The five marks of an elder

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.

Can the gospel reunite a divided country?

Though not commanding the attention of the news cycle, tensions between North and South Korea continue to simmer. Since the nation’s division at the end of the Second World War and the subsequent war between the North and the South—proxies respectively for communist USSR and capitalist US—in the 1950s, tensions have intensified and lessened periodically.

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Korea, consequently, is a divided peninsula that has experienced more than its fair share of suffering. The brinksmanship of North Korean premiere Kim Jung Un provides a glimpse of one possible future for the peninsula: the continued economic and political isolation that has caused immense suffering for its citizens.

On the other hand, according to theologian Syngman Rhee, the gospel of Jesus Christ could be a significant catalyst for reconciliation. Speaking to Duke University’s Faith and Leadership, Rhee remarked, “There is a particular need for reconciliation between North and South Korea by the teaching and the love of Christ.” In other words, Rhee envisions the Korean church as central to the process of re-uniting the modern enemies of North and South.

According to Rhee reconciliation will necessarily involve South Koreans re-envisioning Christianity as something inherently opposed to communism. It will also require a shift in Northern thinking away from the notion of Christianity as “the religion of our enemies.” More than that, it will require the fortification of the weakened Christian community in North Korea. There are fewer than five hundred Christians and only two officially recognized congregations in the country.

While recognizing the decline of American mainline denominations, Rhee contends that, at its foundation, American Christianity is stronger than it first appears. The American church is, implies Rhee, learning to live in a new context where society no longer lends her its aid: “we all experience decline, both in membership and in influence, as society has become more secularized and churches have failed to make Christianity relevant to the younger generation.”

It’s difficult to measure the intent of Rhee’s remark, “we all experience decline.” Is he being flippant? Is he simply making an observation? It’s hard to know. However, Rhee’s use of “decline” ought to be modified by the adjective “precipitous.” What we’re witnessing is nothing less than the implosion of the mainline churches. There’s little consolation in noting that others are experiencing the same thing or will fifty years from now (as in the case of the Southern Baptist Convention). As Rhee later notes, “I think mainline denominations were so involved in bearing the fruits of our faith that they neglected nurturing the roots of our faith—basic things like the importance of Scripture, devotion and worship, and so on.”

In reflecting on prospects for reconciliation, Rhee argues it will be important for South Koreans Christianity as something not inherently opposed to communism. He remarks, “Christianity was not created to fight against something. It is life-giving and can be a catalyst to create a new history in any kind of society, capitalist or communist.” In a sense this is true, Christianity came into existence at the initiative of a God who in Christ entered a rebellious world and by his life, death, resurrection, and ascension established a new community, a kingdom beachhead in the midst of traitors. It isn’t simply another system or a movement established to counteract communism. Quite the contrary. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that communism has typically been more hostile to Christianity than Christianity to communism.

Given that the world is in rebellion and tainted by sin, it’s really not accurate to say that Christianity doesn’t exist to fight against anything. This rebellion, this sin, is the enemy against which the Christian faith strives. Christianity aims its sights slightly higher than communism, which is simply a particular expression (or symptom) of the fall, of sin and rebellion itself, and rather aims to defeat the cause behind communism.

Certainly in the two generations that have passed since the partition of the peninsula, it is possible that Christianity in South Korea has come to identify itself more with being against communism than for Christ. To the extent that this is true, it is both sad and wrong. It is always a temptation to identify one’s faith in Christ with something less than the gospel of the kingdom itself, one to which we American Christians have periodically succumbed.

Can Christianity and communism coexist? The answer has to be a qualified, “yes.” Just as Christianity coexisted with the Roman Emperor cult in the early church, Christianity can coexist with communism. As it does so, Christians will be working to subvert it. The two outlooks are at odds, but in the end Christianity is able to exist and even flourish as a minority belief in an atheistic or panentheistic system.

A more insidious interpretation is that Christianity and communism are somehow compatible. Rhee never clearly states that, although comment, “A growing number of Christians in South Korea insist that we — Christians — can no longer be enslaved by the belief that Christianity equals anti-communism,” seems to indicate an openness to the notion. This is problematic since the foundation of Marx’s philosophy is materialist—that is, it assumes only the existence of matter and ignores anything beyond matter (i.e., spirit or God). Christianity places values on the material as well. Yet, that value is derived from the notion that all that is has come from the hand of God. At the level of presupposition, therefore, the two are incompatible.

Rhee clearly believes that South Koreans needs a change of heart with respect to communism. He also contends that North Koreans need to reject the belief that Christianity is, “the religion of [our] enemies.” Surely this is a change of attitude that can happen only by the grace of God.

Christianity, according to Rhee, is poised to play a pivotal role in the work of reconciliation in the Korean peninsula. It is difficult to know how this will actually play out, but we can be hopeful that the witness of the church can provide a framework for the difficult work of reconciliation.

Are we a church separated by a common language?

Disclaimer: This post is designed to be neither polemical nor apologetic. I’m attempting to describe what I am observing in the midst of the current unrest in the PC(USA). While it is a generalization, I think there a significant degree of accuracy in this observation. -JBG

An American walked into an Oxford pub and addressed the bartender, “I’d like a beer and some chips.” The response puzzled him, “It’ll be five minutes on the chips, they’re in the fryer.” Looking behind the bar, the man noticed row after row of different types of chips–regular, salt and vinegar, barbecue–lined up ready to go. It’s been observed that the United States and Great Britain are two nations divided by a common language. In Britain, chips are crisps and the word chips refers what we might call fries.

