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.

A Different Kind Of Pain: Three Lessons I Learned As A Father Through Miscarriage

My wife and I were ecstatic! Our first baby! We talked about names, what we thought they would look like, and hoping they had some of each other’s features. My wife communicated how she was excited for raising a baby with her sister and friends who had just started the journey with us. I, on the other hand, had my own excitements. I looked forward to little league, playing catch, wrestling in the living room, and sitting on the couch just holding them. I, like my wife, was looking forward to a third member of our family that we could love unconditionally. It seemed that we and every one of our peers were entering the next chapter of adulthood together—children. Joy turned to sorrow though, as we discovered that our little man’s heart stopped beating just shy of the end of the first trimester. Leaving that hospital was one of the heaviest walks I have ever had. Walking in celebrating life, walking out mourning death. My wife and I were devastated, both suffering. Her suffering bore an incredible weight. I remember waking up at night to her weeping, saying, “I just want my baby, Lord.” I hated those nights. Weeks afterward, I found myself in a weird spot. I was experiencing a different kind of pain. I wasn’t carrying the child, but I still had a connection. I didn’t share all the dreams my wife had with motherhood, but my fatherhood dreams came crashing down. I found that most counseling blogs or articles written about coping with a miscarriage were written for women. By no means am I minimizing that pain, but I asked myself. How do I mourn? What promises of God can help me? What truths can I cling to in times of pain? How is God working this for good in my life and in my marriage?

Below are three lessons I learned as a father through miscarriage:

1. My wife needs Jesus more than me

When I saw my child’s lifeless body on the ultrasound, I felt completely hopeless. Helpless. I couldn’t protect my wife from this kind of pain. I remember in premarital counseling being told that I was called to protect her, die for her whenever, wash her with the Word…but I wasn’t prepared for this. As a husband, I found myself in a position that could do nothing—humbled. It was in the next few weeks after the death of Jerusalem (the name of our first child) that I learned that my wife needs Jesus more than she needs me. Matthew 11:28-30 says for all who are heavy laden to come to Jesus and he will give you rest. Through the death of Jerusalem, I learned that I served my wife as a visual reminder that she needs grace from Christ more than she needs me.

Husbands, this is a different kind of pain because you have to show weakness here to point your wife to the only strong source in her life—Jesus Christ. To truly comfort your wife and for you to experience peace, go to Jesus! He is the only foundation that can take the weight of any sorrow you bring.

2. I learned to pray with my wife authentically

The best prayer life I had with my wife were the weeks following our miscarriage. I experienced God’s Spirit move in new ways once I learned to just pray at every moment. I tried to distract us from the pain at first, but it only put bandages on bullet holes. The different kind of pain I had to embrace here was to pray while weeping and communicate the lack of answers I had. In this season I learned to pray Scripture. God’s Word. No phrase of mine will cure my heart, so I had to learn what God’s Words were. Only when we soaked our tear-filled prayers with his life-giving words, did we find hope. In other words, we suffered with hope.

3. Jesus is a better father than I’ll ever be

The hardest part of Jerusalem’s death for me was accepting the death of my child. I never met him, but I had an emotional attachment to him. If God’s Word is true, which it is, I know that Jerusalem has a personality, he is a unique person, and no one else will be like him. As I mourned the loss of Jerusalem, 2 Corinthians 4:14 brought me the most comfort out of all the beautiful promises of God. It says: “ knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” We know that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. His heart was stopped, yet three days later it started again. My son, though his heart stopped, one day it will not stop. One day Jerusalem’s body will have no issues and be whole, completely right, and it is solely by the power of Jesus Christ and his perfect grace. It was here I learned that Jesus is a better father than I’ll ever be. Jesus Christ cares for my child more than I ever could on this side of grace. Knowing the character of God, I can know that one day I will see Jerusalem again.

Husband…father…your experience with a miscarriage is indeed a different kind of pain. Many won’t ask how you are personally doing; some will disregard it completely. Know that Jesus sees everything. Know that Jesus cares! Learn to lean into Christ’s grace in your marriage, learn to pray authentically with your wife the promises of God, embrace the goodness of God that Jesus is a better father than you, and rest in the fact that one day all will be made new before the Lord with perfect heartbeats, all looking at the beauty of Christ.

The (Consistently) Gospel-Centered Shepherd

When I was a kid, nothing drove me crazier than rules inconsistently applied. When my older cousins got away with things that would have gotten me in a mountain of trouble, or when my siblings got access to privileges that I didn’t, it frustrated me to no end. I had what we might call a “strong sense of justice” (read: I was the fairness police). Now, while that instinct might have been a bit, say, keenly attuned, there was some reality to what I was feeling. It is tough to be a kid in a world where the rules seem to arbitrarily change. 

Pastor, unless we are careful, we can do the same to the precious flock with which God has entrusted us. 

Here’s what I mean.

The funny (or, not so funny) thing about human nature is that we’re deeply inconsistent. I need look no further than me to realize this. I speak from the pulpit about the need for holiness, and no later than that afternoon, I’ve fallen into sin. I disciple young believers in the importance of a daily regimen of scripture and go to bed that night with my Bible uncracked. I talk a good game about the importance of gospel-centeredness, but far too often, I’m a law-mind. 

It’s that last one that can set us up to deeply injure members of our flock. When we’re preparing a sermon, we have the chance to sift our thoughts and curate our words. This allows us to ensure that what we preach has the gospel as its unshakeable core. 

But when we’re sitting in our studies with a desperate, beloved child of God, too often the first words that come to our minds have a taproot in our flesh. Instead of drawing up fresh gospel water to soothe parched throats, we offer shots of the burning liquor of the law: “Do better. Try harder. Buckle down. White-knuckle it. Suck it up. Get to work.”

We ask our people to knock back four or six of these great tips to beat anxiety, sin, grief, financial worries, or marital struggles and send them on their way, staggering drunk on the homemade moonshine of get-your-act-together. We ask exasperated questions like, “Why do you still feel this way?” “How is it that you’re still struggling with this?” “What am I going to have to do to help you finally get past this?” Too often, we cram law-shaped words into gospel-shaped holes.

The meeting comes to a close. We pray with these believers, and they go home with a smile on their face and something like happiness in their hearts, feeling like we’ve given them something practical, and their final condition is worse than the first. 

Or, they go home feeling that something still isn’t right, but aren’t sure how to raise the issue that all of that good advice just didn’t help. Who wants to go to their pastor and say, “Yeah, all that hard work and effort you put in really didn’t help?”

Or worst of all–they go home confused, hurt, and angry because they can see the difference. We changed the rules on them mid-stream! We insisted that they fix their eyes on the gospel, then when we got them alone, we cranked their necks back around to the law.

Put yourself into the shoes of that man or woman who comes into your office, or the young person you’re discipling. They know your reputation as one who gives the pure medicine of the gospel. They trust you to feed them the rich meat of Christ crucified. So they expect you as the messenger of God to give exactly that. And when you instead shove a bowl full of the thin gruel of the law in front of them, the result is that they choke it down and leave with a growling spiritual belly. When they lay down that night, listening to the roar in their guts, they wonder: “What’s wrong with me? Why do I still feel this way? Why am I still struggling?”

This should never be.

Let’s commit to not only preaching out of the heart of the gospel, but pastoring out of it as well. The former, we learn to do as we mine the gospel for the benefits that it can give to our flock. But the latter – the latter is something that I think will only come when we have hurled ourselves in headlong desperation into the pool of God’s grace both for ourselves and for others. 

This means trusting Jesus with your anxiety about the spiritual condition of that precious member who just doesn’t seem to get it. 

This means repenting of the self-pitying pride that bewails the difficulty of pastoral ministry as an excuse for sharp-tongued retorts, gritted teeth, and masked frustration with that member that’s always slow to agree. 

This means abandoning the messiah-complex mentality that causes us to default to condemnation and self-improvement programs for that member who keeps falling into the same sin, after exhausting our creative attempts to keep presenting the gospel to them. 

This means ruthlessly excising every last bit of pride-of-place or pride-of-power that resides in our hearts, tempting us to see every disagreement as divisiveness or personal attack, every slip into sin as a sign of congregational revolt, every ‘no’ vote in the member’s meeting as a statement of disloyalty or potential threat. 

And this means–most of all–embracing our pastoral status as creatures. We are limited. We are sinners. We need grace. And we don’t just need it from the pulpit. We pastors need grace, absolute oceans of it, every time we meet in private with our Lord. He always greets us graciously and patiently, quick with a kind word or encouragement. Let’s be imitators of Christ in this, and show a consistently gospel-centered approach in private as well as in the pulpit.

My Doctoral Defense Did Not Go as Planned

Two years ago today, on March 6, 2020, my son Brooks was born at 6:00am, and I defended my doctoral dissertation at 3:00pm. How that situation arose is quite comical.

When scheduling the oral defense, I attempted to tip-toe around my son’s due date, March 26th. When the defense was then scheduled for late March, I kindly requested a new date – Friday, March 6th. This would give three weeks of buffer, plus it would be the last agenda item on a Friday afternoon. I would successfully defend, then my wife and I would celebrate with a Friday night on the town. I had it planned.

God has a sense of humor. Brooks came three weeks early, and we headed to the hospital at 1am on March 6th. My wife was a champ – as she had been with our older two children – and she made quick work of the delivery. By 6:00am, we were holding a precious, but awfully tiny, 4 lb, 7oz boy in our arms. The doctors surmised that his growth in the womb had finished, and her body evicted him.

As the sun was coming up and shining into the post-delivery room, my wife and I realized we were on the same page about the defense. We wanted it done. No one gets to the end of a marathon, only to run one mile more. We could feel the chains unshackling, and we were bound to be set free.

During the defense that afternoon, one of my supervisors, Dr. Todd Chipman, asked what I had learned through the process. I broke down. The emotions of the day finally caught up to me.

You see, my dissertation was on the topic of fatherhood. Here I was, a new father again, defending my work about fatherhood itself.

What had I learned? Fatherhood will make a man out of you.

1. Fathering will stretch the father to the limits.

The New Testament describes a husband as standing in the metaphorical place of Christ in the marriage relationship. As Christ dies for the church, so a husband should die for his wife. He must sacrifice everything that she may be presented blameless. And so it is with fathering. A father who has a full tank at the end of the day is not doing it right. He must sacrifice everything for his family’s soul.

2. Fathering will require the father’s presence…and absence.

Many fathers are physically present but emotionally and spiritually absent. One of the first steps to growing as a father is learning to be present – in all ways and at all moments. But a father must also learn the value of his absence. He must go away – to work, provide, and produce. When he returns home, he brings in his hand not only a paycheck, but an identity. Whether he is a hunter-gatherer, a construction worker, or a software engineer, his honorable work brings honor to his family. Pay attention to any biography or documentary or testimony, and you will hear individuals recall their parents’ jobs as part of their story. That’s not a coincidence.

3. Fathering leads the father to the Father.

In his task as a father, a man learns that he is not capable. Some men buckle under this reality and give up altogether (i.e., the “dead-beat dad”). Some men defy this reality and clench down on their children (i.e., the “demanding dad”). The gospel invites us to embrace this reality and become the “dependent dad.” Ephesians 3:14-15 tells us that every family is grounded in the heavenly Father. In his overabundance of love (3:16-19) and overabundance of spiritual gifts in the church (4:7-16), the Father equips his people to do “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (3:20). In other words, dads were meant to feed their children with five loaves and two fish.


As I plodded through doctoral studies, these realities about fatherhood sank into my bones. My wife and my children needed my sacrifice, my presence, and even my absence. But most importantly, they needed something – someone – far greater than me. They needed a sacrifice, a presence, and a provision that I could not provide.

So when I was asked, “What have you learned in this process,” the only sufficient answer was my tears. I set out to write a book on fatherhood, and I became a dependent father in the process. That’s another way of saying: God made a man out of me. A needy, desperate, dependent… man. From the beginning, this is how it was supposed to be.

In short, if children are arrows, fathers are meant to bend the bow. Fathers: may we bend all the way back so that our sons and daughters may go all the way forward, into the arms of their heavenly Father.

P.S. – Happy birthday, Brooks! Fly to Him.

Losing Leaders, Gaining God

Lately it seems the only thing people can agree on is that they cannot agree. The last several years have been marked by division in the world between a contentious election, racial tensions and the seemingly endless pandemic. Sadly, this division has not stopped at the political and national level of the public square, but has infected the Church as well. While I would contend that the recent years have only shone a light on deeper fault lines of division, the Church’s unity and witness has taken a brutal beating publically in recent days. Regrettably, much of this division has been propagated by leaders within the church that had once held much clout with large swaths of Christians.

If you are like me, many of your favorite teachers and preachers have not been unaffected by divisiveness in the last couple of years. Many seem to be set on stirring division especially on social media platforms where their hot takes and polemics create a buzz of attention, likes and responses. Many of the leaders who I once looked to for encouragement and as an example now rant about the same subjects, feeding off of and stirring the pot of division. I have lost count of the preachers, theologians and teachers I have had to unfollow because I just could not take it any longer. Talking with other believers, unfortunately I know I am not alone.

As a lover of the Church and one who deeply desires to see a unified body under the headship of Christ, this breaks my heart. I am deeply grieved by the loss of once highly esteemed leaders. As I consider this heartbreaking reality in today’s church culture, I cannot help but think that God is trying to teach his people a valuable lesson. A lesson that he has had to teach his stubborn people again and again. What is that lesson?

The lesson is that he is God and we are not. He is our ultimate leader, not the loudest or the most popular voice. Look at Israel’s history and the long line of wicked, divisive and inadequate kings. Who was faithful even when his people were not? God! Today’s leadership crisis and division is not a new phenomenon. In fact, Paul addressed this under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit with the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17. Just read this passage and consider its comparisons to the current state of the church today:

“10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”

This division is heartbreaking, but it is not new. This division is hard to watch, but is nothing more than a rerun of a TV show at 2 A.M that has been seen countless times in church history. Again and again we are duped into following man rather than God. We follow our favorite teacher or preacher because they are smart, funny or in today’s culture, divisive. We do this again and again because it is temptingly easy to follow an imperfect human rather than a perfect and holy God. But Paul reminds us not to follow men, not even himself! Paul encourages us to fix our eyes on Christ, not the most eloquent teacher or preacher. In fact, look again at verse 17: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” When we look for and follow the wisest or the most eloquent leaders we are actually emptying the cross of Christ of its power. No wonder the church is struggling today! We have built a culture of church celebrities that literally empties the cross of its power!

The way we follow celebrity pastors today combined with the current division is harmful to the church, but it does not thwart God’s plans. While Satan is meaning this division for evil, God is using it for good because in all of this, God is reminding us that the church is not ultimately about the leaders or the loudest voices. It is about Him! I have lost respect for many of my favorite leaders and teachers, but I have not lost respect for my God and Savior. If anything I am reminded of his faithfulness as it is juxtaposed with man’s faithlessness.

In this difficult season for the Church and the crisis in leadership, let us not forget the true leader of the Church: Jesus our perfect King. He will never seek to divide us for greater attention and publicity. He will not seek to pit us against one another. He knows what is best and he constantly points us to unity in it, not division. So if you are like me and you are struggling with the division, quarreling and backbiting in the Church, join me also in fixing your eyes on the true leader: Christ. Let the quarrelers quarrel, but let us seek to be united in our pursuit of Christ. While we may lose earthly leaders, we gain (or rather remember), the true leader, which is ultimately found in our Savior, Jesus Christ. Follow Christ and share the power of the cross of Christ with the world who desperately need Him!

So It Is With Grace

“The growth of trees and plants takes place so slowly that it is not easily seen. Daily we notice little change. But, in course of time, we see that a great change has taken place. So it is with grace.” (John Owen)

I am not where I thought I would be as a Christian today. When God saved me eight years ago, I intended to be more holy, more Christlike, more godly than I am now. But I’m not. Not by a long shot.

Sometimes I get too angry; other times I’m a little too impatient. On many occasions my sarcasm comes too natural and my cynicism springs forth too often. I don’t love my wife as I should and my love for the Lord wanes far too easily. In short, I’m less godly than I planned to be eight years in.

Wherever you are in your walk with Jesus—whether it’s been a month, a couple years, or decades—I imagine you feel the same way. We all do. We all get discouraged with our progress. We all are prone to frustration, realizing we are not as godly as we should be. But sanctification, like the growing of trees and plants—as Owen puts it—takes time. It’s slow, boring, and not easily seen.

If you watch grass grow you won’t see progress. After awhile, you’ll become impatient and annoyed that the grass seems to remain the same length. But if you mow your lawn and check it after a week, you’ll notice it’s grown so much where you need to mow again.

So it is with the Christian life. So it is with grace. Christian, if you are experiencing minuscule growth in your walk with Christ, don’t become discouraged, frustrated, or annoyed. There is certainly value in some discouragement simply because you shouldn’t be complacent. However, don’t despair. God is still molding you, still shaping you, still forming you into the image of Christ.

Must we be concerned with a perceived lack of growth? Absolutely. If we are faithful, we should always examine ourselves to see what progress we’re making. If a lack of growth or progress doesn’t concern us, there is a bigger problem at play. But we shouldn’t be distraught over a perceived lack of growth—many times we recognize how much we’ve changed when we look back to who we were before Christ.

If I look back to a year ago, I don’t see much change, and it can be discouraging. If I, however, look back to who I was before getting saved, there’s a world of difference. And it’s all by the grace of God.

Keep pushing, keep believing, keep trusting in the finished work of Christ.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at Theology & Life

Reading Ezra-Nehemiah Theologically

he book of Ezra-Nehemiah—books in the Protestant canon but only one book in the Hebrew Bible—tell the story of the Jewish people’s return to the promised land. More specifically, it tells the story of God fulfilling his promise “through Jeremiah” (Ezra 1:1) to restore his people to the land. They have lived through the horrors of the Babylonian exile, when Babylon marched upon Jerusalem, razed the city and its temple, and captured all but the very destitute of God’s people. Now, some seventy years later, God has stirred the heart of a foreign king, Cyrus, to send his people back home.

The journey from exile to restored temple and rebuilt city walls—an essential defensive feature of ancient cities—is neither quick nor easy, and the story introduces readers to a dizzying number of ancient rulers (not always in chronological order—here’s a timeline to help sort it out) and other characters with hard-to-pronounce names and backstories that Ezra-Nehemiah is not compelled to relay.

Ezra-Nehemiah is a lot like an austereogram. The details are more important than in “magic-eye pictures,” but for the purposes of this discussion of reading Ezra-Nehemiah theologically, it is helpful to set aside all the confusion over names and dates and other muddling details—especially for readers like us, who are centuries removed from these events. If we can bracket those out for the moment (these issues are addressed well in commentaries and scholarly literature), then we can see the theological significance of God’s sovereignty, worship, justice for the least of these, community building, and Scripture in Ezra-Nehemiah.

God’s Sovereignty

From the start of the book God’s sovereignty takes center stage. It is his word that is fulfilled and it is he who “roused the spirit of King Cyrus” (Ezra 1:1) to send home the exiled Jews. His “gracious hand” guided and protected Nehemiah (Neh. 2:8), and he “put it into the king’s mind to glorify the house of the Lord in Jerusalem” and gave Ezra favor with the rulers of Persia (Ezra 7:17–28). Whereas God remains hidden in Esther, in Ezra-Nehemiah he is anything but. Rather, we see God overtly directing kings for his own glory and the good of his people. There can be no mistaking his sovereignty in this book as he leads his people in righting the wrongs that caused their exile nearly a century ago.


Second, this book is supremely concerned with the right worship of God, which is clear from the Cyrus’s declaration to Ezra: “The Lord . . . has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah” (Ezra 1:2). Temple worship provides the impetus for people from the clans of Judah and Levi to return to Jerusalem, and the long list of names in chapter 2 highlights priests, Levites, musicians, gatekeepers, and temple servants. The God of Israel had long ago established how he should be worshiped—at his temple in Jerusalem—and now his people are returning to make sure that can happen again after the destruction of the temple roughly fifty years earlier.


Wrapped up in loving God (i.e., right worship) is loving others (i.e., doing justice). This theme comes to the fore in Nehemiah 5, where we learn that the “nobles and officials” (Neh. 5:7) exploited their impoverished brothers and sisters. Rather than lending without interest to help provide for the poor among them (see Deut. 23:19), the wealthy people are both charging interest and confiscating “fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses” (Neh. 5:11) from the people who could not afford to pay “the king’s tax” (Neh. 5:4). Nehemiah rebukes the nobles and officials, even proclaiming a curse on those who would continue to exploit their brothers and sisters (Neh. 5:12).

A similar issue arises in the last chapter of Nehemiah, which more clearly shows the relationship between loving God and loving others. In this case, the newly returned exiles had stopped giving tithes, which meant that those who cared for the temple and officiated worship were forced to work the fields to care for their families. This, of course, negated the very reason for the return to the promised land.


At the heart of each of the previous theological foci is Scripture. Ezra returns to reestablish temple worship, which was proclaimed first in Scripture. Nehemiah returns to provide safety and security to God’s people by rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem and securing its borders, a concern we see throughout the prophetic books and the Torah. Ezra reads aloud from the Torah, “making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read” (Neh 8:8).

Intermarriage with people outside of the covenant community, Sabbath keeping, proper treatment of the poor, repentance of sin, reminders of God’s faithfulness, providing for the Levites and temple personnel—all of those concerns are rooted in and developed from Scripture. Indeed, the exile happened in the first place because God’s people refused to be faithful to God’s self-revelation in Scripture — summarized by Jesus as loving God and loving neighbor. For Ezra and Nehemiah, then, a return to Scripture was imminently and supremely important.

Everything Matters

Much more could be said about each of these theological themes—and more themes could be added on top of these. But I think the most important theological contribution Ezra-Nehemiah makes to our cultural context is its vision of the all-encompassingness of walking with God. These books show that every aspect of life is governed by the sovereign God. And this God is concerned about all aspects of life; there is no sacred-secular divide, no distinction between religious devotion and the rest of life—food, sex, work, worship, parenting, sorrow, joy, and everything else we do and experience in this life and the next comes under the sovereign purview of our almighty, faithful, fierce, loving Father. And, really, is that not the message of the entire Bible?

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