How to Encourage Your Pastor

Pastoring a church is not an easy job.

Here are 10 ways you can encourage your pastor (or pastors).

1. Thank him (or them).

It’s not easy to preach every week. It’s not easy to carry the burden of ministry every day. A pastor rarely hears “thank you.” A good pastor isn’t in the ministry for a thank you from the congregation. They are not after man’s approval but work for God’s approval (Galatians 1:10). They shepherd as one who will give account to God (Hebrews 13:17). But a thank you can go a long way. Pastors, like nearly everyone, are severely under-encouraged. My guess is you appreciate the work he does. Tell him so.

One practical way to do this: write him a letter. Emails usually include a criticism. Hand-written letters nearly always include encouragement. It shows you thought more than the 30 seconds it takes to send an email. Letters also have a way of sticking around for a while. Emails get buried quickly. Letters are sweet reminders on the desktop after a long, hard day of ministry.

2. Be specific in your thanks.

A general “thank you” is more than what many pastors hear week after week, but a specific thank you is life-giving. Find one phrase or thought or action and thank him. Specificity implies gratefulness. If a phrase from his sermon last week stuck with you, let him know. Lots of pastors hear very little specific feedback on their sermon. Imagine spending hours each week to prepare something and never know how it lands on the people you’re speaking to.

One practical way to do this: immediately after the service, walk up with a smile and repeat to him one phrase from the sermon that you found life-giving. Every pastor wants to help people see God. Tell him specifically how God used him that day.

3. Submit to their leadership.

If God has placed you in a church he requires for you to submit to her leaders (Hebrew 13:17). Most of the time, that’s an easy call. If you stick around long enough and invest deep enough, something will arise that requires submission. Do it joyfully, understanding that God is leading this church. If the gospel isn’t being thrown out and sin isn’t being glorified, submit.

One practical way to do this: when he says something that you aren’t fully on board with initially, pray in the moment for a spirit of submission. Unless it is a gospel issue, sinful, or illegal, submit to the leadership. I guarantee your pastor has thought more and prayed harder about the vision they are presenting than your 30 seconds of evaluation.

4. Make their job easy. 

That is not to say don’t have problems, but don’t create problems. Be a life giver and not a life sucker. It’s no surprise to anyone who’s lived with other humans that we tend to make life harder to live. Pastors often see the worst parts. They are called when the crisis has reached breaking-point. They sit with grieving parents and children during deaths of loved ones. They have difficult conversations for the glory of God and the good of the church. Do all you can to make their job easy. Make it so your pastor is happy to see you.

One practical way to do this: when you send an email with a question or a desire to get together, be specific. It’s really difficult to receive an email from someone in the congregation requesting to “talk about something,” or “run something by you,” or “some feedback on your sermon.” Include specifics as to exactly what you want to talk about, even if it is negative. Like anyone else, pastors appreciate the time to prepare for a conversation. Make their job easier, not harder.

5. Honor him (or them).

Pay them well, if you are in a position to make such a call. Speak well of them to outsiders and insiders. Tell them how you see God at work in their life. Use your words to build up, not tear down.

One practical way to do this: speak well of him in public and private. Your pastor may annoy you. He might not be the best preacher. He may have a quirk or two. Don’t talk to others about that–those are personal preferences. If he’s preaching the gospel and walking in the light, don’t beat him up for being who God made him. Instead, speak well of him at all times, just as you hope others would do for you.

6. Squash gossip.

Leaders take a lot of heat. Let only their actual words and actions be discussed, not feelings about such words or actions, especially if you disagree. Be slow to speak. Remember, don’t cause problems. Don’t let your prayer requests for others be a shrouded attempt to spread the news that isn’t yours to spread. Don’t be the wind on the flame of gossip. Be the water.

One practical way to do this: when someone shares something you know is gossip, end the conversation immediately. You may be able to do this subtly. You may have to confront publically. Be wise in how you do it, but do not let a gossip speak long. Nothing can ruin a church as quickly as a bit of juicy information. The tongue is like fire (James 3:5-6).

7. Come to church.

Pastors love the people of their church and not members who don’t attend is troublesome. It causes much worry. Come and be present. When you are absent, you pastor(s) notice. They have committed to God to care for your soul. When you aren’t there, and they don’t know why, they wonder how you are. Be tied into the church. Pretend like it’s a family because it is.

One practical way to do this: decide right now you’ll go to church every week. Don’t allow any room for excuses. Even if you’re sick, come and sit in the back. Let people know you’re not feeling well so you won’t shake their hand and spread the illness. I make it a rule that unless I’m too sick to get out of bed I’m at church. It’s not only encouraging to the pastor, it’s good for your soul (Hebrews 10:25).

8. Engage in the life of the church in the way God has gifted you.

Don’t wait for him to ask for your help. Offer it, and be satisfied with the answer of yes or no to follow. What do you have that you didn’t receive? Worship God through the use of your gifts. Even if you don’t love the job, do it joyfully. Most likely, you won’t do it forever. If you can help, help!

One practical way to do this: learn your gifting. There are all kinds of spiritual gift tests you can take. Some of those are fine. But you know what you can and can’t do. If you don’t, others around you can see your strengths and weaknesses. Ask them. The point is, be ready to serve where and when you can. Open yourself up. Take a risk. Be dependable. After all, you’re not serving your pastor. You’re serving the Lord. You can never serve God too much.

9. Trust him (or them).

He’s leading you the best he can as he follows Jesus. Trust his instincts. Give the benefit of the doubt.

One practical way to do this: tell him you trust his leadership and are thankful for him. Be explicit in this, especially if you have a disagreeable personality. It’s hard enough to preach each week. It’s even harder when you wonder if certain people out there trust what you’re saying. Following the Lord is a crazy journey. He asks us to do risky things from time to time. Trust that your pastor is following Jesus closely enough that you can trust him. Trust him until he proves he’s untrustworthy.

10. Pray for him (or them).

Nothing means more than this. Every day is a spiritual battle. Satan hates what pastors do. He wishes for nothing more than a great fall into sin. Every moment, the battle is waged. How often do you include your pastors into your prayers? What if, instead of complaining that the sermon was too long, or that he forgot your birthday, you instead bowed your head in thanksgiving?

One practical way to do this: every Sunday morning on the way to church, pray for your pastor. He’s about to preach. That’s a hard job! He’s about to lead the church in beholding the glory of Christ. He needs your prayers. Oh, and when you get there, tell him you prayed for him on the way. Let him know he’s not the only one trusting God to provide today.

Editor’s Note: This originally published at Things of the Sort.



Pastors Are Special

4 Reasons Pastoral Work is Different (and What You and I Should Do About It)

I’ve been a pastor and I’ve not been a pastor, and I have to tell you, pastors are special. There is nothing quite like pastoral work, and I’ve discovered it is sometimes difficult to communicate that effectively to congregations. If you’ve never been a pastor, you may even suspect all the anxious, recent talk about pastoral stress and burnout and the like is overblown. We’ve all heard the jokes about how pastors only work one day a week.

There are also plenty of us who have served under or otherwise been led by manipulative, lazy, or even abusive pastors, giving us even more cause to raise an eyebrow about any posture toward ministers other than “keeping them honest.” There are certainly too many unqualified men in the pastoral ranks. But I’m convinced the vast majority of pastors are good and faithful men doing their imperfect best to serve the Lord and feed their flocks. And I’m equally convinced that too few church members often think about the burdens and responsibilities that really do make ministry special.

Too few pastors feel secure or free enough to speak this way in public. They fear being judged or dismissed. From my time “on the other side,” I can say that I — and almost every ministerial comrade I opened up to — felt constantly misunderstood and constantly restrained from confessing it.

