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The Uncertainty of Wealth

Monday, September 27, 2021

In 1 Timothy 6:17, Paul embarks on a familiar New Testament theme.  Don’t trust money; trust God instead.  However, his reasoning is different here than elsewhere.  Unlike Jesus, he doesn’t warn us that we can’t serve both God and Mammon, nor does he repeat his claim in Colossians 3:5 that greed is a form of idolatry.  Instead, he warns rich Christians away from trusting in riches because riches are. . . uncertain.

Uncertain?  That doesn’t sound so bad!  However, once we recognize how large a problem the uncertainty of wealth truly is, we will be far less inclined to entrust ourselves to it.

First, wealth is uncertain in prospect.  I know Christians who always have some new get-rich-quick scheme every time I talk to them.  So far, none of these schemes have resulted in riches. 

Sometimes, people’s hopes for wealth founder because of foolishness.  At others, they founder because of chance.  In 1993, some of the brightest minds in finance, including a Nobel Prize winner, founded a hedge fund called Long-Term Capital Management.  They thought they had discovered a way to get great returns without risk.  However, the wrong combination of financial crises in 1997 and 1998 destroyed LTCM.  It lost billions and was liquidated in 2000.

Similar dangers beset our hopes of holding on to the wealth we already have.  Ecclesiastes 5:13-14 comments on the tragedy of holding on carefully to one’s money, only to lose it through a bad investment.  This often is a modern tragedy too.  Con artists, needy relatives, negligent subordinates, and economic shocks all can part us from what we’ve earned.

Worse still, just as we can’t rely on getting wealthy or on keeping our wealth, we can’t rely on wealth to protect us either.  “Money is the answer for everything,” the Preacher scoffs in Ecclesiastes 10:19, and so it seems to the people of the world.  As long as you’re rich, your riches will keep you safe.

That’s not the case.  Many things can separate us from our wealth, and there also are problems that no amount of wealth can solve.  Money might buy the pretense of love, but it can’t purchase the reality.  God is more impressed when we give away our riches than when we accumulate them.  Some diseases remain stubbornly incurable no matter how much money we throw at them, and in the end, “rich dead man” is as much an oxymoron as “jumbo shrimp”. 

Basically, money is good for the little things in life, but it’s worthless for the big ones.  When we’re dying, none of us will look back in satisfaction on the things that money bought.  The people who build their lives around money, though numerous, are foolish. 

God is a much better investment.  Wealth is known for betraying those who love it, but He is known for being faithful to those who love Him.  He will never leave us, and there is no challenge too great for Him to overcome.  Ultimately, the treasure we lay up in heaven is the only treasure that matters.

Christianity and Asceticism

Friday, September 24, 2021

The other day, I got a text from my brother.  It read in part, “If you want a mental exercise, compare and contrast Christianity, Stoicism, and the “Dokkōdō”.  See any commonalities?”  I’ve read my Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, so I have a handle on Stoicism, but I’d never heard of the “Dokkōdō”.  Turns out it’s a set of 21 life precepts written down by the Japanese master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi shortly before he died.  It’s basically Buddhist in outlook.

There certainly are similarities between Stoicism and the “Dokkōdō”.  Both are suspicious of earthly pleasure, indeed of earthly attachment of any sort, and warn that it leads people astray.  Marcus Aurelius counseled that when you put your children to bed at night, you should tell yourself that they will be dead by morning.  Similarly, the fifth precept of the “Dokkōdō” reads, “Be detached from desire your whole life long.”  Both are essentially ascetic philosophies.

However, despite many ascetic outgrowths of Christianity through the centuries, Biblical Christianity itself is not ascetic.  Instead, its perspective on both fear and desire is much more nuanced.  This begins with Christianity’s understanding of the physical universe as the good creation of a good God.  Though creation has been broken and marred by sin, it has not become fundamentally evil.

To the Christian, physical enjoyment is basically good as well.  Every good thing given comes from God.  He satisfies our hearts with food and gladness.  He has provided these things so that they can be gratefully shared in by those who know and believe the truth. 

Similarly, the Bible celebrates the joys of human love and relationships.  Your family, friends, and brethren are supposed to matter to you.  If they don’t, that’s not wisdom.  It’s a spiritual problem. 

This is true even of the supposed bugbear of Christianity, sexual pleasure.  An entire book of the Bible, Song of Solomon, is a frankly erotic celebration of married sexuality.  Sex is a good gift too!

Problems arise when these pleasures, basically good as they are, begin to lead us away from God.  Sin is never an invention but rather a corruption and a distortion.  Sex is a blessing in marriage, but outside of marriage it becomes an expression of selfishness that harms all involved.  It’s good to enjoy the fruits of our labors, but when we forget God and are unwilling to help others, those gifts have become a trap.

