05/09/2017

Calvin’s Company of Pastors

I gather monthly with a group of like-minded pastors for fellowship and to discuss pastoral ministry.

 

Lately we’ve been reading together Scott Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (Oxford UP, 2013).  This is from the Epilogue:

 

The task of the historian is not simply that of an antiquarian who dusts off ancient artifacts that are roped off from the general public with a sign reading ‘do not touch.’  The study of religious history invites, even compels, us to investigate the past with an eye toward the present, to explore the foreignness of history with the expectation that ‘cultural immersion’ of this sort will not only expand our knowledge of peoples and events but also enrich our experience by providing needed perspective, timely wisdom, apt warnings, and precious glimpses into the failings, the beauty, and the sheer complexity of the human condition.

Manetsch then provides four final observations and insights for pastoral life today gleaned from its practice back then.

(1) “The vocation of Christian ministry is a difficult one.”   “Pastoral effectiveness in Geneva required courage, a clear sense of vocation, thick skin, a generous dose of humility, and solid Christian faith.”

(2) “The importance of accountability and collegiality in pastoral work.”  “Contemporary Protestantism, with its infatuation for robust individualism, celebrity preachers, and ministry empires, has much to learn from the example of Geneva’s church.”

(3) “The leading role that the Scriptures played in Calvin’s Reformation, suggesting the central importance of God’s Word for Christian renewal in our own day.”

(4) “The ministry of pastoral care.”  “In our modern world where men and women so often struggle with spiritual dislocation, fractured relationships, and deep-seated loneliness, Calvin’s vision for pastoral oversight that includes gospel proclamation and intense relational ministry appears especially relevant and important.”

04/27/2017

Pastor Moses

I’m finishing up Deuteronomy this Sunday and coming to the end of 10 years in the Pentateuch.  It’s actually kind of emotional.

 

In the conclusion of his commentary on Deuteronomy, Dan Block draws several lessons for pastoral ministry from Moses’ life:

The pastoral ministry of Moses is paradigmatic.  All who are called to divine service should surely emulate his passion for the agenda to which God has called them, his determination to preach only in accordance with the revealed will of God, his plea for gratitude for the grace of God in salvation and providential care, his call for wholehearted and full-bodied obedience to God’s will as the proper response to divine grace, his realistic view of his congregation, his vision of the church in God’s program of salvation for the world (Deut. 26:19), his refusal to erect monuments in his own honor, and his confidence in God to do his work by his means.  The flavor of ministry that arises from these commitments differs greatly from the self-serving, egotistical, and pandering paradigm of ministry that drives so much of the evangelical world.

Daniel I. Block, Deuteronomy, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 817-18.

03/21/2017

The Loneliness of Leadership

From Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 373:

[Deuteronomy 31:]23     After addressing Moses in the tent, the Lord then speaks to Joshua, who was soon to assume the office held for so long by Moses.  Be strong and be courageous – see also vv. 6, 7 (above).  The words that would be the source of continuing strength to Joshua come at the end of the verse: I will be with you.  Of the forms of loneliness that a man can experience, there are few so bleak as the loneliness of leadership.  But Joshua assumed his lonely role with an assurance of companionship and strength.  God’s presence with him would be sufficient to enable him to meet boldly every obstacle that the future could bring.

03/06/2017

Congealed Divine Oral Communication

Here’s a gem of a quote from a commentary that might not make it into a sermon, but needs to be shared and is too big for a tweet:

This written document represents not only a written transcript of Moses’ pastoral addresses but also congealed divine oral communication.  Since Yahweh’s voice is expressly identified with a written text, in the Torah of Moses Israelites of all generations have access to the divine voice.

Daniel I. Block, Deuteronomy, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 699; commenting on Dt. 30:9-10.

03/01/2017

The Five SOLAS Five Hundred Years Later

 

At our church we have a questionnaire that anyone who desires to be an elder has to fill out.  One of the questions is – “What are the five solas of the Reformation and would you be willing to be burned alive at the stake for holding these?”  We strongly believe that these rallying cries of the Reformation are still just as needed today as they were 500 years ago.

 

Before returning to Germany and facing his eventual martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis, theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived for a time in the United States.  His assessment of the religious scene here was – “Protestantism without Reformation.”  This critique still largely holds true.  We may not be Roman Catholic, but might some of the same problems that precipitated the Reformation in 16th Century Europe be present in 21st Century Evangelicalism?  I am afraid so.

 

The Five Solas provide a helpful grid for assessing the American church’s current spiritual climate and guide us in how to pray and work for revival.

 

Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) – I think that there are many churches who say that they believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, sufficient Word of God on paper, but in practice you cannot tell.  Scripture does not saturate their worship services.  The sermon is cut short and full of stories and tips instead of exposition and proclamation of the whole counsel of God.  The Word is not trusted to grow the church, but rather we look to and lean on techniques and tricks.  Science is respected over Scripture, psychology prized over theology, experience trusted over exegesis.  And many church-goers today are as biblically illiterate as they were in the Middle Ages.

