Christianity 201

January 12, 2023

A Better Leader for a Messy World

Thinking Through the Early Chapters of Matthew

by Clarke Dixon

Things seem to be in a mess around the world and perhaps we should blame leadership. Political leaders make decisions that hurt people. Are regular Russians living their daily grind to be blamed for a war waged against the people of Ukraine? Spiritual leaders also can make decisions that hurt people. In fact there is growing talk of the need for recovering from religion. While I myself am religious, depending on how you define “religious,” I do understand that some people need to move out from what can be called spiritual abuse. We who are spiritual leaders, even if we think our hearts are in the right place, can and do inflict harm on people when our heads are not in the right place. While the experience of religion provides great hope and comfort for many, including myself, it brings trauma to many also. That does not happen without leaders.

Political and spiritual leaders can mess with people’s lives each in their own way but perhaps worst of all are those times political leaders and spiritual leaders work their mess making wonders together. Think Taliban. Think the war on Ukraine where the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church has been publicly supportive of the war. When political leadership works hand in hand with spiritual leadership, truth and well being can take a hit. Normal people suffer.

This is not far removed from the world Jesus was born into. As we begin reading the Gospel of Matthew we might miss what is happening in the background. So what was happening in the background? Matthew lets us in on it.

The political leadership was awful.

We are barely into Matthew’s account of Jesus when we are introduced to Herod. History records that Herod the Great was not really that great. He was great at building things, like the temple, but he was also quite accomplished at ruining people’s lives. Matthew tells us about all the infants of Bethlehem being killed. What kind of leader does that? Matthew also reports that Herod’s son was not much better. Near the end of Matthew we are introduced to another political leader, Pilate. What Herod was incapable of doing, namely killing Jesus, Pilate carried out. Whether Romans, or one of their own, the political leadership standing over the people of God in that day was dreadful. At least being Jewish the people could depend on good spiritual leadership, right? Well…

The spiritual leadership also left much to be desired.

Let us consider a few examples.

In Matthew’s Christmas story, in contrast to the magi who were foreigners, and in contrast to Herod, the spiritual leaders took no initiative to find the one who could potentially be the Messiah. They were not even curious.

Matthew also tells us about how the spiritual leaders received harsh words from John the Baptist:

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.

Matthew 3:7-10 (NLT)

Hardly a commendation of good leadership!

Matthew also tells us about how Jesus did not call rabbis, scribes, priests, or Pharisees to follow him closely, but fisherman. If Jesus had been born in our day it would be akin to Jesus bypassing Baptist pastors like myself and calling truck drivers like my brother instead.

We are not far into Matthew when we also get into Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in chapters 5-7. Here we read:

But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!

Matthew 5:20 (NLT)

Some point out the very high standards of the teachers and Pharisees and so call upon Christians today to have super high standards in keeping the rules of our religion. However it is better to understand Jesus here to be taking a dig at the spiritual leaders of the day. Yes, they have high standards in following rules but they are missing the point. They are not becoming good people, nor are they helping others become good people. Jesus teaches us to reach for a better righteousness than what the spiritual leaders exemplify. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount could be summarized as teaching us how to catch the spirit of the law instead of the letter of the law, of how to have a good character that flows from a good heart than mere obedience to rules.

The Sermon on the Mount finishes with this:

Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.”

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he taught with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law.

Matthew 7:24-29 (NLT)

Reading between the lines; “listen to my teaching, not that of your spiritual leaders.” People were eager to do so as they recognized that he taught “with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law.”

We are not very far into the Gospel of Matthew when we realize that both the political and spiritual leadership were lacking.

Enter Jesus!

Matthew introduces the one who leads well.

There are hints and allusions, perhaps hard for us to see today, but which would have stood out to the readers in Matthew’s day, that Jesus is to be compared to a great leader of the past, Moses. Matthew alone records for us the flight of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to, and return from, Egypt. According to Bible scholars some of the language used in one particular sentence, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (Matthew 2:20 NRSV) is identical to the language used in a then popular Greek translation of Moses’ flight from, and return to, Egypt: “Go back to Egypt; for all those who were seeking your life are dead” (Exodus 4:19). Jesus is like Moses, a leader who brought about God’s purpose of leading the people to freedom.

Also, at the baptism of Jesus Matthew records a voice from heaven saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 NRSV). This is a reminder of a thought that shows up a few times in Exodus:

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me.’”

Exodus 4:22-23 NRSV

What was said of Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” is something that ought to have been said of God’s people as a whole but their history was spotty, thanks in large part to their leadership. That Jesus identifies strongly with God’s people is further enhanced with the temptation of Jesus in the desert for forty days which is a bit like God’s people wandering in the wilderness for forty years, only Jesus does it better.

Then there is the first mention of the teaching of Jesus according to Matthew: “From then on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near’” (Matthew 4:17 NLT). The Kingdom of heaven was near because the true king is here!

Matthew then goes on to write about the healings and miracles of Jesus. Where political and spiritual leadership could often be described as life taking, Jesus was always life giving.

To sum up the opening chapters of Matthew, the political and spiritual leaders could not hold a candle next to Jesus. The end of the Matthew reflects this:

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)

Much of the mess the world is in today is a result of poor political and spiritual leadership. Jesus is Lord, the leader who is leading us to a much better tomorrow. Jesus is Lord, who leads us to being better people today.


Before they appear here, Canadian pastor Clarke Dixon’s condensed sermons appear at his blog, Thinking Through Scripture.

December 28, 2022

Presuming to be a Teacher

This morning a verse suddenly came to mind:

“Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

That’s James 3:1 in the NIV, but it’s the NIV1984, because the version you’ll see posted these days from the NIV2011 looks like this:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

It’s that phrase “presume to be teachers” I was remembering, and I do regret that it no longer appears.

Why was I thinking of it?

Because these days, it seems like everyone is presuming to be a teacher. It started with a rise in interest among the laity in ecclesiology in the mid 2000s, particularly in church planting. Personally — and this is just my opinion — I believe that anyone can plant a church, but you need qualifications to lead a church. I know stories of churches that started in living rooms and in one case, a picnic table in the park, but the first thing they all did was then find someone with training to be their pastor.

But around the same time there was

  • the explosive growth of blogs (I must include myself in this)
  • the exponential growth of self-published books (published without peer review, proper editing, and the vetting of an established publishing house)
  • the astounding growth of podcasts and vlogs (where, without transcripts, the content isn’t indexed; you can hear things and be influenced by them, but not have a means to go back and locate exactly what you heard.)

One minute a young woman is posting rambling content from her bedroom, and the next minute she’s got a bestselling self-published book. (Of one of these, someone recently said something to the effect, ‘In all the time I’ve listened to her, I have no idea where she fits in doctrinally, as her content is mostly about things to which she is opposed.’)

In 2014, Dick Lentz wrote:

While attending a small group Bible study a number of years ago, I became concerned when one of the participants started defending an interpretation of a passage that I knew was very different than the writer’s original intent. I don’t recall what the specific verse was or what he was saying about it at the time. But I noted that several in the group seemed to be persuaded by his arguments even though the content of what he was sharing may have been biblically weak, perhaps because of the skill in which he articulated his viewpoint. After the study I cautioned my friend that he needed to be careful about what he shared as others could be influenced by what he said. I then quoted this verse to support my advice to him:

“Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1, NIV).”

My friend responded by saying that since this verse is addressing only those who are in an official position of a pastor or teacher and that he was neither, it didn’t apply to him. Our pastor seemed to support my friend’s conclusion regarding this passage when his sermon some time later focused on this same passage and the pastor said, “Since most of you aren’t teachers, I guess this verse has little to do with you.”

This may be too limiting.

