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Psalm 103

Thursday, March 11, 2021

My soul, exalt the name of God;
Recall with thanks each benefit:
He pardons your iniquities,
And He redeems you from the pit.
He crowns you with His faithful love,
And He renews your years with rest
Because He acts with righteousness
And He is just to the oppressed.

To Israel He made known His ways;
He showed His mercy and His grace;
He does not hold His anger long
Nor keep our crimes before His face.
As high is heaven is from earth,
So is His love when we obey;
As far as east is from the west,
So far He takes our sins away.

Our Father knows our mortal frame:
Our days are numbered, like the grass;
The tempest blows; it is no more,
And from its place it soon will pass.
But God will always show His love
To those who honor Him with awe,
And He will bless with righteousness
The ones who know and keep His law.

The Lord has set His throne above;
He rules all things with majesty;
Exalt the Lord, you angels all,
Who do His will so faithfully!
Exalt the Lord, all you His hosts,
With all who bow to His control;
In all His works, let Him be praised;
Exalt Him always, O my soul!

Suggested tune:  “Higher Ground”

Elders in Every Church

Wednesday, 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.

Where Persecution Comes From

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

In Acts 13-14, we see the beginning of what will become a dreary pattern for the missionary journeys of Paul.  It goes like this:  Paul comes to a new city and preaches the gospel in the local synagogue.  Some Jews believe, but so do many God-fearing Gentiles.  At this, the unbelieving Jews become enraged, seek to harm Paul and his companions in some way, and drive him on to the next city, where the cycle repeats itself.

This pattern is familiar to any student of the book of Acts, but often we don’t spend much time considering why it occurred.  To us, the persecutors are faceless Bad Guys.  They are two-dimensional obstacles to the spread of the gospel, not really much different than the Mediterranean tempest of Acts 27 or the viper that bites Paul in the next chapter. 

In reality, of course, these unbelievers are not like storms or snakes.  They were real people who lived 2000 years ago, with lives and jobs and families.  On their own terms, they even were good people.  Even though they lived in an ungodly society, they did their best to live according to the Law of Moses and the traditions of their fathers.  They paid to build and maintain their synagogues, and they worshiped there every Sabbath.  It’s quite likely, in fact, that at least some of these people had a good reputation in their communities:  honest, hardworking, devout, and generous to the poor.

And yet, when confronted with the gospel, not only do these good, godly people fail the greatest spiritual test of their lives.  They fail it spectacularly.  They are overcome by jealousy and rage.  They respond to the gospel with insult and slander.  They try to incite the local authorities against Paul and his companions.  They follow them to other cities to oppose them there.  They engage in conspiracy and even, in Acts 14:19, in attempted murder.

What in the world???

Whenever we see someone behaving in such an extremely hateful way, they are pretty much waving a flag over their heads that says, “I Feel Threatened”.  In this case, Paul made the Jews feel threatened by undermining their perception of their relationship with God.  They thought they were pleasing to Him; Paul showed that they were sinners in need of the grace of Jesus.  They thought that only the Jews were God’s chosen people, but Paul invited the Gentiles into their exclusive club. 

I believe that in the future, God’s people increasingly will experience the same thing.  As our society becomes increasingly godless, we will see more persecution, not because the gospel has become relevant, but because it remains so relevant that it is threatening.  Like the Jews of 2000 years ago, these people will attack us because the truth we bear poses an intolerable affront to their self-image.  We should not be surprised by this fiery trial, but neither should we allow it to discourage us.  It is when the darkness is greatest that the light has its most profound effect.

It's Not Just a Sin. It's a Crime

Monday, March 08, 2021

There are few evils that appall the soul more than the sexual abuse of children.  Most Christians find the thought so monstrous, so incredible, that they struggle to entertain the possibility that someone they know, someone they worship with, someone they think is a decent human being, might do such a thing.  Sadly, the problem is all too real.  As is true in any church, indeed in any organization that brings adults into contact with children, sexual predators have preyed on children in churches of Christ.

Sometimes, congregations have handled sexual abuse appropriately.  Too often, they have not.  Victims have not been believed because “Brother So-and-So would never do anything like that!”  Church leaders have tried to resolve the situation using the Matthew 18 process.  At its conclusion, they have required victims to continue worshiping with their abusers.  All of these errors have taken a toll of alienation, heartbreak, and too often continued predation.

Perhaps the root of the problem is that because we recognize sexual abuse as sexual sin, we presume that it ought to be treated only as sexual sin.  This is a mistake.  In every jurisdiction in the United States, sexual abuse is not only a sin.  It also is a crime. 

It makes for grim reading, but the penal code of the state of Tennessee clearly sets out every form of sexual abuse and exploitation of children as at least a Class C felony.  Thus, when confronted with an accusation of sexual abuse, we shouldn’t only be thinking Matthew 18.  We should be thinking Romans 13.

Romans 13 first applies to our duty to report.  I’ve been saying for years that preachers are mandated reporters, that we have a duty to report all credible accusations of child abuse to the proper authorities. 

In fact, that’s not true.  In Tennessee, everyone is a mandated reporter.  The Bible class teacher who hears a shocking story from one of her students, the church member who sees inappropriate contact, all must bring these things to the attention of the government.  God and Caesar have taken this decision out of our hands.

Indeed, even if the law did not require this of us, submitting evidence of sexual abuse to police investigation is the right thing to do.  This is true for two reasons.  First, although law enforcement is by no means perfect, they at least have been trained to conduct sexual-abuse investigations, which most of the rest of us have not.  They know what signs to look for and what questions to ask.

This expertise can protect the innocent as well as the guilty.  I’m aware of a case in which a well-meaning but clumsy and foolish ministry staff decided that they were going to go hunting for signs of sexual abuse among the children of their congregation.  In their ineptitude, they took a child’s innocent comment and transformed it into a claim of sexual abuse, putting a blameless family through months of suffering.

Can police investigations do the same thing?  Absolutely.  All human beings can fail in judgment and make mistakes.  The point of training, though, is to keep such mistakes to a minimum.

Second, having outsiders conduct the investigation limits the scope of the bias of the members.  When someone we know and love stands accused of despicable behavior, all of us will face a strong temptation to close our eyes to the evidence in front of us.  It is much easier to believe that a child is a liar than that a brother or sister in Christ is a monster.

In reality, only about 5 percent of accusations of sexual abuse are false.  Given the social cohesiveness of most churches of Christ and the crushing social penalties that would be meted out against those who have brought false accusations, I would imagine that the rate of such accusations in our brotherhood is even lower.  It is much more likely that even the preacher or the elder is a predator than it is that the child who has spoken up is lying.

After the investigation, after all the evidence has been brought to light, then it is appropriate to consider what spiritual steps ought to be taken against the accused.  Again, beware of bias!  We need to be honest enough to acknowledge that the Christian who has been convicted of sexual abuse almost certainly is a sexual abuser, even if we ourselves don’t see it.  I have shared some thoughts about the Matthew 18 process in such cases and its results here.

All of us would prefer to live in a world in which sexual abuse of children did not exist.  Tragically, that is not the world in which we do live, and the reach of the devil in this area extends even into the Lord’s church.  We cannot keep evil from happening, but we can keep it from flourishing.  Showing no tolerance for sexual exploitation and swiftly bringing it to the attention of the authorities is our best hope for protecting our children as much as possible.

NOTE:  This is an area in which all brethren of whatever doctrinal persuasion can and must agree.  If you would like to comment below on your own experience of sexual abuse, or to sit in mourning with those who have, that’s entirely appropriate.  If you would like to discuss the article or explore other ways to make our churches safe for our children, this is the place.  However, I will not allow the discussion to be derailed by ungodly or off-topic comments.

In Praise of Hymns with Verses

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

For the past 40 years or so, the landscape of American sacred music has been dominated by the so-called “worship wars”.  These (thankfully bloodless) conflicts have arisen between proponents of rhymed, metered traditional hymns and supporters of freer-form contemporary praise songs.  No doctrinal issues are directly at stake here; instead, this is a question of expedience.  Which form is most useful for edifying the congregation?

The a-cappella practice of the churches of Christ adds another dimension to the discussion.  Most denominational churches have a performer-audience model of worship, and this model doesn’t change whether the performer is using an organ or a guitar.

Within the Lord’s church, though, we use a leader-participant model.  We rely on the singing of ordinary Christians, and this reliance means that the opportunities and challenges before us differ from those before denominational worship ministers.  The solutions that work for them won’t necessarily work for us, and aspects of worship music that don’t matter to them may well be vital for us.

In turn, this means that we should hesitate to abandon the form of the traditional hymn.  The rhymed, metered verse was not invented by Isaac Watts; rather, it is an adaptation of rhymed, metered folk song.  All across Western folk music, from sea chanteys to French ballads to medieval Christmas carols, ordinary people have been singing in rhyme and meter for centuries, not because anybody made them, but because it is the form that has evolved to best facilitate the singing of ordinary people.  If we also are trying to get ordinary people to sing, we ought to pay attention.

Upon examination, several traits of rhymed, metered, versed hymns commend themselves to our attention.  First, they are economical in their use of music.  Consider the hymn “O Thou Fount of Every Blessing”.  Everyone (including us) sings it to the hymn tune NETTLETON. 

NETTLETON is written in rounded-bar form, which many hymn tunes use.  A rounded-bar tune consists of four phrases of music with an AABA pattern.  Thus, the first, second, and fourth phrases are identical.  It’s musically repetitive.

Further repetition arises through the use of multiple verses, as different lyrics are sung to the same music.  Thus, by the time a congregation has sung three verses of “O Thou Fount”, it has sung the B phrase three times and the A phrase a whopping nine times.

Musicians often don’t like rounded-bar tunes.  They’re bored by them.  You sing the same thing over and over and over again.  Yawn.

However, what seems like a stumbling block to the musician is a blessing to the congregation.  Every church contains a contingent of people who complain about singing “too many new hymns” and an even larger contingent of those who feel the same way but choose to suffer in silence. 

Really, though, such brethren don’t object to the new song.  They object to the new tune, and they are objecting because they are not particularly musically skilled, can’t read music, and only sing in public when God commands them to.  The first time a hymn is sung, they are at a loss, and they can only learn the tune slowly and painfully, by rote.  Most people in most congregations fall into this category.

For decades, I’ve heard grumblings from skilled singers that these Christians need to get with the program and learn to read music.  I think that solution runs in the wrong direction.  Rather, we need to take account of our brethren and introduce new songs that meet them where they are.  Because traditional hymns incorporate such a large amount of musical repetition, they do this well.  They offer non-musicians the opportunity to sing a great deal of new content while not demanding much from them musically. 

The flip side of the coin here is that while versed hymns are repetitive musically, they have the potential to be lyrically rich.  The typical praise song is lyrically repetitive.  Some hymns are too (and repetition to a certain extent is spiritually useful), but others work their way logically through a subject, like an essay in verse.

Take, for instance, “Amazing Grace”.  The logical structure of the hymn is so strong that we could outline the five verses that usually appear in our hymnals as follows:

  1. God’s grace is amazing!
  2. I thought it was amazing when I first believed.
  3. It has brought me this far in life, and it will continue to protect me.
  4. It will keep me safe till the end of my life.
  5. I will celebrate God’s grace forever in heaven.

Hymns with such thoughtful, structured content are important for two reasons.  First, they teach a great deal, which amply fulfills the divine commandment to teach and admonish in song.  Second, they accustom us to following complex arguments.

It’s fashionable these days to complain about proof-texting by brethren during Bible study.  Certainly, proof-texting has its uses (otherwise inspired authors would not have proof-texted), but the Bible is more than a series of proof texts.  When we learn to comprehend entire arguments in the Scripture rather than focusing on isolated verses, we grow greatly in our understanding.

When we sing and pay attention to the words of a structured, content-rich hymn, we necessarily also improve our capacity for understanding the word of God.  Conversely, when we sing only repetitive praise hymns that contain no more than a single verse’s worth of content, our ability to appreciate the Bible remains stunted.  Our thoughtfulness in worship and our thoughtfulness in study cannot be separated.

The worship wars are not going to be settled anytime soon, and a complete victory for either side isn’t even desirable.  There’s a place for contemporary praise songs in our worship services.  So too, though, there ought to be a place for traditional hymns.  Indeed, the more we return to these ancient forms, the more we will benefit from the wisdom behind them.

This article originally appeared in the February issue of Pressing On.

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