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Post-Trump Reflections 4: Inauguration of the King

Part 1: Dueling Moralities

Part 2: Care of the Poor in Scripture

Part 3: Turning to Assyria for Help

In the last post, we looked at God’s warning to King Ahaz not to put his trust in one god-less leader to ward off another. God promised a sign in Isaiah 7:14, a sign Ahaz said that he didn’t want but one that God sent anyway.

Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.

By the time this sign emerges on the scene, Ahaz is long dead and the nation of Israel has become a small, powerless remnant. We meet Simeon and Anna in Luke 2, some of the few who remain devout in belief that God would fulfill His promise.

And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, 28 then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said,

“Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace,
According to Your word;
30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation,
31 Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 A Light of revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”

This baby was God’s salvation, the Light of revelation to even Gentile nations, and the glory of God’s people, the dispersed remnant of faithful believers. Jesus was later received into Jerusalem as king and then crucified by the same fickle crowd. But He rose again from the dead, defeating not just the oppressive rulers of the day but the very weapon that gave them power, the threat of death. Rulers would still oppress, but their greatest tool of manipulation, the fear of death, was defused. For true believers, death has lost its sting, the grave no longer threatening annihilation. We serve the One who has defeated the greatest threat of all.

Before Jesus returned to heaven, He gave us a new version of the same commission God gave at the Garden before death entered the world. Go into all the world. Overcome the chaos with the message of God’s kingdom. This remains our commission, though we feel a disaffected remnant in a “Christian” nation that chose a god-less leader to save them from terrorism abroad and closer to home.

We remain constrained by God’s commission. Go. Serve. Protect. Teach. Disciple.

We remain constrained by God’s instructions. Pray for our leaders. Pay our taxes. Pursue justice. Stand firm in our faith.

We do all of this under King Jesus, whose reign is now established. Other dictators have lost all of their weapons. They cannot threaten us with death, for God has overcome it, and death has lost its sting. They cannot threaten us with harm, financial or otherwise, because our God is sovereign, and we can trust His protection.

John 1
5 That light shines in the darkness,
yet the darkness can not overcome it.

Even in the middle of the fallout in Isaiah from Ahaz’s disastrous alliance with Assyria, the faithful remnant had hope.

Isaiah 26:12
Lord, you establish peace for us;
all that we have accomplished you have done for us.

Isaiah repeatedly refers to this remnant, for whom God makes level paths in the middle of a treacherous landscape. God instructs in Isaiah 26:20 …

Go, my people, enter your rooms
and shut the doors behind you;
hide yourselves for a little while
until his wrath has passed by.

Go, enter your rooms and close your doors behind you. It is God’s job to bring peace, not your own, and we know that He will do it, for He cannot deny Himself.

This may be something of which you need to be occasionally reminded. But for me, it is the lifeblood for surviving not just day by day but hour by hour. As the inauguration of a leader who mercilessly mocks God’s image-bearers approaches, this must be my meditation for I am similarly tempted as Ahaz to put my trust in yet another. But the Light has come, and darkness will not overcome it. God has established peace for us, dear brother or sister in Christ. And any good that we accomplish, He is actually the one who did it for us. Hunker down for a bit as God rouses Himself to judge those who turn to idols while calling His children to lean into Him more and more. The true Name of God is secure. His glory will shine, and His word will be accomplished, not some adulterated version perverted by American nationalism but the good news of His care for those who cannot bring about their own salvation.

Luke 4: 16-20

He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

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.

The Church: Manifold Wisdom of God

Ephesians 3 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. 13 So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.

Um, what?! Through the Church, the manifold wisdom of God, or the many and various facets of God’s wisdom, are going to be made known? In the last few years, I’ve looked at the westernized church, the conservative evangelical world made known through social media and the internet in particular, and I have NOT thought, “Wow, God’s glory is so clearly revealed through the ways these people in these congregations interact with one another.” I have read and reread this passage from Ephesians the last few days, and I am continually struck by verse 10 precisely because it directly challenges my perception of the Church, particularly the western reformed church.

