That’s Why We Call Them “Elders”

Over the past several months I have come to appreciate certain things more deeply: health, a strong marriage, the love of a child. Our life’s circumstances can change in the blink of an eye, and very rarely for the better. All too often we lose something, or have something taken away from us, and all we have left are some memories and a bunch of questions.

In regard to the church, I have also come to realize, and appreciate, the simple wisdom of something that many take to be a relic of history, just a curiosity of a bygone era that needs to be erased as well. That “relic” is the practice of having churches overseen by a plurality of senior disciples called “elders.” For so many that is a quaint but no longer useful tradition that is more harmful than helpful. For me, it is becoming just one more example of the immeasurable wisdom of our creator God.

I am growing impatient, and even somewhat disgusted, with individuals who heap endless praise on the generation that is just now coming of age, calling them the most spiritual and mature generation to grace the face of the earth. I saw it in a comment just this past week. “This generation is just so much in love with Jesus!” the speaker said. Hidden within the comment was a dagger – no other generation in recent memory has ever loved Jesus like this group!

Oh. Spare. Me.

I was born into a generation that really loved Jesus. My parents’ generation really loved Jesus. My grandparents generation really loved Jesus. I can look back in history and identify generations whose love for Jesus makes this coming generation look like a bunch of wallowing sycophants. Spare me the generational comparisons – at least until this generation has had enough time to prove themselves.

One thing my generation did accomplish – or shall I say destroy – was to separate our “love for Jesus” from a love for his church and those who were tasked with leading it. I was born at the tail end of the “Jesus people” generation, the ones who screamed “Jesus yes, church no” at the top of our voices. We were taught not to trust anyone over 40. What this coming generation has been able to accomplish is to lower that age down to 30. Or, maybe 20. They have taken the Boomer’s disdain for the church and raised it exponentially. I note with a genuine degree of fear that, especially within the church, the disdain for age and seniority has reached Promethean heights. The term “elder” has lost all meaningful significance.

There are just some things that cannot be obtained without the passage of time: the capacity for maturity, depth of wisdom, the skill to raise multiple children through the stormy waters of adolescence, the ability to maintain and to deepen a strong marriage, the tact and strength to deal with aging and declining parents. There is more than just a poetic reason why white hair is the crown of a life well lived.

The thought occurred to me the other day that twenty-somethings know all the answers to all the questions. Persons over the age of 65 have experienced the questions – they have seen it, felt it, heard it, lived it, cried over it, had their hearts broken over it, conquered it, been almost destroyed by it, and somehow have managed to survive it. Twenty-somethings walk with a strut. Seniors walk with a limp – for a good reason.

I am not discounting book smarts. I think I did some of my best work in the first years of my ministry. I also left behind some wrecks. And I am not suggesting that mere age is some guarantor of wisdom. There are a lot of seniors who never matured out of adolescence. The fruit of the poisonous tree of the “Me Generation” will be around for a long time.

But, as simply and as passionately as I can put it, there is a reason for 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  There is a wisdom and a maturity that those who have reached their sixth decade and beyond own that those who have only lived for two or two-and-a-half just cannot have. The practice of having a congregation overseen by senior disciples is not just a quaint artifact of a bygone era. It is rooted in the deepest wisdom of God. Congregations are hurting themselves – and possibly poisoning their future – by rejecting this divinely mandated practice.

There is a reason we call them elders. If we are wise, we will honor them, respect them, we will pay attention to and learn from their wisdom, and we will submit to their leadership.

The Church and the Idolization of Youth

“We have to do something to save our youth!” “We are losing too many of our youth!” “If we do not change our worship our young people will leave the church!” “We have to listen to our young people or they will not listen to us!”

On and on it goes. From what I hear the church is being strangled to death by a fear of young people leaving its membership. Preachers are hired and fired not on the basis of their wisdom and maturity, but on the basis of their attire and hair style. Churches want a “new voice” that will appeal to the younger generation. By some accounts the church is in a full blown panic over the fate of today’s youth.

