The five marks of an elder

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The ministry of elders–both teaching and ruling elders–is crucial to maintaining a healthy congregation that follows the biblical pattern of leadership. We often take elders for granted and shape the office around secular leadership positions that we’re familiar with. Some see elders as board members and others see them as heads of a family. Neither is fully true to the New Testament’s description of elder, which has seven marks:

Source: http://daytonopenbible.blob.core.windows.net/fcob/2015/02/holding_open_bible_banner.jpg

1. Elders watch over the people as a shepherd watches over his sheep. The office is one of oversight designed to maintain the faithfulness of a congregations life and ministry in reliance on the Holy Spirit. See Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; Acts 20:28-31; 1 Peter 5:1-4.

2. Elders lead by example. They should not be domineering but should be examples to the flock, people they can emulate. 1 Peter 5:3.

3. Elders must lead the congregation away from error and into truth. Eldership is spiritual leadership and those who entrusted with this sort of leadership must guide the congregation to right belief and practice that accords with the Bible rather than, “every wind of doctrine.” Ephesians 4:11. 

4. Some elders will teach. The New Testament assumed that some elders have a teaching function and others simply have a spiritual leadership or ruling function. In modern parlance we talk about teaching elders as “pastors” and ruling elders simply as “elders.” 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:9.

5. Eldership is a heavy responsibility and it demans mature faith and character. The New Testament advises that we not cavalierly wish for spiritual leadership. Being placed in a position of spiritual leadership too early can be the undoing of a young believer. 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9.

For these reasons and more, every believer should make it a priority to pray for those in leadership of the congregation. When they make decisions, trust them. And always make sure to root your faith and participation in the life of the congregaiton in the Word of God.

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Five things to do when leading in uncertainty

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The reason markets hate uncertainty is because people hate uncertainty. Each of us has a limited capacity—it varies from person-to-person—to live in a state of ambiguity. We need closure. Some of the most horrific suffering in this world is the product of unsolved crimes like child abduction. It can be paralyzing in the extreme.

Because of our dislike for uncertainty it is often difficult for leaders to be effective during a time of great ambiguity. For those who do lead effectively during a time of uncertainty, that leadership often comes with great personal cost.

I’ve witnessed this in the lives of my clergy colleagues in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The average membership of a PC(USA) congregation is around 180. 76% of PC(USA) churches are smaller than 200 members. On a given Sunday around half of the members of a church are present in worship.[i]

As pastoral leaders, how do we respond to these sorts of ambiguous situations? What do we do when we don’t know what to do? Or, when what we don’t know that what we’re about to do will help solve the problem we’re facing?

I’m currently reading Mary Beth O’Neill’s book Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart: A Systems Approach to Engaging Leaders with their Challenges. She writes,

By ambiguity, I mean the business situations that are by nature unclear and murky. It’s not like people have suddenly lost their intelligence of problem-solving ability. Rather, the issues never seem to sort themselves out.

Leaders often lose their bearings when confronted with lingering ambiguity. Like a pilot landing a plane in low visibility uses an instrument landing system (ILS) to guide the plane smoothly onto the runway, leaders can take five actions when confronted with ambiguity. These actions may not shift the fog of uncertainty, but they will provide a guiding framework to navigate through it.

GBAS - runway

Five things to do when leading in uncertainty:

  1. Acknowledge the ambiguity
  2. Distinguish for yourself where you are clear and where you are unclear about the situation
  3. Articulate to others the boundary between your clarity and your lack of clarity
  4. Say what you want to do, given the situation
  5. Tell others what you need from them

Acknowledge the ambiguity. Unnamed ambiguity hinders communication and also inhibits performance. It’s a manacle that makes a victim of leadership teams. Naming the ambiguity places it front and center and also helps the entire team to own it. The truth is—despite what our hearts often tell us—in 99% of situations, the ambiguity is no one’s fault. Letting go of the guilt will help a team to move forward.

Distinguish for yourself where you are clear and where you are unclear about the situation (internally). Surrounding an ambiguous situation there are often some places of clarity. In the case of a church with declining membership and attendance the place of ambiguity may be “how do we get more members?” Around this sticky issue there are places of clarity that should be named. For example, a congregation could discover that young families are living in the neighborhoods around the church, that they tend to be middle class. In other words, there are people that could come to this church—its not sitting in an island of farmland with no one around for miles. This kind of certainty helps leaders to identify other areas of certainty, which over time can build a better picture of the precise issue that is hindering the ministry or business.

