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Misplaced Guilt

Jeremiah is one of my favorite prophets. One reason is that I can relate to his reluctance when God called him. Jeremiah’s response was, “I do not know how to speak; I’m only a child.”

Like Jeremiah I, too, felt unqualified to speak. I am a shy introvert who prefers to stay in the background. It took me a long time to realize that I have a gift for teaching. Even so, I would shake from stage-fright before facing a class. As for speaking or preaching to the church, I ran from it as hard as I could. If someone had told the young me that one day I would come to enjoy speaking from the pulpit, I would have called him crazy.

Age also factored into my views of my un-fittedness for public ministry. What could I possibly have to say to the “gray-heads” of the church? I was somewhat in awe of my father and others of his generation who, seemingly evangelized without effort, started churches, had a pulpit presence and could reel off Scripture at the drop of a hat. Was it not my place to look up to and learn from them? It was something of a shock to realize that I had insights which others didn’t. As time passed it was even more of an adjustment to realize that I had become one of the “gray-heads” who had been in the church longer than many others. It was startling to realize that people were starting to look up to and defer to me.

But there is another reason I feel affinity for Jeremiah. There are times when I look at my ministry and ask the question, “Have I really accomplished anything?” Jeremiah’s ministry was fraught with disappointment and heartache. People not only rejected his message, they rejected him – to the point that, more than once, they tried to take his life. I, too, know something of rejection. Nobody has tried to physically scrag me but, more than once, people have tried to “kill the messenger” by slandering me, speaking against my character and falsely accusing me. People have turned against me because they rejected the message I tried to bring them.

I sense that Jeremiah was a profoundly lonely man. Not only because the Lord denied him marriage but because he was an outsider. He belonged to a priestly clan which was an historical rival to those in power in the Temple. Even when Hilkiah found the Book of the Law and King Josiah sent people to inquire of the Lord about it, they consulted the prophetess Huldah instead of Jeremiah. The message Jeremiah proclaimed about the future of the kingdom, Babylon and regarding the exiles taken to Babylon proved extremely unpopular. He was labeled a traitor, imprisoned, thrown into a cistern and threatened with execution. Jeremiah was so unpopular that King Zedekiah had to consult him in secret. Even then, the king rejected his advice. King Jehoiakim burned the scroll on which Jeremiah transcribed the messages God sent him.

There have been times when I, too, have felt the pain of isolation. My views regarding the church and the reforms which are needed have not always been well received. I’ve been labeled a troublemaker for challenging the status-quo and expressing the principles I see in Scripture. Even those who said they agreed with me have hesitated to stand with me when the crunch came. I’ve wondered whether I was the only one to see what needs to be done and had the courage to act on my convictions.

The thing which stands out to me most about Jeremiah’s ministry is that, from a human point of view, it was a total failure. After over 23 years of proclaiming God’s word, he had possibly two converts – Baruch the scribe and Ebed-melech the Cushite. Jeremiah himself wondered what the point of his ministry was when God had him buy a field during the siege of Jerusalem. It made no earthly sense – particularly since Jeremiah had no descendants to pass it down to. Then, the crowning indignity came when the survivors of the Babylonian invasion asked Jeremiah to consult the Lord for them. They not only disobeyed the divine instructions Jeremiah passed on to them not to migrate to Egypt, they forced Jeremiah to go with them! Yes, no matter how you slice it, Jeremiah’s ministry looked like a complete failure.

Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with more visible success than Jeremiah. Along with the rejection there have been some people who have listened. I have been able to introduce some reforms. I have been able to mentor a few men who have caught the vision. I’m seeing spiritual growth in the congregation I lead. However, I also have to say that for much of my ministry I’ve carried a sense of guilt. The guilt results from those who have not responded. I’ve taken the blame on myself. “If I had just been a little more persuasive! If I had only phrased things differently! If only I had approached the problem from a different angle! If only…”

However, pondering on Jeremiah has helped me understand that my sense of guilt is misplaced. Jeremiah was not a failure! Why? Because he obeyed what God told him to do and that is all God requires. God does not hold us responsible for the decisions and actions of other people. The only question is whether or not we have obeyed. We are not responsible for results! That realization has been incredibly freeing for me. Thank you Jeremiah!

Is It Possible To Be Too Truthful?

It was Winston Churchill who said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” There is an unfortunate tendency in the culture in which I grew up, to treat truth that way not only in wartime, but all the time. Another cultural tendency is to tell people what you think they want to hear.

This makes for some interesting situations. For example, if you go the train station and ask someone, “Is this the train that goes to city A?”, more than likely he’ll say, “Yes.” So you get on the train and find out, after it’s already left the station, that you are headed in the opposite direction, to city Z. You have to learn to ask the right question, like, “Which train goes to city A?”

Growing up surrounded around this kind of thing, I started to pick up those kind of values. One day when I was a teenager, my father asked me a question. I don’t remember what it was, nor do I remember what I answered. I just know that instead of getting right to the point and answering the question, I danced all around it. Dad stopped me cold and said, “You have become altogether too devious. You need to correct that or it’s going to cause you a lot of trouble later on in life.” And he gave me a look of disgust, turned on his heel and walked away. I was left standing there with my mouth hanging open.

In the years since then, I have made a conscious effort to be transparent. I’ve tried to be truthful even when it’s painful to tell the truth. It’s not always easy. Every once in a while I’m still tempted, or prompted by fear, to beat around the bush or to shade the facts.

