The Lord Who Knows The Man Who Is Blessed – Psalm 1

Psalms 1 TitleWhen it comes to worship music in the church today, there’s a much better atmosphere than that which existed a few years ago. “Worship wars” is how many described the rough transition from a church that predominantly relied on hymnals and pianos to one that rolled out a dizzying array of guitars, keyboards, and (heaven forbid!) drums.

Today, the worship wars seem to have subsided into a few skirmishes over theology and repetitiveness, but churches that want pianos have them and churches that want bands have them.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done on the issue.

One thing that would help is for churches to regain a sense of connectedness to the church’s worship tradition throughout the centuries. For years, God’s people used God’s Word to form the backbone of their congregational singing: they turned to the Psalms.

Now, I am not advocating for psalter-exclusivity in congregational singing, but I don’t think it would hurt us to go there more often. Why? Because how can God’s greatness be better captured than by the church singing of his glory in the very songs that he gave us to reveal his glory to us? And how can we better identify with the people of God through the centuries than by singing the same things that they sang? The faith once for all delivered to the saints is well-rehearsed and well-remembered when we sing the Psalms.

We should sing the Psalms in our worship together. But that shouldn’t be the extent of our exposure and engagement with them.

Instead, we should sing them, pray them, meditate on them, study them, and preach from them.

Because, while the psalms have indeed been central to the singing of the church, they address themes that are perennial in the life of God’s people. There are psalms that exult and psalms that weep, psalms that proclaim and psalms that question, psalms that encourage and psalms that call to repentance. Frustration and anger find their place among them as do joy and love.

No other book of the Bible is so adequately able to address the wide-variety of emotional, psychological, and spiritual states that we find ourselves in from time to time.

Psalms 1 is a great place to start a deeper study of the book:

Blessed is the man
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
    planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
    and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.

Let’s take it piece by piece:

“Blessed is the man”

There is a temptation in our Instagram/Twitter/Facebook society to misread the first word of this Psalm. Instead of “Blessed” we add a hashtag: “#blessed”. That’s a mistake. Because “#blessed” is usually associated with physical blessings, i.e. “Check out my new Lexus! #blessed.”

But that’s not how it would have read to the original audience. They would have read “blessed” and understood it to contain a strong element of contentment, a state of joy no matter what came their way. They would have seen Paul as a “blessed” man when he wrote in Philippians 4:11 that

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.

Psalm 1:1 would read, in this light, as: “Content no matter what is the man…” Contentment is not dependent on what you have. Correspondingly, blessing is not dependent on what you have. Instead, blessing is the state that results from being content.

Which is a problem for us, because we, as humans, are incredibly discontent. It’s natural to us, as natural as breathing. We see what we have and wish for better. We see what others have and wish for that too. We wish for esteem and fame and beauty and on and on. Discontent flows from our constant need to see ourselves as deserving of everything and focusing on what we yet lack.

We are not naturally content.

That should tell us that the state of being blessed, the state of contentment, if discontent is natural, must be derived from supernatural means. It is not something we can manufacture within ourselves; it has an external origin.

It has a name: Jesus.

Jesus is the one who saves us from our need to have everything by giving us everything in him.

Jesus is the one who saves us from our need to be central by centering our lives on him and on serving others.

You cannot be content until you realize that Jesus is all you need. You cannot realize that Jesus is all you need until you realize that you are not the center of the universe. You cannot realize that you are not the center of the universe until you learn to center yourself on the God who speaks through the Bible.

The author of Psalm 1 shows us what that looks like in a series of quick shots, some of what you shouldn’t do and some of what you should do: “Blessed is the man…”

“…who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,”

  • Walks = General movement in life
  • Counsel = Advice, instruction, and company
  • Wicked = Those opposed to God

Blessed is the man who does not generally make a move in his life according to the advice of those opposed to God.

“…nor stands in the way of sinners,”

  • Stands = Developed habits in life
  • Way = Course, direction, and road
  • Sinners = Those condemned by God

Blessed is the man who does not allow habits to develop that keep him on the road that leads to God’s condemnation.

“…nor sits in the seat of scoffers;”

  • Sits = A settled position in life
  • Seat = Dwelling place, identity, unity
  • Scoffers = Those who mock God

Blessed is the man who does not settle into an identity of mocking God, either directly or through hypocrisy.

“…but his delight is in the law of the Lord,”

  • Delight = pleasure, joy, focus
  • Law of the Lord = The Word of God

Blessed is the man whose pleasure is derived from an intentional and consistent focus on the Word of God.

“…and on his law he meditates day and night.”

