Seminary Hill Press is the publishing arm of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, publishing works by the institution’s faculty and alumni. In 2017, the press produced multiple titles that would make great Christmas gifts for theologians and laypersons alike. Here are the year’s top five must-have books:
1. Youth Ministry That Lasts a Lifetime, by Richard Ross
The real criteria for evaluating youth ministry is this question: Are we consistently introducing teenagers to Jesus and then discipling them into believers who will, for a lifetime, love God, love people, and make disciples for the glory of God? The issue really is not, “How is our youth group doing today?” Instead, the core question is, “How will our youth group be doing for a lifetime?”
Combining biblical exegesis with current research and author Richard Ross’ many years of experience in the church, this work invites readers to consider a radical new model of youth ministry that is likely to lead many more teenagers to lifetime faith. (Available in both hardcover and paperback here.)
2. Growing a Great Commission Church: Biblical Principles and Implications for Methods, by Mike Morris
From the perspective of a former pastor in America and a long-term IMB missionary to South Korea, Mike Morris discusses key biblical principles for growing a Great Commission church in both quality and quantity. Because of the cultural and racial diversification of American neighborhoods, a missiological perspective is greatly needed in American churches.
Morris discusses the biblical principles in detail, uses down-to-earth illustrations, provides some implications for methods, and deals with possible objections. He stresses the importance of both evangelism and discipleship for the healthy growth of a Great Commission church. (Available here.)
3. Everyday Parenting, edited by Alex Sibley; foreword by Dorothy and Paige Patterson
As anyone who has children can attest, parenting is hard. As such, many parents are overwhelmed by the responsibilities associated with raising another human being, and they would likely agree it is easy to lose sight of what parenting is truly about: raising children to walk in righteousness.
So how can parents maintain their focus? What tools has God provided for dealing with the various issues that stem from raising children? And where can parents turn for answers to their questions?
Through His Word and His Spirit, God has provided both the instruction and the power for parents to persevere in the parenting task. This volume—written by faculty, alumni, and friends of Southwestern Seminary—aims to illuminate that instruction so parents can move forward in the task of everyday parenting armed with the Sword of the Spirit in order to face head-on the challenges of raising children in the ways of the Lord. (Available here.)
4. Text-Driven Contextualization: Biblical Principles for Fulfilling the Great Commission in the 21st Century, by Michael Criner
How do 21st-century evangelicals carry out the Great Commission biblically but also effectively in a world full of cultural diversity? Does the Bible provide any principles for communicating and contextualizing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to particular demographics, people groups, and nations?
In Text-Driven Contextualization, Michael Criner argues that the Bible does, indeed, provide instruction for how to contextualize—and how not to contextualize—the Gospel in preaching and evangelism. A thorough examination of five sermons in the book of Acts (two delivered by Peter and three by Paul) reveals principles by which pastors and teachers can biblically contextualize their sermons for the 21st century with evangelistic fervor. (Available here.)
5. Advent: 25 Daily Devotionals on the Coming of the Son of God, by Armour
Advent, Latin for “the coming,” is a four-week period culminating on Christmas Day intended for extended reflection upon the meaning and significance of Christmas. That is, the coming of the Son of the living God into our world to dwell amongst us as one of us; His defining and embodiment of genuine love; and His service even unto His atoning death upon the cross from whence spilled the innocent blood that paid the ransom for many.
This resource comprises 25 daily devotionals directing attention to passages from the Gospels of Luke and John in order that families may devote the month of December to such reflection and begin to grasp the true significance of the coming of Immanuel, “God with us.” The book also contains four Christmas carols accompanied by explorations of their composition and rich theology. (Available here.)
To learn more about these titles or to browse through other Seminary Hill Press products, visit SeminaryHillPress.com.
Dry dusty roads led into the village. Worshipers gathered. As a missionary guest that day, I preached at that church. Lively music and dancing are typical of African worship. This day was no exception. It came time for an evangelistic invitation. A sub-chief walked the aisle for a decision. That was all well and good, even celebrative. The only complication to this man’s expression of faith was that he brought his five wives with him to make this decision. What does a foreign missionary do?
Polygamy, a long-standing issue in most African settings, is characteristic of African Traditional Religious belief systems that pre-date the advent of both Islam and Christianity. These ideologies persist in the fabric of various Christian traditions, whether denominational or not, in African churches today.
Solutions are not simple fixes. The convention we were part of had already developed a policy to help normalize reaction to this issue. The convention’s historical practice was to ask the man to choose one of the wives and “put out” the remaining ones. There were usually children involved, and this act created serious and ongoing social crises. The wives who departed the family network usually were as destitute as widows. People in the rest of the culture viewed these women as still being the wives of the man who wished to join the church. That limited their likely options for any sort of familial support in the aftermath of such disruptions. More often than not, they were soon resorting to prostitution to provide basic needs for their children and even to eat. As supposedly new believers, this was no healthy discipleship program.
At the time, a recently developed policy recommended first in-depth counseling with them all in order to understand their own personal decisions regarding Christ. If confident in their decisions to yield their lives to Christ, one could proceed with discussion of church membership. After all, Christ’s blood covers the sins associated with polygamy too. Finally, they could be presented for church membership on the grounds that, in a group, they each gave testimony of their salvation; confessed having entered the practice of polygamy due to cultural norms without knowing about Christ or that this was sinful; and agreed to end the practice of polygamy with that generation and to never seek nor accept leadership roles in the local church. They would ask for the congregation to assist them in teaching their children not to continue polygamous practices when they would eventually have families.
In parallel with these happenings, I had a very sharp African seminary student in my biblical ethics class. He asked me if an article he had read was true, namely that in America we have a problem of men marrying many women over time or sequentially. “It does, unfortunately, seem to happen in some families,” I replied. My own mother and father married each other three times and divorced each other three times. When my dad died, he was on his sixth marriage. The student said then, “Sir, in America, you have the same problems, then, that we face here. The main difference is that, in our cultures, it is common to have all the wives simultaneously.”
Eventually, I found academic articles that characterized our North American marriage and divorce cycles as “serial polygamy.” In the end, lest we get too prideful and ethnocentric in judging other cultures, we should look at ourselves. Could a man walk the aisle to present for membership this Sunday, and the pastor be asked to conduct him through the membership process, though essentially the gentleman is a “polygamist,” having had multiple marriages? It is not a question of one culture being more fallen than another. Instead, it is that we need mutually to assist one another with “beams” and “specks” in our eyes for better glorification of God’s design for the family.
Every pastor deals with a certain reality every single week. I’ve heard it referenced as the “relentless return of Sunday.” You preach your heart out, pour yourself empty, and exhaust yourself physically and emotionally only to wake up on Monday or Tuesday and realize the process begins for another week. In many ways, it is equivalent to writing and presenting a research paper every single week.
Any honest pastor will tell you there are days when you stare blankly at a certain passage of Scripture and have the thought, “How do I preach this?” We question how to make it into an outline. We wonder how we can apply this to our people’s everyday lives. Sometimes we even wonder what in the world the passage means!
I’ve discovered a secret that has been more helpful to me in sermon preparation than any other principle. I also believe it’s the key to personal discipleship, to counseling burdened people, and even to sharing the Gospel with a lost friend. Here’s the principle: Just say what the Bible says.
That may sound overly simplistic. In fact, I bet when you read that statement, you thought it was an extremely elementary thing. I understand that. I really do. I also believe that sometimes we complicate preaching, discipleship, counseling, and evangelism. I want to encourage you to begin implementing this simple principle in your everyday life. Here’s how this statement affects the following areas.
There are passages that are difficult to preach. Shocker, right? Some texts are hard to understand, difficult to work into an outline, or tough to try to apply to a group of people. My guiding principle throughout this is to just say what the Bible says. I believe it was Paige Patterson who once said, “Expository preaching is getting your people to read their Bible.” There is perhaps no better way to implement expository preaching than to just say what the Bible says. No more, no less. It’s important to notice that the most important question in sermon preparation is not, “What does the commentary say?” God wrote a book. Let that book speak to the people of God.
What is successful discipleship? People would probably answer this in a myriad of ways. I believe all successful discipleship has one thing in common: an intensified passion and focus on the Word of God in the life of the person being discipled. If that happens, then it truly will affect all other areas of his life. In other words, if we can get that person to begin to just say what the Bible says, we have helped put him on the path toward an abiding walk with Christ.
The Word of God affects all of counseling. It doesn’t matter if it is a professional counseling environment or one friend counseling another over coffee. We have all had those difficult times in the midst of counseling someone else or simply giving advice to a friend where we have come to that line. You know, THAT line. Do I take a step out and tell him what he really needs to hear? Do I tell him what God’s standard is for his life? Or do I cower back in fear and just say something to appease him? We should maneuver through these times by simply saying what the Bible says.
The reality of heaven and hell are tough things for a lost culture to grapple with. If we’re honest, it is a difficult message to deliver to people who don’t believe the same way we do. Some, in an attempt to be loving and inclusive, change what the Bible says to make it more palatable to a lost person. How unloving! The most loving thing we could ever do is say what the Bible says. The Bible speaks of repentance, of faith, of surrender, of taking up your cross, of following the Lord Jesus Christ. Those words are life. Just say what the Bible says.
I truly believe that if you’ll begin to practice this principle in your everyday life, you’ll see the Lord do some amazing things. God loves to work in the lives of those who hold His Word as the source of life and truth in the world. Will you take God at His Word? Will you just say what the Bible says?
The insightful Enlightenment philosopher Blaise Pascal notes that “the immortality of the soul is something so important to us, something that touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent to knowing the facts of the matter.” Most thinkers, Christian and non-Christian alike, traditionally have held that a human person is a unity of two distinct entities: one physical (the body) and one immaterial (the soul). This idea, called “dualism,” is pervasive in the history of Christian thought—not least because it seems essential to numerous tenets of the Christian faith (not to mention implied by the straightforward reading of Scripture, e.g., 1 Peter 3:18–20 and Matthew 10:28). And yet dualism increasingly is being rejected by the unlikeliest of scholars: Christian scholars. Pastors and theologians are well-advised to take note of this development.
