Why Every Local Church Needs Spiritual Mothers

“Where are they? Where are the godly women who are making disciples in the church?” I remember asking myself this question when I became a Christian a decade ago. With a dark past and a hollow, cold heart, I had not the slightest clue as to what a God-fearing, steadfast, devoted, hope-filled, and enduring woman looked like, let alone how to live a life of ordinary faithfulness in a Romans 2 world. “Where are they?” was a question I continually asked in those early years, and even more so as I stepped into local church ministry. Those women were not to be found, or if they were, they weren’t making disciples. There are a multitude of reasons as to why this was so, but that is not the purpose for which this article has been written. There are three purposes of this article. One, to argue that there is biblical evidence that spiritual mothers (and spiritual fathers!) are crucial to the health of a local church. Second, to show that there are a lack of spiritual mothers in the church. And third, to identify who Paul (and through divine inspiration, God) and the New Testament churches qualify as a spiritual mother in the church.

Household Codes

The New Testament does not have a category for a Christ follower that is outside the bounds of familial language. In 1 Timothy 3:14, Paul expresses that the church and its members are to relate to one another as a family: “I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God.” Beginning with the qualifications for elders in Titus 1, pastors teach sound doctrine to men and women in the church. In Titus 2, under the authority of the church older women are to “teach what is good” (Titus 2:3). Paul is assuming that the women who are teaching other women are under the authority of a local church. It is not merely the role of an elder to teach what is good – it is the role of older and wiser women in discipleship relationships with younger women. Women are to teach younger women in the faith in the context of a covenant community. As wonderful and fruitful as many parachurch ministries are, on the Last Day it will be Christ’s universal church that remains standing. For this reason, it is appropriate that local churches be the primary home of women’s formation and discipleship.

There are many parts of the body and they do not all have the same function (Rom. 12:4), but each has a key role in the health of the body. The body is in pain when one or several parts are not functioning in accordance with how the body is intended to work, and nowhere is this more apparent in a local church when there is a lack of biblically literate, wise, and godly women, or a lack of them investing in less mature, younger women in the faith.

Older women are to teach what is right and pure; that which accords with sound doctrine that leads to good works. They are to adorn themselves . . . with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works” (2 Tim. 2:9-10). The “older woman” language in Titus 2:3 means that she is someone older in maturity, wisdom, and godliness, in whose speech and conduct evidences that she is full of the fruit of the Spirit rather than the spirit of the age. If a woman has been a believer for even a short number of years, there is likely a younger girl or woman in the faith for her to invest in and train to be and make fruitful disciples.

God’s Word alone is sufficient to grow us in godliness. but the glorious thing about our great God is that he has given us the Church as an additional instrument in growing us up into spiritual maturity. Men and women purchased by Christ pursue holiness and godliness together and in so doing the Spirit binds their hearts together. Paul uses the binding and personal language of church members being “knit together in love” that they might be encouraged by one another and together “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding” and “firmness of your faith in Christ.”1

The Life of the Mind in the Life of the Woman

To think rightly about God and to develop the skill of articulating doctrine to other women is a gift that should not only be allowed of women, it should be encouraged and championed by their brothers. How, exactly, are women to teach other women in the way of sound doctrine in discipling relationships and biblical appropriate teaching environments if they themselves have not developed the skill of articulating doctrine and applying it to their own lives? Theological precision matters not only from the pulpit; women do not need less theology, they need more theology worked out in the context of discipling relationships.

The path to being and making disciples is through sound “knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (Hab. 2:14). To be a disciple is be a learner, and because women are called to make disciples, it follows that they are called to be thinkers and contemplators of God. As a fiercely devoted complementarian, I actually don’t believe my desire to study at the PhD level and my desire to be a faithful complementarian to be at odds with one another. Because Jesus Christ has made me his own, he commands me to fulfill the Great Commission and make disciples who make disciples, women who will articulate the sound doctrine that accords with sound living.If women are going to make disciples of women then it is appropriate that there will be women to train them. I would put forth the suggestion that perhaps there is a correlation between 1) the lack of disciple-making women (composed of all life seasons) in local churches and 2) the lack of theological robust and ministerially-prepared women. Women are to be contemplators of the deep things of God that lead to righteous living when applied to their life, and I see the call to train and equip women for their future ministries as an urgent task.

Studying theology and the deep things of God is not a merely a scholarly pursuit, but a Christian one. This is why the trope phrase, “We don’t need all that theology stuff, just give me discipleship,” is an indictment on the goal of forming a whole person into spiritual maturity. Paul is saying that theology and discipleship need one another to develop holistically faithful and fruitful disciples who will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, slowly but surely, after they “come to the knowledge of truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). To be clear, having head knowledge of sound doctrine is not the same as sound doctrine transforming a person holistically. Knowledge of God that is not worked out in real life puffs up “with conceit and understands nothing” (1 Tim. 6:3). Fearing the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and “those who fear God come to know him in such a way that they actually become holy, faithful, loving, and merciful, like him.” A right view of theology is not one that wields it as a weapon against our theological enemies, but one that deepens our understanding of the triune God, “for the living God is so tremendously glorious in all his ways that he cannot be known without being adored.”2

In the words of Calvin, “Can the mind be aroused to taste the divine goodness without at the same time being wholly kindled to love God in return?”3 The goal of theology in and for the church is to raise the bride’s every deepening, adorning gaze to her bridegroom, and she may find life with him as she drinks deep from the theological well of life. Why should theological instruction find its home in the local church? Sound doctrine that accords with godliness will lead to rightly fearing God and so worshiping accordingly.

