Sunday, 30 December 2007

Pastor's Page: "Behold He Is Coming"

This is a short devotional formatted to fit a church bulletin page (in a large print font) which churches may freely reproduce, if the blog address is cited.

John the Revelator tells us, "Look! He is coming! And every eye will see him!" One of these days, we will hear a mighty shout and trumpet blast, and we will all look up to see Christ coming.
For some, this will be an incredibly good and joyous sight. For others, this will be a time of the greatest mourning. The contrast could hardly be greater. Christians long for that Day; we talk about it with great anticipation, and we pray that God would haste its coming. When it does happen, we'll sing and shout the victory!

Not so, the unbeliever! The Revelator continues, "Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him" (1:7). Elsewhere he says,

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty,
and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the
mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, "Fall on us and
hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the
Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand"

For those who have not placed their full allegiance in the slain but risen Lamb Christ Jesus, the day of his coming will be a day of disaster, not salvation; a day of wailing, not joy, a day of unassailable grief which will never be abated throughout all eternity.

Why such contrast? Why the extreme between great joy and great distress? The great divide falls on our acceptance of Christ's claims over our lives. Maranatha!

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Pastor's Page: The Ugly Side of New Birth (Advent #4)

Duffy Robbins, a Youth Ministry professor, humorously recounts all the unsightliness and un-comeliness of giving birth. He notes that a first-time visitor from another planet would assume that something truly horrific was happening in the mater-nity ward, as he heard all the screaming, and wit-nessed the frenzied activity, and incredible pain and hardship associated with human birth. Robbins' tongue-in-cheek analysis conveys the important fact that bringing forth new life is messy business.

This was true even of the birth of the Savior. The miraculous conception brought shame to the couple. There was hardship in making the journey to Bethlehem. Being sent to the stable to share lodging with the sheep was insulting. There was panic in every step as they fled with Herod's thugs in hot pursuit. Bloodshed, violent shrieks of anguish, and tear-streaked cheeks filled nurseries in every household in Bethlehem as Herod raged over the one who was born King of the Jews. This birth was indeed a messy business.

But these labor pains were not in vain. The Savior was born, and so, New Life was brought into this world—like never before.

As with any new birth, we pace wearily through our daily lives, facing potential tragedy on every side. Yet we experience all this while fixing our eyes on Jesus who says, "Behold, I make all things new!" (Rev 21:5).

Monday, 10 December 2007

The Priesthood of Every Believer and How Churches Should Be Governed

The Priesthood of Every Believer
and How Churches Should Be Governed

As a sometime pastor, and as a scholar of the church (in training), I have an intense interest in what the Bible says about church governance. Does the Bible support the notion of a church governed by the pastor, a board, or the congregation? This post argues for congregational government, tying it to the doctrine of the indwelling of every believer, which is often overlooked in this discussion.

Definitions and Dynamics
Preliminarily, I should define some basic elements of the various types of church governance, with relevant commentary. First there is episcopal government in which an individual has sole authority in the church and rules by fiat. This is seen in Roman Catholicism in which the Pope rules the churches through his bishops and priests, but is also exemplified in the Episcopal and Methodist churches. Since the 1960s (more or less), this type of church governance has (ironically) become increasingly popular within the independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches in the U.S., following the model of people such as Bob Jones, John R. Rice, and Jack Hyles.

Second, a presbyterian model puts church governance into the hands of a board. Although the board is traditionally referred to as an elder board, it might also be called any other number of titles, such as trustees or even deacons (!). But perhaps the most important aspect of presbyterian governance is that this board controls the church and is self-perpetuating. That is, when an elder resigns, dies, or rotates off the board, the church does not choose his replacement, but rather the board chooses his replacement.

Third, a congregational or baptistic model puts church governance into the hands of the congregation which appoints leaders to various positions to facilitate the decision making/implementation process. The pastor may have more or less authority, and likewise other church leaders such as deacons and trustees, according to the previously defined limits outlined in the church's by-laws which were drawn by the congregation.

Plurality of Elders in the New Testament

Before making my argument for congregational government, I should address the claim that the Bible teaches a church governance of a plurality of elders, since this gets stated so often and gets little analytical scrutiny. Yes, to be sure, we know that there were elders in the early church and that the elders surely would have wielded leadership authority. However, this does not automatically mean that such elders reflected a presbyterian model in which they had unilateral control over the church and were self-perpetuating.

We also know that the apostles or their delegates appointed church elders in new churches. But again, this does not necessitate the notion that such elders, in turn, appointed their own replacements or had unilateral authority over the church.

