What Is an Elder?

December 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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This seems like a straightforward question—and one that may even have a straightforward answer. He is “above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:2-3, NIV). We’ve got that much. Beyond that things can get a bit shaky.


It is important that we use biblical language biblically. Constant use frequently transforms language in subtle ways. Nice used to mean foolish but now means polite; silly (seely at the time) used to mean blessed but now means foolish, ridiculous, stupid. What about elder? Would Peter and Paul still recognize how we use the term elder today?


Just like yesterday’s post, I want to offer a few suggestive comments. This is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion by any means.


  1. The New Testament uses elder interchangeably with a dizzying array of other terms. In Titus 1:6-7, Paul moves from elder to overseer[1] seamlessly. He writes, “An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless” (emphasis added). Paul doesn’t seem to be switching topics abruptly, so we might assume both terms refer to the same office. Peter, in offering his exhortation to the elders, writes, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care” (1 Peter 5:1-2). If his primary admonition for elders is to act as pastors (i.e., to shepherd), could we be forgiven for assuming they are the same office? Paul reaches the same conclusion from the opposite direction, as he lists “able to teach” as one of the qualifications for an elder—even though “teacher” seems to be related to the pastoral gift (cf. Ephesians 4:11, debates about the Granville Sharp rule notwithstanding). Hebrews 13:7 and 17 simply refer to leaders (Gk. êgoumenôn). Romans 12:8 mentions providers (Gk. proistamenos). 1 Thessalonians 5:12 describes those who are “over you” (proistamenos again) in the Lord. Should we find any difference in these categories? I suspect not. These are many ways to refer to the same group of people, each highlighting a different aspect of the work to which they have been called.
  2. There is no distinction between elders and pastors. It follows from the first point that the rigid distinction we make between elder and pastor is in fact a false dichotomy. Elders shepherd the flock and pastors function in the same role as elders. This entails some important practical implications. Here are two:
    1. First, some of the phrases we bandy about require thoughtful examination. For example, to say a church is “elder-led and staff-run” may be faithful to Scripture—depending on what we mean by it.[2] Is the phrase meant to imply that unpaid elders lead the church while the paid staff run it? That would seem to be a strange division. Or does the phrase simply mean that elders (including vocational elders, which we alone refer to as pastors, somewhat inexplicably) lead the church, while the staff (including vocational elders) handles the daily tasks necessary to keep the organization running smoothly? This scheme—a Venn diagram with vocational elders occupying the overlap—has more to commend it.
    2. Second, if indeed the terms refer to the same office, we should be wary of creating two distinct roles instead. What God has joined together, let no church constitution rend asunder. This has implications for both “pastors” and “elders” (as we use the terms today). A church simply cannot place someone in the role of pastor—asking them to shepherd the flock, minister the Word, and provide ongoing leadership—without also thinking of him as an elder. That would seem to be beyond the bounds biblically. Similarly, we cannot ask someone to serve as an elder without requiring them to shepherd the flock, minister the Word, etc. An elder cannot function simply as a board member—managing the “household,” viz., making sure finances are in order and attendance is up—and not as a pastor. Paul certainly acknowledges differences in gradation: some pastors—those particularly gifted or those who could do it vocationally—handle a greater share of the preaching and teaching load (cf. 1 Timothy 5:17); nevertheless, we cannot maintain a rigid distinction where Scripture acknowledges none. Which leads me to my next point.
  3. We need to take “able to teach” and “be shepherds” more seriously. It follows that if pastors and elders (leaders and providers) are the same category of people, they should perform the same tasks. (Someone should probably make a “Captain Obvious” joke at this point.) The qualifications for an elder focus on character, but elders need to do more than simply have exemplary character by the grace of God. They have been given specific responsibilities: “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” (1 Peter 5:2). Shepherding demands more than managing the affairs of the organization; it requires going, baptizing and teaching in order to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20); equipping God’s people for works of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-16); silencing false teaching and promoting pure doctrine (Titus 1:10-2:15); and especially prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:2). Every one of those tasks necessitates a thorough knowledge of Scripture—hence the qualification “able to teach.” How many elders today could explain the dangers of a popular book—take Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling as an example—when a congregant mentioned they were reading it? But that is precisely what Paul’s letters—to Timothy and Titus especially—ask of elders. The church needs to take this more seriously, offering more robust teaching and training.
  4. Our elder meetings should reflect our role as shepherds. If our elder meetings look suspiciously like board meetings, we should be concerned. Is prayer perfunctory or central? Do we spend more time on finances, buildings and grounds, and the like—or on a prayerful discussion of the spiritual needs of the flock and how we intend to meet them? Do our meetings burst with Paul’s pastoral burden: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28)? For more on elder meetings, see these excellent discussions by Jim Elliff and Andrew Davies.

[1] Bishop in earlier translations.

[2] One danger in the phrase is the extrabiblical term staff, referring to those who serve vocationally at the church, whether pastors or not.

Words for Young Pastors

December 18th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I am a young pastor. I graduated from seminary at age 24 and launched immediately into full-time ministry, which means I have no adult experience separate from my preparation for and participation in ministry. I was ordained by my sending church at age 26, so at least some would consider that I hold the office of pastor (if such a thing exists, if ordination has any place in the church, etc.). I am now 32, so I think I still qualify as a young pastor in the eyes of many in my congregation—and indeed in my own eyes.


There are some peculiar challenges facing young pastors though—challenges I have lived, which have left me feeling battered and bruised occasionally, and which at other times have left me battering and bruising others.


Foremost among them is the tension between age and calling. If the terms pastor and elder are interchangeable—as most scholars agree (cf. 1 Peter 5:1-5)—then what does it mean to be an “elder” (in terms of office) when one isn’t an “elder” (in terms of age)? The office gives authority that our age and inexperience doesn’t win in the hearts of many we are called to serve.


God foresaw these challenges, and, in his gracious providence, included three letters written to young pastors in his Word. How do we navigate these tempestuous waters? How do we demonstrate humility appropriate for our age and exercise authority appropriate for our office? How do we submit to and respect our elders and still command and correct as needed? Paul encourages his young charges in these very areas. Here are a few brief comments about his advice to Timothy and Titus; they are intended to be suggestive, not exhaustive.


  1. A young pastor has the responsibility to command and correct those who would lead the flock astray (1 Timothy 1:3-7; Titus 2:1-15). Paul encouraged Timothy to stay in Ephesus “so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer” (v 3, NIV, emphasis added). There is no discussion here of age or experience or influence. Part of what it means to shepherd a flock is protecting it from wolves; one cannot claim to be a pastor and not do whatever it takes to see the church safe from false teaching that would destroy it. Those whom God calls to pastoral ministry he equips for the work, which should include a profound understanding of the gospel and the Word of God. (If a pastor doesn’t have this, it begs the question if he was really called to the ministry.) For this reason especially even a young pastor needs to command and correct when it comes to false teaching. Those who are older may have strong opinions borne of experience, but if it is in contradiction to Scripture, it should be refuted: “They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (v 7, emphasis added). To give one example about which I have written recently, an older Christian may confidently affirm a pragmatic approach to ministry completely at odds with a scriptural approach. A young pastor should feel free to correct this error even though he is younger. Paul puts it in strong terms when addressing Titus: “Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you” (2:15).
  2. A young pastor should nevertheless correct humbly and gently (1 Timothy 5:1; 2 Timothy 2:25-26; 4:1-5). Some young pastors—those with my brash personality, for example—relish the opportunity to correct their “elders” (in terms of age), and may do so arrogantly. But God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble, and so I know to which group I would rather belong! Paul says, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father” (1 Timothy 5:1, emphasis added). The man in my hypothetical example, espousing ministerial pragmatism, is not my enemy; he is a member of my family, for whom Christ’s blood was shed, and who is as much an heir of the gracious gift of life as I. That should color my response to him. My words would be seasoned with grace, to say the least—and if they are not, no matter my depth of knowledge and insight, I have sinned in treating him thus. As Paul reminds Timothy in another letter, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2, emphasis added). Some of us err on the side of correction and rebuke without patience and care; others on the side of patience and care without correction and rebuke. In God’s estimation, though, grace and truth are always wedded.
  3. A young pastor has much to command and teach people of every age and gender (1 Timothy 4:11-16; Titus 2:1-8). Paul encourages Titus to “teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). This includes teaching the older men (v 2) and older women (v 3) and young men (v 6). Those whom God has called and equipped should exercise their gifts faithfully for the sake of the congregation. Pointing out sound doctrine and practice is the mark of a “good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed” (1 Timothy 4:6). So Paul exhorts us, “Command and teach these things” (v 11). But Paul is no fool: he knows that some will refuse to listen because of our age and inexperience. So he continues, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (v 12).[1] Timothy had a hard time ministering in Ephesus, and was apparently dismissed and disparaged because of his age—an experience many young pastors, including myself, have shared. So Paul transfers his full authority to Timothy via this letter. Beyond that, though, he encourages Timothy to follow Jesus so single-mindedly that it becomes impossible to disparage him. Like Paul, we must be those in whom “Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life” (1:16). Everyone should be able to see our progress, our growth in grace (4:15). Of course, this comes not only through our righteous character, but through our teaching and preaching as well (vv 13-14). Mere scriptural knowledge does not a pastor make, but it is still a sine qua non of biblical leadership! 
  4. A young pastor, as a vocational minister, seems to have some authority over the elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17-21; Titus 1:5-9). I tremble to write these words, and present them to you as the seeds of the beginnings of thoughts on the subject. I will write more tomorrow on the relationship between pastors and elders, but it does seem that those who have been given to the church as pastors (Ephesians 4:11) have a clear role to play in the selection of elders. Paul tells Titus specifically to “appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (1:5), before listing the qualifications of an elder. The list of qualifications appears in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 too, raising the question of why Paul includes the qualifications in two letters to young pastors only. The answer, it seems, is that these young pastors selected or helped selected the elders. In addition, they probably helped train the men of the congregation, playing a significant role in their development as leaders (cf. 2 Timothy 2:1-2). Moreover, Paul encourages Timothy to give “double honor” to the elders directing the affairs of the church, “especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 3:17). How precisely should Timothy accomplish this? I haven’t the faintest idea, but it includes evaluation of their ministries at the very least. Finally, and most poignantly perhaps, Paul tells Timothy, “But those elders who are sinning you[2] are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning” (v 20). The ministry of evaluation extends to public rebuke as necessary. I will not press on whither angels fear to tread, but these verses challenge many of my cherished beliefs and practices. (If you have any thoughts or reflections, please comment below!)


“But you, man of God,” young pastor that you are,


pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen. (1 Timothy 6:11-16)

[1] In contrast to popular misconception, this verse is intended for young ministers, not kids in children’s or student ministry—though I’m sure we could extend the application!

[2] The word for “you” is singular in the Greek, referring to Timothy only.

How Pragmatism Destroys the Church

November 5th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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If, as I argued earlier, thoroughgoing pragmatism amounts to blasphemy, then we would expect ministries driven by this philosophy to produce little in the way of genuine fruit. God doesn’t often bless those who blaspheme him. (Scripture abounds with counter-examples, of course, like the Assyrians and Babylonians, whom God blessed to such an extent that it drove prophets like Habakkuk apoplectic.)


Unsurprisingly, ministries centered on pragmatic means and measurements produce fruit of a sort: numbers. Attendance will always swell when we entertain, titillate, market, build, placate, and coddle. But is this Spirit-wrought fruit or the cheap plastic stuff used to decorate model homes? Paul recognized long ago that “successful” ministry might not stand under God’s scrutiny. Right after he reminds us that God alone can cause the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6-9), he paints a vivid picture of God’s future judgment of ministry leaders (3:10-15). Some leaders build carefully, and their “work”—the people they have served over the years, as verse 9 makes clear—survives into eternity; the Spirit has brought about genuine renewal. Conversely, other leaders build haphazardly, content with the structure and not the substance; when judgment comes, their building—again, the congregation they have served—perishes in the flames. The stakes seem pretty high.


