Following the story: God and his people, part 1

Every time it happens I get a little frustrated. You’ve probably seen this too. Someone on a TV talk show is trying to discredit a biblical teaching. So they say something like, ‘Yeah, well, David not only committed adultery but he murdered the woman’s husband to cover it up, Lot did shameful things with his own daughters, and many of the men in the Bible had slaves and multiple wives! Do you really want to live by the Bible?!’ And so they make a classic mistake that sometimes Christian believers make as well. When we begin reading the stories in the Bible we need to remember an important principle:

1. Just because somebody in the Bible does something doesn’t mean the Bible is teaching us to do the same thing.

Now this is just common sense, especially when we’re talking about biblical characters who murder and sleep around. Of course we’re not supposed to follow their example! (Actually, the fact the Bible shows its “heroes” as they really were—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is strong testimony to its truthfulness. It would have been easy to whitewash the stories of the patriarchs,  but the biblical writers didn’t do that.) But when people in the Bible do things that aren’t blatantly wrong, we sometimes fall into using them as a model.

Have you ever heard someone say they were going to ‘put a fleece before the Lord’? Do you know what this means? It means asking God to give you a sign indicating what decision you should make. ‘Lord, if you want me to take this job, then make the third car I pass be a yellow Porsche Boxter S.’ Why is this called putting a ‘fleece’ before the Lord? Because of the story of Gideon in the 6th chapter of Judges. But if you read carefully, Gideon’s ‘fleece-putting’ wasn’t to determine God’s will; it was to ask God to prove to Gideon that God would really do what he had already said he was going to do! Gideon’s behavior wasn’t a sign of faith, but of unbelief. Clearly, this is an example we don’t want to follow!

2. The main thing the biblical stories do is tell us a story.

In the letters to the churches, we found direct commands and instructions. Biblical stories don’t work this way. The story of David and Bathsheba never directly tells us that adultery and murder are sinful. But it very clearly illustrates how low even a godly man can fall into sin, and the consequences of sinning in this way and then trying to hide it from God. While the stories may illustrate important truths (and even, in a sense, teach us insights), we need to be careful to not base any specific teaching on a biblical story. The teachings we follow—and teach others to follow—should be clearly taught somewhere else in Scripture, such as in the letters to the churches.

We also need to avoid reading the stories in the Old Testament as if they’re some kind of fable with a moral at the end of each story. Now, it’s not that Old Testament stories don’t vividly illustrate important lessons for us—many do. But not all of them. And if we insist on finding a nice, neat lesson to every biblical story, we’ll end up over-simplifying what we’re reading in Scripture. In the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, is the main point really about honesty and fairness? Is this the most significant thing going on in this story?

3. The stories in the Old Testament are part of a bigger story.

Hopefully, you’re still thinking about the importance of context. What is the context of the Old Testament stories? We’ve discussed this briefly before. Genesis begins with creation, quickly moves to Noah and the flood, and then narrows the story to Abraham and his family, particularly his grandson Jacob (renamed Israel) and Jacob’s sons. The books of Exodus through Joshua tell of God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt, establishing his covenant with them, and eventually bringing them into the land he had promised them. Judges through 2 Samuel take us from the early history of the tribes of Israel, when they were led by judges, to Samuel the last judge of Israel and Saul the first king of Israel, and finally to David the prototypical Israelite king. 1 Kings through 2 Chronicles tell of how the nation was divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and how each nation fell into idolatry, eventually being conquered by an outside force and taken into captivity. Ezra and Nehemiah describe the people being allowed to go back to the land, and rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. Esther tells of events that occur among the Jewish community who didn’t return to the land.

A good study Bible will give you more background on each of the books. But the point is that when you read the stories in the Old Testament, you need to be aware of where the story fits into the bigger story of what God is doing with his people. And, of course, the stories in the Old Testament ultimately lead to Jesus in the New Testament. When we look back at the Old Testament stories, we see them through the lens of Jesus. We recognize how Jesus puts these stories into proper perspective and often makes seemingly inconsequential accounts jump out at us. So when you read stories in the Old Testament, be aware of where you are in the bigger story of the Old Testament, and where you are in the even bigger story of God’s grand plan as recorded in Scripture.

4. Don’t try to find secret or hidden meanings in the biblical stories.

Some of you may remember the controversy over supposed Satanic backward messages in rock music. Eventually most Christians realized it was much better to pay attention to what the songs were unambiguously saying when you played them forward! (The Christian rock band Petra recorded a backward message that said: “Why are you looking for the devil when you should be looking for the Lord?!”) In a similar way, the important things that Scripture has to tell us are found in the clear biblical writings and stories. In the story of Abraham seeking a wife for his son, Isaac (Genesis 24), Abraham does not equal God, Isaac does not equal Jesus, and Rebekah does not equal the church. The story is about precisely what it seems to be about—Abraham seeking a wife for his son Isaac. Don’t turn historical accounts into some secret allegory. When we try to find these kinds of hidden meanings, we invariably lose the real significance of the story.

