Interactive teaching, part 1: Preaching or teaching?

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The preaching of the Word has traditionally held a preeminent place in most evangelical churches. This is no accident. Young pastors and leaders have been taught how vital sound preaching is for keeping a church faithful and healthy. Quotes from noted leaders reinforce to us the crucial nature of preaching to the life of the church. Martin Lloyd-Jones wrote that “Preaching the Word is the primary task of the Church, the primary task of the leaders of the Church.” John Stott claimed that “Preaching is indispensable to Christianity.” Preaching is often so inextricably linked with the role of the pastor, that pastors are commonly referred to as “preachers.” The mountain of books that have been written on the subject of preaching over the centuries could easily fill a library. And not only books, but articles, workshops, seminary classes, conferences, etc. on preaching have been ubiquitous in the evangelical movement. Preaching has become an art form. Most Christians could tell you who their favorite preachers are, and more often than not their preference has as much to do with style as it does substance.

So if preaching is so essential to the life and health of the church, we should have a clear understanding of just what the Bible has to say about preaching and those who preach, shouldn’t we? But this is where we run into a bit of difficulty. The Bible actually has very little to say about preaching as we understand it. English translations of Scripture do often include many passages with the words “preach” or “preaching.” But when we dig a little more deeply, we find that none of these words are conveying the idea of “delivering a sermon or religious address to an assembled group of people, typically in a church.” In fact, there isn’t one place in Scripture where we find our traditional understanding of preaching a sermon. Even what we traditionally know as the “Sermon on the Mount” is never actually called that in the text of Scripture! [Please note: the section headings you may find in big, bold print in your Bible are supplied by the publisher; they’re not part of the biblical text.]

So what are these words in the original language, and what do they mean? The most common word translated “preach” in many (especially older) English translations is the Greek word euangelizo. You probably recognize right away that we’ve brought this word into English as “evangelize.” The word, both in English and in Greek, means simply to share good news. This is why newer translations sometimes opt for words such as “announce,” “share” or “bring” the good news. Unfortunately, there are still many places where this word is translated “preach the gospel” or “preach the good news,” requiring pastors to routinely explain to people that “preaching the gospel” isn’t something that only apostles did or “preachers” do now behind a pulpit (or on a stage); this is simply “sharing the good news,” and all Christians are to be doing that! Another Greek word that is often translated “preach” (and which also has to be clarified) is kerusso, which means to announce or proclaim. This word is invariably paired with another word euangelion, showing that what is being announced is the good news of Jesus Christ.

Many will recall the familiar words of 2 Timothy 4:2: “. . . preach the word; be ready in season and out of season [NASB].” Too many times, though, these instructions are understood in a traditional sense, that the preacher must always be ready to get up behind the pulpit and preach a sermon. Not only is this not what Paul was talking about, it obscures what Paul was actually telling Timothy to do. Remember, Timothy wasn’t a local church pastor, he was part of Paul’s apostolic team. They were missionaries who shared the good news of Jesus Christ, and helped young believers form a new church in each location. Often Paul would leave Timothy behind or send him ahead to strengthen and “coach” the churches. Paul here tells Timothy to kerusso the logos. Kerusso means to proclaim and Paul uses logos to refer to the gospel message of Jesus Christ. Many translations render this instruction: “Proclaim the message.” See, for example, how this verse reads in the Revised English Bible:

[P]roclaim the message, press it home in season and out of season, use argument, reproof, and appeal, with all the patience that teaching requires.

This verse isn’t saying anything about the necessity of preaching sermons.

I should also comment on 1 Timothy 5:17. In this passage, Paul instructs that some elders are “worthy of double honor” or “should be respected and paid well.” This is especially true of those who labor or work hard in logos and in teaching. There are a variety of translations for the word logos here in this verse: word, preaching, speech or speaking are some of the common ones. It’s curious that this is often translated “preaching” in this verse, since we don’t find logos translated as preaching anyplace else. Paul typically uses this word to refer to the content of the gospel message of Jesus Christ (which is, of course, contained in the words of Scripture). This especially makes sense in this verse because it fits his use of both these words (logos and didaskalia or “teaching”) earlier in the same letter. In 1 Timothy 4:6, Paul describes one who is nourished by the logos or message of faith and by sound teaching. It would be consistent for him to be using these words in a similar way just a few verses later. This also makes best sense of what Paul is saying in verse 5:17. These elders who should be supported are laboring or working hard in both the content of the gospel message (which we study in Scripture) and in the teaching of this gospel truth. The NKJV translates this phrase as those who “labor in the word and doctrine,” and God’s Word Translation reads: “if they work hard at teaching God’s word.” Again, there is nothing here on which to base the traditional preaching of sermons.

So, if Scripture doesn’t teach pastors to “preach” (i.e. deliver sermons) in the church, what are they supposed to do? As we see above and throughout the letters to the churches, elders or pastors of the church are to be teaching the Word of God to the people. (Note that even Jesus wasn’t known as “the Preacher,” but as “the Teacher.”) Is this distinction in wording worth emphasizing, or is this just semantics? Well, that all depends on how we’re using the word “preach.” If all we mean by preach is the exposition of Scripture to the people, then maybe there’s nothing here to discuss. The problem is that the word “preach” contains much more nuance and conveys much more meaning than simply biblical exposition. Not only do we understand this word to mean much more than this, but we’re so inundated with descriptions of preaching and instruction regarding preaching that have no biblical basis, that we face a very real danger of distracting ourselves from the actual teaching ministry of the elders/pastors of the church—which is scriptural.