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The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a denomination separated by a common language. It’s not our only challenge, but certainly ranks among the top five.

This reality often escapes the casual observer who reads our Book of Confessions and Book of Order. When any of us reads, we pour into the words before our eyes a meaning we associate with those words based on our education, experience, and convictions. In other words, we engage in interpreting those words–that is, we translate. This is why lawyers (and philosophers) are so precise with words. At least one job of a good lawyer is to ensure that her client clearly understands what, in reality, he is agreeing to. There is, of course, often a difference between what we think we’re agreeing to and what the other person thinks we are agreeing to. The difference often lies in the interpretive act.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we share a common theological language. That language, however, is filled with varying and often competing interpretations. We all say “chips,” but some of us are thinking french fries and others Baked Lays. Same words. Different meanings.

One example of this is the theological phrase, “the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” Every part of the church, perhaps with the exception of those who object to the term “lord” in the first place, affirm that Jesus is Lord. Technically, it is inaccurate to say that the denomination rejects the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The reality is that there is a diversity of meaning in this phrase.

What does this phrase mean? Are we talking chips or fries?

When evangelicals (broadly) say the “Jesus is Lord,” they typically understand this phrase to refer to a constellation of affirmations.

These include, but aren’t necessarily limited to,the following:

  • Jesus is the only way by which we may be reconciled to God;
  • this reconciliation is accompanied by a conscious recognition of it if not a conscious decision to repent of sin and believe the gospel;
  • as Lord, Jesus lays claim to every element of the believer’s life;
  • this claim requires the study of and submission to the teaching of Scripture;
  • the teaching of Scripture is best captured by referring to those interpretations whose currency comes in the form of longevity rather than novelty.

Typically, evangelicals will focus more closely on personal piety or personal righteousness and less on what might be called social righteousness. This is the residue of revivalism in the creation of modern evangelicalism.

Again, broadly, those who are not evangelical will mean something different with the phrase:

  • Jesus is the only (some would not agree to this) way to be reconciled to God;
  • this reconciliation may or may not be accompanied by an awareness of it;
  • as Lord, Jesus lays claim to every element of the believer’s life;
  • this claim requires the study of and submission to the teaching of Scripture;
  • the teaching of Scripture is best captured by referring to those interpretations that consider the insights of modern critical scholarship and recognize the significance of the interpreter in assessing the meaning of a text.
  • Older interpretations are more likely to be affected by social realities that no longer exist and which may (although not necessarily should) be rejected.

Those outside of the evangelical camp will tend to emphasize the corporate or social nature of righteousness and see in Scripture that a key component of the nature of the church is it’s commission to stand for God’s justice in the world.

See the tension?

I’ve written elsewhere about how tensions have to be managed rather than resolved. This tension in the PC(USA) will not go away nor will it dissipate. In the end, every minister and church has to decide to what extent are they willing and able to manage the tension. Those who are both unable and unwilling ought to be free to appropriately depart. Those who believe they can remain should do so.

 

Five reasons the church should care about the arts

The dominant narrative around evangelicals and the arts is one that pits populist evangelicals as standing in opposition to or judgment upon the arts. Think: Thomas Kincade more than Rembrandt; Jenkins and La Haye, Left Behind more than Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina.

It’s true that evangelicals have a mixed history when it comes to valuing the arts. Thankfully there is some movement towards engaging and valuing the contribution the arts make to the creation of both a good life and a good society. One example is the organization, Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA). CIVA explores the relationship between the arts and the Christian faith. I’m fortunate to know several people associated with this organization including its Executive Director, Cam Anderson.

The evangelical church must make significant progress in valuing and embracing the arts as well as artists. This is the case both because the arts are inherently valuable (they’re valuable because of what they are) and because the arts play a critical role in the formation of culture.
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Here are five reasons that why the evangelical movement needs to take seriously God’s call to be stewards and supporters of the arts:

  1. Art is an echo of God’s creativity and an expression of our nature as image-bearers. We create because our creator has endowed us with the ability to do so. We are, as Tolkien pointed out, sub-creators. Our creativity is contingent upon and flow from God’s creativity.
  2. Art engages our imagination, our primary faculty. In a technological age, it’s tempting to believe that rationality is our primary faculty. As G. K. Chesterton observed, “The only truly rational men are all in insane asylums” (that’s a paraphrase). His point is that being human means more than being rational. C. S. Lewis observed, “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
  3. Art reflects and interprets our present moment–it helps us to see ourselves. Art is the product of reflection upon our moment. Artists generally create in response to something that they perceive either in their own life or in the life of the community or nation. Reading art can help us to see our collective self through the eyes of another–an immense gift.
  4. Art communicates truth in a way that surpasses rationality. Rationality was king in the modern era. Today it will increasingly be important to communicate truth through forms that are adequate to the task and that also by-pass the epistemological uncertainty of our post-modern society. It’s very difficult–although perhaps not impossible–to argue that a piece of art is “untrue.” 
  5. Art expresses possibilities for the future. The arts can also help us to imagine what the future could be like. The arts often critique, but they are also able to communicate a positive vision for the future.

Let this be a call to the evangelical movement to value the arts as much, if not more than, we have traditionally valued things like missions–art is, in its own way, an extension both of discipleship and of mission.