Salvation > “Getting Saved”

A popular Christian radio show recently debuted a new book.  It sounded like a beneficial book to help young girls mature in faith and love.  The author was most proud of her last chapter that presented “the plan of salvation” and “the sinner’s prayer.”  Her highest desire was that young girls would “read and repeat” (her words) and be saved.

As sincere and humble as the author was surely God’s salvation is more, infinitely more, than simply reading and repeating. If not careful even sincere gospel presentations can lead to a baptized “abracadabra” as if there is some magical formula.

We hold out a salvation that is as full and free as it is eternally bigger than we could ever imagine. We don’t enter this salvation through a “read and repeat” method. We enter this salvation through God’s sovereign work wherein he orchestrates all of history so we would believe in the Crucified and Risen Christ.

We must not make salvation necessarily harder for sinners.  But we must not hold out a weaker salvation minimized to a “read and repeat” method.

What exactly does it mean to be saved?  What does it mean when we say, “We saw three people get saved” during an altar call? Is getting saved what one is doing by repeating a prayer, walking an aisle and getting baptized?

According to Scripture, “salvation” is far more than a one-time decision a person makes. In fact, salvation is the summary term for all that God has done, is doing and will do to bring sinners to their eternal home in Christ. “Getting saved” is not what we do at a moment in time. Salvation is what God does throughout all of time to bring sinners into his eternal glory.

Scripture refers to three “tenses” of salvation (past, present, future):  “Now, I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain” (1 Cor 15.1-2).  We have been saved (“received”). We are being saved (“in which also you stand”). We will be saved (“by which also you are saved”). Salvation doesn’t happen at one time but begins at one time.

For example, when POWs see friendly planes screaming over their camp they exclaim “We’re saved!” They’re still in tattered clothes on foreign soil but the power of their captors is broken even if they still suffer a few vengeful blows. They are saved in one sense but still need to be saved in another.  They’re not yet safely home and warm. When the former prisoners are buckled in the rescue helicopter they are saved but there is still more salvation to come. When they set foot on the carrier they are still being saved but there is more salvation to come. As they salivate to kiss their wives and hug their children they look forward to being saved still. Their salvation includes everything necessary to liberate them and bring them safely home. In fact, their salvation began long before their capture when pilots trained and cartographers mapped.

Sailors on a stranded ship hear the rumble of a Coast Guard cutter and announce they are “saved” but there is still saving to be done. Their salvation began when they saw the faint silhouette of a friendly boat. But it will be complete when they are no longer in any danger. In fact, their salvation began when Coast Guard plebes trained long before they were ever lost at sea.

Likewise, salvation cannot be simplified into “read and repeat.” That weakens its glory and what God has done to save sinners. When we enter salvation we enter into “the eternal covenant” (Heb 13.20) God started before time began.  God started saving us long before we ever knew ourselves to be lost, enslaved or dead.

What then does salvation summarize?

God’s foreknowledge, predestination and election (Acts 13.48; Rom 8.28-30; Eph 1.3-6). The church has long debated the nature of election and predestination. She has always agreed, however, no one is saved who is not first chosen for salvation. We may disagree as to the grounds on which a person is chosen (God’s sovereign decree or man’s foreseen faith) but all agree salvation begins with God’s foreknowledge, predestination and election.

Atonement and redemption (Ps 106.10; Is 63.9; Gal 4.5; Titus 2.14).  Our salvation included God’s provision of the only sufficient sacrifice for our sins. At the cross, Jesus actually redeemed sinners. He exchanged his righteousness for their sin (2 Cor 5.21). Like those POWs or stranded sailors, Jesus redeemed many before they ever knew themselves lost (cf. Rom 5.8).

Regeneration, repentance, faith, justification (Jn 3.1-21; Rom 5.1-2; Eph 2.8-9). Our salvation includes God applying Christ’s work to us. Jesus purchased life for those dead in transgressions. Therefore, God applies that life to them through the Holy Spirit’s regenerating, life-giving work (i.e. new birth) marked by repentance and faith. And upon their believing the gospel God declares them right and at peace with him.  We display and affirm this work through baptism into the church (Rom 6.1-4).

Sanctification/Perseverance (1 Cor 1.18; 2 Cor 2.15; Phil 1.6; 2.12-13). Our salvation did not merely happen when we believed. It began then (even though we could rightly say it really began in eternity past). All those who are saved are being saved still. Through sanctification, God keeps saving us as we again and again and again retreat to, trust in and hope for Christ. Jesus was clear: “it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (Mt 10.22). “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2.10).  Those who believed keep believing.  We affirm this ongoing work through by regularly observing the Lord’s Supper with the church (1 Cor 11.26).

Second Coming/Glorification (Rom 6.22; 1 Pt 1.3-9). Those who are saved are being saved. And those being saved still need to be saved from the sting of death. Our salvation is secure in Christ but will be completed by Christ when he returns (Jn 14.3). We are justified (past tense) by faith but are finally saved when we are with Christ physically forever in resurrection. We are only and finally saved when we are safely home with Christ, never to be attacked, condemned or wounded again by sin, Satan and death. We do not really see people “get saved” when they walk an aisle because there is far more salvation yet to come. Their salvation includes their sanctification/perseverance and resurrection.  In reality, we’ll only see them get saved when we see them raised bodily to eternal life (Jn 5.28-29; Phil 3.11).

“Getting saved” suggests a weak understanding of salvation but it’s certainly not a heretical one. Nevertheless, we should reflect on and stress the God-centeredness of salvation. If not careful, “getting saved” becomes more about what we decided, did and declared than what God has been doing from from eternity past into eternity future.  Genesis 1.1 is not merely the beginning of creation but even more the beginning of our salvation (cf. Jn 1.1-5).

We don’t “get saved” as much as God saves us. We don’t present a “plan” of salvation, but the Man of salvation. We don’t call all people to “read and repeat” for salvation but to hear, repent, believe and endure to the end to be saved.

We have been, are being and will be saved by God in Christ, by Christ and for Christ. God began this work before we ever knew we needed salvation. And he will complete it long after we ever thought we understood it (cf. Jn 6.35-40). God is doing far more, in fact, everything to see his children rescued from sin, Satan and his own coming wrath.

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3.5-7).

He saved us, which is to say he washed us in regeneration, renewed us by the Holy Spirit, justified us by his grace and is preparing us in hope for our salvation to come. You know your salvation has come because you rejoice that it’s also coming.  Maranatha.

Fancy It Forward:

Why Do Good Things Happen to Bad People?

For every act of evil replayed ad nauseam on cable news there are a million unreported, anonymous acts of kindness.

“It comes as an enormous relief to recognize that, however odious and sweeping sin is, whether in personal idolatry or in its outworking in the barbarities of a Pol Pot or an Auschwitz, God intervenes to restrain evil, to display his ‘common grace’ to and through all, so that glimpses of glory and goodness disclose themselves even in the midst of the wretchedness of rebellion. God still sends his sun and rain upon the just and the unjust; he still guides the surgeon’s hand and gives strength to the person who picks up the garbage; the sunset still takes our breath away, while a baby’s smile steals our hearts. Acts of kindness and self-sacrifice surface among every race and class of human beings, not because we are simple mixtures of good and evil, but because even in the midst of our deep rebellion God restrains us and displays his glory and goodness” (D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited: 49).

It’s one thing to ask God why he allows so much evil, especially to so-called good people.  It’s quite another to ask, given the extent of our depravity, why there is not more evil than there is.

Fancy It Forward:

Endurance, for Christ’s Sake

“[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 leaks through the Sunday morning veneer and we console ourselves with Job’s misery.  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.

Such praise, however, did not insulate Job from being bothered by and doubtful of God’s dealings with him (cf. 1.22; 2.10).  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.  James did not ultimately venerate Job but Job’s God.  Job endured to see God as full of compassion and merciful.  We do not persevere to see ourselves, but to see God.

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).  Our merciful and compassionate God entered our world to do battle.  Battle with a blood-thirsty Satan. In the end, he sacrifices for his sorry friends and forgives them.  He became our dust and ashes (Job 30.19) enduring his Father’s rebuke for our sake.

Jesus cried out asking why his Father had forsaken him (Mk 15.34; cf. Ps 22.1).  In his next (and final) breath he cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23.46; cf. Ps 31.5).  Jesus committed his spirit into the hands of the one who just forsook him. The Father was just that precious to him.  Jesus knew what it meant to say, “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him” (Job 13.15).

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).

Fancy It Forward:

Baptist Catholicism (What the Altar Call, Sinner’s Prayer & Pope Have in Common)

The typical Baptist suffers from Catholiphobia: the fear of all things Catholic. We Baptists often know more about Catholics than Catholicism, which is probably true of any religious tradition.  We tend to define religious traditions by the few people we know who practice them rather that what that tradition has historically confessed. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take long for a Baptist to realize he strongly opposes Catholic baptism.

The Council of Trent‘s insistence the sacraments work ex opere operato (“by the work worked”) draws a distinct line in the sand for Baptists (see Catholic Catechism, par. 1128).  The Catechism later states, “Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word” (par. 1213).  In other words, in the mere act of baptism the Holy Spirit regenerates (or, gives spiritual life) despite the infant’s inability to repent and believe the gospel.

By definition, no Baptist can claim baptism works ex opere operato and remain Baptist.  However, Baptists must not throw the baby out with the font water.  Baptism is part of what it means to respond publicly to the gospel (Acts 2.38; 8.36).  Baptism doesn’t save but it’s a necessary part of salvation. The New Testament tethers baptism so closely to conversion that an unbaptized Christian is an anomaly in the church.  In that sense, we agree with Catholics that through  baptism “we become members of Christ” (Rom 6.1-7).  Ironically, a tradition called “Baptist” has so divorced baptism from the gospel that we’ve largely lost the gravity of baptism altogether!  Whereas it was an assumed response to the gospel in the New Testament, we now have to remind people about it.

That said, Baptists reject Catholic baptism because Scripture does not support baptismal regeneration.  Repentance and faith are necessary prerequisites for salvation (cf. Mk 1.15; Rom 5.1).  The church must not affirm, assure or assume God’s salvation who does not demonstrate repentance from sin and faith in Christ.

To be sure, the church initially confers that affirmation and assurance through baptism.  Again we agree at least in principle: “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (Catholic Catechism). Baptists have long held baptism is a prerequisite for church membership, the Lord’s Supper and other Christian graces.  For example, the Baptist Faith and Message states, “Being a church ordinance, [baptism] is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper” (Article VII).

But as much as baptism does do it doesn’t work ex opere operato.  Repentance and faith compels baptism, not the other way around.

Nevertheless, might we be guilty of Baptist Catholicism?  Have the “altar call” and “sinner’s prayer” Catholicized Baptist evangelism?

Generally and practically speaking, the altar call and “sinner’s prayer” have become for Baptists sacraments that work ex opere operato.  No Baptist would ever claim as much, but in practice we hardly know the biblical terms of true gospel conversion anymore.  Now, we evangelize by saying “Come down and pray this” (or vice versa) regardless of whether or not there is demonstrable repentance and faith.  We assure the “convert” of salvation because they’ve “come forward” and/or repeated a sinner’s prayer (which has somehow been canonized into The Sinner’s Prayer).  (Obviously, there are sinners who prayed as divinely recorded in Scripture, but their prayers are not to be formalized as incantations.)

Most gospel tracts and evangelistic sermons end with a suggested prayer, which if prayed, is grounds for assuring one of salvation.  Granted, there is typically a disclaimer about the prayer having to be sincere (“If you really meant this prayer sincerely in your heart then you are a Christian”).  Still there is often an assurance of salvation based on no other evidence than that a prayer was prayed.  In other words, as in baptismal regeneration, there is no demonstrable repentance and faith but assurance of salvation is still offered.  The “sinner’s prayer” has been infused into the language of conversion (repentance and faith).

If we’re honest, that’s as much ex opere operato as any Catholic baptism.  Say the prayer and you now have a relationship with God.  Iain Murray writes in his booklet The Invitation System:

The words ‘believe’ and ‘repent’ are now largely replaced by other terms such as ‘Give your life to Christ’, ‘Open your heart to Christ’, ‘Do it now’, ‘Surrender completely’, ‘Decide for Christ’, etc. and in similar language those who profess conversion are sometimes represented having ‘given in’ (p25).

For a few generations the same has held true for the “altar call” or “invitation” at the end of many church services.  What are mere stairs for 6 days, 23 hours and 45 minutes mysteriously become an “altar” for 15 minutes each Sunday.  Like the priest who consecrates the host at Mass, the pastor transforms the stairs into an altar so as to give the Spirit the widest berth to work.

First of all, there is no “altar” in the new covenant except for Jesus.  That’s why Jesus died: to end all altars.  He, the Bloody Lamb, is both the altar and the sacrifice to whom we come to meet with, hear from, learn about and grow in God’s forgiveness of our sins.

“We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.  For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp.  Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate.  So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach.  For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come” (Heb 13.10-14).

We no longer go to a place.  We go to a Person.  Altars in Scripture were places of bloody sacrifices.  To suggest our carpeted stairs now assume the same place is to radically domesticate the sacrificial system and cheapen the cross (the place of bloody sacrifice).

Further, we often assume that because someone has gone to or prayed at the “altar” then God must be at work.  Because one prayed or responded there instead of here is seen as definitive evidence of God’s presence.  If we really want to deal with God then we should do so down front, where God is met.  Again, that’s ex opere operato.

This isn’t to question anyone’s sincerity or gravity of conviction.  I am saying we have confused many people with weak assurances when Christ himself stands ready to provide lasting assurance.  We have led people to breathe an emotional sigh of relief when they return to their seat when, in fact, nothing substantial or lasting may have happened.

God be praised for conviction of sin and provision of grace.  But, the proof of gospel progress is not seen, for example, in praying down front for God’s help to forgive someone.  The fruit of repentance is in actually forgiving that someone.  Despite what we’ve communicated, exercising faith is not swallowing one’s pride to walk down in front of everyone on Sunday for spiritual help.  Exercising faith is often seen in swallowing one’s pride to have a private conversation on Tuesday with someone you offended.

Again, no Baptist would ever confess an aisle or prayer saved them.  But, many professing Bible-belt believers cannot talk about their conversion apart from an altar call.  “I went forward” and/or “prayed to receive Christ” and/or “made a decision” have replaced “I repented and believed” or “I was baptized into Christ.” Essentially, it doesn’t matter when or if I believed, only when I walked the aisle or prayed the prayer (that’s ex opere operato).

Any hint of repentance often comes when, after years of running from God, “I got things right” as a teenager or in college.  But we don’t call that conversion.  We call it “rededication” because the power of the aisle and sinner’s prayer is often too strong to contradict.  The church leaves many confused about what exactly happened when they made a decision they were told was salvation.  They were so assured it was salvation even though their heart seemed to come to life only recently.  They’re left to contemplate the nature of salvation itself and unfortunate re-baptism (as my own journey bears out).

Altar calls and sinner’s prayers are not biblical as we now know them.  But don’t we do many things not found in Scripture we consider helpful for ministry?  Absolutely and it’s a point well-taken.  However, altar calls and sinner’s prayers are not simply extra-biblical conventions we use in gospel ministry (like microphones, bulletins, pianos or offering envelopes).  They monkey with the gospel and our responses to it.  The day a person attaches any salvific significance to the piano is the day we start singing a ccapella!  The day a person confuses amplification with God’s call to salvation is the day we talk louder and sit closer!

Baptism is the new covenant’s initial public response to the  gospel.  It is the very summary of conversion itself.  Baptism is our “coming out” party telling the world we are a Christian and should be treated as such.  Yet, many churches relegate it to a formality while folks are finding their seats at the beginning or checking their watches at the end of a service.  Baptism is an important administrative detail, but they did the real work when they walked down front.  We will spend 20 minutes belaboring an altar call but hasten through a scripted five-minute baptism.  Baptists, this ought not be.

Like the apostles we are to compel converts to the baptistery (Acts 2.38; 8.36; 19.3-5), not down an aisle to an “altar.” Our baptism, not when we walked an aisle, serves as a sweet reminder of God’s grace and our new life in Christ (Rom 6.1-11).  Baptism is the Christian’s sweet retreat when wrestling with sin and discouragement.

Our ongoing public accountability to the gospel is not expressed in the occasional aisle walk, but in the daily, personal discipleship in the rhythm of church life (Titus 2.1-8). More specifically, we express public accountability to the gospel when we come again and again to the Lord’s Table to proclaim his death for us.  We don’t go to an “altar” to deal privately with God in public, who is bound by attorney-client privilege. We go to Christ together with brothers and sisters who help us bask in the riches of God’s forgiveness (Jas 5.16).

Preach Christ alone, friends.  He is a much better Comforter and Guarantor than all the aisles and prayers in Christendom.

Fancy It Forward:

25 Years a Widower

“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his godly ones” (Ps 116.15).

Mom's TombstoneMom died 25 years ago today.  It was a remarkably Christian death.  She died well. Painfully, but well.

We buried her across the street from the Itta Bena cotton field in which she was born.  Under the magnolia next to her dad, her sister and her infant son.  It was brutally hot that day in the Mississippi Delta.

Dad never remarried.  Said he would never find anyone better so why settle.  Most days he stills wears his wedding band.  For better or worse ’til death do they part. He’s still honoring his vow.  In fact, about ten years after the funeral Dad moved her casket to a local cemetery.  She was too far away. They will await the resurrection together.

Everybody’s mom dies.  Every spouse eventually becomes a widow(er).  But I just don’t want to waste her death or Dad’s example.  There are many days I’m still that 16-year-old kid trying to make sense of God’s providence.  I’ve not made much sense of it yet.  But what’s different now than 25 years ago is that I’m okay with that.  “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1.21).

By God’s grace, I was privileged to watch a Christian die well even though I wasn’t one myself.  She must’ve wrestled many days with her God as much as her cancer. But at the end of those days God always won out.  She may have complained to God but I never once heard her complain about him. She always brought honor to Christ.  She died in him in every sense of the word.  Her last breaths left a sweet aroma of Jesus that those who knew her enjoy to this day.

By God’s grace, I’ve watched a man widowed after 38 years.  I was a high school kid with a 65-year-old roommate.  Needless to say, we had more than a few rough patches thanks to my arrogance and petty rebellion.  But Dad still raised his son the best he knew how.  He still honored that boy’s mother.

Dad never retreated.  He’s buried his parents, an infant son, his wife, his brothers, his in-laws and all his aunts and uncles.  And he still pressed in further into the life of the church and his friends.  He never retreated.  He’s walked slowly but surely in faith.  An imperfect faith to be sure but he’s still on the journey.  He has battled severe loneliness for a quarter-century.  But I never saw him pout.  In fact, it’s only been in the last two years that I’ve seen him cry.  That’s no particular virtue per se, but he would bear his burdens so we wouldn’t have to.

We may do more caring for Dad then he does for us these days.  But he still fathers us.  Just like he promised her.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
when mine eyes shall close in death,
when I soar to worlds unknown,
see thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee.
(Augustus Toplady)

Fancy It Forward:

Hold Your Heterosexuality Loosely

“But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7.29-31).

In a chapter about how Christians respond in marriage, singleness and widowhood Paul tucked what could be the key to the Christian life and ethic.  This world as we know it (the outward form or schema) is passing away.  In fact, “the time has been shortened.” And with it all that takes up most of our lives: marriage, pain, joy, possessions. Christians  therefore hold all of those relationships and experiences very loosely in light of the world to come. His goal was “to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord” (v35).

This world–and its marriages, experiences and possessions–is important.  But Jesus is more important.  This world is necessary for now.  But Jesus is necessarily necessary for eternity.  This world is a means to end, not the end itself.  Paul did not command indifference but perspective.

Paul did not mean married men are free to live like single men.  Rather, their marriage is not ultimate (Mt 22.30) and can end in a split-second.  Hold your marriage loosely so as to hold Jesus tightly.  Love Jesus more than you love your spouse.  Your spouse will love you for it.

Paul did not mean Christians are Stoics: not weeping or rejoicing.  Rather, our worldly pains and joys are not ultimate.  Christian weeping is temporary (Ps 30.5) so we hold our most difficult pain loosely.  Worldly joy is temporary (Lk 10.20) so that we don’t assume we have arrived when we’ve succeeded.  Our pain does not condemn us.  Our joys do not save us.  One tragedy does not make your life or eternity tragic.  One success does not make your life or eternity one big accolade. Our worldly pain should not overly burden us.  Our worldly successes should not overly comfort us. Jesus is greater than both.

Paul did not mean Christians should not buy goods or can treat their stuff haphazardly. Rather, we hold what we buy very loosely.  Our possessions neither define nor save us.  They don’t ultimately provide anything eternal for us.  Christians hold their stuff loosely so they dress themselves in readiness with lit lamps (Lk 12.35; cf. Lk 12.15-34).  That is, we travel light.  We don’t set our hearts on this world so that we’re ready at all times for Christ’s return.  We want Jesus to come this afternoon more than the UPS truck.

All we hold dear in this world–spouse, pain, success, possessions–can be gone in a heartbeat. Like Daniel and friends, we live in Babylon without becoming Babylonian. We are not “of the world” because Jesus was not (Jn 17.16).  We are ambassadors to the world.  We use the world (because we must) but assume very little of it.  We assume everything of Jesus.  We use the world as marathoners use the next cup of water.  It gets us by until the next cup, and the next, until the race is over.

We can overlay this principle over the church’s current pressures and temptations.

  • Be heterosexual as though you weren’t.  Love Jesus more than you love heterosexuality.  We’re not to be indifferent toward homosexuality by any means. Rather, we know heterosexuality doesn’t save anyone.  It’s not the end all-be all of Christian morality.  Jesus is.  We love lifting up Christ’s name and honor rather than shouting down our opponents.  Like Paul in Athens, we hold up the precious value, loveliness, power of Christ so that sinners like us are compelled to him (Acts 17.22-34).  We make disciples, not heterosexuals.  We don’t call gay and lesbian friends to be straight, but to be saved.  Better to have pews full of homosexuals crawling away from their sin toward Jesus than heterosexuals with no regard for him.
  • View Supreme Court decisions as though there are no judges.  The church has not ultimately failed.  Christians need not blame all the other Christians for prayerless schools, abortion and same-sex marriages.  Since Genesis 3 this world has always been passing away and any assumed decency with it.  We need not load up a Supreme Court’s decision with eternal value.  Even if the court had ruled in our favor, it would still only be a temporary ruling (we would rejoice as though we didn’t rejoice). Only Jesus is Supreme.  Only he is Judge (Jn 5.22).  The Supreme Court has not hindered Christ’s kingdom in the slightest any more than it would’ve strengthened it.  Let’s not assume too much of nine judges not matter how stately their robes.
  • Appreciate democracy as though you don’t live in one.  Our beloved American democracy–a mere  240 years old–is being whittled away at breakneck speed. The world we know passes away.  The church is not however to tighten its grip on any political system, but loosen it. Democracy might promote best the common weal but it’s not necessary for the church to thrive.  We don’t double down on the Republic. We bet everything on Jesus.  For 2,000 years the church has always lived in tension with the world.  Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3.20-21). Jesus will fix what’s wrong through resurrection, not legislation.  Now is not the time for more entrenched patriotism that blurs kingdom lines. Now is the time for “undistracted devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor 7.35).

While current events may appear to cripple the church’s work and witness, they are in fact catalysts for it (1 Pt 2.9-10).  We once availed ourselves of a common decency and civility.  Now we know now how quickly that fades.  We can finally let go of sexual restraint, an “unbiased” judiciary and civil democracy as friends of the church.  They’re not.  And we should not expect to befriend them again.

We can now unashamedly proclaim the otherworldly excellencies of Christ without trying to fit that message in worldly categories.  We can now leave the fleeting baggage behind so as to travel light.  We can now recover our peculiarity and embrace the blessing of being insulted, lampooned and ridiculed (Mt 5.11-12). There is no need for us to doll ourselves up for the world any longer (as if there was ever any reason to do so).  We have no need to malleate the gospel to be reasonable or palatable.  Or American.  Church membership need not be cheap and easy any longer.  Let’s clothe ourselves in Christ alone (Col 3.12-17) and light our lamps.  Love wins when Christ comes.

“Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 2.20).                 

Fancy It Forward:

Finally, The Rainbow Five Can Now End Abortion

In a monumental ruling (to say the least), the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Justice Kennedy wrote the majority (5-4) opinion in which he said, “The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty” (Syllabus, 2.b.4).  In a noble effort to defend their decision he waxed eloquently,

“From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations” (Opinion, 2.A).

Marriage is a “fundamental right,” a “most basic human need,” and “essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”  As such, it should not be denied gay and lesbian couples.

While I disagree with the majority opinion, the reasoning could very well help us end abortion.

The Court assumes the right to marry involves two living persons.  Presumably, a girlfriend whose rich boyfriend just died can’t then marry him to get benefits.  The right to to marry applies only to living people.

If marriage is a “fundamental right” and “essential” and that right depends or relies on still something more basic then that more basic requirement is fundamentaler and essentialer.  If marriage is a “most basic human need” and it depends on life itself then life must necessarily be the mostest basic need.  Life is de facto more fundamental, basic and essential than marriage since marriage assumes it is living persons getting married.  If marriage is an essential right and life is essential to marriage then it only stand to reason life is an essential right, too.

For that reason, the Court should immediately overturn Roe v. Wade based on the 14th Amendment.  The right to marry depends on the prior basic need for life.  By their own reasoning, life itself must be a fundamental right, a most basic human need and essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.  After all, dead people don’t hope and aspire.

If marriage is a “fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person” then life itself even moreso.  (That assumes you believe humans conceive humans as science and society overwhelmingly confirm.)  And if marriage as so defined must not be restricted from same-sex couples then, by the same token, you cannot restrict the right to life from gestating babies.  Liberty good for the goose is good for the gander.  They are as much human and American as any gay or lesbian is.  In fact, they might even be gay or lesbian!  They have a fundamental right as well–a most basic human need–to live, hope and aspire.  Even in the womb they aspire to live and that right is protected, by your own reasoning, by the 14th Amendment.

So, thank you, Rainbow Five.  Change a few dates and terms and the 14th Amendment can now apply to even more Americans who have the fundamental right to live and marry.  We know you would not want to deprive anyone of an inherent liberty afforded them by the Creator and protected by the Constitution.  We look forward to your ruling soon.

Fancy It Forward:

Why Your Church Should Have Elders (Part 4)

Jesus loves the church and has richly provided for her eternal health and glory (Eph 4.7-16). He sustains the church through a well-ordered, humble, Spirit-wrought polity. The New Testament teaches and demonstrates 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.

Here are some common questions when considering a plurality of elders for your local church.

Aren’t elders basically the same thing as deacons?
Though a common assumption in modern (Baptist) churches, there is a clear biblical distinction between the offices of elder and deacon. Deacon is not a synonym for elder.  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 service. Elders and deacons are to be same sort of men (cf. 1 Tim 3.1-13; Titus 1.5-9): mature, Christian men.  But their ministry to the church is different.  How so?

Elders/pastors/overseers/bishops serve primarily in the ministry of the Word (preaching, teaching, soul care) 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 formal church discipline.

The elders 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). Arguable, 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, junior ministers, or interns. While deacons do not have pastoral authority, they are “in charge” of their particular practical/social ministries (Acts 6.3). And their ministry complements the elders’ main ministry by relieving them of burdensome administration. Deacons do not serve the elders.  They serve Christ by administrating practical needs in the church.

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

Won’t 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 commissioned in some sense by the church in Antioch (Acts 13.2-3).  After deliberating how to enfold Gentiles into the brand new covenant community, the apostles and elders enjoyed the commendation of “the whole (Jerusalem) church” (Acts 15.22, 30).

Elders who love their flock would not lead them astray and congregations who trust their elders will gladly follow. The local church flourishes when elders are obedient to their charge (1 Pt 5.1-5) and devoted to those in their charge (Acts 20.28), and congregations are obedient to Jesus by submitting to the elders’ authority. 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.

Are the offices of elder and deacon universal, perpetual appointments?
No.  The offices of elder and deacon are local church offices.  Particularly in the Baptist tradition of local church autonomy, no governing ecclesiastical body confers the offices on anyone.  Each local church recognizes her own officers prayerfully and Spiritually.

Because a man is an elder in one church does not automatically make him one in another church.  Another church may wisely consider his qualifications and experience, but he does not necessarily carry his eldership with him.  The next local congregation must formally recognize him as their elder.  Further, an elder may simply not want to be one any longer (1 Tim 3.1) or a church may no longer affirm his fitness any longer.

It seems deacon(esse)s were appointed for particular ministry needs (cf. Acts 6.3; Rom 16.1).  There were no deacons-in-general but deacons of specific ministries.  All the members were to serve all the other members in whatever capacities were needed.  However, if a specific ministry need became large enough or necessary enough to require administration then the church recognized deacons to manage the need.  That ministry may be a one-off occasion (Rom 16.1) or require ongoing administration (Acts 6.3), but the deacons was only formally needed as long as the ministry required administration.

For example, your church might have a summer food pantry requiring a measure of administration.  Your church would recognize deacons to manage the ministry need.  When the summer ministry ends there is no need for a deacon to manage it.  They are not demoted but the specific need is simply no longer necessary.  Any given church certainly has ministry needs requiring ongoing diaconal service (sacraments, finances, benevolence, widow care, etc.).  In those cases, a deacon would serve for a longer period of time, but he/she would be a “deacon of sacraments” or the like.

As with elders, deacon(esse)s do not hold their office perpetually.  Because someone is a deacon in one church does not automatically make them one in another church.  Again, the office is conferred by a local church and, in the Baptist tradition of local church autonomy, no local church exerts authority over another.  Another church may not have the same ministry need(s) or may already have deacons managing the needs.  Another church may wisely consider a deacon’s former experience but not automatically or necessarily so.

How does a church install elders?
There is 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 elders with some form of congregational affirmation rather than an open ballot or the like.

Ideally, a local church raises 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 presented 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 already.

What if a church has no formal elders and wants to establish them?
After being convinced from Scripture, it would help to ask a sister church with elders to help with the process.  In some sense, the sister church provides “surrogate” elders that help your church onto healthy footing.  From then the elders begin training and recognizing other men in the congregation who aspire to the office (1 Tim 3.1).

We trust in the Spirit of Christ more than strict protocols and processes.  Your church should pray often together and trust the Spirit to provide wisdom and congregational unity.  Jesus loves your church more than you do so he will give grace to the humble.

Are elders the same thing as church staff?
Not all elders are on the paid church staff. In fact, most of the elders should probably be “lay” (non-vocational) 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.

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.  Any vocational elders should especially use “we” and “us” as much as possible.

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.

Conclusion
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 too heavy for one man to bear in any church of any size. Only Christ can bear the weight of the entire church.  For the sake of the church, the pastor(s) and ultimately Christ himself, your local church should have elders.

Revisit Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3.

Fancy It Forward:

Why Your Church Should Have Elders (Part 3)

Parts 1 and 2 introduced and briefly defended from Scripture that local church leadership is best entrusted to a plurality of qualified men who, though gifted differently, are equal in authority and responsibility.  Both the biblical vocabulary and pattern indicate the local church is best led by elders (a.k.a. overseers, bishops, pastors-shepherds) rather than solo pastors or other pastoral hierarchies.  A church without elders is no less a church, but she should consider such polity of primary importance (cf. Titus 1.5).  A church should carefully and patiently pursue having a plurality of elders as soon as reasonably possible.

Whatever Jesus commands and/or models is by definition practically beneficial for the church.  What he commands is right because it’s also good.  In addition to the biblical witness there are practical benefits to having a plurality of elders in your local church.  It is the best practical way to display the church’s nature, provide pastoral care, protect pastors from moral failure, and cultivate happier pastors and churches.

1.  The plurality of elders best protects the nature of Christ’s church.  Most churches — especially those formed in the mid-20th century — organize according to business or governmental practices.  A strict hierarchical structure draws a sharp line between the leaders and those they lead.  Titles, salaries, office sizes and secretaries define the importance of positions.  Like a mailroom clerk at a Fortune 500 company, the lowly children’s ministry intern hopes to climb the ladder.  The associate pastor bides his time like a minor league shortstop, ready for the big leagues when the position opens up.  There is often more concern for the church’s “business” (buildings, budgets and bodies) than the church’s mission of making disciples of those Christ calls to salvation.  

The church, however, is unlike any other institution in history.  She is led by an otherworldly Founder and operates according to an otherworldly economy.  How did the very men who walked and talked with Jesus go about establishing local churches?

The church is family.  The most common NT term for Christian fellowship is that of brotherhood (the Greek cognates of which were used some 250 times outside the Gospels).  The church does not behave like a business (a la the Pharisees) but as a family of brothers and sisters.  Having a plurality of elders helps remove any assumed pecking order in the church.  While the congregation is to  submit to her elders (Heb 13.17ff.), the elders in no way lord their authority over the congregation (1 Pt 5.1-5).  Mirroring the humility of Christ himself, a church is at her finest when she humbly submits to men who humbly lead.  The congregation joins together with the elders on their knees.

The church is inherently non-clerical, non-professional.  God’s Spirit does not indwell only certain qualified individuals as in the old covenant.  Pastors are not the equivalent of Old Testament priests because Jesus is the fulfillment of that role.  In the church, the Holy Spirit indwells all believers and unites them equally in grace.  All believers are saints and part of the “royal priesthood” (1 Pt 2.9) serving one another at the pleasure of the Great High Priest.  Worship is no longer led by professionals but all are participants.  Having a plurality of elders protects the church against clericalism.

The church is led by Christ himself.  The plurality of elders enforces humility among those who would oversee the local church.  No one man is the chiefest.  Alexander Strauch states it firmly: “…in the first century, no Christian would dare take the position or title of sole ruler, overseer, or pastor of the church.  We Christians today, however, are so accustomed to speaking of ‘the pastor’ that we do not stop to realize that the New Testament does not. . . . There is only one flock and one Pastor (Jn 10.16), one body and one Head (Col 1.18), one holy priesthood and one great High Priest (Heb 4.14ff.), one brotherhood and one Elder Brother (Rom 8.29), one building and one Cornerstone (1Pt 2.5ff.), one Mediator, one Lord.  Jesus Christ is ‘Senior Pastor,’ and all others are His undershepherds (1 Pt 5.4)” (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: 115).

“The pastor” is not and never was the boss.  Having a plurality of elders is the constant reminder there is only one Head of the church.

2.  The plurality of elders provides for the best pastoral care of individual church members.  Jesus never established his church so that one man had all the gifts to care for her (Eph 4.11-16).  In reality, most pastors are weak in far more areas than they are strong.  The plurality of elders balances those weaknesses.  “Plurality of leadership allows each shepherd elder to function primarily according to personal giftedness rather than being forced to do everything and then being criticized for not being multigifted” (Strauch: 42).

Faithful shepherding (from which the word “pastor” derives) does not mean getting the same number or more people coming back to church the next Sunday.  It does not mean leading successful building campaigns or crusades.  Faithful shepherding is ensuring all those who profess Christ in their charge (Acts 20.28) are making gospel progress.  The elders serve the members by regularly (daily, weekly) layering the gospel into various life situations (Heb 13.17).  They want to ensure those who claim to be Christian are indeed persevering in Christ: enjoying his grace, obeying his commands, gathering with his church, observing his sacraments, loving and serving his people.  

One pastor/elder simply cannot oversee an unlimited or undefined number of souls.  Jesus never intended that to be the case.  In fact, in most cases two or three men couldn’t even do so.  Assume, for example, one elder could faithfully serve 30 people (give or take).  That is, he can reasonably pay close attention to that number of people during any given week.  A church of 150 people needs five pastors/elders equal in accountability and responsibility to ensure all 150 people are persevering as Christians.  Again, not all the pastors/elders/bishops/overseers need to be vocational.   But they all have equal weight and authority to shepherd their slice of the membership.

Without a plurality of elders all the souls in a church suffer.  Having a plurality of elders provides the best and broadest means by which individual members receive personal pastoral care and encouragement.

3.  The plurality of elders provides accountability and support for the pastors themselves.  The rash of moral failure among pastors is enough for any local church to reconsider its polity.  Too many sole pastors or “untouchable” Senior Pastors slip into grave moral sin without the church’s knowledge or accountability.  Pastors/elders must have a good reputation in the world (1 Tim 3.7).  Moral failure and scandal bring shame not only on himself and family, but also the work and witness of his church and ultimately Christ himself.  Having a plurality of elders provides a heavy layer of moral scrutiny necessary for maintaining a ministry of integrity.  The plurality of elders helps protect the name and honor of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Further, good elders are those who work hard studying and teaching the Word (1 Tim 5.17).  Believe me, sole pastors can easily grow lazy in the word.  They are also spread so thin they simply do not have the time and energy to mine Scripture for the church’s eternal benefit.  He is often left with shallow study and superficial sermons that all sound the same.  Having a plurality of elders provides a measure of scholarly discipline and, since the pastoral load is shared, each elder has more time and energy to devote to it.

Lastly, a pastor is also a church member and responsible for spiritual growth and maturity just like all other church members.  “It was never our Lord’s will for the local church to be controlled by one individual.  The concept of the pastor as the lonely, trained professional – the sacred person over the church who can never really become part of the congregation – is utterly unscriptural” (Strauch: 43).  Having a plurality of elders ensures the pastors have pastors, too.

4.  The plurality of elders provides the best protection against pastoral burnout.  Very simply, a plurality of elders share the church’s pastoral workload.  The burden of pastoral leadership is an impossibly heavy load to bear (2 Cor 11.23-29).  Pastors/elders can take no credit for the church’s success and bear much of the blame for her weaknesses.  It is not a glamorous job by any stretch.

In a 2001 survey, George Barna found the average pastoral tenure at a church to be five years (I doubt much has changed in 15 years) and concluded,  “To appreciate the contribution made by pastors you have to understand their world and the challenges they face. Our studies show that church-goers expect their pastor to juggle an average of 16 major tasks. That’s a recipe for failure—nobody can handle the wide range of responsibilities that people expect pastors to master. We find that effective pastors not only love the people to whom God allows them to minister, but also provide firm, visionary leadership and then delegate responsibilities and resources to trained believers. Ultimately, the only way a pastor can succeed in ministry is to create a team of gifted and compatible believers who work together in loving people and pursuing a commonly held vision. The pastor who strives to meet everyone’s demands and tries to keep everyone happy is guaranteed to fail.”

It might be that your church is simply too busy and/or (gasp!) too big. It might be the pastor intentionally spreads himself too thin.  In any case, having a plurality of elders significantly slows the pace of pastoral burnout. 

Having a plurality of elders makes for happier pastors.  Happy pastors stay longer at churches.  And those churches remain consistently faithful for generations.

Revisit Part 1Part 2, or jump to Part 4.

Fancy It Forward:

Why Your Church Should Have Elders (Part 2)

The New Testament teaches and demonstrates local church leadership should be entrusted to a plurality of qualified men who, though gifted differently, are equal in authority and responsibility.  The local church is most healthy when she is led by elders who defend and teach sound doctrine, and encourage gospel progress through careful pastoral oversight.  As introduced in Part 1, until a local church installs a plural eldership it is lacking.  It might not be any less a church but she will not be firmly established for generations of gospel consistency.

Both the NT vocabulary and pattern provide that a plurality of elders was the expectation and ambition of local New Testament churches.

Biblical Vocabulary
The NT defines local church leadership using several synonymous terms and titles. Most English Bibles translate the Greek word presbuteros  as “elder” (Acts 11.30; 14.23; 15.2, 4, 6, 2-23, 16.4; 20.17; 21.18; 1 Tim 5.17, 19; Titus 1.5; Jas 5.14; 1 Pt 5.1, 5; 2 Jn 1; 3 Jn 1).  Hence, “presbyterian” churches are so named for their particular polity (local church elders or “session,” presbytery, synod and general assembly).

Most English Bibles translate the Greek word episkopos as “overseer” (NASB) or “bishop” (KJV) (Acts 20.28; Phil 1.1; 1 Tim 3.2; Titus 1.7; 1 Pt 2.28).  Peter referred to Jesus as “the Shepherd and episcopon (Overseer) of your souls (1 Pt 2.25).  Literally, Jesus was the Bishop!  Hence, “episcopal” (or Anglican) churches are so named for their particular polity (local church rector/bishop, diocese, archbishop, etc.).  

Paul used both presbuteros and episcopos interchangeably in Titus 1.5, 7.  They were therefore synonyms for one and the same office: elder/overseer/bishop of a local church.  The  apostles invested local church leadership in a plurality of men called elders (presbuteros) or overseers/bishops (episkopos).

Most English Bibles translate the Greek word poimen as “pastor” and that in only once place: Eph 4.11.  It is elsewhere and most appropriately translated “shepherd” (Mt 9.36; 25.32; 26.31; Mk 6.34; 14.27; Jn 10.2, 11-12, 14, 16; Heb 13.20; 1 Pt 2.25). The verb form (to shepherd) is more often applied to local church leadership (Jn 21.16; Acts 20.28; 1 Cor 9.7; 1 Pt 5.2).  For example, in Acts 20.28 Paul commanded the overseers/bishops (episkopous) to shepherd (poimanein) the (one) Ephesian church.  We might say then “elders/overseers/bishops/pastors” is who these men are and shepherding the local church is what they do.  Like Jesus the Shepherd.  Not managers, innovators, executives, visionaries, Leaders-with-a-capital-L, or bosses.  Shepherds.

But we’re Baptists!  And Baptists ain’t got no elders or bishops.  Think again. Southern Baptists might especially be surprised when they read the first edition of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925), which borrowed its language from the New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833).  In Article XII we confessed “Scriptural officers are bishops, or elders, and deacons.”  There are four notable things about this simple confession.  (1) The words “bishop” and “elder” are synonymous.  (2) They are plural.  (3) They are the only two scriptural offices in the local church.  This means that while the church clerk, church treasurer, Sunday School superintendent, WMU director, church council chairman or children’s ministry coordinator may be helpful roles they are not biblically required church offices.  And (4) the office of bishop/elder is distinct from that of deacon.  For better or worse, the subsequent editions of the Baptist Faith and Message (1963 and 2000) updated the word “bishops” to “pastors.”  Evenso, they retained the same distinctive traits as of the office even if it has been lost in modern practice.

In the end, all these terms are and can be used synonymously for the one office of elder/bishop/overseer/pastor-shepherd.  And as we will now see throughout all local churches, this one office was filled by a collection of qualified men.

Biblical Pattern
In addition to the vocabulary used the NT demonstrates that a plurality of elders was the common expectation and ambition in local churches.  It was not a matter of cultural tradition, preference, pragmatism or expediency for any given church to decide.  
It was rather the apostolic practice to establish elders in each church all over the known world:  Judea (Acts 11.30; Jas 5.14-15), Jerusalem (Acts 15.6, 22), Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, Antioch (southwestern Turkey) (Acts 14.19-23), Ephesus (western Turkey) (Acts 20.17; 1 Tim 3.1-7; 5.17-25), Philippi (northwestern Greece) (Phil 1.1), Crete (island south of Greece) (Titus 1.5), Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, Bithynia (Asia Minor, northern Turkey) (1 Pt 1.1; 5.1), Thessalonica (north-central Greece) (1 Thess 5.12) and Rome (Italy) (Heb 13.17).  Having a plurality of elders wasn’t for this or that culture but for all local churches everywhere.

Further, the NT gives so much attention to local church polity that we do not have the liberty to be indifferent towards it.  The apostles gave instructions to local churches about their elders (1 Thess 5.12-13; 1 Tim 3.1-7; 5.17-22; Titus 1.5-9; Heb 13.17; Jas 5.14; 1 Pt 5.5).  They gave instructions directly to elders of local churches about their ministry (Acts 20.28, 31, 35; 1 Thess 5.13; Jas 5.14; 1 Pt 5.1-5).  For local churches to thrive in disciple-making they must be ordered rightly.  Elders must be men who understand their service.  Congregations must understand their submission.  All must embrace Christ’s humility.

Additionally, when the NT speaks of elders/overseers/bishops/pastors, it does so in terms of a plurality within a local (singular) church (Acts 11.30; 14.23; 15.2, 4, 22-23; 16.4; 20.17, 28; Eph 4.12; 1 Tim 5.17; Titus 1.5; Jas 5.14; 1 Pt 5.1). There is no evidence in the NT of our modern pastoral hierarchy of Senior Pastor, Associate Pastor, etc.  “There is no biblical warrant for the so-called one-man band, in which a single pastor, like a single musician, plays all the instruments” (John Stott, The Living Church: 77).

Lastly, elders appointed in the churches were always men from within the particular congregations (Acts 14.23; Titus 1.5).  That is, there was no “pastor search committee” who solicited résumés  from unknown men in a distant seminary.  Each local church, with apostolic help in some cases, raised up her own pastors (cf. 2 Tim 2.2) who were men of firm gospel convictions, demonstrated spiritual maturity, and embodied Christian humility and grace.  These men were neither necessarily professionally-trained men nor paid for their ministry (see Acts 4.13).  They were nevertheless men recognized by the congregation as spiritually fit men to faithfully exercise pastoral oversight for every member of the church.  

We can see from the New Testament’s vocabulary and pattern that local church leadership should be entrusted to a plurality of qualified men who, though gifted differently, are equal in authority and responsibility.

Revisit Part 1 or read Part 3.

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