Now, my little church is wonderful. But I also have a twitter feed. I read popular evangelical blogs, and I get the clear picture that much of the public reputation of the Church reflects very poorly on the character of God. I am burdened by the facts of abuse in the church made known of late, but I am even more burdened by the lack of repentance among leaders who did a poor job of shepherding in the midst of said abuse. We poorly reflect the character of God when we do not esteem the “least of these” in God’s kingdom, shoving their wounds under the carpet. But we add insult to gospel injury when we do not embrace the gospel in repentance when such things are exposed.

Though I am deeply troubled by the state of segments of God’s Church, Paul teaches that it is through this broken and dysfunctional instrument that God is going to show others the variety of His wisdom. It is good to note that this demonstration isn’t to unbelievers on earth according to Paul. He says a profound thing – that God is demonstrating His wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realm. I’m so self-centered at times that I struggle to understand the value of that statement. Why would God allow the Church to cause Him to be mocked on earth? Anyone read Ricky Gervais’ twitter feed? Ouch! And Christians set themselves up as easy targets for his mockery. Yet, unbelievers like Ricky Gervais are not where this particular battle for God’s glory is being fought. There’s a different battle altogether going on outside of our earthly line of vision. And there, God demonstrates something incredible about Himself through this broken, sometimes dysfunctional Body of His.

Here are some differences in the heavenly perspective of the Church and the earthly one.

1) While the works of the flesh are obvious (the sins of the church, celebrity pastor problems, public attention on abuse in churches), the works of the Spirit are quieter. The Spirit is subtle, and He does much work of profound value without drawing widespread public attention to it. While we on earth miss it, the heavenly realm does not. It blesses me to remember that for every public embarrassment in the Church, there are hundreds of private blessings – hearts encouraged, new believers drawn to Christ, wounded people helped, and sinners repenting and repairing with those they’ve wronged. The heavenly realm is aware of much that we are not, and that should encourage us.

2) Building on the last point, things we downplay on earth have great eternal significance. A cup of cold water given in Jesus’ name seems ridiculously small from an earthly perspective. It’s not just that we aren’t aware of small things, and the heavenly realm does notice small things. It’s that small things aren’t small in the heavenly realm. Satan recognizes great significance in a cup of cold water given to the least by earthly standards in the Body of Christ. Things we miss on earth are really, really beautiful and important in heaven. The day in, day out grace, love, and healing ministered by no-name pastors is monumentally important in the heavenly realm. I’ve often wondered as I listen week after week to my pastors, whom I deeply love and appreciate, how some guys get huge followings and others don’t. It totally confuses me. Yet, I think in many ways God is protecting pastors He is strongly using when He does NOT allow them to achieve notoriety. Small is small to us, but it is not small in the heavenly realm.

I find Paul’s words in Ephesians very encouraging. They remind me why I love the Church and why I stay engaged with it. There is no other way as a believer to live the Christian life. And though I get discouraged by the state of the western reformed Church at times, I am reminded by Paul’s words to look for what others miss. The works of the flesh are obvious in the earthly realm; the quiet moving of the Spirit, not so much. But His long term results are profound, and of that, all powers in the heavenly realm are well aware.

The Dysfunctional but Cherished Church

The last few days, I’ve been meditating on phrases from Ephesians 4 that caught my attention when working through Ephesians for By His Wounds You Are Healed. Here are some thoughts on the dysfunctional (though cherished by God) Church, which were first published in that study.

4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Here it is the great summary of why we must eagerly pursue unity with other believers despite the dysfunction we have likely witnessed in our church experiences—because there is only ONE Body. Paul is talking about the Body of Christ, which is made up of all those Christ has reconciled to Himself—i. e. the Church. How do you define the Church? It is not church membership or denominational status, nor is it the building or the programs. What Paul is talking about here is simply all those who are IN CHRIST as he has described in Ephesians 1-3. The church is the people—not the building, the programs, the denominational bylaws, or the membership roles. You and I have an obligation that extends well beyond the boundaries of our particular “church.” We have an organic union with all those who are in Christ no matter where or when they lived. All believers, past, present, and future make up one Body. The ramifications of Paul’s point here are extensive.

