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Why I support J. D. Greear for SBC president—and you should too.

 

I was thrilled when I heard that J. D. Greear was going to be nominated for SBC President. Then, I was equally dismayed when I heard that our SBC establishment was going to run somebody against him. It’s fascinating to me that we keep saying that we want young guys to be engaged in our convention, but then we aren’t supportive when some of our best young guys actually do. And make no mistake—J. D. Greear is one of our best young guys. Then again, maybe we want our sharp young guys to be involved; we just don’t want them to be SBC president.

We’ve seen this kind of thing before, however. I remember when my friend Dr. Frank Page announced that he was running for convention president in 2006. He was serving at FBC Taylors at the time, in my own state of South Carolina. Immediately, the establishment machine went into high gear to oppose him. In spite of that, he was elected by one of the smallest margins ever, was a great SBC president, and today serves as our outstanding SBC Executive Committee President.

Perhaps some people just have an aversion to the Carolinas. I suppose we’re outliers to some degree—we’re a long way from most Southern Baptists. Yet, if our SBC history tells us anything, it’s that some of our greatest preachers, professors, and leaders are from the Carolinas—men like Shubal Stearns, James Petigru Boyce, William Screven, John A. Broadus, Basil Manley, Richard Furman, Daniel Akin, Frank Page, and Billy Graham. In my opinion, it’s not too early to add J. D. Greear to that list. I support J. D. Greear for SBC president for many reasons—here are my top 5:

  1. He is passionate about God. In a world where many young, successful pastors are passionate about themselves and their brand, J. D. is passionate about our Triune God and his glory. He has ordered his life, both personally and professionally, around his belief that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” As a result, both his character and his calling reflect his heart’s pursuit of God.
  2. He is passionate about the Bible. J. D. Greear is a product of the Southern Baptist resurgence. He came to Southeastern Seminary after its transition, and he had the privilege to study under conservative seminary professors. While there, he was taught the value of good exegesis and expository preaching. Today, while many young pastors of mega, mega churches exchange biblical exposition for the shallow, pragmatic advice of a life coach, J. D. mines God’s word weekly to provide his people with a solid diet of good theology and its larger implications for their lives, the church, and the broader kingdom of God.
  3. He is passionate about the gospel. The concept of a “gospel-centered” life isn’t a cliché for J. D. Greear—it’s who he is. The gospel is at the heart of his life, his preaching, and the vision and mission of The Summit Church. People come to know Christ weekly through his ministry and are baptized into the life of the church. But that’s not where it ends. J. D. understands that people must understand the impact of the gospel on every area of their lives if they would fulfill God’s kingdom purpose. As a result, he is a champion for personal discipleship as the end goal of the Great Commission.
  4. He is passionate about church planting. God has blessed and enabled J. D. Greear to grow a great church in the Raleigh/Durham area, but he’s not interested in growing his own kingdom. That evidence can be found in his commitment to church-planting throughout North America (and the world). Through its SBC-affiliated network, The Summit Church is sending out church planting teams to urban centers in desperate need of the gospel. There is nothing a church can do that’s more missional than plant another church—J. D. Greear is modeling this for Southern Baptists today.
  5. He is passionate about the local church. D. Greear’s willingness to serve as President of the Southern Baptist Convention at this strategic time is evidence of his commitment to our convention. While young pastors are disengaging from SBC participation at an alarming rate, J. D. remains committed to our Southern Baptist ideals: he affirms the BFM 2000, the mandate of the great commission, and the value of the cooperative program as a means of funding our shared missionary endeavors. J. D. understands, however, that the Great Commission was given to the church, not a denomination, and that the only hope for a strong denomination is to fill it with strong “gospel-centered” churches. As a result, his goal is to see our convention filled with healthy churches who reproduce themselves for the glory of God.

I’ve had the privilege to know J. D. Greear since our days at Southeastern Seminary. He was younger than I, of course, but it didn’t take me long to recognize that he was a man of singular giftedness. Since then, it’s been my privilege to serve in the Carolinas with him and to observe as God has used him to transition and grow The Summit Church into one of the largest and strongest churches in the SBC. For all of these reasons and more, I support J. D. Greear for SBC president—and you should too!

Dr. Bill Curtis is the founding pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church, in Darlington, SC, co-founder of The Pillar Network for Church Planting, former Trustee Board Chairman of the North American Mission Board, and award-winning author of Engaging Exposition, 30 Days to James, and Exalting Christ in Micah. Follow him on Twitter @billcurtissc.

The Destructive Road to Discontentment

By:
Dr. Bill Curtis
&
Dr. Dwayne Milioni

There are few things in life more destructive than discontentment. Like a cancer, it eats away at the very core of our beings, and left untreated, it will destroy us. Unlike many cancers, however, discontentment is both preventable and curable. But before we can overcome it, we must first understand it. And to understand it, there is no better place to look than the tragic story of Korah and his friends in Numbers 16, where we read these words:

They rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, 250 chiefs of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men. They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?’ When Moses heard it, he fell on his face (v. 2-4).

Korah’s story reveals the tragic steps he took on the destructive road to discontentment. Understanding them can protect us from making similar mistakes in our own lives.

 

1. Unmet Expectations

Korah bursts on to the scene to challenge the leadership and authority of Moses and Aaron, God’s chosen leaders for Israel. The Bible says that while Korah was the leader of the rebellion, he was joined by 3 co-conspirators: Dathan, Abiram, and On. In all, 250 chief men of the congregation joined the rebellion; these men were well known and influential among the people (v.1-3).

Apparently, Korah was one of the most respected men in Israel (after all, he was able to gather a significant number of strategic followers). Korah was a Levite, so he had nearly unlimited access to the Tabernacle as a worship leader in Israel. The only thing he didn’t possess was the authority of the High Priest. Rather than be content, however, he craved the authority and leadership that Moses and Aaron possessed—something given to them by God Himself. What was the root of Korah’s discontentment? Unmet expectations. Somehow, Korah believed that he and his friends were as qualified to lead as Moses and Aaron.

 

2. Appeal for Resolution

The Bible doesn’t give us much behind the scenes information about Korah’s attempt to usurp Moses and Aaron’s authority. Moses served as a judge over Israel, so it stands to reason that Korah would have approached him with his complaints long before this epic and public showdown. I think it’s safe to say that their private meeting would have revolved around the issues that Korah raised in Numbers 16. The first issue was the equality of the people of Israel. Korah said, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them.” Korah was a student of the newly given Levitical law, so he would have understood God’s command for the people to be holy (Lev 11:44). Further, he would have understood the process of substitute sacrifice through which the people walked in obedience to God’s commands. Because of this, the people all stood on equal footing before God as they worshiped Him.

The second issue Korah had was with the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korah stated, “Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” While Korah accepted the process of worship, he was unwilling to accept the leaders that God had placed over the people, both in matters of civil governance and worship. God specifically called Moses and Aaron to lead the people, but the people chafed under their leadership. Korah and his friends believed that Moses and Aaron were usurpers who were keeping them from becoming the new leaders of Israel.

 

3. Unwillingness to Accept the Resolution

After Korah made his appeal to Moses based on these arguments, my educated guess is that he then asked Moses and Aaron to step down in favor of a new leadership team led by he and his friends. He may have even had some type of petition from the people calling for their ouster. We know that it would have had at least 250 names on it, and potentially many more.

I’m sure that Moses would have recounted God’s call upon his life at the burning bush, including his own feelings of inadequacy when given the task of leading Israel. I believe he would have told again the way that God used him to bring the plagues upon Egypt and to lead the people out through the Red Sea. He would have recounted his own experiences in the presence of God as he received the law. And, he would have challenged Korah to submit to the leadership God had placed over Israel and to find contentment in the unique blessings of worship ministry that God had given him. In this way, Moses provided Korah with a resolution that could free him from his discontentment.

