I always begin church history classes with a lecture called “Why Study Church History?” We live in an age in which what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” — the prioritizing of all things new and the despising of all things old — is almost palpable.
Students often need a little convincing that history is important. After all, many of their high school history courses were mere after-thoughts, sometimes even taught by football coaches who were well versed in the 4-3 defense and the spread formation, but perhaps (though not always, of course) not as informed regarding important things from the past. I was actually blessed to attend a public high school with a strong history department, which is probably part of the reason I love history today. And as my good friend Harry Reeder puts it, we must learn from the past to live effectively in the present and impact the future. Therefore, it is important that we know our history as Baptists. Here are eight reasons why:
- We need to see church history as a discussion of the Bible.
Church history in general, and Baptist history in particular, is most fundamentally a discussion about the Bible. Debates such as Arius vs. Athanasius, Pelagius vs. Augustine, Erasmus vs. Luther, General Baptists vs. Particular Baptists, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship vs. the Southern Baptist Convention are at their root battles for the Bible. That’s why Baptist history is so vital.
- We must become convictional Baptists.
“I was Baptist born and Baptist bred, and when I die, I’ll be Baptist dead.” I heard this pithy dictum many times growing up in a small Southern Baptist church in answer to the question “Why are you a Baptist?” But being Baptist because it is part of our family lineage is not a valid reason to be a Baptist. Studying Baptist history enables us to become Baptists by theological conviction. It teaches us that there are many good biblical and theological reasons to hold a firm grip upon Baptist ecclesiology as a necessary biblical complement to a robust confessional, evangelical orthodoxy.
- We need to see that Baptists have a rich theological and ecclesiological heritage.
Some think that the Presbyterians or Anglicans or Methodists or other denominations have all the good history. But Baptists own a tradition filled with great men and great moments — Charles Spurgeon, Andrew Fuller, William Carey, Benjamin Keach, John Bunyan (assuming we accept he was a Baptist), the founding of the modern mission movement, the reformation at Southern Seminary in the late 20th century, the founding of dozens of seminaries and colleges, the First and Second London Confessions, and the Baptist Faith & Message. Our Baptist heritage is deep and wide.
- We must accurately assess claims as to where Baptists came from and what they have believed.
Are Baptists first cousins to the Anabaptists, the so-called “radical reformers” in Europe, during the Protestant Reformation? Or, did Baptists arise out of Puritan separatism in Europe? Were they mainly Arminian in their doctrinal commitments or were the majority of Baptists Calvinistic, and which theological stream was healthier? These are much-debated questions and only a close, careful study of Baptist history uncovers the correct answers.
- Both theology and ecclesiology matter.
I hold a growing concern that ecclesiology is becoming less and less of a conviction among my fellow citizens of the young, restless, Reformed village. But even a 32,000-foot flyover of the Baptist heritage shows that the doctrine of the church and theology proper are inextricably linked. If God has an elect people, if Christ has shed his blood as the substitute for this people, if Christ has promised to build his church, then there must be a theology of the church. Historically, confessional Baptists, at their best (and I include both General and Particular Baptists here), have seen this connection and have sought to build local churches accordingly. Ecclesiology has deep implications for our practice of the ordinances, for church membership, for church discipline, for pastoral ministry, and for many other matters pertaining to the day in, day out life of the church. A strong ecclesiology tied to a robust theology tends toward a healthy church. Baptist history bears this out through both positive and negative examples.
- We need to be careful to keep the Ninth Commandment.
It is a sin to caricature and misrepresent those with whom we disagree. We must study their doctrines, hear their arguments, and be able to articulate their case, even as we develop our own convictions. We must avoid populating our theological gardens with straw men or polluting our polemical streams with red herring. We must treat our theological opponents the way we desire to be treated. Polemical theology has a long and established place in the history of ideas, but it should be executed in a way that honors the dignity of our opponents. By this, I do not intend to say we should seek to be politically correct in our debates, but we must be Christ-like and that means taking the beliefs of the other side seriously and treating them fairly. If we’ve learned nothing else from the current political season, at bare minimum, this lesson should not be lost on us.
- We need to understand our forefathers paid a steep price to hold Baptist convictions.
Bunyan famously spent 12 years in a filthy Bedford jail. Spurgeon was strafed by liberalism to the point of death. And time would fail me to tell of Thomas Hardcastle, Abraham Cheare, Obadiah Holmes, and dozens of others who paid a high price for their Baptist beliefs, some dying in prison, some being locked in stocks and subjected to public mockery, others being tied to a post and whipped, and many being persecuted to the point of death. In 2016, we sit in our Baptist churches without a threat of even being scratched for our theology, but we must know that we arrived in this state upon the scars and bloodshed of our Baptist fathers. For these men, believer’s baptism by immersion, a regenerate church, and liberty of conscience were not merely peripheral doctrines on which “good men disagree.”
- We need to see that Baptists have been, on the whole, a people committed to the formal principle of the Reformation, sola Scriptura.
Baptists are a people of the book. Baptists have sought to build their churches upon the Bible, connecting theology and ecclesiology together as a seamless robe. The fundamental question Baptists, at their best, have asked is this: “Is it biblical?” Though there have disagreements as to the specific answers, the Bible is our sole authority and a walk through the pages of Baptist history reveals, from solid General Baptists such as Thomas Grantham to Particular Baptist Giants like Spurgeon, demonstrates this as an axiomatic truth.
No doubt, there are many more reasons why we ought to engage our heritage, but let us never be guilty of failing to know precisely why we call ourselves Baptists and at least fundamentally what that meant in the past and continues to mean today.
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In a previous article, I wrote that seminary cannot prepare anyone to be a pastor. Only a church, guided by the Holy Spirit, can truly qualify a man for ministry. By its very nature, the field of pastoral leadership is fraught with such incredible difficulties that we must say with the apostle Paul, “Who is sufficient for these things?”
Leading God’s people is unlike any other task in the world — which is why it requires a calling of the Spirit, and not merely training for a job. While I am sure there are others, I have identified a matrix of 10 challenges specific to the church that make pastoring unlike anything else.
1. A pastor or church leader deals with the eternal and spiritual nature of things. Medical doctors have a stressful job. Their decisions can mean life or death in some cases. A pastor, however, has the awesome responsibility of dealing with the immortal soul of man. His leadership and decisions have the potential of affecting eternity, and that is an infinitely greater burden.
2. A pastor’s role is prophetic in nature. In other words, he has to look people in the eye and confront them with the uneasy subject of their sinful actions and attitudes—and no one likes that. Though he finds himself a great sinner in need of God’s grace, God holds him no less responsible to deal with the sin of others. Furthermore, the people he usually confronts are the very ones whose offerings pay his salary.
3. The pastor leads an army of volunteers. If a businessman has to correct a worker’s performance, he has the leverage of a paycheck whose necessity powerfully motivates employees to do what they are asked. Workers in the church, however, do not need the job they perform in order to put food on the table and may even have easier lives without it. How does a pastor lead a volunteer to change when he doesn’t want to? A volunteer army also means that they can un-volunteer.
4. In most churches the pastor has an unclear identity. Most congregations, as well as the pastors themselves, have never actually defined the pastor’s role. They want him to lead, but they don’t want to be told what to do. In addition, successive pastors have different sets of gifts, which clouds the issue because it affects his style of leadership. Each member may have a different expectation of the pastor. Some want him to be a great preacher, while others demand someone who will be at the hospital bedside for every tonsillectomy. Is the pastor primarily a leader, prophet, visionary, equipper, motivator, fundraiser, or teacher? Five church members may answer that question five different ways.
5. Compounding this problem is increasing uncertainty about church polity. Some churches see the deacons as the leaders of the church, while others see the pastor as the leader and the deacons as servants. More churches are turning to a plurality of elders—one of whom is the pastor-teacher—who share oversight of the congregation. Even in a plurality of elders, whoever serves as pastor-teacher has the de facto leadership, but how does he relate to the others?
6. The church expects the pastor’s family to be involved in his work. I don’t know of any other private sector jobs that require so much family involvement. The school board doesn’t demand that the high school principal’s wife help decorate the hallways or attend all basketball games, for instance. But churches have expectations for the pastor’s wife and children that are rarely voiced in the interview with the pastor search committee, even though that perception may indeed affect the pastor’s ability to lead. Many leaders in the church have lost their effectiveness because the congregation became disenchanted with his family, whether their disappointments were real or imagined.
7. People believe the pastor should always take the initiative. Church members don’t demand their doctor show up on the doorstep when they don’t feel well, but they expect the pastor to take the initiative to discover why they haven’t been around. In fact, some folks will get mad about something in the church and quit attending, but later they have forgotten what upset them originally. Their complaint then becomes that the preacher never came to see them when they quit coming.
8. The demand for originality is an especially burdensome and constant pressure. If a pastor preached just two sermons a week for fifty weeks in a year, he would write the equivalent of nine novels. With that much productivity required, church members ought to forgive a dull chapter every now and then! Though the Scriptures are an inexhaustible well of subject matter, saying biblical truths in an interesting way with fresh illustrations that connect with and engage a congregation is no small feat. The pastor who cannot preach well often finds his leadership threatened. His pulpit ministry is his broadest stroke of contact and leadership, and if he is perceived as dull or repetitive, he loses his most influential method of leading.
9. Churches often give the pastor or other leaders responsibility without authority. For instance, the congregation usually assumes that the pastor is supposed to help meet the needs of his congregation. If a family has a legitimate financial emergency, they may turn to the pastor for immediate help, but he often has no way to provide it. And if he does, some committee may later rebuke him for overspending the benevolence budget. Churches often have a “get it done” attitude toward the pastor, but then complain about the way he did it.
10. Simmering below the surface of all leadership is the pastor’s difficulty developing friendships. Most pastors and their families have great difficulties making and maintaining close relationships. A church leader often finds it impossible to walk the tightrope between leadership and friendship with the same people. Leaders and their families may be afraid to confide in others, are often burned if they do, and sometimes become the victims of jealousy or resentment if they try. Because of egos larger than they should be, pastors even struggle to establish relationships with other ministers because they can never break out of the thought pattern of comparing churches and problems.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.
I could tell he was nervous. My oldest son Timothy and I had been working on his catching and fielding skills for months, and it was the first T-ball practice of the season. As much as I tried to temper his expectations, he wanted nothing more than to show his coach and his team how well he could play. The coach called out his name and told him, “Here it comes!” Timothy broke down into his “action” stance and readied himself. Pop! The ball sailed across the ground toward the pitcher’s mound. Timothy was laser-focused and every inch of his four-foot-tall self displayed a dogged determination to stop the ball. Just before the ball reached him, Timothy stumbled and the ball went rolling past him. He was in shock. His disappointment in himself was evident, and it continued until the end of practice.
Shepherding my child through his disappointment and helping him set new expectations for future practices showed me how much I needed to reevaluate my own expectations in ministry. As a young pastor of an established church, I had to learn (and am still learning) that disappointments and frustrations are inevitable. Whether these unmet expectations are my own or others’, pastoral “missed grounders” and “strikeouts” are simply part of the game.
I needed to learn the very same lesson I was trying to teach my son after his first T-ball practice: we should not expect perfection, but progression. Just as Timothy needed to recalibrate his expectations from being a perfect player to being a progressing player, I needed to know that I am not called to be a perfect pastor but to be a pastor in progress.What makes a good servant of Jesus?
If anyone could succeed in ministry it was Paul’s disciple, Timothy. He had the best credentials; not only was he associated with and commended by Paul, he also had experience working with churches in key cities including Thessalonica, Macedonia, and Corinth. Though he was young, he had already helped Paul write a number of Christian books—2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon. And yet, even with all his credentials, experience, and background, Timothy was not spared disappointments and frustrations.
Timothy’s ministry in Ephesus was fraught with dangers both from inside and outside the church. On the one hand, Ephesus was known for its hostility toward Christians. Acts 19 tells of a silversmith named Demetrius who incited the entire city in a riot against the teaching of Christians. On the other hand, Ephesus was home to rogue teachers like Hymenaeus and Alexander who were drawing aside people in droves. Whatever expectations Timothy might have had in coming to Ephesus, they were no doubt shattered. So, what did success look like for Timothy when everything around him seemed to be falling apart?
Paul answers this question in 1 Timothy 4:6-1. In the process, he offers hope and encouragement for those of us who struggle with perfectionism in ministry and are often left in the wake of the disappointments that follow. We young and idealistic pastors need to be reminded often of God’s expectations for his servants. People may leave. Budgets may diminish. Buildings may deteriorate. And yet, success in ministry—even a difficult ministry—is possible. What was required of Timothy is still required of pastors today. So, what makes a “good servant of Jesus?” According to Paul, there are at least four things.
- A good servant preaches truth
Paul defines a “good servant of Jesus” as someone who “puts these things before the brothers” (v. 6). Specifically, “these things” refer to all the instructions Paul has just listed out to Timothy in chapters 1-3, all of which show how people should conduct themselves in the household of God. Paul instructions were no less countercultural in Timothy’s day than they are now. Following Paul’s commands, Timothy had to confront the legalistic Judaizers for their errors in teaching the law as a means of attaining righteousness. He was to call men to be holy prayer leaders and women to be submissive to the teaching. He was to outline the qualifications of church leadership and give a reason for why women could not teach or exercise authority over the congregation. As awkward and difficult as his task was, success in serving Jesus depended on Timothy putting forward the truth—even when it ran counter to the surrounding culture.
2. A good servant emphasizes godliness
Paul goes on to tell Timothy he must “have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths” but instead he must “train [himself] for godliness” (v. 7). In ministry, it is tempting to focus on the hearsay, the gossip, the rumors, speculations (1:4), evil suspicions (6:4), and what Spurgeon called the buzzing of “Mrs. Grundys.”“Have you heard what [so-and-so] has been saying?” can at times be the most disturbing words to a pastor’s peace. This why Paul says to avoid silly myths: do not let them distract you from your real goal, which is to grow in godliness.
3. A good servant immerses himself in the Word
Along with putting forward the truth and training himself in godliness, Timothy was to engage others in the truth both publicly and privately. On the one hand, he must “command and teach these things” (v. 11), which also necessitated that he set the example for how the believers should apply the things Paul commanded (4:12). In addition, Timothy was to “devote [himself] to the public reading of Scripture,” complete with public preaching (exhortation) and teaching.
However, Timothy was not only to engross himself in the word publicly. He was to do so privately as well. Later in 2 Timothy 2:8 Paul encouraged him saying, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel.” This exhortation to personally “remember Jesus” was intended to encourage Timothy in faithful public preaching. Healthy pulpits are aided by the pastor’s personal health in the private presence of God. To be sure, a pastor may preach a good sermon on Sunday, and fail to apply or experience the truth personally. This why Baxter warned his readers against “build[ing] up an hour or two with your mouths, and all week after pull down with your hands.”Good servants of Jesus teach in public the truth they have come to believe personally.
4. A good servant knows practice makes progress
Paul’s encouragement continues in verse 16, “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.” Notice Paul does not say, “Practice these things…and you’ll become perfect.” In fact, when comes to ministry, practice never makes perfect; but practice does make progress. A good servant of Jesus—though never perfect in this life—will be known for his progression. The faithful pastor grows. He gradually becomes godlier, holier, more loving, and more patient. The fruits of the Spirit increase and multiply in his life. All of this is the result of him coming into contact with the word of God and the Spirit doing his sanctifying work. If you find that you are not a perfect pastor, do not be surprised or dismayed. Rather recalibrate your expectations and be grateful for the progress God is making in your own heart and soul. I am convinced that the large number of “ministry dropouts” is not primarily due to the hardships in ministry. Instead, the problem is that our expectations for success are simply not in line with God’s. Before a pastor makes goals for a church’s growth, he must first look to his own growth in the gospel.
At my son’s next baseball practice, Timothy returned to the field with a big grin. The coach called his name and told him to get ready. The ball came sailing toward him, his glove went down, and the ball rolled gingerly past his mitt. He looked up at me, smiled, and gave me a thumbs up. That was the progress I wanted to see. Whether he caught the ball, dropped the ball, struck out, or hit a home run, my son was learning to have joy in playing the game. When it comes to gospel ministry, may we never forget that true progress and growth comes as we progressively grow in our joy in Jesus.
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The work of church revitalization brings many surprises. Each dying congregation has its own quirks, blind spots, and sins that led to a nearly lifeless situation.
Eight years into my own church revitalization work, I have learned a number of lessons I didn’t necessarily expect to when I began. Here are five of them.
- Wait for the right time to implement change.
The most common tactic of a zealous pastor beginning a church revitalization—which is the worst thing he could do—is to try to change everything that needs to be changed within the first year or two. Of course the church needs to change, else it would not be characterized as needing revitalization, yet change must come slowly. Trust must be built. Sheep first need to feel cared for by the shepherd before they will follow him down a new path.
The point is not merely that change should happen slowly, but that the timing for any particular change has to be right. In year four of my present pastorate, I almost split the church over a major change. So, I realized that this was not the time and pulled back. Nine months later, the same measure passed unanimously. Change must come slowly, at the right time.
- Don’t underestimate the power of persistent love.
Because the Bible calls us to watch over souls as those who will give an account (Heb. 13:17), pastors cannot choose to care for some sheep and avoid others. Caring for those who do not seem to want our care can make us feel helpless. Yet don’t underestimate the way God powerfully works through persistent love.
Some of the ring leaders of an effort to remove me as pastor five years ago are now warm supporters. What brings that kind of change of heart? First and foremost, God’s power and grace at work. However, God seemed to work through actions of relentless love. You will give an account for all the sheep under your care, regardless of how they receive your ministry, so persistently love them all.
- Don’t underestimate the joy of winning those who were once hostile to you.
Without a doubt, some of my most meaningful relationships in the church are with those who once wanted my head. Some who once prayed that I would leave now pray that my ministry in the church will be fruitful. These people do not think I am the greatest pastor in the world. Nor do they agree with me about everything. Yet through the struggles and battles over the years God was doing something miraculous of which I was largely unaware. Trust was building, understanding was growing, and mutual affection was subtly forming in both our hearts.
- Don’t neglect your elderly members—they’re one of your greatest gifts.
I am increasingly concerned that in the midst of a church planting frenzy, the multi-generational church is fading. Elderly church members are commonly seen by the younger generation of pastors as an unhelpful burden, a hindrance to the work of the ministry—a lie I was once tempted to believe.
You can imagine my surprise when I began to recognize the gift of elderly church members, as well as the God-honoring blessing of a multi-generational congregation united by the gospel. To witness a self-consumed, trendy college student get up and go sit with an elderly widow during a Sunday morning gathering because she was sitting alone is a uniquely powerful display of the gospel. And that display is found only in a local church when old and young are present (Tit. 2:1-8).
- Labor for the satisfaction of seeing unhealthy, dysfunctional church patterns broken.
It is a great joy to see the gospel change a person’s life. That joy is magnified as the gospel begins to change decades of unhealthy, destructive patterns that have strangled the life out of an entire local church. God’s Word and Spirit are so powerful that they can not only build a healthy church, but even take a dying, broken, discouraged congregation and give it renewed life, causing it to flourish far beyond what its founders ever imagined. So labor diligently and patiently to see the gospel transform the corporate life of the church.
The gospel is the power source
Church revitalization is hard work. Every situation is unique and unpredictable. Many of the lessons I’ve learned have been not just unexpected, but difficult and painful. Yet the difficulties are more than worth it. The gospel can not only build a local church, but rebuild it also—sometimes in surprising, unexpected ways.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at 9Marks.
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For many of us, the value of human life is essential to a biblical understanding of God and creation. God does not make mistakes, and it is He who gives life, and so we champion the cause of the unborn. We rightly take up the cause of the unborn, but what about the already born? Does God equally value and love every life that is born? What if they are of another people or religion? What if that religion is hostile to Christianity? What if they will disrupt the way I live my life?
My family and I recently attended a fundraiser for the war-torn country of Yemen. The goal was to fund a certain number of food packages for individual families. There were both Christians and Muslims at the event, and for me, it was a great opportunity to engage with Muslims here in Fort Worth. My wife and I sat at a table with a family from Turkey, and we had some great discussion. They are fairly conservative, and the wife wears a head covering. I was glad to hear that they have not faced any hatred or discrimination in the three years they have been here.
With my focus completely on the Turkish friends, I became convicted to check my heart as to how I felt about the desperate people in Yemen. Thinking about it, I was really attending the event as an opportunity to share with Muslims here. Did I care about the men, women, boys and girls of Yemen? Many die each day without hearing about Jesus, and this repeats itself in a number of other countries. My life circumstances mean that I feel incredibly loved by God, even to the point that it seems He favors me. Does He? When John 3:16 says God loved the world, does it mean everyone everywhere equally?
One of the biggest challenges we face today is that we are bombarded with all kinds of information, causes and opinions. Outside of the Bible, many of these develop a worldview that causes us to look at those not like us with suspicion, caution, fear, concern, and even hatred. It is one thing to oppose ideologies and worldviews that set themselves up against God, but what about individual people? Is that individual still created by God? Do they bear His image even if it is so tainted by sin as to seem invisible? Does He love them, and did Jesus die for them?
The heart of the issue for me is whether I define how God sees and works with people and life, or God defines how I see and work with people and life. With the former, I am likely to go with the flow and accommodate the attitudes and opinions of others, whereas with the latter, I am likely to swim against the tide of popular opinion. The choice seems clear in theory, but the challenge is to live it out in practice. I experienced this personally with the evil of racism in South Africa, where I was raised. I still find myself broken by what happened and asking myself why I did not do better. I am confident that I stand firm on the exclusive belief and practice of biblical Christianity, but the question is whether or not I step outside of biblical Christianity when I choose to see another person as anything less than someone valued and loved by God.
In the evangelical church, humble leadership is one of the hardest things to pull off. Each year, the church seems to hear yet another story about a pastor who has bulldozed people, rubbing congregants the wrong way, and not carrying himself like a minister of the gospel of peace should. Sometimes, it seems as if our whole leadership model is broken. Timothy Paul Jones and Michael S. Wilder, both veteran pastors and scholars in the area of leadership, call Christians back to a thoroughly biblical model of leadership in their new book ,The God Who Goes Before You. Starting with the text of Scripture, they set out to prove that the Bible — when rightly interpreted — communicates a three-part leadership process: union with Christ, communion with the people of God, and mission to the world. Below, they discuss how this process works, along with an especially timely message about how personal power must push a leader to empower others.Full Video Interview
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AJWS: How does this book explore a uniquely Christian approach to leadership? What does Christianity offer to a philosophy of leadership that other leadership structures don’t?
MW: Early in the writing process, we knew we had to define Christian leadership, which is a messy amalgamation in all the leadership scholarly literature. I spent three months reading everything I could, gathering every definition I could find. The answers were all over the map. What we came back to was a deep and rich conviction that Christian leadership must be primarily understood in our identity in Christ and our union with Christ. I became convinced that there must be a redemptive framework for the way we do Christian leadership. I think that’s one of the unique elements of Christian leadership particularly — there’s a redemptive framework. And there’s a deep identity in Christ — a union with Christ and his people. So, leadership is rightly understood in the context of community, which in communion with other people in the church eventually leads to a particular mission we are meant to fulfill. But it all begins with a redemptive framework — an identity in Christ that drives us.
TPJ: One of the things David Prince always says is: “If Jesus didn’t have to be crucified and raised from the dead for this sermon to work, go back and try again.” That’s been the approach we took throughout the project. That was a principle that I really applied, all the way through, even in the editing. In the book, we discuss a three-fold leadership structure: Leadership is about union, communion, and mission. It involves union with Christ, and therefore leadership itself comes out of our identity in Christ. I’ve not seen another leadership book that starts there. That union flows into our communion with God’s people. It’s not that the leaders, who are united with Christ, tell everybody in the church what to do. Rather, the people we lead are also in union with Christ. Our shared union creates communion with one another.
That’s where the subtitle of the book comes from: Pastoral Leadership as Christ-Centered Followership. As leaders, we are never above or beyond the people. We lead among the people. And in some sense, our people follow Christ through us. Of course, they are not following us — they are following Christ through us. Not only are we unified with Christ and in communion with other believers, but we are doing Christianity on mission. We have a particular mission that is greater than ourselves — it transcends who we are.
AJWS: There are a lot of Christian books about Jesus and leadership. But many of them aren’t very biblically based. What makes this book different from the many others in its genre?
MW: We’ve started with Scriptures first, rather than starting with theory or pragmatism. Instead of a pragmatic foundation, the book genuinely has a biblical, theological, and Scriptural foundation. We are not prooftexting; we are asking what Scripture teaches us, first and foremost, about who we are. And then we ask, “What does that mean for leadership?” Then, we press out from there into the function of leadership rather than imposing a pragmatic, theoretical base back upon the text.
TPJ: I think of the analogy that I believe Matt Chandler uses: “Is Scripture your diving board or your pool?” And by that, he means: Do you jump off the Scriptures into another topic, or are the Scriptures the context in which you’re swimming? I think most books on Jesus and leadership treat the Bible as a diving board. In this book, we have tried to let the Bible be the pool in which we swim. That means there’s a whole biblical theology that must be addressed before we even get to the practical topic of leadership.
AJWS: If leadership is within a community and not above a community, that means good leaders don’t force people to do what they say, right? Leaders should be integrated with their people and part of the community. But is that hard to do?
TPJ: It’s not hard; it’s impossible — in our own power. The only way we do that is by actually living out of our union with Christ. That removes our need to leverage people for our own ends, or our need to impress people. I think that is the biggest struggle every leader faces. We must lead from a sense of absolute security in Christ, and that’s just really hard. It is only through Christ that we’re able to lead that way.
MW: Until his identity in Christ is firm, I don’t think a pastor will perceive himself as a brother raised up amongst brothers and sisters to lead the church rightly. We don’t want to downplay the office or the authority of pastoral elders in the church, but until you rightly understand yourself as a fellow brother, you can’t lead. I became very consumed during the research process for this book by Peter’s formation of his own identity in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 1, Peter calls himself an apostle. But then by the time we get five chapters into the letter, he writes that he is a “fellow elder.”
As evangelicals, I think we’ve got a lot of lead pastors and senior pastors who think that they’re the only ones that matter. Having a right understanding of your identity — as a brother in Christ among your people — changes everything. Once that identity is rightly ordered, then you are able to work within the context of the community.
I think being among your people, and having a spirit of collectivism in the body — I think that’s a part of changing the culture of the church. We don’t lose our individuality or our personhood, but we are first and foremost understood as a collective. As a leader, I am a part of that collective and I lead as part of that collective. That is the mindset and perspective of the pastor. If he does not have that, then healthy community is never going to come to fruition. But that requires a whole cultural change at your church; that doesn’t happen overnight. Yet it starts with the leader properly understanding his own identity in Christ before it’s ever going to work out in the body.
AJWS: Why is it important to recognize that power in leadership is not inherently our own power — that we receive it from God?
TPJ: If we think that we possess power, then ultimately that power will possess us. We want to recognize that we do not possess power in ourselves — we are stewards of another’s authority. That has been delegated to us, and it is our responsibility to steward it well. That means we should never take power lightly, and we should never use the power that we have for our own personal benefit. Almost every disorder in leadership — especially anything scandalous — begins when somebody starts to live as if the power belongs to them. When that happens, scandal is not far behind.
MW: Ask a group this question, as I often do in class: “When you hear the word ‘power,’ what is your initial reaction to that word?’ Good, bad; evil, righteous? Almost always, it carries for people a negative connotation — and that’s always derived from the abuse of power. But God is the origin of power, and so power is necessarily good, right, and beautiful. God is omnipotent, and that involves both the essence and action of power. So, it is good and right, but Timothy is correct — we are only the stewards of God’s power. As leaders, we derive both power and authority from God, and we are supposed to exercise those derived responsibilities wisely in order to affect change. So, when we couple those two things and understand that they are both delegated and derived from God and not ourselves, that changes things. We will start to steward it well. We will employ it in a gentle instead of an abusive way.
TPJ: And you are more able to give your power away.
MW: Yes. In true communion, leaders should develop, empower, and equip fellow laborers. That involves a giving away of that power. A right theology of power has to include a right theology of empowerment. Every time we see God’s powers — in creation, redemption, or consummation — they are always used for empowerment. So, if we fail to model that kind of empowerment in the way we lead, we come up short.
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From the early pages of the Old Testament, we find God in the process of creating a people for His divine purposes. It was Israel that was to be the people of God (Exodus 19:4-6; Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2), and in the New Testament, the focus is on the Kingdom of God, especially expressed through the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 2:5, 9, 10; Titus 2:14). When God called Israel to be His people, He instructed them to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2), and it is interesting and significant that the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 19 to 27, reflects the unique, or holy, rules for proper civic and social relationships, worship practices, proper boundaries, treatment of foreigners, and sound economic practices. All of these were expressions of how God directed His people to be distinct (holy) from their surrounding pagan neighbors and a model for them of holy character and conduct. Israel was to become a mutually supportive and cooperative community of godly character, a valid contrast to the surrounding nations and peoples, as well as a model for those other nations. As Isaiah said it much later in Israel’s history, God’s intention was for Israel to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). It should be questioned how well that happened in that nation’s history.
In the New Testament, God’s development of a holy, Christ-like people is tied to the direct involvement of Christ in the formation of His followers, who in due time formed “colonies” of the Kingdom-called churches. Much of the New Testament was written to give instruction for building the spiritual and moral lives of those disciples who made up and directed those godly units that Peter says are part of a “chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9), a special “people of God” (2:10). What a lofty set of titles!
The qualities of those leaders and followers are to be marked by their functions as priests and preachers, or proclaimers of “the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:5, 9, 10). As interesting as it is to focus on those functions, the larger context of 1 Peter 1 and 2 helps us better understand how that kind of folk could be used of God because of being a “holy” people.
They were distinguished as having their faith tried by severe challenges, proving them genuine believers (1 Peter 1:7). They had put their mind to the task, seriously considering their responsibilities in the leadership roles they played (1:14). They had shown that they were not being conformed to the world with its lusts, but were conducting themselves in every way as a “holy” or distinct people (1:15). They were conscious of God’s supervision in their lives and work (His judgment—1:17). Christ is preeminent in their thinking, planning, and acting (1:18-21). They demonstrated a sincere love of fellow believers (1:22). They were morally sound and sane (2:1). And they were morally circumspect in civic and social life (2:11, 12). All of these very fine qualities describe these spiritual leaders and their influence in their churches and in their own communities. Then Peter adds that they are to be conscious of being “foreigners,” or sojourners, and “pilgrims,” or strangers, in this world (2:11, NKJV, NASV), meaning that their sphere of influence was limited in time and circumstances; thus they were to make every effort count for impacting favorably their Gentile, unbelieving context.
The churches that carry out the role of being the people of God well are those who recognize and live by their pilgrim, faith-led identity as those strange folk (somewhat foreigners on the earth) who are led by God, who is an even stranger “holy” God, who insists that His people serve all humankind, reaching them with His transforming love, even if they are mistreated, maligned, and misunderstood. The people of God are the faithful servants of God.
I used to serve as the deacon of grounds at our church, and weeds were my worst enemies. Weeds are the bullies of the domestic plant world. They steal the precious resources needed for growth from your grass and flowers, and they make no apologies about it. So, they must die. A yardman accepts this duty, and he makes his plan. But not all weeds are created equal, and not all will die with the same efforts. Some are small enough to pull up with your hands. Some require a hand tool. Others take even heavier implements such as shovels, machetes, and even nuclear warheads.
There was one weed on the church property in particular that mocked me. This one was tree-like, stretching far above my head, growing from a well-established root system woven into the very foundation of the church building. Every season, I would take a hatchet, a shovel, and even poison to it. Nothing would kill it. Every time I cut back the visible growth, it would grow back. The main problem was that the root system had integrated into the foundation of the building. And that is a great illustration for how addictions distinguish themselves from the normal habitual sins of life.The unique death of an addiction
When considering how a person can kill addictions in his life, the different levels of effort required for these different types of weeds serve as a helpful illustration. Addictions always involve some idolatry of the heart that, when pursued repeatedly, conditions the soul and the body in such a way that the freedom of personhood becomes warped, bent toward a particular object and, far worse, bent away from God. When this happens, the most entrenched kind of sin takes over a person’s motivations. Addictions are less like a bunch of little weeds out in the open and more like the one weed integrated into the foundation of a building. Addictions thread their roots through the expectations and desires of the soul as well as the impulses and cravings of the body.
So when we speak of putting addictions to death, we have to be careful with what we mean. What I don’t want to communicate is that killing addictions is like pulling up a small weed, root and all, so that it no longer remains a threat. What I do mean is that killing addictions is like going to war with the thick tangle of roots that has penetrated the foundation. It’s about consistently cutting back any sign of growth so that, with no growing leaves to catch the sun’s energy, the roots will weaken their structural hold on the foundation.
Like that one weed, addictions do not die in a decisive action. They die over a long period of time. Of course, we must recognize that God is able to — and sometimes does — free someone decisively from the draw of a particular addiction in a miraculous act. But why does it normally take an involved process over time rather than merely a simple action in a moment? The answer is theological.
God designed us to conform — body and soul — to what we pursue. When we pursue a particular object as a replacement for God over and over again, we condition our bodies and our souls in the shape of that pursuit. In terms of the body, addictive behavior works itself into our neurobiological hardware, our chemical dependencies, and our bodily cravings. The structures of our bodies become dependent on substances not normally needed to sustain life. In terms of the soul, addictive behavior patterns itself into our conception of joy, satisfaction, and wonder; we find ourselves committed to finding those immaterial values in material things. We worship created things rather than the Creator — we become committed to finding God-like value in a particular object that is not God (Rom 1:21–25).
A body and soul conditioned by such pursuits undermines the freedom of personal choice. That’s not to say that an addict is any less culpable for his behavior, nor is it to say that his behavior is any less voluntary. It’s all voluntary, but in a stretched-out kind of way rather than a punctuated kind of way. Addictions are a broad series of choices rather than a singular choice on a given Friday evening.Kill it by pursuit
If we think of the voluntary nature of addictions in this way, we will create a more realistic and effective plan of action against it. Instead of treating addictions as something a person can decisively choose to rid himself of in a single come-to-Jesus moment, we ought to think of treating addictions as a series of new choices that accumulate into a new pursuit. Killing addictions, then, means helping a struggler think of his responsibility with a specific verbal force to it: not, “You need to kill this addiction,” but rather, “You need to be killing this addiction.” It’s a practice, not a mere action. It’s a new pursuit that kills an old one.
How do we kill one pursuit with another? It’s helpful to think of a pursuit as a series of tasks. These are tasks — not steps. Calling them steps would imply a strict sequence. These are more like the regular actions a person needs to take in order to mortify addictions.
- Find the roots in the foundation and acknowledge their strength.
In other words, be honest with God, yourself, and others about how ingrained the desires for the particular object have become.
Desires have a physical and a spiritual element, working their way deep into the structures of the body and soul. While recognizing the unique external difficulties that may have provoked the addictive pursuit, an addict must nevertheless acknowledge his physical and spiritual weakness. Physical dependence on a substance often requires medically assisted detoxification as part of the initial treatment. The body has been conditioned to need the substance, and the cravings a person experiences are grounded in the very structure of his body. An addict should acknowledge that the craving is in part a physiological consequence of past behavior, and therefore not a reliable guide for present behavior. When he feels something as a “need,” it is not because it truly is one, but because he has conditioned his body to think it is.
But desires are not just physical; they are also spiritual. They rival desires for what God says is good, and they are therefore not neutral. They are not just wanting the object itself, but something deeper than the object promises to provide—lasting satisfaction, escape from sorrow, settled peace. An addict must see the deeper value being promised by the surface object, then repent of his dark loyalties and acknowledge his helplessness to change them.
Acknowledging the idolatry and the helplessness will bring both grief and fear. Grief and fear are actually proper responses to the reality of what’s at stake: the heart is inclined to worship an object that will destroy it. Can you imagine how the family of an addict would rejoice to see grief and fear mark his life as a pattern of vigilance rather than merely as part of his regret? Such sober-mindedness is a sign of life (1 Thess 5:5–11).
This is the gospel for addicts: Because Jesus provides all the righteousness they need, they can safely acknowledge before God all of the grievous, frightening things about themselves. They may have roots in the foundation that others don’t—but that is no reason to shy away from God. In fact, the only way out of the addiction involves this painful task of acknowledgment. They must form a habit of describing these desires to God in prayer. As people pour out the particularities of their need for forgiveness and strength, they will find the particularities of grace to help in times of need (Heb 4:14–16).
- Cut back the visible growth from the roots.
Such honest vigilance over desires will increase alertness to behaviors that reinforce addictive pursuits. Not all addictive behaviors directly relate to acquiring the object of addiction itself. Behaviors can be conditioning as well as explicit in their pursuit of the object. For instance, an alcoholic may place himself in the bar on a Thursday afternoon, but he may also be conditioning himself with other behaviors such as overworking. Alcohol becomes the assumed refuge of escape.
As with desires, an addict has to be honest with God about his behaviors. Not just the behavior of giving in but the thousand little choices that lead up to it. Part of acknowledging these behaviors before God is acknowledging them before God’s people (Heb 3:12–13). An addict will need people who are regularly present enough in his life to notice these behaviors if he’s going to remain vigilant.
This is the toughest part of ministry to folks struggling with addictions—the sheer level of oversight is difficult to maintain, especially in situations where the person’s regular circles undermine change and reinforce old patterns. Helping an addict requires an appreciation of the social aspects of addiction. For success, an addict must place himself in ideal relational conditions insofar as he’s able.
- Grow something else that’s beautiful.
Do small acts of obedience that establish some new, God-honoring pursuit. In a world of sunlight and water, growth is going to happen.
The question is, what gets prominence in the limited resources of a person’s time, attention, and energy? An addict needs help in establishing some replacement pursuit. Here we have to think holistically. It’s not just about getting him to read the Bible and pray more, but to see how the pursuit of God in those things then compels other pursuits in the regular occupations of life. A person who finds God privately is freed to enjoy the good things of the earth without being bound by them (1 Tim 4:4–5). An addict needs to relearn that enjoyment comes from many sources other than the object that has captured him.
You know, I never did kill that stupid weed. But I made it to the end of my diaconal term without its doing any more damage to the foundation or to the grass around it. How? I never stopped killing it. God doesn’t promise instant death to the addiction or that it will be easy to fight. What he promises to those who trust only in him is that they will always have the strength to be killing it. And in the end, it won’t win.
Editor’s note: This article was originally publishedat Ligonier.