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I normally don’t mention current events or politics on this blog. It’s my intention to foster contemplation about the church and other spiritual concerns, not partisan or party ideologies. However, I’m going to make an exception this time. The events transpiring in Afghanistan have hit me hard. You see, I lived there for six months during my teens. I traveled over much of the country as a young man. I’ve been through the Khyber pass more times than I can remember. Missionaries there were personal acquaintances and friends. I went to school with their children. I was involved in humanitarian relief efforts during the Soviet invasion and occupation of the 1980s. I personally knew one of the members of the underground church who was tortured to death for his faith by one of the war-lords of that era. Our family helped sponsor Afghan refugees. So the Afghan people have been dear to my heart.

To see the feckless and incompetent bumbling of those who currently hold the reins of power in this country has been heart-rending and depressing. (Don’t like the adjectives I used in reference to the powers that be? Then replace them with “heartless” and “evil” – take your pick. If they aren’t irresponsible then what they’ve done is by design. If they aren’t incompetent, then what they’re doing is by intent. And, if it’s by design and by intent then there is no other way I can describe them except heartless and evil.) It didn’t have to be this way. Those responsible for the needless debacle which is unfolding already have the blood of uncounted innocents on their hands and will add the blood of countless more. What will they possibly be able to say when they stand before the Judge to give account?

Aside from the purely human cost, there is another aspect to the pullout from Afghanistan. Regardless of the merits of the United States invading the place to begin with; regardless of whatever justification there may have been to stay there after the original stated goal of bringing to justice the man who attacked us had been achieved, the US incurred a moral obligation to the people who chose to believe that we had something better to offer them. By its actions the administration has just thrown away 20 years of blood, treasure and good will. It has abandoned those who trusted us. The US has lost all credibility in the region and, I dare say, around the world. This administration has proven that our word cannot be relied upon. Our country’s promises are hollow. It has demonstrated that America will use people, then abandon them when the whim takes it. This administration has shown the Afghans who served our country faithfully that it thinks far less of them than those who illegally cross our southern border. Be sure that the world has taken note of the hypocrisy and callous cynicism. They hold us in contempt – and rightly so. They will exact a reckoning for this administration’s perfidy.

Why bring this up on a blog whose purpose is to explore spiritual concepts and ideas? Because it has a direct application to the church. This administration provides us with a graphic illustration of everything church leadership is not supposed to be.

It’s hard to imagine a more callous disregard for others than we are witnessing. One of the outstanding characteristics of Christ – who is our model of leadership – is compassion. That is, “feeling along with.” We are to have empathy for those whom we serve. In truth, compassion is supposed to be one of the characteristics which defines every follower of Christ, not just leaders. And this compassion should extend not just to those who come from the same background or ethnic group, but to everyone. Paul writes, “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Colossians 3:11-12 NIV) If Paul were writing today he might well say, “There is neither American or Afghan.”

Something else this administration displays is an arrogant elitism which views others as tools or as things beneath its contempt. In contrast, the Apostle Peter writes that Shepherds in the church (that is, Elders) should be, “…eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3 NIV)

The Apostle Paul writes that an Overseer (an Elder), “…must be above reproach…” (1 Timothy 3:2 NIV) It’s been instructive to watch this administration try to dodge responsibility. The disaster in Afghanistan is everybody else’s fault, except the person(s) who issued the orders which broke faith with the people they abandoned to their fate. Paul’s meaning is that a real leader isn’t “above reproach” because he passes the blame, rather he is blameless because he isn’t guilty of wrongdoing to start with.

Another thing Paul writes concerning an Elder is, “He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” (1 Timothy 3:7 NIV) This administration has disgraced America’s name for at least a generation.

A good leader should also model the virtues he expects others to cultivate. Paul writes to a leader he was mentoring, “…set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12 NIV) In contrast, the example we have seen from this administration in all of these areas is purely negative.

Much more could be said about leadership in the church contrasted to what this administration is displaying. However, I will conclude by saying that a leader should live by the same ideals he proclaims. Paul writes, “if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth – you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”” (Romans 2:19-24 NIV) During the last several months we’ve heard a lot of preachments from the administration about “the right thing to do.” I think the administration’s actions have revealed what those preachments really are – they are blasphemy.

One of the most common accusations leveled against the church is that it is full of hypocrites. Let’s not allow anyone to tar us with the same brush as our national leaders. If we do, people outside the church, let alone Christ, will be fully justified in saying, “…I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!” (Luke 13:27 NIV)

Finally, we must not allow our righteous anger at the administration and its actions tempt us into sin of our own. We must not show our leaders the same contempt they are displaying for the people they have abandoned in Afghanistan. Instead, regardless of how we feel, it is our duty to pray for those in power. As unlikely as it seems, Christ wants to save even those responsible for the disaster. “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4 NIV)

Frankly, I’m having trouble giving thanks right now for those in power in this country. May God give me, and all the followers of Christ, the humility and grace to obey the Lord’s command even though our emotions would have us do something very different!

Why Churches Die

Just as there are many ways in which churches come into being, they can also die for different reasons. Here are the tales of two churches which died.

Case Study One

An older gentleman whom my father led to the Lord many years ago greeted me at a missions conference. “Have you heard about Rehmat?” he asked. Rehmat being the son of a village elder, now deceased. As I hadn’t heard any news about the village, let alone Rehmat, for a long time I was all ears.

“Rehmat left the Lord and converted.”

“That’s sad,” I murmured.

“No one visits the village any more,” the gent continued. “The believers don’t meet for worship and the roof of the church building has fallen in.”

To underscore just how tragic the situation is, the village in question is one in which my parents invested a huge amount of time and personal effort, not to mention money. My father traveled there countless times to teach and preach. He also arranged for many from the village to attend an evangelistic convention in another city. One memorable day he baptized 19 of them into Christ. In time the church in that village numbered around 60 to 80 people. He helped arrange the financing for their church building and paid for the legal defense when local Muslims tried to block construction.

Dad not only taught the villagers about Christ, he arranged for medical care for their sick – often paying the doctors and buying medicine out of his own pocket. He also tried to supplement their income by buying looms and hiring a master weaver to teach them how to tie carpets.

While looking after their physical welfare, Dad did not leave the people spiritually destitute. As well as continuing personal visits as he had opportunity, he paid a preacher a full year to go live in the village and minister there.

Though not actively involved in ministry at the time myself, I witnessed all this first hand. I accompanied my father on several of his trips to the place. I had a small role in the carpet project and a major one in another attempt to set someone up in business. With all that history no wonder hearing about the state of the church saddened me.

“The seed you planted is still there,” the gent told me. “You really ought to appoint someone to minister there.” He mentioned a name. Though he didn’t state it explicitly, the implication was I should hire the man he named to preach at the village church.

“Wouldn’t it be better,” I suggested, “if the local churches sent someone?”

My comment bounced right off him. “You really need to send someone.”

As gracefully as I could I steered the conversation in another direction and soon took my leave. What I wanted to say, but didn’t, is that the gentleman’s attitude exemplified one of the major reasons the church in the village has failed – instead of taking responsibility for, and ownership of, their own spiritual health, everyone expects an outsider to do everything for them.

It so happens that the gentleman’s wife is from that village – she was one of the first converts. His own son is an ordained preacher. The son heads up a ministry which receives generous funding from the States to, among other things, establish churches. If the gentleman is really so concerned about the state of affairs in the village church, then why doesn’t he do something about helping his own in-laws regain their spiritual footing? Why hasn’t he asked his own son to do something about it? For that matter, if he’s convinced that the person he mentioned could and should go in there and turn things around, why doesn’t he, himself, contribute toward the necessary support? He’s certainly well-off enough to provide a good deal of the funding. Why must a foreigner take up the burden?

Here’s the other thing which struck me. Granted, I do not know the circumstances. I certainly cannot see into peoples’ hearts. It is not mine to judge. Far be it from me to snuff out a “smoldering wick.” Yet, I have to ask the question: If the people in the village have so little spiritual desire that they have given up meeting together; if they don’t have enough concern to prevent their own church building from going to wrack and ruin (after all, they’ve managed to maintain their own houses), then why should I be concerned? As far as I am aware, in all the years since my father labored among them, they’ve never reached out to their sister churches for greater fellowship. They haven’t asked for spiritual help. They haven’t requested others to come to the village to teach and guide them.

When all is said and done, for a church to live the people themselves have to show some interest and make an effort. A relationship with Christ cannot be force-fed. You can keep a body on spiritual life-support for only so long. If the people don’t care, the church will die no matter what you do or how much effort you expend on it.

Autopsy report: Cause of death – Apathy

Case Study Two

The congregation my wife and I helped start is no more. We began it with high hopes. It is my observation that current church culture and practice owes more to tradition than it does New Testament principle. My conviction is, that as society changes and moves further and further away from the underpinnings of Western civilization, the church as we know it will become less and less effective until it revisits the principles upon which the church was built. Here was a chance to throw off some of the constraints of tradition and get back to those first principles.

I viewed the practices we adopted, such as speaker rotations and participatory services, as the natural application of the principles I see in the New Testament. I did not realize that my fellow leaders viewed our practices merely as pragmatic techniques. Either they did not recognize the principles behind the practices I advocated, or having seen the principles, rejected them. Their mindset was still very much bound up in the traditional church culture from which we came. They were willing to try the practices because they thought they might be effective, but it was not from conviction.

Something my wife and I noticed almost from the start was rapid spiritual growth. We saw it, not only in ourselves and our children, but also in others. Sure, we made mistakes; experience refined some of my ideas; further study revealed additional concepts but I felt that the fruit we saw in the congregation confirmed and validated my convictions about our basic approach.