I think that my friend’s understanding of this verse as well as my pastor’s, that it applies only to those who feel called to teach or are in an official position of a pastor or teacher, is too limiting. I believe that this verse is actually addressing anyone who presumes to teach in any fashion, and it seems that there are a lot of situations where we do this without being in the actual position of a teacher…

Click here to read the rest of the article.

On the website BibleHub.com they list related scriptures, and one they share is 1 Timothy 1:7

They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. (NIV)

They want to be known as teachers of the law of Moses, but they don’t know what they are talking about, even though they speak so confidently. (NLT)

Now that you’ve seen that verse, let’s jump back one verse:

But some people have missed this whole point. They have turned away from these things and spend their time in meaningless discussions. (1:6 NLT)

Other translations use:

  • meaningless discourse
  • fruitless discussion
  • empty talk
  • purposeless talk
  • endless blabber and nonsense

While there are some excellent podcasts out there, the above words described others to which I’ve listened. At the very least, they constitute a waste of your time.

Dick Lentz concludes:

I believe that we presume to be a teacher anytime we share an opinion and that opinion has the potential of influencing someone else’s thinking or to affect their actions. And I cannot think of very many times when what we say cannot have an effect on someone else Nothing we say can truly be considered trivial or inconsequential. Nearly all our words can affect what people think, can alter how others act, and can change what people feel about themselves, about others, and about God.

It seems to me that this verse is saying that we need to be careful about every word we utter and that we won’t get off the hook or get a free pass simply because we’re not in the official role of a teacher or a pastor.


■ Related content here at C201: Being a Teacher or Influencer Brings Responsibilities. This article begins with 3 scripture texts we’ll add here:

If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.
 – Deuteronomy 18:22 NIV

Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.
 – 2 Peter 1:20-21 NLT

Do your best to win God’s approval as a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed and who teaches only the true message.
– 2 Timothy 2:15 CEV

November 18, 2022

Why Was the Widow Down to Her Last Pennies?

In my part of the world the penny (one cent coin) was eliminated several years ago. Not having it certainly speeds up cash transactions, although most purchase payments are done electronically anyway. In the narrative today, a widow is down to her last few cents, and while her response to that situation is to be generous, you have to wonder how she got that low on funds.

Today we’re back for the eighth time at the website Borrowed Light, and for the seventh time with Mike Leake. Click the title to read this where it first appeared.

One Way Spiritual Abuse Happens

“But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.”Mark 12:42

Jesus goes on to tell us that she gave “out of her poverty”. She put in her last two cents. Yes, he commends her. But Mark also wants us to know that Jesus “sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put”. Mark places Jesus in opposition to this whole racket.

This text is not only a commendation of the widow’s offering. It’s perhaps even more an condemnation of the temple system. We should be asking, “why is this widow down to her last two cents?”

This is another one of those places in Scripture where the subheadings distract us from meaning. We’re supposed to read Mark 12:40 with this text: They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers…” As one of the most vulnerable members within what was supposed to be a God-reflecting society, she should have been flourishing and not down to her last couple pennies.

I imagine this widow to be a sweet and devoted woman. We have several of these women in our church. They are often the backbone of our ministries. Often they are bound by duty and dedication. It’s no surprise that Jesus commends this widow’s offering.

If we were to interview her about this gift she’d likely say something like, “it was my duty to do this. The leaders have told us that this is a way in which we can honor God. So I give because I love God. This offering is a gift to my LORD, and a reminder that He will take care of us.” As she says this she points to one of the religious leaders—adorned in gold, flowing robes, sitting at important seats and places of honor—“they help us know how to obey God”.

What is Spiritual Abuse?

What I’ve just described to you is spiritual abuse. Here are a few of the better definitions (source):

“Spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds.” (Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse, 1993)

“Spiritual abuse is when a Christian leader causes injury to others by acting in a self-centred manner in order to benefit themselves.” (Nelson, Spiritual Abuse: Unspoken Crisis, 2015)

“Spiritual abuse happens when people use God, or their supposed relationship with God, to control behaviour for their benefit.” (Diederich, Broken Trust, 2017)

You can see each of these definitions at play in the story of the widow giving her final two cents and Jesus’ words of condemnation for the Pharisees who are devouring widows’ houses. They used their spiritual authority for their benefit and not for hers.

Spiritual abuse is one of those things that happens not only at the hands of one particular person but it can happen through multiple hands within an unhealthy church culture. And often it is subtle. It can, at times, be hardly recognizable.

There are many ways in which spiritual abuse can happen, but today I will share with you one way in which it subtly happens within churches and communities of faith.

How does spiritual abuse happen?

We are on the road to spiritual abuse whenever we equate our ideas with the Bible’s imperatives. Let me explain.

Hebrews 10:25 tells us that we are to “not neglect to meet together” but instead we should be “encouraging one another”. From, this text you are safe to give this general principle: gathering with other believers is a vital component to being encouraged in the faith. Or to put it more bluntly, we are commanded by Scripture to encourage one another.

Biblical imperative: encourage one another through gathering together.

That is a non-negotiable. But watch what happens…

As a pastor I come along and take that biblical imperative and match it to a ministry idea:we should meet in weekly small groups for the purpose of encouraging one another in Christ.

Ministry idea: Small groups help us encourage one another through gathering together.

I might say something like, “at Calvary we believe God calls us to gather together to encourage one another, we obey this through weekly small groups.”

That sounds good, right?

Except nowhere in Scripture does it say, “obey this through weekly small groups”. It’s a great idea. I think it does help you obey this imperative. But the ministry idea itself does not have the authority of Scripture.

It turns into spiritual abuse whenever we use our authority (whether it be pastoral authority or the church’s cultural authority) to force obedience of a biblical imperative through our ministry idea. And people are wounded by this type of thing all the time. They experience loads of false guilt.

These things are subtle too. It is incredibly easy to merge a biblical imperative with a ministry idea, so that over time the ministry idea become synonymous with the biblical imperative. It happened to the Pharisees. And it happens within so many of our churches.

Conclusion

There are, I believe, two main solutions.

First, it would be good for leaders to slow our roles. We are not to be faith handlers. We must have the humility to acknowledge that our suggestions for how to obey an imperative do not carry the same weight as Scripture. We can be firm on what the imperatives are, but we must be humble in the specific way these are carried out.

Secondly, it is good for all of us to stop and ask questions of every thing we assume is an imperative. What exactly did God say? Part of the deception for the first couple was when they added, “we shall not touch”. God never said that.

As we begin to melt away some of the dross it is important for us to remember that imperatives really do matter. We should have a heart to obey what Christ has commanded us. But also the humility to let ourselves and others relationally work out what obedience actually looks like.

I am His.

So are you.

November 15, 2022

The King the People Wanted versus The King God Wanted

Back in April we reconnected with a guy we knew as Kuya Kevin aka Kevin Sanders who we had often linked to back in the day at Thinking Out Loud. Still faithfully writing online, his blog is simply titled Pastor Kevin Sanders, and you can read today’s post by clicking the title which follows.

The Blessings of 8th Place

1st Samuel 16 introduces us to one of the most well-known characters in the Bible: David. What you may not realize is just how unlikely a choice he was to be the King of Israel.

God told Samuel it was time to stop moping around and dwelling on the dismal leadership failures of Saul, Israel’s first king. Samuel was ordered to anoint another king, but this time it would be different. Saul was exactly the type of king the people wanted, but the new king would be the kind of man God wanted.

Samuel was told to go visit Jesse in Bethlehem. There he would meet Jesse’s sons, one of whom would be God’s choice for the next king.

The meeting eventually happened, and Samuel was immediately presented with the most obvious choice: Eliab.

