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Paying Preachers

Monday, July 19, 2021

Never does anyone argue harder for something they won’t actually take than Paul does in 1 Corinthians 9:3-14.  Through much of his ministry, especially his time with the church in Corinth, Paul refused financial support from the church with which he was working.  It may be that as per Romans 7:7-8, covetousness was a particular temptation for Paul, so he resolved that as much as possible, he wouldn’t accept money for his proclamation of the gospel.

However, Paul spends twelve verses carefully constructing the argument that he had the right to be supported.  This argument has several prongs.  First, he points out that it was customary for churches to provide not only for preachers, but for their families.  Second, he notes that people expect to be compensated for whatever kind of work they do, and preaching is no different. 

Third, he turns to the Law of Moses to establish that even oxen had the right to eat while they were threshing grain, and if God was concerned with oxen, how much more is He concerned with providing for human workers?  Finally, he observes that those who provide spiritual blessings to Christians have the right to expect physical blessings in return.  From all this, he concludes that preachers have the right to earn their living from the gospel.

This argument has significant implications for preachers and churches alike.  First, it warns preachers that they need to work hard in order to earn their living.  Merely filling a pulpit once or twice a week does not entitle them to anything!  Instead, if secular workers invest great effort in making widgets or closing business deals, the preacher should show even greater daily devotion to work of eternal importance.

Additionally, the preacher should be humble and appreciative about his salary.  Many brethren make significant financial sacrifices in order to contribute appropriately to the Lord’s work.  Ministers should not react to these sacrifices with arrogant entitlement.  Rather, they should express their heartfelt appreciation to those whose generosity enables them to serve.

In turn, churches ought to remember that preacher support is not benevolent relief.  The standard for a man’s compensation is not the minimum that he needs to get by, as determined by those who aren’t trying to make his family budget balance.  He is paid as an act of justice, according to what he deserves, rather than as an act of mercy.  If he is working hard at preaching and teaching, he should be rewarded accordingly.

Similarly, churches should not import a free-market mentality into their salary determinations.  They should not be asking how cheaply they can fill a pulpit.  Instead, they should measure the preacher’s value according to the value of what he is teaching them.  Is it really a good idea to try to economize in finding a man whom you want to help you inherit eternal life?

All of us know that the love of money tangles everything up in the world.  In the church, we must be careful to ensure that it doesn’t tangle us up.  However, when churches and preachers both consider financial matters in the light of God’s word, the results inevitably will be to His glory.

The Upside-Down Gospel

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Groucho Marx once observed that he wouldn’t want to belong to any social club that would have him as a member.  The point, of course, is that many people join various organizations because those organizations are exclusive.  If you belong to a group that keeps out the riff-raff, it shows that you aren’t riff-raff.

By contrast, the strategy Paul sets forth in 1 Corinthians 1:20-31 aims at the opposite effect.  He acknowledges that the gospel that he uses to attract converts is foolish, at least in worldly terms.  Any Jew or Gentile with sense is going to steer well clear of him!

As one might expect, the catch brought in with such a net is various.  Most of it isn’t very impressive:  the foolish, the weak, and the poor.  However, Paul notes that God is going to do something amazing with such unpromising raw material.  He is going to use it to reveal worldly wisdom as foolishness, worldly power as weakness, and worldly wealth as poverty.  In the end, everyone will be forced to acknowledge that for all their arrogance, they didn’t have any reason to boast in themselves either.

Not surprisingly, this radical first-century message quickly became corrupted.  Using the name of Christ as a cloak, people have been using the gospel (or a version thereof) to advance their own worldly concerns for centuries.  The magnificence of various church buildings all across the globe does little to reveal their owners as have-nots!

These problems can crop up within the Lord’s church too.  We don’t typically go in for cloth-of-gold vestments and cathedrals, but there’s a part of us that wants to have a nice church filled with only nice people.  That photogenic couple down the street with 2.4 kids and a white picket fence is perfectly welcome.  How about the guy who struggles to hold down a job?  How about the woman with a criminal record?

The church in Corinth would not have lived up to anybody’s standards for niceness.  All of the problems we read about in the church did not spring up out of nowhere.  Instead, due to the unselectivity of the screening process, all those new Christians brought enough baggage with them to fill up the hold of the Queen Mary. 

And yet, these were the called and chosen of God, the ones whom He had selected to humiliate everyone else.  What’s more, they did.  The organization to which the riff-raff belonged continues to this day.  The wealthy, wise, and powerful of Corinth?  Not so much.  Indeed, on the day of judgment, the disparity between those who sought after Christ and those who didn’t will only become more obvious.

Today, then, we need to worry a lot less about the raw material of potential converts and a lot more about the power of the gospel.  As always, it’s the people who don’t have their lives together and are well aware of the fact who are most likely to embrace global change.  They might not look very inviting in the church photo, but they are more than enough for God to use for His glory.

Paul-Style Elder Appreciation

Friday, June 25, 2021

As obnoxious as the pandemic has been, one of the silver linings to the cloud has been the way that it has brought recognition to the elders at Jackson Heights.  Normally, much of the work that the elders do remains in the background, but the crisis brought it to the foreground.  They were faced with a complex problem involving danger, uncertainty, and deeply divergent beliefs among brethren, but they navigated the challenge with wisdom and skill.  We continued to assemble nearly without interruption, nobody caught COVID in any of those assemblies, and nobody got mad and left because of the elders’ handling of the situation.  Can’t ask for better than that!

Many of the members here (myself included) have expressed their appreciation to the elders for their work.  However, if we pay attention to Paul’s admonitions in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, we see that in context, there are other ways we ought to be recognizing our leaders for their work.

Regard them very highly in love.  Christians are notorious for feasting on roast preacher on the way home from services.  Sad to say, it’s too often true that elders also find a place on the menu.  It’s very difficult to serve as an elder, but it’s very easy to criticize and second-guess the decisions that the elders make. 

However, this kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking fails to show respect either for the office or those holding it.  Elders are generally wise, compassionate men, but they always end up dealing with the hard cases and difficult choices that nobody else in the congregation can handle.  Are their conclusions always going to please every member of the church, or even necessarily going to be the best option available?  Of course not! 

Nonetheless, we still owe them deference and grace.  When the elders are down in the trenches fighting for people’s souls, the last thing they need is to start taking casualties from friendly fire!  When we disagree with the elders, rather than offering criticism, let’s start offering prayers for them instead.  Every one of them will tell you that they need it!

Be at peace.  As many difficulties as COVID created for the church, one of the elders confided to me that it was far from the most difficult problem that he had faced during his leadership tenure.  You know what gives elders more headaches and heartaches than a global pandemic?  Christians who can’t get along with each other and dump their garbage in the elders’ laps, each expecting to be vindicated.  That’s when the elders start buying Tums in bulk.

For all of us, the solution is simple, though difficult:  start acting like real Christians instead of nominal ones.  Don’t turn your marriage into a museum of every wrong your spouse has ever done you.  Don’t take every thoughtless comment that a brother makes in the worst way possible.  Don’t assume that the sister who passed you without speaking to you did it on purpose.  In short, view others in the best light possible while harshly examining your own soul for the self-righteousness, self-deception, and selfishness that all of us love to harbor.  Don’t make your spiritual problems the elders’ problems too! 

Teaching Apollos

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Some of the stories that we read about in Scripture are impressive because of what we know about the laws of nature.  Others are impressive because of what we know of human nature, and in the latter category falls the enlightenment of Apollos in Acts 18:24-28.

Put yourself in Apollos’ sandals for a moment.  Here, we have a guy with a lot going for him, both in terms of ability and understanding.  He was an eloquent man, a powerful speaker, which even Paul wasn’t.  He was passionate about God and His word.  He knew that Jesus was the Christ, and he boldly proclaimed Jesus everywhere he went.

However, there was a problem.  Rather than proclaiming the saving baptism into Christ, Apollos knew only the baptism of John.  All of his powerful preaching about Jesus led to the wrong conclusion.

The disciples Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos’ flawed message, and they in turn had the courage to talk to him in private about his errors.  Then, an amazing thing happens.  Apollos listens to them!  Even though changing his message will mean open acknowledgment of his prior misunderstanding, Apollos does change.  Now, his eloquence is pointed in the right direction, and he helps the church greatly with his efforts.

Today, there are two great lessons here for us.  First, it shows us the importance of leaving space for others to be Apolloses.  Priscilla and Aquila did not, Paul-style, oppose Apollos to the face because he stood condemned.  Instead, because they knew the truth would be painful for him to hear, they went to him privately in order to spare his pride as much as possible.

God does expect us to be forthright with the truth, but He also wants us to use wisdom in figuring out the most effective way of presenting that truth.  After all, our goal in correcting error is hardly ever (or should hardly ever be, at least) to get somebody told.  Our aim is not to check off the stand-up-for-Jesus box.  It is to enlighten, to persuade, and to change minds and hearts. 

Maybe Apollos would have listened if Priscilla and Aquila had blasted him publicly.  Maybe somebody will listen to us if we present the truth to them with no consideration for their feelings.  However, our chances of success go way up when we speak truth in love.

Second, the day may well come when we find ourselves in the same place Apollos was.  We’ve been confidently proclaiming X, and some kind soul comes to us, Bible in hand, and says, “Well, actually, it’s Y instead.”

That’s not much fun!  Indeed, we will feel a strong temptation to continue clinging to X.  Few indeed are the preachers today who will, like Apollos, accept that they’ve been preaching the wrong baptism and change their tune accordingly.  Few indeed are the brethren who will easily embrace the truth after they’ve gone on record saying the opposite.  Nonetheless, only if we are willing to humble ourselves and acknowledge our misunderstandings can God be glorified in us.

The Promise of Affliction

Monday, June 07, 2021

If there is anything that Americans like, it is the easy way.  A decade or two ago, the office-supply chain Staples ran a series of ads featuring the Easy Button, a big red button that you could push to accomplish whatever it was that you wanted done.  As funny as the commercials were, most people in our country would love to Easy-Button their way through life, reaping the rewards of virtue without putting in the work.

Not surprisingly, this attitude has permeated American religion too.  The most popular preachers of our time promise every earthly blessing and demand very little in return.  If you want the rewards of prosperity and happiness in this life, Jesus will be happy to provide those things to you.  You don’t have to live a life of humility, service, and self-sacrifice.  All you have to do is write a check to the guy with the perfect coiffure, the fancy suit, and the million-dollar smile.

What the Bible actually teaches, though, is very different.  Yes, the promises that the gospel makes are extravagant.  They start with eternal life and go on from there.  However, rarely do they concern this-life prosperity, and they come with a catch.  If you want to live with Jesus forever, you’d better seek Jesus now. 

This process is not easy and painless.  Indeed, the opposite is true.  In 1 Thessalonians 3:4, Paul reminds the Thessalonians that during the three weeks he spent in Thessalonica, he warned them that they would face affliction for the sake of Christ.  Paul didn’t have time to teach them much of anything, but the warning of future adversity was so important that he made time for that.

His prediction was fulfilled very quickly.  The same angry mob that chased Paul out of town also laid hands on several of the new Christians.  A few decades down the road, the Roman Empire itself would engage in persecution of the early church.

The problem is simple.  Jesus is a polarizing figure.  Either you love Him, or you want nothing to do with Him.  People who love Jesus are called “Christians”, and we find them in His church.  People who don’t want anything to do with Him are those outside, and if they don’t like Jesus, they aren’t going to like the people who are trying to be like Jesus either.

If we are loud and proud about our allegiance to the Lord, if we are eager to lead others to Him, and if we stand with Him against every form of evil, all of those things are going to generate pushback from the world.  This is always going to happen, whether the ones offended are secular or “religious” like the Pharisees who opposed Jesus.  We’ve confronted them with something they don’t like, so they’re going to repay us in kind.  The only way to avoid this kind of affliction is to conceal our faith, but if we do that, we are imitating neither the Thessalonian disciples nor the Lord Himself.

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