We can recognize some all too common differences in focus and desired outcome between preaching and teaching. The process of preaching is usually focused on the delivery of a prepared speech or sermon. Teaching on the other hand will also be prepared, but the focus isn’t on the prepared message but on the actual process of teaching, helping people come to a deeper understanding of scriptural truth. If I’m preaching, I’m preaching; regardless of what impact my message is having on anyone, I’m still preaching. But, as Howard Hendricks used to say, if they’re not learning, I’m not teaching. Teaching has different priorities, a different focus, and different expectations. In the next post, we’ll look more deeply into this, we’ll see just how Jesus and Paul taught, and why we should teach in a similar way.

A new hybrid model for doing church

Something interesting happened to us during the pandemic. But first, some background: Our church, The Orchard, has two characteristics that make us a little different from many other churches—not unique, but out of the ordinary. We don’t have a senior or lead pastor as most evangelical churches do. Instead, we have a team of pastoral elders who all share in the shepherding of the church. (I’ve previously written quite a bit concerning this leadership model.) We also study the Bible interactively in our church services. We elicit responses from the people and encourage them to raise their hand when they have a question. I’ve taught this way throughout my ministry, but for some reason I’ve never posted anything here about it. [I’m thinking my next blog post should be on interactive teaching.]

When everything shut down last year due to COVID, we began meeting online for our weekly church service the same as everyone else. We met via Zoom so we could continue to study interactively together. I started receiving inquiries from people who had been part of the church we served in Puerto Rico. They were looking for something more interactive than what they had available from streaming church services, and were curious if we were doing anything online. At the time, we were very focused on making sure our online church service felt as familiar as possible to the people here—felt like “us”—so I was hesitant to have large numbers of people temporarily join our service. (Like many others, we were expecting to get back to “normal” in a few weeks or maybe months.) So I started an online Bible study on Sunday afternoons for people outside our area who were desiring more of an interactive study.

This study continued throughout the year, with the repeated disclaimer that it wasn’t a church. A few months ago, a good friend from the study (and one of my former co-pastors in Puerto Rico), challenged me about this. He pointed out the close, regular fellowship we had, and the way we worshiped and studied Scripture together. He asked why this couldn’t be a church. That gave me pause. I had never been impressed with the idea of an online church before. It seemed a lot like passively watching a church service on TV, which is great if you can’t physically get to a church gathering, but really just a temporary substitute. But with this kind of challenge, I needed to have solid reasons why this kind of online gathering couldn’t be an actual church.

This began some intensive discussions. More and more we discussed the possibility of a hybrid church model with a primary gathering online that would include people from many locations. This service would be focused mostly on interactive, expositional study of Scripture. Along with this larger service would be local fellowships, meeting in person in each location during the week, that could better do things such as worshiping through music, sharing in communion, baptisms, eating together, sharing testimonies, deeper discussion of questions, encouraging one another, etc. These local fellowships would likely look very different in each location, with maybe 20 people meeting in a living room in one town, and 4 people meeting at Starbucks in another.

The more we discussed this possible hybrid model, the more excitement grew about the possibility of making this group a church. Most of these people were motivated by a love of interactive study of Scripture (It’s hard for some people to return to passively listening to sermons when they’re used to raising their hands and asking questions!) but also a shared conviction regarding church polity. Many expressed how important team pastoral leadership is to them. One obstacle, though, was the difficulty in me personally being part of planting a brand new kind of church while serving as a pastor of another. I didn’t feel I could do that and faithfully serve both.

But, in The Orchard, we were having a series of interesting discussions of our own. Other than the offices, our building had sat unused for almost a year, and we were getting close to the end of a multi-year lease. We were beginning to discuss whether we should continue leasing the building. We loved the space we met in, with couches and chairs arranged almost in a circle to make it look more like a large living room or coffeehouse. But the pandemic had helped us remember we’re not dependent on any particular space. A building can be a great resource, but the church isn’t a building. So we had been discussing alternatives such as renting some space once a week in which to meet, or buying a house and converting it into a church property. These ideas fit with our “strategically small” approach of limiting the size of our church service, but also planning for multiple services to allow further growth.

One of the things we had repeatedly discussed was how to best get the word out about who we are. We had experienced many people visiting us just because we were another church in town to check out. We wanted to let people in the community know some of the distinctive characteristics that make us who we are as a church, so those who were seeking this kind of church would know about us. In fact, last year we had planned a whole series of mailers describing different aspects of who we are that make us a bit unique in this local area, and were poised to begin sending them out (literally the following week) when everything shut down because of the pandemic. So we had been looking for people who were looking for a church like us, and now there were people from outside our area who were eager to be part of a church like us! We began discussing the possibility of The Orchard actually becoming this hybrid church.

