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Archive for the ‘Elders’ Category

Pastoral Pity

I was only a child, but I remember it vividly.  The preacher (we called him Pastor) had finished his sermon.  Lights were dim, and the sanctuary was hushed.  He strode the aisle towards the back.  And I remember it like a child would: the Bible in his hands, his tie, and then his face.  His lips were tight with an expression of grim pity, as a doctor who has seen a disease that could have been prevented but now through neglect is beyond cure.  It spoke a sense that his words had (or should have) brought conviction to his audience.  There was sadness, but mixed with judgment; he was removed from the situation.

I do not remember the sermon.  My reaction was entirely to the face.  It’s possible that all of our heads were expected to be bowed in contemplation and prayer.  I didn’t like it.

Maybe my reaction was proud, rebelling against the presumption that I was in need of conviction and repentance.  Or maybe it was confused, seeing things in grown ups that I didn’t understand.  Part of me still thinks that I was sensitive to something not quite right.  That perhaps the sermon needed to be preached, and the congregation needed to mourn their sins – but that the face was wrong.

In any case, what I have since learned about church and pastors brings new questions.  How should a man look and act and feel who has spoken rebuke to his church?  Why is a congregation left to deal privately with what they have heard, silently in a dark room?  Shouldn’t the one on whom the burden was laid to reveal the wound or canker in the church stay to help fix it, instead of walking down the aisle to the back?  Must sheep approach the shepherd for help, especially when it was he who pointed out their danger?

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Church is not about a pastor.  He obviously plays a part.  God never intended for one man to make or break a church.  There are safeguards established by the apostles in the New Testament to prevent that.  In a plurality of elders, for example, they can hold each other accountable.  If one of them is unwilling to listen to the concerns of a congregant, perhaps another will.  This is not to encourage division in the leadership, for the point of multiple shepherds is that no one can do everything all the time.  In the weakness of one, another diversely weak leader can be strong.

The burden we place on pastors is not fair.  Their weaknesses and failings are elevated to a critical point.  A cord of three strands is not easily broken – not only because it is harder to break all three at once, but because all three bear and divide the tension, creating a strength in the individual threads that is harder to break.

When I imagine church, I want the big vision, the ideal of what could and should describe the gathering of Christ’s bride.  A pastor sees the path, turns us in the direction, opens the gate leading us there, the practical next step to which I am so blind.

So many times I have seen pastors and ministry leaders get tired and discouraged.  I recognize the signs, having experienced them myself.  The tension is growing and the responsibilities keep piling up, all without any sign of effectiveness.  Or, we don’t know what signs to seek, or where to turn our eyes.

If my reader has read the Bible only, he will not find an altar call there – not for salvation.  The Bible usually records God’s saving work as meeting people wherever they are, in their chariot, on their knees in a jail, by a riverside doing laundry.  Jesus said, “Come unto Me,” without the help of pulpit or altar or stage.  In our church, custom has it at the end of each sermon to invite any heretofore unrepentant sinners to approach the front, to counsel with the pastors, and if they are willing, to pray receiving God’s free forgiveness.  The frequency of responses is used, even subconsciously, to measure the effectiveness of a sermon, ministry, or leader.

God certainly can save people in and through an altar call.  God can save humans wherever they are, remember.  How desperately the Church needs revival!  How many sit in the rows of chairs in our multi-purpose sanctuary having heard the words about sin and death and resurrection and faith their whole lives, but are drowning in the need to be good, in doubt about the existence of God, in despair over the extent of their rebellion?  Those would not answer an altar call.  They don’t need an altar call, or the words repeated.  They need God’s work in their lives, God’s Word proclaimed to their minds, and God’s instruments, His people, lovingly infiltrating the nitty gritty.  I need that, crave that.

If it is true that we are sometimes called to be weak, all the more reason to have companions in life and in church work.  Prophets are called to be strong.  Ezekiel, whose spiritual fate was much like Jeremiah’s, is named “strengthened by God.”  Paul continually emphasized God’s design for the church as a community of strengths – implying also a community of weaknesses.

Perhaps God allows discouraging circumstances to create a cooperative attitude in congregations.  Leaders in the church are not alone.  They are not called to “singleness” either in ministry or in marital status (is it not one of the requirements for a pastor that he be the husband of one wife?).  Therefore they should be experiencing the bonding lifestyle of serving humbly together in ministry, bearing one another’s burdens and being edified by each other.  May it be so.

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Under what circumstances is it right to leave a church?  Are those circumstances different for the pastor(s)?

  • If the church does not preach sound doctrine, you should find a true church.
  • If the church is tolerant of disobedient lifestyles, it is not healthy.
  • When God calls you to foreign missions, you must go.
  • When God moves your family geographically, find a church in the new area.
  • If a woman gets married she moves to her new husband’s church.

Should you communicate with other leadership or lay-people about the potential that you would leave?  When does that reach divisiveness?

Would Paul have requested that Timothy come to him, join him on missions, or lead a different church if the church Timothy was currently pastoring was not sufficiently provided for in the way of elders?

Should a church elder be in communication with his congregation about where God is leading him, even personally?  I cannot imagine that Timothy would make a decision to leave a church without praying with his congregation about it, without consulting the other church leadership.  I picture a congregation practically sending him out, as a missionary, though they would miss his leadership and friendship, in agreement that God was calling their friend elsewhere.  Did they always understand that Paul’s or Timothy’s ministries would be temporary?

Paul clearly felt comfortable visiting his churches again, once he had moved.  Which means his departure had to be congenial.  I do not think that he would come back just for a reunion party, or that he would come back only as an observer, slipping into the crowded congregation unnoticed.  In fact, I am pretty sure that whenever he visited one of his former churches, he would teach again.  Could one of our churches, in the modern times, welcome back to the pulpit an old friend and faithful leader who had been busy with God’s work elsewhere?

God can work in the system that is.  For example, He does not like or condone immorality, yet He can still bless the life of a child born out of wedlock.  He may not have prescribed the system of calling pastors from church to church that we use in America, but He can certainly use that, and work His will in the culture by revealing His call through that system.  But – BUT – if we are trying to decide from scratch how we ought to do something, I would not say that we should look to tradition for guidance, or to ritual for structure.

God’s Word reveals how He wanted our lives, our homes, and our churches to look.  I see in the New Testament that God would give gifts to men, that He would provide from among the congregation Christians to fulfill the needs of that body.  Therefore while God may call some people to be traveling evangelists and missionaries and church planters, He will usually, in a healthy church, raise up generations of leaders to be elders (the word simply refers to an age hierarchy, naturally assuming that spiritual maturity and life wisdom will equip those who have been saved longer to be leaders and teachers in the church) in the congregation where they themselves also grew up.  And the body they lead would be so much like their own family that they would not often skip from church to church.

Josh Harris wrote a new book, “Stop Dating the Church.”  I wonder what the connotations are.  I think the indication is to be purposeful and faithful in your search for a church.  Love unconditionally.  Meet the needs of the church, and don’t be self-seeking.  The body of Christ is supposed to be one, as a husband and wife are, with different people making up the different parts, being fitted together by service and love even as joints and ligaments hold the flesh together.

When is a marriage allowed to end?  At death.  What God has brought together, let no man tear apart.  Allowance is made for unfaithfulness.  Individuals may be put out of the fellowship of the body for unrepentant sin.  I can think of few circumstances that fit with the picture of marriage in which a person has a right to, of his own will, leave a church.

What about pastors?  Have we no faith that God can use us when we are at the end of our own strength and creativity?  Perhaps pastors have taken on too much responsibility. Whereas they were only meant to teach God’s word, to be examples of the Christian life, and to hold others accountable, they now feel responsible for the “success” of their church.  When a church is not growing, or is not applying the teaching, they feel that reflects on their skill, so they bail out.  I don’t wish to be harsh on such wonderful Christians, but I have heard leaders giving up, like they thought it was all about them.

