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Mike Feazell: Joe, it’s good to have you here.
Joe Tkach: Nice to be here.
MF: Tell us, what is this Grace Communion International thing all about anyway?
JT: Okay. Grace Communion International is a Christian movement of churches in about 100 different countries. We have about 800 to 900 churches in those 100 countries. It’s hard to say exactly how many because we continue to grow, and we have both the planting of new churches as well as free-standing independent churches that have been joining us in the last few years. But we are committed to proclaiming exactly what the name of our denomination says - that grace and communion that we can have by believing and living in the purity and simplicity of the gospel of grace.
MF: Now, a lot of churches don’t even belong to a denomination.
MF: They’re just fully independent. So there must be some advantages to belonging to a denomination or a lot of churches wouldn’t. So what are the advantages of being part of Grace Communion?
JT: Well, the difference or the contrast between belonging to a denomination and remaining as a free-standing single church, independent church, is that you have more of a focus when you belong to something bigger than yourself. You have a grander focus, a wider focus, than just your local ministry. Now when I say that that is not to say that a local free-standing independent congregation can’t have a larger focus, but typically they’re not part of a great movement to plant new churches all around the world. They may be able to fund a few missionaries, but it’s belonging to something bigger than what’s going on in your local group.
MF: And Grace Communion International...the word “International” of course is operative there.
MF: Or GCI, let’s call it. You have a long history, relationships, people have traditionally enjoyed getting together, there’s a bonding that goes beyond just a local church. So what kinds of things does a denomination do or local churches do now today to help maintain that...to see that those connections continue to thrive?
JT: Yeah. Well, off the top of my head I’d say there’s two or three things that provide the glue to keep us cemented together. One, of course, is the fact that there was a lot of families that have had their children marry children of other families and so there are these international marriages that occur that provides one layer that cements people together because, of course, family is quite a building block in this whole thing. Second, many of our congregations internationally host events once a year. For example, in Evian, France, all the French members get together for a week, usually in October, and they invite people to come. And I’m not just singling out Evian, France. They do it in Spain, they do it in Australia, they do it in several places in England. And you get a good number of people who travel to those places, combining, if you say, worship with pleasure...although worship should be pleasurable. It’s fun to get to see brothers and sisters in Christ in these far-flung places.
MF: Now I know a lot of those areas really appreciate it a lot when somebody comes from another country, which happens frequently. But when someone comes from the U.S. or from the U.K. or from Canada...places where members tend to have a little more money for travel, smaller areas really enjoy having them.
JT: Oh yes. And it’s reciprocal. I find the people who save and make those trips benefit as much or more from making such a journey. And I don’t have off the top of my head the precise number of venues, but they are worldwide. They happen in Australia in a couple of different locations there. They happen in New Zealand. We’re having, for the first time, one in Asia in Bangladesh. They happen in the Philippines. They have them all around the Caribbean as well as in the U.K. and France on the continent, Spain, Canada, even a few in South America such as Columbia. So, yeah, you can be quite a world tourist if you want to go to some of our gatherings and our conferences and festivals.
MF: And even in the U.S...there are the Wisconsin Dells, for example.
JT: Correct. There are a few places like Myrtle Beach and Wisconsin Dells, the two major locations where we have such things in the U.S. Of course, we also have nine or ten different venues where we hold our district conferences. And...we invite all our ministers, all our elders, and wives of course, to attend those. But it’s not just for the ministry. We open it up to any members who would like to attend...they are more than welcome, and I think they would enjoy and benefit.
MF: And every three years there’s a special conference for...
JT: Every three years we hold a conference with somewhat of an international flavor, and we get a lot of our pastors from Canada. In fact, all the pastors from Canada come to it, quite a few from the Philippines, and some from the continent...a few from Australia. And this last time we held it in Orlando, we had a very nice location in Disneyworld so we were able to combine not only the conference and the worship, but then in the spare time a lot of people were going into Disneyworld.
MF: You mentioned a lot of people or congregations, independent congregations, especially in Africa and primarily outside western Christianity, joining Grace Communion International. Can you talk about that a little?
JT: Yes. I think one of the wonderful things that we have in terms of a church reputation, especially in Africa, is that our churches are a place where you can come and recover and heal from excessive and abusive doctrines. And by word of mouth that has spread, and as we speak there are nearly 100 independent congregations who have written to us and are seeking to join us or expressing interest in joining us. And we’ve had over 100 join us in just the last few years. So that’s a wonderful reputation to have, and it’s growing our church family bigger and bigger every year.
MF: Church growth, in terms of new Christians becoming believers seems to take place primarily in places like that - in Asia, in Africa, not so much in the western world. In your view, why aren’t most Christian churches in the U.S., including ours too as far as that goes, in the west in general ...why aren’t they growing today?
JT: Well, I think it’s several factors combined. First, contrasting western society with the rest of the world, in western society, you know, the poorest person is a virtual millionaire in comparison to other countries. And people just don’t feel they need God. They have materialism, they have a rugged individualism, and they just don’t focus on God in their lives. But very close to that reason, there are, I think, mistakes that Christians make...we as Christians make in proclaiming the gospel in western society. One of those is we expect to convert people to our sense of morality before they even know Jesus. And I see that as a big problem. And attending to that, Christianity in the west has become more popular for what they’re against than for what they’re for. And through time...and you go back 30, 40 years ago, a Christian was thought of in very good terms...someone you’d want to have as a neighbor. And these days, Christians are viewed or perceived as highly judgmental and condemnatory. So those things all work against the proclamation of the gospel in the U.S. It’s as if we haven’t earned the right to be heard. And one additional thought...some of the arguments that Christians use just don’t wash. Sometimes using bad science or junk science to try and make an apologetic argument. And so we end up losing credibility when those kinds of things happen.
MF: What’s an apologetic argument?
JT: Well, it’s a defense for a Christian belief. For example, to illustrate it...you have, within Christianity, people who believe that creation was 6000 years ago. They’re called Short Earth Creationists. And they deny all the scientific evidence that shows how old the universe really is. And they have all kinds of arguments...a lot of them just don’t hold up to scrutiny. For example, one that is often used to say that carbon dating is unreliable. Well, scientists know where the flaws in carbon dating exist and what skews the reading and what doesn’t. So to try to use carbon dating as some proof that science is all wrong is just foolish. And then, among Christianity you also have Long Earth Creationists. There are many scientists who view the universe and say, “You can measure these things, and it isn’t all compacted into 6000 years.” And then you have a whole other group of Christians who look at creation through evolution - that God is still the creator, but evolution is merely the process he used to bring everything into existence. So you have those three different views within Christianity, and the ones who are viewed the most and the ones who make the loudest noise are the ones who are the Short Earth Creationists, it brings a negative credibility to all of Christianity. How can anyone believe that the earth is only 6000 years old? I mean, it’s just silly.
MF: The flat earth or the...
MF: ...sun revolving around the earth.
JT: Exactly. And theologically speaking, there’s a problem with believing Short Earth Creation. This would mean that God created a false record of geology. And this is not in God’s character to lie.
MF: So what you’re trying to put forward with Grace Communion International is honesty.
MF: Not being afraid to embrace new knowledge and science for what it is...
MF: ...and not let that effect faith because God is the creator of everything, and so there’s nothing to be afraid of in what can be discovered in the creation. There’s nothing that needs to be defended.
JT: Exactly. All truth is God’s truth. And even though there are, on any given topic within Christianity, perhaps two to three different views, we are wise to hold that perspective with charity and with humility. And that’s what we stand for in Grace Communion International. To hold those positions with grace and humility and be open to God’s leading.
MF: That kind of leads into Trinitarian Theology, something that Grace Communion International has been focused on for the last number of years. Why is that so important, and how does it differ from typical ways that Christianity and the gospel are viewed.
JT: Okay. Well, Trinitarian Theology is, perhaps, a fancy name for the pure simplicity of the gospel. We don’t have to use that term, Trinitarian Theology, although it’s not an uncommon one. It’s sometimes called Incarnational Theology because everything revolves around the person of Jesus and who he is and what he has done.
MF: Incarnational referring to the Son of God becoming human incarnate.
JT: Exactly. And the importance of that, of course, cannot be diminished. Jesus is God and took on 100 percent humanity and lived his life as a human and did remarkable things being God in the flesh, one of which, of course, is reconciling us to the Father and adopting us as the children of God.
MF: So doesn’t everybody believe that? I mean, what’s the...why is that unique? What are we trying to say that...what are we trying to say that’s different or that requires such attention?
JT: Well, all authentic Christians believe in the Trinity and believe that Jesus is the savior, the Son of God, our redeemer. But not all give full consideration to how the triune nature of God plays itself out through all doctrine in all Christian teaching. What happens sometimes is you take that important piece of teaching, of Christianity, and boiler plate to it a whole lot of morality. And not that I’m saying that we should be immoral or...certainly as Christians we want to be moral...but it puts the cart before the horse. Sadly, it’s somewhat pervasive in society to view Jesus and the Father as being so separate that they’re not on the same page doing the same thing. Instead you have a picture of the Father, who is sort of like an angry old man working in the back room somewhere on his work bench, and Jesus is the new, younger, with-it guy, and he’s going to run interference, and he’s going to, you know, help us get through and work with the angry old man.
MF: He’s the good guy, and the Father is the bad guy that you don’t know where you stand with.
JT: It’s just like you see in a lot of detective stories...good cop, bad cop thing. And, of course, this overlooks whole portions of what the Bible teaches. Jesus said, “I’ve come to do the will of my Father.” We have in John telling us that Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it.
MF: And it’s the Father who sent him...
JT: And it’s the Father’s goal...
MF: ..to do that.
JT: it’s the Father’s mission. They’re of one mind in doing this. And as our friend Baxter Kruger likes to say, “Jesus isn’t doing something behind the back of the Father.” They’re one in purpose, and one in mission, and one in goal. And not far from that is this sad notion that has come from certain sources that this whole thing Jesus has done with the Father is tantamount to child abuse because, after all, Jesus is the Son of God, and God is the Father.
MF: Taking out his anger on Jesus.
JT: Taking out his anger on Jesus instead of us. And, of course, this is silly. Jesus tells us that he willingly laid his life down for us. Jesus was in his 30s. He was a full-grown man when he did this. And he declared, you know, “They’re not taking my life from me, I am laying it down.” This is something he wanted to do for us to show his love for us.
MF: So what does it mean then that...when Jesus says, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and my Father is in me, and I am in you.” What is that all about?
JT: Well, that shows the whole picture of us being adopted - that Jesus has reconciled us with the Father and has included us in their divine life. We participate in the divine nature, as Peter put it.
MF: So by us being in Jesus, we are sharing in his relationship with the Father.
JT: We share in his relationship with the Father, and we share in their life.
MF: Now when Paul says that Jesus is, “Who is your righteousness,” he says, or, “He is your salvation.” Does he mean that the way it sounds?
JT: Precisely how it sounds. When you compare that with some of the things that we see in the Old Testament that describe our righteousness as nothing more than filthy rags, filthy rags aren’t going to cut it when it comes to perfection. And Jesus gives us that perfection. As one fellow used to say, “We don’t have one stitch to our garment of righteousness. It’s Jesus who clothes us in his righteousness.”
MF: So there’s got to be some kind of a difference between the way I’m actually behaving right now and what Jesus has made me to be in himself. There has to be some difference in that for now and some reconciliation of that in the future.
JT: Oh, absolutely. While Jesus’ work is perfect and it is complete, we don’t experience the fullness of it yet. And we will, in the fullness of the kingdom. And the fact is, both the apostles John and Paul write about, “It has not yet been revealed what we will be like, but we know we will be like him.” And as Paul said, “Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, nor has the mind even conceived what it’s going to be like.” And that is a remarkable statement. That is, as I understand that, no matter how much I can imagine being in the fullness of God when God is all in all, no matter how I expand my imagination to embrace that and dream about how big it is, my mind can’t get to the reality of that. It’s even better than that.
MF: So for the average person who knows they’re a sinner, and they go and they pray a prayer of repentance. Are they begging for repentance to get God to forgive them, or has he already forgiven them?
JT: Well, He’s already forgiven them for sure. That’s the perfected work of Jesus.
MF: So the confidence comes in the knowledge that you are forgiven, and, in essence, you’re confessing. You’re not begging forgiveness, you’re confessing your sin, there’s a difference, and giving thanks for the forgiveness. So the measure of our sinfulness now, as...is not the measure of who we are in Christ, then.
JT: Correct, not at all. We’re not living out fully who he made us to be yet. We’re growing in our spirituality.
MF: But we are who he made us to be in him already.
JT: We are, yes, but we don’t experience that until the fullness of...
MF: But people don’t like that.
JT: Well, nobody likes patience.
MF: I mean people don’t like the...when you say that, people get all upset, and they say, “No, no, no, no. Jesus...” And you’ve talked about this, the penal substitution thing. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
JT: The common...the common understanding for, sadly, too many Christians is that what Jesus’ work has accomplished for you is to wipe your slate clean of sins, and now you’re in relationship with him. But from this point forward, you have to maintain your salvation. And this is false. This unfortunately comes from that penal substitution model, and too many people worry about their salvation as if God is some kind of butterfingers, and what he has started, what he has begun with you, could fail. He could drop you, he could lose you. It’s not viewing God in the fullness of his authority and sovereignty that he really is.
MF: So that’s why perfect love casts out fear. And it’s the love of Christ that casts it out of us. We don’t have to fear...in spite of the fact that we’re sinners, we know that he will see us through because he is our righteousness, he is our all in all, and so on.
JT: He is our faith. Our faith, you know, that we work up with our own, sometimes our own devices. It’s puny. Our faith is weak. The one who has all faith is Jesus, and that’s the importance of us believing in him, that he is faithful and he will fulfill what he has promised.
MF: And that’s what makes it good news over against the...
JT: From the beginning...
MF: ...fearful, worrying about, “Am I going to make it” kind of nonsense. Grace Communion Seminary. What is it? Who can take advantage of it? And why didn’t we start a four-year college instead?
JT: Okay. Grace Communion Seminary is an online graduate school program. It’s not just for pastors. Anyone who has a bachelor’s degree can join into our online program. There’s a variety of classes, there are three different levels in the program from just a certificate the builds to the next level to the third level, which is a master’s degree. So I welcome anyone who has a bachelor’s degree who wants to, let’s say, continue their spiritual formation, grow in spiritual intelligence, to take these classes because it’s a work at your own pace. You work online, you have a lot of more one-on-one kind of contact with the professor than you do in a normal classroom setting. We didn’t set up a four-year undergraduate program because at the time that was not our main need. And, of course, we didn’t have the resources to put into a four-year program, an undergraduate school program, because you have to hire faculty, you have to have a location, tremendous overhead involved in maintaining a facility where everyone has to then come to it. So that was not the immediate need at the time that we started Grace Communion Seminary.
MF: And still isn’t.
JT: Right. It would be reinventing the wheel. There are many, many wonderful, very good undergraduate Christian programs that you can go to when you graduate from high school.
MF: And Grace Communion Seminary focuses on Trinitarian Theology.
JT: Yes, that’s right. It is the Trinitarian incarnational theological focus of the seminary. All the classes start with that and move forward.
MF: Is there such a thing as a definition of a Grace Communion International congregation. I guess I’m asking do they all look alike?
JT: No, they don’t. It’s not a one size fits all. We have a motto that we’re about all kinds of churches in all kinds of places for all kinds of people. And what you’ll find in one location will be very different in another location. Let me give you a few illustrations of that. In the country of Trinidad, our churches there virtually run the prison ministries. And there are people in the prisons who have become converted Christians and proclaimed the gospel as inmates in that facility. We have a congregation in the Philippians in what’s known as a garbage dump. And tragically, this is one of the largest communities in the Manila area. This is where people live and scavenge for their lives. And we have a congregation there that meets there, and people who live there. We have congregations that look more like the traditional ones with a brick and mortar building and a pastor and families that attend. We have house churches where people meet in someone’s home or a clubhouse. And it might be a church of 10, 12, 20 people. So it’s in all shapes, all sizes. And if I were to say something to our congregations specifically, I would remind them that the best things come in small packages. In church history we see for the first 300 years or the church that congregations were small, and they met in houses. And it wasn’t for 300 years till Christianity conquered the Roman Empire and churches were allowed to meet openly with a freeness that they didn’t have before. So there’s something important about the relationship that develops in a small group like that, a small congregation. And some church growth experts believe that churches should never get past 200 people because once they grow that size, they should purposefully divide in half and continue that growth process. So there’s something vital about relationship, and that makes perfect sense because that’s what our Triune God is. He has been relationship for eternity.
MF: And that’s what the gospel is all about.
JT: Precisely. That is good news.
MF: Well, let’s do this again sometime.
JT: Would enjoy that.