Now that I’m not a pastor, I have taken seriously one of my ministerial goals in serving pastors and advocating for pastors. To that end, if you’re one of those who thinks pastors whine too much and work too little, I want to share with you some reasons you may not have considered that pastoral work really is different.

1. The qualifications are greater.

Every Christian is called to pursue holiness with the same vigor. No one is exempted from cooperating with the Spirit’s work in sanctification. But 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 all set the bar for pastors higher. They must not only be gifted to teach but be of exceptional and reputable character. This is not so for “regular” church members. The Lord himself has set the bar higher for elders.

2. The accountability is heightened.

As it should be. We should, in the biblical sense, expect more from our shepherds than the sheep. James 3:1 tells us that teachers will be judged with greater strictness. 1 Peter 4:17 says judgment begins at the house of God, and if it begins there, it certainly begins with the leaders of that house. So we know that the Lord himself holds his undershepherds to greater accountability. Pastors are to “be examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3).

But “we the people” hold our pastors to greater accountability than we often do ourselves, don’t we? In some respects, this is a good thing, as the qualifications for ministry are greater than the qualifications for membership. Yet when a member is in sin that must be disciplined, and the impact to the church is great, the impact is far greater if that member happens to be a pastor. Not to mention, not many members are at serious risk of losing their means of providing for their families due to their sin. But pastors are.

Still further, I can think of almost no situation where a church member would lose his job over another member’s disappointment with them or disagreement with them — unless that other member happened to be their employer, I suppose — but many pastors are at constant risk of this, constantly feeling the tug between convictional leadership and congregational approval. Every pastor knows at least one pastor who has been fired or convinced to resign for unbiblical reasons — if he hasn’t been subject to that situation himself. Because, in a church environment, where even minor disagreements or frustrations have the potential for becoming spiritualized, the pastor’s job is never “just a job.”

3. Pastoral work takes an enormous emotional toll.

This is the part I think most church members don’t quite get. Until you’ve experienced it, you can’t quite understand it. If you trust your pastor(s), you believe them when (if!) they talk about it, but until you’ve been in the role, you really can’t understand the emotional toll taken on good pastors. Closely analogous roles would be those who do emergency work, police officers, or even some social workers, where one constantly feels “on,” there are frequent crises that keep the worker’s adrenaline going long after the crisis is over, and there are experiences and challenges that become difficult to discuss with others who do not share the same work.

Some studies have shown that the occupations at highest risk of burnout include what are called “helping professions,” of which pastoral ministry is one. The numbers change depending on which study you’re looking at, but the burnout and dropout rates for pastors aren’t encouraging.

In 2 Corinthians 11, after Paul has listed a series of hardships severely affecting his body and soul — including shipwrecks, imprisonments, attempts on his life — he includes “the anxiety he feels for all the churches” (v.28). Just this admission from Paul helped me enormously in ministry as I wondered from time to time, a) am I a weak weirdo to feel this way?, and b) does anyone care? Paul citing the anxiety he feels from his church work is just one indicator that there is a “good” kind of anxiety shepherds feel for their flocks. It is the rare (and valuable) church member who constantly carries the weight of his or her whole church in their heart, but most pastors do this all the time. They aren’t simply thinking about the joys and sorrows in their own lives and families — they are constantly thinking about the joys and sorrows in yours. That’s different.

4. You can’t turn it off.

Though I’m still in vocational ministry, I can tell you that the difference between the end of my work day now and the end of my work day when I was a pastor is significant. While I still carry too many of tomorrow’s sorrows into today, and while there are always projects and endeavors occupying my mind outside of official “office hours,” for the most part I am able to “turn off” my job when it’s time to stop working. When I was a pastor I could not do that. Here’s what it typically looked like:

– You are “on call” 24/7 for emergencies (and situations people considered emergencies, even if they really weren’t).

– I lost lots of sleep over hurts people carried, sins people were committing, resentments people were harboring, and circumstances that seemed too spiritually daunting.

– When going on vacation, it typically took me a few days just to start relaxing. In my first few years, this would be immediately undone if I made the bonehead move of checking email or voicemail.

– It was hard to be present with my wife and kids because of frequent, intense relational work necessary during ministry engagements. They needed my best when I was at my most fatigued relationally.

– People’s spiritual needs do not tend to stay confined within a neat 40-hour work week.

Again, none of this is grounds for pastoral self-pity. And of course there are other professions where these sorts of dynamics are also in play. Overbounding stress is prevalent in way too many of us. But there’s a reason most pastors won’t talk about it. Partly because they mean to just “suck it up.” Partly because they don’t want to appear weak. And partly because they know some church members will think they’re complaining about nothing. There are very few things worse than a wimpy preacher, am I right?

But the truth is that good pastors are not able to take the pastor hat off at the end of the day or leave their heart for their flocks in the office when they clock out. It’s just not something you can turn off.

For all these reasons and more, it is fine and proper for us “regular” church members to acknowledge that our pastors are special. They aren’t better Christians because of their ministry. They aren’t more justified. They don’t have a special connection to God that we don’t have. And yet their office is unique and brings with it unique challenges and burdens that most of us do not share.

So how could we share these burdens with them to a greater extent? Here are 3 big tips, from one sheep to another:

1. Pray for your pastors.

They need it. And praying for them helps shape your heart in gracious ways toward them. When I’m praying for my pastors, I am loving them. And it is hard to have a loving disposition toward someone and scrutinize or otherwise be suspicious of them at the same time. (This is why Paul lists those things as evidence of a lack of love in 1 Corinthians 13.)

2. Take seriously not just the biblical admonitions to pastoral accountability but also to pastoral honor (1 Tim. 5:17).

This can look like anything from staying vigilant about making sure pastoral pay is commensurate with experience and tenure but also in line with cost of living considerations. It can also look like installing a sabbatical schedule for full-time pastors or just ensuring adequate vacation time and weekly days off are enjoyed by pastors and respected by the church.

3. Be a low-maintenance church member.

As a church member, I want to take Hebrews 13:17 seriously: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” This means living my life in such a way that it is as much a joy and as little a challenge to be my pastor as possible.



The Local Church Is Your Spiritual Gifts Test

It is a good and noble pursuit to ask how God has gifted us to serve his church. We find a call for such assessment in Romans 12. Paul writes that believers are to “think with sober judgment” (v. 3) as they consider how to use their gifts in the body of Christ. However, the question remains how exactly we should assess spiritual gifting. How do we bring sober discernment to our modern membership classes and discipleship programs? Far too often, our answer is to hand out a survey or a spiritual gifts test and tally up the results. If you have ever taken one of these tests, you know the kinds of questions asked. “When you walk into a room, do you feel more compelled to pray with someone, stack chairs, write a check, or tell everyone else what they should do?” The test’s results might suggest that you have either the gift of encouragement, service, giving, or leadership based on how you answer. I certainly do not intend to mock these tests. I’ve taken them in the past, and they have been somewhat helpful in matching gifts with specific needs in the church.

However, the longer I’ve been in ministry, the more I’ve found how ineffective these tests are in actually discerning what a person’s spiritual gifts may be. In some ways, these tests have caused more harm than good. In this post, I want to question our use of spiritual gifts tests and suggest that we retire them altogether. However, whether you use them or not in the future, my primary goal is to highlight the place of the local church in assessing spiritual gifts accurately.