Articulate to others the boundary between your clarity and your lack of clarity (externally). This is often best done simply by stating the problem you’re trying to solve and then listing your knowns. Then, spring-boarding from that into the listing as many unknown factors as you can. Putting all of this together should enable your team to (eventually) arrive at consensus about where the boundary is between certainty and ambiguity.

Say what you want to do, given the situation. The aim here is not finding the perfect solution. The goal is not finding absolute clarity. It is simply weighing all the evidence you currently have, identifying some ways forward and moving toward one of them. In the case of the declining church, it could be something as simple as deciding the leadership making the decision to actively engage neighbors in conversation with a view to more deeply understanding what life is like for those who live in the neighborhood. Even something that simple helps propel a team toward greater clarity.

Tell others what you need from them. Other members of the team need clarity about the project, lines of authority, and desired outcomes. As a team member it’s critical that this is stated explicitly so that everyone understands it or if there is haziness (beyond the problem itself) that it is acknowledged and then clarified.

Leading in uncertain times is very demanding. This template from Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart can provide a great way to step back from the problem and systematically edge forward into greater clarity rather than becoming disoriented and losing focus.

What do you do to navigate uncertainty?

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[i] Presbyterian Mission Agency, Presbyterian Church (USA). Available Online at: http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/research/10faq/

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Church in the Christ-Haunted Secular Age

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The relationship of religion, culture, and politics in the United States is tricky. Ours is a profoundly religious culture despite the ascendant theory of Constitutional interpretation that espouses a “strict” separation between church and state. Our public square has, to borrow a phrase from Richard John Neuhaus, been stripped of any reference to religion as an authoritative source of moral guidance—it’s naked.  Or so it seems.

In reality, our culture isn’t devoid of religion—its haunted. Philosopher James K. A. Smith addressed this topic in his 2013 James A. Gray Lectures at Duke Divinity School.  Our current cultural moment exhibits a mutual haunting of immanence by transcendence and transcendence by doubt. We’re Saint Thomases all—to the extent we believe, we do so in the midst of profound and lingering doubt. Given this, how is the church to rightly discharge its commission to faithfully proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments? Can it even be done?

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Faithful witness begins with the realization that secularism means that all beliefs are fundamentally contestable.[i] According to Smith, “belief is one option among many and not the easiest.” Every source of knowledge—each plausibility structure that provides the scaffolding to our belief—is susceptible to critique.

The result is a vision of life in which everything beyond the immanent has been eclipsed. At first glance this seems exclusively a burden on Christian witness. Our culture is no longer like a pinball machine with buffers and an incline that inevitably lead us to belief in God and a shared morality.

At the same time, the very contestability of knowledge applies to all knowledge, not exclusively religious knowledge. Despite our confidence in science, some are still aware that there are dimensions of reality of which science cannot meaningfully speak. This offers the church an opportunity to speak into the void the words of the gospel and, moreover, to make the gospel a lived experience.

In our new hyper-modern reality boredom, loneliness, and distraction replace rapture, friendship and longing. Over the last thirty years, for example, the number of Americans reporting feelings of loneliness has doubled despite all the advances of mobile technology that allows us to present to others across the globe albeit in a mediated form.

We are electronically connected, Smith noted, but life in a highly technological age centers on ex-carnation—the removal of experience to a plane other than the physical. Consider the number of hours a day you spend communicating with people who are not physically present to you. The phone. Facebook. Email. Twitter. All are ex-carnations of community. Public worship experienced via satellite image. The Eucharist experienced over Social Media. Phone sex. All are ex-carnational—they move us out of our physicality and into the realm of the disembodied self.