From my perspective our biggest weak spot was evangelism. I believe Scripture indicates that the assemblies of the church are intended mostly for the benefit of Christians. While those outside of Christ are not forbidden to come and participate in the meetings of the church, the meetings are not geared to them. For the most part, evangelism should take place outside of the assemblies. Unfortunately, people apparently weren’t speaking to their friends and acquaintances about Christ as much as we’d hoped.

Numerical growth was not great or rapid. As time went by my fellow Elders became disillusioned with our direction. They began to resist further implementation of things which I considered a natural outgrowth from the principles I hold dear. Differences in philosophy and our basic approach to Scripture began to appear.

My fellow Elders decided they wanted to abandon our speaker rotation. They wanted to stop our participatory services. One of them went so far as to say that he felt guilty if he was not speaking from the pulpit. They seemed to overlook the fact that teaching and preparing others for works of service is one of the primary responsibilities of church leadership. One of them repeatedly told me that training was the job of the Bible colleges. (However, if that is really what he believed it’s interesting that he never proposed that we send someone to Bible college.) As an illustration of the mindset, they wouldn’t let me teach a class on preparing Communion meditations. They also raked me over the coals for pointing out that our teaching and speaking was quite haphazard and rejected a proposal to, over time, speak and teach through the entire Bible. Yet, they proposed no alternative. One told me that he couldn’t even conceive of having a long-term plan.

Things came to a head when the others decided they wanted to return to the pattern of the churches from which we came and hire the man who said he felt guilty outside the pulpit as the preacher for the congregation. They seemed to think that his rhetoric would somehow fill the building. They would not listen when I tried to reason with them from scriptural precedent. They told me that society has changed from what it was in the Apostolic period and the church must change with the times. They would not listen when I pointed out that reinstating the same practices which failed in the past to produce the kind of church we all hoped for would hardly produce different results now. They wouldn’t listen to my plea that it was a mistake to gut the things which were working to try to fix what was broken, that is, evangelism. (If your car has an engine with a blown head gasket, tearing out the transmission won’t fix it!) They refused to read any of the literature on church organization and polity I tried to show them. My admonition that none of us had the kind of charisma, speaking ability or organizational skills which draw people to the mega-churches fell on deaf ears. When I demonstrated that even from a business point of view their proposal was economically not viable, the response was that by the time the money ran out enough new people would join the church to make up the deficit.

The unkindest cut of all was when they told me they never had agreed with the principles I articulated during our planning sessions before we began the congregation. Would that they had told me then! Even yet, my head spins over why they invited me to join them in the first place if they didn’t agree with the principles I believe in and presented to them.

For the sake of harmony, when it became clear that there was nothing I could do or say to dissuade them from their course of action, I offered to acquiesce. That was not acceptable. I either had to whole-heartedly endorse the new direction or resign.

To make the situation even worse they were not candid with the congregation. A rigged vote by the uninformed membership gave the Elders what they wanted. As they wished I resigned, after which they proceeded to strip me of my ministry roles.

Instead of the membership increasing, attendance went down from what it had been before the change. When rhetoric failed to fill the pews the leadership decided small groups were the answer. They spent several thousand dollars attending seminars and buying training material from a large congregation built upon small groups. It was another case of adopting techniques without understanding or buying into the philosophy or principles behind the techniques. I knew the ‘silver bullet’ wouldn’t work when the man they hired as their preacher did not head up a small group of his own even though he’d publicly proclaimed that small groups were the future of the congregation.

After a year of being benched with nothing to do, my wife and I left for another fellowship where our abilities could be put to use. Since our hearts were so bound up in the congregation we helped start we kept our ears to the ground to see how it fared.

As predicted, the money ran out even before we left. A one-time gift enabled them to keep going for several more months. During those months the congregation was subjected to several sermons about giving and stewardship. Friends told us they felt the emphasis of the leadership changed from spiritual growth to numbers and money. When the church could no longer pay the exorbitant salary he demanded, the man who couldn’t stay out of the pulpit with a clear conscience stopped speaking regularly. Ironically, the congregation was forced to return to a speaker rotation to take up the slack. But the spirit just wasn’t the same.

That wasn’t the only problem. The Elder who led the singing did not make an effort to include or train others. The adult class was monopolized by one of the other Elders. With a couple of exceptions, the Elders gave little or no encouragement to others to use their talents and abilities for the common good. It wasn’t long before their failure to train, mentor and help others develop their abilities caught up with them. They had no one who could help them share the burdens of their responsibilities. We began to hear comments that the Elders were tired. They were getting old and couldn’t keep up the pace too much longer.

To take up the slack they formed a pulpit committee to try and hire a preacher from the outside. How they expected one man to fill all the roles they said they could no longer handle, is beyond me. Even worse, they seemed to have learned nothing from the previous go-around. When someone pointed out that even with the reduced salary and benefit package they were willing to offer, the problem of how to pay the man still remained, the answer was the same: Before the money ran out new members the preacher would bring in would make up the deficit.

As it turned out the congregation couldn’t find anyone to hire for what they were willing to offer. Some wanted me to apply for the position. While I will go wherever I believe the Lord leads, without a heart-felt change on the part of the Elders I felt that my coming back to the congregation in any role would be counterproductive. Even if I applied I couldn’t imagine the leadership even considering me for the position. Not to mention that our views of Scripture and church organization are incompatible. I was also reluctant to expose my wife and myself again to the toxic church politics which had corroded our spirits. As gently as I could I turned down the people who approached me.

More time passed. The Elders grew more discouraged and weary. Eventually, they started talking about resigning and forming a committee from among the members to run the church. At least one of the Elders talked about moving away altogether.

Somewhere along the line the idea of a merger with another congregation came up. The idea was to give the other congregation what was in the bank in exchange for a slot in their eldership. When put to a vote, the congregation decided to dissolve as a distinct identity and join the other congregation.

Throughout all the drama one of the things which frustrated me was that there was a significant portion of the congregation which saw the value of how we did things in the beginning and wanted to go back to it. But no one would step up and take responsibility for making it happen.

In due season the merger took place. But it didn’t last. None of the Elders remained long – all but one moved out of state. Only a few of the members who transferred – three or four at the most – still attend. The rest have scattered to the winds. And so, the congregation which started with so much promise, died.

Though we had not been a part of the congregation for several years at the time of its demise, my wife and I still feel heartsick over it. We’re grateful for the good God accomplished in us and others through the congregation, but we can’t help but sorrow over what might have been.

Autopsy report: Cause of death – Selfish ambition and criminal negligence in the leadership (Ezekiel 34:2-6, John 10:13).

Show Me Your Credentials!

Over the years there have been plenty of times when people challenged the things I’ve taught. Sometimes it’s due to a genuine difference in understanding of the Scriptures. Those discussions can be both fun and rewarding. I often learn from others who have a slightly different take on things than I do.

Less fun to deal with are the challenges from someone with an idealogical agenda. For example, a church leader once accused me of being legalistic because I dared to say on the basis of Hebrews 8, verse 5, that if God was adamant that Moses follow the pattern for the tabernacle he was shown on the mountain, we should be even more concerned about following the organization of the of the early church. I believe the Spirit had the Apostles set things up the way they did for a reason. The other leader, however, already had his mind made up to do something else. Since he couldn’t refute my argument, he lit into my character.

Then, there are those who don’t agree with what I’ve taught for moral reasons. I remember once being floored by the hostility of an Elder in the church. He was reacting to my statement that Christians should not allow their believing children to date unbelievers. To me that is rather self-evident. Setting aside Scriptures which talk about the inability of people walking together down the same path unless they agree and not being unequally yoked and so on, it should be obvious that seeking a life-partner from among those who aren’t aligned with you spiritually falls under the category of a “Really Bad Idea.” Mere observation provides examples of all kinds of heartache from pursuing such relationships. More often than not, instead of the unbeliever coming to faith, the Christian young person leaves the faith. But, I was some kind of narrow-minded, bigoted misanthrope for daring to suggest that we should encourage our believing children to pursue relationships only with those in God’s household.

It’s painful to watch the outcome when people who should know better deliberately choose to ignore or defy scriptural principles. However, I’ve also felt another type of pain. It also comes from rejection, not so much rejection of the Word but rejection of the one who proclaims the Word. I could understand it if the rejection was because of a teacher’s lifestyle or hypocrisy. We absolutely should be skeptical of someone whose walk doesn’t match the talk. As Jesus pointed out, we’ll recognize who is who by the fruit (or outcome) of his life (Matthew 7:15-23). But the kind of rejection I’m talking about has nothing to do with a person’s character. It has nothing to do with him proclaiming, “That Which Is Not So.” It doesn’t even have anything to do with a person’s knowledge or ability to teach. He is judged unworthy of being listened to because he lacks credentials. As one person said in reference to me, “Why should I listen to him? He doesn’t have a degree.”

I have to admit that one cut deep. When you have put your normal life on hold to speak and teach in a foreign country; when you have freely given of yourself and put yourself at risk to do so, it hurts when someone discounts and discredits you for the superficial reason of not having the right sheepskin. It especially hurts when you’ve provided teaching and biblical insights which are far beyond what the critic could have ever come up with on his own. It’s one thing to “consider the source.” But does that justify rejecting teaching out of hand, without examining it? Jesus’ instruction about not casting our pearls before swine comes to mind (Matthew 7:6).

What’s the big deal about credentials, anyway? Why should someone validate a teacher by piece of paper, issued by an institution he’s never heard of and signed by someone totally unknown to him? Doesn’t it make more sense to evaluate the character of the teacher? Shouldn’t we do as the Bereans did when they evaluated what they heard from the Apostle Paul? They judged what Paul said by the standard of Scripture (Acts 17:11). If any of the Apostles had credentials it was Paul. He writes that he studied under Gamaliel – who was one of the most famous and illustrious Rabbis of the day (Acts 22:3). He writes in another place that he advanced in his studies of Judaism beyond his contemporaries (Galatians 1:14). But that’s not what the Bereans looked at. Instead, they focused on the content of Paul’s teaching. And Paul, himself, wrote off his formal credentials as nothing more than rubbish (Galatians 3:7-8).