But sometimes the effort to be transparent and tell the unvarnished truth leads to other problems. In the culture in which I grew up there is a tendency to think that you must always look beneath the surface to discover what someone really means or what he’s really after. “What you see is what you get,” is a foreign concept. It comes as a shock to people that there is no hidden agenda. At times people have become angry with me because I must have meant something other than what I said. After all, if they were the ones saying it, they would have meant something else!

This leads to a second problem with being totally candid. More than once I’ve been told that I’m too blunt. I can really relate to the protagonist, Wallace Wallace, in the young-adult book “No More Dead Dogs” by Gordon Korman. In it he gets suspended from the football team for being upfront in a book review. For example, in response to the question, “Who was your favorite character?” he answered that he hated them all equally. He went on to criticize the plot unfavorably. Unfortunately for him, the book happened to be one of his teacher’s favorites. Personally, I found Wallace Wallace’s candor refreshing. He had the guts and conviction to say what I often wanted to say to my teachers when I was in school. I have to admit, though, that I don’t necessarily appreciate that level of candor when it is directed at me!

This raises a question. Is it possible to be too honest? Is it ever permissible to shade the truth to avoid trouble or to spare someone’s sensibilities?
The answer to this conundrum is in Ephesians chapter 4. The overall theme of Ephesians 4, is living a life “worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1), unity (4:3), spiritual maturity (4:14) and building the body, that is, the church (4:16). How do we attain to maturity? In 4:15, Paul writes, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (NIV)

Yes, we must not hesitate to speak the truth. Later, in verse 25 Paul tells us to put off falsehood and speak truthfully. But the piece which is often missing is speaking the truth in love. It’s an area where I still have room for growth.

What does it mean to speak the truth in love? Unfortunately, the NIV translation obscures an important concept in verse 29 when it says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” The ESV puts it this way, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” In this verse Paul is contrasting talk which is unwholesome or which corrupts with talk which gives grace.

If you study it out, it appears that the word “grace” refers to the blessings we receive when we are in covenant. Putting it all together, what Paul is saying is that the way we speak should help others to keep covenant with God and with each other. It is perfectly possible to speak the truth, yet it still be “unwholesome” because it weakens the bond of covenant. Therefore it is “corrupt” even though it is true. In contrast, “wholesome” speech is not only true, it also encourages others to remain committed to their covenants. To rephrase, speaking the truth without love is unwholesome and corrupting, while speaking the truth in love builds up, is fitting and strengthens covenant ties.

So, is it possible to be too truthful? In a sense, yes! Truth without love tears down and destroys. Does that mean that we should shade the truth or lead people to believe things that inaccurate? Can we lie in the name of love? No! As Paul writes in another place, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” (1 Corinthians 13:6 NIV) To put it another way, if it isn’t truthful, it isn’t love either!

I think one of the reasons we (or at least I!) have trouble in this area is that we put too much emphasis on words – that is, what we say – without paying enough attention to what prompts our speech. When you get right down to it, speaking truth in love is not merely something we should do. It is something which reflects our inner character. Jesus put it this way in Luke 6:43-45, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” (NIV)

When I am a truthful person, speaking truth will come naturally. When I am a loving person, it will be natural for love to temper the truth I tell. May the Lord grant me the ability to “be” so that the doing is a natural extension of my inner being!

Leadership Training (Part 3)

What Should We Teach?

It’s been several years since I wrote the first two parts of this series. In the first part I discussed the dearth of leaders in the church and why we cannot depend on the Bible Colleges and Seminaries to train the people we need. In the second of these essays I discussed different teaching methodologies and explored alternatives to the Bible College model. In this third installment I will suggest what should be taught to prospective leaders. I waited to write it until I had some actual experience in putting my ideas into practice.

In Part 2 I wrote that the kind of training we need would revolve around mentoring rather than formal lectures. In the years since, I have mentored and am mentoring several emerging leaders. It has been a rewarding experience. Though I have not been able to implement what I envisioned as completely as I would like, my experience has convinced me that the basic ideas are sound.

Before presenting the things I think we need to teach, let me issue a caveat. Though the goal is to raise up and develop new leaders for the church, it is easy to lose the proper focus. We can become so bound up in the transfer of knowledge that we lose sight of the main purpose for doing so. The teaching can easily become an end in itself. May I suggest that our teaching and our attempts to raise up new leadership will be effective only to the extent that our focus is Jesus Christ. Our teaching must be done for Him, to Him and because of Him. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:2 NIV) Anything less becomes an exercise in human wisdom rather than obedience to the divine will.

With that firmly in mind, I suggest that our mentoring should be in two broad areas: Attitude and Knowledge. Of the two, attitude is far more important. If someone has the proper attitude, he will naturally and organically acquire the knowledge he needs to be an effective leader in the church. If he doesn’t develop the proper attitude he will never become the kind of leader the Lord desires regardless of how much knowledge he may obtain. Character will always trump academics.

What Attitudes Should We Teach?

What sort of attitude or character traits should we encourage in those we mentor? The following five traits will raise a person far above many who consider themselves leaders.

1) An attitude of humility

All too often church leaders tend to view their role in terms of self. They speak of “my” church and what “I” am doing. They take pride in and measure their success by such things as the number of people who attend the church services and the size of the offerings. They take pride in their speaking ability, their management of building projects and the number of ministries they have started.