Ironically, in the midst of this loneliness epidemic, more people—especially teenagers–report the feeling of being always available, watched, monitored. And not just by the National Security Agency. Social media is creating in people a sense that their life has to be exceptional, that they must chronicle and broadcast these experiences to others in order to validate their existence in the eyes of others. Moreover, social media users are also increasingly aware of what they’re missing out on—the games night you weren’t invited to, the employee-appreciation lunch at a large firm you didn’t get, the Caribbean vacation captured on Facebook that you couldn’t afford, you name it. As others sculpt their lives and publish them virtually toward the end—conscious or unconscious—of creating a branded self, we compare and measure ourselves against our competitors in the marketplace of life. As a result our lives are becoming increasingly superficial.

In the context of this dilemma the church has the chance, according to Smith, to engage in tcounter-cultural proclamation that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself. The antidote to our modern dis-ease is the renewal of the church’s ancient liturgical practices, which are necessarily incarnational. The church must offer an intentional liturgical response that invites moderns to experience God as the only one who sees them as they are and loves them completely.

Yet, much of the church is as enamored of the very conditions creating our present malaise as the rest of the culture. Too many of us believe that if we create a worship service that is a polished, technological marvel then eventually we will generate enough hype to become “the sort of church that un-churched people want to come to” as Andy Stanley describes his congregation. And so we anchor the gospel to modernity and we lose sight of the fact that in worship heaven and earth meet.

To recapture the mystery of worship Smith points us to pre-modern sources. These sources can reawaken our imaginations—a faculty often neglected in the age of special affects and low literacy. Young adults don’t want to be entertained in order to stay in church. In fact, my own experience is that young adults don’t trust entertainment. They realize that entertainment is really a platform for selling. Rather than entertainment, these they are yearning for a tangible, tactile, liturgical, rooted community.

What they’re getting instead is very often entertainment. In evangelicalism and mainline Christianity we see two approaches the same issue. The former tends to place unhealthy emphasis on increasing the production quality of worship ironically delegitimizing many of the very questions being asked by millenials about the broader culture. The mainline church often panders to what they believe enlightened youth would want.  Changing social attitudes define doctrine because, like evangelicals, it’s a marketing scheme.

What is required now is something deeper than accommodation or improved performance. The church needs to recover its theological vision. That theological vision is the foundation on which its ministry and witness will be built. That vision ought to be connected directly to the witness of Scripture, the Creedal and liturgical heritage of the church. As Richard Lints puts it, “The modern theological vision must seek to bring the entire counsel of God into the world of its time in order that its time might be transformed.[ii] That vision is the work of “translating” God and his Kingdom for a generation who speak a different dialect. Secular young adults may reject the gospel. It is to our shame, however, if they reject simply because they never encountered it expressed in accessible terms and in a life of authentic discipleship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[i] See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.

[ii] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).

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10 Evangelical Distinctives

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I recently wrote a post asking whether–and if so, how–the Presbyterian Church (USA) is evangelical. This generated some interesting conversations about what the word evangelical really means. In light of these conversations, I thought it worth exploring the variety of perspectives on the evangelical movement.

One of the most significant leaders of modern evangelicalism was Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones, a Welshman, served for many years as Pastor of Westminster Chapel in London.

ImageIn 1971, Lloyd-Jones preached a series of messages at the Conference of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). He had, for many years, been involved with the British Inter-Varsity Fellowship, itself associated with IFES. Note: my employer, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, is the American arm of IFES.

During this time Lloyd-Jones had grown concerned with what he perceived as a watering down of the gospel message. He took the opportunity to address this when spoke.

Years later his messages were published by Banner of Truth as What is an Evangelical? 

Lloyd-Jones argued that there are ten distinctives that provide definition to the notoriously fuzzy word, “evangelical.”

Here they are with my commentary added in italics. Note: Lloyd-Jones represents a conservative, separationist evangelicalism. On the other hand, John R W Stott (whom we’ll look at later) represented a more moderate evangelicalism that was able to survive and thrive in a mixed (broad) church.

