I Finally See the Mountains!

An event 35 years ago reminds me that what’s real isn’t always visible

By: Pastor Craig Miller

d5c17156-44f8-4ca2-bef1-ef7bdaf0f945One of my favorite stories from my early ministry days happened about one month after I started seminary and my work at First Baptist Church of San Bernardino. It was quite a time for me, having driven cross country in a Buick Opel in August (without air conditioning) to begin both work and seminary in a new place. My mentor, Al Somers, was my senior pastor, and I was living in a small house on our church property, surrounded by the church buildings.

I left every Tuesday through Friday morning at 6:10 am to drive the 55 miles from San Bernardino to Talbot Seminary in La Mirada. It was three freeways and 2 major surface streets and traffic was already getting thick every day as I got off the freeway and headed to school. I often stopped at Dunkin Donuts on the way if I had time, but when traffic was bad, getting there in time for my 7:30 class could be dicey–and it was Intermediate Greek that year, so I didn’t want to be late and fall behind.

Like every other day thus far, I arrived on time, went to my first two classes, then to chapel, and then my final class for the day. I finished at 12:30, stopped at Del Taco for lunch (if you don’t know what it is, you’ve missed out and I can’t help you), and then headed home. I’d be in my office before 2:00 pm and work until 9 or so, breaking for dinner at some point.

On that day, I was driving home, listening to the radio turned up to be heard over the wind coming in my open windows (remember, I had no a/c) as I drove as fast as traffic would allow to get  home and get cool. I wasn’t really thinking about the drive until about 40 minutes from home, and then I almost drove off the road!

I don’t recognize where I am! There are mountains to my left, my right, and ahead of me. Those ahead were snow-capped! What happened? Did I make wrong turn?

I glanced at the side of the road and saw the freeway sign; I was on Interstate 10 East, where I needed to be. The next exit ahead was one I recognized. But I didn’t recognize the scenery!

Slowly it dawned on me that the day had been more than a little breezy, with a condition that natives called “the Santa Ana” winds blowing. The name was a corruption of a phrase for “devil winds,” and not a reference to the city of Santa Ana, but what they were were high winds coming over the mountains and blowing toward the ocean. These conditions brought dry air, warm temperatures, and most importantly, blew all the smog and haze in the air westward toward L.A. and the ocean, clearing out all the valleys along the way, including mine.

What I was seeing is what my new home looked like when the air was clear. And it was amazing to see! I lived in the shadow of the mountains!

Now, I knew there were mountains around me. I had driven over them to come into San Bernardino. But as I descended into the valley the bluish/brownish haze filled in, and when you looked around from my porch or from the church or from most of the city, you saw hazy sky, and you didn’t see the mountains unless you were really close. In that first month, I hadn’t gone anywhere other than church, home, school, and a few homes for dinner that didn’t give you any sort of panoramic view. So, while I had known they were there, I simply stopped thinking about them.

Until the air cleared, and I saw them. I think from that moment on, my perspective changed. I lived with mountains and valleys. I treasured the seasons when I could see them clearly (winter and spring were the best). And when I couldn’t see them I missed them, and longed to see them again. But now they were a part of my reality.

I think that we all have a tendency to forget about mountain-like realities that we may “know” exist but have been so obscured by the haze and pollution of our lives that we forget about them. What are some of the mountains we may be missing? Oh, how about…

  • God’s constant presence–“As the mountains surround Jerusalem (or San Bernardino), so the LORD surrounds his people”–Ps. 125:2
  • The Lord’s willingness to help–always. “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth”–Ps. 121:1-2
  • The reality of the spiritual realm of powers arrayed on our behalf, like Elisha’s servant was made able to see on the mountain where they were–2 Ki 6:17
  • The promise of dwelling in God’s presence in a place he calls “my holy mountain”–Is 11:9, 56:7, 57:13, 65:25

I’ve only used four, and I’ve only used references that referred to “mountains” because they were easy. But there are so many more such realities. God’s promises to us and his descriptions of what truly is and will be are powerful, but often missed when sin–including our own–pollutes our environment to the point we don’t see or remember anymore.

So, I’m here to shout to you today, “The mountains are there!” And I’m praying that God sends a strong east wind your way to clear the valley and remind you once again of his realities!

A Congregational Primer | How should a church body find and express God’s will in a change?

When we speak of a “congregational” church or government for the church, there are a number of ideas that may come to mind that are not healthy. While I would never want to opt for some outside authority, either denominational or hierarchical, to make decisions for local fellowships, we have not always taken time to consider what that should or should not look like.

Some of us have grown up with a “political climate” as our model—this is wrong. 