Eventually, after discussions among the church leadership and then the congregation, we decided to take this step. We now have a primary service online on Sunday mornings (10 am Eastern and Pacific) that includes brothers and sisters from mutliple states plus Puerto Rico. We’re seeking to incorporate leaders from other areas into our church leadership team. Our most recent addition to our pastoral team is Jack Foster, a brother from Puerto Rico. We’ve given up our building here in Sacramento, and now lease a small office. Our local congregation is becoming one of the local fellowships. The online group is really melding into a cohesive church family. We recently had one lady who’s been part of the church here for some time move to Grand Junction, CO, and she’s very happy that she can still be part of our church!

This has been a real paradigm shift for me. The biblical model of one church in each town has always been compelling to me. But, then again, there was no way for them at that time to have any larger context for a church congregation. Geography was the natural and necessary division for individual churches. But when we see, for instance, how Paul longed at times to be with the Thessalonians or the Corinthians, if he had a tool such as Zoom that he could have utilized, I’m sure he would have! Especially since we were already to some extent outside of the norm due to our team leadership model and interactive teaching, a hybrid model that includes a translocal congregation actually makes sense. But we’re definitely in uncharted territory, so we are constantly aware of our dependence on God and his wisdom and leading. It’s amazing that we would never have considered any of this if it hadn’t been for the COVID shut down, but that shows how God can use times like this to slow us down and get us to consider new and possibly more effective ways to faithfully be the church. We’re excited to see where we go from here!

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

The past year has been very difficult for a lot of people. The past months have been especially so for my family. In the span of six weeks, my wife and I lost my mother, my youngest brother, and then my wife’s mother. None of these deaths were related to COVID, none of them were expected, all of them were a shock. So you can understand why our hope in the resurrection—life after death—has been particularly on our minds lately. Of course, what is not actually true can’t be truly comforting. Fairy tales and empty religious platitudes may be nice, but they don’t have any real power to comfort or give hope because they’re not real. To give meaningful comfort and hope requires something that is grounded in what is substantially factual. The Christian apostle Paul realized this and wrote:

And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless . . . if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.
1 Corinthians 15:17-19

Photo by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

So this makes it necessary for us to consider the question: Did Jesus really rise from the dead? As I (and many others) have written before, Christianity is a historical faith, not just in the sense that it’s historically significant but that it’s based on a historical person and historical events. Without this historical person (Jesus Christ) and historical events (Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection), there is no Christianity. So the question of whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead is of paramount importance. But let me be quick to clarify that what we are not seeking to do is somehow prove that Jesus rose from the dead. No one can absolutely prove that something happened in history. We can’t prove that George Washington was the first U.S. president, or that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. What we can do is examine the historical evidence and determine whether it’s sufficient to warrant acceptance of a particular claim. This is neither absolute proof nor is it blind faith; it’s a weighing of the preponderance of the historical evidence.

So what is the evidence we must weigh to determine whether or not we should believe in the resurrection of Christ? [In previous posts, I’ve already presented the case for the historical existence of Jesus, the general historical reliability of the biblical Gospels, etc. See below to find links to these posts.] There’s actually quite a bit of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, focused in four key areas of interest. Some have used acronyms as a helpful way to remember these core factors. I think the easiest one to remember is an acronym I first heard from Abdu Murray that presents the CASE for the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

C — crucifixion
A — appearances
S — skeptics
E — empty tomb

Crucifixion
The overwhelming consensus of scholars who study the historical Jesus—including both Christians and non-Christians—is that Jesus was a real, historical person who gained a following in first century Galilee and Judea, and who was subsequently crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem. Especially when we consider the severity of Roman crucifixion and their expertise at this form of execution, there is little reason to doubt that Jesus died as a result of being crucified.

Appearances
The biblical Gospels include detailed accounts of Jesus appearing to his followers after his crucifixion. These accounts are careful to describe Jesus after his death as having a physical body, and not being merely a disembodied spirit. In a very early letter, Paul also lists these appearances of the resurrected Christ, and notes that most of the large number of people who witnessed these appearances of Jesus (over 500) were still alive at that time. I’ll look at some challenges to the resurrection accounts below, but it may come as a surprise to many to know that most Jesus scholars, even those who aren’t Christians, accept that these disciples of Jesus witnessed something that caused them to believe Jesus had risen from the dead.

Skeptics
The Gospel accounts describe the followers of Jesus as being defeated and fearful prior to witnessing the resurrected Jesus. This kind of characterization of leaders of a new movement is something you just don’t find in writings of that time period. Even more striking are the people who openly opposed Jesus and his followers, who later became devout followers of Jesus and outspoken proponents of the new Christian faith. This would include people such as James, the brother of Jesus who resisted his ministry before his death, and Paul of Tarsus, who actively sought to stamp out this new sect, disrupting church gatherings and imprisoning Christian believers. What could turn these skeptics and opponents into followers and champions of the way of Christ? According to the documented accounts we have from the first century, this radical change was caused by them personally encountering the resurrected Jesus.

