James Rebanks farms in the Lake District in England and wrote The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. While so much farming has turned toward greater size and efficiency, the Lake District is a setting so rugged that only the most ancient of methods work. It’s an all-too-perfect metaphor for churches.
On Sunday night I had the beautiful opportunity to participate in the commissioning of Elders in Village Belfast. Like Peter in the text above, I was able to stand with them as a fellow elder, and to charge them with the task God has called them to.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.
Most churches are married-people-centric. Whether intentionally or not, churches tend to create polished and fine sounding arguments for why marriage is a prerequisite for leadership opportunities. After all, married people are more stable, right? Because marriage is a sanctifying commitment, they are more mature. Because marriage gives a beautiful God-ordained opportunity for sex, married people are less likely to be tempted sexually. In fact, marriage requires self-sacrifice, and singles just don't experience the giving of themselves to others.
Wrong. I'm calling BS on all counts.
Have you ever noticed that these arguments only come from married people?
It's right to value and celebrate marriage in the church. In fact, one of the most counter-cultural gospel opportunities Christians have is to show the beauty of marriage and biblical sexuality. It's also true that for many who get married, they do experience maturation, sanctification, and self-sacrifice. I know because I have. However, it's never helpful to try to normalize our experience and apply it to the whole of the church, as if the means God used in our own lives are universal. Setting up systems that clearly show that a person has to graduate from a life stage of singleness to marriage in order to have opportunities to lead in the church not only flies in the face of the New Testament, it illustrates arrogance, even idolatry.
Marriage Guarantees Nothing
Praise God that He uses marriage to help some of us along the way, but being married does not make someone mature. That marriage can be sanctifying doesn't guarantee that a married person will be more holy. The foolishness of believing that marriage prevents sexual temptation can only come from someone who hasn't counseled seemingly unending streams of married couples struggling with sexual issues. The one that is most frustrating in this list, to me, is the issue of self-sacrifice.
Some of the most selfish people I know are married. I have a great marriage, mostly because I have a great wife. We have had way more ups than downs. Most of the downs, though, are because of my own selfishness and unwillingness to live sacrificially. I can't buy that singles are more selfish and self-interested. If for no other reason, my own heart can't make that claim with any shred of integrity.
The call in Philippians 2, at the top of the page, is to all Christians. Singleness is not an excuse for selfishness, we are all called to count others more significant than ourselves. Marriage is not the answer to attain a posture of self-sacrifice, even if it can be a tool along the way. The only answer we have is Jesus. Praise God that the call is not, Have this mind among yourselves, which you can gain by getting married. The ability to love others sacrificially and selflessly is given to us. In fact, if you're in Christ, it is already yours in Christ Jesus. Jesus, in His singleness, seemed to understand the concept of self-sacrifice.
Whether This Gift or That
1 Corinthians 7 is a beautiful passage to lay out marriage and singleness in the church. Being single gives unique opportunities for whole-hearted commitment to the work of the gospel, while being married actually adds anxieties that can distract (1 Cor. 7:32ff). Marriage is clearly a gift from God. Singleness is also a gift from God (1 Cor. 7:7). Whatever station a person finds themselves in ought to be leveraged for the sake of the gospel. As a church, we need to open opportunities for everyone to be engaged in the work of the gospel together.
As a pastor of a church that ranges between 65-70% singles, I LOVE finding ways to equip and send them into ministry. After all, it's actually my job description to "equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:12-13). Granted, we're not likely to have a single 20-something teach a class on marriage communication. However, I want to equip singles who exhibit the necessary character, competency, and calling to step into a wide variety of leadership opportunities within the church. Some of our singles are among the most mature, holy, and self-sacrificing members of our church.
Don't worry, though, we equip and appoint married people, too.
Neither marriage nor singleness guarantees anything. We need to be careful not to see one as better than the other, nor to see marriage as some kind of graduation to actual adulthood. That's silly. It's not biblical. It's deeply damaging and offensive, and doesn't recognize the unique grace of God working in and through great diversity of people who are gathered by Jesus and filled with the Spirit to engage in unity on the mission of God in His world.
It is heartbreaking and sobering to see pastors and churches struggle. Over the past month I have been processing some particularly painful examples. Here are some of the lessons and takeaways I have from watching it all unfold. These come in no particular order, and are not close to exhaustive. It’s just some processing out loud.
- No one is exempt from sin and pride. In fact success may be harder to deal with than suffering, particularly as it concerns personal holiness. That someone is a gifted communicator and has been used powerfully for the good of the gospel of Jesus Christ does not make him exempt from sin.
- Structures matter. The consolidation of power to the point that not even the Elders can discipline their pastor is clearly unhealthy and unbiblical. The principle of “First among Equals” must maintain that Elders are equals, and certainly that the Elders together can constitute a voice to out-vote even the one who stands first.
- Membership is critical. Related to the concerns above, for a church to stand as an autonomous body and yet have no voice from members means that it stands as a local episcopate. Members must have a voice and leaders need to work to build in mechanisms for transparency and feedback.
- Transparency is critical. A lack of transparency breeds suspicion and fear. We ought to work to continue to communicate consistently and transparently at every level. This must begin among the Elders, extend to the leaders, and include the members.
- The grace that we preach and treasure must also characterize our church and the culture of our leaders.
- We must function in accordance with our bylaws and ensure that the systems and checks that we have in place are not a dead document.
- Right theology and sound biblical teaching cannot guarantee the right application of biblical and theological truth in our lives or in the church. We must strive for right practice and a gospel-shaped culture to match our gospel proclamation.
- We must give our pastors rest. It is too often the story, after a fall, that a pastor has never taken an extended time to work on his own soul. Pastoral ministry’s unique challenges and toll require that time be taken. Churches ought to have good, generous policies for rest and sabbatical, and then be diligent in pursuing and applying them.
- Leaders, pursue health. If our character is out of alignment, if we are unrepentantly pursuing sin, if we are over-fatigued and lack the discipline to prioritize properly, we are all subject to fall into sin.
- The church must not be reduced to simply be a business.
- The church must not be reduced to a personal platform.
- The stewardship and responsibility that comes with greater numerical growth is wonderful and terrifying.
- Every single day I feel like I’m in over my head and that God has already done more through me and us than we could possibly deserve. If we ever feel like we’ve earned it, or like we can leverage and look past His grace, we have already begun a quick descent.
- We need to check our own hearts when we feel the need to criticize and demonize leaders who make mistakes, especially when those leaders are not in our local church, not accountable to us.
- If we find ourselves leveraging the fall of prominent leaders to justify our own complacency or argue for maintaining the status quo, we may actually be revealing our own ministry idolatry and unwillingness to engage, and even suffer, for the sake of the gospel.
- The Biblical Rationale
- Ministers of the Gospel
- Gifted for the Body
- Submitted and Responsible
Church as a Spectator Sport
We live in the most individualized and customizable culture in the history of the world. Our music has an endless catalogue, our entertainment is available on demand, and we can purchase anything our hearts desire with a point and a click, confident that it will arrive at our doorstep within 48-hours via free shipping. For too many, church has become a spectator sport. People show up to be entertained and encouraged for an hour each week and then move on with the rest of life. We can make time to get there once or twice per month - as long as church attendance doesn't get in the way of this week's game or this weekend's travel plans - and count that as real commitment.
We even call our searches "church shopping". As we shop in the marketplace of churches we evaluate all kinds of things: the style or quality of music, the length of the preaching, the programmatic menu that seeks to cater to our desires, the friendliness of the people, the ease of accessibility and transportation, and on, and on, and on. At its best, it is important to evaluate theological, ecclesiological, and missional alignment before committing to a church. At it's worst, we fall into evaluating a set of goods to see if they will meet our consumeristic needs, only to disconnect from the church body and move on when it gets stale.
There has to be a better approach.
Ministers of the Gospel
One of my favorite practices at Redemption Hill Church is the way we commission new members. After being trained through our membership class, interviewed by Elders, and affirmed into membership in our local body by the members of the church, we gather around the new members to lay hands on them and pray for them as we commission them to be ministers of the gospel in our city. The picture above captures one of these powerful moments in the life of our church. Membership is not just about alignment, it is about unity in mission. Every member of the church is a leader in the church. In the Reformation, this idea was called the "priesthood of all believers."
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. - 1 Peter 2:4-5
God's house is not a physical structure, it is made up of living stones, His people, built on the ultimate cornerstone, Jesus. As we see in the passage above, there is no spiritual class divide between clergy and laity, minister and congregant, priest and parishioner. Jesus, as the ultimate High Priest, made it possible for all who follow Him to have direct access to God (Heb. 4:14-16). Every follower of Christ, then, is called to be a part of His priesthood.
Trained and Released for Ministry
So often we think about these roles only in terms of authority and hierarchy. Jesus reshapes the idea of leadership for the church. A church ought to function as groups of leaders who are equipped to further God's mission in reconciling people to Himself through Christ. Elders are a qualified team of men who lead the church and train people for ministry. Deacons are qualified men and women who are appointed by the elders to carry out ministry. Members are church leaders who give themselves to the advance the gospel of Jesus Christ through their time, talents, prayer, and financial support.
Church leadership ought to be less about hierarchy than it is about mission. The biblical governance structures turn typical hierarchy on its head. We come together under One Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ (John 10). God calls pastors and elders to equip the people of the church for ministry for the sake of the edification, or building up of the church (Eph. 4:11-12). The New Testament model of leadership places the members on the front lines of ministry, alongside and supported by their pastors and elders. The better-trained members of a church are, the more capable they will be of leading well and engaging in ministry.
On a Mission from God
This is what it means to be "missional". The church must be, at its very core, a missionary body, training and equipping people to live their lives for the sake of the gospel and to the glory of God in their lives. The mission of God is not confined to special facilities, meetings, or days, but invades all of life and every sphere of life as Jesus' Church, made up of His people, scatters each day into their spheres of influence. We gather each Sunday, as Jesus' followers have for nearly 2,000 years, to worship God together and to be reminded of the gospel and equipped to live on Jesus mission in the upcoming week.
This is what makes membership so important, and why we make such a big deal out of membership at RHC. Our gatherings on Sundays are beautiful and essential, but we need to remember that the mission of the church does not end with the benediction. The benediction sends the members of the church out with grace and peace to be ambassadors and ministers of that grace and peace (2 Cor. 5:20-21). We leave our gatherings each week refreshed and unified on mission together. Each member is commissioned as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let's get beyond consuming and move forward on Jesus' mission together.