It seems to be a perennial problem.
Obadiah dealt with it. Obadiah was a prophet. His book is the shortest in the Old Testament. If you can quote a verse from it without looking it up, you’ll have earned my undying respect.
We just don’t seem to pay much attention to Obadiah.
I think the reason is that it’s short.
What could such a short book possibly have to say that would matter?
I had a professor when I was in college, though, who was fond of saying that “in order to be immortal, a message need not be eternal.”
Sometimes it’s the short messages that hit the hardest and linger the longest.
The Danger of Indifference
One thing that should jump off the page of Obadiah is that indifference is dangerous.
Obadiah is a really interesting book not just because it’s the shortest one in the Old Testament. No, it’s interesting too because Obadiah has a focus that’s a little different than most of the rest of the Bible. Obadiah focuses his message, not on Israel, not on Judah, but on the nation of Edom.
Edom is not a nation that we think about much. They’ve been one of history’s casualties. So, a little bit of background might help us as we walk through the text. Edom is comprised of the descendants Esau. Now that name ring a bell. Who is Esau? He’s Jacob’s brother. Jacob, the father of the nation of Israel. Esau was actually the firstborn, the oldest son. He was the one who should have been the most prominent, according to tradition. Instead, Jacob gets that honor and is the one who becomes the carrier of God’s promise. Jacob is the one who inherits the blessings. It’s through Jacob’s line that we have the nation of Israel. And Esau is jealous, not entirely without cause, of Jacob.
The seed of jealousy planted by Jacob’s usurpation of Esau carries over into the relationship between the two nations that sprang from them. And that’s what Obadiah addresses.
God’s Judgment On Edom
But Obadiah doesn’t give us this background in his message. Instead, he just launches into God’s judgment against the nation of Edom. Verses 1-9 say:
The vision of Obadiah.
Thus says the Lord God concerning Edom:
We have heard a report from the Lord,
and a messenger has been sent among the nations:
“Rise up! Let us rise against her for battle!”
Behold, I will make you small among the nations;
you shall be utterly despised.
The pride of your heart has deceived you,
you who live in the clefts of the rock,
in your lofty dwelling,
who say in your heart,
“Who will bring me down to the ground?”
Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
though your nest is set among the stars,
from there I will bring you down,
declares the Lord.
If thieves came to you,
if plunderers came by night—
how you have been destroyed!—
would they not steal only enough for themselves?
If grape gatherers came to you,
would they not leave gleanings?
How Esau has been pillaged,
his treasures sought out!
All your allies have driven you to your border;
those at peace with you have deceived you;
they have prevailed against you;
those who eat your bread have set a trap beneath you—
you have no understanding.
Will I not on that day, declares the Lord,
destroy the wise men out of Edom,
and understanding out of Mount Esau?
And your mighty men shall be dismayed, O Teman,
so that every man from Mount Esau will be cut off by slaughter.
Apparently, Obadiah missed the memo on how to be an effective public speaker. He just jumps right into it: “you’re going to be judged Edom. You’re going to be destroyed now.”
Not A Unique Message
A message of judgment and destruction is not a novelty amongst prophets. Why is that? Because God is a holy God, he is a righteous God, and he has established the world expecting certain things from his creation. God judges sin and destroys sinners because things go really horribly terribly wrong when we don’t do what God has said to do. Sin itself is the cause of God’s judgment. Humanity is frequently in need of judgment, that message is not unique, because we frequently do the things that God says not to.
But we’ve got the idea wrong when we think that God says don’t do that because he’s just some sort of cosmic killjoy. God’s commands and God’s judgments are not pettily motivated. God knows that if we function as He created us to function, things will go better for us. And he knows that by judging our sin and calling us back to repentance (kind of smacking us upside the head) he can get our attention. He knows that things will go better for us if we will turn from our rebellion and do things his way. So, God’s judgment is ultimately an act of grace in calling people back to wholeness and fulfillment.
If God is gracious in judgment, we are infinitely creative in requiring it. And almost everyone would agree that there are things that need to be judged. Murder. Rape. Theft. And more. Most everyone recognizes that there is a reason why we have police officers and courts and judges and jails.
A Surprising Cause
But sometimes we’re surprised by what God says requires judgment. Because Obadiah, after telling Edom they will be judged, turns to tell them why. And it’s for something that you and I probably wouldn’t worry about that much. Verses 10-11 say:
Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob,
shame shall cover you,
and you shall be cut off forever.
On the day that you stood aloof,
on the day that strangers carried off his wealth
and foreigners entered his gates
and cast lots for Jerusalem,
you were like one of them.
Edom, you’re being judged for violence done to Jacob. You did perpetrate the violence though: you just stood there and watched.
You’re being judged because you were indifferent.
We think, “What’s the big deal?”
And God says, “That’s the big deal: that you stood there and did nothing.”
Indifference is dangerous.
It’s dangerous because it invites God’s judgment, but it’s dangerous because of where it leads people. Verses 13-14:
But do not gloat over the day of your brother
in the day of his misfortune;
do not rejoice over the people of Judah
in the day of their ruin;
do not boast
in the day of distress.
Do not enter the gate of my people
in the day of their calamity;
do not gloat over his disaster
in the day of his calamity;
do not loot his wealth
in the day of his calamity.
Do not stand at the crossroads
to cut off his fugitives;
do not hand over his survivors
in the day of distress.
The Edomites indifference leads them to the next step: rejoicing at Israel’s misfortune. The German term that we’ve co-opted to describe this is “schadenfreude” – pleasure at another’s problems. The Edomites were indifferent as they stood and watched, but that indifference infected them and led to schadenfreude.
And then they take it a step further: they profit from Israel’s problems. They looted the homes and farms the Israelites had been driven from. They didn’t drive them out, but they certainly gained from someone else doing it.
And, to add insult to injury, they wouldn’t let Israel escape their enemies. They cut off and turned back anyone fleeing.
They were indifferent.
Edom is being judged for good cause.
Not Just Edom’s Problem
But just in case we think Obadiah’s message is for Edom only, it’s not. This is a God’s message for each of us. Obadiah broadens the spectrum in verses 15-16
For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you;
your deeds shall return on your own head.
For as you have drunk on my holy mountain,
so all the nations shall drink continually;
they shall drink and swallow,
and shall be as though they had never been.
All the nations. Edom. Israel. America. Kenya. Australia. Romania. Britain.
Nothing’s exempted here.
All the nations are going to experience the judgment of God for this very same: indifference, schadenfreude, profiting off the misfortune of others, participating in injustice.
It’s interesting that Obadiah says “as you have drunk on my holy mountain so all the nations will drink continually.” To drink in the hall of your vanquished enemy was the sign of victory. God says, “look all the nations do this. All of them think they won, whether through conquest or through indifferent profiteering. And in the very act of enjoying their victory, I will destroy them. They’re going to drink and they’re going to gulp down and they’re going to disappear.
The very instance of their success is the very thing that condemns them.
God’s Message of Hope
But Obadiah’s not done – verses 17-21:
But in Mount Zion there shall be those who escape,
and it shall be holy,
and the house of Jacob shall possess their own possessions.
The house of Jacob shall be a fire,
and the house of Joseph a flame,
and the house of Esau stubble;
they shall burn them and consume them,
and there shall be no survivor for the house of Esau,
for the Lord has spoken.
Those of the Negeb shall possess Mount Esau,
and those of the Shephelah shall possess the land of the Philistines;
they shall possess the land of Ephraim and the land of Samaria,
and Benjamin shall possess Gilead.
The exiles of this host of the people of Israel
shall possess the land of the Canaanites as far as Zarephath,
and the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad
shall possess the cities of the Negeb.
Saviors shall go up to Mount Zion
to rule Mount Esau,
and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.
God’s judgment is going to come against all those who oppose God’s kingdom but there will be a deliverance on Mount Zion. God’s kingdom will be established. Everyone who opposes the sovereign King and Creator of the universe will be judged. But those who submit to the King will reign with him. How is that going to take place?
Jesus Christ the King
In the mysterious providence of God, it’s going to take place because of Jesus Christ. It is going to take place through this Jewish Messiah, dying. This is Jewish King being mocked by an occupying army. It’s going to take place by this King being so poor he can’t even afford to bury himself, someone else has to foot that bill.
And then he rises from the dead. And he establishes himself and demonstrates his authority in that act. He sets himself up as the King, the one on the throne, the one who will produce the Kingdom of God.
Where You and I Fit In
Here’s how he’s going to do it: he’s going to take normal, everyday people. Like you and like me. And he’s going to change them and transform them from the inside out. He’s going to take the heart inside of them that is indifferent to the sufferings of others and he’s going to replace it with a heart that bleeds for the sake of others. He’s going to take their selfish will out of their mind and he’s going to put in instead a desire to do God’s will. He’s going to create this people from every tribe and every tongue and every language. These people are going to want nothing more than to see his kingdom established and they’re going to start now. They’re going to try to make a difference in the lives of the people around them. They’re going to meet problems and they’re going to fix them. And they’re going to come face to face with depravity and sin and all of the mess of humanity and they’re going to speak life into it through the words of the gospel of the kingdom.
That’s the plan.
The Danger of Indifference For Those Who Should Make a Difference
But what happens what happens when the people who are supposed to be bringing it about, lose the plot?
That’s the danger of indifference.
If you’re going through your day and you’re scrolling through Facebook and you see the funny video of the guy falling flat on his face. What happens if you’re indifferent to that? You’re being conditioned.
Maybe then you’re driving down the street and you see a homeless guy, maybe indifference is your reaction. Why? Because you’ve conditioned yourself to be indifferent to the suffering of others.
And then maybe you’re at work and you’ve got a coworker who just got promoted. They’re in a little over their heads and instead of offering to help, you just sit there and watch them flounder.
It’s true for all of us: if we miss the danger of indifference, we’re going to sit there and watch. And then a little later on maybe we move to the next step too.
Maybe instead of just watching the video, we share the video. Why? Because we get “likes.” We get joy out of it.
The homeless guy: instead of just being indifferent, we start thinking, “man I’m glad I’m not such a mess. I’m glad I’ve got things together.”
We get to work. And we realize, “hey, if this coworker keeps floundering, maybe that opens a door for me once they finally get rid of him.”
The danger of indifference.
We begin to see profit in indifference.
“I get my rush from the Facebook likes.”
“I get this feeling of smug superiority from judging the homeless guy.”
“I might get a raise or a promotion if this guy gets fired.”
And it’s not so far from there to begin participating, just like Edom did standing at the crossroads.
Indifference is dangerous.
The Image of God Is Marred By Indifference
Indifference is a sin. It’s not just an affront to God: it destroys us. It takes everything it means to be human and it turns it around. God created us in His image. The very first thing we see God doing is seeing a problem and fixing it. And he says to us, “you’re just like me! I made you to see problems and fix problems!”
Indifference is the precise opposite of that. If we’re not doing the things God created us to do, we aren’t experiencing the life he meant for us to live, we’re not being what he made us to be. Indifference is the gateway drug to a life that is less than human. From not caring about others to taking pleasure at the misfortunes of others, to profiting from the loss of others.
God made us to be problem-solvers, world-changers, difference-makers.
Indifference makes us people who just sit back and consume instead of create. People who are constantly looking to be entertained instead of looking to engage their culture.
Indifference In The American Church
Indifference is dangerous and it seems to have overcome the American church.
I used to worry about the American church. I used to worry that we were a lot like Israel. We were aware of the things that were wrong, we knew that that we were kind of idolatrous, and we knew that we had placed the American Dream ahead of following Christ. We knew that but we were kind of OK with it.
I used to worry about that. But the past couple weeks, as I’ve been reading Obadiah, I’ve started worrying that maybe we’re not like Israel: maybe we’re more like Edom.
Maybe we are completely indifferent to the problems of others.
Maybe we are willing to rejoice at the problems of others.
Maybe we are willing to profit off of the problems of others.
Maybe we are willing to participate in a system of injustice.
Because what’s the church designed for?
The church is, by nature, designed to be unable to be indifferent. We are given the life-changing message of the gospel of the Kingdom. We are the ones who can go to a world that is broken and say, “here is a solution!” We can go to people who are drowning in despair and who are turning to alcohol and pornography and drugs and success and money and all of these things that will ultimately be empty and we can say, “Look! That’s not going to do it for you.” And we could run headlong into the darkest places and say, “here’s Jesus.”
But are we?
No church in history has ever had the resources that the American church has. No national group of believers has ever had the sheer numbers, the sheer technological ability, and the sheer financial resources of the American church.
And yet, no church has ever spent more money, more time, or more effort on itself. The church was never designed to be a country club that we pay our dues to and we show up once a week or twice a week for our own benefit.
And yet the American church has devoted itself to creating a culture centered around sitting under preachers that we like, singing music that we like, and building buildings we like. All the while indifferent to the fact that too much of the world’s population has zero access to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All the while indifferent to the fact that there are people who are waiting for the door to burst open and shots to be fired. We are indifferent to the fact that there are people who will go to bed tonight not having eaten last week and not sure if they’re going to get to eat this week.
Do you see the danger of indifference in Obadiah?
What if we are Edom?
What if we are the ones watching indifferently, rejoicing indecently, profiting obscenely, and participating blindly?
Then we better fix it.
The Solution to Indifference: Engage
If the problem starts with indifference then the opposite of that is how you fix it. And it’s really only that first step that needs fixed – instead of just sitting there and watching and being indifferent when you see a problem – engage.
Engage with your heart: feel it.
Engage with your head: think about it.
Engage with your mouth: speak boldly about it.
Engage with your hands & your feet: go do something about it.
This holistic engagement is the what’s at stake here. Engage. It’s the opposite of indifference and it makes a difference.
Everything changes when you engage. So, next time you’re scrolling through Facebook ask yourself, “am I being conditioned for indifference or am I being conditioned to make a difference?” Ask, “as I’m having a conversation at work, am I being conditioned to indifference or am I going to make a difference?”
The danger of indifference is that you would waste the life God has given you and be worthy of his judgment, just like Edom.
The beauty of engagement is that God says, “Come on in. Join me in changing the world.”
saviors vs. The Savior
Finally, there’s something interesting about how Obadiah ends his message:
Saviors will ascend Mount Zion to rule over the hill country of Esau, but the kingdom will be the Lord’s.
God calls us to join him in changing the world, but we need to recognize that it’s still, ultimately, his work: when we engage instead of watching indifferently, we are saviors with a small “s”. It’s essential that we know and proclaim the Savior with a big “S”. We don’t get the glory, we don’t engage for praise. The praise and the glory go to Jesus: Jesus, whose kingdom it is that is being established. Jesus, who shows us what it means to be human as God intended. Jesus, who dies on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin. Jesus, whose resurrection from the grave conquers the God’s enemies.
Change the world.
If God is good, why do bad things happen?
The question is not new. People have asked it for centuries. It shows up in historical, philosophophical, and religious texts.
One of the places it appears is in Psalm 10.
Most think that David is the author of Psalm 10. Assuming that, what David is doing in Psalm 10 is wrestling with the question of how to reconcile God’s goodness with the reality of evil. He starts off asking:
Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
David is expressing his confusion, his sadness, his uncertainty, his doubt…in other words, David is just like us. When we see bad things happen, we wrestle with them, they affect us, they affect our faith. We pray, “God! when times are tough, I have a really hard time seeing you! God, when evil strikes, I have a really hard time understanding if you’re good! God, why do you hide yourself!”
When things are hard, it’s difficult to see God. We have trouble understanding how it is that we could be experiencing what we’re experiencing and God still be good.
How can God be good if he hides when trouble comes? But does he hide? Or is it the case that perhaps the problem is not that the Lord hides from us in times of trouble, but that it’s harder for us to see him in times of trouble.
When I was growing up, I remember my pastor telling a story. I don’t remember if it was his story, if it was a true story, or if it was something he made up. But he told the story of a couple who were dating and he would drive his car with a bench seat and she would sit right next to him. And they got married and experienced the normal ups and downs and they had kids. Twenty years go by and, one day, they’re sitting at a stoplight and they see a car coming the other way. There’s this young couple sitting in the car and the guy’s driving and his girl is sitting right next to him and he’s got his arm around her. The wife sees this scene and, from her seat by the passenger window, looks over and says to her husband: “Do, you remember when we used to do that?” And he looks over at her, across the seat, and says, “Yeah, but I’m not the one that moved.”
God doesn’t move.
God doesn’t change.
When times of trouble come, it’s that our circumstances have put a lot of seat space between God and us. We seem to have slid farther and farther across the seat.
God’s not intentionally hiding.
It’s just harder to see him when times are tough.
But David points out a problem: when it’s difficult for us to see God, evil seems to increase. The wicked seem to be emboldened by God’s apparent absence and they began to take advantage of the situation.
2 In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor;
let them be caught in the schemes that they have devised.
3 For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul,
and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord.
4 In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him;
all his thoughts are, “There is no God.”
5 His ways prosper at all times;
your judgments are on high, out of his sight;
as for all his foes, he puffs at them.
6 He says in his heart, “I shall not be moved;
throughout all generations I shall not meet adversity.”
7 His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under his tongue are mischief and iniquity.
8 He sits in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places he murders the innocent.
His eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
9 he lurks in ambush like a lion in his thicket;
he lurks that he may seize the poor;
he seizes the poor when he draws him into his net.
10 The helpless are crushed, sink down,
and fall by his might.
11 He says in his heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”
12 Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;
forget not the afflicted.
13 Why does the wicked renounce God
and say in his heart, “You will not call to account”?
Unfortunately, evil tends to breed evil, wickedness, wickedness. We see this when we look at the world today. We hear stories of people growing up and seeing depravity all around them and instead of desiring a different way they just continue in it. They see the war, so they wage war. They see drugs, so they do drugs. They see wickedness and they learn it and they say, “look we’re not being punished for it. We’re not being held accountable for it. Therefore, I can do whatever I want.”
David says evil is a problem that just snowballs. It’s not random, it’s not chance: it comes from us. From humanity. Lying about one another, stealing from one another, persecuting one another, waging war with one another. If there’s no God to hold us accountable, then we can do whatever we want to.
“Do whatever you want as long as you can get away with it” is the modern mantra.
How many atrocities have come about from people operating on that understanding?
How many warlords are on their thrones today because they’re convinced that no one can stop them?
How many people today are walking around with this understanding: there is no God?
Thankfully, Psalm 10 goes on and David reminds himself and us:
14 But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation,
that you may take it into your hands;
to you the helpless commits himself;
you have been the helper of the fatherless.
15 Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer;
call his wickedness to account till you find none.
16 The Lord is king forever and ever;
the nations perish from his land.
17 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.
What is David saying? He’s saying, “God, I know you’re going to fix things. I know that you are going to do something about evil. God, you are good in spite of the fact that evil exists. This time of trouble is not the eternal state of things. God, you’re good and, yes, bad things happen. But one day, they’re not going to happen anymore. One day, God, you’re going to set everything right.”
Do you hear David’s relief? Do you get his sense of understanding?
God’s not hiding; God’s going to do something about this evil. Indeed, God has been doing something about it all along.
What is God doing about it?
God Gave Us A Choice
First, God gave us free will. Debate the particulars all you want, but he gave us a choice: worship him or worship not-him. And humanity chose not-him and everything that has happened since has been a consequence of that decision to not worship God.
But God hasn’t moved. God hasn’t changed.
And what God established from the beginning still holds true.
God created the heavens and the earth. And he made light and he made the moon and he made the sun and he made the animals and he made everything and he said, “this is good.” And then he made Adam and he made Eve and he said, “this is very good.” When God said it was good, was he unaware of how bad it would get? No! He wasn’t surprised. It’s very good because the end result would be to God’s glory and the ultimate good of his creation.
When God declared over his creation, “this is very good,” he was not saying, “this is very good because they’re never going to face difficulties, they’re never going to choose to reject me, they’re never going to have to deal with trouble.” Not at all. He’s saying this is very good because God built his solution to the problem of evil in from the very beginning. He built in his understanding that mankind would choose not-God and that all of this trouble would come as a result.
God knew that. And he can still say it’s very good because of what he’s going to do.
God Gave Us Life
In spite of the evil to come, God gave us life. He could have made nothing! If God created nothing then we would not exist to even ask these questions! We would have been spared pain but we would also never know joy. Existence is better than non-existence.
So, God gave us life out of love. But then why didn’t he create us without the ability to choose not-God? Because, if God would have given us no choice but to worship him, if the only option was the God-option, we’d be no different than robots.
How much does a robot understand of love? How many robots drive hundreds of miles to visit a national park, stop at the overlook, and marvel at the panorama of creation? How many robots go out at night to look at the stars and see the Milky Way stretched out above them?
The reason didn’t God didn’t create us like robots, the reason he gave us a choice, is not so that he could punish us when we finally fell. No! He created us with a choice so that we would have the capability or the possibility of knowing what love and beauty are.
God gives us life and it’s interesting that we still have it. He didn’t change when we fell. God didn’t pull the plug. In spite of our sin and the trouble we cause and the trouble we experience, we still have life. We still experience goodness. We still experience love. We still experience God’s provision.
Whether we acknowledge him, or not, he still allows us the chance at making something of this life. One of the things that God is doing about evil is he gives us a glimpse of good things in this life and invites us, through them, to see the rest of his work.
But we say that’s not enough. We don’t want glimpses of good in the midst of the bad: we want God to fix the problem!
God Made Us In His Image
We misunderstand what God’s purpose was for us. He created us in his image. God didn’t just give us life and say, “here, eke out whatever meager meaning and purpose and beauty and love you can find.” No! He gives us the opportunity to be like him. He says, “look, you’re going to be like me. You’re going to understand and you’re going to be able to create and you’re going to have dominion and you’re going to be able to rule. You’re going to be creative and there are going to be problems and you’re going to be able to fix them.”
One of the things that God is doing about evil is that he made us in his image. We’ve been given the stewardship of creation and one another. We’re supposed to be the ones representing God to the world. We’re supposed to be the ones who fix problems when they come up. We’re supposed to bring order out of the chaos of everything like God brought order out of the chaos of nothing.
When we experience trouble, when we experience the effects of sin on this world, we’re not experiencing something that God is surprised by. Instead, what we’re experiencing is God giving us the opportunity to image him. We so often look the problems of this world as if, somehow, we were helpless creatures in the hands of time and fate.
And yet God has given us minds that are almost unimaginably creative and hands that can build the most intricate and beautiful things. Through history, we can see that God gave us the ability to create amazing things, technology that allows us to travel faster than sound waves. We can build stuff as high as mountains. And we have medical technology that can save lives. We have this unbelievable potential to fix problems as they arise. That’s God’s gift to us.
And yet when times come in hard times come, we just want to take our hands off and say, “Jesus, take the wheel.” Or worse: “This is your fault, God.”
I don’t think that God’s plan for humanity was for us to shrink from problems: he created us to solve them. There is a near-constant invitation for people to join him in his work. When we see evil, we need to understand that God is giving us opportunities to exercise the gifts he’s given us.
The problem of evil is ultimately not that God doesn’t intervene every time, but that we, his created solution, choose not to.
Instead of solving problems, we create them. We end up causing more destruction than we do construction. Why? Because we take the gift of creativity and the ability to make stuff and we twist it.
We take minds that were meant to harness the healing power of creation and instead we split the atom and build weapons capable of destroying every single one of us.
Instead of serving, we’re lazy.
Instead of loving, we’re uncaring.
Instead of giving, we’re greedy.
And then we blame God for our problems.
The problem is not God, the problem is our sin.
But God’s not done yet: there’s another thing that he’s done to deal with evil.
God Gave Us Jesus And Took Our Sin
God knew that in order for us to do that which we were created to do, in order for us to join him, in order for us to truly demonstrate who he is to the world around us, he has to fix something first: sin. Because so long as sin is in us, we will continue to abdicate our role in creation.
God has to change something in us in order for us to change the world.
He’s inviting us to see problems as an opportunity to join him in his work but we will never see them as such until he gets through to us. Not until he takes that heart of stone from us and puts a heart of flesh in its place are we ever going to experience what it means to truly image God
The reason we can know that God is good even when bad things happen is that God takes those bad things and turns them for His own glory and for our good.
He does this most visibly with Jesus Christ.
Jesus comes. And Jesus experiences all the things that we experience. He lives, he breathes, he struggles, he hurts. Jesus is just like us: he’s human.
Still, there’s something different about him because instead of creating chaos where there should be order he brings order where there is chaos.
Instead of breaking things that should be fixed, he fixes things that are broken.
Jesus does what man should have done: he fixes problems instead of creates them.
And we killed him for the trouble. We put him on a cross. We did the most unimaginably evil thing possible. We sought to kill God.
But Jesus didn’t stay dead. Jesus rose again.
In Jesus, we finally see hope. We see the possibility of God dealing with this problem of sin that we’ve got. Because, in Jesus dying and rising, we are invited to place our faith in Him. We are invited to exchange our heart of stone for a heart of flesh. And we’re given Holy Spirit and now we’re empowered to live a life that exists for God’s glory and for the good of others and not for ourselves.
Instead of doing good things to further my own ascension, Jesus ascension means that I don’t have to do anything for me anymore. I can do things purely for others. There’s no need for selfish motives.
If God is good why do bad things happen? I don’t know: look at the cross.
Bad things happen so that God can redeem them. In redeeming them, God shows us a better vision of His glory. God saves us by removing the sin from us. It’s only after sin is taken out that we’re able to finally do what it was that we were created to do: fix what’s broken!
What is God doing about the problem of evil: he’s redeeming people and setting them free of themselves so they can focus on fixing things. The question is not, “where is God when suffering comes,” but, “where are the people at whose hearts have been changed so that they can now live the image of God out in this world?”
When war breaks out.
When tragedy strikes.
When injustice reigns.
When oppression is the law of the land.
Where’s the church?
God doesn’t rush in and fix all of our problems; he doesn’t curtail our free will; he doesn’t cut us off at the knees: he wants us to know true love and true beauty and true grace. He invites us to see evil dealt with at the cross.
But when we receive that vision, the saddest thing in the world would be for us to imagine that the only reason we’ve received it is so that we can go to heaven.
No, no, no, NO!
God Gives Us Purpose
God saves us and he gives us a purpose. That purpose is what to finally do what we are made to do which is to image him, to showcase him, to allow creation to see who God is. He has made mankind a steward, a creative, problem-solving being that points back to his goodness.
That can’t happen unless our sin gets dealt with.
Our sin can’t get dealt with unless we’re humble enough to ask God fix it.
And once it’s fixed, we’re free to do that which we were created to do: meet the challenge of evil head-on and work to eradicate it.
What’s that mean when the question comes up, “If God is good, why do bad things happen?”
It means that the Church has some work to do.
Christian, you and I are God’s answer to the problem of evil.
Sometimes we think there are two kinds of Christian: there’s the professional Christian and then there’s the everyday Christian. Not so. There’s just one kind of Christian: those who work to fix what’s broken.
When problems arise at work.
When a terrorist strikes your city.
When a hurricane devastates the coast.
The people of God should be right there, working to fix things.
We won’t be perfect.
We’ll always need Jesus.
But let’s get to work.
We’ve got a problem: there are too many gods and not enough worshippers.
Yep. That’s what I said.
Go read it again in case you missed it.
And then let me explain what I mean.
First off, I want to defend my orthodoxy and say that I believe there is only one true and living God, YHWH, revealed to us in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
Second, I also believe there are a lot of pretenders to that title of “god”.
That belief is based on the fact that I know at least one pretender: me.
But it’s not just a desire to spread the blame that leads me to think that I might not be the only one who struggles in that regard…
…I think most people try to be gods.
Maybe not consciously, but that’s exactly what’s going on.
“Gods” (in an attempt at definition) are those who shape the world according to their desires and then demand that everyone praise them for it.
That works when you are actually God and created all of reality and are the infinitely more majestic reality superseding your creation. But when you are part of the creation and try to play god, the results are dramatically less effective.
And yet, we keep trying.
“Timeout,” you say, “I’m not trying to play god.”
Have you ever posted some magnum opus on social media and been disappointed by the lack of engagement?
Ever been frustrated by talking to someone about some aspect of your life only to have them “one-up” your story?
Ever caught yourself listening intently to someone else’s story, not to appreciate it, but to answer it with your own?
My guess is that you’ve been guilty of all of those at one time or another. I know I have.
Our problem is that we want to shape the world according to our desires and then have people praise us for it but they are doing the exact same thing, at the exact same time.
See what’s wrong? Everyone wants to be a god. They want the world to curve in expectantly around them, their life, their thoughts, their obsession, their desires. Everyone wants to be the center. And if everyone wants the same thing, a thing that by definition cannot be shared, we’re all going to be disappointed.
After all, if we’re all gods there’s no one left to worship us.
But that doesn’t stop us from trying. We meticulously cultivate our image, in-person and online, to showcase that image of ourselves that we think will draw the most praise from others.
We can do it by building up a false front, showing others only the pinnacles of our lives, the moments of exquisite beauty and creativity. Meanwhile, we hide the scars, the doubts, the brokenness, hoping to gather other poor, benighted souls to us who long for a fraction of the perfection we pretend to have.
But we can also take the opposite approach. We can publicly wallow in our imperfection, revel in our messy house, loudly proclaim our authenticity by constantly airing our dirty laundry. We unconsciously avoid wholeness, success, or holiness because we think that those things might drive away those who worship our “realness.”
Make no mistake: we’re playing god either way. Whether through airbrushing or authenticity, we’re simply trying to gather an audience who will affirm our manufactured worth.
There is a solution to the problem of too many gods. And it’s not in a constant rat-race with our fellow pretenders to “out-god” one another.
No, the solution is to quit playing god and to become a worshipper of God.
Only God has truly shaped the world according to his desires. Therefore, only God can truly demand praise.
He’s the only one who deserves it. And he tells us so:
“I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other.” Isaiah 42:8
God didn’t create this world so that we could get all uppity and claim the glory that he alone possesses.
He didn’t call nebulas, newts, and newborns into existence so that we could pridefully claim the worship our fellow creatures owe him.
He didn’t come as a man, walking, talking, suffering, dying, rising, and living so that we could subtly weave him into the cocoon of self-adulation we attempt to create from those around us.
No! God created, called, and came to wrench our despicable eyes from our dirty bellies and refocus them on him, on a worthy center for the universe’s praise. No omphaloskepsis, no ego trips, no playing god will ever satisfy us: only becoming what we were created to be will.
And we were created to be worshippers.
Paul captures this idea perfectly:
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31
So long as we attempt to Instagram what we eat, tweet what we drink, and post everything we do for likes, so long as we make every human encounter an opportunity to bend eyes and minds our direction, so long as our driving motivation is for our own glory, we will be continually frustrated.
You can see that frustration when you open your eyes. Just look at all the disappointed little gods posting, preening, walking, talking, staring back from the mirror.
Instead, eat and drink and do everything for God’s glory. Only then will you find true fulfillment.
This world needs fewer gods and more worshippers.
When 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.
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.
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 in 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: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Without further ado…
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.
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.
Organizationally, 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 a 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, we 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 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 church 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:
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”. From 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 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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: church membership is either seen as a means of salvation or 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:
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:
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. 7 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.
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 email@example.com. Also, look for my next blog post examining what being submitted to the Word of God looks like in church leadership. God bless!