The 20th century saw dualism widely replaced by views of human persons as wholly physical beings. Being convinced by naturalist arguments to this end, a growing number of Christian scholars (the “Christian physicalists”) are adopting this view. But upon inspection, we notice that Christian physicalism is incompatible with key Christian doctrine. Consider, for example, the Christian belief in the intermediate state: that is, a temporary state of personal, disembodied existence following death.
On the basis of passages such as John 5:25, 28–29 and Romans 8:11, Christians believe in the future resurrection of the dead. This resurrection is not instantaneous at death; it is in the future, specifically at Jesus’ coming (1 Thessalonians 4:16). This means Scripture teaches the future bodily resurrection of the dead; at Jesus’ coming, all the dead are going to be resurrected. Of course, we know from experience that all people die physically, that is, their spirit is separated from their bodies. For believers, the physical (earthly) body will be resurrected and transformed into a glorified body, a body like Christ’s present body, which will be reunited with the soul—but not until the future return of Christ. The intervening period between physical death and the resurrection of the dead is a state of disembodied existence. The apostle Paul calls this a state of “nakedness” since during this period believers’ souls will exist with Christ apart from the body. In 2 Corinthians 5:1–5, Paul discusses having a physical, earthly body (“earthly tent”) versus having a transformed, glorified body (“building from God, a house not made with hands”). While clothed in our earthly tent, we groan and are burdened, looking forward to being re-clothed in our glorified bodies. The intermediate state therefore refers to the state of the disembodied soul, that is, the soul after being unclothed of the earthly tent and before being re-clothed in the resurrected body.
Now, ideas have consequences, and one consequence of Christian physicalism is that it would render the biblical doctrine of the intermediate state impossible. If a person, Nathan, is nothing more than his body, then Nathan equals his body. But if that is so, then upon physical death it is not possible for Nathan enter into a disembodied state. It will not do to suppose that God could solve this problem by later re-creating Nathan, say, at the future resurrection of the dead. This is because Nathan, the once denizen of earth who was a sinner redeemed by grace, stopped existing upon death. Even if the “Nathan” God later creates looks and acts exactly like the original Nathan, the two are not the same person. After all, the later created “Nathan” only begins to exist at the moment God creates him; he was never a sinner and was never redeemed by grace!
It seems to me, on the other hand, that dualism has no difficulty accounting for the soul’s existence in both embodied and disembodied states, making it the most (if not the only) sensible account of the resurrection of the dead and the intermediate state. In other words, these doctrines make the most sense when understood as a soul being embodied (while alive on earth), then disembodied (at death), and then re-embodied in glory.
As the great 20th-century theologian J. Gresham Machen put it, “we ought to hold not only that man has a soul, but that it is important that he should know that he has a soul.” Machen seems to me correct. In light of its incompatibility with key Christian doctrine, Christian physicalism ought to be rejected in favor of dualism.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. and trans. by Roger Ariew (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), 217.
J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man (New York: MacMillan, 1937), 137.
The incompatibility of “Christian physicalism” and a variety of Christian doctrines is explored at length in R. Keith Loftin and Joshua R. Farris, eds., Christian Physicalism? Philosophical Theological Criticisms (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017).
Augustus Hopkins Strong—Baptist theologian, seminary president, and pastor from generations past—stated of those in Christian ministry, “The natural tendency of every minister is to usurp authority and to become a bishop. He has in him an undeveloped pope” (Strong ST 898). Strong recognized the temptation of power and pride for those in the ministry. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for ministers today is not necessarily with the congregations they serve but with the enemy within—the tendency to channel their inner pope rather than radically empty their egos.
Philippians 2:5-11 provides a model for all Christians to follow, which begins with the command, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus….” The idea is to keep on cultivating the mind of Christ. The command is for the whole church to correct the natural drift of the human heart to wield power for one’s own benefit rather than in sacrificial service to others. God’s plan is to shape His people into the image of Jesus Christ, and God calls Christian ministers to lead in following the example of Christ’s self-emptying humility. What does godly humility look like in the servant of Christ?
The servant of Christ does not crave power, use it for selfish gain, or seek to subvert the accountability structure of the local church and other believers that God has put in place around him. Instead of selfishly clinging to power to avoid His suffering and death, Jesus humbled Himself and became a servant. He added humanity to His deity (the true meaning of “emptied Himself”), taking the way of the cross to atone for our sins.
Christian ministers will constantly be tempted to believe that consolidated power is the way to advance the cause of Church and Kingdom. Paul, however, learned that the power of Christ is displayed in weakness and not in the strength of man so that the praise and glory will go to God alone for any fruit from our ministry (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Christian ministers and pastors hold great spiritual authority, but this does not come without accountability. Ministers of the Gospel profit the church when they embrace the way of the servant, submit to accountability, equip the saints for the work of the ministry, and sacrificially serve the church as an example to the flock. Strong notes,
It should be the ambition of the pastor not “to run the church,” but to teach the church intelligently and scripturally to manage its own affairs. The word “minister” means not master, but servant. The true pastor inspires, but he does not drive. He is like the trusty mountain guide, who carries a load thrice as heavy is that of the man he serves, who leads in safe places and points out dangers, but who neither shouts nor compels obedience (Strong ST 908).
The church is not the arena where Christian leaders advance their own agenda or a platform to promote their own ministry. Paul refers in Philippians 1:14-18 to errant minsters of the Gospel who preached Christ out of envy and strife, to do Paul harm in his imprisonment, and out of selfish motives. The church belongs to Christ. Peter put it this way:
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that it is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1-4, emphasis added).
A Christian pastor can either rule, or he can have the reputation of ruling; but he cannot do both. Real ruling involves a sinking of the self, a working through others, a doing of nothing that someone else can be got to do. The reputation of ruling leads sooner or later to the loss of real influence, and to the decline of the activities of the church itself (Strong ST 908).
Often, though by no means always, what is left behind after a man of God’s departure from a church is a good indicator of the type of ministry he engaged while serving the church. Here we can appeal once again to Strong. He notes,
That minister is most successful who gets the whole body to move, and who renders the church independent of himself. The test of his work is not while he is with them, but after he leaves them. Then it can be seen whether he has taught them to follow him, or to follow Christ; whether he has led them to the formation of habits of independent Christian activity, or whether he has made them passively dependent upon himself (Strong ST 908).
Only God’s power at work within can enable us to follow the path of Christ; it is not natural to empty our egos. When Christian leaders exhibit the humility of Christ, God is glorified, the church is edified, and the Gospel is advanced. We are not popes but bondservants of Jesus Christ. The apostles did not appoint successors and neither should men of God be concerned about their legacy in ministry other than the one Paul describes in 2 Timothy 4:6-8,
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.
Having recently completed a discussion of Plato’s Republic with a terrific group of college students, I am once again reminded of its beauty and depth. When teaching the Republic, I am always struck by the seemingly innocent back and forth of the dialogue that inevitably entices us straight into discussing life’s deepest issues. I am convinced that the genius of Plato is that we, in a way, cannot help but become a participant in his dialogue.
The influence and importance of the Republic as a single work is hard to match. It finds its way onto every self-respecting list of the most influential books, often ranking in the top five. Alfred North Whitehead famously said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Many philosophical topics that are live discussions today are traceable to Plato’s Republic. In short, the Republic is really, really good and worth our time.
One of my favorite discussions to have with students in reading the Republic is Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the dialogue, the main character, Socrates, tells a story according to which people are held captive within a cave and are bound such that they are only able to see the shadows on the wall of the cave. They have been there their whole lives, and so they think the shadows are all there is. It is possible to escape, but it is exceedingly difficult and no one really wants to because they are not sure there is anything beyond the shadows. The way of escape is an arduous journey, and, if one is successful, one encounters blinding light. It is so bright it’s painful. It takes some time for one’s eyes to adjust, but once they do, one sees the true world—the world as it really is.
The allegory is intended to illustrate how philosophy can free us from a fixation on the world of sensation. We are, in a way, bound by the shifting and ever-changing material world—the shadowlands, to use C.S. Lewis’ turn of phrase. For Plato, the material world is not necessarily evil, but it is a world in a constant state of flux and change. Thus, one cannot have genuine knowledge or even say true things, because before one finishes one’s inquiry, the world has already changed. The true world—what Plato calls the world of the forms—is the world of eternal and fixed ideas. This is a world discoverable not by empirical inquiry, but by philosophy.
In the shifting material world, one experiences things that have beauty to some degree. Or one may experience things that are somewhat good. But these are, at best, the mere shadows of beauty and goodness as they really are in themselves. In the world of the forms, one experiences beauty and goodness themselves along with the rest of the forms. And by knowing beauty and goodness themselves (as well as the rest of the forms), we are able to live well—at least, better—in the material world since there will be less confusion about what is beautiful, good, etc.
At this point in our discussion of the Republic, I always try to show how profound this is. What motivation to do philosophy! You can gaze on beauty and goodness themselves in doing philosophy! But here’s the thing. As good as that is, there’s something better still. For the Christian philosopher, there’s something (or someone!) that stands behind the forms.
I’m definitely interested in philosophy for its own sake. That is, I think the philosophical pursuit has intrinsic value and is a good. But, if I’m honest, my interest in philosophy sometimes waxes and wanes. What remains is a deep longing in my soul for something that makes sense of it all. Plato’s view, though interesting, strikes me as ultimately unsatisfying. For him, the forms, like beauty and goodness, just exist without any further explanation. They just eternally are. But why? Is this really all there is?