Having a congregation of believers prayerfully consider what is to be done and then express their combined wisdom should not involve adversarial politics, because we are all in this together. It may involve animated discussion of the text of Scripture, how interpretations are formed, what the ramifications of interpretations or decisions might be, and so on. But it should never be about winning and losing, but humbly participating. If our path is the one chosen, we are thankful that God gave that wisdom. If our path is not, we are equally thankful that God has guided the church. And we only question a decision that is clearly opposite the teaching of Scripture–and such questioning may require us to move to another fellowship if the matter is of primary importance (the kind of matter that affects salvation, for example).

 

Some of us have grown up with a complacent attitude—this is also wrong.

 Many of our younger members aren’t really interested in church government, and yet those who lead the church have such a tremendous impact on what we are all taught, how we prioritize for ministry and money spent on ministry, how we staff the church, and so many other important issues. Complacency in congregational churches will lead to both unchecked leadership and a much greater influence on direction by the smaller portion of the congregation that exercises its ability to vote and make choices. If that small group has an agenda, that can also be very dangerous. The church needs its members to care about its direction. It is wonderful when people trust their leaders, but the choice of trustworthy leaders has to be made by the congregation.

So, how should a congregation approach a decision about a change, as we are doing now?
Normally we should hope for unity, and we should accept a strong consensus. And if we believe our leaders are acting in good faith to implement plans and directions according to their understanding of Scripture, they should receive the benefit of the doubt with an attitude of godly submission. It should never be the thought that a “unanimous” vote would somehow be too much like a rubber stamp! I’m afraid that someone (or a few someones) in our church must think that, because in ten year’s time, the only matter to ever receive a unanimous approval in a ballot vote has been the acceptance of the annual meeting minutes–and that has not even received a unanimous approval every year. I have to wonder if this shows a love for the unity of the church that Paul said was so important in Ephesians 4? I love this church, and even when suggesting things that may not pass unanimously, I want to do all I can to encourage agreement. When someone finds nothing–not a single deacon candidate, a single budget, or a single special action that they can support, I don’t think the problem is with congregationalism or the rest of the church.

So, is there ever a time when you should vote “No” on a change?  Here are five suggestions…

 

  1. Vote no if a proposal violates Scripture
  2. Vote no if the status quo is a superior, biblical approach
  3. Vote no if you do not trust the teaching or the motives of the pastor(s)
  4. Vote no if you do not trust the wisdom of the leader that made the recommendation
  5. Vote no if the change will endanger the flock

I would think that most of these should be obvious. I would also hope that any person who held one of these reasons would love the church and its leaders enough to share their concerns or biblically confront them in the cases of 3, 4, and 5. What about positive reasons to vote “Yes?” Here are five more suggestions…

  1. Vote yes if you believe the proposal lines up with Scripture
  2. Vote yes if you see biblical and practical rationale for the change
  3. Vote yes if your pastors have shown trustworthiness in decisions
  4. Vote yes if your leaders have a record of showing good judgment
  5. Vote yes if you see potential benefits of the change for the flock

Finally, consider these principles to help a congregation and its members (that would be you) to act and decide issues biblically.

  1. Study the issues in Scripture
  2. Listen to what leadership has to say
  3. Pray (and fast) for wisdom, unity, and blessing
  4. Be willing to follow the congregation’s decision
  5. Submit to your leaders as they implement decisions
  6. Humility for everybody!

If we will operate with these principles, unified change is not only possible, but probable. Let’s pray that it will be this way.

signature_pastor_craigece4c6

Reaping the Social Media Whirlwind

Our freedom to express ourselves creates unexpected dangers

social_media_strategy111I am a very well-intentioned social media participant. I am on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I have a Snap Chat account but never use it. I officially have a Vine account, but have never figured that I had 6 seconds of creativity to spare on it. I first joined social media to know what it was about, especially why my kids and the college students in my previous church were so interested in it. I have found the ability to get connected with family and friends, along with the opportunity to share information with others, has been a largely positive experience.

However, social media definitely has its downsides, from the mildly irritating to the personally devastating. Oversharing is common–while I might love to see a picture of your child’s first day of school, the “every fifteen minute update” can be a bit much. Some people seem to develop “emotional binge/purge syndrome” and are constantly oversharing their various upsets and heartaches, under the mistaken assumption that Facebook friends are, well, friends. Others see sensational headlines, read the incredibly incendiary stories they link to, and share them–never checking to see if the story is real or not. I’ve seen more than a few such stories shared by some of you that would be very disturbing if they were true. They originate with fake sites that exist only to stir various pots and make people look foolish in the process. Be careful or you will be duped.

