Immodesty and Violence Against Women

Skinny jeansLast year a friend of mine was asked by a male pastor to change, because her jeans were too tight. Yes, you read correctly. Her jeans were too tight. To my knowledge – and please correct me if I am wrong – no man has ever been rebuked for wearing pants that were too tight. Even though we have lived through the advent of skinny jeans and ministry of Carl Lentz. But on a more serious note, recent events in South African have rocked the nation. Violence against women is once again generating considerable outcry—and rightly so. The hashtag #AmINext indicates widespread fear and anxiety among women. This has done for unspoken fear what #MeToo did for silent sufferers. But what can the church, especially Christian men, do?

To answer that question I want to return to my friend’s wardrobe rebuke. It is true that the New Testament exhorts women to dress respectably and modestly (1 Timothy 2:9). As the NIV translates that verse, “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety.” It is not an overstatement to say that this is one of very few New Testament verses that directly deals with what women wear. Though instead of prescribing a timeless dress code, Christians are exhorted to adorn themselves with good deeds in keeping with their fear of God (2:10). In fact, the word typically translated as ‘modest’ in 2:9 appears nowhere else in the New Testament. The other words, respectable and self-controlled or propriety, are not usually concerned with apparel but our attitude. Therefore, in passing, I think these verses do address a women’s choice of clothing but the emphasis is on her own heart. Others can debate the details.

Before you light your metaphorical torches, let me make a crucial proviso: under no circumstances is someone’s choice of clothing to blame for someone else’s sin—least of all when it comes to the disgusting realities of sexual assault and rape. Martin Luther famously said, ‘You can’t stop birds flying over your head but you can prevent them from nesting in your hair.’ When men objectify women that is a choice, from lusting after them to lewd comments about them, long before violent and sexual crimes are committed against them. It is deeply unsettling in South Africa, even in some churches, that the question about what she was was wearing is close behind a tragic story of sexual assault. To use another analogy, consider crimes of passion. If I come home and find my wife in bed with another man and kill both of them, we can be assured that the judge or jury will not moderate my sentence because my actions were motivated. That is stupid—so is tying rape and sexual assault, or any sin for that matter, to her attire.

But what if a woman is dressed immodestly, by your own definition or according to your culture? In other words, what if you find yourself in the same shoes as the aforementioned pastor  was in. Firstly, the New Testament has a lot to say to you before you say anything to her. “Urge the younger men to be self-controlled” (Titus 2:6). For this is what God’s gracious salvation trains us to be: “self-controlled, upright, and godly” (2:13-14; also see 2 Peter 1:6; 1 Corinthians 9:25). Contrast with the one mention of modesty in the New Testament, I lost track of how many times we are exhorted to be self-controlled. Greek even has more than one word for it. You may be familiar with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and modesty (Galatians 5:22-23). Except that the list stops at self-control. In fact, Paul goes on, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Notice, that Christian maturity is less about covering up flesh as it is about crucifying your own flesh—which is New Testament language for sin. 

Finally, did that pastor have the right to challenge her about her tight jeans? No, I do not think that he did. At most, if I am reading 1 Timothy 2 correctly, he could ask her to consider whether she thought she was being immodest. Let me say again, how we define modesty is both cultural and personal. In other words, immodesty is rooted more in the desired outcomes for what you wear than a prescribed dress code. Let’s not be legalists. In the Christian church there is only one occasion I can think of when I might be permitted to speak to a Christian women about what she is wearing. That is in the case that I am the weaker brother, either in terms of sin or my conscience. However, in that conversation, I must admit that the problem lies with me. Not her.  But Christian men, be self-controlled. Before a woman is made to feel guilty about being immodest, confess your own sin and lack of self-control. Men need to do far more repenting in this area than women need to do concerning their choice of clothing.

The Silver Chair: The Perseverance of Puddleglum

Earlier in this series of posts I confessed that The Horse and His Boy is my favourite of Lewis’ chronicles. Therefore it is right at the outset of this post to admit this: The Silver Chair is my least favourite. However, at each rereading my appreciation is heightened, as – perhaps – my understanding deepens. Indeed, textbooks might readily yield information but the truth in stories is not always as obvious. Furthermore, as we saw in Prince Caspian, the stories we prefer are not always true. In this post we will spend almost all of our time with Puddleglum, the undoubted hero of C. S. Lewis’ penultimate episode in the chronicles of Narnia.