To be a growing disciple is to grow in a knowledge of God and his works, to have the mind stretched, the heart affected and the life devoted. Who will be the ones teaching women how the sound doctrine exposited in the corporate gathering is to work itself out in their own lives?  It is other women. A few months ago I heard a pastor and professor in a SBC seminary say, “The highest place you can be in the SBC is the local church.” In my early years as a Christian, women such as Elisabeth Elliot mothered me from afar, but she did not know me and my sin. She never wiped the tears from my eyes, radiated the tenderness of Jesus in the form of a hug, rebuked me in gentle love or embodied the loveliness of Jesus in her selfless conduct before me.

Paul is at pains to show that missiology is central to a Christian adorning their life with the gospel: teach and live in accordance with these truths, so that you will model to a world how you are unlike the world as you do good works. “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech” (Titus 2:7). Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 2 is not quarrelsome, slanderous, self-seeking, or foolish but fears the Lord, patiently endures trials, corrects in gentle love, and pursues the holy living purchased for her in Christ. There is a great need for older women in the faith to be equipped to articulate doctrine who will declare the gospel to other women with their lips and display and adorn the gospel with their conduct, ready to defend the faith to a godless age.

Single Women And Maternal Instincts

Titus 2:4-5 raises a question. Is being a spiritual mother reserved for married women with children? In verse 4 Paul writes that the young women are to “love their husbands and children” and to be “working at home . . . submissive to their own husbands.” Being a biological mother and a homemaker is a glorious and often thankless task, and one to be stewarded and lived out with great care and diligence. But let’s think about which human author is penning these words about women being homemakers. It is written by a single Apostle. Clearly the apostle Paul is aware that there are single women. Single women may have been a minority as Paul was penning these words, but Scripture does provide a category for them.

A woman is not only a woman in biological makeup, but also in sociological categories: a woman is born with maternal instincts, whether she ever physically bears children or not. Just as our physical bodies are the same yet different, so are we sociologically similar but different, in ways that complement one another. 4

“Now consider a woman who is biologically unable to have children, but who, with her husband, welcomes foster children into her home, pouring love and nurture into their lives? Is such a woman a mother? In the biological sense, no; but because the meaning of motherhood is nurture and sacrificial, self-giving love she is more truly a mother than someone who bears a child before neglecting it until it leaves home. Thus, a woman who never bears a child does not cease to be a woman. Nor is her womanhood diminished, even if she never cares for children, for she maintains the capacity and freedom to live in a maternal way toward others in need of maternal nurture. In this larger sense, ‘all women are called to motherhood’ and all men are called to fatherhood.”5

Reaching mature womanhood is not attained when one gains an earthly husband or bears a child; child-bearing and homemaking are not requirements to qualify as a godly woman. Marriage and child-bearing are roles in which the Lord grows women in godliness, displays the gospel, and in which maternal instincts are deepened, but because all women have been created by God with the same physical and sociological traits, all women, whether single or married, have innate, distinct maternal traits. The foil to biblical womanhood, feminism, shouts that a single woman is free to do as she pleases; she is responsible to no one and owes no one anything. Yet the single Christian woman, committed to a local church body, knows that her life is not her own. Her singleness allows her to be wholly devoted to the Lord in body, mind, soul, and time and she longs to please him by utilizing this stewardship he has given to her. The ministry of a single woman’s household is a unique privilege to be received with gladness, not begrudging slothfulness as it it often is. Being a single woman does not mean a woman has no “household” by which to provide a welcoming and nurturing environment, nor does it mean that she lacks the opportunity to make disciples.  The covenant-Creator has wired women to have distinctly maternal traits including both biological and sociological.

The purpose of emphasizing this is to say that both single women and married women are called to being spiritual mothers just as the single apostle was made a spiritual father through the gospel. “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). Paul loved young men in the church, using deeply personally terms of endearment such as “my beloved child” and “my true child” to refer to Titus and Timothy. He yearned and burned with affection for actual people in actual churches whom he wanted to invest in, not simply the idea of them. Not only did Paul see this as his call, but his words in Romans 16:13 reflect that he had a spiritual mother, the mother of Rufus, “who has been a mother to me.”

Conclusion

Paul swelled with gratitude for Timothy’s theological astute maternal heritage in Lois and Eunice, along with the faithful and fruitful ministries of Phoebe, Junia, and Lydia, of whom Paul considered partners in the gospel. The call to ministry is “demanded of us all, lived by not a few; not, indeed complete in any one; complete only in Him Who is the Head and Life of all, and in His Body, which is the Church.”6

Married and single women, divorced and widowed women, homemakers, students, missionaries, evangelists and women in the workplace: when these unique and crucial ministries of women are considered, “we’ll find that the ministries available to women are part of the lifeblood of a local church’s witness to the world.”7  The Bible and over two thousand years of church history are full of both single and married men and women who have been used by the Lord and of whom the world is not worthy. Amidst blazing complementarian debates in our current moment, perhaps a question that should be emphasized more is, “What are we doing to raise up spiritual mothers in the church who will teach younger women the Scriptures, of which ‘will teach you to live, and learn you to die’?8

1 c.f. Col. 2:2-5

2 Reeves, Rejoice and Tremble, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 137.

3 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. By Henry Beveridge (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 1.1.3.

4 Schreiner, “Man and Woman: Toward an Ontology,” in CBMW Journal (Eikon 1.2, Nov 2019), 72.

5 Budziszewski, On the Meaning of Sex (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014), 55-56

6 Charles, Sketches of the Women of Christendom, (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co), 1880, 333-34.

7 McCoy, “Why Women are Critical to the Mission of the Church,” (Biblical Woman), 2018.

8 Actes and Monuments of these latter and perilous dayes, touching matters of the Church, Vol. 6 Book X, “Beginning with the Reign of Queen Mary,” (London: R,B, Seeley and W. Burnside), 1838, 422.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at Credo



The Nod and the Pause: Where the War Begins

Temptation is an opportunist as it passes by. Looking for the slightest nod, it hopes only for our invitation to pause a moment on the porch for our consideration of its merit versus cost and risk. Surely merely thinking about the merits versus risk cannot be too dangerous.