A very dark trend on social media–especially Twitter–is the rapid responses that pile on when someone says or does something they shouldn’t–it is a massive and immediate public shaming. I just watched a TED talk (you can see it here, but be warned, the tweets recounted include some very unsavory language) about this phenomenon, and it was sobering and frightening. It told the story of Justine Sacco, a woman who had 170 Twitter followers and a job with a PR firm. Just before boarding an international flight to Africa, she made a bad joke about AIDS–she meant to be sarcastically poking fun at people’s attitudes, but sarcasm doesn’t always come across in 140 characters. She boarded the flight and fell asleep. But one of her 170 followers forwarded the tweet to a friend at a major site who sent it to his 15,000 followers with a statement condemning her callousness. It went viral, and by the time she landed in Africa hours later it had become the #1 trending subject on Twitter, with thousands upon thousands of the most horrible things said about her, and calling for her to be mocked, shunned, fired, and physically harmed. Her career was over and she was emotionally crushed by the weight of tweeted indignation of tens of thousands of people’s disapproval and disdain. People will gladly do on Twitter what they would never do face to face.

One other grave concern is how our social media posts and content can adversely affect our testimonies for Christ. If we are friends with unbelievers, and our lives in social media are all politics, complaints, and mockery of those with whom we disagree, what are we communicating about the way we view others, or what’s most important in life? Do we rant at mistreatment and make clear that the fruit of the Spirit is currently lacking in our lives? Do we demand justice from a fallen world? Do we spout positive platitudes about success and life as if our attainment of certain goals in this life is what defines us? We used to ask, “if you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Now, we could ask, “If your most positive testimony for Christ in social media is that you clicked ‘Like’ when asked to ‘stand up for Jesus,’ have you really done anything?”

Don’t give up on social media–but make your presence there redemptive, not corrosive. Connect with others, but not to browbeat or brag. Share concerns, but be very aware of the whole of your audience. It’s not just future employers who may look at your various media feeds; it’s also people wondering if Christian faith is real and if Christians are kind or if they are jerks. Speak truth, but speak it in love (Ephesians 4:15).

Let’s be “flying snakes” when it comes to social media (my shorthand for those who are wise as serpents and harmless as doves–Matthew 10:16).

A Summer of Shifts & Shocks

Vantage PointsBeing driven to one important conclusion

It’s the midpoint of summer, and as often happens, plans for a slower pace have been blown to bits by the onslaught of the summer “specials”–those things that come along where you decide, “Sure, I can do that, it’s summer and the normal stuff isn’t happening.” Except, as you probably know, much of the normal stuff does keep going, and now you have more to do than you thought.

Don’t get me wrong; the special stuff makes the summer exciting and, well, “special.” We’ve hosted a few special events at our church that have been a real delight. We’ve had unexpected guests in our home, spent enjoyable time away, and were blessed with unique opportunities to serve. This weekend, for example, we’re hosting 40-50 TCKs (third culture kids) attending a cultural “re-entry seminar” for a Nacho Bar!

But it’s been a very different summer in a number of key points. The weather has been atrocious. Here in Ohio we had the same terrible winter that lots of the rest of the country had, and because of that you hope for a respite in a beautiful summer. We managed to get one week of that–in Myrtle Beach on vacation. Coming home, we’ve had mainly clouds, rain, and cool temperatures until this week, when we went directly to hot and humid with thunderstorms. I can count on one hand the number of warm, sunny days we’ve experienced (OK, maybe the thumb of the other hand would be needed). Our experience is not different than so much of the rest of the country.

There have been a few disappointments this summer for people and relationships. I’ve seen people who were seemingly getting healthy die, and had people who said they would be around decide to disappear.

But it’s also been a summer of unsettling news and change. I won’t take time to revisit the Supreme Court decision to require all states to recognize the union of same sex couples as “marriage.” In overturning a fundamental definition that has existed from the beginning of history, five justices have just done something that undermines family and society, defies common sense, and finds a “right to marry” that simply does not exist in the Constitution (the basis for any ruling they are making). It would be as if they declared blue to be yellow, along with yellow being yellow, and pity the person of aesthetic soul and conscience, as well as logic and a smidgen of historical sense who says that only yellow is yellow.

ESPN ignored genuine heroics by people who achieved great things, paid incredible prices (and in some cases lost their lives) to achieve success in the realm of sport and have served as examples to inspire others, and chose a former athlete who is now a transgender celebrity whose actions have more of the self-aggrandizing than the self-sacrificing about them to designate as the winner of their “Courage” Award. How does milking your former athletic glory and subsequent celebrity marriage, reality TV show, and coming out on national television count as courage?

