Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Submission in Congregations

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Follow the Leaders".]

This past Sunday, we finished our sermon series on church leadership with a study on the congregation's response to its pastors.  Namely, we talked about "the 's' word"...submission. 

Submission is really a nasty word in many people's minds.  In our culture, submission (in general) is taken to mean that the one submitting is less important, less valuable, viewed as expendable, etc., while the one to whom submission is given is viewed as a demeaning, domineering dictator.  This misunderstanding of submission is why people rail against it being applied in the home, in society, and in the church.

However, biblical submission does not require the exaltation of the one and the demeaning of the other.  The greatest example of this is in the submission of Jesus to the Father.  Consider a few texts (with emphasis added by me):
  • "For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment - what to say and what to speak.  And I know that his commandment is eternal life.  What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me." - John 12:50
  • "For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.  This charge I have received from my Father." - John 10:17-18
  • "Jesus said to them, 'My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.'" - John 4:34
  • "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." - John 3:17
  • "And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." - Philippians 2:8
All of these texts indicate that what Jesus said, did, and how he died was in submission to the will of God the Father.  Yet, at the same time, Jesus is fully God (Col. 1:15-20).  There is not less divinity in the Son than in the Father, and Jesus is not demeaned by His life of submission.  Rather, He is glorified because of it (cf. Phil. 2:9-11).  Jesus was the ultimate example of His own teaching: "...whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Mt. 23:12).

So, if biblical submission is not the demeaning and suppression of a less valuable human being, then what is it?  Biblical submission is the voluntary act of yielding to the authority of another person for the glory of God.  That's what Jesus did...He voluntarily yielded to the will of the Father for the glory of God.  This is how biblical submission should be viewed in the home, in society, and in the church.

It is this last one that interests me today, especially as I serve in a Baptist church.  If, as a congregational church, we understand the New Testament to teach that God has entrusted authority to the congregation (and we do believe this), then what does it look like for congregations to "obey your leaders and submit to them" (Hebrews 13:17)?  This is a great question.

First, let me review the four main ways that I see the congregation functioning with authority in the New Testament.
  1. Doctrine - In the New Testament, there are many letters written to whole congregations...congregations who must take care not to walk away from the gospel that has been preached to them.  One glowing example is the book of Galatians.  This letter is a staunch defense of the one true gospel by the apostle Paul, and yet it is not written to a pastor or to a group of pastors.  It is written "to the churches of Galatia" (Gal. 1:2b).  Paul says that he can't believe they have been so quick to walk away from the gospel, and he charges them to condemn anyone who preaches a gospel other than the one they received (Gal. 1:6-9).  In other words, these local congregations are charged with making sure that what is preached from the pulpit and received by the hearers is the genuine gospel of Jesus Christ.  That is an act of authority.
  2. Discipline - In both Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, we have teaching about how to deal with those who are caught in sin.  In Matthew 18, we have one who refuses to repent after admonition, and in 1 Corinthians 5, we see the account of a man in open, licentious sin.  In the first case, Jesus says failed attempts to secure repentance means the whole church should be involved in disciplining the man or woman (Mt. 18:17).  In the second, the apostle Paul charges the church to have the immoral man removed from their fellowship (1 Cor. 5:2).  Neither is addressed only to the pastors of the church...this is congregational involvement in excluding those whose lives contradict their professed faith in Christ.  Again, this is an act of authority.
  3. Membership - In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul talks about the punishment...the discipline...carried out by "the majority" of the church.  [I understand Paul to refer to the man from 1 Corinthians 5, but there are varying positions on this.]  Note, he is calling on the congregation "to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.  So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him" (2 Cor. 2:7-8).  It seems that the church disciplined the man, as we discussed in #2, and now, Paul is calling on the congregation to restore the man to their fellowship.  In other words, just as being removed from the congregation is done by congregational authority, being received into the congregation is done by congregational authority.
  4. Deacons - As we look at Acts 6:1-4, we find that the crisis of unfair food distribution was handled by involving the congregation.  They were to make a selection of seven men, and they were to select these men based on their character.  Verse 3 says they must be "men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom..."  Please note...this choice is not like that of the voters for American Idol, where popularity is meant to rule the day.  This is an authority entrusted to the congregation...to evaluate the character of the men among them and choose servants based upon that evaluation.
Having laid that out, we can now address the question.  Let me pose it again.  If this is what the New Testament teaches, then what does it look like for the congregation to both (1) have authority and (2) submit to the authority entrusted to pastors?  Let me finish by giving examples of how both are at work in our own congregation.
  1. Doctrine - Our pastors feed the church sound doctrine through the regular preaching and teaching of God's Word, and the congregation then receives that sound doctrine (having examined the Scriptures for themselves).  Then, that sound teaching is used as the means by which the congregation will maintain sound doctrine for itself.
  2. Discipline - In our congregation, the process of church discipline is lead by our pastor (me).  Ideally, it is led by a plurality of pastors, who seek to understand the situation fully, walking forward in grace and truth until it becomes necessary to take it to the church.  At that point, the final exclusion of a man or woman from fellowship is not in the hands of the pastors but in the hands of the congregation.  The pastors relay enough information to inform the congregation without exposing every single detail, and the congregation acts.
  3. Membership - We have a membership process through which each prospective member must go.  It includes a membership class and an interview with some of our leadership team.  Upon being satisfied with a person's testimony of faith in Christ and understanding of the gospel, the leadership team nominates the individual for membership.  At that point, the church must receive the person into membership.
  4. Deacons - Our congregation has an open nomination of deacons, and from there, our leadership team does interviews with those who will be recommended to the congregation for affirmation.  The final word, though, rests in the congregation's affirmation of her deacons.
It is like a beautiful dance where a man and woman move along the floor in such a way that you almost lose track of who's leading and who's following.  Both are taking steps, making gestures, and doing their part...and they are perfectly synchronized.  Such should the life of the church be.  The pastors are clearly leading, and the congregation is exerting its authority while still being guided and led by its God-given leaders.  The dance gets difficult to watch and awkward when one or both of the partners lose their way and forget their part.

May we all dance this beautiful dance for the glory of God and for the good of His church!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A Few More Words on Deacons

[This entry follow a sermon titled "Deacons: A Fresh Look at a Familiar Office."]

This past Sunday, we continued our sermon series called "Church Leadership: Understanding God's Plan for God's People."  Specifically, we looked at the office and function of deacons in a local church by asking three questions.

Let's answer again briefly.  First, what is a deacon?  A deacon is a servant...one who works for the benefit of others, who comes to the aid of those in need.  The Greek words translated "serve" or "servant" are used in a variety of ways about a variety of people.  And while all Christians are called on to serve one another (1 Peter 4:10), the Bible makes it clear that God has ordained that there be an office of deacon in the church (1 Timothy 3:8-13).

Second, what do deacons do?  Here was the sentence we extracted from our understanding of the foreshadowed picture of deacon ministry in Acts 6:1-7.  Deacons support the ministry of pastors by caring for physical needs in the church, to promote the unity of the church and the ministry of the Word.  John Piper worded it this way: "From our study it would seem that the office of deacon exists to assist the leadership of the church by relieving elders of distractions and pressures that would divert them from the ministry of the word and prayer and the general, visionary oversight of the church" (quoted in Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, by John S. Hammett).

Third, who should be a deacon?  The character qualifications are laid out in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.  While the list is shorter for deacons than for pastors, the deacon must still be blameless.  He must be above reproach in his family life, in his personal life, and in his relationships.  The thing that most distinguishes the pastors' list from the deacons' list (apart from the length) is that deacons must not "be able to teach."  This doesn't forbid them from teaching, but it is not required of those who serve as deacons.

With similar character qualifications, we must still be careful to distinguish between the roles of pastors and deacons.  Mark Dever put it helpfully in his booklet called "A Display of God's Glory."  There, he writes, "In one sense both elders and deacons are involved in 'deaconing,' but that service takes on two very different forms...deaconing - of the Word (elders) and of tables (deacons)...Churches should neither neglect the preaching of the Word, nor the practical care for the members that helps to foster unity and that fills out their duties to love one another" (pp. 6-7).

One portion of this "who should be a deacon?" discussion was left out on Sunday morning, due to time restraints.  We did not consider women and the role of deacon.  So, what I want to do is give some interpretive information for your further consideration.
  • When we look at 1 Timothy 3:11, where the ESV reads "their wives," it is important to note three things about this translation.  First, there is no possessive pronoun in the Greek, so "their" is literally "the."  Second, the word "wives" is a generic word that can actually be translated "women."  So, Paul is either trying to convey "the wives" or "the women."  Third, the ESV translates it "their wives" because the translators made an interpretive choice about what they believe Paul meant.
  • Whether this word should be understood as "women" or "wives," the necessity of godly character is understandable. 
    • If Paul means "women," then he is saying that women can serve in the role of deacon (i.e.- what has been called 'deaconess').  This makes sense of why Paul does not address the character of pastor's wives in the first part of the chapter.  If Paul means to include women in formal service as deaconesses, then they must have godly character for the same reasons that men would.  They must be dignified, even as the men are.  And Paul goes on to mention a few other key qualifications, maybe specifically addressing issues in the Ephesian church where Timothy is serving.
    • If Paul means "wives," then he is not saying that women are permitted to serve as deacons, but rather, he is speaking about the wives of married deacons.  The character of these women matters, too, because their husbands will face situations in which their wives will play an integral role (e.g.- in serving the physical needs of widows, single moms, etc.).  If Paul means "wives," then why is there no mention of the character of pastor's wives?  Unlike a pastor's wife, who would not share in her husband's ministry of feeding, leading, and protecting the congregation, a deacon's wife can and should share in the service of others...not just as a helper to her husband but also because all Christians should serve.
  • While 1 Timothy 3 and Philippians 1 are the only undisputed places where the office of deacon is mentioned, we do have a disputed place in Romans 16:1.  I emphasize "disputed" because the word for "servant" here is the Greek word for deacon.  This, in itself, does not mean that Phoebe held the office of deaconess.  However, it does not just say she was a "deacon/servant" but a "deacon/servant of the church at Cenchreae."  This does make one believe it could be an official office, and early church history records that there were women who held this office.  In Vincent's Word Studies, we read that their "duties were to take care of the sick and poor, to minister to martyrs and confessors in prison, to instruct catechumens, to assist at the baptism of women, and to exercise a general supervision over the female church-members."  Vincent also suggests that Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Rom. 16:12) may have held this position as well.
  • In the New Testament, it is clear that deacons must not "be able to teach," so we can safely conclude that the duties of the office of deacon do not include teaching.  We also see no instance in which deacons are exerting authority over the congregation; rather, they are servants who focus on meeting physical needs in the congregation.  This means that if a church chooses to include women as deaconesses, there is no disobedience of Paul's clear instruction that he doesn't "permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man" (1 Tim. 2:12a).  So, we should not think a church is in error simply for utilizing deaconesses, given that deacons are functioning as the Bible instructs.
  • Finally, I want to specifically address the way we do things at Gray Road.  Currently, only men serve as deacons.  Because there is still pastor-like authority entrusted to the body of deacons by our constitution, this is a good thing.  Even as we look forward to restoring the biblical role of deacon and establishing a plurality of pastors, it is our plan to continue with this methodology for now. However, this does not mean that women are unimportant in our church's ministry...far from it.  In fact, I think you could look around our church and see women performing biblically diaconal kinds of service...not exerting spiritual authority over the congregation, but working to meet physical needs in the congregation.  Let me give three brief examples. 

    First, we have two women who lead the way in serving through our Quiet Time Cafe.  They make sure it is staffed and runs smoothly.  Second, we have women who work hard so that physical preparations for our members' meetings and banquets come together, and these women also make sure to provide funeral dinners when needed.  Third, we have a woman who leads the way in staffing a ministry that has served needs in just about every family at Gray Road...in our nursery.  I use these examples because, apart from these women, the ministries mentioned would not be happening as they are, and we should praise God for them.  However, thinking biblically, these do fit the Bible's description of deacon ministry.
I hope I have given you enough to chew on and begin your own study of this topic.  Have a great week!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Defeated by Demands

[This entry follows a sermon titled "A Few Good Men: The Character of Church Leadership."]

Anytime I teach or preach on the biblical qualifications for pastors, found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, I am challenged and convicted.  To be honest, I don't have to be teaching it.  All it takes is a thoughtful reading of these texts, and the Lord challenges and convicts me as a man and a pastor.  Of course, these texts are not alone.  I find myself regularly challenged and convicted by the Scriptures; however, these texts do stand out because they are directly related to my role as a pastor among God's people.

Don Carson once uttered a sentence about these qualifications for pastors that has stuck with me.  In fact, I find some paraphrase of it in many sources (i.e.- articles, books, sermons, etc.), so I must not be alone in finding it memorable.  Carson says of the qualifications for pastors: "The remarkable thing about the list is that it is unremarkable."  It is simple but true, particularly when we think of the character qualifications.

One can look in other places in the New Testament to find that pastors are not alone in the call to live above reproach...to be blameless.  All Christians should live in this way.  Let me give some examples.  First, it is not only pastors that should avoid being a drunkard but all Christians (cf. Ephesians 5:18).  Also, pastors are not alone in the need to avoid the love of money (cf. Matthew 6:24; 1 Timothy 6:10).  Next, it is all fathers, and not just pastors, who should be dignified in the way he keeps his children submissive (cf. Ephesians 6:4).  Finally, humility should be the mark of Christians, not only Christian pastors (cf. Romans 12:3; 1 Peter 5:6).  And the list could go on.

So, as we think about these qualifications, we rightly think of the men who should serve as pastors in the local church.  However, we must not think that these qualifications are to be disregarded by "the rest of us."  No, by the grace of God, all the people of God should seek to grow in these godly characteristics.  So, now look at the list, and let's admit it...it can be intimidating, can't it?  If you don't think so, you might have missed something.  Go back and read the lists again (I'll wait). 

Now, can you see how intimidating it might be?  In these lists, there is no area of life untouched, no stone unturned.  The pastor must be blameless, and Christians must live blameless lives.  We must be blameless in our family lives, in our personal lives, and in our relationships.  God calls us to be holy because He is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16).  It is a high calling, and we must approach it correctly or we will surely be defeated by it.  After all, anytime one is faced with a list of character qualities that must mark your life and those qualities encompass all of life, he/she can easily feel defeated.  So, let me try to help.

There are a couple of wrong ways to approach living a blameless life.  The first is to think that you must live a blameless life in order to earn the favor of God.  The idea here is that if I live a good life, then God will be good to me.  If I don't, He won't.  There are two major problems with this way of thinking, and they are connected.  This way of approaching God is (1) not biblical, and it is (2) impossible! 

The Bible teaches that God's favor...God's approval...is not given in return for blameless living.  If that were the way that God's approval worked, then nobody would be approved by God.  Nobody would gain God's favor.  All of us fall short of God's glory.  Romans 8:7 says, "For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot."  You see, submitting to God is not simply a matter of the will...it's a matter of ability.  And on their own, nobody can do it!

The second wrong way to think about living a blameless life goes something like this: "Yes, God accepted me by His grace, but now, I must live a blameless life in order to keep His favor.  If I will just stay committed to read my Bible, pray, serve, give, resist temptation, etc., then I will keep God's approval."  Now, obviously, spiritual disciplines and resisting temptation are all good things...great things...God-glorifying things.  However, sinless perfection in all (or any) of these areas is impossible in this life.

We must get this straight!  Nobody can earn God's approval through blameless living, and nobody can keep God's approval through blameless living.  Since our lives fall incredibly short of "blameless," then what is the solution?  The Bible teaches that the only way a person is approved by God is on the basis of another Person's blamelessness...Jesus' blamelessness.

Through faith in Christ, we are justified (Romans 5:1).  This means that God counts us righteous because of what Jesus has done for us.  He lived a blameless life, and we are credited as blameless.  He took our blame and died in our place, so that we would be released from the liability of our sin.  In the words of Colossians 1:21-22 - "And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, [Jesus] has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him..."

Isn't that fantastic?  Don't you just want to shout and scream "THANKS BE TO GOD FOR HIS INEXPRESSIBLE GIFT" (2 Cor. 9:15)!  We cannot live blameless lives if we tried.  We cannot earn or keep God's approval by doing so.  However, because of what Christ has done, those who are trusting in Christ are counted as righteous, and they will be presented as holy and blameless and above reproach on the day when we see God face to face.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!

It is when we realize this that the demand to live a blameless life is no longer defeating...it is delightful!  We will no longer try to earn God's approval through blameless living; instead, we will live blameless lives resting in the knowledge that God already approves of us.  We will no longer try to keep God's approval through blameless living; instead, we will live blameless lives resting in the knowledge that our approval was signed, sealed, and delivered through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ!

Now, read the list again.  It still looks intimidating.  It is still challenging.  It is still convicting.  But, because of Jesus Christ, it is not defeating.  Look to Him as the only source of your blamelessness and approval with God, and then...live a blameless life!

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Keep Reading and Studying the Bible

When I was in high school, I attended the First Baptist Church of Concord in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Each Sunday, our music minister, Dave Hyers, would stand up, tell us the page number of the hymn we would sing, and then he would conduct the congregation as a large choir of worshippers.  Many people have a similar experience and love their memories of those kinds of services.

Now, even though we don't have hymnals in the pews at the church I serve, we still sing some congregational songs that would be found in a hymnal.  Just this past Sunday, we sang "How Great Thou Art," and our congregational choir thundered out praise to God.  Another song from the hymnal came to mind as I sat down to write this week's blog entry.  So, in your mind, turn to page 406 of The Celebration Hymnal, and let me quote the first verse of "Wonderful Words of Life."
Sing them over again to me; Wonderful words of life
Let me more of their beauty see; Wonderful words of life
Words of life and beauty; Teach me faith and duty
Beautiful words, wonderful words; Wonderful words of life
Beautiful words, wonderful words; Wonderful words of life
Were you humming the melody as you read the words?  Did you break into song?  Will it be stuck in your head for a while?  Whatever the case may be...this really is a wonderful song, reminding us of the value of God's Word.  In fact, the lyrics of the first two lines are the reason I began by quoting the hymn.  "Sing them over again to me...Let me more of their beauty see."  The idea is that through repeatedly hearing God's Word, the Holy Spirit can help us see clearer and deeper and greater truth than in previous hearings.

This is a common experience among Christians who are constantly reading and studying their Bibles.  Let me begin by saying that seeing more beauty in God's Word does not mean that new truth has been infused into a given text, and we are not at liberty to make the text mean something different each time we read it.  However, it could be that we have been missing part of the Bible's teaching until now. We may have missed how the context shapes the meaning of the verse.  Or...we have the meaning right, but that same truth can intersect our lives at different times and in different circumstances, so that we find new implications of that truth for our lives.

There are two things I want to mention that are necessary to seeing new beauty in the Bible.  The first is the title of this entry...keep reading and studying the Bible.  We must be in the Bible consistently if we are to learn and grow and see its beauty.  This means that we do not consider ourselves "done" once we have read all of the Bible.  Also, in our daily reading, we do not skip those passages which seem most familiar to us...we thoughtfully and prayerfully read them again.  And when the Bible is quoted in the books we read, we don't just gloss over them...we read them again, knowing they are the very words of God.

In addition, this means we don't tune out when our pastor is preaching on a text we have heard preached many times.  We listen intently to hear what God says through the text, acknowledging that it may have greater, deeper, wider, or just different implications for our lives now...as opposed to the last time we studied it.  We also listen anew because, in doing so, we acknowledge that we may have missed something in the text...or in the context...that now makes it shine with new beauty. 

The second thing needed to see new beauty in the Word of God is humility.  It takes humility to admit that we need the same passage to be taught to us again.  It takes humility to recognize that we have not arrived and that we need to keep going back to what God has said again and again.  It takes humility to acknowledge, "I should have learned this by now, but I haven't"; so, I go back to God's Word to learn again.

Pride lays down the Bible, but what we need to do is lay down our pride.  We need to lay down the intellectual pride that says, "I know this already...what else could I possibly learn?"  We have to lay down our spiritual pride that says, "I know how to apply this...it's so-and-so who really needs it."  So, rather than get trapped in this kind of pride, let's humbly go the Bible over and over again.  Let's humbly read the Bible over and over again.  Let's study the Bible over and over again.  Let's receive the teaching of the Word over and over again.  Let's humbly ask the Lord to help us, by the Holy Spirit, to see in the Bible new beauty and to apply the Bible more fully.
Sing them over again to me; Wonderful words of life
Let me more of their beauty see; Wonderful words of life

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Office of Pastor: Avoiding Extremes

[This entry follows a sermon entitled "The Longing to Lead."]

In Sunday's sermon, we looked at a man's aspiration and desire for the office of overseer/elder/pastor from 1 Timothy 3:1.  Considering that text and its context, we thought about the nature of the desire, the object of the desire, and the limit of the desire.  As we work through this series on church leadership, we are, by definition, thinking on the role of pastors/elders in the church.  However, in thinking about this biblical office, two extremes must be avoided.

The first extreme is to diminish the role of pastors so that there is almost no distinction between them and the rest of the congregation.  There is some truth to this.  It is true that pastors are sheep in God's flock...purchased with the blood of Christ...as are all the other members of the church.  It is also true that pastors are like the rest of the congregation in that they are still sinful men, continuing in their need to live lives of repentance and faith.  They still battle temptation...they still sin and need to repent...they are still growing spiritually.  So, there is some truth in the statement that "there is no distinction between pastor and people."

However, the Bible is clear that there is a distinction among this group of men who shepherd God's people.  First, they are charged with distinct duties among God's people.  They must feed the flock of God through the preaching and teaching of God's Word.  They must protect the flock from erring in doctrine and in life.  Also, pastors must lead the flock to function in ways that honor the Lord and advance His gospel and kingdom.  Second, as they do this distinct work, they must live distinct lives.  Pastors must set an example "in speech, in conduct, in faith, in purity" (1 Tim. 4:12).  The nature of being an example is that one's life is more publicly known and examined, which is why it is critical that a pastor be "above reproach" (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6-7).  Of course, all Christians are to live lives distinct from the world, and all Christians should strive to live above reproach.  But pastors should lead the way in doing so.

On to the second, and opposite, extreme.  If one extreme is to diminish the role, then the other is to exalt the role.  For sure, the role of the pastor is a noble one (1 Tim. 3:1), and God has ordained that pastors play a critical role in the life of the congregation (as described above).  They are men invested with spiritual authority among the congregation, and the Bible says that the congregation should obey and submit to their godly leadership (Heb. 13:17).  However, there is a danger when we exalt this office...thinking of it as a status to attain rather than an important work to do.  Those who serve as pastors can be guilty of this, and the people they lead can be as well.

One of the ways that the role of pastor becomes a status is that it gets labelled a profession.  Every month, I go get a haircut, and if the woman cutting my hair has never met me before, she will ask, "So, what do you do for a living?"  Though I know what she means, I have not yet taken the time to explain that I don't do what I do "for a living."  Rather, a congregation of God's people generously supports me and my family with finances and insurance so that I can pour out my life preaching, teaching, and leading them in serving the Lord.  While this is my view of what has happened, I simply tell the stylist, "I'm a pastor."

The office of pastor/elder has certainly been affected by being labelled a "profession".  I think it's part of the reason some balk at the idea of unpaid pastors serving alongside paid men in a plurality of pastors.  Another implication of the professionalization of the pastorate is that it gives the false impression that the pastors are the only ones doing ministry.  It makes such an exalted status of "THE ministry" that people feel it unnecessary to pour out their own lives in ministry.

I was reminded of this just this week as I attended a "Trellis and the Vine Workshop."  Tony Payne, one of the authors of the book The Trellis and the Vine, emphasized the Bible's teaching that every Christian should be involved in a Word ministry of some kind.  Yes, the pastor-elders of the church lead the way through guarding the good deposit of sound doctrine...through preaching and teaching...through equipping the saints for the work of ministry.  And yes...every Christian cannot teach a class or preach a sermon.  However, every Christian should be speaking the Word to others...seeking to lead non-Christians to faith in Christ, and seeking to build up fellow Christians in the faith.

In Acts 2, at Pentecost, Peter's sermon obviously stands out as the primary communication of the gospel in that chapter.  In fact, the apostolic preaching takes precedent throughout the book of Acts.  But the apostles aren't the only ones speaking the Word.  For example, in Acts 2, we are told that they were all together...and that they were all filled with the Spirit such that they were given utterance (v. 1-4).  And what were they uttering?  They were uttering intelligible words in various languages, declaring "the mighty works of God" (v. 11).  They all had the Spirit, and they all spoke the mighty works of God.  Tony put it this way: "The democratization of the Spirit leads to the democratization of speech."

Look at these other texts that point to the fact that all Christians can and should be engaged in some form of Word ministry (added emphasis is mine):
  • Colossians 3:16 - "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom..."
  • Colossians 4:5-6 - "Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.  Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person."
  • Romans 15:14 - "I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another."
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:14 - "And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all." (see the context...v. 12-13...the same brothers who should esteem their leaders should obey this verse)
  • 1 Peter 2:9 - "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light."
  • Hebrews 3:13 - "But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called "today," that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin."
Have you ever considered this reality for yourself?  Are you currently engaged in one-to-one Word ministry with unbelievers...with fellow Christians...with those who are struggling?  One way to answer this question is to think about your interaction with other Christians at church last Sunday.  What did you talk about?  The weather?  Football?  The upcoming election? 

What percentage of our conversations involved spiritual matters?  Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with small talk, but if all our talk is "small talk," then it really doesn't amount to much at all, does it?  It's just small.  Engaging in Word ministry means (1) knowing the Word and (2) knowing those to whom you will speak the Word.  Just wandering around citing the latest verse you memorized is not necessarily Word ministry.  It is taking the biblical truths God has taught you and appropriately speaking them into the lives of others.

If you are not engaged in this kind of personal Word ministry, I pray that you will hear these texts and begin to live out their teaching in your own life.  And do you know where it will likely begin?  With you...seriously learning and applying God's truth to your own life.  Then, as God helps, comforts, encourages, and teaches you, you will be better equipped to help, comfort, encourage, and teach others (2 Cor. 1:3-6).

So, we must not diminish the role of the pastor, failing to see pastors as a distinct group of men in the congregation who serve a particular purpose.  Also, we must not exalt the pastor, making "pastor" a title or status to be attained...or professionalizing the role.  When we do, we dismiss our shared responsibility to "proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness and into his marvelous light."  May it not be so among us!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

An Appropriate Affection for Pastors

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Paul's Pastoral Pattern: An Example for Leadership."]

NOTE: It is very awkward, as a pastor, to write anything encouraging "an appropriate affection for pastors."  I'm sure it may seem self-serving to some...like a desperate cry for love.  However, as I write, I think not of myself, for I could not imagine serving among a more loving congregation.  Instead, I write to warn us against two extremes: (1) making pastors into celebrities and (2) failing to love our pastors at all.

On Sunday, we looked at Acts 20:17-38...commonly identified as Paul's charge to the Ephesian elders.  Specifically, we focused our study on the example set by the apostle Paul for the pastors/elders.  In looking at that example, we recognized that the characteristics Paul displayed are not just exemplary for pastoral leadership but for anyone who seeks to faithfully serve the Lord.  Paul's self-forgetfulness, passion, courage, faithfulness, diligence, and godly ambition are much needed among followers of the Lord Jesus Christ today.

In the closing verses of this passage, we see a touching farewell.  Let me quote the text for you:
"And when [Paul] had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all.  And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again.  And they accompanied him to the ship" (Acts 17:36-38).
Now, we should first recognize that Paul had a deep affection for these men and for the church that they pastored.  The pastors didn't just love the apostle; the apostle also loved the pastors.  Paul was headed to Jerusalem and deliberately sailed past Ephesus.  However, he wanted to speak to these men one last time, so he sent for them.  While we will not walk through Paul's words here, they are powerful.  His desire to see them carry on the torch of gospel ministry in Ephesus is clear, both in reminding them of his example and in admonishing them to continue in their calling as pastors.

As Paul finishes his speech, they kneel together, and Paul prays.  Paul has spoken to these men about the call of God, and now, the apostle will speak to God about the call of these men.  And as he prays, the tears begin to fall.  The prayer circle is filled with sniffles as the pastors realize that this will be the last time they pray with their dear friend...their brother...their apostle.  And why were they so connected to him?

This had been the man that brought the gospel to Ephesus.  This is the man who would not stop preaching when the Jews opposed him; he just rented the Hall of Tyrannus and kept preaching.  This was the man under whose ministry many, if not all, of them had come to know Christ.  He had been in their homes...teaching them what it meant to live a life of repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ.  Paul's ministry shook the very economy of Ephesus, slowing the sale of idols to such a degree that a riot broke out.

So, after the last "amen" of this group prayer, each pastor takes his turn to hug and kiss Paul, as is their custom.  Then, wanting to remain with their friend a bit longer, they accompany him to the ship.  And though the text ends there, I can't help but wonder if they stayed and watched and prayed as Paul's ship disappeared over the horizon.

Let's think about this scene for a few minutes.  In one post from last week, I shared a quote from chapter two of Brad Bigney's book, Gospel Treason: Betraying the Gospel with Hidden Idols.  On page 32, he writes, "...our culture is so desperate to make heroes and celebrities out of everything and everybody..."  Is this what these men were doing to the apostle Paul?  Were they exalting him to a status he didn't deserve?  I do not believe so...for three reasons.

First, Paul does not stop them from expressing sorrow.  Paul could tell when people were putting him on a pedestal.  Back in Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas were equated with Greek gods in the town of Lystra, and they had to put a stop to the people's efforts to worship them (v. 11-18).  Also, when Paul wrote to Corinth, he did not hesitate to rebuke the believers for their exclusive affection for one preacher over another (1 Cor. 1:10-13; 3:1-9).  As hugs were given and tears were shed on the shore of Miletus, Paul saw nothing that was inappropriate about their affection for him as their apostle.

Second, Paul actually commends affection toward those who serve as pastors among God's people.  Consider what is said in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13.  Paul tells the brothers in that church that they should not only "respect those who labor among you" but also "to esteem them very highly in love because of their work."  There should be affection for the men who labor in the Word and work diligently in feeding, leading, and protecting the church as shepherds.  This does not mean that we exalt pastors to the status of "celebrity."  What it means is that we should love the men whom God has given to serve us as pastors/overseers/elders.  Beyond this text, we cannot forget that the pastors who labor among us are first our brothers, and we are called to demonstrate our discipleship in loving one another (John 13:35; 1 John 2:9-10; 3:11; 4:20-21).

Third, the pastors' affection for Paul is most likely derived from the example he set and the work he did among them.  They didn't love Paul because of his charisma.  They didn't love Paul because of his cleverness in preaching (Paul renounced cleverness in preaching...2 Cor. 4:2).  They didn't love Paul because he was published, could quote their favorite song lyrics, blew their minds with creativity, or a host of other things that may cause men to love a pastor in our day.  As already noted, Paul brought Ephesus the gospel, preached it in the face of opposition, taught it from house to house, and shed tears over the spiritual condition of all those to whom he ministered.  They loved him because he lost his life for Christ's sake and for the gospel's sake while in Ephesus.  He died to himself so that they might live spiritually.

All these things should encourage us to have an appropriate affection for pastors.  Let me demonstrate from my own life.  I have a deep affection for Doug Sager, the pastor of my home church in Knoxville, TN.  Brother Doug preached my ordination (a sermon I still remember to this day) and demonstrated what it meant to provide courageous leadership while truly loving God's people.  I love Denny Brinkman, Rusty Kennedy, and Chris Lovell, who taught me to love and teach and lead teenagers.  Bill Espy was the pastor I worked with in my first ministry position, and his example of perseverance in the face of difficulty remains with me today.  I have a deep affection for the president of the seminary I attended.  Dr. Albert Mohler's courageous leadership at Southern was used to turn that seminary around and was used to greatly impact who I am today.  And the list could go on.  I'm sure your list could go on and on as well.

It is good and right to love the men that God uses to teach us, to lead us, to spiritually protect us, to shepherd us, and to set an example for us.  While we must beware of "celebritizing" any of them...making more of them than we ought...we still should "esteem them very highly in love because of their work" (1 Thess. 5:13).

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gospel Treason

Our church staff is reading through Brad Bigney's book, Gospel Treason: Betraying the Gospel with Hidden Idols, together.  This week, we read chapter two, I read these thought-provoking words, and I thought I'd share them:
"We live in a culture that is forever inflating the things of this world to religious proportions, trying to fill the vacuum that's been left by excluding God.  We see this phenomenon in sports, which in America has become one of the ugliest idols that we have to contend with.  One spring, as baseball season was cranking up, I saw a commercial showing clips of great baseball moments from the previous year.  It ended with: 'I live for this.'
     About that time, ESPN was running a series of commercials that asked, 'What would we have to talk about if we didn't have sports?'
     You see it with families - even Christians - driving their kids all over God's green earth because 'my child's really good.  He's in a special league,' which essentially means that the family gets to miss church three our of four Sundays so that the kid can kick a ball, jump off a balance beam, or ride a horse.  And that child, while being carted from one sporting event to the next in a cute little outfit, is thinking, 'This is what it's all about.  This is so important to Mom and Dad, what our entire home revolves around.  I live for this.'
     I'm not saying you can't be in a league or you can't play ball.  But moms and dads, don't give in to the same spirit that the rest of our country has toward sports.  As Christians - lovers of Jesus Christ - we have a higher calling.  It breaks my heart to see Christians being sucked into the whirlpool like everyone else.  I grieve when I see someone I've missed at church and say, 'Wow, I've missed you guys,' and they respond, 'Well, you know, it's such-and-such season, and the kids are in a special league, and...'
     Randy Patten, director of the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC), has a great principle: 'Just add ten.'  Right now, she's eight years old, but just add ten years, and then you tell me where that eighteen-year-old girl will be on Sunday, after you've had her on the soccer field three out of four Sundays her entire life.  Do you really believe she'll head back to church, thinking how important it is?  If so, you're fooling yourself.
     As soon as we drift away from Christ and the centrality of the gospel, we start erecting substitutes for God. That's why our culture is so desperate to make heroes and celebrities out of everything and everybody - because our innate yearning for God and the freedom of his gospel, both of which we as a people have rejected. And we try to fill the void with hero and celebrity worship. G.K. Chesterton got it exactly right when he said, 'When we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing. We worship anything'" (pages 31-33).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

More on "Adding an S" to Church Leadership

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Adding an 'S': The Grammar of Church Leadership."]

Before I launch in to what I have planned to write this week, let me share something briefly.  When I logged on to write this week's blog, I noticed that my last entry was on April 17 of this year.  Seeing that date and thinking through the last several months, I cannot help but stop and thank the Lord for all He has done.

This year, the Lord has seen fit to send me into an extensive period of physical illness.  I'll spare you the details, but needless to say, it has been a long road.  It started in January, but by April, it became clear that I needed to step back from some commitments I had for a time.  I had no clue that "for a time" would mean six months, but I thank the Lord that He has restored my health to a place where I can operate more normally.  There are still lingering issues to deal with, but they are nothing like the severity of what I have walked through, and for that, I praise Him.  With that said...it's good to be back!

This past Sunday, I preached the second sermon in our series called Church Leadership: Understanding God's Plan for God's People.  In the first week, we examined 1 Timothy 3:14-15 and saw that there is a way that one "ought to behave" in the church, and this includes the office of pastor/elder/overseer.  This second sermon focused on the grammar of church leadership.  For some, this may have been a review, but I believe it was new information for many listening.  What I want to do today is review just a bit of what was taught on Sunday and then answer one lingering question (not that it's the only one...but it is one).

We first talked about the vocabulary of church leadership, specifically looking at the three main words used in the NT for leaders in the church.  They are elder (presbuteros), overseer (episkopos), and pastor (poimen).  At various times, all three of these words are used to refer to the men who serve the church as its leaders...as its shepherds.  Not only that, but we saw that these three words are used interchangeably.  Let me remind you again of the two examples given on Sunday.

  • Verse 17 (elders) - Paul calls the elders from Ephesus to meet with him
  • Verse 28 (overseers) - Paul says the Holy Spirit has made them overseers
  • Verse 28 (pastor) - Paul tells them that God has made them overseers to "care for" the church (this "care for" translates the verb form of the word "pastor")
  • Verse 1 (elders) - Peter says he is addressing the elders
  • Verse 2 (pastor) - Peter calls on them to "shepherd the flock of God" ("shepherd" being the verb form of "pastor")
  • Verse 2 (overseer) - Peter tells them that in shepherding, they must "exercise oversight" (the verb form of overseer)
Phil Newton gives a helpful summary of why these three words would be used to describe one office.  "Elder" indicates the character of the men in the office, "overseer" indicates the leadership and authority entrusted to the men in the office, and "pastor" indicates the duties of spiritual feeding, nurturing, and protecting done by the men in the office.  [I heartily recommend Phil's book, Elders in Congregational Life, for those who want to read more on the subject.]

After talking about vocabulary, we moved on to grammar.  Specifically, we were reminded that this office is primarily spoken of in the plural, not the singular.  And when it is in connection with the church, the evidence is overwhelming.  Let me list passages that indicate this plurality of leadership:
  • Acts 14:23 - And when they had appointed elders (plural) for them in every church (singular)
  • The church in Jerusalem - it is mentioned several times to have had elders (plural)...Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4; 21:18
  • Acts 20:17 - ...[Paul] sent to Ephesus and called the elders (plural) of the church (singular) to come to him
  • James 5:14 - Is anyone among you sick?  Let him call for the elders (plural) of the church (singular)
  • Titus 1:5 - This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint (elders) in every town (singular)...the NT, in general, implies one church in each city or town (church at Ephesus, church in Corinth, church of the Thessalonians, etc.)
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:12 - We ask you (referring to the church, singular, of the Thessalonians), brothers, to respect those (plural) who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you.
  • Hebrews 13:17 - Obey your leaders (plural) and submit to them (plural), for they (plural) are keeping watch over your souls...
Finally, we talked about the necessity of this church leadership.  Why did it exist?  Let me give you the net-net here.  Paul appointed elders (plural) because of the physical danger that faced the church, and Paul appointed elders (plural) because of the spiritual danger that faced the church.  Physically, persecution would remain a real threat, and having a plurality of pastors would mean that the church could go on in the face of the even the fiercest opposition.  Spiritually, Paul says that even from among the elders of the church, wolves will rise up and twist truth.  Plurality enables the congregation to be protected from such twisted doctrine.

Beyond this, plural leadership in the community of faith was normative for the people of God before the book of Acts.  Many of the NT references to "elders" refer to that body of men who oversaw each synagogue.  Isn't it interesting that no author of the New Testament really goes into detail about why a single church would have multiple pastors?  It's because this was the way in which spiritual leadership had been structured for a long time.  Even before the synagogues came into being, a plurality of priests facilitated the worship of God's people.  Also, elders are appointed to help in the leadership of God's people (Numbers 11:16ff).  Plural leadership was just part of God's plan for His people, so there is no need to explain why...though the reasons stated above do underline the validity of plural leadership.

One final thing from Sunday's message...the appointment of multiple pastors/elders in each New Testament church is a reminder that the ministry of the gospel in the local church is not about any single individual.  No matter how gifted...no matter how upright...no matter how much our culture does it in other cultural spheres...no single individual should be put on a pedestal.  No single individual should be given ultimate or absolute authority.  It should be a shared authority among those men whom God has set aside for His church.

Now, one of the lingering questions that I always had when I thought about these teachings in the New Testament was: if that's the case, how did the church, particularly the Baptist church in America, move away from this leadership structure?  The more I read, the more I see that the answer to this question is complicated.  Let me give you two pieces of the puzzle.

1.  In Phil Newton's book, three reasons are proposed for the decline of the use of plural leadership in Baptist life, and they are intriguing to consider.  Let me quote it directly:
"First, in the expansion of Baptist churches into the west, the single pastor/church planter often served as a circuit riding minister, handling the bulk of church duties with plural eldership fading in the process.  Presumably, qualified male leadership was scarce in the early days.  Second, the rise of Landmarkism, with its emphasis on 'democratic rule with no elder rule' had profound influence on Southern Baptist practice and life.  Third, 'the rise of the Campbellites' - now called the Church of Christ - who 'used the word exclusiely' - caused the Baptists to react and reject the name elder, using only the word pastor for those involved in church ministry and leadership" (p. 157, end note 24).
2. In another book called Why Elders?: A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members, Benjamin Merkle comes with a different perspective.  He does not address the way Baptist leadership evolved, but he does give some intriguing reasons why the practice of using a single pastor/elder may have stuck.  He gives three reasons that I will summarize:
  • Lack of qualified men - While it is true that the qualifications are spiritually challenging to anyone who would aspire to be a pastor/elder, it is also possible to be so rigorous in using them that practically nobody could fill them.  A second part of this problem is that, too often, men are caught up in other pursuits in their lives, and the aspiration to lead in the church has "all but vanished in the church."  Finally, the office of pastor has become so professionalized that many congregation's believe that apart from certain educational achievements, one cannot serve the church as a pastor/elder.
  • Lack of biblical knowledge - Many have just simply never been taught or considered the Bible's teaching on church leadership.  Too often, pastors just think of this area as "irrelevant" to teach, or a church will just do what it thinks best.  While we have to admit that there is no "leadership appendix" in the back of our Bibles, giving step by step instructions on the issue, we cannot deny that there is a great amount of NT evidence that should shape how we think and operate in this area.
  • Fear of change - Pastors have fears about the work of bringing such change, and congregations have fears about receiving and implementing such change.  Here are a few telling sentences from Merkle: "...often what people fear the most is simply change.  They may...acknowledge that such a doctrine is found in the Bible, but they are not convinced that it is worth the trouble of actually conforming their church polity to the Scriptures...Fear has become a powerful deterrent..." (p. 64).
I would personally add that beyond these three reasons, we all have a great level of comfort in what we've always known...not just with regard to church leadership, but with anything.  The leadership of our church is part of the culture of our church, and if the culture of what we have experienced as "church" has been the same for 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years, then change becomes even more difficult.

It is when we face things that cause fear that we should resolve ourselves to trust in the Lord and to trust the Word He has given us.  The question is...will we do just that?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Following the "Friend of Sinners"

As we continue through John Dickson's book, The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission, we come to the third chapter...a chapter in which many of us will find challenge.  It is the challenge to be a friend of sinners...to have social lives that intersect with Christians.

Jesus stirred strong feelings among the religious elite by His attitude toward "sinners."  Dickson gives a helpful contextual note about the word "sinners."  "'Sinners' were those in Jewish society who lived outside the laws of the Old Testament as interpreted by the rabbis.  They were not all prostitutes and thieves - that would be a caricature.  They could just as easily be wealthy businessmen who neglected going to synagogue and/or did business with the occupying Romans (tax collectors, for instance).  They were, if you like, the 'unreligious' in a strictly religious society.//Social interaction with sinners (and with Gentiles) was religiously prohibited in Jesus' day" (p. 49).

This was especially true when it came to eating a meal together.  When you ate a meal with someone, in that culture, you identified with them and gave acceptance to them.  And yet, this is the very thing that Jesus did...over and over again (cf. Matt. 11:19; Mark 2:15-16; Luke 7:37-39; Luke 15:1-2; Luke 19:1-7).  Why would Jesus do this?  Why doesn't He avoid "those people"? 

The answer is that "Jesus' friendship with sinners gave people a tangible sign of the welcoming grace of God.  His questionable dining habits were not merely and attempt to buck the system of his day; they were an illustration of the fellowship with sinners God so keenly desires...this is the mission to which we are called.  Our entire life, including our social life, should demonstrate the Lord's desire to have fellowship with sinners" (p. 51).

If you are reading the book along with me, then you saw the amazing effect that a woman named Glenda had on John Dickson's life.  As a teenager, he spent Friday afternoons (along with several friends) in her house, eating her food, and hearing her talk about the Lord Jesus.  She was influential in his life, and the book is actually dedicated to her.  Do you have a Glenda in your life?  Is there someone that first opened up their home, their dinner table, their life to you as part of God's plan to save you?  Was there a teacher, a friend, a coach, etc., that holds this kind of place in your heart?  Maybe today's a good day to send that person an encouraging card, letter, or even call him/her.

Going on from Jesus' ministry, we move to the ministry of the apostle Paul, who has the same kind of agenda in his social life.  "Paul, the one-time Pharisee, became (in)famous in Jewish and Christian circles for his scandalously flexible social conduct.  Not only did he preach to pagans, he broke his Pharisaic customs and ate with them as well...[This] was for Paul exactly what it had been for Jesus: an embodiment of the salvation message itself" (p. 53-54). 

Read 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 to get a taste of his attitude in this regard.  After that, we jump down to the end of this section to find out more.  "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.  Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.  Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor. 10:31-11:1, emphasis added).

What we find is that Paul is flexible in his social life so that he might embody and share the gospel.  Think about this practically...and basically.  Under God, those who contribute most to the salvation of unbelieving men and women are those who interact with them.  That seems pretty basic.  Dickson writes, "Those who most regularly get into spiritual conversations with others are usually the ones with a wide circle of nonbelieving friends in the first place" (p. 57).

This challenges us to think...how wide is the circle of my unbelieving friends?  Are there enough to form a circle?  Is there even a line?  Have I "bubble-ized" my life so that I never interact on a meaningful level with any nonbelievers?  Is my social life restricted so that these people are shut out?  Let me leave you with two more quotes from the chapter which are meant to challenge us and stimulate us to grow in promoting the gospel.

1. "Following the example of Paul and Jesus does not necessarily mean that we do what they did.  It means that we live by the same flexible ethos, seeking the good of many so that they may be saved.  Every aspect of our lives - including our social lives - can and should be directed toward the glory of God and the salvation of our neighbors" (p. 60).  I would add that they are to be directed to the good of fellow Christians, but you get the point.

2. "Paul is not advocating a specialised adjunct to Christian living called 'mission' or 'evangelism.'  He is asking us to put on what (in my more pretentious moments) I call a 'salvific mind-set,' that is, an outlook on life that cares deeply about the salvation of others" (p. 60).

May God challenge us and change us through the examples of the apostle Paul and our Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Chapter 2 - The Many and the One

[For several weeks, I will be blogging through John Dickson's The Best Kept Secret in Christian Missions: Promoting the Gospel with More than Our Lips.  Page numbers I cite will all be from this book unless otherwise noted.]

In Colossians 2:8, the apostle Paul writes, "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ."  One popular philosophy, which is full of empty deceit, can be summed up in the following statement: "All religions are just different paths to the same God."

This is called pluralism, and John Dickson gives a helpful and simple definition on page 39: Pluralism is "the popular belief that spiritual truth (unlike most other truths) appears in mane forms (hence: 'plural'), not just one."  In the first chapter of the book, we thought about the fact that one of the driving forces in God's mission to the world...and ours...is that there is only one God (i.e.- Yahweh), and all men owe their allegiance and worship to that God.

In pluralism, we find a challenge to that belief.  The challenge, however, is a bit complicated because it is not necessarily a denial that there is a God...just that every religion describes a different path to that one God.  So, how do we deal with this?  Very helpfully, Dickson breaks pluralism into two types...popular and sophisticated.  Let's think about them both.

Popular pluralism is the argument you get over coffee with a friend.  It is the notion that among the different religions, "God" just goes by a different name.  Also, your friend says, the basic teachings of these religions are so similar (believing in God, the need to pray, living morally and ethically good lives, etc.) that to exalt one over the other is unnecessary. 

Now, stop for a second, how would you respond to that kind of argument?  This is an important question for us to consider because this line of thought is not uncommon in our culture.  Would you know how to respond to such an argument?  Well, the foundational problem with this line of thinking is that "in trying to affirm all religions, it pays close attention to none of them" (p. 40).  Let me give you some bullet point facts that will help draw some distinctions (taken from p. 40).

Hinduism, the Sikh faith, & Buddhism
  • Hinduism teaches there are many gods (devas) that exist as individual deities.  Each of these gods reflect part of the ultimate reality (Brahman) 
  • One Hindu names Guru Nanak rejected this notion and founded the Sikh faith (pronounced 'seek').  He insisted that there is only one god worthy of worship.
  • Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) rejected Hinduism altogether, rejecting the notion of a God altogether...which is still the belief in classical Buddhism.
  • Can you see the difference?  Many gods vs. one god vs. no god.  "You don't need a degree in mathematics to see fundamental contradictions here."
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
  • Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the promised Messiah spoken of in the Old Testament.  Without this belief, there is no Christianity!
  • Modern Jews insist Jesus is not the Messiah...Orthodox Jews saying the Messiah is still yet to come.
  • The Islamic faith says that Jesus was neither crucified nor the Son of God.
  • Can you see the difference?
Dickson also explains differences in views of the afterlife, but I'll leave it to these.  Do you see what he means by trying to embrace all religions without paying attention to any of them?  In order to believe that all these religions aim at the same God, you have to disregard much of what distinguishes them.

Sophisticated pluralism is what you find more...to be repetitive...sophisticated.  It is the notion that none of the religions really describes the way to God.  They all just describe human longing to be connected with God.  Here is an analogy Dickson uses to help explain what this means:
"Influential US theologian Marcus Borg...uses the analogy of Communion or the Lord's Supper...The bread and wine convey a sense of Jesus' death and ongoing presence without actually containing those things.  In a similar way, he argues, the beliefs and practices of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and so on mediate an experience of ultimate Reality without truly describing or laying hold of it." (p. 42)
How does one respond to this?  This is certainly more complicated than just comparing religious beliefs because, after all, the pluralist is here saying that none of the beliefs really matter.  They are just a way into a universal, spiritual experience.  So, what would you say?  Many of us may dismiss this kind of thinking out of hand, but those who believe it take it seriously.  So, we should seriously consider how to respond...how to give an answer.

The answer Dickson gives is simply brilliant and very helpful.  Think about the assumption behind this argument.  If I am saying that every religion is essentially wrong...only mediating an experience of ultimate spiritual reality, what am I assuming?  What am I claiming?  I am claiming that my knowledge far exceeds all those who hold to the tenets of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc.  I am claiming that I actually have a better understanding of spiritual reality than anyone else.  The very thing that pluralists dislike about religions (i.e.- the claim to exclusive spiritual insight) is exactly what they are claiming!

One of the attractions of any form of pluralism is that it seems more tolerant.  The very mention of the word "tolerance" has some Christians ready to pound their fist and form an "anti-tolerance" organization.  The problem, when it comes to tolerance, is not whether we should be tolerant...it is that the meaning of the word has changed.  Today, many use the word "tolerance" to speak of an attitude which considers every perspective on every issue equally true and valid.  What Dickson calls for is a return to true tolerance, and I will close with his words on the subject (emphasis mine):
"True tolerance does not involve accepting every viewpoint as true and valid; it involves treating with love and humility someone whose opinions you believe to be untrue and invalid...[Being] a tolerant Christian does not involve accepting contrary beliefs as valid (as 'vehicles of the sacred'); it involves treating with love those whose views we regard as untrue and invalid.  True tolerance is the ability to treat with grace those with whom you disagree.  And this is a deeply Christian quality, especially since the Lord who is proclaimed in our gospel is the epitome of humility, love and gentleness" (p. 45).

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Best Kept Secret, Chapter 1

[I'm blogging my way through John Dickson's book, The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More than our Lips.  Click on the title to order the book for yourself.]

Chapter One: "The One and the Many: Why Get Involved in Mission?"

Near the beginning of this opening chapter, John Dickson asks some helpful questions.  "Why do we reach out to others with the news of Christ?  What ultimately is the driving idea behind God's mission to the world?" (p. 26).  Take a moment and think about your answers to those questions.  Do we reach out because we feel guilty if we don't?  Do we share the gospel because we believe the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) is a command that applies to us?

The fundamental answer that Dickson talks about in this chapter may be surprising to some.  It is the most basic truth found in the Bible, and it is this: there is one God.  The theological word for this is monotheism.  From beginning to end, the Scriptures make it clear that there is only one God, and all other gods are the products of human imagination.  This one God created the world.  This one God reveals Himself in the Bible.  This one God came to save humanity in the person of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

But why is monotheism so central in the idea of mission?  Dickson's answer is simple: "If there is just one God in the universe, everyone everywhere has a duty to worship that Lord" (p. 27).  Is this a startlingly new concept to you?  Certainly, we are accustomed to sharing the good news about Jesus because He has died for our sin and was raised from the dead.  Jesus will save all who come to Him by faith.  On the last day, Jesus will judge the living and the dead, and we don't want our friends, family, and neighbors to suffer eternal punishment. 

Those are all good and biblical motivations.  Yet, have we ever considered that, at a more fundamental level, there is only one God, and it is the duty of all creation (including human beings) to worship Him?  Man must serve, worship, honor, and glorify God simply because He is the one true God.  Dickson points to both Psalm 96 and Matthew 28 to underscore this truth.

In Psalm 96, the people of God are called on to "Declare his glory among the nations...For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods" (v. 3, 4).  So, the motivation is that God is great and is to be feared above all other gods.  This is why the message of His glory is to go out to the nations, and the desired result is that the nations would ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name (v. 8).  In other words, "there is just one God in the universe, [and] everyone everywhere has a duty to worship that Lord."

Then, in Matthew 28, as the risen Christ speaks the words of commission to His disciples, He gives them the driving reason why they should go.  He says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me...therefore..." (v. 18, 19).  The driving force behind the apostles ministry...and ours...is that all authority has been given to Christ.  There is no other divine authority to which man must submit.  It is the one true God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ...He is the "one God in the universe, [and therefore] everyone everywhere has a duty to worship that Lord."  That's why disciples must be made...not to make the Christian religion bigger or better or more popular than any other religion.  Rather, it is because the message of Christ is the message of the one true God!

Let me finish with some sentences from pages 35-36.  Read these words, and be re-energized for God's mission to the world:
Why promote Christ to your atheist friend with a nice car and the self-confidence to match?  Not simply because he would be happier and more fulfilled with Jesus, but because in reality your friend belongs to the one true Lord (revealed in the gospel).  Why take the gospel to cynical retirees with a lifetime of worldly experience and a fat nest egg to enjoy?  Not simply because they will soon face eternity, but because right now they exist for the pleasure of the one true God.  Why reach out to the super-student with the first class honours degree and wardrobe of designer clothes?  Not simply because Christianity will make him more moral or productive in life, but because in reality she is the possession of her one and only King.  Why send out (and support) missionaries to Mongolia and Burkina Faso?  Not only because Asians and Africans need rescuing from God's judgment (as we all do) but because they too are creatures of the one Creator, and he alone deserves their worship.
 The people of the world do, of course, have all sorts of needs of their Creator - it would be strange if it were otherwise - but more fundamental than their felt need of God is the reality of their duty toward him, to "ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name" (Psalm 96:8).  This, above everything else, necessitates God's mission to the world.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Best Kept Secret Begins...

For the next several weeks, I am going to change my approach to the weekly blog.  This last week, I began reading a book by John Dickson called The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More than Our LipsIn fact, the pastoral staff and I are going to be reading it together.  As we read, I plan to do is blog my way through the book with you.  If you'd like to get the book and read along, just click on the title.

Most weeks, I'll probably select an idea or two from the chapter and interact with the author.  This week, however, I'll just walk you through the introduction to the book...a kind of Cliff's Notes version, if you will.  Dickson takes us on a brief tour of the four unhelpful perspectives on evangelism that he developed as a young believer.  I think we can all relate to at least one of the four. 

The first is what he calls "The Curse of Self-Consciousness."  As a young believer, John's enthusiasm for sharing the gospel was evident, and the leaders at his church encouraged him to take a course in evangelism.  While courses in evangelism are not bad in and of themselves, Dickson says that the pressure to get everything right made him very self-conscious about sharing his faith.  What was once as natural and passionate as talking about sports had now become an outline that he had to complete.

The second unhelpful development is called "The Gospel 'Download.'"  What is the gospel 'download?'  It is that feeling that every time you talk about the gospel, you must say everything you know about it.  People may endure your full outline, but Dickson notes that one day he "realized the glazed look in their eyes was not the look of spiritual wonder" (p. 20).  Of course, if we have the opportunity to share the full gospel, we should go for it!  However, many of our gospel conversations may be incomplete.  We should certainly trust that our sovereign God can can piece together our "gospel nugget" with those offered by other faithful witnesses in this person's life.

Third, he speaks of "Reducing the Gospel."  Here, Dickson warns against reducing the gospel to a couple of theological ideas.  I remember when he spoke about this at the Basics Conference last May.  He pointed out, helpfully, that the first verse in Mark's gospel reads this way: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."  From there, Mark does not give a little outline...he tells a story...the story of Jesus' character, ministry, death, burial, and resurrection.  That full-length story is what Mark calls "the gospel."  Again, having an outline or presentation is certainly not a bad thing...especially if your time is brief or if the person knows little to nothing about Jesus.  However, Dickson offers this definition of "gospel":
"The gospel is the announcement that God has revealed His kingdom and opened it up to sinners through the birth, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, who will one day return to overthrow evil and consummate the kingdom for eternity" (p. 22).
The fourth and final unhelpful perspective is "Underestimating the Mission."  In his early days, he had essentially concluded that the only way to promote the gospel of Christ was through talking...sharing the message verbally with an unbelieving person.  This is proclamation, but the New Testament says more about the promotion of the gospel.  Of course, we never want to diminish the importance of actually speaking the gospel...it is essential.  However, there are other activities that promote the gospel.  A few examples of this are prayer, godly behavior, and giving money to support missionaries.

Look at Dickson's words about the roles of prayer for unbelievers and speaking to them about Christ.  "Both activities are evangelistic, even if only one of them is evangelism in the strict sense.  This does not mean that those who pray for their friends need not worry about speaking to them any more than it means that those who speak to their friends need not worry about praying for them.  My point is that both activities are full contributions to the promotion of Christ in the world" (23-24).

This last perspective will be the focus of most of the rest of the book.  The subtitle gives it away (i.e.- "Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips").  The table of contents gives it away, with chapters on prayer, money, public praise, and more.  And if that weren't enough, he says this on page 24: "A central aim of this book...is to show how all-encompassing is the Bible's call to be involved in God's mission."

I am looking forward to this book, and I am praying that by intentionally blogging through it, you and I will be further encouraged to use any and every means available to us to be part of promoting the Lord Jesus Christ in this world.

Next week... "The One and the Many: Why Be Involved in Mission?"

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

When My Friend Feels Forsaken and Forgotten

[This post follows a sermon titled "Feeling Forsaken and Forgotten".  Click on the title for the audio.]

As we looked at Isaiah 49-50 this past Sunday, we saw a people who declared that they felt forsaken and forgotten.  Even as God declares His comfort and compassion for His people (49:13), their ears can't hear it.  Their hearts can't accept it.  They still feel God has abandoned them...turned His back on them (49:14).

Have you ever felt this way?  Maybe you have had times when you hear the goodness and grace of God declared through your pastor, but you couldn't really hear it.  Maybe you sang songs of God's care and compassion in Sunday worship, but in your heart, you were skeptical about the truth of the lyrics.

Maybe you have read Isaiah 43:3, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you."  Then, as you close your Bible, you think, "Obviously, I'm the exception to that promise.  God has left me to drown...to go down in flames."

As the passage develops, we saw four things to do if you feel forsaken and forgotten.  Admit it, understand it, respond to it, and seek to change.  Admit it: In Isaiah 49:14, we see the cry of dereliction on the lips of God's people.  Understand it: Though some feel forsaken for other reasons, Isaiah 50:1 says that these people feel forsaken by God because they have fosaken God.  Their sin has created the separation they feel. 

Respond to it: Beginning in Isaiah 49:15, this is what God does.  He doesn't let the people's emotion stay that way.  In grace, He comes and speaks...responding to their feelings.  Seek to change: The truth that God speaks is meant to change the people's mind, will, and emotions.  He speaks to them of His love, power, and grace.

Ultimately, He expressed His grace in the coming of His servant (50:4-11).  And the only way to fight feelings of being forsaken and forgotten is to look to that servant...Jesus Christ.  Because of our sin, we deserve being forsaken...we deserve to be forgotten.  Yet, in grace, God sent Jesus Christ to the cross, where the Father turned His back on Jesus so that He would never have to turn His back on us.  There, Jesus uttered the cry of dereliction ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") so that we wouldn't have to.

Now, having reviewed all that, what can you do if a friend feels forsaken and forgotten?  Well, let me suggest three things.

1. Continue steadfastly in prayer (Col. 4:2).  Whatever the situation, the Christian who feels forsaken and forgotten is ultimately believing a lie.  They may be seeing their suffering through unbiblical lenses.  There may be sin of which they need to repent.  However, God does not forsake His children.  He does not abandon those He has adopted.  He does not turn His back on those He has embraced. 

And any time a Christian is believing a lie, you can bet that the father of lies (i.e.- the devil) is nearby.  Spiritual warfare surrounds these kinds of emotions, and our chief weapons in the trenches are God's Word and prayer (Eph. 6:17-18).  So, fight for your brother.  Fight for your sister.  Fight like it matters...because it matters!  Find passages of Scripture that speak to God's character, especially His faithfulness, and pray that God will give them "a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of [their] hearts enlightened" (Eph. 1:17-18).  Pray they will "have strength to comprehend...what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge" (Eph. 3:18-19).  Search the Scriptures for things your brother/sister needs to hear, and pray them steadfastly.

2. Weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15).  The pain of feeling abandoned is real.  It can get dark.  It can be overwhelming.  And in those moments...God designs that we enter into our brother or sister's pain.  Of course, the easy thing to do would be to just keep your distance; in fact, there are times when the person says, "I just need to work through this on my own" or "I just need some space."  While we want to be sensitive to the needs of our brother/sister, permanently distancing ourselves from the one who is hurting can actually increase the feeling of being forsaken and forgotten.  If that request is made, use other means...cards, phone calls, emails, texts...to let the person know he is not forgotten.  Keep inviting...keep striving.

3. Speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).  The book of Ecclesiastes says that there is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak (3:7).  It will take wisdom to know when to speak, but it will be necessary to speak.  You need to pray before you speak, but you will need to speak.  Just as God spoke into the lives of His people in Isaiah 49-50 to confront their wrong feelings, God has given us to one another in the church to do the same.  But what do you say? 

Well, one thing that comes immediately to mind are the images of Isaiah 49:15-16.  God says that even if a mother forgets her nursing baby, He would never forget us.  He has engraved us on the palms of His hands.  Your friend needs to hear about the character of God...the unfailing love of God...the grace of God...the faithfulness of God.  The very Scriptures you have prayed they would understand need to be spoken into their lives.  Faith comes through hearing...and it is strengthened through hearing.  So, let them hear the truths of God from your lips...in love and in compassion.  And encourage them to not forsake the gathering of God's people, where they will hear the Word of God still more.


So, what do you do when you feel forsaken and forgotten?  Admit it, understand it, respond to it, and seek to change.  What do you do when your friend feels that way?  Continue steadfastly in prayer, weep with those who weep, and speak the truth in love...so that your friend will admit it, understand it, respond to it, and seek to change.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Connecting Trials, Wisdom and Faith

[This entry follows a sermon preached by Chad McFadden this past Sunday titled "Embracing God's Perspective on Trials".  Click on the title to find the audio.]

On Sunday, I was truly blessed to hear my brother preach from James 1:1-8.  Whether one is in the midst of a trial or not, Christians need to have a proper perspective on trials (i.e.- God's perspective on trials).  I don't say this as an observer...I say it as one who needs to be reminded of God's purposes in the midst of trial, so that I can grow as God intends through each one.

Here are verses 2-8...just to get our minds set:
(2) Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, (3) for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. (4) And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

(5) If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (6) But let him as in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. (7) For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; (8) he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

What I want to focus on in this follow-up to the sermon is look at the way James connects verses 2-4 and verses 5-8 of this text.  In our Bibles, there's a paragraph break...even in the text I just printed, I put space in between the two sections.  However, the two texts are tightly linked.

What often happens in the midst of trials is that we become myopic in our spiritual vision.  Do you know what it means to have myopic vision?  It means to be nearsighted...unable to see into the distance clearly.  And when we are faced with various kinds of trials, our tendency is to become nearsighted...myopic...focusing only on the pain of the moment...only on the uncertainty of an immediate outcome.  All I can see is the diagnosis, the broken relationship, or the wrong that has been done to me.  It fills my vision.

Don't misunderstand...James' solution to this myopic tendency is not to have us live in a dream world, where we pretend pain actually feels good.  This would actually still be a focus on the here and now...it would still be spiritually nearsighted because our only goal would be relief right now with no view to any long-term purposes.  So, James isn't calling us to focus on the pain in the here and now...and he's not calling us to imagine away the pain of the here and now.

He's calling us to see the trials of here and now with God's perspective so we can walk through them toward God's purposes.  It's interesting that in verse 3-4, James outlines the perspective of God in our trials and then he jumps to talking about prayer for wisdom and faith to believe God will answer.  Why would he do this?  Why connect enduring trials with wisdom and faith?  Because in the midst of trials, two things that seem to shrivel the fastest are wisdom and faith.

Being so nearsighted that we can't see past our circumstances, we fail to see the wisdom of God's plan, purposes, and perspective...we fail to believe that God actually has a plan, a purpose, and a right perspective on our lives.  We feel that our wisdom (i.e.- that there has to be a better way to learn and grow than trials) is superior to God's wisdom, and we forget that "the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men" (1 Cor. 1:25a).

It is when this happens that we must recognize that we are the ones who lack wisdom, we must ask God for it, and we must believe He will supply it.  This is truly the only way that we can successfully walk through trials and experience the change, the growth, and the refining of character God has designed. 

Know this, dear Christian.  God has not sent you into this trial alone. He has not sent you without purpose.  God is with you, and He is for you.  If you feel that your trial is evidence that God has forsaken you, remember the cross...where Christ was forsaken by God so you would never be forsaken. Your trial is not evidence of the forsaking of God...for nothing can separate you from His love in Christ. He is working for His glory and for your good. You can trust Him...don't give up!

Christian, are you enduring a trial now?  Don't let it fill your vision...don't try to imagine it away.  Neither response will help you.  What you need is to live with the wisdom of God's perspective on your trial.  Christian, are you lacking wisdom?  Go to God, seek Him for the wisdom you need to walk with joy under the trial, and believe that He will answer.