By overestimating our moral strength as supposedly detached evaluators we are soon to fail, however, since our resistance is already compromised severely in the nod and pause itself. We did not assume we laid down our weapons at that point. Temptation now bonds with our awakened lust on the porch of judgment to contend with our spiritual reason as we weigh the options. With such strong desires stirring us in the wrong direction standing beside an available and luring temptation, though we are a king, it will, far more often than not, give in like a fool. The great conquerors can be brought down easier with a second look than a warring tribe.

When this awakened lust contends with weakened biblical reason to talk it over on the porch, the battle for the mind is raging full bore. We have invited a lion to the porch, an old master at deception, though looking like something else which is deceivingly inviting to the senses — part of us is conniving and urging the temptation on against our own best reason. How will we send temptation away now? Before we know it, faster than we should think we could, we will open the door of our minds completely and give ourselves over to our lust for the enjoyment of this temptation. We may rehearse any of a whole range of regular excuses so as to make some appeasement to our conscience. We do this like the weakest of fools, which soon after will be discomforting or, and if often repeated, sadly and dangerously numbing.

The power we give temptation is mainly in the first welcome, not the second. The first woman and first man should have said, like the last Adam, “Get behind me, Satan!” rather than pausing for even a moment’s consideration of the forbidden fruit which seemed good for food and delightful to the eyes. The serpent wanted them to think about it for awhile. There is a reason we are told, “Flee immorality” and “Reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God” and “Do not turn to the right nor to the life: turn your foot from evil.”

A temptation is in fact a temptation because there is desire latent within you. When lust awakens in the easy chair, with one eye open he peeks over the window ledge on to the street where temptation sends its knowing glance. At this moment and not any later, declare in your mind, “I am dead to this in Christ. I do not serve it.” He gives his power to his own to do this. Then go on to the next good thing and don’t even give it another thought. That is the war.



Seek the Shade

I still remember the feeling of confusion as we zig-zagged across the golf course near our home in Florida. To me, the pattern made no sense at all. We’d go to what seemed like a random place on each hole, irrespective to the location of our golf balls, and my father and I would sit and wait for his friends to hit.

We’d just…wait. In what seemed to be a random spot, often far away from where our next shot was. Sometimes in these moments, he would comment on the sky, or the landscaping, or something else in life. Then, after a while, he’d take us over to where I thought we should have been the whole time – our next shot.

I had to ask why we were doing this. Even as a kid, I had a very process-driven mind – hit ball, find ball, hit ball again, repeat until finished. Boom. Golf. This random pattern of pausing and indiscriminate waiting made little sense to me. I had to know.

He looked at me and said these words that I’ve never forgotten – “Rudy, I’m always trying to keep us in the shade.”

As a kid, it didn’t make sense. Who cared about the shade? Let’s get to the next shot! I actually think I saw many things that way – in fact, until a few years ago, I think it’s how I saw ministry. Process-driven – just “get to the next shot.” The next event. The next meeting, The next _______. I’d forgotten the lesson my father taught me on that course – to always seek out the shade. To find moments to break, to rest, to slow, to stop, to pause, to recover, to wait. The shade as a place to just be with Jesus, in the middle of responsibilities that are as constant as the Florida sun.

Perhaps I didn’t forget my father’s lesson – maybe I just never learned it. Much to my own detriment, I didn’t practice seeking out the shade until several years ago when I’d worn myself out to the point of despair. As has been said before, the pain of staying the same had outweighed the pain of change – which turned out to exist only in my mind. It was one of the most necessary and life-giving changes, to have structured and spontaneous moments of just being in the shade. This last year, in the midst of everything that 2020 carried, I along with countless others again felt a deep need to be disciplined to continue to have moments to fight to keep myself and others in the shade, with the Lord.

I wonder if you have practices of staying in the shade? I think of these words in Psalms surrounding this:

Psalm 91:1-2 – “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

Psalm 121:5-6 – “The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. 6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.”

Three practical points regarding the shade:

  1. Structured and Spontaneous – We absolutely need structured rhythms of time with Jesus. Planned points on the calendar where we step away from the work of the Gospel to make room for the Gospel to do the work in us. There are also spontaneous moments when we just need to seek the shade – often when the sun is hottest, and the responsibilities are heaviest. It is here, in giving ourselves and others room to spontaneously seek shade during a busy season, that we are actually making a claim of trust in His ability above our own.
  2. Explain along the way – My father brought me into the shade, and then explained what was going on. I was benefiting from his practice without even knowing I was. You, Your family, and the people you lead with can benefit from what – in your mind – may seem like you are stepping away from the work at hand. Not so. In fact, it is here that you can be a blessing by explaining along the way what it means to seek the shade. It may be confusing to those around you – they may be like I was on the course, just wanting to move on to the next shot. Explain along the way, as you teach them how to seek out the shade.
  3. Relax into the Shade – I still struggle to seek out the shade in moments when my list of tasks seem unending. You’re likely like me – you actually don’t dislike that. In fact, you love it. It’s a joy, an honor, a privilege to get to do what we do. How could we pause? However, it is often in structured and spontaneous pausing in the shade that we who minister are ministered to. This is a practice – one which still feels difficult. Learning to relax into the shade, and not sit there with your mind fixated on the next shot, the next thing you have to do, is a practice of relaxing into the shade and shelter of God. It’s not easy, but for you, your family, those you lead with, and those you shepherd – it’s worth it.

