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Changed By Glory

"And we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." II Cor. 3:18

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Church

Church Membership & The Death Bed

Have you ever watched a show like America’s Got Talent or American Idol and grimaced when someone gets on stage who has no business being there? You watch as they face the embarrassment of being told on a national stage that they can’t sing and as the news breaks (with the family fuming backstage) the singer’s world comes crashing down in a moment. As you see this unfold time and time again, one is always left asking the question, “Why didn’t someone love them enough to tell them they couldn’t sing before it got to that point?”

I wouldn’t want to be outed as a phony on a national stage. To find out that I was delusional about my abilities. And yet, so many of us live our lives insulating ourselves from the reality about ourselves. Now whether or not you are a good singer is really irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but there are greater realities that we also avoid. Namely, spiritual realities about the standing of our soul before God and it is from these realities that we tend to hide. This is tragic, foolish, and it is dangerous. Because the truth that we see in Scripture is that every single man and woman will one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ – as the writer of Hebrews says, “It is appointed for people to die once ​— ​and after this, judgment” (Heb. 9:27) Therefore, we should not wish to face that day, be it tomorrow or fifty years from now, on the basis of our own subjective assessment of our standing before the Judge

God has not designed for that to be the case – he has not designed for us to be independent of others, he has not designed us to base our sense of justification before him on self-assessment alone. Because we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, we need others and we need others because of at least three realities that we see in Scripture.

 

The heart is deceitful – We all know the familiar words “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable ​— ​who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) The story of the Bible is a case-study of humanity which proves the truth of those words. Our feelings are poor indicators of our standing before God. Our heart can condemn us when the truth is that we are justified. And our heart can justify us when the truth is that we are condemned. 

When pleading with his readers, Paul will make the appeal multiple times  “Do not be deceived”. In the case of the Corinthians, Paul saw their arrogance in relation to the fruit of their lives which was disconnected from their claim of faith in the gospel of Christ. He is concerned for them that they would be deceived and so he warns them and even instructs discipline in at least one case so that a so-called brother will not be deceived.

Satan is on the hunt – We have a real enemy who roams about seeking someone to devour. He is a liar, who loves to say “peace, peace” when there is no reason for peace or to incite fear when there is reason for assurance. Whatever his angle, his aim in all his devices is to “steal, kill, and destroy”. How do you combat this deadly liar? With truth. But when you combine his lies with our propensity toward deception, we understand that we need truth to comes at us from the outside, we need people who are “speaking the truth in love” on a regular basis, combatting the lies that would either cause crippling fear or deadly calm.

Endurance is necessary – Perseverance is the most profound mark of genuine faith. And the writer of Hebrews points out that even the most radical, most godly, most genuine of Christians should have a healthy sense of their need for endurance and they should understand the role that the local church plays in that endurance. He writes that we should not neglect to meet together, that we should exercise watchfulness over each other, that we should stir each other up to love and good works, especially in light of the day of judgment. Why? Because we need to endure. Baby Christians need endurance. Seasoned saints need endurance. And we should not expect to endure apart from the means of church membership that God has ordained.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be on my deathbed with only my own subjective, self-assessment of the condition of my soul. Of course I claim faith in Christ, but is there evidence of a faith that works, a love that labors, and a hope in Jesus that endures? Are there others that I have invited into my life who then in my hour of greatest need can say, “Steve, I know you are loved by God because I have seen his grace in your life. There is no condemnation for you.”

Now God has in his wisdom designed a community that provides just that – the local church. And it is membership in the local church that is God’s mechanism by which he guards from deception, strengthens our sense of assurance, and helps us endure.

Obviously, not just any so-called “church membership” will do. It must be meaningful, it must have substance, it must be something that has authority behind it which can provide safety, direction, and assurance. To merely have your name on a list is of no use.

We need…

  • Clear boundary lines – a biblical understanding of conversion. That is, we need to be members of a church where a clear understanding of how someone becomes a Christian is taught and where this is the standard for affirming an individual and bringing them into the church.
  • The expectation of discipleship – a biblical understanding of the Christian’s calling to walk in a manner that makes sense with the gospel and to be conformed into the image of Jesus is essential to avoiding deception. Jesus’ sheep hear his voice and they follow him. We need membership where our commitment to each other is a commitment to provoke each other to love and good works.
  • The practice of discipline – a biblical understanding of congregational authority and responsibility to affirm, and if needed to revoke, a person’s profession of faith must be present. We need a membership that is devoted to loving watchfulness and that is ready to affirm or rebuke/remove a member on the basis of their ongoing response to the gospel and the clear commands of Scripture. Paul could not be more clear, it is not loving or merciful to continue to certify someone as a brother or sister in the faith while they refuse to submit to lordship of Jesus. Why? Because then we become enablers of their deception.

To be at a church that does not have these things could be harmful to your soul. Don’t go to a church where you can be a member in anonymity. You need to approach church membership with the commitment to know and to be known by your fellow members. Furthermore, if you go to a church where you do not know a pastor/elder on a personal level, you need to either pursue one of the elders of that church or find another church.

Life is short, eternity is long, our hearts are weak, and our enemy is real. Therefore, we need church membership, especially as we see “the day approaching”.

