Whom Shall A Church Follow?

There isn’t any such thing as a local church without leadership. All communities of people have leaders whom the rest follow and so it is with local churches too. The real question is what kind of leaders does your church have? Who are the people whose influence is charting the direction which the church journeys in and where is that journey headed?

The local church is neither a business like an investment company nor is it a squadron or company within a military structure. So while there are lessons in leadership to learn from businesses and military life, the question of what kind of leadership and leaders does a local church need is not found in either approach. What I mean is that leadership among a local church is neither a minister functioning like a CEO or Commander nor elders functioning as a board of directors or tribunal. Though God raises ministers and elders up as leaders, such spiritual authority derives from their wisdom displayed in the way they live and serve.

In some cases, leadership in a local church happens by popular vote or the influence of a smaller “ruling” group within the church. Even in churches with ministers and elders, sometimes the direction of a church is determined by a fear of upsetting the perceived mass. Of course, this is wrong! The local church is neither a democracy led by popular vote nor is it an oligarchy ruled by a few who may offer generous contributions or happen to have the most seniority in terms of having the most amount of years being members of the church. I’ll also add that the local church is not a monarchy either. While the universal church of Jesus Christ is a monarchy of whom Jesus is the King, leadership in the local church is not a dictatorship.

Leadership is shepherding sheep. It is of utmost importance that anyone seeking to provide leadership realize that the people who make up a local church are sheep in need of shepherding, not cattle to be driven. Shepherding people requires dwelling among the people, listening and learning from them in order to know them and build a relationship of trust with them. Shepherding people also requires setting an example that is worth following.

So where does a church begin is asking the question of what kind of leaders and leadership will it have? Whom should the church follow?

“Shepherding people requires dwelling among the people, listening and learning from them in order to know them and build a relationship of trust with them. Shepherding people also requires setting an example that is worth following.”

The most obvious beginning place for identifying a leader worth following is Jesus. Throughout his ministry, Jesus lived as a servant to others to the extend of forsaking himself for the sake of others. Christian leaders are servants who will forsake themselves for the sake of others. Anything else is toxic and sure to become a problem. Moving beyond Jesus, the story of the apostles calling for the selection of seven men to lead the distribution of food in Acts 6 to offer some help in answering the question of what kind of leadership will a church follow. The apostles empowered the rest of the disciples to select seven men “who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (v. 4). For those with eyes and ears to see and hear, it ought to be rather obvious who is full of the Spirit and wisdom. Elsewhere, Paul will tell the Corinthian church to follow him as he follows Christ (1 Cor 11:1). Spiritual leaders among a church are followers of Jesus too. Not just good church goers but followers of Jesus. And here too, it should be rather obvious if someone follows Jesus.

This certainly is not an exhaustive look at what defines those called to lead God’s people among a local church. It’s a beginning point that reminds us that healthy church leadership requires servants who are Spirit-filled followers of Jesus. These servants are not perfect, as all people are still sinners and live with various struggles from time to time. But they will exemplify an abiding faith as they follow Jesus, growing in their knowledge of God’s word and excelling in good deeds, demonstrating their wisdom as leaders worth following.

Do Christians Need Power?

In one sense, it seems laughable that anyone seeking to become President of the United States would make an appeal to Christian voters by promising Christians power. Of course, that is exactly what Presidential Candidate Donald Trump has apparently done by talking about Christians and saying that if he’s elected, “you’re going to have plenty of power.” But this post isn’t really about Donald Trump or any other Presidential Candidate. It’s about the Christians for whom such a promise of power is desired.

The Power of the Kingdom

When Jesus began his public ministry, the burning question for Israel had to do with the Kingdom of God. As a people who were living under the rule of Roman authority, Israel longed for God to make good on his promise which meant the restoration of his Kingdom. That was Israel’s hope.

As a prophetic voice, teaching with authority and performing all kinds of miraculous signs, Jesus raised the possibility that he was indeed the Messiah who would restore the Kingdom of God. Yet as Jesus defied some of Israel’s traditions, challenging the authority of the religious leaders, those in authority began to see him as a blasphemer and eventually would help conspire to have him crucified under the rule of the Roman Governor Pilate. However, God raised Jesus from death, vindicating him as Israel’s Messiah and so his disciples held out hope that he would restore the kingdom of God.