  1. Entirely subservient to the Bible. The evangelical attempts to live his life in submission to Scripture as thoroughly as possible. He is, as John Wesley put it, ‘A man of one book.’ 
  2. Evangelical before all else. The evangelical has a great loyalty to the evangelical way of following Christ than to the denomination of which she may be a part. If forced to choose, the evangelical will always follow his convictions.
  3. Watchful. The evangelical is aware that she has to evaluate, discern, and measure all teachings in the church against the rule of faith, the Word of God. 
  4. Distrustful of reason. The evangelical places a higher value on revelation than reason. He sees the work of the philosopher as necessarily limited since it does not have access to the revelation of God in Holy Scripture.
  5. Always takes a low view of the sacraments. Evangelicals recognize only two sacraments, not allowing things like marriage or ordination to become sacraments.
  6. Takes a critical view of history and tradition. Lloyd-Jones writes, “The evangelical believes in the principle of discontinuity.” In other words, the church has a tendency to fossilize spirituality and many of the divisions are the result of evangelicals removing themselves from bodies who life and practice was no longer compatible with evangelical belief and practice.
  7. Always ready to act on his beliefs. The evangelical finds it impossible to compromise or to remain in a place that requires him to compromise his beliefs.
  8. Always simplifies everything. Lloyd-Jones contrasts the evangelical with the Catholic. The reformed belief in the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture holds that the Bible can be read and understood by the ordinary reader. There’s no requirement to read the Bible through the church’s magisterium or through some other interpretive lens. There is, according to Lloyd-Jones, a “plain meaning” rooted in historical context and authorial intent.
  9. Always concerned with the doctrine of the church. The chief purpose of the evangelical is finding a denominational body that is theologically pure: “His idea of the Church is that it consists of the gathered saints.”
  10. Emphasis on re-birth, personal holiness, and the Christian life. “He is not interested in dead orthodoxy, he is not interested in Protestant scholasticism.” Instead, he cares about being re-born of the Spirit and following Christ as his disciple.

Lloyd-Jones’s list is longer than mine would be. However, I think it is helpful to consider that his position is representative of many evangelicals today. This can be helpful in understanding why some evangelicals find leaving a denomination that appears to them to be corrupt, a no-brainer.

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Are there really two marriages? (Part Two)

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In his brief anthology of blog posts entitled, There are Two Marriages: A Manifesto on Marriage (2011), Tony Jones argues that the church ought to seek the strict separation of what he calls “legal marriage” and “sacramental marriage.” A result of this change would be the removal of much of the church’s resistance to same sex marriage.

Yesterday I rehearsed Jones’s historical and theological objections to the connivance of state and in marriage. I will argue today that Jones fails to recognize that marriage is, for the Christian, necessarily the union of religious belief with the physical world:

tony-jones

….Marriage matters because we are embodied and what we do with our body matters.

The church has affirmed over the centuries—almost with no exception—that marriage exists not only for the mutual aid and comfort of husband and wife, but also for the procreation of children.

“The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.”[1]

We’d likely all agree that a marriage may be legitimate without children being born to the couple—having children does not a marriage make. However, it is a relatively recent innovation to believe that childbearing and marriage are totally unrelated.

Jones seeks to trace the changing nature of matrimony as grounds for a continued development of marriage to include same-sex couples. For example, in the ancient world marriage was simply the exchange of property with the consequent production of progeny.

Today marriage has become simply, “formalizing and cementing a romantic attraction.” It is emphatically not about having children. If it were, we would not allow “celibate, infertile, post-menopausal, non-producing” people to be legally married.

The reference is to restrictions on marriage, principally state laws that forbid consanguinity but that fail to forbid marriage between people unable to conceive. To derive a mandate for the church simply by the absence of state law on the matter is not a terribly good way to do affirmative theology.

As a pastor, were a couple to ask me to marry them and state up front that they would not be sexually intimate with one another nor would they even consider attempting to conceive, I would likely not marry them. Marriage is intrinsically linked with both sexual intimacy and with procreation. That some are unable to conceive doesn’t invalidate the rule, rather it’s the exception that proves it.

In all, Jones fails to build a compelling case for changing the nature and definition of marriage either in the state or in the church. He assumes that since people will always be gay—which is true—we should incentivize gay monogamy in the context of marriage. On the surface this may appear sound. However, Jones’s contention fails to consider that in the Christian view it is not simply that homosexual polyamory is wrong, but that all homosexual practice is not only inconsistent with Christian holiness, and is detrimental to human wholeness. To change marriage means more than “live and let live,” it necessarily encourages destructive behavior and, moreover, will inevitably lead to restrictions on religious groups that fail to recognize the appropriateness of same sex marriage.

[1] Book of Common Prayer

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