One day, when the heart monitor flatlines and the respirations cease and I cross into eternity, I don’t want to walk through that door on the basis of my own subjective sense. Whether in that moment I am tempted with false hope in my goodness or the terror of doubt because of my sin, I want brothers and sisters in my life who reminded me of the gospel, who rebuked my sin, and who encouraged the evidence of God’s grace in my life. People who will hold my hand and hand me off to Jesus.

 

Would Paul Trust You With His People?

Now I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon so that I too may be encouraged by news about you. 20 For I have no one else like-minded who will genuinely care about your interests; 21 all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.

Philippians 2:19-21 (CSB)

Writing to the Philippians, Paul desires to send Timothy to check up on how they were doing. Why Timothy? Because Paul says he had no one else “like-minded” who would genuinely care about the interests of the Philippian church. He goes on to bemoan that “all seek their own interests and not the those of Jesus Christ”.

Even in his day, Paul was having a hard time finding pastors and teachers who had the best interest of the church at heart, because their interest were not aligned with those of Jesus. It is crucial to see and understand, though it might obvious, that the interests of the church and the interests of Jesus are one and the same. The fulfillment of the goals and priorities of Jesus are what the church needs, and therefore, it needs leaders, pastors, teachers whose aims are aligned with those of Jesus.

Apparently, the list of those who cared about the interests of the church was quite small, which should be alarming to us and cause us to pause, check our life, our heart, our mind, and wonder:

“Would Paul trust me with his people?”

In order to answer that question, I think you take a good, hard look at the ministry of Jesus and at the ministry of Paul and you prayerfully consider if you ministry aligns with theirs in its aim and in its shape. Based on what we are trying to accomplish, based on what we teach, based on how we spend our time, would our lives and ministry be recognizable to Paul as being aligned with the interests of Jesus Christ?

A good start to this is to consider the summary statements Jesus gave for his purpose in coming to the world. This is helpful because the work of the apostles would be an extension of that ministry.[1]

One of the best, overarching statements of the ministry of Jesus, in my opinion, can be found in John 6, which reads:

“Everyone the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 This is the will of him who sent me: that I should lose none of those he has given me but should raise them up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”[2]

The reason Jesus came was to guarantee the eternal life of all of God’s people for His glory. This was the ultimate interest of Jesus, this was what shaped all that he did. And how would Jesus accomplish this? Through the cross.

The interests of Christ led to the cross, and this reality would profoundly shape the content of the ministry of Paul, who made it clear that he sought to make nothing known “except Jesus Christ and him crucified”[3].

Furthermore, the ministry of Jesus shaped the attitude and posture of Paul’s ministry. It took the swagger out of it.

Keeping in mind how Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”[4], we see Paul adopt this posture, eager to share not only the gospel of Christ, but his own life also, enduring labor and hardship for the church.[5]So much so that his philosophy of ministry could be summed up as “For we are not proclaiming ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake.”[6]

Informed and shaped by the gospel which he proclaimed, the ministry of Paul was directed by the interests of Jesus – which meant sacrificially seeking the salvation of God’s people through the preaching of Christ crucified. It meant loving God’s people at great personal cost, to the end that Christ would be formed in them. It meant giving yourself to see the church glorified.

And apparently so rare was this kind of ministry, finding workers who shared Christ’s interests, that Paul had no else he could really trust besides Timothy.

I wonder if Paul would trust me? Would he consider me to be like-minded?

There is much that can shape the trajectory of our ministry and flavor our teaching, but nothing will warp our trajectory or spoil our flavor more than seeking our own interests or the interests of any other besides Christ[7]. To build a reputation, to be loved, to feel justified, to get affirmation, to grow influence base, to increase the size of our church, to be relevant to the culture, to pursue economic prosperity – all of these things risk rendering us as untrustworthy servants. Every day our own interests or the interests of our culture can creep in and begin to corrode our ministry. We need to return to Christ, to the cross, we need to fix our eyes above and be daily recalibrated to his interests, which are also the interests of his church.

I am challenged by this to look to Christ, to remember how he loved me and gave himself for me, and to serve and speak out of the overflow of living by faith in that reality. It is through burning love for Christ that his interests become ours and when his interests are ours, we are in a position to serve the interests of the church.

So what do you think?

Would Paul trust you with his people?

 

[1]John 14:12, 17:18, 20:21

[2]John 6:37-40

[3]I Cor. 2:2

[4]Mark 10:45 (CSB)

[5]1 Thess. 2:8

[6]II Corinthians 4:5

[7]This highlights the reality that sacrificial service, in of itself, is not virtuous or ultimately God-glorifying. Only service that is directed by the interests of Jesus Christ is finally of any value.

One Even As We Are One: Church Membership & The Prayer of Jesus

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may be one, just as you Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

John 17:20-21

There are perhaps few passages of Scripture more precious and rich than John 17. It doesn’t get better than this – so many themes in John’s gospel flood together in the prayer of our Savior for us. A prayer which we may place confident hope in and one from which we may also learn so much.

One thing that we may not think of as being promoted in this prayer is church membership. By church membership I mean a voluntary commitment to a group of Christians in recognition of the identity we share and the calling we have been given in Christ.

Few Christians doubt the oneness, the unity, they share with all Christians. No one disputes the need for unity. But it is that unity expressed through commitment, which is so often lacking. In a world, especially in the west, that is increasingly individualistic church is treated like something to be consumed, not something to be joined; like a service that is offered, and not like a reality to be expressed. Because of this, sometimes in the name being inclusive, churches have abandoned the idea of any formal commitment to a local group or “body” of believers all together. Or membership has become meaningless, without substance. This leads to churches where unity is assumed, rather than intentional; where commitment is nebulous; and where being “one body” is more theoretical than substantive when push comes to shove.