 

Sola Fide (faith alone) – If we gave Southern Baptist church-goers a test with a True or False question – “People get into heaven by doing good” – I imagine a majority would know enough to say FALSE.  But that doesn’t mean they could pass an essay question on what justification by faith entails.  We may have simply lowered the bar or tried to lighten the law, but we still are preaching a form of works-righteousness when we major on what people need to do… to end sex-trafficking, get out of debt, have healthy families… instead of what Christ has done to free us from sin, forgive us our debts, and adopt us into his family.  The truth is that you actually have to be perfect to get into heaven, and thus our only hope is having Jesus’ perfect record given to us as a gift, received by faith.

 

Sola Gratia (grace alone) – We like grace… when it is seen as an assist for our slam dunk.  The polls are heart-rending which show the number of Christians who think that the quote – “God helps those who help themselves” – comes from the Bible.  Do we really believe our salvation is wholly of grace?  If so, then we could never allow our Christianity to be a badge of pride that makes us feel superior to or live in fear of the big, bad world.

 

Solus Christus (Christ alone) – We may say that we believe Jesus is the only way to God, but do our actions back that up?  We live in a highly pluralistic society.  Do we really believe that the nice Hindu family living down the street is destined for hell apart from faith in Christ?  Do we believe it enough to lovingly and sacrificially share the gospel with them of what Christ has uniquely done?  Our lack of evangelism betrays our lack of belief in the exclusivity of Christ.  Furthermore, so much of our faith talk is vague spirituality that does not really need the virgin birth, perfect life, substitutionary death, victorious resurrection, and imminent return of the historical God-man Jesus Christ.  We spout meaningless Oprah-esque mumbo-jumbo and it is no wonder that our kids start to think Christianity is not that distinct from the other religions and philosophies of their friends.

 

Soli Deo Gloria (the glory of God alone) – Ministry can so easily become about our name or brand.  We like to take the credit for our successes.  Plus, there is a pervasive man-centeredness among our culture which has seeped into our churches.  We are not in awe of God, but obsessed with our felt needs.  Therefore, we fundamentally view God as there to serve us instead of the other way around.  We have not been struck by the utter weightiness of the Triune God, but are pathetically shallow and flit about from this to that fad so easily.

 

In our consumeristic context where everyone is bombarded with endless options all the time, the solas can at first seem like a straightjacket.  But they truly represent our only hope.  We are in desperate need of a fresh vision of God’s glory, in the face of Jesus Christ, as a result of his grace, perceived by faith, in the pages of the Bible!

This article appeared in the February 27th issue of the Illinois Baptist.  It can also be found here.

 

02/18/2017

What Makes Someone A Great Leader?

I listened to a fascinating interview this week with Cub’s President of Baseball Operations and Chicago’s Baseball Messiah, Theo Epstein.

The section from 7:45 to 9:55 is pure genius on leadership that I think can be applied to any field, including pastoral leadership.

02/06/2017

The Justice of Hell

In my sermon yesterday on Deuteronomy 25 I mentioned how hell (the eternal conscious suffering of all those who have not been united to Christ by faith) is perfectly just; that is, the punishment is in proportion to the offense.

This is a hard topic and there is much that could be said on it.  Here are just three concepts that have helped me understand how eternity is not excessive.

(1) There is a gradation of punishment in hell based upon the level of one’s rejection of God.  Jesus said to those who heard him and rejected him, “I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Mt. 11:24).  Will the person who never heard the gospel be condemned to hell for eternity?  Yes, because they suppressed the knowledge of God that they did have from general revelation (cf. Rom. 1:18ff).  But it there will be a more severe judgment for those who had greater light and exposure to the gospel.  God will be fair.

(2) Punishment is proportionate to the magnitude of the One sinned against.  Sin against an infinite God deserves an infinite punishment that can never be repaid by a mere human.  After preaching I came home to find that my dog had gotten sick and soiled my $100 rug from Target.  It reminded me of this illustration from Jerry Bridges:

Suppose you want a new rug to cover the wooden floor in your living room.  Being of modest means, you go [to] the local discount store and pay three hundred dollars for a rug.  I come into your house with a bottle of black indelible ink and spill that ink on your rug.  I have just ruined your three-hundred-dollar rug.  But suppose you are a wealthy person and you pay thirty thousand dollars for an expensive Persian rug.  If I spill ink on that rug, it is an entirely different matter.  Why is that true?  It is the same act on my part.  In both instances, I have spilled black indelible ink on a rug.  The difference, of course, lies in the value of the rug.

