to be missionaries to foreign countries. The Lord sovereignly has a role and a purpose for each one of us. But a church, if the people have the heart of God, will have a heart for all the peoples of the earth, and will be Missions Minded. Maybe not all of us are missionaries, but all of us can pray for missionaries. All of us can support missionaries. All of us can encourage and love missionaries. In a way, each one of us can have an active role in Missions.

The Lord laid the work of Missions on my heart having gone on a short-term missionary trip to England back in 2008. It was there, through the sovereign appointment of God, I was able to share the gospel with a random stranger in Rugby, England. After I told him about the work of Jesus Christ dying on the cross to pay for sin, I’ll never forget his response. He said, “I’ve never heard that before.” The message that I preach every Sunday, that we hear all the time, this man had never heard in his life! Not once! The Lord humbled me that day. All the little things I was concerned about in my church at home: the building, the grounds, the temperature of the A/C, all of that was suddenly a lot less important. There are people out there who have never heard of Jesus Christ.

If the reality of people going to hell because they have never heard the gospel really bothers you and really upsets you, then I challenge you to do something about it. Find a foreign missionary to support, start praying for that particular people group who has no gospel contact, or take a giant step of faith and get on a plane and tell them about the Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever role we take on, we challenge all believers at Congregational Bible Church to be Missions Minded.

-Pastor Mark Scialabba

Humble Service

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In John chapter 13, our Lord engages in absolute shocking behavior. Most of His ministry was shocking. He healed the sick, raised the dead, turned water into wine, calmed the sea, and many other miracles. Pretty much everything He did was shocking because nobody had seen it before. However, the behavior in John 13 has nothing to do with miracles or divine acts of nature; yet it is similarly shocking. The Lord girds Himself as a servant and kneels down to wash the feet of His disciples. This might be the most shocking act Jesus ever performed because the Lord of heaven and earth stooped down to perform the task of the lowliest servant. Our next characteristic of a healthy church is: Humble Service. 
    When Jesus had finished washing the disciples’ feet, He then instructed them saying, “If I then, the Lord and Teacher washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you” (John 13:14-15). He was not instituting a third ordinance to be practiced by the church, but He was instituting a model of service that should be followed by those in church. He is the ‘example.’ He then states in the next verse, “Truly, truly I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master.” The lesson is obvious: if He is the Master (and He is), and He is willing to stoop to perform the lowliest task, then why would His servants refuse acts of lowly service? Are we too good or too important to serve? A healthy church is filled with people who engage in humble service. 
    The New Testament teaches us to serve one another (Gal 5:13), those in leadership are called to serve the body (1 Tim 3:10, 13), Paul saw his work as service (2 Tim 1:3), all believers are called on to serve Christ (Col 3:24), and Peter groups spiritual gifts in the church into one of two categories: speaking and serving (1 Pet 4:11). In that same context, Peter calls on everyone in the church to use his/her spiritual gift in order to serve one another (1 Pet 4:10). The church is not made up of a group of professionals, high ranking, and authoritarian types. The church is made up of a bunch of servants…who emulate Jesus Christ in that endeavor. 
    It is spiritually unhealthy for church members to see themselves as anything more than just servants. That’s why I added the qualifier ‘Humble’ to this call to service. If our Lord was willing to take the form of the lowest servant, and perform that task, then what task is too ‘low’ for us to perform in the church? What job will you just not do? What restriction in service do you have? Is it grabbing a rag? Or, taking out the trash? Or, drying dishes in the church kitchen? If so, then I would ask, what demands do servants get to make? Some people have the perspective on service like this: “I’ll serve, but I’m not doing that!” This is where humility is critical. We are only in His family because of the Lord’s salvation, we are only in His kingdom because He graciously allowed us to be, we are only a part of this church because of His calling, and we cannot forget that. A humble servant says, “Use me!” because it is a divine privilege even to be here.
    It has been said that in churches 10% of the people do 90% of the work. That should not be the case. What has happened to the other 90%? It is the infiltration of the ‘consumer mentality’ that plagues churches. People go to church to receive, to get something, and if the church doesn’t deliver week after week they are gone. Churches scramble every single week to put a viable ‘product’ or experience out there that people can come and consume, feel good about, and then go home happy. When that happens, a church is unhealthy because the people are not seeing the church as a place to get involved and serve; and that is what believers are called to do. 
    I challenge you to find a ministry in the church where you can regularly serve. Where you can participate in the advancement of the kingdom of God, where you can be building up the body of Christ, and where you can be emulating our Lord, the Humble Servant.

-    Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

Heartfelt Prayer

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If we could think of one area of spiritual discipline that we neglect too much, probably most of us would admit it to be the area of prayer. Yet, conversely, we probably would all admit that prayer is the most important spiritual discipline for the Christian life. What an interesting dichotomy. Prayer is the most important discipline, yet the one most commonly neglected. If any church is to be healthy and strong, then the people of the church must be people of prayer. This month’s characteristic of a healthy church is: Heartfelt Prayer.

I don’t think that I need to spend too much space discussing the Biblical warrant for prayer. The Old Testament saints prayed, the New Testament ones did as well, the Lord prayed, He told us to pray, there are examples of prayers given in the Scripture, commands to pray, even commands to pray ‘without ceasing.’ When Jesus talks to us about prayer He says ‘when’ you pray, as if it is a normal and natural thing for a child of God to be doing. We do need to view prayer as a matter of obedience to the Lord. He told us to do it and so we must. There are many benefits to prayer that I could list, but we are not pray because of the blessings it gives us. We are to pray because our Lord told us to…and that should be enough reason for us to make it a regular habit in our life.

But I call it ‘heartfelt’ prayer because it shouldn’t be a burden. It shouldn’t be a chore. It shouldn’t be formulaic. It shouldn’t be stale and boring. It should be lively, passionate, joyful, communication with God from the heart. English Puritan Philip Henry had two children who were dangerously sick. He prayed to God for their safety and healing and he wrote about it in his diary. He said (paraphrasing) that if God would grant his request, he wouldn’t promise to never ask for anything again, as some do. He said if God answered his request then He would hear from Philip Henry more than ever! That Henry would love God all the better and love prayer all the better as well. Have you seen the Lord answer your prayers? Then why do we not go to Him more often? Why do we not converse with Him all the more?

A healthy church has praying people. Those people pray in two ways. First, they pray individually. Each member has daily personal communion with God; heartfelt conversation and communion with the Lord Jesus Christ all the time. That will make a healthy church I assure you. But secondly, they pray together. They pray with one another in small groups and in big groups. A friend once asked Charles Spurgeon how he kept the passion and the fervor of his church aflame after all the years of ministry. Spurgeon said it was his furnace that kept that passion alive. He invited the man down to the basement of the church to see his furnace. Behind the door was a large room with 1,000 members of the church all praying. It was the time of the evening prayer meeting. The church furnace was the people of the church praying.