Eliab had won the genetic lottery in more ways than one. He was the firstborn son, which meant he would be the leader of the family once Jesse passed away. This also meant he would receive twice the inheritance of any other sibling. Even now, being first has its advantages: firstborn children tend to surpass their younger siblings in both leadership ability and intelligence.

Eliab had something else going for him: he was tall and handsome–an impressive physical specimen of a man.

All things considered, this alpha male was the obvious choice to be Israel’s next king. Even Samuel was impressed: he was ready to cast the one and only deciding vote for Eliab.

But God had a different plan–a plan so surprising that it had to be spelled out in no uncertain terms. God told Samuel that He was looking for something that Samuel couldn’t see:

 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

-1st Samuel 16:7

Eliab was clearly not God’s choice, so Jesse did the most sensible thing he could think of. He presented Samuel with the second-born, then the third-born, an so on until he had presented seven of his sons as potential candidates. God rejected them all.

“Are all your sons here?” Samuel asked. There was one more, but no one in the family thought he should even be invited. David, the youngest, had been assigned to watch the sheep while everyone else attended to these more important matters.

Samuel sent for him, and God made His choice clear: David would be Israel’s next king. He was anointed on the spot–right in front of his higher-status brothers.

Why David? Because God wanted a man after His own heart (1st Samuel 13:14).

David is an example of something we see repeatedly in the Scriptures: God delights in using the unlikeliest of people to do extraordinary things. Social status, appearance, wealth, or any other external measure of “success” are meaningless in His eyes. God looks at one thing above everything when deciding who He will use: the heart.


Thanks, Kevin.

Back in 2014, I had an unusual moment involving today’s key verse; looking for something to jump out at me in a fresh way.

I wrote:

I Samuel 16 offers us a verse we know but tend not to practice:

7bI do not judge as people judge. They look at the outward appearance, but I look at the heart.

The Louis Segund translation renders it this way:

…l’homme regarde à ce qui frappe les yeux, mais l’Éternel regarde au coeur.

In English, it would read that man looks at what “strikes the eyes;” in other words first impressions and superficial indicators.

That’s even more true today as social media compels many to make a good impression, and many of us gravitate to people who simply look good.

God uses different metrics than we do. He looks at the heart.

September 1, 2022

When Church Leaders Fall

There’s a passage in 1 Corinthians 9, where the Apostle Paul uses the analogy of the Christian life as running a race.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.

For a preacher or Christian education teacher, this passage offers the possibility of a number of ‘running a race’ or ‘Olympic competition’ sub-analogies, to the point that you’ve probably heard it several times. So it’s easy to overlook the verse with which the section concludes:

27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

It’s one of a few passages in scripture where it’s made clear that the onus is on Christian leaders to live by the highest standards. One that probably comes to mind for readers here is in James 3:1

Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly.

As we begin another month and enter the final third of the year, we’re already aware — and perhaps a bit numb — to the church leaders who have brought embarrassment to the global Church, and destroyed marriages and families and local congregations in the process.

There are however, certain checks and balances that all of us can put into place which will reduce the chances of moral failure, or loss of financial integrity.

The translations of verse 27 are insightful, particularly in terms of how they capture the consequences of failing to heed the warnings of Church history, spiritual mentors or older Christians:

  • I do this to be sure that I myself won’t be disqualified after preaching to others. (CEB)
  • Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified. (NLT)
  • I do this so that I won’t miss getting the prize myself after telling others about it. (ERV)
  • Otherwise I fear that after enlisting others for the race, I myself might be declared unfit and ordered to stand aside. (TLB)
  • so I won’t lose out after telling the good news to others. (CEV)
  • lest by any means, having preached to others — I myself may become disapproved. (YLT)
  • lest possibly, after I have been a herald to others, I should myself be rejected. (Weymouth)
  • so that, after I have preached [the gospel] to others, I myself will not somehow be disqualified [as unfit for service]. (AMP)
  • so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified. (NET)
  • lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. (KJV)

And yet… having read all these translations… what is the utmost desire of many Christians when someone has fallen? Often it’s a rush to see that person fully restored to ministry; a hurry to have them returned to the pulpit to continue, as the text says, “preaching to others.”

Maybe some people aren’t meant for public service, be it in ministry or political office, or entertainment. Or maybe the spotlight of public life has a corrupting effect. Or perhaps having power causes deterioration of good judgment.

As I write this, I look at my own life, and while I don’t see the overt sins to which others might succumb, I am aware of bad attitudes, or a lack of trust in God’s sovereignty over particular circumstances in my life right now. And then, as I sit at the keyboard to prepare and format a daily devotional — as I have for going on 12½ years — I genuinely fear the consequences of vs. 27; being disqualified, or rejected; of losing what Paul, in the passage which follows, calls “apostolic authority.”

Our closing verses today are from 2 Corinthians 13:

Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you[or ‘in you’]; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith.As you test yourselves, I hope you will recognize that we have not failed the test of apostolic authority.  (NLT)

 


Correction: In the original edition of the August 29th devotional, the name listed as the writer of the Echoes of Heart devotional blog was incorrect. We apologize for the error. Here’s a link to another great devotional from them, Warrior Words. “Think of our words as warriors we send out into the world.”

 

 

August 22, 2022

As Ten Commandments Tablets Shatter

There’s a bad Sunday School joke that goes something like, “Who in the Bible broke all ten commandments?” The answer is Moses, when he returned from the mountain and exasperated over the sin of the people sent the tablets crashing to the ground.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

First of all, the giving of the commandments in a physical form does not mean that this is the first time God establishes moral and behavioral boundaries of the people of Israel. The website Life Hope and Truth states,

…The answer is found in a fascinating statement God made about Abraham, recorded in Genesis 26:5: “Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.”

This is significant because Abraham was born hundreds of years before Moses received the law on Mount Sinai!

In order for Abraham to obey God’s commandments, statutes and laws, he had to know what they were. This means that Abraham was taught the laws directly from God or from others (or possibly both). God was not giving Moses a brand-new law on Mount Sinai. He was merely giving a codified, or formal, version of His law so that it could be used to govern the emerging nation of Israel…

The article then goes on to illustrate instances of such laws existing prior to Moses.

Let’s pick up the store in Exodus 19 and Exodus 20

NIV.Ex.19.20 The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up 21 and the Lord said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. 22 Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.”  …

NIV.Ex.20.1 And God spoke all these words:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before[a] me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.  …

It’s verses 4-6, which we call the second commandment — see the post from last month where we break them up into commandment 2a and 2b — where we want to focus. It’s reiterated in verse 22

22 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: 23 Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.

Then, for nearly a dozen chapters, God gives Moses instructions for worship, and also some amplification of the “big ten” commandments given. But then he tells Moses it’s time “get down to earth” because there’s trouble stirring.

NIV.Ex.32.1  When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”…

…7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt…

…15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.

17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.”

18 Moses replied:

“It is not the sound of victory,
    it is not the sound of defeat;
    it is the sound of singing that I hear.”

19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain.

Moses returns to see the people breaking the second commandment which was cited above. And he is livid. In his anger and frustration he shatters the “big ten,” which we’re told God Himself engraved.

It’s a very Moses thing to do. In his anger he will later strike a rock he is told to simply speak to, and that particular act of anger costs him entry into the promised land.

But here’s my point.

Before I started writing this, I gave it the title, “As Ten Commandments Tablets Shatter.” I was thinking about Moses and what the people did in his absence. But I was also thinking about pastors and church leaders today.

Depending on whose statistics you read, in North America 1,200 or 1,500 pastors resign (quit) from ministry each month. While conservatives are busy arguing about women in ministry, it’s probably a good thing some of those women are in place, because the mostly-men pastoral workforce is abandoning ministry in droves.

There are a number of reasons, but I’m sure one of them is frustration over the lack of spiritual dedication among the parishioners. Or, as Moses observed, a flagrant disregard for the will of God.

So figuratively, over a thousand each month are throwing the tablets up in the air and letting them crash to the ground while literally, they pack up of their church office library and dust off their resumés and begin to look for another career path.

Vocational ministry life can be frustrating. I write that even as a member of my immediate family prepares to enter into a greater level of vocational pastoral commitment. I am sure that like Moses, I would get exasperated by what I would see and would want to toss the tablets up in the air as well.

In North America, October is designated as “Pastor Appreciation Month,” however if people were serious about appreciating their pastor, they would, to use an archaic word, “harken” more to the things about the ways of God that he or she is trying to teach the congregation. Yes, they should live a certain way because it’s what God desires and what God requires, but there should also be a recognition that the very reason this person has been set apart for career ministry is to teach them such things with the expectation that they will follow.

Otherwise it’s all just empty words and meaningless worship.

Are there “ten commandments” violations that you see that would cause your pastor/rector/priest to want to toss the stone tablets in the air?


Related:

 

 

July 3, 2022

Letting Christ Be Seen

Throughout all the times we’ve borrowed material from writer Kevin Rogers, I really hope some of you have taken the time to become subscribers to his blog, The Orphan Age. It’s one of the best sources that we use here, and through social media — including re-posts by online friends — I’m always reminded of his newest articles and often click through. Kevin is a pastor in southwest Ontario, Canada.

Clicking the header which follows will take you to today’s devotional. While it’s written for fellow-pastors, there is application here for everyone.

When Preachers Get Out Of The Way

I apologize for any time that I have preached in ways to make myself look good or have tried to convince you through logic alone that I had the truth. If I have lulled you to sleep with my soothing voice and my words had no effect on you, please forgive me for thinking that it was important that you somehow owed me an audience.

The idea that preachers should be elevated to celebrity status is a temptation for both the pastor and his greatest fans. Paul started a church in the city of Corinth, a place where professional communicators were in demand.

Here’s an example of the showbiz side of philosophy and rhetoric.

A speech by the orator Favorinus (c. a.d. 80–150), who came from Arles in the south of France, is preserved in the corpus of speeches by his teacher Dio Chrysostom. Although the speech was delivered sometime after Paul’s day and in a period when the colony was becoming more Greek, it provides detail about the way in which orators addressed their audiences. After talking about the colorful and eminent visitors who had visited the city—including Arion, who was saved by a dolphin, Solon, the great lawgiver of the city of Athens, and the historian Herodotus—Favorinus recalled this about his second visit to the city:

You were so glad to see me that you did your best to get me to stay with you, but seeing that to be impossible, you did have a likeness made of me, and you took this and set it up in your Library, a front row seat as it were, where you felt it would most effectively stimulate the youth to persevere in the same pursuits as myself.[1]

Still today, there’s no mania like ego mania. When rappers brag about their status, wealth, sexual prowess, or clever way with words, it is entertainment. When preachers brag about their ministry and authority, it falls short of what God is looking for.

1 Corinthians 2:

1 And this was the way it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I didn’t come with fancy words or human wisdom. I preached to you the truth about God’s love. My goal while I was with you was to talk about only one thing. And that was Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. When I came to you, I was weak and very afraid and trembling all over. I didn’t preach my message with clever and compelling words. Instead, my preaching showed the Holy Spirit’s power. This was so that your faith would be based on God’s power. Your faith would not be based on human wisdom. (NIrV)

When I have preached effectively in my estimation, it is because Holy Spirit was hovering over listeners and whispering truths that they needed to hear more than my words. I have often had people tell me a message was meaningful and when asked to elaborate, they will tell me things that weren’t fully developed or just given a passing mention in the sermon. They are most affected by the things that I did not say. This is God’s power at work, not mine.

Paul was undoubtedly referring to his first journey to Corinth when the local church was established. The letter he now writes will address his pastoral perspective on all of the ways that these Jesus followers were struggling. It would appear that these Christians were wanting their preachers to be brilliant orators. Paul will now address that.

His first mission to Corinth was very focused. He communicated with one aim. The truth about God’s love in Jesus was all he cared about. For them to understand who Jesus is and the importance of his scandalous death meant everything.

Why was Paul coming in fear and trembling? Was it some medical condition or mental stress? Was preaching a trigger event that reminded him of the time he had the crowd throwing rocks to kill him or being flogged for preaching the gospel? Paul had been on the side of the oppressor and injured many of the early Christians. Now he was one and perhaps the irony was not lost on him.

Paul reminded the Corinthians of his aim. He wanted them to trust in God and not in the messenger God had sent. If Paul had depended on human wisdom and presented the plan of salvation as a philosophical system, then the Corinthians would have put their trust in an explanation. Because Paul declared the Word of God in the power of God, his converts put their faith in an experience: They knew God’s power at work in their own lives.[2]


[1] Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the New Testament ©2002

[2] NKJV Wiersbe Study Bible ©2021 by Thomas Nelson. All Rights Reserved


Note to C201 readers: Today Kevin is using the NIrV, a simplified version of the NIV which uses shorter sentences and a more limited vocabulary; ideal for children, and those for whom English is not their first language.

April 5, 2022

Next Steps: Me? A Leader?

Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me …Then the God of peace will be with you.

But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.

Jesus said: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

(Philippians 4:9 NLT, James 1:22 NLT, Matthew 7:24 NIV)

When I think each day of posting something to Christianity 201, I focus mostly on the “201” part.  The blog’s tag line is “digging a little deeper.”  However, I try not to post things that would only be of interest to pastors and church leaders, simply because there are sooooooo very many pastor blogs and Christian leadership blogs out there.

However, the time has come to reconcile the two.

As much as many of you want to go deep each day, God is looking for people who are willing to step up.

Put otherwise, much has been given to you, but now much is going to be required of you; or, if you prefer, it’s time to find some application for all the good stuff you’re learning.  It’s time to give back something.

Where to begin?

I think first of all, you have to see yourself as a Christian leader.  If it’s your desire to continue to walk in Christian maturity, you have to redefine yourself as someone who is striving toward being the “go to” person for others not so far along in their faith. The Biblical model of “Paul/Timothy” relationships necessitates forming mentoring relationships, but first, some of you may need to cultivate the desire to be a mentor to others. This may not place you in a visible position — what we called “the front of the room” a few days ago — but may just mean having friends over for coffee more frequently, or having that one person over for coffee; but doing it as intentional ministry.

Second, you need to make an assessment of what the needs are around you.  This is going to begin with developing critical faculties; though you need to remember that this is not the same as having a critical spirit.  You want the former, you don’t want the latter. If this seems like a big deal, don’t worry, some pastors have faced this before and decided to just ask around. They went door-to-door and asked people what the greatest needs were in their community. You can also approach existing leadership and ask what the greatest needs are within the church community. Or you can do a gift assessment and see where your particular gift-set intersects the needs in your church.

Thirdly, you need to vocalize your desire to make a difference to both your faith community and your surrounding (larger) community. As you see yourself differently and begin to look at what’s happening where you live and serve, God will give you a vision, an idea, an expression of a need; and you need to share what God is showing you or giving. “This is what I believe God is showing me,” can be the first nine words of a longer sentence where you make a declaration of your willingness to lead.

The fear is always that people will say, “Who do you think you are?” but I believe that more times than not, you will find God has already prepared people to hear what you are saying.

However, having said all of the above, the leadership role which God wants to see you taking may not be visible in your local congregation at all. Rather, it might involve not leading as we usually think of it, but being able to lead and share both the scriptures and God’s love with an authority in the life of someone else. In other words, it may not involve being a leader to the many, but being a leader to one person at a time.

