Kings and Christian Leadership: An Introduction

ZahrtmannWhen it comes to contemporary Christian leadership material, experience has unfortunately lead me to expect two things: (1) sparing as well as shallow biblical exegesis and (2) an oversubscription to trendy business and management literature along with secular leadership principles. I previously wrote a post addressed to church leaders sounding a caution against worldly wisdom, considering the Bible’s language about wisdom contrast with God’s. One of my conclusions in that post was, “Wisdom in the New Testament comes from God by prayer, can be found in Scripture and empowers Christians for faithful service.” But much so-called Christian leadership seems unapologetically shaped by the world rather than the Word.

One of the reasons for what I have outlined above can be traced back to doubts over the sufficiency of Scripture. Of course, it would never be articulated as such. But it is evident in common and reductionistic approaches to the Bible. Some will say that the Bible informs our message but not our practice—after all, it was written for another time. Thus I’ve heard comments from pastors like, “We can change anything in church but the gospel.” Martin Kähler famously warned against the view of the Gospels that makes them into little more than passion narratives with long introductions. Are we guilty of treating the entire Bible as a passion narrative with an incredibly long introduction? Either the Bible is singularly a book about the gospel – as in Christ’s death and resurrection – or it is sufficient to equip God’s people for all of life (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Perhaps you think I am being unfair. Maybe you have heard talks and read books on leadership that drew on the pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus). I hope that is true. I tried to develop some thoughts on leadership from 2 Peter, here. But when last did you hear about leadership from the Old Testament? When I recently sat down to write a paper on Christian leadership and Old Testament kingship I could think of only one passage that received anything more than short thrift: Exodus 18. In that chapter, Moses is overwhelmed by the needs of Israel. So Jethro, his father-in-law, urges him to appoint leaders to assist in the task. In other words, Moses delegated responsibility. But I find it hard to believe that all the Old Testament teaches about leadership is the necessity of delegation.

More than two thirds of the Bible is essentially passed over when Christian leadership is addressed. ‘Yes,’ you may retort, ‘That is because Israel was a theocracy not a church community. They had prophets, priests, kings and judges.’ Exactly. Despite Israel’s quite unique status, the nation was governed and lead by people. In fact, some scholars have gone as far as saying that Joshua through 2 Kings is primarily about leadership. If this is right, we must go beyond reductionistic approaches that consider how alike or unlike Christ those leaders were—how to they pointed to Christ in both their successes and failures. We are talking about a rich theology of leadership, where there is far more than principles for delegation to learn.

In the upcoming weeks I hope to draw out some theological principles regarding leadership, from 1 Kings 1-11. But I want to bring this post to an end with some points for reflection, tying back to my opening paragraph. Leadership in Old Testament Israel was meant to be markedly unlike that of the nations surrounding her. There is plenty of material dealing with kingship and politics from the ancient near East, and the Old Testament stands apart in significant ways. This should immediately raise concerns over Christian leadership that draws from and is shaped by the world’s view of leadership. One of the ways Israel was meant to distinct was in the manner of her leaders. Note that when Israel implore Samuel for a king they ask, “Appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5). There are at least two problems with their request, the first is explicit and the second implicit. Firstly, Yahweh says, “They have rejected me from being king over them” (8:7). Secondly, Yahweh describes what kind of king they will receive (8:9-17), concluding, “In that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves” (8:18). A king chosen by the standards of other kings with rule in kind. The application for and warnings regarding Christian leadership are obvious.

It is not that the establishment of Israel’s monarchy caught Yahweh off guard. Consider Deuteronomy 17:18-20, “And when [the king] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.” In many ways, the king of Israel was barely distinguished from common Israelites. Sure he possessed a judicial office. But his kingship was not defined by pomp and power, the trappings typical of other monarchs (see Deuteronomy 17:14-17). At the end of the day, the king of Israel was under God’s law and he was required to set an example of fidelity, obedience and appropriate fear. Likewise, a Christian leader must be above reproach, evidently submissive to Scripture.

In a short biographical piece about the horror author H. P. Lovecraft, Michel Houellebecq said that Lovecraft is a visceral example of someone who succeeded in his work but failed at life. As I will argue in the upcoming posts, Solomon fits that description well. But this cannot be the case for Christian leaders, who are warned to watch both their life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16). There is no succeeding at ministry but failing at the Christian life. I wonder if the growing appeal of Christian leadership material is that it presents a vision for ministry that is alluringly pragmatic— promising results and outputs based on inputs. But success in ministry, just as the shape of Old Testament kingship, is far more concerned about the life and beliefs of leaders than their successful strategies snatched from the world.

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.

Why Bother With Church?

Why bother with church? Do I really need to attend this Sunday? Do you find yourself asking these question? Sunday rolls around and you can think of ten places you would rather be. For some, this apathy is the result of making church about ourselves, what we get out of it. So when the church service stops delivering we stop attending. I have challenged this consumerist view of church previously (here and here). But the primary reason many of us wonder about the value of attending church is that we have lost sight of God’s purpose for gathering his people, wrongly believing you can be a Christian but not a churchgoer. The problem is that I do not attend church following God’s directives, which is why gathering can feel pointless. In this short post I want to pick out two reasons to bother with your local church, from Hebrews 10.

Empty churchHebrews is one of the more difficult books in the New Testament. There is almost no agreement among scholars about when it was written, who wrote it, why it was written and who it was written to. Aside from the lack of those details crucial for interpretation, Hebrews arguably contains the most technical rhetoric, not to mention a truly bewildering structure. The unfortunate outcome of these challenges to understanding Hebrews is that it receives little airtime, outside of proof texting. Apart from 13:8 — “Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever” — and 1:1, the most quoted lines from Hebrews are, “Let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good works, not neglecting meeting with each other” (10:24-25). It was actually one of the first sections of Scripture I attempted to memorise. But like many readers of Hebrews today I did not give due consideration to its context.

Perhaps the most important thing to point out is that these verses fall into the fourth and final warning section of the book—the others are 2:1-4; 3:7-4:11; 5:11-6:12; possibly 12:25-29. In 10:18 the author concludes the central exhortation of the epistle by emphasising that because of Christ’s singularly effective sacrifice: (a) sin is forgiven, (b) therefore no more sacrifices are necessary. His finished work is the cause of the Christian’s confidence to draw near and worship God (10:19-22), so we read, “Let us draw near” (10:22). But before we get to the verses we are reflecting on in this post we read, “Let us hold to the hope we confess without wavering, for the one who made the promise is faithful” (10:23). After them the author writes, “If we go on sinning deliberately after we have received knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (10:26). It is a terrifying warning. It is the negative implication of 10:18. Apart from Christ there is no forgiveness of sins, because no sacrifice for sin remains. It is within this larger section that the imperative to keep meeting together and encouraging each other is located. The day is approaching (10:25), so we cannot give up meeting and reminding each other of that day, urging each other to persevere. Those who turn away from Christ’s sacrifice have nothing but the fearful expectation of judgment (10:27).

Empty churchLinked to the above is the idea that church attendance is active, not passive. The author is not wagging his finger at those who bunk church. He is giving us a purpose for going to church and meeting with other Christians. “Consider how to spur one another on to love and good works…encouraging one another” (10:24-25). We saw above that this encouragement in intended to strengthen faith, helping our brothers and sisters persevere, but is one of your aims when meeting with other Christians to spur them on towards love and good works? I know that I fail on all accounts, regularly. Perhaps it is because the church is rife with consumerism or nominalism. However, the reason it is not true in my own life is simply that I do not obey God’s directive in Hebrews 10. Or, on the other hand, I have grabbed the convenient meaning in these verses — do not skip church — but ignored the responsibility given to me by God to: minister to other Christians. You may think that is the role of the pastor or preacher, but only if you ignore the obvious sense of these verses.

To summarise, we must commit to meeting with our local church for two reasons. Firstly, believers are in danger of giving up. All of us are regularly drawn away from Christ. The Christian life is hard, which is why God provides brothers and sisters to hold us accountable, to spur each other on as the day approaches. Secondly, this is the task given to all believers. If you feel that no one would miss you if you stopped attending your church it is probably because you are not actively ministering to others. We must reclaim God’s vision for church gatherings. Every Christian must remember that the Christian life is fraught with temptations to walk away. So let us consider how to spur one another on.

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.

How’s It Going? Part 6: Build your own

Idea generation pageThis is the last in a series of posts on church metrics. We’re going to close off this series with some how-to tips.

We’ve seen that a metric is any quantifiable measure, any piece of data, which is linked to a goal. The closer a set of measures identifies how we are doing in relation to the goal, the more effective it is as a metric. For example, if you play cricket and want to be a great batsman, you would measure your strike rate and batting average.

It’s a bit tricky to nail down what this would look like in any given situation, because life is incredibly colourful. That said, below is a set of questions to ask yourself. These will hopefully take you some of the way toward developing your own set of metrics that help you get to where you believe God wants you to be.

How would our ideal situation look and feel? Paint a vivid picture of where you want to be, in your mind or on paper.

What are some key ideals? From your vision of the future, list some key concrete aspects which can be measured (e.g. amounts, quality, characteristics, purchases, etc). Measure those.

How does our current situation look and feel? Like the above, consider the current status quo. Pay special attention to the differences between the future and the present.

What are the key differences to overcome to get to our future state? Your answer to this question may help you identify further important concrete aspects of the future which you can measure.

What impacts my list of concrete measures? Identify, with your team, as much of the funnel of inputs and outputs which have a bearing on your metrics above as possible. From that funnel, select the aspects which have the most significant impact, and track those.

How could people potentially manipulate these measures? If you can see a way to ‘game the system’, include measures to help avoid that.

What actions can I take to move towards that future state? Identify the actions you can take to influence the key changes that need to take place. Put these in your diary and stick them on your wall. Bear in mind that these may change, so use your metrics as your conversation partner, and constantly adjust.

And that’s that. Our series on metrics has come to an end. My hope is that it will contribute in some way toward us being more faithful in our service to the Lord who has commissioned us.