In Acts chapter one, the disciples asked Jesus when he was going to restore the kingdom. The question is about power but it is something that they still misunderstood. Jesus replies to his disciples saying, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses… (vv. 7-8). Jesus was assuring his disciples that they would have power but not the kind of power they have in mind. Receiving the Holy Spirit to live as witnesses of Jesus is not the power of militant or political coercion; it is rooted in the same power of the cross. The Kingdom of God appears as the disciples live as witness of Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Messiah, embodying his way of life as their way of life.

Pursuing The Wrong Kingdom

Maybe Christians today have forgotten this or maybe they just don’t want to embrace it since it’s not desirable like the power of militant and political coercion! Many Christians read Acts with admiration for the way the early church so rapidly grew, dreaming of how their own local churches could experience such growth. Many other believers lament the decline of Christianity’s influence in much of North America, hoping that somehow America could return to whatever Christian values they believe the nation once had. All the while, Christianity in America appears ever closer to losing sight of Jesus and the gospel he proclaimed even as local churches are declining as their witness is becoming marginalized.

Perhaps that sounds overly critical and you think I am painting with too broad of a brush stroke. Perhaps I am and perhaps I am too critical. However, the only reason why any Presidential Candidate is appealing to Christians (though certainly not all) with an assurance of giving them power is because there is a large enough group of Christians who desire such. So here is an important truth: The desire for such power says more about Christians than it does Donald Trump or any other Presidential Candidate and what it says is not good… it even raises the question of idolatry.

The desire for any form of militant and political power places Christians with the  masses who demanded that Pilate crucify Jesus. Don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying that a desire for coercive power is a desire to crucify Jesus. What I am suggesting is that those who demanded the crucifixion of Jesus from Pilate wanted the Kingdom of God but not on the terms of the God the Father revealed in Jesus. They wanted a kingdom in which they ruled with political coercion and were ready to use militant force in order to secure that power. The desire to protect and preserve Christian values and a Christendom culture among America, which is the sentiment that Trump is appealing to, is a desire to have power over others and that is the same desire as those who crucified Jesus. But there is a cost… The price of attaining political power over others is the Kingdom of God because nobody can rule among this world and participate in the Kingdom of God. Only Jesus has received the authority to rule this world!

A Final Word

I am writing this because there are other followers of Jesus who see the same problem, even if they might express it differently than I. My hope is that this might help raise awareness of the problem and provide a corrective that is rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The local churches we fellowship with need us to speak out and call us back to the way of our crucified and resurrected Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

The pursuit of any coercive power is one we pursue to our own peril. However, the good news is that when we let go of the desire for such power, we gain the freedom to love one another and even love those whose beliefs, values, and lifestyle is drastically different then ours. Rather than wasting time trying to win political arguments about who should become the next President of the United States, we can spend time being present with people, loving and serving them, and showing them who Jesus is. This is the power of living by the Holy Spirit as witnesses of Jesus and it’s the only power we need! When we live by the power of the Holy Spirit as witness of Jesus, the Kingdom of God appears here on earth as it is in heaven!

The Good Muslim, Latino, and Black Man

Most Christians read the Bible. Still the best-selling book, according to the Guinness World Records, the Bible is available in numerous languages as well as more than enough English translations. For many Christians like myself and especially evangelicals, the Bible is regarded as the inspired word of God and therefore is regarded as authoritative in matters of faith. So it really goes without saying that reading the Bible is a good thing. But… as I have said before and will say again, how we read the Bible matters too!

In fact, how we read the Bible may matter more than whether or not we read the Bible. That’s because a bad reading of the Bible most surely leads to bad theological praxis, which means that a poor reading may be just as dreadful not reading the Bible at all.

The Interpretation of Loving Thy Neighbor

In the Gospel of Luke there is a story in chapter 10 about a lawyer, an expert in Jewish law, who approached Jesus with a question. The lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. So in v. 26 Jesus responded by pointing this lawyer back to what is written in the law. However, knowing that just reading the law does not necessarily mean that this lawyer will live out the intention of the law, Jesus also asked him about how he reads the law.

The question in v. 26 is pōs anaginōskeis and though some English translations differ, it is likely best rendered as “How do you read it? (NIV, ESV). The adverb pōs is a common interrogative asking “how” or “in what way.” The present tense verb anaginōskeis means “to read” and is referring to the law which Jesus has pointed the lawyer back towards in response to the question of inheriting eternal life. The question itself is about the lawyer’s “legal interpretation” of the law (cf. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 428). That matters because nobody just reads the law and does exactly what it says in literal fashion. Every reader is an interpreter and so how this lawyer or anyone else reads/interprets the law matters.