This is in fact the theme of Kyle Ildeman’s new book One at a Time. While we think of Jesus teaching and then feeding the 5,000+ people, his ministry often involved on person at a time.

And the leadership that God is calling you to might equally not involve crowds, but happen in quiet places.

 

March 1, 2022

Stewardship as Leadership

In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy. – I Cor. 4:2 NASB

This week I attended a church’s annual business meeting. I’ve been to many of these in several churches, and as these things go, this one was relatively non-eventful. After hearing different ministry reports, the focus (and the bulk of questions) at these types of meetings lands on the financial statements. I know of one church which had to spread their annual meeting over two nights; the second just to deal with capital and fiscal issues.

The passage above in I Corinthians clearly indicates that those in church management (the term the CSB uses in this verse) possess spiritual qualities. These are the same qualities related to the trust involved with those who provide spiritual guidance, whether we call them pastors or shepherds or elders or deacons.

Often the church’s treasurer is not someone who we typically think of as a “leader” in the church. They have no high-profile role beyond that seen in the annual meeting. (Although getting that person to read a scripture or offer a prayer might not be a bad idea.) They would appear to be relegated to number-crunching and management of the church’s physical assets.

But in the case of Stephen in the book of Acts, we see the disciples seemingly off-loading administrative duties (the feeding of widows) to a second tier of leadership, but the requirements for leadership in that department are apparently also spiritual (see Acts 6:5 below), and Stephen takes the ball and runs with it, preaching with eloquence a sermon so convicting that he his killed afterwards, becoming the first Christian martyr.

In Paul’s second letter to Timothy he writes,

“…the things that you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” (II Tim 2:2)

A leader must be reliable and qualified. What kind of qualifications did Paul have in mind? Perhaps he was thinking back to Stephen, a man whose job description in the early Church seems to involve assisting in some rather mundane administrative duties. (See Acts 6:1-10).  Today we would say that “Pastor Steve” was in charge of our “inner city outreach” or “helping hand program” or “operation good will.” His job would involve making sure that food baskets reached shut-ins, senior citizens, and people on welfare. In many of our churches, Steve would be on the staff part-time, probably working at Wal-Mart the rest of the week.  But to be chosen for this role, the text notes that he was

“…a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5)

Note that they didn’t hire a social psychologist with a masters degree in social work.  The qualifications were spiritual, not academic, and God used Stephen (6:8) to such an extent that he was martyred for his faith (see 7:54-58), something that Paul witnessed firsthand.

But whether we’re talking about church treasurers or the administrator of the church food pantry, there are always those who will ask, yes, but who is supervising the supervisors? It is a fair question. Several months ago we learned about a church secretary who embezzled $173,000 (US) from a church.

Do you think you could attend a church where you could simply say to the leadership, “That’s okay, we don’t need an annual meeting; we trust all of you” or does it seem unlikely?

The website BibleHub.com provides two comparison passages in 2 Kings — set 10 chapters apart — which offer an interesting wording.

The first is in chapter 12 (click here to read the full chapter) where I direct your attention especially to verse 15

NIV.2Kings.12.13 The money brought into the temple was not spent for making silver basins, wick trimmers, sprinkling bowls, trumpets or any other articles of gold or silver for the temple of the Lord; 14 it was paid to the workers, who used it to repair the temple. 15 They did not require an accounting from those to whom they gave the money to pay the workers, because they acted with complete honesty.

This wording repeats in chapter 22 (click here to read in full, though it’s not exactly a happy passage.)

NIV.2Kings.22.4 “Go up to Hilkiah the high priest and have him get ready the money that has been brought into the temple of the Lord, which the doorkeepers have collected from the people. Have them entrust it to the men appointed to supervise the work on the temple. And have these men pay the workers who repair the temple of the Lord the carpenters, the builders and the masons. Also have them purchase timber and dressed stone to repair the temple. But they need not account for the money entrusted to them, because they are honest in their dealings.

While separated by a number of other chapters, these statements are part of a larger story of the rebuilding of the temple, and it’s interesting the level of trust indicated by that recurring statement.

I remember one time when a pastor said to someone who was questioning my own personal integrity in a matter not related to finances, “I know his heart and I trust him.” It gave me a vote of confidence which was badly needed at the time.

Let’s end where we started, in I Corinthians 4:2, but widen out to include a fuller context. Paul is speaking:

CEB.1Cor.4.2 So a person should think about us this way—as servants of Christ and managers of God’s secrets. In this kind of situation, what is expected of a manager is that they prove to be faithful. I couldn’t care less if I’m judged by you or by any human court; I don’t even judge myself. I’m not aware of anything against me, but that doesn’t make me innocent, because the Lord is the one who judges me. So don’t judge anything before the right time—wait until the Lord comes. He will bring things that are hidden in the dark to light, and he will make people’s motivations public. Then there will be recognition for each person from God.

 

 

 

 

February 6, 2022

You Were God’s Idea

We’re continually grateful to HarperCollins Christian Publishing for special permission to share book excerpts here at Christianity 201.

Today’s devotional is one you might want to read aloud to any kids or early teens you have nearby right now. Devotions Daily kicked off this one earlier this week with a note saying that some of their most popular readings are actually kids devotionals. (I’ve found that to be true in my work connecting people with resources; there’s a Max Lucado devotional that I’ve recommended for men more than I’ve recommended it for children.)

This one is an excerpt from You Can Count on God: 100 Devotions for Kids.

[Adults: Check out the bonus item at the bottom of the page today.]

If it’s possible that anyone here doesn’t know Max Lucado, he as been a pastor in churches in Miami, Florida; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and San Antonio, Texas. He is America’s bestselling inspirational author with more than 130 million books in print.

Click the header which follows to read this at Devotions Daily.

A Great Idea

God’s fingerprints are all over you.

I praise You because You made me in an amazing and wonderful way. What You have done is wonderful. I know this very well.Psalm 139:14

You are a great idea! I don’t mean you have great ideas — though I’m sure you do! I mean that you yourself are a great idea. How do I know that? Because you are God’s idea — and He only has great ideas.

When God sat down to create the very first man and woman, He said,

Let Us make human beings in Our image and likeness.Genesis 1:26

God didn’t say, “Let us make oceans in our image” or “flowers in our likeness” or “giraffes in our likeness.” Nothing else in all of God’s creation is made in His likeness. Not plants, or weeds, or trees. Not elephants, anteaters, or even the cutest little puppy. Not stars, or mountains, or seas. Only people — including you and me.

What does it mean to be made in God’s likeness? It means you are made to look like Him. Maybe not on the outside. But on the inside, in your heart and mind and soul. Does that mean you’re perfect? Nope, nobody is. Except Jesus, of course. But it does mean that you take after Him. You get your kindness and your courage from Him. And when you love and help and forgive others, that’s when you look the most like Him.

In this world, people will sometimes see your mistakes as a reason to laugh at you. Some people might call you names. Others might decide not to be your friend because of where you live or the way you look. Don’t listen to them. Instead, remember this:

You are made in the image of God.

You’re a diamond, a precious jewel. You are so important to God, so loved by Him, that He sent His only Son to save you.

You can’t see them, but God’s fingerprints are all over you. So be sure to thank God today for His great idea of making you!

Remember

You are God’s great idea!


Excerpted with permission from You Can Count on God by Max Lucado, copyright 2022 Max Lucado.


Bonus item:

Two weeks ago I was listening to some older interview excerpts at Canadian Church Leader’s Podcast, and I came across several things recorded with Kim Moran when she was a pastor at a Pentecostal Church in Abbotsford BC. Kim is a friend of a friend, so I listened with interest.

One of the questions was about her church’s seven core values, and I transcribed them to present here without additional commentary. You can listen to the full 4-minutes at this link.

Diversity over Division

Great over Good

Servants over Stars

Cooperation over Competition

Extraordinary over Expected

Restoration over Rejection

Victors over Victims

What a great set of core values; agree?


Also available, new from Max Lucado, the adult edition:

February 2, 2022

Caring for the Flock

This is our third time with American pastor Paul O’Brien who writes at New Creation in X. Last year we mashed-up two shorter articles, this time around you must click through as we only had room for the first two of three sections. In the latter section he discusses who does the caring, in other words, how the modern church might delegate pastoral care.

Click the header which immediately follows.

Care in the Church

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

…First, the word “pastor” comes from the Latin word pastor, meaning shepherd. A pastor is a “shepherd” or “one who cares for a flock or herd.” That’s why “pastor” sounds like the word “pasture.” The two words are connected. “The concept of the leader as a shepherd is a theme with deep roots in God’s written revelation with its foundation in the Old Testament and fulfillment in the New.” We are going to briefly consider some of the passages about God’s call to leaders to provide shepherding care.

Care in the Old Testament

God has always shepherded His people (Gen. 48:15; Ps. 23:1; Ps. 71:17-18; 77:20; 78:52, 72; 80:1; 95:6-7; Is. 40:11; Mic. 5:4). Further, He has provided under-shepherds to lead and care for His people. He has told people that serve as leaders to shepherd His people (2 Sam. 7:7). Ironically, before Moses and David shepherded God’s people, they shepherded a literal flock of sheep (cf. Ps. 78:70-71).

God, for example, knows that unexperienced challenges come with age (2 Sam. 19:35; Eccl. 12:2-5) and He cares that His people are helped with those challenges. Scripture even says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Ps. 116:15). God deeply cares for His people and wants to see them cared for.

When God’s people are not rightly cared for, He is upset. God says, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture” (see Jer. 23:1-4)! And Ezekiel 34 shows that God takes the failure of His under-shepherds very seriously. He pronounces judgment on them (Ezek. 34:1-10). He promises He Himself will care for them (Ezek. 34:11-22). And He promises that the Perfect Shepherd will come and care for them (Ezek. 34:23-31). This brings us to the New Testament and pastors serving as Jesus’ under-shepherds.

Care in the New Testament

First, is Paul’s powerful exhortation to pastor/elders to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). What a high, precious, and important calling! Pastors are to care for what Jesus bought with His very blood. If it is that important to Jesus, how can it not be important to us?

Paul himself provides a powerful example of pastoral care. Paul visited people to “see how they are doing” (Acts 15:36). And his letters showed his shepherding care. His letters were part of his care. So, Paul sought to make disciples and care for disciples. These are complementary callings of church leaders.

Paul shared pastoral concern for God’s people. He wrote “I have you in my heart” (Phil. 1:7) as well as “being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). But Paul didn’t just write letters, he also visited people (Acts 15:36). So, Scripture would have us see the importance of ministry both “publicly” and “house to house” (Acts 20:20).

Second, Peter passed on what he heard from Jesus: “shepherd the flock” (John 21:15-17). Peter relayed the command that we are to shepherd the flock of God that is among us (1 Peter 5:1) yet Peter also reminds us of our motivation: that the chief Shepherd when He appears, will give us the unfading crown of glory (v. 4).

Third, Acts 6:1-7 shows us we must make plans, delegate, and ensure the practical needs of people in the church are taken care of. And Ephesians 4:7-16 shows us that it is not just pastors that are to do ministry, but a big part of pastoral ministry is equipping the saints to do ministry. The church is the body, and each member is to do their part if the body is to function as it is supposed to (1 Cor. 12:4-31). Each member is equipped with gifts from the Spirit (Rom. 12:3-8) and is supposed to employ them for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7). Sadly, a Gallup survey found that only 10% of church members in America are active in any kind of personal ministry.

Fourth, Jesus has compassion and cares for people when they helpless like a sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). Jesus holds church leaders responsible to care for His precious sheep. The leaders of the church are to keep watch on Jesus’ sheep knowing that they “will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). In fact, Jesus sees the care of those who are “down in out” as though it was done for Him. So, as we visit people, Jesus sees it as though we were visiting Him (see Matthew 25:35–36).

King David, before he was king, risked his life for mere sheep (1 Samuel 17:34-36). King Jesus gave His life for His sinful people. He’s the Good Shepherd that lays down His life of the sheep (John 10:11). And His under-shepherds are to lovingly and practically care for those for whom He gave His life (Acts 20:28).

Thus, in summary, we have seen King Jesus, the Great and Sovereign Shepherd, laid down His life for the sheep and calls the church to care for His sheep. So, we must do so.

Biblical Delegation of Care

— Click here to read the article’s conclusion along with extensive footnotes.

January 23, 2022

Baby Steps: Carrying Out Christ’s Most Basic Command

Some will think today’s “baby steps” devotional isn’t very 201-ish. It’s more like 101, or pre-101. But over and over again this weekend it has been impressed on me that the pastors and leaders I’m watching or listening to online are concerned that the church in North America, Western Europe and Australia/New Zealand is missing out on Christ’s elementary teaching that we reflect love in all we do and say. Or to put it another way, our orthopraxy matters as much if not more than our orthodoxy. Especially in these times of dissension and division.

Matthew 7:22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Matthew 7 reminds us here that much of what passes for spiritual activity doesn’t ultimately guarantee us standing before God. I was thinking of this today in reference to a very familiar passage in I Corinthians 13. This is often referred to as “The Love Chapter” though it falls into the middle of a larger passage on spiritual gifts. The actual “Love is patient, love is kind…” section has more affinity with Paul’s teaching on the fruit of the spirit than it does with things he says elsewhere about Christian marriage. Someday in the future, I hope to walk up to Paul and say, “Hey, you know that stuff about how ‘love is patient, love is kind…;’ did you know that used that as part of our wedding ceremonies?” And he’s gonna be like, “Weddings? Wow! I didn’t see that coming.” But I digress.

The set-up to the classic love reading is three verses that are not as well known:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

The principle here applies to many other dynamics of the Christian life. Using the second part of verse 2 as an example:

  • if I have a faith that can move mountains, but lack humility, I am nothing.
  • if I have a faith that can move mountains, but am prone to anger, I am nothing.
  • if I have a faith that can move mountains, but ignore the marginalized, I am nothing.
  • if I have a faith that can move mountains, but cause controversy and division, I am nothing.
  • if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have stopped hungering and thirsting after God, I am nothing.

I can be so very spiritual in so many ways but also so very lacking spiritually. It’s interesting to look at the various ways these outward manifestations of great faith are articulated in different translations: (NIV unless indicated)

  • speak in the tongues of men or of angels
  • speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy (Message)
  • speak in different languages (NCV)
  • have the gift of prophecy
  • I have prophetic powers (the gift of interpreting the divine will and purpose) (Amp)
  • can fathom all mysteries
  • understood all of God’s secret plans (NLT)
  • understand all the secret things of God (NCV)
  • have the gift to speak what God has revealed (NOG*)
  • can fathom all knowledge
  • speak God’s Word … making everything plain as day (Message)
  • can move mountains
  • my faith is strong enough to scoop a mountain from its bedrock (The Voice)
  • give all I possess to the poor
  • give over my body to hardship
  • go to the stake to be burned as a martyr (Message)

[A more complete list of the supernatural gifts can be found in I Cor. 12: 8-10.]

The Voice Bible bookends this first section of chapter 13 with this commentary:

Gifts of the Spirit, which are intended to strengthen the church body, often divide the body because members of the church elevate those who possess the more visible gifts over those whose gifts function in the background. In fact, this is the very problem facing the Corinthians. So while talking about the importance and function of these gifts in chapters 12 and 14, Paul shifts his focus to the central role love plays in a believer’s life in chapter 13. Love is essential for the body to be unified and for members to work together. Members of the body that are very different, with little in common, are able to appreciate and even enjoy others because of the love that comes when a life is submitted to God.

Paul boils it all down for the believers in Corinth. Religious people often spend their time practicing rituals, projecting dogma, and going through routines that might look like Christianity on the outside but that lack the essential ingredient that brings all of it together—love! It is a loving God who birthed creation and now pursues a broken people in the most spectacular way. That same love must guide believers, so faith doesn’t appear to be meaningless noise.

Often, non-believers look at us and merely see religious people busy doing religious things; church people running to and fro with church activities. Or, more specific to today’s passage, they hear of spectacular miracles or visions or healings, but don’t see anything tangible manifested in how we live our daily lives in the neighborhood, the workplace, at the school committee meeting, or at family occasions.

Decades ago, in a book titled The Mark of the Christian, Francis Schaeffer exhorted, “Love — and the unity it attests to — is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.”

I’ll admit the third-to-last one in the list, giving all my money to the poor, sounds impressive, but even that can be done in the wrong way or with the wrong motives. (Flip back a few weeks to this devotional.)

In certain Christian quarters, supernatural gifts are treated as the gold standard of faith, but without humility or love, we come up empty; and all our co-workers, neighbors, or extended family see is a preoccupation with religious things that really don’t appeal to their felt needs.


*Names of God Bible, a 2011 edition from Baker Book House just added at Bible Gateway.

November 28, 2021

Ministry for All the Wrong Reasons

This is a part two to yesterday’s post.

We usually don’t continue a theme into a second day, but I felt there were a few more things that could be said about pursuing church growth at all costs, and doing ministry for the sake of having good optics online.

First, later in the day a verse came to me which should have been part of the discussion:

Proverbs 16:2

All a person’s ways seem pure to them,
but motives are weighed by the Lord. (NIV)

Because we just spent time in this verse two years ago in a piece titled Motivation Matters, I don’t want to spend a lot of time except to note that God is concerned with the why we do things as much as the what we do.

The apostle Paul saw this happening even back in his day. In Philippians 1 he wrote,

15 It’s true that some are preaching out of jealousy and rivalry. But others preach about Christ with pure motives. 16 They preach because they love me, for they know I have been appointed to defend the Good News. 17 Those others do not have pure motives as they preach about Christ. They preach with selfish ambition, not sincerely, intending to make my chains more painful to me. 18 But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice.

I think this is an important passage in our time because ministries do compete with each other, so let’s visit the same verses in The Message:

15-18 It’s true that some here preach Christ because with me out of the way, they think they’ll step right into the spotlight. But the others do it with the best heart in the world. One group is motivated by pure love, knowing that I am here defending the Message, wanting to help. The others, now that I’m out of the picture, are merely greedy, hoping to get something out of it for themselves. Their motives are bad. They see me as their competition, and so the worse it goes for me, the better—they think—for them. So how am I to respond? I’ve decided that I really don’t care about their motives, whether mixed, bad, or indifferent. Every time one of them opens his mouth, Christ is proclaimed, so I just cheer them on!

Paul was able to see the good that could come out of such proclamation, even when the motives were suspect. The grace he shows in this situation is remarkable. In I Cor. 4:4-5 he again says,

My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide.  So don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time—before the Lord returns. For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives. Then God will give to each one whatever praise is due. (NLT)

The last two sentences suggest that are reward will be based on the motives which drove our activities. (Someone has quipped, ‘There will be a lot of surprises in heaven,’ for reasons such as this.)

Although I don’t have a copy, earlier in the year I was intrigued by this book title: Rooting for Rivals: How Collaboration and Generosity Increase the Impact of Leaders, Charities, and Churches (Bethany House, 2018).

When the church growth movement is analyzed, it’s said that much of the growth that takes place is transfer growth, in other words, people moving from one church to another. (This isn’t always true of fresh church plants however, in which genuine overall growth can be measured.) Transfer growth means that church leaders are competing for the same people, the same bodies if I can use that term.

But rivalry can also get to the point of bad-mouthing another organization without justification. The blurb for the book says,

Faith-based organizations are sometimes known for what we’re against—and all too often that includes being against each other. But amid growing distrust of religious institutions, Christ-centered nonprofits have a unique opportunity to link arms and collectively pursue a calling higher than any one organization’s agenda.

In today’s polarized world this comes as no surprise…

…Although I’ve looked at our opening verse many times, it was only today that I caught that it’s repeated at 21:2. Taking one last look, I noticed something at BibleHub.com that I’d also not seen before, the inclusion of the Brenton Septuagint Translation. Its rendering of 21:2 is:

Every man seems to himself righteous; but the Lord directs the hearts.

We can really deceive ourselves sometimes or decide that the end justifies the means. But God’s concern is always deeper.


Again, if you missed yesterday’s thoughts, click here.


Bonus article: It wasn’t the type of article we’d run here, but earlier in the week, Ruth Wilkinson’s conviction and courage converged and she ended up in a very foreign environment and made a new connection. Click here to read.

November 27, 2021

Evangelical Obsessions

Earlier today, tongue-in-cheek, I posted two mis-quoted passages on social media:

Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds … to be seen on Instagram. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

and

And He said to them, ‘Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s branding?’

As one gets older, it becomes quite apparent when people are doing ministry for the purpose of promoting themselves and their church or organization. The blurred ministry motives become so blatantly obvious, that you have to ask yourself why the people are not more spiritually self-aware to realize the pride which drives much of their activity is staring them in the face.

First, let’s look at the verses:

And He said to them, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” – Luke 2:49 NASB

The context is the short snapshot we have of Jesus at 12-years of age when he gets separated from his parents. They retrace their route and find him back “in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” vs. 45

The phrase in vs. 49 that Jesus is “being about my Father’s business is unique to the KJV. We’ve never discussed it here before, but the phrase ‘kingdom business’ gets used to describe all manner of church activity (and busy-ness), but it’s important to notice that Jesus was discussing theology, not planning a building program, or starting an organization, or discussing a stewardship campaign.

Our satirical ‘my Father’s branding‘ is seen so frequently these days. It’s about lifting up the name and tag line of a single congregation or organization, not the name of Jesus who ought to be the central focus of the worldwide church referenced in The Apostle’s Creed.  (‘Catholic’ in that context meaning universal.)

The other verse alluded to is

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. – Matthew 6:1 NIV

which is echoed a few verses later:

“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. – 6:16 NLT

Practicing good works to be seen on Instagram is more common than you might think. It’s all about optics.

Back in 2014, I looked at this, writing

I Samuel 16 offers us a verse we know but tend not to practice:

7bI do not judge as people judge. They look at the outward appearance, but I look at the heart.

The Louis Segund translation renders it this way:

…l’homme regarde à ce qui frappe les yeux, mais l’Éternel regarde au coeur.

In English, it would read that man looks at what “strikes the eyes;” in other words first impressions and superficial indicators.

Creating Instragram moments in ministry is more commonplace than you might think. Perhaps in some small way it can be justified in that it models or encourages others to think about their own Christian service or lack thereof.

But it’s often a thing in and of itself.

And therefore it’s not about Jesus.

The last part of Matt. 6:5 reads,

I assure you and most solemnly say to you, they [already] have their reward in full. – AMP

This self-promotion mentality goes all the way back to Babel.

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” – Genesis 11:14

They wanted to make a name for themselves; “…This will make us famous…” (NLT) This is so backward and the polar opposite to the upside-down kingdom of Christ which is characterized by humility. Philippians 2: 3 begins

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes…

Four times at Thinking Out Loud, you’ll find this quotation which we heard in a sermon and it has stuck with us.

“There is no limit on what can be done for God, as long as it doesn’t matter who is getting the earthly credit.”

If that’s true, then if a church or organization is always consciously aware of building their own brand, logically, there are going to be limits on what they will be able to accomplish…

…The other Evangelical obsession I want to touch on quickly here is a preoccupation with numbers.

Earlier this week we listened to a podcast where a pastor was clearly boasting about all that his church has accomplished in the last several years and it came out in phrases (which I’ve altered slightly here) like,

  • We have 150 people serving in this department of our ministry
  • We’ve prayed for a thousand people in this area alone
  • We want to be a church of 12,000 people

The numbers I’ve changed, but the substance was real. It was about building a brand, promoting a book, and, inevitably, hosting a conference.

Sadly, it somewhat undermined the good things he shared. Let me clear on that, there were some excellent takeaways that I will remember, but I’ll also remember the attitude and how reminiscent it was of another pastor we’ve been examining on another podcast who eventually crashed spectacularly.

Instead, we should be looking at partnerships where we work in cooperation with other ministries to build the Kingdom.

The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. – 1 Cor. 3:8 NLT

The passage that comes to mind here is one where John expresses concern to Jesus that a group that is outside their circle of disciples is ministering in the name of Jesus. Mark chapter 9 (CEB) reads,

38 John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”

39 Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. 40 Whoever isn’t against us is for us. 41 I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.

I once heard someone’s unique interpretation of the “mark” in Revelation represented by “666.” They said the mark was simply numbers. It was an interesting take, and one that fits our data-driven society.

We in the church can indeed be easily obsessed with likes, website stats, church growth, average attendance, yearly budgets, numbers of people baptized.

Numerics are simply not the name of the game.

March 27, 2021

Today’s Church Needs a Dose of Tov

One of the most talked-about books among pastors in the last 12 months has been A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and his daughter Laura Barringer. I would love to have posted an excerpt here, but instead decided to peruse various reviews to see what I could stitch together. For those who are concerned that this is a sales pitch to get you to buy a book, I assure you there is no link at the end for you to make a purchase, their publisher doesn’t send review copies to Canada so I did not receive a copy and C201 is not monetized in any way. Still, I feel the book worth mentioning, and if nothing else, you learned a new Hebrew word today!

What is Tov? For that I went to “And Sons” Magazine:

Tov is an almost ludicrously small but infinitely expansive Hebrew word. Today’s native English speakers may be vaguely familiar with tov only because of hearing the Jewish/Yiddish saying “Mazel Tov” (“Good Luck” in English), but it’s arguably one of the richest words out there. The explosive power in tov can be felt right from the beginning.

Tov first arrives on the scene in the creation story—the first story detailed in scripture. It’s the word God uses to describe what God sees after completing various acts of creation. God’s use of tov in Day 3 of creation does a spectacular job of unveiling for us what tov is.

“Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good [tov].” (Genesis 1:11–12 NRSV) …

…The difference between how modern society uses the word good and how God uses the word good is staggering. In our day and age, it’s not uncommon to hear good being used to describe a new craft beer or an entertaining sitcom or the latest pithy tweet by a celebrity. Scripture, on the other hand, is significantly choosier when it comes to applying the label “good” (tov) to something.

Let’s explore the story of Solomon receiving the gift of extraordinary wisdom and exercising it with the two-prostitutes-and-the-one-living-baby predicament. This story fleshes out what tov in action looks like. In the first part of 1 Kings 3:9, Solomon says to God, Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good [tov] and evil….”

What frequently gets translated as “an understanding mind” is לֵב שֹׁמֵע in Biblical Hebrew (pronounced “lev shomea”), which is “a hearing heart” if translated with simple literalness. The purpose behind God giving Solomon a hearing heart is so Solomon can govern God’s people and discern between good (tov) and evil…

I strongly encourage you to make that article your study for today, so much so, that here is the link again.

The book is designed, as I said at the outset, for church leaders. Reviewer Liam Thatcher writes,

This is a not a book designed to create scepticism about the church, or stir up division, but rather to call the church to be what it is meant to be: a safe and beautiful place of healing. A family.

The authors write,

‘This is a book about defending the redemptive value of the church while at the same time accepting the truth that broken and fallen people within the church – including pastors and other leaders – will sin, sometimes in shameful and damaging ways… Above all, this is a book of hope – about a better way, a way we’re calling the Circle of Tov (from the Hebrew word for good), and what it takes to form a culture of goodness in our churches that will resist abuses of power, promote healing, and eradicate the toxic fallout that infects so many Christian organisations’

A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, p7-8

He then includes one more citation from the book and ends with a point form outline of its major thrust. (You can sometimes gain some good thoughts just from studying a book’s table of contents!)

The Hebrew word tov means ‘goodness’ and appears more than 700 times in the OT. You could say that the Bible is the book of tov. In fact,

‘The word gospel could be translated as “the message of tov.” … The gospel is about God’s tov coming to us in Jesus, who is tov, and thus making us into agents of tov.’

A Church Called Tov, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, p94

A tov church will proactively:

  • Nurture empathy, and resist a narcissist’s culture (ch6)
  • Nurture grace, and resist a fear culture (ch7)
  • Put people first, and resist institution creep (ch8)
  • Tell the truth, resist false narratives, know Yom Kippur, and form a truth-telling culture (ch9)
  • Nurture justice, and resist the loyalty culture (ch10)
  • Nurture service, and resist the celebrity culture (ch11)
  • Nurture Christlikeness, and resist the leader culture (ch12)

The book was written to deal with the issue of toxicity in the church, and so much of its aims were prescriptive; this is a warning. Mary Stahl writes at CBE,

…For those who feel they are in a safe, healthy church community, it highlights any subtle messages that may be “warning signs” of negative aspects which may not be evident on the surface. It also gives a good summary of topics to study which can be introduced to a church if not already part of its culture. On the other hand, for those who feel they might be in a toxic church environment, the book outlines characteristics that will help put “words to feelings” for the messages that are being projected. The seven characteristics of a good/healthy church also can be used as a barometer for how any church is faring with actively pursuing goodness in its culture.

Read that last phrase again, “…how any church is fairing with actively pursuing goodness in its culture.” (italics added) May that be so.

To that end, Michelle Van Loon quotes the authors,

Church culture matters. As we live in our culture and also into our culture, our culture begins to live in and into us. A good culture will shape us toward goodness; a toxic culture will shape us toward evil. Yes, we can resist and change the culture of a church, but resisting, at times, is like trying to slow down a hurricane

She was once a student of Scot McKnight, and in her own words she adds,

I was brought to tears more than once as I read their descriptions of tov culture, in part because my old scars still ache when I read words like these, and in part because I have tasted tov in enough other faith communities to know what Scot and Laura describe is not ivory-tower theory, but submission to the kingdom of God at work shaping and refining church culture.

Again, that last phrase, “…submission to the kingdom of God at work shaping and refining church culture.” (Italics added)

Ray Miller summarizes the practicalities of what the book calls “the circle of Tov.”

The circle of TOV nurtures empathy (a resistance to narcissistic culture), nurtures Grace (resists a fear based culture), puts people first (resists institutional creep), tells the truth (resists false narratives), nurtures justice (resists loyalty culture), nurtures service (resists celebrity culture), and all those habits nurtures Christlikeness (resists the leader culture).

Next Page »