Three Reasons Spiritual Gifts Tests Do Not Work

First, the reality is that we are not sober-minded enough to spiritually assess ourselves. A person may think of themselves as a giving person. And yet, what they call “giving” may be a veiled cop-out from doing the more difficult labors in the church—such as greeting others, hosting a small group, mentoring youth, or teaching in the children’s ministry. The gift of giving requires more than a few PayPal transactions made on the first of the month. Instead, it is the evident commitment to give not just one’s money but his or her very life (time, energy, etc.) that proves the presence of the “giving” gift. I’m sure if we’d given them a spiritual gift exam, Ananias and Sapphira might have shown they had the spiritual gift of giving (Acts 5:1). Yet, the testing of their hearts revealed a very different reality. What at an initial glance might seem to be “sacrificial giving” was actually a blasphemous and prideful attempt to become self-important. It’s worth remembering that even our best actions may not be all that they seem. Therefore, we should never trust ourselves to assess ourselves.

Second, traditional spiritual gifts tests might foster complacency and, sometimes, pride. If I tested “positive” for one set of gifts, it might lead me to overlook or avoid other giftings. The idea begins to creep in that our hands are tied. “I’d help with A, B, and C, but unfortunately, God has gifted me for X, Y, and Z.” This is why Jim does not serve in the kindergarten class. Having taking a test, he seeks out more important roles because God has gifted him with the spiritual gifts of leadership and wisdom. Similarly, everyone knows that we shouldn’t ask Angelica to go on the mission trip. She’ll tell you directly that she’s not gifted with evangelism. If we’re honest, many of the traditional spiritual gifts tests reveal more about what we want to do rather than what we are gifted to do. However, true spiritual gifting sometimes means seeking out things we would not naturally want to do.

Finally, traditional spiritual gifts assessments have sometimes inadvertently provided believers justification for sin. Spiritual gifts tests tend to focus more on labeling a person’s actions rather than assessing their spiritual health. What I do and why I am doing it are both critical. For example, suppose in filling out a typical spiritual gifts inventory, I answer that I enjoy organizing things, leading events, or managing people. In that case, the test is sure to suggest that I might have the spiritual gift of leadership. However, it does not help me discern whether my desire to lead is healthy or truly deriving from the Spirit’s leadership. Maybe, I want to lead because I struggle with domineering over people. Why I want to lead is just as important as my propensity to lead.

However, a spiritual gifts test typically does not provide such nuances. It only affirms or suggests whether I “have” the leadership gift. The result is that I now have a verbal defense to explain why I might tend to boss other people around. “My spiritual gifts test said I have the gift of leadership.” Ultimately, a propensity to dominate over others is easily shrouded in the rhetoric of leadership gifting. This lack of motivational discernment happens in the other gifts as well. How many times have suspicion and gossip been cloaked as “discernment”? Mercy can become an excuse to avoid biblical conflict. Exhortation may become a rationale for angry tirades and accusations, and the gift of knowledge may be offered as a “justification” for a person speaking as an arrogant know-it-all.

While I readily admit that none of us employ our spiritual gifts perfectly, I think we are too quick in justifying specific sins as a misadministration of spiritual gifting. Sin is deceptive and always looks for a disguise, even if it must wear the guise of a spiritual gift. However, sin is still sin and should not be mislabeled as the inevitable downside to a few specific Spirit-borne gifts. Suspicion may cloak itself as discernment, but pull back the hood, and you’ll only find the ugly face of divisiveness. A propensity to domineer may wear the mask of leadership. Still, when the mask falls off, we do not find a true Spirit-led leader but a sinful autocrat. When it comes to true spiritual gifts (i.e., Spirit-given gifts), the Holy Spirit superintends and governs the gift. Any sin we bring to the table comes from the residual sin in our hearts, not from God’s gifts. Spiritual gifts assessments have at times been used to justify “quirkiness” that comes from various gifts instead of commending sanctification and repentance.

A Better Assessment

What if I were to tell you that there is a tried and proven spiritual gifts assessment, and it is not found on any written survey or exam? For generations, the only effective means of assessing one’s spiritual gifts has been the local church. If you want to know your gifts, then commit to serving alongside other Spirit-led Christians on a consistent basis. Proximity and exposure to ministry inevitably reveal how the Lord has uniquely equipped you to serve his people. It’s in the trenches of missional life that one’s spiritual gifts are accurately tested. An accurate assessment comes with extended time spent in the ministry, as well as a substantial number of difficulties and challenges that demonstrate the existence of a specific gift. For example, it is impossible to tell who has the gift of mercy until a person has demonstrated a consistent concern to show mercy even when helping people means sacrificing convenience. “Testing” requires challenges, and to be challenged you first have to get involved. In facing the challenges of day-to-day church life, we begin to see who we are and how God has gifted us.

In addition to engaging in ministry, we must also open ourselves up to the loving and honest evaluation of others. God’s gifts can and should be affirmed by those around us. It is by undergoing the risk of honest assessment from those who love us that we can accurately determine how God has equipped us for specific spiritual work. Is my aptitude to teach a genuine gift or is it a cloaked means to build a platform? Do I truly have the gift of giving, or am I using it as a smokescreen to fund my laziness? Has God truly gifted me with exhortation, or am I just using that term “gift” as a license to berate others? The only way of knowing is by committing ourselves to the risky and, oftentimes, painful business of gospel-centered community. When we allow ourselves to be surrounded by people who are not all that impressed by what we do or easily duped by our façade, we can finally differentiate the dross of sin from the true spiritual gift. That said, the local church is your spiritual gifts test. It is only by being members of the body that we find out what specific function—whether it be an eye, a hand, or a foot—we play in the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-10).

Take all the paper exams you want; but until you finally commit yourself to a body of believers, you will never know how God has gifted you to serve them.



Zion’s Cultural Heritage

During my college years I traveled extensively, as a result I experienced a variety of cultures. The hospitality of Egypt, with cups full of Maghrebi, mint tea heavily laden with sugar; or the extended Italian meals that feature aperitivo, first and second Piatti, followed by a strong digestivo. I danced with Malawians at the celebration of a wedding, listening to the steady rhythm of a musical heritage built on drumbeat. I was captivated by history and fables woven seamlessly together in the dim lighting of an Irish pub. I have celebrated my own inherited culture over meals of the strange fish and potato heavy food of Norway, and listened to my grandmother reciting nursery rhymes in German. Though varied, these cultures are all cultivated by the same basic elements: food, music, and story.

In these cross-cultural experiences I also had the delight of worshiping alongside brothers and sisters in Christ. It was there I saw the thread of a common culture that superseded any national boundaries. I listened to Arabic hymns, shared the Lord’s supper alongside my Malawian brothers and sisters, and heard the word of God preached in Italian. I found more in common with brothers and sisters across the world than with those who do not know Christ within my own neighborhood.

Why is this? How could I stand in a church in Cairo, without a word spoken in English, and feel just as at home as when I stand in my church in North Carolina? How could I listen to hymns sung in a tongue I did not comprehend and yet understand the tone of worship beneath them? It is because we in the church have a shared cultural identity. We too have all three elements of culture: food, music, and story. Our food is the blood and body of Christ. Our music is the psalms, as well as hymns, new and old. Our story is the unfolding plan of redemptive history, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ, our Savior. We are truly a city set on a hill (Matthew 5:14). We are a new people. We are a new nation with its own unique culture. We are Zion. This new national heritage supersedes the disparate backgrounds of its multicultural members. In Christ we are truly citizens of a different kingdom. This new culture in Christ ties us to centuries of Christians before us and is indifferent to borders or ethnicities, and it will exist into eternity. We ought to treasure it above all else, and joyfully cultivate it and pass it on with more zeal than our genetic heritage.