  • His law = God’s, not the man’s
  • Meditates = Thinks, reasons, brings back to mind continually and habitually

Blessed is the man who is more concerned with what God commands than with what he himself thinks, so much so that he continually, day and night, brings God’s Word back up into his mind to think on and be transformed by it.

The author then describes the effect of these things on the man’s life and character:

“He is like a tree planted by streams of water”

  • Tree = Solid, stands the test of time, growth
  • Planted = Intentionality, planning, purposeful action
  • By streams of water = Access to that which gives life which is not dependent on circumstances.

Blessed is the man…because he will be solid enough to stand the test of time and to thrive no matter what because he is intentionally guided by the Sovereign Farmer-King who gives him access to the life-giving Word so that he is not dependent on circumstances for contentment.

“that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.”

  • Benefit to others’ health
  • Benefit to personal health

Blessed is the man…because through his connection with God’s Word, he is able to both bless others who taste of God’s gift through him and to sustain himself for both productivity and rest.

“In all that he does, he prospers.”

Blessed is the man…because in everything that he encounters and does, he is able to see God’s hand at work in his circumstances.

Then, lest we miss it, the author contrasts the blessed man with the wicked man:

“The wicked are not so,”

Unlike the blessed man, the wicked man does not see God’s hand at work, does not have anything to sustain himself or ultimately benefit those around him.

“but are like chaff that the wind drives away.”

Unlike the blessed man, the wicked man is not solid, not intentionally guided, and not able to thrive: he is lightweight, haphazard, and useless.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”

Unlike the blessed man, the wicked man will wither under the judgment of God and will not know the joy of God’s people because God chooses to forget him even as he chooses to know his own.

What have I done? I’ve just paraphrased the message of Psalm 1. Put it all together and what do we get?

Blessed is the man who does not generally make a move in his life according to the advice of those opposed to God. Blessed is the man who does not allow habits to develop that keep him on the road that leads to God’s condemnation. Blessed is the man who does not settle into an identity of mocking God, either directly or through hypocrisy. Blessed is the man whose pleasure is derived from an intentional and consistent focus on the Word of God. Blessed is the man who is more concerned with what God commands than with what he himself thinks, so much so that he continually, day and night, brings God’s Word back up into his mind to think on and be transformed by it. Blessed is this man…because he will be solid enough to stand the test of time and to thrive no matter what because he is intentionally guided by the Sovereign Farmer-King who gives him access to the life-giving Word so that he is not dependent on circumstances for contentment. Blessed is this man…because through his connection with God’s Word, he is able to both bless others who taste of God’s gift through him and to sustain himself for both productivity and rest. Blessed is this man…because in everything that he encounters and does, he is able to see God’s hand at work in his circumstances. Unlike the blessed man, the wicked man does not see God’s hand at work, does not have anything to sustain himself or ultimately benefit those around him. Unlike the blessed man, the wicked man is not solid, not intentionally guided, and not able to thrive: he is lightweight, haphazard, and useless. Unlike the blessed man, the wicked man will wither under the judgment of God and will not know the joy of God’s people because God chooses to forget him even as he chooses to know his own. 

So what do we do with the message of Psalm 1? Obviously, we all want to be blessed, to be content. None of us set out to be “the wicked.”

Unfortunately, we are. We shouldn’t read this Psalm and see ourselves as “the righteous man.”

We are “the wicked.”

Don’t believe me? Check out what another part of God’s Word has to say:

Romans 3:10 – As it is written, “None is righteous, no not one”

Romans 3:23 – for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

That’s pretty comprehensive. But if we’re not righteous, how can we apply Psalm 1?

By recognizing that it’s pointing us, not to ourselves, but to Jesus. He is the righteous one, the solid one, the one through whom God blesses everyone even as he raises him to everlasting life.

Romans 5:8 – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 10:9-10 – because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

We can’t be righteous enough, we can’t do a bunch of good works to try and make sure God remembers our way. The question is not one of activity but one of dependency, not one of tenacity but one of trust.

Do you tenaciously cling to your own activity to justify you before God or do you humbly trust in and depend on Jesus’ righteousness before God?

What is the way of righteousness that the Lord knows? To trust in Christ.

What is the way of the wicked that will perish? To trust in yourself.

That doesn’t mean so long as you “trust Jesus” you can live however you want. No, those who trust Christ are urged to do good things:

Romans 12:1-2 – I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

We who trust Christ are not exempt from holiness, but invited into it. We are never meant, before Jesus or after him, however, to trust in our works. We are not the righteous: Jesus is. We find our delight, our dwelling-place, and the satisfaction of our deepest need in him. And we worship him by allowing God’s Word to transform and renew our minds.

Singing the psalms, studying the psalms, reading about the psalms, and writing about the psalms: may they all lead us closer to the God who knows the man who is blessed.

Submitted to the Word: Church Leadership

A couple weeks ago, I posted about why Christians should base everything they do on the Word of God. Then I posted a case study of what it looks like for a church to base their view of membership on the Scripture. In this post, I’m going to explore what it looks like for a church to do so in regard to church leadership.

Submitted to the Word of God - Church Leadership

You want to get your blood pumping?

Try talking about church leadership structure in a crowd of Christians.

Guaranteed to get the heart rate up.

It seems like the discussion of church leadership is one that is accompanied by equal measures of confusion, terror, and fear.

But I don’t think it needs to be that way. Indeed, I think that it dishonors Christ when his body carries out important conversations over leadership in such a manner. So how do we cut through the clutter and begin to examine these things together with peace, unity, and love?

We go to the Word.

Most of the vitriol inherent to the topic stems from opinions that are based squarely in tradition rather than in the Word. And when my opinion is based on a different tradition than yours, we end up speaking from completely different foundations. Instead of standing together and conversing, we stand apart and argue. Some of those traditions have biblical merit, some of them don’t. But we won’t get anywhere until we are standing on the same foundation, agreeing to the grounds for the discussion.

That must be the Word.

So, in this post, I’m going to look at the Word. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive study of the topic. Nor do I assume that it is automatically the correct one. I think it’s biblical, but I’m open to discussion. (Indeed, I would welcome it! Email me: pastor@rhsbc.org)

Without further ado…

Congregational Authority

The first thing that I see when I look at the Word is that the local congregation is the starting point for discussing church leadership.

Why?

Because Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to take church discipline issues to a governing board: he says take it to the church.

And because when an issue arises in the early church in Acts 6, the apostles don’t just appoint men to take care of the problem: they tell the church, “choose from amongst yourselves.”

And because Peter doesn’t tell his audience that some of them are priests in the kingdom of Heaven: he says they all are part of the kingdom of priests.

And one more example. Paul doesn’t tell the leaders of the church at Corinth to confront the sin of one of their members: he says it’s a whole church decision/action.

I know that there are many who would disagree with the idea of congregational authority, and I recognize that I have benefited from their thinking on many subjects. But on this issue, I go where the text leads me.

But recognizing the authority of the congregation doesn’t get me out of the jam entirely. Because Scripture is clear that there is a restricted leadership structure within, among, and under the idea of congregation authority.

Two Offices/Roles

Organizationally and historically, a mass democracy has never succeeded. It should not surprise us that God knows this fact and has taken it into account in his structuring of the church. Instead of pure popular vote driving the decision-making of the church, we see that God calls certain people to function as “under-shepherds” and “servants” within the body life of the church.

Pastor, Elder, Overseer

The first of these roles is that of pastor/elder/overseer. Yes, I am aware that there are three terms there, but they all seem to be used interchangeably in the New Testament, having less of an official character, than a descriptive one.

We see an example of all three descriptions referencing one role in Acts 20:17-28:

Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him…Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

The astute reader will say, “Hey! That’s just two of the titles! Where’s pastor?” 

I’m glad you asked. What the ESV has translated as “care for” is the Greek word that we get “pastor” from. The fact that “pastor” means “shepherd” is even more clarifying as we see that Paul’s chosen image for the church is that of “flock” as in a flock of sheep that the elders/overseers were to “pastor.”

What is additionally helpful to know is that all three terms serve very well to highlight different aspects of what I take to be one role: 

  • Elder: Someone who is mature, wise, and dependable in their advice and direction to the church.
  • Pastor: Someone who is capable and compassionate enough to shepherd God’s sheep, to care for their soul’s well-being like a shepherd cares for his sheep’s physical well-being.
  • Overseer: Someone who is gifted in leadership and can help the church achieve God’s purpose for them, and who will be a good steward of the resources God entrusts to them.

For the sake of clarity in this post, I will use “pastor” to refer to this role and assume within it the other titles as well.

Another note of interest: whenever the NT speaks of the role of pastor in the life of the church, it does so in the plural. The only time the term is singular is when a specific pastor is being talked about. Without looking at all the texts (Acts 14:23; 20:28; 21:18; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1-5, etc), suffice it to say that the role seems to have been one that recommended, if not required, at least two per church.

The New Testament is not silent either about the character of those who would fill the role. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 speaks to this:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

As does Titus 1:5-9

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Those are not easy qualifications to meet. Indeed, it could certainly be argued that no man will meet them entirely on this side of sinlessness. Nonetheless, we ought to see them as important guideposts for evaluating a candidate for this office. Why? Because a pastor is someone who is given authority to guide, care for, and steward the church. Not to the exclusion of congregational authority, but as a God-given extension and outworking of it. The role demands a man of character (not open to the charge of debauchery, not arrogant, not quarrelsome, etc.) and competence (able to teach, manage well, etc.). It is not one that can or should be filled by just anybody.

