Category Archives: Romans

Ministry in the Middle

On any normal Sunday, pastors minister to a cross section of people. Young and old. Immature and mature. Weak and strong. Struggling and stable. Liberal and conservative. Vocal and quiet. Extroverts and introverts. Givers and takers. Participants and spectators. Sinners and saints.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a whole new dimension of opinions and viewpoints. As churches begin to reopen and start meeting again, pastors are once again placed firmly in the middle with the challenge of ministering to people on various stages of the spectrum.

On the one hand  










On the other hand

Stay home and stay safe

End the lockdown

The virus is deadly

The lockdown is politically motivated

The crisis is real

It’s all a hoax

Face masks are required

Face masks don’t work

Self-isolation keeps people safe

Self-isolation is killing the economy

Flatten the curve / Find a cure / Wait for a vaccine

The goalposts keep changing

Churches are non-essential

Worship is a First Amendment Right

Churches should not have corporate worship because singing is dangerous and spreads the virus

Scripture tells me to praise God through singing

Practice social distancing

I show compassion by hugging

The writings of the apostle Paul provide pastors with a good model of how to minister to a divided church. 1 & 2 Corinthians in particular were written to a church divided over party politics, spiritual gifts, role of women, practice of worship, church discipline, and a number of other issues. Paul’s emphasis was to get the church to focus on Christ and Christ alone (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

In the book of Romans, Paul gave counsel as how to act when you find yourself on the opposite side of the table from another believer. Paul encouraged both parties to place themselves under the authority of the government leaders (13:1-7), seek to love one another (13:8-14), not to pass judgment on someone who holds a different opinion (14:1-12) and not to cause another person to stumble because you believe your position is “right” and their opinion is “wrong” (14:12-23).

While we as pastors cannot please every person and satisfy every whim, we do need to be gracious as we serve all those who are present. As we do, we must keep our focus on God and seek to please him above all.


How many people treat God

The creator of the comic strip Non-Sequitur accurately expresses how many people treat God–ignore his instructions, do whatever you want, and hopefully, he will go away.

Romans 1:18–19 – For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.

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Posted by on June 4, 2019 in Culture, Non-Sequitur, Romans, Scripture


Russia 2017 Trip Report – Homeward Bound

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Posted by on March 25, 2017 in Ministry, Missions, Photos, Romans, Russia, Scripture


Russia 2017 – Elista Class

Here are the pictures from the week in Elista, Russia. I had 12 people in my class on Romans and John Musgrave had 6 men in his class on church leadership. We were staying at City Chess, a complex built in 1998 and the host of the World Chess Championships in 2006. It was a great week. Thanks for praying.

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Posted by on March 24, 2017 in Ministry, Missions, Photos, Romans, Russia, Scripture


Russia 2017 – Thursday in Elista

Today was the final day of our class in Elista. A few of the students came early and were led in worship by Slava, who brought his guitar.

We spent the first hour talking about Romans 16. I explained that often we want to skip the first part of the chapter because it is just a list of names. I emphasized the words Paul uses to describe these individuals—hard worker, risked their lives, servant, chosen, beloved, kinsman, approved. I also pointed out that some of the folks are not named, just referred to. In this life, people may not remember your service, but God does, and he will reward us for what we do for him.

After spending 15 chapters teaching sound doctrine and how to practice it in daily life, Paul then warns the Roman church of the danger of false teachers. I stressed that we need to be vigilant and on guard against those who will seek to divide us over minor, non-essential issues. I encouraged them to work towards maintaining unity.

Since I ended early, I gave them a 15-minute assignment to think about two things—(1) What are the lessons you learned from our study of Romans? and (2) What is one lesson you want to put into practice this week? When we came back together, they shared some very personal lessons and heartfelt desires for growth. Rather than try to apply a dozen lessons, I encouraged them to focus on one. We then closed with a time of prayer for one another.

After lunch, the two groups (my class on Romans and John Musgrave’s class on church leadership) gathered for a group picture. Sandzhik gave thank you gifts to John & Naomi Musgrave, Lena, my translator, and me. He said he had asked people what they were learning and he was impressed and encouraged by what they were taking to heart. He closed by saying he was looking forward to our next visit and the classes we would offer.

The afternoon was spent relaxing, reading, and running errands. In the evening, we had dinner at the home of Mergen and Elza.

We start the homeward journey tomorrow morning. We will drive from Elista to Krasnodar on Friday, and then to Anapa on Saturday, where I will catch a flight back to Moscow. On Sunday, I will make the long journey home—Moscow to Amsterdam to Boston.

Thanks for praying.

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Posted by on March 23, 2017 in Ministry, Missions, Romans, Russia, Scripture


Russia 2017 – Wednesday in Elista

In Tsibanobalka, we had one man who was going through a divorce unwillingly. John tried to explain how the process works in Russia, but I could not wrap my head around it. In a convoluted or twisted approach to “no child left behind,” each member of the family is granted equal ownership in the house. In this case, the man, his wife, and three children under the age of 12 all own 20% of the house. Since the wife has custody of the children, she controls 80% of the house, and their joint business venture as well. Who can sell 20% of a house? is his dilemma. If he wanted to be vindictive, he could sell his 20% to a drunken person who could make life hell for the rest of his family. In situations like this, you need the wisdom of Solomon to sort out what to do.

When Julia asked if children who die young go to heaven, it was not a theoretical question. Naomi explained that Badma and Julia lost a child before the age of one, and Badma was not able to give her a satisfying answer as to the child’s eternal destiny. It was a question she was deeply concerned about.

On the way home from dinner at Sandzhik’s home last night, a comment was made about speed bumps. (Elista has more speed bumps than any city in the country. John counted 23 behind City Chess and Sandzhik’s home.) I thought Sandzhik said speed bumps were the only honest policeman, one who didn’t ask for a bribe. Turns out he said a policeman laying on the road was the only honest one. Sandzhik went on to explain that jokes and stories making fun of government is part of their culture since they cannot organize groups to protest or speak out against government. He said that in America, you pay bribes to do things illegally. In Russia, they pay bribes to get legal things done. People don’t pay taxes because it just lines the pocket of a bureaucrat. If taxes actually were used for repairing roads, improving electricity or other basic services, people would be happy to pay taxes. Withholding taxes is their only form of protest. Should lead to an interesting discussion of Romans 13.

Jordick, or George as they nicknamed him, asked about people who have never heard the gospel. I referred him back to Romans 1 where Paul said that the truth about God is evident in nature, but people suppress the truth. Therefore, we are all without excuse. If people desire to know God, God can send them a witness. I said there were stories of missionaries who went to remote jungles and found tribes expectantly waiting for the gospel. They were aware of a movie, The End of the Spear, which tells of the five missionaries martyred by the Auca Indians.

On Wednesday, the group gathered again at 10AM and we tackled Romans 12. I ended Tuesday by explaining verse 1-2. I began Wednesday by asking what challenges they face in applying these verses. We talked about the nature of commitment and the need to be diligent and constant in maintaining it. One person wanted to know how to raise her teenage son. Another asked how to gain victory over superstitions.

12:3-8 talks about spiritual gifts and 12:9-13 give several “one another” commands. As part of their assignment, I asked about the relationship between the two. I gave them a copy of the many one another commands in the New Testament. I also gave them a chart I made comparing the list of spiritual gifts with the commands of Scripture. All of the gifts except for the more miraculous ones (apostleship, healing, tongues, interpretation) have a corresponding command. Just because I don’t the gift of ______, I still have a responsibility to serve in that area.

After enjoying lunch from 12-1PM, we tackled chapter 13. We wrestled with the challenge of obeying a government you don’t agree with. One shared that the government issued a tax bill that was 2-3 times normal. They were told to pay the bill and then sue the government to receive a refund. Her husband didn’t want to pay the bill. Her dilemma was whom she should obey—the government or her husband.

In our discussion of chapter 14 and the weak and the strong, one asked about the issue of alcohol. Should we drink or not drink? What if it causes a friend to sin? I told of a church in Spain that changed their observance of communion from wine to grape juice because they recognized there were some alcoholics in the church and they didn’t want to cause them to stumble and fall back into alcoholism.

After our discussion of chapter 15, I ended the class early at 5PM. I gave them an assignment to read chapter 16 and look for three things—what did Paul praise the individuals listed for, what did Paul warn the church about, and how did Paul praise God at the end?

At 7PM, Sandzhik brought a group of 7 African students to our flat for dinner and fellowship. They come from Congo and Zambia and are students at the local university, Sandzhik has befriended and is ministering to the group. It was a unique Acts 2 moment to hear songs of praise in Russian, French, English, and other native languages. The men asked Sandzhik to share his testimony and he told of being a committed Buddhist and discovering the gospel by reading through the New Testament. Elza shared how the gospel delivered her from the many superstitions that had kept her in bondage. It was a wonderful evening of fellowship.

Thanks for praying. I’m in your debt.

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Posted by on March 22, 2017 in Ministry, Missions, Romans, Russia, Scripture


Russia 2017 – Tuesday night in Elista

After two days of driving, we arrived Monday afternoon in Elista. Sunday afternoon, our driver took us 4 hours east to Krasnodar. On Monday, a different driver took us 7.5 hours further east to Elista in Kalmykia.

Kalmykia is in the steppes region of the Caucasus Mountains near the Caspian Sea. The land is as flat, flat, flat as the eye can see. There are no trees or topography to break the horizon. The Kalmyk people are descended from the Mongols who migrated to the area in the 400’s. They are the only Buddhist people group in Europe.

We are staying at a place called City Chess. It was built in 1998 and used to host the World Chess Championships in 2006. It is a familiar place as we stayed here the previous two years. Whereas before we were in a townhouse, this time we are in a 4-bedroom apartment with a large living room.

I have 11 people in my class on Romans and John Musgrave has six men in his class on church leadership. My class meets in our apartment while John’s class meets in Sandzhik’s home. Sandzhik is the pastor the church in Elista and the class is made up of his elders.

When I started the class this morning, I asked each person to share their name and how long they had been a believer. One person trusted Christ last year, several have been Christians for three years, one for seven years, and one for 24 years. Spiritually speaking, it is a young group.

We started at 10AM and worked until lunchtime at 12Noon. Then we went from 1PM to 5:30PM with two 15 minutes breaks during the afternoon.

During today’s sessions, we covered Romans 9-11. I explained that chapter 9 emphasizes God’s sovereignty. God chooses, God elects, God has a plan and a purpose. Chapter 10 emphasizes free will. God holds us responsible for our choices. Rather than choose one or the other, you have to hold the two truths in tension since Scripture teaches both. Chapter 11 explains God’s plan for Israel in the future.

There were many good questions asked during the sessions. Can you lose your salvation? Do I have doubts about God’s sovereignty? Do young children go to heaven when they die if they weren’t old enough to accept Christ? were some of the more challenging and difficult questions I dealt with.

In the evening, we had dinner at the home of Sandzhik and Elza. Vadma and Julia, who live in Tsagan-Aman (another 4 hours east) and are staying with Sandzhik during the conference, were there as well. It was a wonderful evening of food and fellowship.

I have now been asked by five different people in two cities to return next year to teach Revelation. As my wife pointed out in an email exchange, perhaps our friends in persecuted countries are more aware of the signs of the times than we are. Either way, it appears I have 12 months to study and prepare for next year’s class.

Thanks for praying.

Mark Wheeler

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Posted by on March 21, 2017 in Ministry, Missions, Romans, Russia, Scripture


Russia 2017 – Tsibanobalka class

Here are some pictures from the class in Tsibanobalka. We had 11 students in the class on Romans 9-16. It was a great week.


Russia 2017 – Saturday in Tsibanobalka

On Saturday morning, we wrapped up our study of Romans by discussing chapters 15 & 16. I said that compared to the rest of the book, chapter 15 is pretty straightforward and easy to understand with its emphasis on accepting one another and pursuing unity. I commented that we often skip chapter 16 because it is just a list of names. I pointed out the words Paul uses to describe some of these people—beloved, fellow workers, chosen, hard worker, risked their lives, approved, and fellow prisoner. Some are named and some are unnamed. Some of us may have ministries that are not remembered by people, but God sees what we do and will reward us for our service.

I concluded the session by asking what lessons they learned from Romans. I encouraged them to remember Paul’s balance in the book. Doctrine is not merely something to learn (1-11). We must put it into practice (12‑16). We must guard against false teachers who seek to divide the church and lead people astray (16:16-18).

In the class, we had one person going through a divorce not by his choice, and two alcoholics. You never know who you are teaching and what their needs are.

After finishing the discussion yesterday in Romans 12 on not seeking revenge but allowing God to bring justice for us, one said, “Mark, where were you in 2013 to explain this to me? I did something stupid and I am still paying for it today.” The truth hit home.

Igor and his wife, Lena, appear a happily married couple today, but it is only because of grace. Igor was a medical doctor who became an alcoholic and lost his license to practice. He divorced his wife and left his family. His wife and son, Vanya, who is the pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Anapa, prayed for him for 12 years. He came to faith in Christ, remarried his wife, and is a faithful servant in the church. They have been remarried for 10+ years. His salvation and their marriage is a testimony to grace and the power of prayer.

We are now at the midpoint of the trip. Tomorrow we will worship at Holy Trinity Church in Anapa and drive to Krasnodar. On Monday, we will drive to Elista in Kalmykia. The second class begins anew on Tuesday.

Thanks for praying. I’m in your debt.

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Posted by on March 18, 2017 in Ministry, Missions, Romans, Russia, Scripture


7 – Russia 2017 – Friday Night in Tsibanobalka

“So, when are you going to get to the practical areas?” asked John with a twinkle in his eye during the afternoon break. I spent most of the day answering questions about how many possessions are enough, how to forgive those who hurt you, whether or not we need to pay taxes on unreported income, and how to deal with those who are perpetually late to church. Needless to say, we had several very practical discussions today.

We started the day with breakfast at 9AM. We enjoyed pancakes, boiled eggs, yogurt, sausage and cheese, and juice.

Our morning class session went from 9:30-1:00PM, with a break midway through the morning. After lunch, class went from 1:50-5:30PM, with another break midway through the afternoon. During our day, we covered Romans 12:1-15:6.

We spent the first hour discussing Romans 12:1-2. What does it mean to be a living sacrifice? How do we avoid letting the world squeeze us into its mold? One person said he felt he had so many possessions—car, house, etc.—and some people thought he should sell everything and give to the poor, but if he did that, then he wouldn’t be very happy. We discussed his question in light of these two verses. The world might tell him to sell everything or it might tell him to keep it all for himself. The answer is found in letting Scripture transform your mind and understanding what Scripture says about learning to be content in all situations.

We also explored the myth that God’s will is designed to make us miserable. Romans 12:2 says that God’s will is good, acceptable, and perfect.

We ended our discussion of chapter 12 by talking about how to forgive those who want to hurt us. One of the group asked for a practical example of how to do this. I shared how I dealt with those who have criticized me during my ministry. I talked about how I had to come to the point of praying for these individuals rather than being angry and seeking to retaliate.

By this point, it was time for lunch. We enjoyed a Russian favorite, golubtsi or cabbage rolls, French fries, and fresh vegetables. Afterwards, many enjoyed tea and conversation until our afternoon session began.

Chapter 13 brought up another hot button discussion—how do you submit yourself to a government that you don’t like or disagree with? We covered the waterfront on this discussion but kept coming back to the issue of, can we trust God and obey his commandments? We talked about the fact the issue is not whether the government is good, bad, or indifferent, but the issue is whether or not we will obey God’s instructions. This led to a side discussion of whether or not we should pay taxes on unreported income. I gave a personal example of someone who got in trouble for not paying taxes when they were paid under the table.

During our discussion of chapter 14, we focused on how to deal with a weaker brother or sister. This led to wrestling with the issue of those who are perpetually late to church, as well as discussions about food, dress, and music styles. I also tried to explain the difference between those who are weak and need to grow and those who are “stuck” and refuse to change (Joe Aldrich called them “professional weaker brothers” in one of his books).

By 5:30PM, it was evident we were all running out of gas, so I called a halt for the day. After another sumptuous dinner of beef stroganoff, the Anapa folks headed for home and the Pyatigorsk group started watching a movie.

Tomorrow we will wrap up with a discussion of chapter 15 and 16. If we still have time before lunch, I have a couple of topics I can throw in for further discussion.

It’s been another very fruitful day of ministry, discussion, and friendship. Thanks for praying.

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Posted by on March 17, 2017 in Ministry, Missions, Romans, Russia, Scripture