How precisely do pragmatic leaders bring about the destruction of the churches they serve? Not because they are malevolent, but because they are deceived. Specifically, they are deceived into thinking they can do it. It’s taken care of because it is in their hands.


Look at how this works.


We live and serve in tension. God has called us to faithfulness, but he alone can produce the fruit; we have a responsibility, but God brings about the result. If we were to represent this graphically, it might look like this:

Figure 1

Pragmatic leadership assumes part of God’s role. That is, they place themselves in charge of (some of) the results as well as the responsibilities, the fruit as well as the faithful service. In so doing, of course, they cut themselves off from the Spirit’s power, leading to fake fruit: spurious conversions, consumers instead of disciples, etc.


Figure 2 


In addition, pragmatic leaders assume the role of the congregation too. Instead of equipping the saints for works of service (Ephesians 4:11-12), they skip the equipping and do the ministry themselves. Instead of training congregants to engage in personal evangelism, they tell them to bring their friends to the service to hear the gospel proclaimed, for example. Ministry becomes centralized and human-centered. This leads inexorably to consumerism. Once the congregation has been trained not to minister, they become passive spectators at best, and more likely become thoroughgoing consumers. They will then evaluate churches and ministries along pragmatic and consumerist lines—e.g., “Do my kids like the youth group?” instead of “Does the youth group faithfully engage in relational disciple-making, which I know my children need?”—and the cycle perpetuates.


Figure 3 


Pragmatic leadership produces fake fruit and consumerist spectators, instead of vital, flourishing, disciple-making followers of Christ. This destroys the church. Paul offers slight comfort to those building thus: “If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:15). But escaping through the flames will provide little solace to those who genuinely love the congregations they serve, for they perish in this scenario. May it never be so!

Pragmatism, Blasphemous Pragmatism

October 22nd, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Not too long ago I made the comment that pragmatism in ministry amounts to blasphemy. My interlocutors thought this characteristic overstatement—I’ve been known to state ideas in the strongest possible terms on more than one occasion!—and dismissed me with a merry round of justifiable laughs. But the more I thought about the issue, the more I agree with my initial assessment. Pragmatism in ministry really is blasphemy.


I should probably define my terms before I move on to the argument. By pragmatism I mean the philosophy championed by John Dewey that assesses the truth of a belief or opinion on the basis of its practical success.[1] In other words, we answer the question Is it true? by answering the (synonymous?) question Does it work? Applied to ministry, pragmatism involves determining a philosophy of ministry based on the success of that ministry.


Blasphemy, on the other hand, has to do with belittling God—treating him with irreverence, usurping his place, etc.—and thereby maximizing something or someone else. For example, when Jesus heals the paralytic lowered through the roof, he also forgives the man’s sins, prompting the religious leaders to charge him with blasphemy (Luke 5:2-21). Jesus claimed to act in God’s place, and the religious leaders rightly denounced this as blasphemy, had Jesus not in fact been God.


Now we can see what makes pragmatism blasphemous. When we allow pragmatic concerns to shape our ministry—when we ask What works? instead of What is right?—we claim to do God’s work, to be acting in his place, which is blasphemy. Jesus said he forgave sins, which only God can do, so he was either God or speaking blasphemously. We are manifestly not God, so if we claim to do what only God can do, there is only one option left to us.


An example will help put some flesh on this skeletal argument. Many ministries today set quantifiable goals for themselves. There is nothing inherently wrong with goals, and, frankly, most of the goals worth setting need to be quantifiable. The danger comes when what quantify is no longer input variables but output goals. We may set a goal of having one evangelistic conversation each week; this is a worthy goal—and blessedly quantifiable. So far, so good. But sometimes another goal creeps in unexpectedly: we want to lead 52 people to Christ in a given year. Now we’ve slipped into blasphemous pragmatism. You see, we cannot effect the salvation of anyone; that work belongs to God alone. To set a goal for ourselves or our ministry or someone under our oversight that includes conversion growth is to claim that we can act in God’s place. That is blasphemy.


