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.

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.

Making It Real

There is an old saying that has renewed relevance in today’s religious world. I grew up hearing of Christians who were “so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good.” It was a sharp comment; it needs to be pulled out and sharpened a little bit more. All across America, and indeed throughout the Western world, authentic biblical Christianity is taking a beating. Not only is the philosophy of humanistic atheism experiencing somewhat of a rebound, but people are leaving churches by the scores. What is occurring, and why it is occurring, are questions that occupy both sociologists and theologians. I think one answer that deserves some examination is the idea that for far too many people Christianity has simply become a concept to think about, a few doctrines and principles to believe. However, for real life, one must turn to philosophy, and increasingly that philosophy is rooted in the self. This is true of both secularists and Christians!

I want to illustrate my argument with a common scene – one that I encounter quite frequently but one that I am sure any of my readers have experienced as well. Maybe even you are guilty. But picture a class or discussion where the teacher is really getting personal – really getting down to “brass tacks” and laying things out “where the rubber meets the road.” He, or she, can begin to see some light bulbs come on, and there are some signs that the class is beginning to formulate some honest-to-goodness concrete applications for the lesson. Then, just as some real work is about to take place, the resident Pharisee blows the entire discussion up with a comment that, on the surface appears to be a profound addition to the conversation, but in reality shifts the entire focus off of a concrete (and therefore possibly costly) application and places it in the realm of a “spiritual” application that is utterly worthless.

You see, the Pharisees (or perhaps to be fair, at least a sizable majority of them) had no problem with spiritual application of the biblical text of their day. The Pharisee that came to test Jesus knew the greatest command of the law, and the second as well. It was no problem to assert that one was to love God, and to love one’s neighbor. The Pharisee just could not get his mind wrapped around the idea that a Samaritan, of all people, might actually be the example of biblical love that God was commanding, and that waylaid, half-dead travelers might actually be the necessary recipient of  such love.

What is going on that so many people are leaving the church, and why so many people are hesitant to consider becoming a part of the church? Another “preacher’s story” might help. A little boy and his father were discussing the sermon they had just heard. The little boy asked his father, “Daddy, what is a Christian?” The father went into great detail about how a Christian is one who has dedicated his life to Jesus, who lives according to God’s word, who tries in many ways to make the world a better place, and who realizes he is not perfect but still tries to be the kind of person that God wants him or her to be. The little boy was quiet for a while and then said, “Wow, daddy – do we know any Christians?”

I have to confess that for far too long I have been a part of the problem and not a part of the solution. It is far too easy for me to retreat into the “spiritual” so that the “real” does not cost me anything. Also, when someone attempts to blow up my classes with a “Sunday School Answer” that is meant to spiritualize the application instead of making it explicit and verifiable, I acquiesce far too easily.

Let’s be honest here – I want the Pharisee’s answer, not Jesus’s.

One of the things I have learned from reading the Old Testament carefully and meditatively (my “spiritual” side) is that God was really, seriously concerned that hungry people be fed, that naked people be clothed, that poor people be given the chance to earn their keep, that issues of justice be administered fairly without any fear of bribery or other manipulation. I am utterly convinced that Jesus, the twelve apostles, Paul, Luke, and the Holy Spirit who inspired the New Testament authors are just as vitally concerned about those issues.

A man cannot hear the gospel if his stomach is growling.

What we call “spirituality” and the concrete issues of social, racial, economic, and environmental justice are not polar opposites. The church has been duped into thinking that we either focus on “saving someone’s soul” or making sure they have a decent job, adequate clothing and enough food on the table. Why should anyone pay any attention to our pleas that they be baptized if they know we steadfastly support efforts to deny them basic God-given rights?

I have been asked what is the greatest problem facing the church today. I have been asked what my thoughts are as to how we can reverse the trend of people leaving the church. I honestly do not have the perfect answer, but I think I have a clue: If we want people to fall in love with Jesus to the point that they will commit their lives to him and become active, productive members of his body, maybe, just maybe, his body needs to start caring about what God cares about and behaving like Jesus behaved.

Philippians 2:1-17, anyone?

Book Review – “Grieving A Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope (Albert Y. Hsu)

Albert Y. Hsu Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2017) Rev. ed. 195 pages with discussion questions, a one session discussion guide, and notes.