NarniaAt their first meeting with Puddleglum we read, “His expression was solemn, his complexion muddy, and you could see at once that he took the serious view of life” (p580). If we were reading Lewis in the 1950s we might have labelled Puddleglum ‘positively dull.’ But it is his apparent cynicism that annoys Eustace and Jill, and many a reader, more than his dreariness. When he cautions the children about the Green Lady and the Gentle Giants of Harfang, Scrubb exclaims, “Bother his ideas! He’s always expecting the worst, and he’s always wrong” (p590). From the outset of their adventure, Puddleglum’s voice is one of doubt and seeming despair. He appears weighed down by the heaviness of life and paralysed with at potential dangers—we would not describe him as courageous for he seems to lack conviction.

However, Puddleglum is more than the proverbial wet blanket. Having spoken of his concerns about the party seeking shelter at Harfang, his anxieties are explained to the reader, “Aslan’s signs had said nothing about staying with giants, gentle or otherwise” (p591). After his bold antics and pluck help them escape from those less than gentle giants, they fall into the Underworld. Lost, cold, blinded by the darkness, and confronted by the Earthmen, the children begin to lose hope. But it is Puddleglum who pipes up, “Don’t you let your spirits down, Pole. There’s one thing you’ve got to remember. We’re back on the right lines. We were to go under the Ruined City, and we are under it. We’re following the instructions again” (p617). Puddleglum, unlike the more impetuous children, possesses resolve despite the situation, which rests in the sure words of Aslan.

If you have read The Silver Chair, and I imagine you must have if you have read this far, then you will know what takes place in the Underworld. The children and Puddleglum are spellbound by the Queen, rendered unable to save Prince Rilian or return to Narnia. When all seems lost Puddleglum burns himself in the fire, disrupting the Queen’s enchantment. He then delivers a rousing speech, “I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we haveonly dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones…I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it” (p633). The children are confronted on almost every page by Aslan’s absence, the obscurity of his promises, and are not helped at all by their own weaknesses and doubts. This sense of abandonment by Aslan is nowhere felt more sharply than in the clutches of the Queen. So it is at this point in the story that the unmoved faith of the annoyingly honest Marsh-wiggle is desperately necessary. At no point was he blinded to their task by foolish optimism, and in their most trying moment we learn that that is because of his realism and resolve, both owed to Aslan.

It is as the party, with the addition of the recently rescued Rilian, make their way out of the Underworld that Lewis makes this theme clearer. Rilian notices the Narnian insignia and colours have appeared on his shield and states, “Doubtless this signifies that Aslan will be our good lord, whether he means us to live or die” (p637). What Rilian declares boldly, Puddleglum demonstrates repeatedly. His hopes and confidence are not bound up in his circumstances but the words of Aslan. Because of this when all seems lost he is not downcast but determined. Whereas the children are tossed back and forth by the waves of their emotions, Puddleglum is anchored by the promises of Aslan. One of the remarkable effects of this narrative progression is that while most readers are initially less than fond of him everyone concludes that he is the hero. His heroism is not obvious. In fact, in the end it is nothing other than being persuaded of Aslan’s purposes.

NarniaSaying their goodbyes, Puddleglum raises doubts over the future of Narnia and the abilities of their new king. Jill replies, “You’re a regular old humbug. You sound as doleful as a funeral and I believe you’re perfectly happy. And you talk as if you were afraid of everything, when you’re really as brave as – as a lion” (p658). Towards the end of The Silver Chair we read that Rilian ruled Narnia well, bringing happiness to the land, “Though Puddleglum often pointed out that bright mornings brought on wet afternoons, and that you couldn’t expect good times to last” (p663). It is instinctive, even after our journey with Puddleglum, to quietly resent his pessimism. But I wonder if Lewis concluded this story purposefully making one last jab at those whose confidence waxes and wanes with the coming and going of princes, with the changing tides of fortune. Puddleglum is not so foolish.

This post comes as a long-awaited instalment in our Narnia series, which will hopefully be concluded in the upcoming weeks. If you enjoyed it then please check out the previous articles discussing the theology and themes of C. S. Lewis’ work:

New Testament Principles for Mercy Ministry

Last week I posted a short article titled, Social Justice as Obedience to God. Much to my disappointment more than a few people felt it was unclear and unnecessarily theological. Let me state for the record that I do not think “theological” implies complicated; Christians should be grappling with theological truth and its implications. This means the fault is mine. I will make another admission at the start of this article: I am far from finished in my thinking about the church’s responsibility to do social justice, or even what we mean by that phrase. So this post is not my attempt to pave a clear path forward. Instead I will briefly touch on a couple of New Testament passages and draw principles from them. 

social justiceBut before we get to that, let me outline my intentions for the previous article. I wrote it because I worry that many Christians today, particularly in the West, view people as little more than souls to be saved. They argue that the church’s mission is proclamation. Sure, most will concede that Christians are called to love their neighbours practically. The ways Christians can and ought to love others is hugely diverse. But strangely the corporate or organisational  church’s love is somehow understood differently. I am not sure there is New Testament support for this distinction. Instead I argued that the Christian (and church) pursuing a life that pleases God will love her neighbours in the broadest biblical sense. This love will be practical, generous and uncomfortable—in other words, it will be much more than evangelism.

The Epistle of James

There are no shortage of passages to turn to in support of thesis. But James is as directly challenging as any, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (1:27). To avoid an overcorrection to the body-soul distinction I alluded to above, we should argue from this verse that both material or physical and emotional as well as spiritual care must be given. Read what James wrote a few verses later, “If someone is poorly clothed and lacking food, what good is it to send them away with your blessing without giving them what they need?” (2:16). The apostle John asked a similar question, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17, 10). James highlights a point we tend to miss: our faith ought to be useful and good (2:14, 20).

True and living faith is tangibly fruitful, practical and visible. Christians should be concerned about more than simply the salvation of souls. If all we can offer is platitudes about heaven or merely stating that sin is our greatest issue we are drifting dangerously close to the faith that both James and John condemned. What are the principle here? New Testament faith is more than belief. Christianity cannot be unconcerned with people’s needs. There should be visible evidence of love expressed in the church as well as by it.

1 Timothy 5:3-16

When we recognise real need we must meet it (5:3, 5). This involves discernment. It also means first looking to the immediate family for support (5:4). I think, however, that the family mentioned are also believers, who must “put their religion into practice by caring”. Failing to meet the needs of our relatives is, quite shockingly, said to be a denial of our faith (5:8). The character of the widow is mentioned (5:9-10), indicating that she is known to the church, a devout Christian, and herself generous. The unpopular principle here is that nominal Christians looking to the church for a free ride should possibly be overlooked—or at the very least challenged over their own lack of works.

Once that is dealt with, 1 Timothy 5 calls on us to help those in our churches, just as we would help from those in our biological families. In 5:11-15 Paul says there are others who the church should not commit to giving permanent support, for they have the opportunity to remarry or work. Again, we can draw a principle from this: the church cannot be expected – nor is it required – to give to everyone who asks, not even if they belong to the church family. Finally, if those with needs are having them met by someone capable in the church already, other urgent needs exist where the church should allocate its resources (5:16).

Three principles from 1 Timothy 5

  1. The lordship of Christ demands meeting the needs of those in both our immediate family and the church family or household of God
  2. Mercy ministry must be discerning and measured. This includes asking if the beneficiary is able to receive help from elsewhere
  3. The church is not expected to alleviate every need it encounters

More principles in Galatians 6

In just a few verses (6:1-10), Paul rattles off what closely resembles a collection of proverbs. Though I encourage you to read the passage and epistle in its entirety, we can quite easily draw out a few practical principles:

  1. We fulfil the law of Christ – loving our neighbours (Matthew 22:34-40) – when we carry one another’s burdens (6:2; also see 5:13-14). We might be tempted to spiritualise this, making it about carrying emotional burdens. While I am sure the verse includes that interpretation, the physical and financial aspect cannot be denied, especially when we consider the following verses
  2. Bible teachers and the ministry staff should receive support from those that they serve, the local church they belong to (6:6; also see 1 Timothy 5:17-18)
  3. Proverbs 3:27, alluded to in Galatians 6:9, reads, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.” Though most of us would not kick against doing good to those whom it is due, I wonder if we fail to apply the command to practise mercy when it’s in our power to do so. The principle in 6:9 is simple: you do not reach the end of doing good to others
  4. Overlapping with the proverb above, Paul calls on us to do good whenever we have opportunity, especially those in our local church (6:10). There is no shortage of opportunities, both within and outside of our churches

Concluding Principles from 2 Corinthians 8-9

So much could be said about these two chapters in 2 Corinthians, but this blog post is fast becoming a lengthy paper. Let me highlight a couple of principles, focusing on the heart of the giver, those carrying out mercy or justice:

  1. Generosity is not the act of the wealthy but the generous (8:1-5). Paul tells the Corinthians how another group of believers, the Macedonians, gave according to their means in a time of severe affliction and even “extreme poverty”. 
  2. Flowing from the previous point, being generous with what we have, whether abundant or meagre, is an outworking of God’s grace (8:6-7), and true expression of Christian love (8:8, 24).
  3. This love, however, must be motivated by the gracious generosity and love of Christ, “Though he was rich…for our sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (8:9). 
  4. The gospel (above) means that giving under compulsion is not generosity. Paul says it must be willing (9:5), without reluctance (9:7); rather, it should be cheerful (9:7) and one of ways we express our gratitude towards God (9:12). “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift” (9:15).

In conclusion, the above is far from conclusive. My modest hopes for this post and its predecessor was to bring Scripture to bear on questions about ministry mercy and social justice. Admittedly, most of the principles above apply primarily to mercy ministry (carried out within the local church) rather than social justice, which we might define as practising mercy towards those outside of the church. Taken together, I pray that these posts will impress on my readers that love should not be narrowly defined or made exclusive to spiritual needs. As Paul wrote in Galatians 6:10, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone.”

Social Justice as Obedience to God

You don’t polish the brass on a sinking ship. Though only a few Christians would explicitly say that, many implicitly endorse it in the way that they think and speak about social justice or mercy ministry. This particular theological bent is veiled behind statements like: “the church’s mission is gospel witness”; “financially support the state, who have the God-given task of social justice”; and, “mercy ministry easily becomes a distraction to gospel proclamation.” More often than not, it comes down to one’s eschatological position, which is wielded as an excuse for not involving oneself or the church in social justice. But we are certainly on dangerous ground when our theological system allows us to overlook clear biblical imperatives and expectations.

There is no way around God’s expectation that Christians will be generous towards others. This is explicit and pervasive in both the Old and New Testaments. Too often our emphasis on the great commission. “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:16-20) has been used to ignore other clear teaching from Jesus, especially regarding the poor. For example, after his parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Why do we hear the imperative in Matthew while ignoring Jesus’ other one in Luke? A few years ago I taught through the the Old Testament prophet Amos. One of the unavoidable conclusions in Amos is that even though Israel was guilty of idolatry and superficial faith, it was their mistreatment of the poor that received God’s severest upbraiding.

Of course, we must not confuse gospel proclamation with expressions of gospel belief and faith in Christ. In his very practical book Ministries of Mercy, Timothy Keller argues that generosity towards the needy is not part of the gospel but an inevitable outworking of believing it. As the authors of What is the Mission of the Church? importantly remind their readers: there is something better than human flourishing and something far worse than death—in other words, we preach Christ out of a desire to see people embrace his gracious love and escape his righteous judgment. Therefore our mission is to proclaim Christ in order that people might repent and believe. However, obedience to the gospel commission does not excuse disobedience to other biblical commands.

Perhaps one of the reasons for our suspicion and slowness toward mercy ministry is owing to our theological tradition. Most readers of Rekindle would consider the Reformers to be their doctrinal forefathers. At the Reformation, men like Martin Luther had to vigorously fight for the vital distinction between works and faith, or works righteousness and salvation by grace. But a dangerous overcorrection is possible here, which reduces people to souls in need of saving. The church has too often fallen into the ancient heresy of dualism: exaggerating the distinction between the spiritual and material. But we should remember that the Reformers (and their theological offspring, the Puritans) were devoted to caring for the poor. That devotion was the fruit of an unprecedented and emphatic commitment to the Bible.

Decriminalise sex workOf course, we can all think of examples where social justice has supplanted both gospel proclamation and commitment to Scripture. I recently wrote an article about Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town, whose commitment to a progressive liberal tenet of social justice caused them to muddy the teaching of Scripture on sexual ethics. Others might cite John Stott’s now infamous statement that gospel proclamation and mercy ministry are the two wings of a plane. Both are necessary for flight. These two brief examples, among a myriad of others, are not an argument against the church pursuing social justice and mercy—through an appeal to the slippery slope fallacy. With the above point about the Reformation, these examples remind us that without theological and biblical moorings we can easily drift.

Finally, in our thinking about mercy and the practise of social justice we must remember that we aren’t primarily doing it as a response to the staggering needs of our countrymen and even some in our church family. The reason we must care for the needy, providing material support for people and seeking to alleviate suffering and poverty is because we want to be obedient to our Lord and God. As St Augustine often noted, love of God is seen in loving our neighbours. We must passionately pursue obedience to God in all areas of our lives and not just a few. This applies to the church and mercy. Not forgetting our gospel purpose as the church we simultaneously cannot forget God’s call for his people to care for and love others, especially the downtrodden and needy.

Pastor, You Are A Shepherd Not A Rancher

Writing at Mere Orthodoxy, Jake Meador quoted these words from a friend, “I’m a shepherd…When my flock gets so big that I don’t know all their names, I’ve become a rancher. Once I’m a rancher, it’s time to plant a church.” Though Jake’s post was about the pastoral limitations of megachurches, recently made apparent in the Village Church’s delayed follow-up to a serious pastoral issue, that quotation struck a chord. I have heard presentations on church growth encouraging pastors to act like ranchers. Instead of desiring the office of elder, some church growth specialists urge pastors to aim higher, to become ranchers.

ShepherdWhen I set out to write this short post it was my intention to write a satirical piece about a textual variant in 1 Peter 5, or perhaps one of the pastoral epistles. Because while the word for shepherd and its cognates are fairly common in the New Testament, closely associated with eldership (Acts 20:17, 28), the idea of a rancher who works at a higher level is completely absent. Strikingly, even when the New Testament uses the word ‘overseer’, from which we get our word bishop, it appears to be nothing more than an office in the local church (1 Timothy 3:1-2), barely distinguishable from that of an elder (1 Peter 5:1-4). This is not the place to discuss questions over hierarchical leadership structures, though New Testament support for them is admittedly scant.

Returning to the question of shepherds and ranchers, you might be interested to know that other Greek words for shepherd existed in the 1st century. The Septuagint, or Greek Old Testament, uses two related words to translate a rare Hebrew word (Amos 1:1; 2 Kings 3:4). Both Hebrew and Greek have a common word for shepherd, as well as rarer words suggesting something more than a shepherd. Therefore in English the prophet Amos is described as a “herdsman” (Amos 1:1) and Mesha king of Moab is called a “sheep breeder” (2 Kings 3:4). If I am honest, I have not done nearly enough work in thinking about these words. But from my quick survey it seems that despite words connoting ‘rancher’ or ‘manager’ being available to the writers of the New Testament they stuck with simple shepherding.

The church growth literature tends to overcomplicate ministry. For starters, the word pastor in most English translations is actually the Greek word shepherd (Ephesians 4:11). As I have already alluded, this office is closely related to two other words: elder (1 Timothy 5) and overseer (Titus 1:7). Not only does rancher not feature in this nexus but it is a nebulous as well as unbiblical word. Obviously, we can use language or analogies that are not explicitly biblical, as long as the concepts are. But rancher is neither. I have previously written about the pitfalls of analogies, specifically the analogy of a lifeboat for the local church. You might accuse me of subscribing to a legalistic and inflexible regulative principle. But words and ideas have consequences.

ShepherdLabelling pastors ranchers results in a few things, of which I I will mention three. These may be implicit or unwitting, and I am not saying they are inevitable, but in my opinion they are hard to avoid. Firstly, it creates tiers among church leaders, beyond those God has given. Similar to the view that says youth ministry is a stepping stone to real ministry, I imagine that elder or pastor could be viewed as an inferior role, before one can be promoted to rancher. Secondly, and related to the first, churches that need ranchers – rather than mere elders – convey success and growth. Small churches have elders. But big churches need ranchers. Which ministry would you rather be a part of? Which title would you rather have? Thirdly, with my limited knowledge of what ranchers actually do, I know that it is less hands on. If working at a higher level in the local church, or becoming a rancher, means doing less pastoral ministry then we have not merely mangled the biblical description of elder but abandoned it entirely. Anyone who desires the office of rancher, should move to Texas.

An entire post could be written on 1 Peter 5:1-4. But I will make only passing comments in conclusion. The apostle Peter calls himself a “fellow elder” (5:1), which seriously challenges any notion of working at a higher level, ascending a hierarchy. The office of elder is inseparable from witnessing to Christ’s work (5:1). But it is not limited to organisation, leadership or theological direction. Elders are to shepherd the flock (5:2) and set an example of mature Christian faith (5:3). I am not sure that either of those things can be done from a pulpit, or as a rancher. Peter mentions the appearing of our “chief Shepherd” (5:4). Listen to what Jesus said about this description, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). Pastor, you are a shepherd not a rancher. Do not aspire to be a rancher, especially if it means becoming less of a shepherd than the model provided by Jesus.

If you enjoyed this post there are a few more in this series:

Pastor, God Grows Churches

God is LoveWhen I finished writing this post I had a toss up over what its title should be. So here is the alternative heading: Pastor, Neither Men Nor Methods Grow Churches. Theologically I am hugely indebted to Gerald Bray. This is true in part because in addition to being a world class scholar and superb writer he endeavours to make difficult theological concepts not only accessible but applicable and pastoral (see these two recent posts, on mixed-sex friendships and the Bible). In addition to the above, Bray is delightfully witty. These attributes were recently on display when Bray was asked a question about the church growth movement.

Bray asked us to imagine a conversation taking place soon after the events of Pentecost in Acts 2. A man says to his friend, “Hey, did you hear about Peter’s new church in Jerusalem?” “No,” replies the friend. “He’s doing incredible work there: 3000 conversions last week. It’s still really early but I heard he’s going to start offering seminars to outline his ministry model and impart strategic tips.” “Amazing. Do you know what books he’s been reading: Julius Caesar or Philo? Maybe Plato’s Republic.” “Let’s be honest, it’s definitely Julius Caesar. Everyone knows when he came to Rome it was a city of stone but he’s left it a city of marble.”

Bray’s point was simple. Peter’s sermon in Jerusalem resulted in 3000 conversions, but that incredible success had very little if anything to do with Peter. He was not a dynamic leader, visionary, or master strategist. In fact, he stumbles his way through the Gospel accounts and falls at the last hurdle—only to be graciously reinstated and commissioned by Christ. Peter did actually go on to write two books, or letters (1 Peter and 2 Peter), which tragically omit his secrets to successful ministry and church growth. Or did they? “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again” (1 Peter 1:3). “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Paul puts it another way, in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, “God gave the growth…neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” 

Bray’s imagined conversation, which I have taken liberty to embellish, highlights a few related and dangerous trends in the church today. One, which I have highlighted in its own post, is the overemphasis of secular leadership principles. But it is a short step from enshrining corporate gurus to treating pastors in the same vein. Today coming from almost every corner, from social media to conferences and seminars, church leaders are being called to imitate more successful church leaders. As one friend often says to me, ‘Everyone is trying to clone success.’ This is because we wrongly attribute growth to men and women, to human strategies and ministry paradigm shifts. We forget what both Peter and Paul express clearly above: God grows churches. We forget what is evident in Acts 2: God saves sinners. Listen to F. F. Bruce on the latter passage, “Their numbers were constantly increased as more and more believers in Jesus were added by Him to the faithful remnant. It is the Lord whose prerogative it is to add new members to His own community; it is the joyful duty of the community to welcome to their ranks those whom Christ has accepted.” As John Piper often reminds us, ‘The one who does the work gets the glory.’ Therefore, even if only unwittingly, when we ascribe the growth of a church to men or methods we rob God of his glory.

Let me bring another passage from Acts to mind. In Acts 8, Peter and John lay hands and pray for the Spirit to descend onto the Samaritan believers. This episode is theologically laden so I will tread lightly. But notice how one bystander reacts. Observing their success, for the Spirit comes upon the Samaritans, Simon offers Peter and John money saying, “Give me this power” (Acts 8:18-19). Peter’s rebuke is fierce, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God” (8:20-21). I wonder if those would be Peter’s words for many today. Do we really think we can buy power or success, in the form of ministry strategies and newfangled models? Can we create growth through the imitation of powerful leaders and growth gurus?

Grace alone sola gratiaA few years back I showed a video series titled Echoes of the Reformation, to offer a crash course in reformation history and theology at my church. It was filmed as a table discussion between Al Mohler, Kevin DeYoung and Trevin Wax. In the session on Sola Gratia (grace alone), one of the speakers says, “You’re not the centre of all things. You don’t have to be the center of all things. And you’ll never have the joy that you can have in Christ until you realise that that burden is not meant to be yours.” The danger today is that when we make men, strategies and models the centre of church growth we inadvertently begin to think the same thing about ourselves—that we are responsible. This is not merely an unbearable burden but an impossible and crushing expectation. Subtly, I wonder if it is the reason church leaders and pastors believe growth can be created or manipulated. Hear DeYoung, in the same video mentioned above, “If I know how to grow this church using means other than preaching the Word and prayer then I’m aiming at something different to what God desires.”

If you enjoyed this post there are a few more in this series: