A Good Minister of Christ Jesus

When I was a student at Harding University, I belonged to the “Timothy Club.” [1] This was a group for those preparing to serve as ministers of the gospel named after the Apostle Paul’s protégé Timothy. The club provided further encouragement and mentoring for ministry students beyond the college classroom. And all of these students, including myself, believed God had called us to serve as ministers and was preparing us for that task so that he may send us out. [2]

Leaders Among the Church

Paul wrote Timothy saying, “If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching you have followed” (1 Tim 4:6). Space will not permit much analysis of what “these things” are. However, the passage hints at the great responsibility Paul expected of Timothy and under different yet similar circumstances, I believe Paul expected the same of Titus.

Whether we call them ministers, evangelists, or else, the work of Timothy and Titus was a continuation of what Paul began in helping establish the churches in Ephesus and Crete.  From a cursory reading of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, this ministry involved preaching and teaching as well as administrative work, all for the purpose of building up the churches as God’s holy people. For example, when it came to addressing the concerns of widows, Paul told Timothy to “Give these commands” [2] to the church (cf. 1 Tim 5:7, NRSV).

As a minister of Christ Jesus, this responsibility comes from Jesus himself. While all good ministry involves communal discernment, it is not a responsibility subject to the church’s approval but for the sake of the church — so that the church may continue participation in the mission of God. Both Timothy and Titus were sent as leaders among the church… not the only leaders, as they were to appoint elders and deacons (cf. 1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9), but leaders nonetheless.

The Need for Ministers

Churches today find themselves among a drastically different historical context and sometimes facing very different issues. Nevertheless, even though the circumstances are different, churches still need a minister of the gospel like Ephesus and Crete needed Timothy and Titus. Churches need ministers who spend time drinking from the deep well of God’s word so that they may preach and teach the scriptures, always pointing the church in the way of Jesus. Likewise, churches need these ministers acting administratively so that God’s people may, as followers of Jesus, increasingly become living expressions of the scriptures.

Whether a minister serves in the role of a “lead” or “senior” minister or in other specialized roles, such as a“youth” or “children’s” minister, they serve with the church as ministers called and sent by God to the church. Whatever fiscal arrangements are made for supporting a minister, these provisions should not bear upon the minister’s spiritual responsibility. This is not to suggest that there are never circumstances in which a minister has lost the ability to serve but to say that a minister’s service should not be reduced to employment.

Like elders, deacons, and even the church, ministers are not perfect. However, a good minister, one who understands the responsibility as working for God, has spent years learning and continues learning. Like Timothy, a good minister nourishes “on the truths of the faith” and has a good sense regarding what is necessary for building the church up. Likewise, a good minister is not defined by the approval of the church but whether or not that minister remains committed to that “good teaching” from the word of God.

A Final Word

There is so much more to say about the responsibility of a minister. However, in closing this essay, remember Paul’s encouragement to Timothy saying, “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God…” (2 Tim 2:6). The greatest service a minister can offer the church is to do just this.

—————

  1. This post is dedicated to my fellow Compadres (you know who you are), who serve God and the church as ministers of the gospel. Keep up the great work!
  2. A similar article is published as the same title in Connecting 29 (March 20, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.
  3. The word paraggellō involves making an announcement and is an expression used throughout the New Testament in an authoritative sense, see Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed., rev. Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 760.

Church Leaders and Spiritual Responsibility

When talking of church leadership, the discussion of “spiritual authority” usually comes to mind. It’s the question of what leadership roles does the church have and what authority do those roles have.

Despite the overemphasis on leadership in some Christian circles and the emerging pushback, there is validity to the discussion of spiritually authority and church leadership. We are told in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them…” The text never specifies who these leaders are, just that the church must “obey” them and “submit” to them. This assumes a high degree of authority without saying a word about how the leaders exercise this authority. So how is such authority exercised by leaders of the church? Such a question is important but it gains even more importance whenever we think of stories where leaders have acted with unhealthy authority, causing great harm.

Jesus Shaped Leadership…

As one who believes that we must read all scripture in light of Jesus, the self-sacrificial servant lifestyle of Jesus is the first hint at how leaders must exercise authority. Jesus was bold and decisive, unwilling to compromise his convictions, but he was also a servant who never forced anyone to act against their own free will. In fact, he even washed the feet of the one who betrayed him and those who deserted him when he was arrested and crucified.

In Matthew 20:20-28 there’s a story about the mother of James and John asking Jesus if her sons could sit at his right hand. Apparently, these two courageous boys put their mommy up to this because Jesus responded to them, telling them that they were clueless about what they were asking and then asking them if they could drink the same cup as Jesus. But this upset the other ten disciples who became angry, so Jesus responds in vv. 25-28:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The key words in this text are “not so” and “just as,” which specifies how Jesus his disciples to exercise spiritual authority.* Instead of a top-down dictating authority, Jesus insists that spiritual authority must come from the act of becoming a servant.

