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Controversies In Church: It’s Not About What We Say

Written By Leslie Koh

Is it okay to pray for a miracle healing? Can we speak in tongues? Can a woman preach at the pulpit? Should the church support anti-homosexual laws? What’s the church’s stand on abortion? What should we do with an errant pastor? Is there a “correct” version of the Bible? Can we play the drums in worship? Should Christians drink alcohol?

Controversies can be interesting when you’re having an intellectual debate. Or reading the news. But not when they divide a church and split the Body of Christ into those who think they’re right . . . and those who think the other side is wrong.

Coming from a church that traditionally takes the middle ground and hosts a wide range of practices and beliefs that are not fundamental to the Christian faith (or what it sees as non-fundamental, anyway), I was quite taken aback when I recently joined a group that appeared to hold strong opinions on some of these issues.

What was vaguely disturbing was how seriously some of the members of this group stuck to their stands. I was used to hearing people attribute the differences in opinion and practices to a generational gap, personal preferences, or maturity of faith (“Oh, we’re too old for this modern worship songs”). But it seemed these people were a lot more rigid about their stands. For them, it was nothing less than doctrinal. “Well, the Bible says so” was something I kept hearing.

Which made me want to retort—“So everyone else interpreted the Bible wrongly?”

Some of the “Christian” practices that I was used to myself came under fire, and the frowns I received left me feeling confused and defensive at the same time. On one hand, I began to wonder if what I had understood all this time was actually wrong. On the other, I wondered if these people were just being too dogmatic or narrow-minded in their interpretation of the Bible.

(I haven’t actually figured this out, but it’s made me go back to double-check my own understanding of doctrinal issues and also made me wonder: Am I just as guilty of being dogmatic?)

What struck me, however, was not their actual justification for their beliefs. Rather, it was what they thought about the people holding the opposite views. And how they expressed these thoughts.

There were the insensitive jokes. (“I don’t know about you, but I’m going to heaven.”) There were the stereotypes. (“All charismatics/conservatives are like this.”) And finally, the misperceptions of the other camp’s views. (“All pentecostals insist we must worship this way.”/ “All conservatives are dead-set against this.”)

Which made me wonder: Should some topics be kept off-limits to jokes, unless we’re sure they won’t offend? And do we know what the other side does and thinks as well as we think?

To be sure, there will be extremes in both camps. Thankfully, I’ve also met charismatics and conservatives who aren’t as dogmatic as they’re portrayed to be, and kept their minds open. A Bible teacher I know once reasoned it this way: “I’ve seen godly people on both sides, so I’m going to reserve judgment.”

Amen to that! Incidentally, that statement changed my view of the “conservative” crowd. Confession: Yes, I’ve been just as guilty of stereotyping people I don’t agree with, and this Bible teacher reminded me how unfair and prejudiced I was.

The real problem, I believe, is not what people on opposing sides think of each other’s argument. It’s what we think of each other. And it’s what we think the other side thinks.

 

We speak the truth . . . but do we speak in love?

I guess we’re never going to resolve any of these issues. Not when some of them involve interpretation of God’s Word, which I guess makes them important enough to stand by. We’ll probably only know the actual answer when we meet God. (I sometimes imagine God, when asked who’s right and who’s wrong on these non-salvation issues, would just chuckle gently and say, “My dear children, you’re both right! As long as you believe in Me, follow Me, and honor Me in your personal convictions and live consistently by them, you’re fine.”)

But perhaps we can still do something about these differences. Perhaps we can try our best to talk it out and attempt to reach a consensus in a godly manner. Perhaps we can find ways to continue worshiping and working together without letting our convictions divide the Body of Christ. After all, how we go about doing it is just as important as what we do.

Ephesians 4:2-3 speaks of a God-honoring way when dealing with fellow believers. “Be completely humble and gentle,” says Paul, “be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

The Bible doesn’t say anything about trying to reach agreement on everything. It just talks about having the right approach and attitude. It means bringing our arguments to the table with the greatest humility, gentleness, patience, and love. And it means aiming, ultimately, not to force others to accept our point, but to maintain a unity among believers.

Do we enter a conversation determined to win an argument? Do we put down the other person in order to get our points through? Do we walk away from a debate angry because the other person wouldn’t budge? Do we try to clobber each other with God’s Word? Do we seek to draw lines in the church and divide the congregation into those who agree with us and “the unbelievers”?

Or, do we explain our stand gently and patiently, willing to let God convict their hearts in His time and His way—and be ready to accept that we might not be completely right, either? And are we more concerned about the other person’s growth and relationship with God, than about making sure he understands everything in the right way (i.e., our way)?

