Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Church Full Not of Pastors but Priests

True church renewal will require a change of thinking and attitude about several different issues. We have spoken to a couple of these already. Let's review. The church building is not the church, and therefore we cannot allow a building to be our primary visibility in our community. The people of our community must see Christ, and they will only see Christ in the worship and service of Christians. I do not mean primarily worship and service that take place at the address of the church building. I mean worship and service that take place throughout the week. What happens at the church building should only promote and encourage week-long worship and service. Tragically, we often fall into a kind of thinking that when the worship service and church activities that take place in the church building are concluded, then the worship and service of the people cease. This cannot be.
Also, since not only the Temple has been replaced, but also Temple activities, then we cannot continue to use "sacrifices" as a way to appease God or gain His favor. The wonder of the Gospel is that Christ has completely appeased God, and that, in Christ, we have all the favor of God that we need or could ever want. Our efforts in worship and service are not performed in order to gain forgiveness or favor, but they are instead responses to what God has graciously done for us, and what He has promised to do for us.
Now we need to think about who it is that worships and serves. The Biblical answer is: priests. But the startling revolution that has taken place with Christ is that all followers of Christ are priests. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you are a priest, and you thus have the privileges and responsibilities of worship and service that were reserved for only Aaron and his sons in the Old Testament. Yes, the specific tasks have changed since there is now no central location and sacrifices are no longer offered. But that does not mean that worship and service have ceased. And you, believer and disciple, are a part of the priesthood.
We have to back up on our thinking about "full-time ministry." In our tradition, we usually think of pastors and missionaries. They are said to be "called" in a special sense, different from the way in which all Christians are called to follow Christ and serve him. One problem. This runs counter to the teaching of the New Testament on the priesthood of all believers. Let me instead say it this way: there is one calling for all Christians. There are different roles in which we may serve. But we are all priests, and "full-time" ministers are no more priests than are you.
One of the problems with this "full-time" phrase is that it implies that all other Christians are "part-time" priests. When would that be? When you are at the church building? That can't be. You are priests every day, and all the time. You are priests when you are with your families, and with your co-workers or fellow students. There is no time of the day when a priest is not a priest, just as there are no activities in which we engage that are not to be characterized by worship and service.
Now there are some particular qualifications for particular roles. Christians who serve as elders and deacons are subject to the character and skill qualifications spelled out in the Pastoral Epistles. But when a person is assigned to a role of pastor/elder, deacon or missionary, they are not all of a sudden elevated to the role of priest. They were priests all along, or else they were not Christians at all.
An implication of this is that pastors/elders, deacons, and missionaries should not be doing your priestly activities for you. When we do so, we are stealing aspects of your privilege and responsibility that are key aspects of your enjoyment of God and of your life that He has graced. The pastor should not pray your prayers for you, do your Bible study for you, worship God or fellowship with believers for you, witness to your neighbors for you, etc. He has a role, to teach God's Word and to provide loving spiritual oversight. But if he in any way inserts himself into your relationship as a priests, he is sinning in his role, and robbing you of your role.
This is a humbling statement for me. I've spent a long time in one place, doing whatever needs to be done. But often, "what needed to be done" needed to be done by a wide range of people, not an individual who desired to be indispensable and appreciated. I recognize that I, many times over, have done the easy thing: doing it myself, rather than leading individuals into the joy of priestly participation. I told you that this church renewal thing would be difficult. I'm afraid that it will be most difficult for me.
The painfully ironic point is that there is a special accountability for those who teach (James 3:1). But when a teacher behaves in a way that contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture (in this case, that all followers of Christ are priests, not just the pastor), then the teacher is actually guilty of false teaching. Perhaps he has not been guilty in what he has said. But we teach more loudly with our actions than with our words.
So, back to you, the priests. How will you worship and serve as a priest today? If I could use a template from the consecration of Aaron and his sons back in Exodus 29, I think we get some good starters to that question. Just remember, we are not re-establishing the old priesthood. But there are some points that carry over.
First, they were washed (Exodus 29:4). When Jesus washed the disciples feet (John 13), he distinguished two washings. Followers of Christ are already fundamentally clean by virtue of their relationship with him, the only, truly Righteous One. We are clean because of His cleanness. But there is also a maintenance washing, the washing of feet. Daily confession of sin and delighting in forgiveness is important preparation for priestly ministry. Again, this does not happen once. We benefit from checking ourselves in the mirror of the character of Christ over and over again.
Second, they were clothed in priestly garments (Exodus 29:5-6). And you must be clothed in Christ. This happens by faith in Christ, that you are covered and completed in him. It is not something that you do for yourself, but it is something that you need to remember and to think about. Note two things. First, being clothed in Christ means that your sins and your faults are covered. They are not invisible, but they are covered. So you need not wait to be perfect in order to serve. Priests are not former sinners. They are forgiven saints who are still sinners. Second, when you present yourself to your world, your are not presenting yourself so much as you are presenting Christ. You are not to win them with your words or your winsome personality, but with Christ and the character of Christ. Yes, this will include gracious words and personal warmth. But it is because you are clothed and covered with Christ.
Third, they were anointed with oil (Exodus 29:7). Priests are all those who make up the Body of Christ, and there are no members of the Body who have not received the Holy Spirit. We are to seek to be filled with this Spirit, to be oiled and greased by Him, that we can accomplish, not our work, but God's. Specifically ask God that He would so guide you by His Spirit that you would say what needs to be said, and that you would refrain from saying what should not be said. Ask the your attitude and your facial expressions would communicate what God wants, not what you feel. And remember, while this anointing was applied only to Aaron and his sons, every believer, young and old, male and female, without regard for race or education level or place in society - all minister by the Spirit as priests.
What a privilege, to live and interact with people as priests of the living God under the Headship of our loving Savior, our High Priest, Jesus Christ, and with the help and protection and enabling of His Spirit, who is with us at all times.