Empty Tomb
The bodies of those who were crucified were typically left unburied, but the Gospel accounts specify that Jesus was buried, and they document the name of the person in whose tomb Jesus’ body was placed: Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent national leader at that time. Again, the vast majority of Jesus scholars accept these accounts as historically reliable. Why is this important? Because we now have a historical question we need to resolve: Why was the tomb empty? And this is as good a time as any to discuss some of the challenges presented to the resurrection claim.

Challenges to the empty tomb

(Again, to see reasons for accepting the historical existence of Jesus and the reliability of the biblical accounts, see the links below.)

The disciples hid Jesus’ body and lied about his resurrection.
This is the most direct challenge: “It’s all a lie.” The first problem with this theory is that it goes against all the documented evidence we have regarding the character of these early disciples of Jesus. Even their opponents conceded their moral character. Some say the descriptions of these disciples were also either fictitious or deceptive, manufacturing their good reputations. But these accounts were widely disseminated while most of the people in question were still around. If these disciples of Jesus were presented as sincere, honorable, humble followers of Christ when they were actually manipulative con men, there would have been a very loud outcry from the opponents of Christianity exposing this duplicity. We have no mention of anything like this.

And just what did this alleged deception get these men? Many of them did become leaders in this new movement, this is true. And what did that get them? They became leaders of a persecuted faith, hunted by both Jewish leaders and Roman officials. Their roles as apostles and leaders just made them more of a target. They weren’t rewarded with great wealth, fine estates or comfortable lives. Their “power” wasn’t control of an established institution, but merely moral authority, the respect and admiration of their fellow Christian believers. Most of them led itinerant lives, surviving simply as they moved from town to town—much as Jesus did—sharing this (allegedly manufactured) Good News with anyone who would receive it. And the outcome for most of them was violent death by means of public execution. And through all of this, not one of these “conspirators”—faced with losing their lives allegedly for the sake of a lie—ever recanted and admitted it was all made up. Conspiracies are simply not that foolproof, and the more people who are part of a conspiracy the more porous they become, especially when one’s life is at stake. Of course, people die for causes all the time that may or may not be true. One can be sincerely wrong, after all, and willingly die for a false faith. But people do not willingly die for something they know to be a lie. And it would be even more incredible to think that a large number of people faced persecution and horrible deaths for something they knew to be false without even one of them defecting.

They went to the wrong tomb.
Of course, if this were the case, this mistake would have been easily and quickly rectified by the Jewish leaders or the Roman government.

Someone must have moved the body.
This can sound plausible until we start digging a little deeper. Who would have moved the body? If you think the disciples moved the body, then see the response above. (And don’t forget they would have been lying about not only the empty tomb but also all the appearances of Jesus and time spent with him after the resurrection.) If you think maybe the Jewish leaders or the Romans moved the body, then you have to answer the question: Why? More importantly, when Jesus’ followers began loudly proclaiming his resurrection from the dead, why wouldn’t the Jewish leaders or Romans have simply produced the dead body of Jesus and put an end to such nonsense?

They didn’t actually see Jesus physically, but experienced visions, dreams or hallucinations.
We need to remember that the biblical accounts are not of one or two quick, ethereal appearances. These are reports of numerous encounters over a span of time that included extensive interaction and discussion. Most psychologists deny the possibility of collective hallucination to begin with, but even if this were an option the biblical accounts simply do not fit what we know about hallucinations.

But could the disciples have witnessed a vision or a dream? Again, remember that this wouldn’t be one or two visions or dreams, but a whole bunch of visions or dreams. Still, to answer this we need to take into consideration the outcome of these experiences. If you or I were to suffer the loss of a loved one, and then one night we have a vision or dream of our loved one and speak with them, what would we tell everyone the next day? We’d say that we had a vision or a dream of our loved one! We might draw some comfort from such an experience, a connection with the “other side,” as it were. But what we wouldn’t do is say, “Wow, my mother rose from the dead!”

Some Jewish people in the first century did not accept the idea of the resurrection of the dead, while most others did believe in a resurrection at the end of the age, either of all Jews or all people. But while there was some debate over whether this was true and over specific details, everyone understood the resurrection in question to be a physical resurrection. What they either believed or denied was a resurrection of the body. The clear and consistent message of the earliest Christians (all of whom were Jewish) was that at that time—not at the end of the age—Jesus had been resurrected; he had risen from the dead.

This claim is also the only plausible explanation for the explosion of faith in Jesus among first century Jews after he suffered a Roman execution. Ordinarily, this would have been seen as a crushing defeat and proof positive that he was not the Messiah. [For more on this, see What good is a dead Messiah?] Dreams or visions or appearances of some kind of apparition may have been personally comforting to the disciples, but there’s no way they would have used such experiences as some kind of basis for claiming Jesus had been resurrected or that he truly was the Messiah. Jewish people at that time understood the idea of dreams or visions of people who had died. There would never have been any confusion of these kinds of phenomena with resurrection. One simply had nothing to do with the other, and any claim that it did would have been nonsensical to them. The number of dreams or visions one may have experienced was irrelevant to the question of resurrection.