Perhaps you’re reading this and you feel outright exhausted. I won’t pretend to fully understand your situation, but I’ll certainly sympathize with you and give a brief word of exhortation – I hope you give yourself permission this summer to find the shade, even and especially on your busiest days. To bring the people you lead into the shade with you. You’re not abandoning the mission.

You’re not compromising the call. You’re being like Jesus, who retreated often to desolate places to pray and be with His Father.

Let’s seek out the shade.



Psalms are Prophecies

I remember the first Bible the church gave me. At the start of each school year, the 1st-graders would be called up on stage and given a Bible to celebrate going to ‘big church.’ It was a blue KJV Bible that had silver-glossed pages and red letters for the words of Jesus. I don’t remember how often I read that Bible, but I do remember thinking the words in red were very important!

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become less enamored by red-letter Bibles. To me, they can give off the impression that some words of the Bible are really Jesus’ words, while the rest aren’t as important. The red letters, those are the real words of Jesus!

I don’t want to be too harsh to them. The men and women who made red-letter Bibles had a worthy goal, to highlight the actual speech of Jesus, the very words he spoke while on earth. It was an important aim, but the apostles and the early church would argue there is a big part of the Bible they missed! A whole book needs to be red-lettered that isn’t: the Psalms. The apostles and the early church went to the Psalms to hear the voice of Christ.

Listen to the words of Hebrews 10:5-7: “Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”

The author of Hebrews is quoting from Psalm 40. Notice Hebrews doesn’t say merely that Jesus fulfilled the words of Psalm 40 (though he did), but that he spoke the words of Psalm 40. The author of Hebrews understands Jesus to be the speaker of the Psalm, not David. Hebrews is arguing that Jesus is speaking in Psalm 40 before his incarnation about how God the Father has prepared a body for him in the incarnation and how he has come to do God’s will in that body during the incarnation.

Hebrews isn’t the only place in the New Testament that says this. Both Peter and Paul, in Acts 2 and 13, quote from Psalm 16 in their sermons, where David says that God “will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption” (Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:27). They both say that David could not have been talking about himself, because he did die, and his flesh did see corruption. Peter tells his audience they can go look at his tomb for proof!

So if David wasn’t talking about himself, who was he talking about? Peter says David was a prophet who foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of Jesus. God did not abandon Jesus’ soul to the grave, or let his flesh see corruption, because he raised him from the dead. And notice the personal pronoun in the Psalm that Peter quotes. The Psalmist says, “you will not abandon my soul.” It’s as if Jesus himself was speaking through David, giving us a prophecy about how God would raise him from the dead.

When you begin looking for this, you’ll find it everywhere in the New Testament. Because of how often the apostles put the words of the Psalms on Jesus’ lips in the New Testament, the early church began to read the Psalms as the voice of Christ, prophecies given by Jesus himself to tell us about what he will do to save us. Following the apostles, they believed that God tells us the entire gospel story in the Psalms, from Jesus pre-existing with the Father and the Holy Spirit, to his becoming a man, his saving death, his resurrection, his ascension to God’s right hand, his pouring out of the Spirit, the mission of his church, and his return to judge the living and the dead. Because they saw this modeled in the New Testament, they went back to the Psalms with fresh eyes to learn more about the person and work of Jesus.

Listen to Augustine, preaching on Psalm 31 and talking about verse 5. He says:

Let us listen now to something our Lord said on the cross: Into your hands I commit my spirit (Lk 23:46). When we hear those words of his in the gospel, and recognize them as part of this psalm, we should not doubt that here in this psalm it is Christ himself who is speaking. The gospel makes it clear. He said, Into your hands I commit my spirit; and bowing his head he breathed forth his spirit (Lk 23:46; Jn 19:30). He had good reason for making the words of the psalm his own, for he wanted to teach you that in the psalm he is speaking. Look for him in it.

Because Christ is the head of the church–his body (1 Cor 12)–Jesus can speak in our voice in the Psalms as well. If the Psalmist confesses sin, Jesus is speaking of bearing our sin on the cross to do away with it, because what happens to the head happens to the body. If the Psalmist speaks of his own weakness, Jesus is speaking of the weakness he took on in the incarnation, so that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor 8:9). Both give an opportunity to be refreshed by the news of the great exchange, Jesus taking our sin so that we can be given his righteousness.

The Psalms are a book spoken by Jesus, about Jesus. We should read the Psalms to press more deeply into the gospel, the good news about Jesus. The more we do, the more we will say with Augustine:

Christ meets and refreshes me everywhere in those books, everywhere in those scriptures, whether openly or in a hidden manner. He sets afire for me the desire to find him as a result of some difficulty in discovering him, so that I may eagerly absorb what I find and hold it for my salvation, hidden within the marrow of my bones.

Psalms are prophecies of Jesus, allowing you to press deeper into the gospel. Jesus is speaking to you in the Psalms. Look for him in them.



Wildfires and Bear Attacks

Have you ever said something from a position of pastoral authority that you immediately wished that you had not said? Maybe you had one of the classic slips of the tongue in the middle of a sermon, or it could be that you said something inaccurate that you wish you could correct. Perhaps you have even said something that, after some time has passed, you do not even believe to be true anymore.

Words are finicky things like that.

For the pastor, the goal of preaching and teaching is to communicate the Word of God in such a way that the hearer would open their heart and mind to the Lord in order that they would be transformed by the power of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit. Most pastors understand the weight of this responsibility as well as the prodigious honor that comes with the gifting and the call of their office. It is an honor because there are so many people that lean heavily on the words that their pastor speaks. Lives are regenerated and transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, but day-to-day actions are heavily influenced by words that are spoken on Sunday. That lays a heavy burden on the backs of pastors in order to communicate effectively, truthfully and responsibly. Pair the Sunday message with the daily influx of media messages that all but demand a ministerial response, and the pastor becomes someone with a profusion of words floating around in public space. The prayer of every pastor is that these words are heard and read in a manner that is true to the author’s intent, and helpful within the context of which they were expressed. 