It might be a shock to some, then, to discover that back in the early days of 1930-33 a young German theologian set out to address this very issue. More than just about anyone in his generation, he was acutely aware of the crisis of youth – especially in a world that was literally crumbling around their feet. His generation, and especially those younger than him, were clamoring for the church to heed their demands, to change its stodgy ways, to conform to a “new” reality. Rather than approach the problem from the cloistered cell of some ivory tower, this young pastor went to work among the poorest of the poor in his city. The young men who were placed in his care were far more familiar with violence and prostitution than the parables of Jesus. When they threatened to wreck his classroom, he would put records of “Negro spirituals” for them to listen to. When his young charges were ready for the ceremony of confirmation, he realized they had no decent clothes to wear. So he bought enough material for each to have a suit, and paid for a tailor to make them one. He was no ordinary youth minister. He did more than teach. He washed feet.

So his words carry far more weight than some ivory-tower theoretician. I share that because he prepared what have been labeled as eight “Theses on Youth Work in the Church.” It is unknown when he wrote them, but probably before 1933. I share some pertinent excerpts:

  1. Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the word of God: it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the word of God.
  2. Our question is not: What is youth and what rights does it have, but rather: What is the church-community and what is the place of youth within it?
  3. . . . It is only within the church-community that one can pass judgement on the church-community.
  4. The church-community suspends the generational problem. Youth enjoy no special privilege in the church-community. . . God’s spirit in the church has nothing to do with youthful criticism of the church, the radical nature of God’s claim on human beings has nothing to do with youthful radicalism, and the commandment for sanctification nothing to do with the youthful impulse to better the world.
  5. The Bible judges youth quite soberly: Gen. 8:21; Isa. 3:5; Jer. 1:6; Eccl. 11:10; 1 Pet. 5:5; 2 Tim. 2:2 et passim.
  6. Church youth work is possible only on the basis of addressing young people concerning their baptism and with the exclusive goal of having them hear God’s word.
  7. It may well be that the youth have the right to protest against their elders. If that be the case, however, the authenticity of such protest will be demonstrated by youth’s willingness to maintain solidarity with the guilt of the church-community and to bear that burden in love, abiding in penitence before God’s word.
  8. There is no real “church association”; there is only the church. . . Every church association as such already discredits the cause of the church.

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Theses on Youth Work in the Church” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 12. Berlin:1932-1933. ed. Larry Rasmussen, trans. Isabel Best and David Higgins (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) 515-517.]

The language is somewhat stilted, and the ecclesiology (baptism, etc) is Lutheran, but the theology is solid. I am constantly amazed that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9) and that questions that the church is asking today have been asked (and answered!) many times before. We do not have to re-invent the wheel. What we do need to do, however, is to listen to the wisdom of ages past. But before we can do that we have to have the humility to accept that people who lived before us were actually smart enough to answer the questions.

Lord, save us from the sin of idolizing our youth.

** I am indebted to the work of Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014) for providing an in-depth examination of Bonhoeffer and his ministry to young people. If you are interested in serving young people in an authentic way, or if you are just interested in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I highly recommend this book. I think it will change your view of how the church is to hear, and to minister, to young people.

Definitions – Baptism

One of the most frustrating parts of my job, or ministry, is the fact that I deal primarily with words. Words, and the associated concept of language (the combination of words, grammar, tone, inflection) are a slippery thing. I grew up learning that many words have both denotation (how they are defined in an authority such as a dictionary) and a connotation (how they are actually used, which might be in a  very different sense from their denotation). It takes no great skill to know that the connotative meanings of words change every generation or so, but now even the denotative meanings of words are changing. It is getting to the point that I’m not really sure what I am talking about even when I use the words that I think I know what they mean.