Spiritual Authority Responsibility?

The life of Jesus and his teaching about becoming a servant should then form the basis for how the leaders mentioned in Hebrews 13 are to exercise authority. That is because within the kingdom of God, all church leaders are followers of Jesus first. The authority of church leaders comes from service, not demand. Consequently, because of some top-down understandings of authority present in our own culture, I think we may be better off talking about spiritual responsibility instead of spiritual authority.

In this regards, the church has leaders with certain responsibility which the church must recognize. In exercising responsibility, the leaders are guiding the church towards greater participation in the mission of God. Yet because leadership responsibility is exercised from the role of a servant — as followers of Jesus — church leaders go first where they want to lead others. Put another way, such servant leaders will never ask others to do what they themselves are unwilling to do.

One Caveat…

I might be wrong on some of what I’m saying or over-simplifying the issue a bit, as I’m more so just thinking out loud as I work through my own questions about church leadership. However, over my lifetime I have known of stories involving both elders and ministers who did much harm. Yet I’ve never heard of leaders doing harm among a church because they were trying to lead like Jesus, as self-sacrificial servants.

————————-

* This insight comes from, Randy Willingham, a church consultant and ministry professor at Harding University.

Church, Change, and Renewal: Addressing the Problems

There are always problems within the church because the church is people. The problems create conflict and that is neither right or wrong, it’s just reality. Two or more people can’t participate in community with each other without encountering conflict. The question is how will the said conflict be handled, for that will determine whether the conflict becomes a good thing or bad thing… healthy or unhealthy conflict.

Churches pursuing missional renewal will encounter conflict as they try to move forward, changing what appears as wrong and pursuing what is right. I believe part of the trick is understanding that churches form as organizations. While churches generally begin in an organic manner, such as people just coming together for dinner and Bible study in someone’s house, as churches begin to grow they must organize with leadership, structure, and practices. Hence, churches become an organization. We even see this formation from organic to organization within the early book of Acts as this community has been formed organically by the Holy Spirit. The organic church takes on certain practices, including meeting the daily needs of others, but eventually more leadership is necessary so that the church may adequately continue the practice of meeting daily needs with food (cf. Acts 6:1-6), becoming an organization.

The challenge is that at some point in a churches history, something about the way the church is organized becomes the problem. Maybe the church has lapsed into an unhealthy practice for dealing with conflict, lost a shared vision of who it’s called to be, etc… Whatever the case may be, this is where problems that have been simple aches and pains to the body increasingly become like catastrophic illness. However, adding to the problem is a failure to recognize the issue as an organizational problem and instead blame certain individuals or a small group within the organization (cf. Andy Stanley, et al., Seven Practices of Effective Ministry, p. 58). By pointing the finger at people rather than the way the church participates in life together as an organization, the real problem — which is likely organizational — is ignored. When this happens, I doubt very much that the church will find the renewal it hopes for.

As the church pursues renewal, perhaps the best course of action is to slow the process down. The faster the pace, the more anxiety there is and the greater chance of people pointing fingers at each other instead discerning together. In doing so, there are several things I believe are also necessary:

  1. Have Conversations: For smaller churches, pulling chairs up in a circle and having a dialogical conversation is probably the best format. In larger churches where more organization is still necessary, having something like a town-hall meeting with an open mic for anyone to ask questions or make comments. In either case, some moderation will likely be necessary.
  2. Remain Patient: If you’re like me, you want every problem solved yesterday. The only problem is that God doesn’t operate according to our time schedules. Finding renewal is a process, not a single event and as someone told me the other day, churches must be willing to engage in the process as long as it is necessary.
  3. Offer Grace: As churches pursue renewal, there is anxiety and in such a context, people are bound to say and do things that are wrong. Most likely, they’re not trying to be malicious. So if necessary, speak to them about whatever matter it is but be willing to forgive just as Christ has forgiven you. Besides forgiving each other, believe the best about each other rather than assuming the worst. Without grace, the process of renewal will become ugly and will likely fail.

Two Profound Words on this Ash Wednesday

This Sunday I’m preaching from one of my favorite Bible stories, in John 11, where Jesus exclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The context of the story is the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus and so the text speaks voluminously on the theme of life, death, and hope.*

One of my favorites scenes in the story is when Jesus approaches the tomb where Lazarus has been buried and sees Mary along with some other Jews crying. There, the text says two words, “Jesus wept” (v. 35).

Though it’s the most simple of sentences possible, it’s a profound statement about God. You see, from the Gospel of John wants us to know that Jesus is God in the flesh. In fact, the beautiful mystery of the incarnation is not that Jesus is like God but that God is like Jesus. And in this story God is so identified with the pain and suffering of those mourning the death of Lazarus, that God weeps too.

Ash Wednesday and The Suffering

This is who the church is to follow, this God who comes full of grace and truth, who has become flesh in the person of Jesus the Messiah. As Jesus identifies with the suffering of the world, weeping with those who weep, so also must the church.

Enter Ash Wednesday. It’s the beginning of Lent, a season that some Christian traditions observe for forty-six days leading up to Easter Sunday. The practice derives from an ancient religious practice of using ashes to express mourning. For example, after suffering his afflictions, Job sat among the ashes and later used ashes in his response to God (cf. Job 2:8; 42:6). So a part of Ash Wednesday and Lent is reminding ourselves that we, as the people of God, are identifying with the brokenness and suffering of the world.

I neither commend nor condemn the observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent for Christians. I believe we have the freedom in Christ to either participate in this observance or not. However, as followers of Jesus, we must be people who learn how to identify with the suffering of others. In doing so we become the hands and feet of Jesus, offering the expression of God’s grace and truth. It’s an expression that acknowledges the unfairness and pain of a broken world marred by suffering but it’s also expresses the promise of hope we have in Jesus. For Jesus’ next act is the raising of Lazarus from the dead, a sign pointing toward his own resurrection which stands as the assurance of life to all who believe in him.

Identification With the Suffering

Of course, Lent is just a season for those Christians who choose to observe it. Identification with the suffering isn’t just for a season. This wonderful ministry should last until the day when Jesus returns, making all things new and drying up the tears from every eye.

Fortunately, in my experience, the church has done this well. I’m aware of the horror stories in which churches have failed the suffering miserably but that hasn’t been my experience. When I lost my father at the age of twenty-two, it was the church — a particular church I barely knew — that identified with my suffering. I remember the cards, the calls, and the visits. When my son died and life for my wife and I suddenly seemed to collapse, it was the church that lifted us up. I remember the church gathering in the trauma center to weep with my wife and I. We remember the days that followed with the church coming by to just listen, to serve, to comfort (we remember the little puppy we named “Shadow” that was given to us), and occasionally speak a needed truth, a word of hope. None of that ministry required any fancy programming or high-cost expenditures, just people willing to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.

And, of course! This is what we are called to be as the church of Jesus Christ.

So with the power of the Holy Spirit, may we enter the suffering world around us as people bearing witness to the grace and truth of God!

——————–

* This post is published as an article of the same title in Connecting 29 (March 5, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.

The Minister, The Church, and Change…

In my previous post, I discussed the problem with trying to make what I call “cosmetic change” before “character change” among declining churches. It’s easier for the church to focus on external issues, seeking cosmetic changes such different worship styles, adding small groups, and so on rather than focusing on the internal character of the church. It’s easier because neither individuals nor organizations want to critically look in the mirror, so to speak,  focusing on the character of who they fundamentally are and what them needs to change.

Enter the minister, the one tasked with leading the church towards missional renewal. Similar to Timothy and Titus, who both were carrying on where Paul left of, leading the churches in Ephesus and Crete towards their intended purpose, the minister’s role here is equipping the church to live on mission with God. However, this task can be quite the challenge, especially when it involves helping a church that has been in decline towards renewal. The first part of the challenge is keeping the conversation focused the character issues such as the vision and purpose the church will live out of.

Yet keeping the conversation focused on the character issues often results in a second challenge. Describing what he calls the “chronically anxious family” as wanting the quick fix solution as a technique for reversing the problem rather focusing on the underlying symptoms of the problem which has to do with themselves, Friedman goes on to say:

“What chronically anxious families require, of course, is a leader who does not give in to their demands. Should such a leader somehow arise, these families will be relentless in undercutting his or her resolve, and outside the family circle they will continually try to adapt other systems and professional to their needs” (A Failure of Nerve, p. 87).

In other words, the minister should fully expect resistance and even possible rejection. In my own church tribe, the later is usually when the minister is encouraged (“told”) to find another church to serve with.

There’s the story in 1 Samuel 8 when Israel demands a king. This bothered Samuel, who took his trouble to the Lord in prayer. Apparently, Samuel felt as though Israel was rejecting his leadership but God spoke up and said, “…it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (v. 7). And so it is with churches. The resistance to change, which is often channeled towards the minister is not, in the end, a decision about the minister but one about God and his mission.

At the end of the day, the minister must simply decide to be faithful to the calling!

Change Among the Declining Church

There are plenty of churches that find themselves in various stages of decline, finding themselves increasingly frustrated, and desiring missional renewal. Therefore something must change! But what?

The tempting answer is better programs, a different worship style, and so on. These are what I described in another post as cosmetic changes, which are different from character changes. The difference is important because, as I use this illustration often, you can put lipstick and make-up on a pig but at the end of the day, it’s still a pig. That is to say, making cosmetic changes alone to a church only results in the same church with some new lipstick and make-up.

The Problem with the Church…

In my experience, the problem with church decline is a character problem rather than cosmetic problem. The character problem stems from a web of issues involving leadership, unhealthy conflict, lack of vision and purpose, and members who want a church to attend rather than making a commitment to be the church. Such problems create anxiety among the church as an organization. The desire for missional renewal among the declining church then becomes the question of whether or not the church wants to address character change.

According to Edwin Friedman, in his book A Failure of Nerve, the answer is “No!” Instead of focusing on the underlying fundamental problems, anxious family systems would rather pursue quick fix solutions (p. 84-85). While Friedman is not talking about churches in particular, the problem he recognizes applies to churches just as much as it applies to families, governments, and other organizations. For churches in decline, it’s easier to blame something else and try to fix it with cosmetic changes than to say that the problem is “us” and address the character change.

Addressing The Church Problem…

Churches seeking missional renewal must focus on their own character? Does the church own a vision and purpose rooted in the mission of God that they are committed to pursuing? In other words, can the church as a whole (not just the minister, elders, and deacons) identify themselves by saying “This is who we are and this is what we are seeking to accomplish by the grace and power of God”?

This is the missional question of identity and purpose and it is the character change that churches must first address. Only when the church is able to answer this missional question of character change can it then begin to make cosmetic changes that may work. There isn’t any guarantee that such cosmetic changes will work but I am convinced that they are futile without a character change resulting in an owned vision and purpose for which the church as a whole is committed to.

The Web of Faith, Love, and Hope . . . And Doubt

In my church we sing the songs Lord, Reign In Me and I Surrender All. But to actually totally surrender ourselves to the Lord and let him reign in and over every part of our life… Well, that’s difficult to do.*

I tried doing this once. I prayed to God that he would have his complete way with me, transforming me into the likeness of Christ so that he could use me for service in his kingdom however he saw fit. Then my son died.

At the time, I wondered how Kenny’s death might be part of this process. As time went on and I began to see how God was using the tragedy of our son’s death to shape me, I became afraid to pray that prayer of surrender because I was afraid of what else it might cost me.

In some ways, I still am afraid of that prayer. But I know that I’m not alone.

What I’m speaking of is the struggle to trust God. And I know that there are many Christians who struggle with this. It’s not that we don’t have faith in God or that we don’t believe in Jesus. It’s a different struggle . . . a different sort of doubt. Imagine being hit by a car as you cross a street and then being asked to cross the street again. And so it is with life!

They Got Hit!

I imagine this is part of the struggle the Thessalonians were encountering. They put their faith in Christ and were taught to live a new life in Christ, renouncing their ungodly living, with the expectation of the immanent return of Christ. But when some fellow believers passed from this life before Christ returned, they got hit! Doubt set in and questions of trust gripped the consciousness of their faith.

After giving a report on some of his ministry happenings and exhorting the Thessalonians in godly living, the apostle Paul addresses the coming of Christ (1 Thess 4:13-18). This is Paul’s way of reassuring these Christians that they have not believed in vain. Paul continues on, saying in 1 Thess 5:8-10:

“But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on the faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”

Paul actually uses the action language of “putting on” faith, love, and hope because of the promise of life — salvation through Jesus Christ.

Keep Putting On…

As mentioned earlier, there are times when I’m still afraid to completely trust God and perhaps there always will be. Yet I do try and as I do, I am consciously aware of my own sinfulness and the need keep allowing God to transform me into the likeness of Christ. I’m also aware of how much the sting of death still haunts me, casting doubts through unanswered questions. It would be easier just to say “no” in not so many words and keep God at an arms distance away. But that isn’t faith, nor is it love and hope.

Perhaps this resonates with you, even if in different ways. My word of encouragement is Paul’s word of encouragement: keep putting on faith, love, and hope, knowing that we have received a promise of salvation that God will fulfill in its entirety when Christ returns. It’s the promise of the life that we will have together with God.

And Gathered With My Church…

As a final thought, let me say a word about the church in relation to our struggles of faith. In the larger world of Christian blogging there’s been a lot of conversation about the church lately and whether we need the church? Putting aside the theological issues with such a question, I believe that the church does matter and that we do need the church because it’s the church that helps us put on faith, love, and hope.

It’s the church that has passed on the gospel tradition we belong too and the scriptures that teach about this tradition. It is also in gathering with the church for worship, fellowship, and ministry that we remind ourselves of the truth and in doing so, assembling as a church becomes a way of putting on our faith, love, and hope. When I gather with my church, the Columbia Church of Christ, I am reminded of God’s grace and truth . . . of God’s promise in Christ. And gathered with my church, the Holy Spirit strengthens me to carry on with this web of faith, love, and hope that is sometimes mixed with doubts.

——————–

* A similar version of this article was originally published in Connecting 29 (February 20, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.