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not against formal education. There can be great benefit from a structured course of study. There is value in being held accountable to master a body of information. I’m not even necessarily opposed to degrees and similar credentials. What I am opposed to is credentialism – confusing the credential for competency. A degree or certificate, by itself, does not fit one for service in the Kingdom of God. It is an even greater mistake to make a degree or certificate a condition of service. In fact, the credential can even be an impediment to service when it feeds the ego. For example, I know church leaders who make sure to introduce themselves by their academic titles and become upset if people don’t use the titles when speaking to them. Perhaps it is petty or perverse of me, but I generally “forget” to use their titles when speaking with such exalted (in their own minds) personages. To my way of thinking if a person has to go around reminding everyone of his accomplishments, those accomplishments probably don’t amount to much anyway. Real leaders don’t derive their authority from, or have to take refuge in, their titles. The truly competent don’t have to boast of their abilities. What they are is self-evident from what they do and the character of their lives. They don’t need artificial props. Respect is earned, not derived.

Again, please don’t get me wrong. There is certainly a place for evidence of mastery or competency. For example, I would hesitate to entrust the design of a bridge to someone who never studied engineering. I would want to see some sort of certification that he knows his business. Even then, the formal engineering degree does not guarantee competency. I would rather trust the grizzled but unlettered man who has actually built a dozen such structures than an untried youngster with his newly-minted diploma. The man who has the experience knows more about real-world engineering than the neophyte ever picked up in university.

Similarly, I don’t want an uncertified “doctor” diagnosing what ails my gizzard. No, I want somebody who has has passed his residency and has been cleared by the medical board. But we all, know that a nurse with decades of experience under her belt often knows more about how to treat certain conditions than the doctors do, in spite of the fact that she’s not licensed to practice.

If we recognize that real-world experience often means more than formal credentials in material professions, why are we reluctant to recognize it in regard to the church and spiritual things? If a certificate, degree or sheepskin does not automatically convey competence in spiritual matters, what does? The answer is in the incident where the religious authorities in Jerusalem confronted Peter and John for preaching in the name of Jesus. “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13 NIV)

It is time spent with Jesus, not time spent in the classroom (as beneficial as time in the classroom may be) that makes us competent. A person can be loaded down with academic honors, but if he hasn’t spent time with Jesus, he will never be competent in spiritual things. All too often we’ve gotten the proverbial “cart before the horse.” Time with Jesus is what’s important. Once a person has that, the academic certifications and credentials are merely icing on the cake. When we focus on formal credentials instead of a person’s relationship to Christ, we’re asking for trouble.

“You’re just rationalizing your own lack of formal education and credentials!” someone might argue. Actually, no. I’ve deliberately avoided obtaining a degree. Not long ago a President of a Bible College offered me a Doctorate. He pointed out that the books I’ve written on biblical themes are each equivalent to a Master’s thesis. (Obviously the books are in a different format than a thesis. In the President’s view that is a plus. He said he would much rather see the information in a form that people can access and use than to have it moulder away on a shelf in a University’s archives.) Though rather tempted by the offer, I didn’t take the President up on it. Why? Because being able to add “Dr.” to my name would merely be a sop to my vanity. It would do nothing to make me more competent.

But there is another reason I didn’t take the man up. I wanted to set a good example. You see, I teach and mentor church leaders from a different country and culture. I want them to develop a heart of service rather than to pursue a piece of paper. I want them to concentrate on what’s really important – their relationship with Christ. I want them to develop true competency instead of expecting a piece of paper to give them legitimacy. I want them to develop the habit of life-long learning rather than resting on the laurel of a “sheepskin.” I won’t ask them to do something which I am unwilling to do myself.

If you’re looking for credentials, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed in me. But in spite of the fact that I don’t have a degree hanging on my wall, I hope that people will be able to recognize that I’ve spent time with Jesus. What more is needed?

Conjecture and Dogmatism

All of us who follow Christ realize that there are certain foundational, irreducible facts one must accept in order to be counted “in the faith” or not (see 2 Corinthians 13:5). To cite an obvious instance the writer of Hebrews makes it clear that, “…without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6 NIV) To put it another way, belief that God exists is not an option, it’s a requirement.

However, as anyone who has ever tried to write a statement of faith can attest, it’s not so easy determining just what all is absolutely required and what is optional. The luminaries of my spiritual heritage threw out creeds (statements of faith) altogether because they felt that the published creeds went beyond what the Scriptures teach. It’s my opinion that in the process, they sort of threw the baby out with the bath water. The result of anathematizing creeds was that it’s sometimes difficult to determine what a particular congregation does believe or stand for. It’s not that they don’t have beliefs – they may have a very strong commitment to a particular doctrine – but you’re left in the dark because it isn’t written down anywhere. A case in point: When my daughter left home to attend college, we were naturally concerned that she find a church to attend which agrees with our understanding of the faith. There were a couple of candidates. But it was extremely frustrating trying to evaluate them because I couldn’t find anything in writing concerning their views of such things as the Bible or salvation. I learned long ago that you can’t rely on the name on the signboard to tell you what the doctrine of a particular church might be. We finally had to request a meeting with one of the Elders to get some of the basic information. He was able to answer our questions satisfactorily, but when I asked if what he’d told us was written up anywhere, he trotted out the old chestnut about renouncing creeds. Right! They have a creed – they just refuse to put it in writing. The cynic in me wonders whether the refusal to write down what you believe is a way to avoid accountability. Whatever.

The flip side of determining what the essentials of the faith are is figuring out what isn’t essential. In what things are we allowed to have our own opinions? Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it, what are the “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1)? As I understand it, a disputable matter is something about which the Scriptures are silent, or give no specific instruction. In the classic case, there is no command regarding the issue, nor is there a prohibition. In other cases, something is said in Scripture but does not directly apply.

In all these situations we have to exercise judgment. We have to arrive at our convictions and conclusions based on principles and inference. Inevitably, some of our conclusions will differ. For example, some say that practices which are not explicitly sanctioned in Scripture are prohibited. Others conclude that silence on a particular issue indicates permission. Still others say that all such things are matters of opinion and left to individual preference.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong in conjecture. There’s nothing wrong in having an opinion. There’s even nothing wrong in having a strong belief in an area where there is not a clear statement or direction in Scripture. The problem comes in when somebody gets dogmatic about their particular hobby-horse. For example, I’ve heard some pretty heated debates over where the crossing of the Red Sea took place or the exact location of the Temple in Jerusalem. There are heated arguments over the rapture and the millennium. There are some who regard others who don’t hold the same viewpoint as little short of heretics. Are things like this really a matter of heaven or hell? To hear some folks carry on, you’d think so.

This whole business of being dogmatic about a conjecture or speculation really came home to me recently. I published a book titled, “Beloved Witness.” It’s a practical commentary on the Gospel of John. I received an anonymous email from someone who’d heard about the book. This person wanted to know my conclusions about the identity of who wrote the Gospel – particularly had I looked up all the references to the “beloved disciple”? I certainly don’t mind answering questions but I was a little put off by the confrontational, almost hostile tone of the email.

I sent this person the section of the book which discusses its authorship. In reply, I received something to the effect of, “I would have thought you’d have asked me!” “Eh?” I thought to myself. “I don’t even know who you are. Besides, I’m no good at reading minds. If you have something you think I ought to know, why don’t you just tell me instead of playing games? You could at least be polite about it.”

Needless to say, I was a trifle annoyed. My first inclination was to either not reply at all, or to take umbrage at being treated like a particularly dense moron. What gave me pause was the person had probably gotten wind of the book from a ministry newsletter I’d sent out. I didn’t want to alienate someone who might have donated to the ministry in the past. So, in the spirit of “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1), I merely said that I’m always open to new insight.

Several hours later my correspondent finally identified herself. Sure enough, it turns out she is a lady from my father’s generation who has supported the ministry I’m involved with. I don’t know her personally, but I sincerely hope that the belligerent way she came across is merely an artifact of the medium of email rather than a reflection of her personality. In any case, she sent along a screed which purported to show that the “beloved disciple” who penned the Gospel of John is none other than the Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead.

Now I like to think that when I write about something I’ve done enough research to have an idea what others think and the conclusions they’ve come to. If something is controversial, I like to have a grasp of the contending theories. This one threw me for a loop. I couldn’t recall ever hearing or reading anywhere the possibility that Lazarus was the “beloved disciple.” To check myself, I dug out the commentaries and took another look. Nope. Nada. Zilch. No mention anywhere that anybody ever entertained such a thought. Further, right off the top of my head, I could think of several counters to the arguments put forth to support the theory and one bit of data that I think conclusively proves that Lazarus couldn’t have been the “beloved disciple.”

As stated before, it’s fine to speculate. It’s fun to play around with conjectures. Asking, “what if” can cast new light on a subject and lead to new insight. The problem is being dogmatic about things we cannot know. This gal was adamant in her position. I got the impression she was totally closed to discussion – even though her position is held by virtually no one else. To say anything contrary or to question the conclusion would invite thunderbolts from on high. Of course I am exaggerating somewhat. But the mental image which came to me was of going on a walk, minding your own business, and suddenly being challenged by a growling pit-bull. You quietly, carefully, slowly back away murmuring, “Nice doggy! Nice doggy!”

My point is this: Yes, there are some doctrines and beliefs about which there can be no compromise. What we believe about certain things really does have eternal consequences. (Even so, we should be open to discussion about them. As Paul says, “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” (1 Corinthians 8:2 NIV)) However, can we approach conjectures, speculations, what ifs and disputable matters in a spirit of fun? Can we enjoy tossing ideas around without looking down our noses at someone who thinks differently? Can we leave the judging to our common Master? After all, does it really matter how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

“Pick Someone Else!”

