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



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.


“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.

Follow Your Pastors Into The Gray

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17 ESV)

That passage of Scripture is one that pastors do not like to preach, though they fantasize often about doing so. It is a passage that has been both abused by church leaders and ignored by church members. In a time when the church is plagued by individualism and rampant immaturity it is a passage that does not sit well with many. It is uncomfortable. But it is a passage that if looked at properly, can lead to increased joy and unity in the church.

Before I talk more about this passage, or at least one aspect of it, I want to start by saying what this passage is not. It is not a blanket statement that as a member of a church you must obey everything your pastors say and you must accept everything they speak as inspired truth. In fact, Paul writing to the Galatians had strong words for the teachers and leaders that were troubling the people there with false teaching. This is what he said there:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.(Galatians 1:8-9 ESV)

The Scriptures are clear that false teaching, false Gospel, and ungodly living is reason to rebuke a leader with 2-3 witnesses and to flee from that church if need be (1 Tim. 5:19). If a pastor leads you into sin or into false teaching you do not obey him, you do not follow him! Period!

So what is that passage in Hebrews talking about?

It is that which I want to address. As a Christian you have the responsibility to stand up for the truth of the Gospel with the Scriptures as your ultimate authority. And it is obvious that as your leaders lead you in the foundational, clear-cut truths of Scripture you should obey them. But what about the areas of every day life in the church that are not as clearly lined out? What about those things over which there may be various opinions? What about the gray areas?

It is my aim to encourage you to stand firm in the Gospel, ground yourself on the word of God, and then follow your pastors into the gray areas.

What is the gray?

What I mean by the gray is this: The grey is those things in the life of the church that are applications of Gospel truth and implications of Scriptural mandates which may not be clearly spelled out in Scripture. It is those necessary things in the life of the church which are matters of wisdom, things which may not necessarily be proven or refuted in a black-and-white manner from Scripture but are deduced from Scripture or hinted at in Scripture. Matters of application.

Gray areas in the life of the church are those things which you may have an opinion about – an opinion which you may even feel strongly is correct. Maybe it has to do with music choice, service style, preaching, leadership style, church government, kids’ ministry, ministry initiatives, etc. None of these things are necessarily unimportant, but they may qualify as gray areas.

You have the responsibility as a congregation to maintain a faithful Gospel ministry, faithfulness to God’s word comes first of all, but then in the day-to-day you are called to follow your pastors into the gray – to trust them even when you don’t agree because you know that in the black-and-white of the Gospel they are faithful. A failure to “let them do this” makes leadership, which is already a burden, a grief instead of a joy.

As a pastor I know what it is like to keep watch over souls with groaning and a little bit of nausea. It is not fun. I want to be held accountable for preaching the Gospel faithfully and caring for people’s souls. And I also want to hear the insights and views of those in my care. But pastors have to make decisions. They have to take biblical truth and make specific applications that they are convinced will be for God’s glory and the eternal good of their people. Every pastor knows what it is like to make those decisions with groaning and not with joy, because we know how it will be received. It is a profound burden.

It is not your job to judge the motives of your pastors, but simply to obey them insofar as they are not leading you astray from the Gospel. Your pastors are sinners saved by the same Gospel as you. They make mistakes. They too are being sanctified. There are many gray areas that you will follow your pastors into that you won’t agree with and you may be right! But it is a gray area. So you follow. You follow and when you hear your brothers and sisters begin to complain, you stop them. And guess what? As time goes on you may find that what you thought was “the gray” was not so gray after all. As you mature you may come to see that want was once unclear or even faulty to you, was actually just what you needed.

Faithful pastors are jealous for the souls of the people in their care. Like an overtly cautious father who doesn’t let their child go into the deep end just yet, they may falter and disappoint, holding back a little too long. But know they love you.

For the faithful pastor the things in the gray are not unimportant – just like they are not unimportant for you – but the difference that you need to acknowledge is that your pastors will stand before God and give an account for your soul. They will be held responsible for how they led in the gray areas. If your pastors have any awareness of their calling, any idea of the God whom they serve, any knowledge of the Father over whose children they watch – then you need to know they carry a heavy, heavy burden.