Even the right words, when said the wrong way, are the wrong words.

Hear the words of James when he says “the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (James 3:5) Many times this message is taught in regards to foul language, gossip and coarse joking, but the real intent of this passage is meant as a warning those who preach and teach. Communicators of God’s Word must be careful and intentional in the language, the tone and the expressions with with they communicate either verbally or in writing. In today’s culture, the words of religious authorities are being subjugated to dissection, inspection and deconstruction. Couple this deconstruction with a culture of outrage, and there is a tendency to receive words as harmful, even when there was no harm intended in the original context. 

For those ordained to preach God’s Word, there has been great power given to your words. When a pastor uses words in a flippant or irresponsible manner, real people get hurt. It seems that the world is filling up with the stories of de-churched people who are telling their stories of spiritual abuse. There are differing levels of these types of stories, but one prominent theme is that a pastor has said something that was powerfully wounding to a hearer, and as a result this person was driven from the church.

I refuse to believe that (most) pastors and teachers of God’s Word do so with the intention of harming others. In fact many pastors, even those who have done harm, say the things that they say for a couple of reasons. First, they believe that what they are saying comes from the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and the accurate interpretation of the Scriptures. Also, they believe that what they are saying is loving to those who hear it. This love can be seen as “tough love” during times when the message is uncomfortable for hearers. Every rule has an exception, but I believe that the great majority of pastors have these two things in mind as they preach and teach. Sometimes, harm just happens. 

Something similar happened with the prophet Elisha as he came into Bethel to sort out the Canaanite worship that was prevalent there. A familiar passage, 2 Kings 2:23-25 paints a picture of the power behind the words of someone ordained by God to speak the Word of God. You probably know the story, but after encountering a significant amount of jeering in Bethel, Elisha curses the ones who are disparaging him and two bears come out of the woods and maul (the actual word means tear apart) 42 of the youths there. FORTY-TWO! Most of the time that I read or hear this passage, it is in jest. If we take a moment and really process this short passage, the devastation that occurred that day finally sinks in, and I have always wondered if the prophet Elisha truly meant to have this happen when he cursed those young men. Besides the larger interpretation of the passage, and ultimately the typological reading that foreshadows Israel’s mocking of the Lord, this was a real event that had a magnitude of death that is not seen often. 

I am not saying that Elisha’s words were accidental in any way, but I do wonder if the outcome was what he expected when he uttered the words that brought down the curse. We get no more context to the story. The next sentence simply tells us that he went on to Mount Carmel and Samaria. I have to think that he had a very heavy heart as he went along. 

Reading 2 Kings 2:23-25 with James 3 in mind should at least make us more aware of the words that we use from a position of pastoral authority. Pray for discernment and wisdom. May your words be used to build the Church, and not to harm anyone.



Go to Funerals

Years ago, I attended a funeral of an older man from my church. This church was in the heart of an urban city and was surrounded by drugs and poverty. But the church had a thriving ministry and more than 300 people regularly attended. The funeral that day was packed out. But the man, Robert, was little known. I knew him from our men’s lunches. I often ate lunch with him after a worship service. He was kind, caring, and invited me into his life while I was living in the area. But he and his wife did not have a wide circle of friends. Nevertheless, everyone came to the funeral. I mean everyone. The entire church came out for it.

Why?

Because year after year, we heard our pastor say, “When one member grieves, we all grieve. That’s what family does.”

I remember talking to the funeral director afterward. He was stunned by how many came to this funeral for a man whom the world did not know. He asked me, “What is it about this church that people would give up their day for a funeral like this?” Robert had no impressive career. He had no impressive influence. His resume was unremarkable. He was older and had many physical problems, so he was not as involved in the church as he used to be. Most of the congregation did not know him as a result (to their loss!).

But Robert was a brother in our church. We all were in covenant membership with him and his wife. That mattered more than anything else. He was closer than a blood relative; he was united to us through Another’s blood.

My pastor happened to be standing beside me and answered the director, “This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We are family.”

And so, we went to funerals of people we hardly knew in our church. Often the funerals propelled us to make sure we were getting to know others in our church before it was too late.

Let me encourage you to something: consider attending every funeral that occurs in your church’s life. And if you are a pastor, disciple your members to attend funerals.

The Christian community can be distinct by going to funerals of everyone in your church. At funerals, we display to the world what the body of Christ is like. At funerals, we display what commitment looks like in a covenant body. When we take our membership vows, we are not joining a hobby or a club. We join a body. A body needs all its members—especially at a funeral.

Who hasn’t been to a funeral where only a few showed up? Didn’t you feel sorry for the grieving family member? Now imagine that family member watching as an entire church arrives at the funeral, proclaiming not with words but in actions, “You are part of our family, the family of God.”

Funerals interrupt our lives. They are unplanned. They disrupt your schedule. That’s often why we don’t go to them unless we have a personal connection. But the very fact that they are disruptive to our lives is a grace of God. They invite us into a different liturgy, a different rhythm of life, one that our busy world tries to push to the sides. When we break free of our personal calendars and embrace the disruption of a funeral, we walk according to the life of Christ, not the life of the world. Christians are distinct.

And the world takes notice. In such a funeral, the church puts on display the beauty and the glory of the body of Christ. It shows the world what true community looks like. It invites others to join and participate in this kind of true humanity found only in the body of Jesus.

But not only you should come. Bring the children.

All my children come to funerals with me. It’s not an option in the Lyons household, and it’s not because I’m a pastor. A century ago, children were regularly exposed to scenes of the dying. They often had an elderly grandparent in their own home who was dying. But nowadays, our culture has done everything it can to sanitize death and remove it from the minds of children. We remove the dying to nursing homes and hospitals. Few funerals have children unless they are directly related to the one who died.

O Church, we are missing out on one of the most important discipling moments for children.

When you bring your children to a funeral you are teaching them about community in the church. Especially if they don’t know the person, they see a vision of what it means to live life together in the body of Christ. It helps shift their minds toward serving others who are in need, rather than thinking about themselves.

You are also teaching your children about death and what matters most in life. Unless the Lord returns, your children are going to die one day, and those whom they love most are going to die. The liturgy of funerals reaches down into children and helps disciple them on how the gospel relates to death and dying.

In our ambitious culture, we spend enormous amounts of time trying to give our kids success: we drive all over the country for sports games; we push our kids to master school subjects; we join with the hurried world in trying to stuff our children with as many ‘success-factors’ as possible. All the while, we ignore helping them face what everyone will face: death.

Funerals disciple children. Don’t miss out on this most important Christian shaping that your children need. Don’t miss out on what you need too. Go to funerals.



Student Pastors Form Ecclesiology

Ecclesiology, the study of the nature of the church.

What is the church? What is its purpose? Why should we go to church? What is the church for?

The study of ecclesiology holds the answers to these questions, but most students in your ministry are not searching through their systematic theology textbooks to find these answers. Instead, they are forming answers through their experience in your student ministry.

As leaders, what we think about the church theologically leads to how our church operates practically, but it happens in reverse for our students. As they see how the church functions practically, they develop their own theology of the church, their own ecclesiology.

I want to offer up three areas to evaluate in ministry that might lead students to understand the true biblical nature of the church.

#1 Equip / Consume

Ephesians chapter 4 explains that the role of church leaders is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. If you are fulfilling this call, the church, including your student ministry, should be a place of equipping.

Do your students see the church as a place to be equipped in their part of the mission of God, or is the church a place where they consume the religious services being offered weekly?

If a were to be a part of your ministry student, could they go from being far from God to making disciples of another student? How are Sunday school, small groups, and student worship geared toward an equipping mentality versus a consumption mentality?

If students do not leave your ministry understanding that the church is a place to be equipped for every good work, then they will only go to church until they aren’t entertained anymore. They will constantly seek churches with bigger and better services and events to be consumed.

#2 Discipleship / Events

Events are a great tool to utilize in ministry. They can be catalytic moments in the lives of a student and their discipleship. However, events are terrible replacements for discipleship.

Do your events serve to facilitate discipleship relationships and serve as a part of your overall discipleship strategy? Or are events like camps, retreats, or your weekly student gathering the only areas in ministry where growth happens? Do students only grow because of your events or because they are weekly walking with Jesus?

Covid-19 was a great test of this in our ministries. Suppose you worried that your students weren’t growing in discipleship simply because they couldn’t come to your weekly student services or attend the big event that got canceled. In that case, it might be that your events were the only mechanism for discipleship in your ministry.

If the weekly meeting or the big event is the only place where discipleship happens in your student ministry, then students will see the church as an event to attend and not a family where they belong. This can, in turn, create a perspective of the church as a place where we are spectators at weekly and yearly events and not a family of faith to love and serve.

Moreover, event-driven discipleship will not produce lasting fruit or adults engaged in the local church for the long term. Instead, discipleship-driven events create the environment for disciple-making relationships to be formed and nurtured for long-term ministry.

These types of events seek to create environments where students leave more connected to those in your ministry who can disciple them consistently. Such as their own parents, small group leaders, or even upperclassmen or college students who desire to make disciples who make disciples. A helpful question is, “how will the time and resources given to this event result in more students being taught how to follow Jesus, be changed by Jesus, and join the mission of Jesus?”

#3 Future

Where will your student go to church once they graduate? Will they go to church at all? What have you taught your students to look for in a church through your ministry? Do they even know to look for another church?

Lifeway research from 2019 shows that the main reason students stop attending church is simply that they moved to college. They were not intent on skipping church, but if they understood the church to be an event to attend or a service to consume, it just might not make the priority list.

Student pastors must be diligent in connecting students to a new local church where they are moving. Create a resource document for each college your students might attend with churches and local campus ministries. So your students have a tangible tool to connect to a church after they leave your ministry and load it with contact info and social media handles of local ministries and churches.

Student pastors are teaching ecclesiology every week in their ministry. Let us be good stewards to point students to the body of Christ that equips them through discipleship and prepares them for a future to follow Jesus all the days of their lives.



Prioritize Sitting at Jesus’ Feet

During my graduate studies, I, like many others in seminary, took a job working early mornings for a delivery company. Each day, I drove a company vehicle to the airport to await the airplanes full of documents and packages for delivery. The major responsibility of my daily trip was to secure several bags of documents with a big, red sticker labeled “priority.” These documents were to be prioritized for delivery amidst all the other responsibilities for the day. Some days, however, these documents were misplaced and the priority was overwhelmed by other responsibilities.

At times, we might desire our lives to come with big, red stickers labeled “priority” because of how easily priorities can be misplaced. In a short, but well-known narrative of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42), two believing sisters gained insight into the one ultimate necessity for the Christian life, to commune with Jesus. 

The narrative, which begins with a warm reception, finds the first sister, Martha, distracted by all her preparations to “properly” welcome the incarnate, living God into her living room. Despite Martha’s admirable service for Jesus, Mary is commended for seizing the opportunity to sit at the Lord’s feet and hear the Word of God. In all her distraction, Martha is pulled away from the true priority of being with Jesus and the joy of her service deteriorates into a disgruntled attitude. The passage records Jesus kindly inviting her to refocus her priorities to spend time with Him and hear God’s Word.

Even now, as a pastor serving in full-time ministry, I regularly sense the ease of all the preparations of ministry choking out the time spent with Jesus. Therefore, a couple practical points of application from this text are helpful in regards to life in ministry.

Beware of performance, merit-based ministry

While service comes from a relationship with Jesus, it should never come at the expense of a relationship with Jesus. We serve not for a relationship with Jesus but from a relationship with Jesus. When we fall into performing in ministry, the attitude in our service will soon sour from joy to disgruntlement. Furthermore, the worry and anxiety that flow from a performance, merit-based ministry do not come when tethered to the Savior seeking Him first. 

Sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to His Word

While there are many places to spend your time in ministry, even the best and most commendable of priorities must yield to your relationship with Jesus. Over the past couple of years, many commendable and good preparations in ministry have been thwarted by Covid-19, but the good part is that my time with Jesus cannot be taken from me. 

As Matthew Perman voiced, “You need to have an overarching, passionate, God-centered aim to your life – an overarching goal and message that flows from your mission and directs the priorities of your life.” [1] This quote cannot be true without the ultimate priority being to come and sit at the feet of the Savior and listen to His Word.

[1] Matthew Perman, What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms The Way You Get Things Done (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan), 178.



Habits as the Muscle Memory of Our Worship

It’s been said before, “Humans are creatures of habit.” The problem is that we rarely appreciate just how serious our habits are. Generally speaking, we think of a habit as something altogether benign—just something we sort of do on a whim. “It’s not that I’m an angry person. I just fly off the handle sometimes.” “I’m not idolizing social media; but it is the reason I haven’t had time to pray today.” The truth is that our habits can tell us much more about ourselves if we would only stop long enough to assess them. There’s more to our temper tantrums, Twitter blasts, porn addictions, envy-driven competitions, and even our bad habit of division than meets the eye. In reality, our habits reveal what we worship with great precision. Habits are the muscle memory of our worship. They are the natural reflexes that reveal the object(s) of a person’s love and devotion. According to Paul in Galatians 5:16-25, our habitual “walk” is symptomatic of life live either in the flesh or in the Spirit.

Small Steps in the Same Direction

While the word “habit” is not found in many places in the New Testament (NT), the concept is there nevertheless. For example, Paul often talks about life as a “walk” in one direction or another (Eph. 5:2, 15; Col. 2:6; 4:5; 1 Thess. 4:1). In Galatians 5, Paul uses the metaphor by telling his readers that they must “walk by the Spirit” if they are to “not gratify the desires of the flesh” (5:16). The “walk” is a comprehensive metaphor for our choices, desires, affections, words, actions, and—yes—our habits. Everything we do in life is reflective of our “walk” and the internal orientation of our hearts. In this light, we should think of our habits as small steps that are heading the same direction. As will be seen, our habits are just the fruits that reveal what soil our roots are buried in.

Our Habits are the Battleground of Opposing Desires

According to Paul, there is an invisible war being raged inside each of God’s people. Our habits (the “walk”) are the battleground upon which the opponents fight for victory. On the one side, we have the desires of the Spirit—the will of God. On the other side, stands the desires of the flesh—all the lusty, temptations of immediate gratification. Paul says that these two sets of desires are antagonistic against each other, and neither can abide the other’s gratification “for these are opposed to each other” (Gal. 5:16-17). The moment you begin following the one, the other is there to challenge your direction. There you are, with your Bible open, ready for a deep dive into the word of God; but then comes a notification across your iPhone offering you the latest dirt on some politician or celebrity and along with it a temptation to waste the hour scrolling through the gossip. The flesh’s desires will not stand idly by while you, are trying to follow the Spirit.

The good news is that neither will the Spirit stand aside when the flesh casts its lures. If you are a Christian, the Spirit’s pull can be felt as he confronts the dark desires of your temptation. It’s that moment of grace and realization that what you are about to do is neither for your good or God’s glory. The Spirit’s desires things that are at odds with the flesh, and he will sanctify his people from fleshly the desires. The flesh is energized by angry outburst, gossip sessions, and Instagram reels, but the Spirit desires things that will display love for both God and others. Paul promises that if we walk by the Spirit, then we will not gratify flesh. In assessing our habits, then, it’s worth asking: “Who gets what he wants from my habits?” The Spirit? Or the flesh?

Legalistic Resolutions Cannot Change Habits

In Galatians 5:18, Paul makes an important qualification. That is, living by the Spirit and living under law are not the same thing. He writes, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” It is important to remember that Paul is writing to the Galatians because they were being drawn away by Judaizers who mandated obedience to the old covenant laws, like circumcision, in order to attain righteousness. They believed the law “could give life,” when, in reality, it “imprisons everything under sin” (Gal. 3:21-22). They initially began walking in the Spirit, but now, they wrongly believe that perfection can be attained by fleshly efforts (Gal. 3:3). And so, by telling them to “walk by the Spirit,” Paul is not saying that the Galatians must try harder. In fact, it is trying harder that has gotten them into trouble in the first place. They have forgotten just how much they depend upon the Spirit for any kind good fruit to grow in their lives.

The same applies to us. While we may not be tempted toward the same “law” the Galatians were trying to live out, we have our own form of Galatian legalism. That is, we try to complete our spiritual sanctification with our own willpower, our resolution. “This year, I am not going to lose my temper as much.” “In the New Year, I will worry less.” Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that resolutions are bad in-and-of themselves. It’s simply that they are not enough.