Since this is a blog about all things theological, let us take a word about which probably everyone has an opinion concerning what it means: baptism. In the expansive world of Christianity there are essentially two broad understandings of baptism – one sees the word applying primarily to infants, and one sees the word applying exclusively to believers in Christ. For both groups the concept of faith is critical, for the one it is the faith of the church (and primarily the parents and god-parents), for the other it is the faith of the individual which is controlling. For the first group baptism marks the security of the individual until the point he or she can voluntarily assume an individual faith (confirmation), and is a removal of the effects of original sin; for the other it is the actual moment of the profession of individual faith, and is associated with the removal of actual sin. But beyond these stark differences between these very different understandings of baptism, there is also profound differences among those who profess to be adherents to believer’s baptism. (As I am not personally associated with a group that practices infant baptism, I will refrain from commenting on any real or perceived differences in that group.)

Some adherents of believer’s (adult) baptism hold that baptism is for the purpose of the forgiveness of sin; others believe that a person’s sins are forgiven at the moment of faith. Baptism in that case is simply a formality, a physical act that demonstrates one’s willingness to be a part of a specific church. Thus, even within the camp of “believer’s baptism” there is a huge gulf – one group believes it is absolutely necessary; the other group views it as a nice gesture, but one that is not to be considered critical. Let us proceed even further. Many within the “believer’s baptism” group hold that a candidate for baptism must be baptized at the specific moment (or as close to it as possible) that a decision to be baptized is reached; others believe that a period of preparation, or “catechism,” must be observed in order to fully prepare the candidate for the waters of baptism. This catechism can be days, weeks, months or even years in length.

The mode of baptism is fervently disputed: some will argue that baptism must be full immersion in water; some will argue that a candidate who enters a baptistery and has water poured over his or her head has been baptized; and obviously those who accept infant baptism will accept a few ounces of water gently poured over the head of the infant as proper baptism. And, not to be ignored, even the wording used in the event of baptism is debated. Must it be in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” or will the name of Jesus suffice? Does the name of God, Jesus, of the Holy Spirit have to be mentioned at all? If the trinitarian language is used, must there be three immersions (or effusions) or is one adequate? Who is authorized to baptize? Must the ceremony be “officiated” by a priest, pastor, minister, elder or deacon? Can a female perform baptisms? What if a baptism is performed by someone who is later found to be apostate – is the legitimacy of the baptism somehow connected to the faith (and orthodoxy) of the one who performs the baptism? If so, how far back do we have to go in order to establish the legitimacy of the one doing the baptism?

All of this preceding wandering through the hermeneutical wilderness was to illustrate one simple point: asking a person whether they have been baptized is a considerable effort in futility. Only if they say “no” has there been any clarity achieved. If the answer is “yes,” then were they baptized as an infant or as a believer? Were they baptized because they had some ecstatic feeling of “oneness” with Christ, or were they baptized because they felt the crushing weight of their sin, or were they baptized in simple obedience to Christ? Were they old enough to understand the meaning of sin, or of faith in Christ? Were they immersed, or dribbled on, or just sprayed on?

As I have stated elsewhere, beyond some very basic (and I believe, scriptural) stipulations, I tread very lightly when it comes to “evaluating” or “judging” someone’s baptism. I hold that a candidate for baptism must be old enough to be considered responsible for his or her actions (and I am personally hesitant to follow the practice of baptizing pre-teens). I also understand baptism to be a full immersion (we do not just throw some dirt on someone’s forehead to “bury” them), and I expect a candidate for baptism to be able to express repentance for a real separation from God, and an adult commitment to obey and become a disciple of Christ (I don’t think anyone fully understands those concepts when they are baptized, but there must be some fundamental understanding, otherwise all we are doing is getting someone wet.) These, I aver, are the only basic requirements for baptism found in the New Testament.

It’s all very simple, and at the same time terribly complicated. After all, it all boils down to how we define baptism, right?

What Would Happen If You Disappeared?

What would happen if you disappeared? Well, not you personally, but what would happen if your Bible class, your small group study, even your congregation disappeared? Disappeared as in, poof, and you are gone – no farewell speeches, no lingering goodbyes, no last words of comfort. I am not talking about would you miss that class, small group, or congregation. Obviously I think the answer to that question is “yes.” I am asking if others in your congregation, or your community, would notice?

