Nothing Too Small

www.bible.com/72/jhn.13.14.hcsb

John is the only gospel writer to include the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Because he does, aspiring preachers every year attempt to explain what this custom means and how important it is that Jesus does this. Washing the feet of the grit and dust of the road, in a world where everyone wore open-toed sandals, was a pretty common occurrence. For people who could afford it, servants were usually tasked with the job. But this was a time before floor-coverings were invented. So weren’t people washing their feet only to walk around on dirt floors? Maybe this only applies to going upstairs to living quarters. That would make more sense. Anyway, John makes the connection for us that only servants would be doing this job, and since Jesus stoops to do this for his disciples, they ought to do it for each other. I.e., no one is too good or important for this task of helping a brother. It is an act of humility, a lesson that was very easy to forget, as the church grew, more people venerated the apostles and their disciples, who grew accustomed to the veneration. Modern clergy inherited this sense of “above the rabble” and for used to being called special names like “Father”, “Reverend” and “Pastor”. Foot-washing is almost unknown outside of the Greek Orthodox tradition, which is why it has to be explained every year. Sadly, the lesson is often kept in this very ancient context.

The point is that leadership ought not to get so fancy that it forgets that everyone is a servant. Christianity is a religion of equals, not hierarchy. There is no “Father” or leader who ought to be treated with greater respect than any other brother or sister. All are saved according to the same blood. All are created by the same God. “God is no respecter of persons.” This also means that no job is too small or unimportant in His Kingdom. From the least to the greatest, all are important in God’s sight.

The story of the foot-washing remains one of the most important leadership lessons in the gospels. Never consider yourself too important, too busy, or your work too essential that you forget the law of love. That’s what got the Pharisees in trouble. Never consider yourself too good to help a brother.

God bless you today.

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Biblical Eldership

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I feel like I’ve argued both sides of this debate. Early in my ministry, I was confronted about whether an elder could be a single man. Later, could he be a divorced but remarried man. I’ve heard that the qualifications for eldership ought to be taken at face value, and that they ought to be understood as guidelines. I would pay to see the longitudinal study that showed the results of both understandings.

The truth is I’ve seen a few church elders in my time. I’ve had the privilege of working with some great men. And I’ve worked with men that were not so great, and some that were really petty. Some Elders were far more interested in personal or family power in the church than delivering sound judgment. I’ve seen many good men shy away from the leadership because the men in already in power were corrupt. And I’ve seen good Elders sour under peer pressure and pressure from those of influence outside church leadership.

I see the church elder as a dying breed, whose role and scope is slowly being taken over by staff, the “hired guns” from out of town, out of the colleges and seminaries. Staff take up the role of the Elder, but don’t do the work of shepherding, not like a home-grown Elder, allowing the sheep to wander on their own through the week because staff don’t necessarily understand the community like the Elder does.

That is the price of cheap grace by the way. If its easy to get into faith (by raising your hand or standing up at the close of the message) its just as easy to fall back out. Salvation costs you nothing, but it costs you everything.

We’ve so corrupted the understanding of what an Elder is that we don’t even try it anymore. It’s a title for a church officer and nothing more. He manages church business and hiring and often firing the preacher, if he has any power at all. In a small church, the Elder is the “Great Power”. In a large church, you can scarcely find him, eclipsed by the personality of the Preacher. Somewhere in there is the biblical role of an Elder.

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

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Tit 1:5-9)

When we look at the qualifications for an Elder we see a man who is an upstanding citizen, well-known in his community. He is a man with a stable marriage and family life. He is a man who knows his Bible and has good management skills. he has been through the school of hard knocks and graduated with honors. He is respected by his peers, but humble. He is evident in his faith and willing to share it. He is a man with life experience and wisdom, and the ability to pass this on to others. This is a man whose wife and children look up to him. This is one who is just as qualified by who he is as by those who know him.

This is the heart of Pauline Eldership, and let us tread carefully on this ground, since the leadership of God’s Church suffers, if not shatters and crumbles, if we do not take this seriously. As Alistair Begg recently said, “The chaos of an Elder’s home bleeds over in church leadership.”

The systems our churches use are far too weak, and far too lenient to meet this standard. And this leads to weak and lenient churches. We must be willing to accept the notion that if no man is qualified, then God has chosen no one to fill the role. We must be willing to keep the position open and vacant until men are qualified. Contrary to the “by-laws”, the Bible does not make it mandatory, and it may well mean the Lord is not ready to appoint any elders at this time. I think there is something to be said for men to be deacons before they are elders, but the diaconate is a different kind of position.

The Elders’ role (always in plural, by the way, never singly) is the shepherding of the flock. Its instruction and ministry of the Word, anointing the sick, and giving wise counsel.

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1Pe 5:1-3)

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. (1Th 5:12-13)
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. (Jas 5:14)

The elders are not responsible for the budget, the collection, benevolence, or making sure the stairs get fixed. The Elders are responsible for the spiritual depth of the local Church, while the deacons are responsible for the physical well-being of the church. As Shepherds and Overseers, they pursue the strays and lead the flock. They are responsible for dreams (as the old men, Acts 2:17) not the bottom line. An Eldership not willing to entrust these things to the Diaconate has done a poor job of selecting deacons. An eldership unwilling to stand against peer pressure from the church or even wife pressure at home is a poor eldership at best.