5. Don’t just see the story, observe how the story is told.

After you read a few stories in the Bible, you may notice they’re not much like modern novels. We aren’t given elaborate descriptions of people or scenery. This isn’t the way stories are told in Scripture. So when you do see details, pay attention. They are there for a reason. Have you ever watched a movie, and a character lays an envelope on the desk, then the camera lingers on the envelope lying there? You know it’s going to be important later, don’t you? It’s the same idea with these details in the biblical accounts. When Judges 3:15 notes that Ehud was left-handed, it’s going to be important to the story. When the birth of Jacob and Esau is described, along with the physical characteristics of each infant, we can know this is significant.

Notice how the dialogue in a story develops. Much of the stories in the Old Testament are told through the dialogue. And be on the lookout for repeated themes. If you’re watching an old black and white movie on TV, and two men wearing hats, boots and gun belts walk out into the middle of a dirt street with old wooden buildings on each side,  people scrambling to get out the way, and a blinding sun glaring overhead—what’s about to happen? An Old Western gunfight, right? Watch for these kinds of motifs in the biblical stories. For instance, notice how many stories in the Old Testament have to do with barren women who eventually have children. Notice how many older brothers are passed over while the younger is chosen. These patterns give us insights into what God is doing with his people. And, as with the letters to the churches, be watchful for repeated words and phrases. These can often open up deeper layers to the story.

There are amazing, captivating accounts recorded in the Old Testament. It’s okay to get swept up in the story. They’re good stories! Just remember these stories aren’t there just to provide entertaining reading. They communicate something important to us about how God interacts with his people, and how the smaller stories fit into a much larger plan. And don’t forget the most important principle for reading Old Testament stories:

In every biblical story, the hero is always God.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1 [see above]

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

There’s one mistake even long-time Christians sometimes make when reading the Bible. We often assume that we just open the Bible and—no matter where in the Bible we’re reading—we read it exactly the same way. We read Psalms the same way we do Philippians, and Leviticus just as we would Matthew. The problem is this doesn’t work, and many believers end up frustrated. They struggle with their Bible reading, but they’re not sure why.

The Bible is one cohesive, interwoven whole, and it’s all the Word of God. But the Bible is also a collection of very different kinds of writings. In our everyday reading, we read from many different genres. We’re used to this, and we routinely adjust our expectations accordingly. Do you read a cookbook the same way you read a spy novel? Of course not. Do you pick up a tax guide with the same sense of anticipation you’d feel opening a love letter? No way (unless you’re really into tax guides). Usually, we don’t even have to think of these differences in our reading material, but many of us have never realized the same thing is true of our reading of Scripture. So, for the next few weeks, we’re going to look at the different kinds of writing we find in the Bible, and why it’s important that we approach these scriptural genres with different expectations and methods.

We’re going to begin with the letters to the churches. In many ways, these are the biblical books that most directly apply to us. These letters were written to New Covenant believers; we’re New Covenant believers. They were written to, and about, local churches; we’re part of a local church. Many of the same issues that challenged them then also challenge us today. So it makes perfect sense for us to spend time studying these letters.

If you’ve been reading the past few Taking Root studies, you’ll remember the importance of context. You’ll know we need to be aware of who wrote the letter, to whom they were writing, and what the circumstances were. Here’s another fun tip: many times the authors themselves tell us why they’re writing. This gives us a very clear perspective of the rest of the letter. Here’s a classic example. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he explicitly states the purpose of the letter:

I am writing these things to you now, even though I hope to be with you soon, so that if I am delayed, you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God.

1 Timothy 3:14-15

Sure enough, when we look through the rest of this letter, we find it packed with instructions on how the local church is to be organized and maintained to ensure its health and vitality.

Another thing to be aware of is noticeable patterns. For example, the more you read Paul’s letters, the more you’ll notice that he tends to focus on big, overarching spiritual principles in the first part of his letters, then in the second half he shows how these principles relate to our everyday lives. You may also notice he almost always begins his letters by giving thanks for the church to whom he’s writing, and praising them for things they’re doing well. This is why the opening of Paul’s letter to the Galatians quickly arrests our attention. Paul doesn’t give thanks for them or praise them, instead he immediately confronts them:

I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.

Galatians 1:6-7

Not only does this dramatically reveal the extreme importance of this issue for Paul, but it also gives us a great insight into the theme of the rest of the letter. These Galatians were being swayed by false teachers who sought to add to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ wasn’t enough for these people; they had a list of things one must also do to become a Christian. Paul devotes this entire letter to confronting those who would allow legalistic rules and regulations to be added to the gospel. Is this still an issue for believers today? Absolutely.