Yet very quickly after the death of Jesus, a rapidly expanding movement—made up entirely of Jews initially—exploded onto the scene. This distinct group was devoted to faith in Jesus, hailing this man who had been shamefully executed in public by the Romans as their Messiah and Deliverer. And the central tenet at the heart of their movement was that Jesus was not dead, that he had raised from the dead, that he was resurrected. Historians agree there is no explanation for the rapid, explosive birth of Christianity among first century Jews other than the belief that Jesus had risen from the dead. That the earliest Christians believed this, and that this is at the heart of the rapid expansion of the Christian faith, is historically incontrovertible. The challenge for us is whether their claim is actually true. How else do we explain the evidence? For some 2,000 years, countless people have considered the alternative theories used to explain the empty tomb and found them to strain credulity. The most plausible conclusion based on the historical evidence is that Jesus actually did rise from the dead as his disciples claimed.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Of course, we can’t emphasize enough the implications of this claim. If Jesus really did rise from the dead, this changes everything. This would be strong confirmation that he is who he said he is, and that he came to do just what he said he came to do. This was God himself coming to us as one of us, revealing himself to us, and taking on himself the consequences of our sin to bring us back into relationship with him. And because he rose from death to life, we also can anticipate our own resurrection and the resurrection of those we love. The grave is real, but it’s a temporary reality. That’s why the Scriptures tell us the last enemy that Christ must defeat is death itself (1 Corinthians 15:26). This is why even though now we grieve, we can grieve with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We look forward to a perfectly renewed existence of life and relationship with no separation, decay or death (Revelation 21:3-5). This is why Jesus’ resurrection from the dead has always been, and remains, at the heart of the Christian faith.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead? [see above]

David French: “The Dangerous Idolatry of Christian Trumpism”

David French is a Christian brother and political commentator who writes from a conservative and distinctly evangelical perspective. I don’t always agree with him, but I always respect and appreciate his thoughts. Three days ago, he wrote an article that addresses an alarming and growing development within the church, an issue of which all believers need to be aware. The problem is even broader than what French describes, with some pastors and leaders making pronouncements from evangelical pulpits linking faithfulness to Donald Trump with faithfulness to God, and declaring some kind of Holy War to ensure he stays in power. And rather than dissipating, this idolatry seems to be growing. It is becoming necessary for faithful pastors to speak out against this.

I want to be very clear about this: This article is not about whether or not you voted for Donald Trump. It’s about an idolatrous exalting of a political leader by many within the church. While the current focus is on Donald Trump, what is happening would be just as disturbing if the same focus was on Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan. You could replace the name Donald Trump with George Washington or Abraham Lincoln and this would be just as idolatrous. Whether you support Donald Trump or not, we all need to be very clear that much of what is currently taking place within the church is a perversion and corruption of the church of Jesus Christ. Please prayerfully and thoughtfully read this article:

The Dangerous Idolatry of Christian Trumpism

We can pray peace will prevail, but we’d be fools to presume it will.

David French / Dec 13, 2020

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.)

This is a grievous and dangerous time for American Christianity. The frenzy and the fury of the post-election period has laid bare the sheer idolatry and fanaticism of Christian Trumpism.

A significant segment of the Christian public has fallen for conspiracy theories, has mixed nationalism with the Christian gospel, has substituted a bizarre mysticism for reason and evidence, and rages in fear and anger against their political opponents—all in the name of preserving Donald Trump’s power.

As I type this newsletter, I am following along with a D.C. event called the Jericho March. . . .

Finish reading this article here: https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/the-dangerous-idolatry-of-christian?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=cta

Because a comment thread would likely devolve into a heated pro-Trump vs. anti-Trump debate (which is not the point of this post), and because I’ve seen the extreme and un-Christ-like comments posted in other places seeking to address these concerns, I’m not going to open up this post for comments. I simply will not provide a platform for those who would spout hateful, nonsensical conspiracy theories without any verifiable factual basis, and who would seek to intimidate and bully those who disagree, and I don’t have the time to adequately respond to a potentially large number of inappropriate and unedifying comments. I’m sorry this will unfairly restrict those who would have engaged in a respectful and gracious manner. If you feel you have something important to say in response to this post, feel free to email me at cparton@orchardefc.org.

The Cure for Polarization: Being Intentionally and Lovingly Diverse

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything new on this blog. There are things I’ve been wanting to write about regarding various theological and church-related topics. I’ve also had thoughts to share concerning our current cultural and political situation, and how this relates to the church. When everything began to shut down due to COVID-19, I thought I’d have a lot of time for writing. The reality has been that during this pandemic I’ve actually been much busier than I could have anticipated. I’m not complaining about this! It’s wonderful to be active and useful. But there is much I’d like to share when I have a bit more time. Until then, here’s the most recent Bible study from the church I serve (The Orchard in Sacramento, CA). I don’t think I’ve ever posted one of our studies on this blog before, but I feel this addresses some truths that are vital to the church, especially during these times.

Should Christians discuss politics in church?

Cafe Food FightAs I write this, believers in the US are preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday. Because this often means spending time with family members we only see once or twice a year, and because our nation is horribly divided right now, many of us are also resolving to avoid the whole subject of politics. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, after all, and it’s probably wise to be cautious about introducing topics that could violently explode an otherwise pleasant family visit. So we’re dusting off the old etiquette about never talking about politics or religion (at least the politics part). Fair enough.

But what about in our local churches? If your church is anything like ours, you live out your church life with people who have very differing political convictions. And because of the frequent intensity of these convictions lately—and the ensuing political discussions—many have essentially adopted a “holiday” approach when spending time with church family, and avoid any mention of political issues. This is undoubtedly better than open hostilities! But is it really the best way for us to handle our current politico-cultural mess? When followers of Christ gather should we just “not go there”?

Now let me quickly clarify there are some kinds of political talk I think should be eliminated in the church—permanently:

It’s not the place of pastors or leaders to tell the people in the church a specific candidate they should vote for or which propositions they should support. The church shouldn’t be handing out voters’ guides, or inviting representatives from only one party to address the congregation.

I’m also not suggesting we turn the application of any (sometimes every) Scripture text into a political rant.  If a passage we’re studying clearly addresses something that touches on politics, then we should have the courage to address what Scripture does. We don’t want to be guilty of skipping biblical principles in order to not offend political sensibilities. But we shouldn’t be looking for opportunities to interject our own political viewpoints.

We need to put an end to snide comments about the other side (whatever that is). We shouldn’t be tossing out partisan comments in a way that assumes everyone here shares the same views (which is rarely the case), especially when we’re mocking the intelligence, patriotism or even faith of those who disagree. We should always assume someone from “the other side” is present—because they usually are.

Some time ago, as our team was getting everything ready for our church service, two of our team-members were out front talking loudly about a recent controversy that was all over the news. Not only was their conversation strongly partisan, they were discussing an issue that directly involved race. I don’t believe either person is at all racist, but their vehement rejection of opposing views could easily have been misinterpreted. At the time this happened, people could approach our church’s front door from different directions and remain unseen until they were right around the corner. In other words, visitors could have heard our people talking long before our people would have seen them. Thankfully, I overheard what was going on from inside, rushed out and put a stop to the conversation. As I explained to them, if I was coming to visit the church and was one of these people they were talking about, I would have felt very unwelcome. I would have turned around, left, and would never have come back. Our guys were appropriately chagrined and agreed never to do this again.

So is the answer to just not talk about politics with our church families? Is that the best we can do? Let me ask the question another way: Are we no more capable of discussing volatile political issues than anyone else in our nation? Where can we have a healthy discussion about controversial subjects? If there’s anyone who could have a thoughtful, fair-minded, mutually respectful, loving but substantive, even pointed discussion about controversial political issues—without simply parroting partisan talking points—shouldn’t it be the church? Shouldn’t we be the ones modeling another way? When we spend time together as brothers and sisters we’re supposed to be helping each other grow and mature spiritually, encouraging one another to more faithfully live out our lives in a Christlike way. Are we supposed to do this in every area of our lives except for how we engage politically with society? Does this make any sense? It’s definitely easier, and avoids unpleasant tension. But are we to avoid quarreling by just not talking about difficult issues?

Close-up of a therapist gesticulating while talking to a group of listing teenagers during an educational self-acceptance and motivation meeting.It’s easy for me to fall into groupthink when the only political interaction I have is with my echo chamber (and there are echo chambers on both the left and the right). If I’m beginning to advocate political views that are incompatible with kingdom principles, I need brothers and sisters to hold me accountable and tell me, “Curt, I don’t think that way of thinking fits with the character of Jesus.” We need iron to sharpen iron, especially where the outside culture is most divided. These are the issues we most need to discuss with fellow Christians. Not that we’ll always come to perfect agreement. But at the end of a frank discussion of our differing political views, we should still be able to embrace each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. And we need to realize that we should be more in harmony with our fellow believers on core values and principles (even if we disagree on methods and strategies) than we are with either/any of society’s political parties.

We need to be showing the world around us the love Christ has given us for each other, and we especially need to be modeling this love where we have the strongest disagreements. We need to show them that Christians don’t have to avoid any subject (which is often the best the world can do) because the Spirit has equipped and empowered us to be able to discuss anything and do it lovingly, respectfully and peacefully. And we should show them that through this kind of thoughtful interaction—where we’re seeking the truth, not trying to win arguments—we grow in our understanding of issues and help each other reach truly biblically-informed, spiritually faithful viewpoints that are in harmony with the kingdom principles of our King.

So . . . how well are we living out the fruit of the Spirit in our political engagement?

Are we behaving like everyone else, or are we showing them another way?

Review: “Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus” by Jeramie Rinne

[Updated 4/1/21]

Church_Elders_1024x1024This is a very helpful addition to the (thankfully) growing number of books on church eldership. In now standard works, writers like Alexander Strauch and Benjamin Merkle have established the normative, biblical pattern of the local church being pastored by a team of pastoral elders (with no one designated as a senior or lead pastor). Richard Swartley has added helpful insights regarding the more practical and organizational aspects of elder church leadership. Now in this book (part of 9Marks’ Building Healthy Churches series), Jeramie Rinne describes the heart of the ministry of church elders: What is it that we do?

The author begins with a good foundational understanding of church elders, showing that the elders of a church are the pastors of the church, and giving a fairly standard description of the qualifications for church elders. He then devotes a chapter each to different things elders are to be doing as part of their ministry. He shows the genuinely relational aspect of true shepherding, and that we shouldn’t be satisfied with simply being trustees or board elders. He emphasizes the necessity of real teaching in the church (as does the New Testament, repeatedly), and also stresses the responsibility to be training other teachers and leaders who will continue the ministry after we’re gone. He describes a life of caring for the people in the church, including watching for those who are hurting, beginning to stray, or harming others. Rinne encourages us to be leaders who actually lead—actively and decisively, but without lording it over our brothers and sisters, being humble but not shrinking back. He explores serving together as a team of elders, living as mature examples, and devoting ourselves to praying for the people in the church.

Most of this is solidly covered, but there are a few things on which I would respectfully push back. Rinne assumes a formal model of membership for the local church, and views this as a necessity for faithful elder leadership in the church. Of course, the New Testament never actually teaches a formal church membership, and a great many faithful elder-led churches don’t have such a structure. But his insistence on formal church membership crops up from time to time in this book.

He seems to make a common mistake of attempting to apply the Granville Sharp Rule to Ephesians 4:11. (Rinne doesn’t mention this rule by name, but only refers generically to “the Greek grammar” without specifying exactly to what he’s referring.) If he is, in fact, relying on this familiar rule (as is invariably done by those arguing this point), then he has a problem. This rule just doesn’t work in cases where the nouns are plural (e.g. the Pharisees and Sadducees, the men and women, the apostles and prophets, and, yes, the pastors and teachers), so it’s not accurate to insist on this referring to one role of “pastor/teacher.” This passage isn’t listing church offices, but gifted people whom Christ gives to the church. Does everyone with a gift of shepherding others also have a gift of teaching? Is every gifted teacher also a shepherd/pastor? Such a view seems unnecessarily restrictive, and it’s simply not borne out by the grammar of this verse. Along with this, we find an over-emphasis on elders not only being “able to teach” (or some translations: “an able teacher” [1 Timothy 3:2]), but on each elder being an active teacher, even that each, according to Rinne, “must be known for teaching the Bible well.” He later qualifies this slightly, but it still goes well beyond what we have in the text, especially in light of 1 Timothy 5:17 that distinguishes those who are particularly involved in teaching.

Rinne also seems to approve of a distinction between elders and pastors in a church, and even of some kind of hierarchy of senior pastor and associate pastors. In fact, Rinne himself serves as senior pastor of his church. To many of us committed to a polity of plurality of pastoral elders, this will seem highly incongruous (not to mention without scriptural warrant). This peculiarity isn’t emphasized in his book, but it becomes obvious the way this adaptation can subtly undermine the plural, collegial nature of pastoral eldership with distinctions made between “the elders” and “their pastors.”

But none of these issues are major emphases in the book, and there is still much to commend here. The book is fairly short, so the author doesn’t exhaustively examine any of these aspects of pastoral ministry, but this makes the book accessible for those not looking for long, in-depth treatments. Rinne succinctly covers the essential components of the pastoral role of church elders, so this can be a very useful book for teaching—or reminding—what it looks like to serve as an elder/pastor. While there are some issues you may need to clarify, I think this book can be truly beneficial to elders and potential elders.

Excellent Christianity Today editorial

This is an excellent recent editorial from Christianity Today. I think these are important reflections all Christians should read and ponder, regardless of who they support politically:

On Court Prophets and Wilderness Prophets

Christian responses to the president.
Timothy Dalrymple / July 19, 2019

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Image: Chip Somodevilla / Staff / Getty

Recently our president made the latest in a long line of comments demeaning immigrants and minorities. The furor brings to mind two biblical prophets, both for their differences and for what they hold in common.

Nathan was an advisor to the royal court and a messenger of God. . . .

Finish this article here.

Sunday Morning Growtivation

This video has been around awhile, so you may have seen it before. It’s a parody of a specific way of doing church, but of course we all have our own liturgies or orders of service. So let’s have a good chuckle when we watch this, but let’s also consider why we do what we do every week in our church services. And maybe ponder this question: Is there a way for us to get away from the church service as a weekly production or show? Isn’t there a more authentic way of gathering as a community of believers?

Can churches be too small?

StockSnap_QVIEE1UZSXIn my last post, I wrote about the dangers of a church becoming too large. I’m sure for many readers I was simply preaching to the choir. A lot of believers have either never felt right about megachurches or they’ve become disillusioned with them. But can a church be too small? For many, that might seem like a strange question. We may immediately challenge the idea that “bigger is better,” but then just assume that smaller must always be better. But is this true? Does this best fit the biblical model of the local church?

I served as a pastor/elder of a house church for 3 years, and for most of that time the church met in my home. I’m very familiar with the joys and blessings of a simple church meeting in the home, and I understand quite well the reasons why Christians leave “traditional” churches for this kind of intimate, family-like setting. So I understand and sympathize with the thinking behind the house church movement. (I’ve had many conversations about the church’s “edifice complex,” etc.) But is a modern-day house church or a “micro-church” the most faithful way to live out the pattern of the church we find in the New Testament?

Steve Atkerson is even more familiar with house churches than I am. For over 25 years, he has worked to encourage, support and help house churches and house church leaders. But somewhere along the way his understanding changed regarding the house churches in the first centuries after Christ. He came to realize that the house churches in the early church met in the homes of wealthier members of the church (who had larger homes), and that these large, semi-public villas would have atria that could seat anywhere from 60 to 150 people. This is the kind of house church described in the New Testament and to whom the letters to the churches were written. (For more on this you can read my earlier post or Atkerson’s articles here and here.) This is obviously much different than 15 or 20 people sitting in a modern living room.

But this leads to the same question we had to consider in the last post [about abnormally large churches]: Is there anything unhealthy about churches being too small? And—as with the last post—the question isn’t whether a small, house church can be wonderful and healthy. Again, I know they can because I’ve experienced it! I still have very fond memories of our time together in the house church and the wonderful people with whom I was in fellowship. No, I’ll word the question the same way I did for megachurches (only changing “large” to “small”): The question isn’t whether a very small church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very small churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church?

Here again I’m appreciative of the work of Steve Akerson. His reflections have confirmed some of my own thoughts and observations and caused me to think more deeply about aspects of house church gatherings that I hadn’t considered before. So what are some of these weaknesses of too-small churches? I’ll note some, but first a reminder: This isn’t a house church vs. traditional church comparison; it’s a Roman atrium-sized church model (à la New Testament house churches) vs. the current micro-sized house church model. (Maybe it would be helpful to drop the terminology ‘house church’ for how the church met in the early centuries, and instead call these villa churches!) This isn’t a call to return to a traditional way of doing church; it’s a fine-tuning of what we should understand as the biblical model of doing church. Could meeting as a very small church in someone’s home actually hinder us from living out biblical principles of church life?

Let’s start with a practical instruction to churches in Scripture. We’re told in 1 Timothy 5:17 that the elders who lead and teach well should be financially supported. And notice this is speaking of elders (plural) who are supposed to be well paid. How many house churches today are able to pay even one elder who is devoted to leading and teaching? Atkerson notes: “Even if there is an elder, the congregation is usually so small he cannot be supported. Unless he is retired or is self-employed and willing to neglect his business, time devoted to the church in equipping, leadership, training, disciple-making, evangelism and teaching is in short supply. As a result, little disciple-making occurs.”

The New Testament churches were not only supposed to financially support certain elders who devoted their time to leading and teaching, they were to be shepherded by a team of pastoral elders. How many house churches have a plurality of qualified elders shepherding the church? Far too many micro-sized house churches don’t have even one qualified elder. Because of this, there is often a lack of biblical leadership and substantive teaching of Scripture. The fellowship may be wonderful, and the people may enjoy and even genuinely benefit from spending time together. But the church is lacking the leaders and teachers God intended to be shepherding his church.

Some newer networks of micro-churches plan from the beginning that all of their pastors will be—and remain—bivocational. They also often stress the surprisingly rapid training and releasing of these new pastors to plant new micro-churches. How are they able to train pastors so quickly? They remove the need for substantive teaching of Scripture. Instead of calling these leaders ‘pastors,’  they’d be better described as evangelists or small group leaders. These groups are actually either cells connected to a larger church that provides needed teaching and training (and so not autonomous churches at all) or they’re churches whose leaders don’t teach the Bible to the people in the church. When one considers the repeated emphasis on teaching the church in the New Testament, this is alarming.

luan-cabral-XVqwbImMR4M-unsplashThe biblical design for the church body is a community of believers that’s large enough to have a healthy assortment of spiritual gifts. This is the way God intends for the body to grow, building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). I think it would be a wise thing for any small church to ask how well they’re living out being a community of believers with a healthy diversity of spiritual gifts. If this is problematic because of the church’s small size, it might be appropriate to ask if the church is abnormally small (especially in light of the actual size of early house churches, i.e. 60-150 people).

We also need to take into consideration the differences between first century Roman culture and our culture today. Not only do we not typically meet in the same large, semi-public villas that the Romans did (which were also places of business, with people often coming and going), but we also usually drive to the place where the church gathers together once a week. This, of course, means we have to park. In many neighborhoods, this can create a weekly annoyance for our neighbors, harming our relationship with those living around us and even hurting our witness to them. These kinds of problems have caused some communities to pass restrictions on regular church meetings in private homes. Instead of railing against these “godless” attacks, we need to hear the concerns of our neighbors and realize that our setting is not the same as the early church’s.

To conclude this post, I can’t do better than quoting Steve Atkerson’s excellent work on this (the emphases in the quote below are the original author’s):

“Being too small is a violation of the New Testament norm. Intent on holding to the New Testament example of meeting in homes, some house churches instead violate other New Testament patterns such as having elders and consistent, quality instruction. It is far better to not meet in homes if it means having the blessing of elders and teachers and a diversity of spiritual gifts operating. . . . In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in our modern homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent). Thus, the real emphasis should be on New Testament church principles, not simply meeting in homes.”