In a Christian view, we can gaze on beauty and goodness, and, given their value, we should do so. But we should not forget what stands behind it all. We can look further and gaze on God Himself as the ultimate foundation. This strikes me as far more satisfying in that this God created you and me to know Him. The ultimate metaphysic of reality loves you.
So here’s the vision. I do philosophy as a Christian because, for any philosophical question I may pursue, it seems to me that God stands behind that question as the ultimately satisfying answer. When I get out of the cave, as it were, I find God. It all leads to God, and this truly satisfies.
This is not, of course, to say that deep philosophical reflection is necessary for knowing God. We can certainly meet God in the mundane. It is to say, however, that philosophy done Christianly may be motivated by deep devotion and the desire to know God more fully. Moreover, philosophy done Christianly results in worship. The knowledge of God and philosophy are certainly not at odds. We should, as Christians, be interested in philosophical reflection precisely because it leads us to the God who is the foundation of all.
 Process and Reality, p. 39 [Free Press, 1979]
In 2016, Mercy Me released the single “Dear Younger Me.” The popular song is birthed from lead singer Bart Millard’s reflections on a troublesome childhood. The message considers the advice he might offer were he afforded the opportunity to speak to the 8-year-old version of himself. That idea is most intriguing. Consider the possibility of giving counsel to your younger self, especially in light of pastoral ministry. What advice might a seasoned pastor offer the younger version of himself as he begins pastoral ministry?
In my case, I would impress on that young man the importance of intentionally learning to relate to God’s people as a shepherd. Scripture often describes God’s people as a “flock” and “His sheep.” Coupled with the charge given to “shepherd the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3), it seems fitting for the pastor to grasp some important shepherding principles as he leads his congregation. While the list of such principles could be lengthy, I would suggest these five “musts” to my younger self beginning to shepherd the people of God.
1. A good shepherd must be compassionate.
Sheep are sensitive, fragile creatures that require a measure of gentleness. They can become distraught, easily disoriented, and filled with despair. A good shepherd must be mindful of their fragility in order to lead and care for his flock well. There is a clear and present danger of callousness in pastoral ministry. The regularity with which you are exposed to people in vulnerable stages of life can lead to a hardened heart, losing sensitivity to the dangers surrounding the sheep. The antidote for callousness is compassion. A good shepherd must be compassionate toward his sheep if he is to serve them and lead them effectively in Kingdom ministry for the glory of God.
2. A good shepherd must be patient.
Sheep are senseless, frustrating creatures that can try the patience of the most caring and disciplined shepherd. A casual reading of Exodus and Numbers reveals how easily Israel was deceived by either themselves or others. The people quickly turned to idolatry while Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Law from God. They constantly complained about circumstances, consistently questioned leadership, and refused to enter Canaan even though they possessed the presence of God and the promise of His deliverance. Scripture recounts that they reasoned among themselves to return to Egypt as slaves. It is hard to imagine a level of senselessness greater than when one desires slavery over following God in faith.
Moses’ relationship with the people highlights the need for patience in a shepherd. For the most part, Moses sets the example well, but even he grew weary beneath the load of senseless behavior. In one act of anger and frustration, Moses disobeyed the Lord, and it cost him dearly. After shepherding Israel for 40 years in the wilderness, he would not join the sheep in the grazing fields of Canaan. Instead, he would die and be buried on Mount Nebo. Learn from Moses’ shepherding example. There are times in pastoral ministry when frustration with the sheep you serve will be overwhelming. You must learn to be patient. Failure to do so will only serve to bury you on Nebo and keep you from ever entering Canaan.
3. A good shepherd must be firm.
Sheep are stubborn, foolish creatures. Rarely, if ever, do sheep discern the presence of a dangerous predator. Often, one will wander from the flock and hardly seem to be aware of its vulnerability. Indeed, much of the history of Israel seems to be one bad decision after another. Refusal to heed Joshua and Caleb’s counsel to enter Canaan, the desire for a king like the surrounding nations, and compromise with pagan peoples within their borders are just a few of the plethora of the poor decisions of God’s people.
Pastoral ministry is one of the most difficult tasks known to man. It is the nature of humanity to rebel. This stubborn streak in God’s sheep often emerges as the shepherd attempts to guide them along the Lord’s path. A good shepherd must learn to balance his compassion with strong leadership, and his gentleness with firmness. Ultimately, the responsibility and accountability of a good shepherd is to the Great Shepherd who commands our loyalty and obedience, whether popular or not. Be gentle, because sheep are fragile; but also be firm, because sheep are stubborn.
4. A good shepherd must be loyal.
Sheep are relational, familial creatures. The bond between a shepherd and sheep can be quite strong. Such a relationship demands loyalty. Sheep need a shepherd who is intentionally committed to them. Pastor, be careful to guard your heart. The temptation to be envious and covet a flock other than your own can be immense. It is easy to desire another flock when they appear to be more appealing and healthy than yours. Do not be so easily fooled. Every flock has sensitive, senseless, stubborn, and sick sheep; and every shepherd faces the same issues. Be loyal to the Great Shepherd and to the flock over which He has made you an overseer. Certainly, He can move you wherever He desires, but unless/until He does, remain loyal to sheep He has given you to serve.
5. A good shepherd must be diligent.
Sheep are treasured, favored creatures. The Great Shepherd loves His sheep. Such royal devotion demands a resolute diligence from those who serve the sheep. Pastor, no one loves your church more than God, and because God loves your church, she deserves your diligence. Study well. Invest deeply. Serve all. Work hard. Do all of this unto the people of God, but for the glory of God.
God has made you an overseer of His flock. He treasures them. They are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation”; they are “a people for God’s own possession” (1 Peter 2:9). Your church is His church, your flock is His flock, and both God and His people demand your diligence, loyalty, leadership, patience, and compassion. Listen carefully, young man: Start well and finish strong, faithfully shepherding the sheep of God!
A tragedy occurred at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, yesterday. Something that should never happen happened as a small group of Christians gathered together to worship. A man walked into the church during worship and shot and killed 26 people—ranging in age from 5 to 20—and wounded about 20 more. A common first reaction is to try to make sense out of this, but there is no explanation that will provide comfort or understanding, for evil is not rational or understandable. For many, the next two reactions revolve around fear and a desire to help.
Overcoming fear. I think it is vital for churches to use this tragedy as an opportunity to prayerfully consider what preparations they can make to prevent or minimize tragedy. Discussing the possibility of a tragedy occurring in your church and how to prevent or minimize it is important even though it may be difficult. Churches need to consider not only an active shooter, but also weather emergencies, fires, and responding to a violent person or one disrupting a church activity, among others. God is the Author of life, and each person is created in the image of God. We should do all we can to honor and preserve lives. One of the roles of a shepherd is to protect the sheep, and I believe that a pastor should lead his church in discussing and praying about such issues as he seeks to shepherd God’s people. Pastors should also minister Scripture that reminds people who God is, that He is worthy of our trust, and that He can help us overcome fear.
Some ways to help. The most important way we can help is to pray. This tragedy did not take God by surprise. There are many stories that will come from Sutherland Springs, most of which we will never know. God knows all the stories and knows and loves all the people impacted. He is the One who can bring true comfort and peace that surpasses understanding. Don’t forget to pray for the family members and friends who had loved ones taken away from them yesterday, for those who are injured, for the emergency service workers (police, fire, and EMS) who responded, and for others as God brings them to mind. Pray for opportunities to share the Gospel and look for ways to comfort those you know who are particularly troubled by yesterday’s shooting.
I had the opportunity to minister and provide counsel to many after the Wedgwood Baptist Church shooting that occurred in Fort Worth in 1999. After ministering through that tragedy, my colleague Dr. David Penley and I began the process of searching the Scriptures to see what we could learn about ministry in the midst of crisis. We developed what we call the Biblical Crisis Ministry Model. Some may have the opportunity to minister personally to those affected by today’s shooting or possibly another crisis. To assist in either ministering or preparing to minister in such a situation, I present a brief summary of this model.
Biblical Crisis Ministry Model
Foundation – Effective biblical ministry to those in or impacted by a crisis should be based on four foundational principles. The ministry must be:
- Biblical. That is, it must focus on glorifying and honoring God (1 Corinthians 10:31) and recognize that Scripture is sufficient for ministering to those in crisis as well as superior to the any of the world’s approaches. It recognizes and purposefully pursues the ultimate, eternal values of evangelism for the lost and discipleship for the saved, while being sensitive to people and context.
- Relational. Biblical crisis ministry focuses on relationships—both loving God and loving neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). The relationship with those being ministered to is not a professional/client relationship, but rather a discipling relationship modeled after Jesus’ example.
- Comprehensive. The focus of a biblical response is ministering to the whole person. If a person in crisis needs food, clothing, or shelter, the appropriate response is to do everything possible to provide for them, in Jesus’ name.
- Practical. A biblical response is hands-on, challenging, sometimes messy, and does not hide behind supposedly helpful platitudes. It is not, “Take two Scriptures and call me in the morning.”
The Tools of Crisis Response – There are five activities of crisis ministry that build upon the above foundation. These are showing compassion, listening, serving, ministering Scripture, and praying. As you read the brief descriptions of each of these ministry activities, notice how the four foundational principles of ministry (biblical, relational, comprehensive, practical) can be woven throughout.
Showing Compassion – Jesus’ life provides our example for true compassion. He left heaven to walk among humans. He saw the people and recognized their need. He was moved with compassion and motivated by love. He took action to help.
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…. (John 1:14)
Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)
When He went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick. (Matthew 4:14)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15)
Listening – God’s Word teaches us that it is wise to listen. Jesus’ example shows us that asking questions is part of effective listening. Listening requires time and a willingness to humbly refrain from interrupting with our own opinions or quick-fix answers. As we listen and ask questions, our goal is to move a person toward biblical hope.