If Elders has been selected according to the standards we know are written in God’s Word, our churches would be in very different places now, and not nearly so dependent on the colleges and universities for leadership and advice. That places the Scholars in those leadership roles, not seasoned elders. That’s not what the Scriptures teach. That’s not the New Testament Church.

What we are seeing today among our larger churches reflects this. The Church has become a place to be entertained, not an encouragement for service. If we see the elders at all, it is the stumbling meditation of the Lord’s Supper, very much out of tune with the rest of the service. Where are the elders leading from the pulpit, through the song service, and giving the invitation? They are often men unskilled in speaking, uncomfortable before a crowd, and very willing to let the preacher take over for them. Where is the enthusiasm of the Board Meeting? Or the emotional vitality when telling the preacher where to go?

Men, if you are an Elder reading this, I encourage you to become more involved and out front in your church. Don’t be content to hide behind the title, or simply show up when the Board Meeting is called. You are the Head Christian in your Church, not your preacher. Everyone expects the preacher to be a Christian. But the Elder is one who lives where they live, and has been through what they experience and still loves the Lord. The Elder is the man who calls on the sick and the infirm, who shepherds the flock, knows the flock by name, and encourages the weak. If you are not up to the task, resign, and let God call someone who is. Encourage your preacher and admonish him, hold him accountable, but never tear him down in front of others. If you don’t like your preacher, hold him up before God in prayer. If you are not a praying man, then get on your knees. its time you started. If you are depending on your preacher to do your job, then its time for a wake-up call. Help him do his job by doing yours.

What We Need in Church

What does our church need to achieve fundamental change? Three things: Greatness, Openness, Direction.

We need Greatness in worship and personal spiritual experience. We need to rise above mediocrity and “just enough to get us by.” We need great worship. We need worship where we come face to face with Jesus Christ, with Almighty God. We need sacrificial worship. We need to bring something to the service and to God’s presence, rather than expect to take something away from it. We need to expect to bring a gift to God, our broken and bleeding hearts, the kind of sacrifice He desires. We need uplifting worship. We need worship and personal spiritual experience that is literally “out of this world.” This is what gives us the glimpse of the “other side,” the realm of the eternal and the spiritual. Without it, our religion becomes dull, lifeless, monochrome, and carnal.

Next, we need Openness. We need to be open and transparent to our brothers and sisters in faith, to open our hearts to them. We also need openness to God, so that we do not approach Him with hypocrisy, but with complete and sincere honesty about who we are and we wish to become. This is called in John 4 worshiping in “Spirit and in truth.” “In Spirit,” for God is spirit. We can only approach Him as translucent spirit, not as opaque flesh. This is true intimacy, not the kind of “lets-make-love” philosophy passed around by fornication, but true and lasting intimacy of heart, shared between Christians, other Christians, and Christ, the true intimacy of the “Body.”

Lastly, we need direction. We need to know where we are going. What is the point of all this? Is it to make more money, to hire more staff, to break 200, or something else completely pointless? Are we trying to achieve a certain level of spiritual maturity (Ephesians 4:13) together, something that we can measure and touch? Are we trying to bring new lives into the Kingdom? What is the direction that all of our services and groups and ministries are aiming for? Firmness of direction gives us a sense of purpose. Without it, we will fail, because we will fail to set goals. Failing to even set goals is a mark of a dying church. There would be no life here without direction. As children, out intention is to grow up. As older children, we set goals for our future, what will I be? As adults, we set goals in our career, how high will I go, or, how well a job can I do? As as Church, what is our direction? To get bigger? How big? How soon? Who will cater to? How will we grow? Are we willing to sacrifice our building to build newer and bigger? Are there sacred cows along the way we will have to butcher in order to make more room (i.e., music, wall color, more preaching, more services, more home Bible study)

Without these three, Greatness, Openness and Direction, Church is pointless, monotonous, and will eventually die. Do you want to be a hanger-on, one of the last to go down with the ship, or do you want to live?! Do you want to live the life that Jesus calls for in Scripture, to be filled overflowing with the water of life, to live life more abundantly? (John 10:10)

A Neglected Issue

Should the church check your pay stub at the door and demand the first ten percent off the top? Should the church ask you a list of personal accountability questions when you’ve reached the pew to see if you are worthy to take communion? Should it do background checks on potential members before we baptize them? Does the church make Jesus’ blood too cheap, God’s grace too cheap, that we will ignore obvious sins for the sake of keeping people happy? Since these are biblical issues, we need to address them.

I’ve seen some churches who take a soft line when it comes to sin. They will let anyone in, and ask no one to change their lifestyle, their habits, or their attitudes. They say that God’s grace is open to everyone, and no one should be put out. Paul talks about this attitude in 1 Corinthians 5 when he chastises the Corinthian church for permitting a couple of members to attend who were ostensibly living together, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” (1Co 5:1-2) Now we may try to justify such behavior with platitudes, saying that you just don’t know all the facts, and if you just knew, you would be more understanding, and ignore what is at the root of the thing, sin.

Let’s be honest, there are several sins that have become permissible in modern society, as Paul would say, “among the pagans”. The boundaries of marriage have become quite fragile. We have been sold a lie that consenting adults are just as good as married (to one another) adults. Broken homes, loveless, faithless marriages resulting in divorce, cohabitation, single parents, even homosexual couples are everywhere. Marriage isn’t as inviolable as it used to be. Pregnancy out of wedlock isn’t as shameful as it once was. Is Paul’s standard here what is permissible or not among the pagans? If it is ok among pagans, does that mean it is ok in the house of God? That sounds to me a shameful way to decide if something is permissible among the church’s membership.

Yet, there are several sins that have become permissible in the church setting. We excuse people who don’t attend the Lord’s worship, even though Hebrews 10:25 says we ought not to “neglect meeting together.” I know there are several that are holding grudges against one another for past grievances, even though we are told in Matthew 18:15, “”If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Mat 18:15) We are told several times in the Scriptures to share the gospel, but we rarely do it because it makes us uncomfortable. Let’s be clear (to coin a phrase), we have all sinned, and continue to do so, and will do so until we mature sufficiently to overcome them.

All Sin is sin, and equally dangerous to one’s salvation, regardless of the circumstances, and it should be repented of and removed. But, I think it is safe to say that we all sin, and we will disagree as to how much church discipline ought to be enforced in such matters, because we all know somebody caught in one of these sins (including ourselves) we want to be gentle with.

Paul is pointing out an extreme case to shame the church for her permissiveness. These are symptoms of a sin disease that only the church has the cure for, and they weren’t supplying a cure, but a medium in which the sin could thrive. Sin should never be encouraged, but the sinner should be loved. Was a person ever shamed into accepting Jesus Christ as Lord, or were they loved into it? Does Jesus call through shame, or through grace? But isn’t that just the thing, we experience shame for our sin, but grace through the cross?

This is what leads churches to take a soft line when it comes to sin. We all fall short of the glory of God, and for me to point out someone else’s sin is tantamount to Jesus’ words in Matthew, “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Mat 7:2-5) We are warned against being judgmental, and taking pride in our relatively “righteous” position. Taken to the extreme, this attitude forbids any judgment whatsoever, even when the behavior is clearly prohibited by Scripture. This is a kind of “no rules” Christianity where everyone is permitted to do as they please, because “Everyone is going to heaven anyway”. This is usually the position of the Unitarian Universalist Church, or the Mainline Disciples of Christ or United Church of Christ.

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:1-2) A Church’s leaders have a responsibility to shepherd the flock and to keep them away from trouble, but of course, some take that to an extreme. They preach that they must be free from certain obvious “sins” to be considered members in good standing, such as: No dancing, no card-playing, no cohabitation, no pregnancy out of wedlock, no homosexuality, no drug or alcohol abuse, must be in good physical health, must be attending a certain number of services every week, and contributing a certain percentage of their income, as figured based on their submitted pay stubs. (Remember I said “obvious sins” because hidden sins are usually fostered in this kind of environment, namely pride, conceit, judgmentalism, and legalism, but also murder: remember that the BTK Killer, Dennis Rader (arrested 2005) was a leader in his Lutheran Congregation, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_Rader) These are the churches where the horror stories come from. These are the churches that have “complaint night” where members attend a special meeting to present their grievances against other members before the Elders, so that the elders can pass summary judgment. (I am not kidding, I heard about a church that regularly had these kind of meetings.) These are also the churches at which only men are allowed in any church officer position, and only men are considered for service at the table. This is Westboro Baptist Church writ large.

Now, considering our church, I’d say we are somewhere in between these two positions. I would say we have attendance and membership standards, but to be honest we are fairly lax, because we don’t want to offend anyone (and thus cause someone who doesn’t attend to never attend again. This statement is probably considered offensive all by itself).But let’s be honest with ourselves, we don’t do as well in our walk as we know we ought to. We always want to keep the door open for the Prodigal and the sin-weary, because we believe the church is a place for healing and growth. Sometimes that growth is painful, which is where the Word comes in, instructing us and teaching us the right path to follow. We don’t all come in on that right path, but Christianity never forces anyone to approach Christ. It is completely voluntary.

But this is also why we ask our leaders and our officers to be individuals of exemplary moral character, because the blind can’t lead the blind, otherwise both will fall into the pit. If you are considering a position on the Church Board, you will be vetted, just a “heads up”. Because even though the member in the pew is still growing and maturing in faith, the member who serves the congregation ought to be mature in faith. “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. . . . They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” (1Ti 3:6,9)

We are not a church that will ask you for your pay stubs at the door, but we will ask you to be an example for the flock if you aspire to service in this congregation. We would not force you to do anything you don’t want to do, but we will encourage you to do something,. We may not be perfect, but we are willing to serve. Let us serve Him who saved us, the Risen Lord!