The Church is notoriously unlovable. Consider the picture of God’s people painted in the book of Hosea. By God’s own order, Hosea marries the harlot Gomer and has a child with her. She then has two other children with different men. Hosea takes Gomer and her children back despite her adultery. But she leaves him again, returns to harlotry, and eventually becomes a slave. Hosea buys her back in public auction and brings her home, not as his slave, but again as his wife. God uses Hosea’s life story as a picture of His pursuit of His own people. God’s people have broken their covenant with Him throughout history. In return, God has relentlessly pursued His people, the Church, not because of her beauty or worthiness but for His own glory. As Paul said in Ephesians 1, God has lavished His love on us to the praise of His glorious grace. He is sanctifying His Church, rooting out her sin, and transforming her into the beautiful bride that He will present to Jesus at the marriage supper of the lamb in Revelation.

God is certainly doing a beautiful thing in and through His people. The Church will one day be presented spotless before God. But she is not there yet. The Church is a mess. This should make sense to us since she is made up completely of individuals who are all messes. The problem with the Church is that you and I are in it! Each of us in Jesus’ Body were by nature children deserving of God’s wrath. Each of us has no righteousness to offer God on our own. Each of us was saved by God’s grace and not our good works which Isaiah likened to filthy menstrual rags (Isaiah 64:6). It is important that we have a Biblically informed understanding of just who exactly the Body of Christ, the Church, is. If we do not, we are going to be disappointed and disillusioned, likely to the point that we give up on the whole idea altogether.

However, if we understand the Church, both the good and the bad, as Scripture presents her, then when she fails us, we understand that this is just her nature. We fight for unity in her anyway because we know she is Jesus’ Body. There is a great line from a song by Derek Webb in which he sings as Christ would about His church. “You can not live for Me with no regard for her. If you love Me you will love My church.”

You cannot say to Jesus, “I like your Head, but your Body disgusts me.” It is His BODY. God chose this picture to communicate to us something deep and beautiful about His people. We are one with each other and one with Christ. Therefore, we have to deal with the Church. We cannot cut ourselves off from her and expect a healthy relationship with Christ. It is all one glorious, supernatural entity. To believe the gospel means that we are in Christ, and to be in Christ means that we are supernaturally connected to His Body. Therefore, to reflect well on the gospel, we must diligently pursue unity with his Body for we are ONE.

13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

In dealing with our Christian community, it is essential we keep our eye on the prize—the end result of the Body of Christ growing together in unity and maturity in the true knowledge of God. As the daughter of a cotton farmer, I remember a farming illustration I heard growing up. If a farmer wanted to plow a straight line for a row of crops, he needed to keep his eye on a fixed point at the end of the row. If he looked down where he was, he would make a crooked line. But if he kept his eye on the spot that he wanted to reach at the end, he would maintain a straight line for his row of crops. That is a helpful illustration for us as we deal with issues and relationships within the Body of Christ, the Church. We have to keep our eye on the goal. What is the end result of all God is doing now? It is a church that is unified in the faith and the knowledge of God, measuring up to the stature of Christ. God is moving us toward the goal of Christian maturity in which we are no longer weak Christians easily deceived by every new doctrinal error. We will be a Body that works together in harmony and unity, each part doing its job. And what does fully realized Christian maturity look like? It looks like Christ! (Eph. 4:13)

As we discussed before, the Church is NOT there yet, but God calls us to choose the proper place to fix our focus. He calls us to focus squarely on the goal to which He is conforming his Body. This does not mean we stick our head in the sand and ignore the Church’s failings. That is not Christian unity either! But our perspective on the current failings of the Church must be informed by the end result that God promises He will accomplish—a beautiful, mature Body steadfast in correct doctrine where members work together and support each other. Knowing where we are going is a great help to making choices now on how to respond to current struggles.

How do we live in the tension between what God’s people currently are and the unified faith, knowledge, and maturity that God is moving us all toward? Paul has already given instructions on the necessity of humility and persevering love to maintain unity in the Body of Christ. Now, he gives us a concise summary statement we would all do well to make the guiding principle for all of our relationships within and without the church—speaking the truth in love.