I truly believe in the prayer service or the prayer group. That is how the wheels of the church really turn. We have two opportunities for our people to pray together. First, on Wednesday nights right before dinner. From 5:15-5:45 a small group gathers together to pray for the health and growth of our church. That is our targeted focus. The second time where we can gather together to pray is on the first Wednesday of each month during Bible study. We turn our normal Bible study into a prayer service where we pray to God and pray Scripture together. I encourage you to join us at one of those times to stoke the heat of the furnace of Congregational Bible Church. But also, have a time of personal communion with God and let time in His presence fill your heart and soul as you go through the Christian life.

                                              -Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

Continued Growth

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The next characteristic of a healthy church that we will look at this month is: Continued Growth. We, of course, are not talking about doing everything and anything just to try and get more people into the building. That is not the kind of growth that I am referring to. How many people come to the church is completely up to the Lord. He said He would build His church. It’s not our job to try, using human methods and tactics, to try and artificially increase the numbers that we have on a Sunday morning.
    
Many churches have abandoned their integrity by leaving Biblical commitments and convictions and doing whatever is necessary to boost attendance. Churches such as Willow Creek and Saddleback Church in Orange County became famous for this model of doing church that puts all the emphasis on numbers. Saddleback went so far as to go through the surrounding neighborhoods with a poll asking people, who had never gone to church, what would they like to see in a church, and then tailoring what they do in the church to the results of the poll. Of course the church’s attendance skyrocketed. 

The pressure on a church to grow, in terms of numbers, is always there and is always implicit. But that is not the kind of growth that I am referring to in this month’s article. I’m referring to the spiritual growth of the individuals in the church. Continued spiritual growth of each and every believer is a vibrant characteristic of a healthy church. 

The enemy of spiritual growth is spiritual stagnation, or spiritual complacency. This is when people believe they are as holy as they need to be, or they know all they need to know from the Scripture, or they are just satisfied with their current level of spirituality. Some evidences of this type of complacency are: a focus more on the events of the church rather than spiritual disciplines, inconsistent attendance on Sunday morning or at Bible studies, and/or putting the responsibility of growth onto someone else like the pastor or teacher. Yes, the teachers teach, but the actuality of growth comes in the involvement and engagement of the listener to the message being taught. 

The New Testament calls on us to continue to grow in holiness and to avoid spiritual stagnation. Paul prays for believers’ spiritual growth in Colossians 1:10 “We pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please Him in every way; bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.” Peter discusses spiritual growth as well numerous times. 2 Peter 3:18 finishes his second letter with a command: Grow, in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. In 2 Peter 1:5, he tells us to “make every effort to add to your faith.” There is a responsibility on each one of us to work hard at growth. How does growth happen? Through the Word of God, 1 Peter 2:2, “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.”

While individuals are responsible for their own spiritual growth, it is important to note that continued growth happens in the context of the local church being in fellowship with one another. There is a relationship component to spiritual growth that occurs when believers are loving one another, serving one another, admonishing one another, encouraging one another, spurring one another on, etc. Spiritual growth shows up not just in Bible knowledge or the use of religious language, but in the practice of the New Testament ‘One Another’s.’ This was the great error of the monastic movement in church history. Men and women would go lock themselves away from society in a cave somewhere to focus so wholeheartedly on their own personal growth that the church itself suffered because all the ones growing in Scripture were nowhere to be found! Spiritual growth happens through a knowledge of the Scripture, yes, but also in the applying of that knowledge in the fellowship of the church. 

Paul says in Colossians 1:28 that he wants to present ‘every man complete in Christ.’ The pursuit of holiness, transformation, and spiritual growth does not end this side of heaven. We all need to be progressing toward continued spiritual growth, to continued completeness in Christ.

                                              -Pastor Mark Scialabba

Persistent Evangelism

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At a dinner given in his honor, missionary Wilfred Grenfell was asked by a Christian woman, “Is it true that you are a missionary?” Grenfell replied, “Isn’t it true that you are?” That’s a powerful illustration for us as a church. We know of people who have become ‘professional’ missionaries. They serve in that capacity full time. We know of those who are gifted at evangelism. We call them ‘evangelists.’ Scripture even confirms that there are certain individuals gifted to the church who are known as ‘evangelists’ (Eph 4:11). But as Wilfred Grenfell was implying with his question, every single Christian is an evangelist and every single Christian is a missionary. 

Our next characteristic of a healthy church is Persistent Evangelism. I use the word ‘persistent’ to emphasize that this is the responsibility of the entire church and that it is not confined to a singular event, but it is a regular and constant thing that the members are engaged in. The word ‘evangelism’ means ‘telling the good news.’ This good news is that Jesus came to save sinners, to forgive sins, and to grant eternal life! That truly is good news! Evangelism is not about forcing your religion on other people or trying to win arguments about why Jesus is better. Evangelism is telling people the good news of Jesus Christ and leaving the results up to God.

Some people don’t want to evangelize others because they feel that should be left up to the ‘experts.’ They think only those who are really good at evangelism should be doing it. What if they say something wrong? We have to understand that evangelism is not about skill or expertise, but it is about obedience. The Lord called together His followers in Matthew 28 and told them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (v 19). That seems to be a command to all of His followers. When we get to the book of Acts and see people in the early church, we see everyone spreading the Word of Jesus Christ. Look up Acts 8:1-4 and Acts 11:19-21 to see examples of ‘ordinary’ Christians spreading the gospel. It wasn’t just the elders and pastors who were doing the work of evangelism. It seems that all the people of the early church were active in spreading the gospel, not just the ‘experts.’

This is probably because they took the Lord’s Commission seriously. And they took the Commission as a command to be followed, not a suggestion to be considered. For a church to be truly who they are supposed to be, all the members need to be persistent in evangelism. We need to see our gathering together as a time to be equipped, and then, our scattering out into the world to evangelize. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:20 that we are “ambassadors for Christ.” We are His representatives speaking His message to the world. If a church sees evangelism as a matter of obedience then they will pursue it. Personally, this truth is what changed my perspective on evangelism. I used to think that I was terrible at evangelism and so the Lord wouldn’t want me sharing His gospel. Once I understood the instruction to “make disciples” was a command from my Lord, that changed my whole view on evangelism. 

Most people will frankly admit they do not evangelize because they don’t know how. What are some helpful hints in doing evangelism? First, use the Bible. Don’t come up with cute stories or self-defined phrases. Show people the truth of God’s Word. Put their eyes on the words of Scripture. The Word of God contains the power to convert, so let it! Second, speak of Christ. The good news is what Christ has accomplished. People turn to Christ, believe in Christ, and follow Christ. He needs to be the focus of your message. Third, leave the results to God. I encourage you to call on people to believe, to make a decision today, and to not delay about the state of their soul. But do not try to manipulate people to say ‘yes’ or try to garner some response. Let God do His work of conversion through His word. You and I just need to be obedient to the command of our Lord to “make disciples.”                    
 