Would your congregation truly miss your Bible class, or would things just go on as normal, albeit with a smaller number in the record book? Would your congregation miss your small group Bible study, or would they even notice your absence? And, more critically, would your community miss your congregation if it just suddenly ceased to exist?

These are tough questions that very likely cause some discomfort. We all want to think that we are important, that we are contributing to the welfare of our congregations and our communities, that we would be missed a la George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life if we just were no longer around.

Another way to ask the question is this, “What is the reason your Bible class, your small group study, or your congregation, exists?” The answer to that question will be revealing. If the only answer you can come up with is to be the one, true, pure and undefiled Bible class, small group, or church congregation, then I will bet dollars against dimes that no one would even notice if you ceased to exist. (Either that, or they might rejoice.)

You see, no one who meets to study the Bible or to form a small group Bible study, or even to form a Christian church congregation does so with the express purpose of being a wrong-headed, corrupt, run-of-the-mill, pure vanilla Bible study, small group or church. Every Bible class proclaims fidelity to the text. Every small group believes itself to be special. Every congregation makes a claim to be the church, or at the very least a vital part of the entire church. Nobody intentionally promotes obscurity and inferiority. So, if your only claim to fame, or for existence, is that you are somehow special, join the list of every other special group or church. To paraphrase one of my favorite lines in Fiddler on the Roof, “a rabbi who praises himself has a congregation of one.” You will not have much of an influence.

I suggest that if you want your Bible class, small group study, and especially your congregation, to have any kind of meaning in this world, you had better have more purpose for its existence than just being different, or more special, or more unique, or some other qualifying adjective. Virtually every survey and study over the past 10 years has documented how members are leaving Christian churches by the hundreds. People are simply fed up with endless arguments over subjects that have about as much meaning as the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Unchurched people, and dis-enthused former members, are seeking for a Christianity that has a pulse – that is vital and real and meaningful. Doctrine does matter – it matters a lot* – but only if it can be embodied, if it becomes an incarnational truth.

Have you noticed that at the end of the first, and arguably the definitive, sermon in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus stated that only the person who does the will of my Father will enter the Kingdom of Heaven? (Matthew 7:21-23) The sermon that has been “spiritualized” to death is one of the most definitive statements that stresses concrete obedience as opposed to mere consent.

Ask your preacher. Ask your elders. Ask your deacons. Ask your Bible school teacher. Demand an answer from yourself. If your group disappeared today, would anyone notice tomorrow?

*Studies have shown that those congregations and groups that are managing to grow in this climate of shrinking churches are those congregations and groups that have clearly demarcated doctrines and beliefs. Those doctrines might be Calvinistic or Arminian, charismatic or fundamentalist, but those doctrines must translate into changed lives and meaningful ministry. People are NOT doctrine-phobic as some might believe, but they are discerning when it comes to identifying doctrines that matter, and those that are just used to separate those who say shibboleth from those who say sibboleth.

A Mind-Bending, Spirit-Shaking 60 Days

The last 60+ days of my life have been anything but normal. Even now, as I sit after pondering for many days what I would write, I still find the words elusive. I once thought I knew many things. Now, I wonder if I will ever even understand the questions.

This journey started on August 14. On that afternoon my wife was diagnosed with cancer. As with so many who hear that diagnosis, our world was shattered. Four days later, on the 18th, while trying to restore some semblance of normalcy, and while ice skating with my daughter, I fell and broke (shattered?) my femur (large bone in my thigh). Surgery the next day. Thirteen days in the hospital. A week in re-hab. Meanwhile my wife had to begin her chemo treatments without me.

It’s funny how quickly, and with such violence, a life of plans and goals can be shattered. Literally.

Now we live from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour, our future punctuated with doctor visits, scans and tests, physical therapy, and the looming appointment of yet another surgery and hospital stay.

There is a personally ironic and even pernicious twist to this story. The sermon text that I had selected for August 20 [selected before the 14th, by the way] was 2 Corinthians 12:10, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” It was a sermon I never got to preach. It was a sermon I don’t know if I will ever be able to preach.

I was going to wax poetic about the paradox in Paul’s language. I was going to revel in the assurance of God’s presence in the time of trouble. I was going to speak as only a fool would, not knowing the depth of the mistakes I was making.

Like I said, I thought I knew a lot about many things. I lost my father due to cancer 27 years ago. My mother is a 27 year survivor of cancer. A close family member was murdered. The father of a very close childhood friend committed suicide. I’ve lived a lot of life and have preached a lot of sermons.

But, somehow I’ve changed. I do not enter the pulpit now like I used to. I don’t read the text now like I used to. I cannot quantify the change, nor adequately describe it. But this world is just – different now.

In many ways I’m the same me as I always was – a snarky, ironic if not sarcastic, self-impressed, knuckle-dragging troglodyte. I guess some things are just too deep to root out. But now I see things a little differently, and hopefully much more clearly.

I still want to ascend by climbing lower – I hope I just know a little bit more about what that means now than I did 60 days ago.

Eugene Peterson, Homosexuality, and the Cult of Popularity

[As I note at the bottom of this piece, Peterson has since recanted his statements in the first interview. I have attempted to locate the full text of his correction. In the original interview his statements seem lucid, reasoned, and not forced in any manner. Now he claims confusion and the equivalent of being misunderstood. I am sure in the days and weeks to come this story will continue to develop. As more information comes to light I will update as appropriate.]

Yesterday my twitter feed exploded as word got around that Eugene Peterson publicly admitted he supported gay marriage and the homosexual lifestyle in general. Peterson is an evangelical pastor/author hero, perhaps best known for his translation, or paraphrase, or misinterpretation (depending on your theological position) of the Bible called The Message. Now, all kinds of other evangelical pastors/authors etc., are all agog trying to figure out how such a paragon of evangelical virtue could risk becoming a pariah. I, for one, am shocked that everyone else is so shocked.

Like just about every theology student who attended school in the late 20th century or early 21st century, I was handed a steady diet of Peterson books (I think the total number of his books is over 30). My memory is kind of hazy, but I think my first exposure to Peterson came with his book, Working the Angles or maybe The Contemplative Pastor. Having read Peterson I am struck with a couple of observations. One, he is a wordsmith, of that you cannot deny. He can say absolutely nothing in such flowery and impressive language that you really think he has said something. But his content is much like cotton candy – sweet, but nothing there. Second, his theology begins with his feelings and ends with his emotions. To wit, he defends the right of women to preach and to lead in churches. What is his evidence – to what does he refer in defense of his position? His mother was a pastor. That’s it. Well, not entirely. His mother was a much maligned pastor, those who disagreed with her “pastorate” were “bullies.” So it was doubly incumbent upon Peterson to defend her (and every other woman’s) right to be a “pastor” and lead a congregation. It comes as absolutely no shock to me that his defense for accepting the homosexual lifestyle and for approving of gay marriage is – he knows some really, really nice homosexuals.

Peterson is just another in a long line of individuals who illustrate the truth that “narrow is the path that leads to eternal life, and few there are that find it.” Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Eugene Peterson – unmistakable luminaries in the evangelical and/or emerging church fold who have “shocked” the religious world with their “discovery” that homosexual behavior is something to be embraced and promoted. Their paths are  unique to each individual, but share some remarkable similarities. That is to be expected. When you sell your soul to the cult of popularity, there really is very little room for originality. I expect there will be many more to come – and increasingly there will be progressives within the Churches of Christ to join their ranks. Too many of “our” luminaries have hitched their wagons to the McLarens and Bells and Petersons of this world to risk denouncing them now.

Earlier today I posted a long quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, asking a serious question: why is the church so insipid today? Why has the church lost it’s power? His answer is compelling – and indicting. The news that one of the most popular evangelical writers today has rejected the plain teaching of Scripture, as evidenced by 2,000 years of near-universal consent, is simple evidence as to the truth of Bonhoeffer’s reflection.

To borrow a phrase from Peterson’s The Message, enjoy your fame, folks, because when “all hell breaks loose” on the day of God’s wrath, there are going to be some really “shocked” best-selling authors – and disillusioned followers.

NOTE: Within minutes of posting this original article, I happened to check my twitter feed (again) and lo and behold, Peterson is renouncing his aforementioned declaration. HOWEVER, in reading his “retraction” I am thoroughly unconvinced. His answers in the original interview were direct and unequivocal – he welcomed a practicing, unrepentant homosexual to lead his congregation’s music ministry, and he unequivocally affirmed that he would perform a same-sex marriage. Now, he is claiming some sort of misunderstanding due to all of the “hypothetical language” that was used in the interview. Really? Is it too difficult to answer a simple question – would you perform a same sex marriage? Whether his original declaration or his retraction is genuine, it is going to be really, really interesting to see how the LGBTQ lobby handles this brouhaha.

As they say in the news bidness, stand by for updates.

6/28/17 – Random Musings

Just curious –

Darkness is not in-and-of-itself a create-able entity. You cannot “create” darkness. The only way it can be said that you create darkness is if you remove light. The instant light is created, in any form, darkness is removed.

Likewise, cold is not in-and-of itself a create-able entity. The only way you can “create” cold is if you remove the source of heat. That is why refrigeration units are so much more complicated and expensive than heating units. The moment you activate a heating unit, even the smallest flame, cold is removed.

You can make water toxic with the addition of the smallest amounts of poison. But you cannot “purify” poison simply by adding water. You can dilute it – but the poison remains. The only way to make water completely pure is to filter the contaminate out completely. (I suppose you could so dilute the volume as to make the poison inconsequential, but the poison is still present.)

Does all of this have a theological point? I think it does. I do not think there can be any argument but that the church is becoming stagnant, losing its influence in western culture. Why is this so? Entire forests have been turned into paper to analyze the problem and to propose solutions.

I think on a very basic level the answer is profoundly simple: the church has ceased to be light, the church has ceased to dispel the coldness of Satan’s lies, and the church has allowed itself to be thoroughly contaminated with the poison of contemporary culture. The whys and wherefores are obviously more detailed, but at least in my mind the result is inescapable. If you turn off the light source, if you disconnect the heat source, and you eliminate any filtration system, you are going to get a dark, cold, poisoned environment.

I do not doubt that in certain locations, perhaps even in larger regions, individual congregations of the Lord’s church are growing and flourishing. However, in my (admittedly limited and unscientific) recent experience, every congregation that I have come into contact with has experienced a decline in membership – sometimes an extreme decline! Other congregations have avoided this decline by “swelling” with the transfers from the declining congregations, but they are not growing in the biblical sense. If my experience is anything close to average, then the Lord’s church is in a numerical crisis. It’s spiritual health may or may not be in a similar free-fall, as spiritual health cannot be measured by numbers on an attendance chart.

I often alternate between doomsday feelings of hopelessness, and a grim realization that the Lord is winnowing his church to purify it and to reveal those who are true disciples. I believe that the Lord’s church can, and will, withstand any of Satan’s attacks. I must admit, however, that watching the current decline in congregational membership is painful. Maybe it is needed and will ultimately be healthy, but it is painful none-the-less.

It is hard sometimes to pray the model prayer (aka the Lord’s Prayer) knowing that “Thy will be done” might involve the trimming of some dead and diseased branches. But, pray that prayer we must! If you love the church, you have to believe in God’s sovereign power, and that God can, and often does, use Satan’s own designs to further God’s kingdom.

Let us pray for courage to shine God’s light, to fan the flame of the Spirit, and to rid ourselves of the poison of our wretched humanism. Let us not give in to fatalism or pessimism. God has given us a light to shine, a flame to preserve, and pure water to drink. Let us, dear Christian, refuse to surrender any of these precious gifts!