Look at Ezekiel!  He knew from the start that his ministry wouldn’t be “successful”!  But he was a faithful prophet, a suffering prophet, because his ministry wasn’t about success; it was about obedience to God.  Our ministry isn’t about numbers or popularity.  It’s about obedience.  We must come to the place where we realize that even though we don’t always like what God asks of us, “Where else will we go?  Who else has the word of life?” to quote Peter’s words to Jesus.

In the early church, all the Christians in a neighborhood (or city, if there was a small enough number of Christians) would meet together.  They did life together, and devoted themselves to teaching and prayer. I don’t know that there was much choice to which congregation claimed you as a member.  Either a Christian went to the church in his area or he didn’t go at all.  And perhaps there were smaller groups that would eat together, but you could not shut out other Christians just because they weren’t your style.  Getting along was all the more important since this was the case.

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“We’re confident that God has worked through churches as they are.  But we are also confident that God can work more effectively when we yield our traditions to Him.  When we let Him change us, even in big ways.”

“It was impossible for me to just step down and find a little house church or something that believed 1 Corinthians 14, for example.  As a pastor at this church, God gave me the responsibility to lead them, and to teach them His Word.  I love my church, and I am not going to willingly abandon them.”

“You were willing, though, to risk massive divisions and confusion.”  The head of the investigatory committee continued.

“Picture a shepherd.  He will lead the sheep to water even if the whole flock is headed in the opposite direction.  At first only a few may recognize that their shepherd has changed directions.  The flock looks ready to split.  But the shepherd takes up his staff and comes around behind the flock to corral them together.  He goes after those who missed the turn.  One thing I will not do is run ahead of this church.  We have made three primary changes:  shifting the responsibility of teaching off of only one pastor and onto all the males, especially heads of family; removing an organized singing time and allowing instead a more request-oriented worship; and ending our nursery and children’s church service.”

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“As your pastor, who is a leader and protector and teacher of the church, I see God as both giving the authority and the job description.  I did not arrive at these conclusions lightly.  If I were not completely convinced that God’s word is explicit on these things, I would not have risked your indignation.  As to laziness, far from it.  It may only seem so to you because I am asking you all to take responsibility for your church.  You will no longer be able to sit in church on Sunday and trust your leaders to have a relationship with God for you.  You will have to spend time with Him yourself.  I’ll be here to teach, to guide, to help, to answer.  You can call me with your questions at any time of day.  I’ll be there.”

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Acts on Elders

On his return trip from his First Missionary Journey, Paul passed back through the same cities, encouraging those who had believed, and ordained elders in every church (14:23). This is significant, because it is the second mention the Bible gives of Christian elders.   The first seems to refer to the apostles and other recognized leaders of the Church in Jerusalem.  These in Acts 14 were appointed in churches recently established, but which had existed as churches (remember: assemblies of believers) prior to the ordination of elders.

Through this portion of Acts we see the origin of the local church.  It seems to have been divided by cities.  And there were several elders ordained in each city. How many disciples were there in each city?  How and when did they meet?  Did they all meet at once?  What did an elder do?  All Acts tells us is that such elders sent Paul on with prayer and fasting, commending him and Barnabas to the Lord.  Back in Antioch the Church had to be gathered to hear Paul and Barnabas’ testimony of their trip.

Acts 15:6 records that apostles and elders came together to consider the serious matter that some were teaching you had to become a Jew to become a Christian. The apostles were the named and commissioned witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, though James at this point had already been executed. Elders likely referred to other men who were leaders in the Church, such as James and Jude, the brothers of Jesus, and maybe the remaining deacons.  The conclusion was agreed upon by the apostles and elders (who were of one accord) and the whole church.  A little later the “whole church” was referred to as “the brethren.” Paul addressed several epistles to “the brethren” in each city.

Paul was decades into his missionary work when he stopped at a port near Ephesus, and sent for the Ephesian  elders to admonish them (20:28, 31).  Paul reminded them to both feed the Church like shepherds, because the Holy Ghost made them overseers for this purpose, and also to be watchful as would a shepherd, against the wolves who would draw away disciples after themselves.  Then in a scene that becomes very familiar by the end of Acts, they pray together, and part.

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