The Case of the Reluctant Leader

A friend once told me why he declined when asked to become an Elder in the church. He said it was because he lacked the first requirement. He didn’t desire to become one. He was referring, of course, to Paul’s statement in 1st Timothy 3:1, “…If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.” (NIV) Other translations say, “…If anyone aspires to the office…” (ESV) or “…If a man desires the position…” (NKJ). Since my friend didn’t aspire to or desire to or have his heart set on becoming an Elder, he figured that put him out of the running.

I can sympathize with the sentiment because last year the congregation I attend asked me to step up to the plate and become one of their Elders. Frankly, I’d rather not be an Elder. Sure it’s an honor and all that, but it’s also a tremendous responsibility. It’s not comfortable being the guy who has to say, “The buck stops here!” Further, at times I question whether I’m temperamentally suited to the job, particularly when it comes to things like church discipline, giving advice and confronting false doctrine. My gifting is in the area of teaching and, from my perspective, the most natural fit would be for me to teach at the direction and under the oversight of Elders. Not to mention that my previous stint as an Elder at a different congregation (which no longer exists) was not an entirely happy experience. Being asked to resign by my fellow Elders when they wanted to take the congregation a different direction, left some deep scars.

So, when the congregation I now attend asked me to become one of their Elders I had to confront the issue of qualifications, head on. Specifically, did not desiring the ministry of an Elder disqualify me for it?

While pondering this dilemma it occurred to me that many of the people God chose, served under protest. Here are a few of them:


When God told Moses to rescue the Israelites from slavery, he had all kinds of reasons why he wasn’t the right guy for the job. Excuse No. 1: “I’m not qualified.” (Exodus 3:11) Excuse No. 2: “They won’t know I represent You.” (Exodus 3:13) Excuse No. 3: “They won’t believe me.” (Exodus 4:1) This one was really cutting it close because God had already told Moses that the elders of Israel would listen to him (Exodus 3:18). Excuse No. 4: “I don’t talk so good.” (Exodus 4:2-9) Even after God met every objection Moses could think of he still asked God to pick somebody else (Exodus 4:13). It was only after he roused God’s anger that Moses finally gave in and did what God told him to do. Even then, it was reluctantly and with a disobedient heart. If Moses’ wife hadn’t intervened, God would have killed Moses for disobedience (Exodus 4:24-26).


Gideon comes across as a man full of doubts, to the point of bitterness. He wondered if God cared that His people were being oppressed. But when God demonstrated that He cared by sending an angel to him, Gideon wasn’t prepared to be the means through whom God would deliver the Israelites from their oppressors. “Oh, no! I’m not the person you want! There’s no way I’m qualified. I’m nobody!” (Judges 6:15) He also was afraid even after he realized he’d been speaking to the Lord and the Lord told him not to fear (Judges 6:23). Instead of doing openly what God told him, he pulled down the altar to Baal at night (Judges 6:27). Even though God protected him when the people wanted to kill him for pulling down the altar, Gideon still had doubts about whether God was really calling him. He asked for two separate miracles to verify (Judges 6:36-40).


Another man who served reluctantly was Jeremiah. His excuse was that he was too young and didn’t know how to speak appropriately (Jeremiah 1:6-7). Later on, Jeremiah complained that the task was too hard. He couldn’t take it any more (Jeremiah 20:7-9).


The problem Amos expressed in regard to his ministry was a lack of credentials. He didn’t come from a family of prophets nor had he ever attended the “schools of the prophets.” No, he was merely a shepherd who took care of some orchards on the side (Amos 7:14).


Then, there’s the Apostle Paul. He thought the baggage from his past life should have disqualified him (1 Corinthians 15:9). Specifically, he persecuted the church and now he was supposed to start churches? He certainly implied that he wasn’t fit for the task when Jesus called him (Acts 22:19-20). (Actually, it’s rather startling to realize how much of the Bible was penned by murderers. Figure it up sometime. It’s astonishing how God used people with checkered pasts to fulfill His plan. We can’t use our past as an excuse to get out of serving any more than they could.)

The Common Thread

What did all these great men of God (and others) have in common? Though each one felt unsuited to the task, God called each of them. I think that is the key to ministry and service. No matter how unqualified we consider ourselves; no matter what our excuses may be, it is God who decides whether we are fit or not. The key question we need to ask ourselves is not whether we are qualified, but whether God is calling us to a particular ministry. He is the One who qualifies us. Having said that, we need to also keep in mind that God is consistent. When the Scriptures list requirements for a particular role, God is not going to call us to that role if we don’t meet those specifications. For an obvious example, since an Elder must be a one-woman-man (1 Timothy 3:2), polygamists need not apply. God may very well call a polygamist to ministry, but not as an Elder. If someone feels God’s call but is scripturally barred from the role he thinks he’s being called to, then he needs clarification. Either God is not calling him after all, or he has mistaken the role or ministry to which God is calling him.

Nevertheless, I believe that God’s call is essential. Unless He calls us to it, it is presumptuous to attempt a particular role or ministry. We will be doing it in our own strength, not His. As such, though we may enjoy the trappings of worldly success we are dooming ourselves to failure. Jesus had some pretty harsh words for people engaged in ministry without God’s call. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23 NIV)

Sidestepping Scripture?

I eventually concluded that God was calling me to the role of Elder even though I did not desire or aspire to the position. Okay, God does call reluctant people to serve Him but how, you ask, could I get around what Paul wrote about an Elder desiring the role? The answer is in the context. Remember the situation and who Paul was writing to. While speaking to the Elders from Ephesus, as recorded in Acts chapter 20, Paul predicted that some from among their number would betray their calling and start their own personality cults. A few years later, Paul’s prediction proved true. Some of the Elders started teaching false doctrine and caused disunity in the church. In response to the situation, Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus to clean up the mess. Because the church’s problems centered among the Elders, it’s quite probable that people started to discount the role. They began to despise Elders. “Those guys just cause trouble!” I believe that Paul’s comment is not so much about the necessity of men to aspire to the role as it is a reminder that the role of Elder is a noble one. If someone wants to become an Elder (he feels God’s call) he shouldn’t be looked down on. The task is noble. As Paul writes elsewhere, Elders are a gift to the church (Ephesians 4:11 – ‘Pastor’ is simply another name for Elder).

Peter’s instruction to Elders (1 Peter 5:1-4) also requires some soul-searching for the reluctant candidate. Doesn’t what he says about serving as overseers, not under compulsion but willingly, disqualify those of us who don’t aspire to the role? I think what Peter is really addressing is a person’s heart and his motive for serving. The man who regards the role of pastoring God’s flock as an irksome duty will do as little as he can to get by. On the other hand, the man who serves from the heart will have the interests of the flock in mind instead of his own. A person, such as myself, might not desire the position but, once he’s been called to it, will give it his best. Nobody blackmailed me into becoming an Elder. Nobody threatened me with bodily harm if I didn’t become one. When it comes down to it, I accepted the task of my own will – even though it was not a task I sought. I serve willingly, though I sort of wish God had called me to something else! There is a big difference between being reluctant and unwilling.

The second issue Peter addresses is far easier to dismiss in my case. He writes that an Elder should not be greedy for money but be eager to serve. I can honestly say that I am eager to serve. As far as being in it for the money, I’ve deliberately and with intent, refused to take a salary from the church. I’ve seen far too many who regard working in the church as an occupation rather than a vocation. On the contrary, I support the church with tithes and offerings from other sources of income.

Why The Reluctant?

Why does God sometimes pick those of us who are reluctant? I suspect that it may be to keep us humble. Our reluctance to serve is rooted in our feelings of inadequacy. We are weak, and we know it. Yet, when we surrender to God and answer His call in spite of not feeling capable, He turns our weakness into strength. It’s a constant reminder that it is not us, but He who is working through us to accomplish the task. The real question is not whether we are capable, but whether we are willing to answer the call. If God has our heart, He can always give us the talent and resources. Does He have our heart?

Expository Speaking – What Is it?

In another of these ramblings I opined that telling a compelling story will often more than compensate for any “sins” of presentation. That is, if our story is good enough, people are willing to overlook “poor” writing, suspect grammar and stilted wording. I went on to suggest that we could improve our expository speaking and teaching by using elements of story in it. In my opinion, doing so would certainly make it a lot more interesting.

About the time I wrote that my wife and I had dinner with some long-time friends. During our conversation they mentioned that they missed hearing expository sermons. At the church they attend expository speaking is unknown – everything is topical.

This is nothing unusual. In my experience, it is the same in the majority of the churches with which I am familiar. Our friends speculated that the reason for this is that these preachers and teachers were trained to speak topically in Bible College. They don’t know how to do anything else. It wouldn’t surprise me if our friends are right. It certainly seems like those coming from the schools associated with our spiritual heritage tend to follow the same patterns in their pulpits. If this supposition is true, it’s disheartening to consider that the training people receive in Bible College is so limited. It’s even more disheartening to realize that so many are seemingly incapable of growing beyond the limitations of their education.

Actually, I suspect the situation is even worse. As we were talking it occurred to me that many preachers and teachers may not even realize that something other than topical speaking exists. They don’t know what expository speaking is. Back in 2006 my wife and I had a hand in starting a new congregation. Instead of having one main speaker, several of us would take turns. We all agreed that the majority of our speaking would be expository. However, it soon became apparent that some of the men didn’t really understand what expository speaking is. They approached the biblical text as though they were preparing a topical sermon. It took a bit of explaining before everyone caught on.