Unfortunately, the account in Numbers 16 reveals that Moses’ words found no place in Korah’s heart. There was only one outcome that would satisfy Korah—he wanted Moses and Aaron to step down so that he and his friends could take their places. As a result, Korah was unwilling to accept the resolution that God had provided for him through His servant-leader Moses.

 

4. Bitterness and Discontentment 

We can only imagine what was happening in Korah’s heart when he left that meeting with Moses. Foremost must have been a spirit of anger. The nerve of Moses to dismiss his complaints and reject his demands! The journey back to his tent was a pivotal one in his life and in the lives of his friends. Had he chosen to submit to Moses’s leadership, a leadership given by God Himself, he could have reversed the whole direction of his life and left the destructive road to discontentment behind him. He could have encouraged the people to think rightly about God’s will for their nation. He could have led the people to submit to Moses’ leadership, and they would have experienced God’s forgiveness and blessing.

Instead, with every step, Korah became increasingly bitter. After all, he was as qualified to lead Israel as Moses—more qualified according to some of his friends. Who died and left Moses and Aaron in charge? In his mind they were self-appointed dictators who had exalted themselves above him, his friends, and the entire nation. Well, enough was enough. Something needed to be done to fix this situation, and if Moses and Aaron wouldn’t step down, then a rebellion was necessary. He would show them. Soon all of Israel would know the truth about those posers, and when the dust settled, he and his friends would be in charge.

 

5. Blame versus Self-Assessment 

I often wonder how much time elapsed between Korah’s conversation with Moses and his public act of treason. My guess is that it took a while for him to work up the courage to actually attempt the rebellion; it takes time to coordinate something like that. Most likely, he followed the usual course. He became increasingly angry with Moses and Aaron, and rather than confess and abandon his anger, he began to feed it. This made him bitter against them, and soon he was swimming in a sea of discontentment. The result was that Korah became increasingly unhappy.

When people are unhappy, they always look for someone or something to blame. After all, it’s much easier to blame someone else for one’s unhappiness than to actually shoulder the responsibility for it. Korah needed to do some serious self-assessment; he needed to let God work in his heart. He should have owned his sin, practiced repentance and confession, and continued to move forward with a grateful heart. After all, he was a strategic worship leader for the nation of Israel. Had he done this, he would have found joy in his life. Instead, he chose to blame Moses and Aaron for his own sin and the unhappiness it produced in his life.

 

6. Finding Others to Share the Misery 

It has been rightly said that misery loves company. There are few sayings truer than this one. Finally, Korah had enough. He was ready to lead a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, and he knew just where to look—amongst his miserable friends. It’s impossible to hide a discontented spirit for any length of time. Eventually, it rips through the façade of one’s life like lava flowing from an erupting volcano. Korah was unhappy and miserable, and it began to affect everyone around him. Soon, all of his close friends and supporters became unhappy with their position in Israel, and they were prepared to blame it on Moses and Aaron.

Sadly, Korah’s inability to escape the clutches of his discontentment soon affected more than 250 people. As a result, they were unable to find joy in their lives either. At this point, there was no turning back. Together they made their way to the Tabernacle to confront Moses and Aaron and demand that they be given authority over the nation of Israel. Only then did Moses propose a solution: God would choose the men he wanted to lead Israel, either Moses and Aaron, or Korah and his friends (v. 4-15).

Moses’ plan was simple: Aaron, Korah, and the rest of the 250 leaders of Israel were to stand together at the threshold of the tabernacle. The entire congregation of Israel was there—fully in support of Korah (v. 16-19). Once there, each man took his censer, lit it with fire, and laid incense upon it. Then, they waited on God’s decision…

God’s anger burned against Korah and the people for their rebellion against His chosen leaders. Initially, He wanted to destroy the entire nation, but Moses and Aaron interceded for the people who had been led astray by the sins of one man (v. 20-22). Instead, God chose to destroy the ringleaders and judge the people who had followed them (v.31-35, 41-50).

Moses commanded the people to move away from the family dwellings of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Then he made this statement: “If God allows these men to die of natural causes, then I haven’t been sent by God. But if he opens the ground, and swallows all of them alive into hell, then you will know that these men have despised the LORD.”

His final words had barely left his lips when the ground ripped open, and Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, along with all of their families and possessions, disappeared into the depths of the earth. The ground slammed back together with such force that it could be felt for miles. As the people fled in fear, God rained down fire from heaven and destroyed the 250 men who supported Korah.

 

Epilogue

A massive cloud of dust rose hundreds of feet above the desert. It was the last evidence of the lives of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and their families. Another 250 families lost their husbands and fathers—nothing remained of them but ash. In an instant, the wages of the sin of discontentment produced death.

This story contains great insight into the dangers of discontentment in our own lives. Scripture speaks often about this dangerous foe (Pr 27:20; Eccl 1:8, 4:8; Lk 12:15; Jn 6:43; 1 Cor 10:10; Phil 2:14; James 5:9; 1 Pet 4:9; Jude 1:14-16). It’s dangerous, because we must disobey God to indulge it (Mt 6:25-34; Phil 4:11-13; 1 Tim 6:3-8; Heb 13:5). It’s dangerous, too, because it leads to catastrophic choices and outcomes in our lives. Consider,

  • It reveals a lack of faith and dependence upon God;
  • It hinders our worship and ability to serve God;
  • It misdirects our energies and makes us ineffective in our labors;
  • It robs us of contentment and the joy that it produces.

Discontentment is a sin that lurks daily at the door of our hearts. It waits to slip in unnoticed at the precise moment when pride cracks open the door. How does this happen? It happens when we feel devalued because of an unmet expectation: in our marriages, at our jobs, or even in our church. Our spouse fails to meet a perceived need; our boss fails to appreciate us, or worse yet corrects us; someone in our church hurts our feelings. Our pride wells up within us, trying to convince us that we deserve better. Suddenly, our view of people and situations changes, and if we’re not vigilant, we will begin traveling down the dangerous road to discontentment.

How do we avoid this dangerous enemy? Proverbs 4:23 gives us the answer, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” We must pursue Christ daily, reflecting His humility and consciously choosing to be content (Phil 2:1-11). In doing so, we can defeat pride and keep discontentment at bay. That said, we need the help of others too. Apparently, Korah had no one in his life that was willing to confront him about his sin, and it led to his destruction. We must each have a system of accountability to battle against this dangerous enemy (Gal 6:1-5); someone with whom we can be transparent, and someone we empower to speak truth into our lives.

Ultimately, our spiritual success and joy in life is determined by our ability to battle and defeat the sin of discontentment. Korah and his friends were unsuccessful, and they were destroyed because of it. Thankfully, we have the opportunity to choose differently. Today, and every day, let’s choose to be content.

 

Reflection Questions

1. We battle the sin of discontentment every day of lives. As we’ve seen, there’s a progression of thoughts that lead us to discontentment. Reflect on the six steps we discovered today:

• Unmet
• Appeal for Resolution
• Unwillingness to Accept the Resolution
• Bitterness and Discontentment
• Blame vs. Self Assessment
• Finding others to Share the Misery

Discuss a time in your life when you went down this road. How should you have responded differently?

 

2. Talk with your spouse about the following important areas where we struggle with discontentment. Remember, discontentment always begins with some level of unmet expectations. What unmet expectations are causing you to be discontent today? Based on today’s study, how does God want you to respond?

• Marriage
• Family
• Work
• Church

If the sin of discontentment has taken up residence in your heart in one of these areas (or another), spend some time in prayer. Repent and confess this sin, and ask for God’s help in living a contented life.

 

3. Read Galatians 5:16-26 and discuss the following questions:

  • To what category does the sin of discontentment belong?
  • To what category does contentment belong?
  • What is the daily key for defeating the sin of discontentment?
  • How does the fruit of the Spirit help protect us from the sin of discontentment?

 

 

4. Talk with your spouse about the issue of accountability. Who have you each identified as an accountability partner (you should each have a godly accountability partner beside your spouse)? Are you consistently seeking their help in monitoring your hearts?

 

 

5. What do you do when you encounter someone who is discontent? Do you feed their discontentment by commiserating with them, or do you seek to lovingly lead them to the joy-filled place of contentment
(Gal 6:1).

 

Upon the Death of a Friend

That life is fragile, valuable, and finite, we all know. Yet the demands of life and the pursuit of our personal goals often blind us to the reality of these truths. So we live in the most foolish of ways, oblivious to our own mortality and the valuable lessons it could teach us. We know that people die, but it’s other people, strangers and the like, who we don’t know . . . until we do. Then, and only then, do we have the rare opportunity for personal epiphany.

My friend died this week. He was both mentor and servant, a very rare and beautiful combination in this world of selfish isolation. He both taught and learned, demonstrating that the greatest of life’s achievements isn’t success—it’s the humble pursuit of wisdom. He was like a father to me, quick with praise, protest, or suggestion, yet always offering these with a kind and loving spirit. He was a co-laborer in the gospel, a faithful shepherd, and my friend. And like Jesus with his friend Lazarus, when I heard the news of his death, I wept.

Time would not permit an adequate description of his accomplishments, nor would his humility tolerate such an exercise. But I must share some, even if only to indulge myself and ease my own grief. His achievements as a business man were many, the result of a keen mind and an intense work ethic; an ethic forged on the hot, dusty football fields at Georgia Tech and perfected in the frozen tundra of Labrador.

His achievements in ministry, however, were greater still. He was a passionate Christ-follower, who didn’t just talk about faith—he lived it. He was a faithful churchman who always used his gifts where they were needed most—as a teacher and leader. The final decade of his life was devoted to his most challenging task: helping to found and lead a new church during its most delicate and difficult years. He gave himself tirelessly to shepherd the fellowship at Cornerstone, lending his wisdom and expertise in every area, and managing every building project with his unique blend of leadership and love.

These achievements alone are notable. But there is one other area where his achievements are the greatest—his role as a husband to his wife and a father to his children. Sadly, I’ve come to believe that we all expect far more of our earthly fathers than they can ever deliver. We expect them to provide for us, protect us from harm, and prepare us for the future, all the time demonstrating perfect patience and grace. Clearly, only one Father can accomplish all of these things—Our Father, who art in heaven. All men have clay feet. To suggest otherwise is to invite rebuttal.

Yet occasionally, one of our fathers excels greatly in this task. Such was my friend. He loved Barbara, his wife of 55 years, and sought to provide her with both care and compassion. Like all marriages, theirs was not immune from the effects of the fall. Still, their love was clearly observable by all who knew them. Their gracious attitudes and actions towards one another stand as a beautiful example of a Christ-centered marriage.

So, too, were his relationships with his children: two sons and a daughter. A wise man once said, “Show me the child, and I will show you the man.” If this is the criterion, then my friend was a good man indeed. All of his children have achieved great personal success, but more importantly, all have found a life-long calling to Christian service. There is no greater testimony to a father, or mother, than a familial legacy of faith.

The death of my friend brings me a joy-filled sorrow, yet it provides me with a fresh opportunity to reflect on some important lessons he taught me through his life; lessons that can free me from the “mirage” of invincibility and release me to redeem the time of my own life, something he would very much want all of us to do.

  1.  There is nothing of greater value than time invested in God’s kingdom work.
  2. There is no higher goal than magnifying the glory of God in every situation.
  3. There is no greater gift I can give my wife than a commitment to love her as Christ loved his church.
  4. There is no greater inheritance I can give my children than a legacy of authentic faith.
  5. There is no greater help I can be to a friend than to be both a patient teacher and learner, fulfilling both in a spirit of gracious humility.

To be sure, I still have so much to learn as I pursue these lofty goals. But I’m so thankful to my friend, Paul Avant, for modeling these goals in his life and reminding me of their profound significance for my own.

Slaying the Change-Monster

Is anything more challenging than change? Change is unsettling because it threatens our status quo, and it is uncomfortable because it requires us to get out of our personal comfort zones. Recently, I was reminded of just how difficult change can be. Nearly every day I use an online service called Blackboard; it’s a very necessary part of my life. I am comfortable with everything about the site—its look, its capabilities, and its processes. I’ve used it so often that navigating it has become second nature.

About three months ago I received word that the site was going to receive a major overhaul that would improve its functionality. I understood that coded language—it meant that the site would have a new layout and new requirements. AND, I would have to develop a new skill set to use it. When I got the news I responded in typical human fashion—angst. The questions began swirling around in my head: “Why are they doing this?” “Why can’t they just leave well enough alone?” “What was wrong with the old system?” “Why wasn’t I consulted before they decided to make this change?”

Finally, it was time for the new rollout. The site was totally different! It was arranged differently and it required different steps to use it. I could feel my temperature rising as I absorbed all of the new information. It was then that I realized that I had three simple choices. Choice one: I could try to escape it. I didn’t have to put myself through this. After all, it was my choice to be involved in the situation. I could choose to simply walk away. But, that would be foolish. This platform adds great value to my life on many levels, and nobody abandons an otherwise great situation simply because of a change. Change is part of life—you can’t escape it. Choice two: I could try to resist it. I could have written nasty emails or complained to my contact person, all the while outlining what a hardship the change was for me at the personal level. That too would be foolish, however. The decision wasn’t mine to make, and frankly, the organization that operates the site is in the business of increasing productivity, not satisfying the fickle whims of users. Choice three: I could choose to embrace it. When I accepted the truth that the site added far more value to my life than vexation, I knew that I wasn’t about to abandon it. And, when I realized that the people in charge probably new more about the need for the changes than I did, I simply chose to accept and embrace them.

I dove into the new site and began to look around. When I did, I realized that the changes weren’t as vast as I first thought. Then, I began to use it. I taught myself the new variations on the platform and found that they worked better than the previous one. After a couple of weeks I had an epiphany—I LOVED THE NEW FUNCTIONALITY OF THE SITE! You can imagine my surprise when I came to that conclusion. What at first seemed like a terrible idea now seemed brilliant to me; all because I embraced the change rather than trying to escape or resist it.

Following that experience, I began to consider again this monster we call change. Why is change such a threatening thing to us? Why do we resist it so militantly? Why, when change is such a normal part of our lives, do we try to escape it at all cost? As I reflected on these questions, I had another epiphany—the problem isn’t change; the problem is us. We all want to feel as though we are in control of our lives, and situations that require us to change threaten that sense of personal autonomy. Once I realized that I was the problem, I began to see that the way I view change is critical to my response to it. Here are three laws of change that I’ve committed to follow as I move forward in my life.

