More Lessons from the Garden

June 6th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Let me expand on my last post just a little bit. Last time out I shared ten lessons I’ve learned in my garden about the Christian life. Today I’d like to pivot slightly and share a few more lessons from the garden, but this time about ministry specifically. Here are five that come to my mind regularly.


  1. If you want to dig deep, dig wide. I’ve been planting a lot of shrubs lately, and I’ve learned an important trick. In order to get the hole deep enough for shrub’s root system, I need to make sure I dig a wide hole. I’ll never get as deep as I’d like unless I dig wide first. What does this mean for ministry? Well, I think it well-nigh impossible to go truly deep in the faith unless you are sharing the gospel widely. We often want to separate our maturity from our ministry, but the two are connected. If you’re not sharing the gospel regularly and using your gifts to serve in the body, you’ll find your growth stunted. To grow deep, you need to reach wide. This holds especially true for congregational life as a whole. Churches that focus inward exclusively (digging deep) will never get as deep as they like because God matures us through our carrying out his commission (digging wide). (Of course, the opposite is true in ministry [although not in gardening!] too: if you want to have a wide reach, you need to make sure you are going deep in your relationship with Jesus.)
  2. If you want continual blooms, keep deadheading! I mentioned this lesson in the last post, but referred it to one’s personal spiritual life only: I need to make sure I am constantly pruning whatever distracts me from my growth, even if it is good. But I think this lesson is even more important for local church ministry. Churches are famous for admiring spent blooms—programs, activities, ministries that blossomed beautifully in past generations. However, as with flowers, so with church life: if you’re not willing to remove the spent blooms—eliminate unnecessary and now ineffective ministries—you’ll soon have a withered, wilted church. Get rid of what is past its prime so that a new bloom can take its place. The next generation needs us to reach them in the here and now, not to tell stories of the way the garden might’ve looked a summer or two ago!
  3. The organic life matters most. There are lots of inanimate structures in a garden that help the garden grow as it should, such as trellises. These are often very important for the health of the garden when growing clematis or cucumbers or the like. However, as Colin Marshall and Tony Payne pointed out in The Trellis and the Vine, the trouble comes when we get enamored with the inanimate to the detriment of the organic. If you have a spectacular trellis, a gorgeous sculpture or two maybe, but nothing growing, you’re unlikely to make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens. It’s the same in the church. There are many important support structures (such as programs), but nothing matters more than the organic life of the church in Christ. If the support structures begin to inhibit the life of the vine, or if they become the focus instead of the vine, the church will soon lose its vitality.
  4. It takes a lot of work to keep a garden healthy and growing. Because gardens are organic—living, changing, growing, dying—they require constant care. If you want it to be easy, plant artificial turf instead. Pastoral ministry is no different. Paul compares ministry to gardening (see 1 Corinthians 3:5-9), and even mentions a small list of the many tasks required to keep it going, like planting and watering. A church—not the building, mind you (although that takes some TLC too!), but the people—requires constant care too. One never reaches the end of the task because the church is dynamic and ever-changing. A pastor’s work is never done. People who don’t like gardening shouldn’t plant large gardens because they require so much time and effort; in the same way, people who don’t like pouring out their lives in the service of others surely shouldn’t pursue pastoral ministry.
  5. You won’t always get to enjoy the fruit of your labor. Not too long ago I spent an entire summer working on my garden, and I had just about gotten everything where I wanted it. I was particularly excited to see a section of perennials fill in over the years, and to begin harvesting the raspberries I’d planted. But I never got to do either because we moved a short while later to start a new and wonderful ministry adventure. Not getting to see the garden grow was a poignant reminder to me that I had planted the gospel in the lives of different people at my previous church, but didn’t necessarily get to see it take root or blossom. So it will always be. People will move, or we will move. Change will happen. I can still labor faithfully knowing the bloom is far more important than my enjoyment of it. (And I console myself by trusting the family that moved into our old house is enjoying the garden in my place!)


I’m sure there are many more lessons to learn about life and ministry in the garden. What are some others you have learned?

Homiletical Relativism

October 15th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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A Tale of Two Sermons?

I recently heard two close friends give their opinion of the same sermon—a sermon I did not hear, delivered at a church I have only attended once. These were both seasoned believers who genuinely love God and seek to follow him. One raved about the sermon, touched by the pastor’s humility (and self-deprecation) and the liveliness of the delivery. The other actually preacherwept at the conclusion of the message because she was devastated by the pastor’s self-centeredness and twisting of the text. I was so astonished by the conflicting reports that I wondered if they had even heard the same sermon!


In thinking about these two comments, and many more like them given through the years, I began to wonder if there isn’t a touchstone for sermons. Are we hopelessly adrift in a sea of personal preferences, or are some sermons actually better than others? It was a dangerous thought, and one I really didn’t want to pursue—especially since preaching is my craft—but the question has nibbled at me since then, and I feel compelled to reflect (incompletely, imperfectly, with fear and trembling) on it.


The Sermon: Your Way, Right Away

We live in a consumerist culture. People want what they want when they want it. If the store doesn’t have what they want, they will go elsewhere—online, if they have to, because you can find everything online. No compromise necessary. Your way, right away.


Consumerism’s penetration into the church has been widely documented and loudly bewailed. The great contribution of modernity and its obstreperous stepchild, postmodernity, is the elevation of the autonomous self.[1] In the space of a few short centuries, we moved from “In the beginning, God” to “I think, therefore I am.” That this emphasis on self-determination should permeate a group of people who have committed to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Another strikes me as both ironic and chilling.


But it has, and the effects have been discouraging.


Since the 1990s, the consumerist approach to Sunday services has tightened its grip on the Western church. Congregants increasingly evaluate the sermon according to individual preferences, rather than an objective standard. Now, let me be the first to admit that some aspects of a sermon may vary according to preferences. For example, how long should a sermon run? I see no command in Scripture suggesting a divinely established length. Jonah’s preaching was blessedly short (Jonah 3:4), whereas Paul occasionally waxed protracted (Acts 20:9).


Nevertheless, there are other aspects of preaching that are non-negotiable, and we would do well—as preachers and as congregants—to remember them. The practice of these principles can and should vary from congregation to congregation (see #6), but the principles themselves should never change.  In other words, we do not want to be guilty of homiletical relativism. We do not want to make ourselves the locus of judgment: “what I deem to be a good sermon is a good sermon; what I deem poor is poor.” Just as we submit our lives to the judgment of God’s Word (cf. Hebrews 4:12-13), so we submit our sermons—those we preach and those we hear—to its judgment.


A brief caveat before I outline some of the principles: no preacher will do this perfectly every time out, because we are all fallible and finite—myself chief among them! However, we will practice these principles intentionally as surely as we practice them imperfectly.


What Makes a Good Sermon?

  1. It centers on God’s words. We need to hear God’s words, not a preacher’s words, because only one has power to transform. God describes the efficacy of his word in a famous prophecy of Isaiah: “It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (55:11). God’s words accomplish his purposes—warning, correcting, teaching, promising, inspiring faith—perfectly and without fail. What preacher among us can say the same of his words? The word of God is “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). My words, however, are dead unless God gives them life; they lack the precision, power, and perfection to cut to the heart of my audience. God’s words never have that problem. A good sermon proclaims God’s words in God’s power in order to accomplish God’s ends.
  2. It points to Christ no matter the text. This follows necessarily from the first point. If, as Jesus himself taught, every text points to him (Luke 24:27; John 5:39), then every text we preach will point to him as well. A narrative from the Old Testament, an exhortation from the New Testament, a psalm or proverb—these all point to or are grounded in Christ’s finished work. To preach the narrative or exhortation, psalm or proverb, without preaching Jesus, is to miss the heart of the message. To be sure, this must be done carefully. Some preachers will do the “Jesus bit” in every sermon, but fail to remain faithful to the text at hand. If every passage points to Christ, then a preacher should be able to unearth what is already in the text, without having to import Jesus from somewhere else. Gospel threads—rest, exile, temple, kingdom, exodus, covenant, wisdom, and many others—run throughout Scripture. A faithful sermon will see the thread running through the passage at hand and draw it out for the sake of the congregation.
  3. It proclaims the gospel. As a sermon draws out the gospel thread, it will proclaim the richness of the gospel week in and week out. Paul’s resolve at Corinth—to know nothing while he was with them “except Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)—sets the standard for every sermon. The gospel is the power of salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16). A faithful sermon proclaims the twin graces of the gospel—justification and sanctification—in delicate balance. As Paul writes to his protégé, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good” (Titus 2:4-8; cf. Ephesians 2:8-10). God saves us by his mercy, not according to what we have done—we are justified by grace; God renews us by his Spirit so that we devote ourselves to doing what is good—we are sanctified by grace. Preaching justification alone leads to libertinism: spurious salvation by cheap grace alone. Preaching sanctification alone leads to legalism: climbing a ladder of our own making to reach a heaven of our own imagining. Preaching neither at all is just self-help, moralism, or banal psychotherapy. Would to God we heard the gospel instead!
  4. It proclaims a multi-faceted gospel. The gospel message is clear, simple, and unchanging on the one hand, but it is endlessly rich and multi-faceted on the other hand. Scripture presents not only a wide array of gospel threads, but also a variety of “atonement grammars,” as Tim Keller calls them. Given our cultural heritage in the West, today we are most familiar with the “legal” grammar: Our sin demands a righteous judgment, which Christ Jesus takes on himself; he is declared “guilty” in order that we might be called “righteous.” This is a powerful grammar, and one that we need to hear regularly. Nevertheless, it is not the only way to speak of the atonement! Throughout the Bible, we read of the atonement in language taken from the battlefield (Jesus has secured our victory), the marketplace (Jesus has purchased our freedom from slavery), the temple (Jesus purifies us so that we can draw near to a holy God, cleansing our guilty consciences), and the exile (Jesus was cast out so that we could be brought in, welcomed back home).[2] Different grammars speak to different people; different texts highlight different grammars. If every sermon drills the same theme, it will likely speak to only one segment of the congregation, and will only address one element of our despair apart from God. If the gospel is endlessly rich, each new sermon should sound a different note that resonates with a hitherto untouched corner of our hearts.
  5. It strikes the heart. Jonathan Edwards rather famously emphasized this aspect of preaching. He saw that in his day too many preachers aimed at our thoughts, feelings, or will, rather than striking the heart, which is the source of all three (cf. Proverbs 4:23; Matthew 15:18-19). Sermons that strike the mind only produce a dead orthodoxy. Sermons that strike our feelings only produce a shallow emotionalism. Sermons that strike the will only produce moralism or legalism, and ultimately despair. However, sermons that strike the root of all three—the heart—will lead to transformed thoughts, feelings, and wills, producing theological orthodoxy, relentless joy, and loving obedience from the inside out.
  6. It addresses the audience. No sermon is preached in a vacuum. It addresses real people at a specific time and in a specific place. Even in our shrinking world, with the advent of technological globalization, differences between cultures and sub-cultures are marked. Preaching the same passage in the same way regardless of the audience is sheer folly. The urban intelligentsia in Manhattan does not need the same message as migrant workers in rural California. A faithful sermon considers its culture carefully, and contextualizes the unchanging truth for a changing population.


As always, I’m sure this list is not only incomplete, but also imperfect. Nevertheless, I hope it will stimulate sustained reflection and increased discernment—never a critical spirit—and ultimately charitable engagement.


[1] Some would prefer to speak of “late modernity” instead of postmodernity, because both modernity and postmodernity share this fundamental characteristic. Views on epistemology have shifted, yes, but at their individualistic core, they remain the same.

[2] Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012): 131.

Why I Preach Expository Sermons

June 3rd, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Sermon PreparationAttend a few different churches in your area in rapid succession, and you will undoubtedly discern some striking differences. Some sing hymns with organ accompaniment, others choruses with a rock band; some follow a traditional liturgy, others follow the modern liturgy of sing-sermon-sing again.


At some point someone will stand up to preach a sermon. That’s a widespread similarity. But once he starts talking, we face a whole new slew of differences. Is the series based on a passage from Scripture or a topic from life? Does he proceed methodically through the text or does he use the passage as a launching pad for reflection? Do his points follow the structure of the text or does he reorganize the passage to fit his points?


In a nutshell, where does he land on the spectrum from topical to expository sermons?


What Is Expository Preaching?

For the sake of simplicity, let’s define expository preaching as preaching that is not only based on but driven by the passage at hand. Once a pastor selects his passage—whether in an expository or topical series—he works diligently to determine the structure and thrust of the passage in its original contexts (historical, literary, generic) and then contextualizes that message for his modern audience. He does not know what he will say on the subject—again, whether in an expository or topical series—until he first completes his exegesis of the passage. Once he preaches, he follows not only the emphasis of the passage, but the structure as well, trusting that God inspired the message and the medium.


How Do I Know If It’s Expository?

Determining if a pastor is preaching an expository sermon is not difficult. It doesn’t take technical training or special insight. A few key questions will usually suffice.


  1. Does the pastor read the whole passage (either all at once or in chunks) instead of merely alluding to key points along the way?
  2. Do his points follow the structure of the passage (e.g., verses 1-7 for point one, verses 8-12 for point two, and verses 13-19 for point three) without omitting or reorganizing any verses?
  3. Does he proceed methodically through the passage, commenting thought by thought (clause by clause, verse by verse, or paragraph by paragraph, depending on the scope of the passage) rather than drawing implications from the whole only or with indirect reference to the thought-flow of the passage?
  4. Does his sermon closely resemble not only the message of the passage but also its tone and approach? That is, does he warn from warning passages and encourage from encouraging passages rather than remaking the message according to his determination?
  5. In some ways, the easiest question to answer is simply: After listening to the sermon, do I feel like I could explain the original sense of the passage to someone else easily and clearly?


I’m sure there are other indicators, and I’m sure someone could answer those questions in the affirmative and still be guilty of rank eisegesis[1]. But overall those are good gauges.


Why I Preach Expository Sermons

Of course, determining what sort of sermon you’re preaching/hearing is very different from determining what sort of sermon you should be preaching/hearing. Does it matter which preaching approach we take?


I won’t speak for everyone, but here are seven reasons why I preach expository sermons. (This list is not exhaustive, nor is it in any particular order.)


  1. I believe the Word alone is living and active. I have read a lot of good books and heard a lot of good messages in my life, and some have left a lasting impression on me. And yet only the Word of God is living and active, capable of bringing about the transformation we seek (Hebrews 4:12). God does not promise that any other word will accomplish its purposes, but he does promise that of his Word (Isaiah 55:11).The Word of God alone is God-breathed and therefore useful for the full equipping of every Christian (2 Timothy 3:16-17). God speaks—which is a wonder in itself!—and what he says we need to hear. Why would I think to offer a congregation of believers (and unbelievers, undoubtedly) anything else on Sunday morning? What do they need to hear more than this?
  2. I don’t trust myself. I am far too aware of my own shortcomings—and based on conversations with those who have been at this far longer than I, that isn’t going to change before glory. I don’t know enough, I’m not wise enough to speak to the many issues the average person faces every day. So why would I trust myself to say what needs to be said on any given topic? Quite simply, I don’t. I don’t want to teach, correct, rebuke, train, warn, promise, encourage except what comes directly from Scripture. I have no authority in myself, and I know it. But if I faithfully teach the Word of God—as faithfully as I can, given how prone I am to misinterpretation and carelessness—I can speak with derivative authority at least. The authority of any preacher is directly proportional to how faithful to God’s Word he is.
  3. I have my hobby horses. I have axes to grind, and left to my own devices, I will grind them every single week. Certain sins appear to me more heinous than others, undoubtedly because they are related to my greatest strengths or my greatest weaknesses. Even as an expository preacher, I suspect many in my audience would quickly discern what these are: relational disciple-making and the importance of the mind on the side of my strengths; sins of pride and lust on the side of weakness. I’m not sure I’ve ever preached a sermon that didn’t touch on at least one, and more often all of these. But if I bind myself to the passage at hand, I am far more likely to broaden my horizon, to see without my own personal filter, to address what God sees as most important at that moment.
  4. I think the message and the medium belong together. This may spring from my artistic temperament, but I don’t think one can divorce the message and the medium. I think certain musical styles and tunes are inappropriate for certain lyrics, as an example. The same is true—much more decidedly so—of God’s Word. There is a reason God reveals himself in a wide variety of genres: narrative, poetry, apocalyptic, prophecy, reasoned argumentation. In marked contrast to this wondrous diversity, we tend to preach everything like an epistle (or worse, like an Enlightenment lecture). I think this can be especially true when it comes to tone. I, for example, find my emotional tone ranges from sobriety to indignation (I have lots of issues, obviously); I don’t preach wonder well. But if I can imitate the tone of the passage, I can paint with the full biblical palette of emotions—a richer portrait indeed. When we strive to match our sermon to the message and the medium (tone, style, structure), we express tacit confidence in God’s modes of revelation. (And I suspect our hearers will appreciate the variety too!)
  5. I want to preserve the tension. I wrote recently about tendentiously preserving the tensions that run throughout God’s Word. Expository preaching more than any other exercise will help us do just that. Imagine, both Reformed and Arminian preachers have the privilege of preaching Hebrews 6:4-6 one week, and then Hebrews 7:25 a short while later. That will surely temper our hardline approaches to the assurance debate! Pentecostals and cessationists get to preach 1 Corinthians 13 before coming to tongues and prophecy in the next chapter. Those strong on sanctification (would-be legalists) spend the first four chapters of Galatians declaring the wonder of salvation by grace alone through faith alone; those strong on justification (would-be libertines) then get the final two chapters to expound on what it means to keep the Law of Christ. I don’t want to preach only half the counsel of God on any subject—and expository preaching keeps me in line.
  6. I can tackle hard issues with less fear. Some topics preachers never want to bring up. What pastor wants to preach on supporting pastors financially (Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17-18)? It sounds unconscionably mercenary. There are many topics that we would gladly shun because we know they will open up a floodgate of angry e-mails regardless of how faithfully we preach the text. It’s like touching an electric fence: I don’t care how much you desire to honor God, you’re going to be wary of grabbing hold a second time! But if you are preaching expository sermons—and expository series especially—you have no choice. You can’t get to the next pasture without passing by the electric fence, shocks and all. You have to face your fear, reaffirm your faith in God’s wisdom, and trust that your congregation needs to hear the whole counsel of God—even when the subject is touchy.
  7. I get to interrogate the text. Expository preaching forces the preacher to exegete, interpret, and expound on whatever passage lies before him, no matter how opaque, unfamiliar, or superficially uninteresting. In other words, the parts we skip over or skim quickly in our daily reading, we now have to face with microscope and megaphone. We have to interrogate the text to know why God included it in sacred Scripture and how it relates to our hearers today. Without question, the passages I know best are the passages I have preached. What a perk for pastors! And yet, if we eschew expository preaching, we cut ourselves off from this tremendous spur to deep understanding. If I weren’t blessedly forced to wrestle with new passages, I would soon find myself running to the same passages time and again; soon, I would have nothing new to say at all (just repackaged in the latest buzzwords). I thank God for any impetus to greater depth and breadth of true understanding.

[1] A preacher engages in eisegesis (from two Greek words meaning “lead” and “into”) when he invests the passage with his own meaning; in contrast, preachers should strive to do exegesis (from two words meaning “lead” and “out of”), drawing out the meaning of the passage and then contextualizing it appropriately.

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.

Pastoral Sloth

January 29th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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It has become common practice these days to rail against overwork in pastoral ministry. Undoubtedly this springs from a well-meaning reaction against bygone days of workaholism, when pastors would serve the church to the neglect of their families—and often their own spiritual, emotional, and physical health. Nevertheless, as is often the case with reactive movements, the pendulum seems to have swung too far.


In just the past few weeks even, I have seen three separate authors declare that a 55- or 60-hour work week is sin, as it would be for the average businessman in one’s congregation. I would challenge this notion.


Consider an elder in a typical church. Elders tend to be highly motivated and competent men, and so they often occupy prominent positions in their respective fields. They are certainly not working fewer than 40 hours a week, and in many cases they are probably working more. Let us say, for the purpose of illustration, that an average elder works an average of 45 hours a week. Is this sin? Surely not. No one would call this idolatry, greed, workaholism, or neglect of the more important duties in life.


But now consider what else an elder does. He meets with the elder board regularly (hopefully for prayer and the ministry of the Word, and not just to crunch numbers and micromanage ministries). If he is a truly biblical elder, he will also teach (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2), whether that means preaching, teaching an adult education class, or something else. He will almost certainly be an active member of a small group, perhaps even leading it. And, if he has any commitment to Jesus’ model of personal disciple-making, he will meet regularly with a handful of other men for the purpose of building them up in the faith. All of this is time well spent, and time for which we will rightfully thank the elder—but it is still time. If this description is at all accurate, the typical elder will devote some ten to fifteen hours a week to ministry in and through the local congregation.


And here’s the rub, then: as vocational ministers, we need to put in a typical 45-hour work week plus the volunteer hours an elder would dedicate to the ministry as well. That means a pastor should be giving, on average, 55 to 60 hours a week. This is not idolatrous workaholism any more than asking full-time workers to volunteer in the ministries of the church is. If we don’t consider the latter to be encouraging sin, we shouldn’t condemn the former as sin either.


In fact, it may be time for some pastors to reckon with the fact that sloth, which is sin, might be the greater danger in their lives. Of all members of the congregation, pastors especially should heed Paul’s warning to the Thessalonian church:


In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10, emphasis mine)