Advantages Of Expository Speaking

What are some of the advantages of expository speaking? One of the great advantages of expository speaking is that topics are covered in the same order and context as the Holy Spirit revealed them. Not only are a great many topics covered, but balance is maintained between them.

Another advantage for those who must speak regularly is that it simplifies the decision about choosing what to say. If one is systematically following a text, the next message will continue from where the previous message left off.

It also allows the speaker to deal with difficult or controversial subjects without being accused of choosing topics with malicious intent. No one can complain if a particular topic comes up in the normal course of events while systematically following the text of a Bible book.

Similarly, the speaker will not have to wrack his brain to find a topic on which to speak. Topics will be determined by the text.

Following a text in this way also preserves the continuity of Scripture. Systematically going through a text follows the original progression from one theme or topic to the next.

Another advantage to this kind of speaking is that it simplifies planning both for the speaker and all those who must coordinate with him. Once a series covering a particular text has been announced, everyone knows what the next lesson or sermon will be about – it will cover the next portion of the text.

What It Ain’t

That’s all well and good, but it still doesn’t explain what expository speaking is. Before defining it, let’s talk about what expository speaking isn’t.

1) Expository speaking is not the same as topical speaking. As suggested by their name, topical sermons are messages on a particular subject. At times our congregations need instruction or teaching about a particular issue. At times it is appropriate to speak on a certain subject because of events which have impacted the church family. For example, if there has been a tragic death in the body, the congregation may need a message which encourages and/or reminds the people of the hope we have in Christ.

While topical sermons are sometimes needed, there are potential dangers in relying on them too much. One potential problem relates to our weaknesses as presenters. No matter who we are, we have preferences and prejudices. Speakers, sometimes without even realizing they are doing it, have a tendency to prepare messages on the subjects which are dear to their own hearts. A speaker may also be tempted to present messages which are popular and avoid controversy. In the same way, we have a tendency to avoid certain topics. Speakers sometimes avoid certain subjects out of the fear of criticism.

The idea for a topical sermon may come from anywhere. In fact, this may be another danger. It can be tempting to present ideas and thoughts which we have gleaned from secular or worldly sources rather than God’s word. Some speakers decide what they wish to say and then try to find passages of Scripture from which they can justify what they present.

Sometimes a verse or passage of Scripture will suggest a particular topic. In fact, this is one of the best ways to choose a topic. Although the speaker does not explain or apply the Scripture which suggested the topic, at least the topic is biblical. Typically, the speaker will use the verse which suggested his topic as the launch-pad for the rest of his message. And if the speaker goes on to present what the Bible says regarding that topic, then his message fills a useful and needed function. However, this highlights another potential problem with topical sermons. In pursuing our topic we must be very careful not to take the passages which mention the topic out of context. It is very easy to make the Scriptures say things they do not by ignoring the context.

2) Expository speaking is different than what books on sermon preparation call “textual” speaking. In a textual sermon a speaker will explain a single verse or thought from the Bible. Such sermons can be very beneficial – particularly when they explain a principle or concept. As with topical sermons, however, the speaker does not explain the context of the verse he presents. His message is limited to that one verse though he may reference many other verses to help develop the theme. The danger of this method is that our explanation of the text may not be totally accurate or complete because we have not paid sufficient attention to the verses which come before or which follow our chosen text.

What It Is

So what is “expository” speaking?

Definition: A systematic explanation of a biblical text with the intent of applying it in our personal or corporate daily life.

‘Systematic’ – An expository message presents biblical truth in the same order as in the text upon which it is based. A series of expository messages progress through a book or long passage in order – the next message beginning where the prior one ended.

‘Explanation of a biblical text’ – The subject of an expository message is the biblical text itself. The meaning of the text is explained rather than using the text to illuminate a subject. Subjects will certainly be addressed in an expository message, but only within the context of the passage being discussed.

‘With the intent of applying it’ – An expository message will contain many facts; people will learn many things about the Bible. Though worthwhile, increasing people’s biblical knowledge is not the main purpose of expository speaking. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “…Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NIV) Instead, the intent and purpose of expository messages is to make the Scriptures practical. It is to teach principles which people can incorporate into their lives which will help them become more like Christ. It is to equip them for service in God’s Kingdom.

Many speakers avoid this type of message because they find it the most difficult type to prepare. It requires much study and thought to accurately present the meaning of the section of Scripture chosen for the message. The text also constricts and confines what the speaker may say – he is bound by the words of the passage under consideration. He is not free to go off on flights of fancy as he is while presenting topical messages.


I will use Ephesians 2:1-10 to illustrate the three different types of sermons.

A. Topical

While reading verse 10, the phrase ‘good works’ catches the eye. This might raise the question what ‘good works’ are. To find the answer a person would look up every verse good works are mentioned and prepare a message on the subject of good works. The verse in Ephesians has only suggested the topic. Neither it or the context will be explained in the message.

B. Textual

In contrast to a topical message on ‘good works’ a textual message would explain the whole of verse 10. A possible outline of such a message would be:

1) God created us

2) God’s purpose in creating us

3) Prepared in advance

In such a message verse 10 is considered in isolation. The surrounding verses are ignored. By ignoring context the presenter runs the risk of missing the greater purpose of the verse even though he has explained its meaning.

C. Expository

In contrast to a textual sermon, an expository message will explain an entire thought or a whole line of reasoning rather than a single verse. In this case, an expository message would include the entire passage of Ephesians 2:1-10 instead of just verse 10. A possible outline for such a message is as follows:

1) We were dead (Ephesians 2:1-3)

2) God made us alive (Ephesians 2:4-5)

3) The reason God made us alive (Ephesians 2:6-7)

4) The means by which God made us alive (Ephesians 2:8-9)

5) Our response to being made alive (Ephesians 2:10)

A Commentary?

I imagine that one of the reasons expository speaking has a poor reputation is that some speakers have the unfortunate tendency to forget the purpose of it. Their messages are scholarly commentaries in verbal form. They shower their audience with Greek and Hebrew words and the intricacies of grammar. Granted, there is a time and place where explaining the nuances of a word is helpful, or even necessary – particularly when there is no exact equivalent in English. There is a place to mention grammar – for example, to show the difference between a statement of fact and a command. But, particularly in a church setting, the purpose of expository speaking should always be to impact the lives of the hearers rather than to show off the erudition of the speaker.

Yes, expository messages are a commentary – of a sort. However, they should fall toward the practical end of the spectrum rather than the scholarly. For an example of how it should be done, consider how Jesus did it. When Jesus gave the parable of the sower, His audience didn’t understand the message. So, when they asked Him what it meant, He explained the meaning. He didn’t launch into a treatise on agriculture. He didn’t go into clinical detail about the causes of unbelief. He didn’t expound on how Satan influences the natural order of creation. He simply explained what each metaphor stood for. He then applied the teaching by asking each hearer to evaluate where he stood in relation to the spiritual conditions the metaphors describe.

It is my opinion that when we follow the same pattern by explaining Scripture in simple terms people can understand, and show people how the text applies to their own situation, our messages will come alive. I also believe that our churches will develop more depth and spiritual growth because we are intentional about implanting the Word into our hearts and lives.

Would That Elders Would ‘Eld’!

I’ve recently come across three different congregations which are facing the same problem. All of them are located in small-town, rural America. All of them are relatively small. All of them have members who are quite affluent. All three have recently lost their preachers. The question is what to do about it.

In the case of church 1, the preacher died. He was very up-front about his preexisting disease when the church brought him on. If I heard correctly, he lived longer than the doctors expected but was only able to serve for a few years. In spite of his brief ministry, he was able to unite the church and restore its reputation in the community. Outreach he began is still being carried forward. He is deeply missed and remembered with fondness.

In church 2, the preacher retired. It was one of those situations where he was asked to fill the pulpit temporarily and ended up staying 17 years. He and his wife developed close ties with the people. There was some growth during those 17 years, but not much. Since their leaving, tensions within the body have surfaced and some people have left. On a good Sunday, perhaps 30 people will show up.

Church 3’s situation is a little different. In its case, the preacher was called elsewhere to plant new churches. The congregation of conservative farmers heaved a sigh of relief to be shut of someone with big city attitudes and a surfer-culture background. Though there was some growth during the preacher’s tenure, he never really fit in.

Though the circumstances in all three congregations are different, they all face the same problem: How are they going to fill the pulpit? Who will lead the Sunday services?

Congregation 3 decided to hire an interim preacher while they search for someone to fill the position permanently. A retired Bible college professor happened to move to the area and they asked him to fill in. The congregation loves him and what he’s doing. From what I’ve seen, the man is doing a wonderful job. He’s unified the congregation. He goes out of his way to work with the Elders. He’s brought new life to several of the ministries. The problem is that he’s fairly elderly and doesn’t want the responsibility of a full-time position. He asked me to keep my ear to the ground for potential candidates. “The pool of qualified people who are willing to work in a rural environment is pretty small,” he said.

Church 2 has chosen a more innovative route to fill their empty pulpit. They’ve been inviting speakers from congregations in other towns to come in each Sunday. A retired preacher from another state is in the process of re-locating to their town and he speaks fairly often, but they still want outsiders to fill the majority of the slots.

Congregation 1 went still another route. The Elders have set up a speaker rotation where they and other men from within the congregation do the majority of the speaking and teaching. Only occasionally will they ask someone from the outside to bring a sermon.

Three congregations with three different solutions to a common problem. But something which intrigues me about the situation is how strong the pull of church tradition is. All three congregations feel the pressure to conform to the “pulpit minister” system we are all so familiar with.

I get the impression that church 3 cannot envision anything else. They would find it extremely difficult to function without an appointed preacher who also functions as the chief decision maker and spiritual guide. Though the church has Elders, it seems to me that they primarily function as business managers. Most, if not all of them, would feel extremely out of place delivering a sermon.