Resolutions tend to focus on actions (what I am going to do or not do). However, our actions are anchored in the deep waters of the heart’s longings. Resolutions tend to remain at the surface level of deeds, while spiritual change requires going much deeper to the ocean floor of one’s desires. Without changing our sinful desires, even our “good” resolutions may be nothing more than veiled idolatry. A resolution to get healthier, may be a cloaked to desire to look more appealing to others. A resolution to read more, may be a subtle bid to look smarter than others. As Paul warned the Galatians, no matter how rigid or strict of a discipline one imposes, only in walking by the Spirit do we confront flesh-based habits.

Our Habits Indicate our Trajectory

Everyone is on a trajectory. C. S. Lewis once wrote,

And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

In other words, we are all heading in one direction or another, and eventually, we will reach our telos. Habits are powerful compasses that reveal the heart’s internal orientation—whether to the kingdom or away from the kingdom. In Galatians 5, Paul highlights the urgency to consider one’s life. He not only tracks the fruits of sinful habits to their source in the flesh, he also connects how these habits reveal one’s relationship with the future kingdom of God—namely, those who live in the flesh will not inherit the kingdom (Gal. 5:21).

That said, we are in desperate need for the Spirit to change our heart’s orientation. Without roots buried deep in the Spirit’s desires, bearing good fruit is impossible (5:22). The Spirit desires for us to feast at the Kingdom’s table where we will find satisfaction. Yet, if it were up to us, we would keep eating the stale Lays’ chips of pornography, gossip, power mongering, and alcoholism, and yet never be filled. We need the Spirit to pull the greasy chips out of our hands and to lead us to the festal table.

Crucifying Habits

Following Christ is not easy. Both Jesus and Paul compare it with the pain of crucifixion (Matt. 16:24 and Gal. 5:24). The call to follow Christ is nothing short of a call to mortification. Difficult as this may sound, death to self and sin is what is required if we are to live the life God desires. At the moment, it always sounds a lot easier than it really is. “I’m can put down my phone any time.” But it is rarely—if ever—that easy. Spiritual things tend not to happen “cold turkey.” In reality, even the best spiritual habits will feel like a daily crucifixion of our fleshly desires. By God’s grace, however, we have a High Priest who knows our struggle. He knows we are weak. He knows just how often we crumple under the cross of self-mortification. And yet, he is willing to help! Because this is true, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

Keeping in Step with the Spirit

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). The goal of addressing our habits is, ultimately, that we will have habits that are in step with the Spirit. We are always marching to the beat of someone’s drum, either the drum of the flesh or the Spirit. Everything we do works to shape and conform us more to one or the other’s beat. As God’s people, we must humble ourselves to the Spirit’s leading and walk in harmony with his rhythm.



Correction From God and For Us

Dishing Out and Taking in Correction 

Correction hurts. Even when we speak truthfully, we can go too far, cut too deep, and end up being harmful, not helpful. When we are careless, our words become weapons (Js 3:1-9). On the flip side, misunderstanding the motive when a friend corrects us can sever a decades-long friendship. Pride can stick its fingers in our ears and blocks any noise of rebuke. Giving and receiving correction is dangerous, but needed. 

A wise person learns how to deliver and digest correction. Proverbs 9:8 says, “rebuke the wise, and he will love you,” and Proverbs 12:18 says, “the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Watching God correct Jonah is one place to see the wisdom of these proverbs in action.

Watching God Correct

As God corrects Jonah, he uses different tactics. He does not always bring a belt. He uses a variety of strategies. When you expect God to send a different, more obedient prophet, instead, he doubles down on Jonah (Jonah 3:1-4). When you assume God will send another storm, he sits for a conversation (4:1-11). God shows skill and sensitivity with Jonah. God humbles him when he is proud (1-2), exhorts him when he wavers (3:1-4), gently exposes his idols (4:5-11), teaches him when he doubts (4:10-11), and when Jonah despairs God carries him forward (4:9).

His timing, his tone, and his motive are always perfect. His words are a scalpel in the hand of the perfect surgeon. God never cuts in the wrong place or cuts too deep. Every place he cuts, he heals. “See how happy is the person whom God corrects; so do not reject the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds but he also bandages; he strikes, but his hands also heal” (Job 5:17–18). God knows how to correct.

Correct with Compassion

God corrects with compassion. Compassion leads him to show Nineveh mercy, teaching Jonah a lesson in the process (Jonah 4:10-11). Correcting someone is an act of love, not a chance to vent your anger. In the world of social media, our reflex is to bark and bite, assuming what we need to say is exactly what someone needs to hear. Paul warns, “if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15). Biters one day find vultures picking at their carcass. 

Correcting someone should build them up, not cut them in pieces. Consider what Paul says about God’s word in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. It teaches, rebukes, trains and corrects “so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). God corrects us to train and equip us for every good work. Pray hard to love the person before you speak any word of rebuke and correction. We must clothe truth in love. Always.

Be Corrected with Thankfulness 

Watching God correct Jonah, we also learn to receive correction with thankfulness. This lesson took Jonah a while to learn. I guess he’s normal. 

God loves you deeply and therefore he will discipline and correct you (Hb. 12). You likely won’t have verbal conversations with him like Jonah. For you, correction will probably come from other people. They won’t always say the right thing at the right time and in the right tone. Yet, the same wisdom, compassion and sensitivity guiding how God corrects Jonah, guides who he uses to correct you. Remembering this helps us be grateful to be corrected. Not one of us is above correction, and not one of us is beneath being used by God to correct each other.

Jonah had to learn this lesson. Like many people, Jonah was too proud to be taught, so God gives him a task that brings the issue to the surface and then he slowly skims away the dirt. God loves us too deeply to leave us without correction. I am grateful for brothers and sisters who love me enough to speak up when I do something stupid. They are a wonderful gift from God. Treasure the people in your life who love you enough to have tough conversations.