But nor is the other role in church structure:

Deacon

The qualifications read similarly, though there are some differences to note.

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Again, steep requirements. Not a position you put just anybody in. But also not the same kind of position as that of pastor. There are several differences that help us both distinguish the two roles and also help define the role of “deacon”.

The first difference is inherent in the title itself. “Pastor”, “elder”, and “overseer” all carry a certain expectation of authority: a shepherd has authority over his sheep, an overseer has authority over that which he oversees, and an elder has authority by weight of maturity and wisdom

By contrast, “deacon” does not. The word itself is a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos, which means “waiter, servant, or administrator”. Starting with the word itself, the role of deacon places an emphasis on service rather than authority.

This is contrary to the practice of many churches today where deacons are seen as an authoritative body over the church. I would argue that the New Testament doesn’t define the position in terms of authority within the church, but in terms of service to the church.

But that doesn’t mean that it is an inferior or second-class role. Indeed, it is clearly an important title, one that Paul uses to distinguish some servants from others in the Body. It is a role that someone must be “tested” in before giving the distinction. So it’s not just a generic thing for all Christians, it’s unique and identifiable. So, in comparing the two roles, we ought not to imagine that the role of a deacon is somehow a lesser one than pastor: it’s a different one.

A practical example of the difference between the two roles is seen in Acts 6:1-4:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

Here, we have a prototype situation for both pastors and deacons. The apostles here are serving the first church in Jerusalem as pastors, serving the spiritual and intellectual needs of the congregation. This problem arises and they suggest that the church appoint men who would serve the physical and organizational needs of the church: deacons.

NOTE: These categories are not exclusive! Pastors can meet physical and organizational needs and deacons can meet spiritual and intellectual needs. It’s not about separation of powers but about normative characteristics. So a pastor is not exempt from service or a deacon from being spiritual.

We’ve seen that there is significant overlap in the qualifications for the role of pastor and the role of deacon in 1 Timothy, but there is one final difference to highlight:

“…able to teach…” 1 Timothy 3:2

Again, the role of pastor and deacon are not mutually exclusive. But this difference matters for another question that needs to be addressed in the discussion of leadership in the church: are there gender restrictions for the office of pastor and deacon?

Gender in Leadership

Talk about a hot button topic! This issue has been increasingly under scrutiny as the wider culture embraces modern feminism. So the church needs to engage this issue because it will come up as we carry out our task of making disciples.

But we don’t need to engage it from a culture-first perspective but from a perspective of submitting everything we do to the Word of God.

Male Pastors

When we start with the text, I believe we see clearly that the office of pastor is restricted to men.

Remember, the main differences we saw between the New Testament descriptions of pastors and deacons is in the meaning of their titles (authoritative vs. service-oriented) and the qualification “able to teach.”

We need to consider the context: in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul says that women are “not to teach or exercise authority over a man.” He then goes into chapter 3 and talks about “overseers”. Of the three synonymous terms for pastor, that is the most clearly authoritative one. In Titus, he uses “elder”. In Acts, he urges the elders to be “pastors”. But in 1 Timothy he specifically highlights the most authoritative role title he can.

Why?

I believe it is because he is making clear that this office is reserved for men. He then says that an “overseer” must be able to teach, something he had just said was not permitted for a woman. So while it may not be culturally popular, and while some traditions within Christianity do not, if we are going to be people who submit in everything to the Word, we need to reserve the role of pastor for men on the basis of the New Testament’s teaching.

Male and Female Deacons

With regard to deacons, however, the gender case is not so cut and dried. We need to recognize that up-front and be willing to explore the evidence even as we consider our own traditions. Some traditions have always had female deacons and others consider the idea heretical. Nonetheless, I would urge both sides to consider the evidence of the text and will myself argue that there is certainly room in the New Testament for both male and female deacons in the life of the church, so long as the role is defined biblically as a service-oriented one.

Translation of Gyne in 1 Timothy 3:11

The first consideration we need to make is that our English language is not the original language of the New Testament. In the Greek, 1 Timothy 3:11 uses a word that can be translated “wives” or “women.” Various English translations have used either option. The ESV renders it this way:

Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.

Whereas the NASB renders it this way:

Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.

The trouble is that there is no possessive pronoun (their) in the Greek. It’s just “Wives/Women likewise” in the original.

It’s not conclusive either way.

This translation fact also matters because if Paul is giving the qualifications in verse 11 for “the wives of deacons”, why does he not also give qualifications for “the wives of overseers”? Overseer is a more authoritative role and, it could be argued, one in which a wife who didn’t meet certain criteria could be even more detrimental to the church.

If all we had to go on in the discussion of gender in the role of deacon was 1 Timothy 3:11, I would still say that it is at least possible that Paul, having intentionally restricted the office of pastor/elder/overseer by emphasizing the need for authority and teaching, is here saying or assuming that “women can be deacons too.”

Romans 16:1

However, we also have Romans 16:1 to consider. Here there’s another contested translation:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea. (NASB)

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. (NIV)

In the original language, Paul refers to Phoebe as a “diakonos” of the church at Cenchrea. By tying the title of deacon to a particular church, it seems that Paul is implying that Phoebe holds that particular title in the church. Some English translations have translated it, “Servant” while others have transliterated, “deacon”.

Again, it’s not perfectly airtight either way. But between Romans 16:1 and 1 Timothy 3:11, I believe that there is room for both male and female deacons in the church that is trying to submit everything to the Word of God.

*For further reading on the role of women as deacons, consider these two articles from either side of the discussion, both written by Southern Baptist pastors.
http://jamedders.com/why-have-women-deacons/
http://www.dennyburk.com/does-the-bible-teach-that-women-can-be-deacons/

Also, in case you were wondering, this is an issue the church has disagreed on through the centuries. In the 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria considered female deacons as obviously supported in the text. He said, “We also know the directions about women deacons which are given by the noble Paul in his letter to Timothy.” Tertullian though, in the same rough timeframe, distinguished the office of deacon from that of widow (1 Timothy 5:9) and implied strongly that women could not and should not serve as deacons.

Conversations over the issue are nothing new. But that simply means we should continue to discuss and wrestle with the texts involved and make a God-honoring, unity-promoting decision in our own contexts.

Conclusion

So ends a case study in submitting our understanding of church leadership to the Bible. We’ve walked through passages that are really clear and some that are not so much. Church leadership is not a necessarily simple topic, but one that bears reflecting on and seeking the Scripture regarding. There’re some things that aren’t clear, there’re others that are clear in the text.

Our task then is to sift and weigh these things, not as an academic exercise, but so that we might be fully submitted to the Word.

Submitted to the Word: Church Membership

Last week, I wrote a post about Christian decision-making and why Christians should submit everything to the Word of God. In this post, I am going to explore what submitting everything to the Word of God looks like in the life of a church, specifically regarding church membership.

 

Submitted to the Word of God -Church Membership

Church membership is one of those touchy subjects surrounding us in a culture seemingly composed of entirely of touchy subjects. It’s a watershed subject too: those who touch upon it seem to inevitably slip straight to the bottom of whichever side they lean to. In other words, church membership is either seen as essential or as utterly irrelevant.

But can we defend either perspective from Scripture?

I don’t think so.

Instead, we find that church membership is not the sine qua non it’s made out to be by some nor is it the non-issue claimed by others. The New Testament can guide our thinking on the subject, helping us walk the knife’s edge between the two ditches.

Not Exclusivity But Accountability

It is helpful to first acknowledge that church membership is not like membership in a country club: it’s not about exclusivity but accountability. We are inclined to think of membership in primarily privileged terms. For lack of a better way of putting it, privilege is the last thing on Jesus’ mind when he instructs his disciples to “daily deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me.” Our understanding of church membership needs to be governed by that self-sacrificing mindset.

It also needs to be governed by Jesus’ words regarding the nature of Christian power relationships: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Church membership is not an opportunity for me to be served as one greater than those plebes who haven’t joined; it is my attempt to follow in the steps of Jesus and to serve others.

Local & Universal Church

Another important consideration is the New Testament’s teaching on the relationship between the local and the universal church. While some would deny one or the other, they both seem to be in the text. This can perhaps be most clearly seen in the book of Revelation.

In Revelation 5:9-10, for example, we get a glimpse of the reality of the universal church in the praise of heaven given to the one who redeemed the church:

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

The universal church is the kingdom of God composed of all true followers of Jesus from all times and all places.

But the universal church is not exclusive of the local church. Revelation 1:4 shows John, the same one who had the vision of the heavenly worship party in Revelation 5, declaring that he is writing to “the seven churches in Asia.” Church here can be defined as a group of Jesus-followers committed to one another together in one time and one place.

Understanding the reality of the universal church is essential to avoid overdoing an emphasis on local church membership. Conversely, understanding the reality of the local church is essential to avoid neglecting the beauty of the universal church.

