Sunday, 9 November 2014

Maturity not leadership

The constant call in the New Testament is towards believers attaining maturity. Ephesians 4:11-13 sets out that maturity is one of the core purposes of ministry gifts. 'Christ himself gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers,  to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature...' Similarly, Hebrews 6:1 calls out '... let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity'.

'Maturity' is seen as a key sign of making great progress in Christ. Leadership is a key way of supporting believers to get to that point. Yet to hear many church leaders speak, one would think that leadership was the end point and the real sign of maturity-to an extent that there is almost an unstated implication that to have reached one's 30s or 40s and not be in some form of leadership must be a sign of immaturity.

Some leaders have tried to get around this by arguing that everyone is called to be a leader and set this out as being leaders in terms of being an influence in the community, in being an influence at work etc. The difficulty is that the New Testament doesn't see being an influence as being a sign of leadership. It just sees it as part of the normal expectations of being a follower of Jesus.

This emphasis on a leadership role being the key mark of maturity also has an effect in churches narrowing the pool of wisdom by which theology is shaped and decisions are made. It means that discussions on key issues which would be benefit from the wisdom of a variety of mature Christians are instead only informed by a narrow group of people in a church leadership role (and in saying this I must also emphasise that I believe that it is biblical and right that decisions on key issues are made by church elders. It is the benefit that could be gained by
 mature wisdom informing those discussions that I am highlighting)

The other attitude that can flow from equating maturity with leadership is an implicit assumption that someone who is not a leader would either not be interested in anything beyond day to day church life or is in danger of stating something heretical if they were given a voice (and, if that really was a constant, regular danger, one would have to ask what that says about the quality of teaching and discipleship in the church in question!).

Again I come back to emphasising that Christ appoints leaders and gives those leaders gifts and wisdom for the roles He calls them into. In no way do I want to detract from that, but I also believe that the body of Christ is what it says on the tin-a body made up of all who are in Christ and all who are called to be mature, with all the implications which flow from that. 

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The dangers of being inoffensive but ineffectual

This post started life as a reply to a friend on Facebook but my wife suggested I should make it a wider blog post and so here we go.

I do not intend to get into the specifics of Mark Driscoll's position as it is an issue for him and Mars Hill to address. What does trouble me are the wider group of people who have never met Mark Driscoll and are unconnected to Mars Hill but seem to wish to take the opportunity to help bring him down because they disagree with his theology or preaching style.

For example, a number of articles, apparently from Christians, criticise Mark Driscoll for issues such as what they (inaccurately in my view) call his  'rigid gender rules' and 'homophobia'.Now, whatever individuals happen to believe about such issues, what Mark Driscoll teaches about them is well in line with what would be recognised as the same conclusions from scripture as many, many others have reached over the centuries, and so to target him on this seems irrational and unreasonable.  Moreover, I don't see his critics on this issue in the main expressing a respectful disagreement on theology. Rather they seem to be arguing from a viewpoint that Driscoll's position is offensive to the modern day world-to which he simply joins the club of many, many Christians in history.

What in some ways I find puzzling are the people who have criticised him for using 'profanities' and being sexually explicit. From the Driscoll books I have read and his sermons I have listened to, I cannot think of any instance where he has sworn. As for being sexually explicit, I don't hear anything in what he says that is any more explicit than the Bible is in books like Song of Songs and Leviticus, that is any more direct than statements such as the apostle Paul wishing that those who teach that Christians should be circumcised would go the whole way and emasculate themselves. I can only conclude that those making such criticisms live in a much more genteel world than I, and read a different Bible than me, as their threshold on such issues seems incredibly low.

In short, half his external critics seem to be arguing from a worldly viewpoint, the other half seem to be arguing from a very genteel viewpoint that is shocked simply by statements that are in line with scripture.

The real danger in all this is that Mark Driscoll was reaching people who the church doesn't normally reach. People from tough, urbanised backgrounds who could relate to someone very straight talking who addressed the real issues in their lives. It would be a tragedy if the church retreated into using safe men who don't offend any Christians but don't win any people from non-middle class backgrounds either.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Community and freedom, not privacy and shame

How many times have you heard a preacher say 'if there's anything you'd like prayer about, come and speak to our prayer team. Don't worry. Everything you say is completely confidential'. It sounds very reassuring, but does it reflect how the body of Christ is meant to operate?

What I see in the New Testament is a community who knew their status before God-that they had been sinners without hope who, by the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus, had been wonderfully forgiven and made clean-not by anything they had done but rather completely by the free gift of God. Because of that, they did not need to pretend to one another about being perfect. James said 'Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another'. There was a recognition that they needed the support of one another to grow in godliness and to overcome temptation to revert to their past ways of living.

Paul made it clear to the Galatians 'Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens'. The emphasis was on the community supporting each other, and also the community watching out for one another so that, in supporting someone to overcome sin, someone else didn't instead get tempted themselves.

This whole approach reflected the fact that no one needed to be ashamed of confessing sin or saying they were struggling with temptation because Christ has taken away their shame..

The practice of inviting people to come and talk to a special team, on a confidential basis, unfortunately gives entirely the opposite message. Far from saying that Christ has taken away our shame, it suggests that what we have done is shameful and needs to be kept confidential so that others aren't shocked about us. Far from reflecting the biblical principle of a community supporting one another, it gives a 'me and Jesus' approach with a minimum amount of other people involved for the purposes of prayer.

Moreover, it reinforces a sense that people have all too often of 'I'm the only one struggling with this sin' when in reality three other people who've also come out for prayer have done so for precisely the same issue but, because it's all confidential, none of them know about one another.

Its important in saying this that I'm also clear about what I do not mean. I'm not suggesting that someone stands at the front of a meeting and says 'Susan has just confessed to x. Let's all pray for her'. I'm also not saying that there aren't some people and situations that need extra wisdom and support from people with particular gifts. What I am saying is that it should be a day to day part of community, and of meeting together in all kinds of ways, that people feel that its normal and they will be accepted if they say 'I am really struggling with x. I need help' or 'I am finding myself in a pattern of repeating the same sin again and again and I need your help and prayer to overcome it'.

As churches let's build unshockable communities where people lead godly lives and overcome sin because their church is full of friends who they can be completely open with and who fully support each other.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The pastor is back in town

One of the distinctive marks of the churches that have emerged in the UK over recent decades is that many of them did not have leaders who were called 'ministers' or 'pastors' but instead were called elders.

The difference this was emphasising was not a cosmetic one. It was reflecting a biblical principle that new testament churches were not led by a single leader with responsibility for all things and seen as the font of all wisdom, but rather by groups of elders who could bring a mixture of gifts and share responsibility. There was often a lead elder who brought overall co-ordination and direction, but this was genuinely meant to be in the context of a group of equals. This also reflected something of the trinitarian nature of God in terms of the Father's headship within the three-in-one equals of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all having distinctive roles whilst being one God.  The nature of eldership also reflected the fact that, whilst elders have key responsibilities before God in bringing oversight, direction and care to a church, it is in the context of God giving gifts to all who know Him and so elders carry out these roles within churches full of gifted people who are actively ministering in all kinds of ways.

Over the last few years however there has been a shift. As with many such shifts that can be seen in church history, it began as a subtle shift that has begun to have wider effects. I remember noticing several media articles where an elder had been described by the church as the 'assistant pastor' when what was meant was that the person was one of the elders but not the lead elder. The message this gave may have been unintentional but it was clear. As soon as you describe someone as an assistant, it implies that they are in a more junior position to someone else. It ceases to be a group of equals.

More recently a number of churches who previously had (and may still have) groups of elders have started describing on their website and elsewhere a given person as being the 'pastor' of the church, so going  incredibly close to having a one-man ministry leading the church. Those churches may well still have groups of elders but if, in how the church presents itself publicly if nothing else, they have a single pastor leading them, how long before that becomes the reality of how the church operates?

Some of you reading this may well be thinking 'but the new testament uses 'elder' and 'pastor' interchangeably so either title is OK' Well, yes and no would be my response. Its certainly true that shepherding-pastoring-is set out in the new testament as being a core role of elders but pastoring is almost always set out as a 'doing' word. Its a core role of what elders do rather than a title. However, even if you were still of the view that pastor is an equivalent word to elder, it still would lead to at most having a leadership team that was described as a group of pastors, not a pastor and assistant pastors.

Some will argue that 'pastor' as a word is much more readily understood in western society than 'elder' which was a word that had much wider meaning in new testament times-that in dealing with the media its hard to explain what an elder is whereas the role of a pastor is much more readily understood,  However I would suggest that the problem is that in reality the word 'pastor' is far from understood by most non-Christians and even by many Christians. For most, 'pastor' is just an alternative word for priest or minister. It conveys the image of a leader who carries out all the key work of the church themselves, who is somehow closer to God than everyone else, is the one who everyone turns to whenever there is a problem and who oversees a largely passive congregation. What a stark contrast to the new testament church that is! The word 'pastor' simply has too much baggage to be able to suggest it is better understood by the outside world.

You may be reading this and thinking, why does all this matter? What's in a word? Well first, for the reasons set out above, I think words matter a lot in the underlying messages they convey. Secondly, church history should teach us that such changes rarely travel alone. A church that changes the name of its leaders, not because of biblical conviction but because its more expedient to do so, is also likely to make other changes purely so as not to be misunderstood by those looking in. A church that describes its leadership team to the outside word as being one lead person with assistants is likely to start acting like that internally as well.

As with so many other things, absolutely let's explain and communicate well why we do what we do but let's operate churches based on what biblically we believe to be the right and best way, even at the risk of being misunderstood. Whenever we try to be cleverer than God, that's always the first sign of trouble!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The priest is back in town

One of the great things about the new covenant is that everyone who knows God has free and open access to Him.  No longer do we need to work through a priest to be acceptable to Him. No longer do we need to fear that our sins will close off access to God. Instead we are told in the bible that we can approach the throne of grace with confidence, because of what Jesus has done in making us clean. 

But it’s more than being able to worship God. It’s a two-way relationship. Whereas in the Old Testament you see God using particular people to speak His word and carry out His purposes, the expectation in the new covenant is that all believers can hear from God, all have gifts from God and can use these to bring even greater glory to Him. What those gifts are vary from person to person but a fundamental principle is that God does not just use leaders. It isn't even that God uses leaders for the higher profile gifts like prophesying or healing and leaves the lower profile (but every bit as vital) gifts like hospitality to others in the church.

Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 12: 'Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines'.

Leaders still have absolutely vital roles in bringing good foundations, wisdom and direction to churches. There are also very particular leadership gifts set out in the New Testament, but the general expectation is that God will use and speak through whoever he chooses and that everyone has gifts from God, including the very public ones included in the list above. There is no expectation set out in the New Testament that these gifts are just for private use between friends. The very reason why advice is given by Paul about how to use the gifts in public meetings is because there's an assumption that this will happen.

Part of the story of how I became a Christian is that I had read the book of Acts and been struck by how the early church was so full of the power of God. I remember thinking 'if the church was really like that I'd be interested, but the church is nothing like that. I must be misunderstanding what I'm reading'-that was until I walked into a church meeting where the gifts I mentioned above were very much being used and I realised 'I hadn't misunderstood what I'd read. This is for real'.

I became part of a church that week after week demonstrated that God gives gifts to everyone and gave lots of space for them to be used. This resulted in a church that really demonstrated the power and glory of God. I'm thankful to say that the church we're in today does the same.

But that isn't true everywhere. There are too many churches that say they believe in the gifts set out above but, if you went to their Sunday meetings, there might well be a great sense of the presence of God in the songs sung during the worship, there might well be clearly the Holy Spirit speaking through the preaching but, in terms of ordinary members of the congregation bringing contributions during the worship, there are none.  

If you ask why this is the case, you get a similar list of responses:
* 'we don't want to put off visitors unfamiliar with the gifts' (something which the apostle Paul deals with in advising churches to bring explanation when a gift such as tongues is used-but he doesn't say not to use the gifts. If anything, he says that, if an unbeliever comes in whilst everyone (notice the 'everyone'!) is prophesying, they'll be convicted of their sin and say 'God is really among you'!)

* 'we encourage the use of gifts in our midweek meetings where there aren't visitors' (This suggests that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are in some way embarrassing and to be hidden away, which to be honest is a quite disgraceful view to take. Besides which, how did many present-day churches start? They came from people who were in churches that could perhaps tolerate some people using gifts of the Spirit in midweek meetings but could not deal with them being used in public Sunday meetings, leaving those people to have to leave their church in order to be able to use fully the gifts that God had given them. For those self-same new churches to be now seeking to hide gifts away to midweek meetings again is nothing short of tragic.)

* 'we're concerned pastorally in case someone brings a contribution that is heretical or harmful' (The worst I can say about most questionable contributions I have heard is that they are like the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy's description of Earth-'mostly harmless' i.e. there may not be much depth to them but they haven't led anyone into major heresy either. Besides which, if a leader really is concerned that there is a significant risk of people regularly bringing heresies in their contributions, what does that say about the quality of teaching in their church? At the end of the day, being able to think quickly on the spot and deal with a heretical statement is part of leadership responsibilities. I'd argue that biblically it’s that way round-to accept the slight risk and deal with if it happens rather than discourage gifts because of it.)

* 'we want to encourage only quality contributions to be brought' (A distinction that isn't made in the New Testament and does run the risk of someone being dissuaded from bringing something because it is thought to be of insufficient quality because it is simple but is actually from God. Moreover, churches that say this often get no contributions at all, because no one ever gets the practice in developing their gift as they get dissuaded whenever they try and bring a contribution.)

Perhaps in some way the most worrying development is in churches that do have gifts used from time to time, but it’s always leaders who are doing it. They may have some or all of the concerns listed above but, if it’s a leader using the gift, suddenly everything's OK. 

Please don't misunderstand me. I believe strongly that God gifts leaders with wisdom and discernment for their role, but when you have situations where in practice leaders are the only ones bringing contributions in meetings, whereas everyone else is being dissuaded for the reasons above, what is being implied is that leaders are somehow able to hear God more than the rest of the congregation. It produces a situation where people think that a leader is more infallible than everyone else. In effect, the leader becomes a priest to hear from God for the people. That is not a new covenant model for hearing from God.

This is not a particularly obsession about the use of gifts in meetings. I don't see it as just something that certain churches are into. I see it as part of the norm of the new covenant-of having churches that are full of the glory of God and that part of that glory is by each and every member being gifted by Him and using those gifts to bring glory to Him. It is a natural part of believers being part of the body of Christ. Part of God's glory is in Him speaking through His body, speaking through frail, fallible human beings, in whom God chooses to put His Spirit and His gifts. If God chooses to do this, who are we to say we know better?