God’s holiness is infinite.  We don’t just have accidental spills, we have spite.  When we think that eternal hell is overkill, we reveal the littleness which we view God’s glory.

(3) People in hell never stop sinning.  Not only is our debt infinite and unable to ever be repaid by us, but those in hell continue to add sin to sin.  Jesus describes hell as a place where there is “gnashing of teeth” (i.e. Mt. 8:12).  That is not an indication of people’s pain.  It reveals people’s hearts.  Gnashing of teeth in the Bible indicates a deep hatred, anger, and resentment (cf. Job 16:9; Pss. 35:16, 37:12, 112:10; Lam. 2:16; Acts 7:54).  Nobody is repentant or regenerated in hell.  They continue to bristle at God’s authority.

 

The time of salvation is now.  Praise God for the infinitely valuable Christ and his sufficient sacrifice!  Let’s spread the news…

01/24/2017

Pastors at Trump’s Inauguration

A sad example of bad hermeneutics and the dangers of civil religion:

On Inauguration Day, Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist in Dallas, delivered the sermon at the private prayer service prior to the swearing-in ceremony. He titled the sermon, “When God Chooses a Leader,” taking the message from Nehemiah 1:11.

“When I think of you,” Jeffress said to Trump, “I am reminded of another great leader God chose thousands of years ago in Israel. The nation had been in bondage for decades, the infrastructure of the country was in shambles, and God raised up a powerful leader to restore the nation. And the man God chose was neither a politician nor a priest. Instead, God chose a builder whose name was Nehemiah.”

He noted the first step God instructed Nehemiah to take in rebuilding the nation was building a wall around Jerusalem to protect is citizens. “You see, God is not against building walls,” Jeffress shared. Jeffress recalled sitting with Trump on a jet, eating Wendy’s cheeseburgers, and talking about the challenges facing the USA. Jeffress was an early supporter of Trump.

He told the incoming President and Vice President to look to God for strength and guidance: “…the challenges facing our nation are so great that it will take more than natural ability to meet them. We need God’s supernatural power.

“The good news is that the same God who empowered Nehemiah nearly 2,500 years ago is available to every one of us today who is willing to humble himself and ask for His help.”

Hmmm…  I thought the Good News is that God sent his Son to live the perfect life we should but never could, and die the death we deserve in our place so that all those who repent of their sin and put their faith in Christ alone could have his righteousness given to them by grace so they could be part of God’s eternal kingdom.  I thought SBC pastors knew that…

 

https://ib2news.org/2017/01/23/sbc-well-represented-at-trump-inauguration/

 

Addendum (from an email to someone asking for clarification):

I think it’s great for people to pray to God and ask for his help!  But it’s sad when a pastor will let the Christian message be understood as simply that – God is there to give you a boost with your plans.  If you read the whole text of that “sermon” it makes no mention of Jesus, sin, the cross….  It’s just really confusing to apply Nehemiah and the OT nation of Israel to Trump and the United States of America.  The book of Nehemiah has more to say today about the Church – the NT people of God – maintaining its distinctiveness from the world (i.e. staying true to the Gospel!) than it does about border security for the U.S.  I just want the Church to be the Church in the midst of it all and keep the gospel clear and call people to repentance and entrance into the eternal kingdom of God and not get sidetracked to the Right OR to the Left.

 

01/11/2017

Helping Without Hurting

 

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert with Katie Casselberry, Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015), 154 pages.

 

Whether your ministry setting is urban, suburban, or rural, you’ll inevitably encounter people stuck in poverty. How does your church lovingly engage with those who, for a variety of reasons, have little to no income and approach the church for help? Ignoring the issue and being an insulated middle-class clique is easy, but it’s not an option for those who profess to believe in the gospel of grace. At the same time, throwing money at people is really a way to keep them at a distance and therefore to only love ourselves.

 

A NEW BOOK

 

Several years ago, I read what’s since become a modern classic on poverty intervention: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Afterward, I thought, “I wish our church could do more to truly help those in financial need among us.” I also realized, however, that this was not my primary calling as a pastor (cf. Acts 6:1–7). I simply started praying that God might raise up the right people in our body who could take some of the ideas found in When Helping Hurts and run with them.

 

Recently, God has answered those prayers. We now have a small team of church members working through how we can genuinely love our brothers, sisters, and neighbors who find themselves in poverty. And thankfully, Corbett and Fikkert have written a short follow-up book that functions as the perfect guide for any church seeking to implement a wise approach to what has been called benevolence, diaconal work, mercy ministry, or compassion ministry. The book is titled Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People.

 

WHAT IS POVERTY?

 

The authors begin with a theological definition of poverty that includes more than just material need. We’re all poor in the sense that we have experienced brokenness in our relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. The ultimate hope of salvation is only found in the reconciling work of Christ. Sanctification is a messy, life-long process for all believers as we are restored to God’s design for us as image-bearers. Framing the issue this way prevents poverty alleviation from becoming a prideful attempt at “playing god.” The materially poor and the materially non-poor are both broken and need each other.

 

When poverty is defined exclusively as a lack of money, then we try to fix it with handouts, which ends up doing spiritual damage to everyone involved. Think of churches that give away hundreds of backpacks to impoverished school kids while taking pictures for their newsletter. This is not helping anyone in the long-term. We need to move away from paternalistic practices that promote dependency and demean objects of “charity” and instead encourage empowering relationships that aim for long-term, positive change.

 

Therefore, it is important to distinguish relief from rehabilitation and development. Relief is “stopping the bleeding.” There are times when people need immediate material assistance in the face of a crisis. However, Corbett and Fikkert demonstrate that “one of the most common and detrimental mistakes that North American churches make in their benevolence work is using a relief approach when the situation calls for development.” Development means doing things with others, not to them or for them—and it fits very nicely with discipleship.  Any serious engagement with those in poverty will require entering into relationships that address the root causes and not just the symptoms.

 

SUMMARY

 

There are many avenues and arenas for engaging the issue of poverty, and certainly not every local church is required or recommended to have a formal, structured benevolence program.  But for those who decide to go this route, this book will walk you through all the steps to get started.

 

First, the book will help you create a Benevolence Philosophy and Policies document that your church can unify around. Corbett and Fikkert provide a list of 19 questions that need to be answered in such a document and they comment on each one.

 

Then they offer detailed guidance on how to create an Intake Form. The authors suggest most people approaching the church for financial assistance should work through this form with a member of the benevolence team.

 

Next, the book explains the essential elements of an Action Plan. Here the key is making sure the person in poverty is put in the driver’s seat and those from the benevolence team are seen as allies or champions in an asset-based, participatory process.

 

The book also provides creative ideas and links to online tools. There are helpful suggestions for recruiting and training volunteers for a benevolence ministry, creating a Community Resource Directory so you know what social services are already available around you, and coordinating this ministry with other aspects of the church.

 

A great strength of the book is that it assumes a healthy ecclesiology. The “ordinary ministry” of the church—preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, accountability, discipline, prayer—is not undermined but explicitly encouraged and honored throughout. The gospel is clearly defined and the need for it to be verbalized in benevolence work is underscored. Sin and the need for personal responsibility never gets minimized, yet there is helpful awareness-raising information on contributing external factors like trauma and institutional racism. Poverty is complex and thus requires addressing individual behaviors, abusive or exploitive people, oppressive systems, and demonic forces.

 

The last chapter offers test cases to help the reader see what this approach would look like in different scenarios when people approach the church for money. Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but biblical wisdom and dependence on the Holy Spirit’s guidance is required. Corbett and Fikkert want us to be informed but not paralyzed. They give great advice: start small, start fast, and succeed!

 

CONCLUSION

 

Our church is located in a gentrifying center-city neighborhood that is anchored by a university and has an abundance of expensive lofts, condos, and townhomes populated by professionals. And yet, immediately surrounding our building there are government subsidized housing projects that are not going anywhere. We want to be a church for everyone here—a compelling community that primarily has Christ in common, not socio-economic class. For this to happen, we felt we needed a benevolence ministry that is biblical and informed by best practices. This little book will be an indispensable resource for us and I am sure many other churches.

 

https://9marks.org/review/book-review-helping-without-hurting-in-church-benevolence-by-steve-corbett-and-brian-fikkert/

01/05/2017

Compensatory Godliness

I feel like a very mediocre preacher, counselor, and leader.  I pray that I will grow more and more in godliness that can make up for it as Tim Keller describes here:

There are three basic roles or functions that a Christian minister has: preaching, pastoring/counseling and leading.  No one is gifted or equally gifted in all three areas and yet we must do them all.  The greatest factor in the long-term effectiveness of a Christian minister is how (or whether) he covers his necessarily gift-deficient areas with his character.  Most of the leadership literature does tell us to know our deficits, our gift-deficient areas.  But it usually tells us to surround ourselves with a team of people with complimentary gifts.  That is helpful, if you can pull it off.  But even if you can, that is not sufficient, for your gift-deficient areas will undermine you unless there is compensatory godliness.  What do I mean?

a) You may not have strong public speaking gifts; but if you are very godly, your wisdom, love and courage will mean that you will be interesting.  b) You may not have strong pastoral or counseling gifts (e.g. you may be very shy or introverted, etc.); but if you are very godly, your wisdom, love and courage will mean that you will comfort and guide people.  c) You may not have very strong leadership gifts (e.g. you may be disorganized or very cautious by nature); but if you are very godly, your wisdom, love and courage will mean that people will respect and follow you.

Timothy J. Keller and J. Allen Thompson, Church Planter Manual (New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2002), 63.