In contrast, a true leader retains a sense of brokenness. He realizes that it is not he, but Christ working through him who builds the church. He realizes that his gifting comes from the Holy Spirit. Following the Apostle Paul’s example, he will not try to win people by means of wise and persuasive words, rather through demonstration of the Spirit’s power (1 Corinthians 2:4-5). He will crucify self so that God’s power will be manifested in his weakness (2 Corinthians 12:10). In short, he will constantly direct people’s attention away from himself to Christ.

2) An attitude of service

Many leaders expect deference because of the position they hold. They think that their role entitles them. Someone who was interviewing candidates for a position of leadership in the church once told me that the very first question most of them asked was, “What is the salary and benefit package?” They were viewing the position as a rung on the ladder of their career rather than as a vocation. They were seeking their own benefit rather than the good of the Kingdom.

Jesus taught that greatness in leadership is not measured by service received, but by service given. Leadership in the church is not a career choice. It is the sacrificial giving of oneself to help others become like Christ.

This was a hard lesson for the Apostles to learn. They constantly squabbled over who was the greatest. “Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”” (Matthew 20:25-28 NIV)

3) An attitude of setting an example

A true leader will never ask people to do something he himself is unwilling to do. Instead, he will become a model of the behavior and attitude he wishes to instill in others. He is worth following, not because of his position but, because he is following the example of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).

The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12 NIV) As we mentor potential leaders we would do well to emphasize the five areas Paul mentions that Timothy was to exemplify.

4) An attitude of nurturing

Many church leaders are insecure in their position. They tend to regard anyone in the congregation with similar gifts as a potential rival. Instead of helping others to develop and use their gifts for the common good, they stifle them. More than once people have expressed their frustration to me that they had no opportunity reach their full potential or use the gifts God gave them. To minister as they felt God wanted them to, they would have to leave their current congregation and go elsewhere. I myself encountered resistance from church leaders when I asked for mentoring with the goal of becoming an Elder.

This reluctance to nurture potential leaders is one reason for the leader shortage we face. I have often heard preachers excuse the absence of Elders in the congregations they lead by saying that there is no one who is qualified for the position. If, after serving in the same place for ten or twenty years there is still no one who is qualified, could the reason be that the preacher never attempted to prepare anyone for the position? Could it be that those who had the potential, left and went elsewhere because they realized they would never be called on to serve?

The truth is that preparing people for service in the Kingdom is one of the primary responsibilities of leaders. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:11-16 that God gave leaders to the church for this very purpose.

Not only are leaders supposed to nurture and help others develop their gifts, it is to be a self-replicating process. Paul told Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” (2 Timothy 2:2 NIV) In that one sentence we see four generations of church leaders passing on the teaching and traditions. We too should pass on what we have learned to others who will be able to pass it along to still more people.

“But if I train others to do my work, what will happen to me?” Nothing, except to increase your influence. But even if training and equipping other leaders would result in your losing your position, your attitude should be the same as that of John the Baptist when his disciples complained about the growing popularity of Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30 NIV) It is high time we left jealousy and rivalry behind and realize that our Master is Jesus Christ. It is Christ who calls us to serve. It is Christ who gives us our reward. When we scramble to hold on to our position and perks by holding others back, we are in danger of losing our eternal reward.

5) An attitude of life-long learning

I have encountered more than one church leader who had the attitude he didn’t need to know any more. Others think that their position of leadership gives them infallibility – whatever they say, goes. Once they have stated a position it cannot be questioned. I know of a man, prominent in his day, who would study an issue, write a pamphlet or booklet on the subject and considered it a closed topic. It could never be revisited. His pronouncement was ex-cathedra. Anyone who cast doubt on the premise or even sought nuance, was usually regarded as anathema. Needless to say, this caused division and strife rather than unity and harmony within the church.

In contrast, a true leader will gently instruct (2 Timothy 2:25, Hebrews 5:2). He will recognize that he, himself, does not know all things. He will realize that though the Gospel is simple enough a child can understand it, it is also so deep and broad that even after a lifetime of study and practical application we will not be able to plumb its depths or measure its breadth. There is always more to learn. There is always another area to surrender to the complete control of Christ. Even the Apostles Paul and John didn’t know everything. In one of the last letters he wrote, Paul cried out, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11 NIV) John says, “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) If even Paul and John didn’t yet know as they wanted to know, then it behooves us to be humble about the extent of our knowledge. As Paul wrote, “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” (1 Corinthians 8:2 NIV)

Not only do we not yet know as we should, we are to continually grow. “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.” (1 Peter 3:18 NIV) If we are not growing and making progress in our knowledge of Christ, we are slipping and are in danger of losing our secure position in Christ (2 Peter 1:3-11). A true leader will continue to learn and grow throughout his life.

What Knowledge Should We Teach?

Though attitude and character are far more important than knowledge, a leader must still have a good understanding of the faith. For example, Paul writes concerning an Elder, “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:9 NIV) In light of this, what should we teach prospective leaders? Here are a few suggestions:

1) How to study the Bible

Since it is the Scriptures which testify about Jesus (John 5:39), encourage us and give us hope (Romans 15:4), make us wise unto salvation (2 Timothy 3:15) and disclose the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12-13), it follows that a leader in the church must have a good understanding of how to read, interpret, explain and apply them. All too often, leaders are guilty of taking passages out of context, misinterpreting or misapplying them. It is bad enough when someone does this on a personal level. It is tragic when he compounds his errors by teaching them to others. James writes, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1 NIV) Leaders must have a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. If they don’t know what the Bible says about something, they need to be able to research the Scriptures to find out.