More fundamentally, any blessing becomes a trap when we set it up as our god.  This distinction is most apparent in Ecclesiastes.  The Preacher spends the last ten chapters of the book encouraging his readers to enjoy themselves:  let your clothes be white, don’t let oil be lacking on your head, and so forth.  However, in the first two chapters, he describes all earthly pursuits as the height of vanity. 

The problem is not pleasure.  It’s trying to make your life about pleasure.  In the end, such efforts will prove to be empty.

Interestingly, the Bible says the same thing about human wisdom.  It too has its place (the Preacher notes that all proverbs are given by one Shepherd), but it doesn’t provide the answers to existence either.  Death proves human wisdom to be vain (Is dead Musashi any better off than a dead medieval peasant?), and such wisdom also is likely to dismiss the spiritual wisdom of the gospel as foolishness.  Biblically speaking, asceticism is no better than pleasure-seeking because it too is focused on the wrong things.

Rather than focusing on severe treatment of the body, Christianity focuses on Christ.  He is the lens through which we see everything else.  With His help, we can savor what is good and shun what is not.  However, our hope is not in the savoring or the shunning but in His promise and His mercy.  We look for new heavens and a new earth, set free from this present corruption, and we anticipate the resurrection of our bodies into conformity with the body of His glory.  Once all these have been purified from sin and its consequences, only what is holy will remain.

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.

Submission to Elders

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

In our Bible reading this week, we will come to 1 Timothy 3, the text along with Titus 1 that paints the Biblical portrait of the elder.  The eldership is so important that Clay and I decided that we needed to devote both sermons today to the subject.  However, neither one of us is going to preach on what are commonly called the qualifications of the elder.  If you want to know my thoughts on the topic, you’ll have to read the bulletin article!

Instead, we’re going to focus on the day-to-day interaction between the congregation and the eldership.  Though understanding what makes a man fit to be an elder is vital when appointing elders, it doesn’t come up a whole lot otherwise.  However, we continually need to know how we should treat them, and they continually need to know how they should treat us.

The former is my responsibility this morning, and our responsibility toward elders can be summed up in one word:  submission.    Americans tend to believe in what we might call “contingent submission”.  They will submit to an authority so long as they agree with it, but not otherwise.  Is that really what God expects of His people, though?  Let’s explore this as we consider the Biblical witness about submitting to elders.

There are three passages that speak to this topic, and the first tells us to RECOGNIZE AND REGARD our elders.  Look at 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13.  This passage doesn’t use the word “elder”, of course, but when it talks about those who lead us in the Lord, it’s very clearly talking about elders, and it describes two kinds of appropriate treatment.

The first is to give them recognition.  This isn’t about greeting them when we pass them in the hallway before services, though that’s a good thing to do!  It’s about recognizing them for having taken on the work and burdens of the eldership.  I know lots of current and former elders, but I’ve never heard any of them say that being an elder is easy. 

Indeed, the opposite is true.  I suspect that most members of this congregation never will know even 10 percent of what the elders go through for us.  We’re not supposed to know it, and if we knew it, we wouldn’t want to know it.  However, because that other 90 percent is there, we should show them honor for dealing with it.

Second, we are to regard them highly in love.  Sometimes, this can be very difficult.  How can we respect the elders when we believe they’re making a mistake?  How can we respect them when they’ve hurt or offended us? 

The key, I think, is to recognize that if we only had to respect elders when we naturally wanted to respect them, God wouldn’t have had to command us to do it.  Even when we don’t want to, we still are responsible for respecting the office if not the man.  They took on significant burdens on our behalf, and even when they fail, as anyone would sooner or later, we should show them honor and grace. 

Second, we must BE RECIPROCALLY HUMBLE.  Consider 1 Peter 5:5.  There’s a lot in this text about how elders should behave, and Clay is going to tackle that for us this evening.  However, the responsibility of everyone else in this text is twofold:  be subject and be humble.

“Be subject” is where we find the core idea of this sermon:  to be in submission.  No one puts elders over us.  Instead, we put ourselves under them.  In spiritual matters, we follow their example and judgment. 

I fear that in the American church these days, “submit” has taken on the meaning of “coincidentally go along with until I disagree”.  However, if all we really are doing is submitting to an eldership until they ask us to do something we don’t want to, who really is our authority?  Is it them, or is it us?  Now, elders don’t have the right to add new sections to the Bible or to demand that we follow their think-so’s, but we should hold ourselves responsible for doing what they ask.

It helps when we approach our relationship with the elders from the perspective of humility.  As the subject heading for this section implies, everybody, sheep and shepherds alike, has the responsibility to deal with others in a humble way. 

However, shepherds can’t make sheep be humble, and sheep can’t make shepherds be humble.  All we can do is make sure that we have a humble spirit within our own hearts. 

Humility means a number of things.  It means listening patiently to others to show them that they are heard and understood.  It means not immediately insisting on our own way.  It means not dogmatically assuming that we are right and the other is wrong.  All of these things are part of the humility that we owe our elders.  When we don’t lose our cool, insist, or assume, we too glorify God!

