25 November 2014

Same-Sex Marriage and the U.S. Constituion

The Washington Post reported, "A federal appeals court panel upheld bans on same-sex marriage in four states Thursday [Nov. 6], a break with other federal courts that makes it almost certain the Supreme Court must take up the issue of whether gay couples have a constitutional right to marry."

The decision came from a three-judge panel from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.  The 2-1 decision asserted that individual states should have the right to set rules for marriage in their respective states.  In this case the jurisdiction of this courts reaches to Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan and Ohio.

Everyone appears to be in agreement that this decision will force the hand of  the Supreme Court to adjudicate if gay couples have a constitutional right to legal marriage and all its customary benefits.  It would seem, and I have been saying for sometime, that this has been the legal trajectory, and it is inevitable that the Supreme Court will give us a ruling on the issue.

In all the debate about same-sex marriage, I would like to ponder just for a moment the constitutional debate.  Same-sex marriage is debated from many different angles.  Most likely, you'll hear me comment on it from a biblical point of view.  Others wrestle with the issue as a moral, legal, or social issue.  It seems many people just argue from the emotional and personal experience levels. 

Our Supreme Court has a role of unmatched judicial power in our country.  Article III of the U.S. Constitution does little more than establish the court's existence.  Like many things at the beginning of our country's history, its function was significantly ambiguous.  The first bill introduced to Congress in 1789 was the Judiciary Act.  This legislation created federal districts and circuits and established the number of justices on the Supreme Court (originally six) and that it would "sit" in Washington D.C.  During its first decade, the Supreme Court was rather weak.  However, under Chief Justice John Marshall the 1803 landmark case Marbury v. Madison judicial review was established for the court.  This has given the court the role of supreme interpretation and application of the Constitution to any law, federal or state.  

In theory the justices on the Supreme Court are to operate outside partisan politics.  Appointments to the bench are for a life time, meaning justices don't have to worry about pandering to the public to get elected.  Furthermore, justices are not affiliated with political parties, meaning theoretically they can be free thinkers and not tethered to party platforms or ideologies.  All this is set up so that the nine men and women that make up the court will do nothing but consider the actual application of law and hopefully embody the symbolism of the statue outside the Supreme Court of lady justice blindfolded holding the scales of justice.  The problem is that a blindfold cannot stop the presuppositions of the mind that already exist.  Nor does the blindfold inhibit the cries of public opinion.

So, when the court finally hears a case to challenge some state's law that forbids same-sex marriage, what part of the Constitution will the court look at in considering whether or not gay couples have the Constitutional right to marriage and all it's legal benefits?  As you can easily imagine, the Founding Fathers could not have conceived the possibility of the present conversation.  As you would expect, there is no direct information in the Constitution that gives any kind of explicit guidance on the subject.  It would appear that what the justices are left to work with is merely an application of what they perceive to be the spirit, sentiment, or principles that may be contained within the Constitution.  Most importantly, they will have the weight of legal precedent in regards to how the Constitution has been applied in similar cases, most notably last year's Supreme Court decision (June 2013) to strike down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in U.S. v. Winsor.  This case extended federal rights to legally married gay couples in states where gay marriage was legal, but didn't intrude on states where gay marriage was still illegal.  Of course, this decision led to a cascade of decisions in federal appellate courts that have struck down state bans on same-sex marriage.  This is what makes the decision of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court unusual.  It is the first federal appeals court to uphold state bans on gay marriage, arguing that the courts shouldn't decide on this issue.  The majority argued that the marriage debate should be resolved through the democratic process and not through the courts.  However, in doing so, this circuit court may have accelerated the process of the Supreme Court taking up the matter.

In the case of U.S. v. Windsor the Supreme Court cited the Fifth Amendment as justification in its 5-4 decision.  The specific phrase plucked from the amendment was " nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."  It seems likely the court will go here again when it considers the constitutionality of state laws in regards to bans on same-sex marriage.  I would also expect the court to go to the Fourteenth Amendment and reference this sentence: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

It is reasonable to conclude that those who crafted and ratified these amendments did not have issues pertaining to marriage in their sights.  Homosexual behavior overwhelmingly was considered immoral, not a liberty.  And frankly, that is the real debate behind the debate.  The constitutional debate will be just the legal veneer that obscures the more fundamental moral debate.  If homosexual behavior and gay marriage are morally acceptable to our society, then it is inevitable that the principles in the Constitution will be applied to protect gay couples and afford them marriage rights.  I would suggest that the fact that we are even having the debate is proof that the scale has already tipped culturally in approval of the homosexual lifestyle.  It appears to me that it is inevitable with the current court that we are headed to another 5-4 decision that will prohibit states from holding laws that ban same-sex marriage.

What does this mean to a pastor like myself?  It means I have choices of which I must be keenly aware.  I can either spend my time cursing the darkness or making sure that I am being light in both word and deed.  I can either become a miserable preacher who rants about things out of my control or be the salt in my community by loving people and speaking truth when I enter the pulpit.  I can choose to be harsh or gentle in dealing with the topic in the days ahead in conversations.  I have to be okay with biblical truth giving offense while being careful to not be an offensive personality.  At the end of the day, no matter what that day has held, I want to be like my Lord - full of grace and truth.

I believe the church needs to prepare itself for this extremely likely ruling from our Supreme Court in the very near future.  We must be able wisely and biblically to draw appropriate lines of non-compromise.  Simultaneously, we must lift high a positive vision of biblical faith and family for the world to see.  Personally, I simply must be the husband and father God has called me to be.  Christian couples need to abandon the culture of divorce that first eroded the value of marriage, paving the way for further redefining of the institution.  Faithfulness, love, perseverance and a commitment to God's Word need to be our positive qualities.  We must adopt a gracious attitude of long-suffering for truth's sake and tolerate the condemnations and attempts of shame.  We will simply keep sharing the Gospel, being faithful to God and His Word, and loving all people no matter what decision we receive from the Supreme Court.

24 October 2014

Go Big or Go Home!

Big.  That's the word.  "Go big or go home" is the catch phrase of the real success stories.  Right?  Winners produce results.  Great winners produce dramatic, big results.  This is what is ingrained in our minds and egos from day one.

Pastor, I bet you're a little like me. I want people to want to come to church faithfully with eager hearts.  I want empty seats filled with people genuinely seeking the Lord.  I desire for the church to fulfill its mission to proclaim the Gospel and minister to people.  I crave for people to understand that they are the church.  I want to see big results.  I long for greater attendance, more giving, and increased enthusiasm.  I'm just being honest.  I bet you want those things too. Striving for all this in service to God is what the church is to be doing.  We are to be increasing with God-honoring methods while we are about the work of reaching, teaching, and ministering to people. 

However, if we spiritually perseverate on big, we are going to take for granted or miss altogether the small gratifying blessings of ministry.  Of course, ministry is not about getting gratified; it is about calling and serving.  But let's be real.  If you get no gratification from your ministry, you won't be doing it for long.  And I don't think it is spiritually shallow or off target to be personally gratified by spiritual victories and success that is truly of the Lord, whether big or small.  The gratification comes in knowing that God did a good work in someone's life of which you got to be part.  That is a ministerial blessing and gratifying.  It's like a divine at-a-boy, which we all need from time to time.

