PerseveranceTuesday, April 13, 2021
Among the various other websites I frequent, I commonly visit a forum called Bogleheads, which focuses on investing in index mutual funds. A couple of things set it apart from the other things I read online. First, there are many Bogleheads posters who celebrate what we might call old-fashioned virtues: discipline, hard work, frugality, and patience. Second, the posters there are much wealthier than the Internet or national norm. None of them would be so gauche as to brag about their net worth, but they spend a lot of time talking about tax issues that aren’t relevant unless you’ve got a pile.
I don’t think this is coincidence. Having those old-fashioned values doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to end up with a lot of money. As the book of Ecclesiastes says, time and chance can overtake anybody.
However, if you don’t have them, it is nearly certain that you won’t prosper financially, and if you do, you won’t be able to hold on to it. This is usually what happens to lottery winners. They have the money, but they don’t have the character.
Of course, laying up treasure on earth is much less important than laying up treasure in heaven. However, those old-fashioned values that play such a large role in the former are significant in the latter too. This morning, let’s spend some time considering a Biblical ideal that encapsulates them all, the ideal of perseverance.
If we want to persevere so that we inherit eternal life, there are three things that we must understand. First, we must KNOW OUR GOAL. Consider what the Hebrews writer says in Hebrews 12:1-3. Here, he tells us to run with endurance, a Biblical synonym for perseverance. In doing this, we should look to Jesus, who endured the cross but received the reward of sitting down at the right hand of the throne of God. If we want to get what Jesus got, we have to do what Jesus did.
This too is nothing more than financial common sense. Unless I know about how much money I want to save to ensure a comfortable retirement for my wife and me, I have no way of evaluating my current financial situation. Have I saved too little? Have I saved too much? Who knows?
However, once I settle on a goal, then I can tell whether I’m making the progress necessary to achieve my goal and what corrections I need to make. I can also consider other decisions in the light of how they will affect my goal. Sure, it would be fun to trade in my 12-year-old Toyota Corolla for a bright shiny new King Ranch F-150, but that’s not really the question. The question is whether that King Ranch F-150 will keep me from achieving what really matters.
The same is true for us spiritually. We have to fix our eyes on that goal of being with Jesus and make all our other decisions according to that goal. Let me give you an example. Because the COVID danger has abated somewhat, last week, the elders returned our congregation to our usual schedule of worship services for the first time in months. Now, we have a decision to make. Are we going to fully return to in-person services, or are we going to keep on with pajama church because that couch is so comfy?
Let me suggest to you this morning, brethren, that if we make our decision about attendance without our goal in mind, we’re going to make the wrong decision. The only way to make the right decision here is to ask, “Which choice about church attendance will be most likely to get me to heaven?” If heaven is truly our goal, asking that question will tell us all we need to know about where we need to be when the church-house doors are open.
Second, we must KNOW OUR ENEMY. James identifies this enemy in James 1:13-15. That deadly enemy isn’t all the worldly people around us. It isn’t even the devil. After all, the devil can’t harm us spiritually at all without our consent and cooperation. Instead, the worst enemy that every one of us has is ourselves.
This is certainly true in the world of finance. It’s statistical fact that as a whole, individual investors underperform the market. They’re not very good at picking which stocks are going to do well. When they see the stock market at all-time highs, they get greedy and buy in very expensively. On the other hand, when the market crashes, they get fearful and sell out, often for much less than they paid on the way up. As a rule, the fewer decisions an investor makes, the better they will do.
In our spiritual lives, we don’t have the luxury of simply going through our days making no decisions of significance. We call people like that “one-talent servants”. However, we must be aware that the same fleshly biases that wreck investors are tools that the devil will eagerly use to wreck our souls. Almost all people who go to hell will do so because they wanted something they shouldn’t have wanted or feared something they shouldn’t have feared.
As a thought exercise this morning, then, let’s pause to do what is sometimes called a pre-mortem. Imagine that 1000 years from now, you have lost your soul. You are immersed in an eternity of suffering and regret. You look back on your life and you say, “If only I hadn’t. . .”
If only you hadn’t what? What is the one thing that you know, in the silence of your heart, has the potential to cost you your soul, or, worse yet, is in the process of costing you your soul right now? Unless you are deceiving yourself, that tells you what your enemy is. That tells you what you must guard against or change in order to inherit eternal life.
