Pastor, You are Dispensable

Non disposableThe confluence of social media, celebrity pastor culture, hugely successful churches and the millennial assumption that everyone is exceptional has lead many pastors to a dangerously over-exaggerated view of themselves. I realise that on the other hand these forces can cause discouragement, as we measure ourselves against John Piper or Matt Chandler. But that is not what I want to address in this short post. My aim here is to challenge the notion that any specific pastor is indispensable. When we begin to imagine that without us this ministry or church would no longer function let alone flourish one thing is certain: we have developed far too high a view of ourselves. A second thing may also be true: we have created an unhealthy, not to mention unbiblical, ministry structure or strategy that makes us appear not only integral but indispensable. But God does not need us. You may think your church needs you but bear in mind that it is Christ’s church, not yours. It got to where it is because of his sovereign grace and God willing it will continue long after you are gone.

The apostle Paul understood this well, especially when we consider his significance in the early church. Writing to the Philippians he said, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6). Paul was not issuing platitudes. He was writing from prison. Incapacitated, Paul needed a confidence that exceeded his leadership, influence and abilities and he enjoyed that in God alone. The great apostle is in chains yet he wants his readers to know that the gospel is not bound (1:12-18a). The survival of God’s church is not dependant on men and women, not even on great ones like Paul. Yet how quickly we deceive ourselves, and often others, into believing that this church or that ministry would collapse without us. In his superb book The New Pastor’s Handbook, Jason Helopoulos reminds those in ministry that they are nothing more than ordinary men and women with extraordinary callings. He goes on to say that pastors must give their accountability partners the right to challenge them regarding any growing “superhero complex”. Do you believe that God is powerful enough to accomplish his will without you? Are you fully persuaded, as Paul was writing from prison, that God will finish the good work he has started, whether he uses you or not? If your instinct to those questions is not genuinely affirmative then you need to repent.

In a section of his Institutes, titled “Why does God need men’s services?”, John Calvin makes a few more important points on the dispensability of pastors, or any Christian for that matter. Though God uses the ministry of men and women “to declare openly his will to us by his mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honour, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work—just as a workman uses a tool to do his work” (4.3.1; also see 4.1.5). Those who teach, preach and lead in the local church are nothing more than tools in the hands of our omnipotent God. He may pick up one of these tools and wield it mightily. But we must never forget what we are, lest at the same time we forget who God is. Calvin goes on, “He could indeed do it either by himself without any sort of aid or instrument, or even by his angels.” If we understand what Calvin is saying, we would wash our mouths of phrases such as, ‘He grew that church.’ God grew that church. Furthermore, he did not need that specific pastor or ministry team he used to do so. The succinct answer to Calvin’s question is that God does not need men’s services. Pastor, God does not need you. You are dispensable.

While Calvin does insist that honour is due to those serving as pastors in local churches (4.3.3), echoing the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 5, this still does not mean any of them are indispensable. Let me conclude by encouraging pastors with something D. A. Carson said at the TGCA launch last year. When was asked which theologians and leaders he foresees stepping into the vast gap his death will create he essentially dismissed the question as irrelevant. But he went on to give an answer that was truly astonishing, for two reasons. Firstly, he told us that it is very likely we do not yet know the names of the men and women who will lead Christ’s church in the future. Secondly, he does not even consider himself to be of any major significance in Christ’s church. How could he give such an answer, when he is undoubtedly aware of the most likely unrepeatable impact he has made for Christ and God’s people people? He believes God can raise up whoever he needs and will continue to use weak tools by his unfailing strength. Carson understands Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

If you enjoyed this post, keep an eye on Rekindle because I am planning to write a few more in this ‘Pastor…’ series. In the mean time you can read the previous post: Pastor, You do not release potential.

7 Lessons on Wisdom and Wealth from Proverbs

Motivating a building project at your church? Preaching series in Nehemiah. Financial giving is dropping off? Pulpit thumping sermons from Malachi. And whatever the occasion, in and out of season, have Jeremiah 29:11 handy. Though said tongue-in-cheek, this is tragically how the Old Testament is often treated and taught, as little more than a collection of unrelated stories, poetry and laws to prop up whatever we need it to. This is no different when it comes to the book of Proverbs, which seems to promise wealth to all who are obedient to God and ply his wisdom. But in the seven short points below I hope to persuade you that it is more nuanced than that.

1. God blesses the wise with wealth (3:9-10, 15-16; 10:22)

WisdomThis is an unavoidable conclusion as you read the book of Proverbs. But we must remember that the genre of wisdom employs principles that are generally true rather than unconditional promises and strict formulas. Material gain will result from wisdom, for God rewards those who honour and obey him. Furthermore, wealth can make life’s challenges easier to navigate (10:15-16). Thus wealth is both a blessing of wisdom and one that when wisely put to use greatly assists us in living. Because God orders our universe, our actions have consequences; this is positively seen when wisdom results in material blessing.

2. Foolish behaviour leads to poverty (10:4-5; 6:6-11)

This is vividly portrayed in the contrast between the hard worker and the sluggard (26:13-15). While laziness is the primary reason given for poverty in Proverbs, other follies are given: over-indulgence (21:17); oppression of the poor (22:16); even being frugal or stingy (11:24). This means that though folly or laziness might be the cause of poverty, it is not necessarily the cause (see point four). In Proverbs, God urges us to be productive not lazy. Contrast with the point above, God’s wisely ordered universe means that, generally speaking: if you are foolish and lazy, you will suffer want.

3. The wealth of fools will not last (13:11; 21:6; 22:16; 23:4-5)

Proverbs raises the tension of the wealthy wicked or rich fools and righteous sufferers (also see Psalm 73). This is an uncomfortable and confronting question that arises from a mere glance at our world. But 11:18 reads, “Evil people get rich for the moment, but the reward of the godly will last.” Money is not as precious as right living for it cannot avert judgment (11:4). Despite God blessing the wise with wealth, it cannot be your security, nor should you conclude from your wealth that you are righteous. Sinners can be wealthy while the wise suffer. The ultimate difference between those two groups of people in Proverbs is not how much they have but who they serve, which God they worship.

4. Poverty is often the result of injustice and oppression

Wisdom involves knowing when laziness is the cause of poverty as opposed to circumstances or injustice (13:23). Since God’s world isn’t mechanical and the human condition is complex, the poor person might be wiser than the wealthy (16:8). “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD made them both (22:2). Therefore, poverty is not necessarily the fruit of laziness or folly. The Bible knows many righteous and godly people who suffered greatly with persevering faith and integrity. Jesus comes to mind first. It is therefore a terribly reductionistic, not to mention far from biblical, assumption that poverty and suffering are the results of a lack of wisdom, or faith.

5. Those with money must be generous (29:7; 3:27-28)

This principle is surely not one many would need to be convinced of; while neither Old or New Testament people of God practised communism they were expected to share the wealth God had entrusted to them. There are rewards and blessings for being generous (29:14; 28:27; 11:24). This idea is picked up by Paul in 2 Corinthians 8-9. In both Old and New Testaments we must recognise that being generous in order to get something in return is not actually generosity; it is selfishness. Again, because Proverbs presents us with generally true cases: generosity is not a formula for gaining wealth. We do not seek blessings from God through generosity, rather we should seek to bless others generously, doing so wisely (6:1-5).

6. Wisdom is better than wealth (3:14-16)

Proverbs makes things relative using better-than forms (15:16, 17; 16:8, 16; 17:1; 22:1; 28:6). Repeatedly the book insists that wealth ranks far beneath godly fear of the LORD. Furthermore, Proverbs provides numerous characteristics that are more important than having wealth: peace (15:16; 17:1), loving relationships (15:17); honesty (16:8; 28:6); and a good reputation (22:1). These flow from wisdom (16:16), which is almost synonymous with reverent fear of the LORD (15:16) and godliness (16:8). So while wisdom may not necessarily bear the fruit of wealth it should shape how we live, to love others and trust God.

7. Wealth has limited value (11:4)

Tremper Longman IIIWisdom enacted in right living keeps us from dangerous situations (6:34; 2:11). But wealth can be troublesome (13:8), exposing the rich to scorn (19:10) and bringing false friends (14:20). All of our points above, taken together with this final one, should warn us that it is foolish to: measure faith by wealth; to think that wisdom (and our relationship with God) is a means to wealth; and that we should pursue wealth above godliness, virtue and generosity. God has much greater things in store for us than those that can be stolen, rust and cannot last into eternity.

This post originally appeared at Christ Church Umhlanga. I have reposted it here with a few alterations because the original was lost when major structural changes were made to that website. Most of the material is gleaned from How to Read Proverbs by Tremper Longman III.

What Should You Do This Year?

Maybe another way to put the question is: “Why are you here?” And I am not asking: “Why have you come to Rekindle?” Because the answer is obvious, you were tricked by a vague link or misleading social media post. The questions I am asking are: why do you exist; what is your purpose; why are any of us here? These are heady considerations with many odd, dissatisfying and more perplexing answers. So at the start of 2019 I hope to convince you that you do have real purpose and value, given by God. This purpose will not change over time, or year to year, and functions as the foundation for everything we do.

WhaleIn Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy there are numerous memorable moments; one of those is the moment when, against all probability, a fully grown sperm whale comes into existence in the outer atmosphere of the planet Magrathea. Adams writes, “Since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this poor innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more.” He goes on to list a few of the whale’s thoughts from the moment it began its life until the moment its life ended: “Ah! What’s happening? Er, excuse me, who am I? Hello? Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life?” Much like Adam’s confounded sperm whale, all of us are thrown into life and, between birth and death, have to come to terms with our identity and purpose. What does a life well spent and lived with purpose look like? To get a satisfactory answer to that question we must turn to the one who made us: the Creator God.

God does all things for his glory

I realise this seems like a strange place to begin and hope that you will shortly see why there is no other starting point. Whatever God does is to display his greatness, to bring him glory. His works are designed to move people to adore and delight in him, to worship him. When you read the first fourteen verses of Ephesians this becomes patently clear: not only does Paul introduce this section by praising God (1:3), but we are told three times that all God does should end in the praise of his glory (1:6, 12, 14). We bristle at this point, for numerous reasons. But I think the real reason we struggle with this truth is that we are self-centred, “glory thieves” (John Piper). We do not want our lives to be God-centred because we want them to centre on us. However, as we read in Ephesians, we learn that God works all things for his own glory.

Therefore you exist for God’s glory

Following from our previous point, if God does all things for his glory then it is not hard to see where we fit in. The purpose installed in each person is the glory of God. But the grand narrative of the Bible teaches us that we are more concerned with smaller glories than God’s. Therefore, in Ephesians 2:1-7 we are told that everyone’s status before God is separation and spiritual death. However, Paul goes on, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourself, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (2:8-10). Do not miss in those quoted verses that the Christian is remade or recreated, by and for God. Why are any of us here? To bring glory to our Creator. Why does God save? So that his people and church might bring him glory (3:20-21).

So live in a way that brings God glory

Becoming a Christian means discovering what you were made for. It follows then that being a Christian involves doing what we were made for (2:8-10). Before you grumble that those works have not been revealed to you, read through Ephesians 4-6 where we are repeatedly told how to walk, or live. It is this obedience, godliness and faith in whatever situation we find ourselves that brings God’s glory. All of us will accomplish a wide range of things in our lives. The trap to avoid is evaluating success and fulfilment by the world’s standards. What makes a life of purpose and meaning is not one that is strewn with worldly triumphs and plaudits but a life lived in constant pursuit of God’s honour and fame. So Paul urges Christians, later in Ephesians, “To live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1).

I do not know what you should do in 2019. But one thing is clear: a life spent in pursuit of God’s fame is not wasted but worthy. Living for God’s glory has less to do with what we do and everything to do with how we live. God created us with purpose and faith in Christ involves the rediscovery of that purpose. I do not doubt that you have goals and ambitions for this year. However, if bringing glory to God wherever he places you is not both at the top of your list and the desire undergirding the remainder of the items you will waste your year.

New Year’s Eve: Our Desire for Renewal

Towards the end of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, Llewyn Moss offers an uncomfortable insight to the hitchhiker travelling with him. Discussing where she is heading, Moss makes this smarting observation, “You think when you get to California you’ll kind of start over.” The young girl says that is precisely what she hopes will happen. But Moss tears down her naive sentiment with this sobering truth, “It’s not about knowing where you are. It’s about thinkin you got there without takin anything with you. Your notions about startin over. Or anybody’s. You dont start over. That’s what it’s about. Ever step you take is forever. You cant make it go away. None of it.” We cannot start over because whatever point we are at is preceded by the steps we took to get there. This simple fact is one we desperately seek to forget on the 31st of December, every year. But, if Llewyn Moss is correct, we cannot merely start over; we take all of ourselves with us into the future.

New Year's EveFor all the money and effort that is spent on New Year’s Eve it is just another well marketed, commercialised high day. No one wakes up a new person on the 1st of January. But similarly to McCarthy’s hitchhiker we convince ourselves that we can start over, begin afresh. We wistfully believe that our pledges and promises will somehow alter our whole being, ridding ourselves of whatever we wish was not us. This idea is sharply criticised by Five Iron Frenzy, in their song New Year’s Eve. Powerfully, and not without the appropriate level of self awareness, one of the verses reads: “Then with thunderous praise and lofty adoration / a second passes by / yet nothing changes.” The verse continues, “I hate my skin / this grave I’m standing in / another change of years / and I wish I wasn’t here.” Those lyrics unsettlingly capture the futility of our resolutions as well as the reason we make them.

However, something else can be observed behind our desperation to change who we are, to become something better and forget our many failings. We desire renewal, to be remade. But that longing is frustrated; and the change of years with its empty promises only exasperates that desire. Once the fireworks cease we realise they were only lighting up the old sky. That first sunrise feels uniquely exciting and different for only a couple of minutes. As yesterday advanced it became apparent that I am still me. Or as Moss put it, I arrived at this point because of and through bringing with me everything that has gone before. The sobering truth confronts all of us: you have not changed. The parts of myself that I hate have not departed and the new person I promised myself and others I would becomes has not arrived. My longing to become someone else, the desire for a fresh start and the hope of meaningful change evaporates like the morning mist. What are we to make of these frustrations? Many will conveniently shrug them off as the busyness and bustle of a new calendar year begins, until the 31st of December.

New Year's EveTowards the end of the song already mentioned, Five Iron Frenzy sing, “A year goes by and I’m staring at my watch again / and I dig deep this time / for something greater than I’ve ever been / life to ancient wineskins / and I was blind but now I see.” My wife believes I am far too cynical, so in keeping with her diagnosis let me quote the Stoic Seneca before concluding. In a letter on travel, he wrote, “All of your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself.” Elsewhere he blankly states, “You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.” Ultimately, Stoicism just like the new year was incapable of bringing the renewal and transformation we all desire. But there is a God who promises to make all things new, to wipe away all of our tears. He gladly invites us, “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17).

Bray on Scripture: Experiencing God’s Love

Gerald BrayThe denomination I belong to has been labelled many less than positive things. In fact, I was recently asked about a written statement I made in 2016, where I called REACH “exclusive and condescending.” Presiding bishop, if you are reading this, I still love our denomination. But returning to what other people have called REACH, I’ve heard: dry, cerebral, bland and academic. And that was just this past week. While these descriptions are true to varying degrees, another label I wear proudly is that we are bibliocentric. Though some Christians are irked by our staunch commitment to biblical preaching and teaching, it is a mistake to conflate being fully persuaded about the centrality of the Bible with boring bookishness. Previous posts in this series have argued that without Scripture we will worship idols; Spirit filled ministry is Bible saturated ministry; and God’s Word is sufficient to sustain faith. I hope those older posts went some way towards persuading my readers that the Bible is a staple for the Christian life, now I want to challenge believers who know that but no longer delight in reading God’s Word. In other words, knowing about the Bible is not the same as treasuring it because we experience God himself when it is read and preached.

In God is Love, Gerald Bray writes, “Scripture is the language of God’s love for his people, and if it does not speak to the soul, then it is not doing what we ought to expect from the Word of God. Ultimately, the Bible points us to an experience of God that lies beyond itself but which it confirms and supports as the standard against which everything else must be judged.” Bray makes two linked points: firstly, our expectation when we read the Bible should be that we will not only learn of but experience God’s love, for his words speak to our hearts; secondly, this does render the Bible less than authoritative or objective, so while we encounter God in his words we must also pay attention to what he says. This can be illustrated with the conversations we have every day: someone is behind speech so I cannot divorce what is being said from who is saying it. Conversation is personal. This is no less true of Scripture than it is of speaking to my neighbour. Bray wants us to remember that behind the Bible is a lover, the God we were made to enjoy and delight in. Studying the Bible is therefore where we experience the love of God, as he addresses us and answers our hearts’ longings. We would do well to approach our devotional reading or the preached Word on Sundays with that expectation, for “the Bible points us to an experience of God that lies beyond itself,” which brings us to another point Bray makes.

Even though Christians reject the idea of holy or sacred objects “there is Holy Scripture because the Word of God is present in it, proclaimed by it, and made efficacious thought it.” Similarly to the previous point, Bray writes, “We treasure his words…because we sense his presence in them.” If it is true that behind the affectionate words found in Scripture is a person then we must affirm that he is present when they are read. Sadly many Christians today limp between Sunday highs, ecstatically powerful times of worship, which usually means the band was tight. But if we understand the points Bray is making we would forget such a limited view of God’s presence and exchange it for a more biblical understanding and expectation. We are not merely hearing the words of God when the Bible is read we are being invited, or ushered, into his presence by those very words. God is no more present in the spine tingling atmospheres many churches manufacture than he is when the plain Word is read. When we open the Bible and seek God’s presence in his speech we can actually experience him in a way that far surpasses engineered emotions. If only we believed this when we opened our Bibles.

Pastor, You do not Release Potential

Discover potentialI was reminded recently in a conversation about Nicene Christology how crucial and significant our choice of words is. For the theologically uninitiated, that specific historical debate swirled around a single iota (Greek letter). Ink flowed at that time as theologians fiercely disagreed about how to most faithfully organise and communicate God’s self revelation in Scripture. Laying the political and personal agendas aside, we must surely conclude that precise terminology matters, which makes much of what I hear in the church today deeply disturbing. Though there are countless examples of careless wording to choose from — pastor as CEO or boss, eldership as board of directors, and target markets — in this post I want to address the language of helping people unlock their potential. And while the language of releasing potential is plied in a broad spectrum of churches and in numerous ways, for the reasons outlined below I think it is language we should avoid in the pursuit of clarity and faithfulness to the Scriptures.

Firstly, within the biblical economy of grace I am uncomfortable with the language of potential in principle. Carl Trueman writes in Grace Alone, “Grace is not God giving wholesale advice or a helping hand. It is God raising someone from the dead.” Later he writes, “The problems we face in our churches and in our individual lives are not ones that can be solved by mastering better and new techniques or simply by learning more information. We need more than how-to manuals and life coaches.” According to God, our problem is not ignorance of our purpose and the frustration of our potential. We are, as Paul regularly and not uncomfortably puts it: dead. The dead have no potential. At creation God breathed life into dust and today he breathes life into spiritual corpses. We do not need God to unlock our potential. We are lost unless he gives us new life. Hear Trueman once again, “We do not need spiritual healing, for that would imply we are merely in need of repair. We need spiritual resurrection. And resurrection is the unilateral act of God, not a cooperative exercise between the living God and the dead.”

FaithSecondly, and linked to the above point, our lack of potential is not limited to initial or saving faith. It extends into the Christian’s entire life. There is a well established biblical pattern of God using those who are weak in the eyes of the world. This is not because their potential was previously unseen but because his strength is made perfect in our weakness. To believe that we have some kind of raw and impressive potential reduces God to sports coach trying to spot future stars on the field. Listen to Samuel Rutherford, in his letter to Robert Gordon: I am “like one stupefied with cold under the water that would fain come to land but cannot grip anything casten to Him. I can let Christ grip me, but I cannot grip Him. I love to be kissed and to sit on Christ’s knee; but I cannot set my feet to the ground, for afflictions bring the cramp upon my faith. All that I can do is to hold out a lame faith to Christ like a beggar holding out a stump, instead of an arm or leg, and cry, ‘Lord Jesus, work a miracle’.” God does not link arms with the strong and influential to do great things, he lifts up weak and drooping arms and with them accomplishes his perfect purposes.

Thirdly, as D. A. Carson writes in The Gagging of God, the terminology of unlocking our innate potential is in fact borrowed from the New Age movement. Therefore, though using this language does not necessarily make your church New Age it might reveal that movement’s dangerous influence. Carson comments on New Age spirituality, “The aim is not to be reconciled to a transcendent God, who has made us and against whom we have rebelled, but to grow in self-awareness and self-fulfilment, to become self-actualized, to grow to our full potential, until we are rather more at one with the god/universe that we otherwise would be.” While I am convinced God directs, fulfils and gives us purpose, these experiences have little to do with my potential and everything to do with his grace. Churches that exist to help people discover their purpose laden potential are in danger of suggesting that God exists for me. He does not. He created you. Your life is his.

Finally, in many churches that I have visited, the language of releasing potential to powerfully impact our cities for Christ has supplanted – and in many cases – completely replaced the New Testament’s emphasis on obedience to Christ. This might be a good place to gently remind my reader that potential is not a New Testament word. On the other hand, Christ’s lordship, faithfulness, putting sin to death and living a life pleasing to God through fruitful obedience are words as well as themes found throughout. Perhaps you are sitting waiting to learn what your potential is, wondering when it might be made plain so that you can finally accomplish what God has planned for you. Stop. He has already told you what he desires: obedient worship and bold witness, in all of life. Sure, we are all unique but that does not mean any of us are or will be exceptional, once we unlock our potential. Most Christians will strive together with their church family to merely persevere until the end while glorifying God in the mundane. Words like faithful and godly may not be as sexy as releasing potential but they go much further in describing the ordinary life of obedience every Christian is called to.