While they were talking and discussing, Jesus Himself approached and began traveling with them. But their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him. And He said to them, “What are these words you are exchanging with one another as you are walking?” And they stood still, looking sad. One of them, named Cleopas, answered and said to Him, “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days?” And He said to them, “What things?” (Luke 24:15-19a)
This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. (James 1:19)
He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him. (Proverbs 18:13)
Serving – Jesus’ example as a servant reminds us that no task is too menial for us. As Christ washed the disciples’ feet, so too must we be willing to serve those to whom we minister. Our service cannot be limited to offering counsel but must be comprehensive, including practical service such as providing food, shelter, transportation, childcare, and the like.
You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. (John 13:13-14)
But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. (Luke 10:33-34)
Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. (1 Peter 4:9-10)
Ministering Scripture – Ministering Scripture begins with Jesus’ example of confronting people with the Truth of God’s Word and the truth of their circumstances. Each situation is different and dictates our approach. Sometimes we must minister the direct commands of Scripture. Sometimes we minister Scripture by relating stories from the Bible. Still other times, we may share the comfort found in the pages of Scripture. Remember to point people to the hope found in Scripture.
Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have dwelt in the abode of silence. If I should say, “My foot has slipped,” Your lovingkindness, O Lord, will hold me up. When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, Your consolations delight my soul. (Psalm 94:17-19)
And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in the Scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27)
For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)
Prayer – Jesus’ life vividly portrays the importance of prayer in life and ministry. Prayer is vital before, during, and after ministry. Pray for those to whom you minister. Pray with people to whom you minister. Pray with and for those who minister alongside you. Solicit prayer support from others.
After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. (Matthew 14:23)
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission that he may sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you; that your faith may not fail…. (Luke 22:31-32a)
Brethren, pray for us. (1 Thessalonians 5:25)
Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. (James 5:16)
Application of the Biblical Crisis Ministry Model
The BCMM does not prescribe formulas and packaged responses to crisis and disaster. Effectively using the model requires a deep understanding of God’s Word and how to apply it to life’s circumstances. It requires prayerful sensitivity to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Learn to depend on God’s Word when you face crises of any magnitude.
As a philosopher, I love ideas. I poke and prod them all day long, in class with students, in writing during research, in the margins of books in study. Ideas are important. They have consequences, as philosophers like to say. But ideas are not all that matter. Images do too. So do the things we make, if Andy Crouch is right.
We often forget that ideas and images, reason and the imagination, work together to lead one to the truth. Consider C.S. Lewis, who in describing his pre-conversion mindset, portrays how the imaginative and rational parts of his mind were pulled in opposite directions:
The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest conflict. On the one side a many-island sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow “rationalism.” Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.
Lewis longed for a certain kind of story, a story nourished through the imagination, that was filled with beauty, mystery, longing and transcendence. The intelligentsia of his day, like the new atheists in our own, told him that there is no deep story of the world. But his mind refused to settle for a kind of cold rationalism; his imagination sustained his longing for a story that was alive and true. Christianity, Lewis eventually discovered, is the perfect blend of reason and romance, ideas and imagination. Christianity is “true myth”: a story that is both true to the way the world is and true to the way the world ought to be.
One question that continues to animate me as a Christian who is a philosopher is this: How can we help others see the truth, goodness and beauty of Jesus and the Gospel? Some think Christianity is implausible or unreasonable. Science, they say, is the prophet, priest and king of modernity, ushering man into a new age of progress, peace and prosperity. Others think Christianity is undesirable. Christianity, they say, is oppressive and antiquated; a kind of slave morality that sucks joy out of life.
Philosophers tend to argue for the reasonableness of Christianity, and rightly so. I’ve come to realize, however, that arguing for reasonableness of Christianity alone is not enough. We must also argue for Christianity’s desirability. One way to do that, I suspect, is to utilize that aspect of man that was foundational in Lewis’ own story—the imagination.
So, while I’m more comfortable defending sterile propositions safely tucked within deductive arguments, to help others see and understand the Gospel, I realize I must learn how to argue with imaginative reason. Inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s notion of man as sub-creator, I decided to make something that might reveal through image, rhythm and story the beauty and brilliance of the Gospel. Taking a step of faith, I gathered together some of my artistic friends—spoken word poets—and we got to work. Could we write a story that awakened longing in others and pointed to the Gospel as both true and alive?
The result of our effort is the spoken word poem linked at the bottom of this article. What did I learn from this exercise in imaginative reason? I learned that making art is hard, as all creating must be (nor is it ever perfect). I also learned that it is fun; there is joy in the hunt for beauty and truth; there is a special bond that is forged as Christians work together to make something beautiful. Most of all, my own imagination was stirred: in cultivating—yea, even creating—beauty, the curtain pulled back, even for a moment, and I caught a glimpse of the divine.
As followers of Christ, we are part of a story that is alive and true. The story of God’s pursuing love ought to move us to share this love with others (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). The Gospel story is the greatest story ever. It is more, even. It is the greatest possible story. It understands you. And it is true. We must, in this age of cynicism, disenchantment and despair point others to the truth and beauty of Jesus and the Gospel. May we learn to cultivate our imaginative reason so others might find rest and forgiveness in this God who pursues.
Andy Crouch, Culture Making (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008).
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt, 1955), 170.
Consider the atheist physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, who tells us that science, not the Bible, provides us “the greatest story ever told” (The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far [New York: Atria Books, 2017], 2). What is the story of our existence according to science? It is that “there is no obvious plan or purpose to the world we find ourselves living in. Our existence was not preordained, but appears to be a curious accident” (ibid., 4).
When considering why God might allow evil and suffering, Alvin Plantinga suggests “perhaps all the best possible worlds contain incarnation and atonement, or at any rate atonement.” See Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 59.
You have heard the horror stories: The new pastor comes in and, within a few months, people are already clamoring for his removal. I will not try to tell you this never happens, because it does. While I do believe this happens much more rarely than most people think, I also believe it could and should happen far less than it does.
What causes conflict in the church? How could those pastors and churches who claim to love and follow Jesus engage in such ugly confrontations? Certainly, the fall has a lot to do with it, and as people, even believers, we tend to be very self-centered and stubborn when it comes to what we think is right. I certainly do not claim to have a cure-all for the problem of conflict in our churches, but below are simple reminders when dealing with conflict. They are written from the perspective of the pastor but can be applied to all believers.
- Always carry yourself with humility. We are not the great hero who has come to rescue God’s misguided people. We are to have the heart of Christ and serve always with great humility.
- Remember the qualifications. The language of 1 Timothy 3 describes the qualifications for a pastor as one who is able to walk with temperance, sober-mindedness, not violent, not quarrelsome, but gentle. Titus 1 adds that he is not self-willed or quick-tempered but sober-minded, just, and self-controlled. Much conflict in our churches could be avoided if pastors would just walk in a manner worthy of the qualifications of the office they hold. All Christians should aspire to walk consistently within the qualifications; pastors must be qualified for the office.
- Develop a genuine love for the sheep. Conflict will certainly arise for pastors when they see church members as tools for reaching a goal rather than as sheep whom Jesus genuinely loves and desires to see follow Him. The greatest foundation for handling conflict is that when people genuinely love each other, they will do what it takes to work out their problems. We must also remember that people in churches have REAL problems that they are working through. Some of them are in rebellion against God. Some of them are dealing with the consequences of past sin, even though they have been redeemed. There are some we deal with who act the way they do because they are lost, and they need us to love them enough to show them Jesus.
- Try diligently to see the other side’s perspective. When we are in the midst of a conflict, we often assume the other side is entirely wrong. I have usually found in the midst of conflict that people on both sides could learn from each other if they would just humble themselves and take the time to listen. I have heard it said this way, “Seek to understand, rather than to be understood.” James 1:19 states that “everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.”
- Don’t get overwhelmed by exaggeration of the situation. Do not fall into the hype of a situation. There will be times when you hear something like, “A lot of people are upset about….” Normally, the reality is that the person telling you the information is upset, and perhaps a few of his friends. It may even be that the person sharing the information is not upset, but a few in his circle are, so from his perspective, it truly sounds like a “lot” of people are upset.
- Remember, not everything is worth fighting over. There are some issues for which it is ALWAYS worthwhile to take a stand. The Gospel, the exclusivity of Christ, and the inerrancy of Scripture are examples. There are some issues that are SOMETIMES worth fighting over, and others that are NEVER worth fighting over. Make sure, if there are going to be arguments, that they are arguments worth having.
If we seek the Lord, walk in humility, remember the qualifications, and genuinely love the sheep, we can, many times, be used as an instrument to avoid conflict altogether or, at the very least, limit the scope and damage of conflict. How we, as believers, respond to potential conflict can play a considerable role in whether it amounts to anything.
Proverbs 15 is one of my favorite passages when it comes to how we can help in the area of conflict management. Verses 1 and 18 are good reminders of the role we play in leading the sheep in harmony:
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. … A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but the slow to anger calms a dispute.”
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Or you will also be like him.
Answer a fool as his folly deserves,
That he not be wise in his own eyes.
— Proverbs 26:4-5
This passage creates cognitive dissonance for readers pining for a single, solidifying principle to answering challenging people; and, unfortunately, no matter the exegetical application, there is no clear “If the person does this, then it is appropriate to say or do that.” This passage confronts the person who has pat answers to assumed questions, for this passage demands one to be fully present when addressing a person.
Jesus offers great illustrations of how to address challenging people without resorting to biting sarcasm, patronizing irony, or indifferent scorn. For example, when Jesus received Nicodemus’ questions, he answered according to his (Nicodemus’) folly while remaining fully present with him. Nicodemus’ questions were not questions leading to transformation but simple debate. Jesus did not just respond to Nicodemus’ superfluous questions—“How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (John 3:4)—with disdain but called him to be aware of God’s present work of redemption (3:8).
Jesus encountered people not just to answer their questions, but for the sake of transformation, without competing for power to gain an advantage over them. In all of Nicodemus’ questions, Jesus remained present with him, not shrinking back to indifference or frustration.
Similarly, as Jesus approached the woman at the well, he answered questions that she did not ask. Jesus did not entertain “How is it that you … ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman”; rather, He responded to her—her as a person, not a question. Because Jesus was fully present, He discerned what was beyond her questions. Jesus responded to the woman, speaking of God’s gifts, eternal satisfaction, repentance, eschatological fulfillment, and proper theology. Jesus did not offer pat answers to assumed questions; He encountered her beyond what was naturally heard, addressing the person and not just her questions.
Jesus listened for the opportunity to confound the true seeker, the one who genuinely desires transformation. With Nicodemus, Jesus answered him with enough information that later wooed him to return without fear or consequence. It should not be a surprise that when we encounter Nicodemus later in John’s narrative, we see him defending Jesus (7:50) and later following Him (19:39).
These two episodes offer many applications; however, there cannot be an application that suggests a solidified foundation that allows easy answers. In both of these meetings, Jesus allows Himself to be interrupted, offering Nicodemus and the woman at the well a face-to-face encounter. He does not begin with “Nicodemus is a ruler of the Jews and deserves more/less attention”; or, “The woman at the well is an imprudent strumpet and will continue just as she did in the past.” So, Jesus did not leave room for sarcasm, scorn, or patronization. Jesus offers the seeker a personal encounter, a face-to-face event, and His full involvement, hearing what is not said and answering what is not asked.
These texts demand readers to elevate the person in their presence more than the principle or predetermined answer in their back pockets. Jesus leads His reader to listen with discerning ears and respond with carful lips. These two examples offer a way for people to communicate genuinely without manipulation, elevating the other in a way that offers transformation. This kind of response takes purposeful prayer, discerning ears, and patient lips.
These two encounters offer many obvious applications for the believer and nonbeliever’s interactions; but, can these passages offer applications for the husband and wife, or the parent and child? Absolutely!
As I sit here writing this article, I realize that this challenge is difficult, especially since I have six kids, varying in ages from 7 to 18, and have been married to my wonderful wife for more than 20 years. This way of thinking and acting demands more than I would like to give. It demands me to listen patiently, allowing my children to interrupt me, giving them the space for a personal event to occur, a face-to-face encounter different from other events or encounters. I cannot retreat to all the previous events and previous answers the same way as I did before. I have to be prayerfully patient and courageous without retorting, “This is the same thing your sister did or the same situation your brother was in when….” I must allow each event to take me, which demands my full involvement to hear what is not said, and answer what is not asked. This is challenging because pat answers are not allowed, but the elevation of the one asking the question is. This way of acting allows the child to be heard and respected in a transformational way (not necessarily their transformation—perhaps mine).
More than just my encounters with my children, this way of acting demands my full involvement with my wife, especially when she has a personal challenge or a vision that scares me out of my comforting shackles. Perhaps I might desire to manipulate her questions in order to abscond from my responsibilities or my involvement in the challenge or vision before me. Perhaps I may have an answer before the question is articulated; this is neither prayerful nor courageous. She may be asking me a surface-level question, but I am to hear prayerfully and courageously, allowing an encounter to interrupt me for a transformational encounter.
Proverbs demands one to seek wisdom, the kind of wisdom that transforms. This kind of wisdom begins in an imbalance, forcing me to encounter challenging people with courage, leaving no room for pat answers, sarcasm, indifference, or manipulation; demanding me to listen to people without becoming immune to their needs.
The flooding associated with Hurricane Harvey damaged approximately 35,000 square feet at our church in Houston. Relief efforts focused first on those outside the church, but after about a week, the church asked for volunteers to help remove the damaged carpet. People started meeting at 2 p.m., but after an attempt to find masks at the hardware store, my wife, oldest daughter, and I didn’t arrive until about 2:20. We walked in eager to help, but as we searched room after room for a place to work, it seemed there was nothing left to do. Within a few minutes, one of the leaders called everyone together. Much to his surprise, all of the carpet had been removed in very short order; 35,000 square feet in less than half an hour. He decided to go ahead and begin the next stage, tearing out the sheetrock halfway up the walls. Even without all the proper tools (we were planning to tear out carpet), within two more hours, almost all the work was done. We had to stop because the dumpsters were full.
I never heard a number, but I would guess that there were 200-300 volunteers that afternoon. Since our church has several thousand people who attend each week, acquiring 200-300 volunteers is not a shocking number. In many churches within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), however, there are not even 200 people total. Were those churches to attempt such a mammoth task by themselves, it would be impossible within the same time frame. But there’s more to the story.
The SBC has long understood the power of cooperation. What would be impossible for one church becomes possible when churches work together. Churches from all over the country have sent teams to help flood victims, and those who couldn’t come in person have sent funds or supplies. But it doesn’t stop there. Long before Harvey was even a thought, many churches, perhaps even your church, set aside funds to help in a time of disaster by giving to the Cooperative Program.
As necessary as it is to tear out wet carpet and sheetrock, there are other tasks that are far more important. Who is going to share the Gospel with people around the world who have never heard the name of Jesus? Who is going to train the missionaries? Who is going to teach people to share God’s unchanging Word in an increasingly complex world? Who is going to speak to world leaders about issues of justice from a biblical perspective? You are. You’re not going to do it by yourself, and you may not yet be the one in the trenches, but if your church participates in the Cooperative Program, you are sharing the load.
Southern Baptists understand the power of cooperation. Indeed, this is one of the most admired facets of the SBC. Far better than asking missionaries to raise their own support, the Cooperative Program allows churches from all over the country to work together in missions and evangelism. More than 73 percent of the 2016-17 CP budget supports missions, a small portion of which goes to disaster relief through the North American Mission Board. The Cooperative Program also supports theological education, designating slightly more than 22 percent of the budget to this task. Just as few would dare take their car to an untrained mechanic or entrust their bodies to a doctor without medical training, supporting theological education affirms the training of ministers who are speaking to issues of everlasting significance. And in the spirit of cooperation, the seminaries gladly declare that it’s not the seminary or the church. It’s both. Together. Cooperating.
Just under 3 percent of the budget covers operating expenses of the convention (compare that to other organizations), and the final 1.65 percent of the budget supports ethics and religious liberty issues. Rather than sitting on our hands to see how fallen people will influence governing leaders, the Cooperative Program helps people who believe God’s Word to seek the welfare of our country.
It’s not just small churches who need to cooperate. Even very large churches do not have all of the resources necessary to accomplish the wide array of tasks that have been assigned by God. Even if they did, could they not accomplish them much more effectively by working together?
As we join together to accomplish God-given tasks, we imitate the pattern of the early church. What distinguishes us is not just the spirit of cooperation (the world has that in a time of crisis), but cooperation in the name of Jesus directed by Jesus to accomplish tasks that were given to us by Jesus.
Does your church support the Cooperative Program? Why don’t you find out this week? Has its giving taken an inward turn, or does it still place a large focus on these shared ministries?
By cooperating together in our work and our giving, we can accomplish great tasks for our great God. May God give us a spirit of cooperation.
To learn more about the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention, visit sbc.net/cp.
Students who have taken my Christian Home class are familiar with a diagram I draw on the board each semester. In this diagram, I visually depict the difference between polygamy and polyamory—two marriage arrangements that contrast monogamy. I then tell my students that such arrangements will most likely be legal in the United States in just a matter of years and that the church will need to be prepared to address them.
The time frame for normalization of these alternative marriages may have accelerated in recent months, as a series of articles have been published touting the advantages of various forms of multiple marriage. It is important for us to understand what these are and to critique them from a biblical perspective.
The Marriage Alternatives
Until the last couple of years, laws in the United States only recognized marriage to be between one man and one woman. The 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges opened the door to same-sex marriage. Now we see a push for different types of marriage that infringe upon monogamy.
Polygamy is a marriage arrangement where one individual is married to multiple partners. Historically, this is primarily a man married to multiple women. This form of marriage is the one most clearly set up for legalization through the Obergefell decision.
Polyamory literally means “many loves” and describes “consensually non-monogamous relationships [where] there is an open agreement that one, both, or all individuals involved in a romantic relationship may also have other sexual and/or romantic partners.” Polyamory differs from polygamy because all partners can be in multiple marriage-like relationships. While a recent Christian blogger has stated that polyamory is not about sex, the basic premise of this type of relationship is that the various partners are in multiple intimate, romantic, sexual relationships.
Open marriage is the third alternative in the marriage battleground. This arrangement involves couples in the marriage being open to romantic, sexual relationships outside the context of their own marriage. In some respects, this is similar to polyamory, although the outside relationships may not be formalized as marriage. Proponents of open marriage argue that as long as both spouses are in agreement with the arrangement then it does not break the fidelity of the marriage bond.
The Battle Ahead
Are these marriage alternatives really going to become mainstream? Numerous articles have appeared over the last year promoting these different marriage arrangements. New York published an article promoting consensual nonmonogamy. The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed philosopher Carrie Jenkins about her new book What Love Is and What It Could Be in which she promotes polyamory. NPR even ran a story about the cultural moment for polyamory stating, “Lately, I’m seeing ‘polyamory’ everywhere. It’s not a new word or concept of course, but it seems to be having a cultural moment.” Polygamy is popularized on the television shows Sister Wives and Polygamy USA.
From a Christian perspective, progressive Christian blogger Chuck McKnight is currently publishing a series of blog posts promoting polyamory and open marriage based on a “love-based ethic” in which our ethical actions are judged by only the question of whether they are loving. McKnight believes that polyamory can be loving and therefore not biblically prohibited.
The Christian Response
In response to the cultural push for acceptance of these marriage alternatives, Scripture gives us a couple of clear ideas about marriage.
Scripture communicates a consistent message about the monogamous nature of marriage. Beginning in Genesis, we see that God’s design for marriage is a comprehensive, covenantal relationship between one man and one woman. Genesis 2:24 provides this divine commentary on the nature of marriage:
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.
God designed that the man (singular) would be joined to his wife (singular) in marriage. All subsequent descriptions of marriage relate the ideal of monogamy. While there are examples of polygamists in the Old Testament (for example, Lamech, Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon), their polygamy is not depicted as ideal. In fact, their polygamy is the source of great strife and conflict in their homes. Despite the presence of such polygamy, the overwhelming testimony of Scripture points to monogamy as the standard. Both Jesus and Paul affirm the monogamous standard. In Matthew 19 and Mark 10, Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24 and then describes two becoming one flesh. He never inserts a third or fourth individual into the marriage. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul states, “But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2). Paul clearly communicates the idea of monogamous marriage here. The message is consistent throughout Scripture.
Any departure from monogamous marriage is a form of sexual immorality. Scripture consistently condemns adultery, but two specific passages come to mind in response to the current challenges to marriage. In Romans 7:3 we read, “So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress….” Paul describes a standard monogamous marriage (a wife with one husband) and equates any union with another man as adultery. In addition, the author of Hebrews tells us, “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4).
If Scripture depicts God’s design for marriage to be monogamous, and if any departure from monogamous marriage is equated with adultery, then the various alternative marriage arrangements—polygamy, polyamory, and open marriage—are all forms of adultery that are subject to the judgment of God. Therefore, Christians should not endorse these forms of “marriage,” nor should they tolerate them within their midst. Just as Paul rebuked the church at Corinth for tolerating the man who had married his father’s wife, we too should rebuke those who promote and tolerate such distortions of God’s design for marriage.
Rhonda N. Balzarini, et al., “Perceptions of primary and secondary relationships in polyamory,” PLoS ONE 12 (2017).
Chuck McKnight, “What Polyamory Is Not,” Hippie Heretic (September 11, 2017).
Drake Baer, “Maybe Monogamy Isn’t the Only Way to Love,” New York (March 6, 2017).
Moira Weigel, “‘I Have Multiple Loves’: Carrie Jenkins makes the philosophical case for polyamory,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (February 3, 2017). Carrie Jenkins, What Love Is and What It Could Be (New York: Basic Books, 2017).
Barbara J. King, “A Cultural Moment for Polyamory,” NPR (March 23, 2017).
Harvey and Irma. These are the names given to the two hurricanes that have consumed our news media, prayer time and conversations. Since Aug. 25, we have witnessed the devastation and destruction of homes, land and human life.
Some meteorologists report that as a result of Harvey, somewhere between 25 to 30 trillion gallons of water were dumped on Southeast Texas and Southern Louisiana. It is difficult to imagine that amount of water falling in such a relatively short period of time. Additionally, when experts showed the image of Irma overlaying the Sunshine State, it blew me away. This dynamic duo, namely, Harvey and Irma, will be spoken about for years and decades to come.
My hope, however, is that the primary conversation that rises above the rhetoric of the storms will focus on something that was more powerful than Harvey and mightier than Irma. I am referring to the help people gave each other regardless of race or skin color.
Let me quickly acknowledge that I am intentionally treading very lightly when writing about “silver linings” with Harvey and Irma. I do not want to be perceived as being insensitive or as totally spiritualizing these two hurricanes that ravaged property and resulted in the loss of lives. In addition, however, we must not overlook how people treated others with dignity and respect and helped each other regardless of race.
If you were an African-American and you saw Asians who needed help, race and ethnicity didn’t matter—you just helped them. If you were White and you saw Hispanics or Latinos who needed help, race and ethnicity didn’t matter—you just helped them. Everyone, including those who were not in the direct path of the storms, was in rescue mode.
Though these storms were destructive, I hope some (if not all) can find comfort in knowing that Harvey and Irma did not sneak up on God. Even before these hurricanes were way less than a category 0.1, God knew they were coming. God is omniscient, and nothing sneaks up on Him or takes Him by surprise. The psalmist says, “Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite” (Psalm 147:5), and Matthew reminds us that God has numbered “the very hairs” of our heads (Matthew 10:30). He is all-knowing.
God knew that the storms were coming, and He also knew that race wouldn’t matter when people needed rescuing. Just as the winds from the storms caused abnormal surges that rose some 6-12 feet above sea level, we saw humanity rise above racial divisions.
I’m not a pessimist when it comes to believing that race relations can and will get better. However, my best guess is that before the flood waters completely dry up, and before the nails are driven into the wood for roof and home repairs, conflict along racial lines will surge again.
How can we continue to be light that shines in the storms of racial division?
- Communicate about race without becoming angry. This is easier said than done. Nevertheless, it must be done if we are going to grow in our understanding of one another. We have to be willing to intentionally listen without being defensive. James is correct, “everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). Next time you are in a conversation about race, racism or anything in that vein that can potentially be “stormy,” intentionally listen even if you disagree. This will help move the conversation forward, as mutual respect will obviously be present.
- Develop cross-racial or cross-cultural relationships. If you do not have such a relationship, ask the Lord to bring someone from another race into your life who will become a good friend. For 30 years, I have had the privilege of providing pastoral and ministerial care not only to African-Americans (which is the racial majority at the current church where I serve) but also to other races and people from other cultures. One thing I have learned is that we have more in common than we may realize. “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14). If any group of people should be an example of racial unity, it should be the Body of Christ.
- “Carefront” people publicly and privately. One need not be afraid of speaking directly to those who oppose racial unity. You do not have to be mean-spirited; just be filled with the Spirit and the love of God. Avoid embarrassing and humiliating people, but never compromise your convictions by just “going along to get along.” At times, you may have to do what Paul did. He writes, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision” (Galatians 2:11-12). Use your influence to steer people in the right direction.
- Forgive people. Forgiveness is like a category 5 hurricane that does great damage to those who oppose racial unity. When someone asks for forgiveness, forgive him. Give that person a new start as if the offense never occurred. Remember to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
- Share the Gospel in both word and deed. 1 John 4:10-11 says, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” In other words, because of the Gospel, because of what God did for us in sending His Son to die for our sins, we should love one another. The Gospel is the cure for racial tensions; the Gospel unites us. So let us declare the Gospel with our mouths, but let us also declare it with our hands—“Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18).
Just as sustained hurricane winds are put into categories that can cause damage ranging from “some damage” to “catastrophic damage,” let us sustain our effort to build unity across racial lines. By doing so, we will cause catastrophic damage to the kingdom of darkness.
The mass shooting in Las Vegas elicits many appropriate biblical responses – anger over the evil actions, grief over the assailant’s lost soul, compassion for the dead and surviving victims, and urgent prayer. There is one additional reaction that has gripped me the most – namely reflection, taking inventory of my life responsibilities.
See, I and anyone of you reading this could be one of the approximately 60 dead or over 500 injured. Like the incident in Las Vegas, we also can suffer from the consequences of someone’s sin. We live in a fallen world, and James 4:14 states, “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” I do not know when “my time is up” for this side of eternity. I do not know if I will die of natural causes or disease, personal negligence, or the consequence of someone else’s sin. Ephesians 5:16 exhorts us to make the most of our time on earth, because the days are evil. This is reiterated in Colossians 4:5, albeit in a different but related context.
There are three life responsibilities that I have reflected upon to ensure I do not leave behind a spiritual massacre:
- Ministering to My Wife: In Ephesians 5, Paul describes the role of the husband and relates marriage to the Christ-Church relationship. Jesus sacrificed so that the Church may be holy and blameless (v. 27). Have I done this for my wife? Specifically, have I sacrificially provided a means where she is spiritually edified and more like Christ today than yesterday? Have I prayed for and with my wife, ensured she has time away from the children to study God’s Word and fellowship with other ladies, and fostered an environment for her to flourish in using her God-given gifts and talents? Husbands, have you properly stewarded your God-given assets to provide for your wife if you were a victim in a mass shooting (i.e., do you have a will)?
- Preparing My Children: Deuteronomy 6:4-9 clearly places the authority of teaching my children about God on my shoulders. Have I abdicated this authority or been a passive father? Have I taken advantage of every teachable moment, or have I been distracted by life? Do I recall that we are in a spiritual war and Satan wants to devour my children (1 Peter 5:8)? Have I prayed on a consistent basis for and with my children? If I died today in a mass shooting, would I have prepared them to be arrows that can be shot into the world and hit the mark (Ps 127:4)?
- Reaching the Lost: Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:9 clearly exhort all believers to share the Gospel. This is not a part-time job for believers, but is a 24-7 responsibility as we do life. Have I failed to hear the Holy Spirit urging me to share the Gospel with someone? The consequences are dire, for both the lost person and me. Ezekiel 33:1-7 sums this up pointedly:
 And the word of the LORD came to me, saying,  “Son of man, speak to the sons of your people and say to them, ‘If I bring a sword upon a land, and the people of the land take one man from among them and make him their watchman,  and he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows on the trumpet and warns the people,  then he who hears the sound of the trumpet and does not take warning, and a sword comes and takes him away, his blood will be on his own head.  He heard the sound of the trumpet but did not take warning; his blood will be on himself. But had he taken warning, he would have delivered his life.  But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet and the people are not warned, and a sword comes and takes a person from them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require from the watchman’s hand.’
 “Now as for you, son of man, I have appointed you a watchman for the house of Israel; so you will hear a message from My mouth and give them warning from Me.  When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require from your hand.  But if you on your part warn a wicked man to turn from his way and he does not turn from his way, he will die in his iniquity, but you have delivered your life.
If I fail to share the Gospel, the blood of the lost is on my hand. If I die today in a mass shooting, have I missed opportunities to share salvation through Jesus with the lost around me?
October 1 marks the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. If you (as a believer) and I were one of the dead, we would be face to face with our risen Savior. However, the more pertinent question for us is who do we leave behind? Do we leave behind a spiritually mature and provided for spouse, saved and spiritually prepared children, and new professions of faith, or do we leave behind a spiritual massacre?