On the contrary, there is reasonably good evidence to suggest that once a church became self-governing, it was the church itself which designated its own leaders, rather than the apostles or their delegates. A case in point is, of course, 1 Timothy, where the church was in leadership crisis, in part, because Hymenaeus and Alexander had been excluded from the church, necessitating Paul's extensive instructions about the church choosing their replacements. This assumes that the list of 1 Tim 3 was not written for the sake of Timothy. In fact, Timothy had just previously discussed the Ephesian situation with Paul at an undisclosed location as Paul was on his way to Macedonia (1:3). If it were Timothy's task to appoint elders, Paul and Timothy would have simply resolved the issue face to face, with the letter disclosing additional words of encouragement to those whom they had already chosen. Instead, the list appears designed to help the congregation figure out whom they should choose as their new leaders.

Doctrine of the Priesthood and Indwelling of Every Believer
Historically, episcopal government dominated the later years of the early church, as churches modeled their governance after the dictators of Rome. Many centuries later, in the Reformation era, the church came to understand the doctrine of the Priesthood of Every Believer, along with the Spirit's indwelling of every believer. This raised serious questions about episcopal governance and ultimately re-distributed or devolved authority from an individual bishop or priest to an elder board.

Baptists, however, took this doctrine more seriously and applied its implications more consistently in terms of church governance. If every believer really is a priest and is indwelt by the Spirit, then it is possible for even the lowest maidservant to be led by the Spirit of God. As such, the input of each person was cherished in the decision making process, at least in theory. (One wonders how freely Baptist women were permitted to contribute in those early years of the movement.) Consequently, while presbyterians were willing to devolve authority away from the monarchical bishop to a small group of elders, Baptists devolved authority all the way to the individual members of the church so that the congregation formed its own governance.

Earlier I said in a sideward comment that it is ironic that so many independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches have retroverted back to a papal model in which the pastor has all authority. Someone referred to these pastors as "protestant popes." What is so ironic about this trend is that this is a wholesale discarding of deeply considered convictions which our Baptist forebears held, and it is done without much serious thought. Baptists ought to embrace the doctrine of the Priesthood and Indwelling of Every Believer since they have traditionally held to this doctrine moreso than any other Christian movement.

This doctrine of the Priesthood and Indwelling of Every Believer puts congregational governance on a solid biblical basis. I'm not aware of any biblical text which speaks against the notion that the church congregation chooses its own leadership and defines the limits of leaders' authority, nor am I aware of any text which suggests that a board or an individual is supposed to have unilateral authority over the church. On the contrary, there are texts which seem to assume that the congregation determines its own leaders, and the doctrine of the Priesthood and Indwelling of Every Believer makes congregational governance the most biblical approach to this important issue.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Pastor's Page: A Tale of Two Kings (Advent #3)

This is a short devotional formatted to fit a church bulletin page (in a large print font) which churches may freely reproduce, if the blog address is cited.

A Tale of Two Kings

One king wasn't born a king at all; he hadn't even a drop of royalty in his blood. He had to scratch, connive, conspire, and backstab all the way to his throne. The other King was born a true king, not by virtue of his genealogy—although he was descendant of kings—but by virtue of his very nature.

One king looked like a king. He wore royal garments and was surrounded by royal courtesans. He lived in fine palaces and was protected by body guards and armies. The other King didn't look like a king at all. He wore swaddling rags and claimed a feeding trough for a crib. His courtesans, so to speak, were bedraggled shepherds.

One king sought everyone's worship and adoration. He exerted his kingship like a petty thug or a child tyrant. On hearing the news of another king being worshiped, he took drastic desperate steps to stop it. The other King was meek and lowly. To those who worshiped him, he gave the gift of rest and life. To show his love for us, he stretched his arms wide open to receive us as he drew his dying breaths.

One king died and was buried. No one mourned his death or built a great memorial to him. The other King, too, died, but was resurrected to life. His monument to us is an empty tomb.

O come, let us adore the true King.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

A Christmas Choral Reading for Five Readers

It Was in a Dream:
A Christmas Call to Discipleship

A Christmas Choral Reading for Five Readers

James M. Leonard
Christmas, 2007

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Pastor's Page (Advent): Near to the Heart of God

This is a short devotional formatted to fit a church bulletin page (in a large print font) which churches may freely reproduce, if the blog address is cited.

God is so, so very different from us: all knowing, all powerful, all wise, all holy. Yet, we were created "in his image." This means we have some things in common. In particular, God created us as persons, not as things or objects. He created us as thinking and reasoning beings. He created us as relational beings. He created us to have a right relationship with him as thinking persons who are free to act in this Creator-creature relationship. And there is one more thing about this relationship: it involves God's deep love for us.

The sad thing about this relationship is that we have all acted contrary to God's intentions. We have personally sinned against him. We have personally rebelled against his will. We have personally insulted the Spirit of his grace. As such, we have alienated ourselves from our Creator, and this torments our souls.

The Good News about Christmas is that God did not leave us in our alienation. At the right time, God came so close to us as to become one of us, through the incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. By doing so, he showed us his own desire to restore a right relationship with us. Christ came so that we may once again come near to the heart of God.