One by One for Everyone

January 20th, 2015 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I have noticed a curious phenomenon in many contemporary discipleship practices. Discipleship quite rightly involves both the individual and the community, but in business-mans-1074755-mcurrent practice we frequently flip the proper place of each. Let me explain.

 

In the New Testament, we see that discipleship has a communal telos and an individual methodology, by and large. The ultimate aim is not a loose collection of mature individuals, but rather a mature community. So, for example, Paul reminds the church in Ephesus,

 

In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (2:21-22, emphasis added)

 

And a bit later in the same letter, he teaches,

 

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (4:11-13, emphasis added)

 

In both cases, the ultimate aim is corporate maturity, as the analogies make clear. Paul does not envision a loose collection of holy bricks, but rather a holy temple (composed, undoubtedly, of holy bricks) in which God dwells by his Spirit. Likewise, he sees the purpose of leaders equipping members for works of service as producing not just holy cells or holy body parts, but a holy body, with Christ himself as the Head. The apostle Peter makes a similar point, and even draws on a similar analogy, when he writes,

 

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you [plural in the Greek] also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)

 

It seems clear that God’s vision for the church is one of corporate maturity, in which the entire assembly grows in holiness together for the sake of his Name. The communal telos is clear. What about the individual methodology? (A quick aside: By individual, I don’t necessarily mean one-on-one, but life-on-life, which will almost certainly include small, intensely relational discipleship groups.)

 

We see this most obviously in the ministry of Jesus himself. While Jesus certainly preached to the crowds, the focus of his ministry—and the greatest expenditure of his time and energy—was on the disciples. In Mark’s stunning phrase, “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach” (3:14). Jesus called men to himself in order that they might simply spend time with him—life-on-life discipleship—knowing that through this experience they would be equipped to continue the apostolic ministry.

 

Paul conveys a similar approach, though he only hints at it. In reminding the Thessalonians of his ministry there, he says,

 

For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12)

 

The key phrase for our purposes is “each of you,” which strongly suggests an individual, life-on-life methodology. Again, this is not to say that Paul never preached to the crowds; Acts records many such occasions. However, it seems that the bulk of his ministry—during the “work week,” we might say—took place in his leather-working shop, as individuals or small groups of people would come in to receive training, instruction, and encouragement. We also see Paul’s individual dedication to young men like Timothy and Titus as further evidence of this approach.

 

So it seems that the New Testament envisions a communal telos achieved primarily through an individual methodology.

 

I fear that in much of our contemporary practice, however, we flip the two: that is, we have an individual telos achieved through a communal methodology.

 

Western society is overwhelmingly, and self-evidently individualistic, so it is easy to see how we could unwittingly adopt our culture’s values. Generally speaking, we are concerned about our personal growth in holiness. Pastors routinely ask, “How are you doing in this area?” not “How are we doing in this area?” Rarely does one hear of corporate application in a message. We see this trend especially reflected in our lack of commitment to the local church, and our willingness to switch churches upon the slightest provocation. One of the commonest reasons given for leaving a church and joining another is a desire to “get fed.” In leaving for this reason, however, the church-hopper belies an individual focus, and—quite frankly—an unwillingness to strive for corporate growth.[1] Ephesians 4:16 doesn’t come into play.

 

We all have a tendency to selfishness (cf. 2 Timothy 3:1), so this phenomenon is unsurprising, even if we need to challenge it more actively in our own lives and in our communities. However, our communal methodology has no such extenuating circumstances. I suspect it is driven by our peculiarly American pragmatism, and our business mindset—streamlining and efficiency—more than any systemic spiritual dearth. Whatever the case, many churches adopt a community-wide, assembly-line approach to discipleship. Rather than a life-on-life approach, we provide a uniform curriculum and depersonalized programs or classes. The large-group setting and impersonal material provides little impetus for true growth, even at the individual level. At its worst, those who complete the class get their certificate of individual achievement and proceed on their merry way, without any thought of how their growth should multiply as they serve within the community.

 

The New Testament provides a wealth of information and instruction regarding discipleship in the local church, and many have returned to the fount for guidance in this area. I thank God for the revival of life-on-life discipleship happening across our country—and really, across the globe. I hope and pray that many more will choose the hard, slow way of relational disciple-making—the Master’s way—as they strive to become a community growing in maturity to the glory of God.

[1] I realize, of course, that some people leave because they have striven for corporate change, but have discovered that the leadership of the church is stifling it.



The Accountable Heart

April 9th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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There is a lot of buzz about “authentic community” these days, stemming from either a robust reflection on key biblical teachings or millennial chutzpah about how much better at relating they are than previous generations. Regardless, the writers of Scripture place a transparent emphasis on genuine, biblical fellowship. This is a central component of life in the Spirit—and central to authentic community is the notion of accountability.

 

Accountability simply means inviting others to examine your life in the light of Scripture, to call you out when you stray from the right paths, wittingly or not. We act as living mirrors in each other’s lives (James 1:22-24), speaking the truth in love to one another (Ephesians 4:14-15), gently and humbly restoring those caught in sin (Galatians 6:1).

 

The trouble with accountability, though, is that it is only as effective as our hearts are open. So what does an accountable heart look like? David paints a fine picture:

 

                I call to you, LORD, come quickly to me;

                                hear me when I call to you.

                May my prayer be set before you like incense;

                                may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.

 

                Set a guard over my mouth, LORD;

                                keep watch over the door of my lips.

                Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil

                                so that I take part in wicked deeds

                along with those who are evildoers;

                                do not let me eat their delicacies.

 

                Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness;

                                let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head.

                My head will not refuse it,

                                for my prayer will still be against the deeds of evildoers. (Psalm 141:1-5)

 

David begins by pleading for grace. He knows that he cannot have what he seeks apart from the gracious intervention of the sovereign Lord. But what does he seek specifically? He wants to keep himself from evil, from wicked deeds (especially sins of the tongue, it seems, based on his opening two petitions). These are prayers many of us have prayed many times, I would guess. Nothing out of the ordinary here.

 

But what comes next caught me off guard. David expects grace might come in the form of authentic community. In effect, he says, “Should you choose to answer this prayer by sending me someone to rebuke me, I would welcome that, Father.” Because his desire for sanctification is strong—his prayer is still “against the deeds of evildoers”—he is a glad participant in the ministry of accountability. And he is truly glad: it isn’t just that he would accept rebuke when it comes; he will receive it as a kindness, as precious as an anointing with oil.[1]

 

I wish we had a good chronology for the Psalms. Did David write this after his experience with Nathan the prophet (cf. 2 Samuel 12:1-14 and Psalm 51)? Had he already experienced the grace of rebuke? Is that why he celebrates and seeks it here? We will never know—but we know how powerful the ministry of accountability is when the heart is open to receive it.

 

So let us open our hearts to receive it now, pleading with God for this grace . . . just like David.



[1] See Psalm 133:1-2 for a good sense of just how precious oil on the head is to David!



Devotional: “Cut It Out” (Mark 9:42-50)

August 2nd, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Mark concludes this series of short stories by giving us a collection of Jesus’ sayings about the cost of discipleship. He begins by warning those who cause immature believers to “stumble”—that is, fall away from the faith—in very strong language. It would be better for them to die a painful, public death than face the wrath of God in the age to come.

 

But, of course, we usually don’t need anyone else’s help to stumble. We are pretty good at causing ourselves to stumble, gratifying—as we so often do—the flesh instead of the Spirit. So Jesus gets even stronger in his words to us about us.

 

Is there anything in your life causing you to sin? Then cut it out. Literally. If your eyes cause you to sin, gouge them out—because it would be better to be blind and reconciled to God than sighted and damned. If your hand causes you to sin, amputate it—because it would be better to be maimed and reconciled to God than whole and damned. If you are wounded, and the wound turns gangrene, you must amputate the diseased member or die. Is it any different with our sin? This is not hypothetical. I’m not sure this is even meant to be exaggeration. We need to attack the sin in our lives ruthlessly. And that will mean making some serious cuts.

 

We need to act proportionately radical to the degree of sin in our lives. Consider, for example, two men whom Jesus encounters who have succumbed to the sin of greed. Zacchaeus meets Jesus and voluntarily divests himself of his wealth. He knows what a serious issue it is in his life, so he elects to cut out half his income by giving it to those in need. Sin was serious, so he takes a serious step.

 

But now consider the rich young ruler. His sin runs deeper, so Jesus calls him to make a truly radical amputation: to get rid of all his possessions. Will it cripple him for life? Yes, absolutely. But it will also free him to live true life in fellowship with the Father. He is unwilling, and goes to damnation instead—a damnation Jesus describes all too clearly in this passage (cf. verse 48).

 

But what about us? Is there a sin that threatens to destroy? Lust? Greed? Pride? Bitterness? Selfishness? Envy? Anger? Jesus’ words show us precisely what needs to be done.

 

Will it be easy? Of course not. Jesus never intended it to be. As he says, “Everyone will be salted with fire” (verse 49). Referring to Leviticus 2:13, Jesus teaches that we are to offer ourselves to God like a sacrifice. Every sacrifice was sprinkled with salt, and then consumed totally by the fire. That is what our lives should be: a total, irrevocable offering to God.

 

If we have been salted with fire—if we have given ourselves totally to God—then we will be “salty” disciples, so to speak. Our character will reflect the sacrifice we have made. We will be the savor of God in an unsavory world—speaking truth in grace (cf. Colossians 4:6), adding wisdom and integrity, preserving and ministering in his name.

 

Do you want to be great? Then cut it out. Whatever it is that keeps you from living wholly for him, a purified and purifying substance in a corrupted world.

 

Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. What sin threatens to destroy your life? What steps do you need to take to cut it out before it kills you—body and soul? Are you taking wimpy, easy steps to put a bandage on the problem? Or are you going to take ruthless, uncompromising steps to amputate the issue, even at great cost to yourself? Let someone know what steps you plan to take.
  2. Are you a “salty” disciple? When people are around you, do they “taste and see that the Lord is good” by your witness? Or have you lost your saltiness through compromise and complacency? Offer yourself to God as a total, irrevocable sacrifice.


American Idols

May 28th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Some time ago I noted the importance of “cultural discernment,” the willingness to judge the culture in which we reside and minister lovingly and incisively. Paul did so with Crete especially (cf. Titus 1:12-13). This is simply a tangible acknowledgment of the doctrine of total depravity, that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, that there is no one righteous, not even one. If this is true—and it seems to be empirically verifiable—then there are no righteous cultures either. This means that, if we are to be effective ministers in this present cultural darkness, we need to recognize the sinful tendencies of the culture and address them graciously by the gospel of Christ.

 

As I am living now in the United States, and as the bulk of my very limited readership is likewise, I propose to consider some of our peculiar, pervasive sins. For the sake of levity in the midst of much gravity, we’ll call them our “American Idols.” I will mention four, though I suspect this is not an exhaustive list.

 

Egalitarianism:

One would not normally think of equality as a sin or idol, but so it has become in most of the Western world, springing from our uncritical acceptance of democracy. At its root, this is the belief that every opinion has equal value and should therefore be given equal weight. It is at its worst when we applaud and accept every reading of a passage of Scripture in our small groups and education classes, no matter how ill-informed, anachronistic, or inane. Not only is this an unfortunate capitulation to the excesses of postmodernism, but it carries with it an implicit denial of the hierarchy God himself established.

 

God has made it clear that he has given some to be leaders in the local assembly of universal church (cf. Ephesians 4:11), and that they are responsible for the doctrinal purity of the congregation (as even a cursory reading of the Pastoral Epistles would show). I have already written on the damaging effects of this “flip principle” on the church, especially the office of preaching, so I won’t belabor the point.

 

It is worth noting that some of the democratic egalitarianism of the church comes from a faulty application of the priesthood of all believers. While no one would wish to deny the importance of the whole body of Christ in ministering the gospel to each other and the world (cf. Ephesians 4:12-16; 1 Peter 2:9), it is an unwarranted leap then to the abolition of the leader-congregant distinction. What the Bible maintains, as in Ephesians 4, I would not wish to deny.

 

Individualism:

America has long prided herself for her doctrine of “rugged individualism.” We have developed asinine proverbs like “God helps those who help themselves” to justify our self-reliance (to use Emerson’s description of this vice he regarded as virtue). We worship the self-made person and seek to emulate those who have “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.” The fact that this is a physical impossibility should have been our first clue that something is amiss.