In closing, notice that the writer of Hebrews does not call us to begrudging obedience toward our leaders. Where we have the attitude, “Of course I will submit, but I need you to know that I don’t like it!” That is the posture that makes leading a grief for your pastors. Rather, have the humility to recognize that it is God that has made them you leaders (Acts 20:28), therefore, pray that God will give them wisdom and then trust that He will (James 1:5). Be aware of your own sin and immaturity (1 Cor. 10:12) and trust in the Great Shepherd who never fails – though his under-shepherds often do. And finally, thank God that you have pastors who love you enough to preach the Gospel to you and to put up with the stress and pain and spiritual struggle of church leadership. Marvel that  by God’s grace you have men in your life who are willing to be held accountable for your soul! Pray for them. Stand firm on the Gospel. And then follow them into the gray.

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.

Deborah: A Case Against Complementarianism?

Complementarianism is the view of gender roles which teaches that men and women, while equal in dignity and honor, being created equally in the image of God, have differing, complementary roles in the created order to bring about God’s ordained purposes. The difference between man and woman is not merely a matter of biology, but is rooted in the good creation which God made to display his glory. It was not good for man to be alone. Because God is good his creation must be as well, so God made woman and together man and woman were good.

On the other side is the egalitarian view which says that there is basically no role distinction between men and women.[i]

Opponents of Complementarianism are many, especially in western and some far-eastern cultures. And one of the cases often brought against the Complementarian position that only men can be pastors/elders in the church has to do with Deborah, the woman judge of Israel found in Judges 4-5. The argument is made that if Deborah could be a judge then surely God has no problem with a women exercising proper authority over a man.

The most common response I have heard to this argument from the Complementarian camp is that the time of the judges was an extraordinary time when Israel was practically leaderless and often straying, therefore Deborah is seen as a sort of exception and even an indictment of the men who were failing to lead.

I think the answer is much simpler than that.

I am not ruling out this answer as a possibility, but it does seem a little complicated, making assumptions, just like the assumptions that are often made regarding the quintessential Complementarian text, 1 Timothy 2:12-14[ii]. The answer to the Deborah question, in my point of view is because on the one hand God appointed Deborah as a judge over Israel and on the other hand has determined that men should be the ones exercising authority in the church, we simply see that the role of judge must not be analogues to the role of elder. It is really that simple. In fact, we see in 1 Timothy 3[iii] that the role of elder is likened to the role of a father in a house. This is a much closer analogy, which are shoes Deborah could never have filled. The leadership structure in the church is related to the good, created order which God originally set for the family, one that has a father as the leader. It should be noted at this point that without women the picture is incomplete, but men are still called to lead.

If such reason is not enough to deter the Deborah “clause”, then we need only to look to the male judge, Samson. He is found is Judges 13-16 and a brief comparison of his life to the qualification of a church elder in 1 Timothy 3 quickly shows that Samson was never qualified to be an elder, therefore confirming even more that the role of elder is not analogues to the role of judge. Women could be judges. Many women are blessed with tremendous leadership gifts that they should be encouraged to use to build up the body of Christ and bless society – but just not as elders in the church.

This can be hard for us to grasp, and it can even be abused, but as people of God we want to see that the way he made things to be is good, just as he is good. And if we can trust him in that we will experience the joy of seeing him glorified as men and women, complementing one another, work to see his kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


[i] There are varying degrees of this argument

[ii] The argument is made by many that this text is speaking only to a certain situation unique to the church in Ephesus that Paul is addressing. This is pure conjecture and is not a plain reading of the text which roots the argument not in the current situation but in the events of creation and fall in Gen. 1-3

[iii] Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:2-7 ESV)

(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

Field of Dreams: A Church Planting Approach

The question the past year had crossed my mind, “Why do I put all the work into a Friday morning Equipping Class[i] that only four or five people are going to attend?” The very reason I ask myself that question is because it seems like such a waste of time. Other questions could be asked, “Why have the structures and formalities of membership procedure that we have when there are only twenty-one members? Why stand up and preach when there is only 15-40 people in the room?” Even more questions could be asked, but my answer, by now, is always going to be the same.

We all know the famous line to the classic movie Field of Dreams. “Build it and he will come”. Basically, James Earl Jones and Ray Liotta get Kevin Costner to build a baseball diamond. Costner, as Ray Kinsella, has faith that Jones is right, if he builds it people will come and so it is. Going back then to the question of why I am doing so much with a church so small is because of the “Field of Dreams” approach to church planting. This is not a pragmatic method. It is not some proven strategy. It simply a matter of faithfulness, a matter of exercising the means that God uses to grow and build up his church.