The reason such understanding is essential is because it grounds our approach to membership. The local church is meant to be a microcosm of the universal church but the universal church is not able to adjudicate all the matters that come before the local church. Both are necessary and when there is not some kind of local commitment, obeying the commands of Jesus is nearly impossible. Membership in the local church does not mean automatic entrance to the universal church. Nor does membership in the universal church obviate the need for accountability to the local church. The truth, as is often the case, is somewhere in between. To get at it, we will take a look at church membership in the individual Christian life and church membership in the congregational life of the local church.

 

Local Church Membership in the Individual Christian Life:

Is Local Church Membership Required for Salvation?

For whatever reason, this is the primary question for Western Christians in almost all matters. The community reality of salvation, the kingdom message, all is boiled down for our simple, mechanical minds to: “What does this do for me?” Appropriate or not, it is a pressing issues for many, so let’s answer it:

No.

Formal, local church membership is not required for salvation. Romans 10:9 clears that up for us:

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

No mention of church membership.

Is Local Church Membership Required for Eternal Life?

No philosophizing this time:

Nope.

Revelation 21:6-7 locates the gift of eternal life in the grace of God:

And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.

Is Local Church Membership Required for Sanctification?

Now we come to the sticky bit. Church membership doesn’t save you from hell or get you into the new heavens and the new earth, but what does it do in the time you’re breathing? Is it required for your growth in grace and holiness?

Now, nowhere in the Bible do we see a command: “Thou must join a local church by filling out form 3B in triplicate, providing your name, address, phone number, blood type, make and model of car, and other information as required. Such membership will require 10% of your gross income annually, attendance at any and all and sundry interminably protracted business meetings, and, of course, serving in the nursery every other week.”

It’s not there.

But that doesn’t mean the discussion is closed.

While we lack a clear command from the New Testament on the subject, I would say that while local church membership is not required it is extremely beneficial.

Why is it beneficial? Because while there’s no clear command for it, there is a clear assumption of the commitment that local believers will show to one another in their local context. And there are clear commands on how individual believers are to relate to one another in the local church. These commands are difficult to obey in the spirit they are given if there is not an underlying accountability between believers to one another. So, local church membership is beneficial for discipleship.

But the reason I cannot say it is required is because discipleship is not just an inter-believer process. There are clear commands that relate to how a believer is to live in relation to the world as well. Obedience in service in the world is as much a means of discipleship as accountability in the local church context. Many churches that practice required local membership restrict the service required for discipleship to members.

Houston, we have a problem.

If service is a means of discipleship, it should not be restricted to members only but be open to all believers that all may grow in grace and holiness. But since accountability is key within the body of Christ, certain forms of church service, leadership, and decision making have to be restricted to those who have made a mutual commitment to one another. We need to think about how discipleship and membership interact biblically.

While there is never going to be a definitive answer to the particular interplay of the two, I land on saying that the local church should encourage local believers to commit to a formal covenant of membership and should require that certain forms of service (pastor, deacon, teacher, etc.) be restricted to members. Meanwhile, other forms of service (physical needs, community events, etc.) should be open to all professing believers under the oversight of the pastors of the church. This approach benefits both the individual disciple and the local church.

Just because I don’t think committed, accountable, local church membership should be required for all service doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s important. In fact, I’d recommend it to all believers and all churches.

Why?

Local Church Membership Helps You Test Your Salvation:

According to Jesus, you can know someone is a disciple by whether or not they obey Jesus’ commands. Two of those commands in particular need looking at:

“Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Mark 9:50

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” John 13:34

It is easy to be at peace with a brother in China who I have never met. It’s easy to love a sister in Brazil who I have never met. 

It’s hard to be at peace with the brother whose personality rubs me the wrong way Sunday after Sunday. It’s hard to love the old lady who grumbles at me in the hall.

But obeying Christ’s commands isn’t meant to be something I can do on my own: it’s meant to cause me to rely on the Holy Spirit who will empower me to grow in sanctification by being at peace with people who I have promised to support and encourage. By demonstrating love for people who will hold me accountable and show me the way of Christ when I fall, I am testifying to the truth of my discipleship. By joining a church, committing myself to them and they committing themselves to me, I am helping to test my salvation, assuring myself of it every time I trust God to create peace between me and a brother, to preserve unity between me and a sister. It doesn’t mean that someone who doesn’t join the church isn’t saved, or can’t have assurance of it. But it does mean that those who intentionally commit themselves to a local body are able to have the fuller assurance that comes from testing their obedience.

Local Church Membership Proves Committed Love for One Another

Correspondingly, if obeying Christ’s commands is a test of discipleship, so to it is a proclamation of the gospel. John 13:35 carries on the thought expressed in verse 34 above, (novel, right!?):

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

If you are talking to a girl who has decided to move in with her boyfriend and you ask, “Why?” chances are you’ll hear some variation on the theme, “He loves me. We’re going to get married soon.” How does this story usually end up? Ten years later, they’re still going to get married someday.

There’s a difference between professed love and committed love.

In boy/girl relationships, commitment is formalized (and proven) by a ring and covenant vows. In church relationships, it is formalized (and proven) by membership and covenant vows. Not required to love one another, but much more believable in proving that you do.

Local Church Membership Enables Decision Making Together

The church is not a static thing in the New Testament. There are constantly shifts, controversies, and opportunities that need to be addressed. Church membership aids in these required decisions.

In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus says that one decision, a particularly difficult one, that requires the church’s input is that of church discipline.

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Obviously, this situation is a difficult one when it occurs. But hidden in the difficulty is an obvious question: if there’s no local, committed membership, who is the “church” we are to go to? All the believers in a community, whether they know each other or not? The worldwide church? Should Christians take advantage of modern technology and create “JudgmentBook?” It’d be like Facebook, but for putting the sins of local believers before the universal church for their judgment?

Obviously, I’m speaking with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. No! No one (at least no one that I know) would be in favor of such a reading of this text. The most logical and most beneficial reading would indicate that the “church” Jesus is referencing is a local body of believers who know one another and are committed to mutual accountability together.

But church decisions are not always disciplinarian: sometimes, they are simply for the health and ministry of the body. In Acts 6, we see one such event:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.”

A problem arises and in order to correct it and further the ministry of the body, the Jerusalem church is told to “pick out from among you” men who will meet the need. Note that the apostles called together “the full number of disciples.” If that is meant to indicate that when a church has a need, they must contact the “full number” of the universal church? I don’t think so. Instead, I think the principle here is that the church addresses needs within the body, from within the body. If that’s true, then there must be a way of differentiating those within the body from those without the body. Again, membership answers the call, not as a means of exclusivity but as an assurance of accountability.

Local Church Membership Defines the Task of Local Church Leaders

The final benefit of church membership I want to look at may seem a bit self-serving, but it’s not meant to be. I’m a pastor and Scripture is clear that I will give an account before God of how I lead the church I am called. But what is the “church” to which I am called? Is it the universal church? If so, I want out: the task is impossible.  But I don’t think that’s the case. Instead, I believe that I am called to a local church and that the borders of my responsibility are those of local believers who are committed to the fellowship of that church. Peter’s words in 1 Peter 5:1-5 guide my thinking here:

“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Peter uses the term “elders” (a term that is synonymous with “pastors”) and he tells them to “shepherd the flock of God that is among them.” Not to shepherd believers everywhere, but those “among them.” Not to shepherd the believers gathered among other pastor/elders, but among them. There needs to be a circle of responsibility for the pastor to do their job well, and that circle is best defined as those believers committed to one another in their local congregations.

Submitted to the Word on Church Membership

So we’ve walked through a lot of text and a lot of my halting explanation on what it looks like to be submitted to the Word on the subject of church membership. My hope is that you will take the time to search the Scriptures to see whether these things are so. I’d love to talk more about your findings if you want to: email me at pastor@rhsbc.org. Also, look for my next blog post examining what being submitted to the Word of God looks like in church leadership. God bless!

Christian Decision Making: A Lesson from Disney

Despite the title of this post, I really do try to avoid taking spiritual lessons from Disney movies but I’ll make an exception for this one.

In Disney’s The Lion King, the climactic moment comes as Simba is confronted by a choice: continue to run from his responsibility as the rightful king or return to the Pridelands to lead his people to overthrow his tyrant uncle, Scar. He wallows in indecision and self-focused muttering until an old baboon, Rafiki, shows up. Rafiki, in addition to being crazy as a loon, speaks some pretty profound truth into Simba’s life: if you want to know what to do, you start by knowing who you are.

Rafiki-Simba-(The_Lion_King)
Image Credit

On the surface, that just sounds like standard, milquetoast, Disney-fied philosophy. But it’s remarkably consistent with biblical teaching on Christian decision-making. Only instead of looking to ourselves, our family, or our desires, we are called to look to our Creator for the self-knowledge that clarifies our decisions.

And we constantly have to decide what we will do. But before we rush off half-cocked in one direction or another, our time is well-spent by first asking,  “Who are we? Who are you? Who am I?”

Those questions will, oftentimes, produce subjective answers. Frankly, if you asked ten different people, you’d probably get eleven different answers. Why? Because everyone is different. We all have different backgrounds, different teachers we’ve learned under, and we all have different hopes and dreams. So a bit of confusion is natural.

But a good deal of that confusion is clarified for those who follow Christ. Because who we are is clarified by Scripture’s witness of who we are: we who claim the name of Christ are those who seek obey what he has said.

At least that’s Jesus’ definition of a disciple: someone who does what he says to do. Look at the passage we commonly call the Great Commission:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

If we’re going to make disciples, we need to know what one looks like. Jesus tells us right there. And he had already simplified the list of commands he expected disciples to be defined by:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40

 

 

Who you are governs what you do. And if you are a follower of Jesus, the starting point for your decision-making is in your identity as a disciples, as someone who has committed to obeying Jesus.

It’s simple.

I’m right there with you, though. While it sounds easy to make decisions based on who we are as disciples who seek to obey Jesus, our decisions tend to get confused because we so easily forget that fundamental element of who we are. Feelings, logic, profit, comfort, all of these are considerations we begin to take into account before we even consider our status as disciples when we’re faced with a choice.

But the last thing we need to do is to try to make decisions based on how we feel, what we prefer, what we’ve always done, or what we want to do: we need to submit everything we feel, prefer, used to do, and want to do to the Word of God.

Why? I’ll give you two reasons: 1) I’ve tried living life without doing obeying Jesus teaching in God’s Word and it doesn’t work and, 2) Nothing other than the Word of God is sufficient to guide those of us who follow the Son of God.

In other words, disciples of Jesus base their decision making on who they are in Jesus because only the Word that reveals Jesus is efficient and sufficient.

In other, other words, only God’s Word works and only God’s Word is enough to ground our lives in.

Peter points this out for Jesus’ followers through the centuries:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire…For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:3-21

Did you catch what Peter is saying? He is saying that everything we need for “life and godliness” as Christians is found in the eyewitness testimony of the apostles and in the “prophetic word”. Where do we find the eyewitness testimony of the apostles? In the New Testament. Where do we find the “prophetic word”? In the Old Testament. So where do we find everything we need for “life and godliness”? In the Bible.

We should submit everything in our lives to the Word of God!

Why should we submit everything to the Word of God?

Because it’s all we need to live God-honoring lives.

But that doesn’t mean we always understand how to do it.

What does it mean to submit everything to the Word of God?

It means that our first task when determining who we are or what we ought to do is not to ask what is most efficient, most useful, most traditional, or most comfortable but what is most biblical.

If you are an employee, you do not have to ask yourself if you “feel” like working hard at your job: Scripture says “whatever you do, do as unto the Lord.”

If you are a business owner, you do not have to ask yourself if it is more “profitable” to cheat your workers and customers: Scripture is clear in its condemnation of owners who put their own gain ahead of the well-being of those around them.

If you are a parent, you do not have to raise your kids exactly the same or exactly the opposite of how your parents raised you: you are to “bring your children up in the fear and admonition of the Lord.”

To submit everything to the Word of God means that it is the first place we go to make a decision, the only source we trust implicitly, and the only standard we measure ourselves against.

When presented with a decision we who bear the name of Christ should study the Word of God, all the while asking the Spirit of God to guide us to wisdom and truth.

What we do as disciples of Jesus is governed by who we are according to the Gospel revealed in Scripture.

“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go. The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.” Acts 17:1-13

What a difference it makes when the “people of God” go to the Word of God for direction! The text presents these two groups of people and their respective responses to Paul’s message in an intentional contrast:

The Thessalonian Jews heard Paul’s interpretation of scripture (Jesus is the Messiah foretold in the law and the prophets). Some of them were convinced and believed the gospel, but most of them were outraged. Why? Because Paul’s message from the Word didn’t square with their traditions. They were so outraged that Paul would dare question them, that they followed him to the next town and tried to cause problems there too. They filtered the decision Paul’s message called them to through their personal thoughts, traditions, and feelings.

Contrast that response with that of the Berean Jews. They heard Paul’s interpretation of scripture just like the Thessalonians, but Luke (the author of Acts) uses an interesting phrase to describe them in contrast to the Jews of Thessalonica: “more noble”. Why were they more noble? Because when they heard Paul’s message they checked it against the Scripture. They were more noble than those in Thessalonica who just took Paul’s word for it and believed: they checked what he said against the Word. They were more noble than those who rejected Paul’s word because it didn’t square with their tradition: they submitted their tradition to the testimony of Scripture.

When you are called to or faced with a decision, go to the Word! Don’t go to your thoughts, feelings, traditions, wishes, etc. Don’t just believe something because some preacher tells you. Don’t just reject something because it doesn’t square with your tradition. Go to the Word! It reveals Jesus, it reveals who you are in him, and it’s the only sure ground for your “life and godliness.”

When deciding what to do, start with who you are according to the Word of God and go from there.