Converted Membership

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J.D. Salinger is an author famously known for writing the book called The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger is also known for his frequent change in religions. He began as Jewish and then moved on to Buddhism, then Hinduism, then Christian Science, and finally Scientology. The world would say that Salinger ‘converted’ to at least 4 religions. What is ‘conversion’ and how does it relate to a healthy church?
    
Converted Membership is our next characteristic of a healthy church that we will look at in this month’s article. This is absolutely critical for the life of the church and for the church to remain what it truly is. 

What does it mean to convert? Or to be converted? The world would see conversion as simply a change in association or lifestyle choice. To merely mentally acknowledge a particular agreement with a group’s philosophies or ideals. I agree with your position, and so, I change my affiliation to the group that you belong to. Conversion would be something like changing political parties or becoming a vegan. That’s how the world sees conversion. But that is not how the Bible defines conversion. Surely there is something distinct about Christian conversion that separates it from simply a lifestyle choice, right?

To ‘convert,’ or to experience ‘conversion,’ or to be ‘converted’ in the Bible is understood as people who have repented of their sin and placed their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The gospel message is always a call to repent and believe. When a person does that, he/she is ‘converted.’ People are always converted to Christ (Romans 16:5), not to the Christian religion or to church dogma. Conversion, therefore, is synonymous with becoming a Christian. So, one is ‘converted’ when one gets saved, born again, regenerated, or redeemed; and that happens when a person repents and believes. That is the only type of conversion that is understood in the Bible. 

This has serious implications for who we consider to be part of our church, or Christ’s church in general. Someone does not become a member of Christ’s church by attending the services, by association with Christians, by mental agreement with the teaching of Christianity, or by personal declaration (I’m a Christian). A person becomes a Christian, and a member of Christ’s church, when he/she is converted (repent and believe). It is impossible to say that someone has always been a Christian, since personal conversion is necessary to become a Christian. Conversion inherently assumes a change; a time before conversion, the time of conversion itself, then the life after conversion. 

Jesus said “unless you are converted you cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:3). Church elders cannot be “new converts” (1 Timothy 3:6). And in Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas relate to the church the “conversion of the Gentiles.” Conversion is absolutely necessary to eternal life, conversion is a point in time when a person becomes a Christian, and conversion is the moment a person repents and believes on Jesus Christ as Savior. That is the overall testimony throughout the Bible. For more examples see the conversion of Zaccheus (Luke 19), Jesus’ first converts (John 1), the conversion of Paul (Acts 9), the conversions of Lydia and the Philippian jailor (Acts 16), and Epaeneutus, who was the first convert from Asia (Romans 16:5).

This is critical for the life of the church because without a proper understanding of conversion the definition of the church itself falls away. The church becomes nothing more than a club or an organization that you sign up for, rather than a distinct group of individuals made alive by the Spirit of God, who are brought together to serve the Living God. This is also critical because eternity is at stake. One’s eternal destiny depends on getting this right. We can disagree on things like styles of church leadership and eternity does not hang in the balance. But we cannot falsely assure someone of possessing eternal life because they choose to sit in our pews, like our music, or enjoy our potlucks. There is warning after warning after warning in the New Testament about false converts in the church, and this why a proper definition of conversion is necessary.

Conversion is when a person becomes new, not nice. Conversion is when a person is saved, not sincere. Conversion is being born again, not deciding on being a better person.                        

Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

Qualified Leadership

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Our culture seems to have a sneaking suspicion when it comes to people in positions of authority. We are laden with distrust and cynicism when a leader makes promises or declarations. This suspicion has crept into the church in regards to how people view the leaders of the church. Sometimes elders are viewed with the same suspicion as boards or politicians. If the leaders are Biblically qualified, this shouldn’t be the case.

I’ve titled this month’s characteristic of a healthy church ‘Qualified Leadership’ because that is exactly what the Bible mentions as the requirements for leadership. For a man to serve in leadership in the church, he must meet the requirements laid out in the New Testament. He must be qualified. The requirements are found listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. A casual glance through those two passages show us that the list of requirements are all character issues. There is no requirement about what abilities he must possess, or his leadership savvy, or his position in the community, or his success in business, or his vision for the future. All of those things would make a great leader on the world stage, but those talents and abilities have nothing to do with leadership in the church. The main criteria is his Christian character. 

The overall feel of the character of Christian leadership can be summarized in a few ways. First, he ‘must be above reproach.’ Notice that the Scripture says he ‘must’ be above reproach. This is not an option. Being above reproach is really the absolute, fundamental, requirement for church leadership. It does not mean that he is sinless, but it does mean that there is no blatant sin or stain on his character. To have something to accuse him of would be hard to find. In reality, all of the other requirements just further define what ‘above reproach’ is. Second, he is a man of self-control. In the areas of sexuality, speech, passions, vices, and behavior. Third, he is a man of gentleness. Words like ‘gentle,’ ‘peaceable,’ ‘not pugnacious,’ and ‘not quick-tempered’ highlight this area. Last, he must be a man uncontrolled by money. It is interesting that in both lists a warning about inappropriate relations to money is mentioned. This cannot be ignored.

The only requirement that could be seen as a certain ‘ability’ in the two lists is the ability to teach (1 Timothy 3:2). The issue here is being able to effectively communicate the Word of God to His people. Even something like being able to teach is really a spiritual giftedness though, not necessarily a learned skill. Being able to teach means that the elder must have a sufficient grasp of the message of the Bible in order to teach it to God’s people. In fact, the seriousness of this ability is found in Titus 1:9, where the elder needs to be able to ‘exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict.’ The elder has to know enough doctrine and theology to be able to build up the people of God spiritually and be able to identify, even correct, false doctrine.

How many leaders should the church have? How long should they serve? I would refer back to the qualifications to answer both of those questions. However many men meet the qualifications should be elders, however long they stay qualified is how long they should remain elders. The foundational question that must be asked of any possible elder is: is the man qualified? If he meets the qualifications, then further discussion of possible eldership can continue. If he does not meet the qualifications, he cannot be considered as an elder. 

Why is qualified leadership such a big deal? Why not just select the men who have been Christians the longest or those who are very influential and leaders in the community? Qualified leadership is important for various reasons. First, the Lord commands it. Those lists in 1 Timothy and Titus are not options, they are requirements. In no way can we redefine or ignore the Lord’s commands. Second, these men are required to ‘shepherd the flock’ (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-2). There is a different character needed for a shepherd of God’s flock, versus a president of a board or a committee. One is a spiritual enterprise, the other is not. A spiritual entity requires a spiritual man. Third, these elders are supposed to be the examples that the church follows, as 1 Peter 5:3 makes clear. The people don’t necessarily need good leaders to follow, they need godly leaders to follow. 

What if you are not an elder or never seek to be an elder? How does this relate to you? Well, first things first, there is nothing in the lists of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 that is not normal Christian behavior. Everyone in the church should be striving for that type of spiritual maturity. But also, the church is required to ‘obey and submit’ to their elders (Hebrews 13:17). It is important for the church to have qualified leadership who truly have the highest of spiritual character in order for the church to joyfully submit to them. Wouldn’t it be easy to follow the guidance and leadership of men who truly stand ‘above reproach’?

While not considered a big deal in some churches, qualified leadership is an absolute necessity for a healthy church.  

Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

Sound Theology

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This month is the third in our series on the Characteristics of a Healthy Church. Our topic for this month is: Sound Theology. It seems that the word ‘theology’ has a bad connotation nowadays in churches. When we hear the word ‘theology’ we think of brain teasers, difficult truths to explain, and divine conundrums. With that in mind, it is no wonder that people aren’t as excited about theology as they once were.

Theology is simply the ‘study of God.’ Of course, there is more to theology than studying God alone, but at the most basic level, theology is taking an interest in God and His dealings. What does it say about a church with no interest in God? How could we reconcile a distinct people of God with a lackluster interest in God? A healthy church holds onto sound theology and enjoys knowing God more.

I use the word ‘sound’ in Sound Theology to emphasize a thorough, solid, complete theology. This theology must proceed from out of the Scripture and not put into the Scripture. It is an error of some would-be theologians to endorse or agree with a specific theological framework, and then make the Scripture fit that framework everywhere. We must develop our theology from out of the Scripture and not read into the Scripture. In saying this, we could call our theology a ‘Biblical Theology’ and that is what it should be.

While almost everything done in church and Christianity has a theological understanding to it, I would like to focus on 4 Key Theological Truths that the church must embrace. These would be considered ‘the big picture’ in terms of theology. 

The first is a high view of God. We need to think lofty and exalted thoughts about our God. He is enthroned above the cherubim (2 Kings 19:15), there is no one holy like the Lord (1 Samuel 2:2), and there is no one who compares to Him (Isaiah 46:5). Of course, all the same is true of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is God in the flesh. This profound truth has serious implications for personal holiness as well as church life. Personally, if I have a high view of God, I will take His commands very seriously, I will seek to obey Him in all things, I will fear Him above all others. With a low view of God as simply a friend or an angel, His commands become less critical. Corporately, if the people of the church have a high view of God, they will seek His glory in all things, they will want Him to receive honor and praise, and they will try to please Him. With a low view of God, church becomes about man. The entire service and the programs become more about making people happy than glorifying God. 

The second key theological truth a church must embrace is a high view of Scripture. The Bible explains the nature of itself. Scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16) and it is the Word of God and not men (1 Thessalonians 2:13). It also has the power to convert a soul (James 1:18), help a Christian grow spiritually (1 Peter 2:2), and can judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). With a high view of Scripture, the church will seek to understand it’s meaning, labor to live it out, make it the sole authority in every area of life, and will cause it to be central in all church activities. Without a high view of Scripture, practicality reigns. Whatever is ‘working’ becomes the authority for the church to follow and this leads to all kinds of errors. 

The third key theological truth is a correct definition of man. Humans are not simply a collection of matter and molecules. They are uniquely and individually created by God Himself, separate from the animals. This means man has value and purpose, not just existence. However, man has fallen into sin. His heart is deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9), he is dead in transgressions and sin (Ephesians 2:1), and all parts of his faculties are infected with sin (Romans 3:10-18). With this correct theological understanding of man, we see the real need that unsaved man has. He needs regeneration, salvation, and the restoration of his relationship with God. He does not need to increase his self-esteem or improve his life. For the Christian, this means a clear explanation for the struggles of our daily walk: sin. It’s not about our environment or how we were raised, but the sin that still exists within us. Real change for the Christian comes from the inside out and not just behavior modification. 

The fourth key theological truth is a correct understanding of the church. The church is called the pillar and support of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) and the church is called the Body of Christ by which individuals are members of that body (1 Corinthians 12:27). This means the church is so much more than simply a social club we join, it is more than doing religious activities, and its true membership is not found in all who want to sit in the pews. The church is a distinctly spiritual organism, it is the protector and distributor of truth, and it is truly made up of only those regenerated by God’s grace. 

While there are others I would like to include on this list, these four provide the key foundations for what a church could call Sound Theology. 

-Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

EXPOSITIONAL PREACHING

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There is a perspective on preachers that they sit around all week and think about what they are going to preach on. I must admit, if that was me, I would be panicked every single week! Fortunately, the content of what I am supposed to be teaching is defined in the Scripture itself.

Our second characteristic of a healthy church is: Expositional Preaching. Now, that’s a fancy theological term that simply means verse by verse explaining of the Scripture in such a way so that the point of the passage is the point of the sermon. To exposit a text of Scripture is to correctly interpret it’s meaning in context, then explain that meaning, and then apply that meaning to the congregation. Expositional Preaching has the message being extracted out of the text, rather than an idea from the preacher put into the text. Not that any of these characteristics of a healthy church are unimportant, but expositional preaching must be very high on the list because everything else in our list comes from this one being done correctly. If we get this one right, all the others will follow. Expositional Preaching is required because of 3 simple reasons. 

First, because preachers are told what to preach. In 2 Tim 4:2, Paul tells Timothy to ‘preach the Word.” Right out of the gate, preachers are given a certain limitation on what they are to be preaching. Preachers are not to just go out and preach anything. They are to preach the Word. They are commanded to do this. God does not tell preachers and pastors to come up with something to say, look for something to preach about, or invent content or topics to preach on. So, the content of preaching is narrowly defined: it must be Biblical, it must come from the Scripture.

Second, because the Word of God contains power and authority. It was by God’s Word that the heavens and the earth were created. It was by God’s Word that Abraham was called and became the father of the nation of Israel. It was by God’s Word that the 10 commandments were given, and the rest of the Law respectively. Hundreds of times in the Old Testament it says, “the Word of the Lord came.” Old Testament prophets announced what God had to say by beginning their message with “thus says the Lord.” That little phrase implies tremendous power and authority. In the New Testament, the Bible is said to be “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). The Bible itself has the power to judge the inner desires of people. And, the apostle Paul expressed his thankfulness for the Thessalonians because they accepted the word that he preached as the Word of God, and not as the word of men (1 Thess 2:13). Later in that same verse Paul says that the Word performs a work in believers. It does not matter how learned or clever a preacher might be. He has no power in and of himself, or his words, to speak with authority or to change lives spiritually from the inside out. Only the Word of God has the power and authority to accomplish that work and that is why expositional preaching is required. 

