Pastor, Sit Lightly on the Wisdom of the World

Israel departs EgyptThe phrase, “Plunder the Egyptians” is commonly heard amongst church leaders today, especially at conferences on church leadership and growth strategy. Usually the phrase is used to validate secular wisdom. So if I am teaching at a conference about church growth and I make extensive (or exclusive) use of a trending book on corporate leadership, I need only remind my audience that God’s people plundered the Egyptians. Let me offer two important observations about this language with an eye on its original context, before we think about what God does say about worldly wisdom: (a) as Israel leave Egypt in Exodus 12 we read that God gave them favour in the sight of the people resulting in permission to plunder silver, gold jewellery and clothing; and (b) in Exodus 32 it is fairly safe to conclude that the plundered gold was used to form a physical idol. One might make a tenuous link between what was plundered and idolatry, but let us rather note that Israel plundered material things from Egypt and later those same things were worshipped instead of Yahweh. Plundering the Egyptians, at least in the book of Exodus, has nothing to do with secular principles and worldly wisdom.

A simple word search of the New Testament reveals that we should probably be far less enamoured with and influenced by the wisdom of the world, leadership gurus and corporate strategy than many regrettably are. The book of Colossians has a lot to say about wisdom and Christ but due to the limited space I have in this short post I want us to consider just a couple of themes briefly. God is often described as wise in the New Testament (Romans 11:33; Ephesians 3:10), which would explain why prayer regularly takes the shape of asking him for wisdom (James 1:5; Ephesians 1:17; Colossians 1:9-12). Following on from that observation, wisdom is linked with Christian living (1 Corinthians 6; Ephesians 5). The only time the word comes up in the pastoral epistles is in 2 Timothy 3:15, where Paul is urging Timothy to grasp tightly the inspired truth of Scripture which is able to make people wise for salvation and training them in godliness. I realise that that is far too brief a survey but I think that it would be hard to argue against this tentative conclusion: wisdom in the New Testament comes from God by prayer, can be found in Scripture and empowers Christians for faithful service. Most of that conclusion can be read in 2 Peter 3:15, where Paul’s writings (New Testament epistles) are described as wisdom that comes from God.

Moving on from the conclusion above, I would like to highlight how the New Testament often contrasts the wisdom of the world with God’s. The passage most likely to be familiar to most is 1 Corinthians 1-2, most noticeably: “I…did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (2:1). The most vivid and emphatic language used to make this contrast is undoubtedly in James 3-4, see particularly 3:13-18 for the apostle’s searing distinction between God’s wisdom and earthly acumen. Within James 3-4 these find their respective expressions in prayerful humility and presumptuous arrogance.

Finally, we come to 2 Corinthians 1 where Paul wrote, “Our boast is this…we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you” (1:12). In its historical context, Paul was addressing a church that were entranced by powerful men, “super apostles”. Because of the impressive figures they cut, these church leaders towered above everyone else. We can imagine that they were highly thought of even by non-Christians because of their powerful influence, wide learning and versatility. But that is conjecture. What we do know from 2 Corinthians is that it was necessary for Paul to devote much of his epistle to calling the church back from worldly power, leadership and wisdom. That, I am convinced, is something many of us need to be reminded of today. Though Paul threatens stern discipline upon his arrival he reminds the Christians at Corinth that he was a sincere, vulnerable and weak man fully dependant on God. It does not seem to me – from this quick look at the New Testament – that worldly wisdom, secular strategies, and corporate leadership principles are prized in God’s eyes nor do they result in humility or prayerfulness—in fact, the opposite seems to be true.

A few words from D. A. Carson in The Gagging of God suffice as a near perfect conclusion to this post. I say this because the attitude he cautions against concerning the social sciences (polling and surveys) is the same attitude I see many adopting towards secular wisdom. “More frightening is the impression that the social sciences hold the key for church renewal and growth. The assumption seems to be that we are basically okay theologically, spiritually, morally, in our prayers and passion and understanding, and that if we just add this component we are bound to see fruit. The solid core of this outlook is that we do need to understand the people to whom we minister. The falseness is that such understanding and the adaptive change that springs from it guarantees spiritual growth. It may be something God uses, and in that case God is to be thanked, for he is the Author of all good gifts, not least knowledge, including knowledge of demographic profiles. But he may withhold his blessings: he has certainly done so before. Blessings are not guaranteed by reading Gallup reports.” Likewise, blessings do not flow from the world’s wisdom but God himself, who is our wisdom and the one who generously offers wisdom to those who seek it.

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

Pastor, Why Do You Want a Big Church?

Does that strike you as a strange question? Of course we want big churches because that will mean more people know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. That may be true, but not in all cases. Let us not forget Jesus’ warning that Satan can grow the church or fall into that trap that equates attendance with faith. I have written other posts exploring whether pastors should be passionate about numerical growth, and I have offered a few cautions about the role of metrics in ministry. In this post I hope to explore the pastor’s desire for a big church. This desire is surely in many cases a healthy and prayerful longing for evangelism and conversions. However I think that we are deceiving ourselves if we deny that mixed motives may lie behind it. Pastors are, after all, sinful, limited and self-seeking human beings. It is this darker side of the pursuit for big ministries that I hope to address below.

Idolatry

Church growthAs with many of the things we make into idols the thing desired may be morally neutral, and in many cases positive. A large as well as healthy church is undoubtedly an honourable aim and God-honouring ambition. But this means that it easily becomes a noble idol, similar to a happy family or success in the workplace. Pastors can very easily slip into desiring something good over and above God, which is a decent but limited definition of idolatry. Surely if I can make something as ostensibly God-given and wonderfully satisfying as marriage into an idol I can do the same with growing and pastoring a large church. In many ways this point will underpin the rest, which are struggles that I believe show we are bowing to the idol of a big, successful ministry instead of the God who grants us the privilege and task of ministry.

Desiring recognition

Linked with the above, Iain Duguid describes idols as things we demand from God in order to give us significance. It is not hard to see how being at the helm of a big church could lead to locating your meaning and even your identity in that, instead of Christ. I imagine this temptation develops the longer one is in ministry. After years of faithfully teaching the Bible, caring for God’s flock and making the many sacrifices involved in full-time ministry the hunger for recognition must cry out. Other pastors less gifted than yourself are enjoying success and growth. As you compare your own work to others you become racked with insecurity that insists you deserve recognition. This will only happen if your significance has shifted from Christ to being the leader of a big and successful church. 

Discontentment

Similarly to the point above, perseverance in ministry can quickly give way to discontentment with the church God has given you. Make no mistake: the church you pastor is God’s treasured possession bought with the blood of his Son and entrusted to undeserving men and women to lead. In his Institutes, commenting on sin in Genesis 3, John Calvin writes, “Ambition and pride, together with ungratefulness, arose, because Adam [was] seeking more than was granted him” (2.1.4). Adam spurned God’s great bounty. Like our first parents who were far too easily persuaded that God was holding something back from them, pastors grow discontent when their churches remain small. Ingratitude causes many pastors to overlook the glorious gift of God’s church – and their responsibility to it – in their longing for a bigger one.

Failing to accept your limitations

MinistryIt is ironic how proud those in service of the crucified Christ can become. Pastors speak about growing churches, assuming that they will be able to cope with its compounded pressures and demands. The proud pastor forecasts numerical growth as if he is in control and without accepting that he may not be gifted and godly enough to manage that growth. There are two problems here: the first is that it is God alone who gives the growth, who begins and finishes his work in people while using weak and often unwitting humans in the process. Secondly, being aware of his own failings and limitations, his very humanity, the pastor should recognise that the reason his church has not broken the 1000 barrier is simply because God in his perfect wisdom knows he will not be able to lead a church that size. God can grow a church despite its pastor in the same way he can keep growth from those who seem to have all the gifts necessary in leading a megachurch. The point is we do not determine that. However grand our vision for church growth we must face reality: God grows his church and we do not. Furthermore, our limitations do not limit God’s action, though in his kindness he may prevent your church from growing to a size that will crush you.

Seeking comfortable ministry

When I was heading up a youth ministry a few years back one of the teens told me that his aim was to become filthy rich, so thathe could be really generous to gospel ministry. Despite not knowing the hearts of men – much less teenagers – I asked him if his desire was not simply to be rich and comfortable. Recently I have wondered if the desire to pastor a big church, the goose that lays the golden egg, is little more than wanting to be comfortable in ministry, the pastor of an affluent church. IX Marks recently published an excellent book that highlights an uncomfortable pattern: churches are typically concentrated in middle to upper-class areas. Obviously I am not suggesting we swing the pendulum but merely that we recognise the self-preserving tendency we all wrestle with. The desire to pastor a big church can be the veil for desiring a plush position in a wealthy church, just like my teen’s intention to be generous towards gospel work was most likely a mask for his desire to be rich. 

If you have enjoyed any of the points made in this post and would like to think more about church size I highly recommend Karl Vaters’ blog, Pivot. If you are going to read just one of his posts then I would urge you to make it this one: 11 Advantages Of Having 50 Churches Of 100 Instead Of 1 Church Of 5,000.

The Work of Christ: More than God’s Justice

Robert LethamTony Reinke said in his book Lit! that, along with whatever else he is reading, he tries to always be in book on the work of Christ. This desire surely needs little explanation if you are a Christian. But before you think I am laying on the guilt, let me admit that in 2018 I read only two books on the work of Christ, and both of those were at Easter. One of them was Robert Letham’s The Work of Christ. And it is my intention to post some reflections on it over the next month as we head towards Easter this year. You are reading the first post in this series which – along with the second – will be thinking about penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), which Letham defines as, “Christ himself willingly submitted to the just penalty which we deserved, receiving it on our behalf and in our place so that we will not have to bear it ourselves” (p133).

Numerous objections have been raised against PSA through the years and today the doctrine is perhaps facing some of its harshest criticism to date. Letham outlines and addresses two popular objections to PSA: (a) it seems unjust; (b) and therefore raises questions about God’s character. Letham more than adequately rebuffs these criticisms and defends the biblical, just and loving doctrine of PSA. But I want to touch on a third issue he interacts with, “Today there is almost universal distaste for thinking of God and salvation in legal categories” (p137). In other words, many feel that PSA reduces God’s grace to a cold transaction devoid of affection, or “stock-exchange divinity”, as Edward Irving called it. How do we answer this objection?

Briefly Letham shows how the Bible speaks very positively about God’s law. Quoting from a handful of Psalms he argues that God’s judgments are deemed perfect, and those who meditate on his justice are called wise. In the Gospels we do not see Jesus abolishing the law but rather pressing its demands upon the entire person, “requiring total and lifelong dedication to the service of God’s kingdom.” Furthermore, while Paul asserts the law’s inability to save in Romans he is careful and clear not to reject it (Romans 3:31; 7:12, 14). So, regardless of our dislike for legal categories, the Bible affirms them; God’s justice, righteousness and judgment are not merely good, but perfect.

Letham then provides a second argument against those who would reject PSA, on the grounds of it being abstract, too ledger like, or extrinsic. He writes, “It may be helpful for us to see the penal substitutionary death of Christ in the context of God’s loving provision for the deliverance of those who otherwise were without hope…The atonement stems from the love of God and, since God’s love is just love and his justice is loving justice, the cross is a demonstration par excellence of that love in a way that is commensurate with his justice” (p138). You should probably read that quote again. Letham’s point is that instead of divorcing God’s love from legal categories, the Bible holds them together. “God’s amazing love had to be righteous as well” (p139).

This post is more technical than I aim to be here, so let me keep it short and attempt to offer a neat conclusion. PSA is a central idea in both Old and New Testaments. But far from seeming to reduce God to justice crazed tyrant, in God’s provision of a substitute – ultimately his own Son – we see God’s crazy love (thanks Francis Chan). The cross beautifully demonstrates God’s love and his justice. In love Christ faces my judgment. His perfect justice partners his love and removes the penalty for sin. Hear Letham one last time, “Sin is so central to to the New Testament portrayal of the atonement that a theory which leaves it on one side is deficient” (p163). PSA upholds God’s perfect justice, presents us with God’s great love and pardons us of our sin. To adapt a few lines from O Church Arise: Come see the cross, where love and justice meet.

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.