It’s also helpful to watch for patterns within a particular letter. If you carefully read
1 Corinthians, you’ll begin to notice how Paul repeats certain phrases:

Now regarding the questions you asked in your letter [7:1].

Now regarding the question about . . . [7:25].

Now regarding your question about . . . [8:1].

Now, dear brothers and sisters, regarding your question about
. . . [12:1].

Now regarding your question about . . . [16:1].

It’s clear that Paul is responding to a list of questions the people had, and he’s working through these topics one by one. As you study this letter, you’ll also begin to see there’s a serious problem with disunity in the church in Corinth, and that the people seem to be divided over these issues. They weren’t just asking these questions out of some theological curiosity. They were looking for Paul to settle their doctrinal squabbles. For each subject Paul addresses, he interacts with two opposing views—often giving needed correction to both sides!

Along with these clear parallel references, there are other places in this letter where we see Paul introducing subjects. These are either additional issues that the Corinthians had asked about, or simply topics that Paul felt it crucial to further explore:

But there is one thing I want you to know: . . . [11:2-3].

But in the following instructions, I cannot praise you . . . [11:17].

Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of . . . [15:1].

The way the author structures the letter isn’t an accident. For instance, 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 are all about spiritual gifts. But right in the middle of this section of the book—in chapter 13—we find a change of topic. Why did Paul (and the Holy Spirit) “interrupt” this discussion of spiritual gifts with a whole chapter on love? I can guarantee you one thing: It’s no coincidence.

Also be aware of repeated words and phrases right in the immediate section you’re reading. This can help you see what the author is emphasizing. For example, read through 1 Corinthians chapter 12-14 and see how many times Paul uses words like edify, build up, help, bless, strengthen, etc. (The words may vary depending on the translation you’re using.) Some of us even like to mark these repeated words and phrases right in our Bibles. What do these repeated words tell us about Paul’s focus in this section of the letter? What does this have to do with spiritual gifts?

The more our radar is sensitive to these kinds of patterns, the more we’ll understand what we’re reading. The more familiar you become with these letters, the more you’ll see they each have a definite outline and flow of thought. It’s often helpful to first read through an entire letter in one sitting without trying to resolve any of the details. This will give you a feel for how the whole letter fits together. Then, when you more carefully study each section and paragraph, you’ll have a better idea of how it fits into the theme of the whole letter. As with anything, the more you practice this, the more skilled you’ll become.

This post will give you a taste of reading and studying the letters to the churches. But what about the parts of these letters that aren’t so easy to figure out? What about the places where there are significant cultural differences between the 1st century and today? Are we to woodenly apply everything to our lives today in exactly the same manner they did then? Or can we just shrug off these passages as “for them then,” but no longer applicable for us? How can we know what applies to us now, what doesn’t, and why? We’ll look at these questions next week.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches [see above]

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

A few remaining challenges

This post is the last of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.

I’m going to wrap up this series by discussing the remaining common challenges to the idea of each church being led by a team of elders.

The New Testament doesn’t give us a clear model. We have freedom to structure our church leadership in a way that works best for us.

Some people claim that the Bible is so ambiguous or inconsistent about leadership structures that we can simply use whatever works for our particular situation. It’s true that the New Testament doesn’t provide us with elaborate instructions on the minute details of church leadership. And this does give us great flexibility in applying scriptural principles to different cultures and contexts. But there is actually amazing consistency in how the New Testament describes the pastoral leadership of the original churches. James, Paul, Peter and Luke all describe the churches as being led by a plurality of elders.

James’ letter is most likely the earliest letter included in the New Testament, dating from the early to mid 40s AD. He refers to church leadership by elders in James 5:14. On the other hand, Peter’s teaching on elders comes late in his life (1 Peter 5:1-4). In the book of Acts, Luke recounts how Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each church during their very first missionary trip (Acts 14:23). Years later, Paul is still following the same pattern, directing Titus to appoint elders in each town in Crete, and writing fairly detailed instructions to Timothy regarding the appointment and ministry of the elders of the church. We see this leadership structure for the churches consistently utilized and taught throughout Paul’s apostolic ministry.

As I noted in a previous post, we have accounts of elders being appointed, qualifications listed for elders, and instructions addressed directly to the elders of a church (with no mention anywhere of a sole, primary or senior pastor). Not only do we see this impressive consistency regarding the pastoral leadership of the churches throughout the New Testament, we have much more biblical teaching regarding church elders than we do for such important practices as baptism and communion. We can’t simply pretend that God hasn’t provided this pattern for us. And we shouldn’t introduce another form of church leadership unless it has clear biblical precedent.