Planned Parenthood’s medical director was video-recorded having a nice lunch over which she sips her wine and discusses the proper way for an abortionist to crush heads and legs of a fetus to save the liver for sale. It’s guided by ultrasound, don’t you see? And the reaction of many? How terrible that such “sting” videos make the news–unless it is a video for a cause we like!

Our government officials have negotiated a deal with Iran that ensures their continued ability to enrich uranium and move toward possession of a nuclear weapon, while they lead public chants of “Death to America” and continue to hold four Americans as prisoners for no justifiable reason, including a pastor. If you read Joel Rosenberg’s novels and commentary on current events and prophecy (not to mention those scriptures themselves), you can’t help but shudder at these developments, just a little bit.

And as we get ready to select a new president next year, one party can’t field a single candidate who would say a good word about any abortion limitations (ban on late term procedures, require an ultrasound to be shown to the mother, allow the father a say, parental consent for minors, forbid when pain can be felt, etc.) for any reason [For me, abortion is one of those “beyond debate” issues, and when given the chance I will ALWAYS vote for a pro-life candidate, having led me to vote for candidates in the past whose other positions were not mine, but whose commitment to protecting life was solid. That’s me, and I’m not telling you that you are wrong if you disagree, but do think about it.]. Their front-runner seems unable to give straight answers, tell the truth about past decisions, or hold a position held ten years ago, but the others just can’t seem to attract any real attention yet.

And the other party? Well, it is quite a “party” actually, with more candidates than people who attended my last birthday party. I actually can respect a number of them, and they all support protecting life, EXCEPT THE CURRENT FRONT RUNNER! I am mystified that a blowhard billionaire can, by sounding mad as h###, move to the front of the pack when he previously supported the current president that he’s now blasting, gave money to his potential opponent from the other party, and has advocated policies most in his party abhor. He recently said a decorated veteran and senator, who was a POW in Vietnam, was not a war hero just because he got shot down and spent years in a POW camp. The billionaire says he likes guys who didn’t get captured. He ought not to be taken any more seriously than his TV show. But I also have to wonder what makes a man (or woman) say, “I am sure I can pull away from 15 others and be the next nominee and president.” When does self-confidence slide into self-delusion?

Just for good measure, I’m seeing reports of an expected mini “Ice Age” coming in my lifetime (maybe we can promote more global warming to stave it off), and a 30% chance of an earthquake that will wipe out the Pacific Northwest coast in the next few decades. The economic recovery isn’t huge, and financial institutions are very nervous, as Greece’s eventual default may rip through the world’s banks, if China’s massive economic slowdown doesn’t shake them first.

So, let me see where I stand.

  • I can’t count on my bank account or retirement.
  • I can’t count on the environment.
  • I can’t count on the ground under my feet.
  • I can’t count on political candidates or solutions.
  • I can’t count on my governmental leaders.
  • I can’t count on the culture.
  • I can’t count on the media.
  • I can’t count on law or judges.
  • I can’t even count on the weather.

Even I can see that, perhaps, this is a not so gentle reminder from the God of our salvation that there is only One in whom we can trust and never be disappointed. How about you?Share This Post!

Thriving in Babylon

73cb82fb-3d7c-48ba-8a92-04273ee8c3f4One pastor’s book title perfectly captures our opportunity and goal

Larry Osborne is a pastor from Oceanside, California, that I’ve known since the late 1980s. He has led a solid church ministry in northern San Diego County, but it is his books that have really challenged me, especially the titles. They are such good titles, and they set you up for a great experience reading his books.

His book on getting people connected in and committed to a body of believers? Sticky Church.

His book on what happens when our “standards” become too important to our Christianity at the expense of grace? Accidental Pharisees.

But his latest may be his best title yet (can’t say about the book because I just got it). It is using the life of Daniel to learn about how those who love God can live, serve, and prosper even in a culture that stands for all the wrong things. It calls for “hope, humility, and wisdom.” The title is Thriving in Babylon.

The book is certainly timely, because of its subject matter. But that title just grabs hold of me, almost making me shout “That’s it! That’s what we need to do!” I don’t know that there ever was truly a “Christian America”–in fact, I’m pretty sure there never was. But there was a time when America and Americans took most of their cues on the nature of life, right and wrong, the value of human life, the definitions of human relationships, and more, from biblical understandings. After all, all men being “created equal” doesn’t stem from evolutionary thought, atheism, or rationalism. I know we are not the “morality police,” but Christian faith has been the “morality source” for the underpinnings of the nation. It was that niggling “all men are created equal” that was the impetus for the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, and a few other good things.