 

The church has not been immune to this cancer. We have imported this mentality and so diminished the importance of regular fellowship—as well as radically distorting the nature of that fellowship. Consider the habits of the early church:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

At one time, the church gathered daily, sharing regular meals together and holding everything in common (including their schedules, it would seem). In marked contrast, many Christians today have a hard time attending church regularly, comfortably skipping if another event conflicts with their regular time of worship. Beyond that, many more find it difficult to fellowship regularly outside of scheduled church activities. Given our current culture of loneliness and isolation in the suburbs especially, it seems people simply cannot make time for Christian community, friendships, and engagement.

 

Unfortunately, this affects more than church attendance statistics. The trouble with this unholy brand of Christian individualism is that sanctification is a community project. Quite simply, we do not normally grow in isolation from other Christians; we need the ministry of the assembly (cf. Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31; Hebrews 10:24-25; Galatians 6:1-2 and a host of other similar passages). Without the ministry of fellow pilgrims, we will delude ourselves into thinking we have achieved greater holiness than is true; we need loving reminders—living mirrors—of how far short we fall of the standard of God’s Word (James 1:22-24).

 

Remember, God is calling a people for his name, and a people is more than a collection of individuals (1 Peter 2:9). And that people will grow to become the mature body of Christ as a people, not as individuals (Ephesians 4:15-16). John Stott sums it up nicely, with all the necessary holy boldness: “We are not only Christian people; we are also church people.  We are not only committed to Christ, we are also committed to the body of Christ.  At least I hope so.  I trust that none of my readers is that grotesque anomaly, an un-churched Christian.  The New Testament knows nothing of such a person.”[1]

 

Consumerism:

Americans are driven by a consumer mindset. Inundated by an unceasing deluge of advertising—on the road, on the web, on TV, in the paper—really, anywhere they can put it—we have believed the lie. We do deserve it. We should have the latest and greatest. Our lives would be incomplete without those. And the adversary snickers. For we have exchanged shadows for substance, trinkets for the Trinity, things for the King of kings. We have “amused ourselves to death,” to use Neil Postman’s phrase—and the death has been spiritual, not physical.

 

Worse still, we have allowed consumerism to vitiate our experience of worship. At one time, not that long ago, people came to church expecting to meet the living God, to hear a heart-piercing truth from his Word, and to glorify him corporately in song and service. Now, should we even make it to church (see above: indvidualism)—that is, if it is the best program available in that timeslot—we expect to be pleased, appeased, to have our burdens eased. In short, we expect the church to provide for us what we think they should provide for us (see above: egalitarianism)—after all, every other segment of society functions in this way—and if they do not, we will find someone who will. We will vote with our checkbook, so to speak, by taking our tithes and offerings to the competitor, by which we mean another local congregation, where we will restart the cycle.[2]

 

And, even more sadly, many churches have accepted this as the ineluctable status quo, and so reward the fickle and disregard the faithful. It seems more and more churches today are willing to enter into the advertising business, to woo and coddle customers to a spurious gospel of self. To our shame.

 

Litigationism:

Sometimes a neologism is needed. Litigationism is a specific form of egotism in which we consider our rights more important than our duties. When we feel someone has trampled on our rights, we take to the courts with alacrity. I would be hard pressed to think of a more fitting epithet for our culture than “litigious.”

 

The notion of human rights springs from a Christian worldview. God has made us—all of us—in his image, and he has thus endowed us with worth and dignity. No less ardent an anti-Christian than Thomas Jefferson could acknowledge this much.[3] However, the Christian view of rights is actually framed in terms of duties. God does not command us to be loved by others, even our enemies, but to love them; he prohibits murder, for example, not so that we can preserve our lives, but so that we will not take another’s. Our focus, if we are truly Christian, will always be outward (cf. Mark 12:29-31). Such was the example Christ provided for us—an example he expected us to follow (cf. John 13:15, 34-35).

 

It was instructive to me that, next to our dietary habits, this was the aspect of American culture most amusing to my friends from other cultures. When large swaths of humanity find our approach to rights inscrutable, it may be because we are wrong. I have written on the subject already, so, again, I will not belabor the point.

 

It should come as no surprise that pride—the love of self—undergirds all of these sins. C.S. Lewis famously referred to pride as the chief sin, endemic to humanity, the “complete anti-God state of mind” that leads to every other vice.[4] Above all else, Americans love themselves. We are all, in the most painful sense of a familiar phrase, “proud to be an American.”

 

Our pride leads us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, so we expect to have a vote in every proceeding (egalitarianism). Our pride demands we pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, so we neglect the community God provides for us (individualism). Our pride whispers that we have a right to whatever we want, so we expect to be coddled and comforted even in our churches (consumerism). And our pride insists on our rights, so that we will fight anyone who doesn’t do as we please (litigationism).

 

When a single disease produces such pernicious symptoms, we would do well to seek a cure. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

 



[1] The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007): 19.

[2] How do you know if you are a church consumer? Have you ever said something like, “I couldn’t worship today because . . . ,” as though our worship depended on the church’s programming abilities? Do you listen to the sermon critically, to see if the pastor was worth your time, or as if this were God’s Word for you today? What sorts of complaints are you likely to make about the church?

[3] An atheist, however, could not: there is no philosophical sleight of hand convincing enough to rescue dignity for the product of time, chance, and matter, despite the impressive efforts of “charitable” atheists like Luc Ferry.

[4] Mere Christianity, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Touchstone, 1996): 110.



The Office of Preaching

February 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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I wrote recently about the “flip principle” as regards church leaders and the congregation: the congregation desires authority which by grace has been given to the leaders alone; the leaders alone perform works of ministry which by grace have been asked of the whole congregation. I trembled as I wrote the words—as I tremble when writing almost anything pertaining to God, his Word, and the life of the congregation—for fear that I had gone too far, had spoken too directly, had diminished the priesthood of believers in order to exalt an office I hold.

 

Then I read Bonhoeffer, as I am wont to do, and found my words soft, indirect, even diminishing the office of preaching in the face of the congregation—perhaps because of my own acquiescence to American democratic egalitarianism!

 

In his magisterial Ethics, he writes concerning the commandment of God in the Church:

 

[The office of preaching] is instituted directly by Jesus Christ Himself; it does not derive its legitimation from the will of the congregation but from the will of Jesus Christ. It is established in the congregation and not by the congregation, and at the same time it is with the congregation. When this office is exercised in the congregation to its full extent, life is infused into all the other offices of the congregation, which can after all only be subservient to the office of the divine word; for wherever the word of God rules alone, there will be found faith and service. The congregation which is being awakened by the proclamation of the word of God will demonstrate the genuineness of its faith by honouring the office of preaching in its unique glory and by serving it with all its powers; it will not rely on its own faith or on the universal priesthood of all believers in order to depreciate the office of preaching, to place obstacles in its way, or even to try to make it subordinate to itself. The superior status of the office of preaching is preserved from abuse, and against danger from without, precisely by a genuine subordination of the congregation, that is to say, by faith, prayer and service, but not by a suppression or disruption of the divine order by a perverse desire for superiority on the part of the congregation.

 

All this seems well in line with the teaching of Scripture, especially in its emphasis on true church leadership and the distinction to be maintained between leaders and congregants, the priesthood of all believers notwithstanding. (Indeed, I think the strongest statement of the priesthood of all believers comes directly after Paul’s distinguishing leaders from congregants in Ephesians 4:11-6.)

 

But Bonhoeffer presses on, as he is wont to do, and challenges our reactive Reformation approach to the Scriptures within the congregation:

 

The office of proclamation, the testimony to Jesus Christ, is inseparably bound up with Holy Scripture. At this point we must venture to advance the proposition that Scripture is essentially the property of the office of preaching and that it is the preaching which properly belongs to the congregation. Scripture requires to be interpreted and preached.[1] By its nature it is not a book of edification for the congregation. What rightly belongs to the congregation is the text of the sermon together with the interpretation of the this text, and on this basis there is a “searching of the Scriptures, whether these things be so” (Acts 17.11), that is to say, whether they are really as the preaching has proclaimed them to be; in certain unusual circumstances, therefore, there arises the necessity for contradicting the preaching on the basis of Holy Scripture. But even here it is presupposed that Holy Scripture belongs essentially to the office of teaching. If individual Christians, or groups of Christians, seize hold of the Bible, appealing to the equal right of all Christians, to the right of the faithful to speak for themselves and to the self-evident truth of the scriptural word, it is by no means a sign of special reverence or special scriptural understanding for the essential character of the divine revelation. In this lies the source of a great deal of presumption, disorder, rebellion and scriptural confusion. Respect for the holy character of the Scripture demands recognition of the fact that it is only by grace that a man is called upon to interpret and proclaim it and that it is also by grace that a man is permitted even to be a hearer of the interpretation and proclamation. The book of homilies and the prayer-book are the principal books for the congregation; the Holy Scripture is the book for the preacher; there can be little doubt that this formulation correctly represents the divinely ordained relationship between the congregation and the office. It must at the same time be borne clearly in mind that these ideas do not spring from a clergyman’s desire to schoolmaster the laity; they follow from the revelation of God himself.[2]

 

These are tough words, flying in the face of much contemporary thinking, but I suspect Bonhoeffer’s last assertion is true: this is the revelation of God himself throughout the New Testament. Many of the errors of both theory and practice in the local church spring from a diminished view of the office of proclamation and an elevated view of the role of the congregation.

 

One needn’t agree with every jot and tittle of Bonhoeffer’s work in order to gain mightily from reflection on the problem he exposes. To that reflection I challenge you—both preachers and congregants—to commit yourselves.



[1] A future series will detail the many ways we can misconstrue Scripture, and why interpretation and proclamation proves so necessary.

[2] Ethics, trans. N.H. Smith, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995): 289-290. Emphasis is his throughout.



The Flip Principle

February 12th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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I believe strongly that our enemy loves to wreak havoc in the community by “flipping” relationships on their heads. This happens in the Garden of Eden, of course, when Adam stands passively by, abdicating his leadership responsibilities, leaving Eve to make the crucial decision alone. This happens still today. After all, what generation hasn’t complained about children rejecting the authority of their parents? In fact, at this point in history, with our unfortunate commitment to absolute democratic egalitarianism, we seem to have no regard for any authority whatsoever, never mind the apostolic exhortation (cf. 1 Peter 2:13).

 

In conversations with a number of pastors serving in very different areas and churches, I have heard mention of one specific application of this principle time and time again. As I see it in the New Testament, God “gives” certain men to the church as leaders—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers—in order to “equip God’s people for works of service,” so that the whole body “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:11-16). The leaders are to exercise leadership in and oversight of the church (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 1 Peter 5:1-4). God’s Word then specifically commands the congregation to submit to the leadership of these men (Hebrews 13:17).

 

Thus, it seems that the elders/pastors/overseers[1] provide the bulk of leadership and direction,[2] while the congregation performs the bulk of the ministry. But here’s where our enemy seeks to flip the association on its head. These days, it seems that almost exactly the opposite relationship is in place in many churches. Congregations expect the leaders to perform the bulk of the ministry, while they expect the leaders to submit to the bulk of their opinions and expectations. The manipulative threat of leaving the church “because my needs aren’t being met” hangs in the air and keeps the flipped relationship in place.

 

There is great danger in allowing this distorted dynamic to continue. (One once again suspects God knows what he is doing.) For first, the church will not grow apart from the mobilized ministry of the whole congregation; a handful of men simply cannot minister to an entire congregation, much less the surrounding community, by themselves. And second, a congregation run by the whims of the most vocal members, or by majority acclamation, will very rarely choose the wisest, most effective approach to ministry (Numbers 13:26-14:12 and 1 Samuel 8:1-22 offer a glimpse at the process). God calls and equips certain individuals for the task of leadership, shaping and communicating the ministry’s vision and practical outworking. The congregants then respond in joyful submission, communicating questions and concerns in thoughtful consideration of this dynamic (Acts 6:1-7 offers a glimpse at the redeemed process[3]).

 

Leaders, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).

 

Congregants, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you” (Hebrews 13:17).



[1] These titles are used interchangeably in the New Testament, leading to the conclusion that this is one office.

[2] I say “bulk” because I know that every godly leader longs for and embraces thoughtful, biblical input and discussion.

[3] Note also how many times the apostles, especially Paul, have to defend their authority to unruly congregations.



Love and a Multitude of Sins

November 27th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I have noticed a curious phenomenon among Christians today: when it comes to sin in the church, we speak when we should remain silent, and remain silent when we should speak.

 

If someone sins against me, causing personal offense—by which we usually mean a wounded ego—I am likely to confront the person, sharing my hurt and frustrations with him. It is almost unforgivable that someone who claims Christ as Lord could treat me in this unholy manner! However, if I see that same brother reckless in a sin that does not injure me—does not wound my pride or comfort—I am likely to keep quiet and not involve myself. After all, what if he becomes angry with me? It just isn’t worth the headache to admonish someone—unless his sin causes me more discomfort than confronting him does.

 

I think we have got this perfectly backwards.

 

Jesus commands us—not a polite request, mind you, but a demand from the Lord Almighty—to deal with sin in the church decisively: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15). This is to be done privately, at least initially, as Jesus goes on to explain (18:16); and it is to be done gently and humbly, mindful of our own propensity to sin and need of grace (Galatians 6:1). Above all, it is to be done lovingly. But that is the point, of course: to refrain from speaking—to leave a brother or sister in their sin without the exhortation and support of the fellowship of believers—is no love at all. It is indifference, perhaps the severest form of hatred for a family member. (And we are family.) James understands this well, writing to his scattered flock, “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). To save a sibling from death, to cover over a multitude of sins—is this not love?[1]

 

The trouble comes when we have been personally offended. When this happens, as it will inevitably in the fellowship of sinners, we so rarely respond in love. Instead, we respond in pride and anger—damnable sins, to be sure. I suspect God calls us to forgive without admonition in these cases to keep us from the temptation to pride, to keep us in the humble experience of grace. As he so often does, Bonhoeffer strikes at the heart of the matter: “Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sins is there no apology whatsoever.” Our community life usually suggests the reverse. Remember, just a few verses after Jesus commands us to call out a sinful sin, he shares the parable of the unmerciful servant in answer to Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?” (Matthew 18:21; cf. 23-25). The parable’s powerful lesson is apropos: how can we trifle with a sibling who owes us a small debt—spare change, really—when we see the immensity of the debt God has canceled in our own lives? Paul expresses it tersely, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). We remain silent for our own sakes, pray for our siblings, entrust them to the infallible work of the Spirit. We forego pride. We choose love.

 

Love. Love compels us to speak, compels us to call the beloved, but wayward sibling to the abundant life Christ tenders. And love compels us to fall silent, to contemplate the magnitude of God’s love in our own lives, to forgive as we have been forgiven.



[1] The language of covering over a multitude of sins calls to mind 1 Peter 4:8: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Here Peter makes explicit the connection between love and overcoming sin.



Essential Unity

September 11th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Attributed to Augustine, the old adage says, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” I suspect the wise Christian will heed this advice. Though one wishes to believe that all Christians will agree on every point, our finite and limited perspective will never allow us to have complete understanding of the depth of God’s revealed Word. As such, Christians will disagree at various points along the theological spectrum. The question that then arises is how do we distinguish those areas about which all orthodox Christians must agree (unity) from those about which we may, in a spirit of charity, differ (liberty). I suspect the gospel serves as the dividing line between those issues that are essentials and those that are not.

 

In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul uses strong language to denounce the unorthodoxy he sees creeping into that church’s thinking (cf. 1:6-9; 3:1). In this example we see the proper means for separating the essential from anything less. One would, I assume, place circumcision on the list of non-essentials. Yet in this letter, Paul argues vehemently for the unimportance of circumcision, consigning to hell (pronouncing anathema) those who force it on Gentile believers. Now, I believe neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters at all (Galatians 6:15). Still, it mattered at that moment and in that church because it compromised the gospel. If Gentile believers had to become Jews first in order to become Gentiles, then we are saved not by grace but by our works, by upholding the law (an impossible task). Thus, in this setting, circumcision proved essential because the gospel itself was at stake, and so Paul gives no liberty to the Judaizers plaguing the Galatian church (and also publicly rebukes Peter for similar reasons). I think this framework allows us to distinguish the two classes of theological topics.

 

One might worry at this point that too many doctrines be relegated to the non-essential; after all, what bearing does the doctrine of the Trinity or of Christology (both doctrines many Christians hold to be essential) have on the gospel? But upon closer inspection, we see that each doctrine does cause the gospel to stand or fall. Take Christology as an example: as Gregory of Nazianus argued during the fifth century, “what is not assumed is not healed.” That is, if Christ has not become fully man (including body and mind), he has not fully healed humanity. Indeed, it was precisely Christology’s relationship to atonement (the gospel doctrine) that led Anselm of Canterbury to ask and answer the question “Why did God become man?” Only man can pay the penalty for his sins; only God can offer the infinite penalty needed. Thus, only the God-man (Christ) could effectively satisfy the wrath of God. In my estimation, then, those doctrines necessary to maintain the orthodox gospel are essential, and those that are not, are not.



A Theology of Teasing

March 12th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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I recently had the opportunity to speak on the power of speech (ironic, I know), and offered at that time a brief “theology of teasing.” I sought to defend the notion that teasing—poking fun, irony, even sarcasm in its less technical sense[1]—can serve a life-giving purpose within the Christian community. My comments were not received favorably by everyone. So I wish now to give a fuller defense of what I only hinted at earlier.

 

Some would argue that teasing should never form a part of the Christian’s repertoire. The argument seems to follow 1 Corinthians 13:5, which says love is not rude. The underlying assumption is that teasing is necessarily rude, and since we are called to love—and therefore called to kindness, not rudeness—we cannot tease. I suspect this is a subtle form of begging the question, however, as it assumes what it is trying to prove, viz., that teasing is wrong. If we slow down and work through the argument as a whole, we may come to a different conclusion.

 

Scripture offers an absolute injunction as regards our speech. Paul says in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (ESV). That the injunction is absolute—covering all of our words—is clear from the strongly dichotomous language: “Let no . . . but only . . . .” Thus, the test we must apply to teasing is whether or not it is wholesome or corrupting, good for building up, giving grace to those who hear.

 

At this point we may be tempted to answer cavalierly, “Teasing is never wholesome, never builds up, never gives grace.” I am not sure we have the biblical right to say this, however, as Scripture happily forbids the sort of speech that can never give grace. In fact, Paul does so a few verses later, enjoining the Ephesians, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, what are out of place” (5:4). Filthiness, foolishness, crude humor—and other forms of speech, such as gossip, slander, deceit, hatred—can never bring grace, and so God explicitly prohibits them. Teasing does not make this list.

 

It should not be hard to see why. A simple logical syllogism should do the trick.

  1. If teasing brings grace, it has a place in Christian conversation.
  2. Teasing brings grace.
  3. Therefore, it has a place in Christian conversation.

The point of disagreement is statement #2. However, it seems unwise to disagree with the proposition, as (1) Scripture does not speak condemningly of teasing, and we always must be careful not to teach as doctrines the commandments of men (Matthew 15:9) and (2) many people’s personal experiences agree with it. It seems far wiser to be more situation-specific, rather than sweepingly dichotomous, asking in each case if the teasing comment brings grace or not.

 

Not everyone enjoys teasing, and so we must be careful when using it. Some people have experienced grace through teasing—strengthening the relationship as it often does—but this does not give us the blanket right to assume that all will. We must, as Paul commands, see what “fits the occasion” and what will give grace “to those who hear” specifically. This requires sensitivity to the person and to the Spirit. We well understand the psalmist’s prayer, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips” (141:3).

 

As Proverbs reminds us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (18:21). When teasing will bring life, we should joyfully use it to bring humor, intimacy, wit, and the like to our gracious interactions; when it will bring death, we abstain. The decision will never be easy, especially when it proves so hard to tame the tongue (James 3:8), so we must choose our words carefully and lovingly. Love, not law, has the final say.

 

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).



[1] Sarcasm technically means speech intending to mock or wound, which would of course be sin. But in today’s vernacular, it usually means little more than irony, which is something altogether different.