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!