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More About the Elder Portrait

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Last Monday, I posted a bulletin article in which I argued that we should understand the “elder texts” in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 as elder portraits rather than elder checklists.  Not surprisingly, I collected some pushback.  Primarily, it came from those who were concerned that I had converted requirements into recommendations and muddied the clear truth of the text.

I will acknowledge that applying the elder portrait to a man requires a great deal of judgment from the congregation.  Unless he flatly does not possess a character attribute (the lifelong bachelor cannot be said to be a one-woman man), analyzing his spiritual strengths and weaknesses is not a black-and-white matter.  Instead, we ought to consider all of them in order to determine whether he rises to the overall standard of blamelessness.

 Philosophically, I’m OK with that.  God calls us to develop and exercise wisdom and good judgment, and brethren frequently are too quick to convert the judgment calls in Scripture (modesty is one example of such, but there are others) into bright-line rules.  We too often prefer clarity to uncertainty, even when clarity is the result of us seating ourselves in the chair of Moses. 

Additionally, I believe that whatever brethren may teach, in practice they make all kinds of judgment calls when appointing elders anyway.  Even if we read these passages as binary checklists, where’s the breakpoint between Y and N?  Is a man who lost his temper on Facebook five years ago still self-controlled?  Does a man who has strangers in his home twice a year qualify as hospitable?  And so forth.

This is true even of the “math qualifications”.  Take “husband of one wife”, for instance.  In theory, this seems simple and straightforward.  In practice, it proves to be anything but.  It can mean A) married, B) married, and not a polygamist, C) married only once, or D) known to be faithful to his wife.   

I believe D) is correct because it’s the only interpretation that speaks to a man’s blamelessness.  However, short of adopting the elder-portrait position, I’m not aware of any way to distinguish among the four.  There are no relevant Scriptures, and the extrabiblical evidence is a morass.  There’s even a case to be made for C); the Romans believed it was virtuous to have only one spouse throughout life.

In short, we are forced back on intuition in interpreting “husband of one wife”, and if our intuitions are not influenced by our convictions about a man’s overall character, we’re probably not human.  Of course, this is to say nothing of “faithful children”.  Entire forests have been slaughtered in vain efforts to prove what that means!

What we are left with, then, is not a contrast between confusion on one side and clarity on the other.  Instead, it is between one judgment call about blamelessness and a whole bunch of judgment calls about every item on the two lists, any one of which can mean the difference between qualified and not.  We have a great deal of inspired guidance in determining whether a man is blameless; we have very little in determining what “faithful children” means.  2/2?  2/3?  1/2?  1/1?  Not necessarily Christians, but personally devoted to Dad?  We can claim any of these answers for our own, but once we start insisting that it is the only right answer, we run into that chair-of-Moses problem again.

Rather than heading down such a fraught path, we should frankly admit what we’re doing.  We’re deciding whether it would be a good idea to make a man a leader over the local congregation.  What do we know about this guy’s character?  What do we see in his family?  Does he have flaws that will crack wide open under the stresses of eldership? 

The elder portraits are meant to guide and shape our inquiry, but they do not make the decision for us, and we should not pretend that they do.  We would be fools to ignore the Holy Spirit, but neither does the Spirit deprive us of the opportunity to be wise.  Is a man blameless?  Once we answer that question rightly, we have what we need.

Conscience and the Government

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

There is nothing in the Bible about masks or vaccines.  However, the Bible does discuss submission to the government and liberty of conscience, and both of these principles lead to some straightforward mask-and-vaccine applications.  If the government tells us to do something, we do it (unless it asks us to disobey God’s commandment).  Similarly, we respect others’ judgments about masks and vaccines, especially when we don’t agree with those judgments.

By contrast, the interaction between conscience and government is harder to sort out.  What if I am conscientiously opposed to masks/vaccines, but the government requires me to mask and/or vaccinate?  Does submission to the government come first, or does my conscience?

Many brethren have adopted the latter position.  They point to Scriptures such as Romans 14:23, which reads in part, “Everything that is not from faith is sin.”  Because they feel like masking/vaccinating would be sinful for them, they must not do either, even if the government requires it.

I presume that these Christians are reasoning in good faith, but they don’t take into account the context of Romans 14:23.  Romans 14 isn’t a passage about how to handle God’s law; it’s a passage about the role of the individual conscience in areas where God has given us liberty. 

We are at liberty to eat meat.  However, if we think it’s wrong to eat meat but eat meat anyway, we sin against our conscience.  In areas of liberty, what is not from faith is sin.  When we move outside the realm of liberty, though, we also move outside the realm of Romans 14 and apply Romans 14:23 where Paul does not.

This is a fraught step.  Once we start using our conscientious conviction to override one of God’s laws (His commandment to submit to the government), we open the door to others overriding God’s other laws because of their conscientious convictions. 

Consider, for instance, the feminist who believes in absolute equality between the sexes and thinks it would be morally wrong for her to submit to her husband when she strongly disagrees with him.  Such women certainly exist.  We come to her with Ephesians 5:22, but she replies, “I can’t submit to my husband because my conscience won’t allow it.”

If we refuse to submit to the government because of our conscience, how can we tell her that she must submit to her husband despite her conscience?

Through this open door, anything can and will come.  There are people who feel morally bound to set the words of an earthly religious leader as equal to the word of God.  There are others who are utterly convinced that it is right for them to marry and have relations with someone of the same sex.  All of these people will argue against keeping divine commandments because of conscience.

If we disobey divine commandments because of our conscience, what do we have to say to any of them?

Defying the government because of our conscientious convictions sounds very noble, but it really amounts to defying the law of God.  It is nothing more than the old rule of Judges 21:25 beneath a veneer of American individualism.  Once we start doing what is right in our own eyes, we must grant others the license to do what is right in their eyes too.

Masks, Vaccines, and the Bible

Thursday, September 09, 2021

I originally wrote the following as a comment on a Facebook post by Tony Mauck.  Having written it, I decided to give it wider distribution.  I believe it correctly restates the Biblical principles that should govern our speech and behavior when it comes to masks, vaccines, and discussion of the same.

- In areas where we are given liberty by man and God, we must respect the liberty of others. We must not judge or show contempt toward those who use their liberty differently. (Romans 1:1-3)

- When we talk about these things, we must speak graciously and in a way that edifies everyone.  Speaking in a contentious, self-righteous, angry way is ungodly. (2 Timothy 2:23-25)

- Elders must not lord it over the flock but rather lead by force of example. (1 Peter 5:3)

- Christians under elders must obey, submit to, and follow them, so that their conduct gives the elders joy rather than grief. "Am I making the elders' work harder or more unpleasant?" is a very important question for all of us to ask. (Hebrews 13:17)

- Christians must obey the government, saving only the times when it commands us to do something that directly contradicts the law of God. (Romans 13:1-3)

- We must not confuse our personal convictions, whether based on conscience, our understanding of the Constitution, or anything else, with the divine commandment. If we do, we likely will fall into serious error. (Acts 26:9-10)

A Gouge in a Pew

Friday, September 03, 2021

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a friend’s funeral in an unfamiliar church building.  I took a seat by an aisle and shortly noticed a gouge in the back of the pew support in front of me.  The gouge was at knee height.  To the left/exterior, it was narrow and shallow; to the right/interior, it broadened and deepened to about a quarter inch.  Another, fainter horizontal scrape appeared two or three inches above it.  None of the other pews around me bore similar markings.

I will never know for sure, but I would guess that the scrapes came from a walker or similar piece of assistive equipment.  An older Christian once sat (has sat?) there for years because that was Their Pew.  They shuffled into the auditorium on their walker, gingerly lowered themselves to the seat where I sat, folded up their walker, and dragged it into the same row. 

As they were doing so, their lack of stability forced them to brace the walker against the pew in front of them.  Every time, something (a walker brace?  screw heads?) raked across the pew support.  Service by service, year by year, those feeble hands wore away the gouge that I saw.  That Christian may well be dead now, but the gouge still bears witness.  They assembled.

Sometimes, it is the faith we display in our weaknesses that makes the deepest mark.  Lots of strong, healthy Christians strode into that auditorium, worshiped, and departed without leaving a trace.  However, the pew support remembers the Christian who probably couldn’t drive to church anymore, who couldn’t walk unassisted, whose pace was slow and even doddering.  They certainly inspired pity, perhaps contempt, perhaps frustration from the custodial crew, but they came.  No one would have faulted them for not coming.  They came anyway, and the pew support testifies to their faithful obedience.

So too with the marks we make, and not only on pews.  Some of the Christians whose singing I remember most are those who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.  They knew it and sang anyway.  Loudly.  They were humbled, but God was exalted. 

How about the introvert who, with white knuckles and sweaty palms, welcomes a visitor to the assembly?  Or the octogenarian who shows up to help a relocated brother unload the moving truck?  Or the song leader who can’t read a note of music but listens to a new hymn over and over on YouTube until he feels comfortable introducing it to the congregation? 

How about the apostle Paul, who struggled with covetousness but learned from Christ the secret of remaining faithful through poverty and prosperity alike?

We often seek to glorify God through our strengths.  This is our wheelhouse.  This is the thing we are good at.  Look at this wonderful thing we are doing (for God)!

Perhaps, though, He is best glorified through our weaknesses.  This is not our wheelhouse.  We are terrified.  We are a hopeless disaster.  We would not be doing this for anybody but God, but He told us to do it, and we are. 

The ungodly might be laughing at us, but God isn’t laughing.  He is pleased.  He loves not only the sacrifices that arise from effortless self-confidence but also those offered in weakness, fear, and trembling.  Against all worldly wisdom, we surrender our two mites, knowing it can’t possibly matter but trusting that it will be enough.

A Message to X

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The other day, a friend forwarded me a message from a friend of theirs.  In it, the friend of my friend described their waning faith.  They felt disconnected from their church, they were unhappy with being single, and they struggled with God’s behavior in Job 1.  In inviting Satan to consider Job, wasn’t God participating in evil?  The following was my response.

Dear X,

I'm a minister in Columbia, TN and a friend of Y's, who shared your concerns with me.  I'm not surprised by your struggles.  When the American version of Christianity is so focused on marriage/family, it's hard to be single!  I also understand why your suffering would shake your faith.  In my own life, I recently was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease.  It's terminal, has no cure, and probably will kill me within five years, even though I have a 11-year-old and a 9-year-old.  This is, to say the least, difficult to deal with!

I would suggest, though, that what you're struggling with isn't really God's existence, but rather God's goodness.  Logically speaking, even if God is participating in evil in bringing Job to Satan's attention, that doesn't show anything about God's existence one way or another.  Both of us know lots of evil people who nonetheless exist.  It's equally possible for God to be cruel and uncaring yet still exist too.

The problem you're identifying is that God's actions in Job 1 appear to be inconsistent with the Biblical portrait of a God who is loving and kind.  You're saying, "A good God wouldn't have pointed out Job to Satan, so God isn't good."  In your own life, your suffering leads you to question God's goodness. 

However, the Bible does not claim that the goodness of God means that the righteous never will suffer.  Indeed, the opposite is true.  Exhibit A here is Jesus.  He was perfectly righteous, yet a good God handed Him over to torture, humiliation, and death, despite the great grief this caused God.  The Father and the Son shared in suffering to accomplish a greater good.

Consequently, if I have committed to following in the footsteps of Jesus, I also have agreed to accept the suffering that God allows.  Jesus suffered despite and even because of His righteousness; should I expect anything different?  Indeed, how could it be possible for the Christian to be conformed to the image of Christ without suffering?  Christianity without suffering also is Christianity without the cross.

Suffering presents every believer with a choice.  We can turn inward and dwell on our misery, or we can determinedly seek God through the trial.  There is no promise in the Bible that we will be spared trial, but every trial will offer a way to glorify God.  When we endure through trial, we accomplish the greater good He desires.

Back to Job 1.  I think all of the above reveals the answer.  God wanted to give Job the opportunity to accomplish a greater good.  Part of the greater good was that the arc of the story revealed God to be compassionate and merciful, as per James 5:10-11.  Job's story also gave believers before the time of Christ insight into the suffering of the righteous that otherwise wasn't available.  If you have not read the book of Job beyond the opening and closing chapters, I strongly encourage you to do so!

I wish I could talk these things over with you in person.  Regardless, my prayers are with you.  May the Lord bless you richly, even in the midst of trial!

Matt Bassford

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