The first thing I notice in this phrase is that speaking the truth is not necessarily loving in and of itself. I grew up in a segment of Christianity in which the greatest command was minimized while obnoxious methods of proclaiming the truth were promoted. During my teenage years, I asked one pastor why our church never talked about the greatest command to love. His response was that “liberal” churches had abused the concept of love so much that he was justified in rudely proclaiming truth without any effort to be loving and obedient to the greatest command. Paul is teaching here that both positions—love without truth and truth without love—are unhelpful to, and downright destructive of, the ultimate goal that God has painted for us of the mature, unified, doctrinally steady Body of Christ. We must both speak the truth and be loving. The two are not synonymous. We must not choose one or the other, and we must not delude ourselves into thinking that the fact we have one of them right excuses us from incorporating the other. We must do both!

We are not left with the task of determining what is or is not loving on our own because Paul does not deal with this concept subjectively. The term love is not used in Scripture the same way it is used in our culture. Biblically, it is not a mere emotion that leaves you warm and fuzzy but is otherwise hard to define. Instead, God gives us clear instructions in I Corinthians 13 as to exactly what He means when He instructs us to speak the truth in love. Did we speak truth kindly, patiently, and humbly? Or were we envious, proud, and boastful? Were we rude, self-seeking, and easily angered? Did we secretly take joy in evil? Did we give the benefit of the doubt, hope for the best, and endure with others? By the I Corinthians 13 definition, love is not simply a characteristic we should have when there is no sin, but it defines how we respond when there is sin. In fact, some of I Corinthians 13’s characteristics of love have no function at all except in response to sin and conflict.

In Ephesians 4:15-16, Paul continues drawing the picture of the finished product that God is making for Himself—the mature Body of Christ, with Christ as the Head and individual members joined and held together, growing and working properly together. At the end of this section he repeats the words that are becoming the central idea when we consider what distinguishes healthy church practices from unhealthy ones—in love.

John 13:35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (My pastor preached an excellent sermon on this verse last Sunday.  You can listen here.)

If you do not get Biblical love and exhibit it to others, John goes as far to say in I John 4 that you do not know God at all.

7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him…. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

Perfection in a church is a totally unreasonable standard to expect of a church right now. The Bible is clear that the perfection Christ promises to work in us is not going to be fully realized until we are seated with him in heaven. We are part of an imperfect Church—both corporately and individually. And imperfect churches only demonstrate the profound need for consistent love. Without love, every issue is potentially divisive. Love gives us a specific way for speaking the truth, for teaching correct doctrine, for calling others (and ourselves) to repentance, and it involves kindness, gentleness, humility, and patience. You cannot present truth without love and expect a healthy church.

I’ll end with powerful words from John Stott’s Message of Ephesians commentary.

Thank God there are those in the contemporary church who are determined at all costs to defend and uphold God’s revealed truth. But sometimes they are conspicuously lacking in love. When they think they smell heresy, their nose begins to twitch, their muscles ripple, and the light of battle enters their eye. They seem to enjoy nothing more than a fight. Others make the opposite mistake. They are determined at all costs to maintain and exhibit brotherly love, but in order to do so are prepared even to sacrifice the central truths of revelation. Both these tendencies are unbalanced and unbiblical. Truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love; love becomes soft if it is not strengthened by truth. The apostle call us to hold the two together, which should not be difficult for Spirit-filled believers, since the Holy Spirit is himself ‘the Spirit of truth’ (John 14:17), and his firstfruit is “love” (Galatians 5:22). There is no other route than this to a fully mature Christian unity (p. 172).

Aligning with the Mustard Seed

Matthew 13:31-32 “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

I grew up in a branch of conservative Christianity with a view of the end times that had true believers increasingly marginalized in society, finally herded into a tiny corner of the world awaiting the return of Jesus while the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket. Not exactly the picture Jesus paints of the mustard seed. But I get as discouraged as anyone with the state of the church. I personally wouldn’t mind some days burrowing down in my own little corner of the world and covering my head with a blanket until it all disappears. There are some ministries associated with my upbringing that I so hope will embrace the gospel at a deeper level and then change to better reflect it. Instead, I just keep seeing the exact opposite. There is the particular issue of sexual abuse rocking segments of Christian fundamentalism, and the inability of individual leaders and ministries to articulate and embrace a Biblical ethic on sexual abuse is absolutely mind boggling to me. Instead of the bloom of the mustard seed (which results in confession, repentance, and restoration), it seems more like an infectious disease that devastates more and more ministries. I get discouraged.

