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?