Here's the potential pitfall.  If we are always measuring ministry success by big we are going to fall into some dangerous, self-destructive traps.  We will actually condition ourselves to believe that success is measured by big.  I don't believe that this is simply jealousy speaking or the proverbial sour grapes. Big is not proof of true ministerial success anymore than small is proof of genuine ministerial failure.  Conversely, big isn't necessarily the product of compromise, gimmicks, or appeals to all that is shallow anymore than small is somehow indicative of spiritual superiority.  Some of our greatest heroes of the faith served in both contexts.  Charles Spurgeon preached to thousands in London and oversaw several successful ministries, yet Adoniram Judson didn't see a single convert on the mission field in Burma for years. In the end he actually saw very few converts and endured great personal hardship throughout his ministry.  Biblically, I think that we are hit with the principle that ministerial success is measured by faithfulness, whether big or small.  From what we know, both Spurgeon and Judson were faithful in the contexts in which they were placed by God.  Nevertheless, even if we know this, we still seem to feel intuitively that bigger is not only better, but evidence of ministerial success.  We might admire Christians from history that sacrificed and ministered in the small, but we secretly don't what that to be us.  Our selfish desire cries, "please, Lord let me be a Spurgeon, not a Judson!"   

Relatively speaking, we already know that Jesus told us that narrow was the way of the true Christian path and few there would be that would actually walk it.  Jesus also said that, within the larger crowds, many who were sincerely wrong and outright fakes would exist (I'd say even at the Metropolitan Tabernacle too!).  Jesus said that many would claim to be followers, but in the end God will declare that He never knew them.  This is a sobering reality that genuine Christians have always walked in a minority and always will.  With this knowledge alone, it should be clear that big is not the goal.  Therefore, if I can get it into my think head that big is not the goal, then I can position myself mentally and spiritually to celebrate and find gratification in what may appear to be small or even singular spiritual victories. 

It's wonderful to see a big crowd on Easter or at Christmas or some other special event.  If I do my duty as pastor, then all those present will hear the Gospel. This is a great opportunity and privilege, even if it just changes one life.  But all year long, especially in a small, economically stagnant town, one can get really discouraged if all I'm looking at is the church stats.  Don't get me wrong, I still need to look at baptisms, attendance, and giving. They are important indicators to which every leader needs to attend.  Additionally, I need to be leading the church to plan and strategize for bigger.  However, the bottom line numbers are not the only or ultimate measure of my ministry's effectiveness.       

It's important that we don't miss the notable, individual matters that may never show up on an annual church profile (SBC), or whatever reporting your denomination uses.  Praise God and celebrate the fact that Wednesday night prayer meeting is becoming more real and more important to those who participate and that the average attendance is increasing, even though its still a small percentage of the whole church.  Rejoice when a church member tells you how much she has grown in responding to your challenges and encouragements as you have preached the Word.  Some people really are listening!  Take joy in how you have witnessed God work in a family as they endured a difficult trial and sought your counsel through it all.  Praise God when a deacon calls you on the phone one evening and reports to you a great visit they had with an elderly couple in the church who are going through a rough time.  Don't miss the fact that God is growing the choir, not just in numbers, but in their joy and spirit and you see the difference in worship when they sing.  Be encouraged when you see a couple getting plugged into a small group and you hear from others how they are walking closer to the Lord.  Get excited when a single leader begins to get it.  These and so many other so-called small things might not catch your appreciation as they should if you're only focused on the big.     

An inappropriate focus on big can also lead you to questionable methods simply to get a crowd and produce big results.  We've seen many, many examples of this.  Additionally, if you simply live for big, then you live in the world of the law of diminishing returns that can certainly lead to burn out.  It's a trap in which everything has to be bigger than the last most awesome big thing.   

The point is that we don't want to miss God at work even in what we may think are the small and most modest things, while we are always planning to reach more and do more.  When we see God at work even in small ways we need to rejoice.  Jesus himself talked about rejoicing over the one.  Take time for the one.  Take joy in the one.  And maybe we'll finally realize that small and insignificant are not the same.  Keep striving to reach more, but don't take for granted what God is doing in the people who are already there.  Celebrate them in the presence of God, continue to do the work to which God has called you, and make sure to take note of and take joy in the small things that God is doing that in the end may not be so small after all.

17 October 2014

Four Musts for Church Revitalization


There is so much being written and spoke of these days on church revitalization, and I'm grateful for it.  I have benefited from much of it.  All the books, blogs and conferences are certainly responding to the fact that individual churches and denominations as a whole are on the decline in this country.  We are finally waking up from our denial and constructively looking to see what has happened and how to correct the course. 

I offer the following four MUSTS for a declining or stagnant church to rebound and become a healthy church again.  Depending on your location and your local circumstances becoming healthy could mean modest or rapid growth.  I believe getting healthy may actually begin with some decline as hard decisions are made and a new course is charted, which some may not like.  In other words, revitalization is not going to look the same everywhere; however, I do believe there are a few common denominators in truly healthy churches (I said healthy not big). Healthy churches are God focused and God honoring in their worship and activities, possess unity that comes through a proper focus, and are sharing the Gospel and ministering in its community.

The following four MUSTS have emerged in my mind and heart after much reading, listening, and a few years of experience in attempting to lead a church to revitalization.  I'll admit that, as a pastor, I am still a work in progress, just like the church I serve.  However, I believe this is what I've learned so far.

Four MUSTS for church revitalization.

1. A Healthy Organization

A church must be free from organizational dysfunction. It needs strong pastoral and lay leadership and congregational participation and buy in.  It must be free from power groups that resist change and exert control.  There needs to be good lines of communication and transparency.  The leadership within the church needs to be intentionally developed continually.  Leaders need to be allowed to lead, trusted with the jobs the congregation has entrusted to them.  Above all the organization must have embedded key biblical principles, even if details of organization are negotiable.  These principles are the Lordship of Christ over the church, the importance of pastoral leadership, and the presence of congregational authority and responsibility. 

2. Clearly Communicated Core Values

A church must know what is important and why.  I believe the best way to communicate this is through a set of core values that are officially adopted by the congregation.  These core values serve multiple purposes.  First, they define the church's commitments.  Second, they shape the church's ministry to those commitments.  Third, they serve to guide the leadership to constantly evaluate if the church's activities are truly serving the desired commitments.  Fourth, they communicate to the congregation and the community what is important to the church and what it is striving to accomplish.  Again, these core values must be biblical and communicated to the congregation repeatedly in every way you can think of.     

3. Spiritually Committed People

Let's be honest, not everyone who attends church is deeply spiritually minded.  And that's okay.  However, within the leadership of the church and those who are serving, a critical mass of truly spiritually committed people must occur.  Of course, the pastor and staff must possess this quality, but so do many others if the church is to be revitalized.  Enough people have to be committed to a genuine spiritual lifestyle guided by God's Word and prayer.  Their lives will be evidence by their commitment to worship and service.  They will not be shy about their church having a prophetic role based upon the clear teachings of God's Word, and they will never be ashamed of the Gospel.  They understand the expectations of church membership and have a passion for the Gospel and for making God's name great in their lives.  Not everyone will be this, but when enough are, the scale will begin to tip and the difference will be undeniable.  I believe, however, one of the consequences is that the cultural Christians among the congregation may feel less and less inclined to participate as new people come in and leadership begins to change and become more spiritually committed.  They simply won't find church comfortable anymore.

4. Leadership Perseverance

Lastly, It seems clear that revitalization does not happen overnight.  Every study based on real research proves this.  My own experience is teaching me that healthy change is slow, with its ups and downs along the way.  A pastor must be willing to stay the course and stick it out.  He must have a long-term mentality.  Of course, no pastor can presume that he will stay in a certain place for ten, fifteen, or twenty years or not.  However, his default setting should always be on long-term, continuing to cast vision, planning for the future, working hard, leading others, and continuing to grow and learn himself.  And when the difficult and challenging times come - and they will - he must persevere and inspire the spiritually committed people to persevere with him.