In a recent post commenting on an ongoing debate over an anti-homosexual law in Singapore, William Wan, who heads the Singapore Kindness Movement, noted most aptly: “Everyone on both sides of the divide believes that he is speaking the truth. But the question is whether it is spoken in love.”

More often than not, we get so riled up over an issue because we believe it has to do with false teaching that needs to be corrected. Even if that’s true—and that’s a huge “if”, remembering that the other camp probably thinks the same way—can we still not speak in love? When a dispute broke out in the New Testament church over the circumcision of Gentiles (Acts 15:1–35), the apostles and elders made sure to guide the new believers gently, using words like: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements . . . You will do well to avoid these things” (vv. 24–29).

Jesus, too, distinguished between those who were genuinely misguided, and false teachers who sought to confuse and mislead. While He didn’t mince His words in rebuking the latter, He remained gentle and compassionate with the former. His ultimate aim was not so much to tear down an argument, but to build up a person. Paul, too, says: “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25).

Ironically, we’re sometimes even more careful and patient with non-believers than with fellow believers. We’re willing to engage with seekers and hear them out even when we disagree with them completely—but not with fellow believers who seem to have a different interpretation of the Bible. Why?

And if we still can’t come to an agreement, perhaps we need to look at what we do agree on, and move on from there. Paul goes on to say, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

It’s almost as if he’s saying: “Don’t focus on what you disagree on, but on what you have in common, and you’ll remember why we are ONE family in Christ.”

It could mean ending a debate with a peace-making conclusion like, “Okay, we still disagree on this. But we can agree on this. Let’s see how we can worship and work together based on our common faith in Jesus.”

We aim to speak the truth, but let’s also speak in love.

My Quarter-Life Crisis: The Day I Went Berserk

Written By Leslie Koh, Singapore 

I knew something was wrong the moment I started kicking the boxes below my desk.

I’m normally a quiet, self-restrained person (no, really), but that day, something in me just snapped. On the phone, the caller’s tone and instructions rubbed me the wrong way, and I simply lost it. Something in me stopped me from yelling back, but my legs went on their own journey of anger-venting, and I started flailing at the cardboard boxes that I usually stacked beneath my desk to rest my feet.

You can imagine the scene, then. Usually quiet guy, gripping the phone handset with white, shaking knuckles, saying, “Okay, okay, got it, will do”, in the calmest and most deliberate of voices—while below the desk, loud crunching from furious feet driving into said cardboard boxes. Around him, the shocked faces of colleagues, wondering what had just happened.

The next week, I handed in my resignation. Nine years of journalism, check. One career over, check.

It wasn’t the shame or embarrassment; I had apologized soon after to my boss for my “outburst”, and she had accepted it. It was the knowledge that I was burnt out, and the realization that no matter how good the money was or how much potential the job held, I had reached the point where if I were to continue, I would do my mental health some serious harm.

As it was, I had been feeling more and more exhausted for many months, and always wanting to sleep in; it was as if I didn’t want to wake up to reality. The usually long hours in newsroom were taking their toll, and it had been harder for me because some of the tasks—interviewing, for instance—were well out of my comfort zone. I had heard that sleeplessness as well as an inability to wake up were both possible signs of depression, and I wondered if it was happening to me. My work was also going downhill: I was turning in work without caring if it met the minimum standard, and often ignoring instructions from supervisors. Once, assigned to attend an event, I borrowed my parents’ car and drove round aimlessly for two hours instead. (No one found out, as I still managed to get the information required anyway.)

The resignation brought great relief.

Finally, I could stop dragging myself out of bed every morning to face reality. I could stop ending every weekend with great dread over the coming work week. I could stop forcing myself to go through those long hours in office, hating every piece of work that came to me. I could stop those constant fantasies of becoming rich overnight just so that I would no longer need a job. (Or, as was more often the case, fantasies of the office burning down overnight so I wouldn’t have to report for work the next morning.)

It wasn’t always this way, of course. I had gone into the job with the usual enthusiasm of a greenhorn, but somehow, had become jaded over the years as the long hours and constant stress took their toll. Many colleagues thrived on it, but I felt overwhelmed.

Still, it wasn’t an easy decision. At the back of my mind, two main thoughts remained.

One was, “Am I weak? Am I taking the easy way out?” Younger generations have often been called the Strawberry Generation (you know, bruises easily), and it seems I was fulfilling the criticism. “Why, the older generations worked for 40 years without a day off, and they didn’t complain. You’ve not reached even 10 years, and you’re burnt out?”

The other was, “Is this God’s will?” Was I giving up before God could shape and transform me into a better person? Was I running away from His discipline?

To be honest, I still haven’t answered these questions fully today. Perhaps I was not only suffering from a burnout, but was also going through a Quarter-Life Crisis as I tried to figure out my career, my aims in life, and what meaning I ascribed to my work.

Having gone through what I think is a burnout, however, I’d like to say this: It doesn’t matter what others think of you. If you’re miserable and depressed, and your body is falling apart, no job is worth it. Sure, there’s a time to hang on, to persist, to fight back. But all of us have different limits. Don’t compare yourself to others, because each of us has a unique journey. One person may think it takes guts to keep going, while another person may figure it takes wisdom to give up.

Whatever others may have thought of my decision, I can say this with certainty: I could see God’s hand in everything that happened. There was more than a whiff of divine intervention in the securing of my next job. I had applied for one that seemed interesting and more importantly, appeared to promise a peaceful time. When no answer came, I tried applying again. While waiting, a chance encounter with someone—who just happened to be working in that same department—led to a cut-through-the-red-tape interview with her boss. The job offer came soon after.

The very fact that I had no problem adjusting to a new job soon after quitting seemed to suggest that I simply needed a break. Just being able to take a couple of months off work, and being able to move to something else that involved saner work hours and less stress seemed to make all the difference.

My burnout and the “kickboxing” incident are certainly not things I would want to experience again. I’m not proud of my response. But on hindsight, I can see how they formed part of my journey of self-discovery, and of faith. Were they good in themselves? No. Did God allow them to happen? I believe so!

Going through the burnout, I learned to recognize my own limits. Yes, you could accuse me of having pathetic limits and lacking resilience. But hey, these are my limits. Having been pushed past my limits once, I now have a better idea of how much I can take, and how much I can’t. This knowledge has enabled to make better decisions in life since. In subsequent job moves, I found I had a better handle on what I was prepared to do, and what I couldn’t stand doing. The experience has been invaluable.

I also learned to trust in God’s will and hand in my life. Years later, I would see Him use the incident to shape future decisions about my career. But more importantly, I learned to see that He is not an uncaring, inflexible God who has a fixed, non-negotiable plan that we can fall out of if we don’t make the right decisions. Yes, we need to seek His will and understand how He might want us to act or decide in a given situation. But He is a creative God who gives us the freedom to choose while engaging His will with our lives. If we put His law, interests, and ways before our own, He will give us the desires of our heart (Psalm 37:4).

Psalm 37 also reminds us to commit our way to the Lord and trust Him (v. 5), and to be still before Him and wait patiently for Him to unfold His will (v. 7). We have the assurance that our good and loving God will do what is best for us—even if we might not see it as such at the time.

The Lord makes firm the steps
of the one who delights in him;
though he may stumble, he will not fall,
for the Lord upholds him with his hand.

(Psalm 37:23-24)

Why We Want Wonder Woman

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Written By Leslie Koh, Singapore

Okay, the bottom-line first: Wonder Woman is watchable. (Oh, and the movie’s great too.)

If you haven’t seen Gal Gadot, the Israeli model-turned-actress who debuted on the big screen in 2009 (Fast & Furious) is good looking. Extremely good looking. Her ancestry is said to include an exotic mix of Jewish, Polish, Austrian, Czech, and German heritage, which explains her unusual beauty (she was Miss Israel in 2004). It’s hard to watch Wonder Woman and not get distracted by er, Wonder Woman.

Okay, okay, back to the movie. It’s got all the usual elements for entertainment, with great sets, good actors, a couple of mind-blowing action scenes, a touch of romance, some attempt at philosophy, and more than a dash of humor. If you’re a girl—I’m guessing here—you might like how the movie puts Amazonian woman power on center stage. And if you’re a guy, there’s, well, Gal Gadot.

As for the plot, some of it is, at least to me, a tad cheesy (apologies to all DC Comic diehards). If you’ve watched the trailers, you’ll know this much already: Diana, an Amazonian princess and warrior, has been raised on a paradise island where her mother has been sheltering her from reality. After rescuing a drowning World War I pilot, however, Diana decides to leave the island and join the war to rid the world of evil.

Through the 2 hours 20 minutes, we see not only how she accomplishes this, but also how she matures in her view of life and humanity, as well as in her understanding of the true sources of good and evil. Can someone really be so naïve? And so simplistic in her belief that she can counter the world’s evil with a pure heart? It’s a little hard to believe, though Gadot’s wide-eyed innocence just about carries it off.

What’s less debatable, perhaps, is that Wonder Woman brings a touch of humanity and humor to a movie world that has been dominated by dark, brooding heroes. When she first made her surprise appearance in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, accompanied by her now-signature tune—an explosive riff of electric guitars—cinema goers cheered. No wonder: it provided a much-needed touch of femininity and humor in a movie that was otherwise rather masculine and gloomy.

Then again, it should come as no surprise, because that was what Wonder Woman was meant to be all about. She was created in 1941 by psychologist William Marston, who was inspired by feminists of that era when he shaped a character who truly believes in the power of love and peace to conquer evil. So Diana Prince, as she is called when she is not wielding her sword, shield and magical lasso, is loving, kind, and sensitive. Naïve? Perhaps—but charmingly so.

But here’s the intriguing thing. From early in the show, we can tell that Wonder Woman is not entirely human; she has some measure of invincibility, even to the passage of time. No spoiler alert needed—Batman v Superman made that pretty clear, and Wonder Woman confirms it.

Is that why the world needs her so much? Is this a tacit acknowledgment that in the fight between good and evil, victory is impossible without help from a superhuman? Are we quietly admitting that while we all have an innate desire for good to prevail, evil is more powerful than we are, and there are just some things that humans can’t do on their own?

At the same time, it would seem that we want our superhuman heroes to be human, too. We want to identify with a Superman who can feel pain. We love Wonder Woman because her feelings can be hurt, and because she can love just like we do. Yes, we want our saviors to be more powerful than we are, yet as vulnerable.

Sound familiar?

I suppose you could over-analyze what is after all, a movie. But it’s hard to avoid seeing hints of an attempt at a Christianity-meets-Greek mythology-meets-DC Comics philosophy. Diana is well aware that the fight between good and evil is a cosmic battle that goes far beyond the wars of men, never lets go of her hope that good will ultimately triumph, and is determined to do her part, knowing that it will take both human and godly will to win this battle.

Why do we need superhuman heroes? Because while we want good to triumph, we know we can’t win the battle on our own. Because we need to hope in a hopeless world. Because, in some ways, we all need a Wonder Woman.

Have I taken God for granted?

Written By Leslie Koh

After spending a number of years in the media, Leslie finally decided to move from working with bad news to good news. He believes in the power of words (especially when they’re funny). He works as an editor in Our Daily Bread Ministries.

I’m back in court again.

No, not that one. This one is an internal court of conflicting thoughts and feelings about my faith and my actions. It’s where I have to face accusations, and it’s where I sometimes try to defend myself. It’s a court I visit often.

I’m there again because I’ve just read yet another article warning me not to take God for granted. Yes, one of those pieces filled with stern warnings:

“Don’t take God for granted.”
“Don’t think you can get away with sin just because salvation is yours to keep.”
“Don’t test God’s patience.”

Et cetera, et cetera.

To be honest, I don’t like these warnings. I don’t like them because . . . I know I’m guilty. I know these warnings are meant for me. I don’t like them because they inevitably send me on a guilt trip—which I then try to escape by defending myself:

“Won’t I risk thinking that I need to earn my salvation by trying to be holy?”
“Isn’t God merciful if I repent sincerely?”
“Isn’t salvation mine to keep? If not, then what does grace mean?”

And that’s where the court proceedings begin.

 

Guilty! I do take God for granted . . .

First, the accusations:

You take God for granted. You go ahead and sin and sin and sin, thinking that it’s okay because you can be forgiven the moment you ask for forgiveness. You do this because you think salvation is yours, and that excuses you from trying harder to live a holy life. You think you can simply fall back on God’s mercy and grace, and get away scot-free. What about your responsibility to resist temptation and sin? Aren’t you testing God’s patience? Aren’t you devaluing grace?

I nod, remorseful. “Guilty! I know I’m guilty!”

I’ll be honest and confess: Sometimes (far more often than that, in fact), I do think that I can get away with sin because God will forgive me. I take His mercy for granted. I quote Jesus’ instructions to His disciples to forgive 490 times, and cite the Bible’s description of God’s endless mercies. And so, at the back of my mind, I excuse my behavior and proceed with my sin, thinking, “I’ll repent sincerely later, and it’ll be okay.”

I’m also guilty of not putting a lot of effort into being holy and living the new life that Jesus has given me through His death and resurrection. That’s because I hold on to the idea that I shouldn’t try to change on my own strength. After all, isn’t God the one who will transform me? And so I proceed as usual, doing what I normally do. Of course, I do take precautions to avoid I what think are “worse” sins, but I’ll readily admit that deep inside, I leave it to God to help me overcome the “small” ones. That makes me guilty of forgetting that my walk with God is not just one of faith, but a journey of discipline too.

And finally, I tend to forget that things like my life, my relationship with God, the open access I have to Him, and my salvation are privileges. Oh yes, I’m well aware that I don’t deserve them and that God has given them to me out of His grace. But like I do with most gifts, I’ve come to see them as mine to keep forever—no matter what I do. I forget that they remain a privilege and they didn’t come cheap—it cost Jesus His life, and God, His Son. I fail to treasure these gifts and make the most out of them.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”—Matthew 7:21

 

Not guilty! I’m doing all right—really . . .

But then the little defense lawyer inside me stands up and responds:

God’s grace and mercy are boundless. Don’t make the mistake of being legalistic about your faith. Yes, you must seek to live a holy life. But you shouldn’t doubt your salvation whenever you fail (for you will, inevitably). If you keep going back to the fundamentals, you’ll never be able to step forward in your faith. You’ll end up hobbling your spiritual growth. You need to accept God’s forgiveness, and forgive yourself. You need to move on.

I raise my head, hoping that he’s right. “Really? Am I not guilty after all?”

Isn’t it true? If I were to doubt God’s forgiveness even after confessing and repenting, then I would be doubting His character as a merciful and forgiving God, His promise to forgive, and the effectiveness of His Son’s sacrifice on the cross. Of course, I need to ensure that I am sincere in my confession and repentance. But if I keep holding on to my shame and guilt, wouldn’t I be belittling Jesus’ sacrifice and the power of the cross? Don’t I need to move on, relying on the fact of God’s unconditional love and mercy?

Besides, if I focus too much on trying to be holy and being a “good” Christian, I may fall into the trap of legalism. Now, that would be cheapening grace. I may forget that I am saved by grace, not by any works I can do. Oh yes, I am called to put aside my old self and my old sinful habits. But I shouldn’t confuse that with trying to win God’s favor by being good. Only He can make me holy and righteous in His sight. What I need to do is to submit to His transformation.

And, finally, my favorite defense: There’s no doubt that I’m flawed and far from perfect. And I still struggle with sin and holiness. But the very fact that I still battle with guilt and feelings of inadequacy shows that I don’t take God for granted; it shows that my conscience is still very much alive—kept alive by the Holy Spirit in me. If I was really guilty of taking God for granted, then I wouldn’t even think twice about going ahead with my sins, nor about whether I need to live in a more holy manner, right? In fact, I won’t even wonder whether I’m taking Him for granted. So the very fact that I’m worried about taking God for granted . . . shows that I’m not. You know what I mean!

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.—Romans 8:1-2

 

And the verdict is . . .

I hate to leave it hanging, but the answer is . . . I can’t tell you for sure. Only the judge can decide, and in this court, God is the judge. Only He can determine whether or not I’m guilty of taking Him for granted.

To be honest, I haven’t heard a clear voice telling me the final judgment. But I personally believe that it is . . . BOTH. Guilty—because I have taken God for granted. And not guilty—because He is always ready to forgive me, and Christ’s death has paid for my sin. It’s almost as if God is saying:

Yes, sometimes you ARE guilty of taking Me for granted. That’s why I send you reminders and warnings, and My Spirit fills your heart with remorse. But I don’t want you to just feel guilty; I want you to do something about it. And I want you to repent and move on, so that you become NOT guilty. And that’s why I send you comfort and assurance, too. I want you to know that when you truly confess and repent, it puts you on the right track.

So what does that mean for me, the accused? It means that I’m going to have a constant struggle with guilt. And it means that I’m going to be coming back to this court, again and again, to hear the same accusations and defenses.

But maybe that’s the whole point. A friend once told me something that has stuck in my mind, and it is simply this: Christianity is a struggle.

If we stop struggling, then something’s wrong. Yes, we shouldn’t allow doubt to whittle away at our faith until nothing’s left. But we also need to keep checking ourselves to make sure we’re not becoming complacent in our walk with God. The constant questioning, reviewing, and wrestling with spiritual issues—all these show our faith is alive.

Perhaps that’s why Paul urged believers to present themselves to God as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1)—the thing about a living sacrifice, you see, is that it can crawl away. Every day and every moment, we face the temptation to crawl away from the altar and to seek our own desires and ways; it takes a conscious effort to stay there. But it’s a struggle that I believe God appreciates.

So now I’m out of court. I’m guilty, but because of Jesus, I’m not guilty. Guess I’ll be back again soon.

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?  And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test.—2 Corinthians 13:5