Monthly Archives: October 2014

Power, Purpose, and Priorities

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share

They have just witnessed the most incredible of miracles. Three years of walking with him—with Him—witnessing miracle after miracle; of seeing lame men walk, dead girls rise, blind men see. And now this: the Man they’d watched beaten to a bloody, unrecognizable pulp; the Man whose ribs had been laid bare by the whips; the Man whom they had seen die a horrendous, agonizing death…is alive.

If you have seen The Princess Bride then you know that Westley was only “mostly dead, and mostly dead is a little alive.” And you know that Miracle Max’s chocolate-covered miracle pill took at least 15 minutes for full effect, and even then, Westley could only manage a weak nod and a stumbling step. But his was no resurrection, it was at best a resuscitation.

What the disciples had seen was a resurrection—not from mostly dead, but from all dead. Even—according to some traditions’ understanding of Peter’s words—so dead that “He descended into hell.” And now He is all alive.

Still, they didn’t get it. Somehow, they still didn’t understand the purpose and the power of this resurrection. And now, as He promises them that same power, their own priorities take over. “Now does Israel win?” Jesus has just been raised from the dead and they’re concerned about who’s going to run the country. Satan’s eternal grip has been broken and they’re asking Jesus who he’s voting for in the next election.

Speaking of which, you may have noticed that we’re last than two weeks away from election day. The highways, byways, and airways; front yards and side streets are nauseatingly plastered with signs telling us who we need to vote for in order to turn around our country, state, or community. Vote Yes on this, No on that. And if you hang around with Christians, you can be sure to hear how your vote will make an eternal difference for our nation; who will lead us to hell and who is the next Moses or Joshua or (dare we say) Messiah.

Whatever you do, whoever you vote for, don’t get sucked into the lie of political salvation. Remember Jesus’ words: “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) His power is greater, his purpose is grander, and his priorities are higher than anything we will fully comprehend. Like ancient Israel living in exile in Babylon, we ought to “seek the welfare of the city” where God has sent us (Jeremiah 29:7); but our great hope is for a new heaven and a new earth, not merely a new president and new Congress.

Are Local Churches Truly Autonomous?

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share

Very seldom do I venture into the realm of church politics and leadership failures, especially when it involves naming names. I greatly prefer to write about what I’m learning and how theology applies to our everyday lives and I recognize that talking about specific individuals must be done with extreme care if it is to be helpful, hopeful, and grace-filled. Yet the reality is that church politics and leadership do apply to our everyday lives, and they are—or ought to be—rooted in sound theology. We also can and must learn from both the successes and the failures of specific individuals. So here goes….

On Tuesday, October 14, Mark Driscoll resigned as Senior Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington. Much has been and will continue to be written about this; unfortunately far too much of that will be unhelpful, lacking grace, and downright caustic. And that’s just from those who call themselves Christians. But Aaron at Blogging Theologically had some good things to say that spurred my own thinking. (Please take some time to read his thoughts, then add to the discussion.) I want to take something Aaron said and (gracefully, I hope) disagree with it. Mars Hill church, Aaron said, needs to evaluate their [leadership] structure. (I agree.)

The model they’ve been running on—with an outside board of accountability—simply doesn’t work, nor is it biblical. If they’re serious about getting healthy, they need to put in place a model of governance where every leader really is one vote at the table, and are held to account. They need to become autonomous churches with elders who are biblically qualified and capable of preaching the Word.

I grew up basically Baptist, and almost exclusively in the Free Church tradition. In those worlds, local churches are viewed as autonomous; that is, they are self-governing, and although they may choose willingly and voluntarily to associate with other like-minded churches through conferences, conventions, or associations—i.e., denomination—they do not sit under the authority of those organizations or the other affiliated churches. The past fifty years has seen a growth in “non-denominational” churches; that is, churches that have taken autonomy one step further by choosing to not affiliate with a denominational organization…even one within the free church tradition. When a local church is substantially healthy, this autonomy can a good thing. The church can make its own decisions on leadership, vision, strategy, and activities without having to submit those to an ecclesiastical bureaucracy. When problems arise, however, autonomous churches are left to struggle on their own, often crumbling under the weight of leadership abuses, failed structures, financial mismanagement, or devastating moral failure.

Aaron’s post over at Blogging Theologically raised two questions for me. First, are outside boards of accountability unbiblical? Second, should churches be autonomous? Aaron’s post seems to suggest that the answer to both of these questions is yes. I would argue not.

Outside Boards of Accountability. Some local church structures rely on boards comprised primarily of men (or men and women) who are not connected to that church in any other way. It is a model learned from the private sector in which corporations are overseen by a board of outside directors. The Microsoft board, for example, includes a college president, the CFO of a food group, the CEO of a credit card company, and the former chairman of a German automaker. There are many advantages of such a structure, not the least of which is an outside perspective that can help a local church keep its eyes on God’s kingdom instead of its own. But is such an external board unbiblical? Certainly not. The apostle Paul was a church planter throughout the Mediterranean region. In each area where he started a church, he also planted a pastor or commissioned some other leader: Timothy, Titus, and Lydia, to name a few. He instructed them to appoint elders (also known as overseers) for those churches, which gives us a clear example to follow: churches need to have local leaders exercising authority. But does that discount the benefit of external authorities? Or, more significantly, does it render external overseers unbiblical? By no means! Paul himself exercised authority over the churches he planted, both by instructing the local leaders to appoint elders and by intervening in matters of practice (e.g., circumcision), doctrine (e.g., the resurrection), and sin (e.g., sexual impurity). Further, Paul and Barnabas, Peter, Silas, and Luke, among others, all seem to have exercised such external authority over the growing number of local churches. This leads to the next question: ought local churches to be autonomous?

Local Church Autonomy. One of many results of the Protestant Reformation was the growth of the Free Church tradition; that is, local churches coming out from under the overbearing authority of The Church (namely, the Roman Catholic Church headquartered in Rome). My roots in the Baptist world plant me firmly in this Free Church tradition. I believe it is good and right…but neither biblical nor unbiblical. There is great freedom in the structure; not only freedom of outside authority (which is what the name truly reflects), but also freedom of movement and vision and strategy. Local churches that are unencumbered hierarchical bureaucracies are far more able to adapt their ministries to the ever-changing needs and cultures in which they exist. When a local church is substantially healthy, autonomy can be a good thing. Yet good things can also have negative side effects. Antibiotics fight infections, but they also reduce the body’s natural infection-fighting abilities, so that a person who has had to take antibiotics for a long period of time actually becomes more susceptible to future infection. In the same way, autonomy can lead to disastrous consequences when a church faces a crisis such as a moral failure, an overbearing pastor, or a leadership power struggle. In these types of circumstances, the church is no longer the doctor but the patient; and the patient is rarely in the best position to either diagnose the problem or prescribe the treatment. This is when an otherwise-autonomous local church must submit itself to others: an external board, the denominational or association leadership, or some other external, biblical source of authority. This is what the Galatian church did when they appointed Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem to settle the circumcision debate (Acts 15).

When we elevate the autonomy and independence over mutual submission—whether as individuals or as local churches—we have a recipe for arrogance and failure. We are giving Satan the foothold he needs to forestall the church’s attacks on his fortress. But when we humbly submit to the wisdom of those with a different and broader perspective, we demonstrate the grace and unity that Jesus prayed for and that will draw people into His kingdom.

Believe – Obey

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share

I grew up in a church world that stressed, with the Reformers, “solo gratia” – grace alone. That is, salvation is possible only through God’s grace, which we receive through our faith. That’s pretty much what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8. Also stressed was the corollary from two verses later: salvation is not attained through “works;” that is, by what we do (going to church or helping old ladies across the street) or by what we don’t do (swearing, smoking, drinking). I never heard that what we do doesn’t matter or isn’t important, only that it doesn’t impact salvation one way or the other.

While in the Air Force I studied, with help, the apparent discrepancy between Paul’s views and James’, who said “You see that a person is justified [read, saved] by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). It was fairly easy for me to reconcile the two: Paul never argued that works are unimportant and James never said that faith is unimportant; James simply emphasized that faith—real, living, saving faith—would be marked by what we do.

What does it mean to obey?

A few years ago I was asked that question. It has stuck with me; not exactly like a popcorn kernel stuck between my teeth, which is simply annoying; it’s more like my wedding band: a quiet but ever-present reminder of something profoundly important and significant.

The question stems from Jesus’ “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:20, “…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Some translations read obey in place of observe; in context, I think it’s a fair translation.) In the ensuing discussion and over the years since, I have noticed how much obedience is commanded in the Bible. And it’s not just in the “Old” Testament:

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life;
whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life….”
(John 3:36, ESV; emphasis mine)

These two complementary statements are both critical; they cannot be separated. Just as we cannot live without both food and water; just as we require both blood and oxygen; so eternal life is dependent on both belief and obedience—both of which, let us not forget, are possible only by God’s grace (cf. Philippians 2:13).

The persistent battle between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day was against their legalism—they overemphasized obeying the rules. The evangelical church in America sounded like those religious leaders for much of the 20th century (and, in some cases, still today). But there has been an equally misguided—and misguiding—trend over the last three or four decades. Born, I think, out of the phenomena of mass evangelism and mega-churches, this is the trend toward calling for a “decision” or “profession of faith” separate from obedience. We say, in effect, “pray this prayer of faith, but don’t worry about how you live; that will come later.” The problem is that most of us, having purchased the insurance policy, have precious little motivation to change our behavior.

That was not how Jesus approached would-be followers. He did not shy away from the hard call to make a change first. Think of when he called the first disciples: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). It sounds simple, but it wasn’t; following meant drastic change: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (verse 20). The simplicity of that sentence masks the true impact; these were fishermen by trade who dropped their tools, walked out of the business, and gave up everything.

Or when the rich man asked Jesus how to gain eternal life; first, Jesus said to obey the rules, which the man said he already did. So Jesus upped the ante: “sell everything, give it to the poor, then follow me.” Unlike the fishermen, this man couldn’t do it; Luke 18 says he was “extremely rich” and a “ruler,” and although it made him said, he nonetheless found it easier to walk away from Jesus than to walk away from his lifestyle.

One of our troubles in the western church is that we do not want people to walk away sad. To avoid that, we lower the bar. We praise God’s grace, we call for faith…but we do not call for life change. The result is churches filled with people “who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (see Matthew 7:21). And those of us who are pastors will be held to account for our messages that call for decisions and professions, but not for obedience.

Solo gratia? Yes, by grace alone are we saved, But it is a grace that brings both faith and obedience, and we need to call for and live out both.