Finally, we must KNOW OUR PLAN. Paul gives us the outlines of what it has to be in Galatians 6:7-9. It’s not enough for us to know where we want to spend eternity. It’s not enough for us to guard against the greatest danger to our souls. It’s not even enough for us to do good. We have to continue doing good, even when we’re tired, even when we want to get up. Then and only then will we reap the harvest of eternal life.
Again, there’s nothing different here than is true in the world of saving for retirement. They say as a rule of thumb, if you don’t have a pension, you should look to have 10x your annual salary saved up by the time you retire. Now, I don’t know for sure, but I doubt that most of us have 10x our salary sitting around someplace, waiting to be thrown into a retirement account. To me, at least, that’s a whole, whole lot of money!
So how do you get there? Simple. One investment at a time. You put something aside month by month, year by year, decade by decade, and as that money starts to compound, by the time the day comes, you’re ready.
In the same way, I think we’re best off if we take our salvation one day at a time. If we’ve got some spiritual struggle, if we know we’re not where we need to be, the magnitude of the change we need to make can be overwhelming! Let me tell you a secret. None of us are perfect, and none of us are ever going to be perfect, but what every one of us can do, every day, is be better. We can find five extra minutes to read the Bible or pray a little more. We can summon up the willpower to fight off that one temptation. We can send that one encouraging message to a brother, friend, or loved one. In short, we can grow and be faithful. If that’s what we do, then by the grace of Christ, it’s going to be enough.
The Meaning of "One in Christ"Tuesday, April 06, 2021
In our Bible reading for this week, we’re going to encounter Galatians 3:28. It contains one of the most stirring calls to spiritual unity in the entire Bible. Here, Paul tells us that because we have been clothed with Christ in baptism, there are no longer Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female in Him.
We probably should understand this as a reaction to the ancient Pharisee prayer, recorded in the Talmud, in which the pray-er thanks God for not making him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. Paul is pointing out that the things on which the Pharisee based his self-worth are no longer meaningful under the new covenant.
However, in recent years, this passage has become a rallying cry for those who wish to erase the Biblical distinctions in role between men and women. If indeed there is no male nor female in Jesus, the argument goes, then anything that a man can do in worship, a woman also can do.
This is what people take from Paul’s words here, but is that really the result that Paul intended? For that matter, does this argument represent the fulfillment of the spirit of Christianity, or is something else going on here? Let’s consider these issues as we look at the meaning of being one in Christ.
I will freely acknowledge that especially in our time, the no-more-gender-roles argument has considerable appeal. However, I see two significant problems with it. The first is that it takes a statement that Paul was making about value and makes it about role instead.
Let me explain. First of all, it’s obvious that in Galatians 3:28, Paul is speaking metaphorically . It is not literally true that once you are baptized, you cease to have cultural background, legal status, and sex characteristics. Instead, Paul is saying that once you are baptized, other Christians regard you differently in some way.
There are two possibilities here. The first has to do with value. As the Pharisee’s prayer shows, 2000 years ago, some people definitely were valued less than others. To the Pharisee, the Greek slave woman was at the bottom of the heap! What Paul could be saying, then, is that in Christ, there is no difference in worth between the Pharisee and the slave woman.
Alternatively, what Paul could be saying is that in Christ, the difference in role between these various groups is erased. Even though the woman is still a woman, for instance, now she is free to act like a man, and no one should stop her from doing so.
The best way to decide between these two alternatives is to see which one better lines up with the rest of Paul’s writing. Does Paul seem to think that in Christ, there are no longer different expectations in behavior for these groups, that they all should act the same? Or, instead, do these different groups continue to behave differently, even though in Christ they have the same value?
To test these competing claims, let’s look at only one book: 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians, does Paul write as though he thinks there is no longer a difference in role and behavior between the various Galatians 3:28 groups?
The answer here is obvious. In 1 Corinthians 7:20-22, Paul speaks specifically to slaves, telling them that their salvation has not changed their earthly condition. Unless they can legally become free, they are to remain as slaves. In 1 Corinthians 9:20, Paul reveals that when he was around observant Jews, he himself behaved like a Jew, respecting their cultural beliefs. Finally, in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5, Paul distinguishes between the way that Corinthian men were to pray and Corinthian women were to pray.
This is just one Pauline epistle, and it’s not even all the relevant examples in the epistle. It’s clear that Paul believed that all the role differences between Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female were not erased. Each of these groups still should behave in the way that was appropriate for them. We must conclude that Galatians 3:28 is about value, not role.
Second, and more insidiously, when we decide that we are going to treat these categories the same, we are IMPORTING WORLDLY VALUES into the church. By this, I don’t merely mean that we are following a worldly pattern. Instead, we are adopting a worldly system of values.
This problem is most obvious when it comes to cultural distinction. I’m reminded of a story a brother told me once that when Russia was opened to the gospel in the 1990s, some American Christians who went there to preach also attempted to teach the Russians Stamps-Baxter hymns to use in worship.
They did this even though the Russian Orthodox Church has a hauntingly beautiful tradition of a-cappella singing in worship that is much older than our own. If you’re not familiar with it, look up Russian Orthodox chant on YouTube sometime. However, these American brethren thought that it wasn’t enough for the Russians to worship God in a lawful way that was culturally appropriate for them. They had to worship God in a way that was culturally appropriate for Americans.
This kind of cultural bulldozing is exactly the opposite of what Paul is trying to encourage. His point is emphatically not “There is no American nor Russian in Christ so Russians should worship like Americans!” Instead, every culture, every race can find its own equally valuable voice in worship. Those are distinctions that we should preserve.
The same holds true for men and women. Lurking underneath the argument that women should assume male roles in worship is the conviction that male roles are somehow better, that the woman who serves God privately is less important than the man who serves God conspicuously. Thus, the only way for her to become valuable and important is for her to start doing public things. If that’s not true, if the woman is doing equally valuable and important things in the kingdom right now, then why the big push for change?
The problem is, though, that if we don’t place equal value and importance on the traditional service of women, we are no better than the American preachers who didn’t place equal value on the traditional worship of Russians. It’s nothing but worldliness. As Jesus points out in Luke 22:25-27, greatness in the kingdom does not come from authority and prominence. It comes from humility in service.
Because of our different gifts and different positions, not all of us can serve the same way. However, every one of us can imitate, and indeed must imitate, the servant’s heart of Jesus. Here at Jackson Heights, that servant’s heart is evident in so many of our women. In no way are the female members here inferior in their gifts, their skills, or their education to the men here, and they wholeheartedly use all of those things to build up the church.
The sisters here are active in teaching other women, girls, and children. They organize and prep for classes, in addition to carrying out a host of other vital administrative functions. They prepare the Lord’s Supper. They clean the church building. They visit the sick and the shut-ins. They call, text, and send cards to brethren they’re concerned about. They invite outsiders to our assemblies. They fix meals for brethren who are dealing with the loss of a loved one or otherwise going through a rough patch. All that’s just off the top of my head; there’s probably a bunch of stuff that I’m forgetting!
In order for this congregation to fall apart, all those women wouldn’t have to leave. They would just have to stop doing what they’re doing. As Paul says in his discussion of the body of the local church in 1 Corinthians 12, all of us have been given a necessary role in the body by God, and the health of the whole depends on each part doing its part. The women of this congregation don’t have to take on male roles to become valuable, important, and God-pleasing. They are valuable, important, and God-pleasing already.
CommunicationWednesday, March 31, 2021
One of the ironic things about marriage troubles is that the couple that’s having the trouble almost always knows what the answer is. If they’re Christians, both of them will have no trouble relating what the Bible teaches about good marriages, and they will be able to identify where their marriage falls short. The problems come when they try to figure out how to apply God’s perfect solution to their imperfect situation.
Nowhere is this more true than with communication in marriage. All of us know that any good relationship, whether marriage or not, is founded on good communication. If two people aren’t communicating well, their relationship is going to suffer. In just about any bad marriage, the spouses will candidly acknowledge, “Yep; we don’t communicate very well!”
However, admiring the problem doesn’t do any of us much good. We have to look for godly solutions. We have to figure out how to clear away years or even decades of failed attempts at relationship-building to lay a foundation for a stronger relationship tomorrow. This morning, then, let’s examine three Biblical principles that we can use to be a light in our marriages through better communication.
First, we must learn to BE DEVOTED to our spouses. Consider the picture of marriage that appears in Ecclesiastes 9:9. One of the things that strikes me about this passage is how all-encompassing it is. It tells us that we’re supposed to enjoy being with our spouses all the days of our lives. There is simply no way to have a good marriage without spending lots of time with our spouses.