Saints and Sinners

Both of these have serious problems:
Saints who think they are no longer sinners.
Sinners who think they cannot become saints. 
The problem with saints who think they are no longer sinners is that they do not take sin seriously. In most cases, it is their own sin that they do not take seriously. They may in fact take the sins of others very seriously. They may be experts at pointing it out and pontificating on the seriousness of their (other peoples’) sins. But they either will not admit, or completely overlook their own sin. And that is a problem. Because we are all sinners. And one of the worst kind of sinner is the religious type who will not admit to or address their faults. They deserve the label “hypocrite,” and they do damage to the mission and ministry of the church.
The problem with sinners who think they could never be saints is that they do not understand grace sufficiently. They do not believe that God would ever willingly and lovingly involve Himself in a life like theirs. They may think they are beyond the reach of forgiveness, that they are unredeemable. They know that they don’t have the moral resources or will-power to raise themselves to the level of sainthood. But they also have not grasped how grace is purest when it reaches the lowest, and that it is truest when it helps the truly helpless, and that it is noblest when we cannot return the favor, but only receive God’s kindness as a gift.
We are at our best when we, as sinners, accept the gift of being saints. And we are at our best when we as saints do not forget that we are still sinners. 

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Weakness of Words; The Power of the Word

It is no revelation that pastors talk a lot. And having been a pastor for quite a long time, I want to tell you, words are weak. You’ve discovered it yourself. You have tried to tell someone something. And chances are, they would not listen. It seems at times that the more you tell them, the less likely they are to listen.
We must come to the conclusion that our words are weak. We cannot shape the hearts of our hearers, whether friends, foes, or families, merely by our words. They are like water off a duck’s back. They are like darts off a brick wall. It often seems like spitting into the wind, upwind. 
This does not mean that we should not speak. The truth should be verbalized by parents and friends and pastors, at the right time, in the right way, with the right attitude. And we will make mistakes. But we must try. Because to withhold the truth is cruel and deadly, even though sharing the truth carries no guarantee that it will be received with either gratefulness or responsiveness.
And a good part of the reason that we go ahead and speak the truth against all odds is because of “the power of the Word.” God is truth, and, as the old “Battle Hymn” says, “His truth is marching on.” Every once in a while, the powerful wind of His word catches the limp sail of our weak words and carries them home, deep into the heart that seemed to be locked against any good influence.
When God wills for His Word to penetrate, there is no defense against it. The water off the ducks back now changes the ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. Is there a free will? Yes, indeed, set free by God’s powerful Word from the stubbornness of ignorance and resistance, set free to hear and respond and love and live.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Picture living on a great pond, often placid, sometimes stormy. What we know about this pond is that it is bordered by a waterfall. Everyone, eventually, goes over the waterfall. Most people try to avoid the waterfall for as long as possible. Some choose to play precariously on the edge, often paying the price. But as life goes on day by day, one could almost forget that the waterfall exists. Yes, we lose loved ones occasionally, but it happened to them, not to me.
