Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Judges removing pastors

Thoughts on 1 Corinthians 6 and recent developments in a local church.

Before I begin, let me point you to the January 15, 2007, post "Which is better? To be wronged or File a Lawsuit", in which I thought through 1 Corinthians 6 and the idea of suing brothers in Christ more fully (there dealing with the Tennessee Baptists suing Belmont University, a Christian university supported by Tennessee Baptist moneys). I will only make brief reference to the teaching here, for the sake of application.

First, let me quote verses 1-7:
"Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life? So if you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between the brethren, but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers? Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another."

Here's the JB Phillips paraphrase:
"When any of you has a grievance against another, aren't you ashamed to bring the matter to be settled before a pagan court instead of before the church? Don't you know that Christians will one day judge the world? And if you are to judge the world do you consider yourselves incapable of settling such infinitely smaller matters? Don't you also know that we shall judge the very angels themselves - how much more then matters of this world only! In any case, if you find you have to judge matters of this world, why choose as judges those who count for nothing in the church? I say this deliberately to rouse your sense of shame. Are you really unable to find among your number one man with enough sense to decide a dispute between one and another of you, or must one brother resort to law against another and that before those who have no faith in Christ! It is surely obvious that something must be seriously wrong in your church for you to be having lawsuits at all."

And now, the AP story from yesterday:
"Southern Baptists in Nashville, Tennessee, are suing their prominent pastor, accusing him of misappropriating money and refusing to let them inspect church records. The lawsuit filed last week follows allegations that the Reverend Jerry Sutton spent church money on his daughter's wedding reception. The 49 people who joined the lawsuit accuse Sutton of failing to abide by church rules and punishing those who question his authority. Sutton, who lost a bid to become president of the national Southern Baptist Convention last year, has served for more than two decades as leader of Nashville's Two Rivers Baptist Church. The plaintiffs want Sutton and other Two Rivers directors removed from office, access to church records and any misappropriated money to be returned."

I hope that in reading the Scripture next to the news item, you heart is broken for the 49 who are bringing the suit, the pastor being dragged to court, and the local church where it is happening. My guess (and it's only a guess) is that most of the members don't actually agree with what is happening in the lawsuit, but as we all know, "the squeaky wheel gets the oil".

Now, let me say right up front...I have no dog in this fight...I take no side in this argument...the pastor may be wrong, and the people may be wrong. According to the church's press release, the budget and finance ministry team approved using church funds for the reception because it would be a church wide event (there was a separate reception for invited guests only that the pastor paid for himself). Is that an appropriate use of church funds? Good question, but not the issue at hand. Don't let yourself get caught up in which side is right and which side is wrong. It is the very bringing of the lawsuit that is at the forefront of my mind.

In taking this issue outside the church to the court system, believers are putting actions that should fall under the title "church discipline" into the hands of a pagan judge/court. All of a sudden, guilt or innocence in relation to sinning against a brother is going to be decided by a publicly elected official. If the 49 get their way, the pastor will be removed from his office as pastor, which is clearly a violation of the separation of church and state. The state should not have authority to establish or "unestablish" in the realm of religious matters, in general, not to mention in the Christian church.

In response to the idea that believers are taking one another to court, Paul says he is intentionally trying to bring shame on the Corinthians believers. Why would he say that? It's just a lawsuit...they're just trying to settle things done wrongly in their own perspective. Don't bother the church with it...let's just go to court. What a horrific idea!!! It is horrible because it is sinful, and the 49 and any who support them have believed a lie from the pit of hell. What is the lie? The lie is this: "Matthew 18, forgiveness, and reconciliation is fine and good for personal relationships, but this is the pastor...this is different...this is special...he has to be handled differently...the church as a whole would never administer justice as it's needed...we should take it someone who will...I guess the courts will do."

Do you see the truth mixed with lies? Mt. 18, forgiveness, and reconciliation is for personal relationships in the body (TRUE). Because this man is a pastor, there is a special and different element to the process (TRUE...1 Tim. 5:19-20). The church as a whole would never administer justice as it's "needed" (very possibly TRUE). Mt. 18, forgiveness, and reconciliation are not for relationships with pastors (FALSE). We need to go to someone besides the church (FALSE). The courts are a better authority than the church (FALSE).

Certain steps in the reconciliation may have been taken. The pastor may have been approached one to one. There may have been more witnesses taken. However, the media was involved to "expose" the pastor to the community. There was some kind of meeting to rally support for the accusations. The courts are now going to be involved. Now, can you imagine Paul and Barnabas doing all this because they disagreed about whether John Mark should come along on the missionary journey? Imagine Paul getting his camp together, Barnabas getting his together, and deciding that Felix the governor would decide who was right, who was wrong, and whether John Mark was fit for the journey. ABSOLUTELY NO WAY!

I know that money suspicions create deep feelings. I know that mistrust of leadership can cause great hurt. I also know that pride, selfishness, and jealousy can swell to the point of fabricating suspicion and mistrust, leading to hateful "witch hunts" in the church. You know what I would love to see? Not just in this church, but in others that I know are in turmoil. You know what would bring great glory to God, true peace and unity to a fellowship, and an even greater evangelistic witness in the community? Do you? Do you know?

Not a court date...not a church split...not packing away feelings of jealousy, mistrust, pride, suspicion, and the rest so they can show their ugly heads another day...not continuing to attend the church with folded arms, angry eyebrows, and a closed heart...not just avoiding the issue altogether, hoping it will go away or the pastor will go away.

Here's what I believe will bring more glory to churches that experience these kinds of difficulties, whether it's in Tennessee, Texas, Indiana, or Indonesia. Humility, kindness, grace, forgiveness, confrontation, confession, reconciliation, restoration. I have several relationships, with those in my church and even my marriage, that is graced by constant forgiveness and reconciliation. There is a joy in those relationships that does not come from just abandoning the Scripture, the church, and the brother who offends.

May we be a people who pray for those that believe the lie, knowing that our heads and hearts will be bombarded with the temptation to believe the same kinds of things. May we be a confessing people...confessing our sin to one another and praying for one another, that we may be healed (James 5). May we be a forgiving people...forgiving one another just as God in Christ has forgiven us (Ephesians 4). If the expelling of a member or a pastor becomes absolutely necessary, let us do it with broken hearts instead of puffed-out chests, praying for his ultimate restoration.

Drop the lawsuit, brothers and sisters! Stop denying the power of the Scripture in your church! Do church discipline, if necessary! Examine your own hearts for sinful motivations! If the church decides that removing him and having him repay is unnecessary, find a way to accept the church's decision! Don't abandon your church, your pastor, your responsibility, your Lord, or the faith! Keep your eyes on Jesus!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Twenty-four hours, the Lord, the Word, and me

Gleanings from a day of prayer and reading

Recently, I took a short, personal prayer retreat in order to seek clarity from the Lord. So many things have been bombarding my heart and mind, both in our family's life and in my ministry life, that I had to get away. I have to tell you...I didn't even think of it myself. It was the counsel of a good friend, and I took it. Now, admittedly, when I got to the cabin on that Sunday night, I had no clue what I was going to do all day. It seemed random enough, but I felt compelled to read the second half of Acts as my guide for the day. I would read a while, pray a while, journal a while...rinse, and repeat.

I don't know if you've ever found yourself "stuck" asking for the same thing from the Lord, but most of my prayers came back to this phrase: "Lord, I need clarity." So, I kept on asking, believing it would be given to me (Mt. 7:7). I was not disappointed, as the Lord spoke through Paul's missionary journeys in the book of Acts...not only what I will relay here, but more. He did more than I asked or imagined could happen in one day (Eph. 3:20).

So, how do I walk forward? How do I live with clarity in waiting for governmental paperwork to enable me to bring home my daughter? How I continue being a spiritual shepherd with clarity when I feel beat up all the time? How do I walk with joy and peace and strength, instead of throwing myself a pity party? What was the clarity? Well, in order to give you the three things I learned, I need to remind you first of Paul's journey.

In Acts 9, Paul, formerly known as Saul, was interrupted and converted by Christ in dramatic fashion as he was traveling to Damascus to imprison and torture Christians (v. 1-19a). After preaching instead of persecuting in the city of Damascus, Paul was aided by Barnabas in being accepted by the apostles in Jerusalem (v. 19b-28). After spending some time in the church at Antioch, the Holy Spirit set Paul and Barnabas aside to do mission work, the church laid hands on them, and they departed (Acts 13:1-4). These initial travelings will bring the pair to Pisidian Antioch, where Paul (Saul) was invited to speak, and you can read Paul's first printed sermon in Acts 13:16-41.

The next Sabbath, an incredible crowd gathered to hear the Word again, but this time, the Jews stirred up opposition, contradicting Paul, getting the well-to-do and leaders of the city incited against Paul and Barnabas, and driving them out of town (13:44-50). In response, verse 51 tells us that Paul and Barnabas "shook off the dust of their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium". This was Jesus' instruction for the disciples...when people would not accept them or listen to their words, they were to leave, shaking the dust from their feet as an indictment against them (Mt. 10:14; Mk. 6:11; Lk. 9:5, 10:10-11). It is in what happens next that I found my encouragement for the journey, and there are three things that sunk deep into my heart.

(1) They went away full of joy and the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:52).

How did they do this? How could they walk away from being driven out of the city with hearts full of joy? I have this sneaking suspicion that it was because their source of ultimate joy was not ministry. It didn't flow from their success or failure, from reception or rejection. Their joy was in the Lord. I know it sounds simple, but that's what hit me like a ton of bricks, and I hope it hits you. Certainly, seeing people's lives changed, seeing the people of God grow in their walks with Christ, watching as Christians act like Christians...these things add to joy, but even in these, the source is the Lord. None of these things happen apart from the Lord. Paul said, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth" (1 Cor. 3:6). Our belief must be that God causes any growth we see...not our hard work, not our cleverness of speech, not our flashiness of program, not the style of music we fact, not anything we do. The Lord uses us to accomplish His work, but it is still His work. I wish I could remember the source, but I read recently as a man wrote (and I paraphrase), "Can the axe brag of all the trees that it has cut down? No! It is the power of the one who swings the axe that affects the trees. The axe can be sharp, shiny, and sturdy, but without someone swinging it, it is useless." We are but axes, and it is the power of the Lord that "swings" us, making us effective. So, let us not pridefully think that we are the only axes out there or that we're the "sharpest tool in the shed".

Back to the point...their joy was in the Lord. Verse 52 says that they were "continually filled with joy and the Holy Spirit". This seems to be the theme of the persecuted church in Acts. As riots are formed, as people rejected them, as they are brought to trial, as stones are hurled at them, as rods beat their backs...they are filled. The joy of the Lord was their strength. It's not that they ignored the pain, smiled away their trouble, "turned their frown upside down", or any other such nonsense. It was simply that bad circumstances could not take their joy, and even the absence of opposition could not give them joy. The filling of the Holy Spirit, being God's child and ambassador, and knowing they were obeying the heavenly vision (Acts 26:19)...these gave Paul joy. In this case, man could not take his joy, and man could not give it. There is only one place where this kind of joy and contentment the person and work of Jesus Christ. With this as his background, Paul can confidently say, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice" (Phil. 4:4).

In this same way, the Holy Spirit's filling was not based on their visible success or continued opposition. Instead, it was based on Christ's salvation of these men and His using them as the axes that would cut down the backward thinking of the world. They emptied themselves out in preaching, teaching, traveling, suffering, etc., and the Holy Spirit continued to fill them along the way.

APPLICATION...Isn't is obvious? You and I must not depend so heavily on what we see in order to satisfy and give spiritual joy. We will face hard things in this life...unexpected job loss, church strife, personal opposition from those who should be our allies in Christ, rebellious children, etc. Remember this in bad times...that your joy must come from the Lord and not what you see. you know, it may be even more tempting in good times to base our joy on what we see, but we cannot do it. We no longer belong to this world, so why would our joy come from it?

(2) They went back to Antioch to minister (Acts 14:21-23). Let me quote it: "After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, 'Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.' When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they believed." (italics added)

WHAT?!? They went back? After being run off, I can almost understand that Paul and Barnabas went away full of joy and the Holy Spirit. How am I supposed to understand going back to minister in such a place of opposition? Well, the verses I just quoted give us a picture of five things they would accomplish in going back to such a place.

(a) Strengthen souls - Sure, there was opposition, but there was also a great need for these spiritual newborns to be nurtured in the faith. Leaving them to fend for themselves would be like not feeding a baby, hoping the child would find his way to a bottle before dying. That would be crazy...and so would not nurturing these disciples' souls.
(b) Encourage perseverance - If the apostle was opposed, those who had come to believe would certainly be opposed, too. They had to continue in the faith, and to do that, they would need encouragement to cling to Jesus alone in the face of continuing opposition.
(c) Teach expectations - Paul explained that they should expect tribulation, but he also explained how they should see the tribulation. It was the path down which they must walk to enter the kingdom of God. James says it's the way we become perfect, lacking nothing (James 1). Paul wrote to the Romans that these tribulations produce hope (Romans 5).
(d) Set things right - Leaving these believers to themselves could have resulted in false teaching and chaos in their fellowship. So, Paul and Barnabas appoint elders...probably after discipling them and instructing them, as they did with the elders in Ephesus (Acts 20). With proper leadership in place, the teaching of doctrine is more likely to stay pure and continued encouragement and perseverance can take place.
(e) Leave them to God - Verse 23 says that Paul and Barnabas commended them to God. It was an example for the Antioch Christians...the same God whose Holy Spirit and joy belonged to Paul and Barnabas also belonged to these believers. Their faith must not be based on human leadership, but on God, who is their life. This way, nobody could say, 'If only Paul were here...' They have Someone far superior to Paul...they had Paul's Savior.

APPLICATION: When the faith of others is on the line, it is necessary to continue going back, even when things are chaotic and full of pain. Souls need strengthening, faith needs encouraging, expectations need to be taught, things must be set biblically right, and the church needs to be full of people entrusting the everything to God.

(3) They focused on the work of the Lord, not opposition.

Acts 14:27, 15:4, and 15:12 tell us that as Paul and Barnabas are reporting in (you know, giving their missionary testimony in church), they report what God has done with them. Admittedly, there may have been a passing mention of the opposition, but it was not the focus. The focus was on the work of the Lord. It would have been easy to talk about the difficulties, wouldn't it? Talking about how hard things are usually gathers empathy...people saying 'well, bless your heart'...thinking you're a hero. Neither Paul nor Barnabas wanted to be seen as the hero; instead, they wanted to point to the Hero of the mission, God Himself. So, they talked about the door of faith among the Gentiles (14:27) and the miraculous signs and wonders God did among them (15:12).

APPLICATION: Sometimes, it's easy to get fixated on the trouble...on the difficulty. After all, if it's surrounding you to the point of suffocating, it can look like the trouble is all that's there. However, let's refocus...let's remember who the Lord is...we must focus on the Lord. It doesn't mean turning a blind eye to the reality of difficulty, but it does mean that our fixation is the Lord Jesus...that our eyes are on the Savior.

After the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, nobody had a greater right to be upset than Jeremiah. He had preached the Lord's message to His people with no visible success. They remained a stubborn people, who were ultimately destroyed and taken into captivity by the Babylonians. In his writing of Lamentations, you can read the first 18 verses of chapter 3 and get quite a suffocating picture. Maybe you feel that way. However, verses 21-23 show us the refocus that we all need in those times. "This I recall to mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness." Can I sit in the Babylonian prison of life and say these words? In Christ, I can, and you can, too!

Well, that's it...those three things are sticking to my soul after my prayer retreat. I hope you find something to encourage you, and I hope that you will consider getting away for a day or two...praying, reading, and seeking the Lord. It's worth it! (1) Our joy is from the Lord alone, not our visible success or opposition. (2) It's necessary to go back where the opposition or trouble is...especially when there are souls in need. (3) Keep your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, and avoid focusing on things that only swell the feelings of pity and selfishness.