I was privileged to start a new church 20 years ago today. We held our first worship service at 111 Ranch in Garland, Texas on a hot July 4th evening in 1999. I chose the date with auspicious intent.
Today is Independence Day, the day the the Continental Congress officially approved the Declaration of Independence affirming freedom for all people and rejecting British rule. It is the day we became United States of America. It took many more years for that freedom to become a reality for slaves, but the truths stated therein supported the abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement.
“WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Individuals and nations have the right to separate themselves from tyranny and to establish independence, in order to be free to pursue the life God created.
Over the years I have been involved in several great churches, and for the denomination and its agencies that assisted in the launch of our church I have the highest regard. However, anyone who has been involved in church on more than a surface level can likely give examples of legalistic and judgmental attitudes among leadership and people. In fact, I must admit, as much as I dislike those attitudes, I’ve been judgmental too! If I am going to love people the way Jesus does, I must stop judging them.
Back then our name was City of Refuge, another symbol intended to help us turn away from being judgmental. In the Old Testament the Cities of Refuge were established to protect those who were accused of murder. Here they could run to safety from the avenger of blood, and here they would receive a fair trial. In this city the accused could continue to live without fear or shame as the result of their past mistakes or misfortunes.
Too often, down to our day, an accusation is enough to destroy the reputation of the accused. People believe what they want to. Anyone may say anything about anyone else, publicize it via the press or social media, and many people will assume the worst, refusing to change closed minds, even when facts contradict the accusation. What happened to the presumption of innocence? Instead there is a de facto assumption of guilt toward anyone accused. In my observation judgmental attitudes rule our culture today, from bottom to top. So, a church that suspends judgment, whether moral, social, or political, would be a welcome contrast.
Twenty years later we are called Lifewell Church, but I hope we continue to be a refuge for the oppressed and accused. I pray we continue to be a source of acceptance and a dispenser of God’s grace to people who have been rejected. As the pastor, I seek to root out any source of sanctimony and judgment in our midst, beginning with myself!
I also wanted us to separate ourselves from all of the pretense and presumption I experienced in the institutional church. Enter some churches and you can feel the fakery. Oh, they may have orthodox theology, but the heart is not there. Concerning such people Jesus quoted Isaiah, “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8, Isaiah 29:13). This may be seen in high church ritual, the slick Sunday production of a mega church, or the well worn routine of any church in between.
I just wanted everyone to be real. When it concerns individuals that means stop hiding, no more “fake it until you make it.” Be the same person in church as you are at home, at work, at school. We can’t get well if we keep hiding the fact that we’re sick. Worse, we may be flaunting in the world the sickness we hide while we’re at church. The theme passage for City of Refuge came from Matthew 9:12-13:
“On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”” (Matthew 9:12–13, NIV)
Sadly, some (too many!) abused this grace and simply continued in their sin. Establishing a church that accepts people as they are without judgment doesn’t mean people should continue living unchanged by God’s amazing grace. Too quickly our City of Refuge became for some a Den of Thieves! “How can we who died to sin live any longer in it!” (Romans 6:1)
When I am exposed to the truth of God’s Word and inhabited by His Holy Spirit, I am changed and become more like Jesus. When you offer grace it is always possible for people to abuse it and use it as tacit acceptance for their bad attitudes and bad behaviors. No judgment doesn’t mean, no evaluation, no appraisal of right and wrong. What it means is I’m not the judge, and neither are you! We’re not even on the jury. I don’t determine your guilt or the punishment for what you may have done.
In reality, I’m here to be a physician’s assistant and Jesus is the doctor. First, I need to get well, then I need to be concerned and compassionate about bringing you to life and health. Jesus said this clearly, and it is intimately part of the same teaching about not judging.
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1–5, NIV)
I hope and pray that we’ve not lost sight of this as Lifewell Church. It is the reason we came into existence 20 years ago. It’s part of our spiritual DNA. Acceptance and repentance are both essential to being made well by Christ. I cannot live life well when I am sick with sin. I will never come to Christ if I believe I’m too bad, too dirty, or too sick. So, we must accept people as they are, not as we wish they were. We must speak the truth in love and seek to lead people to receive the transforming spiritual life of Jesus Christ. We accept them as Jesus has accepted each of us, and we offer them the living water that will become a life well leaping up from their hearts to eternal life!
“but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”” (John 4:14, NIV)
The result of this is genuine freedom, and that may be what most people associate with July 4th. The natural understanding of freedom is, I can do whatever I want. What irony, we think that we’re free when we do what we want when all the time the will is deceived, enslaved to bad habits and destructive desires. What I want falls short of God’s design. “For all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). Although sin seems like freedom, it is inextricably tied to death. “The soul that sins will surely die…. For the wages of sin is death” (Ezekiel 18:4, Romans 6:23). The Apostle Paul calls this principle the law of sin and death. Jesus taught emphatically that those who sin are slaves to sin (John 8:34).
Real freedom is not unlimited choice. I am not free when I choose to be something God didn’t design or command. There is a way things, and people, are supposed to be, and that’s not some arbitrary demand superimposed by an autocratic almighty God. There are laws of physics, the universe is fine tuned to an exquisite degree. God created it this way. The same God established what we would call moral laws as well. He gave us a conscience. He revealed a moral code to Moses. He paved the pathway to life through Jesus Christ. Now, the person who comes to Christ fulfills the law and is set free by the Spirit.
“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
“because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:2, NIV84)
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17, NIV84)
This is important to understand, to fully realize, and I sought to teach it in those early years, but some failed or refused to receive it. They left preferring a deluded lifestyle, which has resulted in destructive consequences for those who failed to have a change of heart. Once again, I hope and pray that Lifewell receives this truth and lives in God’s intended freedom.
July 4th is an auspicious date, even 20 years later. Lifewell remains a church committed to separation from sanctimonious judgment, bureaucratic religion, empty ritual, and fake faith. We are not independent from our founding denomination, although we have a strong non-denominational outreach. We are committed to the principle of priesthood of the believer, which means that each person is privileged and responsible to relate to God and read the Bible anticipating the Holy Spirit will teach them. This doesn’t mean the individual is independent from the community, rather we are mutually reliant and recognize the gifts and callings of the members of the body. I am a teacher and the overseer of our community of faith. People follow my leadership and teaching as I follow Christ. Finally, we are free! Free to worship in a manner that allows us to speak and be spoken to by God in Spirit and in Truth. We are free to follow our consciences in debatable matters, eating and drinking and dressing and entertainment. We are free from sin and it’s awful consequence: death. Praise God! Happy July 4th Lifewell Church!