Church 2 is considerably smaller than the other two. They have a few men who can teach a class and/or prepare a sermon but, I readily concede, the church does not have the depth of talent as the others. As one of the leaders put it to me, “I have a business to run. I can’t give the church the time and attention it needs without neglecting the business. I can’t give the business the attention it needs without short-changing the church. It seems to me that you can’t be an effective Elder unless you’re retired.” That dilemma increases the pressure to hire a full-time minister. It’s causing tension within the group. A majority seem to like hearing from outsiders, but others want the stability of someone full-time. The retired preacher who is moving into the area came with the specific understanding that he would help out by doing some of the speaking and teaching but would not become the pulpit minister. In conversations with me he freely acknowledged that the one-man-band model isn’t biblical. Yet, recently, he seems to have changed his mind. He wants the church to put him on full-time. He apparently said that without a pulpit minister the church won’t have legitimacy in the eyes of society.

Church 1 seems to be flourishing. From what I can tell the speaker rotation is bringing depth and variety of insight to the congregation. The Elders are growing closer to those under their care as they actively shepherd the flock. As a result, people are growing in Christ. Yet, the pressure to hire a preacher is still strong. The Elders are seriously considering doing so. Fortunately, there is push-back from the congregation. As one man told them, “Don’t you dare hire someone to do your job!”

That statement raises an interesting question: Why should a church hire a preacher or minister, anyway? Why do we need them? I think the answer is in what we used to call them. Preachers and pulpit ministers used to be called evangelists. Now think for a moment what a difference it would make if churches hired evangelists, not to fill their pulpits, but to do what their title implies! Let’s leave the pastoring to actual Pastors (that is, the Elders) and require our evangelists to get themselves out of the four walls of the church building and actually start evangelizing among those who need to hear the Gospel. If only Elders would ‘eld’ instead of expecting the preachers they hire to do the speaking and teaching! It would revolutionize and re-vitalize the church.

Let Go!

I stared in amazed consternation at the contents of the Communion tray. It contained those commercial Communion wafers – the kind that look like, have the consistency of and taste like recycled Styrofoam.

After the service I asked the missionaries who were hosting me about it. The wife explained: “The preacher asks us to bring them in from the States for him.”

“But why?! Why not use local ingredients? Communion bread is easy enough to make.”

“Well, the preacher insists on preparing Communion himself each week. There’s no way he could make the bread.”

“It seems to me,” I said, “that preparing Communion would be something to delegate. It would be an excellent way to get others involved in ministry.”

“Oh, there are plenty of people who would be delighted to do it. The problem is the preacher won’t give anyone a key to the building.”

After a few mild comments expressing my astonishment I prudently bit my tongue. Nothing would be gained by saying what I really thought.

I’ve already written in these musings about Missionary Failure. Granted, it was my first visit to that part of the world. I know very little of the background and the circumstances. There well may be mitigating circumstances of which I am not aware. However, here in my opinion, was a clear case of missionaries encouraging dependency and reinforcing destructive behavior.

But the question which has plagued me ever since, is why church leaders cling so tenaciously to power. What was the preacher so afraid of that kept him from giving a key to anyone else even though it was clearly in the best interests of the congregation to do so?

Mind you, I am no stranger to power-grabs by corrupt and venal men (and women pulling strings in the background!). The church has had that problem almost from the start. Paul warned Timothy about men who think that godliness is a means to financial gain (1 Timothy 6:3-5). But this man, by all accounts, was neither corrupt nor venal. Why, then, couldn’t he bring himself to let go and delegate? What is it that prompts good men who love the Lord to sabotage their own long-term success by crippling the churches they lead?

Only God knows the heart and I don’t pretend to know what prompted this particular man to cling so tightly to his prerogatives. However, I’ve been around long enough and felt some of the temptations myself, that I can suggest a few generalities.

I suspect that one reason good men cling to power is a genuine fear that if they are not vigilant, and don’t keep a tight hand on the reins, people with fewer scruples will seek power and try to use the church for their own agendas. This can be a legitimate concern. We certainly don’t want to give anyone authority unless they also have the character to use it responsibly. But how does one learn responsibility? How can people develop the skills the church needs and learn to serve unless we give them the opportunity? The irony is that the more we cling to power, the more we set things up so that eventually there will be a power grab. We will have created the dictator we hoped to forestall by holding all the power within our own hands.

The very fact that we’re worried about who has the power shows how skewed our thinking is. Leadership in the Lord’s church is not about power and control. It’s about service. But didn’t Paul say that the kingdom isn’t a matter of talk but of power? (1 Corinthians 4:20) He sure did, but to what power was he referring? In the context, Paul was speaking of the Spirit’s power. “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5 NIV) Paul’s point was that when we try to accrue power to ourselves, we hinder the working of the Spirit who is the true source of power. The paradox is that we receive true power only when we relinquish it.

Another reason church leaders cling to power is the genuine desire to make sure things are done right. We often have the feeling – and sometimes it is legitimate – that no one can do the job better than we can. We will not turn responsibilities over to others because they will botch it. Or at least they won’t meet our standards. Though this may be true, to use it as an excuse to hold on to everything is, at best, short-sighted. I think that in the midst of running all their programs and preparing well-crafted sermons, leaders often forget one of their main responsibilities. It is to help others discover their gifts of ministry and train them for it. Isn’t that why Christ gave leaders to the church in the first place? (Ephesians 4:11-13) We also tend to forget that however talented we may be now, we hadn’t always attained our current level of perfection. No, we too had to learn. We too made plenty of bone-headed mistakes. We too fell far short of the standards of those who had been in the ministry for decades. We forget that it takes practice to develop any skill. How do we expect anyone to become proficient unless we give him the opportunity? We will never have competent teachers or speakers or councilors or administrators unless we train them, give them responsibility and allow them to fail.

However, there’s also flip side to this. Some leaders won’t give up control because they are insecure in their own place in God’s order of things. They’re afraid that if they train someone and give him opportunity to use his talents, that person will turn out to be a better speaker or teacher than the leader. God forbid if the congregation should like his classes or sermons better than mine! We’re like the proverbial crab-bucket. Instead of rejoicing that God has given someone a greater gift than ours, we must pull everyone down to our level and keep them there. And then we wonder why our churches don’t seem to make much progress!

When I asked the preacher who refuses to give a key to the church building to anyone why the congregation doesn’t have Elders, he said that men just don’t seem interested in church. It was obvious that this bothered him and he didn’t know what to do about it. Not knowing the situation, I didn’t know how to respond. It was only later when I learned about his holding onto power that I began to catch a glimmer of what the problem might be. Why would any man with gumption or leadership potential take interest in the church when there is little or no scope for ministry there? By refusing to let go, we doom the church to ineffective mediocrity.

Though our motives for clinging to power may be good, it seems to me that it really boils down to a lack of faith. Think about it. Christ calls us to deny ourselves and pick up our cross and follow. Holding on to power is the exact opposite of that. By holding onto power we put ourselves first instead of last. By holding onto power we cling to our rights and prerogatives rather than die to them. By holding onto power we chose our own way instead of following behind Jesus.

It takes faith to let go. It takes faith to follow the example of the One we call Lord when He turned His ministry over to 11 confused, selfish and sometimes petty men. There’s no doubt that Jesus knew better than they did. There’s no question He was far better at serving. There’s no contest when it came to who knew the Scriptures better. But Jesus turned things over to them anyway. In fact, He said that it was for their benefit that He left (John 16:7). It was only after Jesus entrusted the disciples with the work that they finally came into their own and “turned the world upside down.” (Acts 17:6)

Thank the Lord, the disciples learned the lesson and followed Jesus’ example. What would have become of Paul if Barnabas hadn’t mentored him? Would we have the New Testament in its present form if Barnabas hadn’t seen the potential in Paul or John-Mark? Would we even know who Timothy was if Paul hadn’t mentored him? We can ask the same questions about the “beloved physician” Luke.

When will we have the faith to follow in their footsteps and let go?!

It’s A Village?

We often don’t realized just how blessed we are until we remember the “Good Old Days!” I wrote the following tale back in 1992. As you shall see, communication was not as simple back then as it is now.

(If I like your face!)

I try hard not to be cynical. I really do. But every time I read an article that claims that a computer user can now exchange data with everyone else in the world, I tend to wonder which cloud the author’s head is in. Perhaps their definition of the world is different than what “the rest of us” have to deal with. To be fair, maybe you can communicate to anyplace in the world if you are a Fortune Five Hundred company or you have mega-bucks to fling at the problem. However, the outfit I work for doesn’t qualify on either count – and herein lies a tale of what trying to communicate with the rest of the world is really like.

From the corporate point of view our office is minuscule; the staff consists of five people total, and one of them is part time. Size not withstanding, we need to exchange data on a regular basis with a branch office in a third-world country. Now mind you, this country isn’t nearly as third-world as some. In comparison with others it really has quite a few things going for it, including some brilliant technologists who have clout with the government. In spite of this, the first problem we ran into was the lack of communications infrastructure.

Back in the days when the branch office was established, the waiting list to get a telephone was about ten years unless you had a lot of “connections” (pun intended) and were willing to bribe a few people. Even if you were so fortunate as to get a phone, all international calls both outgoing and incoming, had to be placed through an operator with waits of up to three days before a connection could be established. Needless to say, the health of the local exchange was not high on the priority list when locations were being chosen. Obviously, if it couldn’t happen face to face, all communication was going to occur by mail or cablegram. Over the next fifteen years however, things changed. Telephones became more readily available and moved down in price to where the average city dweller could at least dream of perhaps owning one some day. Even more encouraging was the assignment of “city codes” to the major population centers and the inauguration of direct-dial to the country from the U.S.