Third, because every verse is inspired and profitable. If preachers are to preach the Word, and the Word has the power and authority to change lives, then how does a preacher decide on what portion of Scripture to preach? Well, he must believe what 2 Timothy 3:16 teaches: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable…” Every single verse of the Bible is breathed out by God and is profitable. With that truth in mind, how can we casually jump here and there throughout the Bible and only teach what we want to? If every verse is inspired, then every verse must be preached. If every verse is profitable, then every verse must be preached. Even portions of Scripture that seem to be difficult and not very applicable are still inspired and profitable. Preachers simply do not have the right to try and decide on their own what is good and useful to their congregation. Every word of Scripture is profitable because every word is God-breathed. Again, this demands verse by verse exposition of Scripture.

The apostle Paul told the Ephesian elders that he did not shrink back from declaring “the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). He told the Colossians that he has a stewardship from God to make the Word ‘fully known’ (Col 1:25). He is the perfect example of someone who took expositional preaching seriously. There wasn’t a private insight he was trying to make known; it was only the full counsel of God delivered to God’s people. Expositional preaching is the only way to fully deliver the whole counsel of God. There are times when other types of sermons are helpful, like topical sermons. But the consistent and regular characteristic of the teaching ministry of a healthy church is expositional preaching.

-Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

Passionate Worship

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Since 2017 was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Voice articles were centered on specific Reformers and their contribution to the Reformation and Christian history. I’d like to continue sticking to a theme for this year’s articles. This year our theme will be The Characteristics of a Healthy Church. These are the factors that make a church a healthy one. Each month we will look at a different one. Our first characteristic is: Passionate Worship. 

Every church has a ‘worship service.’ At least, that’s what it is called. But how much of that time is spent in actual worship? Singing to God, praying, giving, and hearing from His word are all types of worship that should go on in the worship service. However, are the people really passionate about what they are saying/doing? Are we really singing out to God about how great He is? Are we really excited to hear what He has to say in His word? Or, do we simply go through the motions without any real passionate worship? When I say ‘passionate worship,’ I don’t mean loudness or uncontrollable behavior. What I mean is, truly loving the Lord for who He is and what He has done, and then giving Him worship because of that. God says in Amos 5:21 that He ‘hates’ Israel’s festivals and assemblies because the people’s hearts are not in it. They are just going through the motions, and God does not receive that kind of worship.

A church filled with passionate worship is not just worshiping on Sunday, though. Yes, we gather for corporate worship every Sunday morning and I think that is a very necessary part of the Christian life. You should be gathered with God’s people when they assemble together to worship the Lord. But, worship also occurs at home as well. I would make the distinction by calling it ‘corporate worship’ and ‘private worship.’ Corporate worship is when we gather together as a church. But, private worship is when you are alone with God. Do you have times in your daily schedule when you privately have a time of passionate worship unto God? Maybe you sing to Him in your heart, or read His word daily, or listen to messages in the car as you drive. All of these are times of private worship. People who are passionate about God will make time to have private times of worship with God. 

Jesus defined what true worship is in John 4 when He was talking with the woman at the well. He said true worshipers must worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). We know that worship must be in truth. We cannot worship God speaking or saying things about Him that are not true. Our worship must be Biblically informed and according to Scripture. But, look at the other word: spirit. Jesus is not talking about the Holy Spirit here. He is talking about the inner spirit of a person. Your worship has to come from a heart that truly wants to worship God. Again, passionate worship. God does not want just lip service or the correct form with no heart. He wants the heart of a person, fully engaged, passionately worshiping, according to the truth of His word. 

What is the best way to start passionately worshiping if you are not? How do you begin if you seem to be stuck in a rut and just going through the motions? I would say first, tell yourself the gospel over and over again. Remind yourself again and again what Christ went through for you and how you didn’t deserve it. You can’t help but get a passion for God when you realize all He has done for you. Secondly, I would say start studying the character of God in Scripture. See what kind of God we get to worship. He is a God who is kind, merciful, compassionate, gracious, loving, forgiving, etc. A God like that is a God I can get excited about worshiping. Let’s make sure we are a church filled with passionate worship both corporately and privately.


-    Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

Jane Grey

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When I started ministry in the local church, I worked with teenagers. When I first came to Congregational Bible Church, I worked with teenagers. For over 10 years I witnessed firsthand how immature, stubborn, and foolish teenagers can be. But, I have also witnessed how bold, useful, and encouraging teenagers can be as well. I have seen teenagers stand for the truth of the gospel (despite the views of their classmates), I have seen teenagers boldly and excitedly share the gospel with strangers (which is more than some adults), and I have seen teenagers selflessly serve and give of themselves for others.

Throughout the Scripture you can see God doing amazing things through men and women who couldn’t even legally call themselves an adult (in the United States). David was a teenager when he was named ‘a man after God’s own heart’, king Josiah reformed Israel back to the Scripture when he was just sixteen, Mary was a teenager when she was saddled with the responsibility to give birth to the Son of God, and there are many others as well. As we come to the end of this year, and our look at the Protestant Reformation, I would like to spend this last month looking at a young teenage martyr…and our first woman Reformer: Lady Jane Grey.

Lady Jane Grey reluctantly took the throne of England on July 10, 1553. When her cousin (Bloody Mary) raised an army to overthrow her, she willingly stepped down. The date was July 19, 1553, a mere nine days! Jane Grey was dubbed the Nine Day’s Queen. Only five days later, Bloody Mary would sign the death warrant that would send Jane Grey to the scaffold to be beheaded. You see, Jane had become a born-again Christian, a sure target of the wrath of Bloody Mary. Jane had been in the royal court to learn how to be a royal, but had actually been led to the Lord by Queen Katherine Parr.

Jane didn’t write a book or some theological treatise like other Reformers, but Jane knew her Bible. In fact, she learned Greek and Hebrew so she could study her Bible in the original languages. She also stood her ground for her faith and courageously accepted her fate as being under the sovereign hand of God. While she was awaiting her execution, her cousin Bloody Mary, sent a Catholic chaplain to Jane to try and save her soul (or so he thought). Bloody Mary wanted to woo her back to the Roman Catholic Church, and no doubt, get a recantation from Jane. At this encounter, Jane was about 17 years old.

The Catholic chaplain, John Feckenham, proceeded to debate the condemned teenager while she sat in prison awaiting execution. They debated justification: John saying justification is by faith and works; Jane saying justification is by faith alone. They debated communion: John saying the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ; Jane saying they are a mere representation. They debated church authority: John saying the church and the Bible have authority; Jane saying the Bible alone is the authority. Imagine this scene as the seasoned Catholic apologist debates a condemned teenage girl in a dungeon about spiritual matters!

As Feckenham turns to leave, unable to convince Jane, he says, “I am sure we two shall never meet again.” Of course, implying that Jane was going to hell for her beliefs. Jane turns the warning back on him by saying, “Truth it is we shall never meet again, unless God turns your heart.” What courage and boldness from a 17-year-old awaiting her execution!

What a lesson we can learn from this teenage martyr. She was eventually beheaded on February 12, 1554 asking God to receive her spirit as the axe fell. I hope teenagers read this and understand the importance of knowing God, knowing the Bible, and courageously standing for its truth. I think we adults can also be humbled at the scholarship and boldness of someone we would casually dismiss as a ‘kid.’

While each month we have looked at a different Reformer, I have chosen the more favorable stories to report on each of these people. The truth is, none of them are perfect, none of them are sinless, and they (like us) are deeply flawed. We should never exalt any sinful human being as a hero, but we can still learn much of how God used individuals to reform His precious church back to Scripture.

- Pastor Mark Scialabba

Menno Simons

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Can you imagine going to a doctor who had never studied medicine? Or, hiring a lawyer who had never studied law? What about having a priest who had never read the Bible? Menno Simons was one such priest. He admitted in his own writings that he was ordained as a Catholic priest in the Netherlands in 1524 having never read the Scriptures themselves! 

Menno Simons began having doubts, in his first two years of priesthood, about the doctrines he was teaching in the Catholic Church. The first doctrine he questioned was transubstantiation (the idea that the bread and the wine actually become the flesh and the blood of Christ), so Simons reluctantly began a study of the Bible to find if this teaching was true. He discovered that the Bible nowhere teaches transubstantiation, but that the Bible does teach salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

His study of Scripture led him to question the authority of the Church and caused him to examine Catholic doctrine in light of the Bible. He began to encourage people in his church to be baptized after they confessed faith in Christ, and not as an infant. After hearing of 300 ‘rebaptizers’ being murdered in 1535 Simons was faced with a crisis. He was safer remaining in the Catholic Church even though disagreeing with their theology, but he had to make a decision. Simons officially renounced his Catholic baptism and ordination and was rebaptized and reordained in 1537.
    
Simons immediately began preaching the gospel, teaching the Scriptures, and traveling extensively. His ministry was marked by constant dangers. He was labeled an enemy of the Catholic Church and Emperor Charles V. A reward was offered to anyone who might deliver him over to authorities. Most of his years of ministry were characterized by secret meetings of Christians, preaching at night only, and baptizing believers in out of the way lakes and streams. He was a man on the run. He confessed that he “could not find in all the countries a cabin or hut in which my poor wife and our little children could be put up in safety for a year or even half a year.”
    
Although the constant threat of danger hung over his head, Simons rejected any form of violence in accomplishing reform. He was a sincere advocate of pacifism and separation from any worldly power. His followers in Germany and the Netherlands were eventually called Mennonites. 
    
Simons’ contribution to the Reformation is highlighted by his theological views in two key areas. The first was baptism. Simons affirmed three truths about baptism: baptism follows faith (not the other way around), infants are not capable of faith or repentance, and baptism is the public initiation of a believer into a life of discipleship. This view is very radical in a situation where rebaptizing people was punishable by death. The second area of theology that Simons contributed much was to the definition of the true church. Simons laid out 6 characteristics of a true church: pure doctrine, Biblical use of the sacraments, obedience to the Word, brotherly love, bold confession of Jesus Christ, and suffering for the sake of the cause of Christ. 
    
As we go through this study of the Reformers, one constant theme keeps popping up in all their lives: danger. Standing for the Lord and standing upon the Scripture means you immediately become an enemy of the world. The question is: what will you do when the danger comes? Menno Simons, like the other Reformers, did not want to sacrifice conviction and truth for the sake of an easy life. Yes, Menno did what he could to stay alive and protect his family, but that did not come at the expense of his convictions.


-    Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

John Rogers

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It’s no secret that the world is at odds with Christianity. Jesus was rejected, His followers were rejected, and He warned us that we would be rejected as well. But what happens when there is more than rejection? What happens when it is full blown persecution and suffering? Where will our faith be? Where will our confidence be? Will we be able to stand firm? We look to the life and death of John Rogers as an example of strong faith in the midst of the most severe form of persecution there is: martyrdom. 

Rogers was born in England, educated at Cambridge University, and became a priest (similar to all the other Reformers). As he studied the Scripture he became more and more disillusioned with the official teachings of the Catholic Church, seeing how they disagreed with the Bible.

Through the providence of God, Rogers ended up in Holland where he ended up meeting William Tyndale. It was here that Tyndale taught Rogers the Bible and the gospel and Rogers was converted. When William Tyndale was arrested just a few months later, he left all his writings and works in the hands of John Rogers to finish for him. Rogers eventually finished Tyndale’s translation work under the pseudonym of ‘Thomas Matthew.’ The Matthews Bible would become the first officially authorized version of the Bible in the English language.

Rogers pastored churches in Holland and in Germany but he really wanted to be back in England. He returned there with his wife and his 8 children. In England he preached and pastored safely and securely under the reign of Edward VI, until Edward died. For those of you who remember your history, after Edward died, his half-sister Mary became queen. Mary Queen of Scots was eventually dubbed ‘Bloody Mary’ for her vicious persecution of Reformers and Protestants.

Mary arrived in London as queen on Thursday, August 3rd, 1553. John Rogers was supposed to preach at St. Paul’s Cathedral that following Sunday. What would he preach on? He knew where Mary stood: she was staunchly against any Protestant teachings and wanted to restore the Church of Rome back to its place in England. I wonder, what would I preach on? Rogers got up that following Sunday and proclaimed with all boldness the salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, taught in the Scripture alone. He told the people to beware of the Pope, idolatry, and Catholic superstitions. That was his last sermon.

He was placed under long house arrest for his teachings, along with the crime of being married (because he was supposed to be a celibate priest in Mary’s mind). Eventually, he was transferred to Newgate prison where he was locked up with thieves and murderers. He was awakened on the morning of February 4th, 1555 and told he would be burned at the stake. His one request was that he would be able to speak a few words with his wife; a request that was denied. When he was brought out to the stake, he was asked if he would recant his teachings. Rogers said, “That which I preached I will seal with my blood.” The sheriff in charge told him that he would never pray for Rogers, to which Rogers replied, “But I will pray for you.” 

On his march to the stake, in the crowd of thousands, was his wife and his now 11 children; one of which was still a baby he had never seen until that day. As the flames began to rise, even the knowledge of his wife and children watching, would not deter John Rogers. He boldly washed his hands in the flames as they reached higher and higher. He died lifting his hands up high.
It is said that at the death of John Rogers the crowd erupted in applause. They were not applauding the execution, but the boldness and courage of the man who was executed. Up to that point, no one knew how these English Reformers would handle the threat of death, or even, the reality of martyrdom. The crowd was stunned that this man would give his life for what he believed the Bible taught. 

Over the rest of the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’ 287 other English Reformers were burned at the stake for their faith. Men, women, or children, it didn’t matter in Mary’s eyes. But some of these martyrs admitted that seeing the bold faith of John Rogers was what gave them courage to meet their impending martyrdom. 