In 1972, at the height of the Jesus Movement, the Southern Baptist Convention baptized more teenagers than ever before. From that point, baptisms of teenagers have dropped every year. If McDonalds does everything well except sell fast food, something is amiss. If the church does everything well except evangelize and disciple the lost, it is time for some soul searching.
Senior pastors, youth pastors, professors, and denominational leaders have ideas about the drop in new teenage believers. Each of their thoughts deserves attention. But youth ministry professor Mark Cannister has articulated a factor that may be one of the most telling of all. Writing recently in YouthWorker Journal, Cannister suggests three developments that have brought us to where we are today.
Cannister suggests that everything started to go wrong when the church stopped calling out and equipping parents to disciple their own children. Parents are busy and easily distracted. When they stopped hearing a prophetic call to spiritually impact their own children, and when they stopped receiving specific training for doing just that, they moved on to other matters.
The great majority of church parents now believe taxi driving is their part in discipling their children. They believe their role is to drive children to church to be discipled by professionals. Fewer than 10 percent of active church families read the Bible together during a typical week or pray together apart from mealtime.
Is that a change? Absolutely. Family ministry expert Rob Rienow reports: “We fail to realize that Sunday school and youth groups did not exist until the late 1800s. For the first nineteen centuries of Christianity it was understood that parents were called by God to disciple their children, and that the home was the primary place for this to happen.”
Scripture makes clear that the home provides the environment for the greatest spiritual impact. The best research simply supports that truth from Scripture. Predictably, teenagers not being led spiritually at home became weak. Some have remained in the church, though spiritually lethargic. Many others have wandered away from the church. The exodus begins around age 16. But the bombshell announcement that has sent shockwaves through the church is that half of church youth leave after high school graduation.
Cannister believes this loss of the church’s own students has created both subtle and overt pressure on youth leaders to save the day. In essence, the church now presses youth leaders to create discipling ministries to make up for the vacuum of spiritual leadership in the home. Youth leaders, whether consciously or unconsciously, have responded to this new pressure by shifting almost all their attention from teenagers in the community to teenagers in the church.
Youth leaders preoccupied with the youth group have somewhat lost focus on taking the Gospel to those apart from Christ. Those leaders may be pleased when lost students show up at church, but they are spending less and less time reaching the lost in the community. This shift may be a major factor in the precipitous drop in youth baptisms.
Addressing the Issue
Perhaps you care that many parents in your church are not leading at home. Perhaps you are concerned this might lead to youth leaders who have lost a focus on unreached teenagers. How you respond to these concerns may depend on your position in the church.
Layperson—Your vocational ministers likely are working hard, seeking to fulfill all the expectations others have of them. Hearing an additional responsibility they should shoulder might seem suffocating. Consider a different approach. Tell your ministers you have a passion for spiritually alive homes. Tell them Christ has called you to have a role in your church’s parents becoming spiritual leaders at home. Ask your ministers how you can partner with them to see parents move toward more biblical parenting.
Vocational Minister—You likely are working hard, seeking to fulfill all the expectations others have of you. You may feel that adding one more role—impacting parents as spiritual leaders—is over the top. But you may not need to make this a solo task. Preach and teach about God’s design for parents. Then ask people to come to you if they are sensing a call to be a part of an expanded ministry to and with parents. By sharing this ministry (and perhaps dropping some duty that is far less vital), you may be able to move forward without exhaustion.
If church leaders begin calling out and equipping parents to spiritually lead, and if parents respond to that leadership, then we may begin to see parents more intentional about spiritual leadership at home. And that may lead to teenagers showing signs of transformation even before they arrive at church. And that might lead to youth leaders who can turn more of their attention from the sheep in the fold to those who are lost.
Editor’s Note: Ross gives extensive attention to evangelizing teenagers and equipping parents to spiritually lead in his newest book, Youth Ministry That Lasts a Lifetime, available at seminaryhillpress.com.
George Barna, Revolutionary Parenting (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2007), 31.
Rob Rienow, Visionary Parenting (Nashville: Randall House, 2009), 96.
It seems as though every year from about mid-August until late September, the East Coast, the Florida Coast and the Gulf Coast are pelted with tropical storms and hurricanes. This year is no different. The city of Houston and the surrounding Gulf Coast areas are facing the task of cleanup and recovery after historic rainfall and flooding left in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Even now, three more hurricanes are churning toward landfall of the American and Mexican coastlines.
Another year, another storm, and yet the task of the pastor remains the same—preach the Word, in season and out! In his responsibility of proclamation, the pastor must be a model of consistency and endurance. To put it another way, the pastor’s role as servant-leader is to model the biblical principle of perseverance.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised” (Hebrews 10:36). Yet, it seems as though endurance, perseverance and consistency in the life of the minister, much less the child of God, have been eradicated by the politically correct, consumer-oriented, tech-savvy, selfie-driven mindset of the American culture. This mindset of the most prosperous country in the world demands a comfortable life that should be pain-free, opposition-free and trouble-free.
Even among evangelicals, the idea prevails that the Christian life should be stress-free, trouble-free and free of any type of opposition or struggle. As a result, many in the church today have forgotten that the Calvary road was a dusty road. It was a hard road, but it was down such a road that Jesus reminded His disciples they must walk when He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). For the believer of the 21st century church, persecution, disappointment, conflict, danger and stress will be the normal lifestyle, not the exception. Therefore, every effective pastor must model a heart of faithful, humble servant leadership.
Many biblical examples abound for the saint of God to emulate, but one such pastor from church history who stands out as a worthy model of perseverance is the Anglican pastor of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, Charles Simeon (1759-1836). Born the son of a non-believing wealthy aristocratic English lawyer, Simeon was educated at the Royal College of Eton, an elite boarding school for the upper class. He was known as an athletic show-off who looked more like a momma’s boy in his fanciful daily attire. The mindset he developed at this premier educational setting was pain-free, stress-free and opposition-free. Thus, upon his enrollment to the King’s College, Cambridge, in the spring term of 1779, a new spiritual reality set in at his conversion to Christ on Easter Sunday. His understanding of the Christ-life led him to choose a life of celibacy along with the spiritual discipline of rising every morning at 4 a.m. to spend the first four hours of his day in prayer and meditation. Yet, such a life of selflessness and sacrifice did not eliminate the years of persecution, conflict and pain rendered by the hands of his own parishioners at Holy Trinity Church as well as those at his own school of Cambridge.
Charles Simeon served as vicar of Trinity Church from his appointment in 1782 until his death in November 1836. For 54 years, Simeon gave of himself tirelessly and selflessly in his preaching and service to the community, in his study and training of Anglican ministers at Cambridge, and for the ultimate glory of the cross of Christ and His Kingdom. For the first 12 years of his pulpit ministry, his associate pastor was favored and compensated at a greater annual rate; yet, Simeon persevered. After nearly 30 years of preaching and teaching, he was criticized by his students and parishioners for requiring too high a standard for holiness of life; yet, Simeon persevered. For more than 13 years of his life, from the age of 47 to 60, he experienced poor health; yet, Simeon persevered. Despite the conflict and struggles, he renewed his call to his ministry of the Word, which lasted another 17 years. Charles Simeon persevered.
What kept Simeon faithful to the end? How did he continue in the face of constant opposition as well as his waning health condition? The answer is the same for every minister of the Gospel for today’s church—a humility of heart for the gift of salvation and a reminder of the responsibility of the call to preach the Word.
Another year, another storm, another reminder: pastors must reflect the biblical trait of endurance. Preach the Word!
An increasingly popular trend is for some within the church today to call themselves “apostles.” Pentecostals and Charismatics have used the designation for years because they want to be apostolic. Recently, however, some church planters have also used the title. They use the label because they see themselves as “those sent out” on mission. However, their use of the title for themselves is confusing and inapplicable because all Christians are “sent out” on mission.
No apostles are extant today in the way the term is overwhelmingly used in Scripture, viz., as “apostles of Jesus Christ.” I make this point for two reasons. First, after a while, it becomes historically impossible to be an “apostle of Jesus Christ.” Second, the “apostles of Jesus Christ” carried a unique and normative authority. The apostles were called and commissioned as Christ’s plenipotentiary representatives, who preached the Gospel in ways fundamental to its spread, prescribed normative teaching, and issued commands on God’s behalf. Their authority in the church seems indisputable.
To Be an Apostle of Jesus Christ Today is Impossible
After a while, it became historically impossible to meet the criteria to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. When the apostles sought to fill the vacancy created when Judas, one of the 12 apostles, died (Acts 1:12–26), the criteria Peter put forth for the replacement were (1) he had to have accompanied the Lord Jesus during the entirety of His earthly ministry (cf. Acts 1:2; 10:39–42), and (2) he had to be a witness of the resurrected Christ (Acts 1:21–22). They prayed to God and selected Matthias, who was added to the 11 (Acts 1:23–26).
No other biblical evidence shows that any other apostles were replaced when they died. For example, when James the brother of John was killed (Acts 12:1–2), his vacancy was never filled. Apostles did foundational work in the church, and foundations are laid once, not repeatedly.
The Apostle Paul was a special case. He did not meet the first criterion but was converted and commissioned by the resurrected Christ on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1–19). In Galatians, he emphasized his parity with the Apostle Peter (Galatians 2:7–8), and James, Cephas and John recognized that Paul had apostolic status (Galatians 2:9).
The Apostles’ Authority in Patristic Writings
That the apostles of Jesus Christ carried a unique and normative authority is evident in patristic writings. For example, in the second century, an early church Father named Serapion, bishop of Antioch (c. A.D. 190), made a statement that is fairly representative of the early church’s attitude toward apostles in general: “We receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ.” That is, the “apostles of Jesus Christ” were received by the second-century church as though they were Christ Himself. The church saw the apostles as Christ’s plenipotentiary ministers who possessed authority over the churches, and who were personally commissioned and sent by Jesus to make God’s will known. Other texts that show the unique and normative authority of the apostles of Jesus Christ can be found in the earlier Apostolic Fathers: for example, 1 Clement 44:1–2; 2 Clement 14.2; Ignatius’ Romans 4:3 (cf. also Trallians 2:2; 7:1; Magnesians 13:1; Smyrnaens 8:1); and Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians 6.3.
The Apostles’ Authority in the New Testament
The unique and normative authority of the “apostles of Jesus Christ” is also found in the New Testament. Their authority is seen in Jesus’ statements to them like, “The one who receives you receives Me, and the one who receives Me receives the One who sent me” (Matt 10:40). Moreover, apostolic authority is manifest in certain Pauline texts that clearly indicate that his unique status and high authority were connected with his divine commission and having seen the Lord.
In 1 Corinthians 9:1–3, Paul excluded the apostles from the judgments of pneumatics who examined the revelations of others, and he placed the apostles’ gift above that of the prophets. In 1 Corinthians 14:37–38, he claimed that his words were equated with the Lord’s command.
In 2 Corinthians 10-13, Paul described his authority in terms approximate to that of the Old Testament prophets. When false teachers in the Corinthian church tried to attain for themselves the apostolic status that Paul believed was reserved only for a certain few, he rebuked them, calling them “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:13; cf. 12:11–12).
In Galatians 1:1 and 1:11–2:10, Paul contended that he was called and commissioned directly by Christ. He described his call with prophetic language, which indicates that he had authority on par with the Old Testament prophets. Paul stressed his parity with the Apostle Peter, who clearly was seen by the letter’s recipients as authoritative. James, Cephas and John also recognized Paul’s apostolic status.
Paul wrote to Philemon to ask him to forgive and receive back the runaway slave Onesimus as a brother in Christ. In verses 8–9, Paul’s ability to command Philemon to take the proper action strongly indicates that his apostolic status enabled him to enforce such obedience, but instead he appealed to him out of love.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:2, Paul might have had in mind a forgery written in his name. The reference to a “letter as from us” shows that works falsely written under an apostle’s name were frowned upon, but also the authority that an apostle’s name carried.
Next to Jesus Himself, the apostles were the primary authority in the early church because they were Christ’s authoritative representatives through whom He laid the foundations of the early church. They were conduits of divine revelation who spread God’s Gospel. Their authority approximates that of the Old Testament prophets.
No one today meets the qualifications to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. No one now carries the authority they possessed. The title “apostle of Jesus Christ” was reserved for Christ’s authoritative representatives, who got the church “off the ground,” so to speak. That authority today is found in God’s Word, i.e., in the writings of the apostles and the prophets, the Lord’s authoritative spokesmen.
This designation primarily describes Christ’s 12 apostles and the Apostle Paul. On the distinction between “apostles of Jesus Christ” and “apostles (= messengers) of the churches” (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:23; Phil 2:25), see E. Earle Ellis, Pauline Theology: Ministry and Society, Repr. ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 66, 89–91.
E.g., Matthew 10:40 (cf. John 13:20); John 20:21; Galatians 4:14.
They recognized “the grace” that God had given to Paul. This is surely a reference to Paul’s apostleship.
Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.12 (emphasis mine). Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.
E. Earle Ellis, “Pseudonymity and Canoncity of New Testament Documents,” in Worship, Theology and Ministry in the Early Church: Essays in Honor of Ralph P. Martin (ed. Michael J. Wilkins and Terence Paige; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 219.
For example, Paul equates his words with a command of the Lord (1 Corinthians 14:37–38) and uses Old Testament prophetic language and imagery to describe his apostolic authority and calling (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:8 and 13:10 with Jeremiah 1:9–10; and Galatians 1:15–16 with Jeremiah 1:5 and Isaiah 49:1, 5, 6).
If you’re old enough to remember the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, you remember where you were when you heard the news. Driving down Coulter Drive in Bryan, Texas, I was on my way to a staff meeting at church. The radio broadcaster interrupted to report the shocking news that American Airlines Flight 11 had flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
This seemed inconceivable. Unfortunately, it was true, and within minutes, the awful reality of terrorism was verified when United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower.
When I got to the office, we watched in horror as the two towers came crashing down. The images of people covered in ash running for their lives were devastating. Seeing others plummeting hundreds of feet to their deaths was ghastly. The tragedy continued as American Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Due to the bravery of the passengers of United Flight 93, which was headed to Washington, D.C., that plane was taken down before it could cause further damage.
We didn’t have our staff meeting; we prayed—intensely. Sixteen years later, these images are still horrifying to watch.
The number of people who suffered this evil is incalculable: 3,000 people died that day, including more than 300 firefighters and 70 law enforcement officers; thousands more were injured; and the residents of New York City, as well as those working at the Pentagon, suffered greatly. In defiance, the response of the American people to all of this devastation surpassed the evil that caused it. For one of the few times that I can remember, the rancor of politics was dropped, and the nation actually resembled “one nation under God.” Support came from across the country, prayer was earnest, and people were more open to Christ than any time in recent memory.
Amid all of this support and care (though largely unreported) were thousands of Christ’s people, many with churches and Christian organizations; they comforted, cared for, and counseled the hurting, meeting spiritual needs along with physical needs. The reason for such a response among God’s people is simple: God is “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:4-5).
Suffering is reality, and no one wants it. Ironically, believers in Christ are at their best when giving comfort to the afflicted.
I’ve seen the power of God’s people comforting the afflicted many times. I remember it when I took a group to Turkey in 1999 following the devastating earthquake in Izmit and the surrounding area, which killed 17,000 and left more than 300,000 homeless. The largest presence of any aid group was Christians from all over the world, working as one to care for the needs of the people and finding ways to share Christ with them. We set up shelters, organized food and clothing distribution, and simply sat down to listen to people, cry with them, love them, and show Jesus Christ to them. Most of this was never reported—but, if you were there, you saw it firsthand.
As I write this, Hurricane Harvey has just overwhelmed the Texas Gulf Coast, causing destruction from Corpus Christi to Orange. Houston has been devastated. As in previous disasters, the response to the suffering has been spectacular: emergency workers, government agencies, and businesses have given and done so much. These organizations should be recognized and thanked for all they’ve done. Volunteers with boats, trucks, and any other means of rescuing people have just shown up to help—truly remarkable.
Among these are thousands of Christians. One news broadcaster said he had never seen so many churches and Christian organizations doing so much to help in so many ways.
Southwestern Seminary is putting together plans for faculty and students to go down to help in the relief efforts. The effort will take months, even years, to accomplish. Prepared to meet the physical and emotional needs of those who are suffering, we will also be prepared with the Gospel. And be there we will—serving in the midst of suffering is what Christ’s people do best.
We know what it means to suffer spiritual poverty and affliction; most of us also know other forms of suffering. Because we know the comfort of God in Jesus Christ, we will comfort the afflicted, not for recognition, but for the Kingdom of God, so that those who suffer will also come to know the abundant comfort of Jesus Christ.
After hosting nearly 100 episodes of a church leadership podcast that focuses on church growth and writing more than 1,000 articles on the topic, I’ve learned that the most important trait for church growth is an undergirding of prayer and biblical fidelity. Lead the church you serve to have a dynamic prayer emphasis combined with constant Bible teaching, preaching and overall DNA, and you’ll be ready to follow through with practical strategies. If you don’t have this foundation, then you will fall into pragmatism and failure.
But preaching and teaching the Bible, as well as praying, does not automatically result in the growth of a church. There are plenty of churches with this foundation that still lack practical strategy. So what are the keys to church growth?
1. Implement the right systems.
How do you move people from where they are to where God wants them? Systems!
Have clear processes for how you handle the following areas of the church:
- Corporate worship service planning
- Assimilation of first-time guests into members who attend, give, and serve
- Small groups
- Lay leadership development
- Staff development
- Generosity and stewardship
- Evaluative measures
2. Build the right team.
You need to have the right people on the bus and have them in the right seats. They need to be people of character, competence, and chemistry.
Character. It doesn’t matter how talented the people are, if they are not men and women of God, they have no place on your staff team. For pastoral staff members, the Bible has made it crystal clear what kind of character they should possess (Titus 1:5–9; 1 Timothy 3:1–7; 1 Peter 5:1–4).
Competence. There are some people who are extremely godly, nice and sweet but simply don’t have the skillset needed to excel in the church you lead. These are the hardest team members to handle because if they have character and chemistry but are incompetent, you won’t experience growth in their area of leadership.
Chemistry. If the people love God and are really sharp, but you simply don’t get along with them, or if it is awkward being around them, it will not work in the long-term.
3. Develop the right culture.
In order for the church to have a healthy culture, it must have exegeted its community properly, then reverse-engineered how to see a healthy New Testament ministry grow there. The culture should be one of excellence, warmth, energy and enthusiasm. How is that culture developed? Through intentionality.
I conclude with a frustrating story. From ages 11 to 15, I mowed lawns and saved money to buy my first car. The day I turned 16, I opened up the classifieds section of the newspaper (before the days of Craigslist), found a car within my budget, and called the number.
I met with the guy who was selling the Chevy Corsica. It wasn’t the coolest car I had ever seen, but during the test drive, it was smooth.
Two days later, a substance was flying out from the side of the car, and then a rod was thrown in the engine. The seller put sawdust in there and conned me into buying a bad car. The cylinders in the engine weren’t clicking together, and it ruined the entire car.
Friend, you can make some tweaks here and there to make the church you lead experience some growth for a short season. You can throw proverbial sawdust under the hood of the church you serve.
But if you want things to click on all cylinders for the long haul, focus on the foundation of prayer and biblical fidelity, then implement the right systems, build the right team, and develop the right culture. Church growth isn’t guaranteed to come as a result of all of this, but the odds will definitely be in your favor.