Does this mean that our past cultures disappear? Is my individual cultural heritage absorbed and eradicated as I put on the new cultural identity of the church? Certainly not. But it ought to be rightly ordered, well beneath my new citizenship in Zion. This is the beautiful truth that Peter helps us understand:


    But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2:9-10

Often when we think of the church’s culture, we think of our more recent history in the west. Western civilization owes much to the extension of the church’s cultural heritage; our hospitals, schools, concern for the disenfranchised, and ethical foundation exist because of the church’s obedience to Christ and resulting influence. Yet, while the western world has produced a powerful expression of church culture, the essential components have existed long before. Our church culture predates western civilization. We hail back to ancestry from the beginning of time. We are Adam’s descendants, the man who walked with God. We tell the story of his fall, and the subsequent epic of God’s rescue. We are the offspring of Eve, the mother of all living, and like our mother we know enmity with the wicked one. We have Abraham as our father, and are his heirs by faith (Romans 4:16). We are of the line of the noble and courageous midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who feared God and so defied Pharaoh, refusing to murder babies at their birth. We sing Moses’ song, and Mary’s Magnificat. We pray King David’s prayers through the Psalms as we too toil and struggle in our walk with God. We call the martyr Stephen our brother–marveling at his steadfastness and love for his enemies as they stoned him to death. We sympathize with Peter’s rashness and failures, yet aim to follow his lead in repentance and fearlessly following Christ. We share kinship with Titus’ mother and grandmother, women, who through their faith and mothering care, helped prepare him for the pastorate.

Perpetua is our sister and we seek to emulate her courage in facing the Roman arena where she was torn apart by wild beasts for her refusal to denounce Christ. We stand in the tradition of Augustine, intellectually brightening our faith and countering the claims of culture; and Marguerite de Navarre who leveraged her position to protect persecuted Christians and paved the way for religious liberty in France. Ours is a legacy that follows the Englishman, Hudson Taylor, in his faithful founding of the China Inland Mission; and Pandita Ramabai, our sister in Christ who sought to share the gospel in her home country, India, and abolish the dehumanizing caste system. We recite creeds and confessions written by brothers long dead (but now alive again with Christ). We sing songs written centuries before us, and we add to our musical legacy with hymns and songs of our own. Our cultural food is the Bread of Life himself, the meal we share in remembrance of him.

We, as God’s people, have a fully developed, time-honored culture that exists in our food, music and story. And we are known by this cultural identity. As we cultivate and impart this culture to the next generation it ought to do what every living and thriving culture does: spread and extend into all facets of life.

Our culture ought to invoke work that is centered in humble service, that has its eyes set on the kingdom to come. It ought to expose a love that is rooted in the One who loved us first, compelling a deep love for one another that extends beyond ethnic or familial bonds, recognizing the brothers and sisters of the faith as our eternal family. It ought to lead to a death that is resolved in its submission to the authority of God, following a life lived in service to others, and at peace with any circumstance, including profound suffering or persecution. As Christ said, we will be known for our love for one another (John 13:35). Our heritage, our loyalty, our love must be for Christ’s church before all else.

This is our culture. It is the culture of every individual who makes up the community of the church, whether Cree or Malawian, Palestinian or Norwegian, Chinese or Mexican, British or Russian, Indonesian or Brazilian. The church’s ability to retain her distinctive culture, otherworldly in its single-minded kingdom aims, and united across national and ethnic lines in its devotion to the King of kings, will breathe life into the world around us simply by doing what the church is called to do: obeying and worshiping our God. As we sing songs new and old, continually tell the story of our redemption, and regularly remember Christ in the bread and cup, we will flourish and grow. We will be a city set on a hill, a light that cannot be extinguished.



Missing God’s Word While Preaching God’s Words

Did you know that the Bible never refers to itself as God’s Word?

Before you tear your robes and stone me for heresy, I do believe that “all scripture is God-breathed and profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16). And I do believe that the words we find in our Bibles are indeed God’s words.

But God’s words are different from God’s Word. If we read God’s words in the Bible, we see the term God’s “Word” consistently referring to two things.

  • God’s “Word” is God’s overarching message—-His history-long self-revelation (like God’s sayings, decrees, prophecies, etc.; e.g. Matt. 7:24; John 14:10).
  • God’s “Word” is Jesus—the incarnate Word (e.g. John 1:1-14; Col. 1:19).

Of course, the Bible is a primary means by which we can know God’s message and God’s Son, but we must distinguish between the two concepts.

Because God’s words, rightly read, point us toward God’s Word.

This “words/Word” distinction may seem like a matter of semantics. But in truth, it is a vital distinction for every follower of Jesus—for both a theological reason and a practical one.

A Theological Understanding of God’s Word

Theologically, rightly defining God’s Word helps us rightly understand God. And as we do, His message and His Son become even more glorious. For example:

  • “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth,” Jesus prays (John 17:17). While Scripture is true and helpful, only Jesus sanctifies us. This happens as we increasingly rely on Him, as His Spirit leads us to apply the truth of His good news to all of life.
  • “The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow…” says Hebrews 4:12 (NIV). This verse is often understood to be about the Bible itself. But the chapter explains how God’s people enter God’s rest. The Bible doesn’t work so we can rest; God does! Hebrews 4:13-16 clearly describes our reliance on Jesus in our weakness: He is our high priest; in Him alone we have confidence. Because of Jesus, not the Bible, we rest in God’s grace, now and forever. Further, by His Spirit, Jesus is the “active” presence of God in the world today! Our faith in Jesus is humanity’s dividing line (“double-edged sword”).
  • Hebrews 4:12 also says that the Word “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The Bible shows the standard by which God will judge, but Jesus—God’s Word—is our judge. The Bible can’t know our heart; Jesus does. This verse is about Jesus and the good news of the gospel, not about Scripture itself.

Again, I firmly believe that God inspired the words of the Bible and that regularly engaging with the Bible is a vital aspect of Christian living. But we must rightly understand what the Bible says about God’s Word, His message, and His Son lest we attribute to the Bible itself that which rightly belongs to the Father, Son, and Spirit.

A Practical Understanding of God’s Word

As any good theology should, a right interpretation of “Word” overflows into our life and ministry. Practically, every time we preach—or even read—the Bible, this distinction invites us to seek God’s Word, even as we read God’s words. I once heard someone say that the Bible is simply a windshield; our goal is to look through it to see God clearly. If we become obsessed with the windshield, we miss what really matters.

For example, when the Apostle Paul exhorts Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2), he doesn’t just mean to “help people understand the literal words on the page,” even though that’s today’s common interpretation. Rather, and with a proper grasp of the Greek in which he wrote his letter, Paul charges his protégé, “Preach THE Word! Preach the heart of God’s message [as Paul did; see Acts 20:27]! Preach the gospel! Preach Jesus!” It’s not enough to exposit a biblical text and explain its face-value meaning. Rather, we must preach the good news of Jesus—the one message—from every text. (This concept and the Bible’s use of rhéma and logos are fleshed out in my Reading the Bible, Missing the Gospel [Moody Publishers, 2022].)

In this example and dozens of others, understanding God’s Word matters, for life and ministry. So we can ask two questions as we read the words of the Bible to find God’s Word through them:

  • First, how does every story, command, and verse in the passage fit within God’s larger, history-long message?
  • Second, how does every story, command, and verse we read point us to Jesus?

If we fail to look through the Bible’s words to God’s Word, we can read or teach the Bible in a way that it becomes about “me” (my knowledge, my emotions, my self-improvement) or a new Law (my ability to obey or follow rules [which we know we can’t do!]). There are commands, knowledge, and emotion in the Bible. But these flow out of God’s message (God’s revealed Word) and are exemplified by Jesus and empowered by His Spirit in us (God’s incarnate Word).