In the story, the lawyer goes on to correctly point out that the law is summed up with the two commandments of loving God and loving neighbor. Jesus agrees. But when the Lawyer continues, asking Jesus who exactly is a neighbor, Jesus presses in with the utmost of challenges… Jesus goes on to tell a story about a neighbor and in that story the neighbor happens to be a Samaritan (you can read the story of “The Good Samaritan” here). This is critical because Jesus is identifying a Samaritan, people whom the Jews hated, as a neighbor and therefore someone who this Jewish lawyer must love as his neighbor. Further more, when Jesus finishes the story by telling this lawyer to do as the Samaritan did, who acted with “mercy” (v. 37), he is telling him to treat all people with compassion (cf. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, 175).

And Our Neighbors Are…

Going back to the question Jesus asked of how that lawyer reads the law, Luke is reminding us that how we read the Bible matters. However, the discussion here isn’t about how we understand the doctrine of end times or the doctrine of atonement correctly, not that such doctrines are unimportant. The discussion is about how we love our neighbor and whether our reading of the Bible moves us to love our neighbors as ourselves by extending compassion to all people.

If we leave the discussion right there, loving our neighbor as we love ourselves doesn’t seem so difficult. However, when we remember that Jesus spoke of a Samaritan in order to define just how this Jewish lawyer’s neighbor was, we must own up to the fact that our neighbors include those whom we just may in fact dislike, fear, and even hate.

For a White Christians living in America, like myself, the story told in Luke 10 is a reminder that our neighbors include people who are Black, Latino, and Muslim. I mention these three groups of people because of the tensions that still exists between them and many White people, including White evangelical Christians. It also seems necessary as certain politicians and talking heads preach a message of  fear and animosity among White evangelical Christian voters, appearing as guardians of their livelihood at the expense of compassion for minorities.

A Final Word

The story that Luke tells involves a question about how one expert in the law reads or interprets the law. It also raises a question for us Christians as to how we read or interpret the Bible. For Jesus, any reading of the law that allowed a Jew to disregard a Samaritan as a neighbor was wrong. For Christians then, particularly those of us who are White evangelical Christians living in America, any reading of the Bible that allows us to disregard a minority person as our neighbor is wrong. In fact, any reading of the Bible that allows us to disregard anyone as our neighbor is wrong.

The story itself tells us how Jesus expects us to treat our neighbors… with mercy! We must treat all people with such compassionate acts that they will know us as merciful people. It doesn’t matter how well versed we are in the doctrines of Nicene Christianity, how quickly we can recite passages of scripture, or even if we read our Bibles, if in doing so we fail to show mercy to all people. Any lack of mercy is a sure indicator that we are not reading and interpreting the Bible rightly. Showing mercy is how we love our neighbor as ourselves and just as our neighbor is the good Samaritan, so also our neighbor is the good Muslim, Latino, and Black man!

Church Discernment: Navigating Unchartered Waters

Between the holidays and getting prepared for an upcoming D.Min seminar at Northern Seminary, I have’t had much time for writing on this blog. However, I hope to return to regular blogging soon. In the mean time, one of the books I have read for my upcoming D.Min seminar is The New Parish by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen (2014). The book is offers a vision for how we can live as the church beyond the building, participating in the mission of God among the neighborhood. It’s an easy and accesible read that draws on some of the recent thinking regarding missional leadership and contextual theology.

For churches moving forward as participants in the mission of God among our neighborhoods, discernment is absolutely necessary. With all of the cultural changes taking place among society, we are in many ways navigating through unchartered waters. With each new day comes new challenges and we all, as local churches, exist among particular contexts that differ in degrees from each other. Therefore, rather than chasing after easy one-size-fits-all answers that don’t really help, we are invited to discern the way forward. Leaders in particular are called into discernment.

Discernment presumes that we are listening for what God is saying and then acting upon that discernment. It is risky, requiring faith, but as the authors say, “To substitute faith in God for your own controlling strategies is to undermine that which is most central to the gospel” (p. 64). My conviction is that God speaks through scripture, tradition, and each other as we gather in submission to God and one another. I am not saying that God speaks in an audible voice, for if he did then we wouldn’t have any need for discernment. And even though some are apprehensive of such a seemingly subjective endeavor that has room for error, we must trust that God, though the Spirit dwelling among us, is leading us as followers of Jesus to move forward in unchartered waters.

However, as we consider possible actions and choices, the authors list several questions that I believe will help us in the discernment process (p. 129):

  • Is the ministry of Jesus being continued in what we do?
  • How might we as a gathered community be formed if we act in this way?
  • Will these actions invite us to be more faithfully present to God, once another, creation, and our parish?
  • Will we be invited into mutually beneficial relationships with others?
  • Will this action invite the flourishing of life for all and for creation?

How might our conversations about worship, community involvement, ministry to the poor, etc… change if we are asking these questions?

The Gift of Non-Judgmental Grace

Working as an Uber Driver is a temporary gig and even though it’s not something I want to do for much longer, it’s really a pretty good job for what it is. One of the reasons I say that is because of the opportunity to meet a variety of people, as brief as our interactions are, and learn mostly through listening and observing.

I drive through the city of Baltimore, picking up one rider after another. One person is heading home after a day at work or college, another is headed to a bar or restaurant to meet some friends. It’s amazing to hear some of the things that riders will talk about with the person they are riding with or talking on their phone with when they forget that they are sitting in a car with someone they don’t even know. One couple chats happily with me about their new baby child, which they are enjoying a needed break from, while another couple argues with each other with one vulgar insult after another. Another rider is inquisitive about my religious beliefs while another rider is too drunk to care about anything but falling asleep (which he tried doing in the back seat of my car).

One couple I picked up was mocking a homeless panhandler we saw standing  at an intersection. They assumed the panhandler to be a drug-addict, which might be true. But this homeless person could just as easily be suffering from mental illness, could be a military veteran suffering PTSD stemming from his tours of duty in war, or he could be… Well, does it really matter?

As a minister I have spent time with people going through difficult times. Divorce, mental illness, addictions, jail-time, and so on. Though not always the case, often times the struggle stems from some bad choices the person has made… Sin! But something I’ve learned, which a few of my psychology friends have helped me understand, is the difference between excuse and explanation. Nothing excuses the wrong a person does but in many cases, there is an explanation for it. That is, there is an explanation for why that homeless panhandler just might be addicted to heroin or why that couple thinks they are better than that panhandler as I drop them off at the Capital Grill to eat a $300 dinner.

“But for the grace of God, there go I.” It’s something I try remembering as I encounter other people struggling though difficulties… especially since I know that I am a sinner too! And if it we’re not for the grace of God, we all…

We find it is easy to sit in judgment upon other people, especially when their sin is not our sin. It seems that our social-media experiences, where we quickly pass along memes and editorials that criticizes everything we disagree with in society, only encourages such judgmentalism. Regardless of the cause, we should resist the temptation to judge because if it were not for the grace of God…

Instead, perhaps we could give others the gift of non-judgmental grace. That is, instead of passing judgment on others, we empathize instead. Rather than assuming, we listen and/or observe in hopes that we might understand better. I’m not suggesting that we can never say something or someone is wrong but that instead of looking down on others for whatever circumstances they find themselves in, we regard others with mercy rather than scorn. Maybe giving others the gift of non-judgmental grace leads to other acts of kindness and blessing but whether it does or doesn’t, it makes us as people who are safe… people whom others can trust and approach when they are facing trouble. And that is where we join Jesus in the redemptive work of restoring and reconciling people to God, each other, and the life they have been created to live.

When Our Reasoning Fails Us

“God gave us a brain, so use it.”

It’s a well known phrase you’ve probably heard over a thousand times. I certainly have. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve heard this phrase repeated a lot by Christians when discussing something to do with church business and ministry. Sometimes it has seemed like an effort in reasoning one’s way around the good news of the kingdom of God, dismissing Jesus by saying “Yeah, but.”

I was a seminary student living in Memphis and was working part-time with an older church that was in decline. They provided housing for my wife and I, and I would preach once a month and engage in other ministry opportunities in the neighborhood. But that is where the challenge was.

The church, a community of about 80 to 100 middle-class white people, gathered for worship in a poor neighborhood of minorities that challenged by drugs, poverty, and crime. As far as the neighborhood the church gathered in, it had its share of homeless people, many of whom suffered with mental health issues and/or drug and alcohol addictions. And that was the problem.

A friend of mine and I tried serving those who were homeless as best as we knew how. Besides hanging out with them in places like a Waffle House, we offered food from the church’s pantry, and invited them to join us for worship on potluck Sundays. But it became clear that the homeless were unwanted and some of the other church leaders went so far as to tell them so, locking the doors behind them. A few of the church members were even blatant racists, which is equally disgusting. But as we pushed against this disdain for the homeless, some of the church members voiced their reasons…

“We can’t help everyone.”

“It’s dangerous, with the drugs they’re on and what not.”

“Let them get cleaned up first so they can show respect to God in his house.”

They even were able to invoke the Bible, proof-texting in order to justify their reasoning.

And here’s the scary thing about this story… It illustrates how Christians, people who profess faith in Jesus and read the Bible, can reason their way around the gospel and faith as they actually rationalize following Jesus right out of the equation.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Rom 12:2, NRSV

So yes, God did give us a brain… a mind, that is, and we should use it. But it also must be renewed in Christ by the Spirit if it is to be of value to us living as Christians. That raises an important question for us: Are we are seeking transformation that leads us to live more like Jesus and to make decisions that reflect the good news of the kingdom of God?

Living and making decisions based on fear, self-preservation, discrimination, and national politics only continues our conformation to the world. We can reason ourselves into living and making decisions based on the fear, self-preservation, discrimination, and national politics, and even proof-texting the Bible in order to justify our rationale, but when this happens our reasoning fails us!

Welcome The Refugees!

One of the justifications people make for war is the protection of innocent lives. That is, when a dictator engages in the systematic murder of innocents or an extremist group commits acts of terrorism that kills innocent people, many people believe that civilized nations should employ their military as a defensive counter measure, striking with deadly force in order to protect the lives of innocent people from further harm. Just war, in this sense, even if considered a necessary evil, is viewed as a humanitarian response.

Now let’s think about this concern for innocent lives in the matter of welcoming refugees from Syria. Today in America, many state Governors said that such refugees are not welcome in their states and according to my Facebook feed, many people support this stance. So let me just bluntly say: Refusing to welcome these refugees is a betrayal of any altruistic concern for innocent lives! Such inhospitality is incoherent with the claim we should be concerned for the protection of innocent lives when making a moral-justification for war. And for Christians, if we’re not careful, our reasoning can actually rationalize around following Jesus and his teaching. What a shame that would be!

If we are truly concerned for the innocent, then we cannot shut our doors on the refugees. So on that note, I want to share a letter written to the Governor of Virginia by my friend, classmate, (and more importantly) fellow follower of Jesus, Jeff Saferite, a pastor with the Hill City Church in Arlington, Virginia:

Governor,

I am praying for you today as the pressure mounts on how to respond to the attacks in Paris, the Daesh, and the Syrian refugees. It is my hope that you will open the doors of Virginia to those seeking refuge.

I remember the first time I walked through the Holocaust museum in DC. The story that stuck with me most is that of the SS St. Louis. I walked away from that experience asking how the good people of America could reject Jewish refugees in the face of Hitler. This question has resurfaced today.

Daesh survives and thrives off propaganda. The quickest way to defeat this great evil is to take the narrative away from them. Let’s show the world that Virginia, and America, is a place of love, freedom, and hospitality. I recognize there is danger in doing this but I believe there is greater danger in not doing so.

This is the path of Jesus, and the path that our congregation is on. The Christian congregation that I pastor is committed to joining in the efforts to serve, house, and feed the Syrian Refugees. We are deeply distressed that the violence of a few has caused a fear that threatens to overcome the compassion of many others toward the countless that needs our assistance

I pray that we rise above the attackers who see themselves as powerful when they prey on the powerless. Let’s show them the true power of a state that stands for love of another at any cost. Virginia is for lovers and sometimes love is a risk.

Lead us in making a statement by opening the doors of Virginia to Syrian Refugees!

Rev. Jeffrey T. Saferite, Jr.
Hill City Church
Arlington, VA

So can we welcome the refugees?

I was living in Memphis when the city, along with plenty of other cities, began receiving numerous refugees from the gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina. What I saw, experienced, and participated in was churches rising to the occasion by providing food, clothing, and shelter to the refugees. Many people from the community joined in to help provide basic humanitarian care for their fellow human-beings. Let’s welcome the refugees and rise to the occasion again.

As we consider the situation with Syrian refugees, Let me suggest reading the two following passages and spending some time meditating on these teachings of Jesus: 1) Matthew 25:31-46The Sheep and the Goats and 2) Luke 10:25-37The Parable of the Good Samaritan.