Of course, these four MUSTS are encapsulated within the absolute necessity of devotion to God's Word and a desire to always place God center stage.  In the end, God does the real work of revitalization in his people as they submit to Him and get His house in order.  Pastor, read, plan, seek counsel, work and lead like revitalization depends on you.  But know that ultimately it is God who is at work in you to do His good pleasure.       

15 October 2014

The Creep of Same-Sex Marriage Continues

Another wrinkle in the developing story over same-sex marriage occurred this week in North Carolina.  I just happen to be the state this week and heard a news blurb on the radio while in my car.  This sent me to my computer later to discover the context for the story.

Last week the Supreme Court of the United States made the decision not to hear appeal cases from states in which federal judges have overturned voter mandated definitions of traditional marriage which banned same-sex marriage.  On the same day, October 10, a federal judge in Ashville, NC, Max O. Cogburn Jr., (an Obama appointee) struck down North Carolina's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that had been adopted in May 2012.  The case that brought this decision from this judge was actually brought by a group of clergy who argued that by not being allowed to perform same-sex marriages their religious rights were being violated. 

The fact that a liberal federal judge overruled the will of the people on this topic by ruling the law unconstitutional is not new.  This is happening more frequently all across our land.  What is new is that a civil magistrate in Elizabeth City, NC refused to marry two gay men on Monday, October 13, and is now facing suspension or possible dismissal.  Gary Littleton declined to officiate and validate the gay marriage based on the fact that his participation in it violated his religious conscience.  He believes that marriage is only reserved for a man and woman.  However, the law is clear.  North Carolina state law requires magistrates to  perform their duties; they do not have the option to refuse.  Now these duties for Mr. Littleton includes performing same-sex marriages.  His choices now seemed limited to sticking to his convictions and losing his job or compromising his sincerely held religious belief to keep his job.

Legalized same-sex marriage is gaining tremendous momentum in our country.  I have no doubt that our Supreme Court will eventually hear a case in which they rule any law in any state denying gay couples the right to marry as unconstitutional.  This will have serious consequences on government employees who hold Mr. Littleton's view and may be forced to be involved with same-sex marriages. 

Although I try very hard not to be an alarmist, I can't help but think that this ideology will eventually challenge the pastors and churches that refuse to marry same-sex couples.  Ironically, support for government intrusion may get support from some churches and denominations themselves.  The same-sex marriage rights creep is already happening within the religious community.  Don't forget the group that created the court case that led to the overturn of North Carolina law, that led to the moral dilemma of Mr. Littleton was initiated by clergy.

Churches, get ready for this battle.  It's knocking at the door.  And when you answer that door, don't be shocked to find the face that is staring at you is a leader from the liberal church across the street. We better have our houses of worship in order and ready to respond in a way that honors God and His Word. 

23 September 2014

Pastor, You Can't Succeed, If You Quit

Once upon a time a church was built.  The need existed.  People were burdened for the lost who needed Christ.  Charter members made sacrifices.  Believers served and gave.  And a congregation came to life, proclaiming the Gospel and serving it's community.  It's energy and newness attracted a crowd.  Momentum carried it to grow and build and connect with people.  God blessed the work, a community was blessed and the Kingdom advanced.

That was then, whenever then was.  This is now, and circumstances have dramatically changed.  The builders, who started a movement, have long since passed on and entrusted the church to successors, who inherited an institution.  For the last several generations the very existence of the church has been taken for granted, the passion has cooled and the commitment to service and self-sacrifice has greatly diminished.  Tradition and routine has become familiar and uninspired, resulting in complacency that has led to a ho-hum church and decline.  Membership in the church has become a religious garnish for most members who still attend rather than reflective of a personal all-in commitment to Jesus.  The church has become like the church in Ephesus that Jesus spoke to in the book of Revelation.  He told them, "You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.  Yet I hold this against you: you have forsaken your first love.  Remember the height from which you have fallen!  Repent and do the things you did at first.  If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from it's place."
 
At one time God built something great and exciting through properly motivated and committed people who put God first personally and made a strong commitment to corporate spiritual life through the church.  Frustrated pastor, is this your church's history?  Does this sound all too familiar?  You know it's time for your church to get out of the well-marinated complacency it's been soaking in for far too long.  You've known it for quite some time, but you're getting to the point of discouragement.

It takes effort to build something.  It takes tremendous effort to build something right.  However, unless caretakers apply constant attention and properly focused energy to what has been built, it will decay with the passage of time.  Instruction abounds that teaches us that church's have life cycles and how older churches that have lost their passion and effectiveness must refocus and rebuild or face the sad reality of a slow, painful death (e.g. Breakout Churches, Rainer, 2005; Simple Church, Rainer & Geiger, 2006; Comeback Churches, Stetzer, 2007; Transformational Church, Stetzer & Rainer, 2010; There's Hope for Your Church, McIntosh, 2012). 

Those who have penned these and other books from their experience, research and insight offer great assistance to the pastor and church leaders.  The common thread through each of these works, however, is the need for strong, spiritual leadership that perseveres to see complacent, dying churches break free and be healthy and thriving once again.

I believe what I'm learning the most about pastoral leadership is the critical importance of ministry perseverance.  Real leadership is just hard.  Whether you naturally crave leadership or have it thrust upon you, the plain and simple truth is that leadership is difficult.  I suppose if it were easy, everyone would do it.  Pastoral leadership has another layer of difficulty because it is other-worldly.  Pastors walk by faith in their leadership and try to lead volunteers to walk by faith as well.  Sometimes being faithful to God is counterintuitive to culture and convention.

When you're the new pastor the people have their fingers crossed hoping that you will make the difference.  And for awhile it may seem they are actually convinced that you are finally the one that will rescue them from past conflict and years of ineffectiveness.  And you may even buy into the delusion that your awesomeness alone will save the day.  This state may persist for the first couple of years while you preach, get to know people, seek to understand the church's history and evaluate the current situation.

Then, while in that 3-6 year range, you have finally brought into focus a realistic picture of the spiritual conditions of people and the church as a whole.  By now you've made some unpopular decisions, offended a few people, and made some mistakes.  You have some who have quit coming and frankly don't think your all that awesome anymore.  Everything feels stagnant and you're beginning to wonder if the church will reach new people and grow.  Participation has slumped and giving may even be down.  Now, you're tempted to leave.  You know the church has seen better days, but what you're up against now is a pervasive and frustrating complacency.  Oh, you still have the faithful few who show up, serve, give, lead and are true team players.  Thank God for them! But the key word is few.  

The truth is that a church mired in complacency is probably going to stay in it until its death or until a stubborn, strong-willed, God-called pastor leads them out of it.  In established churches, much of the problem is that just when the critical, hard, frustrating, and defining moments are happening, many of us pastors look to find a new place to lead. (Or the church, who has become disillusioned with our leadership, sends us packing!)  We tell ourselves that these people are impossible, or that we are no longer effective leaders, or my family can't take this any more.  You start making a list of pros and cons about your ministry and begin to agonize over the future.  The joy you used to have is stretched thin and your burden within is great.  You just honestly wonder to yourself, "will this place ever spiritually turn the corner?"  You doubt yourself thinking, "Maybe I'm the problem, and it's time for another to take over who might do better."

Pastor, sometimes God does providentially call you away from one ministry field to a new one, orchestrating the circumstances and tugging at your heart.  There is that God-ordained and affirmed move that sometimes comes.  But I think there is a difference between being truly called to somewhere new and simply running away from where you are.  We must be very wise about this!  I suspect that many of our so-called new callings are no more than rationalized retreats.  Often, when the going gets tough, the pastor gets busy looking to go somewhere else.  As a consequence his heart, soul and work ethic are no longer where he is, which compounds the problem.  Now, the pastor has become complacent through discouragement and become part of the problem.