But this is not the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for his people. Because it is not the kind of unity with the Father that he displayed in his life. The unity of the Father with the Son was visible in the words and works of the incarnate Son in 1st century Palestine. His commitment was not nebulous, but clearly defined with sweat drops of blood and cries of agony as he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” His oneness with his Father was not theoretical but clearly perceived in hearable and seeable things which showed he did only what he saw his Father doing. In fact, in John’s gospel Jesus appeals again and again to this “tangible unity” as proof of his oneness with the Father (i.e. John 5:37-38,7:16,8:19).

Why then would we think, that the life we are called to as Christians together would be any less tangible, any less committed, any less substantive? We are real people, living in real time and space, therefore, the kind of unity that God wills, which Christ prayed for us, is “incarnated” where we are in the context of the church.

Unity remains a mere idea until it is expressed in real time/space in the form of mutual commitment, shared mission, and tangible oneness. This is accomplished through membership in a local church.

The unity that Jesus prayed for his people is to be a reflection of the very real, gritty, painful, beautiful, lasting, loving oneness that we see displayed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The unity that Jesus prayed for his people is experienced and displayed through membership to a local church. And whether they scoff or marvel, it is such commitment alone which will display to the real world around us that the Father sent the Son to save sinners and it is to him, and therefore, to each other, that we belong.

The Rope – A Picture of Church Membership

As a pastor convinced of the importance of each believer being a committed part of a local expression of the body of Christ – a church – I am always grasping at ways to talk about church membership and why it is important. No one can top the inspired picture of “one body with many members” that Paul employs, but recently in an attempt to express to my church what membership is and why it is important, I was struck with the following image.

The Christian life is a mountain climb, the substance beneath our feet is the gospel, the peak is conformity into the image of Christ, church membership is a rope going from base to summit, and becoming a member of a church means laying a hand on that rope. We learn from the New Testament, especially from places like Ephesians 4:11-16, Hebrews 3:13, 10:23-25 that it is by pushing and pulling our fellow climbers, calling up encouragements, echoing down warnings, that we reach the peak.

Imagine if we were strung together on the rope, all at different stages of the climb. What happens if one stops moving? What happens if one falls down? Such a one must be exhorted and encouraged. At times when the weak go limp we may even be required to pull them so that we can keep going. If one starts going backward, pulling the church down, the church must warn, push, and if need be, even cut them loose. When someone lets go of the rope and attempts the hazard of free-climbing, we reach out to them with earnest voice and stretching fingertips, pleading with them to once again lay hold of the rope.

Sometimes we hand people off to another rope (another church), but we dare not let people be free-climbers. Free-climbers are exposed to all sorts of dangers. They fall, they perish, they get lost, they lose track of the sure footing of the gospel.

We must admit, we need the rope. If we knew ourselves and our environment we would know we need the rope. I hope we are honest enough to see that. Our footing (the gospel) is sure, but the climb is steep while wind, rain, and storms of this life lash against the slopes. Darkness crowds in and obscures the peak at times. We need the rope. We need our fellow climbers. We dare not let go. And we dare not stop moving. To stop is not only deadly for us, but it pulls down and endangers others. There will be times when we have to be dragged, when we have to be pushed, but the rope is God’s means for getting us safely to the peak.

Do you see the danger of climbing without clinging to a rope? Have you ever stopped to consider that when you stop your climb, when you stop pulling and moving along with others, what effect that has on those around you? Are you holding a rope? And if you are, what kind of rope-holder are you? Do you put your team of climbers at risk or do you help everyone get to the top?

The invitation to church membership is an invitation to take hold of the rope. Anyone who has ever seen a movie about Everest or some other peak knows that going at it alone never ends well. We are too easily disoriented. Our straying feet slip from the gospel too readily without others to hold us up. When cold surrounds us, and we are fatigued from trying to climb in our own strength, we are tempted to lay down for a nap. And with no one attached to us, to shake us, to slap us, to yell at us amidst the snow, “Don’t you dare fall asleep, because you won’t wake up”, we die.

God keeps his people by his power. This is the truth that drives us on the darkest moments of the climb. But to let go of the rope is to turn aside once again to the very essence of our rebellion – which is to look at God and say, “I know better than you. I believe you will keep me apart from your means.” Such reasoning is Satanic and deadly.

Lay hold of the rope, if you have not already. Pull, push, shout, poke, shout some more. Don’t let go. When you lose your footing someone will be there, holding the rope to help reestablish you on the gospel. When you are weary, someone will be there to pull your weight. When you are falling asleep, overwhelmed with pain and fatigue, a chorus of voices will be there to shout “Only a little farther.”

Much that is called church membership is admittedly a mere association of free-climbers or a rope untethered. But I am speaking of something more meaningful than that. I am talking about a rope that is God’s means of getting his people on the footing of the gospel to the peak of glory in Christ along the slope of sin, through the darkness of deception, and the winds of suffering.

This is what we mean when we talk about church membership. This is the rope we need.

“We’re like a family!” <- Really?

Many churches make it their philosophical aim to be like family and when that reputation is achieved it is thought to be a sure sign of health and unity. They want a place where people care for each other, praying for one another during difficult times, checking in on one another, greeting everyone that comes into their gathering with warmth and gladness. When people say that their church is like this, they will usually gladly declare, “We’re like a family!”

But the question that needs to be asked sometimes is, “Really?”

Let me start by saying that a church should be like a family. It should be a place where we genuinely rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, where we bear each other’s burdens, where we take care of each other, where the needs and longings of others are a concern to us, a place where when we gather there is warmth and palatable love and commitment. To this every church should aspire.

The problem, I think, is that often when we say that a church is like a family or that it should be like a family, what we really have in mind is an idealized, Hallmark-channel, Ward-and-June-Clever-esque family. We want our church to be like a family without the messiness and tough-love of a real family.

A church member may believe that their church is like a family until real discipleship begins to happen. It feels like a family until individual sin is confronted. It feels like a family until someone speaks difficult truth into your life – telling you something you don’t really want to hear. Then it is no longer a family in the idealized sense. It is divided. It is uncomfortable. People avoid each other. The “dinner table” is tense.

The problem is that what was just described is real family life. In a real family there is warmth and love, but there is also messiness, there is confrontation. In a real family you find the people that love you enough to risk relationship for your greater good. In family is found the few people on earth who can speak hard truth to you, because they love you, because they care more about your long-term security and joy than momentary ease – yours or theirs.

Family life is wonderful, but it is also very hard, because we aren’t perfect. The same translates to the church. It is a wonderful thing to be a part of a church, but it’s hard, because we are sinners and the Word we speak to each other confronts that reality with imposing light.

Imagine a family where everyone is allowed to do their own thing. Destructive behaviors are never challenged, the father passively sits in the arm chair with beer in hand as chaos unfolds, mother is careful not to say anything to her rebellious daughter lest she upset the balance, the son is making some poor decisions, but challenging him would just upset the peace of the moment. The family is gathered, everyone is smiling, there is a kind of peace and togetherness, but it is actually kind of creepy. Because no one is being real. There is a terrible selfishness at work as the members of this family care more about the comfort of the moment than they do the good of one another.

Now imagine a family where one sister sees that her sibling is becoming more and more distant, getting into relationships that could be harmful. She so badly just wants to let it go, to let there be a kind of “peace”, but she loves her sibling too much for that. She loves her sibling enough to sacrifice momentary comfort for lasting good. A father sees his son showing signs of destructive behavior, he gets along well with him and he doesn’t want to mess that up, but his love for his son motivates him to speak to him. The son’s initial reaction is to run out of the house and slam the door, but perhaps over time he begins to see that his father was right. The point being, a real family is a place where the individuals love each other so much that they are willing to risk comfort and approval for the sake of each other’s good.

In Ephesians chapter 4, we are told that we grow up in Christ and are protected from harm as we speak the truth in love to each other. Sometimes when looking at that verse people take “love” to be the manner in which we speak, when I think it is more about the motivation. In his writings, Paul had some very harsh and difficult things to churches and individuals, but he was speaking the truth motivated by love. Sometimes in the church when uncomfortable truth is spoken people call it out as unloving not because it is unloving, but because it doesn’t fit into our idealized view of love – because what is being said challenges our self-love.

So before you boast that your church is like a family, consider whether or not it is actually a community of loving accountability under the authority of Christ and directed by his Word. Will your “family” atmosphere hold up to the rigors of discipleship? If it will, then you are blessed and you have a true family dynamic, but if not, then your idea of family is likely idealized and skin deep.

In the church we are supposed to be like a family, because that is precisely what we are in Christ! But during this age in redemptive history the reality of sin means that we can only truly be described as being like a family if our loving dynamic includes both tender love and tough love.

So strive by God’s grace, anchored in his love displayed in the Gospel, to give love and receive love in both forms. By doing this we will be able to move from cheesy clichés about what it means to be a family and onward to an authenticity that leads us to lose sleep, risk relationships, weep, pray, plead, and rejoice until the whole family is together with Christ their head – safe and sound.

Faithfulness Does Not Always Equal Effectiveness

An essential aspect of pastoral ministry is raising up leaders for the expansion of kingdom work and the next generation of church leaders. Writing to Timothy from prison as he senses he is about to depart from the world, Paul admonishes Timothy to hold fast to what he had been taught and to teach it to others. Speaking of the state of the times that are to come, he urges Timothy to persevere in teaching the message with which he had been entrusted and to raise up faithful men who would be able to do the same. Remember that word: faithful. (2 Tim. 2:2, 1:12-14, 4:1-6)

As I read blogs and see books and seminars advertised for the church, there seems to be an appropriate desire to raise up leaders, a recognition that this is a vital responsibility of the church. But I wonder as we identify and raise up leaders if what we’re aiming for is what we should be aiming for. I wonder if there are leaders who shouldn’t be leading, and some who are leading who shouldn’t be.

I say this because I see lots of material on raising up “effective” leaders who will make an impact; leaders who will bring about the desired results. I see classes, books, and seminars that focus on how to raise up this brand of effective leaders; when filling jobs, churches are looking for effective leaders.

A POTENTIAL PROBLEM

But there’s a potential problem with this: It’s possible to be effective and not be faithful and it’s possible to be faithful and not be apparently effective. What the Bible portrays as faithfulness does not always lead to what is often called “effectiveness.”

So in light of that, what is the first thing we look for in leaders? As we train leaders, what is the goal?

A BETTER SOLUTION

The Scriptures abound with examples, like Isaiah, of men who were faithful but not always effective in a quantifiable sense. If you consider Jesus’ training of his disciples and relevant texts in the Pastoral Epistles, the aim always seems to be faithfulness. Jesus did not choose guys with stellar corporate leadership qualities, but simple and unimpressive men who would follow him. In fact, the ministry that Jesus modeled for them was often counterintuitive, and it didn’t look very effective at times. Yet in every sense it was, and at every moment Jesus was the epitome of faithfulness (John 6:66, 8:29).

Or what about Paul? In his ministry, he knew that it is God who gives the increase. He knew that “if our gospel is veiled it is veiled only to those who are perishing” and that the only hope of what might be called “effectiveness” is God’s life-giving decree (1 Corinthians 3:6, 4:1-6). This is theological understanding of his duty to be faithful is perhaps why Paul was able to move on so confidently when his message was persistently rejected! (Acts 18:6) Writing to Timothy, Paul instructed him to be faithful to answer his opponents with gentleness. He does not guarantee they will come around if he does this, but recognizes that through his faithfulness, perhaps God will grant them repentance (2 Tim. 2:25).

FAITHFULNESS, THEN EFFECTIVENESS

Here’s the point: if we pay attention to Scripture, raising up faithful leaders is our unavoidable priority. At the same time, we need to recognize that faithfulness does not always guarantee “effectiveness.”

Many faithful men are overlooked because they don’t have the walk, talk, and swagger of an “effective” leader. They don’t have the numbers to show or the stories to tell. They aren’t charismatic, they don’t impress, but they are faithful! I’ve written before about the danger of elevating quantity over quality when sending people into ministry, especially overseas. Here I’m simply generalizing the point:  the quality we should look for more than anything else is not eagerness or even impressive and apparent fruitfulness, but faithfulness.

But what do we mean by “faithfulness”?

Faithfulness is ordering your life according to God’s revealed ways and means for bringing about his ends—regardless of what the immediate results may be.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE FAITHFUL?

Faithful men are those who in every sphere of life show they believe God’s way is best, even when it doesn’t appear to be working. They are those who are willing to labor according to God’s design all of their life, even if they are labeled irrelevant and ineffective, because they rest their head on the pillow of God’s sovereignty, the promise that his Word will accomplish its purpose (Isaiah 55:11).

In that sense, faithful leaders will indeed always be effective leaders, but they will be effective because God’s ways and means always accomplish their intended purpose. Effectiveness is important, but if we are going to think about this theologically, we must admit that to a large degree what defines effectiveness is somewhat hidden in God’s sovereign decree. As I mentioned earlier, we are compelled to believe that Jesus was an effective leader, though that was not always apparent by our standard of measure. His effectiveness was that he did what the Father had given him to do (John 6:37-39). What does that leave us to do then? Embrace the truth that God will bring about his ends through his ordained means, therefore we are to be faithful to what he has revealed (Deut. 29:29).

Faithful leaders are men whose faith is not in what is seen, what is measurable, what can be boasted about in a newsletter, but in what is unseen, in the words that God has said.

Perhaps I’m just a small church pastor trying to justify my often unexciting and slow-moving ministry. I hope that’s not the case. I want results as badly as the next guy, and I pray for an effective ministry. But more than that, my ultimate aim is faithfulness and I pray my desire to be effective always takes a backseat. One practical way this shows itself is that as I raise up leaders, I don’t pass over unimpressive, yet faithful men.

 

Marks of Maturity: Submission to Authority

As a pastor there are certain criteria which I look for in those whom I am considering giving responsibility to in the church – especially when that responsibility entails a visible role in the public ministry of the church. In particular when considering people who will lead ministries, bibles studies, and teach, it is important that a measure of spiritual maturity is visible to all.

The reason maturity for those serving visibly is so important is because of the nature of our calling as a church. Here is just a short list for why we should seek to be discerning and sometimes slow about giving responsibility.

The church exist to display the wisdom and glory of God – (Eph. 3:10, 21) The church does not exist to bolster self-esteem or to give people something to do, it exists for the glory of God. This reality requires pastors and church members to approach public ministry patiently and carefully and with much preparation and eagerness for correction.

The church is an embassy of Christ’s kingdom – (2 Cor. 5:20) We represent Christ in the world, therefore, we take care about who we give responsibility to. An embassy is rogue which has spokesmen who misrepresent the policy of their nation (doctrine).

When James 3:1 tells us that “not many of you should become teachers” it should give us all pause. And pastors need to realize that they bear the responsibility not only for what they teach, but who they put in a position to teach. Because through teaching the “policy” of the kingdom is made known, through teaching we know who Christ is and what he is like. Through teaching our actions are informed. Our calling as a church means that any kind of teaching should be done carefully, soberly, and with a healthy portion of trepidation.

Those who would teach in any capacity should seek maturity and pastors should look for those that are mature.

When we consider how to discern the spiritual maturity of someone it is helpful at times to first consider what maturity in Christ is not:

It is not necessarily:

Tenure – how long someone has been a Christian or how much experience in ministry they have

Knowledge – Theological aptitude  or how much Bible one knows

Skill – The ability to speak, sing, string together coherent thoughts, etc.

Now, these are things that will be present in someone who is mature, and we must look for these things in order to be faithful (1 Tim. 5:22, 2 Tim. 2:2, Titus 1:9). But we should look beyond these for clearer signs of actual maturity.

Maturity in Christ is parallel to a deep humility and sense of need for the Gospel (1 Tim. 1:15, 1 Cor. 15:9). Such a humility is one that is marked by teachability, a sense of the need for others, and an ability to cheerfully submit to authority. An appropriately humble person does not grasp for opportunity or complain when it is taken away, but humbly serves and takes responsibility as it is handed out with great trembling. They have a humility that recognizes the seriousness and privilege of our calling as a church and therefore sees responsibility in the church as a privilege and not a right.

I hope to talk in later posts about the necessary “maturity marks” of Gospel neediness and teachability, but today I want to address the mark of maturity which is the ability to submit to authority.

As a general rule I will not give more responsibility to someone who has shown they have problems cheerfully submitting to spiritual authority (parents, church elders, congregation). Constant push back to directions and parrying and excuse-making are signs of profound spiritual immaturity which should be a warning to pastors evaluating people for service.

Faithful Christian service is that which is modeled by Christ himself. And Jesus, the perfect God-man, throughout his life modeled submission to authority:

  • As a boy and up to manhood he was sinless and yet he submitted to his sinful parents (Luke 2:51).
  • He did nothing on his own authority but only what his Father instructed him to do (Jn. 8:28)
  • When in his humanity he wanted escape from the terrors of experiencing God’s wrath, he submitted his will to his Father (Mk. 14:36)

A man or woman may be able to defend reformed soteriology like Sproul himself, may have a long list of ministry accomplishments, and display great skill, but if they bristle when corrected or get upset when they are told to do or not to do something by those in authority, then that is not a spiritually mature person.

Until a person becomes a good example of walking according to Hebrews 13:7,17 they should not be given a position of authority – whether that be leading kids’ ministry, small group, equipping class, or music ministry.

We don’t want to test people, but sometimes I think it is wise to ask someone you are evaluating for a leadership or a visible ministry role to do something that they may not like. Keep them accountable and see how they respond when challenged. We all have area we need to be challenged in, so there will always be opportunities to see how someone responds to the exercise of authority.

Sadly, in the church people stay immature in this way too often, and many it is those in authority, namely pastors, who are to blame. So as pastors here are some things to pursue in order to cultivate people who are comprehensively mature, namely in the area of submitting to authority:

Pray – I can’t change anyone’s heart. Only God can do that. Pray for them and pray for yourself. The members of the church are called to submit to those in authority, but we who are in authority must make sure we are not being “authoritarian” in our leadership. Which leads to the second thing.

Model – set an example of submitting to authorities. This could mean deferring to other elders, deferring to the congregation’s decision, or in cases where there are not multiple elders, leaders must show themselves to be submitted to authority by bowing to Scripture rather than their own preference.

Instruct – we all have blind spots and often people have problems with authority and may not even know it. Be a faithful disciple-maker by setting forth submission as a mark of spiritual maturity rooted in Scripture. Teach what biblical submission looks like.

Be Patient – Make sure that you recognize that some things you will ask people to do will be hard. Be compassionate. Try to walk in their shoes. Don’t be aloof. Be a servant leader. Approach people and challenge them with humility. God knows I have failed at this often. If met with a poor response to instruction don’t react with either extreme of brute force or cowardice, stick with your convictions with humble confidence. Listen to their objections and pray about them. Don’t expect people to change overnight, because you don’t change overnight either. Realize that even objections from a rebellious person often hold a dose of truth that we in authority need to take.

As a quick word to those under authority, you need to realize that Christ, not your pastor, is your ultimate authority. As Christ rules his church through his Word, that is your highest standard. You should not submit to leaders who ask you to disobey Scripture. Scripture is final! But if you are being asked to do something that is “not how you think it should be done” but you cannot show your leaders their error from God’s word, then you need to submit to the wisdom of your leaders.

Pastors, when looking for leaders don’t grab the first person who agrees with you theologically or can strum a guitar. Be patient. Look for the deeper, more profound signs of maturity. In so doing you will save yourself, the church, and the Holy Spirit, much grief. God is not in a hurry and neither should we be. Be faithful. Be careful. And keep our high calling as a church in plain view.

Stop Sending Them! – Why More is Not Always Better

Stop Sending Them! Why More Is Not Always Better

“Here am I, send me.” Isaiah 6:8

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray for the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into his harvest.” Matt. 9:37-38

These passages of Scripture have been slapped on the prayer card of many a hopeful missionary getting ready to head into the field. These and others verses have burned in the hearts of many churches and people who have recognized that we Christians have been given a task – to make disciples of all nations.

The nations, those groups of people that have yet to hear the Gospel, were sadly neglected by the church for generations, therefore, it is only right as the church reforms and conforms to the authority of Scripture that the church would correct “mission drift” and would pursue the task for which it was born – to be the mechanism for God saving his elect from every corner of the earth.

But like every corrective in life even the corrective must often be corrected. The pendulum always swings both ways before it settles and in my admittedly short years working among the nations, square in the middle of the 10/40 window, surrounded by UPGs, it has become clear that the missional corrective needs a few nudges itself.

The task that we affectionately call “The Great Commission” is immense. (Matt. 28:19) An immense task that requires vision, dedication, and a lot of manpower. But that being said, there are some times when to the western church I want to say,

“Stop sending them!”

The workers are few and the harvest is great, but that does not mean that more workers is always better. It seems that the impatience that so marks the current generation has infiltrated the missionary movement under the guise of “urgency”. This impatience, rather than being curbed by church leaders, is often fostered and even encouraged.

The result?

A lot of people going to the nations that shouldn’t be going – at least not yet.

The question that has more and more come to my mind that I wish churches would consider is this: Why would you send someone to plant churches that you would not hire as a pastor or nominate as a lay elder? Why does it seem that “passion”rather than proven faithfulness is the main criterion for sending men and women to support those church planters?  Why on earth is the bar – the standard – set lower for the frontlines than it is for the local church?

The stories of the challenges of frontier ministry, the stresses, the temptations, are very real, and time and again people are sent to face those challenges who have zeal but a lack of understanding. And the wise man rightly said by the Holy Spirit:

“Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.” (Proverbs 19:2 ESV)

That proverbs sums up the state of missions in many ways very well. Desire without knowledge. And desire without knowledge in the business of missions is dangerous – even spiritually deadly.

The field white for harvest is filled with laborers destroying the crop and themselves with a misuse or disuse of the tools God has given them for the labor. It seems to this observer, at times, that no one thought to make sure these people can swing the scythe of God’s word before they sent them into the field. Imagine a field full of people swinging a scythe in the wrong direction and sometimes from the wrong end, and too often – if I dare drag out the analogy a bit further – they are not using the scythe at all. Not a pretty picture.

No one thought to spend some time testing this person’s ability to discern between wheat and weeds. Lacking discernment they sheave weeds and write home about how successful they have been.

As a church we have been given a mission, a way we are to walk in, but many feet that set out to proclaim the gospel of peace miss their way – because they have desire without knowledge.

The workers are few, but our impatience is our undoing. When churches have initiatives to send a certain number of people by a certain time, their desire to meet that goal can short circuit discipleship and propel people into the field that will be harmed and cause harm.

Paul is a great example to us of patience. From the moment of his conversion he was told what his purpose was to be, yet it was more than ten years that passed before the beginning of his first missionary journey. In the interim he spent three formative years in Arabia, time in his home city of Tarsus, and then served at the church in Antioch until he was finally sent with Barnabas by the church of Antioch on his first missionary journey. This is Paul, mind you, who already at the point of conversion had immense knowledge of the Scriptures. And even though he had been told by Christ himself what his mission was to be he did not really begin in earnest until he was sent by his “home” church of Antioch at the Holy Spirit’s leading through the elders and congregants.

If you speak to an older generation of missionaries you will find that in by-gone days Bible college was a requirement to be sent. If you read the biographies of guys like Adoniram Judson you will find that ordination was required! These days if a church gives approval, a few evaluations and a two-week bootcamp later people can be approved for the field. Such a convenient and streamlined system is meant to enable more and more people to go to the unreached.

But more is not always better.

The challenges people taking the Gospel to hard places will face require a character that is mature and proven. The questions missionaries will be asked require a theological knowledge that is deep and wide. And the raging enemy that is encountered requires a faith that is dug down deep.

Many missionaries slide into pragmatism in ministry because they do not really know their God. They slide into heresy because they do not really know their message. Many slide into sin because they are immature and unaccountable. Church, stop sending these people who don’t know their God, don’t know their message, and don’t know what it is like to submit to authority. Please, for the sake of God’s glory, stop.

Desire is commendable, but desire comes and goes. Calling is required, calling rooted in truth and affirmed by those in authority – a calling that has as its sole aim the glory of God and has as its bedrock the sure promises of the Gospel revealed in Scripture.

More is not always better, but with the right reformation more can be better. There is a word for when you try to find a midpoint between quantity and quality – it is called mediocrity. Local churches should have the long view in missions, faithfully making many disciples who will be able to go out and persevere in faithful Gospel ministry. Labor for quantity without sacrificing quality by a single degree.

It should be no wonder that the attrition rate among missionaries is so high, that doctrinal ambiguity is so pervasive, and that missionaries falling into gross sin is so common. People are sent that should not be sent because churches are sending people too soon.

If anyone reads this, whether you are a pastor or someone looking to go to the field, I want to leave behind a few suggestions on how to prepare people to go to the nations:

1)Teach them well so that they will be able to teach others well and don’t send them until they have shown they can do the same. (2 Tim. 2:2)

2) Make sure that they are able to articulate sound doctrine and refute false doctrine. An inability to answer objections and correct falsehood is a recipe for disaster when encountering other religions or worse – errant missionaries. (Titus 1:9, Eph. 4:14)

3) Make sure they are able to submit to biblical authority in their lives. Are they mavericks who have never really had the level of accountability that challenged their autonomy? If this is the case they need to spend some time with that kind of accountability before they can be sent with confidence. (Heb. 13:17-18)

4) Connected to #3 is the need for proven godly character. This is something that can only be ascertained over an extended period of close interaction and persistent discipleship – not a session with a counselor and a personality profile. Unchecked sins get worse on the frontlines, not better. (Heb. 12:1)

5) If you would not make a man an elder in your church, then don’t send him to plant churches in a pioneer situation. If you are sending someone who isn’t elder material or isn’t quite there yet, or sending unmarried women, then I would suggest sending them someplace with an established church where you know their spiritual development and ministry could continue under the watchful eye of faithful shepherds. (Heb. 10:24-25)

6) The aim of every pioneer worker you send should be to join an existing church or to gather believers and start a church ASAP. If there is no church then I would suggest moving with a core of people to plant a church or do outreach into new areas from a place where there are enough expat believers to have a church. No Christians were meant to be alone and Paul set an example to seek out believers when he entered a new city. Ecclesiology and missiology should be inseparably intertwined. Churches plant churches, yet many churches contract out the mission that God has given them to para-church organizations that don’t have the authority that a church does. An occasional email, a questionnaire, and a field visit every half-decade hardly applies as Biblical oversight. Para-chruch organizations should serve the valuable and specialized role of helping churches do their job, while not taking over their job. Provide active, authoritative oversight until a church is planted or those you send are plugged into a relatively healthy, existing fellowship. (Acts 20:28, 16:13)

7) Finally (for now) let there be consensus in the sending church that these people being sent are called and ready before you send them. This will safeguard the ones being sent and give them an amazing boost of encouragement that they are part of something bigger than their own ambition – which can fade or redirect quickly. (Acts 13:3)

I write this not out of a desire to dampen a church’s missional drive, but to encourage a long view with faithfulness as the aim in that missional drive. John Piper says that the Christian walk is coronary, not adrenal. We run a marathon, not a sprint. Ministry is the same way. Godly urgency embraces careful preparation for ministry. This truth becomes unclear if our main aim in missions is converts. The main aim of our sending must be the glory of God and it is for that we must prepare and be prepared.

So if necessary, for now, stop sending them. The glory of God is at stake.

(Another Reason) Why We Practice Communion Every Week

We hear it every week here. The bread represents the broken body and the cup represents the shed blood of Jesus the Christ. Bound up in the significance of body and blood is the source of our unity as a church. Throughout the week we are tempted, like every family, to allow selfishness and pride to create schism. Pursuit of unity is one of the things we are called to as a church[i], but it is probably one of the most difficult things to maintain. We practice communion every week at Immanuel Fujairah because we believe, in part, that these symbols represent the basis of our perseverance in unity.

The bread that is broken is a reminder of the body of the Lord Jesus which was broken for his church[ii]. There is a significance here beyond the breaking, it is the fact that there was anything broken at all! Jesus Christ, God himself, stepped into time, the Word made flesh was not an apparition.[iii] He took on a body. Corruptible. Susceptible to decay. Prone to suffering. The fact that there is a body and there is God in one glorious, mysterious union shows us an important aspect of the body of Christ we visualize in the sacrament of communion. That is that “Since therefore the children [of God] share in flesh and blood, he likewise partook of the same things… he had to be made like his brothers in every respect….”[iv] Indeed his body was broken on this cross, but that body already bore the exhaustion and the scars of life. He became one of us so that he could not only suffer for us in crucifixion, but so that he could suffer for us in temptation.[v]  So that he could be a man, the only sinless man, sinless because that is what all of us should be and it is what all of us have failed to be.[vi] When we see the bread we are reminded of the totality of his righteous life for us. Our souls, starved of righteousness, depleted of virtue, weakened by impurity, look to the bread – substance of righteousness, justice, and holiness. It is extended to us to be received by faith. The bread is only significant in the breaking if we see the glory of the bread itself – the incarnation – the thirty years of perfection in the flesh for us.[vii]

We come to the table each week then, often times either feeling depressed by our failures and inability to measure up to God’s standard or we come proud with a sense that we have done well, quick therefore to be critical of others. The bread reminds both groups of people of their common source of righteousness. It reminds us of the one who became like us so that he could become sin for us and give us the very righteousness of God.[viii] This lifts the heart of the downcast and it humbles the self-righteous.

This reminder of our common righteousness reveals anew our lack of it and it highlights our sinful actions, thoughts, and motives. And it is here that we see the unifying significance of the cup. There is no sliding-scale of penance when we come each week with our various sins, there is only the blood. And in communion we are reminded of its sufficiency for sin in all of its disturbing variety. The cup is a reminder of the gory price that our sin required – small or great in our eyes.[ix] It is at the same time disturbing and comforting. Beautiful and macabre. It reminds each of us with our unique transgressions each week that all of our sin demanded the same brutal penalty before God’s tribunal. We want to think that a lesser price was paid for our pride or gossip than was paid for someone’s adultery or murder, but the cup testifies that the cleansing is the same. The cup will not allow us to tear our gaze from the bloody cross where Christ secured the cleansing of your murder and my “harmless” deceit. The cup reminds all of us as a church that there is no hierarchy of sins before the transcendent holiness of God. This unifies us. It “puts us in our place”. A place of honesty, humility, and therefore mutual understanding.

One of the reasons we take communion every week is because it reminds us that as diverse as we are we have two things in common – we need an alien righteousness that is perfect and we need a cleansing from sin that is of infinite worth. Only the unique God-Man, Jesus Christ, can provide these. Every time we gather we will be tempted to divide. We are quick to forget. Communion points us afresh to what we all have in common – common guilt, common hope. Through a common righteousness and a shared cleansing we are united to Christ and therefore we are united to each other. We need to be reminded of that every week.

[i] Eph. 4:3

[ii] i.e. 1 Cor. 11:24

[iii] 1 John 1:1-2

[iv] Heb. 2:14,17

[v] Heb. 2:18

[vi] Rom. 3:23

[vii] Phil. 2:6-11

[viii] 2 Cor. 5:21

[ix] Heb. 9:22

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