Archive | Ministry Pet Peeves

The Perspicuity of Scripture and Why Qualifications of an Elder Matter

Why do the qualifications given by the Apostle Paul in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 matter? Well, it depends. It depends on whether you believe the rest of Scripture matters. The Bible says some hard things. The Bible gives ALL of us a cross to carry. They that lose their lives will gain it. Do not love the world or the things that are in it. Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. Do not return evil for evil. And the list could go on and on. This is where the concept of the clarity (or perspicuity) of Scripture comes in. Does the Bible mean what it says? Can you take it at face value? If you believe that, yes, the Bible does mean what it says even when it says hard things to me or you personally (and it still means those hard things for you and I today), then the qualifications of an elder/pastor should profoundly matter to you. When hard things in Scripture are ministered without grace by a hard man who doesn’t meet the qualifications of an elder, their value for human flourishing as God intended is trampled. 

The qualification of an elder should matter to you first because, well, you believe in the perspicuity of Scripture (if you don’t, this article is written particularly to those who do hold this belief, but you are welcome to listen in). If you believe the Bible means what it says and can be taken at face value, then you by default believe it means what it says about the qualifications of an elder. But, second, if you hold to the perspicuity of Scripture, you also believe in elder authority (Hebrews 13:17). If you don’t believe in elder authority, then the qualifications of the one who holds the office are irrelevant. If you do believe in elder authority (and I do), the qualifications resonate in I Timothy with utmost importance for the rest of how God planned the Church to function. The Apostle Paul presents the role of elder in the Church as one of sacred importance and influence. Pastors are influential. They hold a holy (set apart) role in the Body of Christ, and therefore, the qualifications of the person holding that office matter greatly.

For those who hold to the perspicuity of Scripture and believe that Scripture is the final authority for faith and practice for believers, when we do not obey Scripture on the issue of the qualifications of a pastor/elder, we create very large stumbling blocks for those who do not hold to those foundational beliefs.

Consider these qualifications with me. I’m not going to go through all of them for the sake of time, but I’m going to explore the ones that seem less straightforward and argue that they are actually pretty clear.

[3:1] The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. [2] Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, [3] not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. [4] He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, [5] for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? [6] He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. [7] Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7 ESV)

The first qualification is that an elder be above reproach. The Greek word here means that he is not open to censure, which is severe disapproval often presented in writing. (Note: all definitions here are from Strongs Concordance and Google dictionary.) Above reproach doesn’t mean that an elder never receives criticism. It doesn’t mean that he never makes a mistake. It does mean that his sins, mistakes, and errors do not accumulate to the point of wide, severe disapproval. When formal, written, charges are brought against a man, charges by more than one witness that reflect severe disapproval, this man is no longer fit to be in the office of elder. If you believe in the perspicuity of Scripture.

Another qualification similar to being above reproach is that an elder must be respectable. This word is used one other time in the New Testament, oddly enough when Paul is teaching about women wearing proper or respectable clothing in I Timothy 2. The implication of this word is that the elder does or says what fits the moment. Proper clothing is the clothing that fits the situation, not drawing undo attention to itself because it is inappropriate. The same goes for an elder’s words and actions. He must be someone who does not draw undo attention to himself by saying/doing improper or inappropriate things that do not fit the needs of the moment.

A pastor/elder must also be hospitable. Peter uses this same word when he tells us in I Peter 4:9 to “be hospitable to one another without complaint.” This is one who welcomes people to himself. He isn’t standoffish or unavailable, and he does so without complaining of the intrusion into his family life. This is a hard value to make yourself have if you aren’t naturally gifted this way. But if you believe in the perspicuity of Scripture, this should characterize your life if you are an elder. Why? Because for the office of elder to work as Scripture intends it, for a pastor to shepherd his sheep, he has to be in personal contact with them. The Spirit moved Paul to set up a value system for what God intends His pastors to be, and we are ill advised to minimize something like hospitality because our itching ears prefers someone who can attract thousands with his words.

If a preacher can attract thousands with his words but is not hospitable, there is a different role in the Church for him, evangelist. But he does not meet the qualifications of a pastor/elder. If you believe Scripture.

A pastor/elder should not be violent and quarrelsome, but gentle. This includes verbal violence as well as physical violence. Jokes about beating someone up, expressing a desire to hurt someone, and threats against someone all fall in this category. I’ve written a lot about that here, so I won’t unpack it more in this article.

I want to end with Paul’s closing warning in I Timothy 3 about who should and should not hold the office of elder.

[7] Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

Here, more than any of the other qualifications, I want to call on my brothers and sisters in Christ to value this qualification as a belief in the perspicuity of Scripture demands. I note conservative evangelicals falling into a bad trap of widely labeling outside criticism of evangelical leaders as persecution. That is a dangerous view. If outside criticism of a pastor/elder is mostly persecution to be ignored, then Paul has written an irrelevant phrase here in holy Scripture. But if you hold to the view of Scripture I have, you know what I have just suggested is basically blasphemy. No, this qualification matters, and woe to us who disparage it and write off outside criticism as persecution.

If a man is not esteemed outside of his congregation at some level, outside of the Body of Christ at some level, HE SHOULD NOT HOLD THE OFFICE OF ELDER. If the other pastors in his city are rising up to cry out against him. If his local newspapers, radio stations, and television stations are interviewing multiple people outside of his church who think very poorly of him, he should be removed from the office of elder. Outside public outcry against an elder/pastor is much more likely to be God’s discipline than Satanic persecution, if this passage of Scripture is to be believed. 

Note that almost none of these qualifications in I Timothy 3 are about how much Scripture this elder knows and how well he can teach it. Being able to teach the Word accurately is only 1 out of 14 or 7% of the qualifications Paul gives. Do not read me saying that teaching the Word accurately doesn’t matter! Instead, I contend strongly that teaching the Word accurately isn’t ENOUGH for this sacred role. The ability to teach the Word clearly needs to be accompanied by the fruit of the Spirit in order for a man to qualify for this precious office of sacred influence. This is why Paul give us 13 other qualifications other than being able to teach the Word – because this role is one of enduring influence over people. This is a role that is set apart by God for the long term good of His people, for their flourishing in His image. Paul gives us these sobering qualifications twice, and if you value that precious, old doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, you should value all of these qualifications, and in fact insist on them, in your pastor. When a man who can teach the Word but is lacking in the other qualifications is allowed to continue in this role, it harms people. It diminishes the very Word he is teaching. Those who allow him to stay in office do the same.

On Sarcastic Pastors

I am literally a pajama blogger. I am, in fact, right now typing in my pajamas. I have no authority. No one needs to listen to me. But some of you do seem to consider my opinion, and I feel a need to articulate, at least for myself, why I believe the sarcastic, smart-ass pastor is offensive to God. I’ve thought a lot about it, and I’ve decided to use that word, smart-ass, in this post, by the way. Sometimes, it’s best to call a spade a spade and to name a sin the sin that it is. Scripture models this with brutally honest language at times (there is a difference in brutal honesty and sarcasm, by the way). Whether smart-ass refers to a donkey or the least clean part of the human anatomy, it is an appropriate term for an ungodly, sinful manner of speaking that is tolerated in Christian media and blogs. Half of the readers here will have no idea why I’m explaining why I am using that word. The other half is searching right now for the unsubscribe button on their email. But it is the most appropriate word for an ugly trend I see among some popular Christians who hold the office of pastor in influential churches, so I’m using it. I can be sarcastic too. I can be a smart-ass. It is tempered in myself by a strong conviction not to use sarcasm at the expense of the person who is listening to me speak. But sometimes I do use it sinfully, and when I do, I try to correct it as soon as I catch myself or come to my senses (because sarcasm can inflate you and feed a prideful attitude that distracts you from the virtue of humility and love for your brother).

The Scriptural argument against exploitive sarcasm is so clear that I feel a bit like I’m arguing against pastors tweeting about lusting after their church secretaries. I don’t know why I even need to make this argument, except that I do. Consider the definition of sarcasm.


1. harsh or bitter derision or irony. 

2. a sharply ironical taunt; sneering or cutting remark: a review full of sarcasms. (

The entire point of sarcasm is to cut down. Yet, the Apostle Paul instructs this.

Ephesians 4:29 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.

Here’s the thing about sarcasm, especially publicly spoken sarcasm heard by a broad audience that cuts at a particular person or group of people. It is simply disobedient to Scripture. Even secular, potty-mouthed society recognizes its ugliness, which is why it’s attached the title smart-ass to people who employ it as a regular part of their conversation. Oh, smart-asses are smart. When I use sarcasm, I use it often simply to display my perceived wit and superior knowledge. I’m embarrassed with myself just writing that last sentence. But at times, I have thought, “I’m smart, and here’s a little cutting remark at someone else’s expense to prove it.” But the final 3-letter add-on is the truth. Such wit and superior knowledge displayed by way of cutting down someone else actually reveals you to be either a donkey or the filthiest part of the human anatomy. What it does NOT reveal you to be is a man or woman after God’s own heart, speaking fitting words like apples of gold in settings of silver according to the wisdom of Proverbs.

I hear some who regularly employ cutting sarcasm referred to by others as wordsmiths. But really, they are disobedient Christians who despise the limitations Scripture sets up on the language they can use at the expense of the people God has called them to love or serve. I perceive that other leaders don’t call such sarcastic, cutting pastors out on their language because they don’t want to become their fodder. It’s painful to be cut at by the sarcastic Christian leader! I’ve felt the sting of their whip a time or two.

Worse yet, sometimes leaders don’t call out other leaders because they actually enjoy hearing someone else’s sarcasm, especially when it cuts at their own enemy or someone in a demographic they already dislike. It saves them from violating their own conscience with cutting words which maybe they don’t employ as well as the sarcastic pastor. But it’s sin at the expense of another, and we should not tolerate it or secretly enjoy it when others employ it.

When I think how I would respond if a pastor tweeted that they robbed a bank or lusted after their secretary, it’s clearer to me the appropriate response when they make cutting comments at the expense of their audience. They are smart-asses, and while God uses each of us despite our weaknesses and propensity towards sin, He never calls us to sweep such sin under the carpet, especially when it is at the expense of another of His image bearers

Finally, it’s good for me to post this publicly, because it keeps me accountable from using such sarcasm to inflate myself as I am sometimes tempted to do.

Speaking the Truth and Love are Not the Same

Last week, a well known evangelical leader said something like this.

“The most loving thing you can do is tell someone hard truth.”

I’m not quoting it exactly because I don’t want the point to center on that leader. It’s a common type of quote. The idea is that even if the truth is offensive, the mere act of speaking that truth to someone is the greatest act of love you can do for them. The problem is that is simply not true according to how the Bible speaks of truth and love.

Ephesians 4:15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,

Frankly, speaking the truth is NOT the same as Biblical love, and believers need to be precise with how we throw around these words. Truth telling is needed. It is absolutely necessary. And sometimes that truth is hard and offensive. But simply telling that hard truth is NOT equal to loving someone in fulfillment of the Great Command. And loving someone is as necessary, if not more necessary, than truth telling—for every bit of the law and prophets depends on Biblical love as its foundational requirement.

Matthew 22 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

If you believe in the perspicuity of Scripture (i.e. the value of a straight forward reading of it), then Paul’s description of love in I Corinthians 13 becomes essential to navigating his instruction in Ephesians 4 to speak the truth in love. In I Corinthians 13, Paul describes in clear, objective terms what is meant by this word, love, that Jesus uses in Matthew 22 and Paul uses in Ephesians 4. Agapeo love is demonstrated with patient truth telling, kind truth telling, truth telling that is not rude, is not resentful, does not insist on its own way, does not keep a record of wrongs, and believes the best of someone. In fact, Paul says clearly in I Corinthians 13 that you can speak with all kind of fluid clarity, including truth telling, and it will fall flat on the ground when it is not coupled with love.

What Paul teaches is that being a jerk for Jesus is a sin. Paul teaches that truth telling is not equal to love, but it must be coupled with love, and THAT coupling of truth and love then protects us from being tossed by every whim of cunning false doctrine (Eph. 4:14), building up the Body to maturity, in a way that truth telling without love simply cannot do.  

Doctrine is undermined when truth telling is not coupled with Biblical love as Paul defines it.  I’ve watched it happen much the last year.  Precious truths undermined because people decide to address a topic from, in particular, a suspicious, impatient view of their opponent. Truth telling that takes on a rude, unkind tone toward their opponent.

undermine: to wash away supporting material from under; to subvert or weaken insidiously or secretly; to weaken or ruin by degrees. 

Truth telling not coupled with Biblical love is sin.  Speaking the truth WITH love builds up the Body according to Paul.  Speaking the truth without love tears it down, which I have witnessed often.  Speaking the truth without love is sin because it SUBVERTS the very truth you or I are trying to uphold.

Hear Paul’s exhortation.  Understand it’s reasoning.   Evangelical Christianity loses ground when we do not tell truth in the manner Paul instructs – with tangible evidences of a real, gracious, patient, kind love. You can tell the truth all you want, but if you do not couple it with tangible, Biblical love, do not expect that those who listen will be moved from false doctrine or that they will grow up to maturity in Christ. In fact, expect to tear them down.  If you like to tell truth without love, repent. Truth telling separated from love creates the unrest Satan loves and uses against weak believers to subvert the truth.

Esther, Victims, and a Reformed View of Depravity

There has been a lot of discussion of Esther lately in the blogosphere. Before that, there had also been lots of discussion of sexual abuse in religious organizations of various backgrounds. I have thought a lot on the two subjects, Esther and sexual abuse. I stare off in space in thought, talk to myself in my car, stare off in space some more, think through the Scripture I know, look up other Scripture online, and so forth. The title of this blog is Practical Theology. It’s my core mission statement – what I believe about God (theology) and what He teaches us through Scripture (doctrine) is practical. No matter how one practically responds to the issues of sexual abuse and victimization, it is inevitably tied to our underlying belief system. In light of that, I’ve been reflecting on what belief system could cause a believer to label Esther a sinner as opposed to a victim in the particular details of her story.

I think the doctrinal issue at play is a view of total depravity that is not supported by Scripture. I love tulips. But I think that our term total depravity may slightly misrepresent the issue. Pervasive depravity may be a better term for it, though PULIP just doesn’t have the same ring. I was first exposed to the terminology pervasive depravity through Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. I’m doubtful anyone would label them as reformed lightweights. Sometimes teachers claim reformed language without fully understanding the totality of a reformed perspective on an issue. I do that at times, and I found my own recent education on the issue of depravity through a well trained reformed pastor enlightening compared to my less than accurate previous understanding.

Here’s the issue with depravity. Scripture clearly presents that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. This does NOT mean, however, that every person is as bad as they possibly could be. It does not mean that every person always makes the wrong decision. It does not mean that no person is able to help or be good to another. No, our depravity is better expressed as pervasive than total. Pervasive means it affects all aspects of ourselves. It is spread throughout, and we are unable to reverse it. But it does not mean that every response every time in every situation is 100% or totally wrong. I hear this wrong view of depravity discussed as Jesus wears the only white hat, and everyone else has black hats. Or Jesus is the only hero, and everyone else is the bad guy.   There’s a sense in which that is pervasively true, but it is not totally true.  *Note that such subtleties matter a great deal when discussing something as sensitive as sexual subjugation.*

This difference is crucial for understanding Esther’s situation. If you think that all people make bad decisions all the time, well, first that is really depressing, and second it’s just not true. In Esther’s case, you then likely interpret the fact that she ends up in the king’s harem and eventually as his wife due to her own poor choices, because, well, that’s the nature of man (or woman) in your belief system. That paradigm has no category for the honest to goodness VICTIM. If you are totally bad all the time, then of course you made only bad choices along the way that led to your victimization.

But the Bible does have a category called the oppressed. And when Scripture refers to the oppressed, it does not address them as moral agents responsible for their own oppression.

Psalm 10:17-18 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

Other Scripture indicates that all of us are responsible for our own sin, but not necessarily for our own oppression. There are true victims in Scripture, put in situations due to circumstances (and other people) outside of their control. Esther, like Ruth, is in this category. Sinners? Yes. But not in the circumstances out of their control that are recounted in the books by their names.

It’s very easy for someone with power who is not threatened to surmise what they would do if they had NO power and were threatened. In contrast, anyone who has been threatened sexually and feared for their life or the life of their family will likely give a very different perspective when reading Esther than the one that she contributed sinfully to her own situation. My hope is that sexual assault or abuse victims will not walk away from the recent discussion on various sites about Esther with added shame that you didn’t do enough to prevent your abuse. Understand that while you are a sinner (as am I), you also very likely are simply a victim in that circumstance.

There is a reason that Scripture gives us NO indication of what went on that first night between Esther and the king.  There is a reason that Scripture gives no moral judgement against any of Esther’s conduct ANYWHERE in Scripture. We can imply that she manipulated the king with her beauty and sexual appeal. But such implication is irresponsible. We can imply whatever we want on most any Scripture that doesn’t say something clearly itself. But that doesn’t make it right. The Bible only states the barest of facts about Esther’s first interaction with the king , and I believe that is part of God’s purposes in writing Esther. Apparently to our sovereign God who preserved His word for us through generations, what went on in that room was irrelevant to the point that God planned to communicate — His sovereign hand in circumstances that seem empty of His presence.

The bottom line of Esther has gotten lost in all of this, which is tragic. Many Scriptures teach us of the God who saves us from our own personal sin, the depravity within us. But Esther is very much about the God who also rescues us from the depravity without us. There have been many victims through the ages like Abel, who despite his own depravity was not responsible for his victimization by his brother, and their blood cries out for justice. The God of Esther sees and hears it, promising to work through circumstances and situations where His name is never mentioned to rescue His children.

*Here’s an article from last year on false humility and worm theology that may be helpful on this subject.*

Eisegesis in Esther

Exegesis is reading “out of” a text the meaning intended by the author. It is the preferred method of dealing with Scripture among the theologians and pastors/teachers I respect. It takes into account the context of a passage, the author’s intent, and other Scripture that reflects on the passage at hand. It is an imperfect science, and I would never suggest that any two esteemed theologians would “exegete” the same text of Scripture and always reach the same conclusions. However, I can pretty much guarantee that even fewer preachers “eisegete” the same text and reach the same conclusion, because eisegesis is when a pastor/teacher projects onto a text his/her own presuppositions. A clear indication of eisegesis is when a pastor/teacher uses something that is not in the text or even in the whole of Scripture as a foundational presupposition for their message on a text. Pastors who do this, in my experience, have their own agenda they want to present to their audience and often choose a text or book of the Bible that they can manipulate to further this agenda. I have a low view of eisegesis obviously. In fact, it’s my all-time biggest spiritual pet peeve. 

From time to time, I hear of eisegesis concerning the Book of Esther – pastors teaching from Esther not with Scripture as their foundation but their own presuppositions projected onto it. I hear it from other passages as well, but it gets my attention when it is in Esther because Esther has a story that I particularly care about as a woman. I want to see the story of Esther stewarded well primarily because it’s a beautiful account of God’s sovereign hand at work in ugly circumstances! Though God is not mentioned in the book, He gives us a glimpse of what His sovereignty looks like in a story with heroes who never actually speak His name. So much of our daily lives involve such crises. We ask, “Where is God in this?!” Esther reminds us that He’s there, and He’s in control, even when no one around you mentions His name.

I also care about the correct handling of the book of Esther because Esther was a sexually subjugated woman in unfair circumstances. Over the years, much eisegesis on the story of Esther (and the story of Ruth) has sprung from pastors with a bad understanding of women’s issues overall and the history of sexual subjugation in particular. I’m sensitive to how such stories are handled as I watch many of my sisters in Christ struggle with sexual histories which include abuse and subjugation. Esther’s story is one we must steward well.

There are two bad pieces of eisegesis concerning Esther that I have heard. One uses Esther to teach women about Biblical submission to their husbands. I confronted that view here. The other projects onto Esther a sexually promiscuous history. That one disturbs me most of all because a straightforward reading of Scripture presents a very clear picture of a young virginal Jewish woman, not unlike Mary the mother of Jesus, who is funneled to the king simply because she is beautiful. Such eisegesis reveals an ugly assumption about beautiful women – that they universally, even the virginal ones of good ancestry, want to tempt men. That they AIM to tempt men. That they choose their dress deliberately to provoke lust in men. This is not to say that some women do not do that very thing. Proverbs is clear that such women exist and wisely warns men away from them. But Esther is not that woman. If you do not hold the presupposition that beautiful women deliberately invite lust, Esther’s situation seems clear from a straightforward reading of the text.

Esther 2 

2 After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her. 2 Then the king’s young men who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. 3 And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the citadel, under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women. Let their cosmetics be given them. 4 And let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This pleased the king, and he did so.

Fact 1: She was a virgin.

Fact 2: She was beautiful.

Fact 3: The king holding Israel captive sent officers to gather all beautiful virgins to his harem.

Fact 4: The king holding Israel captive chose Esther because she was most pleasing to him.

As you read through the story of Esther’s time in the harem, there is no fact cited in Scripture that indicates Esther WANTED the king’s attention or MANIPULATED circumstances to attract his favor. Maybe she did, but if we indicate that in our teaching, it is eisegesis plain and simple because the text itself does not say that. It doesn’t even hint at that.   It does state plainly that she gained favor, but the entire underlying premise at every turn in the story is that our unnamed God is the one giving and removing favor of either Esther, Haman, or Mordecai.

My personal presuppositions lead me to believe that Esther was fearful, drug from her hometown against her will. I imagine her horror upon entering the harem. How very foreign such sexualization of women must have been to this young Jewish virgin. Yet, I admit that this view is likely some form of eisegesis on my part as well. I project onto Esther a mindset that is not stated in Scripture though it could possibly be inferred. And the mindset I project is based in my presuppositions – primarily that  the curse of Genesis 3 reveals that men will oppress women, and history has proven that truth over and over again. That at least is a presupposition based on Scripture.  The neat thing about Esther’s story is that this young virginal woman, thrust into a lifestyle foreign and distasteful to her, still managed to honor her God, gain favor with people, and be used by Him to save her people.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times—conservative, complementarian Christians need to get better at confronting poor teaching among their own on women in Scripture. When prominent complementarians use such eisegesis on a Biblical text involving the sexual subjugation of a woman and no other complementarian leader confronts them, the whole of teaching on submission in marriage, male eldership, and a woman’s particular role in reflecting the image of God gets tainted. I strongly denounce the view that projects onto the average beautiful virgin some type of promiscuous deliberate seduction of men.  Google “what were you wearing when you were raped” for a sobering wake up call if you hold to such a mindset.   Such thinking is exactly what God is redeeming us FROM, and when Jesus’ kingdom is fully realized, such foolishness will be rebuked once and for all.

When Good Men Do Nothing

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Edmund Burke

It’s been painful to watch the fallout of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. The subject has inspired numerous Christian blog posts. One of the best I have read is from a Penn State Campus Crusade for Christ staffer. You can read it here. Probably enough has been said, yet unraveling the answer to the question of what causes good men and women to do nothing at times in the face of evil seems important to me.

I love football and have respected Joe Paterno as a coach over the years. It saddens me to see his incredible career end in such a way. What saddens me most is that I think, in terms of character, Joe Paterno is a respectable man. Yet, this respectable man allowed a very bad thing to go on under his nose. And not just him – there’s a whole slew of men who should have known better who allowed the worst kind of abuse of a minor to happen on their watch. They closed their ears and turned away. How did that happen?!

Some have expressed concern about how Paterno and others have been treated in the wake of the allegations. I think this stems in part from the disturbing idea for many of us that we might have reacted exactly the same way. We too might have wrestled for days over what to report to higher ups and how to paint what we did report. We too might have let it go after doing the bare minimum needed to ease our conscience. I could easily see myself at certain stages of my life numbing my conscience on the issue with words like “Well, I reported it to my authority. I did what was required of me. I can’t help it if they don’t do more. I’ve done my responsibility.”

Penn State’s football program is legendary. Joe Paterno ran a tight ship. The men in charge of that program–Athletic Director, Coach, Offensive Coordinator, Defensive Coordinator, and so forth–were respected and revered. They were obeyed. It was not unlike authoritarian church and ministry structures with which I have been involved over the years. In those systems, the good guys are the ones who respect authority. They buck it up and contribute even when they dislike an order. Respect, cooperation, and obedience to your superiors are fundamental to the entire system. I have empathy for the young graduate assistant who first witnessed his boss raping a minor in the locker room. I’m sure he was shocked and horrified. What do you do when your authority in this authoritarian system is the one doing this act? The GA didn’t intervene. And I fear that when I was his age, I may not have intervened either. At least not immediately. Now 41 years old and the mother of children myself, no one could stop me if I witnessed that today. But back then, I valued respect of authority so much that I fear I would have been paralyzed in the moment, to my life long regret.

The graduate assistant finally told his dad, and his dad helped him tell Coach Paterno. Both seemed to meet their minimum legal requirement. Yet neither stopped the cycle of abuse that continued for several more years. Why? The Campus Crusade pastor points out in his article the deficiency of love for the victim. That is the fundamental, root issue. But a secondary issue is that they all thought they had more to lose by standing up strongly for the victims than they did by protecting the program. Obviously, they were very, very wrong and have lost much more by covering it up. The urge to stand up for a little guy none of them knew faded in the shadow of the behemoth that was the Penn State football program.

Good men do nothing a lot. Good women too. We do nothing sometimes out of self protection. But more often, I think we do nothing because we value protecting authoritarian systems more than we do standing up for the victim. I’ve experienced this before in various Christian ministries—a leader with authority does wrong. But the reputation of the institution and those associated with it seems more important than seeking justice for the one abused or oppressed. I could write out a long list of names of good men and women I know personally, men and women of proven character and good reputation, who did not stand up for victims and instead protected a program or ministry. I’ve done it myself at times. Rocking the boat didn’t seem a Christian virtue in that moment.

Though good church people often value submission to authority over advocacy for the oppressed, God is clear on what we need to do with abusive authority.

Isaiah 1:17
 17learn to do good;
seek justice,
   correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
   plead the widow’s cause.

Psalm 82:3
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
   maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.

Psalm 10:18
to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
   so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

Proverbs 31:9
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.

God calls us to step up for the poor and defenseless. Be aware of our propensity to turn away and hear clearly God’s command to engage. And if you have been silent or turned away, humble yourself and make it right. If the gospel is truly our foundation in Christian ministry, we have hope for redemption and transformation when we choose humble responses that seek to correct our mistakes. Humble repentance, not defensiveness, is the absolute key to dealing with past failures, and meditation on God’s strong admonition to do justice for the oppressed is key for the future.

Performance Evaluations and Sanctification by Grace

The topic of performance evaluations in Christian ministries came up on a website I sometimes read. A robust discussion ensued, and I’ve been thinking about the topic ever since. Occasionally, I feel the need to give some disclaimers about myself, and this post is one of those occasions. First, I am nobody and have no authority. I am literally writing this in my pajamas. Second, I call this blog a lecture to myself. Others are welcome to read and interact, but I don’t write this to lecture you. Just me. If something is helpful to you or makes you think, that’s awesome. With all those disclaimers said, I’m going to give my thoughts on the topic. I think the principles apply well beyond the topic of performance evaluations, so maybe the discussion here will be more relevant to readers than the topic at first seems.

The discussion on performance evaluations in Christian ministry reminded me how easy it is for our theology and our practice to diverge from one another. That was the point of my first book, Practical Theology for Women. What we believe about God and the gospel has to mean something in our daily practices. And I submit that it has to mean something on the topic of rating the effectiveness of staff and leaders in Christian ministries.

The second thing that came to mind in the discussion on performance evaluations is how important it is that we never assume the gospel. I did that some in my first book – assumed that the readers knew the gospel. Life experience between my first book and my second book taught me otherwise, and the Ephesians Bible study, though every bit as practical as my first book, is saturated with the gospel from beginning to end (as Paul himself does in the book of Ephesians). As we take communion each Sunday, my pastor reminds the congregation of the necessity of this review of the gospel. We are by nature suspicious of grace. We don’t really believe that gospel grace changes people. We will default to law and performance every time apart from regular meditation on the truth of the gospel, and Scripture is full of examples of this very thing.

The third thing that came to mind when thinking about performance evaluations is that Christ didn’t seem to use them with His disciples. At least He didn’t use them to decide who He’d disciple or who He’d promote. Of all the disciples who actively hurt Jesus’ ministry, Peter had to be at the top. Yet, after Peter cuts off a soldier’s ear and then DENIES Jesus three times, Jesus’ next interaction with Peter is to reaffirm that God will build His church on Peter. Peter would have failed his performance evaluation in every way, yet God gives him the greatest task of all – “feed my sheep.” Jesus deliberately set up discipleship methods that were the exact opposite of the world. His discipleship tactics do not fit secular business models.

I think the important theological issue at hand is sanctification and how it applies to rating the effectiveness of someone and then what to do without them after assessing them. Theological positions on sanctification seem to fall into 3 categories. Sanctification by works, sanctification by a mix of works and grace, and sanctification by grace. I grew up in a Christian environment that didn’t use those terms but practically believed in sanctification by works. We were saved by grace and no works of our own. But then, because God had done so much for us on the cross, it was our job to obey and be righteous. There was great guilt heaped on those who fell or made mistakes, and they were easily discarded, deemed unworthy of further discipleship. Why waste time on someone just sucking up resources?

In my 20’s, I started attending a reformed church that taught sanctification by grace, where the only work on my part was cooperation with the Spirit and even that was empowered by God. That was transforming for me. I can’t put into words how beautiful it was to understand that God took the responsibility for my daily transformation as much as He did my first moment of regeneration.

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:18

I don’t lay back passively as God makes me righteous. Yet, I’m not the first cause of my righteousness or obedience either. God moves in and for me, equipping me to be and do something I could never muster up on my own. Consider how the Scripture speaks of this concept:

Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD, who makes you holy. (Lev. 20)

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Phil. 2)

In Leviticus 20, we’re commanded to be holy (sanctified or set apart for God’s purposes) because God is making us holy. In Philippians 2, we’re told to work out what God is working in. And in Ephesians, Paul instructs us to put off and put on, as we are being renewed (passive voice) by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is working in and with me, so that I show outwardly what He is changing in me. Any righteousness we exhibit outwardly is a result of our inner relationship with the Spirit. You can’t separate the two, and God is the first cause.

Now apply this all to the idea of performance evaluations. Obviously, there is no value in self-delusion over our faults. I’ve been evaluated at times, and it can be helpful. The evaluations that were helpful, by the way, were OBJECTIVE, not subjective opinions by my employer or boss. If we’ve evaluated someone using objective, quantifiable measurements, what do we do if we find them lacking? We need to distinguish between moral failings and weakness in giftings or talent. And if Christ is our model, we don’t write them off for either. If we are discipling them, we must offer them the HOPE of the gospel for their daily transformation. Your moral failings are real, but they don’t define you! Christ has paid for this on the cross. Put off the old, lean into Him for the renewing of your mind, and put on new ways that reflect His image in your life. And if you aren’t particularly talented, that’s OK too. God is clear that He uses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty. It’s His modus operandi. However we respond to poor performers, the gospel calls us to something other than writing them off for their past performance. We can’t use the world’s business models to dictate how we evaluate and promote or demote staff in Christian ministries.

The gospel changes EVERYTHING. It’s not a footnote or addendum to Christian ministry. It is relevant when we are loving/respecting our husbands, it is relevant when we are parenting our children, and that same gospel is relevant when we are evaluating our staff.