My library is seriously stacked one-sided. I have commentaries, technical studies, historical volumes, and numerous language study books. One section of my library that is noticeably thin is the section on counseling. In an attempt to rectify that situation I was thumbing through some catalogs and my eye fell on an interesting title – the title listed above. Suicide is not a topic frequently discussed in preacher training courses, and outside of stray chapters here and there, is not much written about either. I decided to take a chance.

One of the best decisions I have made in book purchasing!

This book is a beautifully written, fundamentally sound piece of writing. Hsu is himself a survivor of a suicide, and he writes with compassion and directness. A huge pitfall for such a book would be to turn the subject into a shallow, emotionally laden wallowing in trite, worn-out phrases that help no one. Hsu’s book is anything but – as a survivor he weaves his story in and out of virtually every chapter, but not in a voyeuristic way. What the reader senses is the companionship of a kind and stable friend.

The book is divided into three sections: Part one deals with the aftermath of a suicide and the emotional and physical changes that occur. Part two addresses three key questions the suicide raises: Why did this happen? Is suicide the unforgivable sin? and Where is God when it hurts? Part three turns then to life after a suicide: the spiritual component of grief, the need to participate in a healing community, and a final chapter on the lessons of suicide.

The book is written from a clear Christian perspective, and I was impressed with Hsu’s straightforward and even-handed use of Scripture. My only quibble, coming strictly from my theological perspective, is Hsu’s willingness to consider the forgiveness accorded to murder/suicides, but his final conclusion merits thoughtful consideration: we simply are not in the position of God to make the final judgment of whether a person receives God’s forgiveness or not. My own personal opinion is that Hsu pushes that human limitation further than I am willing to go (I think the Scriptural record is more clear regarding the necessity of repentance), but I was impressed with Hsu’s language and outlook throughout.

The book is written by a suicide survivor to other survivors of suicides, and not specifically to ministers, but the pastoral emphasis throughout the book is invaluable. This truly has been one of the best purchases I have made in many months, and I HEARTILY recommend the book if you have been affected by a suicide, if you know of someone who has been hurt by a suicide, or if you are in a ministry situation where you most likely will be affected by a suicide. If I had a rating scale, this book would easily get six stars out of five.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#14)

If I have not made clear by now, I need to emphasize something – these Undeniable Truths are NOT something that I have mastered. I struggle to live out all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, every day or week or month. They are not mountain peaks that I have conquered, but rather signposts to (hopefully) keep me on the straight and narrow path.

So, please do not think that I offer #14 as some kind of “do what I say and what I do” kind of moralism. Rather, #14 in given because I believe we all struggle with the intersection of doctrine and discipleship, of orthodoxy (right thinking) and orthopraxy (right action).

14.  Theology cannot be separated from morality and ethics. Healthy, genuine theology demands action. Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy.

I have heard it said that right action can lead to right thinking. I disagree – at least on the level of principle. I do not want to suggest that right behavior can never lead us to right thinking, but in my experience what passes for behavior leading to doctrine is simple eisegesis, the practice of coming to a conclusion and then searching for an acceptable proof text. Let me illustrate:

In a textbook that I was given to read for my doctoral studies, the author used an incident in the life of the seminary in which he was working as proof that behavior can lead to a positive change in doctrine. It seems the faculty of this seminary was confronted with a crisis – young women were demanding to receive the same ordination for ministry as young men. Many women had been taking the courses leading to ordination, but could not be ordained because of denominational practices. It was decided to change the policy and procedures and to ordain the females. A fervent search was then made to justify the decision on the basis of biblical precedent, and, lo and behold! The precedent was discovered after thousands of years of mysteriously being hidden in the bowels of a male dominated, patriarchal church. The author was emphatic that, had it not been for the change in practice, the change in the doctrinal position would never have been made. His point was that orthopraxy (at least, in his mind) can effect a change in orthodoxy.

As I said, I am not going to categorically deny that this can occur, but as the above case study suggests, the change in the doctrinal position had much more to do with political correctness and the financial stability of the seminary than in any guiding of the Holy Spirit. This, in my mind, was as blatant a case of eisegesis, of a decision in search of a proof-text, as I have ever seen or read.

