The Church to #Ferguson, With Love

The church of Jesus Christ is the alternative kingdom to the kingdom of this age.  She is the evidence that Jesus has begun reclaiming, restoring and resurrecting what is rightfully his: a people devoted to and pleased by God’s glory (Eph 5.26-27, 32).  God shows us through the church he is repairing what has gone wrong with our world through, in and for Christ (Eph 3.8-11).  And since we are what’s wrong with this world, his work is primarily the transformation of sinners into saints.  The church is God’s testimony that his kingdom is one of changed people, not merely changed democracies, schools, economies or armies and where love is the rule of law (1 Jn 4.7-21).

The church is by no means perfect because those in her are not yet perfected.  She is at all times dependent on the grace, mercy and power of Christ.  But she is indeed the only reflection, even everso faint, of the world as it should be.  As Israel lived in Babylonian exile, so the church of Jesus Christ lives as aliens, strangers in a foreign land (1 Pt 2.11).  The citizens of Zion live among the Babylonians until the “great harlot” finally falls (Rev 18.1-3; 19.1-6). As an outpost of heaven the church sets God’s table in a wilderness for parched souls thirsting for lasting rest (Ps 78.19).

The church also reflects, even everso faintly, the world as it will be. Jesus will soon complete what he started.  He will finally rid the world of sin, recreate a world of righteousness and forever establish love – his love – among his people.  Indeed, the church is the hope of the world because she displays the Living Hope of her Risen Savior (1 Pt 1.3-5).

‘Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace for evermore;
Till, with the vision glorious,
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest.
(Samuel Stone)

While “she waits the consummation” the church exists as “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3.15).  As such, the church brings heavenly wisdom and gospel hope to a world clamoring for truth and justice.  This is no more true than in Ferguson, MO where a town is at war with itself.  What should the church say to the souls of Ferguson?

The Church to the Police:
You have weighty responsibility to say the least.  Whether or not any given police officer is a Christian, you have your authority by God’s common grace on all mankind (Rom 13.1-7).  As part of our trusting God we trust you to steward this derivative authority soberly, patiently and equitably.  For the most part we believe you do and should be grateful to God for his kindness to restrain and reward. We are sorry for complaining about speeding tickets and broken tail lights while you spend the majority of your time keeping our neighborhoods as safe as possible. For every officer-related shooting there are hundreds of officer-related gestures of peace.

You often hold the very power of life and death in your hands.  The decision to wield that power happens in split seconds.  You are not God and we cannot expect you to always make that decision in perfect wisdom and righteousness.  But it is nevertheless a decision for which you will be accountable to the citizenry and ultimately to God.  We hope you will take that extra second and if it be absolutely necessary, aim low.

The reason you have a job is because we became criminals in Genesis 3.  We wanted a world where we could be our own gods.  God has not ordained the police force to fix this sort of world.  He has chosen to recreate this world through, and only through, Jesus Christ.  You play an important role in this world, but not a permanent one.  In this painful world of violence and brutality, God has woven his grace by giving us the good news that Jesus changes the hearts of sinners like us.  Tear gas and batons will never end violence because they can never end anger.  You can arrest a criminal but you cannot arrest the criminal’s heart.  Jesus ends anger.

We pray each police officer fulfills his/her duty as a servant of the people and of Jesus himself.  As the gospel might infiltrate your own hearts and communities you will need less riot gear.

The Church to Violent Protesters:
Looting and vandalizing the neighborhood store has nothing to do with justice.  It has everything to do with exploiting Michael Brown’s death to serve your own selfishness.  Engaging in such barbaric behavior in the name of justice actually trivializes the very justice you seek.  In fact, you are punishing those who had nothing to do with what offended you.  That is not righteous protesting.  It’s cowardice. A young man, your friend, lies dead in the middle of a street and you break a store window to steal gadgets.  You might as well have stolen Michael Brown’s shoes on the way.

You are behaving no differently than the police you allege abused the power afforded them.  You are stealing from your unarmed, unprotected neighbor.  How is that any different than what you say the police did to Michael Brown?  Maybe your neighborhood could do with less trigger-happy officers.  Maybe it could do with less of you, too.

We plead with you to submit to Christ and his life-giving authority. Jesus gives you a life of love, not looting.  Service, not stealing. Giving, not taking.  You may get away with rampant destruction in this life. But God will not be so lenient.  He defends the helpless and vindicates injustice.  You want a Ferguson police officer held accountable?  Well and good.  But you should also know you will be held accountable as well.  Run to Christ before it’s too late.  He will have you and you will know God’s mercy.  Like Zaccheus (Lk 19.1-10), give back what you stole or plan to work it off at the store you looted.

The Church to Peaceful Protesters:
You are right to want truth and justice.  God has wired that in us all especially when a life is taken.  No life is insignificant even if that life is a difficult one.

And we are extremely sorry about the racism we tend to encourage.  I hope we don’t want to do it, but often our churches know better than we do.  Jesus never established a white church or a black church. Despite what our pews may show Jesus really did make “one new man” (Eph 2.15).  Forgive us.  Be patient with us.  Help us.

But you must know that as much as we demand justice in this life we will never have enough.  Our sin runs deep.  No one is able to ultimately right what has gone wrong unless that One can change our hearts.  You may get better police officers and remunerations, but they will be sad and temporary fixes.  Only Jesus can change hearts of hate into hearts of love.

While we pray your neighborhoods enjoy a season of peace and unity, we know there will always be another Ferguson.  In a few weeks, Ferguson will no longer be “breaking news.”  You will be a byword and the news will be on to the next tragedy.  But, that tragedy along with yours is all part of the same tragedy.  We wanted a world where death reigns and police need guns and young men rob stores.  As tragic as the events are in Ferguson, they are part of the same story. Our story.  Our story of sin, shame, Godlessness and despair.  We make war with each other because we first made war with God.

It was this tragedy Jesus assumed to himself. He immersed himself in our griefs and sorrows (Is 53.4), the very kinds of sorrows you suffer right now.  Unlike Michael Brown, Jesus never robbed a store, smoked weed or tussled with a cop.  Yet he chose to be treated like he had. He gave up his life so you would not have to lose yours.  Jesus ensures justice will be served but may be different than you expect. But you don’t have to lose your soul to hatred in the meantime.  He redeemed your grief so that as horrific as death is it will not win the day.

We hope you’ll not listen to money-hungry, attention-grabbing “preachers” who claim to speak in God’s name.  As soon as the photo-op is over they will board their private jets and return to their gated mansions.  Rather, listen to those local pastors who live and love among you.  They walk those streets everyday and love you. Protest if you must, but then go pray with your churches.

Whatever truth, relief and justice you receive in the coming months, know that the problem still remains.  It’s not ultimately a race problem.  Racism is the symptom, not the cause. It’s a sin problem. It’s our problem.  We all die because sin has already killed us (Rom 5.12).  It’s the problem Jesus died to remedy in us.  We need new hearts that share, love and live in Christ’s name.  Ferguson doesn’t need any more band-aids or superficial peace.  Like the rest of us, you need the unrivaled, unrestrained, undeterred love of God to sweep the streets.

We don’t just want a better Ferguson.  We want “the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” in a better country, a heavenly one (Heb 11.10, 16). Pax Christi.

From the Church, With Love

The Gospel is Masculine, But Not Chauvinist

“Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal 4.7).

The gospel of Jesus Christ is decidedly masculine but it is neither discriminatory nor chauvinist.  In fact, the glory of the gospel is wrapped up in its masculinity, rightly understood.  Given the context of Scripture and the people among which the gospel spread, we want a masculine gospel.

God as Father with children almost exclusively called “sons” does not sit well in the increasingly egalitarian mind.  Gender-neutral Bibles attempt to tame the “maleness” of Scripture (and often of God) so as not to disenfranchise women.  Neither is the pulpit immune. Feminism has ridden the Trojan Horse of political correctness past the narthex all the way to the chancel.  Pastors and teachers feel compelled to emasculate Scripture so that “sons” always include “daughters.” “Brothers,” before anyone gets offended, always includes “sisters.”  We castrate Scripture lest any woman feels slighted by God or the church.

The gospel, however, does not need help including women in Christ’s kingdom.  The maleness of the gospel has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with “sonship.”  The gospel is about inheritance, not anatomy.  The greatest gift of the gospel lies in its “sonship” and that’s good news for women.

The typical Hebrew father passed down his inheritance to his sons. And his firstborn son was the primary beneficiary of the father’s wealth bestowed through the birthright (cf. Gen 25.31-34; 27.18-29; Mt 21.38).  The daughters of the family were not excluded or neglected.  Rather, a father would marry his daughter to a husband who would himself receive some measure of his father’s inheritance. Only in situations where there was no male benefactor would women lay claim to their own wealth (see Ruth, for example). “Sonship” implied an inheritance that would continually trickle down and serve the needs of those for whom the heir was responsible.

When God calls those he saves “sons” he is not intentionally excluding women.  Sons are not sons because of their maleness. They are sons because they inherit the wealth and riches of the Father. God’s children, however, are not second-rate sons.  They are all heirs to the wealth, riches and blessing of the Firstborn Son himself! Through “adoption” God makes all those who are otherwise excluded from his blessing heirs to all that the Firstborn Son is due (Gal 4.4-7).

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.  For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba, Father!”  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8.14-17).

All who are being led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  Paul is not saying only men are led by God’s spirit.  He is saying all who are in Christ receive the status, position, hope, inheritance befitting of sons. The masculinity of the gospel does not define who are God’s children (males only).  It defines what exactly God does in salvation; namely, he makes those his sons who are not such by nature.

To become a son is to become an heir.  But not just any son.  They receive the full rights and privileges of the Firstborn Son – Christ himself (cf. Eph 1.3).  When Jesus tells his disciples he preparing a place for them so they will be where he is (Jn 14.1-3), he is not talking about a physical location.  He is talking about the place of the Firstborn Son.  All those God saves in Christ will be where Christ is: first chair next to the Father (Jn 17.24), heirs according to the promise (Gal 3.28).

The gospel is decidedly masculine but it is not chauvinist.  In Christ, God makes sons of those who are otherwise excluded from his riches.  God makes sons out of those the religious elite excluded from the Kingdom: slaves (Gal 4.7), children (Mk 10.14), Samaritans (Lk 10.30-37), shysters (Lk 17.9-14) and whores (Lk 7.36-50).  They all become sons when they become Christ’s.  The very people considered excluded from God the Father’s salvation become the full and rightful heirs of it.  Therefore, as much as we might want to denude the gospel by generalizing “sons” into “sons and daughters,” we actually rob the gospel of its full importance.  In wanting to include woman as God’s “daughters” let’s be careful we’ve not unwittingly excluded them as sons!  The glory of the gospel is that even the daughters of men become sons of God (Gal 3.28).

By referring to his children as “sons” God is not disenfranchising women (or slaves, children, shysters or whores).  In reality, he is restoring dignity to them all by giving them the wealth of his glory for all eternity.  Jesus assumed their shame to himself so they could enjoy the privileges of sonship. The gospel opens the storehouse of God’s glorious wealth those (1) not inherently permitted to it and (2) most unworthy of it.  Peter would even call the Christian wife a “fellow heir of the grace of life” (1 Pt 3.7).  God treats her as much like a son as he does her Christian husband.  Therefore, the gospel stood, and stands, against all forms of inhumane discrimination, be it gender, ethnicity, economic class, etc.  Unlike the kingdom of Caesar, the church would actually treat women, slaves, outcasts and cripples as equals in the kingdom of Christ.

Let’s not tame the gospel or attempt to make it more inclusive.  It couldn’t offer a more privileged position than that of the Firstborn Son’s place.  The gospel cannot bequeath more than the riches due Christ himself to all who desire them.

When God saves one of his children he does not leave her a daughter, slave or cripple.  Like David did for the club-footed Mephibosheth (2 Sam 10.13), Israel’s King makes his servants sons and heirs of his kingdom (Rom 8.29).  All girls allowed.

Give ‘em Grace, Not Hell

“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4.29).

I don’t know about your home but our three kids fight.  A lot. One minute they are laughing and playing.  The next minute they are fighting, snatching and calling one another names.  Like their father, they are quick to tear down, demean, disgrace and criticize.  

Rather than incessantly demanding they “Stop!” and “Be nice to each other!” we decided to try something that might actually work: Bible. We might succeed in altering their behavior for fifteen minutes, but God uses Scripture to transform their hearts forever.  So we memorized Ephesians 4.29 together to bring it to bear on conversations and arguments as they arise.  Christians are those who are slow to anger and quick with grace. Ironically, they now fight over who will recite the verse first! Oy-vey.

There is a measure of wisdom in not saying anything if you cannot say anything good or helpful.  Our tongues often do need restraining like a horse needs a rage-stopping bridle (Jas 3.1-12).  Growing in the gospel, however, is to unleash the tongue in edifying grace.  Having tamed the fleshly outburst, the Christian becomes a fountain of life-giving, grace-seasoned water.

“Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Col 4.6).

The Christian shouldn’t say what he really wants to say until what he wants to say is what should be said.

Words like “edification” and “grace” can become so familiar they become meaningless.  We can talk much about them as concepts without ever pressing them into “the need of the moment.”  What then are these grace-ripe moments where our mouths become Christ’s means of edification?  We hope to work out these moments specifically in our family, a family that needs far less lip and far more edification.  Perhaps you might benefit from and/or add to our working list:

• Apply Eph 4.29 at the hospital hospital by thanking nurses/staff for their dignity-supplying help instead of demanding of & complaining to them.  They provide full-time services the rest of us recoil at doing for a few minutes.  They do their best to help our loved ones at their worst.

• Apply Eph 4.29 at church by blessing others with Christ’s peace during the greeting time instead of quick, superficial, lifeless words.  The “passing of the peace” has long been a part of the church’s liturgical tradition.  In our microwave worship culture, however, that tradition has been de-graced with the “greeting time” where we rush through superficial, lifeless handshakes.  Replace the worldly generic “Good morning, nice to see you” with the Church’s specific “Christ’s peace to you.” Christians don’t merely greet one another; they bless one another.

• Apply Eph 4.29 at church by actually praying right then and there with the person for whom you’ve promised to pray.

• Apply Eph 4.29 at a restaurant by treating your server like a real human being.  Look them in the eye.  Ask how they are doing and even how you might pray for them.  If it’s their first day then just eat the wrong side they brought rather than send it back in a huff.  Make sure they are free to wait on that table of grumpy people before yours.  Tip them well.  Very well, for Christ’s sake.

• Apply Eph 4.29 at work by greeting your boss before he/she greets you.  Speak well of him/her and to him/her even (or especially) if you consider him/her unworthy of it (1 Pt 2.18-19).

• Apply Eph 4.29 at home by emphasizing what each other has done well before and much more than what we’ve not done well (okay, this one is just for me).  Otherwise, our children get the idea God is angrily tapping his foot just waiting for another opportunity to pounce on us.

• Apply Eph 4.29 at the grocery store by treating the checkout gal like a real person rather than a glorified scanner with arms.  Most of them cannot wait to clock out or quit, so they could use some grace while they’re weighing your bananas.

I hope our list grows and grows and grows.  And we along with it.

But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing.  My brethren, these things ought not to be this way (Jas 3.8-10).


08 2014

Christian vs. Worldly Endurance

Endurance in an important word in the Christian faith.  We might well consider it the defining mark of the Christian.  Jesus himself said, “. . . it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (Mt 10.22; 24.13; cf. Mk 13.13).  Many will appear to start in the Christian faith but who do not endure in that faith (Mt 7.13-27; Lk 8.4-15).  And those who do not endure will not be saved in the end.  They will have made a good show of faith at some point but will not love Jesus at their last breath.  And they will suffer God’s eternal wrath in a gruesome hell despite the occasional, or even lengthy, appearance of saving faith.

Endurance is indeed an an important word in the Christian faith.  It bears the weight of eternity as heaven and hell hang in the balance. In reality we can only “see someone get saved” when we see them finally rest in Christ’s peace.

Endurance is not particularly a Christian word, though.  The world has its own sense of it.  Athletes endure training and grueling competitions to either win or at least survive.  An estranged wife endures a bitter divorce after her husband admits to serial infidelity. Cancer patients endure chemotherapy to enjoy a season of remission. Soldiers endure enemy fire and harsh weather to complete their missions.  Scientist endure decades of failure to finally produce a cure.

It is not, however, the worldly sense of endurance that Jesus said saves in the end.  Just because someone endures a difficult circumstance and lives to tell about it, even with a smile, doesn’t mean they are going to heaven.  As inspiring their story might be to others their endurance is not necessarily Christian.  While we should rejoice for and encourage those who endure painful trials, we must not assume or assure that their endurance de facto earns them a place in God’s kingdom.

Jesus had a specific idea of endurance in mind.  It’s not any form of endurance that results in salvation.  Christian endurance does.  If our eternal salvation depends on it then we should understand what it is. What then is the anatomy of Christian endurance?

First, what it is not.  Christian endurance is not:

     1.  The mere survival of a difficult situation.  Christian endurance does not equal survival.  Survival may be heroic and worthy of imitation but it is not necessarily godly.  Worldly endurance produces a measure of wisdom and maturity (an expression of God’s common grace), but it does not necessarily warrant eternal salvation.

     2.  “Letting go and letting God.”  Endurance is not a Pollyannic posture toward affliction.  Someone may not appear to be all that bothered by a painful situation.  They might well be quite cheery during it.  But that does not necessarily mean they are enduring Christianly.

     3.  Baptized self-effort.  Christian endurance is not the display of a person’s inner fortitude.  We easily commend the person who “beat’ cancer or overcame tragedy in terms that make God a spectator.  We might unintentionally depict God as one who is impressed with our strength and therefore obliged to reward it.

     4.  Episodic.  Christian endurance is not persevering through a difficult occasion or two that seals a person’s place in heaven. Christian endurance is the lifelong examination and test that ends at our last breath (or last rational thought) and not a moment sooner. Christian endurance weaves in-and-out of all the ups-and-downs of life. The Christian will withstand faith-threatening tragedies and the mundane temptations of a surly neighbor.  It’s all endurance for all of life.

What then is Christian endurance?  What exactly is the sort of endurance for which Jesus promises eternal life? In no particular or remotely-exhaustive order, Christian (or, eternally-saving) endurance is:

     1.  Fruit-bearing (Lk 8.15; Jn 15.5-6; Col 1.6).  Christian endurance demonstrates itself as Christian when the one enduring produces distinctly Christian fruit, i.e. Spirit wrought evidences of Christ’s own character (Gal 5.22).

     2.  Cause for rejoicing because it is necessary for eternal hope (Rom 5.3-5; Jas 1.2-4).  Christian endurance results in greater longing for God to complete what we started in/through/with Jesus.  Worldly endurance may produce a greater zeal and appreciation for this life; Christian endurance produces zeal for the next life.

     3.  For the encouragement and comfort of other Christians (2 Cor 1.3-7).  Christian endurance is always a gift to the church as we are able to help other stragglers keep pace in the Christian journey. Christians endure “out loud” because Jesus suffered publicly.  Christians will resist the temptation of self-glory to become a conduit of persevering grace for fellow-endurers.

     4.  Befitting older, mature Christians (Titus 2.2).  The deeper we grow in the gospel the less wobbly we become by life.  Maturing Christians increasingly interpret their pain and despair in light of gospel truth, and they grow more proficient at applying that truth.

     5.  One of the primary means of Christian assurance (2 Pt 1.5-12). Christians are not sustained by emotional spikes, superficial worship, platitudinous encouragement or K-Love fuzzies.  They are sustained as they sow hardscrabble lives with godliness-reaping perseverance.  Jesus didn’t take the easy way out, so his followers (those he saves in the end) refuse to do so.

     6.  Painful (2 Cor 4.16-5.5; Heb 12.4-11).  Christians have a sympathetic, weakness-helping Savior for a reason (Heb 2.17; 4.15). He knows the homeward journey is fraught with “many dangers, toils and snares.”  Like the Good Samaritan he cares deeply for the children God has given him.  He keeps on binding their wounds.

     7.  Designed to prove to the universe the value and power of Christ in those he saves (1 Pt 1.3-9).  No matter how deep the pain and debilitating the despair, Jesus will still be sweeter to the Christian.  And one day all the universe is going to see why.

What makes eternally-saving endurance Christian?  It results in greater love for, hope in and intimacy with Christ.  Satan tries to hijack our pain to discredit and disgrace Jesus.  Satan intends to disillusion us about God’s love and saving purposes.  But in the end the Christian will have, often in spite of all reasons to do otherwise, treasured Jesus all the more.  Through tears and scars, the Christian will restrain his fleshly sense of entitlement to still hope in the gospel even (or especially) when that gospel has demanded “my soul, my life, my all.”

While the world, flesh and devil will derail many who seemingly started well (Lk 8.12-14), Jesus will ensure those he saves overcome Satan’s schemes (Eph 6.10-17).  Like Satan himself, the world will try to convince us that immense pain and suffering betray God’s love for those he afflicts.  It didn’t work on Jesus (Mt 4.5-11) and won’t work on those he saves.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  Just as it is written, ‘FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.’  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8.35-39).

Even if the Christian hangs on to gospel hope by a mere thread, it is Christ’s thread (Jude 24-25).  And Jesus never lets go.


08 2014

Job, Jesus and the Potsherd

“[Job] was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil (Job 1.1) . . . the LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (1.21) . . . Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity? (2.10) . . . I am not at ease, nor am I quiet, and I am not at rest, but turmoil comes” (3.26).

We quickly play the Job card when affliction conspires against our heart. Anxiety peeks through the Sunday morning veneer and we clamor for that obscure medication we otherwise skip on the way to the Psalms.  Surely, we reason, our affliction is more Job-like than anything else.  It must be. Sabeans from the left, Chaldeans from the right, fire from above and wind from below.

We exalt Job as the paradigm for enduring distress because James did:  “We count those blessed who endured.  You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful” (Jas 5.11).  A glowing commendation indeed.

We need not, however, assume such praise (cf. 1.22; 2.10) insulated Job from being bothered by and doubtful of God’s dealings with him. The Job who didn’t blame God (1.22) or sin with his lips (2.10) was the same Job who was not at ease or quiet (3.26).  He engaged in a forty-chapter heavyweight bout with his friends and even God.  By 42.6, Job “repents in dust and ashes.”  Somewhere between 2.10 and 42.6 Job learned he wasn’t a victim needing vindication but a sinner needing mercy.

And that is the real commendation.

Christian endurance is not merely the ability to get through trouble and on with life.  Non-Christians get through trouble and go on with their lives. Christian endurance results in even greater conviction that God is still better than we imagined.  Job thought so:

“But it is still my consolation, and I rejoice in unsparing pain, that I have not denied the words of the Holy One” (6.10).

Heaven and hell are separated by the word “still.”  It’s what we still do after intense affliction that defines the Christian from the non-Christian.

As much tribute we offer Job, it is God who is paradigmatic.  God is the one who acts according to plan—with grace, mercy, patience, kindness and blessing.  God had as clear an agenda with Job as Satan did.  Both sought to break him down, but for opposing reasons. Satan sought to strip Job from his faith. God stripped Job down to his faith. Even the “greatest of all the men of the east” (1.1) needed to taste again the dust from which he came.

The blameless, God-fearing Job of 1.1 was an uneasy, restless Job by 3.26. This was by God’s design to unearth a new wealth of blamelessness, righteousness and fear in Job.  He would let Job run out his leash but not off it.  The extent of Job’s calamities is not as impressive as the extent to which God goes to wrench faith and confession from His people. Call it what (or who) you will but God will simply, carefully and masterfully break us down. He will weaken us until we will receive his undiluted love.  He will take us from talking about God to talking to him.  And from there receiving from him.  It took forty chapters to do so with Job. It’s taking 40-plus years for me and counting.

Job is about sympathy, but not our everyday run-of-the-mill Hallmark sympathy.  It’s about real sympathy.  God’s sympathy.  The sympathy he eventually puts on display in Jesus (Heb 2.17; 4.15).  We aren’t so much like Job as much as Jesus becomes like us who “prayed for his friends” (42.8; cf. Lk 22.31f.; Rom 8.34; Heb 7.25).  God accepted him so that he would not do with us according to our folly (42.8).  In a preview of resurrection God “restored the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends” (42.10). Out of his potsherd-shaped scars (2.8) Job became the conduit of blessing to a new family (42.12-16).  Blessed be the name of the Lord.

The fires of faith are kindled in the ashes of adversity, ashes piled up at the cross.  May we repent in them and finally rest as “an old man and full of days” (42.17).


07 2014

Would Jesus Join the Tea Party?

And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12.17)

Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1862 about the Union and Confederacy’s conflict over slavery, “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time.”

In his second inaugural address in 1865 he’d not changed his mind: “Both [North and South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

A preacher once asked Lincoln if he knew God to be a Union man. Lincoln replied famously and summarily the question was not whether or not God was on their side but if they were on his.

So whose side is Jesus on anyway?  Mine or yours? Ours or theirs? Would Jesus join the Tea Party?  What does he think about income taxes and government loyalty?  Is he an anarchist (all government is bad and should be resisted)?  Is he a theocrat (society should be ruled by religious law and devotion mediated by the authority of the church)?  Where does Jesus stand politically: with conservatives, liberals, progressives, independents, libertarians?  Fox News or CNN?  Would he plug his car up, gas it up or ride a bike?  NRA or ACLU?

The Pharisees tried to pin Jesus down on a similar issue: should Jews pay taxes to Caesar or not (Mk 12.14)?  Did Jesus join the Jews in their hatred of paying tribute to a Gentile who thinks himself a god?  Or would he sell out and cower in the shadow of Tiberius Caesar, Son of Divine Augustus?

While Jesus did not say everything that would be said about the relationship between his followers and the State, he did provide enough for the apostles to unpack.

1) Civil government—even an evil one—is a legitimate institution to be supported by taxes and respect. Christians should be the most faithful and honest taxpayers on the planet.  What if our taxpayer dollars go to fund ungodly initiatives (abortion, for example)?  Caesar was no altar boy himself.  He spent taxpayer dollars building pagan shrines and temples to himself and his false gods.  Yet, Jesus said to give Caesar his due not because we agree with his policies but because he will be held accountable to the authority granted him by God (see Rom 13.1-7).

After all, Paul wrote Romans during the reign of Nero after having survived the reigns of Caligula and Claudius.  He’d probably be surprised at how easily we complain about our democracy!

2) Christians are to live as exemplary citizens so that if they are despised it is only because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The world must have no charge against Christians except where their allegiance to the gospel trumps their allegiance to the State.  Christians are not to be seen as revolutionaries or mutineers.  They’re not tax cheats or snarky loophole lovers.  The freedom provided by Jesus in the gospel is not be used for rebellion, but for humble submission (see 1 Pt 2.13-17; Heb 10.32-39).

How we joyfully submit to the state often reflects how much faith we have in God to make good on his promise in the gospel.  Do we really believe this world is not worth what we often spend to hold on to it? Don’t throw away your confidence in God to hold onto stuff.  Believe it or not, submitting to our civil government insofar as we can without compromising the gospel is an act of worship to God.

3) Jesus prioritized the two kingdoms.  Jesus did not define two mutually exclusive kingdoms: Caesar’s and God’s.  He wasn’t saying Caesar has his kingdom and God has his kingdom and we live in one or the other.  We often separate them into the secular and sacred.  Jesus wasn’t proposing radical separatism or radical revolution.  He prioritized the kingdoms.  He didn’t offer an either/or scenario but a both/and scenario, with one kingdom subject to the other.

He prioritized the kingdoms as one being temporal and earthly (Caesar’s) which is subject to one that is eternal and sovereign (God’s).  Paying taxes to and honoring Caesar is part of living in this kingdom, this age of fallen humanity where we need police and firemen and roads.  God will hold Caesar accountable for what he does with those taxes and honor but we entrust that to God while we gladly file our 1040s and honor the king.

The church should never be despaired by any administration.  Listening to Christian talking heads, you’d think electing President Obama was the end of the world.  Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s.  But don’t give to Caesar what is God’s. And ascribing any king, president, monarch, dictator, sheik or imam the power to govern the affairs of redemptive-history is to give to Caesar what alone belongs to God.  God alone determines the affairs of the world.

If it’s the end of the world it won’t be because of President Obama, a nuclear Iran or Hamas but because of our Great and Sovereign God who is bringing all things in subjection to the Lord Jesus Christ.  We should be less concerned about who is in office and far more concerned about who is in Christ, because it’s before his court we’ll appear in the end.

Of course, we must engage in civil affairs in this life but only as long as we remember the priority of God’s kingdom to come.

4) It’s of more eternal importance that we give to God what is God’s than we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.  Jesus said to these Pharisees and Herodians, “You hypocritically assume that it’s more important what a person gives to Caesar than what a person gives to God.  You’re the religious leaders of Israel and you are not giving God what he is due.  Who cares about Caesar’s tax rates when you have no fear of God?  Why are you more concerned about what happens at Caesar’s palace than what happens in the temple of God?”

We must prioritize the kingdoms such that God’s kingdom—evident in the church now but ultimately realized in a new heavens/earth—takes precedence over all other allegiances.

Folks often ask preachers what they’re going to do if/when it become illegal to preach on certain topics.  While God will supply sufficient grace should the time come, I’m not scared of what the government might do if we preach the gospel.  I fear what God might do if we don’t!  We don’t fear wrongly (in the eyes of men) preaching the gospel.  We fear preaching the wrong gospel (cf. Acts 4.16-30).  We need not fear what laws may be enacted against Christian witness. We fear God more than the state.

So, we pay our taxes on time.  We do the speed limit.  We buckle our seatbelts! We speak respectfully of the President to our children.  We gladly obey the law insofar as it doesn’t collide with Christ’s law of love and righteousness.

And even more, we joyfully preach Christ.  And we give the state only one option for despising/arresting us: hatred of Jesus and his gospel. On our way to prison or the gallows we pay up our taxes, speak respectfully of those arresting us (see Acts 24.2-4; 26.2-3), and then thank God that all government rests on the shoulders of Jesus (Is 9.6).

For the Christian, the health of the church, purity of her witness, the zeal of her worship is more important than the health of city hall, Nashville (in our case) or Washington.  The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is the only God-ordained institution by which he broadcasts his interests to the world. And she will be the only “nation” standing in the end.  So the amount of energy we spend on political discourse should be exponentially outdone by the amount of energy spent on gospel discourse.  The amount of energy we spend compelling others to this or that candidate should be exponentially outdone by the energy spent compelling them to Jesus. Our allegiance to Caesar must be exponentially outdone by our allegiance to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.  We’re merely aliens and strangers here.  We’re citizens of God’s kingdom.

Despite what I may nor may not want to give to Caesar, am I giving to God what is God’s?  We were stamped with the imago Dei long before anything was stamped with the emperor’s profile.  Therefore, I owe God my life and paying Caesar is a small price to pay in light of that.

Brother and sister, what do you fear more: national socialism or local church apostasy?  In what do you put more hope: the spread of democracy or the spread of the gospel?  What makes you rejoice more: the election of a certain candidate or salvation of the elect? Which kingdom takes priority in your time, money, efforts and conversation?

How would Jesus answer those questions?  Would he be on your side, or would you be on his?

Hundreds of professing Christians gather locally and thousands nationally for a National Day of Prayer.  And they will be Christians who never gather with their local churches to pray.  They will gather to pray for people they’ve never met and situations they’ve never touched.  But yet don’t gather with their churches to pray for people who sit right around them every week in situations that affect them greatly.

God hasn’t ordained your city hall or capitol building to be a house of prayer for the nations.  He’s ordained the church as the house of prayer for the nations! God will change America, not when towns take a National Day of Prayer seriously, but when the local church takes her weekly day of prayer seriously.  We not boycott the National Day of Prayer but we should participate with far less expectation, investment and energy then than the local church gathers in prayer.

Would Jesus join the Tea Party?  In one sense, who really cares?  The question is are we part of his party?  He’s more concerned about saving and sanctifying the people for whom he died.  He’s more concerned about people hearing and believing this world is under judgment and only those who repent and believe in Jesus will survive its destruction.  He’s more concerned about holiness than taxes.

So pay your taxes.  Rally your candidates.  But make sure you’re keeping Christ’s kingdom your primary allegiance.  Get out the vote if you want, but get out the gospel more.   Love Jesus and serve the church more than democracy and the State.  Make sure that when these two kingdoms collide (and they always do) you’re standing with Christ and his people.

And if someone asks you what you think about what’s going on in America you tell them it’s not nearly as important as what’s going on with them and God.  Are they giving God what is God’s?

Practicing for Heaven

“Is it true that what we will be doing for eternity is worshiping God?” he asked. “Well,” I said, “that seems to be what the Bible teaches,” briefly referring to Revelation 4-5.  “Hmm,” he said, “that sounds boring to me.”

That conversation happened 11-plus years ago and still echoes loudly in my soul.  I was thrilled he was thinking about heaven. But he revealed more than personal contemplations about the afterlife.  In fact, he was really saying more about the church than his own doctrine of heaven. His was not an uncommon sentiment.

He was right however to see the inviolable and mysterious connection between the two ages.  Our frame of reference for heavenly worship is and should  be the church’s earthly worship.  This brother assumed if he had to spend eternity doing/experiencing what he did each Sunday morning then he would be eternally bored.

He was on to something.  If we view Revelation 4-5 through the lens of our typical congregational worship  it leaves little to be desired.  In comparison, our jobs seem exciting, vacations refreshing, Little League fulfilling, and gadgets enthusing.  The church’s worship? Yawn.  Seeing Grandma again excites us, but singing to Jesus everyday?  Where’s the remote?

Do we leave the church’s public worship longing for the Christ-filled heaven or the office, first tee, backyard or TV? Does congregational worship leave an aftertaste of Revelation 4-5 in our mouths or an aftertaste of cough syrup (helpful, but not delightful)?

It might help to take our worship “cues” from John’s vision so we’re not confused when we get there. Do we love singing and praying together as a church? Is the crescendo of our week the Lord’s Supper with the church? After all, we do worship the same precious Jesus as the heavenly saints (Heb 12.22-24).

This does not assume congregational worship need be loud, fast-paced, heart-racing, visually stimulating, knee-slapping, comedic or “exciting” to mirror heaven.  It need not be unnecessarily somber or lamentable, either (though we could use more of that these days).  It just need be, well, Christian.  Everything should be dripping with God’s grace as we apply the gospel to the full spectrum of the Christian life.

The Christian life is not always exciting.  Nor is it always somber.  It is always Christ and we want to help one another to him.  God is just as, if not more in this life, glorified when we cry with brothers and sisters in prayerful silence as in applause and shouting.  We are exiles on a painful and joyful journey home.

The New Testament lends itself to simple elements (prayer, reading, singing, preaching, sacraments).  And God displays his power and salvation through those elements so as to fit his children for heaven.   Through them God increases our appetite for Jesus and then whets that appetite for more.  We must be extremely careful of worshiping worship but there is no heaven without worshiping Christ.

A.T. Pierson preached at Metropolitan Tabernacle one week after Charles Spurgeon’s death (January 31, 1892).  That congregation had known the likes of Benjamin Keach, John Gill and John Rippon as pastors.  And now their pastor of 38 years had been with Jesus a mere week.  Pierson preached from Revelation 4.1 and said:

“The central object, and the central glory in the vision of heaven, is God; and if we have not learned to think of heaven as, first of all, not the place where our departed friends, however dear, are gathered, but, first of all, as the place where God dwells, we lack the fundamental conception of heaven. The first thing that John saw, and the first thing to be seen, was the throne of God. The light and glory of that divine presence makes every star grow dim, and fills the whole horizon of heaven and the whole vision of the redeemed” (From the Pulpit to the Palm Branch: 77).

“Let us stop to consider a moment, that, if you do not love worship, you never can enter heaven. If you do not love worship, you are unfitted for the main activity and ecstasy of heaven, which is endless ascription of glory and praise to God and the Lamb!” (p81)

Heaven is indeed the “endless ascription of glory and praise to God and the Lamb” (Rev 5.11-14).  We need help preparing for that reality.  We need hope preparing for that reality. We don’t want any part of heaven to be unfamiliar.  Rather, when we see “Him who sits on the throne” we will joyfully say, “We were made for this.”

Juneteenth in Graceland

Today is Juneteenth (a.k.a. June 19th). Texas introduced me to Juneteenth during a pastoral stretch in the Republic.  I am thankful to reflect on its significance today especially living in one of the more racist regions of the country.  A region that has done its fair share of infecting my own heart as well.

Abraham Lincoln declared the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862.  In it he ordered the freedom of all slaves in the Confederacy, effective January 1, 1863.  It was a courageous step on the way to abolishing slavery altogether.

The feisty Texans (are there any other kind?) resisted Lincoln’s authority and did not abide by the president’s order.  History debates whether or not Texas actually received the message or if they killed the messenger.  In either case, on June 18, 1865, General Gordon Grainger led 2,000 Union troops into Galveston, Texas.  He essentially assumed control of the state and on June 19, 1865, read General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

After holding out two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Texas was brought to it knees and forced to free her slaves.  What the president said would be obeyed.  Since then, Juneteenth has been celebrated as a holiday in Texas and now officially recognized in 41 other states.

Among the many thoughts Juneteenth should provoke, I consider only two:

1.  Memphis suffers a painful racial history (think assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.).  While there may not be high-handed slavery in Memphis there is high-handed racism.  Just this week I listened to woman begging God to keep a “family of blacks” from moving in next to her.  She said “one or two” are fine but a whole family would be disastrous.

We may be obeying the Emancipation on the outside but we’re Galvestonians on the inside.  Could it be that we don’t own slaves in Memphis because it’s wrong but because it’s illegal?  What sort of world would have to make slavery illegal because the people wouldn’t choose it otherwise?

While some churches labor as a corrective to local racism, many others are catalysts for it.  I’ve heard my share of banter under the biggest steeples from good ol’  boys holding the fanciest Bibles, taking their turns verbally whipping the “democrats” (that’s code for “blacks” or, well, you know).  We don’t need artificial, superficial efforts toward racial reconciliation.  We don’t need empty sermons preached with fingers crossed behind our backs.  We need repentance in light of the full display of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I need repentance.

We’ll never be rid of racism in this world in this life.  But, it has no place in the church in this life.  If I can’t rejoice to share the same loaf and drink the same cup as my “colored” enemy then heaven will not be a place for me (Rev 5.9).  If I can’t stand them here, God will not stand me There.  The lines the world draws to categorize us all vanish in the church as Christ rules the only alternative community, the heavenly one (Gal 3.28).

Frederick Douglas addressed the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on July 5, 1852.  In his speech he asked poignantly, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”  A similar question might be asked to the Southern church: “What, to the American black, is your gospel?”

Racism is not new.  The apostles suffered their own effects of it when the Jewish, religious elite fought to keep Gentiles from polluting their traditions (Rom 12.3-8; Eph 2.11-22). Jesus being the first Whipping Boy of the new covenant.  He ate with tax collectors and sinners (Mt 9.11), the proverbial “coloreds” of his day.  Paul had to write Gal 3.28-29 for a reason.  This leads me to my second consideration.

2.  Juneteenth reminds us of the gospel.  Jesus said, “. . . I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” (Jn 8.34).  But he promised freedom from sin for all those who love him (Jn 8.36, 42).

I don’t know about you but I commit sin.  Lots of sin.  Therefore, Jesus said I’m irrevocably obliged to obey my master.  And that master intends to kill me forever (Rom 6.23a).  I am powerless to stop it.  But Jesus came to free all the enslaved children given him by his Father (Jn 6.39).

At the cross, Jesus climbed Mount Calvary with his own Emancipation Proclamation.  When he cried, “It is finished!” (Jn 19.30) and then walked out of the tomb three days later he announced the end of sin’s grip on God’s elect.  Freedom from sin is the law of the land in Christ’s kingdom.

However, like those feisty Texan slave owners sin still abuses us, hounds us, accuses us, afflicts us.  Despite the witness of the gospel sin still assumes it owns us.  And we often ignore our own liberation to satisfy immediate appetites.  Paul wrote Romans 6 for a reason!

But, the day is coming when our own General will come to town.  He won’t need 2,000 troops or two days or derived authority.  He will come on his own authority to enforce the declaration of the resurrection.  What God said will be obeyed.  And Jesus will complete what he started.  He will finally and forever liberate all those for whom he died from their own death and sin.

But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. . . . So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman (Gal 4.29, 31)

Such is the hope of the gospel.  We live as free men in a slave-holding state.  But not for long.  The declaration has been made, the blood has been spilled and the King is on his way.   And we will soon hear:

The people of Christ are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the Universe, all slaves are free.  ‘Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”‘ (Mt 25.34).

May Graceland be more than a tourist stop through town.  May we be a land of grace indeed where the King lives.

I Saw Jesus at the Nursing Home

Jesus wept (John 11.35).

My dad was recently in a local rehabilitation center/nursing home. He returned home a smidge stronger but he still inches toward the midnight hour.  John 11 met me at the door when we last visited him.

The apostle John put  Jesus on display in John 11.  The fullness of God and the fullness of man swirling heavenward to stir up faith in the Bethany township.  The Son of God who raises the dead is also the Son of Man who weeps in graveyards. 

Because he is the Son of Man, fully human, Jesus had a beloved friend on his deathbed (v3).  Because he is the Son of God, fully divine, Jesus had already written the end of the story (v4).  Or perhaps more appropriately, the beginning of the story.

The Son of Man went to the funeral as good friends do (vv15, 17). The Son of God would end the funeral.

The Son of Man consoled a grieving and theologically astute sister (vv23-27).  The Son of God Jesus eased her pain by drawing her to himself.

The Son of Man was “deeply moved in spirit and was troubled” that his friends suffered (v33).  The Son of God Jesus could actually do something about it:  “Where have you laid him?” (v34).

The Son of Man wept as he stood before his beloved friend’s newly-sealed tomb (vv35, 38).  The Son of God broke the seal and solved the dilemma of death by commanding life back into his friend (vv33-34).  “Remove the stone” (v39).

And somehow the man “bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face…wrapped around with a cloth” “came forth” (v44).  Maybe he shuffled.  Maybe he floated. Maybe he just appeared.  But when Jesus spoke a soul returned to a reeking corpse, oxygen filled Lazarus’ lungs, decomposition reversed course, strength returned to his legs. As if speaking to death itself Jesus commanded, “Unbind him, and let him go” (v44).

As John’s famous seventh sign the raising of Lazarus prefaced what followed.  John’s Gospel would slow down to the last week of Jesus’ mortal life as chapter 12 begins “six days before the Passover.”  It would be The Passover to end all Passovers.  John covered three years of highlights in eleven chapters.  John would take the next ten chapters to cover one week.  Raising Lazarus was the literary equivalent of an emergency brake on a locomotive.

The Beloved Son would die, be sealed in a tomb behind a stone, and his friends would mourn.  But God would remove the stone (Jn 20.1) and the Beloved One would come forth.  Only this One would leave his burial clothes in the tomb (v5).  Unlike Lazarus, Jesus would never need them again.

Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead long before Lazarus ever died: “This sickness is not to end in death” (vv4, 11).  Yet, Jesus he was moved by the sorrow (v33). Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus after a short prayer (v42) and yet he still wept before he prayed (v35).

Scholars debate why Jesus cried at Lazarus’ tomb.  Maybe he was mad.  Maybe he was frustrated.  Maybe he was disappointed in Martha.  Maybe he was put out with naysayers (v37).

Or maybe he was human.

Jesus entered into the fullness of human suffering (Heb 2.14; 4.15).  As the Son of Man Jesus would take on and endure the curse we welcomed into his world.  Therefore, the Creator and Goal of all things (Col 1.16) – who created a good and perfect world, who is Life and Light (Jn 1.1-5) – chose to stand before the lifeless, lightless cave of a beloved friend.  Knowing he would ransack death, Jesus stood in the middle of wailing mourners before a stonewalled tomb and cried as if to say, “This is what my world has come to! Look how far we’ve fallen!”

When God said “Let there be” he didn’t create any tombs.  Jesus didn’t create caves to hide rotting bodies.  He created the morning, not mourning.

But there he was.  Engulfed in the tidal wave of human depravity. Satan’s playground.  The one who created the Tree of Life tasted the bitter fruit of death.  And he wept.

It was this very death he would undergo for his beloved friends: the children God gave him (Jn 6.37-40).  For them he will be the resurrection and the life.  He will endure their death and then some so that they will have his life.  There was a we-ness about Lazarus’ tomb.

It was a John 11 moment when we visited Dad at the rehab center.   We know Jesus has been raised and will raise us on the last day (Rom 8.11).  But until then we stand with and before broken people crying “This ought not be!”  Look at what this world, the world we wanted, has come to.  It’s broken.  Really broken.  Dad was certainly among the healthiest in rehab but there is a we-ness about things at the nursing home.

Image-bearers of God should not lose their minds or their legs or their sight or their continence.  We should not be so disgraced.  God’s people should not need wheelchairs or eat through straws or drool or wear diapers.  They should not live on chemicals and in isolation.  They should not stink (v39).  Satan should not make sport of us.  Humans should not be so dehumanized.  A Living God should not have a dying people.  We are rightly compelled to provide as much dignity as possible in such situations because dignity is becoming of the imago Dei.

In our attempt to become gods ourselves we became rather sub-human (Gen 3.2-3), ruled by those things we should’ve ruled over.  In the most ironic consequence of sin, we actually now live in a world where we consider death to be an act of mercy.  God’s world is so upside down that we actually pray for death as an answer to misery.  What we want for our loved ones often opposes what is necessary for them.  This ought not be.

It was that sort of day in Bethany.  So Jesus wept just like every other human would and should.  Jesus would say to us what he said to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?” (vv25-26).  The one who dies will never die.  Only the Son of God could reconcile that antimony.  Jesus, our Jesus, entered into our suffering with both feet.  Better yet, he was baptized into it.

In the meantime, we live in the proverbial “two days” in which Jesus is staying where he is (v6) until he returns with his word of Life (Jn 5.28-29; 14.2-3).  We live by tear-stained faith in the Risen-and-Returning One.  Until then we mourn and cry and pray and hope behind the stone with a small shaft of Light at the edge.  While we are mourning here Jesus prays for us there that we will believe (Jn 11.42; Heb 7.25).

I saw Jesus at the nursing home.  And he wept.


06 2014

Why Your Church Should Have Elders (Part 4)

Jesus loves the church and has richly provided for her eternal health and glory. He sustains the church through a well-ordered, humble, Spirit-wrought polity. Therefore we find the New Testament teaching and demonstrating that local church leadership should be entrusted to a plurality of qualified men who, though gifted differently, are equal in authority and responsibility. Both biblically and practically, your local church benefits greatly by having a group of men sharing the pastoral responsibility for souls.

In this last installment I hope to anticipate some common questions when considering a plurality of elders for your local church.

1. Are elders basically the same thing as deacons? Though a common assumption in modern (Baptist) churches, there is a clear biblical distinction between the office of elder and the office of deacon. For example, see Phil 1.1 where the roles are clearly distinguished in the Philippian church. While elders and deacons are called to diakonia (Acts 6.2, 4) they are called to different forms of primary ministry. Elders and deacons are to be the same type of men (cf. 1 Tim 3.1-13; Titus 1.5-9) but their ministry to the church is different.

Elders serve primarily in the ministry of the Word (preaching, teaching, biblical counseling) and prayer (Acts 6.4). These men provide the main diet of biblical instruction in both public and private ministry. They set the pace in public and private prayer. They also bear the responsibility of guiding the process of church discipline.

The elders/pastors/overseers/bishops oversee the spiritual health of the church and church members. They are not priests or popes. They do not dictate. They are shepherds who help Christ’s sheep feast on the gospel and enjoy God’s grace (1 Pt 5.1-5). They are to be joyfully obeyed in the way children submit to loving, grace-filled parents (Heb 13.17). Elders are a means of God’s grace so that we can flourish in spiritual maturity.

Deacons administrate “social ministry” (John Stott, The Living Church: 73) that could otherwise dominate the elders time and energy (see Acts 6.1-6). We find the first deacons to be able preachers themselves and even martyrs (Acts 7; 8.25-40). Nevertheless, their primary ministry was tending to the practical needs in the church body.

The deacons are not vice-pastors or junior ministers. While deacons do not have pastoral authority, they are “in charge” of their particular practical/social ministries (Acts 6.3). And their ministry supports the elders’ main ministry by relieving them of burdensome administration.

Both offices are ultimately subject to the church. The local church should be elder-led, deacon-served and congregationally-responsible.

2. Does the plurality of elders eliminate congregationalism? Scripture indicates the exact opposite is true. Congregationalism thrives under proper biblical polity. Ultimately, the church is the final court of appeal in matters of doctrine, discipline and practice (see Mt 18.17; Acts 13.1-3; 15.22; 1 Cor 5.4-5; 2 Cor 2.6-8; 1 Tim 5.17-22). The apostles entrusted the choosing of deacons to the church (Acts 6.1-6). Even the apostle Paul was subject to the church in Antioch (Acts 13.2-3).

Elders who love their flock would not lead them astray and congregations who trust their elders gladly follow. When elders are obedient to their charge (1 Pt 5.1-5), and those in their charge (Acts 20.28), and congregations are obedient to theirs then the church will flourish. Christ’s church is marked by heavenly humility. She is at her finest when, in subjection to Christ himself, elders humbly serve through robust biblical instruction and the church humbly submits to biblical instruction.

3. How does a church install elders? There seems to a measure of liberty as to how a local church installs her elders. Generally speaking, elders were “appointed” and deacons were “chosen” (Acts 6.1-6; Tim 4.14). Paul commanded Titus, his apostolic representative, to appoint elders in every city. It seems prudent that elders appoint other elder with some form of congregational affirmation rather than an open ballot of sorts.

Ideally, a local church is raising up her own pastors (2 Tim 2.2). Imagine if your church’s next pastor search committee was the last one you would ever need! Therefore, anyone held out for the office of elder has likely been serving in the church for some time (cf. 1 Tim 3.6). The church has already observed and benefited from their ministry. The elders appoint a man who has already been demonstrating those qualities and abilities fitting for pastoral ministry. In the healthiest sense, when elders appoint other elders they merely formally recognize what the church has long been informally recognizing about the new pastor.

What if a church has no formal elders (and therefore no process of installing them) and wants to establish them? It would help to ask a sister church with elders to help with the process. Following the apostolic pattern, a sister church can help another church get started on healthy footing. From then the elders begin training and recognizing other men in the congregation who aspire to the office (1 Tim 3.1).

4. Are elders the same thing as church staff? Not all elders are on the paid church staff. In fact, most of the elders should be “lay” elders to avoid the “professionalization” of the pastoral office as well as the temptations that come with being paid to preach the gospel. However, anyone set aside in a primary pastoral capacity should be considered an elder.

Likewise, not all paid church staff should be elders. The variety of ministry support roles are just that: administrative support.

5. Are all elders considered pastors? Yes. In fact, the words are synonymous. Vocational pastors are not the church’s “professional” ministers. Whether paid or not, all the elders share equal responsibility and authority. The “senior pastor” carries no more weight than the lay elder. Of course, this also means the pastors accustomed to their titles must humbly relinquish the “glory” attached to their vocational status.

In terms of character and pastoral fitness, the church should expect from the lay elder what she does from the full-time pastor. While the full-time pastor(s) will probably bear the bulk of the preaching and teaching load, he/they do so in concert with the other elders who help oversee the church. All the elders share equally in spiritual oversight even if some or most of the elders are not as public as others. Most, if not all, the elders of the local churches addressed in the New Testament are anonymous so that Christ alone would be famous.

Together the elders equip, encourage and empower all the church members to mature in gospel knowledge and service (Eph 4.11-16).

“What is needed is a basic biblical recognition that God calls different people in different ministries. Then the people will ensure that the people are free to exercise their gifts. It is through this reciprocal liberation that the church will flourish” (John Stott, The Living Church: 75).

Elders do not hand-feed every sheep (only the weak/sick ones). They lead the sheep to fertile pastures where they’ve taught the sheep how to feast well on Christ.

Both biblically and practically, Christ’s church benefits greatly from having a plurality of elders kneeling at the helm. In fact, it’s Jesus’ design as carried out by the apostles in the local churches throughout the Roman Empire. The burden of gospel ministry is simply to heavy for one man to bear in any church of any size. For the sake of the church, the pastor(s) and ultimately Christ himself, your local church should have elders.


06 2014