Finally, we must BEHAVE PROFITABLY.  Here, let’s read from Hebrews 13:17.  There are some things here that are familiar.  We once again see the instruction to submit to, this time combined with a command to obey.  Both of these amount to the same thing in practice.

However, there are some new elements here, and the first is the Hebrew writer’s justification for being submissive and obedient.  We are to do this because they watch over us as those who will have to give an account.  I tell you, brethren, that the latter part of that weighs heavily on the conscience of every elder I’ve ever worked with!  They make their decisions about the flock with the knowledge that someday, they’re going to have to explain themselves to the King of kings.

This motivates them to keep careful watch over the flock because they know their souls are on the line.  As a result, our elders are a precious spiritual resource to us.  They are as interested in our lives as we are, but they have something we don’t—an outside perspective on our lives, viewed with the judgment and experience of an elder.

That matters a lot!  Have you ever noticed how blind people are to their spiritual problems?  It’s as plain as day what the issue is and what they ought to do about it, but they just won’t! 

Well, I’ve got some news for you, brethren.  It’s not just other people who have trouble seeing their lives clearly.  It’s every one of us.  All of us need a trusted outside perspective—like elders—to see ourselves clearly.

This explains the last part too.  They watch over us, they help us make good spiritual decisions, and they beat themselves up over it when we don’t.  Sure, we can make them suffer, but we do so at the cost of our own souls.  That isn’t exactly profitable!

It’s profitable for us, then, to do our best to make our elders’ lives as joyful as possible and as grief-free as possible.  When we’re making some spiritual decision, we should ask, “How would the elders feel about this?”  I feel this way not only about the commandments of Scripture, but about the personal requests that our elders make of us.  If they ask us to do something, and it’s an area in which we have liberty, why not make the choice that makes their lives easier?  This too finds favor with God.

The Portrait of the Elder

Monday, September 20, 2021

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and its companion text in Titus 1:5-9 described as “the qualifications of the elder”.  With the best of intentions, brethren have combined the two lists and turned them into a checklist.  If a check mark is missing, a man isn’t qualified. 

Not coincidentally, this has led to a focus on the qualifications that appear most objective and binary.  Is the prospective elder the husband of one wife?  Does he have faithful children?  Is he able to teach (by preaching sermons or teaching adult Bible classes)?  The man with a wedding ring, dunked kids on a pew someplace, and a spot on the teaching roster is presumptively qualified.  We say much less about whether a man is sensible or not quarrelsome.

As straightforward as this approach sounds, it isn’t what the Scriptures call for.  This is evident from the fact that the 1 Timothy list and the Titus list aren’t identical, yet Paul wants both Timothy and Titus to appoint elders according to the lists they’ve got. 

Most notably, “faithful children” (THE qualification in the eyes of the American church) does not appear on Timothy’s list.  Its counterpart in 1 Timothy applies only to the control of children who are still under a man’s roof.  Thus, Timothy would have appointed elders in Ephesus without considering at all the qualification we consider most important.

Either the Holy Spirit missed something vital, or we are missing something vital.

It is far better to read these passages not as a list of qualifications but as two portraits of what an elder should look like.  They are not identical, but they paint a picture of the same kind of man—a man who is above reproach.  “Above reproach” isn’t an initial qualification in these texts; it’s a subject heading.  Paul is giving us some things to ponder as we consider whether a man lives up to God’s standard for an elder.

This approach accomplishes two things.  First, it introduces spiritual content into every item on the list.  The mere fact of being married proves nothing about a man’s irreproachability.  However, when we consider his devotion and his commitment to his wife (the literal Greek here is “the man of one woman”), that does speak to whether he is above reproach or not.

Second, it requires us to confront the judgment-call nature of many of Paul’s criteria, which in turn points us to the holistic judgment call that he wants us to make.  Consider the “hospitable” criterion (which, unlike “faithful children”, appears in both lists).  Obviously, a man who isn’t hospitable at all shouldn’t be considered.  However, some elder candidates are moderately hospitable, while others are spectacularly hospitable.  As we are evaluating our men, “How much?” is an even more important question than “Whether?”

This allows us to take into account both strengths and weaknesses in our elder-assessment process.  No man is going to be perfect in everything, but his sparkling conduct in one area may compensate for a less impressive performance in another.  Maybe he doesn’t set the world on fire as a Bible-class teacher, but most Christians in the congregation are so used to being in his home that they come in without knocking.  All in all, he still measures up to the “above reproach” standard.

Portrait versus checklist is a big change in mindset for many brethren, but it’s a change we need to make to follow the Lord’s intent more closely.  When so many congregations suffer under the “leadership” of men’s meetings (which aren’t in the Bible at all), it’s a shame when we reject men whom the Holy Spirit would consider elder material.  However, when we apply the Scriptures rightly, as many congregations as possible will have the oversight God desires. 

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