No! Right action, right behavior, faithful discipleship comes as a result of right thinking – of proper doctrine. A change in circumstance might drive us to re-read and re-study Scripture – in fact it should. But we must never change our behavior or re-structure our discipleship and then go rummaging through the crevices of Scripture looking for a piton upon which to hang our conclusions.

I believe my Undeniable Truth #14 can be beautifully illustrated by the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Early in his youth he was as nationalistic a German as a young boy coming to age during World War I could have been. In his early sermons he clearly taught that wars could be fought and killing could be justified if one’s nation or family was at risk. Years later, as he witnessed the developing violence of the National Socialists (the Nazis), he realized the gospel taught another truth: no wars should ever be fought and no killing can ever be justified. But Bonhoeffer did not become a pacifist or conscientious objector and then look for a Scriptural blessing. He was driven into his pacifist convictions through a long and painful study of Scripture, primarily the Sermon on the Mount.

[Technical aside here. Much has been made of Bonhoeffer’s compliance with, and some would say promotion of, the attempted murder of Adolf Hitler. At this point in my study, and I believe with adequate justification, I do not believe Bonhoeffer would have attempted a biblical justification of Hitler’s assassination. He would have justified it on the grounds that it was necessary to end the war and to save thousands, if not millions, of lives, but I am not sure he would have done so on a purely theological basis. He wrote frequently enough about the guilt that the conspirators were acquiring to convince me that he would have confessed that the assassins (and conspirators) were clearly guilty of murder, but that God’s grace was sufficient to cover their guilt, and the value of saving innocent lives was worth the death of one “tyrannical despiser of humanity.”]

Right doctrine, without faithful discipleship, is meaningless. We can have all the “i”s dotted and all the “t”s crossed and all the jots and tittles in their right places, but if all those teachings do not result in changed lives, what good do they do?

I think we need to spend more time thinking about the eternal consequences of passages such as Isaiah 58:1-1-8, Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13 (and 12:7), Matthew 23:23-24, and James 1:27 (among many others).

Let us not be guilty of becoming theologically perfect, and practically useless.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#10)

Not really sure who I stole this from . . . but I’m pretty sure I’m not smart enough to put all of this together as compactly as it appears –

10.  Attitudes and beliefs have consequences. Words, used to express those attitudes and beliefs, have equal consequences. Words chosen to convey spiritual concepts have eternal consequences.

Undeniable Truth #10 expresses a pet peeve of mine. I repeatedly hear the statement that, “it’s just my opinion” or “you can believe what you want to believe, it really doesn’t matter.” Well, it may be your opinion, but it is not “just” your opinion. And, while we are all entitled to believe anything we want, what we believe really does matter. It matters a great deal.

Adolph Hitler and his henchmen did not achieve their hideous reign of terror by just building some concentration camps and suddenly murdering people. Hitler was placed into power in January 1933, but it was not until almost a decade later that the mass deportation and extermination of entire sections of German society began. What transpired between 1933 and the early 1940’s was a slow – but diabolical – attack on the attitudes and beliefs of the German people. Hitler murdered the German conscience before he murdered over 6 million Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and other disenfranchised peoples.

To illustrate the power behind the truth of Truth #10, let us examine the downward trajectory of American culture since the legalization (and normalization) of abortion in 1972. The right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy through abortion has been framed almost entirely on the belief  that a woman has the “right” to make her own health decisions. Who in their right mind would disagree with that? But is that what abortion is really about? A health decision? This is all predicated on the belief (against all scientific evidence) that the product of a fertilized human egg is not a human being.

If you believe a Jew is nothing more than a rodent or a cockroach, then killing a Jew is actually a benefit to society. If you believe a baby is nothing more than a “mass” inside a uterus, then removing it is a “health decision.” Beliefs really do have consequences.

But no one, and I mean no one, can argue that our culture has not become more crass, more violent, less tolerant, and more dangerous in the decades since 1972. If you devalue human life in the womb, you devalue all of human life. If all we are is a highly evolved reaction of egg and sperm, then does it really matter if that development is suddenly ended? Why is infanticide wrong if the infant is totally dependent upon an adult? And, why would it be wrong to selectively eliminate those whose “development” is somehow defective? I think you get my drift here.

Those who promote life have another belief entirely – that an abortion kills a living human. Abortion is murder – a human life is destroyed by a premeditated action. You just cannot get around the implications. A human life begins at the moment of conception. A genuine ethic of the value of human life works to ensure that all of human life is protected – regardless of race, creed, or culture. A belief that human life is created in the image of God translates into action that seeks to safeguard that image.

A belief, enshrined in the Supreme Court decision known as Roe V. Wade,  empowers the entire abortion industry. A belief that one’s sexual orientation can be freely chosen and changed on a whim is fueling a radical re-structuring of human interaction. The belief that a divine god can and does will the murder of innocent bystanders is sanctioning a horrific expansion of terror throughout the world.

Every action that you might perform today – from the decision whether or not to take a shower to your decision to risk your life to save another – is based upon a belief or an attitude that you hold to be important. Some attitudes and beliefs are obviously more important than others, some are even life changing. How we choose to express those beliefs and attitudes, both by words and actions, have consequences. How we choose to express our belief in God and Jesus Christ have eternal consequences.

What you believe matters! Your attitudes matter very much to God, and you will demonstrate your beliefs and your attitudes in your every action.

Let us make every effort to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) If our thoughts are bound to Christ, our actions will not be far behind.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#6)

Continuing on . . .

6.  However, the study of Scripture is not for the lazy. The original texts were written in three ancient languages and the youngest of these manuscripts is now approaching 2,000 years of age. We must be extraordinarily careful in the study of Scripture that we do not read our historical situation (culture, biases, feelings) back into the original texts.

I am firmly of the mind that anyone can read and understand Scripture . . .   almost. There is one group of people for whom the Bible will always be an enigma, a puzzle that cannot be put together. That group of people is the lazy, the prejudiced, the ones who are blind to their own preconceptions but are laser-focused on everyone else’s mistakes. (Okay, I listed more than one, but consider them a rather volatile group!)

I will have much more to say about the specifics of Bible study (most notably in Truth numbers 8 and 9), but for now let me say that if you think you can just open the Bible, read a passage, and understand it completely you are well on your way to misinterpreting (and almost certainly misapplying) that text. While there are some passages that are crystal clear (“Love your neighbor as yourself” comes to mind), the overwhelming majority of the content of the Bible requires more than just a surface reading of the text.

That may upset you, but please understand, it upsets me even more.

I was convicted of the democratic nature of this truth recently as I was reading a study on the parables. The author pointed out that Jesus told the parables not to be pleasing little anecdotes to print on glossy posters, but as searing indictments against a false spiritual pride. For example, the parable of “The Rich man and Lazarus” was told not so that Christians would be nice to the disabled, but as a blistering attack on those who felt they deserved to be in heaven (or, if not, at least could boss the heavenly beings around) by virtue of their wealth. The rich man was in torment NOT because of anything he had done, but rather in spite of his earthly position. Lazarus (named as a point of honor, as opposed to the “rich man” was was not named, thus dishonored) was carried to Abraham’s bosom NOT because of anything he had done, but simply as a result of his poverty and affliction. This parable struck at the very heart of a theology that praised wealth as a sign of God’s blessing, and viewed poverty and disability as a sign of God’s curse.

Gee, reckon we preach it that way in our comfy cathedrals of consumerism?

Honestly – I had never viewed the parable that way. In my mind it was always a nice, tidy little lecture on moralism – be nice to those below your station in life, or you will end up going to the bad place. Placed in its proper context – and with the “punch line” properly identified – the parable of the rich man and Lazarus becomes a very dangerous text to preach.

I think Jesus meant it to be exactly that!

So, my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #6 is aimed squarely at my own heart – and feet of clay. I must constantly evaluate not only my own thoughts about what I want the text to say, I have to read to weed out the ideas that I want the text not to say.

This is not for the lazy. This is not for those who are far too comfortable in their own little self-righteous clique. Reading the Bible should obviously be a comforting – at times. But, lest we become far too smug in our own self-righteousness, reading the Bible should also be quite painful and demanding.

We ascend by climbing lower. That is how we approach God’s word.