  1. The Law of the Big Picture. I struggle with change because I tend to view it only from the perspective of myself. I ask, “How does this affect me?” This is the wrong question. When I am a part of a larger unit of people (family, church, school, workplace, civic organization), I must see myself in light of the big picture. I must ask, “How will this change improve the functioning of the organization of which I’m apart?” When I see change in light of the big picture, I will be more willing to embrace it.
  2. The Law of Team. I struggle with change because I tend to view it from the perspective of my preferences. I ask, “Why wasn’t I consulted about this?” This too is the wrong question. While I would love to weigh in on every potential change in my life, the simple fact is that people in greater positions of authority than me are often tasked with making changes. There can only be one head coach on every team—everyone else is a player with a specific role and function. As a result, I must ask, “How will this change help me be more effective in accomplishing my task on the team?” When I see change in light of the team, I will be more willing to embrace it.
  3. The Law of Personal Growth. I struggle with change because I tend to view it from the perspective of my performance. I ask, “What will this change require of me?” Again, this is the wrong question. I prefer staying in the warmth and protection of my comfort zone. I don’t want to be pushed to learn new things. I know what I know and do what I do—and I like it. Yet, we’re always either growing or dying—the notion of status quo is a myth. When change comes I must ask instead, “How will this change make me a better person (in my family, church, school, workplace, or civic organization)?” When I see change in light of my personal growth and development, I will be more likely to embrace it.

Here is the simple truth: I am the Change-Monster. Change is never the problem—the problem is always me. My response to change is the real issue. When I encounter change in my life, I always have a choice to make. I can try to escape it or to resist it. This choice will always have a negative impact on my life and the people closest to me. Or, I can choose to embrace it, considering as I do the law of the big picture, the law of team, and the law of personal growth. When I respond like this, I slay the Change-Monster and enjoy all of the gifts that change can give me.

Vision

Serving God with vision is necessary to accomplish big kingdom goals. Here are some great principles about vision from Proverbs 16:1-3.

  1. We must always seek the will of God in the proper manner. “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord (16:1).” Strategic planning is essential as we continue to pursue our 10 year goals at Cornerstone. If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time. Yet, as we seek to accomplish God’s will, we must always do so with a humble spirit. After all, his ways are higher than ours and they are always best. So, we must serve diligently and submit totally to God’s sovereign will for us.
  2. We must always serve in the will of God with the proper motives. “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit (16:2).” God is always more impressed with our motives than our service–to obey is always better than sacrifice. As we pursue our 10 year goals as a church, we must regularly assess our motives. Why do we do what we do? Are we just concerned about numbers, or dollars, or programs, or reputations? Are we working to build our own kingdom or God’s? These are the questions that can keep us grounded in humble service to God. God resists the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.
  3. We must always surrender to the will of God in the proper method. “Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established (16:3).” Strategic plans have the potential to succeed when they are embraced in humility and surrendered to God’s purpose. This process is accomplished best through prayer. He’s the pattern: we plan, we submit, and we pray–then we trust God with the outcomes. Our call is to remain faithful to the vision he has given to us, trusting that he will establish our plans as we follow him in faith.

Please join me in praying for our church as we move into 2014 and into year two of our #Sync2022 vision!

 

Remembering the Unsung Heroes

The pages of ancient history are filled with the exploits of yesterday’s heroes- men and women who faced great challenges and rose to the occasion with strength and valor. The mere mention of their names is enough to stir the imagination:

  • Alexander the Great, who conquered Greece, the Persian Empire, and Egypt, and then wept because there were no more lands to conquer.
  • Hannibal, the general from Carthage who rode elephants to battle.
  • Joan of Ark, the French heroine and military leader who was burned at the stake and later canonized.
  • Admiral Lord Nelson, whose bravery during the battle of Trafalgar preserved England as a world power, even though it cost him his life.
  • James Bowie, the great plainsman who gave his life at the Alamo.
  • And Douglas MacArthur, the man who returned to save the Pacific.

These names read like a who’s who of world history. And yet their deeds, though slightly embellished through time, continue to live on in tribute to their greatness.

The Bible, too, is full of the deeds of great heroes. One need only think of Joshua, commander of the conquering tribes of Israel; Gideon and his 300 men; and Samson, who slew one thousand Philistines with the Jawbone of an ass. Who could forget brave Daniel, who faced a den of lions because of his faith in God? What about Nehemiah, the cupbearer who became the chief builder of the walls of Jerusalem? And don’t forget Paul, who endured the wrath of a heathen world and gave his life to share the gospel of Christ with those who had never heard.

The list of heroes could go on and on. And yet, despite their courageous deed and extraordinary accomplishments, it is not the acclaimed hero that interests me most. It is the unsung hero that means the most to me.

Consider Jael, the wife of Heber, who helped Israel defeat the armies of Canaan by driving the tent stake through the skill of their general, Sisera, while he slept.

How about the nameless armor bearer of King Saul, who, despite the continued pleadings of the mortally wounded Saul, would not kill his beloved king, and who took his own life as Saul’s ebbed away?

What about Ahimelech, the priest of God? He fed David and his starving troops with sacred showbread from the tabernacle.

Abishag is another unsung hero. She had the task of nursing the aged David.

The maid of Naaman comes to mind. Despite being a slave, she told her Syrian master where he could find Elisha and be healed of his leprosy.

An unknown boy who was willing to give his lunch to Jesus is another unsung hero. I think of a woman who poured her life’s treasure on the head and feet of Jesus. What about the group of believers who lowered Paul over the walls of Damascus to safety? And remember Epaphroditus, messenger from the church at Philippi, who delivered gifts to Paul while he was in a Roman prison?

No fancy names. No marquee headlines. No press clippings. No noticeable rewards. No glory. The world didn’t grind to a stop and take notice. In fact, few people even knew or cared what they did. They were just common, ordinary people who were faithful to God when it counted. Yet despite their lack of renown, they were essential to the plans of God.

But while the world ignored them, others praised them- like David and his men when they had a full stomach for the first time in days; and Namaan, when his skin looked and felt like an infant’s. Paul knew unknown Christians had helped him when he opened those gifts from Philippi and wept with joy.

And God noticed, because that is God’s way. He has always chosen the small, insignificant things to confuse the mighty and common, ordinary people to confound the wise.

He works in the same way today. In a world of superstar athletes, musicians, and actors, God still uses simple people to carry out His mission.

I’ve never met any of my heroes (although I did see Roberto Clemente play in person several times). And despite my great desire to emulate their athletic abilities, I never rose to those whose skill I admire. But as I think back over my life, I’ve realized that sports heroes never made any substantial impact on my life.

The flash and glitter of athletes’ outstanding plays has made little difference in my life. But the unselfish investment in me, made by ordinary people serving God, has changed my life.

  • People like that nameless college student who gave a summer to come to my neighborhood and tell me that Jesus loved me and died for my sins.
  • Or my first-grade Sunday School teacher, who faithfully prepared her lesson every week, knowing all that time that I would be her only student.
  • Mr. Booth, who taught my fifth-grade class at a small school and helped me develop relationships- with both boys and girls. He became a role-model for me of what a young man could become.
  • Then there was Pastor Koons, who cared enough about a group of rag-tag junior boys to take us on a weekend camping trip and teach us that God loved us and had a plan for our lives.
  • I remember Coach Herron, the all-sports coach at another small school, who taught me that the difference between a “champ and a chump is u!”
  • And my parents, who took me to church every week and faithfully served in Sunday School classes and children’s church.

The list could go on and on. So many people, now forgotten, invested themselves in the life of a little boy, never knowing that he would grow up to carry on their legacy of service. I can’t remember them all, but God does, and one day He will reward them.

And so I write to a group of common, dedicated servants of God. No superstars. No cover stories. No worldly acclaim. But each of you has been given a special calling by God. You’ve been enlisted to impact the lives of others. You will impact them through teaching, but you will make the greatest impact through your living. For it is your teaching in action that people will remember years from now. They may not remember what you said or even who you are, but they will always remember what you did to impact their lives.

