Monday

Pastors and Other Consultants

I think by now we’ve figured out that it’s the saints (that’s us) who are responsible for doing “the work of ministry.” We all have the responsibility of continuing the work that Jesus started before He left.

Does that mean we’re all the same? Heck no. The Bible certainly recognizes different gifts and even different offices. Individuals with different gifts are instructed to use those gifts. Individuals with different offices have a different instructions. (Watch out: the apostle Paul is famous for run-on sentences, and this one’s a doozie!)

Ephesians 4:11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ — 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.

There are five offices: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers; sometimes they’re referred to as “the five-fold ministries” simply because there are five of them. Look at the job description of this group:

· Equipping the saints for the work of ministry.

· Edifying (building up) the body of Christ

· Bringing us all to unity in the knowledge of Christ

· Bringing us to maturity, etc.

Some preachers point to their sermons as the fulfillment of this passage, and indeed a good sermon can both equip and edify a congregation. But wait just a doggone minute: who’s supposed to do the “work of ministry”? It’s the saints! That’s you and me! The job of the pastor (and the rest of that team) is to equip you and me to do the ministry. Think of the Fivefold (pastors and prophets and the rest) as consultants, not as the “ministers.”

Some years ago, I worked for a medical company. We were growing pretty quickly, and the medical field was changing fast, so we invited a consultant in to help us develop the business in light of the changing circumstances. The consultant never did do any of our work for us, but he did help us to prepare for the work that we needed to do: he taught how to do it better and more efficiently, he showed us how to make sure that what we were providing was what the community needed and the insurance companies were willing to pay for.

The five-fold ministries are like that consultant: they don’t do the ministry, they equip us to do it. It’s not the pastor’s job to do the ministry, it’s his job (or her job: we’re not sexist here) to equip you and me to do that work. His job is consulting. Our job is ministering.

(By the way, some groups have been teaching that apostles and prophets went away ‘way back then, with the canonization of scripture or something. Get over it. First, they’re here until “we all come … to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” I don’t see that happening just yet. And if apostles were supposed to be gone, then so are pastors and teachers.)

I don’t care if the person with the title is on the payroll of the church organization or is just (“just?” as if this were less??) the leader of the home group. His job is to equip and edify you and me. It’s our job to do the work.

That means it’s our job to visit the sick and imprisoned. It’s our job to teach the young believers and to discipline the rebellious ones. It’s our job to collect the offerings from the saints and distribute it to the needy. It’s our job to discover, develop and deploy our gifts.

This might be “preaching to the choir” given the radical nature of those who read this blog, but it’s still worth reminding ourselves of. If we have a title, an office, then our job is to train others. And whether we have a title or not, it’s our job to do the work of the ministry.

So let’s be careful to stop looking to leaders to do our work for us. Let’s look around and pick up the work that He’s put before us!

Friday

A Season of Grace

Many times recently, I have seen people in ministry (and “in ministry” may mean senior pastors, or it may mean believers who encourage other believers) who are motivated in ministry by serious character flaws. I’ve seen people wounded in the realm of rejection and fear of failure take leadership positions. I’ve seen people wounded in insecurities ministering in intercession and resentment manifesting in worship and “hands on ministry” applications.

Often there’s been this flavor of “I’m going to make up for these feelings of insufficiency by taking a leadership role where I can be in control!” Or “I want to make sure I keep my position because when I have the position, I’m a somebody.”

That’s never (well, hardly ever) the whole story. Usually, there’s a sincere “let’s expand the kingdom” motivation in there with the misguided stuff.

And yeah, those are wrong motivations. However, I believe that this is a season where God is emphasizing grace. I see His grace showing in leadership issues, in holiness or purity issues, and in relationships.

In leadership: I have seen this pattern over and over recently: His leaders, His servants have flaws showing, and yet He tenderly covers them, cuddles them, and still uses them to the degree that they (we) are able to be used. So it’s not like He’s rejecting the wounded, He’s covering them and using them and inviting them to be healed.

In some ways, this reminds me of Noah, after the adventure of the Flood.

Genesis 9:20 And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. 21 Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness.

We have a complicated role here. On the one hand, we are to act as Shem and Japheth and cover the nakedness of our leaders: it is not our job to point out their failings, but to fill in where they’re weak. At the same time, it’s not appropriate to excuse sin, or to be content with immaturity. We need to call each other to a higher level of …, well, of God-likeness. We need to encourage ourselves and each others to be more like God, more like Jesus, than we have before.

In purity and holiness: I believe that right now, God is extending a grace to see His people healed. There are believers – both long-time and new believers – who have had wounds in their soul or their spirit, and God is healing those.

There are people who have wrestled with sin – whether pride, control, pornography, gossip, or addictions – and I believe that right now, God is open for business right now to heal those besetting sins, to free us from those bondages. It’s not like He’s unwilling to do that in other seasons; He’s just emphasizing freedom right now.

One of the key areas where He’s setting people free in this season is in the realm of freedom from religious bondages. There are a lot of people who are deciding that “enough is enough!” and are moving out of “churchianity” into a real relationship with Jesus; some are having to leave their churches to do it.

In relationships: I believe this is a season when God is offering healing in relationships as well. It will require as much humility as any thing else (which is to say, a lot), but if we are willing to pursue Him in this, we’ll find healing in our marriages, in our working relationships, between church leaders and the flock being led.

That last one is worth emphasizing: too often, we’ve settled for inadequate or inferior relationships in the church. Too long, we’ve been willing to tolerate manipulation, or leaders who need to control, or who need constant affirmation that they’re valuable. It’s a season where God is granting a greater grace on healing those relationships.

This “greater grace” is not about, “God’s going to fix it while I sit here like a bump on a log.” The grace He’s giving is to approach the “unapproachable topics.” It’s the grace to “speak the truth in love” as we go to people and offer to help them through the tough things that they think they’re hiding, but the whole rest of the world can see. It’s the grace to receive gracefully those who come to us about the plank in our own eye that we’ve never recognized.

My encouragement is to take advantage of this season: firstly, as we examine our own lives. What is there in my life that I need the grace of God to heal? Then, after we’ve examined our own lives, we can go to our brothers and sisters, and ask, “can I help you with this?”

Thursday

Assumptions

When we look at a problem – heck, when we look at anything – we make certain assumptions. But which assumptions I make are determined by who I believe I am, and who I believe God is, and my choice of assumptions will very substantially affect my life and my trust in God. I need to be aware of my assumptions and I need to make careful and intentional choices with them.

For example, if I have lived with poverty all my life, then when I find $20 in a pair of old pants, then I’m likely to find a $20 want and spend it on that. I know other people whose first thought is “Cool! Who can I give this to?” And there are people, or so I’m told, who immediately deposit the money in the bank. (I don’t know many of those people.)

And when I look at a problem – take my family budget for example – I make assumptions, but I have a choice which assumptions I make God. I have a couple of sets of data, and sometimes they disagree. I need to be thoughtful about which set of data I believe, which data I assume to be true.

We can look at the numbers on the paper (or in the spreadsheet, or in the checkbook….) and we can accept those to be the definition of reality. And certainly, there’s a level of reality there. Sometimes, though, that data, that view of reality, conflicts with another set that I say I believe. The other data includes statements like “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.

And thus the war begins.

Looking at my bills, I can see that I have certain needs, and looking at my paycheck, I can see that I have certain resources to meet some of those needs. But this new set of data, the data from Heaven, say otherwise: God promises to meet all my needs. But my paycheck promises to meet some of my needs. Which one is true?

That’s an easy question to answer in theory. “Of course the Bible is true.” But so often we live as if the Bible’s truth is limited to “spiritual subjects” or “under certain conditions” or “for those people over there,” or some other limitation. Sorry. Not allowed. Either the Book is true, or it’s not.

This is exactly what I mean by “assumptions.”

We often assume that the problems are true, and therefore if the Book doesn’t line up with that “truth,” we make excuses for God. I think that’s a mistake. I am coming to believe that God is true even though the data that I see with my eyes doesn’t line up. In other words, I’m coming to believe – and this is a great and terrible shift for me – that God is more true than my experience. It’s a battle of worldviews, really. Which view of my world is real?

So I look at my financial need, and I look at the promise of God, and one or the other has to give. I must challenge my own assumptions about my financial need. In this example, the first assumption might be about what is a “need” to me. The second might be how I have handled the provision that He’s given me. (The phrase “Don’t eat your seed” is beginning to make sense to me.)

Another illustration: The book says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” So if “all men” can’t tell that I’m a disciple, then we have another battle of worldviews. It has to be one of three things: either a) God’s word doesn’t really mean what it says, or b) I’m not living up to “love one another” properly, or c) I don’t know how to tell whether all men know that I’m His disciples.

I’m going to simplify this: these are those 3 options, stated as principles:

a) God is a liar and His promises are not true (let’s not sugar-coat this one!), or

b) I haven’t fulfilled the conditions: I’m not holding up my end of the bargain, or

c) God really is doing His part, but I am not seeing it right.

But we live in a fallen world, not an ideal one, so there are actually two more options, but they’re hard to deal with:

d) things happen that are not God’s will, and

e) “I don’t know.” (That is a valid answer, you know.)

Let’s get option D out of the way quickly, and I need to be direct here, because there’s a spirit of stupid that gets on us sometimes: Not everything that goes on in this world is God’s will. I hear people tell me in times of difficulty, “Well, it must have been meant to be…” It makes me want to scream, “Do you really think that the God who sent His only Son to die for you would give your child cancer? Engage your brain, you yahoo!” Let me say it again: a lot of what you and I experience is NOT God’s plan for us.

So if my experience doesn’t line up with the promises of God, there are five possibilities. Option A above – that God’s promises are not true for us – is the one that so often we think of first. Since that is the explanation that is has been whispered into our ear since Genesis chapter three: “Did God really say….?” We assume that our experience is true, and if that is true, then anything that disagrees with our experience can’t be true. That, of course, is unbelief in full flower, and it seems that it requires a fair bit of pride for to declare that my perception is more valid than God’s promise.

It seems that when I encounter stuff that doesn’t line up with what I believe God has said, that I need to ask two questions that come from the book of Acts: “What does this mean?” and “What must I do?” And if we’re serious about the questions we ask, we need to be willing to hear any kind of answer in reply. It’s hard to lay down my assumptions and approach the challenge with an open mind, but it’s necessary.

An illustration: I was part of a church planting team in Canada years ago, and we were experiencing strange things in the church when spring came, so we went to prayer. “God, what does this mean? What are you up to? What do we need to know?” We heard Him saying, “Get ready for great change this summer.” Unfortunately, we didn’t know to ask “What do we need to do?” so we went with our assumptions: God will finally answer some of the prayers for growth. That assumption fit the facts that we knew but it was not reality. That summer, the church fell apart and died, and we left the country with our tails between our legs.

One of the most difficult aspects was that we had expected such great good, because of our assumptions, and what we encountered was a great trial: seven years of brokenness. Looking back at that season, it was very easy to say, “God, you failed us!” (option a) when the reality in this case was options c, d, and e: We weren’t seeing it right (I can’t tell you the blessing He brought through this), we were the victims of some activity that was NOT God’s, and ultimately, we really didn’t know the whole story, and we still don’t, and that’s OK.

So back to the family budget. When my checkbook challenges the truth of God’s word, I have a choice: I can accept the assumptions that tell me to believe my checkbook, which is leading me to be anxious and worry. Or I can assume that God’s word is true; it tells me that He is my provider, and that I can trust Him. (It never promises, however, that I’ll figure out all of His ways!) I choose Him, even if it means that I must not believe my own experience.

