The Last Battle: To Live is Christ

The last battleA line found on more than one character’s lips in The Last Battle is, “All world’s draw to an end, except Aslan’s own country”. Death is not the end but a beginning. This is the moving conclusion to C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. On the last page we read, “And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before” (p767). 

C. S. Lewis’ prose is enviably delightful, but the truth he describes is even more desirable. Surpassing the previous books in terms of darker and adult themes, The Last Battle confronts its readers with death. Jewel’s words to Lucy are not fantasy: all things do draw to an end, even life itself. Towards the close of the novel we learn that the children died in a railroad accident (p743). That was how they came Narnia this last time. Only, once there it becomes apparent to them that there is still something greater to come. Perhaps, like Reepicheep, this explains Roonwit’s dying words, “all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy” (p717). Later, Tirian will face his own demise with similar grit, “His only thought now was to sell his life as dearly as he could” (p738).

This language and themes are predictably biblical. Life is something to spend, because something greater beyond this life is promised. More than that, we owe our life to someone other than ourselves. One of my favourite modern hymns puts it well, “The things of earth I leave behind / To live in worship of my king / His is the right to rule my life / Mine is the joy to live for him.” As the oft quoted line from Paul goes, “To live is Christ; to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). I’ve seen this verse on more bookmarks than Philippians 4:13, which is saying something. But do we properly grasp the truth therein? I think the latter is more easily comprehended (see my post on Reepicheep and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). But what does the first half mean: “To live is Christ”? We could turn up numerous passages to answer that question, but let’s consider the autobiographical passages in Philippians 2.

Shortly after exhorting Christians to emulate Christ’s humble and sacrificial service, we read, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (2:17). Here, ”To live is Christ”, is seen in Paul serving others. His life was gladly spent for someone other than himself. As Tirian faced death by either sword or the terrifying shed doorway he sought sell his life dearly. In light of the inevitable – death, the end of Narnia – he saw his life in a radically different light.

Coming back to Philippians, so too did Epaphroditus, “Honour such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me” (2:28-29). Likewise Timothy, “I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (2:20-21; compare 1:27-2:4). “To live is Christ” is not some kind of mystical, esoteric and inexplicable spirituality. It is fundamentally about the imitation of Christ through the service of others, even when that service is costly.

At one point in The Last Battle, Jill says to Eustance, as they wonder and discuss what will happen if they die in Narnia, “I was going to say I wished we’d never come. But I don’t, I don’t, I don’t. Even if we are killed. I’d rather be killed fighting for Narnia than grow old and stupid at home and perhaps go about in a Bath chair and then die in the end just the same” (p720). These are arguably the bravest words spoken by any character in Narnia. What freed Jill from clinging to her life? It was the knowledge that death would be gain. So she too would spend her final moments, before being thrown into the shed, fighting for Narnia and Aslan. Finally, at the close, we read, “Aslan no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were too great and beautiful that I cannot write them” (p767).

I imagine Lewis would agree with me saying: as wonderful as the conclusion to Narnia is, the reality it portrays is indescribable, infinitely glorious and satisfying—all we have ever desired. He describes the new Narnia as “deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know” (p760). For the Christian, death is indeed the most wonderful and incomparable gain. But when truly believe that it will transform how we live, “To live is Christ.” Like Paul, his juniors, and Lewis’ characters in The Last Battle, we must view our lives as things to be spent rather than clinging onto them. One of the clearest evidences that we know death is gain is when we live for Christ. When we pour ourselves out for others. When we die daily, in humble and sacrificial service of others. To live is Christ.

This post brings to an end a series of articles on C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. If you enjoyed this one then please check out the rest:

Should We Preach John 7:53-8:11?

Leonidas HerodotusImagine a Sunday morning at your local church. The band are leaving the stage while the reader makes her way up to the pulpit. She reaches the microphone and announces the passage, “This morning’s reading will be from Herodotus’ The Histories, 7:220-221.” After a brief pause, she says again, “The reading will be from Histories, book 7, verses 220 through to the end of 221.”

