The Pastor I Want to Be

This morning I came across Philippians 2:19-30, and came to see it as an example of the type of pastor I wish I was and should strive to be.

In these verses, Paul speaks of Timothy and Epaphroditus and the encouragement they have been to him. Before looking at what he said about these two men let’s remember the situation Paul was in as he wrote these things.

They encouraged him in ministry. Only those who are well outside the loop believe ministry is an easy course. These men encouraged him in his imprisonment. Paul had been imprisoned for the gospel, in a world where prisons were especially brutal. They encouraged him as he faced the likelihood of execution. Paul speaks of his survival as a fifty-fifty shot.

This is the most amazing thing about this passage. Paul wanted the Philippians to experience the encouragement of these men so much that he was willing to send them, rather than to keep them close, serving himself.

So what does Paul say about these men?

First thing I notice is that Timothy is described of having the interest of others, from the perspective of Jesus Christ.

The opposite of this is to seek your own interests.  This is a constant challenge for a pastor or minister of any type. Just yesterday I sat with a missionary who spoke of the difficulty of speaking on God’s behalf without allowing the message to decompose into personal tirades at the people we love, because of our private, and often frustrating, knowledge of their sins.

Another challenge of seeking the interests of your congregation is that they don’t really know what is in their own best interest.  They too have a way of making their self-interests selfish instead of Christ-centered. So, in order to avoid telling people what they want to hear, you have to temper your message constantly with a deep connection to Christ.  This is the only way that you will know His best interests for your hearers.

The last thing I want to mention about this maintaining the interests of those you serve, is that it helps to have a support system outside of the circle of your own congregation.  Often others can see things in us we have carefully hidden from ourselves.  An honest friend will tell you what you need to hear to allow you the opportunity to improve. Every Paul needs a Timothy and every Timothy needs a Paul.

Second, Paul speaks of Timothy as a person of proven character.

Proving anything takes time. Proving character takes a lifetime. Timothy was not spoken of as someone whom Paul just met and had a good feeling about, but instead as someone that had served alongside Paul for an extended time.

Proving leadership has a trait in it that many people miss.  One of the ways that you become a good leader is by being a good follower. Paul’s leadership over Timothy helped bring out Timothy’s abilities in that area. Leaders who cannot follow, at least in my opinion, also cannot lead. Remember job one for any leader is to follow Christ.

Character is not weighed on scales, so that as long as more half their characteristics are good, they are a good men. Character is not a litmus test, meaning that when a strong majority of their characteristics are pure they are a good person.  Character is on the gold standard.  If it is not 100% pure then it is still in need of refinement. All of us are still in the process, but don’t use that as an excuse to change out to any other standard than Christ.

Finally, Paul speaks of Epaphroditus as a man who was willing to sacrifice all.

The first sacrifice was being willing to live broken-hearted for the people he served.  The passage describes it as longing for the Philippians, and indeed, leaving behind those you love is one sacrifice most face in ministry.  But the sacrifice of a broken heart comes in many other ways too. Everything from watching people drown in their sin to burying your beloved members break your heart.

He also was willing to walk the line of public scrutiny and shame.  I say this because prisons in that time and place were difficult to survive. Paul most likely would not have made it through if Epaphroditus was not bringing him food, water, medicines and encouragement.  But bringing these things to Paul meant he was willingly associating himself with the crimes the Roman overlords assumed Paul was guilty of.

Finally, Epaphroditus almost died from illness while performing these ministries. This was the context in which Paul said we should hold men like Epaphroditus in high esteem. Are we as willing to risk everything for the gospel?  We live in such comfort today that it is hard to tell. But if you are not willing to make the many smaller sacrifices included in ministry, you are not training yourself to be ready to make the ultimate sacrifice if, or maybe when, the time comes.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Theology of Politics

It might be a good time to remind America that God is in control. It is at times like these that we need to have a sound theology of politics.

I know the idea of a doctrinal statement about politics, governments, elections and so on, will rub some people the wrong way. That is largely based upon a false doctrine in this country called separation of church and state.  But let me save that conversation for another day.

Today let me present a few things a Christian should believe about politics. First, we should believe that being a good citizen is a part of our Christian responsibilities.  There are a lot of verses that tell us as much, some very directly. For starters consider Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, 1 Timothy 2:1-6, and Titus 3:1-11.

But beyond citizenship we need to know that there is a cause and effect relationship between how well we perform the duties of citizenship and the state of our nation. If we lift God up, honor and revere Him, use our resources to spread His kingdom, and build into our country positive moral values, then we can expect God to bless us.  But when we are not behaving as Christians ought, then we can only expect to see judgment. Consider Joshua 23:1-13, Psalm 33:12, and 2 Chronicles 7:14.

Finally we also need to recognize a Biblical pattern. This pattern may not be as clearly stated as some of the other things we have discussed, but I am certain that it is true. God chooses and directs leaders as one of the major ways that he guides history forward. Part of that is rewarding those who have earned blessing with good leaders, and another part is condemning those who have earned judgment with bad leaders. This pattern is demonstrated in the exodus event by the idea that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It was not simply a matter of Pharaoh’s free will at work, but also how God was using Pharaoh’s decisions to create the history He wanted to bring about.

Another example is Proverbs 21:1 (NASB).

The king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; 
He turns it wherever He wishes. 

This verse tells us that God is guiding the decisions of the king. It does not imply that the king is aware of this process, or that the king is immune from responsibility for the decisions.  The verse doesn’t really say anything about how it is worked out at all, and reading it only for this purpose is missing the point.  The key point of the verse is that God is moving history forward by working with leaders.

That said then we have to believe God knows what His plans are for us by the outcomes of our elections.  Whether this past election will mark the beginning of judgment, the end of judgement, or some other great purpose of God, only time will tell. Whatever God is up to, our first priority must be to trust Him no matter what it is that He has planned.

Church Politics

For Politics Monday today I will talk about the politics within the church.  This is a topic I am intending to touch on more often.

Some people undoubtedly will be offended just by the phrasing.  Please bear with me, my definition of politics is the normal flow of relationships whenever people interact with each other, whether these relationships are local, global or somewhere in between.

By this definition, the only church that does not have politics is the church where the people fail to interact with each other at all. This would mean they fail to form friendships, fail to produce teamwork and never experience fellowship.  All of these things are produced by the synergistic power of relationships.

Most often, whether a church is a good church or a bad church, whether it is a church that does lots of good in the community or a church that barely manages to pull off worship, is ultimately determined by the strength of the relationships within the church.  A church that ‘works’ is a church that has good, strong relationships. When something breaks the fellowship of a church, the church will lose its strength.

Unfortunately, everywhere there are relationships, there are also relationships that go wrong. In the church, relationships gone wrong have different degrees of disruption to the overall congregation. For example, a couple living together will have a minimal impact in the strength of the group when they are non-serving attenders. On the other end of the scale a pastor who lies, cheats and steals will totally dismantle his church’s effectiveness.

The takeaway for this discussion is every church member, especially serving church members, should take care to protect the fellowship of the church. The primary tool for accomplishing this is to live right, because living wrong on any level disrupts that fellowship.  A secondary method is to extend grace to your fellow church members when they fall short, so that problems are not escalated after they develop.

Philosophy of Effort

What do you believe about human effort?  Should we, since we are not saved by works, therefore not put any effort into getting work done?  Or going just a little bit further, perhaps all human effort is inherently tainted by sin and therefore we should never do anything for God, but instead expect that all of Christian living and God’s kingdom on earth should be accomplished by Him without our participation?

It seems like the opinion that everything we do is sinful and worthless is very strong today. In this philosophy, humanity must allow God to build His church. The idea is that we are not able to help, and when we try we simply mess it up. For those who proclaim this message, I have this question.  Are you not doing a work by proclaiming this ideology?  Isn’t teaching, preaching, and instruction in practical application, tasks which require some degree of labor?

We need a better understanding of human effort in the kingdom of God. Consider 1 Corinthians 3:14, here quoted from the NASB.  “If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward.” You will want to open your own Bible and explore the context of this verse, but the general idea is that God expects us to work, will test our work, and that those whose work survives the test will be rewarded.

So let me suggest a philosophy of effort.  We should work to do our best as Christians. This is not for the purpose of being saved, because we are all saved by grace. Instead our efforts are for purposes of bringing glory to God, most notably by building His kingdom.  Our efforts in this regard are only successful when done in cooperation with Him. Because He empowers these efforts, He gets all the credit for any success.

Immutable God

I believe that God is relational. But the details of God being in relationship with humanity can be confusing. For example we think of God as being perfectly consistent. We even have a fancy theological word for this, immutability. Unfortunately relationships are never perfectly consistent, absolute consistency is far from perfect, and for that matter immutability doesn’t mean what many of us think it means.

We tend to picture God’s immutability as a strict set of rules down the order of, “if we do this, He’ll do that.” Or to put that another way, we want to formulate God. For too many people their entire spirituality is a series of observations about God and His past choices, assuming He will make the same choice every time a similar situation arises.

A boy steals a candy bar. His mom catches him, and punishes him. The child then believes that God will punish every thief. (When we do this, God will do that.) Being able to formulate God’s choices like this is only useful if you are looking for ways to manipulate or control Him.

The truth is that relationships disallow this kind of formulation. People who are in a relationship have to deal not only with variations in their own preferences and choices but also with these variations in the other person. God has a right to respond to the same situation in different ways at different times and with different people, just like we do.

God is immutable in that His character in unchanging, in that His purposes never waver and in that He remains absolutely sovereign. But these facts don’t change the reality that he might react one way the first three times you do something and then choose another reaction on the fourth. God may choose to draw a person to salvation with a heavy hand, or choose another person for some highly significant role in the kingdom, while clearly not doing the same for all people.

This is not inconsistency in God, it is just God expressing His sovereignty. He knew exactly what He would do in every case before history began, that is an expression of His immutability. This is not God being unfair, it is God being God.

The Devil

There are some things that Christians believe about the devil. The Bible teaches that the devil was an angel, that led a rebellion, and with him one third of the angels became fallen.

The question that naturally arises is, how do you stage a rebellion attempting to overthrow an all-powerful and all-knowing God? God will know what you are up to, and absolutely nothing you do can harm Him. So how is rebellion even possible? Why didn’t God stop it before it ever got started?

As how rebellion is possible, the devil convinced himself that he could successfully rebel, being blinded by his own arrogance and vanity. He lied to himself to believe he could succeed.

But answering why God allowed it, has to come down to one reason. The devil’s rebellion served God’s purposes. Now for some people this is a hard pill to swallow. For them, thinking God allowed sin, for any reason, is reprehensible. I prefer to look at it that God is powerful enough, that every sin, is used by God to bring about positive results.

I believe God’s purpose, His positive result, is to create humanity as truly and completely free moral agents. We have been given the power of choice. However, the power to choose is meaningless without choices to choose from. Similarly, if all of the choices are right choices, then we are not truly free.

The devil creates for humanity the alternative to choosing right. Without this choice we would not be truly free, and therefore not truly human. The purpose of our humanity is the ability to choose God, choosing to love and serve Him instead of self. This human free will is what makes us the crown of creation, and without it we would be nothing more than fancy automaton.

The next question that arises is, does that mean God is responsible for sin? The answer is no. God creates angels and humans with a true power of choice, and with this power comes the responsibility for one’s own choices. God knew the wrong choices that would be made, but that does not make Him responsible for our sins. We choose them and we are responsible for them.

To help illustrate this point, think about a couple bringing a new baby home to a two year old. They can reasonably assume the older child will at some point mistreat the younger. So does that mean they forcibly separate the two and never let them meet? Of course not, to do so would be an unspeakable cruelty. These two are born to be siblings and to love each other. So over their growing up years the parents know there will be errors, but seek to teach them to love and grow together into healthy, non-murderous, siblings.

Similarly God is not responsible for our sins. He is simply allowing the situation which gives us the possibility of becoming fully what God has created us to be. He made us to be the crowning jewel of His creation, the ones who choose to love Him.

The Repentance Paradox

Repentance is a paradox. The word describes a change of pattern based upon a change of direction.

The Christian use of the word describes turning away from sin in order to turn toward God. This change of direction is initiated by your human will, but empowered by God.

The change of pattern is another problem. We habitual creatures have a way of returning to our past patterns. And hence the reason why I call repentance a paradox. We make a commitment to God to turn from sin, knowing full well we will continue to sin despite our efforts.

But don’t take my statements as asserting there is a falsehood in repentance. It is a real and necessary part of the Christian experience. We make a decision to turn our lives over to God. God then gets a grip on us. His actions place us into His family and kingdom, but they do not remove our humanity. Our free will is a major ingredient in our humanity so removing it would be making us something less than human.

This paradox is necessary because it is God’s desire to have a relationship with humanity. Not creatures without free will, but real people with all their failings. For this reason the Christian life is more one of grace and forgiveness than the conquering of sin.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying sin all you want, or sin doesn’t matter. I want you to work hard to battle sin. In this battle you can expect to gain ground. You can expect to prevent sin from overtaking you and robbing you of your freedom or usefulness to God. But you cannot expect to gain absolute victory by never sinning again.