Jesus came to earth, and in a short three years ticked off enough people that they threw him over the waterfall. He came with hopes and promises, and there truly was something deeply different about him. And he did not deserve to be killed. But over he went. and then he came back.
Jesus is forming a brotherhood (and sisters, too). Having defeated death, not just avoiding it, but defeating it, he leads. There is a direction, and there is a discipline to this direction. It can be hard, and painful at times, but he leads the way, our first leader, our Pioneer, upstream, against the flow. He leads us into lives that adamantly insist that this is not all there is. We proclaim that we exist, not for our own glory, but for God's. We refuse to live just for the service of self, but to love and serve others. We fail, often, and then begin again, assured by his forgiveness. We hope for a new creation in which there is no sin, but only righteousness and peace and joy (Romans 14:17) - God's righteousness and God's peace and God's joy, shared with His children through His Son and by His Spirit.
But here we are, back on the pond. And we find ourselves adrift, the very thing the author of Hebrews said not to do: "For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it" (Hebrews 2:1). He goes on and says in v. 3, "how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" And so here we are, adrift and neglectful. Too many of us are living as though this is all there there is. Too many of us are living for our own glory. Too many of us live primarily to serve ourselves, and we only serve others with the leftovers. Too many of us are trying to prove how good we are, rather than gladly accepting the forgiveness that we need. We are not hoping for a new creation, but are trying to make the best of it in this old creation. The only thing weaker than our fear of the impending waterfall is our hunger for God's righteousness and peace and joy.
But God has spoken in His Son (Hebrews 1:2), and Jesus still speaks. His testimony lives on, even as he speaks the truth because He is the Truth. And so words spoken long ago, in a different culture, in a different language, and in a different context - they are His words, and he speaks the truth to the band of brothers whom he is ferrying through this old creation, past the waterfall, to a new creation. And his testimony is this: "I will put my trust in Him" (Hebrews 2:13; Isaiah 8:17). 

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Not Another Activity!

I have written recently about the problem of taking "old temple" sentiments and applying them to church buildings ("The Church's New Address"). So if the old Temple is gone, and if the church building should not be the focal point of the church's identity, then what has happened to old Temple activities? Maybe we just call them "church activities."

First, what were these Temple activities? Certainly the whole sacrificial system was central. But now, Christ offered Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice, so there is no more of that. Pilgrimage was a vital part of Israel's faith. Three times a year people would come from all corners to attend the major festivals in Jerusalem. But again, these have been fulfilled in different ways. Jesus is the Passover lamb. The Holy Spirit was poured on the new-born church at Pentecost following Jesus' ascension. The Feast of Booths may be fulfilled in part by the spread of missionaries carrying the Gospel around the world, and may look forward to the final harvest of God's people leading up to the Last Day. Nonetheless, we are not bound to make pilgrimages. You may certainly visit the "Holy Land" if you wish, and there may be benefit to that, but not in terms of satisfying God's law or expectations. Also, the teaching and study of the Law were common Temple and synagogue activities. Remember Jesus discussing the Law in the Temple as a boy (Luke 2:46,47). 