Teaching is often a struggle, a battle to remain faithful week after week when seemingly nothing is happening in the lives of your students. And yet, despite the fact that you may never see the results, God is using you to shape a life.  And what will be the reward you ask?

Somewhere, sometime, a man or woman will have the opportunity to share about the people who impacted his or her life. And your reward is this: one of their unsung heroes will be you!

Chase Your Dreams!

Everyone grows up with dreams. Time reveals that some dreams are unattainable, like my childhood dream of playing in the NBA. I maximized my talent through practice, but my DNA didn’t cooperate. That dream was simply not meant to be. Other dreams are more achievable, however, because they sync with our abilities.

Despite this truth, most people hide their dreams in the deep recesses of their hearts. They may remember them on occasion, but they remain hidden away from prying eyes. Generally, fear of failure is the primary reason that people hide their dreams. Some hide their dreams for fear of ridicule. Still others hide their dreams because they feel incapable of achieving perfection in the pursuit of them. So, they allow their dreams to slowly fade away.

In his book Quitters, Jon Acuff challenges people to chase their dreams. He attempts to dispel the fears that hold people back by asking several strategic questions:

  1. If only your life changed, would that be enough? Most people who fear failure are trapped by a “succeed at all cost” mentality. Honestly, though, the person who benefits most from the dream is the dreamer! When we acknowledge that chasing the dream is its own reward, we will overcome this fear.
  2. What do I enjoy doing regardless of the opinion of others? This question gets to the heart of the fear of ridicule. There will always be people who think your dreams are crazy. Generally, they are people who are afraid to chase their own dreams, so they take joy in trying to quash the dreams of others. You will be free to chase your dreams when the opinions of others cease to matter. After all, you are chasing your dream to change your life—not theirs.
  3. What do I love enough to do for free? Many dreamers are trapped by the paralysis of analysis. They want a fully developed plan that can be executed perfectly and will produce a financial windfall. Because they can’t figure it all out up front, however, they never even get started. Dreams, however, are the things we love enough to do for free, because they are primarily for our personal development and enjoyment. Do it for free, and it just might become something that can make you some money!

This third point may be the most important. Nothing kills a dream like the prerequisite that a fully formed plan be in place before we begin. To counter this, Acuff provides a new way to think about chasing your dream.

First, be passionate about your dream. Dreams don’t happen on their own—we have to make them a reality. Passion will motivate you chase your dream.

Second, practice the things necessary for your dream to become a reality. “Success always comes when preparation meets opportunity.” There are no short cuts to preparation; you either do it or you do not. So, practice, practice, practice.

Third, worry about the plan when passion and practice have provided you with an opportunity. Beginning with the plan will paralyze the dream. But, plans are essential if it becomes necessary to expand your dream.

Ultimately, our dreams are for us. They energize our lives and help prevent us from slipping into the rut of boredom. Here are some great principles from Ecclesiastes 10:8-10, 18.

He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a serpent will bite him who breaks through a wall. He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them. If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed. . . Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks.

Principle 1:  Pursuing your dream energizes your life!

In these verses, we see the picture of someone who is chasing a dream. He has purchased some land, and he is now working to make it habitable. He is digging pits, and moving rock, and cutting trees. He is working to build his house—something he has dreamed about for a long time. These are verses filled with energy! There is nothing more exciting than pursuing your dream!

Principle 2: Every dream involves risk!

As he is pursuing his dream, however, he is constantly facing risk. Difficult things can happen when your working on your land: you can fall into the pit you just dug, or be bitten by a snake, or have a tree fall on you. All of these things are simply the risks that come from chasing a dream. There are other risks too: like people thinking your dream is dumb or ready to ridicule you for trying. But, these things can’t be allowed to hinder our dreams—every dream involves risk!

Principle 3: Applied wisdom minimizes failure!

As our dreamer in Ecclesiastes is working to develop his farm, he has to make choices. And those choices may make the task easier or harder. You see, if he decides to cut all of his wood with a dull axe, not only is the job harder, it is more dangerous too. Wisdom is the gift from God that helps us pursue our dreams in the proper way. Wisdom requires us to be realistic with our dreams. We must consider our situation in life, our current finances, and abilities. Some dreams may need to wait until our children are grown. But applying wisdom does not eliminate our dreams—it makes them more attainable.

Principle 4: Dreams don’t come true on their own!

There is no way that our land developer in Ecclesiastes could have accomplished his dream without hard work. Pursuing our dreams takes time and effort—lots of it! He worked hard to develop his farm. Consider his neighbor down the street. That poor guys roof is about to fall in because he is too lazy to fix it. You see, roofs don’t fix themselves, farms don’t develop themselves, and dreams don’t accomplish themselves. We have to do that!

For years, I wanted to write music. Of course, I have limited musical skills, but God has given me skills with language. So over the years, I began to write song lyrics (mostly Christian with some country thrown in on the side). The thing is, I would never show them to anyone, not even my wife. I was afraid of ridicule, so I kept this dream hidden away. One day, God helped me to understand that even if I was the only one who benefited from this pursuit, it was enough. I was free! I took the risk of sharing my lyrics, began to collaborate with other musicians, and we now use several of my songs in worship at our church. Now, I write with confidence and enjoyment, because writing songs is not just a dream anymore—it’s a reality.

So, let me encourage you to revisit your dreams. Pull them out, dust them off, and look at them again. You’ve wanted to write that novel, or learn to play the saxophone, or go back to school, or get your pilot’s license, or start your own business, or develop your own farm.

Spend some time praying about it, and ask God for wisdom about how and when to pursue it. Maybe, you need to begin today; maybe next week; maybe next year. But just the thought of chasing your dream will invigorate your life. So, join me and chase your dreams!

Suggested Reading:

Jon Acuff, Quitter, Lampo Press

Michael E. Gerber, The E Myth Revisited, Harper Business

Chip/Dan Heath, Made to Stick, Random House

Participating in Politics as a Kingdom Resident

As November 6th approaches, folks have begun to ask me my thoughts about the involvement of Christians in the US political process. Many Christians have never taken the time to think about this subject. After all, we’ve grown up in America, and we understand our role in the electoral process. However, many have failed to ask how being a Christian should inform the way we think about our responsibilities as citizens. The questions I’ve received most often are these:

Does the Bible say anything about our role as American citizens?
Does the Bible say anything about our role as American citizens who are also citizens of God’s kingdom?
Does the Bible say anything about the role of churches in promoting political agendas?

As this election nears, I want to share my response to these questions. I will include a brief answer to each question in the order that I’ve listed them, and I will conclude with some principles that should guide us as believers during this, and every, election cycle.

First, does the Bible say anything about our role as American citizens? Specifically, of course, the answer is no. America didn’t exist when the Bible was written, so there are no specific references to our country in scripture. That being said, the Bible does provide some guidelines for living our lives as Christian citizens, of this or any country.

Romans 13:1-7 provides the clearest description of our role as citizens:

”Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”

Within this text, you will find the following principles that God has given us regarding our relationship to our government:

• We are to be subject (subordinate oneself, put oneself under, obey) to our government, unless they force us to choose between obeying government and obeying Christ;
• God ordains government;
• God ordains governmental leaders;
• It is sin to resist governmental authorities (see bullet point one above);
• As citizens, we are to choose to do good, not evil;
• God ordains government to maintain civil order;
• Submission to governmental authorities protects us from God’s wrath and preserves our consciences before Him and others;
• We are to pay our taxes and required revenues;
• We are to honor and respect those whom God places in positions of governmental authority.