Those days are gone. Forever. Don’t assume the next election will change it all back. It won’t. We are, as another book title from decades ago put it, Slouching Towards Gomorrah. Christians have always been “strangers and aliens” in this world, but in America, an illusion developed that because our values had shaped the nation’s founding in so many ways, we would always have a better culture and an easier way in the world. No more.

Unlike Daniel and his friends, we have not been carried off into captivity. Instead, we have had the true nature of being exiles made clear as the glossy curtains of America’s civic Christianity have been ripped down. It’s taken long enough that the coming generation has no real memory of it being different, but historically, the pace of the change has been breathtaking.

So America isn’t the promised land. It is Babylon. A powerful nation with dangerous rivals who would eventually overthrow it, Babylon was not a friendly place for Jewish faith to thrive, and to do so as a captive carried off to serve in the palace would be even harder. But Daniel and his friends decided that a hostile environment didn’t change the truth from God or the power of God to accomplish the will of God. When they could seek accommodation (in their diet for example), they did. When they could serve (interpreting a dream or serving in administration), they did. And when they couldn’t compromise and needed to trust God (as in not worshiping an image on pain of death), they did. And they didn’t just survive–they thrived. They made a difference and an impact. And they did so with no guarantees that it would all turn out for them. Even though it did, as Osborne says, they were “exceptions, not examples.”

America is a powerful nation with dangerous enemies, and it is not necessarily a place that fosters faith or faithful obedience to God. It seems to have become (or is certainly on its way to becoming) another Babylon–not in the biblical prophecy in Revelation sense, but in its increasing opposition to God and His Word. Yet, many of God’s people in Babylon managed to do so much more than just survive. It wasn’t just Daniel and his friends. Whole communities of captives in Babylon kept the faith alive. Synagogues were born in Babylon, and biblical scholarship among Jews actually flourished–one of the great copies of their laws was called “the Babylonian Talmud” because it developed there. Many were able to thrive, because they didn’t forget God, and they knew he had not forgotten them.

That’s what we Christians need to do. We need to decide to thrive. It doesn’t matter what the culture may adopt next, or whether we won’t be popular or respected or tax exempt! We know our God, and he hasn’t forgotten us or lost control of his plan. And because we are still here and the end hasn’t come, there is still the opportunity to bear witness to truth and know that our witness and fruitfulness can thrive. So, let’s do this. Let’s not back off what we believe, but let’s stop being surprised that others don’t believe it. Let’s expect iniquity to abound–these are, after all, the last days. But let’s remember that when sin abounds, grace still abounds much more. Let’s believe that God may be making the lines between truth and lies clearer, and pushing those who claim to know him to show where they stand. Let’s believe that some pressure (and maybe some persecution) is going to be the catalyst for cleansing and empowering God’s people. And let’s thrive, like the faithful Jews in Babylon, or like the church just after Stephen was killed, or like believers in China for the past sixty years.

(Oh, and maybe you’ll want to read the book, too. You can order it here. I haven’t finished so I can’t offer a full endorsement yet, but I like what I’ve seen so far.)

Don’t Waste Your Summer

Tsea-nature-sky-sunsetime for some educational, apologetic, (and perhaps remedial) reading for such a time as this.

Summer is always a time that people think about reading (perhaps taking a book on vacation), or may have a little more time to do so. Of course, you can now “read” through audiobooks, so that counts, too.

I am a great advocate of reading, and I do so widely–theology and contemporary issues, history, biography, and fiction (classic and new) all interest me. But I also find that at times when there are very pressing issues or concerns for Christians, good reading can be an essential bulwark in building up both my faith and my knowledge so that I might give good answers to anyone who would seek them from me.

There are a number of such issues today, but none seems to have captured our attention like same-sex marriage (SSM) and same-sex attraction (SSA) and how we might respond to it. Let me suggest that the need to find ways to engage those who support SSM and believe that acting on SSA within “loving, committed relationships” is a biblical option is a great one; those who simply say, “well, there are good arguments and scholars on both sides” need to actually engage their brains instead of assuming we can’t really know. In order to get yourself equipped for this ongoing conversation, let me suggest some reading that will help (clicking on the title will take you to an Amazon.com link where you can buy it):

What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? by Kevin DeYoung. This is a short book, but a powerful one, and if you are only willing to read one book, choose this one. It covers the biblical texts, deals with the most common arguments against them, and then wrestles with the questions raised by many Christians. It is excellent.

Is God Anti-Gay? by Sam Allberry. Sam is a Baptist pastor from England who deals with SSA in his own life, and has written another short book on this subject, and his own life and testimony certainly provide the perspective of one intimately involved and concerned on this issue. I’ve heard Sam speak, and I have great appreciation for his work.

God and the Gay Christian? A Response to Matthew Vines, by James Hamilton, Denny Burk, and Owen Strachan. Vines, a former Harvard student and former “evangelical” wrote a book that became very popular repeating many of the claims that have been used before him to justify homosexual practice within “committed relationships” and it caused quite a stir. This book goes through those arguments and responds. Since Vine’s material wasn’t really “new,” neither were the responses, but they were needed and they were good.

Out of a Far Country, by Christopher Yuan, is one of the best personal stories of both conversion and commitment to faithfulness to Christ. Yuan’s visits to Cedarville University may have made his name familiar to you, but his book should be read if you haven’t already.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, by Rosaria Butterfield. This is the story of a former atheist, lesbian, feminist studies professor who came to a very unexpected encounter with Jesus Christ. Her story is incredibly powerful and informative.

Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, by Wesley Hill. This testimony of a young man battling against SSA and trying to discover God’s will is a powerful one. His commitment to celibacy and the development of spiritual friendship within the Church is commendable.

The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, by Robert A. J. Gagnon. OK, for those who still want to argue about the texts, this book is the single most exhaustive study available, and has been strongly endorsed as accurate even by many who oppose Gagnon’s conclusions that the Bible is opposed to all homosexual activity. It is big, it is detailed, and as someone once said in another context, “if this doesn’t convince you, you may not be open to being convinced at all.” This is not light reading, so don’t take it to the beach.

There are other books I can also recommend, but these should get you started. Not every statement in every book is endorsed by me, but these authors hold high views of Scripture and demonstrate good understandings that make them all easy to endorse for your consideration.

Share This Post!

A Brief Response to the Recent Supreme Court Decision on Marriage

abcTwo Sundays ago, I read a brief statement about my reaction, as your pastor and spokesman for our leadership, about the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to make same sex marriage the law of the land. I’ve been asked to reproduce it here, and other than some corrections and brief expansions of my “talking point” notes, here is what I said.

1. We respectfully disagree with the decision of the majority—both its legal reasoning and its conclusions.

2. We are against discriminatory practices toward any person or group in society, but we cannot agree that marriage is simply a legally defined relationship, but rather it is what it has been from all time—the union of a man and a woman, in a covenant meant to be permanent, and carrying specific rights and responsibilities. It is not invented by society, but created by God.

3. We will continue to recognize only those marriages that fit this biblical definition, and we will not perform or host any marriages that do not.

4. We will joyfully accept God’s sovereign plan for us now to be what the Church often is, a minority voice, a counter-cultural community, and a winsome witness to truth, even if we must someday suffer misunderstanding, disadvantage, or even persecution.

5. We will continue to love those sinners who face the temptations of same sex attraction, opposite sex lust, pride, gluttony, lying, and every other sin. No sin except unrepentant unbelief puts anyone more than one prayer away from the foot of the cross.

6. The landscape has changed, and what we will face is uncertain. But as Russell Moore has said, the church cannot be afraid of its mission field. In fact, we can look forward with great joy. One quote I saw captured it well.

“The first century church did not look around and say, “What is this world coming to?” They said, “Look what has come into the world!”

signature_pastor_craigece4c6

The Reason for Elders | A Final Question

Elders

Why Change When Things are Good?

Over the past number of weeks, I’ve shared with you in this space the five major reasons our Constitutional Review team members see for having multiple elders as well as multiple deacons in a local church. If you go to the church’s website and click on the blog there, you will find five articles outlining each of the five reasons–you’ll have to scroll down to find #1, and then just back track!But as a few of you have expressed it, you aren’t sure we have to do this. The thinking goes like this:”I can see that what you are saying is in the Bible, but is it required that we change? After all, things have been working just fine for years. Why not leave things the way they are?”

What I hear behind this question is a resistance to change in this area as somehow being disrespectful of the past (and those who set up the current system), and a concern that this is just not that important.

Let me answer by first saying that whether a church, or an individual Christian are willing to change their actions, behaviors, or patterns based upon the evidence of Scripture is not an unimportant question. Have there been times when you may have believed something was right and then, upon studying the Scriptures, came to see that it was wrong, or that your understanding of it was incorrect? That does not mean that everything about you and your past, and even your past actions related to that subject were somehow worthless or evil (unless it was some moral question). But as we learn, we then conform our behavior, attitudes, or thinking to what the Bible says.