I’m thankful for the reformed pastor that first exposed me to the mustard seed view of the kingdom of God. It’s growing, folks. The kingdom of God is at hand. He is making His church glorious. Certainly the works of the flesh are evident, just as Scripture predicts. We’re always going to be more aware of the bad than the good. It’s the nature of man to focus on the sensational – sin, abuse, oppression, bad theology, and so forth. The sensational is … well … sensational. But for every pastor that is disciplining a sexual abuse victim or aiming missiles at those called to hold him accountable, there are ten who are ministering gospel grace to victims, repenting of sin, correcting mistakes, pursuing justice, and modeling the life of Christ to their congregations.

The works of the Spirit are subtle. The left hand isn’t letting the right hand know what’s it’s doing, and that’s how God said it should be. If you’re quiet and patient, you’ll get glimpses. The Spirit is slow and steady, and the things He accomplishes will not be ripped away. The mustard seed is growing, and it will burst forth in glory. When Jesus returns, it’s not to a marginalized church hiding in the corner. He is making her beautiful and glorious day in and day out, and when He returns, she is overcoming.

When I get discouraged by the state of the church, I am learning to discipline myself to align my thoughts and focus with the mustard seed. Where is the true gospel being presented? Where is it taking root? Where is grace flowing? Where is confidence in the finished work of Christ for our sanctification triumphing over legalism? Where are wrongs being made right? Where is good triumphing over evil?

After a day of being bombarded with all the dysfunction in Christian circles, I wrote a friend and asked for encouragement. Where is God working?! She wrote back with a beautiful affirmation of how the mustard seed was blooming in her own little world. It was subtle – quiet conversations in the dead of night, private repentance over private sins, making things right, and seeking accountability. I was encouraged.

Yes, everything is subject to Him. No, we don’t yet see everything subject to Him. But we can be confident that He who has begun His good work will complete it. Yea, IS completing it.

Hebrews 2: 7-8
“You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.

Philippians 1:6
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

The kingdom of God is at hand!

The Church for Boneless Chickens

Nothing shocks me in the church anymore. One pastor had an affair with the former pastor’s daughter. Another pastor had teenage sons (in my youth group) who shot someone in a drug deal gone bad. There was the youth pastor who married his girlfriend the day his divorce was finalized. I sat under one pastor who told a husband in front of the church body that if he didn’t shut up his wife, the pastor would. That pastor also said to laughs at a pastor’s conference that he wished a leader in his church would die. Been there, endured all that, and I know others have endured much worse. Thankfully, along the twisting, turning road that has been my Christian walk, God has brought into my life two pastors at two different churches in two different states that understood the grind. They knew what Christians were capable of in terms of hurting each other because they had endured being wounded themselves. Those two church experiences have informed how I interpret the others. And I’d like to share a couple of thoughts.

I could give a list of warnings on how to recognize a problem church with problem leadership. Instead, I would like to emphasize how to find a “healthy” church with “godly” leadership. I put those words in quotes, because I think the key to finding a healthy church is finding one who doesn’t advertise their health—instead they have a sober awareness of their failings and are a humble people who understand their daily need of gospel grace. And godly leadership, if we think someone like the Apostle Paul qualifies, is leadership that recognizes that they are the chief of sinners. Godly leadership is humble leadership that values accountability.

I have been privileged to sit under such leadership at such a church the past few years. I remember the first time we met our pastor face to face. He sat in our living room and told us of a hurtful experience he had after coming to Christ as an adult. He had been naively enthusiastic as a new Christian and then was slammed with classic church dysfunction early in his walk with Christ. He managed to drag himself to another group of believers full of wounded Christians that he said lay around kind of like the chickens at the boneless chicken ranch in the Farside comic. And he invited our family to freely lie like boneless chickens in his congregation as well. I remember my initial guilt over sitting on the back row, fearful of sucking up resources without pouring back in return. I had given much to other churches, but right now, I wasn’t ready to give to his, by no fault of his own. And his response floored me. He was almost angrily adamant – “Don’t worry about that!” He made it clear that it was NOT an issue for us to sit on the back row and soak in sermons on gospel grace as long as we needed. I had heard the word grace thrown around in Christian circles most of my life. But I didn’t understand it until I started walking with this group of believers. Then Scripture started to make sense – I do not earn righteousness by my good works. God endures with me though I’m unworthy. He calls His children to do the same. Love suffers long. If I give expecting something in return, it is not grace. And so forth. I had known the gospel from early childhood, but something clicked. A damp cloth cleaned the smeared lens through which I had viewed it all. Ahhhhh – so THAT’s gospel grace!

Both of the “healthy” churches I attended understood the doctrine of the Church. They knew she is precious to Christ and that He has pursued her from before time began. But they also knew she is like Hosea’s whoring wife. She is a prostitute by nature and will turn to it again and again. And yet God still pursues. As Hosea pursued his wife over multiple instances of infidelity, God does His Bride as well. We are her. We go to church with her. And while one day we will sit with Christ in a fully glorified state, wearing robes of righteousness, we are NOT there yet. So when Pastor A, Sunday School teacher B, or Average Attendee C struggle with real issues, we are not shocked or decimated. We have a gospel lens through which to view their struggle. The problem in churches is not that they struggle. The problem comes when the church expects them not to struggle and has no gospel hope to give them when they do. Then they hide until their sin becomes so ingrained and debilitating that it can’t be hidden anymore. The abscess bursts, and everyone is decimated.

I have posted the link to this sermon from Philippians once before, but here it is again. The pastor reminds us that, despite the wounds most of us have experienced by way of Christian leadership, God’s good undershepherds STILL exist. Furthermore, it is in our spiritual interest to open ourselves to their leadership when God presents them. The worst thing in the world we can do if we’ve experienced unaccountable Christian leadership gone wrong is write off leadership and accountability altogether. The fact is that you and I are sinners capable of wounding others the way we have been wounded, and we have bought Satan’s lie if we think otherwise. We TOO need accountability. We TOO need God’s good undershepherd speaking into our lives. God has not given up on sending us leaders like Paul, Timothy, or Epaphroditus. And we should not give up on the idea either.

There are churches that are healthy and godly. They are not perfect. In fact, their imperfections may be glaringly obvious. The litmus test is how they deal with their imperfections. Imperfections about which Scripture is not dogmatic are not issues in such churches. People just deal with it. Imperfections on which Scripture is dogmatic ARE issues, but issues covered with enduring gospel-centered grace. I can’t tell you specifics of exactly what that looks like, but I can say that when you sit under such a pastor and fellowship with that kind of community, the difference will be obvious. Grace is meaningless without truth, and gospel centered churches deal with the truth of sin head on. But truth will kill you without grace, and gospel centered churches understand and apply gospel grace in liberal amounts at every turn. Don’t settle for less.

God’s Good Undershepherds

Phil. 2 19I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. 20I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. 21For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. 23I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me. 24And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon.

25But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. 27Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. 28Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. 29Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, 30because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me.

I hope I don’t seem like a broken record repeatedly recommending sermons. But the Lord has used this particular sermon series from Philippians to draw me to Himself again and again. In this sermon from Phil. 2, the pastor deals with the characteristics of good shepherds, those leaders in our lives serving under the One Good Shepherd ministering His gospel to us. First, he points out how we all long for spiritual parents to speak into our lives. No one’s problem is that they don’t want guidance. No one wants to be an orphan. The problem is that we’ve been burned by leaders and therefore we don’t know who to trust and then close ourselves off to our need for someone to speak into our lives. Pastor Haralson makes two good points here. First, God’s good undershepherds are recognized by their humility, not their giftedness. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Beware the shepherd whose personal burdens and needs drive the agenda or eclipse the needs of the sheep. When the needs of the sheep must submit to the needs of the shepherd, this is not leadership like Christ (or Paul or Timothy or Epaphroditis). Second, when God has brought the humble undershepherd into your life, like Paul’s words of Epaphroditus, welcome them with joy and receive them with honor. The imperfect but humble undershepherd still exists! God didn’t abandon us to only poor leaders after Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus passed on. And it is to our BENEFIT not detriment to receive them and honor them in the name of Christ.