Jesus’ Understanding of God’s Word

Perhaps Jesus’ own words are the best place to close. In rebuking religious leaders of His day, He explains the difference between their study of God’s words and the power of God’s Word. Though these leaders’ entire lives revolved around studying Scripture, Jesus claims in John 5:37-38, “[God’s] voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent.” In other words, “you’re missing God’s true revelation, though you study His words.”

Then comes the pinnacle of His charge: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39, italics mine). Even Jesus affirms that God’s words themselves are insufficient for true life! But God’s words point toward God’s Word, who DOES give life. If we miss that, we too read the Bible but miss its message. Even as we read the Bible, could Jesus charge us alongside these leaders, “you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:40)?

Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is the source of life. Jesus is the culmination of every Bible verse, command, and story’s meaning. Jesus is the heart of God’s message, and Jesus is the source of true life. So when we go to the Bible, every time we read or teach, let us not only seek to understand the words of Scripture themselves. Rather, let us seek, know, and rely on the one true Word, who is revealed by the Bible’s words.



Remember: Actively Reflecting on the Goodness of God

Has someone ever asked you if you have had a good weekend and you have a moment where you cannot remember what you did? Sometimes, it takes me a minute to remember what has happened even a few days back. Isn’t it bizarre that we are so forgetful?

As I was reflecting on that, I began to think about how often we see this in Scripture. One of the biggest examples of this is the nation of Israel. It seems as if they are constantly forgetting what God has saved them from. God specifically appointed Moses to save them from Exile in Egypt. God miraculously saved a whole nation and a few days removed from this incredible moment, they forgot.

We see in Exodus 14, just after God used Moses to allow them to cross the Red Sea, the Israelites said this when Pharaoh was pursuing them:

“They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?” Exodus 14:11

They told Moses that they would have rather stayed in exile for the rest of their lives than to die in the desert. Before they left exile, they were beaten, starved, and treated as slaves. Before God provided Moses, there was no way out. And when God delivered them, they had a chance at a new life and a new future. He had been faithful in his promise to use this nation to accomplish his purpose.

And now, there is a bump in the road where they cannot see a way out. From their point of view, it was a hopeless situation. Moses tried to remind them of who God is.

“Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.” Exodus 14:13

Here Moses is, having remembered how God has remained faithful, trying to remind the Israelites that God is in control of the situation.

They finally come back around at the end of the chapter and say “And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” Exodus 14:31

I want to caution us not to point fingers at them and think for ourselves when was the last time I forgot that God always comes through? And then when he does, we are flabbergasted by it. It could be tempting to say that we would never forget God so quickly but I know I do. God has not waivered, we simply forgot.

My hope and encouragement to you is to be good rememberer. At the beginning of every semester, I will take the time to make a voice memo or dedicate an hour to write down every way that God has been faithful in my life. I encourage you to journal often and establish a practice of remembering the times in your life that God has always been faithful and that he will be forever.



Protect the Sheep

Often when we think of pastors, we might associate the agrarian function of a shepherd who provides nourishment and physical guidance to his flock with the spiritual leadership of the local church office. When recently asked, “how does a pastor protect the flock?” I found myself initially thinking in terms of the appeal given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:13, “Purge the evil person from among you,”—which presumably finds its foundation in the similar refrain found in Deuteronomy, “So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” The danger I began to experience in my mind as I mistook the intention of these passages was a tendency to over-anticipate evil within the camp. Whereas elders are called to deal swiftly with wolves who may be masquerading as sheep, I found myself focusing primarily on the threat of wolfl-y sheep. In other words, I had begun to view God’s people, his children, as the enemy.

The shepherd must keep a close watch on the flock so that sin is not permitted to fester and multiply. I grew up raising livestock and know firsthand the importance of identifying and treating sickness early. When I was little, I remember one of our animals contracting pink eye, and as quickly as possible, we had to quarantine the infected to protect the healthy. Understandably in the days that followed the initial discovery of sickness in one animal, all others were watched closely. Medication was prepared. A plan for additional quarantining was established. But in all this anticipation, we would never entertain the worst-case scenario—a premature “downsizing” of the herd. There was, in other words, long suffering in devotion and care for the animals’ well-being and the obvious reality that they weren’t the problem at hand.

In contrast to the illustration of sickness in the herd, we also encountered actual threats from outside predators. When wild animals were known to be in the area, our concern was simple—intrusion and subsequent death. And on the few unfortunate occasions such a breach occurred, we had to act swiftly “to purge the evil from [our] midst.” In all of this, the biblical principle is demonstrated analogously: the threat to the flock originates on the outside. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The real enemy from whom the church needs protection is the ancient serpent with his legion of followers.

Protection as Biblical Calling

How, then, do the Scriptures practically frame the ministry of protection assigned to elders? It would seem the calling of an elder to protect involves two specific exhortations: 1) protect the sheep from the false teachings of the enemy—myths and heresies—and 2) protect the sheep from the false comforts of the enemy—sin and ungodliness.

Protect the Truth of the Gospel
First, the pastor is called to protect the flock from false teaching. Paul, in his first recorded letter to Timothy, urges his pastoral protégé to prevent “certain persons” from teaching any “different doctrine” and to keep them from devoting themselves to “myths” and “endless genealogies.” As Paul says, the result of such deviations will result in “promoting speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.”[1] In other words, the integrity of the gospel, as the center point of one’s trust in God, becomes crippled when impure theology spreads within the church. Later in the letter, Paul likewise warns Timothy of “some [who] will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared.”[2] The danger is readily stated—even the enemy seeks to make and multiply disciples.

Protect the Purity of the Saints
Just as the pastor is called to protect the sheep from false teaching, so is he called to protect the sheep from false comforts or sin. The point is made apparent, once again, in 1 Timothy. In Chapter 6, Paul begins by demonstrating how failure to protect one’s doctrine will result in the consequent fall into ungodliness.[3] Then he continues by identifying not only the sinful heart of the false teacher—“he has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels”—but also the product of such teaching: “envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”[4] The principle is clear: false teachers, who have stumbled into impurity, will multiply their moral depravity among those who fall victim to their fabrications.

Ironically, Paul’s exhortation in 2 Timothy 4 shows the nature by which sinful living feeds and invites further false teaching. He says, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”[5] As people become accustomed to sinful lifestyles, Paul says, they will turn away from the truth to affirm and resource their self-seeking pleasures. Just as a true flock of sheep is vulnerable to sickness spreading wildly, so too is a congregation when false teaching and sin are allowed to permeate and grow within.

How Might We Protect the Sheep?

Timothy Witmer references a helpful lesson in which an actual shepherd explains the most useful tool for protecting the sheep is not the rod or staff—no, it is the fence.[6] The fence, by design, creates a protective barrier between the outside world and the safe environment within. At first glance, the fence is helpful to keep harmful things out, but also, the fence is a means by which vulnerable things are kept from wandering into danger. My experience with livestock proved this dual reality—all animals quickly learn the unforgiving nature of an electric fence. How do we, as pastors, construct a fence to guard those entrusted to our care?

Supernatural Intercession
As mentioned earlier, the actual danger to God’s flock is otherworldly. The enemy wants to break into the fenced pasture of the local church undetected so he can spread falsehoods. But also, we know he is actively working to entice the sheep away from the herd so that they’ll breach the fence only to find his victim. The work of a pastor, as God’s under-shepherd, is to protect the sheep against the accuser, the liar, the tempter. Therefore, this ministry cannot be performed in human terms. Instead, a pastor must embrace the task of spiritual battle. This means, first and foremost, a pastor must continuously and actively depend on God. Not only must the pastor be alert to the devil’s advances into his own heart and mind, but he must also remember that only God has the power over the enemy. The pastoral ministry of protection, in large part then, must take place on one’s knees. Prayer is the most overtly supernatural means of protection at our disposal. It invites God to glorify His own name as He might exercise His strength within this world.

Let the Word do the Work
Over and over again, the Pastoral Epistles frame the calling of a pastor as the ministry of handling the Word. In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul writes, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by doing so you will save both yourself and your hearers.” And likewise, in 2 Timothy 4:1–2, he says, “I charge you . . . preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” If a pastor is going to be used by God to prompt life change in his sheep, it will be because he has relied on the power of the Word.

Armor for Advancement
Finally, a pastor will have protected his sheep when he has successfully equipped them with the armor of God. Imagine a captain who bravely marches into battle alone so that he might single-handedly protect his unarmed followers from harm. He will be swiftly defeated, and his people will be left with no option but to surrender. Recently, someone suggested that the armor depicted in Ephesians 6:10–20 may be better understood as offensive rather than defensive equipment. No doubt, Paul’s charges to “withstand” and “stand firm” lend themselves to defensive fortitudes. However, I was struck by the undercurrent in the thought. Christians are not passive participants in this world. Instead, God has called us to push His message of reconciliation forward and against the opposing spiritual forces so that the world may know the love of Christ and that the symphony of nations would glorify God. In other words, the flock is perhaps most protected when doing what they were created to do. In this, living in obedient and humble devotion to God’s Great Commission, strengthening and fortifying the heart takes place—both in individuals and the covenant community of believers.

[1] 1 Timothy 1:3–7, ESV.
[2] 1 Timothy 4:1–2, ESV.
[3] 1 Timothy 6:3, ESV. “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness,”
[4] 1 Timothy 6:4–5, ESV.
[5] 2 Timothy 4:3–4, ESV.
[6] Timothy Witmer, The Shepherd Leader



How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament–Step 11: Systematic Theology

What is Systematic Theology?

Systematic theology is the study of the Bible’s doctrine designed to help us shape a proper worldview. Systematic theology presupposes that the Bible gets reality right, and it assumes Scripture’s overarching unity while affirming the progress of revelation and the development of redemptive history. In Systematic Theology, we seek to answer the question, “What does the whole Bible say about X?”

In the interpretive process, the stage considering Systematic Theology is asking more specifically, “How does our passage theologically cohere with the whole Bible?” Or, “How does our passage contribute to our understanding of certain doctrines?”

Traditionally, systematic theology divides into at least ten categories:

  • Theology Proper (the doctrine of God)
  • Bibliology (the doctrine of Scripture)
  • Angelology (the doctrine of angels and demons)
  • Anthropology (the doctrine of humanity)
  • Hamartiology (the doctrine of sin)
  • Christology (the doctrine of Christ)
  • Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation)
  • Pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit)
  • Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the Church)
  • Eschatology (the doctrine of the end times or last things)

 

Different theological views within the church arise from different perspectives on each of these topics.

It’s important to recognize that not all doctrinal issues bear equal weight. For example, Paul emphasized that the gospel he preached was of “first importance” (1 Cor 15:3). Other teachings matter, but nothing is more fundamental than the good news that the reigning God saves and satisfies sinners who believe through Christ Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. To say that certain doctrines are more important than others does not imply that Christians may take any biblical truth less seriously. All doctrines matter, but certain ones are more fundamental––more foundational––than others because they undergird and inform all biblical truth. Furthermore, recognize that your conviction on a doctrine may influence your understanding of another doctrine.

Albert Mohler has termed the weighing out of different doctrines theological triage.[1] In Systematic Theology, theological triage involves assessing those doctrines that require the church’s greatest attention. Assessing means you as the busy expositor must classify your passage’s doctrines as primary, secondary, or tertiary.

 

The Process of Theological Triage

1. Level 1: Doctrines Essential to Christianity

First level issues of doctrine are those most central and essential to Christianity. You can’t deny these issues and still be a Christian. Mohler includes here doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture.

2. Level 2: Doctrines that Generate Reasonable Boundaries

Second level issues are usually those that distinguish denominations and local churches. These are issues that commonly spark the highest-level debates, are usually grounded in some form of biblical interpretation, and generate reasonable boundaries between Christians. Mohler includes among these the doctrines of the meaning and mode of baptism and views on the role of women in the home and church. To these, I add the questions of God’s sovereignty in salvation and of divorce and remarriage. Level two differences do not identify someone as a Christian, but most local churches will struggle if their leaders disagree on these matters.

3. Level 3: Doctrines Addressing Minor Disagreements

Third level issues are those doctrines over which Christians can disagree and easily remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations. These are matters of wisdom, conscience, and practice like, “Should Christians participate in Halloween?” or “Is it best to educate children through public school, private school, private Christian school, or homeschool?” Other times third-level issues are matters of simple dispute bearing little influence on one’s everyday life. Mohler includes among these questions about the millennium and those related to the timing and sequence of Christ’s return.[2]

How to Study Systematic Theology

Approaching the Bible’s doctrines is no light matter, for we are seeking to grasp all that God has revealed in Scripture on a given topic. I propose the following approach to the study of systematic theology.

1. Ask God to Supply Both Insight with Reason and Humility with Love

There are at least two reasons why all pursuit of doctrine must begin with prayer. First, we do not want to be ashamed of failing in rigorous, God-dependent thinking (1 Cor 14:20; 2 Tim 2:7). Failing at this point is serious. As Peter notes, “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet 3:16). Second, we need the Spirit’s aid to gain the experiential knowledge the Bible demands. This kind of experiential knowledge of God is only “spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14; cf. Eph 1:17–19), and because of this, we must saturate with prayer our quest to grasp Bible doctrine.

2. Catalog and Synthesize All the Relevant Passages

After praying, collect the most relevant passages related to the topic with which you are wrestling. The best tool here is a concordance (see Word- and Concept-Studies post), which will allow you to look up keywords or concepts to find where the Bible treats your subject. Once you have identified the most relevant texts, you need to classify them. This process entails reading all the texts carefully, summarizing their points, and organizing them into groups based on distinct patterns or features. Ever keep in mind the flow of salvation history and the progress of revelation! The final step is to synthesize in one or more points what the Bible teaches on your topic and then to clarify how your passage contributes to this understanding. If your passage were not present in Scripture, would some crucial knowledge about your topic be missing?

A Case Study in Systematic Theology

Yahweh declares in Zeph 3:9–10: “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Cush, my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering.” In the previous verse, Yahweh had commanded the believing remnant in Judah and from other lands to continue waiting on him in faith, looking through to the day of the Lord-judgment in hope. Verses 9–10 then provide one of the reasons why they must persist in their Godward trust.

On the very day of his judicial sentencing of the world (“at that time,” 3:9), Yahweh will cleanse the surviving peoples’ “speech,” which the Greek translation renders “tongue.” This speech transformation will, in turn, generate a unified profession that will result in a unified service: they will “call upon the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord” (Zeph 3:9; cf. Rev 7:9–10). The imagery of speech-purification implies the overturning of judgment (Ps 55:9) and likely alludes to a reversal of the Tower of Babel episode, where a communal pride against God resulted in his confusing “language/speech” and his “dispersing” the rebels across the globe (Gen 11:7, 9). To call on Yahweh’s name is to outwardly express worshipful dependence on him as the sovereign, savior, and satisfier (Ps 116:4, 13, 17). In Joel 2 the prophet similarly connected this phenomenon with the day of the Lord (Joel 2:28–32).

“Cush” was ancient Ethiopia, the center of black Africa, and located in modern Sudan. Its rivers were likely the White and Blue Nile (see Isa 18:1–2). As if following the rivers of life back up to the garden of Eden for fellowship with the great King (Gen 2:13; cf. Rev 22:1–2), the prophet envisions that even the most distant lands upon which the Lord has poured his wrath (Zeph 2:11–12) will have a remnant of “worshippers” whom God’s presence will compel to Jerusalem. Those gathered before God’s presence would be a worldwide, multi-ethnic community descending from the three families and seventy nations that Yahweh once “dispersed” in judgment at Babel after the flood (Gen 11:8–9). Indeed, even some from Cush, Zephaniah’s own heritage (Zeph 1:1), would gain new birth certificates declaring that they were born in Zion (Ps 87:4).

As we assess this text from the perspective of Systematic Theology, I believe it informs both our Eschatology and Ecclesiology. As for the doctrine of the last things, Zephaniah envisions that the new creation community will be born “at that time” (Zeph 3:9) when God rises as judge and executes his punishment on the world (3:8). What is significant here is that the New Testament authors view Jesus’ death to be an intrusion of the future judgment on behalf of the elect, and therefore his resurrection already inaugurates the new creation. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:9). “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come… For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:17, 21).

With respect to the doctrine of the church, Zephaniah speaks to both the disposition and international makeup of a community that God will preserve through judgment. If Jesus has already borne the day of the Lord-judgment anticipated in Zeph 3:8, it seems likely that the multi-ethnic community of worshipers he describes in 3:9–10 is indeed his church. Certainly, the depiction fulfills the hopes of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:3), and it finds support in the way the New Testament sees the messianic new covenant community to be made up of Jews and Gentiles in Christ who are now one flock (John 10:16; cf. 11:51–52; 12:19–20), a single olive tree (Rom 11:17–24), and one new man (Eph 2:11–22).

In support of this view is the way Luke describes the beginnings of the church at Pentecost. The outpouring of the Spirit of Christ on the saints in Jerusalem inaugurated the change of speech and unity that Zephaniah predicted (Zeph 3:9–10). Not only does the early church speak in new “tongues” (Acts 2:4, 11; cf. 10:46; 19:6), but they also call on the name of Lord Jesus (2:21, 38) and devote themselves together “to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). Through Christ’s atoning death, the blessing of God moves from “Jerusalem … to the end of the earth” (1:8; cf. Luke 24:47), reaching even into ancient Ethiopia/Cush, as the story of the Ethiopian eunuch testifies (Acts 8:26–40).

Now bringing together eschatology and ecclesiology, we can mark the initial fulfillment of Zephaniah’s hopes and say that already the Lord is shaping “a kingdom and priests” “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9–10; cf. 7:9–10). Along with this reality, we can add that already as priests we are offering sacrifices of praise (Rom 12:1; Heb 13:15–16; 1 Pet 2:5) at “Mount Zion and … the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22; cf. Isa 2:2–3; Zech 8:20–23). Nevertheless, we are still awaiting the day when “the holy city, new Jerusalem” will descend from heaven as the new earth (Rev 21:2). At that time, our daily journey to find rest in Christ’s supremacy and sufficiency (Matt 11:28–29; John 6:35) will be consummated in a place where the curse is no more (Rev 21:24–22:5; cf. Isa 60:3; Heb 4:1, 9–11). Thus, I believe that we can see Zephaniah’s prophetic prediction already being fulfilled today in Jesus’s church, even as we the saints await its full realization.

[1] R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Confessional Evangelicalism,” in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, ed. Andrew David Naselli and Collin Hansen, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 77–80; see also http://www.albertmohler.com/2005/07/12/a-call-for-theological-triage-and-christian-maturity/.

[2] The best book on identifying and working through these minor disagreements is Andrew David Naselli and J. D. Crowley, Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).

Find the rest of the articles in this series here



Does Love Prevail Over Hardship?

One of my first childhood memories is playing house. From a young age, I was the girl putting honeysuckle in my hair, donning my prettiest thrift store dress, and “marrying” the little boy across the street. I would often convince friends to participate in the pretend worlds I created for us; worlds filled with hardships over which love would always prevail.

Time eventually caused me to outgrow these worlds and the dresses that went with them. But adolescence brought new (and terrifying) reality to the dream that still rested in my heart. Getting older was exhilarating—attraction intensified and real dating was within reach. Wrestling with feelings of rejection and insecurity were a low price to pay knowing I could meet my real-life Prince Charming at any moment.

When the Lord saved me at the age of seventeen, my understanding of marriage fundamentally changed. It was no longer about having a Pinterest-perfect wedding or fairytale meet-cute with Prince Charming. God’s Word brought my vague understanding of companionship into perfect focus: love is sacrificial, selfless, sanctifying. Marriage is a means by which we can walk in love, just as Christ loved and gave himself up for his Bride (Eph. 5:25).

The truth that marriage exists to display this profound mystery stirred my soul. As I took every internship, job, and opportunity available to me during university, I definitely did not have a “ring by spring” mentality. Yet as my adventures and challenges increased, so did my desire to share them with another.

I got that chance for a season.

The taste of what life could look like alongside someone I loved was sweet. He placed honeysuckles in my hair and spun me around in beautiful dresses like I always dreamed. But after years of dating, something was missing. An article published by For The Church last year titled “The One Life Dream That Makes a Girl Blush” by Andrea Burke communicates what I desperately yearned for: to create and care for a home.

In what seemed a cruel twist, the release of Burke’s piece coincided with the less-than-graceful conclusion of the relationship I thought would last a lifetime. As I read her words on the value of marriage and motherhood, it was as if smoke from the questions burning in my heart drew endless streams of tears from my eyes.

Why would God take the responsibility of displaying the gospel through marriage from someone who recognized its purpose? What was the point of all those wasted years? Was I not strong enough for that calling?

Even if your dreams are not the same as mine, I am sure you’ve pondered similar questions about God’s plans and your purpose or worth. Everyone has experienced some sort of loss or change to what they thought their life would look like (repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example). Not even the follower of Christ is exempt from these effects of sin.

As we sojourn in this broken world we face calamities (Acts 28:1-4) and we cry out in affliction (Job 30). We are perplexed, persecuted, and struck down (2 Cor. 4:8-9). We feel the weariness of life ache in our bodies and minds (Ecc. 12). Did Christ not experience this suffering?

Jesus was pushed face-down in a garden. Stripped, spat on, beaten, mocked. Given wine with gall to gag upon. Punished as a criminal, crying out in agony before death by crucifixion. In light of such events, it seemed foolish to declare this man the anticipated Messiah who would reign on the eternal throne of the Lord (2 Sam. 7:16, Matt. 27:18).

In such a world, it seems love does not prevail over hardship.

Yet those of us who know Christ know this is not true. Evil looked as though it conquered at the cross, but in reality, God enacted His sovereign plan. For it was at the cross Christ claimed victory over the domain of darkness and established his kingship. It is the slain Lamb’s selfless sacrifice that necessitates this song of worship from the heavenly beings in the throne room:

Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.

Revelation 5:9-10

Just as the suffering of Christ was real and immense, it was purposeful and glory-filled. The Son of God bowed in obedience to the will of the Father to fulfill God’s plan of redemption of humanity and restoration of our fallen world. As followers of this Christ, we can take heart, for Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33).

So take heart, believer. There is nothing lost that cannot be redeemed; nothing broken that cannot be mended (Rev. 21). No matter what expectations are not met or what dreams die, we must call to mind the truth that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17, ESV).

Beloved, let us pick up our crosses together—proclaiming Christ even with thorns in our flesh.  For one day we will stand beside a sea of glass adorned in pure and bright fine linen. On that day, lesser dreams will be forgotten and our deepest desires will be fulfilled at the sight of our nail-pierced Groom. And finally, blessedly, we will eternally enjoy unhindered fellowship with God through Jesus Christ our Lord.



Keeping a Close Watch: On Cultivating and Maintaining Godliness in Pastoral Ministry

In March 2020, the world was rocked by COVID, its physiological consequences, and the compounded political upheaval that was already present in the country. At the time, I was not yet voted in as an elder at Emmaus but was in the applicant stage. So, I was in conversation with the elders on a few matters, let alone the natural friendships that were already present. The pastoral burdens were looming large.

At the time, the elders were praying, and encouraged the church to pray, that the Lord would use the time of isolation and uncertainty so sins that have been swept under the rug or self-justified would be brought out to the open and dealt with. The Lord not only answered that prayer swiftly in our own congregation, but also throughout sister churches. And now two years later, we’re pleading with the Lord to grant peace and holiness.

The falling of public figures has been happening since our father Adam. However, it seems more pronounced in the last two decades or so. It had always felt like an “out there” sort of thing for me until the last five years. Some local leaders that I had some sort of friendship with had fallen; it had even come within my own family. Now, the potency of sin and its effects were all the more real. I was sobered to the core.

This caused a lot of uncertainty and self-analysis in my own life. I know firsthand that the problems aren’t merely leadership failures or personal disagreements. Rather, it’s the assaults of hell coming after Christ’s church through her under-shepherds and through division and discord within her members. Part of which has birthed this short reflection and even a Sunday morning class at Emmaus on the Christian virtues. These are some reflections that I’ve been pondering on lately and pray they stir us on to keep a close watch on our life and doctrine.

Practice and Immerse Yourself in the Mystery of Godliness

Paul’s exhortation to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:6-16 should be a passage that pastors return to often as a check on their life and doctrine. The imagery in verses 7-8 of training and repeated in verse 15 is clear that the mystery of godliness is definitively true of us but there still remains flesh to be killed and assaults of hell to subvert. In fact, Paul tells Timothy that in practicing and immersing himself in the mystery of godliness, other will see his progress.

When the Spirit applies the work of Christ to us and unites us to him, we begin to see how immersed in sinful patterns we are. The Spirit is the Gift of God that empowers us to turn from those patterns of the flesh and establish patterns of the new creation that God has made us to be. Peter picks up on this in his first epistle where he exhorts us to practice what we are.

Further, Paul tells Timothy that he is the one to set an example to the believers in godliness. Despite his age, he is to demonstrate godliness in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, or in purity. Acting in godliness isn’t legalism; it’s being who we are. This should be even more sobering for the pastor as he is the under-shepherd demonstrating the way of the Chief Shepherd. The groaning and toiling of killing sin and subverting the assaults of hell is valuable and worthwhile “because we have our hope set on the living God.”

For pastors, it means that we are held to a higher standard and will be judged accordingly. Not only should we pastors be cultivating and maintaining godliness in a personal manner, but this should be the basis for how we shepherd the flock of God. Am I habituating myself in godly speech and not coarse joking? Am I immersing myself in godly conduct and not the passions of the flesh? Am I practicing godly love and not self-regard? Am I imitating godly faith and not self-justification? Am I occupying myself with godly purity and not secret immorality? The Hillbilly Thomists’ song Good Tree begins aptly:

You can’t gather grapes
From a bramble bush
Or pick a fig from thorns
Oh, would I like to be
Oh, to be a good tree

Way of Wisdom and Way of Folly

I was reminded recently of the fox metaphor on the Life and Books and Everything podcast. There, DeYoung asks questions like: Where have we allowed the metaphorical foxes to creep into our lives that erode our holiness and sanctified common sense? Where have we habituated ourselves to the point of danger? In the Matt Chandler situation, it was noted that the actions weren’t seen as unhelpful and stupid. This is a crucial question to ask ourselves, our wives, friends, and fellow pastors. Are there areas in our life that are being eroded by foxes? Are there areas in our life that we are blind to sinful patterns growing? Are there areas in our life where we are justifying our thoughts or actions, not calling sinful indulgences for what they are?

In my office, I have one of my favorite John Wooden quotes written on my dry-erase board: “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” This may seem like too basic of a fact, but therein lies the irony. It’s the basics or the fundamentals that stabilize and empower as one moves forward. Christ’s conquering of sin and death applied to your account, pastor, is what stabilizes and empowers you. Christ’s ascension to God’s right hand is our pleasure forevermore. You can’t move forward or see progress unless the fundamentals remain the fundamentals. Which, as a silly example, is why the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker-Popovich Spurs were so dominant. Many jokes still make their rounds today about Tim Duncan being the “Big Fundamental” but there’s a reason why that crew won so many championships.

Though there are doubtless more, there are two areas of concern I want to briefly reflect on: use of the tongue and self-sabotage. The dangers of the tongue, which are really manifestations of the inner man, are prevalent throughout the Scriptures. James interestingly begins chapter 4 with a warning that not every brother should be a teacher because the tongue can bridle the wild horse or set a forest ablaze. Paul also has strong words against the unrighteous use of the tongue in Ephesians 4:29; 5:4. This is the more elusive of the foxes that erode our foundation. Sarcasm, crude joking, or gossip are far too pervasive in the life of the church, let alone those who teach. May the Lord have mercy on us and grant us a thankful heart.

The second area of concern is what I want to call self-sabotage. To be fair, this is a bit more subjective. However, more and more pastors are experiencing burn out, over work, and they are even potentially being called to another vocation. All of which are not necessarily bad or wrong. And not all burnout is self-sabotage. However, there is an overwhelming pressure, and possibly an unhealthy expectation, to remain committed and faithful to Christ’s church, no exceptions. And as such, they are looking for a way out without shame or scrutiny. Thus, a brother may self-sabotage in a variety of ways to get out.

Now hear me clearly that the pastoral office is a high and demanding one, and rightfully so. There should be a holy pressure and expectation. All of which is why there are particular guardrails such as a Chief Shepherd, plurality of elders, strict qualifications, and not every brother should be a teacher. Of course burnout still happens with these guardrails. But the way of folly leads to destruction when the ‘little things’ and the guardrails are set aside and neglected. LaPine recently wrote a helpful reflection on pastoral self-destruction. Now, this reflection is on the connection between pastoral abuse and the lack of relational reciprocity. LaPine asks some helpful diagnostic questions at the end that are worth considering. However, the lack of the relational habits of vulnerability and trust, or even the faux presentation thereof, can lead to destruction.

Pray for your pastors and leaders

The tone of this reflection seems a bit dim. And while I don’t necessarily prefer that, I’m not sure we can avoid it either. When close friends or family members are on the way of folly toward destruction, it should cause us to be sorrowful and sobered. The habitual foxes are elusive and erosive. However, we bring our sorrow and sobriety before the Lord, pleading with him to restore those on the path of folly back to the path of wisdom, and to keep us on the path of wisdom.
So, please, pray for your pastors, encourage them in the faith, love their families, and be an easy sheep. Then, go listen to the masterful Hillbilly Thomists’ Good Tree, whose next to last verse is a fitting conclusion.

Even when I’m old
I will still be
Still full of sap
Still green
That’s what I want to be
Oh, to be a good tree