Here’s an example from my own life. I was not raised in churches that taught clearly the doctrine of election–that God has chosen before time all those who will be saved in a sovereign act that does not remove my free decision or responsibility to respond to the gospel in faith. I simply thought it was my “lucky break” to grow up under the teaching of the gospel, and my salvation rested on my ability to make the right choice. As I studied the Bible in high school and college, I modified my thinking along the way; first thinking that God gave me the grace to believe because he saw ahead of time that I would believe, and then, finally, recognizing biblical truth went further, I had to acknowledge that I was spiritually dead in trespasses and sins, and a dead person can’t do anything. The Spirit of God had to “regenerate” (make alive again) me in order for me to repent and believe. I changed my thinking because the Scriptures led me to see the truth more clearly than I did when I first believed. I wasn’t in rebellion to God before my thinking matured. But I would have been in rebellion if I said, “Yes, I believe the Bible says this, but it makes me uncomfortable and I got saved without believing it, so I won’t promote or teach this.”

Similarly, on the issue of the church’s leadership, it is clear from Acts 11, 14, 15, 16, 20,  from Paul (Ephesians 4, Philippians 1, 1 Timothy 3, 4, 5, Titus 1), James (James 5), and Peter (1 Peter 5), that New Testament local churches were to have a number of elders (also called overseers and pastor/teachers) in each congregation. There can be no serious doubt that individual churches had multiple elders, and that some of these were not vocational elders, but laymen.

So, we see that the Bible tells us that when a church came into being, it was the pattern for a plurality of elders to be selected as its leaders. When deacons are mentioned, they are also in a plurality, but they do not possess the “ruling” or “overseeing” function: that belongs to the elders. Further, we see that in the only places where instruction is given for organizing churches, that instruction involves a plurality of elders in a single church. There is no scriptural evidence for the church choosing deacons first to be its board and for deacons to lead efforts to find a pastor elder for the church. Nor is their evidence in the Bible that would give the deacons the authority over the church or over the elders. Our current structure constitutionally makes the deacons the board of directors, does not allow pastors a vote within the board, and puts deacons in charge of the process of selection of and termination of a pastor (the congregation must vote as well on a senior pastor’s termination, but a vote of the deacons can remove other pastors).

In light of this evidence, it is my conviction (and one I have held and openly acknowledged since I came here), that the best and most biblical form of church government will have the congregation led by a plurality of elders who will be assisted by a plurality of deacons, and since the elders would be the teaching leadership, the deacons could and should include women as well as men. When I came, I said that I could function within the current structure, and I believe I (and we) have. But I also said I would teach on this issue and hoped that we might consider this change someday. Last year, after over two years of studying this issue, the Deacons unanimously voted (without my asking for that vote), to undertake a constitutional revision that would include in our governance (in their words) “the biblical office of elder.” My heart still rejoices at that.

Now, if we are convinced that this is what the Bible says, and that this is the pattern the Bible provides, that where the Bible shows instruction on church set up it calls for plurality of elders, and that there is no biblical evidence for our current pattern, then I would say that if we choose to ignore the pattern and teaching and example of Scripture in favor of something we cannot find there but are used to, then we are no longer simply functioning as best we know, but rather are choosing to ignore biblical evidence in favor of our own past tradition.

I’m sure that the last paragraph seems strong, but it is my conviction, and it is the reason I think we must make this change now. For ten years, I have led you in my role as your Senior Pastor, and from the very beginning I have insisted that we listen to what the Bible says, and if that requires change in us, then we must change. One of the things I have cited with great pride in you all is that in my early years, when I was leading us through a number of changes based on the Scriptures, some of you said to me, “I don’t like this, but I see it in the Bible, and so I think we have to do this.” That is the spirit that buoyed me through some of those early, challenging times, and I pray that it is the same spirit that will enable us to make this change.

Have things been “good” here? Yes, I believe they have. But that does not mean that they cannot be better, or more biblical. Something may work, but that doesn’t mean it’s best or cannot be improved. And I believe that multiplying our eldership will bring multiplied good to the congregation. They will be chosen by the congregation; and they will serve limited terms, just like our deacons do now. But they will be chosen based on elder qualities, and they will help your pastors as they together seek to shepherd and watch over this flock. And having elders in place will free us to multiply not only the number of deacons, but expand their roles of service to the congregation.

I hope you have been reading these updates on our reasons. I hope you have been looking hard at the scriptures. And I hope that your guiding principle as we continue to move toward voting on this change will be, “What does the Scripture encourage us to do?”

We are getting ready to unveil a draft of what we would hope to use in our constitution regarding elders and deacons, how they are chosen, their terms and duties, and how we will protect (and actually increase) the final authority of the congregation in choosing and keeping its leaders. Many questions may still remain, and I encourage you to ask them here. I ask you to pray for those on the Constitutional Revision team, led by Duane Wood, as the work nears its completion. In addition to governance, other areas are being reviewed in order to protect the church’s ability to act in accord with our scriptural convictions.