2) Survey of the Bible

The Bible is not a random collection of various kinds of literature. Instead, in it we find the unfolding of God’s eternal plan to reconcile mankind to Himself. Another way to say it is the Bible is a record of covenant history – the story of God’s covenant people. Leaders should have a good grasp of how God created the universe, how sin entered the world, the consequences of man’s fall, the history of God’s chosen people, the message of the prophets, the ministry of Christ and the spread of the Gospel. Without a coherent view of what God has been doing throughout history, it will be difficult to have a deep understanding of the Gospel.

3) Basic doctrine

Not every fact is of equal value. A leader should have a good grasp of what God requires, those things which are important but not essential to salvation and those things in which we have liberty. A leader must also have a good grasp of the essential differences between the law of commandments, and the law of love. Otherwise, he will become legalistic and formulaic in his leadership. He will govern by rote and rule rather than by principle.

4) The church

Since we are trying to raise up leaders in and for the church, it follows that we must teach them about the church. What is the church? What is its purpose? What are its functions? How is it organized? What are the duties of its leaders? To what did the early church devote itself (Acts 2:42)? How is the church financed? And so on.

5) How to teach

As stated above, one of the primary responsibilities of any leader in the church is to teach. It follows that he must know how to do so. Though each person must develop his own style and methods of teaching in order to be effective, there are some basic fundamentals which are common to all teaching. These are, Presentation, Explanation and Application. Since leaders are to instruct and train others to lead, a fourth element in teaching potential leaders is Replication.

6) Message preparation

Closely related to how to teach is how to prepare class material and messages. A leader should know the differences between topical, textual and expository messages. He should know how to tailor his classes and messages to a particular audience. A message for new believers will be different than one for mature Christians. One for children will be different than one for adults. Unbelievers cannot be approached in the same way as those who are in Christ.

A leader should be able to prepare a Communion talk which fits the theme of a church service. He should know how to use the elements of pathos, ethos and logos in his speaking and teaching. He needs to learn how to be transparent and share of himself when he speaks. He should be able to choose appropriate illustrations to illuminate what he says.

It’s About Relationships

The above suggestions can be daunting. How can we possibly encourage those attitudes? How can we convey all the knowledge a prospective leader needs? The key is to spend time with and develop relationships with those we are trying to teach. That’s really what mentoring is all about – getting to know someone intimately enough that we can have input into their lives as well as their intellect. It takes time. It takes commitment. It takes dedication, persistence and patience. However, the end result is worth the effort. I am convinced that if we will make the time to mentor (even though it seems an impossibility in our busy schedules) God will bless the results. We will receive the help we need in shepherding and leading God’s people only to the extent we mentor the next generation of leaders.

What’s Music For, Anyway?

Have you taken a look around at the congregation during the music portion of your worship assemblies? Perhaps it is different where you are, but recently I’ve noticed a trend. In several places I’ve been, very few people in the congregation were singing. I’ve wondered why.

One reason why so few people sing these days in comparison to the past is that, at least to my ear, most contemporary music doesn’t lend itself to congregational singing. Many of the tunes (what tunes?) aren’t memorable. Lyrics are often trite, overly repetitious and don’t scan well. The timing is tricky. The range and/or pitch may be outside the scope of untrained voices.

Type of music aside, one of the biggest impediments to congregational participation is that in many cases, the sound level of those “leading” the singing is just too high. I’ve been in many venues where it is almost impossible to hear yourself, let alone those around you. What’s the point of even trying to sing when you can’t tell whether or not you’re on key? Sometimes the sound is so loud it’s one big reverberant mess. If it weren’t for the lyrics projected on screen, you couldn’t tell what was being sung, let alone join in. Not to mention poor mixes which submerge vocals to inaudibility relative to the instruments. I have often felt pity for older saints with hearing aids who vainly struggle to make sense out of the auditory assault and overload.

Then there’s prejudice. Some feel that all things related to the public functions of the church should be relegated to the “professionals.” They feel it reflects poorly on the church if any part of the service lacks “polish.” Anything less will turn people away. I recall reading statements by C.S. Lewis in which he opined that there shouldn’t be any congregational singing at all. In his view, music should only be presented by trained choirs.

It’s Nothing New

Controversies over music have been with us from time immemorial. Almost from the start, music and the role it should play has been one of the most contentious issues to plague the church. It seems that almost every generation struggles with the issue. The use of harp and flute, the chant, polyphony (singing in parts), trained choirs, the use of popular/secular/folk styles for spiritual purposes, a cappella versus instrumental accompaniment, praise songs, traditional versus contemporary, all have been controversial. It would be pathetic were it not for the fact that the controversies over music often mask far more serious issues. The real heart of the controversy may be the question of to what extent the church may accommodate culture, and how reverence should be shown to a holy God.

Spiritual things are spiritually discerned. It can be very difficult to articulate what is felt intuitively through one’s spirit. As a result, discussion tends to focus on musical style or type instead of the spiritual heart of the matter. People on all sides can easily become frustrated. As Dan Bouchelle aptly put it in his address at Restoration Unity Forum XIX, “…the real tension is between those who want a worship that emphasizes God’s holiness and transcendence and those who want a worship that makes God feel near and approachable. And we have a cultural rift on this. Both kinds of worship say something true about God, and both can distort God if that’s all they say. …My chief objection against instrumental music, and really my only objection to instrumental music, is that it tends, and I do say, tends, to discourage congregational participation in singing and give it an entertainment feel.”