Let's think about this last point for a minute. How does our attention to Scripture change when it is the text for introducing a Person as opposed to delineating God's law? In the Old Covenant, the Law and the Prophets served to lay out God's claim on His people, and His expectations for them. Yes, it is a rich text, composed not only of law code, but also narrative and poetry that convey story and emotion. But now, in the New Covenant, Scripture functions much more as an introduction to a Person, Jesus Christ. Is that distinction being made clear in how we handle Scripture in our church gatherings? After all, in evangelical churches, the preaching of the Bible is the primary activity. Is the activity one of engendering love for Christ as opposed to setting up more and more expectations of what it means to be a "good Christian?" There may be a real problem here. 

Let's push farther. Church activities demand and depend on church fixtures. What about the pulpit? There is a great tradition throughout Church history for the place of the pulpit. But we do not know that Jesus ever preached from a pulpit. Nor Paul, or any of the other apostles. Yes, God's Word must be preached and taught. But how it is done must have in view its goal - to know and love and serve Jesus better. Yes, the "whole counsel" of God is needed. But the "whole counsel of God" points to Christ.

Maybe it's the difference between paying close attention to details, and reading between the lines. When I was engaged to my wife, we would trade letters back and forth on a daily basis (this was before texting and email). As I would read these love letters, I was not concerned about the details. But I read between the lines. Details might give me clues as to how I could measure up or meet her expectations. But I was already assured of her love for me. Yes, I wanted (and still want) to please her. But that is different from measuring up or meeting expectations. Reading between the lines is something altogether different. It is getting to know her, imagining her expressions and emotions, even as I read the words. The word serves to build the relationship, not define it. 

And in addition to pulpits, I am afraid that our pew alignments and sanctuary setups promote activities that may be more akin to temple activities than the true life of the church.

Acts 2:42 reads as follows: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." This is a description of the new-born church, meeting so that they might know and follow the risen Lord as they are now led by the Spirit. We do not know where they met. It seemed not to matter. We do not know how they were organized or arranged. Even their schedules and calendars were secondary. But one thing is clear. They were not merely going through the motions of old temple activities. The were "devoted" to something new; something that was making a difference; something that they needed and wanted.
I know that Acts 2 was an unusual time. But the church itself is unusual. Heavenly light and power have broken through into the lives of these groups of people, meeting in local assemblies. And they just want to see and experience more. I do not believe that the old Temple activities were characterized by this kind of excitement and expectation. Nor do I find it in most of our church activities. Some things need to change.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Walk in the Light

Come, house of Jacob, and let us walk in the light of the LORD. (Isaiah 2:5)
The most obvious problem with this statement is that of darkness. Jacob-like people like you and I who have a reputation for deceit and who are self-deceived, find ourselves time and again opting for darkness instead of light. We've been called to the light. We've been exposed to the light. We've been privileged and graced to see the difference between darkness and light. Why choose darkness?
Is it because we forget the light of the Lord? Is there so much darkness around us, that the darkness begins to appear normal, and the light seems like a distant star, real but irrelevant? Or is it because we love the darkness. We love the old pleasures; the old securities; the old fellowships. Have we fallen for the false promises of the near world, because they are so good at making it all look too good to be true? Oh, Esau! We are not better than you, trading away transcendent privileges for instant oatmeal. 
The light of the Lord. Is it the light that the Lord gives, or the light that the Lord is? It is probably both, since God is light, and He has purposed to reveal Himself. But let's not run to becoming experts on God's view of things before we pause and view God. He is, in Himself, light. He is holy, of a different order and nature than anything else that we know. Everything truly is darkness compared to Him. And so to walk in the light of the Lord is to begin to understand how God stands in relation to every aspect of my life - my pursuits and my imaginations and my tedious tasks. What is there about any of these that either basks in the light, or hides in the shadows?
But God is also gracious in that He gives light. We can actually exercise a kind of wise discernment that distinguishes between the better vs. the lesser; the valuable vs. cheap; light vs. darkness. We can catch glimpses of glory shining through the shadows, renewing hope that our kids, our hearts, our reactions can actually reflect heaven's light. Or, on the other hand, we can be amazing foolish, and willfully so.
Come, you who have the heart of Jacob and the will of Esau. Come, you sinner, no worse than me. Come think about God for a while. Turn off the TV or shut down the computer, and let the Spirit lift your mind to catch an eternal perspective. Bow and be humbled before a high and holy God who does not find it strange to share Himself with us. 

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Church's New Address

What is your church's address? If you attend church, you will probably tell me a street name where your church building is located. But that is not your church's address. 
The Temple in Jerusalem once had an address. But then Jesus came, superseded the temple, endured the following observations, and said this concerning its future: 
“And while some were talking about the temple, that it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive gifts, He said, “As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down.”” (Luke 21:5–6 NAS95). 
And, unlike most people who made up the temple admiration society, I believe Jesus could have added, "and that will be a good thing." Our problem ever since the replacement of the Temple is this: we've consistently been tempted to go back; to recreate what was old as opposed to embracing what is new. No, I'm not in favor of blowing up or bulldozing church buildings. I'm neither a terrorist nor an arsonist. But our identification with church buildings has distorted the New Testament of the church.
God's temple, whether physical or spiritual, is where God meets with His people. That location is now "in Christ," and it takes place as the Spirit of God unites God's people with the risen and ascended Lord in spiritual relationship. To individuals, God says “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you,” (1 Corinthians 6:19 NAS95). This reference is singular, indicating that the individual Christian is, in a sense, a temple/meeting place with God. But in a larger sense, collected believers are a temple: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16 NAS95). This reference is plural, speaking to the collection of Christians at Corinth, as one chapter of a worldwide collection of believers who make up God's new temple. A tremendous summary of this "new temple" teaching is found in Ephesians 2, where unity and a dynamic energy are emphasized: 
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone,in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19–22 NAS95). 
Another summary, with implications relating to temple activities, is found in 1 Peter 2: 
“And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4–5 NAS95).
So your church's address does not contain a street number or zip code. Your church building can be located with that information, but not your church proper; not your church/people; not those who by faith in Christ are united in one body to God through His Spirit. This church is constantly on the move, dynamic and vibrant. They are constantly in dozens of places, serving their Lord and sharing their faith.
Here are some implications:
  1. Never again repeat the church growth mantra that the visibility of the building is critical to success. It is the visibility of Christ that is critical, and God did not design to display Christ in your church building, even if it is a historical cathedral or an architectural wonder.
  2. Don't allow yourself to spend more time and money on the building than you do on those who are and who will be God's people. I am not saying that we should not have a building. God created us with physical bodies, and we need buildings of various types that provide shelter. I am saying, if you spend more dollars and energy on the building than you do on the people, then something needs to change immediately.
  3. God's people cannot be identified primarily by who shows up in your building on any given Sunday. There may be many of God's people who don't honor the building with their presence. Maybe they are somewhere honoring God instead. Further, there are probably people in your building who faithfully wear out pew covers who are not God's people. The Bible certainly gives us serious indicators of who is a child of God. Church attendance is not a serious indicator. Fellowship is. Enduring one my sermons is not. Encouragement and exhortation are essential. But God did not ordain Sundays at 11, at this address, in that building. 
  4. Stop asking, "How can we get them to come?" Start asking, "To whom will we go?" We gather, somewhere, for prayer and teaching and fellowship, but we scatter for service and evangelism. If we creatively invite them to our building so that we can serve them and evangelize them, and then if they creatively decline, we cannot say that we've done our best. It is not our church building and location that have failed us. It is we who have failed our Master.

I am thankful for our church building. 
  • But I dislike how it defines us. 

I am thankful for the comfort and the convenience of our structure. 
  • But I regret that we expect the building to be a lighthouse for our community, when it ought to be Christians representing Christ. 

I am thankful for the simple beauty and functionality of our building. 
  • But I know something is wrong when we are more animated by maintenance issues than by missional concerns. 

It's nice to have a location and a schedule. 
  • I hate that we have become so predictable.