The Reasons for Elders | Part 5

Elders

The Reasons for Elders–Part 5

One month ago we began sharing the five major reasons or rationales for Grace Baptist Church considering a restructuring of our leadership to include a plurality of elders in the church as its spiritual leaders, as well as continuing to have deacons who would be engaged in serving and ministering to the Body. Thus far, we have presented four reasons, and the principles associated with each that have guided our thinking. They are:

Reason #1. Elders appear in the New Testament as a plurality (multiple elders in one church): see Acts 11:30; 14:23; 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14 for examples.
PRINCIPLE: When the Scriptures give clear patterns of plurality, and we see repeated instruction to institute plurality, we have strong motivation to organize ourselves in line with, not opposite to, that pattern.

Reason #2. The titles “pastor (or shepherd, or pastor-teacher)”, “elder”, and “overseer (or bishop)” all refer to the same office (Acts 20; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4), and so the plurality of elders applies no matter the title used.
PRINCIPLE: the shepherding leadership of the church and the oversight and direction of the church are held by a group of mature men appointed to this task.

Reason #3. It ties together the important task of preaching/teaching with the vision and leadership of the church (1 Tim. 3:1-7; 5:17).
PRINCIPLE: the spiritual leadership of God’s church must be held by men who are practiced in the study of Scripture and gifted and qualified to lead others.

Reason #4. It provides protection against the potential of any one leader gathering too much power or leading the church astray.
PRINCIPLE: Plurality of leadership is a protection for the leaders and the people.

It’s time for our final reason!

Reason #5. It ensures that qualified people are leading in the right capacities within both of the offices established in the New Testament Church (1 Tim. 3:1-7, 8-13; Titus 1:5-9)

  • While the qualifications for elders and deacons are similar, the clear difference is that an elder/overseer/pastor must be able to teach the Word—privately and publicly. No such requirement exists for deacons.
  • The teaching function carries the idea of being able to correct and exhort in the Scriptures, something that deacons are not uniquely called to do.
  • The only “ruling” function within the church is assigned to elders (1 Timothy 5), not deacons—in fact there is no scriptural warrant or early church history of deacons forming a governing board. Not until the 18th century do deacons appear to assume a governing function within any congregation.
  • The qualifications of deacons include women—some believe these are the wives of deacons, others believe they are women serving. In any case, there is no such inclusion of women within elder qualifications. This would indicate that the service rendered by deacons is not one of ruling leadership, which Paul limits to men (1 Tim. 2). But it also opens the potential of church-wide and church-recognized service by men and women.

PRINCIPLE—those called and qualified to lead God’s church should do so, and those called and qualified to assist those leaders by serving the church should do so, and neither should take the role of the other to themselves.

Having completed our five reasons, I want to answer a question next week that I have heard from a couple of people whose perspective is, “I can see that what you are saying is biblical, but is it required of us to change? Everything seems to be working fine just like it is. Why not leave things as they are?” I’m sure you can guess that I have some thoughts on that question, and I’ll share them next week.

I encourage you to be thinking about these things, praying for your leaders who are working on this, and sending any questions you may have about this my way–either by email (click here to send one), or by asking me whenever you have opportunity. I’d love to explain further if that would help.

signature_pastor_craigece4c6

Pray for Charleston Emanuel AME

09a2c141-02bd-4ba6-a5d2-8adef547f8c6

 

Our hearts have grieved with the people of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston over the deaths of nine of their church family at the hands of a self-identified white supremacist. The evil in this at so many levels is so great, and yet the example of so many relatives in expressing forgiveness has made the message and effect of the gospel stunningly beautiful in the midst of this tragedy. To think of a prayer meeting and Bible study welcoming the man who would turn a gun on them is hard to fathom, especially when one person reported that the shooter said he almost didn’t fire because they were so nice to him. But the words of forgiveness spoken were so powerful that national media outlets could not ignore them, even though they did not know how to report them.

Our local Cedarville Ministerial Association sent flowers to the local AME church here in Cedarville, and association president, Linda Davis, went on Sunday to meet with the pastor and congregation there and to pray with them. They were genuinely touched, as this denomination is rather tight knit and the local pastor knew the pastor in Charleston who was murdered.

Would you pray for the congregation in Charleston, as well as other historically black churches for whom this is an all too familiar reminder of other churches bombed and burned. Pray that God’s Word would be their anchor, His Spirit would be their power, and Christ’s Gospel would be the hope and message that comes through most clearly.

signature_pastor_craigece4c6