Pastor, if the majority of your congregation is blissfully swimming in a pool of complacency, don't lose heart.  Maybe as a whole the church has left it's first love, like the Ephesians, and now loves this world more than it does her Savior.  Still, don't lose heart.  Maybe some folks, who have little patience for the Word of God applied to their lives, show up less often now or not at all, still don't lose heart. 

How can I say simply not to lose heart?  Of course, it is easier to say than to do, but it is exactly how the Scripture encourages and instructs us.

"And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary" Galatians 6:9

"Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart."  Hebrews 12:1-3

"Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.  For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths.  But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry." 2 Timothy 4:2-5

Pastors, being a good leader is hard.  It's about skill and personality.  It's about prayer, planning and execution.  It's about motivating and inspiring.  But I think that on many Mondays, it's simply about not quitting.  Keep your eyes on Jesus.  Let His sacrifice put your frustration in perspective.  Keep preaching the Word of God without apology or soft peddling.  Let God, by His Spirit apply the Word to the hearts of people and trust God with the results.  Know some will not receive it and some will.  Keep bouncing back.  Be resilient.  Endure the tough stuff and keep charging.  Don't slack.  Work hard.  Do the job God has called you to do to the best of your ability.  Keep your family encouraged and trusting the Lord. 

The complacent church that has left its first love will only truly be revitalized and rebuild a thriving ministry when a pastor will go the distance, pushing through the toughest and most discouraging times, and lead a congregation to be healthy again.  You can't do it alone, but a congregation can't do it without you.   

24 August 2014

Why People are Leaving the Church: An Interaction with the Thoughts of John Pavlovitz

I'm a fan of blogging.  I find in the blogosphere helpful advice and encouragement and also lines of thought that challenge me and make me pause and think more deeply.  Some voices make me consider points of view that are difficult for me to see because they tend to be outside my experiential line of sight.  I suppose that is true for everyone to a large degree.  I recently read a two-part post from John Pavlovitz on his blog called "stuff that needs to be said."  Being a pastor, the title of this particular post caught my eye.  He entitled it "Church, Here is Why People are Leaving You."

If you're a pastor or even an informed Christian who cares and pays attention to the church, you can't deny that denominations and churches all around have been struggling.  All the statistics point to the fact that for a long time church membership and attendance has been lagging way behind population growth.  Now, denominations like my own (Southern Baptists) are in a multi-year numerical decline in membership.  So, you see why that title would get my attention.  I wanted to read what this guy had to say.  In summary, I found his thoughts somewhat helpful but generally overly critical of the church while giving a pass in many ways to people who supposedly the church is neglecting.  But when you read Pavlovitz's description of himself, this is not so surprising.  He touts himself as "specializing in rabble-rousing, engineering mayhem, and generally trying to live-out the red letters of Jesus" - a colorful description to say the least.

In part one of this post, Pavlovitz listed five reasons as evidence for his claim that "the church is the problem."  Here are his reasons and my thoughts about them.

First, he argues that "Sunday productions have worn thin."  The target of his criticism here is clearly the evangelical contemporary scene.  He writes, "We can be entertained anywhere.  Until you give us something more that Christian-themed performance pieces; something that allows us space and breath and conversation and relationship, many of us are going to sleep-in and stay away."  I can appreciate much of what he asserts in this first reason.  I too feel that many churches have succumbed to the performance trap.  However, I don't think this is exclusive to the contemporary style, although possibly the greatest offender in this matter.  The drive simply to create atmosphere with music, lights, and even fog machines is an attempt to sanctify the "rock concert."  I agree, with Pavlovitz here.  If this is what a church has attracted people with, then it's only a matter of time before the novelty wears off and it too becomes passé.  However, this style alone does not necessarily mean that real conversation and relationship within the fellowship of the church isn't happening. 

Second, he asserts, "You speak a foreign tongue."  This is no new criticism for the church.  The gist is that we use our own jargon in the most insensitive manner, therefore keeping the outsiders out.  Pavlovitz concludes, "Keep up the church-speak, and you'll be talking to an empty room soon."  I understand this charge, but I also have always sensed a clear and unfair double standard here.  Can you imagine anyone in any other situation being apologetic for their "insider" language?  For example, I'm in the military as a reservist.  When I made the commitment and jumped in, I was immediately thrown into the deep end of the jargon pool.  No one who was already on the inside considered it their duty to change their language so I wouldn't feel lost.  Just the contrary was true.  It was my responsibility to ask questions and learn what the language meant.  And I did.  It took some time, but I finally did start getting it.  And even today I still have to learn new things since I've decided to be part of the military.  Or imagine going to a baseball game and a person sitting in the stands complaining because he doesn't understand the game.  How absurd to hold it against the baseball crowd, if I don't understand what a strike, ball, error, or double-play is.  If I'm truly curious, then I need to pay attention and ask those who do know so I can learn. But when it comes to church, church people are constantly shamed because they know words and their meanings that are important to the faith that others might not yet understand.  Yes, it is important for preachers and teachers in the church to explain and teach certain words, like sin, grace, redemption, or even eschatology and it is the responsibility of the seeker to seek to understand.  When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus he used a strange and confusing phrase - "born again."  It forced Nicodemus to search and question.  There are actually a lot of "red letters" that work like this.  Jesus often makes people work harder if they really want to get at what he means.  Just think about His parables.

Third, he charges, "Your vision can't see past your building."  Here Pavlovitz gives some good advice.  "You wanna reach people you're missing? Leave the building."  I must agree that all the ministry of the church cannot happen inside it's own facility.  Church properties are a blessing because it is a space dedicated to worship and making disciples.  Lots of good stuff can happen inside the church house.  That's the idea!  However, his point is solid.  The church must get outside the walls and do ministry in the community.  It must rub shoulders with the community and plug into it with partnerships and collaborations where it can, especially in the areas of benevolence.  Biblically, it seems that there is both the call to "go" and to "come and see."

Fourth, Pavlovitz laments, "You choose lousy battles."  He obviously, has a problem with guys like myself who might make commentary on certain social issues.  He claims that the church (his criticism seems leveled at conservative evangelicals) is only concerned with "fast food protests, hobby store outrage, and duck-calling Reality TV shows."  The implication seems to be this: the people the church wants to reach do not care about these things!  They don't care about moral discussions about such things as religious freedom, abortion, or homosexuality.  Those issues aren't worth dissent and discussion and actually only give unnecessary offense.  Christian voices ought not waste time on such battles.  Instead he argues, "Every day we see a world suffocated by poverty, and racism, and violence, and bigotry, and hunger; and in the face of that stuff, you get awfully, frighteningly quiet."  To this charge, I think the church probably should plead significantly guilty.  We need to do a better job fighting for suffering people, rather than just what we perceive as attacks on our beliefs.  However, the call to positive action on behalf of suffering people doesn't negate the prophetic role of the church and the preacher.  It is a false dichotomy to say I must choose one or the other.  Both are part of the job.  We must show mercy and do justice and be salt and light in a dark world. 

Lastly, he contends, "Your love doesn't look like love." I think this is most serious charge he levels at the conservative, evangelical church, therefore here is what he said if full.
     
"Love seems to be a pretty big deal to you, but we’re not getting that when the rubber meets the road. In fact, more and more, your brand of love seems incredibly selective and decidedly narrow; filtering out all the spiritual riff-raff, which sadly includes far too many of us.  It feels like a big bait-and-switch, sucker-deal; advertising a “Come As You Are” party, but letting us know once we’re in the door that we can’t really come as we are. We see a Jesus in the Bible, who hung out with lowlifes and prostitutes and outcasts, and loved them right there, but that doesn’t seem to be your cup of tea. Church, can you love us if we don’t check all the doctrinal boxes and don’t have our theology all figured out? It doesn’t seem so.  Can you love us if we cuss and drink and get tattoos, and God forbid, vote Democrat? We’re doubtful.   Can you love us if we’re not sure how we define love, and marriage, and Heaven, and Hell? It sure doesn’t feel that way.  From what we know about Jesus, we think he looks like love. The unfortunate thing is, you don’t look much like him."

If Pavlovitz is critiquing the self-righteous, then I'm in hearty agreement.  The church is called to extend love to everyone, even enemies.  However, I think he may be confusing love with acceptance.  I do agree with his criticism of churches that put way too much emphasis on "come as you are," implying that the church will accept any lifestyle or behavior in people.  I can see how some might see this a false advertising.  Actually, I agree it is a horrible idea to promote this idea for that reason.  The invitation is simply to come.  And when they come, people are confronted with the message of repent and believe - the message Jesus preached.  No doubt Jesus did get accused by the self-righteous for hanging out with the wrong crowd at times, but it would be misguided to conclude that Jesus accepted the "wrong" crowd's sin.  He clearly did not, even though He loved them.  He extended mercy to the woman caught in adultery and told her to go and sin no more.  Within the quote above, there seems to be a problem with a biblical Christianity that would put any emphasis on propositional truth or absolute morality.  His thought about love in this point is fallacious.  He confuses love and acceptance.  He makes it sound as if love and sound doctrine are enemies.  If a church is unwelcoming of any person, then shame on that church.  In that, I'm in agreement with Pavlovitz.  But if what he means is that to speak biblical ideas from conviction is contrary to love (i.e. to call what is sin, sin), then I most strongly disagree.  Love is both treating all people with dignity and respect and speaking the truth.

A few days later, Pavlovitz posted a second part to this blog, presumably after he had received significant feedback from the first part.  In it he personified the agonized person who can't see past his own problems to see a church extending love through the Word of God.  He seems to ridicule the idea of referencing Scripture as an unloving and useless endeavor, which I think again reveals his low view of the Bible, except for the red letters that he likes.  I think I understand what he's getting at, but he seems to be missing the point of the Gospel call.  If a person knows he or she is in a rebellious (dare I say sinful) lifestyle against God, the call is to repent.  The Gospel truly received transforms - that's the point.  Yes, people should be sincerely loved and embraced and the whole Gospel must be proclaimed, even the bad news about the devastation of sin.  The utter seriousness of sin is what make the "Good News" so good!    

In his conclusion he writes, "Church, even if you’re right, even if we’re totally wrong; even if we’re all petty, and self-centered, and hypocritical, and critical, and (I’ll say it), “sinful”, we’re still the ones searching for a place where we can be known and belong; a place where it feels like God lives, and you’re the ones who can show it to us.  Even if the problem is me, it’s me who you’re supposed to be reaching, Church.  So, for the love of God; reach already."

These word are powerful, but not in the way he thinks.  The church can only truly reach these people if the full Gospel of Jesus is proclaimed to them.  They are not "reached" if they are merely made comfortable in their sin.  Jesus loved sinners, but he never made sinners comfortable in their sin.  The church must go out and minister, open its doors wide sincerely to all who will come, and boldly preach the biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ.

22 July 2014

Here's What's Going on at Campbellsville University

Around the Kentucky Baptist Convention right now, many pastors and church folks must be wondering what is going on at Campbellsville University.  In a flurry of recent activity, the school and leadership of the KBC have fired competing statements of the conflict at one another and into the public for consumption.  In the end I believe many good Baptists are scratching their heads in bewilderment, wondering what has happened.  Like Georgetown did in 2005, it appears that Campbellsville now desires to walk away from its long-standing relationship with Kentucky Baptist churches.  Why?

As they say, there is always two sides to a story.  However, logically, there can only be one story that aligns with the truth of the matter.  The problem is that most people do not have enough information to discern confidently that truth.  What often happens is good people often take sides based on the relationships and allegiances they already possess. 

The reason for this post is to bring another voice to the discussion.  But the voice in this case is not simply one that is parroting his chosen camp; this voice is the one of one who has been part of the pivotal meetings and discussions that have brought us to this point with Campbellsville under Dr. Michael Carter's leadership.  Therefore, if you are on the outside wondering what to think, then I offer you my voice as you gather information.  I suppose you don't have to believe me, but I have no dog in this fight.  I have nothing against Dr. Carter personally.  But I do have a huge problem with the letter he sent out addressed to "Kentucky Baptists" dated July 16.  It deserves a reply because of its false statements. 

I desire nothing more than for my congregation and others within the KBC who are out of the loop on this to hear from one who has been in the loop.  Furthermore, I have a clear conscience in sharing this.  I have no formal commitment to any kind of confidentiality.  We all appreciate transparency, so let me be transparent on behalf of those involved.

From 2010-13 I served on the Mission Board of the KBC, serving on the Agency and Institution Committee - the last year as its chair.  In April of 2013 the news hit the blogosphere that a professor at CU, Dr. Jarvis Williams, who had been promoted just the previous year, would not be granted tenure or have his contract renewed.  In other words, he was being let go.  Of course, as the news began to spread, the view began to circulate that Dr. William's personal conservative and theologically Reformed views were at the heart of his dismissal.

Dr. Paul Chitwood, Executive Director of the KBC, took a proactive stance and requested that a small delegation from the KBC could meet with Dr. Carter and some CU board members.  His reason for this request was essentially two-fold.  First, he wanted to gain assurance that conservative scholarship was still welcome at CU.  Second, he wanted to put the fire out before it swelled.  Therefore, his actions were on behalf of the churches of the KBC and for the best interest of CU itself.  So, on April 29, on the Campus of CU, we met.  Again, I emphasize, I was there.

From the beginning of the meeting Dr. Carter was defensive.  He felt that he was being inappropriately called in on the proverbial carpet by the KBC leadership.  Overall, the conversation was civil and helpful.  However, Dr. Carter did let slip his more moderate views in regards to Scripture and his dislike for Calvinism.  In the end, we felt that CU had given us assurances that Dr. William's dismissal was not about his conservative theological views, but were more of a personal nature.  The KBC representatives took Dr. Carter at his word and we felt the matter was settled and that we could give a good report to the Mission Board the next week.

At the Mission Board meeting on May 6-7 I had the privilege as the chair of the Agencies and Institutions Committee to stand before the entire board and give a report on the CU matter.  By this time everyone anxiously awaited an update on what was happening.  I tried to lighten the mood of the room with some humor and then told the group that the relationship between CU and the KBC was good, which was an honest assessment at the time.  KBC leadership was satisfied with the dialogue that had taken place and we wanted the churches to know that all was well.

What we didn't know then, that has become clear now, is that Dr. Carter took the whole Dr. Williams affair badly and personally.  It is obvious now that he began to plan to break the covenant agreement that the KBC and CU has operated relationally through since 1986.  Of course, the relationship CU has with the KBC goes back much further.  In 1938 the school agreed to grant to the General Association of Baptists in Kentucky (now the KBC) the responsibility of the election of trustees in exchange for financial support and a closer cooperating relationship.  The school had first opened its doors in 1907 as the Russell Creek Academy, founded by Baptists of the Russell Creek Baptist Association.  CU was Baptist born and supported from it's inception.     

During last summer we were informed that CU had run into a snag with their accrediting agency (SACS) in regards to the Covenant Agreement.  The Covenant Agreement in short arranges that in exchange for the monetary contribution that the churches of Kentucky make through their CP gifts, the Mission Board of the KBC, as representatives of Kentucky Baptists, will have a role in approving trustees for CU.  the Mission Board does not pick the trustees, it simply affirms or rejects ones chosen by CU each year.  This is a reasonable system of accountability for such a relationship.  Dr. Carter also pulled out an obscure Kentucky law dealing with non-profit organizations that he claimed constituted a conflict of interest for the school.  A retired Kentucky Supreme Court justice mediated, and in his statement he made it clear that there was no breach of law.  Furthermore, SACS representatives affirmed there were no issues with the Covenant Agreement. 

The truth is that Dr. Carter himself has created these concerns in his quest to separate CU from the Covenant Agreement and create a self-perpetuating board of trustees.  However, he has schemed to try to lay the blame for such an ending of the relationship at the feet of KBC leadership, in particular Dr. Chitwood.  Anyone on the inside watching this, with eyes to see, can't miss exactly what is happening. 

Now, a year later, Dr. Carter has simply made the move to separate.  But in true form he has to blame the KBC for the move.  Instead of just owning his decision and explaining to all why he thinks it is a good move for the school, he is disseminating false information.  In his letter to Kentucky Baptists dated July 16, he and his Board of Trustees Chair, Joseph Owens, claim that they are protecting CU from "both undue influence and the imposition of theological and doctrinal control."  Of course, the letter gives no specific example of this for good reason.  There are no examples to give.  These accusations are completely unfounded.  I must conclude this is an intentional false witness.  The KBC leadership has no such power and has not at any time in this whole drama attempted to impose any kind of theological agenda on the school.

If the move to separate CU from the KBC is completed, I'm afraid the real loser will be CU itself.  Dr. Carter has not been and will not always be the president. But right now his board is allowing him to set a course direction for CU that Kentucky Baptists overall will not like.  I understand a board's allegiance to their president; however, it should not be a blind allegiance.  Every board member needs to think for himself and herself and hold the president of the school they hold in trust accountable for his actions and words.  If CU separates, it will over time become less Baptist in identity and more liberal theologically.  That will be Dr. Carter's and his current board's legacy. 

In the end, this is a sad and unnecessary development.  My personal assessment is that this whole ordeal has been initiated and driven by one man who became personally offended and has expressed unfounded fears (whether real or feigned) about the school's relationship with Kentucky Baptists through the Covenant Agreement.  I take no joy in pointing this out.  But I believe the truth is important.  If you disagree with me about my assessment, that's fine.  However, if you do, I would ask that you give me one real example of how KBC leadership has attempted to exercise "undue influence" or impose "theological and doctrinal control."  Maybe you know something I don't.  Until someone can show me how this has happened, here I stand with the KBC as a pastor and Kentucky Baptist.

17 July 2014

The Strange World of Military Chaplaincy

Since 2004 I have served as a chaplain in the United States Air Force.  For ten years I have been exposed to our Air Force subculture generally and to its chaplaincy specifically.  All this time, I have served in the roll of the reservist.  However, I've received the same training as active duty and step into the roll fully when on duty.  The greatest challenge as a reservist is staying current on changes and not forgetting what I've already learned.

When I step from my full-time ministry of a pastor into the role of military chaplain, I must concede I enter into a strange land, filled with much greater diversity, different ministerial opportunities, and tensions in regards to my personal faith.

Like many people, my existence has primarily been within homogeneous settings.  Those who I grew up with, have worshipped with, and continue to hang out with today tend to be people relatively like me.  This is not by my intentional design; it's just what naturally happens to most of us.  Air Force chaplaincy affords me the opportunity to exit my homogeneous existence occasionally and enter a strange world of diversity.

Over ten years of reservist duty, in both training and work, I have rubbed shoulders with fellow chaplains who are Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, and Protestants from many different denominations.  Diversity like this just doesn't happen in my Southern Baptist pastorate in a small town in eastern Kentucky.  I get to meet real people from different traditions and belief systems, not just the impersonal caricatures of them.  This is a good thing.  It makes me more knowledgeable and discerning about true similarities and irreconcilable differences.  For example, just recently a Jewish Chaplain invited me to her home to a Sabbath meal with her family.  I welcomed the opportunity and had a great evening discussing the Apostle Paul's understanding of the Law with her husband.  This interaction makes me think more deeply and critically about what I believe and why I continue to hold to those beliefs in the face of so many competing beliefs. 

Military chaplaincy is a unique and strange opportunity.  As a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ I take my ministry of preaching, teaching and pastoral care into a military setting and receive compensation for it from this country's tax payers.  That in itself with today's cultural assumptions is truly strange and unconventional.  Where our society has gradually untangled religion from public money (e.g. public schools), the military still maintains this unique sponsoring of certain personnel for religious purposes.  The military contends that this arrangement doesn't constitute an establishment of religion, but provides military members with a resource for the protection of their rights to the free exercise of religion.

I realize, with my historical perspective, that Christianity in the past has been established in our country in formal and informal ways.  The Founding Fathers intentionally chose not to establish a national church, yet religious convention and assumptions persisted for a long time.  Gradually, the secular foundation they established coupled with the true American "religion" of individualism, forced Christianity out of the public sphere and into the private.  For most of our history those two spheres overlapped in significant ways (e.g. public prayers, displays, traditions, and observances).  Today, those spheres have been almost completely separated.  However, military chaplaincy constitutes a strange exception that has persisted.  Being that it is, the result is a ministry/profession that comes with unique personal tensions for me.        

When I bring my faith in Jesus with me into the chaplaincy I encounter a context that becomes strange for me personally.  From the beginning, I have observed a pervasive tendency within the Air Force chaplaincy towards the generic and universal that cuts directly across my belief in the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The American motto of e pluribus unum (from many one) appears to me to apply just as easily to religion as it does to the reality of ethnicity in the USAF Chaplain Corps.  Within this unique environment for ministry there is much talk of God, but it's often unclear of who's God.  For example, when a chaplain offers a public prayer at an official function (e.g. retirement ceremony, change of command, dinning in/out, etc.) the expectation is that any reference to God be generic and inclusive.  In other words, the expectation is that a Christian chaplain will not mention the name of Jesus.  Also, when chaplains converse about God in any official capacity, it always begs the question of who's God, especially when a diverse bunch of chaplains gather.  I understand the importance of showing respect to others that do not share my faith tradition, but I must admit that this causes me personal tension since I believe earnestly that there is no other name (Jesus) under heaven by which people must be saved. 

Because of the diversity within the chaplaincy itself and in the broader Air Force, I understand the tendency toward the generic.  However, I find that I have difficulty sometimes personally accommodating it in some settings.  For example, I can't in good conscience leave the name of Jesus out of my public prayers and I won't.  But this has put me at odds with command structures.  Chaplain Corps guidance instructs us to keep the public praying inclusive.  In other words, don't mention Jesus.  At my last base of attachment I shared my personal convictions with my boss (Wing Chaplain) and he decided that I should opt out of offering invocations at official functions. I don't begrudge him in any way.  Under the current guidance, he made the right call.  I just find the situation sad.  In some ways we have become so oversensitive to diversity that we are beginning to infringe on the Christian chaplain's right simply to be himself - particularly the evangelical chaplain.

Another area of tension on the horizon is going to be in regards to the enormous culture shift in attitude and policy making concerning homosexuality.  With the repeals of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and DOMA and the growing number of states making same-gender marriage legal, the obstacles from homosexuals integrating fully into the military have been removed. (It's just a matter of time before we have a federal law in regards to homosexual marriage)  Of course, my endorsing agency (NAMB) explicitly forbids me to counsel or marry homosexual couples, like the vast majority of endorsing agencies.  This is another one of those tensions of military chaplaincy.  Every chaplain is bound by the decisions of his or her endorser while at the same time attempting to work with the guidance of the Chaplain Corps.  Currently, their has been no problem in regards to this.  If a chaplain is forbidden from serving communion or marrying homosexuals, the Air Force respects those convictions.  I hope this will always be the case, but I can see us on a trajectory towards greater tension on this issue, especially when we have homosexual chaplains.  The door is now wide open.  It is inevitable.

I consider it a great privilege to don the uniform and serve my country as a chaplain.  I bring my calling and training as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a unique sub-culture.  I respect completely the military's concern for discipline and good order.  I respect the priority of mission.  But in regards to Christianity in general in our country and within the unique context of military chaplaincy, once held cultural assumptions are rapidly eroding.  I still contemplate occasionally in what directions military chaplaincy may evolve, or if there will be a future for it at all.  As the culture becomes more secular and antagonistic toward biblical Christianity, I ponder the impact ultimately on military chaplaincy.  Regardless of the outcomes, I always want to represent my county well.  But I am constrained by my faith to never let that commitment compromise my allegiance to Jesus.  He alone has authority over my conscience and with the Apostle Paul I have to assert that "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes."                         

30 June 2014

Hobby Lobby, Corporate Personhood, and Religious Liberty

Today the Supreme Court handed down the highly anticipated decision in regards to two family-owned businesses claims that the contraceptive mandate within the Affordable Care Act violated their personal religious liberty.  In a 5-4 decision the Court ruled in favor of Green family (Southern Baptists) who own Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts and crafts stores, and the Hahns family (Mennonites), who own Conestogo, a company that makes cabinets.  The majority reasoned that the contraceptive mandate did violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.  The aim of that legislation was to prevent government from making laws that would substantially burden individual's in regards to their free exercise of religion (1st Amendment).  The RFRA does allow for the government to interfere in person's religious freedom if there can be demonstrated a compelling interest for the benefit of the whole.  In addition, if the government discerns a compelling interest that curtails religious freedom, then they must employ the least restrictive way in regards to the individual to accomplish its purpose.

In the Hobby Lobby case the Court decided that the government failed to show that imposing the contraceptive mandate at the owner's expense was the least restrict means of furthering its own interest in providing that form of health care to women.  In other words, the Court told the government to find another solution rather than tread on the religious consciences of these business owners.  Essentially, this is no different than the exceptions that have already been granted to religiously based non-profits like hospitals and schools.

Another big question in this case was whether or not a corporation like Hobby Lobby had the same rights as individuals.  The idea of corporate personhood was upheld for some corporations.  This decision was applied because these two businesses were defined as "closely held corporations" (i.e. family businesses).  The ruling doesn't necessarily apply to giant corporations.  Justice Alito, writing for the majority, stated, "Protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga and Mardel protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies."  In other words, the business owner does have a religious freedom that should be protected from government laws that violate his or her religious conscience.  This is a huge ruling with broad implications. 

Of course, the dissenting judges and the left-leaning folks out there, believe the Court simply set up the proverbial slippery slope.  Now, it's simply a matter of time before every crazy religious group out there will start claiming this case as precedent to justify all kinds of dissent against laws they don't what to obey.  All I can say to this is, we'll have to wait and see.  Most of that rhetoric I believe is just fear mongering.  The decision made today was reasonable.

What we need to realize is that the contraceptives under scrutiny in this case (morning after pill and the like) will still be provided for employees.  The government will just have to figure out who gets to pay for it.  The Green and Hahns families will not be paying for it in their companies, but someone will.  And you've probably guessed it - the tax payer.

Like many other Christians, I'm happy for this ruling, but I believe it to be only the beginning of a continuing and growing collision of federal government law and personal religious liberty in regards to the social issues of abortion and homosexuality.              

25 June 2014

Phoebe the Deacon: Should Women Serve in the Role Today?

I have been preaching through the book of Romans for quite some time.  This past Sunday I delivered the 49th message from the epistle on the first two verses of the last chapter.  Paul is making his closing remarks to the Roman Christians in this remarkable letter.  In doing so, he mentions Phoebe the deacon.  In fact, Paul commends her to the Romans as a sister in the faith and a deacon of the church of Cenchrea, a port city near Corinth.  Commentators overwhelming agree that Paul refers to her in such a way to indicate that she is the one bringing the letter to the Roman Christians.  He asks for them to receive her graciously, helping her in any way that she might need.  He adds that she has blessed and assisted many, including Paul himself.

I call Phoebe a deacon because that is what Paul calls her, even if your English translation renders it as "servant."  The Greek word Paul employs to describe Phoebe is diakonos.  In the New Testament era this word was used in reference to another person who simply rendered help and assistance to another person.  In most places it appears in the New Testament it is used with this general meaning.  For example, in Matthew 20:26 Jesus states, "whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your diakonos." In John 2:5 at the marriage celebration John records, "His mother said to the diakonois, whatever He says to you, do it."  Paul describes the human government of men with the same word.  "For it [government] is a diakonos of God to you for good" (Rom. 13:4).  In 1 Corinthians 3:5 Paul wrote, "What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Diakonoi through whom you believed."  Many other examples could be given of this kind of generic use of the word.

However, we also clearly observe that diakonos is beginning to take on a more official meaning as the New Testament church developed.  It appears that the first group of men designated in an officially recognized capacity as deacons occurred in Jerusalem.  This is recorded by Luke in Acts 6:1-6.  Although the word diakonos does not appear here, it is generally agreed upon that the description is of the election of the first seven "servants."  They were chosen to assist the apostles in administering benevolent ministry within the congregation. 

The letter to the Philippians further indicates that the general understanding of servant was becoming linked to a specially designated role within congregations.  As Paul opens his letter he writes, "Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons [diakonois]."  By coupling this word with overseer, it appears Paul is recognizing a specific ministry within the congregation in addition to just fellow believers, which Paul typically, like he does here, refers to as saints.

Most clearly we see the office of deacon specified in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.  Here Paul carefully explains to the younger Timothy the necessity of congregations choosing elders and deacons wisely.  He explains the kind of character both should have, summed up in the idea of "being above reproach."

From the meaning of the word itself and from the context of Acts 6, we can confidently assert that a deacon in the New Testament did not exercise administrative authority over a congregation.  This was the calling and responsibility of the overseers/elders/pastors.  The deacons functioned as those who had been recognized for their spiritual maturity and tasked with tending to the needs of the congregation in the areas of benevolence and care.

So, when Paul refers to Phoebe in Romans 16 as a "diakonon of the church of Cenchrea," what does he have in mind?  Does he simply mean generically that she was a faithful servant, like any good saint in her congregation or did he mean that she held the office of deacon in her congregation?  I'm certainly not alone by leaning toward the latter.  Many, including myself, conclude that the natural reading is to conclude that Paul is referring to her office in her church.  From the way he commends her to connecting the word diakonos to her church, suggests rather convincingly to me that he's using the word as a title.  Therefore, it would appear that the word here is in reference to a woman serving in the role.  This opens up an interesting discussion, especially among conservative Southern Baptists!  The question then becomes what to do with Phoebe. 

A critical, collateral passage to help us know what to do with Phoebe is the afore mentioned 1 Timothy 3:8-13.  Within this description of the qualifications of deacon is a difficult verse for translators.  In verses 8-10 and 12 Paul is addresses men explicitly.  In verse 11 he makes reference to women (gunaikas from the root gune, which simply means "woman").  In the Greek this is the only word used for women, whether in the most general sense or if reference to a married woman.  The context dictates how to understand the word specifically.