The pervasive appeal of pragmatism evidences in our language of building/growing the kingdom/church. Make no mistake: I long to see the church grow, the kingdom come in power, and I labor to that end. Nevertheless, I must be careful not to deceive myself into thinking that I can build the kingdom or grow the church. Jesus was clear: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18, emphasis added). He commissions us to make disciples—going, baptizing, teaching—but the building of the church he takes care of himself. Paul affirms as much elsewhere: “I  planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6, emphasis added). We labor, yes, but God brings about the growth. Without his quickening presence, our ministry would be as effective as planting rocks: no matter the care we take in watering them, we will see no fruit!


This is not to advocate a complacent, lazy, “let go and let God” approach to ministry. The master harshly condemns the servant who took that approach with the talent he was given (Matthew 25:26). He commends faithfulness to our commission—but a humble faithfulness. Paul says it well: “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2). We must prove faithful in our ministry—and our goals should hold us to account in this regard—but faithfulness needn’t degenerate into pragmatism.


The added danger in this blasphemously pragmatic approach to ministry is a descent into consequentialism. Consequentialism is an ethical system that evaluates an action based on the consequences of that action. We cannot know if an action is right or wrong until we see what comes of it. One cannot say, for example, “Thou shalt not murder,” because the person we murder may be the next Adolf Hitler. So even though we killed him to steal his wallet the consequences of our actions were positive, so the action was good. There is a certain appeal to this system, undoubtedly, but the Bible points us in another direction: what God says is good is good, and what God says is evil is evil.


If, however, we resort to pragmatism, we will soon slide imperceptibly into consequentialism. The two are linked in an unholy union. Pragmatists determine a philosophy of ministry based on what works, and consequentialism then tells us that this is right. That this sounds the death knell for faithful ministry seems evident enough. Consider, for example, how to preach. What works in preaching? Jeremiah thundered the Word of God for decades, but just about no one listened to him, and he spent a good portion of his ministry in a cistern. Pragmatically speaking, then, he was unsuccessful, and probably should have been removed from his ministry. Heretical preachers, on the other hand, usually draw large crowds—witness the prosperity preachers (they’ve even got their own reality show now!) and the self-help preachers. What they are doing seems to work better than faithful exposition of the text. They are growing their churches (numerically, anyway). So, in order to meet our artificial and blasphemous goals, we distort true gospel ministry into an ungodly perversion. Satan smiles as we tickle itching ears.


Enough of this. Let us labor faithfully and humbly until the day Christ calls us home—and then says to us “Well done, good and faithful servants.” He’ll take care of the rest.

[1] There is a soft definition of pragmatic that means something like “practical.” We might make a pragmatic decision about how to handle overcrowded parking lots, for example. What I am critiquing, however, is the hard definition given above.

Devotional: “Learn to Share” (Mark 9:38-41)

August 2nd, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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The disciples have not learned yesterday’s lesson. Still overrun by a desire for status and recognition, they turn to jealousy, rivalry, and sectarianism. When one of them spots a rival disciple casting out a demon in Jesus’ name, he quickly turns tattle-tale.


The immaturity of the moment is palpable. First, remember that the disciples have just had a rather publicly unsuccessful bout with exorcism (cf. Mark 9:14-29). So John seems to be saying, “Make him stop doing what we’re unable to do.” It smacks of jealousy. Second, and much more frightening, is the way John describes the issue: “We told him to stop because he was not following us” (verse 38). The overweening pride and unadulterated audacity of this claim! Who cares if this man isn’t following John! or Peter! or any of the other disciples! John’s pride has got the better of him. He should have said, “He wasn’t following you,” but then . . . that might not be true.


After all, Jesus says, “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us” (verses 39-40). The man is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, we should remember, and his success proves the genuineness of his commitment (read about the sons of Sceva in Acts 19:13-16 to see what happens to those who aren’t genuinely committed to Christ when trying to cast out demons in his name). He cannot possibly be an enemy of Christ.


Jesus here proclaims a certain broad-minded inclusiveness that the church has often forgotten. We like to exclude others from our “inner ring” to remind ourselves how much more important, smarter, better, richer, etc. we are than others. Church is not usually an exception unfortunately. It is interesting to note that infighting, quarrels, rivalries, and factions usually develop when a church stops reaching out. Once we become more concerned about our belonging to the group, rather than helping others to belong as well, we turn into the worst of our schoolyard selves. “You can’t play with us. You don’t belong to this group. Go find someone else.”


This is not the attitude of Christ. Do you want to be great? Then learn to share. Share the good news of Christ indiscriminately. Share the community of Christ with all who will come. And maybe even share a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus with someone in need (verse 41).


Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. Can you recall a time when you displayed an attitude similar to John’s in this story? How did you try to exclude someone? Why do you think you did it—that is, what particular brand of selfishness motivated your behavior? Has this been a recurring sin in your life? Is it a sin you have ever brought into the church? Do you need to repent of this sin and confess it to someone else? If so, do it.
  2. In what ways has the church—local or universal—tended towards exclusivity instead of a biblical inclusivity? (Make sure you distinguish between inclusiveness and relativism. After all, Jesus does say elsewhere, “Whoever is not with me is against me”!) How can you help us become more lovingly inclusive?
  3. Are there people with whom you need to share more? Does this include the lost? How will you share the gospel with them? Does this include the many suffering under systemic poverty globally? How will you bring them a “cup of cold water” in the name of Jesus?

Who Needs Youth Group?

July 16th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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Last week I satirically alluded to the importance of young adults attending church and youth group, lest they should fall into an early, chronic church consumerism. Some might respond, however, that though church is an indispensable means of grace, youth group is unnecessary. After all, neither youth pastors nor youth groups appear in God’s Word; and, indeed, the onus for transmitting the faith to the younger generation falls unmistakably on parents (cf. Deuteronomy 6:7; Ephesians 6:1-4). Why, then, have youth groups at all? And, should we decide to have youth groups still as a support ministry, why the histrionics about youth who don’t attend regularly?


Fair questions, these.


I would submit some cautious replies. I confess at the outset that I will employ experiential arguments in defense of my thesis. I am not generally a fan of experiential arguments, for they lack the weight of reasoned biblical argumentation. (The trouble with arguments from experience, after all, is that someone else may have a different experience—and who is to judge between them?) Nevertheless, as I noted above, I haven’t got much in the way of biblical support for youth ministry—only a vast and distressing lacuna—so I’ll make do with what I have. I acknowledge at the outset, though, that my conclusions will have to be tenuous because my premises are necessarily so.


I want to be especially wary of teaching human traditions as the commands of God (Mark 7:8). The Bible regularly enjoins participation in the local congregation and submission to the authority structures of the church (e.g., Hebrews 10:24-25; 13:17; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Ephesians 4:11-16); however, nowhere does God command youth to attend a mid-week gathering aimed at them especially. Thus, attendance at youth group is not a question of obedience to God’s commands, but rather a question of discernment and wisdom for widely divergent families. Should all families send their children to youth group? If not, who should? And why?


Who Needs Youth Group?

Based on my experience in different contexts, cultures, and churches, I would say two very different groups of students would benefit immensely from regular[1] attendance at youth group.


First, youth who attend public schools should probably make youth group a priority in their lives. At least in the United States, public education is now intentionally anti-Christian, indoctrinating children with a worldview fundamentally at odds with Christian belief. This is not just a question of specific issues, such as naturalistic evolution, but a comprehensive approach to truth. The sad fact is that this indoctrination process is remarkably effective. Fewer and fewer Christian teenagers have a robust biblical understanding of the world, and fewer still can meaningfully engage with culture where they do disagree. Biblical knowledge is at an agonizing ebb. And while I grant that parents could supplement and correct the false teaching their children receive at school, the cold, hard truth is that few do—or do enough anyway. For these reasons, I believe youth who attend public schools should attend youth group regularly, to receive the instruction and equipping necessary for their circumstances—especially with university looming on the horizon, where these challenges will intensify!