The church can’t be led by a committee, it needs a primary leader.

It’s unfortunate that this challenge is heard as often as it is, because it’s really kind of a cheap shot. This is what, in logic, is called a “straw man argument.” It’s trying to cause your point to seem stronger by making your opponent’s view sound silly and easily torn apart (hence “straw man”). Why would I describe this challenge as a straw man argument? Because no pastor or Bible scholar who teaches about the church being led by a plurality of pastoral elders ever advocates for the church being led by a “committee.” They may use terms such as ‘council of elders’ or ‘pastoral team,’ but they don’t refer to committees. Committees don’t have a very good connotation for many of us, so using this kind of pejorative term is a way of stacking the deck against one’s opponent. We should never use a description for our opponents’ viewpoint that they wouldn’t use themselves.

Of course, the real problem with this challenge is that it’s not accurate. The implication here is that no one elder can ever exercise significant leadership beyond that of the other elders. They all have to be equally involved in every decision or ministry. But this just isn’t the way biblical elderships operate. For example, if the church is beginning a construction project, and one of the elders has considerable expertise in construction, then his leadership will be respected and probably followed (as the other elders consider and approve his ideas). If an elder has vast experience and wisdom in financial matters, then his voice will carry much greater weight when approaching fiscal decisions, and the other elders will respect his leadership.

Leadership by a council of co-equal elders doesn’t prevent God from using one man in a special, dynamic way. If one of the elders has a tremendous teaching or evangelistic gift, then the other elders will strive to give him ample opportunity to fulfill this ministry. What this model does resist is trying to see one elder as the primary leader in each and every situation, and formalizing this primary leadership into a ‘senior pastor’ role that is absent from the New Testament. In many churches, the plural leadership model serves to free a gifted pastor/teacher to pursue the ministry that best suits his gifting without the need for him to try to be all things to all people.

The famous Southern Baptist pastor Adrian Rogers was reputed to have argued: “Anything without a head is dead; anything with several heads is a freak.” I would agree. But just who is the head of the body of Christ? Isn’t that Christ himself? If the church has a primary or senior pastor who is viewed as the head of the church (as Rogers was advocating), doesn’t Rogers’ axiom actually argue against such a senior pastor model? Wouldn’t this constitute two heads of the body—Christ and the senior pastor? According to Rogers’ own argument, shouldn’t we view such a leadership structure as a freakish anomaly? The elders are not the heads of the body; they lead the body in seeking the will and direction of our Head. And they resist the temptation to assign that primary role to one of their own.

But we’ve never done it that way before! And what about all the churches that have senior pastors? Are they all wrong?

In many discussions about church eldership, it eventually becomes obvious that this is the underlying objection. Most of us prefer the familiar. We don’t like change, especially when it seems to go against the norm. Of course, whether a practice is familiar or not is ultimately irrelevant. The real question  for us must be: What does the Bible teach? And we can see in our history, and in Scripture itself, that the majority can be very wrong. Even if churches follow an unscriptural model of ministry for 1000 years, it doesn’t somehow sanctify it and make it healthy.

When Martin Luther opposed unbiblical practices in the church of his day, he was faced with these same kinds of challenges. How could he think he was right and everyone else wrong? (Although many others had opposed the same unbiblical practices.) How could he have the audacity to oppose the established tradition of the church? His response was simple; it was bold, yet humble. If anyone could show him in Scripture where he was in error, he would repent. But if they could not, he could do nothing else but accept the witness of God’s Word over accepted, traditional practice, no matter how well established. Those of us who are proponents of what we see as a biblical form of eldership—the pastoring of the church by a group of co-equal elders with no elder elevated above the rest—would invite the same correction and take the same stand.

Encouragingly, there have been many throughout the history of the church who have called us back to this scriptural model. Today, there are more churches who follow such a biblical structure than most people realize. And more and more churches are returning to these New Testament principles of pastoral leadership. It can be helpful to learn about real churches who follow such a model. If you’d like to check out some examples, just email me [see here].

Many wonderful people of God are serving as senior pastors, or serving in churches that have senior pastors. We would never want to dismiss them or ignore the good that God is doing through them. Still, we must continue to strive to be as biblical in our church practices as we can be, and to lovingly challenge our brothers and sisters where we feel they are diverting from what is scripturally normative. The more we follow God’s plan for the church, the more our churches will be healthy and thriving, the more of a vibrant witness we’ll be to the world around us, and the more we will glorify and honor the One whose church it actually is anyway.

Elders and pastoral leadership series:

Why we don’t have a senior pastor

Challenge 1: Wasn’t each house church led by one elder?

Challenge 2: What about Peter and James?

Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus?

Challenge 4: What about the “Moses Model”?

A few remaining challenges [see above]

So what exactly do elders do?

Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?