Of course, we don’t have to go through this level of persecution….yet. But the world is not becoming a friendlier place to Christians. I wonder, where will my faith be if it is challenged like this? Or, threatened like this? Or, tested like this? Where will your faith be?

-Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

Life Verses

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For the first eight months of this year my Voice articles have been short biographies of some of the most well-known Reformers of the Protestant Reformation. This is in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in October of this year. However, since a major change is taking place in our church this September, in the retirement of Pastor Mike and the promotion of myself to Senior Pastor, I thought it more appropriate to spend this month’s article giving the church a bit more information about myself and my vision for our congregation.

First, let me talk a little about my history in ministry. I started attending an evangelical church when I was high school age but I was not converted to Christ until my college years. In those years I worked as a helper in AWANA at my church in Long Beach, as well as, a youth leader when our church began a youth ministry. For four years while I was in seminary I continued this youth ministry while being named the Intern Pastor there. After seminary is when I began ministry here in Shafter and the first weekend of September 2017 will be my ninth anniversary here at Congregational Bible Church. Overall, I have been involved in pastoral ministry for about 13 years and small church ministry for over 15 years.

Some people ask me if I have a favorite verse or Bible book. There are actually many stories, passages, and verses that I love so it is hard to pick just one, but I will tell you about a passage that had a major influence on me as a new Christian. The passage is Philippians 3:2-11, but the verse that sticks out is verse 9. In that verse Paul says he is “found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” I remember the pastor who was discipling me took me out to breakfast to study this passage and he kept asking me, “where does our righteousness come from?” It took me a while until I saw what the verse was teaching. Our righteousness for heaven is not generated or produced from our good behavior. The righteousness we need for heaven is given to us from God. This reality just shattered who I thought I was. Even though I wasn’t a ‘bad’ kid, I never did drugs, and I never got drunk, yet I was still bankrupt when it comes to my own righteousness. Even Paul in this passage lists all of his righteous qualifications and ends up calling them ‘rubbish.’ But what a wonderful truth is this: that God gives to believers all the righteousness they need for heaven. It comes from Him and it comes through faith. 

My ministry life verse is found in Colossians 1:28. It reads, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.” I’m not a pastor because I have some personal agenda I want to get across, or because I want to shape a church building and congregation a certain way. I believe Jesus Christ is so compelling and so captivating, that preaching and teaching Him, will actually move souls toward holiness. There are no gimmicks and strategies for church growth or personal growth. True and lasting spiritual growth happens only through the proclamation of Christ, in the use of admonishment, teaching, and wisdom. In fact, Paul says that he proclaims Christ in this way so that every person may be ‘complete.’ That is my desire, to see spiritual completeness in every single person here at Congregational Bible Church. 

Paul says in the next verse that he labors and strives toward this goal, but he does so, through the power of God that works in him. I would covet your prayers in this regard: pray for your pastor to be used by God. Pray for God’s power to be at work in him. Yes, I will labor and strive, but all of that is nothing compared to the power of God working through a minister. Please pray that God accomplishes much, through His power, that works in my labors. I look forward to being your pastor and seeing where God will take this congregation.

-Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

Martin Bucer

When a football team wins a game, usually the credit goes to the quarterback. He is the one who is generally considered the one who wins or loses the game. People so quickly forget that there are actually eleven men on the field during a football game. The offensive line blocks the defense which allows the quarterback time to throw. The receivers run and gets open so the quarterback has someone to throw to. The running back’s success brings more attention from the defense also allowing the quarterback more time to throw the ball. Many people are involved in the victory of a football game, not just the quarterback.

Each month this year we have been looking at a short biography of the more famous Reformers. We all know the main men who receive all the attention: Luther, Calvin, Zwingli (the quarterbacks per se). But there are actually many other Reformers who played a significant role in the Reformation who simply aren’t given the attention they deserve. For the remaining few months of this year, we will look at some of these lesser known Reformers and analyze their contribution. This month, our subject is a man named Martin Bucer.

Martin Bucer was born in 1491, in France, and at 16 years old decided to choose the life of a monk. If you had any interest in religion at that time it was the only thing you could do. He took his vow of poverty and celibacy and began his studies in religion. Interestingly, the Dominican monks where he belonged, studied Aristotle before they studied the Bible. Theology and Scripture came second to the study of philosophy. Bucer was ordained a priest and went to Heidelberg, Germany to further his theological studies. It was there that a turn of God’s providence would set the course for the remainder of his life.

A man named Martin Luther was coming to Heidelberg for a theological debate and Bucer was in the audience listening. Bucer’s interest was drawn to Martin Luther’s words about man’s incapacity to do good, how keeping the law of God cannot advance you towards righteousness, and how salvation was in Christ alone. Bucer agreed with everything that Luther said, but Bucer went further with his understanding of the Law. Bucer thought that after salvation, through the assistance of the Holy Spirit, a Christian desires, and can actually carry out, the keeping of God’s Law. His path towards being a Reformer had begun.
He knew his theology was not in agreement with the Catholic Church, so he renounced his vows and was no longer a priest. Bucer was also, by all accounts, the first Reformer to ever get married; a definitive break from the priesthood for sure. He began to preach the doctrines of the Reformation which did not sit well with the city authorities of the time. He was excommunicated and asked to leave the city of Wissembourg, Germany. Penniless and excommunicated, Bucer went to Strasbourg, France where he would stay and lead the Reformation there for the next 25 years.

When John Calvin was exiled from his church in Geneva, he actually went to Strasbourg as well and lived in a house right behind Bucer’s. Another stroke of the providence and sovereignty of God was at work. It was here that Bucer had a profound impact upon John Calvin and the two became great friends. Calvin said of Bucer, “profound scholarship, his bounteous knowledge about a wide range of subjects, his keen mind, his wide reading, and many other different virtues, remains unsurpassed today by anyone, can be compared with only a few, and excels the vast majority.” That is high praise from the likes of John Calvin.

Martin Bucer remains a great example of what it means to take the Scripture literally. Of course church leaders can, and should, get married because how can a man manage the church of God if he cannot manage his own household (1 Tim 3:5)? Bucer also shows us a man committed to unity in the church of God. As Luther and Zwingli hotly debated the theology of the Lord’s Supper, Bucer was the mediator trying to bring the two together. Bucer also shows us what it is like to minister in the background. Some people in the church get all the recognition, just like some people of the Reformation get all the recognition. But Martin Bucer shows us that there were many other Reformers working behind the scenes, who don’t get as much credit as the main Reformers. The situation is similar to the church. Usually, the pastor gets the most credit for how the church is doing, but there are many people behind the scenes who have shaped that pastor into who he is today and many people ministering behind the scenes to make his life easier. May we not be afraid or ashamed of ministering without receiving the applause or recognition of men.
-Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

Thomas Cranmer

The Reformation in England did not really come about through theological reasons but for political ones. The key figure of this movement was Henry VIII. Most of us know the story of how he broke with the Roman Catholic Church. He was married to Queen Catherine of Aragon, but she couldn’t give him a son to be the heir to the throne. So, Henry sought an annulment from the Pope so that he could marry another. When the Pope refused, Henry looked for a new way out of his marriage: a break with Rome. With the help of his advisor, Thomas Cromwell, Henry succeeded in breaking from the Roman Catholic Church and starting his own religion where he was the head of the church (the Church of England). It’s much easier to allow annulments when you are the head of the church!

    The Pope pronounced an official excommunication on Henry, so Henry passed a law called the Treason Act which labeled any Pope loyalists to be guilty of heresy and punished by death. Originally, Henry VIII was not a supporter of the Reformation at all, but ended up being a partial Protestant when this split from Rome happened. He had his main adviser named Thomas Cronwell, but he had another named Thomas Cranmer. This man was a learned scholar who sided with many of Luther’s teachings. 

    Cranmer was the main person pushing Protestant ideas and theology in Henry VIII’s reign. He published a book called the Book of Common Prayer, which was a manual for church services that included many prayers and congregational responses. Cranmer also wrote the introduction to the Great Bible (the first authorized edition of the Bible in English) that Henry VIII had placed in every church in England. While Cranmer wanted to continue to push Protestant theology, Henry VIII passed something called the Six Articles Act in 1539. These articles affirmed the Catholic doctrines of transubstantiation, withholding the cup of communion from the common people (if necessary), celibacy of priests, monastic vows of chastity, private Mass, and the need for official confession.

    Henry VIII died in 1547 and was succeeded by Edward VI. He didn’t reign long as he died in 1553, only 6 years later. That was the year that Cranmer wrote a document called the Forty-two Articles. It was a mainly Protestant document reflecting the views of Luther and Calvin. In these articles, Cranmer outlined such Protestant doctrines as justification by faith alone, the sole authority of Scripture, a denial of transubstantiation, and the naming of only two sacraments. This push towards Protestantism was short-lived however.

    After Edward VI died, Mary Tudor became queen. She was a zealous Catholic and was furious at how Henry VIII had treated her mother (Catherine of Aragon). She sought to return England to the Pope, and she would kill anyone who didn’t align with her. She was rightfully nicknamed ‘Bloody Mary’ because of her ruthless attack against Protestants. In 1555 she began her assault and martyred 300 Protestants with another 800 fleeing for their lives. Some of the notable names that were martyred under her reign were John Rogers, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer.

    Cranmer endured a lengthy trial where the foregone conclusion of guilty was reached. He was publicly humiliated by having his church authority and robes removed in a careful ceremony where he was handed over as a common criminal. But Bloody Mary was not done with him yet. While in prison, fake promises of mercy were used on him to sign numerous denials, where he rejected all Protestant ideas and Mary hoped to publish these signed documents to squash the Reformation in England once and for all. On the day of his death, at the stake where he would be burned, Cranmer shocked everyone when he publicly rejected his signed denials, denied the Pope’s power, and called transubstantiation false. As the fire was lit, he famously placed his right hand in the flames first, the hand that had signed the denials. His bravery and boldness made a mark on English Protestantism forever.

    It is hard to criticize Cranmer for signing his denials. We can probably admit, we would have done the same thing. But as he had days in prison to think about it, he came to the conclusion that he was going to die anyway…and heaven was awaiting him. That restored his trust and while his signing of the denials is one of his low points, his martyrdom is a great story of faith and boldness for Christ. May we be so strong in our faith as well.

-Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

JOHN KNOX

As the Reformation literature spread throughout Europe, so did the Reformation itself, arriving in the country of Scotland through the Reformer named John Knox.

John Knox was born in 1514 in a small town south of Edinburgh. When he was old enough, he entered the school of St. Andrews to study theology, as most students did. He was actually ordained as a minister, but did not serve as a pastor or minister until years later. 

During Knox’s younger years, the country of Scotland was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Catholic Church. The same problems that existed in Germany, England, and Switzerland existed in Scotland too. Priests and bishops were not placed in their positions because of their holiness or call to ministry, but for political appointments. This led to all kinds of immoral sins of the priests being open and well-known. The priests in Scotland were openly consorting with concubines and fathering illegitimate children. The Catholic Church, as an entity, owned more than half the real estate in the country! The ‘church’ was, in essence, a corporation not a religious entity.

Also at this time, the literature of Martin Luther was being smuggled into Scotland with many agreeing with his positions. The Reformation was spreading. But the Catholic Church would not allow this ‘heresy’ to continue and wanted to suppress it. They burned a man named Patrick Hamilton at the stake for being a protestant. This move ironically did not suppress anything, but actually ignited the passions of the Protestants and Reformers in Scotland. Knox began studying and learning from Scottish reformers and even became a bodyguard under a preacher named George Wishart. But, Wishart too, was arrested and burned at the stake.

During a Protestant church service one Sunday after this event, the preacher named John Rough publicly asked John Knox to take over as the preacher. Knox was so overwhelmed and so shaken at this tremendous responsibility that he actually broke down into tears at the thought of him preaching God’s Word. He actually declined the offer, but then later accepted, feeling the tug of God that this was what he must do.

Knox actually traveled to Geneva and met John Calvin, having high praise for his ministry there. When he returned to Scotland, he published a number of tracts and treatises. These tracts were not quite politically correct as he essentially lobbied for the right of the people to overthrow an unrepentant monarch, like Mary Tudor the queen of England who was called the name ‘Bloody Mary’ for her persecution of Protestants. Knox also co-wrote the Scots Confession which basically abolished the authority of the Pope and the Catholic mass. While his writings spread his fame, Knox became more infamous for his amazing preaching.

In his sermons, Knox would calmly exegete a passage of Scripture for about a half hour. Then, he would turn on the afterburners and become loud and raucous, pounding the pulpit, and even inciting a riot after one of his sermons. One of his note takers commented that he could barely hold the pen because Knox was making him tremble so much. 

I have 3 main lessons we can learn from John Knox. First, would be the seriousness of preaching. I wonder if there are many men who would break down into tears if you asked them to preach. It was such a serious matter to Knox that he felt totally unqualified to do it, except for the fact he felt it was the calling of God for him to preach. The second lesson would be to follow his example and not have a fear of man. He was courageous and passionate and desired to please God above all. One man said that John Knox neither “flattered nor feared any flesh.” May that be true of us as well. The last lesson is one I have not discussed yet: the prayer life of John Knox. He famously prayed to God, “give me Scotland or I die.” That was not an arrogant demand but a passionate plea for God to save people in Scotland. He wanted to be used by God as an instrument of salvation. ‘Bloody Mary’ once commented on his prayer life, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the armies of Europe.” Let us too be people of aspiring, lofty, passionate prayers.

Pastor Mark Scialabba