For example in Ephesians 5:22 Paul instructs, "Gunaike, be subject to your own husbands..." To translate this word "wives" in this context is clear because of the connection to the word husbands. In 1 Timothy 2:9 Paul writes, "Likewise, I want gunaika to adorn themselves..."  He goes on to write about them being modest and such.  Here the word appears to simply mean "women" in a more general sense.  Many other examples could be given to demonstrate how context determines whether to translate the word into English as "wives" or "women." 

For 400 years people have been familiar with the KJV's rendering of "wives."  Other modern English translations have followed suit, such as the NLT, ESV and HCSB.  However, others have broken with the KJV by rendering gunaikas as "women", such as the NASV, NRSV, and NIV.  The traditional translation has been "wives."  However, it begs the question if this has reflected a male bias that began with the original English translations over 400 years ago.  Modern translators disagree on this because the context doesn't dictate a clear choice.  In context, either "wives" or "women" can make sense.

The big question is this:  What did Paul have in mind in the passage?  Did he simply mean wives of male deacons or was he just naturally including women in the deacon role without any fanfare.  On the one hand, it seems strange for Paul to be addressing male deacons in verse 8-10, interrupt his thought in verse 11 by switching to thoughts about female deacons, then return to describing male deacons in verse 12.  Verse 13 can be taken as referring to deacons in general regardless of gender.  On the other hand, there are a couple of contextual items that may indicate Paul did indeed have women deacons in mind even though the parenthetical nature of the thought is awkward.  First, if Paul was addressing deacons' wives, one would reasonably expect that he would have addressed overseers' wives as well, but he didn't.  Second, the use of the word likewise in verse 13 makes it parallel with verse 8.  Before verse 8 Paul had been describing the qualifications for an overseer, which are clearly men.  In verse 8 he transitions to deacons (male) by saying, "deacons likewise."  Then he goes on to demonstrate that in the same way deacons must be men of good reputation and character just like overseers.  Then in verse 11 he does the same thing when he writes literally, "women likewise," then proceeds to explain the desired qualities for them.  Although, it is not unreasonable to translate gunaikas as "wives" here, I believe it is preferable to translate it more generally as "women", since the context doesn't clearly steer us toward the idea of married women.  But what tips the scale for me in favor of "women" over "wives" is the reality of Phoebe in Romans 16:1.  Since Paul does appear to be labeling Phoebe as a deacon in an official capacity, it makes it more likely to me that he has women deacons in mind as he writes to Timothy. 

In the past and now I think the thorny part of this issue has involved the status attached to the tradition of ordination in our Baptist tradition.  Whenever a discussion opens about the possibility of women deacons, we seem to instinctively leap right into a discussion of the appropriateness of ordaining women, which is truly a conversation about authority.  In our Baptist tradition ordination carries with it the connotation of calling, spiritual fitness, and the authority granted to one who lives up to the qualifications of the office, whether pastor or deacon.  So, our negative reaction to women in the role of deacon may be more about ordination than about the actual question of whether women served in the role in the New Testament.  Therefore, it probably is helpful to examine the biblical precedents on which modern ordination in our Baptist life is built.

First, we have to admit that the New Testament gives no exact instructions for ordination. The tradition of recognizing certain individuals in the church for special places of service through the centuries has resulted in many forms and meanings in regards to ordination.  As we have noted, the New Testament indicates that the offices of elder/overseer/pastor and deacon are the regular offices for the church.  The idea of ordaining those in these positions is not unreasonable since we observe a certain ceremonialism in the early church connected to them.  However, what we actually observe in the early church is pretty simple compared to the tradition and meaning we have piled on top of these earliest examples.

In Acts 6 the men were chosen so they could be put in charge of the needed tasks of congregational care.  Once they had been selected Luke records, "And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them"(Acts 6:6).  This action of laying on hands was a symbol of blessing and dedication to the task.  In Titus 1:5 Paul instructs, "...and appoint elders in every city..."  In Acts 12:2-3 we read about Paul and Barnabas being commissioned for a missionary journey.  "And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away."  In Acts 14:23 we observe Paul and Barnabas "ordaining" elders within the congregations they had helped birth.  "And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed."  And in 2 Corinthians 8:19 Paul mentions how Titus had been "ordained" by the churches.  "...he was appointed by the churches to travel with us in this gracious work..."

What we actually observe in the New Testament church is that individuals were recognized for their callings, gifts and desire to serve, resulting in them being appointed or set apart with a more official recognition.  This recognition involved praying and fasting and the act of laying on hands as a physical and direct symbol of blessing and dedication to the task.  This act essentially was what we would call ordination, which comes from the Latin ordinare, which means simply to put something in order or arrange something in a proper manner.

In the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church allowed ordination of clergy to take on the connotation of a special spiritual class of people.  Ordination even became a sacrament.  Consequently, a division occurred between the ordained clergy and the laity.  Ultimately, this lead to the idea that these ordained individuals worked as the mediators between God and the regular people.  The Protestant Reformation rejected this notion and expressed the idea of the priesthood of every believer.  In other words, the clergy may serve a special calling in the church, but they are not of a superior spiritual class in which they become God's mid-level management.  Every believer has access directly to God.  Baptists inherited this understanding.   

However, after over 400 years of development, tradition and institutionalization, it would seem that some of that same class distinction creep has occurred.  In the area of the deaconship in the average traditional Baptist church, ordination has significantly come to be associated with authority and status.  This reality puts many modern deacon bodies at odds with the simple New Testament teaching that a diakonos is a servant who renders care to the congregation, not one who helps govern it.  I believe that the current form of ordination and the status attached to it has eclipsed the biblical function of the office of deacon and as a consequence squeezed women out of the position.

Some of the early witnesses to Baptist understanding and organization evidence that we had women who served as deacons.  John Smyth's 1609 Short Confession of Faith mentions "deacons, men and widows, who attend to the affairs of the poor and sick brethren."  Thomas Helwys' A Declaration of Faith from 1611 reads, "That the officers of every church or congregation are either elders, who by their office do especially feed the flock concerning their souls, or deacons, men and women, who by their office relieve the necessities of the poor and impotent brethren concerning their bodies."  Of course, one could give many examples of confessions that indicate an assumption of male deacons or explicitly state it.  As one would expect to find in Baptist history, there has been significant diversity on the issue.

Like most Southern Baptist churches, First Baptist Hazard endorses the current version (2000) of the Southern Baptist confession of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message. This version caused some ruckus when it added the following sentence in Article VI, "The Church": "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."  While many fumed over the exclusion of women from the role of pastor, many may have missed that the confession leaves the role of deacon open.  I believe this was done because, according to biblical instruction and example, male headship clearly applies to the role of overseer/elder, but not to the role of deacon.  I agree with this assessment. 

It would seem that among the conservative ranks, there is a strong consensus that women did or very possibly did serve as deacons in the New Testament.  Where we get hung up is on ordination.  If many of us could get over our conditioning that ordination is a boys only club, we might be able to push through to some positive results in the area of deacon ministry.  One way to push through may be to change how we do ordination.  My suggestion is to change the ceremonialism, particularly by doing away with the bookstore certificate.  May I suggest that we consider a season of fasting and praying as we consider and interview candidates. Then once deacons are selected by the congregation for service, we simply observe the example of laying on hands in prayer as an act of dedication and blessing.  That's it!  I have a feeling that if the ordination of deacons looked like that, then most congregations would be more open to women serving in the role.

Ultimately, who serves in the offices of elder/pastor and deacon is up to each congregation (at least in Baptist life).  As a pastor, who is attempting to lead the congregation God has entrusting to me to think and act biblically, I would suggest that we have some discussion about Phoebe the deacon and see where it leads us.  We may just find some positive ministry and better health for our church on the other side of it. 

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