However, not all time spent together is created equal, and at least in my marriage, a lot of the problems here start with me. I don’t know about the other men here, but I have a single-track mind. I live my life in sequence. I start one thing, do it, and move on to the next thing.
This means, then, that if I am sitting on the couch in the evening, and I’m reading a book or looking at something on my laptop, that might look like a great opportunity to have meaningful conversation with my wife who’s sitting six feet away, but it’s not. My mind is on a single track, and she ain’t it. If she tries to talk to me, I will listen for about three seconds, then go back to the thing that I’m focusing on. It’s a disaster!
Instead, we have to know when meaningful conversations with our spouses happen. In my marriage, our best conversations when I’m doing something that involves my body but not my mind. We go for walks together and have great conversations. We run errands together, and it’s the same thing. Even if I’m just loading the dishwasher, I’ll engage for 10 minutes.
Because this kind of communication requires more thought and effort from men, it should be the husband who takes the initiative in having meaningful conversation. I thought Clay’s sermon on intimacy last week was great, and I’m going to co-opt some of his language to explain why this is so. There are exceptions, but I think it’s generally true that women need more preparation for physical intimacy, but men need more preparation for emotional intimacy. We’ve all heard about how men are like microwaves and women are like crock pots, but I think when it comes to engaging conversation, it’s the husband who is like the crock pot. He’s the one who is not going to be able to engage the other spouse in the way they want at the drop of a hat.
In practice, it’s usually the drop-of-the-hat spouse who seeks to have their needs fulfilled, but if you think about it, that’s backwards. Instead, it ought to be the spouse who needs prep time who makes the effort to prepare and then reaches out. The loving wife will get herself ready for physical intimacy with her husband, and the loving husband will set aside time for emotional intimacy with his wife. Men, whatever that time needs to look like in your marriage, I leave to you, but you need to figure it out and make it happen.
Second, we should BE COMPASSIONATE. Peter says as much in 1 Peter 3:8. Even though this verse doesn’t mention marriage, it comes right after a lengthy discussion of marriage, and even if it didn’t, all the Bible’s rules for relationships generally have application to marriage. The point here is simple. Be kind and sympathetic to others.
This is all the more important in our marriages because of the tremendous ability all of us have to wound our spouses. I guarantee that if you look deeply into any troubled marriage, what you will find is two hurting people who are terrified of being hurt again, and so they build up all this emotional armor and lash out at each other in an attempt to protect themselves. Take some mighty macho he-man who whips two alligators every day before breakfast. He’ll never admit it, but he is scared to death of his 100-pound wife’s razor-edged tongue. Every one of us who is married, is married to a fearful, fragile, insecure human being whom we can devastate with a word.
Go gently, brothers and sisters. Go gently.
This starts with listening. A lot of the time, when people complain about lack of communication in their marriages, they mean that their spouses don’t want to talk about what they want to talk about. Brethren, compassionate communication doesn’t start with talking about what we want to talk about. It starts with listening to our spouses talk about what they want to talk about. Demanding that they talk doesn’t work. Giving them our attention when they do want to talk does.
This also means that we will respond to them in a them-centered way, not an us-centered way. Sarcasm, for instance, is self-centered. When we’re looking to be sarcastic, we’re not really listening to our spouses. We’re listening for an opportunity to exalt ourselves at their expense. The problem is, though, that when we hurt our spouses every time they open up, we’re teaching them that we can’t be trusted and that they never should open up. By contrast, the more we reward openness with compassion, the more open they will be.
Finally, we should BE OPEN. Look at Paul’s appeal in 2 Corinthians 6:11-13. Again, this isn’t a marriage-specific passage, but it reveals a truth about all relationships that is particularly significant in marriage. If we want to have good communication in our marriages, it’s not enough for us to listen compassionately to our spouses when they make themselves vulnerable. We have to be willing to be vulnerable too.
Just to be clear, though, “being vulnerable” is not code for “telling my spouse exactly what I think of their awful behavior”. That’s not vulnerability. It’s self-righteousness.
True vulnerability is hard, and it’s especially hard in difficult marriages. Being vulnerable is an act of trust, and how can you trust somebody who’s burned you so many times before? I think the answer is that if you want your marriage to get better, you have to pray a lot, gather your courage, and do it. Maybe you preface it with an appeal for compassion, but there is no way to open yourself up without. . . opening yourself up.
Additionally, I think that being open is especially hard for men. If there is any person on the planet a man wants to impress, it is his wife. We want our wives to see us as tough, competent, in control, and immovable, and the parts of our inward life that don’t fit with those things, we often edit out. I get that. In fact, I am that! However, at the risk of hypocrisy, I will say that I think it’s important for us to try.
SubmissionTuesday, March 23, 2021
Of all the spiritual topics in the Bible, there are few that are more difficult to discuss in our society than the subject of submission in marriage. Americans never have been particularly submissive people to begin with, and in the decades since the Sexual Revolution, most traces of an older patriarchal culture have been obliterated. People who accept without batting an eyelash that there are 30 different genders will explode with outrage at the thought that wives ought to submit to their husbands.
In our study of submission, our goal is not to be conformed to the America of 2021. However, neither is it to be conformed to the America of 1950, nor indeed to the worldly ideas of any time and place. Instead, we want to be transformed to become unlike the world and to be conformed to the image of Christ.
In this, our greatest enemy is not our society but ourselves. All of us who are married, husbands and wives alike, know the temptation to put ourselves first instead of our spouses. The selfishness within us is the foe we must defeat. With this in mind, let’s consider what the Bible has to say about submission.
This morning, we’re going to confine ourselves to the discussion of marriage in the latter half of Ephesians 5. However, we’re going to start this study slightly earlier than is usual by considering what the Scriptures reveal about WHO MUST SUBMIT. Paul lays this out in Ephesians 5:18-21. This is one of the places where paying attention to a verse’s immediate context is vital. Yes, women are told to submit to their husbands in the next two verses, but 5:21 makes clear that submission isn’t a woman thing. It’s a Christian thing. All of us are to submit to one another, and that’s emphatically true of both spouses in a marriage!
Indeed, I think it’s appropriate to read v. 21 as a subject heading for everything from 5:22-6:9. Paul is telling spouses, children, parents, servants, and masters what submission looks like in their particular situation. We all are in different positions, but all of us are to share in the mind of Christ.
For that matter, it’s worth paying attention to the context of v. 21 too. “Submitting” is actually the last of three instructions that are given to us in a series, and all of them are expressions of a spiritual state. We are supposed to submit for the same reason that we sing and that we give thanks. All three of those are products of our choice not to be drunk with wine, but to be filled with the Spirit, back in v.18. Even though we’re not in Galatians 5 here, it’s completely legitimate to say that submission is a fruit of the Spirit.
With this in mind, let’s pause to notice the complete absence of asterisks in Ephesians 5:21. Nobody’s Bible says, “Submit to one another in the fear of Christ, except when. . .” As long as submission is not literally sinful, we are required to submit. It doesn’t matter if we don’t want to or don’t like it. Either we fear Christ, or we don’t.
After this, Paul begins his series of applications by discussing SUBMISSION FOR WIVES. This appears in Ephesians 5:22-24. The first thing to note here is that Paul is speaking to wives about how they should behave, not to husbands about how their wives should behave. None of us should feel triumphant about how the Scriptures stick it to our spouse. Instead, all of us should feel humbled and ashamed about how the Scriptures stick it to us.
Paul’s instruction to wives to submit is, to say the least, not popular. A lot of Christian women try to opt out of this command by comparing their husbands to Christ, to the inevitable detriment of their husbands. The battle cry is, “As long as he is treating me like this, I don’t have to submit to him!” Brethren, let me tell you straight. The behavior of our spouses has nothing to do with our obligation to obey God. Even if your husband is the most obnoxious, rude, insensitive jerk on the planet, you married the guy, so you have to submit to him! Fundamentally, submission in our marriages is submission to God, and the only way to opt out of the commandment is to opt out of obedience to Him.
When Clay and I were asked to preach this sermon series, the requesters asked for examples of how these principles should play out in real life. When it comes to the submission of the wife to the husband, the number of applications probably is infinite, but there are three in particular I want to point out.
First, being submissive means acknowledging your husband’s right to have the final say. Though the amount will vary from marriage to marriage, I don’t think it’s ungodly for a wife to disagree with her husband. Lauren disagrees with me frequently! Sooner or later, though, every disagreement must be resolved, and it is fundamentally the responsibility of the head of the family to make those decisions.
Second, being submissive means honoring your husband’s decisions, even when you disagree. Submission that passive-aggressively shuts down the argument, then sneaks around doing what it wants, isn’t truly submission at all. Nor, for that matter, is grudgingly offering the minimum amount of cooperation you think you can get away with. Submission must come from the heart.
Third, being submissive means speaking respectfully of your husband to others. The church exalts Christ. It doesn’t go around running Him down behind His back. Gossip is a sin, and gossiping about your husband is doubly a sin.
Finally, let’s consider SUBMISSION FOR HUSBANDS. Paul explores this subject in Ephesians 5:25-33. The first thing I want us to notice here is that this section is much longer than any of the others we’ve studied this morning. Apparently, the Holy Spirit thought the husbands of the church in Ephesus needed much more persuasion than the wives did!
Second, as with the instructions of the previous few verses, these verses provide a command for husbands with no exceptions. The wife is to submit to her husband, no matter what. The husband is to serve his wife with self-sacrificing love, no matter what. Even if her behavior is utterly horrible, that does not change our obligation one little bit! Christ gave Himself for us, so we must give ourselves for our wives.
It’s interesting, though, that in the second half of this context, Paul drastically changes his rhetorical tack. The first part is an appeal to selflessness—be like Christ! The second part, though, is an appeal to selfishness—care for your wife, because you’re really caring for yourself.
Brothers, truer words were never written! Yes, we can put ourselves first in our marriages. Yes, we can trample all over our wives. However, if we do, the price that we will pay will be far higher than we can possibly imagine. The fruit of our bad behavior will embitter our entire lives.
As I did for wives, I want to close with three concrete examples of what submission for husbands looks like. The first of these is that we must make every decision for our wives’ benefit and happiness. As we do this, we must remember that the best guide to our wives’ benefit and happiness is. . . our wives. Beware of constantly rejecting what she wants and telling yourself it’s for her own good!
Second, take the suffering in your marriage upon yourself. Christ suffered for the church, not vice versa. If someone in your marriage is going to be inconvenienced or hurt by a decision that you make, make sure it’s you every time.
Last, be the one to offer reconciliation. Every marriage, no matter how good, will have problems in it because all of us are imperfect people. When Wife is in the kitchen, mad, thin-lipped, not talking, and Husband is sitting in the recliner in the den, mad, thin-lipped, not talking, who should be the one to reach out? Who should be the first to swallow their pride a little bit, to apologize, to acknowledge wrongdoing rather than finding fault? The Biblical answer here is clear. Christ was the first to reach out to us, so husbands should be the first to reach out to their wives.
Elders in Every ChurchWednesday, March 10, 2021
In our Bible reading for this week, there appears a passage that is easy to read past but has profound implications for the organization of our churches. It is Acts 14:23. From it, we learn that on the return leg of the first missionary journey, Paul appointed elders in every church that he had established. This took place mere months, if not weeks, after the gospel first was proclaimed in these places.
Clearly, Paul, and indeed the Holy Spirit, placed a high priority on having elders! Sadly, it is not at all apparent that churches of Christ in the 21st century share this priority. Though I’m not aware of any official statistics on the subject, my impression is that only about a quarter to a third of congregations are led by elders.
Brethren, this is a serious problem. Indeed, I believe it is the most serious problem facing churches today. More than a godless society, more than porn, more even than strife among brethren, God’s sheep are getting slaughtered for lack of shepherds. This evening, then, let’s contemplate the importance and implications of having elders in every church.
In this regard, we first must set our hearts on FOLLOWING THE PATTERN. We see God’s pattern for the first-century church set out in Philippians 1:1. Here is how the church is supposed to be organized: elders, deacons, and ordinary saints. As all of us know, sometimes churches can’t follow this pattern. They lack a plurality of qualified men to appoint.
I understand that. What I struggle with is the way that so many brethren have become so comfortable with belonging to a congregation that is not organized according to the pattern. This kind of complacency is spiritually dangerous, and it can arise for at least two reasons.
The first is loyalty to the building more than to the Bible. Consider, for instance, a county in which there are three sound churches, each one with an attendance of about 50 on Sunday mornings. Not surprisingly, none of these congregations have elderships. Congregations of that size usually aren’t able to sustain them. However, each congregation does have one man who is qualified to serve but can’t in the absence of qualified fellows.
Now, if the Christians in these congregations were really determined to be part of a congregation with an eldership, they could have one. They could merge their three congregations into a single congregation of 150 people, appoint three elders, and serve God according to the pattern.
In real life, though, even though this situation exists all over the country, I have never heard of churches joining together so they can have an eldership. Everybody wants those other churches to close up shop and come worship with them, but nobody wants to leave their building, even if holding on to the building comes at the cost of following God’s pattern. I believe that congregations are authorized to own buildings, but when it comes to elders in every church, our buildings do us no favors!
The second reason that I see is that people seek a church without elders because they don’t want to be under the authority of elders. Sometimes, they literally drive by a sound congregation with elders on the way to their church that doesn’t have them. Maybe it’s that these people can’t become elders themselves but love having a voice in business meetings. Maybe it’s that the elders in that other congregation wouldn’t do things just the same way they would prefer.
Regardless, the tragedy here is that all of these people would insist proudly that they are committed to following God’s pattern for the church, but when it comes to their own deviation from the pattern, they are blind. May all of us have the humility and wisdom to seek the leadership of elders wherever possible!
Second, we must focus on SUBMITTING TO ELDERS. The Holy Spirit tells us to do this in as many words in 1 Peter 5:5. This is not a popular concept in our society because Americans are rugged individualists who don’t believe in submitting to anybody! Nonetheless, when God’s word conflicts with our cultural inclinations, it is culture that must give way.
This text does not mean, of course, that we must submit to elders who ignore or override the word of God. God instituted the office of elder, not the office of pope! The role of the elder isn’t to establish doctrine anyway, though they are responsible for defending it. Instead, they are responsible for exercising good judgment in areas where the Scriptures do not speak clearly.
When they do this, we are responsible for deferring to their judgment. This does not mean that they are necessarily right every time we disagree with them. It does mean, though, that we should behave as though they are. It’s not a sin to have bad judgment, even if you’re an elder. However, stirring up trouble in the congregation is a sin, and anytime members loudly express their disapproval of the elders’ decisions, trouble is the inevitable result.
Once again, remember that serving as an elder is one of the most difficult and thankless jobs imaginable. How would you like to live with the knowledge that you will have to give an account for every single soul at Jackson Heights? Every malcontent, every backslider, every dumb kid (and every dumb grownup too, for that matter)—if you are one of the elders here, every one of them is your problem. Your job is to try to get every one of them to heaven, even if they show no apparent interest in going, because Jesus died for the malcontents and backsliders and dumb kids, and God loves them. How would you like to carry that burden around with you, everywhere you go, every single day?
Brethren, these men serve us at the cost of tremendous heartache and suffering. The least we can do is to make their work as easy as possible.
Finally, we need men who ASPIRE TO SERVE. Consider the spirit expressed in 1 Timothy 3:1. Now, given what I just finished saying about the difficulty of serving, we might find ourselves wondering why on earth anyone would want to become an elder.
Of course, that’s exactly the point. There is no earthly reason, and men who are motivated by the flesh do not want to become self-sacrificing shepherds. However, there was no earthly reason for Jesus to become flesh and die in our place either. To the same extent that our spirits are stirred by the desire to imitate His humility and selflessness, we also should desire the office of elder.
It is vitally important for this congregation that there be younger men here who feel this way, and younger women who desire to support their husbands in this work. I love and honor our elders, but they’ve all got a serious problem. Every last one of them is mortal, and sooner or later, whether through death or incapacity, all of them will reach the point when they can no longer serve. When that happens, either younger men will have prepared to take their place, and the eldership here will continue, or those younger men haven’t, and we are in big trouble.
In the Lord’s church, we have a bad habit of preaching on the eldership only when we’re about to appoint elders. Brethren, that puts the emphasis in the wrong place. Recognizing a man who is qualified is relatively easy compared to becoming a man who is qualified!
This week, then, if we think we might want to serve someday, or if we have husbands who might want to serve, let’s pause to take stock. Let’s look up those character portraits of the elder in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Let’s use those portraits as a mirror. Let’s look to see where we measure up and especially where we don’t. Then, let’s ask where we need to change in order to prepare ourselves to take up the burden of leadership.