I choose to believe Him, especially when I want to believe me!

So here’s a suggestion: Pray this prayer: “By virtue of my authority as an autonomous human being, made in the image of God with a free will, I choose to never (insofar as I am able) assume that God is a liar or that His promises have somehow failed me when I don’t understand my circumstances. God, please help me to see the truth of each situation I’m in, and to recognize Your hand in every circumstance.”

Friday

Imaginary Entities

We deal with a number of people and institutions that don’t really exist. I’m sorry, but it’s true.

Think about the emails that you may have received from Nigerian princesses needing help getting a few million dollars of their money out of a corrupt African economy, and they needs your help and are willing to share their wealth. I hate to be the one to break the news to you, but there is no wealthy Nigerian princess in such dire straits. That’s a hoax.

Or what about Santa Claus? Millions of American kids write self-centered letters to Santa and leave cookies and milk by the Christmas tree every year. But regardless of how “real” he seems to them – or to the toy advertisers who sponsor his TV shows every winter – there is no jolly, overgrown, philanthropic elf with flying reindeer living at the north pole. It just isn’t real.

There is another imaginary entity with whom most of us relate. These groups can be found on a map, and you really can visit their offices or call them on the telephone and they will explain in patient detail how real and how important they are in your life. And unlike Santa Claus or Nigerian princesses, these groups do have legal status under our government (which in my case is American), but they seem to have no legal status under their home government (which is not American). But despite their protestations to the contrary, these, too, are not real.
I’m talking about your church. But then, I’m talking about my church too.

For clarification, I am not talking about the Body of Christ on this planet, or in this community, which Jesus referred to as His Church: His Church has a legal foundation in Heaven, which is its home government. The Church (capital C) was established by Jesus who called it “My church”. He seems pretty proud of it.

The Bible acknowledges (and therefore authorizes) the Church in many places, fifteen in the NKJV. Maybe half of the time, the Book acknowledges “the Church of God” but the rest of the time, it’s talking about the part of the Church in a city. I live in a city called Olympia, so from Heaven’s perspective, there is a “Church of the Olympians” or “the Church of God in Olympia.”
But here comes the challenging part: I’m not convinced there is any heavenly authority behind the autonomous congregation or the Christian denomination. There is no heavenly acknowledgement of “First Baptist” or “the Second Church of the Sunday Brunch” or any other local congregation. From Heaven’s perspective, there are no congregations, no denominations: just His Church. (By way of acknowledgement, there is likewise no heavenly foundation for other “Christian organizations”: missions agencies, or Christian radio stations, or “Evangelistic Associations”.)

I am absolutely not saying that any of these groups are ungodly or unbiblical. Most are not. I am also not saying that such organizations are evil; in fact I am very happily a member of a couple of these imaginary organizations. I am just saying that I’m becoming increasingly convinced that these organizations are not established by God, or by Heavenly authority. (Yes, I’ve heard the stories about God helping someone establish this group or that work; that’s not what I’m talking about here; there are exceptions to every generalization, and I am aware that I’m making generalizations; please read them as such.)

In point of fact, I believe that many churches (and many other Christian groups) are very much good things: they are tools to facilitate the work of Heaven. Human beings have from time to time, over the last couple millennia, looked at the very daunting task laid upon them by Divine mandate. And then they’ve panicked and they have cried out to God and come up with tools to accomplish those goals, and it’s wonderful how God helps us with those tools. People gathered can always accomplish more than individuals scattered.

(Have you ever wondered why there are so many “First Assembly” and “First Methodist” churches, and so few “Second Presbyterian” or more honestly, “Ninth Baptist” churches?)
But when we make the transition from “This congregation is a tool to help us as leaders to shepherd the people of God” to the perspective of “If you’re not part of a local Sunday morning congregation, then you are outside of God’s will,” or worse, “If you’re not part of this congregation….” then we move at least into error and perhaps into heresy. When we declare, either verbally or by our attitude, that “Members of this group are better [or “more spiritual” or “more biblical” or whatever] than Christians who are not members of this group,” then we are in danger of judgment. I’ve even met congregations and denominations that say, “If you’re not part of our group, you’re not even saved.” I’m sorry, but no.

Is there a benefit from being part of a gathering of believers? Absolutely! Heck yes! But that doesn’t necessarily mean I must be part of a “Sunday morning church” gathering. Whether I’m part of a church congregation, a home church, a “parachurch” group, or whatever, there is much benefit for me to gain from associating with the gathered Church. Christians gathered are God’s plan; Christians isolated are part of the enemy’s plan, like a wolf isolating a particular sheep. My goodness, Christians gathering together is even commanded. Heaven acknowledges no such thing as The Lone Christian (“Hiyo Silver Away!”).

Think of it this way: in the OT, the entire nation of Israel was blessed. Every tribe carried the blessing of the nation. It didn’t matter if you were in a big tribe like Judah, a little tribe like Benjamin, or a special tribe like Levi: if you were a part of a tribe, any tribe, you were part of the blessing. We need to be in a tribe to get all of the blessing God is giving out. Christians must gather together in order to function properly. Don’t let this article be an excuse for you to cut and run!

But that doesn’t mean that the gathering that we call “my church” is any more valid than any other gathering of believers in our city. That’s true whether “my church” is a country church with 50 people, a mega-church with 10,000 people, a denomination with several million adherents, or a Thursday afternoon gathering of four like-minded saints praying together at the coffee shop. We are the church, and wherever we gather with other believers is church, and mine isn’t any more holy, or any more recognized in Heaven, than yours. (I’m not talking about places where the people who you’re hanging out with happen to be believers; I’m talking about us gathering – as believers – for the purpose of being the Church gathered.)

The Book is clear that those who have been redeemed, those who know God through the work of Jesus, are first “the Church” and second are “saints.” (Have you noticed that “saints” is pretty much always plural? Ever wondered why?) We’re still “the Church of Olympia,” not “First Glory Pentecostal Methodist Church.” If I don’t consider the First Glory Methodists as much my brothers and sisters as my own home group leader, then I’m believing in things that Jesus doesn’t believe in, and I’m excluding people that my Father welcomes and loves as much as He loves me. Big mistake!

I probably should point out that I don't aspire to tell the whole story here; sure there are other perspectives on the subject. But over the last several centuries, we've told only one side of the story. My goal is not to find the ideal balance between multiple perspectives and declare it; I don't want these articles to be that long or complicated, and frankly, I don't think I'm qualified to say, “Thus and such is the right balance.” My goal is just to push the pendulum the other way a little bit. “Balanced” is not my goal; maybe “counterbalance” is.

My point is this: a local congregation – as separate from other believers in my area – is not a concept that Heaven has particularly authorized, not a concept that Heaven has mandated or supports. It was at best a tool for Christian leaders to shepherd a flock that’s too big (or too unruly), and at worst, it’s an abuse of Jesus’ beloved fiancĂ©.

This is a big paradigm shift for us, and the implications are significant, but they’re beyond the scope of this conversation. Right now, I just want to wrap my mind around the concept that I am part of this thing called The Kingdom of God. I am part of the Church in Olympia, and we represent Heaven here! My membership in a particular congregation or a home group or any kind of gathering of believers is strictly a convenience to help us – the Church – carry out our responsibilities for expanding the Kingdom.

I’m part of His Church. I like that.

Which Covenant Are You Under?

Christians would tell me, “Don’t go in that store, it’s evil!” like any evil of the place would jump out and grab me or something. Admittedly, the store in question was making good money promoting witchcraft and druidism and other things that are completely contrary to the gospel. But their wide-eyed “Don’t go in there!” unsettled me. I’ve been trying to understand.

First, I needed to come to grips with a truth that I have sometimes overlooked: sinners sin. The proprietor of the shop (I’ll call him James) is a nice guy, and he plays the didgeridoo better than anybody I’ve ever met. He doesn’t know the love of God, though he has told me, in all seriousness, that he’s “pledged his troth” to Thor. He’s a nice sinner, but he’s a sinner. So it shouldn’t surprise me that James is drawn to sinful things. He makes a good business off them, so I assume that there are a number of folks in our town who are also sinners, and who also sin. That's what people do when they don't know forgiveness. Let's deal with it.

There is room for the question, “What is the appropriate response of Christians toward sinners?” but I digress. I want to examine the concept of whether the “evil” of James’ shop is a danger to me, a saint of God.

The Old Testament teaches me that there are a bunch of ways to become unclean, and one of them is to touch anything or anyone that is unclean. For example, did you know that being dead makes you unclean, and anybody that has to touch your dead body will be unclean for a week. Leprosy is another example: You catch this, and you’re unclean for life. (Unless you get healed, but of course, nobody hardly ever got healed of leprosy.)

Worse, if you’re unclean, you can’t minister before God. If you ever do, you “shall be cut off from my presence” declares the Lord. Uncleanness is a big deal: God is holy, so we need to be holy if we want to hang around Him. It’s not like we’re going to make him unholy (ha!), but more that we’d get blown up if we showed up in His presence when we’re unclean. It’s a big deal, and the command is not just for our good, it’s for our survival!

So my Christian friends were trying to protect me when they warned me not to visit James’ shop. They were afraid that I’d become unclean from contact with the uncleanness of his store. Well, I appreciate their concern, but I’m not sure I want to live under that particular covenant. Those are all Old Covenant arguments, and are very important for someone living under the old covenant. I’m not living there.

Jesus was the embodiment of the new covenant. His words are words of the new covenant, His actions, actions of the new covenant. So if evil can get on me from unclean things, then I should be able to see that principle at work in Jesus, right?

So what did Jesus do when He came upon a dead person? He touched them and raised them to life. He touched them! How about the lepers? Same story: Jesus touched them and healed them. The pattern is repeated in the apostles. And unlike the OT, in the NT, I’m commanded to come into His presence!

So there is a huge difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, and the New is better. In the Old, when a godly person touched an unclean thing, the unclean trumped the godliness and godliness did not overcome evil. But in the New Covenant, the presence of God in me trumps evil.

So what does that mean for my life?

First, it means that I don’t need to be afraid to visit James’ shop. I’m not going to get jumped by the spirit of witchcraft on his sacred herbs or whatever. Heck, Jesus hung out with sinners, didn’t he? Did that make him unholy?

More, I see this as a New Testament extension of an Old Testament (or Old Covenant) promise: “Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours.” So now, I carry the presence of God with me, and everyplace I go, godliness trumps darkness, light shines in darkness and necessarily overpowers it. When I visit James’ shop, I leave footprints of the Kingdom of God behind me. When I visit with him, I leave something of the presence of God with him.

Now for the sake of clarification, this does not mean that I should be spending my time hanging out at porn shops and liquor stores and dens of iniquity. Specifically, if I have had trouble with porn, I’m not going to be submitting myself to the strongholds there; if I’m a recovering alcoholic, I’ll avoid the bars, not because I’m afraid of being touched by the uncleanness there (though the uncleanliness of their kitchen may be an issue), but because I’m not going to submit myself to temptation.

So no, don’t go looking for sin, don’t get cocky about darkness. But neither be afraid of darkness; someone else’s sin is not going to be a danger to me unless I’m not walking in the Presence of God. Let’s live holy and invade the darkness! How in Heaven’s name will they learn about the light if we don’t bring it to them?