We gather each week in a room big enough to hold a hundred with the hope and prayer that there will be a hundred. We have classes to equip the few in hopes that they may equip the many. By God’s grace alone, I strive to prepare my sermon the same for fifteen people as I would for fifteen hundred people. On and on the examples could go.

It feels exhausting sometimes and the immediate return causes one to consider whether or not it is worth it. I am not delusional. We are not trying to play “big church”, but are simply trying to be church, God’s vehicle for his mission of redemption, the vessel of his truth, the trumpet of his kingdom, the fold of his sheep, and the display of his wisdom and glory.

This way of viewing the little flock I have been given charge of is shaped by the conviction that God grows his church through his church. And on top of that, the growth is his doing through the faithful ministry of the pastors and members of that church. Faithful ministry is that which plans for great things, while leaving the great things to God. Faithful ministry is that which endures through seasons of fruitlessness with confident rest in the fact that God has established this church for the purpose of making known his glory through the proclamation of the Gospel in our community, giving us good reason to hope that there are many sheep who must be brought into the fold. We hope and pray that the harvest will be great, so we prepare the barns. We prepare the ark of Christ for all of the chosen to come and escape the storm, where they can be protected, fed, and sustained. The local church is to be a hopeful, eschatological entity that looks forward with confidence in the Gospel and the power of the Spirit and plans for the harvest.

So we do. We have been planted in this needy, Gospel-impoverished city by God for his glory. He has us here for a reason. Therefore, we preach to the twenty like there are a thousand. We hold equipping classes for the five like there are fifty. And we pray like we are an army. We conduct ourselves in a way that says that we expect more. We are not trying to be “too big for our britches”, we are trying to make britches big enough so that we may be what God can and may choose to make us.

I once heard Tim Keller say that we should preach every week as if non-believers are in the audience and eventually they will be. So I have made this my practice. It is awkward at times, as I gaze across the godly faces of the people in the room. I proclaim the Gospel, calling for people to repent and believe in Jesus. Why? Because in the intimacy of our little group I hear the voice of James Earl Jones whispering, “Steve… People will come, Steve.”

I believe that. I believe that because churches, proclaiming the Gospel, are God’s method of increasing the Kingdom. I believe it because the Word we proclaim is alive and active. So when I labor all week to prepare classes and sermons for so few, I don’t feel like I am wasting my time. We are building.

My job is to be faithful to build. And the fact the Lord tarries and that he is at work in the world through his church in the great task of gathering a people for himself gives me confidence that if we build it, people will come.



[i] That is what we call our “Sunday School” or adult education classes at Immanuel Fujairah

Defending the Flock in the Age of Information

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert…. (Acts 20:28-31)


Nearly every New Testament letter can be found with portions directed at refuting contemporary false teaching. It is likely that when Paul and John wrote their epistles that they had specific false teachers and false apostles in mind. For instance, many believe that John wrote his first epistle with the proto-gnostic Cerinthus in mind. Whatever the individual cases may have been in Corinth, Crete, or Ephesus, Paul was clear on one thing when he spoke to the elders at Ephesus in Acts 20 – this problem of false teachers was not going away and before the end it would only get worse.

Moving to the present day we can see that there are plenty of wolves and the damage they do is devastating. Prosperity Gospel, cheap grace, attacks on the authority of Scripture, distortions of doctrine of all kind abound. Now as much as ever church leaders need to be called to “follow the pattern of sound words” delivered by the apostles and to “guard the deposit” that has been entrusted to the church (2 Tim. 1:13-14). But this task is becoming more and more difficult, perhaps more so than Paul or John could have imagined in their time. And the task is becoming more difficult not because the heresies we face are really that new, but because we live in the age of information.

On a good note ease of access to information is not entirely detrimental. The Reformation spread across Europe like it did because the invention of the printing press and the increase in literacy stemming from the rise of humanism allowed the pamphlets of Luther and other reformers to flood the market. But as a result of this technological development, the print medium also became a channel for the counter-reformation and later works of the Enlightenment which would begin to erode the authority of Scripture.

In the last half century with various television preachers and now with the widespread access to the internet, new challenges have arisen for defending the flock from wolves. Challenges that I believe are unprecedented. Between God TV, YouTube, and numberless other access points people can have their “itching ears” scratched without their pastor knowing exactly what they are getting exposed to. Under-shepherds of Christ’s church might be able to call out the teachings of well-known teachers, but now there are blogs, memes, Facebook, and Twitter where many people –well-meaning but deceived – post things that sound so good but are laden with poison. Young believers surf the web where they are exposed to all sorts of teaching that they lack the discernment and the knowledge to refute.

Pastors can no longer be content to be reactionary when it comes to sound doctrine. Shepherds cannot afford to wait until a person becomes indoctrinated by online false-teachers, at which point they are no longer protecting but rescuing.

As I have contemplated the defense of sound doctrine and the protection of the flock in the age of information I have become convinced that I cannot afford to be reactive and I cannot be so naïve as to think that my flock is only listening to my sermons and reading the books I promote. In fact, I am reminded constantly that they are often exposed to stuff that sounds so right and is just so wrong! What then is the answer? I don’t think turning every sermon into a rant is the answer. Rather, now more than ever, we need to defend the sheep by arming the sheep. I know that invokes funny images of sheep wearing bandoliers with their hooves sharpened to shanks, but I think that arming the sheep is the best way you can protect the sheep.

How do we arm the sheep?

  1. We can do this by first of all making the sheep aware of the danger. Make sure that the flock knows that spiritual warfare is primarily an issue of truth and lies. They need to know that the favorite weapon of the enemy is delicious cake laced with a slow-acting poison. The people should be nearly paranoid of false teaching (hyperbole for emphasis).
  2. Then we must equip them with a robust understanding of biblical theology. The great themes that tie Scripture together should run through our sermons. This will help the sheep identify teaching that does not fit into that narrative.
  3. Encourage dialogue between people and elders about what they are hearing, and when something alarming comes up don’t just brush it off, but elevate the authority of Scripture and take them to it, showing them where the problem really lies with the teaching in question. Make it clear that the problem is not that it disagrees with you, but with God. We owe the flock careful, biblical answers to their questions.
  4. Pastors should model humble confidence in God’s word. We need to show people that we don’t feel threatened personally by the teaching of others, but that we ourselves are teachable, but still unwavering in our confidence of the truth that we proclaim. This means that when we find our doctrine in need of being corrected we don’t hang onto a viewpoint that we can’t biblically defend.
  5. Finally, by repetition drive home the foundational doctrines of the Gospel. Help people see that ideas, true and untrue, have consequences and that they need to filter what they hear and read through these founding doctrines of Scripture. Help them see that everyone is a theologian – good or bad. Guide the flock in thinking carefully about the domino effect of certain ideas. Remind them again of why this is so important – because wolves wear sheep’s clothing and devils dress as angels.

The answer to defending the flock in the age of information is to equip the flock to identify and refute harmful teaching. Heighten their senses to warning signs – the taste, smell, and feel of heresy. In doing this you will be able to know that when you are gone the sheep will be safe. And at the end of the day, defend knowing that the battle is the Lord’s and that he preserves his own from being overcome by lies. But know he has ordained that shepherds be a means for protecting the flock. My prayer is that we would be alert and confident, that we would not fear “for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.”

The Problem of Parachurch

Definition: An interdenominational organization that exists outside of the local church or denominational structures, usually in order to facilitate or provide support for various ministry efforts. Especially in the realm of evangelism and missions.

Before you shut me off completely let me say that I am not vilifying all parachurch organizations. They can be helpful and much good has been done through many of them for the sake of the Kingdom. Please hear me on that. What I am concerned about is the need to be extremely cautious in the realm of parachurch and some encourage thoughtfulness as we consider their role in ministry, especially “Great Commission” work.

The existence of parachurch organizations, assisting the push for missions, have exploded in the past 100 years. Passionate men and women within the body of Christ have seen huge holes that needed to be met. They looked at the needs in the world for the propagation of the good news of Jesus Christ and they were determined to do whatever they needed to do to get it done.

The question of course that we must ask is if proclamation is so important, why was it not already being done? Was God waiting around for someone with the correct organizational skills to pull something together? The answer is no. I want to argue that the exponential growth of parachurch entities is, at the end of the day, an indictment on the church.

Local churches, not organizations, were to be the vehicles which would carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Christ bestowed his church with authority (Matt. 16, 18) in order to fulfill its mission on the earth until his return (Matt. 28). The church was founded upon the teaching of the Apostles and Prophets (Eph. 2:20) with Christ as the cornerstone. When Jesus commissioned the Apostles in Matthew 28 and Acts 1, he was commissioning the church which would be founded on their testimony. As they went out on their mission they went about establishing churches and appointing leaders who as they proclaimed the Apostles teaching would bear the same authority. The authority of the church is the authority of Christ who is its head and it wields that authority for the same purpose as Christ, to reconcile all things to himself to the glory of God (Eph. 4:15, Col. 1:20).