Form follows function. It seems to me that many of the controversies about music could be resolved if we would go back and see what the Scriptures say about the purpose for music. What did God intend for music to accomplish? Once we understand what God intended, we can structure the music in our assemblies to meet those goals.

So You Won’t Forget

Do you ever find yourself humming an advertising jingle that you heard years ago? Canny advertising people know that a catchy tune will stick in people’s minds long after they have forgotten a specific company or product. That’s why they spend so much time and money creating a tune that you can’t get out of your head. It’s not surprising that ad companies do this. God intended music to be unforgettable. For example, God told Moses, “Now write down for yourselves this song and teach it to the Israelites and have them sing it… And when many disasters and difficulties come upon them, this song will testify against them, because it will not be forgotten by their descendants…” (Deuteronomy 31:19-21 NIV) Many people find it difficult to memorize Scripture. Scripture songs can be a great help in ‘hiding the word in our hearts.’ (see Psalm 119:9-13) In addition to help in remembering Scripture, song may also aid in recalling what God has done. Since remembrance is part of what the assembly is about, it seems appropriate that this type of song should be part of it.

To Praise His Name

Much more could be said about music and song from the Old Testament. In fact, in speaking of song, the New Testament points back to the Old. In Romans 15:9-11 Paul writes, “…that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name.” … “Praise the Lord, all Gentiles, and sing praises to him, all you peoples.”” (NIV) From this passage it is clear that one of the purposes of song is to praise God. It’s worth asking whether the songs we sing and the way we sing them bring glory to God or to the singer/performer.

Minister To One Another

Ephesians 5:19-20 is another important passage in understanding the purpose of music in the church services. “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father in everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (NIV) Colossians 3:16 is a parallel passage, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in yours heart to God.” (NIV) A more accurate translation of this passage is, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (updated NASB) These passages present a two-fold purpose for music. a) It aids in ministry to one another. Music is to be used both in teaching and admonishing. b) It helps in expressing thankfulness to God.

These passages shed light on other characteristics of appropriate music. Commentators have attempted to link ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ to specific forms or styles of music. There can be little doubt that the Old Testament Psalms are included in these, but beyond that, the rest is really speculation. The lesson we can draw is that a variety of styles and forms of music are acceptable. But there are other characteristics which must also be taken into account. It is worth noting that the songs are called ‘spiritual songs.’ In other words, they are either inspired by, or sung under the influence of, the Holy Spirit. There are many great songs, some of which even have good lessons or morals. But if they are not spiritual, they have no place in the assembly. In addition, the songs are to be useful for teaching and admonishing. Since the teaching and admonishing is to be done wisely, it follows that the music which is used for these purposes must not be foolish or sung in a foolish fashion.

It is also worth stressing the participatory nature of the singing. The idea conveyed by these verses is not a group performing for an audience. Instead, it is of people singing to each other. We can also see the participatory aspect of singing in the assembly in what Paul writes to the church at Corinth. “…When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:26 NIV) Unfortunately, in the modern church the use of ‘worship teams’ and ‘praise bands’ on stage tends to divide the congregation into performer and audience instead of enhancing unity through a shared experience. Very rarely do we allow anyone in the pew to teach us or admonish us through song. We can also infer from these passages that we underutilize rounds and antiphony (responsive singing) in our worship services.

(The church might also be able to learn something from the theater. Why do orchestra pits exist? They exist so that the orchestra, and the movements of the musicians will not distract from what is happening on stage. The orchestra is intended not to draw attention to itself, but to provide a background accompaniment which enhances the effectiveness of the story line. Unfortunately, the action and movement of those in ‘praise bands’ and ‘worship teams’ often detracts or distracts from, rather than enhances, the ability of the congregation to worship. Let the musicians remain unnoticed while their music helps the congregation to focus on God and the lessons God intends for us to teach each other!)

Not only is the singing to be a mutual, shared experience, it is to be from the heart. Not only from the heart, but from a thankful heart. This is one of the reasons why it can be so difficult to discuss these issues. It is impossible to see into someone else’s heart. What may be acceptable in one setting and manner of singing may be totally inappropriate in another. One person might be able to sing a particular song to the benefit and edification of the congregation while it would be a travesty if a different person were to sing the same song. These things may be sensed in the spirit, but it may be impossible to articulate in rational terms why something is appropriate or inappropriate. On the other hand, we must exercise care not to approve or condemn something merely because of personal likes or dislikes instead of on a true spiritual basis.

I Sing Because I’m Happy

There is a further purpose in singing. It should be an outward expression of happiness. James writes, “…Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.” (James 5:13 NIV) Are we stifling people’s happiness by the way we structure the music in our assemblies? Instead, shouldn’t people be able to express their joy when they come and participate?

In short, I think that many congregations have forgotten one of the purposes for our services. We all would do well to take another look at Scripture and modify how we use music so that we can accomplish what God intended for it.

God Sings

Someone once asked me whether the people in a certain religion sing during their worship services. I had to stop and think about it. Music and song certainly does exist in the cultures where this religion is prevalent. In fact, they enjoy a rich heritage of religious music. Nor, is their musical tradition obscure. It has had a major influence on the music of other cultures. The thing which stumped me is whether music or song has a role in their formal worship services. Chanting is certainly employed. Some of it may even be considered musical. Perhaps one could say that these chants are songs. However, something which is beyond question is that you will never encounter any musical instruments in the walls of their places of worship – certainly during their times of worship. Some sects of this religion go so far as to totally ban all forms of music whether secular or sacred.

For some reason this bias against music and song in worship really bothered me. I couldn’t understand why, until I started thinking about the character of God. When we think about the nature of God, we often consider His characteristics of love, grace, compassion, justice, faithfulness and the like. However, what I hadn’t realized until the question about the other religion was posed to me is that song is also a part of God’s nature.

When we look at mankind we see indirect evidence of this. Genesis 1:27 states that God created mankind in His own image. Something which all races and cultures have in common is music and song. The styles and modes of song differ from place to place, but there is no human culture in which there is no song at all. Since song is universal, and since mankind is made in God’s image, we can say that song is a reflection of one aspect of God’s character.

However, there is also direct evidence in Scripture that song is part of God’s nature. Hebrews 1:3 states that Jesus “…is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, …” (NIV) Then, in chapter 2, verses 11 through 12 it says, “Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.”” (NIV)

To put it another way, since Jesus is the exact representation of God, and Jesus sings, then singing is a part of God’s nature. (In case anyone balks at the notion of Jesus singing. Take a look at Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26.)

There are even more direct statements which indicate that song is part of God’s nature. Zephaniah 3:17 says, “The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” (NIV)

Psalm 68:6 confirms this as well. “God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.” (NIV)

Since we have been created in God’s image and since we are being recreated into the image of Christ, who is the exact representation of God, it follows that it is not only appropriate for us to sing, it is imperative that we sing. We cannot become like Christ and God if we do not sing. This also means that any religion which discourages or forbids singing (and there are some like the one I was asked about) hinders people from becoming like God. It prevents people from being restored to the divine nature we once had before sin entered the world.

Here’s something to think about: In recent years with the proliferation of “praise teams” and the like who “lead” the church in worship, we have gone more and more from a participatory model to one of performer-audience. I understand why this happened. Churches hoped to attract more people by the excellence of the music – particularly in this day and age when the common person has access to so much high-quality music outside of the church assemblies. The average, untrained person in the pew simply cannot compete with the musicians on stage. A second trend which favors the trained musician is that vast majority of contemporary music is hard for the average person to sing. The melodies are not memorable, and the timing is complicated. To put it another way, most contemporary “praise” or “worship” songs were written for soloists, rather than with congregational singing in mind.

However, this emphasis on professionalism has a downside. If you look around most worship services you see very few people singing. Most are merely listening to the band and the vocalists on stage. I can’t help but wonder if our bias toward the performer on stage is counterproductive. Are we hindering the very thing which we hope to accomplish, which is to help people become more like God? Are we stunting the development of their divine nature by suppressing their song? Perhaps it’s time for us to reevaluate. Perhaps it’s time for us to let the people sing!

Hook-ups, Marriage and Polygamy

The other day I re-read one of those dystopian stories written at the height of the “Cold War” when everyone half expected the major powers to annihilate each other by means of a nuclear bombardment. In the story a couple managed to anticipate the destruction of their city and escape to a remote ranch house used as a hunting lodge. They wanted to be married but were afraid to go to town to find a preacher, lest their retreat be discovered. Lacking a preacher, they simply knelt together and repeated the marriage vows. After doing so, they regarded themselves as husband and wife.

In one sense, the story was refreshing in that, unlike in the majority of contemporary yarns which take unmarried sex for granted and normal, the couple didn’t just take “a roll in the hay.” They were unwilling to sleep together without first making a commitment to each other.

But, on the other hand, the story raises an important question: What constitutes a legitimate marriage? Before we can answer that, we have to answer an even more fundamental question: What is marriage? Many in our culture scoff that it is nothing more than a piece of paper. On the other hand, others demand that we not only recognize, but endorse and applaud same-sex marriage. To them, marriage must be far more than a piece of paper or they wouldn’t expend so much energy making sure that everybody and the dog’s uncle accepts it. So, is marriage something trivial or is it something worth fighting for?

To answer to these and similar questions it’s necessary to realize where marriage originated. The short answer is that it originated with God. After creating the first man and woman – Adam and Eve – God brought the two of them together in marriage. Their relationship is the pattern for all subsequent marriages. In reference to it the Bible declares, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24 NIV)

That short sentence contains a world of meaning. For one thing, it tells us that there is a reason and purpose for marriage. In the context, the “reason” the verse mentions is to provide a man with a helper, who is suitable to him (see verse 18). Nor is this idea of help one sided. In his commentary on this verse, the Apostle Paul writes that a husband must provide for and care for his wife (Ephesians 5:29 and context). If a marriage is to fulfill its purpose, the partners will be a mutual help and benefit to each other.

The Genesis account also says that a marriage changes our social relationships. A man no longer identifies himself with his parents. Instead, he and his wife form a new family. That doesn’t mean that a married couple disowns their parents. On the contrary, Scripture makes it abundantly clear that we have a responsibility to care for and to respect our parents. However, a married couple is no longer under the authority of their parents. They are now responsible for their own decisions. They are accountable, not to the families they came from, but to God. In other words, their marriage transforms them into a distinct family unit.

A married couple is also united. They are bound together for good or ill. They are to stick together whatever the circumstances. The word “united” also indicates that a married couple should have the same goals, the same desires and the same purpose. As the prophet Amos said, “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” (Amos 3:3 NIV)

A couple is not only united in marriage, they become “one flesh.” This certainly includes sexual intercourse, but it is much more than that. It implies that the two individual people become a single organism. Their spirits are joined into a new being. This does not mean that marriage partners lose their individual person-hood. They are still recognizable as themselves. However, together they become more than they were apart. The “one” is greater than the single parts from which it was formed. The two are linked on many levels. As the Apostle Paul wrote concerning the church body, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15 NIV) And again, “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Corinthians 11:29 NIV) You can often see this in couples who have been married a long time. Their thoughts are so similar that they will sometimes communicate with a glance or tiny gesture that those around cannot pretend to fathom. They are so “in tune” with each other that a few words are all that are needed. They know what the other is thinking. They are often aware of the other’s presence or absence without a word being spoken.

This “oneness,” by the way, is why divorce is such a serious matter. It is like taking a puppy and ripping it in two.

The other thing which the Genesis account makes clear is that it was God who ordained and instituted marriage. This has huge implications. Marriage is not merely a social construct. It is God, not culture and not the state which determines what marriage is. This is how I put it in one of my novels: “A true marriage is valid whether a government even exists to recognize it. Conversely, if a state recognizes a relationship which falls outside of the covenant established by God, it is not a valid marriage regardless of how loudly the state sanctions it.” (Strangers and Aliens, p. 197)

Though Genesis plainly indicates that it is God who instituted marriage between the man and woman He created, it does not mention the means by which He married them. I deliberately used the word “covenant” in the quote given above. Though not mentioned by that name in the Genesis passage the marriage relationship is a covenant. The prophet Malachi says this explicitly while talking about divorce. “…she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.” (Malachi 2:14-15 NIV) So, according to Malachi, to break faith with your spouse is to violate the covenant of marriage.

The realization that marriage is a covenant relationship clarifies just what is a marriage and when it takes place. A marriage takes place when the parties involved make the covenant vow. Without the vow, there is no valid marriage. If a couple has a license from the state but have not made the covenant vow, in God’s sight they are merely living in state-sanctioned fornication. If a couple has taken the vows, they are married whether the state recognizes it or not. For example, earlier in our history when states denied marriage to slaves it could not thereby invalidate the covenant vows of couples who chose to “jump the broom.” Said couples were married in God’s eyes no matter what the government claimed.

In another of these musings I quoted the definition of covenant provided by Malcolm Smith: “A covenant is a binding, unbreakable obligation between two parties, based on unconditional love sealed by blood and sacred oath, that creates a relationship in which each party is bound by specific undertakings on each other’s behalf. The parties to the covenant place themselves under the penalty of divine retribution should they later attempt to avoid those undertakings. It is a relationship that can only be broken by death.” (Malcolm Smith, The Power of the Blood Covenant, Harrison House, 2002, pp. 12-13) This is why the traditional marriage vows include that phrase, “Till death do us part.” Marriage is intended by God to be an exclusive, unbreakable and life-long relationship between a man and a woman. And, whether people wish to acknowledge it or not, a same sex relationship falls outside of the covenant parameters which God established. Therefore, it can never be a marriage as God defines it – regardless of how any government or court may rule. God set it up; God defines what is valid and what is not.

The idea of marriage as a covenant relationship established by God helps clarify other things in our social relationships. By its very nature a covenant is exclusive. There is no room in it for anyone outside of the covenant. Therefore, since marriage is a covenant, and sexual union is one of the benefits of the marriage covenant it, by its very nature, excludes sexual relationships with anyone outside of marriage. Sexual promiscuity is pervasive in our culture (actually, in most cultures). People think nothing of recreational sex. Many regard the hookup culture as the norm. In reality, casual sex, one night stands, living together and so on are all a cop-out. To indulge is trying to enjoy one of the benefits and joys of the marriage covenant without accepting the responsibility. However, as all too many discover after it is too late, the piper must eventually be paid. God is not mocked. We cannot take what He instituted and pervert it to our own liking without consequences. The emotional and psychological, not to mention the spiritual, toll on those who ignore God’s covenant parameters is staggering. Whatever the short-term pleasures involved may be, the long-term cost is not worth it.

I’m well aware that most of what I’ve written in this essay is not “politically correct.” A great many people would scoff at the idea that God intended for the sexual act to be reserved for marriage and that sex outside of marriage is a parody of the covenant relationship. To many the idea that sex should be exclusive is ludicrous. Someone is sure to bring up polygamy (or polyandry, for that matter). If marriage is an exclusive covenant, then why did God endorse polygamy during the Old Testament period and why did He tell David that if the wives he had weren’t enough He (that is, God) would have given him (that is, David) even more (2 Samuel 12:8)?

I suspect that the answer to this dilemma is the same as why God permitted divorce even though He clearly stated that He hates divorce (Malachi 2:36). Jesus said that the reason God put up with divorce, even though it was no part of His original intent, was because of people’s hard hearts (Matthew 19:8). It was the best that could be done considering man’s fallen nature. Personally, I have never observed a divorce which did not involve at least one hard heart.

However, divorce should never be an option between Christian couples. Instead of becoming harder, our hearts ought to become more tender, both toward God and other people. God is transforming us into the image of Christ and the more Christlike we become the further divorce should be from our thinking. As the Apostle Paul put it: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” (Ephesians 5:22-28 NIV)

Be that as it may, the truth is that we are fallen and live in a fallen world. Therefore, though God did not design it to be this way, we have to face the reality that people have violated the one man, one woman, for life ideal. The consequences don’t just disappear when someone becomes a Christian. Polygamy and polyandry is a problem – in our culture at least in the sense of serial divorce and remarriage.

It becomes even more complex when we encounter other cultures where polygamy is practiced as a societal norm. In the past, some missionaries taught that a man with several wives had to divorce all but one of them before he could become a Christian. My personal view is that was a mistake; actually worse than a mistake – an abomination. Assuming that the wives had taken a covenant vow when entering the marriage (and whether or not we agree with the form, vows are involved in cultures which allow polygamy) the marriage is valid, even though it is not according to God’s intent or ideal. To arbitrarily break that vow because marriage should be monogamous is to invite the penalties of the covenant. No, the man shouldn’t have married more than one woman. But having done so, to divorce all but one is merely compounding the violation of God’s standards. “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?” (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6 NIV)

Whether we like it or not, as our culture becomes more and more pagan, and as we have more and more contact with other cultures, the more we are going to have to confront issues regarding marriage. We need to be clear in our own minds what marriage is and what God intended it to be. A marriage is determined by whether marriage vows have been taken. If they have, then they better not be broken – even if multiple spouses are involved. We must also be clear about the consequences for violating God’s standard. For example, a polygamist may make a wonderful teacher or even an evangelist. But he can never become an Elder in the church (that is a Pastor) because a Pastor (that is a Shepherd or Elder) must (not just should!) be a “one woman man” (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6).

In summary, as the Scriptures admonish us, let’s keep the marriage bed pure! (See Hebrews 13:4.)

Fallen Beauty

My wife and I recently had the opportunity to spend a week at one of our National Parks. We reveled in being outdoors, surrounded by majestic landscapes. The scenery was breathtaking. Rugged peaks, sheer cliffs, alpine meadows, blue lakes, white glaciers and misting waterfalls met our delighted gaze on every hand. There seemed no end to multi-colored rocks, crystal-clear streams, delicate flowers, a wide variety of trees, berries and other plants. Then there was the fauna: multiple species of butterflies, buzzing insects, chipmunks, ground squirrels, woodpeckers, ptarmigans, deer and moose, not to mention grizzly bears. Added to the wonder were crisp breezes and clouds of fantastic shapes. And how does one describe the sound of vast watersheds? We were constantly threatened with sensory overload.

We live in a beautiful world. And it’s not confined to the National Parks. Each place has it’s own charm. Even something as mundane as a fruit fly hovering around a windfall pear is a marvel. How can something so tiny be so perfectly formed? How can such a small creature be equipped not only to fly, but fly such long distances relative to its size? The more I observe nature the more wondrous it seems. And why is it so gorgeous? Of what utility is beauty? God could have made everything strictly functional – and drab. (To those who say that God gave the birds bright plumage in order to attract mates, I reply that not all birds are so equipped. Both male and female sparrows are the same brown. The likes of buzzards who look rather repulsive also seem to give the lie to the argument.) For whatever reason God, in general, seems to have constructed things in such a way as to delight, as to serve a useful purpose. Even those birds and animals which appear drab have other qualities which amaze and stir our wonder. I can’t help but consider if the only purpose some things have is to be pretty and/or to give pleasure. As the Apostle Paul writes, God “…richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Timothy 6:17 NIV)

As much as I enjoyed the beauty surrounding us in the Park, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have been. The truth is that we live in a fallen world. What we have now; what we see around us – as beautiful as it is – is not what God intended. When Adam and Eve sinned it not only ruptured their relationship with their heavenly Father, it also distorted all of nature in ways we cannot begin to fathom. Paul indicates that with the entrance of sin, this entire universe became subject to decay. To put it another way, it is in some way being held hostage to sin. It groans waiting for release – which will not come until mankind is fully redeemed. (See Romans 8:19-22.)

I think it is fair to say that Satan has been trying to pervert and destroy God’s work ever since Creation. The Bible says that there is a direct connection between sin and environmental disasters. For example, “Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites, because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying.” (Hosea 4:1-3 NIV) In light of this the “Environmental Movement” has things backwards. They are concentrating on symptoms rather than the cure. Instead of trying to rescue the beasties, they should be addressing sin. Creatures of all sorts will remain under stress; the very earth will suffer as long as sin continues.

Now, even those of the “Young Earth” persuasion concede that mankind has been here for at least 6,000 years. If after being under assault for 6,000 years there is still so much residual beauty left in the Earth to delight us, what must it have been like before sin ruined it? It’s even more remarkable if, as I believe, mankind has been here for a lot longer than 6,000 years. The mind simply boggles at the attempt to visualize how things must have been at the beginning when everything was untainted.

We are immersed in fallen beauty. But this marred and decayed beauty not only points back to the perfection of Creation, it also points to another reality. The universe as we know it is destined to die. It will perish in a cataclysm of fire which will destroy the very elements (2 Peter 3:10). However, the same prophecy which predicts the dissolution of nature also assures us that it will be replaced. Those who are in Christ are promised, “…a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.” (2 Peter 3:13 NIV)

That new nature will be fundamentally different than the one we know now. We don’t know what it will be like; we only catch a few glimpses of our new bodies in the characteristics of the risen Christ. As Paul says in another context it will be, “…immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine…” (Ephesians 3:20 NIV) If this old nature is still so beautiful and delightful, how much more will the new one be? The older I get, the more I’m looking forward to it!


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?

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