Suddenly, the health of the local exchange became important. Our branch office applied for a phone line only to find out that none were available. The exchange was at capacity. Due to factors that don’t concern this article, the office could not be relocated so we had to wait two more years for another exchange to be built!

At last a telephone was obtained. Now, we thought, data communications should be fairly straight-forward. It shouldn’t be too difficult for the branch office to establish an account with an E-Mail provider. The idea was that they could call a local number to check their mail-box and let the service provider worry about how the messages got transferred to and from the U.S. We were encouraged in this delusion by the Electronic Messaging Directory and Buyer’s Guide put out by AT&T EasyLink Services, which listed a representative in the country of interest. We’ve used Easylink for years with satisfaction. This was going to be “duck soup.” I duly sent a Telex to the representative requesting information on how our branch office could establish an account. I must say they were prompt. Within two days they replied in part:





Uh, thanks but no thanks! I’m trying to exchange data, not run a communications company. In any case I don’t need two people complete with furniture to handle half an hour or so of traffic per week!

I’m not aware of any other E-Mail provider having a rep in the country. However, a friend suggested that we might be able to communicate via bulletin boards. Now this was an innovative approach that I hadn’t thought of. The thought of dumping a file on a local board and having it show up a while later on the other side of the world is alluring. Who cares if it takes a couple of days for it to wend its way through cyberspace? It sure beats fifteen days or so in the mail. There was only one major snag – neither the friend nor I could find a single board anywhere in the nation that has a gateway, no matter how far removed, to the country in question! Yep, we really do live in a “global village” – if by village you mean parochial.

By now you are probably wondering why we don’t just dial up a computer in the branch office directly from the U.S. Well, this is exactly the approach we decided to pursue, which brings me to the second great impediment to world-wide communication for the little guy: ignorant and indifferent vendors.

To shove data over a dial-up line (and more than likely, a satellite link) to the country in question is not a trivial matter. Remember those “…spurious voltages and severe cross talk…?” This job is going to require some heavy-duty error correction as well as high speed and data compression to keep connect charges within reason.

After quite a bit of research (wading through reams of jargon) I selected THE modem. It is manufactured by one of the “biggies” whose name starts with M. Let’s call it model Q. It so happens that M is a big enough “biggie” that you probably aren’t going to find very many of them mail-order. Not to be deterred, I sent faxes to four large vendors who claimed that they carried the M line, requesting further information and prices. Of the four, how many responded? Only two. Of the two, how many were willing to quote me a price? Only one. And they were three thousand miles away. Not much chance of examining the manuals to make sure I hadn’t overlooked something.

Not to be deterred, I betook myself to a major computer show. While browsing down an aisle my eye caught sight of a prominent banner from the M company hung in a large booth. I made my way thither and made my desire known for modem Q, quantity two. Said the stuffed shirt in charge of the banner, “We sell communication solutions, we’re really not interested in selling modems. Why don’t you go talk to Tom across the aisle? He might be able to help you.” Now, I could have sworn before I got to that booth that a modem was a communication solution. But, we all live and learn.

In due course of time, I made my way to Tom’s booth. The conversation which ensued went something like this:

Me: “Hi, I was referred to you by Stuffed Shirt across the aisle.”
Tom: “Oh, the King of Sleaze! What can I do for you?” (This, while giving me a look as if he didn’t know if he could trust someone who had been sent to him by the King of Sleaze. I felt like asking him if I could trust someone recommended by the King of Sleaze, but my Mama taught me to be polite. Besides, I wanted some modems, not a fight.)
Me: “I’m trying to establish a data link between here and country … and am interested in buying two model Q modems.”
Tom: “Well, it’s a matter of finding a modem that has been homologized for the country.”
Me: “Enh? Homol… What does that mean?”
Tom: “I’m not really sure, but it’s something the company has to do. Hey Dick,(this to a rep from a different company, not company M, that was sharing the booth) do you have any modems that have been homologized for …?”
Dick: “Can’t say that we do. I don’t recall hearing about it. But, even if we do, you’ll probably have to buy it from an overseas distributor.”
Me: “But, I want to thoroughly test the system before I send it over to make sure that everything works. It’s slightly difficult to troubleshoot a problem when you’re twelve thousand miles away.”
Dick: “Now that’s a bit of a problem. I know of a case where a company needed a modem that was homologized for Greece. They had to buy it there and ship it back here to do their testing. You might be able to work a deal though, where the factory credits the foreign rep for the sale and ships you the modem direct.”
Me: “What is this homogin… er homol… er this process? Does each country require a special version of the modem or something? I’ve already checked and the telephone people in … don’t really care what you hang on the phone lines as long as you tell them about it.”
Dick: “I’m pretty fuzzy on it, but its something the manufacturer and the foreign country have to do together. That’s what we have a foreign division for. I’ll check with them to see if we’ve got something or not.”

I left the booth after this slightly surreal conversation sans make, model numbers and price, speculating on the meaning of a new word. The cynic in me wondered whether it described the process of bribing the appropriate customs authorities in the destination country to let the product through without too high a tariff. Incidently, neither Tom nor Dick has called me back with any information.

The next day I was favored with a conversation with the area distributor for company M (a quite decent chap as it turns out). He informed me that a model Q had been put on display at the show that morning at such and such a booth. I didn’t inform him that I had already had an encounter with Stuffed Shirt at that booth. However, not to be deterred, I went back to the show.

Sure enough, there sat model Q in the flesh. As I was ogling the sticker to see whether this beast was capable of working properly on 50 Hz power, Stuffed Shirt meandered over. I reminded him that he had previously sent me packing to Tom. Quoth he: “I knew that once you’d had a look at those jokers you’d be back. Can I tell you any tall tales about the model Q?”
Me: “I’d like to know the price.”
Stuffed Shirt: “I don’t do prices. That’s Harry’s department. Say Harry! Is the model Q on your price list?”
Harry looking offended: “I don’t use a price list! All the prices are in my head.”
Me: “Well, could you tell me what it is for the model Q?”
Harry: “This one? Hmmm… it looks like about $…., it is 2400 baud isn’t it?”
Stuffed Shirt glancing in my direction for confirmation: “No, its supposed to be 9600.”
Harry: “Oh, well in that case it’s $…. (a price an even two hundred higher than what he’d said before)
Have you seen the model H?” (made by a different company that as far as I know they don’t carry)

Lest the reader take me to task for having the effrontery to bother these eminent personages with my trivialities, I should point out that the modem in question carries a list price of a cool nine hundred bucks per each. Now I don’t know about where you work, but if I messed around with a potential source of that kind of change as these gentlemen messed around with me (I had the company checkbook in my hands while talking to them), the very least thing that would happen, is that my boss would coin some highly original maxims for my sole benefit.

At long last I got the modems. But, it wasn’t from Stuffed Shirt, Tom, Dick or Harry. I’ve got enough troubles without those clowns on board. Seriously, one of the reasons communication is so difficult is that those who are supposed to have the solutions often know less than the customer and don’t seem to give a rip anyway. Are they independently wealthy, or do they make their living by selling drugs instead of equipment?

There is a third impediment to international communication. The government controlled utility in the country where our branch office is located supplies power at a nominal 220 Volts, 50 Hertz. I use the word nominal advisedly. In reality the voltage varies anywhere from 195 to 230 and the frequency varies from 48 to 53 Hz. I know cuz I’ve measured it. Dealing with differences in voltage is easy – just use the appropriate transformer. Frequency is another matter altogether. It is not easily changed. So, what happens if you plug something designed for 60 Hz into a 50 Hz source? Due to the nature of A.C. power, at a given voltage and load there will be more of a current flow at 50 Hz than at 60. The result is that if the engineer hasn’t used at least a ten percent “fudge” factor in designing the power transformer in your power supply, it’s going to “blow.” Even if it doesn’t “blow” it will over-heat and will probably fail in time.

This is why I examined the sticker on the modem to see whether it mentioned 50 Hz. The majority of the computer equipment available in the U.S. is designed to run exclusively on 60 Hz power, and you can’t be sure what is or isn’t just by reading the spec sheets. I’ve learned by experience that you had better check the tag on the equipment itself. Furthermore, don’t assume that just because one piece of gear is rated for 50 Hz, that everything else from that manufacturer will be. Some models are, and some ain’t.

How bad is the problem? In the system that I assembled for the branch office we wished to include a laser printer in the thousand or so dollar range, and a cheap 9 pin dot-matrix. I found maybe three lasers, and exactly one dot-matrix that were rated for 50 Hz and that were in the price bracket that we had set! Only one of the lasers came close to having the features we were after.

And then, there is the matter of finding an appropriate uninterruptible power supply. Can’t they make the wretched things with a switch or two so you can select the nominal input frequency and the desired output frequency? If I buy a unit designed for 50 Hz, how can I test the thing here in the U.S. office with the rest of the computer gear before I ship it over the water? How do I know it isn’t “dead” right out of the box? Once it reaches the destination country it would be virtually impossible to get it back to the manufacturer while under warrantee, and in the meantime, the system is without protection!

The skeptics among you no doubt have questions:

1) Why don’t you just buy the stuff in the other country?
Answer: a) Much of it ain’t available. b) What is available costs more than it does here. c) I have to go there to set it up and train the guys how to use it. I don’t want to get there only to discover that an essential ten dollar part can’t be had for love or money – this puppy works, and works right, before I climb on that plane!

2) Can’t you special order gear that is configured for the power in the destination country?
Answer: Yes, provided you’ve got time and money and they don’t force you to buy it via Greece! Street price for a 220 Volt modem Q is a hundred and ninety dollars higher plus a couple of weeks. As far as I know, the only difference is the transformer you plug into the wall.

The Taiwan PC clone makers have been vilified from one end of the trade press to the other, but I say God bless ’em! At least they have enough sense to use a 50/60 Hz transformer in their power supplies, and to provide a switch for 115 or 220 volt operation.

So why don’t manufacturers add a few more turns of wire to their power transformers so they’ll work elsewhere in the world? As far as I can tell there are two reasons:

1) Manufacturers are afraid that “gray marketeers” will undersell their local distributors with goods purchased in a different market. In other words, politics. Maybe it’s about time somebody realized that it is in the manufacturer’s best interest to sell as many machines as possible whether they are sold in the “gray” market or not. It’s the local distributor, not the manufacturer who gets hurt by the “gray” market. In my opinion, if the local distributor can be drastically undersold, his prices are too high and he deserves to get hurt. Besides, if you must control distribution, isn’t there a better way to do it than by crippling your equipment?

In all fairness there is a problem with warrantee service. It’s not right for the authorized dealer to get stuck with service charges on units he didn’t sell. However, if the human race is clever enough to invent a computer, it must have the smarts somewhere to figure out a system that removes artificial trade barriers in an equitable manner.

2) Adding a few turns of wire and possibly a switch adds a few cents to the manufacturer’s cost. But, if the Taiwan clone makers can do it, why can’t others? Can it really be more expensive than maintaining different models for different regions of the world? Even if it does end up touching the profit margin a little, I think that they would be more than compensated by the good will it would generate from customers. For example, who likes being forced to change their computer gear because they got transferred overseas?

So there it is. I happen to moonlight as a computer consultant. If it’s been difficult for me to solve what should be a routine problem, I shudder to think what those who do not have my skills and resources must go through. We’ve come a long way to be sure, but it’s still a long, long way to Tipperary.

Note: Since the days described in this article, the Internet has changed everything. It is the rare person in the third-world country mentioned who doesn’t have access to E-mail and social media. We no longer have to worry about the quality of land-lines or the capacity of the local telephone exchanges. The joke going around is that the first thing people do when a baby is born is put a mobile phone in its hand. There’s some truth to the joke. And most of those phones are smart-phones. Now, instead of having to book a call through an operator, people – even in the back of beyond – can phone me directly. Instead of wondering whether the line will be clear enough to hear the person on the other end, assuming I can get a connection at all, I routinely use video conferencing. Instead of waiting weeks for the postal service to deliver crucial data (assuming they didn’t lose it or it didn’t get hung up in customs) we can easily download or upload it in seconds. When someone starts romanticizing the past, I just smile.

The Etiquette Of Heaven

As I left the podium someone in the audience called out, “You did not disappoint.” Though the remark gratified, it sort of rolled off me. However, his remark became more meaningful a few minutes later when I asked my wife how the previous speaker had done. I didn’t have the opportunity to hear him as I was teaching the youth at the time.

“It was a total bomb!” she said. The vehemence of her reply rocked me back on my heels as she is normally so gracious and quick to point out the positive. It seems that the speaker – a young man, newly married, without children, just starting out in ministry – declared to his incredulous audience that from that moment forward they could live their lives without sinning. (Please note that I do not hold those attributes against the man. I only mention them to point out his lack of experience and seasoning.)

Setting the Scriptures aside, just based on my own experience of living the Christian life – for many more years than the speaker has been alive – it’s a proposition I would not want to try to defend. Particularly to an audience containing several preachers, Elders and other church leaders.

To do the man justice he never got the opportunity to explain how one could achieve this state of perfection. Members of the audience interrupted him long before he could complete his sermon. They pointed out that the Scriptures clearly indicate that Christians do sin. To his credit, the preacher did not get angry or become flustered as he explained away the texts people quoted to him. For example, he claimed that the struggle Paul describes in Romans 7 refers to the time prior to Paul’s conversion.

Finally, an Elder said, “Folks, what he’s trying to say is that we shouldn’t automatically assume that we’re going to fail. After all, a sports team doesn’t go onto the court assuming it’s going to lose. When we’re tempted we shouldn’t assume that we’re going to give in to it.”

However, according to my wife, that’s not what the man was trying to say. He flat-out claimed it was possible to live without sinning at all.

Is he right? Is it possible to live without sinning? In a sense, yes. God imputes Christ’s righteousness to those who “put on Christ.” That means that when God looks at us, He doesn’t see us but, rather, the sinless Christ.

In another sense, however, I think that those who claim to be without sin show a profound lack of understanding about what sin is.

When most people think of sin they probably have the “sins of commission” in mind – that is the violation of direct commands. Personally, I find avoiding the “thou shalt not” commands fairly easy. More difficult to put into practice are the positive, “do this” commands. I commit a “sin of omission” when I fail to take action.

There’s another “sin of omission” which is even more difficult to avoid. These are the things we ought to do which are implied by the prohibitions. For example, take the command against giving false testimony. I find it relatively easy to refrain from lying about someone. However, the prohibition also implies a responsibility to speak the truth. I find it much harder to stand up for someone. It’s all too easy to let myself off the hook by saying it’s none of my business. So long as I haven’t said anything untrue about the person or the situation, I’ve fulfilled my responsibility.

Someone might argue that all this talk about dos and don’ts is so Old Testament! I agree. And I also fully agree that all of us who are in Christ are being transformed into the image of Christ. When the transformation is complete – when we are fully formed into the new creatures God intends us to become – we will, by nature, always do what we ought. But whether we refrain from sinning because of a rule or because of being given a new nature does not change the character of sin itself. It merely speaks to our motivation for avoiding it.

In fact, the concept of being transformed into the image of Christ contains the seed of my biggest objection to the notion that we can live sinless lives. There is more to sin than acts of commission or omission. Paul writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23 NIV). Imagine that we are archers and God’s glory is the target. The problem is not that we play mumblety-peg at the archery butts (sin of commission). The problem is not that we don’t set an arrow to the string (sin of omission). The problem is not that we neglect to wear an arm-guard (sin of ignoring implied responsibility). No, the problem is that even with totally pure motives, honest intent and the best will in the world, when we loose a shaft it doesn’t even reach the target, much less hit the bullseye. Our best efforts don’t measure up to fullness of God’s character. Our love is incomparably less than His. Our compassion does not reach the extent of His. Our goodness only pales before His. To change the metaphor, our righteousness is as filthy rags in comparison to God’s perfection (Isaiah 64:6).

Why do we miss the mark – and keep on missing it? I suggest that one reason is ignorance. Like with anything else, there’s a learning curve to Christianity. We don’t know everything when we first come to Christ. And, no matter how long we live for and in Christ, we still don’t know everything. It’s a life-long process (1 Corinthians 8:2).

In the beginning we don’t even recognize many sins for what they are. Our consciences have not yet been trained to discern good from evil (Hebrews 5:14). Christ is continually refining us. Or, to put it another way, we should be growing and maturing in Christ. Unfortunately, until we reach the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13-14), we will continue to stumble (sin) in many ways (James 3:2).

Perhaps a story will illustrate my point. I grew up in a foreign country in a different culture. Not long after returning to the States I had to attend a funeral. Afterward someone severely criticized me for not dressing appropriately. It was not my intent to embarrass anyone. It certainly was not my intent to show disrespect to the grieving family. I honestly did not know I was causing offense. No one told me what was appropriate to wear or what the expectations of this culture are. Since then I have learned what is appropriate and have not been guilty of that particular offense again. But I had to learn – it wasn’t something I knew intuitively.

If we continue to offend (sin) even after we become Christians then why does the Bible refer to us as pure and holy? This is one of the beautiful things about God. John writes that if we confess what we know about, God cleanses us from all of it – both the sins we realize we’ve committed and those we haven’t a clue about (1 John 1:9).

Because of my experience with my own ignorance it concerns me when I hear the dogmatic assertion that we can avoid sin altogether. I see at least two dangers in making the claim. The first is that it can easily lead to spiritual pride. It is evident that, any assertions to the contrary, Christians actually do sin. If they sin while I do not, it is tempting to look down on them. “…God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” (Luke 18:11-12 NIV)

A second danger is that it’s easy to deceive oneself. If it is my position that real Christians don’t sin then, rather than admit I have fallen, it’s all too easy to excuse my actions as not really being sinful. John flat-out says that those who claim to be without sin (and he is writing to Christians), deceive themselves and truth isn’t in them – they are liars (1 John 1:8, 10).

There’s another biblical analogy which helps me put this whole concept in perspective. Jesus told His disciples that unless they became like little children they could not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:3). Many Scriptures refer to Christians as “children of God.” No doubt the term describes our relationship both to God and to one another. No doubt Jesus was referring to the unconditional love, trust and acceptance that children extend to their parents. However, I think there is another aspect of childhood worth considering. We accept and tolerate behavior from small children we would never accept or condone in adults. Why? Because little ones do not understand the conventions of adult society. When they are very small they do not even have the capacity to understand what proper behavior is. They have to be taught not to chew with their mouths open, to cover their mouths when they cough and not to burp out loud. They have to learn not to interrupt when others are talking, to sit still and not to shout in the library. They have to be taught how to share and put others first. To put it another way, they have to learn proper etiquette. Even if they understand some of the concepts they may not have the motor skills to fully comply. We put bibs on toddlers for a reason.

Just as adult behavior and proper etiquette is often incomprehensible and beyond the grasp of children we, too, actually know very little about the heavenly realms. We are created beings constrained by the limitations of our minds and bodies. God is outside of nature. We cannot conceive of Him as He really is. As Paul implies, the reality is beyond all we can think or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). As long as we are in this body – part of this nature – we will not fully know or understand the etiquette of heaven. God makes allowances for our weaknesses, our incapacity and our lack of understanding. Though we offend, He does not count our sins against us. However, we look forward to the day we we will fully know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:11-12). As John writes, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2 NIV)

At last, we shall fully learn the etiquette of heaven. Until then, though we do our best to please our heavenly Father, we will continue to fall short of the glory. Thank God, He makes allowances for His children!

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