We see churches in the book of Acts wielding their authority to commission Gospel workers and to make decisions on matters of faith and practice as the Gospel went forth to new areas (Acts 13, Acts 15). As churches were established as a result of this work, we see a strong emphasis that appointed leaders, elders, hold fast to the message that was delivered to them (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus). This was extremely important because to lose the message was to lose the apostolic authority and even the hope of the Gospel. For better or for worse, the church was to be the vessel of the Gospel and the local church to be the dispenser of that Gospel into the world.

Sadly, throughout the history of Christianity the church has often misused and abused its authority and has neglected and at some times forsaken the mission that it was given that authority for. During the Protestant reformation there was a revival in the understanding that the authority of the church is not found in a mere man, but in a message. The word of God, given to us through the apostles and prophets. Once the church began to be reformed by this the church was also awakened to its mission that it was given authority for.

Many churches were ignited in the years following the revival of biblical, apostolic authority to be about the mission that they had been given. But as happens, the pull of sin and of the world has its influence. The church began to see the mission but it became content to contract out the Great Commission to those that were passionate about it, experts if you will, forgetting that the mission was not theirs to delegate but to own and pursue. Churches were given apostolic authority for an apostolic purpose. The church as the “colony of heaven” was a sent entity, bearing through authority of the King, through his Gospel, the authority to go into the world and command fallen image bearers to repent and believe in the good news.

The church wasn’t getting the job done. The church needed another reformation, one that oriented the authority it had been given toward the mission it had been given. But most reformation mutated and was cut from the body. Missions became the work of parachurch agencies and organizations. Organizations with no ecclesiastical authority sent on a mission that cannot be sustained without the exercise of that authority.

The message of the Gospel, which is the generator of the authority of the church, was now being handled by structures and entities with no ecclesiastical structures and generally not the plethora of gifts and personalities found in a properly functioning local church. What this led to often, and continues to, is organizational leadership that out of a genuine desire for fruitfulness is willing to sacrifice Gospel faithfulness for the sake of the mission. The problem is that with a decrease of emphasis on doctrinal purity comes an emptying of authority which leads to cloudiness of mission and eventual capitulation.

The local church sends money and people to these organizations, all the while using the golden bowl of Kingdom authority as a candy dish. Like many Christians who give and never evangelize, the church feels like it is doing its mission, when really it is hiring out its mission to someone who has no authority to carry it out.

Doctrinal ambiguity becomes the mark of many of these organizations, I know this from experience, as they claim that doctrine is up to local churches with ecclesiastical leadership and their job is support and mobilization. They are partly right, but the problem is that the churches are not using their authority to do apostolic mission and the organizations are doing mission without apostolic authority. The truth is, individuals are not given authority, the church is given authority, not to loan out, but to use.

The problem balloons until mission is no longer mission and the church then eventually views its authority, God’s word, as an unused part of the body, an appendix if you will, so when it starts to pain them they get rid of it and still imagine that they are whole. But they quickly die, because they have no reason to live and no heart to keep them alive.

Organizations tasked with mission without apostolic authority will spread the bounds wider and wider until the mission is emptied of its meaning because authoritative message has been lost because there was no authority in place to guard it.

The Church, whose authority and mission is wielded and carried out by local churches, needs a reformation where authority, which depends on the purity of apostolic doctrine, and mission, which is the spreading of apostolic doctrine, come together.

The authority of the church was not given to be loaned out, but to be spread. The mission cannot be carried out apart from that authority. Therefore, I will boldly say, any organization that does not submit itself to the doctrinal oversight of a specific church is illegitimate and damaging to the Kingdom of God, undermining the authoritative means that Christ established for the display and proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Churches need to be renewed in their knowledge of why they have been given such great authority to steward and parachurch organizations need to realize that without being under that authority they can have no long term hope of sustaining the great mission of the church. For it is indeed the task of the church to guard the apostolic message (doctrine). And if we lose the apostolic message, we have no apostolic authority, which means we have no right to pursue apostolic mission.

The very meaning of parachurch is that they exist outside of this apostolic, ecclesiastical authority. With inclusion, rapid growth, and aggressive mobilization often being the aim of these organizations, without the protection of ecclesiastical authority the message will quickly begin to decay which leads to an unfocused mission, which leads to ruin of all sorts. This is the problem of parachurch.



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