Yes, I know it’s hard to imagine the reading being so clearly prefaced, but this is a hypothetical situation. The reader continues, “You can find that on page 492 of our provided Herodotus, the 2003 Penguin edition.” After the passage is read your reader reminds the congregation, “This is the Word of God,” to which the congregation loudly respond, “Thanks be to God.” Then your pastor gets up, thanks the reader and begins, “Good morning Redeemer Church Muizenberg, today we will be continuing with our series in The Histories.” He introduces the three points from the passage just read:

  1. Leonidas had to persevere with his task
  2. Leonidas knew there was greater glory ahead
  3. Leonidas died to save his people

Unpacking these points from the text over the next 40 minutes, the pastor delivers a moving sermon on how the Christian must not give up, but keep striving forward. For we can know – as Leonidas did – that eternal glory and immortality is promised for those who persevere. Finally, all of this was achieved and secured for us by his prophesied death, which he went to willingly to save us. The problem that I hope you have with all of the above is that The Histories is not in the Bible. Sure, it might make for a great sermon. If I’m honest, I’m pretty pleased with my three points. Furthermore, if we ignore Leonidas, the sermon would be consistent with biblical truth. You could make all of those points from biblical texts. For all of these reasons, and a few more I will outline below, I think Herodotus’ Histories is a good analogy for why we should not preach John 7:53-8:11.

In a previous post on John 7:53-8:11, with the assistance of what is considered the best commentary on John’s Gospel ever written, I probed some of the concerns regarding this text’s authenticity and its inclusion in John. The first significant problem that must be faced is that the short narrative is found in a variety of textual locations, in both John and Luke. This raises serious questions over its reliability and Johannine pedigree. If we put that aside, because it does actually appear after John 7 more than anywhere else, we must answer another serious concern: the literary shape and argument of John 7 through John 8. In both chapters Jesus is involved in heated conversations with those who rejected his messianic claims, particularly the Pharisees. These two chapters of John are remarkably polemical, creating a quite unique unit within John’s Gospel. This makes the story about the woman caught in adultery awkwardly out of place—a misfit. Added to this, and here we must defer to Greek scholars, in just 12 verses we encounter a handful of constructions and expressions found nowhere else in John. To explore these arguments in more detail see my linked post (above).

When all of the above is considered, there is still no consensus about whether this story is part of John or Luke. The evidence we have is inconclusive. Despite the growing agreement that this passage is  actually native to Luke’s Gospel, based on its literary nature, the weight of documentary evidence still places it in John. This uncertainty is not inconsequential, especially for expository preaching that places a high value on literary context. Michael Gorman writes in Elements of Biblical Exegesis, “Context is so crucial to interpretation that it is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that if you alter the context of a word or sentence or paragraph, you also alter the content of that text.” Therefore where we place this short episode shapes how it should be read and understood. The insurmountable problem is we are not even sure it is currently in the correct Gospel.

Perhaps you can put these issues aside. Maybe you are hanging onto the fact that John 7:53-8:11 is historical. After all, significant and reputable New Testament scholars believe the evidence we have indicates that John 7:53-8:11 really took place. It bears the marks of an authentic historical event. The problem is, the church does not gather to hear about history but from God. Mentions of Jesus of Nazareth can be found in Josephus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger and Tacitus, all of whom wrote towards the end of the 1st century CE, which is likely the dating for John. But we don’t preach sermons from those texts. I’ve heard the argument that, in addition to being historical, John 7:53-8:11 resonates with so much of Jesus’ teaching. But then so does Seneca the Roman philosopher and statesman. Historical pedigree is not the mark or measure of canonicity.

Should we preach John 7:53-8:11? No. You would not read the authors mentioned above and exegete their writings as Scripture, as God’s Word to his people. Despite liking the outline, I would not preach my three point sermon from Herodotus’ Histories. Similarly, which has been the contention of this post, we should not treat or handle John 7:53-8:11 as Scripture—this is not because of questions over its credibility but rather its canonicity.

Men’s Sexual Sins and Modesty

Last week I posted an article titled: Immodesty and Violence Against Women. It was prompted by the important conversations currently taking place in South Africa. Because my sphere of influence is largely limited to the church, my aim was to challenge Christian men with regard to self-control. I deliberately skirted addressing women on the topic of modesty, because those are utterly distinct conversations. As I have discussed the post online, and in person, I have realised that an idea implicit to my previous article was this: we need to unhitch conversations about sexual sin from modesty and immodesty.

Victorian ladyMost people commenting on my post agreed that men need to be self-controlled, however many were then quick to add: women must dress modestly; they must be considerate. This revealed that many Christians believe sexual sin and a women’s choice of clothing is connected. I honestly do not think that there is a short path from that mindset to blaming rape – even if only partially – on sexually provocative and revealing clothing. ‘She was asking for it.’ My friend Anja noted that men laying the responsibility for their failings at women’s feet has been the pattern since Genesis 3. She wrote, “It is human nature to pass on the blame for our own sin…we all want to take the easy way out and try make others responsible.”

Gillian commented on my article, “I’ve felt more exposed wearing a full length dress and having a guy pass comments than I have when wearing shorts and t-shirt. The dress wasn’t tight fitting.” When Jesus addressed lust he said, “If your right eyes causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Matthew 5:29). Note that it is the eye and not her exposed flesh that is the cause of sin. In fact, the eye motif runs throughout Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount. Later he said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light” (6:22). That is a notoriously difficult verse. But in this context its meaning seems fairly straightforward. Finally, Jesus delivered a warning against judging others, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eyes, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (7:3). Brothers, stop looking for the speck of immodesty in your sister’s eye when your own eyes are jammed with the log of lust.

Gillian went on to write that the church’s narrative about sexual sin needs to change. Her point speaks directly to other comments I interacted with online. One man said, “Paul makes it clear: men and women are, and will always be the same irrespective of culture and time. Men will always look at a woman and women will always dress alluringly.” But as Gillian rightly says, “We keep telling men that they are lust-filled people. This may have truth in it. But that is not their whole identity.” The problem is we treat men as if sexual sin is inevitable; as if temptation can only avoided if women would dress more considerately, or with modesty. Surely Paul meant what he wrote, ‘Do not let sin reign in your body, to make you obey its passions…For sin will have no dominion over you’ (Romans 6:12, 14). So Gillian concludes, “I can look at a guy on the beach and ‘control my urges and thinking,’ because I haven’t been told for my entire life that that’s how women will see and react to men.”

My friend Anja also reminded me of 1 Timothy 5:2, where Paul exhorts men to treat older women as mothers and younger women as sisters, in all purity. She then wrote, “This exhortation is not conditional upon what the woman is wearing.” I agree with another point Anja made: the problem with the phrase ‘violence against women’ is that it has no subject and it is in the passive voice. For those of you who are not linguists, she means that it is unclear who is doing the violence (subject). Similarly, sexual sin is something that is done; it does not merely occur. And in the vast majority of cases of sexual assault the perpetrators are men and the victims women. Yet, as she writes, “If all men loved women, as commanded in Scripture, we would not have the problem.” Taking her point together with Gillian’s, men must correct the narrative about themselves and their view of women. My male identity does not necessitate sexual temptation, while women are not sexual objects. This much should be obvious.

I want to bring this post to an end by returning to the idea of modesty. Legalism about modest dress has hampered the church for centuries, with a wide range of unbiblical definitions and demands made. Yes, when Paul exhorted women to be modest he prohibited braided hair, gold or pearls, and costly attire (1 Timothy 2:9). I do not think these were the 1st century equivalents of tight jeans, lipstick and low-cut tops. As my friend Lori wrote to me in an email, “Clothing, jewellery, hair, and makeup are just the means to an end.” They are the search for attention and the desire to be noticed—to stand apart from the rest and even to be sexually alluring. Thus Lori said, “You have to change the heart before the wardrobe. Otherwise we’re just covering up the problem.”

Stephen, who lives in Ghana, shared from his own church experience, “Older women come to church with cloths to cover up younger woman whom they feel are dressing immodestly. This can be very embarrassing for the younger women, and in some instances they end up leaving the church.” Here we must tread carefully. Like the friend I mentioned in my previous post: feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment typically follow the charge of immodesty. Lori asked me, “Should a woman be shamed to the benefit of men in church?” Is the gaze of his uncontrolled eyes more important than her feelings, her decency? As I briefly unpacked 1 Timothy 2 in my previous article, it seems that modesty is more about an attitude than attire. But as Lori wrote, when we turn modesty into a legalistic dress code, “Women must dress to a standard of modesty that differs for everyone but must somehow be divined lest they face public shaming.”

Dressing modestly is an embattled and fluid cultural issue. Therefore in addressing it we must go deeper than exposed flesh to expose the heart. So Lori concluded, “There’s a right way to address it—not by singling out and shaming individual women, but from the pulpit so that everyone can assess their own hearts in the safety of the church body.”

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.

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.”

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: