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 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 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'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 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 matter how matter how much our culture does it in other cultural 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?