Second, youth who are homeschooled should probably make youth group a priority in their lives—but for very different reasons. Indeed, one of the main motives for homeschooling is to pass a biblical worldview on to one’s children. However, what is often lacking in children of homeschooling families is an ability to engage winsomely and boldly with the culture around them (occasionally even including the other kids in their youth groups!). Homeschooling runs the risk of being unbiblically insular: children receive an abundance of Christian worldview, but have little skill at communicating its message to those in desperate need of it. For this reason, I believe youth who are homeschooled should attend youth group regularly, to have opportunity to engage with the lost and struggling meaningfully—and to learn how to do so more and more effectively.


Who Might Not Need Youth Group?

While I believe youth group should benefit every teen who attends, nevertheless I can see two groups who—given the constraints of time and energy—need not make it a priority in their lives.


First, youth who attend Christian schools might not need to attend youth group regularly, though it would depend upon the school. Two questions must be asked of the school: (1) Does the school provide truly Christian education, or is it merely a private school that Christians attend? That is, does the school not only teach the content of the faith (e.g., Bible classes taught by professionals trained in the subject), but also the practice of the faith? Does the school have a compelling discipleship structure, and is making disciples the top priority of the school? (2) Does the school provide opportunities to engage with the lost and struggling, so that students learn to communicate the gospel winsomely and boldly? This might happen through regular outreach events or through welcoming a percentage of the student population that is not Christian. If these two criteria are met, then it is very likely that those youth could forego youth group if they had good reasons for doing so—provided they belong to the second group too, however.


Second, those youth who participate fully in the “adult” ministries of the church would not need to attend youth group regularly. By full participation, I do not mean spectating during the service and volunteering to hold small children in the nursery. That is not fellowship as Scripture defines it. Rather, full participation requires using one’s gifts to serve the church, leading to mutual edification and outreach, and partaking in genuinely Christian relationships. These would involve mutual confession, encouragement, admonition, prayer, and accountability. If a young man or woman enjoyed that sort of fellowship with other members of the congregation—in a small group, for example—while using their gifts to build up the church, they could forego youth group.


A Final Caveat

Of course, my whole argument demands that the youth group reflect a functioning biblical community, having the same priorities and ministries that Scripture enjoins. A spineless, shallow, merely entertaining, or even merely relational group isn’t worth attending regardless of one’s educational situation. If the heart of the youth group is seeing who can drink a soda through a dirty sock the fastest, then I would strongly encourage all the youth in the church either to participate in the “adult” ministries fully or to seek reform prayerfully and lovingly. If, however, the heart of the youth group is equipping young men and women become to become fully-devoted followers of Christ—making disciples, that is—then I can only encourage participation.

[1] By “regular,” I mean often enough to be a functioning member of the community: i.e., using one’s gifts to serve others in the group, and developing relationships of sufficient depth for accountability and admonition.

How to Train Your Teen to Be a Lifelong Church Consumer

July 11th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 2 Comments
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  1. Don’t make them attend church/youth group. After all, church is only for those who feel like going. If they are too tired or just don’t like it that much, assure them those are valid reasons to opt out of fellowship with other believers.
  2. Make sure they are entertained, not equipped. Priorities, after all: if all your youth group is doing is teaching them to follow Jesus, without sufficient fun saturating the event, it is time for a change.
  3. Speaking of priorities and attendance, let them skip church/youth group any time you have a schedule conflict. No one would argue that homework and extracurricular activities are more important than gathering with the saints. This will also prepare them for the future, when careers and hobbies will climb above church on the priority list.
  4. Don’t correct them if they complain about church/youth group. Complaining is only a minor sin, remember. (I can only think of one generation that God wiped out entirely because of it.) They don’t need loving rebuke; they need laughter and participation in their immaturity, else their self-esteem might suffer.
  5. In fact, when they complain, bring it to the youth pastor. That way they’ll learn the real problem is the leaders, and—more importantly—they’ll learn that they know more than their pastors about ministry anyway. (That bit about making it a joy for your leaders to lead doesn’t apply to youth pastors.)
  6. Ground them from youth group when they misbehave or get low grades. Church is like a cell phone—a distraction to be removed when behaviors get careless—not an indispensable means of grace. And if they struggle with obedience to the commands of God, the last thing they need is a community of believers facing the same issues and striving to grow in grace together!
  7. When all else fails, change churches regularly. Remember, it’s not about unfailing commitment to a local congregation because of your membership in the body of Christ; it’s about making sure your needs are met. The only way to make sure that happens is to leave every time you’re unhappy. I would recommend at least one switch, and preferably two, during their teen years. 

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.



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.



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]



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.



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.

Family Matters

February 20th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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One hears it like a mantra today: “Family is more important than church.” It is said with such tendentious frequency that we rarely stop to ask whether or not it is true.


In a sense it feels a little bit like saying, “The Father is more important than the Son,” or “The Son is more important than the Holy Spirit.” It is contrived and unnecessary categorization. The family, after all, is merely a temporary expression of an eternal reality; the local congregation is the imperfect and visible manifestation of that eternal reality. We are parents only momentarily, in the same way that we marry and are given in marriage only momentarily (Mark 12:25); but if our children are appointed for eternal life and so believe in the finished work of Christ, then they will join the eternal family of the people of God.


In truth, balancing “church” and “family” is not unlike pastors balancing warning and assurance of salvation. Some have grown presumptuous in their faith and so need to be warned that they will not inherit the kingdom of God apart from genuine repentance (cf. Hebrews 6:4-6). Others, however, grow discouraged by the raging war between flesh and Spirit and so need to be assured that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ (cf. Romans 8:28-30).


In the same way, some neglect their families because they are so busy with church activities that they cannot find the time to instruct and train their children in the riches of grace. Men and women like this need to remember that the family is an expression of the church, that they are responsible to impress the truth of God on their children (cf. Deuteronomy 6:7-9; Ephesians 6:4). These are men and women after Eli’s heart, and they can expect to reap a similar reward (1 Samuel 2:12-25). Others, however, have made idols of their children, equating physical proximity with loving engagement, rejecting the primacy and authority of the church—and ultimately God—in the life of the family. Jesus had hard words for people like this, reminding them that we cannot be disciples unless we “hate” even our own children by granting God the first place in our lives—and thus our family’s schedules (Luke 14:26).[1]


Perhaps the balance would be easier to strike if we more clearly defined what we mean by “family” and “church.” I suspect we could eliminate much of the confusion by focusing passionately on our commission, making disciples. Our primary focus in participating in church activities (cf. Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 Corinthians 12-14) and spending time with our children (cf. Deuteronomy 6:7-9; Ephesians 6:4) is making disciples of all people—whether in the church or at home. Now we have a criterion by which to judge what we do in both spheres, to determine which is really more important at any given moment: is what I am doing going to make disciples, or is it mere activity in an occasionally holy place?


Consider: Could you miss one of your child’s many cross-country meets—especially considering she is also involved in volleyball, ballet, musical theater, and pep club—in order to attend a training session on relational disciple-making at church? Should your child skip his small group in the church’s youth group, where the bulk of relational disciple-making takes place, because his coach told him he had to play club soccer in order to make the school team in the spring (and even though you both know full well he won’t play soccer once he graduates)? Or, conversely, would it be wise to skip the church’s Family Fun Night in order to spend some concentrated time discussing with your daughter Christian response to the interpersonal conflict she is involved in at school—including an extended time of prayer afterwards? Might you even routinely miss your thirteen-year-old son’s Bible Club because it is the only time you can meet together for your father/son Bible study on Proverbs?


You get the point. Blanket statements about prioritizing family ahead of church (or vice versa) probably reflect priorities skewed away from our commission anyway. It would be far better to consider both family and church as vitally important, and then to make individual decisions in the Spirit as you face them. Mere attendance at family and church functions is never enough, and so thorough, prayerful consideration of each activity—especially in our idolatrously over-scheduled Western world—is an absolute necessity.


May God grant us Paul’s wisdom, in understanding well the overlap between church and family, and his fervency, in making disciples as passionately as parents invest in their children (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-12).

[1] I have heard some argue that God is first in their lives, but church activity is far down the list of priorities. All that is well and good, so long as we still separate out disciple-making from mere church activity (see below). Can you really have a thriving relationship with God—that is, are you loving him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength—if you are not actively loving your neighbor by making disciples? Shouldn’t we categorize disciple-making as part of our relationship with God?

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.