Temporary Pastors and the Life of the Church

This coming Sunday will be, for the foreseeable future, my final Sunday in full-time pastoral ministry. This has been a bittersweet transition—while I am excited about what comes next, my call to pastoral ministry remains unchanged; I love my people and have enjoyed the privilege of ministering to them. Three and a half years was entirely too short a time with them. And yet both I, and they, must move on. This is in many ways the very nature of pastoral ministry.

Interestingly enough, these were some of the very words I preached to them on the Sunday when I was installed at my present church. That day, reading the story in Acts 20 of Paul’s tearful parting and farewell from the elders of the Ephesian church, I pointed my members to four features critical to all pastoral ministry. Looking back, I spoke perhaps better than I knew. Allow me to review them with you today.

1. All Pastors are Temporary. This seems an obvious point, but it is one we are apt to overlook. Paul was pastor at Ephesus for three years. My predecessor at the church where I serve was present for sixteen years, his predecessor was there for twenty years, and I’ve served now for three and a half years. Nestled within each of these terms of service lies an important fact—each one was temporary.

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Let’s be explicit. At some point a pastor will leave a church, whether he is called to another church, decides to retire from full time ministry, leaves under ignominy, or dies in service. And it’s not only the pastor, but you also, as an individual member of a given congregation, who may be called to other cities, other churches, other ministries. Indeed, it is you also who will one day inevitably die. Ministry at every local church is unavoidably temporary.

Despite the obvious self-evidence of this point, rarely do we live this way. Most often we operate as if our models for ministry are based on permanence. We presume that our pastors will and should remain forever. We assume that, like custom cabinets, once the minister has been “installed” he will be a permanent feature of the building. From this perspective, pastors go on to build ministries that are so dependent upon their particular gifts and personalities that the ministry cannot continue without them. Churches are complicit in these schemes, and are content to allow the pastor to do most of the work of faith for them. In the end, this kind of ministry treats the pastor as someone who provides an essential service to the congregation. I do the work, and you show up to benefit from the work. I am the spiritual chef, you show up to eat. The Church is a service—like a restaurant or a shop—where you come to purchase your spirituality with a tithe. But this is clearly not how faith works, and that leads to the second lesson.

crutches

Job Description: Become obsolete.

2. All Church Ministry is Shared. Again, let’s be explicit—a pastor can never do the work of faith for you. The best he can do is equip you to do your own work. And because the pastor’s role is fundamentally and essentially temporary, we must acknowledge that all church ministry ought to be shared. Ministry is not something I do and something you receive. It is not something for which I am an expert and you are a plebeian observer. No, ministry is something I do as an example in order to lead you into your own maturity in ministry. The proper image for the pastor is not that he stands above you in power to dominate your faith, but that together you stand side-by-side in a common mission. As a pastor I am a specially designated and set-apart servant of the mission that Christ intends to accomplish in a particular place and time. What this means is that while the pastor gives you an advantage—as a crutch gives you an advantage when you’ve broken your leg—the goal of the pastor—like the goal of the crutch—is to one day step aside so that you can walk on your own.

Paul, in Acts 20, clearly sees his ministry as one that is shared with the Ephesian elders. There is a real partnership at work between them. And in the event that you are tempted to claim that Paul’s words are for the elders only, I want to remind you that even the office of ‘elder’ is temporary. Everything in the church, with the exception of our Lord, is temporary, and therefore the charge that Paul gives is in some sense the special task of the whole fellowship. Not that everyone should be in charge, but everyone in Christ should have the same goals, the same concerns, and the same dire need for serious integrity. And that from the very top to the very bottom, each of us is concerned with attending to Christ—we all serve each other in bringing our common attention to Christ Jesus. This leads to the third lesson.

3. Ministry Must Be Anchored on Christ Alone. Ministers will change over time. Where you live will change over time. All church buildings will one day dissolve into dust. Everything in the church is temporary except our Lord and master, Jesus. Because He is the only certain constant, we must ensure that we have truly and completely focused our efforts on attending to Christ. One of my favorite verses is Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Your pastors will change, but Jesus Christ is the same. Your home will change, but Jesus Christ is the same. Your nation may change, your family may change, your job, your calling, your situation in life, your health, your finances—all these will change, but Jesus Christ is always the same.

wagon-wheel

We’re all connected to the hub.

Because I am temporary, but Jesus is eternal, my primary job has been to help my people look at Jesus. I do not stand in the place of Jesus. I am not to be the ultimate focus of their attention. My job is to stand side-by-side with my people, pointing at our common master, and working to remove obstacles and offer such a compelling vision of King Jesus that when I fade away their attention remains fixed on Him. In this process—because ministry is fundamentally temporary, and because it is designed to be shared—Christ in turn serves as the fixed point of reference for leaders and elders. Only Christ ensures that pastor after pastor is performing the same mission. Only Christ and His purposes can unify a diverse and changing group of elders. Only Christ creates the conditions whereby the eternal continuity of the Church is maintained.

This leads to our fourth and final lesson:

4. The Standard for Evaluating Ministry is Integrity. All of this—that ministry is temporary, shared, and Christocentric—in turn helps us to see why Paul spends so much time speaking about his personal integrity in his Acts 20 speech to the Ephesian elders. Have your ministers and elders embodied integrity with respect to the ministry of the Gospel, to the Kingdom of God? Have we as ministers served Christ with humility? Have we suffered for the sake of the gospel—not necessarily in being beaten, stoned, or chased out of town, but have we stood for the truth of Christ even when it hurt? Have we declared to you the fullness of the gospel, both in public and in private? Have we been good stewards of our finances? Have we defrauded you in any way, shape, or form? Have we been an example in caring for and helping the weak and powerless among you? Have we, ultimately, pointed you toward Jesus?

fractured-foundation

A fracture in integrity damages everyone.

The integrity of a church’s ministers serves, in turn, the integrity of the fellowship. Paul in verses 28-32 describes the challenges to come—troubles from both without, and within. There will be those from outside the fellowship who come and seek to overturn the good we do. They will approach as wolves, seeking to defraud and take advantage of the Church. Our integrity—our focus on Christ—preserves us and protects us from those dangers. Others from within the church will see in twisting their theology means by which they can gain advantage for themselves—whether advantages of popularity, advantages of finance, advantages of being well thought of. Our integrity—our commitment to the Kingdom of Christ—will give us the clarity to expose and reject those false distortions. And heed my words, Christian brothers and sisters, no faith is perfectly stable until it is secure in eternity—that is, no faith is perfected until you are dead. And while you live your faith will be challenged by wolves and charlatans, and your focus must be so clearly on Christ and on his purposes, and your ministers and elders must have so instilled in you a conviction of their integrity, that you are able to navigate those challenges. Integrity is the standard by which we evaluate ministry.

For the past three and a half years I have been called to serve at Burnaby Alliance Church. There, to the best of my ability, I have been tasked to help my people to love Jesus more. I have been called, to the best of my ability, to show them Jesus in my life so that they can, through following Jesus on their own, show Him to the other people in their lives. I have been called to love them—however imperfectly—with the love of Christ so that they can love others. I am called to be so faithful that I never stand between them and faith in Christ. I am called to point so effectively at Jesus that when I depart they will still be focused on Christ Jesus, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. And by the grace of God I have been enabled to discharge, I hope, just such a ministry.

If you would benefit well from your temporary pastor, then there are two things you must do. First, you must examine your own hearts and your own motives. Ask yourself: Am I using my pastors well, and appropriately? That individual is an asset to your faith, but not a replacement for it. Have you taken advantage of church for the benefit of your life with Christ? Have you thought of church as a service performed for you, or of church as a place where you journey along with others seeking Christ? Are you here to get a vision of Jesus, or are you here to feel good about yourself?

Second, the pastor is a powerful lever who can facilitate great change, both personally and institutionally. And because he is positioned to leverage everyone in the community to some degree, that also makes of him a target. If the devil can take your pastor out, he can hurt the whole community; but if together we overcome the devil, we can all be strengthened. Because of this reality, your pastor truly needs your prayers. He needs prayer for his own integrity. His wholeness will be challenged by sin and temptation. He needs your prayers for his sustenance. He needs your prayers for his rest. He needs your prayers for his family—for his life as a husband and father, for his children’s lives as individuals who also need to learn to follow Jesus. Through all of these, your pastor needs your prayers to be filled God’s Spirit in power and service.

Few careers come with the challenges, burdens, and eternal consequences of full-time pastoral ministry. If you have read this today and are a minister, may you be encouraged to prioritize your own integrity, your own temporality. If you have read this today and are a member of a congregation, may you be encouraged to benefit rightly from the gifts offered by your pastor. And may you commit to upholding him in dedicated prayer!

When Winning is Losing

In one scene of the 1985 classic Real Genius Lazlo Hollyfeld, reclusive genius, encounters Chris Knight in the dormitory and asks him about his final exam. He says, “Well, how’d you do?” Knight, energetic, answers, “How’d I do? I passed! But I failed! Yeah!” And Hollyfeld responds, “Well, then I’m happy and sad for you.”

donald-trump-make-america-great

It was difficult not to remember these words following the astonishing results of the US election this past week. Certainly (and regardless of outcome) it was going to be a pass that was a fail, a failure that somehow passed. My own summary comment, which I offered on Facebook, was this: “There are victories that are losses, and losses that are victories. The cross is the latter. Very often, politics are the former.” This is a truism that any married person will be able to confirm from experience. There are occasions when winning an argument might well mean losing part of the relationship. Winning, in other words, isn’t everything. Tuesday’s win may well be a real loss for Christians in America.

Underlying this is a conviction, perhaps strange to hear, that a Clinton presidency would have been fundamentally better for our public Christian witness. Why should this be? Because while such a presidency would likely have been grievous to our Christian comfort—creating the potential for loss of liberty and opposition to our cherished beliefs at the highest office of the American nation—in the light of such an opposing power structure our Christian convictions would require clear, solid, and enunciated articulation. The discomfort would force us to stand clearly for our beliefs and to strive to re-articulate them to a culture which views us largely as an antiquated mystery.

This upcoming Trump presidency will likely be more comfortable for Christians, but it will also be summarily more damaging. It is foundationally difficult to maintain a countercultural stance when you represent the dominant power structure. In the cloud of our political comfort our true convictions are likely to be sullied and masked by controversy, distortion, and association. The many people we are called by Christ to reach on the left are in this moment becoming unreachable because of our new ascendance to power and association with Trump. This situation also makes it difficult for us to reach those American Christians on the right who confuse nationalism with faith. It is hard to envision a scenario where this victory is not a defeat for Christian witness in America.

american-flag_on-the-cross

A further reason why this is so damaging is because we have not sufficiently reflected on the relationship between power and witness. The apostles, of course, married their witness to power—spiritual power. Signs and wonders accompanied their proclamation of the gospel both as a testimony to the living power of God and as tokens of the validity of their message. Those signs proved that their witness was sanctioned by supernatural power structures—i.e., that the Kingdom of God had arrived and Jesus was its Risen King. But we should observe that, while the signs are present for all to see, individuals who witness them remain free to choose their response. This is a hallmark of the divine use of power: God does not force people. Forcing people violates freedom, and violating freedom both invalidates faith and nullifies relationship. God wants us to make a choice to follow Him. Apparently, He wants friends and not slaves.

American Christians are appealing to political structures as a method of social change, when God’s model for social change is proclamation, supernatural power, and personal relationships. We are fixated on the top, when we ought to be aiming at the bottom. Rome fell not because the emperor became a Christian, but because Christianity infiltrated every valence of its political, social, and moral world. The stone in Daniel, if you remember, the one not cut by human hands, strikes at the feet and not the head of the great empire statue. The world does not, and cannot, become more Christian by means of earthly power. What I fear is that Christians, by our use of and association with earthly political power, are in danger of attempting to do something for God in a way fundamentally opposed to how God Himself does things. Our use of power does not look very much like His. In the process, it is poisoning our spoken witness as well. The impression generated by this election is that American Christians, at their core, simply want to tell other people how to live. Rightly or wrongly, that vision of “how to live” is now perceptually linked to racism, sexism, and nationalism. The witness to Christ is thus marred by our aping of political structures.

Trump’s presidency may achieve certain desirable ends and may preserve certain freedoms, but it will make our task as Christians in America much more difficult. May God have mercy upon us, and upon our nation.

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Terry Fontaine, “Against the Flow”

Responding to the Shift in Evangelical Thought

Boston GlobeOn January 12, 2014, Ruth Graham, a classmate of mine from both high school and college, published a piece in The Boston Globe titled, “Can the evangelical church embrace gay couples?” The subtitle read, “A new wave of thinkers says yes — and is looking to Scripture for support.” (Click here to get to the piece—unfortunately, last I checked it had been moved behind a paywall.) In her piece Graham documents a change in the perceptions of American Evangelicals. After noting the traditional Scriptural position regarding homosexuality (that it is clearly proscribed), she moves to several interpreters who are working to alter this perception. Highlighting Matthew Vines—a homosexual who is openly attempting to change the church’s thinking about sexuality—Graham points to his efforts to remove unpleasant interpretations from Scripture. Possibly recognizing that Vines’s approach is too caustic for many Evangelicals, she turns next to James Brownson, a New Testament professor at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan. Brownson has written a book, published through Eerdmans, which argues Scripturally for a revision in Christian perceptions of gender. In short, he argues that the Bible’s focus is more on monogamy than on sexual orientation. Therefore, as long as homosexual relationships are committed (i.e., ‘marriage’), then Scripture-believing Evangelicals ought to have no issues embracing them as normative.

BrownsonGraham’s point is not to engage with Brownson and Vines, but rather to identify the shifting position of Evangelicalism. Vines is one example of the change—although self-identified as a conservative he is still somewhat threatening to the core group. Brownson, published through Eerdmans, is much closer to home. Graham takes this to imply that Evangelicalism is inevitably shifting toward greater acceptance of homosexuality. Graham cites further evidence as well, such as other figures within Evangelicalism arguing for change and Christian colleges and seminaries with LGBTQ student groups. Along with these changes, she cites the overall perception that a defining factor of Christianity is “anti-homosexual,” as well as rising awareness of friends and family who are gay. Graham’s concluding words are highly informative:

In the end, it may not be theology or psychology that changes the most evangelical minds. Human relationships have a way of doing what academic arguments cannot. James Brownson was what he calls a “moderate conservative” on the question of homosexuality until his own son, a well-adjusted 18-year-old, came out to him and his wife eight years ago. “When I had to deal with my own son, a lot of the answers that were part of the tradition I’m part of and that I had assumed in the past just didn’t work,” he said. “We have to be able to talk about real people here.”

Graham has done a fine job of documenting the changes she perceives on the horizon of Evangelicalism, and in what follows allow me to say that there is nothing personal whatsoever between me and her. Nevertheless, the arguments documented in Graham’s article are deeply troubling. They are troubling because they offer the impression that change is inevitable. They are troubling because the logic of the argument is false. They are troubling because they assume, and promote, an incorrect perception of the core of Evangelicalism. But they might be most troubling of all because when I consider the people of faith under my care I don’t perceive that they are equipped to answer these arguments. Then, when I consider those friends of mine who struggle with same-sex attraction and yet seek to be faithful, Scriptural followers of Jesus, I fear for them. What real hope is offered to these believers? Increasingly, none, and they are finding themselves marginalized both from the church they love, and from an affirming community which rejects the Scriptures they hold dear. In the end, followers of Jesus who consider themselves both Scriptural and orthodox (small ‘o’) must be challenged and then equipped to lovingly re-ground their faith in the Scriptures they hold as authoritative.

Tube SocksSo let’s take several aspects of Graham’s piece and answer for them in turn. First, let’s address the perception that change is inevitable. This is powerful rhetoric, and it is powerfully disheartening. Convicted Christians in America have felt for years now that they are losing their place in the culture war. The ability of the media to successfully label Christians by what they are against (i.e., anti-abortion, anti-homosexual), combined with a number of inept attempts at preserving the Christian position in culture through political power, have been devastating to our social position. Traditional Christianity is genuinely on the retreat in the public sphere. The consequence is that Christians begin to feel, where once they were on the inside of the heartbeat of America, that now they are increasingly on the outside; and the feeling of exclusion is a powerful motivator for change. When I was in grammar school all the kids used to wear long tube socks pulled up above their knees. I still have a first-day-of-school picture of myself somewhere all decked out in my knee socks. But one day, unannounced, I came to school and discovered that everyone had begun rolling their socks down to their ankles, and I was the only one with my socks up! I quietly bent down and rolled my socks to be like everyone else. I think that Christians today feel a bit like we’ve come to class and everyone’s socks are rolled at the ankles.

But Christianity, and Evangelical Christianity in particular, is under a misrepresentation. The assumption of the broader culture is that we are a movement of culture rather than conviction. The perception has stuck that Evangelicals are a giant sleeper cell in America which the political and marketing agencies are eager to crack. The runaway success of The Passion of the Christ and political postulations about George W. Bush’s reelection are both significant examples of this. Sadly, American Christians have been more than happy to let this perception stand, and none have done more damage with it, perhaps, than those American Christians who led the culture wars of the 80s and 90s. In those conflicts, the morally appropriate intentions of Christian thinkers were admixed with a morally reprehensible desire to preserve power. Morality became a lever employed to preserve a political position, and in becoming a tool for power our morality became wicked. Whether this is the inevitable consequence of a latent triumphalism in American Christian thought (i.e., “Everything will be okay if we can get a Christian in charge!”), or the inevitable backlash of our need to preserve power, I’m not able to say. What I can say is that in mixing morality, culture, and power, we have opened ourselves to the perception that we are nothing more than a cultural movement—votes, Nielsen ratings, and dollars. In turn, it is our reliance on our own perceived cultural identity which gives power to the argument, latent in Graham’s piece, that “If you wish to maintain your relevance, you must prepare to change.”

evnagelical idea

When I searched for “Evangelical” on Google images, a significant number of images looked like this. There were remarkably few bibles.

Since the time of Luther, when the word “evangelical” was invented as a means to describe this new (or renewed) form of Christian faith, Evangelicalism has been a movement grounded above all else in the conviction that God’s Word sincerely applied is the source of life for the believer and change in the world. In other words, what defines an Evangelical is not his or her purchasing choices or voting habits, but rather his belief in the authority of the Christian Scriptures in faith and life. It was that conviction which sparked the Reformation and has been so globally influential for the past 500 years. And perhaps the first thing Evangelicals must do in responding to the changing cultural climate around us is to re-commit ourselves to the book which gives us identity in the first place. Evangelicals must restore their convictions and eschew the culture. When we do this, it will become clear (as it already is true), that it is not our stance on homosexuality which will marginalize orthodox followers of Jesus, but rather our commitment to the authority of the Scriptures. It is not so much that our beliefs are strange, it is that we have beliefs at all. We must prepare to pull our socks up. We will look strange.

Evangelicalism is a movement of conviction which is grounded in the Christian Scriptures. As such, arguments which purport to be based on the interpretation of Scripture make a powerful claim. But Brownson’s argument is based on false logic, and to see the falsehood is the first step in answering his claim. The first part of Brownson’s argument for acceptance of gay ‘marriage’ within Christianity is to claim that, in fact, the Bible doesn’t really condemn homosexuality. To quote from Graham:

[Brownson] devotes no fewer than four chapters to Romans 1, unpacking Paul’s definitions of lust, purity, shame, and natural law in detail, and emerges with the claim that contemporary believers shouldn’t understand “shameless acts with men” as meaning the same thing we’d now mean by gay sex. For liberal Christians, this kind of argument is common: Passages like Romans I are often dismissed as artifacts of the prejudices of their time. Not so for Evangelicals, and accordingly Brownson walks a careful line in his writing: He makes the case that it’s possible to affirm these verses completely and also affirm same-sex relationships.

Scripture readingBrownson may well be right about many aspects of Romans 1—the language in some parts is slightly ambiguous. But Paul’s overall point of identifying how rejection of God leads inevitably to a repeat of Sodom and Gomorrah seems to link his perception of idolatry and homosexuality rather strongly. But this is not the end of the Scriptural story, because in 1 Corinthians 6 Paul condemns homosexual behaviour in the strongest terms, employing not one but two different Greek words for the activities of homosexual sex (i.e., essentially dividing between the active and passive partners in the relationship). On top of all this, it is a principle of both theology and Scripture that God is one (meaning undivided), and Jesus is God. When Philip asks Jesus in John 14 to “Show us the Father,” Jesus answers by saying, “Don’t you know me?” And at John 10:30 Jesus announces, “I and the Father are one.” The voice of Jesus in the New Testament, and the voice of the Father in the Old, are perfectly consonant—and this means that the business of claiming that “Jesus never says anything about sexuality; Paul invents it” (which Brownson doesn’t make, to my knowledge, but is common in these discussions) is absurd. God speaks authoritatively in both the Old and New Testaments.

It is in the next step, however, that Brownson’s arguments enter into false logic. Again quoting from Graham:

[Brownson] points out that in the ancient world, as other theologians have also observed, gay sex was viewed by Christians and Jews not as the expression of an innate orientation, but as a symptom of lustful excess—what Brownson calls “a kind of endless search for exotic forms of stimulation.” But today it has another meaning: Sex with either gender can be an expression of love within a long-term relationship. Christians, therefore, can support Paul’s condemnation of lustful or degrading sex outside marriage, while embracing a category of monogamous, committed same-sex relationship that did not exist in the Biblical world.

The overall logic goes like this: (1) the Bible doesn’t really condemn homosexuality; (2) the Bible supports monogamous relationships; therefore (3) monogamous homosexual relationships are acceptable. As far as I can tell, Brownson’s argument, here documented by Graham, is in fact the standard presentation made by many proponents of same sex marriage.

It's okay when we kill Nazis, right? Right?

It’s okay when we kill Nazis, right? Right?

Proposition 1 is false from the start—it is unprovable apart from significantly limber exegesis of the text. But the false step in logic is in using proposition 2 to explain a change in proposition 1—that the answer to the problem of the Bible’s rather explicit words about homosexuality is to begin talking about monogamy. But this is absurd—we don’t excuse one action by appeal to another. Stealing doesn’t become acceptable if we steal only to help the poor; murder doesn’t become acceptable if we only murder Nazis. Virtue in one aspect does not equate righteousness in another. We’ve been handed a bait-and-switch.

Furthermore, the Bible is remarkably unclear about monogamy—I would suggest even less clear than about homosexuality. In the Old Testament and the Patriarchs polygamy is the order of the day. Of course, you’re only allowed to sleep with your wives. Oh, and their handmaidens as well. (As an aside, this fact—that the Bible’s presentation of marriage is decidedly less than crystal clear—has done little service to Christians who want to ground the “traditional” view of marriage in Scripture. Defining marriage both culturally and Scripturally will take a great deal more careful exegesis than has been given it so far.)

This might sound like I’m throwing out belief in the Scriptures, or at least giving them a hard rap. Not so. I think there are reasonable explanations for a shift from polygamy to monogamy, and reasonable exegesis which can back that shift up. The real point is that using monogamy to explain a change in homosexual acceptance is not one of those reasonable shifts, and is emblematic, moreover, of terrible exegesis.

Graham closes her piece with Brownson’s story—that he adjusted his theology when his son came out as gay. In his own words, “When I had to deal with my own son, a lot of the answers that were part of the tradition I’m part of and that I had assumed in the past just didn’t work.” We will be forced to change, Graham suggests, because the cost of maintaining our convictions will become in time too strong, too close to home. In reality, those who consider themselves Evangelical will be forced into some life-changing resolutions: Do I believe the Scriptures? Does God determine what is right and wrong? And am I willing, in Jesus’ words, to take the Body of Christ as my new family?

Evangelical Christianity (that is, Christianity which takes the Scriptures as its final authority), may exist in its weakest cultural position since the founding of America. Perceiving our ‘weakness’ keenly, arguments which successfully piggyback on our incorrect self-perceptions have enormous power. We have placed our identity on false footing. Consequently levers which challenge that footing succeed. The answer to the loss of cultural power is not to lament the loss, nor to wrestle with the lever itself, but rather to refocus our grounding. It is not that culture is more powerful, it is that we have left firm ground behind. Doubtless, many people will follow these new teachings; in the process they will subtly cease to be Evangelical at all.