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Pastors, the Graham Rule, and Wisdom

Another pastor was recently removed from ministry. It has happened before and, sadly, it will happen again. As I write, a series of cases are running through my mind, but one of the themes that unites them is that ministers put themselves in jeopardy by making foolish choices. Before I make my case let us consider some of the criticisms of the Graham Rule, which says that men should not be alone with women who are not their wives. One argument says that the rule is unfair to women since it segregates them from the same pastoral care that men receive. It also is criticized as impractical since, in late-modern life, men and women frequently work together as colleagues including private meetings, dinners, etc. A third criticism is that it tends to cast females as seductresses. Fourth, and finally for our purposes, it is criticized for misidentifying the problem, which is said not to be men being alone with women but in the heart. If men’s hearts are pure, then there is no reason why men and women should not be able to meet privately.

Before responding to the criticisms let us consider one of the situations that has led to the end of otherwise productive pastoral ministries. A pastor, who is happily married, is contacted for counseling by a woman who complains that her husband is abusive. They meet first by telephone, then by video chat, then personally. After a couple of months, however, they begin having an affair. It is discovered and the consequences to the woman’s family are as destructive as they are for the pastor. Consider the young pastor who, in his first real counseling session, meets with a young wife, whose husband was neglectful, and, as it turns out, having an affair with his secretary. It is an emotional meeting. The pastor feels empathy for the woman. She is crying. He is crying. It might lead to something untoward—it does not—not for sexual but for emotional reasons. Almost as soon as the meeting is over the pastor realizes how foolish he had been, how easily things might have spun out of control. Thereafter, he resolves never to meet alone with another female, never to place himself and a woman in such jeopardy.

Similar cases could be multiplied. Pastors know that what I am saying is true. It is a matter of wisdom. A now-deceased pastor friend confessed to me in his 60s, “I used to be more selective about the women I find attractive. Now they all seem attractive to me.” Men who pastor are still men. They become pastors because they become convinced that they have an internal call to ministry and that sense of calling is confirmed by an external call from the church. Most of the time, pastors are moved with compassion for those with whom they come into contact. Pastoral ministry is a helping vocation. Listening to people confess their sins, fears, and struggles necessarily creates a kind of intimacy. We hear people’s darkest experiences and fears. If hearing those things does not move one to compassion, sympathy, and empathy, one probably should not be in ministry.

Here is the problem: the line between empathy and inappropriate feelings can become blurry very quickly for a variety of reasons. God only calls sinners to pastoral ministry, which is often a demanding, high-stress vocation. The pastor’s marriage can too often become one of the casualties of ministry. What happens when the pastor’s marriage is not perfect, when he and his wife just had an argument because he had an emergency hospital call last night and now a counseling meeting this morning? When is he going to have time for her and for the children? After the counseling session, the female counselee reaches out to touch the pastor’s hand softly to say thanks for meeting with her and for listening to her so attentively—something her “slob of husband” never seems to do—and there’s a little electricity, a spark. There is an understanding look, a glance, a connection. Nothing happens right away, but as he goes back to his home office he thinks about that moment and so does she. We know how this story ends.

This is why there is a Graham rule. Certainly it has to be applied with grace, charity, and wisdom. One can imagine ways the rule could be used to justify cruelty. Of course, such abuses are not what I have in mind. Further, the world has changed since Billy Graham began ministry, thus making the application of the rule more complicated, but as far as I know, there were never any allegations of immorality against Graham. The scenarios surveyed here have centered on counseling because this is where and how ministerial indiscretions often happen. In just about every case of which I have heard counseling was involved. There are other kinds of cases, e.g., pastors and their secretaries, pastors and a member of their staff (e.g., a musician or children’s ministry director) but even these cases share commonalities with the counseling scenarios: too much time alone, the development of emotional intimacy, empathy, misdirected affection.

Does the Graham rule adversely affect female counselees? It may. There are some ways to mitigate the problem. One counselor I know only meets with counselees when his wife is present (not in the room but about the house). Another way is to make use of modern video technology. Just as police interviews are recorded on video, some pastors have a video camera in the counseling room where the video is stored remotely for his and her protection. Other pastors only meet in some public place, e.g., a coffee-house or a restaurant. We have guidance in holy Scripture, which says, “Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3–5). Having an older woman with some advanced theological education, who is equipped as a counselor, might resolve many of these issues. Perhaps the pastor and an older female counselor might meet together with a female counselee. None of these solutions is ideal but they are preferable to private meetings which sow the seeds of sin and destruction.

Perhaps the Graham rule does create awkwardness in our late-modern culture but divorce and being defrocked is also, to say the least, awkward. Does the rule presume that all females are Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39:7–18)? Not at all. Rather, the intent of the rule is to recognize history and reality. Male-female relationships are different than same-sex (not homosexual) relationships. Relationships between men and women are not the same as relationships between men or relationships between women.

The fourth objection is the most powerful but also ultimately insufficient. To say the obvious: we live in a fallen world. Male-female relations have been complicated since the fall and they will not become simple again until the new heavens and the new earth. It is true that all human relationships are complex but male-female relations are especially so. As suggested above, adulterous relationships (especially among pastors and counselees) do not always begin as a sexual relationships. Often they begin as emotional relationships, which, left unchecked, can become sexual relationships. Objection #4 has some weight. The problem is the heart, but the pastor’s heart is corrupt and so is the counselee’s. Yes, the pastor needs to check his heart but the objection (at least as I understand it) seems to underestimate the chemistry can develop between a man and woman that would not ordinarily develop between two heterosexual men or between two heterosexual women. It is hard to quantify this chemistry, but one would think that anyone over 30 would have enough experience to recognize it.

One solution is accountability. In the nature of things, pastors are practically self-supervised. They function as if they were self-employed. Many work partly out of their home but meet with parishioners and others away from home. They see their supervisors (the ruling elders) weekly but in the nature of things it is almost impossible for ruling elders to supervise the day-to-day work of the pastors under their care and supervision. Yet they can help by keeping a regular (even weekly) record of counseling appointments and contacts with whom is the pastor meeting, for what purpose, and under what circumstances. Expanding the counseling staff (as suggested above) might also alleviate some of the challenges. Of course, if the minister is determined to get around guardrails, there is little that can be done but then we are looking at the sort of fundamental heart-problem envisioned in objection #4.

We need to reconsider the biblical qualifications for pastoral ministry. In 1 Timothy 3:2 Paul says that the Episkopos (ἐπίσκοπος) must be “above reproach” (ἀνεπίλημπτον). He says the same in Titus 1:6–7. Paul tells us what this means: “the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable” and “his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination . . . he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain.” Some of these qualifications are easier than others. Monogamy would not seem to be too much to expect but “sober-minded” and “self-controlled” are more difficult. Debauchery can be hard to detect but typically someone in the congregation (e.g., the church secretary) knows about it but does not say anything out of fear or a misplaced loyalty. A quick temper and drunkenness are also symptoms that a man is not qualified or if he is already ordained and serving, is stumbling badly and about to go off the rails altogether. This is not a call for a Spanish inquisition, but it is a call for godly wisdom, for realism, and in some cases, for re-engagement with the daily life of the minister.

When a minister falls it is an occasion for reflection, for self-examination, and for reconsidering whether the way we are conducting our ministry is wise and godly.

In Praise of the Ordinary Pastor: A Review

[D.A. Carson. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.]

Since 1978, Don Carson (PhD, University of Cambridge) has been research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Previously, he served as academic dean at Northwest Baptist Theological College in Vancouver, British Columbia. In addition to writing or editing nearly sixty books, Dr. Carson serves as co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition.

Dr. Carson’s unique credibility in writing this book is that he is the son of the ‘ordinary’ pastor of which he writes. Throughout the book, Dr. Carson provides snippets of vital commentary on his father’s life and ministry to teach ‘ordinary pastors’ how to shepherd the flock of God and to deal with one’s insufficiency for such a grand task. Throughout, he points readers back to faithfulness to the Lord, faithfulness his biological father consistently displayed.

SUMMARY

Tom Carson, a missionary pastor in the French province of Quebec with his wife Margie, spent the majority of their ministry between two cities, Drummondville and Hull. Tom’s heart for the people of Quebec caused him to spend the majority of his career reaching them with the gospel, a major difficulty since most of the Francophone were Roman Catholics.

Tom’s years before Vatican II were spent in Drummondville. He remained faithful to his Master and worked tirelessly to reach difficult people. His church in Drummondville never grew past 50 members despite his labors of going door-to-door with the gospel, faithful expository preaching, and fervent prayer. While many pastors at that time in that area gave up, Tom stayed faithful. However, he often blamed himself for the ‘appearance’ of fruitlessness in his ministry. He consistently critiqued his shortcomings as a pastor, husband, and father having very little grace for himself. In the difficult years at Drummondville, he prayerfully made a vow to his wife that if things didn’t change, they would seek to leave this work.

After little improvement, he resigned as pastor and moved to Hull, a metropolitan suburb of Montreal where Tom was hired to a secular position as an English to French translator; however, his work as a minister continued. He flourished in his new role as an associate pastor under Jacques Alexanian at Montclair Baptist Church. For the next 20 years, he filled pulpits, provided wise council to elders, made home visits, and helped disciple the next generation of Canadian pastors. He began seeing the fruit of more converts as God stirred up uncertainty in the Catholic Church. Journal entries at this time consisted of more joy than sorrow—until his wife Margie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Tom’s role as pastor phased out as his wife’s condition worsened and she needed more of his attention. Tom’s caring for his ailing wife was a true example of Christ ministering to his church. After his wife went home to the Lord, Tom resumed his role as pastor in Hull until he died in 1992.

Etched on his tombstone are Jesus’s words from John 12:24: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (147). Tom Carson sowed many seeds in his life, but the fruit revealed itself at his death as many people began to testify of the grace of God displayed by this faithful servant. His legacy lives on in the lives of converts and his children who love the Lord and serve His Church.

EVALUATION

In Christendom the most revered people are often the most extraordinary. This is unfortunate since the majority of people called into ministry will not experience ‘success’ as defined by our modern church culture. D.A. Carson wrote Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastorso that his father’s life and ministry might take our minds off our shallow views of success and elevate them to the greater goal: faithfulness to the end (13).

D.A. Carson stayed true to the task by presenting his dad’s ordinary life vividly through his father’s journals and contextual commentary. Tom Carson didn’t embody what people think about when they think of a “successful” pastor. He was simply ‘ordinary.’ Outside his sphere of influence, no one would have known that he was a Baptist pastor to the people of Canada. But the Lord knew, which is what matters most.

One potential pitfall in writing biography is to paint a positive picture of the subject while neglecting their shortcomings. This happens out of authorial bias for the subject being written about. Dr. Carson could have fallen into this pitfall by writing about his father, but he did not. He presented his father’s story in a way that elevated his strengths but also gave honest (and respectful) insight into his father’s weaknesses. One of the more profitable parts of the book occurs in the chapter about Tom’s discouragement and despair as Don extracts nine encouragements that pastors should take from his father’s ministry (92-96). He praises his dad’s faithfulness to Christ and family, self- knowledge, and work-ethic while also critiquing his lack of grace for himself when it came to his view of his shortcomings. His commentary on his father’s vices did not try to defend his father or make excuses for him, but rather counsels the reader how his father should have acted or thought in accordance with the gospel of grace. This added value to the book and gave pastors, who struggle with the same problems, instruction and encouragement for the future.

CONCLUSION

The example of Tom Carson’s life is worthy of every pastor’s imitation. Many pastors need the encouragement and instruction this book provides as we continually ask with the apostle, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16). Tom’s story shifts our eyes from earthly ideas of ministerial success to what Paul desires in Acts 20:24: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” This was Tom Carson: an ordinary pastor who remained faithful to the end. May God give us the grace to do likewise.

Christian Liberty is Not License

Abounding grace to sinners (Romans 5:20), i.e., God’s free favor to the undeserving, leads to Christian freedom but not to licentiousness (living without norms). Liberty is not libertinism. This doctrine is at the heart of the Reformed doctrine of the Christian life. This is part of our inheritance from the Reformation. The Medieval church had placed God’s people under countless man-made rules. Luther announced the Protestant rejection of these rules in favor of God’s Word as the final authority for the Christian faith and Christian life (sola scriptura) in The Freedom of the Christian Man in the fall of 1520.

Following Luther, the Reformed were great advocates of the doctrine of Christian liberty. When we think about the Reformed faith and about some of its leading lights, e.g., John Calvin (1509–64), however, we might not think of Christian liberty. This is especially so since Calvin’s opponents have delighted for most of the last 500 years in portraying him as a grim, joyless tyrant. Calvin scholar Jeanine Olson contradicts that narrative: “These reformers were not teetotalers. Genevan pastors received part of their pay in wine.” 1Jeanine E. Olson, “Church and Society: Calvin’s Theology and Its Early Reception,” in J. Todd Billings and I. John Hesselink ed., Calvin’s Theology and Its Reception (Louisville: WJKP, 2009), 204. The Reformed were serious about their faith and the Christian life but they were not joyless machines. The enjoyed family, friends, fellowship, and the good things God has provided in this life.

ON CHRISTIAN LIBERTY . . . AGAIN

Many modern Christians, especially who have been deeply influenced by Pietism (i.e., the desire to experience God directly, without the use of means such as the preaching of the Gospel, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper) and those who have been influenced by varieties Fundamentalism (i.e., the reduction of Christian orthodoxy to a few marks such as abstinence from alcohol, premillennialism, the length of the creation days, King James Only-ism, and strict dress codes), should understand the Reformation break with Medieval legalism in the doctrine of the Christian life. Those Pietists and Fundamentalists have lived under something very much like the thing that the Protestant Reformers rejected. This is because there lives in the heart of every person a little tyrant longing to stand in the place of God.

Those who are emerging from Pietism (the Quest for Experience) and Fundamentalism (the Quest for Certainty), who are just discovering the Reformation doctrines of grace (salvation by God’s free favor alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and the Christian faith and life normed finally by Scripture alone) can sometimes react ungraciously against their Pietist or Fundamentalist past. This phase has been dubbed “the cage stage”—because those who are going though it need to be placed in a cage until they get over it—which can lead to excesses in the other direction. Sometimes this can mean the abuse of alcohol or turning liberty into license. One might see newly Reformed folk doing more than enjoying a beer or a glass of wine with some friends but drinking to excess or even doing what the Apostle Paul says not to do: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18; NASB).

Against the Pietists and Fundamentalists, who impose man-made rules, whether well-intentioned or ill, we must assert the reality of Christian freedom and the uniqueness of Holy Scripture as the final norm for the Christian faith and the Christian life. The Pharisees sought to put a “fence around the law” as they said. They counted 613 laws in the Torah and they established rules to keep Israelites from violating those laws, or so they thought. They accused Jesus of teaching his disciples to break their traditions. Our Lord replied, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:2; ESV). He placed the Word of God over their good intentions, over their fence around the law. He accused them of making the Word of God “void” by their traditions and rules (Matthew 15:6).

WINE MEANS WINE

So, we should judge the Pietist and Fundamentalist rules against any use of alcohol. They are convinced that Scripture forbids the use of any intoxicating drink and have developed elaborate theories about why “wine” in the Scriptures cannot refer to a potentially intoxicating drink. The evidence against this supposition is overwhelming. Almost from the beginning of the history of salvation we see that wine is potentially intoxicating. One of the first things Noah did after leaving the ark was to plant a vineyard. He knew that what Psalm 104:15 says is true, that God has given us wine to gladden our hearts. Apparently, however, as soon as the vineyard gave him grapes, he made wine and with it he got drunk: “He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent” (Genesis 9:21; ESV). The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX), which was influential on New Testament vocabulary and usage uses the word οἶνος (oinos), which is the same word used in the NT. It means “a beverage made from fermented juice of the grape, wine.” 2Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. S.v., οἶνος.

The wine Noah drank was intoxicating. When Paul says “be not drunk with wine” he uses the very same noun that the LXX used in Genesis 9:20. At Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles, they were accused of being drunk with wine. Peter denied the charge (Acts 2:13–14). The wine about which they were talking was potentially intoxicating because it was fermented. It was alcoholic. The wine that our Lord Jesus made by a miracle for the wedding at Cana was not grape juice. The wonder was that the host had saved the good wine for the end of the feast, after people had been drinking and eating for days (John 2:10). John uses the same noun there as is used regularly for a fermented, potentially intoxicating drink. Grape juice is good but it is not intoxicating.

Scripture does not condemn Noah for drinking but implicitly for getting drunk. Paul does not forbid the drinking of wine but the abuse of wine. Indeed, Paul commended to Timothy the drinking of wine (same noun): “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23; ESV). Deacons are not required to be teetotalers (completely abstaining from wine) but “dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain” (1 Timothy 3:8; ESV). Paul distinguished between drinking wine and addiction to wine, or what we today call alcoholism.

We could make analogous points about the use of tobacco. The Pietists and the Fundamentalists may not approve but their disapproval is not the Word of God. Whether one smokes or drinks is a matter of Christian liberty and wisdom. There may be wisdom in abstaining from these, but their use is a matter of wisdom and liberty. There are times when it is edifying to others to abstain. There may be those in the body who, because of their background, cannot or should not partake. Perhaps it may lead them to stumble back into unbelief. Paul instructs us here:

Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves (Romans 14:20-22; ESV).

When the Pharisee (e.g., the Fundamentalist or Pietist) seeks to impose his rules upon us, we might well resist by taking a drink or a puff, if only to assert our freedom and to rebuke his legalism but when the weaker brother’s spiritual welfare is at stake, we must love him as we ourselves would want to be loved were we in his shoes. For the recovering alcoholic, especially in the early days of sobriety, even the smell of alcohol can be an almost unbearable temptation.

ON LIBERTY AND DISCRETION

Christian liberty and discretion applies to a range of issues. For example, marijuana, in states where it has been legalized, its use is a matter of liberty and wisdom. Believers may be free to use it, but it may be wiser to investigate it first and possibly to abstain. Why? Prospective marijuana users should know, among other things, that the THC content (the active ingredient) of marijuana is considerably higher today than it once was and carries with it associated risks, including addiction.

Business practices, where they do not violate God’s moral law, are a matter of liberty. For example, where the medieval church forbade the charging of interest on loans, the Reformed have always engaged in commerce and even lending at interest (usury, in the broad sense). In Geneva, however, interest rates were sharply limited, but the charging of interest was permitted. The older Reformed piety was strictly opposed to games of chance (gambling, cards, dice, slot machines, etc.), but not to calculated risks (e.g., investing). Arguably, were one to study horses the way one studies the performance of a company, one might justify betting on horses. It is more difficult to see a justification for games of chance. 3I am using the word chance here to describe our experience of relative randomness not to minimize divine sovereignty.

There may be some ambiguity about what constitutes “cussing.” For example, in Philippians 3:8 Paul uses strong language about his former life. It has been translated politely as “dung.” Scripture is not prudish. It records a lot of gross sins quite colorfully. Yet, Scripture also uses euphemisms, polite expressions, e.g., Peter’s words to Simon the Magician in Acts 8:20. “To destruction with you and your money” almost certainly a euphemism for hell, as J. B. Philips indicated in his paraphrase: “To hell with you and your money.”

Still, Scripture gives no place for license: Paul says, “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” (Ephesians 4:29; ESV) and “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4; ESV). We should note that Paul remonstrated twice with the Ephesians about this in the plainest possible terms.

There is liberty of speech. Context matters. In some cultures, plain talk about ordinary life is considered acceptable, even expected. On the farm there are certain ways of referring to ordinary processes that are not offensive to farmers and ranchers but that are not appropriate for church or a ladies tea. Paul gives us a test: is what I am about to say edifying? Is it appropriate? Wisdom and discretion are essential here. The cage-stager is enthused about his newfound freedom, but he typically lacks discretion and wisdom.

So, against the Pietist and Fundamentalists we must continually reassert Christian liberty. Against the libertine, however, who will be governed by no law, not even love, we must assert limits. Love limits us. Grace frees us from the arbitrary rules of the Scribes and Pharisees, but divinely revealed laws and wisdom and discretion and love limit us.

[This article originally appeared at Abounding Grace Radio under the title, “What Hath Beer to Do With Calvin? Christian Liberty is Not License.”]

References   [ + ]

1. Jeanine E. Olson, “Church and Society: Calvin’s Theology and Its Early Reception,” in J. Todd Billings and I. John Hesselink ed., Calvin’s Theology and Its Reception (Louisville: WJKP, 2009), 204.
2. Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. S.v., οἶνος.
3. I am using the word chance here to describe our experience of relative randomness not to minimize divine sovereignty.

More Than Mere Happiness

Americans want to be happy and yet we’re more unhappy each year. And we have various surveys to prove it.

I recently learned about one survey conducted by the United Nations in a news story entitled, “New Survey Shows Americans Are Unhappier Than They’ve Been in Years.” The article explains the methodology of the survey and notes America’s declining happiness:

Americans are as unhappy as they’ve been in years—and it seems to be a trend. That’s one of the main takeaways from the recently released annual ‘World Happiness Report,’ put out to coincide with the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness. The report, which has been released every year since 2012, surveyed 156 countries using six metrics: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, the freedom to make life choices, social support, generosity, and perceptions of corruption. And despite having a strong economy and low crime rates, the U.S. dropped in the ranking for the third straight year and is now the 19th happiest nation on Earth. (The happiest? Finland, apparently.) That’s America’s worst showing ever. 1Alex Ward, Vox.com, March 21, 2019.

Perhaps sensing this unhappy state of the Union, the Jonas Brothers are now back together hoping to spread happiness one trite pop song at a time. Have you seen their new documentary Chasing Happiness? Is their new album Happiness Begins on your playlist? Do you have tickets to their world Happiness Begins Tour? It will be interesting to see if the Jonas Brothers can help us in the rankings next year.

Well, pastors don’t have a pop song or documentary or world tour to offer their churches, but something infinitely better: the gospel.

In a recent sermon from Acts 13:13-43, I recounted how Paul and Barnabas were asked to “give a word of encouragement” (v. 15) in the synagogue in Antioch. What Paul says is instructive for us in our pursuit of happiness. Of all the encouraging things he could say, he focuses on the person and work of Christ. For there is no more encouraging word than the word of the cross.

The heart of Paul’s sermon is found in v. 23 as he moves from king David to Jesus: “Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.” Paul announces that Jesus is the fulfillment of a promised heir to David’s throne, a promise long expected by God’s people because of biblical texts like 2 Samuel 7:12-13, Isaiah 9:7, and Isaiah 11:1-11.

What’s so encouraging about the person and work of Christ?

Paul begins by reminding his listeners of John the Baptist’s ministry: “Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie’” (vv. 24-25).

John announced the arrival of someone “the sandals of whose feet [he] was not worthy to untie.” The person of Christ is so majestic, regal, and awe-inspiring that John considers himself unworthy to perform the most menial task of untying Jesus’ sandals. What kind of a person is this? Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, described him thus:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. 2Colossians 1:15-20, ESV

In a word, Jesus is God. And in the gospel God is for us, forever. This is enough to make the heart glad.

Paul goes on to declare the work of Christ:

And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. 3Acts 13:28-31, ESV

Jesus died a substitutionary death for sinners and rose triumphantly from the grave to secure the believer’s eternal life. Is there any happier news?

More than mere worldly happiness, pastors long for their churches to be encouraged in Christ. For that is better by far. Indeed, as Psalm 63:3 declares, “the steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.” And the love of God is seen most clearly in the gospel. Therefore, week in and week out, to the gospel we must go.

Unless, of course, your church doesn’t need any more encouragement.

References   [ + ]

1. Alex Ward, Vox.com, March 21, 2019.
2. Colossians 1:15-20, ESV
3. Acts 13:28-31, ESV

Does Your Faith Offend Enough People?

I propose a new church-growth model: Preach in such a way where you try to offend as many peoples’ sensibilities as possible. Throw as many stumbling blocks in front of religious people as you can. Unashamedly hold out the apparent foolishness of Christian dogma to the skeptical.

For the uninitiated, adherents of church-growth seek to apply the scientific method to make disciples. At its best, church-growth is dedicated to removing as many barriers to the gospel as possible in order that a church can “just connect someone to Jesus.” So, a practitioner might study a particular cultural context of any given neighborhood or region, determine what aspects of Christianity might resonate best among the people there, and champion that aspect. Or a practitioner might attempt to scale evangelism as one does in factory production. X number of gospel conversations should net Y conversions. Or, disenfranchised by both as being decidedly inauthentic, a practitioner might advocate lifestyle evangelism as the means for church growth, stating they’ll preach the gospel with words if necessary. The evangelical industrial complex has birthed entire enterprises dedicated to so-called church growth.

This is a noble, but perilous pursuit. In reality, all of these models neuter the gospel of its power. Scrubbing the gospel to make it marketable actually empties Christianity of its distinctiveness. I can anticipate an objection: “It is good that we ‘should not trouble those who turn to God’ with all the trappings which accompany Christianity today because at #compass.church we want people to find the right way.” I’m suggesting that one can repackage Christianity to such an extent that the way one finds is not the way that leads to life.

Often, the so-called “trappings” causing the stumbling of an American unbeliever are not Acts 15 obstacles. Some in the early church initially struggled to integrate Gentiles into predominantly ethnic and culturally Jewish congregations. They believed the Gentiles should undergo circumcision and submit to the ceremonial law, in effect becoming religious Jews. James reported that Simeon reminded the council that Abraham had been called out from the Gentiles and that God had prophesied He would redeem Gentiles. The council resolved to not make Gentiles take upon themselves the particular markers of Jewish identity and that rejecting Gentile idol worship would be sufficient. The council resolved to remove the stumbling blocks of circumcision and law-keeping, which were their own cultural markers, in order that the Church would not find itself opposing both the work and word of God.

The Apostle Paul seems not only content to keep stumbling blocks in his message but scandalize through his bullhorn: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1–2).

I’m guessing everyone in evangelicalism would agree that they want their people to know Jesus Christ and him crucified. What evangelicalism needs is to rediscover how scandalous a crucified Christ really is. I want to shine a spotlight on the word “scandalous.” 1It is prudent at this point to note that Fleming Rutledge’s work Crucifixion has been formative on my thinking regarding the scandal of the cross, even though I do not interact or quote from this work directly.

Americans are obsessed with scandals. We say we hate them, but in reality, we love watching talking heads discuss the latest Washington or Hollywood scandal. But the cross is not scandalous in the same way that a president’s forays with mistresses might be. No, the cross is scandalous because it offends our sensibilities: God took on flesh in order to die on a cross.

When we state the sentence as a whole, it makes total sense because we are two millennia downstream from the first sermon about the cross. To remind ourselves of how otherworldly this confession is, I’m going to break these pieces up into phrases and force us to look at them.

“God took on flesh” has offended the sensibilities of human beings long before Mary asked, “How can this be?” Since the garden, human beings have sought to become like God. Adam wanted to be like God. Given that he was already made in the image of God, his desire certainly stemmed from a desire to dethrone his Creator and take the seat. Similarly, the ancient Greeks and Romans dedicated themselves to divining the human physic and form. Men would become like the gods through heroic acts. For all, the bonds and limitations of humanity were something to be escaped. For the earliest Christians to preach that a god—God Himself—reversed that order to take on flesh baffled sense.

“To die on a cross” was the delusion of delusions to the ones who first heard the audacious claims of the strange sect from the backwater, distant district called Palestine. There are a number of Roman documents which deride the claims of the earliest Christians as “sick delusions,” “senseless and crazy superstitions.” 2Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 3. Martin Hengel wrote, “The heart of the Christian message, which Paul described as the ‘word of the cross’, ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the idea of God held by educated people.” 3Hengel, 5.  In other words, it was radically uncontextualized and counter-intuitive.

I think the cross is a subject worthy of fresh reflection within the American church. I believe it has received plenty of reflection to be sure, but I’m not sure our reflections on the cross have been most productive. In my experience, reflections on the cross tend to project our worst fears onto it. So, many people reflect primarily on the medical sufferings of the cross with books such as The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Medical Doctor Examines the Death and Resurrection of Christ, The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry, or The Execution of Jesus the Christ: The Medical Cause of Our Lord’s Death During His Illegal Crucifixion. These sorts of books reveal the fact that we project our fears onto the cross—physical torment and pain—instead of allowing the passion narratives to preach to us what we are to see at the cross.

Go back and read the passion narratives. They are remarkably void of any detail related to the crucifixion itself. Matthew and John have the moment of crucifixion of Christ as a temporal clause: “When they crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots” (Matt 27:35; see also John 19:23). Mark and Luke are equally matter of fact: “And they crucified him” (Mark 15:24) and “they crucified him” (Luke 23:33). The only detail recorded by the evangelists is that our Lord was parched upon the cross. Conspicuously absent are the details we have become to associate with crucifixion: the crucified’s tendons being pierced by nails, slow asphyxiation from suspension, and agonizing exposure to the elements. To be sure, crucifixion was a horrific ordeal, and there is no doubt our Lord suffered those things. But they do not appear to be what the Holy Spirit inspired for our edification.

What we do know about the cross is that the ordeal was not primarily about execution but dehumanization. This is critical, I think, to understand why the Corinthians were eager to drop Paul and his crucicentric preaching for the super-apostles who spoke with elegance respectability. Many preachers will attempt to get at the ordeal by comparing the cross to modern forms of execution: imagine wearing a necklace with an electric chair pendant. The point stands, but the electric chair can still be a respectable death of sorts. Death penalty opinions aside, the electric chair itself is not designed to dehumanize a person. It is not done in a public square. A person is afforded last words. A person’s face is covered.

Crucifixion was less an electric chair and more like a lynching. In fact, lynching is probably the closest act comparable to crucifixion. Lynching was designed to inflict supreme shame on an individual and dissuade black Americans from exercising their constitutional rights. 4Ida B. Wells was a journalist who chronicled lynching in America. Her 1900 speech “Lynch Law in America” is a helpful description of how white supremacists employed lynching throughout America but especially in the South. See Ida B. Wells, The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader, ed. Mia Bay (New York: Penguin, 2014). The Romans employed crucifixion—much like the Persians and Carthaginians who bequeathed the practice to them—to wage war and break rebellious spirits among a conquered people. 5See Hengel, 46. The point was not to simply end the criminal’s life but to humiliate anyone associated with a given insurrection or rabble-rousing.

Thus, as Hengel wrote, “No wonder that the young community in Corinth sought to escape from the crucified Christ.” 6Hengel, 18. Emphasis original. He continued:

When in the face of this Paul points out to the community which he founded that his preaching of the crucified messiah is a religious ‘stumbling block’ for the Jews and ‘madness’ for his Greek hearers, we are hearing in his confession not least the twenty-year experience of the greatest Christian missionary, who had often reaped no more than mockery and bitter rejection with his message of the Lord Jesus, who had died a criminal’s death on the tree of shame. 7Hengel, 19.

This shame is what the author of Hebrews was getting after when he wrote that Christ “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2). The Corinthians would find nothing respectable in the preaching of their crucified Lord. I hope by now the paradoxical nature of that phrase “crucified Lord” is coming into focus. The “stumbling” of the Jews and confusions at “folly” among the Greeks is not because Paul’s preaching was unclear. In fact, quite the opposite was true. No one in their right mind would pledge allegiance to a crucified κύριος.

This fact is precisely why Paul sought to establish their faith through the preaching of such a radically uncontextualized, stumbling-block laden, foolish message. He explained: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:2–5). Paul was utterly unconcerned with the respectability of his message. In fact, he thought that it would be best for the Corinthians if he amplified the very stumbling block and folly with which they struggled. It that sort of preaching, the power of God is manifest: People come to faith in God and are not attracted to the Christian-ish teaching of any particular flavor of the week.

Think of how counter-intuitive this sort of preaching is in our current context. Causing people to stumble would seem to be the worst church-growth strategy on the market today, and yet that might be the problem with the average Christian today.

To make it still more plain: no one is going to object to a cost of discipleship which calls for a laying down of self on account of another. Many nominal Christians are happy to save up for or give to a short-term mission trip to build a room onto an orphanage. That is good, but the Gentiles do that, too. ASPCA is funded by plenty of people forgoing one day’s soy chai latte.

Christ calls his disciples to do something that is hard for us Americans. History has demonstrated that Americans will die for any honorable cause. However, we will hardly pick up and willingly endure shame and humiliation.

A recovery of the shame and humiliation of the cross in our preaching will do more than grow churches. It will disciple Christians for the life our Lord promised us: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15: 18–20).

References   [ + ]

1. It is prudent at this point to note that Fleming Rutledge’s work Crucifixion has been formative on my thinking regarding the scandal of the cross, even though I do not interact or quote from this work directly.
2. Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 3.
3. Hengel, 5.
4. Ida B. Wells was a journalist who chronicled lynching in America. Her 1900 speech “Lynch Law in America” is a helpful description of how white supremacists employed lynching throughout America but especially in the South. See Ida B. Wells, The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader, ed. Mia Bay (New York: Penguin, 2014).
5. See Hengel, 46.
6. Hengel, 18. Emphasis original.
7. Hengel, 19.

Racial Reconciliation and the Glory of Humanity

One of the great privileges I have as a pastor is to be a part of ordination councils. An ordination council is a group of other ordained ministers who are responsible for interviewing a candidate for gospel ministry with respect to his character and competencies consistent with biblical texts like 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:1-9.

At the church where I serve we recently conducted an ordination council. With great joy over the candidate for ordination, we engaged in an approximately 90 minute oral examination. Here’s one of the questions I prepared:

What, according to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, determines that “every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love?” 1Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Article III.

Our current cultural moment makes this a particularly important question for any potential pastor. The issue of racial reconciliation is threatening to divide much of evangelicalism as well-meaning Christians are finding themselves at odds with each other when the gospel gives us ample reason to be united. To overcome the threat of division, pastors must have biblical and theological reasons for the value of human beings that transcend mere worldly arguments. Thankfully, the church has both in God’s Word. In fact, the Bible presents a picture of mankind that is nothing less than glorious—and a picture that puts certain requirements on God’s people. And pastors need to lead their churches into these great realities.

While there is certainly more to say on this issue, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BF&M) is a helpful guide to pastors when it states,

The sacredness of human personality is evident in that God created man in His own image, and in that Christ died for man; therefore, every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love. 2Article III.

The BF&M grounds the dignity and worth of every human being in two great theological truths: 1) the creation of people in the image of God; 2) the fact that Christ died for people.

THE IMAGE OF GOD

We are introduced to the idea of the image of God in Genesis 1:26-27,

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

What does it mean to be created “in the image of God”? It means that we are like God and represent God. Of all that God created, only human beings were endowed with God’s image. This sets human beings apart as the pinnacle of God’s creative work. This is why the psalmist sings,

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. 3Psalm 8:3-5.

Human beings have the astounding privilege of serving as God’s kingly representatives in the world. Endowed with the image of God, we are called to represent him as we act like him.

Of course, the fall of mankind into sin has corrupted his image in us almost beyond the point of recognition. But the faint hint of the image is still seen in sinners. Every human being retains the image of God. As theologians over the course of church history have observed in one way or another, we are “glorious ruins.” Glorious, because we are made in the image of God; ruins, because of our fall into sin through our association with Adam (cf., Genesis 3 and Romans 5). That the image of God in human beings is not totally lost is why James grounds his exhortation to speak well of other people in the still resident image of God,

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 4James 3:5-10.

Christians cannot praise God on Sunday and curse people on Monday (or as early as Sunday afternoon). And pastors know this because of this great theological truth the BF&M affirms: human beings are created in the image of God.

CHRIST DIED FOR PEOPLE

A second reason the confession gives for the sacredness of human beings is the fact that Christ died for people. Consider what John saw in Revelation 5:8–10,

And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

We see that Jesus died for people from every conceivable ethnic background. Jesus’ blood was shed for Jew and Gentile alike. The church in glory will be as diverse as the world. And the confession affirms that this reality is further confirmation that “every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love.”

The BF&M is not a perfect document. But it is beautifully right, if not exhaustive, on this point. And we need pastors who not only see humanity like this but seek to embed this kind of theological thinking in the hearts of their church members. When this happens, our churches will have great value to add to the cultural conversation taking place today regarding racial reconciliation and what true neighbor love should look like.

References   [ + ]

1. Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Article III.
2. Article III.
3. Psalm 8:3-5.
4. James 3:5-10.

What Hath Zuckerberg to Do with Preaching?

In his 2009 Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon wrote: “Preaching today is ordinarily poor.” 1 T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009, 17. Ouch. He explained that your average preacher can neither read nor write. The former causes him to miss the significance of any given text. So, sermons have become a collection of pithy life-truths which “tend to be moralistic, sentimentalistic, or slavishly drafted into the so-called culture wars.” 2Gordon, 59. The latter means “sermons rarely have unity, order, or movement.” 3Gordon, 66. This was due to the vapid content of television and electronic mail. These mediums were reflections of things—not like their corporeal counterparts plays, books, or letters. And they conditioned us all to be satisfied with their reflection. Gordon bemoaned its effect on preaching.

I could say more about this book in summary and commentary, but that’s not the subject of my essay. Instead, I would highly recommend you read Tray Mangan’s excellent review of Why Johnny Can’t Preach.

But 2009 was a decade ago. Facebook was five years old but finally profitable. Twitter was only three years old with a fraction of the users it has today. Both of their IPOs were years away. Instagram would not launch for another year, and the concept for Snapchat had not even yet been conceived. Things, I believe, have gotten worse.

Before anyone accuses me of being a Luddite, I will admit that I have a Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I lead the social media presence of three different organizations. As recent as last Friday, I was agitating for migrating sermon streaming from Facebook to YouTube along with an upgrade in our website’s hosting capabilities. I live in this world, but I’m wondering if we should be of this world.

Now, I was reading The Empire and the Five Kings when a few lines unrelated to the author’s thesis reminded me of Gordon. Bernard-Henri Lévy, who no doubt writes with some grandiosity, observed that social media functions in a way that strips the substance from the world. Social networks “in fact de-socialize, offering the illusion of supposed friends who friend us with a click and unfriend us with another, their accumulation ultimately signifying that we no longer have any friends at all.” 4Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Empire and The Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World. New York: Henry Holt, 2019, 73. Instagram and Snapchat function similarly. Lévy observed that in the past travelers would bring back curiosities or things from their trips. Today travelers “collect ourselves, getting high on narcissism repeated ad infinitum.” 5Lévy, 74. We are content to allow the Internet to store our memories, holding in our hand or pocket “the task of restoring to consciousness the information, encounters, and scraps of memory that they can indeed summon a million times faster than we can. And so we forget.” 6Lévy, 74.

I was in Paris last July. With friends, my wife and I toured Notre-Dame. Would you believe what I thought as I watched the spire and roof burn and collapse just a few weeks ago? I wish I remember what the roof looked like. But I have a dozen pictures of it. So what? Everyone else does. I went to Notre-Dame and yet unloaded the substance of my memory on to a device, which in the end was unable to conjure up the actual memories of being there. I forgot.

Perhaps a third reason needs to be added to Why Johnny Can’t Preach. Johnny can’t preach because neither he nor his congregation can remember. We live in a world where we (and the people whom we serve) have outsourced our collective memories to Zuckerberg’s servers. This is not a moral evaluation, but a statement of fact.

If television had, as Gordon wrote, flattened all events into equal significance, then endless stories and shared posts on social media have rendered human events inane.

One of a preacher’s main tasks is to call all people to remember what God has done in real human history. The Apostles went to great lengths to press for the substance of their memories of Jesus: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it” (1 John 1:1-2).

Our congregations are going to increasingly struggle to see the significance and substance of our message. But the preacher can never collapse into the world of inanity. We are holding out precious and eternal truths for the life of the world.

That probably starts with us personally. I learned from my mistake in Paris. Our little family went out on Saturday, and I left my phone at home. Now, rather than having a dozen pictures my wife and I share memories of our toddler. Every sweet memory is in our head, not outsourced to a server. Lord willing, I won’t forget.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

References   [ + ]

1. T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009, 17.
2. Gordon, 59.
3. Gordon, 66.
4. Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Empire and The Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World. New York: Henry Holt, 2019, 73.
5, 6. Lévy, 74.

Am I Attending the Right Church?

[Editor’s note: The following letter and reply have been made anonymous and published with permission.]

Hey Zach, 

I hope all is well with you and your family! It’s great following along with your progression in the ministry. I appreciate all of your posts religious/political (I’m an avid WSJ reader) and am hoping you’d take time to provide some advice. I’d like to know your thoughts on how to know if my family is at the right church. 

When my wife and I moved to town, we started attending Church of the Highlands. We were immediately enthralled with the Hillsong-Esque worship and the welcoming feel. We’ve become connected and made friends, especially my wife, but I can’t shake some feelings I have.

The church espouses a lot of Christ-centered teaching, but the sermons are always “topical”, which I’m not crazy about. There is usually a theme verse, a few bullet points, and bible verses to go along with each bullet point. I just get the feeling that this is not the way God intended for the Bible to be taught. My wife would disagree with me, but I feel like I’m at a church that’s a class on Christianity 101, which I know is intentional so to be accessible. The big downside is that I feel that biblical literacy gets left out.

 Since our boy was born, I keep thinking about the importance of being involved in the right church. I want to be sure our kids grow up in a church that will provide the most spiritual development and biblical literacy. I know a lot has to come from home, but don’t want the sole source to come from us. 

I could say a lot more about Highlands, but I’m assuming you’re somewhat familiar with it or churches like it. This is something I’ve been praying about for a while and I hope I’ve explained my situation. Thanks in advance.

***

Friend,

Thank you for your kind words. I remember our time working together in ministry fondly. Those were sweet times.

Thanks for trusting me with such an important question: is my family at “the right church”? I believe there is no question of greater importance for a husband and father to settle.

I have never been to Church of the Highlands, but I am familiar with it. My wife attended for a year in college just before we started dating, so I have some second-hand knowledge. That said, I hope to answer in such a way that transcends whether Highlands itself is the right church for you and your family.

I know you’ll agree with this statement, so it’s going to be our starting point: more important than a church being a “right church” is that it must be a true church. Any church that is a “true church” can become the “right church” for you, even if it isn’t right in the beginning.

I agree with this confession: A true church “can be recognized if it has the following marks: (1) The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; (2) it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; (3) it practices church discipline for correcting faults.”1The Belgic Confession, Article 29 I think as I explain each of these points you can see why they are critical.

First, a church cannot be a true church if it does not engage in the pure preaching of the gospel. To be clear, my aim is not to evaluate whether Highlands engages in pure preaching. I only want to cast your vision towards the ideal, and then call you to assess whether Highlands meets or falls short of it. Your concern for expository, or verse-by-verse, preaching is commendable, and I believe that dedicating ourselves to the apostles teaching (Acts 2:42) means that we must discipline ourselves to swim in the text of Scripture. We’d both agree that we could talk about the ocean, get in a boat and sail across a bay, even dip our toes in the water, but unless we got out of the boat into the water, we could not say that we know the ocean. Similarly, I think it is insufficient to skim across a few selections of texts which address any given topic and say that we have dedicated ourselves to the apostles’ teaching.

There are occasions where topical preaching is helpful. The danger, however, lies in an inherent posture of the human heart to create idols in our hearts. We are created to long for One who can grant knowledge. My concern for congregations who sit under topical preaching is that over time, they will do two things: first, they will not learn how to read the Bible, and second, but more concerning, they will become dependent upon a man and not the Word.

When a preacher preaches, he is teaching them how to read the Bible by doing two things. First, he is engaging in a monologue from heaven, declaring with authority: “Thus saith the Lord.” More on that in a moment. Second, he is modeling how one is to read a particular chunk of Scripture. The cumulative effect of this over time is that you, yourself, can confidently open up the Word of God and understand it, having seen it interpreted and applied over and over again. I believe that most people do not know how to read their Bibles beyond a meager selection of “life verses” or truths to obey because they have never had a shepherd bring them to green pasture and show them from where to graze.

Now, his authority to say “Thus saith the Lord” is based in the fact that he merely repeats what the Word of God says, not in the fact that he stands on a stage, behind a pulpit, or sits on a stool. I suspect that you long to hear what God’s will is for your life, and you cannot get that apart from the pure preaching of the gospel. In the pure preaching of the gospel, you would hear about God’s perfect creation, the devastating effects of the fall, the curse of sin, the inability of human beings to please God, the necessity of a representative, the perfect obedience of God the Son, the perfect sacrifice of Christ, his literal death, burial, bodily resurrection, and ascension. You’d hear about obedience to God, and the grace needed to empower you to that end. You’d hear about faith, hope, and love. You’d be reminded to long for a world that is not this world.

I believe that what happens over time in a church where sermons are topical and not expository is that a congregation member eventually follows a man and not God. Now, that might seem like an overstatement, and I think most people at your church would reject it. Hear me out and test what I’m saying.

When a pastor selects a topic to discuss, it is usually immediately practical. Rarely are topic-driven preachers delivering sermon series aimed at developing a systematic theology of, say, God’s providence or goodness in a trial. In my experience, topic-driven preachers tend towards series related to life-direction, relationship, stewardship, or prayer life. These might even be disguised as expository sermon series: for example, a relationship series from the Song of Solomon. Herein a preacher is explaining some general “principles for life” based upon God’s word. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is usually quite good and helpful.

Again, however, what happens over time is that people begin to become accustomed to wanting to know what Pastor So-and-So has to say about any given topic. In the life of the church as a whole, the preaching calendar takes the shape of a given preacher’s interests or comfort level. This conforms the mind of the church to the counsel of the preacher’s mind, not Christ’s mind. A helpful test for you might be to ask yourself: When is the last time I’ve heard a sermon about the ancient Israelites being utterly crushed in God’s judgment by the Assyrians or Babylonians? If it has been a while and you don’t expect for him to get around to it, you might question if the preaching calendar is conditioned more by all sixty-six books of the Bible or just the verses your pastor thinks are immediately practical for your life. I’d argue our doctrine of the authority of God’s word makes all of it immediately practical for you.

On the right administration of the sacraments, I know you know how this should look.

On the practice of church discipline, this is one where I have the most discomfort with many churches today. Of course, church discipline extends beyond excommunication. The primary concern for all Christians should be that the church exists and lives as she is to live: holy and blameless. Are the standards for membership sinless perfection? No. There is, however, a standard of diligent repentance. So, are the people who claim to be members of any given church actually Christians? If the answer is no, how can one call the gathering a church? What makes it qualitatively different than say, a Chick-Fil-A which happens to have a few genuine Christians in there. Church discipline simply means a regulated membership. I do think it is, unfortunately, less rigorous to become a church member in many churches than qualifying for TSA Precheck. We, the people of God, above all else, should care about the purity of God’s church.

If Highlands is a true church, then it could become the right church for you. These three components are certainly not all that one should look for in determining the answer, but it certainly cannot be less than this. You can listen to Hillsong on Spotify if you wish. I would strongly encourage you to prioritize these marks above any style of singing.

If you think that these are present, but it still feels insufficient, I’d encourage you to not settle for less than utterly faithful. Trivial things like greeting ministry, small group organization, song style, architecture, awkwardness, etc. all pale in comparison to the pure preaching of God’s word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the practice of church discipline.

Love you brother. Hope we can catch up soon.

In Christ,

Zach

References   [ + ]

1. The Belgic Confession, Article 29

The Preacher’s Burden

How do you describe the Grand Canyon? A meteor shower? A rainbow after a storm? A wedding day? A newborn baby? These wonders are indescribably beautiful. And, yet, we reach for language to capture what our hearts behold. 

Of course, if this is true of creation, how much more for the Creator? Words fail us when we try to describe the wonders of God. How do you describe, for example, utter holiness? Perfect love? Infinite wisdom? Omnipresence? Omnipotence? Providence? The Trinity? We observe these attributes of God in his word and are often speechless. It almost seems wrong to speak of these things given the inadequacy of words to describe fully what we’re learning. 

This is a particular problem for preachers. After all, this is our job: week in and week out we are tasked with the unenviable burden of helping our churches behold their God. Knowing this, we cry out with the Apostle Paul, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16). 

It is comforting to know that no one less than St. Augustine understood this dilemma. Surely, he was right when he stated, 

My preaching almost always displeases me. For I am eager after something better, of which I often have an inward enjoyment before I set about expressing my thoughts in audible words. Then, when I have failed to utter my meaning as clearly as I conceived it, I am disappointed that my tongue is incapable of doing justice to that which is in my heart. What I myself understand I wish my hearers to understand as fully; and I feel I am not so speaking as to effect this. The chief reason is that the conception lights up the mind in a kind of rapid flash; whereas the utterance is slow, lagging and far unlike what it would convey. 1Augustine, On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed, chapter 2; quoted in David L. Larson, The Company of the Preachers (Kregel, 1998), 89.

Any preacher worthy of the name knows something of Augustine’s lament. Consider Isaiah 6:1-5,

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

How do we describe what Isaiah sees of the majesty of God? How do we relate to our people something of the seraphims’ worship? How do we explain Isaiah’s calling down a divine curse on himself given his sinfulness in the presence of the One who is “holy, holy, holy”? We do our best to proclaim this passage having experienced something of it all week in preparation. But it is highly likely that at the conclusion of our sermon we say to ourselves (or to our understanding spouse) in one form or another, “I have failed to utter my meaning as clearly as I conceived it, I am disappointed that my tongue is incapable of doing justice to that which is in my heart.” Amen, Augustine. 

Not only did Augustine know something of the inadequacy of language to describe God, the Bible is full of declarations of how indescribable God is. Moses, for example, sings in Exodus 15:11, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:2 prays, “There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.” When David considers who God is, he acknowledges in Psalm 139:6, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” And perhaps the clearest exclamation of our utter inability to adequately describe God comes from the Apostle Paul in Romans 11:33–36,

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

As I considered this week’s column, I initially thought I would need to “fix” this problem for preachers. After all, evangelicalism loves to present easy solutions to real (or perceived) problems Christians face. Shouldn’t an article like this not only present the problem for preachers, but also give the 3 or 5 or 8 tidy things to do to remedy it? (On another platform this column title might be, “Five Ways to Describe the Indescribable” or “How Preachers Can Adequately Describe God in 7 Easy Steps.”) 

To do this would not only be unhelpful to preachers, but blasphemous toward God. For the indescribability of God is not a problem to be fixed, but a reality to reckon with. God will never be adequately described by human language. The infinite cannot be fully comprehended by the finite which means language will always fall short. However, that something is not possible in this life does not mean we don’t aim for it. We cannot love God perfectly in this life, but by grace we strive to love him more. We cannot be sinless in this life, but by grace we labor to grow in practical holiness. This is the heart-cry of the apostle when he exhorts the Philippians, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:12-14). 

The glory of God demands that I improve my use of language to help our congregation behold their God. I do this trusting the Lord to use my “poor lisping, stammering tongue” until that day when “in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy power to save.” 2William Cowper, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” 1772.

References   [ + ]

1. Augustine, On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed, chapter 2; quoted in David L. Larson, The Company of the Preachers (Kregel, 1998), 89.
2. William Cowper, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” 1772.

Killing Words

Four words are haunting me: “And their voices prevailed” (Luke 23:23). With these four words Luke described the irreversible wave of fury that crashed on Jesus.

The multitudes had a choice. The crowd could have opted for Barabbas—the convicted insurrectionist and murderer. But instead they chose Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate’s feeble attempts could not persuade the mob otherwise:

But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”—a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted (Luke 23:18-24).

It is easy for us to sit in judgment on those that cried out, “Crucify, crucify him!” We would like to think if we were there we would have acted differently. But honesty compels us to admit we would have done the same—by actively yelling or passively standing by and watching it happen. Either way we are complicit in the crucifixion of Jesus.

But the crucifixion of Jesus is not the whole story. We look through this awful event to the hope of the resurrection. We gaze through the cross to the resurrection and see that even as the voices of the multitude prevailed, God was prevailing.

The Apostle Paul declares the victory accomplished at the cross:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (Colossians 2:13-15). 

What looked like utter defeat was actually God’s cosmic victory over sin, death, and the devil. At the cross sin was atoned for and God’s holy law fulfilled—all in the person of Jesus Christ.

This victory finds its apex in the resurrection (and ascension) of Christ. Good Friday, thank God, gives way to Sunday. Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead the Christian can sing with the apostle: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” It’s gone because, “Death is swallowed up in victory!” (see, 1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

Good Friday is good because it announces to the world what was actually happening at the cross: the death of death in the death of Christ. And so it is good and right for us to sing today,

Behold the Man upon a cross; 
My guilt upon His shoulders. 
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice, 
Call out among the scoffers. 
It was my sin that held Him there, 
Until it was accomplished. 
His dying breath has brought me life; 
I know that it is finished. 

Amen.