Other texts support this:

“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” 1 Peter 3:13-17

“And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances,3 but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” 15 But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius4 and let me look at it.” 16 And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.” Mark 12:13-17

”Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Titus 3:1-2

As these verses demonstrate, we have very specific responsibilities as citizens. As American citizens, we have the unique privilege to be a part of a political process like few other people on earth have ever enjoyed, including Jesus, the disciples, and Paul. As such, we should be good stewards of this opportunity, striving to make decisions in the light of God’s word and with a clear conscience before Him. We must embrace these biblical principles, because they teach us how to do this.

Second, does the Bible say anything about our role as American citizens who are also citizens of God’s kingdom? God’s word spends far more time talking about the kingdom of God than it does about earthly governments. Governments have been rising and falling since the creation of man; the one constant throughout, however, is the kingdom of God. It has been growing and flourishing through all of human history, and one day it will culminate with a divine Monarchy—the literal reign of Jesus Christ as King on earth. Consequently, other than the verses I reference in this article, God has little to say about our interaction with human governments.

That being said, however, God has much to say about our role as citizens of the kingdom of God. Matthew 5-7 provides an amazing description of those who live as residents of God’s kingdom, regardless of the governmental system they are under. Here are some additional principles that speak to our role as Kingdom residents who are also American citizens:

• Jesus is the Sovereign King over all earthly rulers:

“Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.” Revelation 1:5

• God raises up governments and governmental leaders:

“Daniel answered and said: ‘Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. 21 He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings.’” Daniel 2:20-21

• God is sovereign over the decisions made by governments:

“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he wills.” Proverbs 21:1

“For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.” Revelation 17:17

• Our primary purpose as residents of God’s kingdom is to seek God’s kingdom, in our lives and in our world, because God’s kingdom transcends earthly governments:

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matthew 6:33-34

• Our allegiance to Christ transcends our allegiance to any earthly government:

“But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.’” Acts 4:19-20

“20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20

As these verses demonstrate, there is a unique tension here. We have a dual citizenship: as followers of Jesus, we are citizens of both heaven and earth. There is also a hierarchy here as well: we owe allegiance to Christ, and we offer allegiance to our country. Furthermore, as long as Christ and country do not come into conflict with one another, we follow Romans 13 and live in the reality of Romans 12:18. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” If, however, we must choose between obeying Christ or obeying the government, we must always choose Christ.

Third, does the Bible say anything about the role of churches in promoting political agendas? The answer is both yes and no: yes in the OT and no in the NT. In the OT, when kings who received their thrones by virtue of God’s covenant ruled Israel, the prophets had much to say about their idolatry and wickedness. After all, Israel is the people of God, and He had very clear laws for the nation to follow.

In the NT, however, there is absolutely no teaching that the church should be proclaiming a political message. Jesus never preached against the Romans, although they were oppressive to his people. He taught the people to pay their taxes and carry a soldier’s equipment with joy if forced to do so. Jesus submitted to their authority when he was arrested. He acknowledged that Pilate was ruling by virtue of God’s sovereign will of decree (John 19:11). He didn’t respond to his treatment with anger or vitriol. Instead, he reaffirmed that he was the king of a different kingdom, and his followers didn’t accomplish their mission with violence or hatred, but rather peace and love (John 18:36-38). Jesus wasn’t about transforming earthly kingdoms; he was about transforming lives for his kingdom.

Similarly, Paul never spoke about political activism, either. When he wrote the text in Romans 13, the Caesar was Nero, one of the most brutal leaders of all time, and a violent persecutor of the church. Many believe it was Nero who killed Paul. One would think that if there were ever a time for political activism in the church that would have been it. Instead, however, Paul focused his attention on the gospel (1 Cor. 1:18-31). His message for citizens of Rome, or any nation, was one of civil obedience, respect for authority, and prayer for governing rulers. (1 Peter 2:17)

Consequently, there is no biblical support for a politically active church. Clearly, however, many have adopted that mentality. Their argument goes like this: “God didn’t command us to do it, but he didn’t command us not to either.” This is bad theology, of course. It’s like the person who says, “God didn’t mention Euthanasia, so it must be ok.” We must always look at the whole of scripture when we develop our theology. The evidence is scripture is clear: God created the church to proclaim the gospel, baptize and teach disciples, and evangelize the world—not to focus its attention on the foibles of politics.

What are we to do as Christians who are citizens not only of the US but also of God’s kingdom? Here are my thoughts:

• As Christians, our focus must be centered on the kingdom of God and the command to live as Kingdom residents. Christians live under all types of political systems around the world, and God calls them to live out the gospel under every one of them. (Mt. 5-7)

• As Christians, we must live in the reality of the mission of the church. Ultimately, our battles are not against people or political parties. It is against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) Like Christ, we must stay focused on his mission. Governments don’t change people–God does!

• As Christians, we must strive to be wise stewards of the opportunity we have to be involved in the political process in the US. As is true with every area of our lives, scripture alone must guide our decisions when it comes to elections. We must never allow blind loyalty to a party or a person to trump our loyalty to God and His Word. (1 Cor. 10:31)

• As Christians, we must never judge the motives or choices of others. Jesus alone has been given the authority to judge. (Mt. 7:1-5) The decision about whom to vote for, or whether to vote at all, must be decided on an individual basis before God. Every person will give an account of their lives when they stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and that includes how they participated in the political process.

• As Christians, we are free to share our own positions about political issues, but only in a spirit of humility and grace, so that we do not cause a brother to stumble. It is always arrogant to act as if ours are the only opinions that have any merit. Similarly, anything that creates division in God’s church is a sin. This includes conversations about political events or elections. (Titus 3:1-2, 9-11)

• As Christians, we must be intentional about prayer. (1 Thes. 5:17) God has given us prayer as a gift. We can talk with God about anything, including a political election. As with all of our prayers, however, we must submit to God’s sovereign will. (1 Jn 5:14-15) Ultimately, though, the most important prayers we pray are not about earthly governments; they are about the kingdom of God and the work of the gospel. (Eph. 6:10-20).

As Christians, we must participate in politics as Kingdom residents. In a few short weeks, this current election cycle will be over for another couple of years. God will reveal his sovereign will of decree for our country, and life will carry on as it always does. What we cannot do, however, is leave a trail of hurt feelings, hemorrhaged relationships, and judgmental attitudes in our wake. If our church, or any church for that matter, is divided and distracted from God’s mission because of an election, the cause will not be patriotism—it will be sin! I’m praying that God will spare us from this fate and help us to navigate it with humility, grace, and a Kingdom-driven focus!

The Pastor as Theologian

The danger of theological “drift” has always been a challenge for the church. Indeed, the assault on its soteriology began during the earliest days of the church’s existence. From the false claims of the Jewish religious leaders concerning the resurrection of Jesus, to the legalistic interpretation of the gospel by the Judiazers, to the metaphysical objections of the Gnostics, the early church and its leaders faced regular assaults on the gospel. These assaults would prompt Jude to write the following words of warning, “Dear friends, although I was eager to write you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write and exhort you to contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all. For certain men, who were designated for this judgment long ago, have come in by stealth; they are ungodly, turning the grace of God into promiscuity and denying our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (3-4).”

Today, the church continues to wrestle with a consistent barrage of attacks on the gospel. Ancient heresies have been repackaged for contemporary audiences. The deity of Christ continues to be questioned through “discoveries” like the “Jesus family” tomb, the exclusivity of the gospel is undermined by assumptions about “anonymous Christianity,” and widespread religious pluralism assigns faith in Christ to a myriad of “ways” for achieving eternal life.

It is within this context, amidst a wide variety of competing theological systems, that today’s pastor-teachers are called to serve. Sadly, however, in an era when theological acumen is more important than ever, many pastors have lost sight of their responsibility to be theologians for the church. Instead, many pastors have chosen to limit themselves to cultivating an expertise in the more practical areas of leadership, church growth, or counseling. Certainly, all of these areas are helpful skills and beneficial for ministry in the local church. Yet, when it comes to equipping the church with the ability to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” nothing is more critical than the ability to teach good theology. While no one would question the value of understanding one’s “leadership lid,” I would submit that a pastor-teachers greatest task is to help his people understand that good theology informs every aspect of their lives.

Before you turn me off, let me assure you that I’m not advocating an either/or situation. We need not choose between theology and praxis. Instead, I hope to remind you that this is a both/and situation. As pastor-teachers, we must seek to expose our churches to good theology. After all, good theology breeds healthy praxis. As we look across the wide spectrum of SBC churches today, our primary problem is not the absence of potential methodologies; our primary problem is shoddy theology. As a result, our people often struggle to understand the most rudimentary of doctrines. Furthermore, because they have not been taught how to think theologically, they are often “blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit (Eph. 4:14).” And when that occurs, no one is more to blame than the pastor-teacher.

The New Testament has much to say about the significance and necessity of the pastor-teacher’s responsibility to shepherd the church theologically. Often, the mandate to teach is linked to the dangers of false teachers and their doctrine. This can be seen very clearly in Paul’s final letter to Timothy. In this letter he reminded Timothy of the sufficiency of God’s word (3:16-17) and the necessity of teaching it rightly (2:15). However, both of these truths where accompanied by warnings of “evil people and imposters” who “will become worse, deceiving and being deceived (3:13).” Within the context of this discussion, Paul reminded Timothy that there are two types of theological error—one to be engaged and another to ignored. Paul told Timothy that he was to engage any false teachers whose soteriology differed from the gospel he had received from Paul. Indeed, he was to “rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching (4:2). However, Paul also told Timothy that he was to ignore those secondary theological discussions that could produce disunity in the church. He told Timothy “not to fight about words; this is in no way profitable and leads to the ruin of the hearers. . . . avoid irreverent, empty speech, for this will produce an even greater measure of godlessness (2:14, 16).” This type of theological error was so potentially damaging to the church, Paul compared it to gangrene (2:17-18).

It is within the tension of these two theological areas, defending or diffusing, that pastor-teachers are called to serve. Sadly, many pastors find their way out of this dilemma by choosing one of three poor options. Some pastor-teachers desire to contend for the faith keeps them in battle mode at all times. Everywhere they look they can find the emerging threat of heresy. Others struggle with defining the doctrinal essentials and, as a result, they are constantly arguing over secondary or tertiary doctrines. Still others solve the problem by ignoring theology all together. The results of all of these choices, however, will be a church that is both poorly trained in theology and poorly equipped to engage in theological conversations. Despite the failures of many pastor-teachers and churches to learn how to think theologically, it is never too late to adopt a new paradigm. The balance of this essay will offer four suggestions for growing a theologically healthy church.

(1) The pastor-teacher should make a commitment to the on-going study of theology.  There are many factors that contribute to the absence of theological instruction that characterizes many of today’s churches, including the belief that theology is boring at best and unnecessary at worst. The number one reason for its absence, however, is the inability of many pastor-teachers to impart sound doctrine. Yet, that is the most important task of every preacher. Paul urged Timothy to “hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who lives in us, that good thing entrusted to you (1:13-14)).” The “good thing” to which Paul is referring is the truth of the “sound words” that Timothy had learned.

Good theology, therefore, is something to be learned, retained, guarded, and valued. For that to occur, then, every pastor-teacher must make the study of theology a life-long pursuit. Thankfully, with the amount of good theology books currently available, including the upcoming Theology for the Church, we can all become trained pastor-teacher-theologians. And if our churches are to become theologically astute, it will be the direct result of a growing number of pastor-teachers who take theology seriously.

(2) The pastor-teacher should create a safe environment where theological discussion and disagreement are both accepted.  At first glance, this statement may feel like a recipe for disaster in the church. In actuality, it is a key ingredient in theological study and church unity. Before this can be taught and practiced in the local church, however, it must first be embraced by the pastor-teacher. For this to work, the pastor-teacher must have a clear understanding of the three levels of theological inquiry. The first level of theological inquiry contains those doctrines that must be embraced by every member of a local church for theological unity to occur. These are often referred to as doctrines of eternal significance. At our church, we’ve six first level doctrines: Trinitarianism, the full deity/humanity of Christ as prerequisites for his person and work, salvation by grace alone on the basis of faith alone, the exclusivity of the gospel, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the literal existence of heaven and hell. These doctrines set the parameters for our defense of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. In fact, no one can join our church unless they acknowledge that they affirm these doctrines.

The second level of theological inquiry contains those doctrines about which we choose to agree as a church. For our church, these issues are related primarily to Baptist distinctives like believer’s baptism by immersion, the Lord’s Supper as a remembrance of the passion of Christ, the autonomy of the local church, and the security of the believer. These are the theological issues that help define us as a congregation. They would influence potential partners in ministry, but they provide flexibility for specific situations where we might participate with other protestant faith traditions.

The third level of theological inquiry contains those doctrines about which inerrantists regularly disagree. It is at this level that most church conflicts arise, and it is here that Paul admonished Timothy not to “fight about words (2:14).” In our church, the theological issues that we place in this category include rapture questions and the finer points of reformed theology. Within the scope of these issues, there is room for inerrantists to disagree. Consequently, nothing in this category is viewed as a test of fellowship issue in our church.

The significance of identifying these first, second, and third level theological issues for your church cannot be overstated: level one doctrines are test of fellowship issues; level two doctrines are shared, communal doctrines which inform partnership and participation; level three doctrines include those areas where inerrantists often disagree. Before a church can think through this, however, the pastor-teacher must have these issues clearly defined in his own mind; only then will he be prepared to teach his church how to think theologically about these issues in a spirit of unity.

(3) The pastor-teacher should teach the totality of Scripture, including the difficult passages. The violation of this principle may account for much of the theological ignorance in our churches today. For too long, many pastors have simply avoided the biblical texts that were difficult to understand or that might run counter to the commonly held belief system of a church. While many men convinced themselves that this was really in the best interests of all involved (including themselves), they unwittingly created an environment where honest theological conversation about challenging doctrines was both uncomfortable and unacceptable. As a result, important theological questions related to subjects like soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology have been ignored.

In recent years, however, the growth of expository preaching has brought these issues back to the forefront in our churches. The revival of expository preaching is one of the great gifts of God to the contemporary church. And despite the flawed claims of some who insist that exposition and contemporary methodologies are incompatible, a commitment to expository preaching will help grow a theologically healthy church. Exposition will assist in this process in three very significant ways. First, it will help ensure that the pastor-teacher does, in fact, deal with the totality of Scripture, even the parts that are challenging. The practice of teaching through books of the Bible, or preaching from complete textual units, will force the preacher to be disciplined in his study and teaching. Second, exposition is the best defense for avoiding the temptation to “major on the minors.”  When this occurs, a church may lose sight of its evangelistic mandate and may become embroiled in unnecessary turmoil. Third, exposition will protect the pastor-teacher from becoming consumed with a pet doctrine. It is tragic when a pastor-teacher chooses to limit his ministry to the exploration of one doctrinal issue to the exclusion of others.

When we commit ourselves to teach the “whole counsel of God,” however, we must be prepared for our churches to encounter biblical texts that not only deal with these kinds of sensitive theological issues, but also may challenge previously held and/or accepted interpretations of them. When the careful pastor-teacher begins to address these theological issues in a context where they have been avoided, the results can be challenging for a church. The answer, however, is not to continue the habit of skipping the hard parts in our preaching. No, the pastor-teacher must equip his people to think theologically while maintaining a spirit of unity.

(4) The pastor-teacher should avoid majoring on third level doctrines.  This principle has a two-fold emphasis. First, as I noted earlier, one of the greatest challenges for many pastor-teachers is realizing that not every doctrine is a first level issue. Sadly, many churches have been injured because the pastor-teacher made his pet, third level doctrine a test of fellowship issue for the church. Second, developing a healthy environment for theological discussions to occur within the church requires a unique ability on the part of the pastor-teacher: he must acknowledge that there is room for disagreement on third level doctrines. When our studies reveal that fellow inerrantists hold different positions about the same theological issue, wisdom should guide us away from taking a dogmatic stand on that issue.

The definition of sovereign election and the timing of the rapture are two classic examples of this. Rather than allowing these doctrines to become a source of disunity, a wise pastor-teacher will acknowledge the existence of different interpretations while explaining his own. Furthermore, because these are third level doctrines, he will emphasize that it is acceptable for the people within the fellowship to be at different places regarding these doctrines. The willingness of the pastor-teacher to provide this kind of theological leadership will have two very positive outcomes. First, it will do more than anything else to develop a climate where healthy theological dialogue can develop in a spirit of unity. Second, it will develop a climate of trust that will allow the pastor-teacher to share his position and have it heard.

The role of the pastor-teacher has always been a challenging one. It takes great wisdom to balance the demands of ministry. And it takes great courage to faithfully teach the word in a climate where people “will not tolerate sound doctrine (4:3).” While others may hesitate to engage our culture with good theology, I want to urge you to join me in this pursuit. The pursuit to become pastor-teacher-theologian’s for the glory of God and the good of His church.

Published in SEBTS, Outlook (Spring, 2008): Feature Article. Cannot be copied without permission.

 

“Success without Honor”: Reflections on the Life of Joe Paterno

Joe Paterno began his coaching career at Penn State in 1950, serving as an assistant coach for fifteen years. He became the head coach in 1966, a position he held until his recent firing amid the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal.  During those years, he led the Nittany Lions to 37 bowl games and two national championships. Ironically, he accomplished his greatest achievement the week before he was fired—he won his record 409th career game, making him the winningest coach in NCAA Division One history.

That same week, Paterno’s long time assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on charges of molesting 10 boys over the span of 15 years, some of whom were molested in the football facilities at Penn State. What made the story worse is that Paterno knew about the situation. He had received an eye-witness report that Sandusky had raped a boy in the team showers. Rather than report it to the police, however, he simply pushed the matter up the administrative chain-of-command. And, it appears, he never tried to find out what happened to the little boy in question and never followed up to see if the police had been informed. Worst of all, when it appeared that nothing would be done, he simply allowed the incident to be swept under the giant Penn State rug, and continued his pursuit of football immortality. And ultimately, when the truth finally came out, he suffered the swift justice of a legacy-destroying ouster from the school.

Joe Paterno was known for the slogan that defined his football program: “Success with Honor.” For sixty-one years, he sought to instill that idea into the hearts and lives of his players. For Paterno himself, however, the slogan was simply a mirage—a hollow credo without character. That’s not to say that Paterno did not begin with a legitimate goal to instill “Success with Honor” in his players. But somewhere along the line, his goal changed from building character to building legacy. As the wins piled up and the national championships were won, Paterno became about one thing—Paterno. At some point in his journey, something clicked, and he knew that he could become the greatest of all time. Nothing could stand in the way of that; not even a little boy being raped in the showers of his football complex. Make no mistake . . . on the fateful day when Joe Paterno heard what had happened, he made a conscious decision to protect his legacy at the expense of a child’s life and wellbeing.

Paterno’s comments about his choices are sad and pathetic. They reveal how little character Paterno really had. In the Post interview he said, “I didn’t know which way to go … and rather than get in there and make a mistake. . .” What kind of answer is this? He didn’t know which way to go when confronted by the news that a young boy was raped in his complex? Surely, someone who preaches “Success with Honor” knows that you must protect an innocent child, especially if that someone has kids of his own. Are we to believe that if the child had been one of Paterno’s sons that this would have been his response?

Paterno went on to say, “You know, (McQueary) didn’t want to get specific. And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it.” I spent three years in law enforcement. Rarely have I heard a more blatant falsehood. Paterno didn’t know if reporting it would have done any good? Seriously? He did what he thought was best? For what, his legacy? Finally, he ends his comments by saying he did enough when he pushed the matter up the chain of command. I suppose he hoped someone else would have the integrity to do the right thing. And then, his conscience soothed, Paterno turned his attention back to the really important thing in his life—winning football games.

Paterno made one comment that was the most devastating of all, however. He said, “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” Once again, he attempts to minimize his responsibility with false humility. “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more?” How much hindsight did he need? The event happened nine years ago! If that weren’t enough time, how much time would he have needed? Apparently, he just needed enough time to get the all-time record for wins. Maybe then he would have had the courage to do the right thing, rather than allow the lives of young boys to be destroyed for the sake of his “legacy.”

Since his death, much has been said about Paterno. Penn State President Rodney Erickson called him “a great man who made us a greater university.” Penn State’s new football coach, Bill O’Brien, called Paterno a “great man, coach, mentor and, in many cases, a father figure.” Tom Bradley, one of Paterno’s long time assistants, said, “He will go down in history as one of the greatest men, who maybe most of you know as a great football coach.” Clearly, we would expect these types of comments from those in the Penn State family. These are men who see Paterno’s legacy as a bridge to their own, and as a result, see it as a legacy that must be preserved at all costs.

A “Who’s Who” of famous coaches have weighed in on Paterno as well, sharing thoughts about his greatness and legacy. New Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer said, “He will go down as the greatest football coach in the history of the game.” Bobby Bowden, who competed with Paterno for the most wins in history, said he hopes Paterno will be remembered as a great leader and coach, and not for his role in the Sandusky scandal. He said, “You can’t ignore the great years he had at Penn State and the great things he did for Penn State.”

Meyer may be right. When it comes to winning football games, no one may ever rival Joe Paterno. But when it comes to integrity, and the legacy it creates, Paterno is totally bankrupt. As much as I respect Bobby Bowden, his thoughts are misguided here, driven more by his friendship with Paterno than his understanding of the gravity of Paterno’s choices. You cannot separate Paterno the coach from Paterno the man. He is not a great leader, and he is not a great man. He was confronted with great evil in his program, the worst, most heinous evil that exists on the planet, and he chose to do nothing. He placed a higher value on winning football games than protecting children. He chose to continue the pursuit of his own personal milestone and the development of his own personal legacy over the pursuit of truth and justice. Good men do not make those choices.

Of course, some will argue that Joe Paterno doesn’t deserve this type of criticism. After all, they say, he didn’t rape the boy. While that is true, he knew the event happened—that alone makes him culpable. And although he may have tried to assuage his guilt with his “I pushed it up the ladder” mea culpa, he, more than anyone, knew he had the responsibility to do more. I’m sure after that fateful day in 2002, every time he used the phrase “Success with Honor,” it left a hypocritical taste in his mouth.

Despite the attempts by many to salvage Joe Paterno’s legacy, I’ve lost all respect for him. Everything he claimed to stand for was a lie. He chose himself over a helpless child. No amount of wins can ever justify that. Ultimately, his legacy is this: “Success without Honor.”

Before I close, however, there is one other person who should weigh in on this matter. One significant individual who should give us his take on Joe Paterno’s legacy: “Whoever harms one of these little ones, it would be better for him if a millstone were placed around his neck and he was cast into the depth of the sea.” –Jesus.