Regardless of context, this is one of the most difficult statements for anyone to make. Whether you’re having a conversation at the church, at home, or even in the coffee shop, these three words come with such difficulty.
And yet, those committed to the authority of Scripture live with this possibility on a daily basis. We are called, each of us, to be submitted to God’s Word. As eighteenth-century Lutheran scholar Johann Albrecht Bengel has been quoted, each of us has the responsibility to “Apply yourself wholly to the text; apply the text wholly to yourself.” This is the task we face daily in our efforts to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2).
And in order to be transformed—in order to be conformed to Scripture—we must say those three words with far more regularity than any of us would desire. Each time we approach Scripture, we bring a load a theological baggage to the task of interpretation. And we have a responsibility to let the text speak and allow it to have an affect upon our theology.
And this is so difficult, isn’t it? Even as born-again, Bible-thumping Christians who champion sola scriptura, again and again we are tempted to bring our theology and our experiences and the mounds of books we’ve read to the exegetical task and interpret Scripture in such a way as to accord with our pre-conceived notions. This proclivity seems so evident when we see it in someone else (who clearly can’t conceive of their bias), but we are then challenged to consider the other theological arenas in which we may blind to our own (unnoticed) biases which we carry into the exegetical task.
It is much more natural, when faced with teaching that opposes our thought, to reject it outright—to declare that our views are inherently right and correct. It is far more difficult to acknowledge the possibility that we might actually be wrong. In my reading of God’s Word, I am perpetually amazed at the number of scribes and Pharisees whose interpretations of Scripture were shaken by the Incarnation of Christ. Over and over again, Jesus’s actions undermined their entire framework of understanding. And while it is common to read their reactions in the Gospels as absurd, as a theologian and student of God’s Word, I become fearful of the possibility that my interpretations—as well-intentioned as I believe them to be—as much study as I have committed to the task—could be wrong (or at least fallible).
And in my brief experience training men and women to rightly divide the Word of God, I’ve taught them to ask an important question when faced with a difficult text that doesn’t necessarily correspond with their pre-determined theological position.
Rather than asking them how they might redefine or re-interpret a verse in order to make it align more closely with their position, I challenge them to ask, “How has that verse or passage affected my theological views—how has it shaped what I had already believed?”
Why is that important?
Because if we’re genuinely submitted to the authority of God’s Word, our task is to conform our thought to his Word; not to conform his Word to our thought.
Is that uncomfortable?
Is that difficult?
Does that require us to consistently face the possibility that our theological framework may be out of alignment with Scripture?
But, if we genuinely prize God’s Word, we are given no other option.
The past few weeks have proved to be an interesting season for me in ministry. While the season has been fruitful for my congregation, I have received several calls from fellow pastors who are new in their churches and currently facing difficult decisions in their churches.
It was nostalgic as I can remember those years in my first pastorate when I was faced with a difficult decision that could potentially blow up in my face for one reason or another. I remember looking for answers as I reflected back on the ministries of the former senior pastors I had served under who would either attack the situation or ignore the situation altogether. I remember feeling the burden in knowing that I needed to make the correct decision. I understood that the decision would ultimately have an eternal impact for the Kingdom and an immediate impact on my ministry at the church.
The longer I pastor, the more I realize that there are problems that need to be addressed with a heavy hand and a firm stance, and there are other situations that cannot be fixed with anything but the passing of time.
As I have reflected on this process, I have come up with a series of questions to ask yourself. My hope is that these questions would form a filter to process these situations through.
Pastor, if you’re in a situation that you feel may need some serious attention work through this series of questions before you engage in battle.
Is the Issue a Temporary Issue or an Eternal Issue for my Church?
Many times we are so heated at the moment that we do not understand how temporary the consequences of the decision are.
I can remember a heated church meeting at the beginning of my church involvement when two church members were arguing passionately over the best practice of promoting the upcoming Vacation Bible school. Honestly, looking back on the meeting, it was so insignificant because I cannot remember who won or even what the positions were. However, as a relatively new Christian, I do remember the meeting. Each party was so passionate about their position that they were willing to drag out all the stops to make sure it was done “right.” But truth be told, it was a temporary thing, and if I went to them today, they probably would agree that it really didn’t matter all that much now looking back on it.
My point is that when a pastor is tempted to engage in an argument, he must ask if the effects are going to last into the future or if this is ultimately insignificant? If the topic has no future impact on the church or your ministry, that hill is not worth dying on.
Will the Issue Keep the Lost from Getting Close to Jesus?
We have all heard of the horror story of the church where all the men wear suits every Sunday. One day when a lost man came to the church in his work clothes, and he was quickly rejected. Although the man didn’t own a suit, the men of the church told him not to come back until he was able to wear a suit on Sundays. This is obviously tragic for many reasons. But the big reason is that they put a huge roadblock in front of the man who wanted to get close to Jesus.
Christians must be conscious of how their actions can establish religious barriers and their decisions could potentially create obstacles for others to come close to Christ.
For example, the men of the previously mentioned church at some point made the decision that wearing a suit on Sunday is a requirement for worshiping God. This decision was not biblical and yet it had implications on how the church dealt with people who needed to get close to Jesus.
My point is when a pastor is tempted to engage in an argument, he must ask if the decision going to cause roadblocks for others to get close to Jesus? If the topic has the potential of keeping people from getting close to Jesus, that is a hill worth dying on.
Will the Issue Keep my Church from Reaching People for Jesus?
An issue that is prevalent in our day among pastors is the use of alcohol. While many will claim that they have freedom in Christ giving them the ability to partake in the drink, they would be hard-pressed to say that their indulgences do not affect their witness for Christ.
While alcohol is a hot topic right now, this principle can be applied to anything of moral questionability in Christian life. Anyone can understand that it would be difficult to share the gospel while using obscene language or living an immoral lifestyle. The same can be said of a church that indulges in the things of the world instead of being set aside for Christ.
My point is, when a pastor is tempted to engage in an argument, he must ask, is the impact of this decision going to hinder the witness of my church for Christ? If the topic could keep the church from reaching people for Jesus, that is a hill worth dying on.
Will the Issue Provide an Accurate View of who God is through the Church?
Whether we like it or not, churches have a reputation in their community. Your church may be seen as loving and accepting, or judgmental and full of cliques. Every church has a reputation in their community and that is established in the manner in which the church interacts with the community. Every pastor must come to grips with this reality. The city you serve is making judgments about your church and those judgments are based on how your church serves your community.
Ultimately, the church must understand that they are a representation of God in their community. The people of the community will make assumptions about who God is based on how they see your church. If you have a loving church, the community will perceive that God is loving. Consequently, if you have a judgmental church, the community will perceive that God is distant and condemning.
My point is, when a pastor is tempted to engage in an argument, he must ask if the impact of this decision is going to offer an accurate view of God? If the topic relates to communicating an accurate view of God, that is a hill worth dying on.
If I were to sum all of this up, before engaging in a dialogue that has the potential to be tense, I need to ask myself:
1) Is this worth arguing over or is it insignificant?
2) Will this set up a roadblock for people to get closer to God?
3) Will this keep my church from sharing the gospel?
4) Will this communicate an accurate or inaccurate view of who God is?
Pastor, understand that churches have issues and people are going to argue. Let us make sure that we are discussing the things that matter and let us fight for the hills that are worth dying on.
There are two things you should never talk about at Thanksgiving: religion and politics. Since Thanksgiving is still a few weeks away, let’s go ahead and do both. Though some will argue for splitting the two up, it is important that both religion and politics continue to keep a civil discourse together. For Christians, participation in government, including the right to vote, is an important means for achieving a society that protects fundamental God given rights. Below I discuss some personal reasons for why I vote.
Influence Local Government
I hear often, “its just one vote what does it matter – it won’t influence anything.” Let’s ask for a moment what just one vote represents. A vote represents the influence which one person has in government. If I get the privilege of casting only one vote, what have I influenced? After all, one grain of salt hardly makes a difference when baking a loaf of bread. However, if the baker forgets to put just a fourth of a teaspoon into the mixing, the entire batch won’t turn out right. We must understand this, our country is run by votes! If we are in-tune with the needs of our community, then our vote – our influence – is doing more than making one tick mark on the ballot; our influence is garnering the will of the people for the improvement of our local community. Therefore, we can actually measure the good we have done for our cities through the democratic process. We can reflect on and change the policies of our towns. My vote is a personal plumb line for measuring foundation of our society’s principles.
If we cannot be true to our convictions in the voting box, then we are not true to our convictions. A vote may not make so much a difference where you are, but it does say something about who you are. Take for example the issue of abortion. There is a large chasm of difference between someone who claims a pro-life stance and someone who votes pro-life. Yet under the guise of separation of church and state, many Christians do not want to take their ethics and morals to the voting booth. They don’t want to ‘impose’ on others. The person who says, “I cannot take my religion to the polls,” advertises his hypocrisy. His beliefs are little more than virtue signaling. The most basic action any Christian can take towards building a moral and ethical society is with her vote. Removing the Christian influence from the public arena is not just putting our light under a basket, it is snuffing that light out altogether.
Just and Humble Leaders
I long for our nation to be led by just and humble leaders. Who are the great men and women of our day? Who are the leaders going to be? Often our political officials strut around with heads too large to bend their neck to an ordinary task. But just and humble leadership in office begins with just and humble voters at the polls. Our elected leaders are nothing more than mirrors reflecting ourselves. We ought to remember that in the United States the people rule (or at least should rule) and if the people are moral and just in ruling, we do not need the “greater” men and women in office – we just need a common person who is willing to serve. When I go to vote, I am not looking for a great name like Washington, Lincoln, or Roosevelt. If a man or woman is not great before they serve in an office, they won’t be great when they secure it. Therefore, I am looking for the honest humble servant. Since we do not need men and women who are ambitious for an office but rather ambitious for service, then I (as a voter) need to be ambitious for serving. Serving our nation begins with my one vote.
Do we really believe that our nation is made great by those serving in an elected office? Our revolution was not won by an epoch of uncommon men and women. Our government was not founded on the belief of a ruling class. No, we are a nation of the ordinary mundane everyday men and women. Our elected officials are hewn from the same quarry as our, builders, nurses, lawyers, and artists. No matter our birthrights, economic status, or education, we all gather together on one equal playing field. We all hold exactly one vote in our hands – one vote that speaks volumes for the state of our influence, integrity, and humility as a nation.
While small super heroes and tiny princesses are parading around during Halloween, it is appropriate for Christians to reflect upon another October 31st event, the birth of the Reformation. On October 31st, 1517 an Augustinian German Monk named Martin Luther nailed to the door at Wittenberg his 95 thesis (issues he had with the Catholic Church). The 95 thesis are not particularly revolutionary in themselves. Initially very few people paid any attention to what Luther wrote. It is highly unlikely Luther even considered hammering his work as a spectacular event. Yet, history bears witness to tumultuous consequences and blessings of his action. When we reflect back on Luther and on the Reformation, we are celebrating three things: living by faith, Scripture over tradition, and giving God all the glory.
Living by Faith
Prior to his revelation from Scripture, Luther operated under the belief that good works would merit salvation. The German Monk’s conscience was uneasy with this proposition. No matter how disciplined he was, how many good works he performed, or prayers he made, Luther was condemned by sin. Every good work was tainted. Every action was infected with selfishness. If salvation were in his own hands, Luther believed he was condemned already. The revolutionary change in Luther’s thinking came from Romans 1:17. In Romans 1:17 Luther believed he found the heartbeat of the gospel—the righteous shall live by faith. Those who would be righteous need not trust in good works but must live by faith. Therefore, Luther challenged the Pope’s authority to forgive and remit sins (thesis 5). Nothing but faith in Christ alone could save humanity. This tenet of the Reformation would come to be known as Sola Fide (Faith Alone). Celebrating the Reformation means celebrating the forgiveness by faith alone.
Scripture Over Tradition
While Luther was contemplating Sola Fide, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican Monk, was selling indulgences to the masses. Tetzel became known for his famous couplet:
“As Soon Coin in the Coffer Rings,
a Soul From Purgatory Springs.”
Unbaptized babies, those who died without full grace, anyone with earthly attachments, they all were candidates for an extended stay in purgatory. Purgatory was a place for the purging of sin and earthly attachments, in order to make one fit for heaven. Fortunately, the faithful on earth could buy purgatorians a fast pass to heaven—an indulgence.
Luther, who wasn’t known for his quaint rhyme scheme (see A Mighty Fortress), took issue with Tetzel and the indulgence scheme. Once one accepted salvation by faith alone, good works could no longer merit salvation. For Luther, Scripture trumped the tradition of purgatory. No tradition was a greater authority than Scripture itself. The Bible for Reformers was the only infallible, inerrant, and sufficient source for faith and practice. Any church tradition that did not line up with Scripture needed to be reformed. Luther’s belief in going back to the source, the Bible, became known as Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). To reflect on the Reformation means opening the Word of God and allowing its infallible authority to change our lives.
Giving God the Glory
When Bach and Handel wrote their magnificent pieces, they would sign Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone). Every work, every action, every day for the Christian is given fully and entirely to the glory of God. Once a sinner, now redeemed by Jesus’s own blood, the believer lives his life for God’s glory. Celebrating the Reformation means celebrating a great change in the human heart. The motive of good works is no longer one of fear. Through Jesus, the believer is able to perform good works out of love.
Ultimately, celebrating the Reformation is sweeter than the occasional Trick or Treat on October 31st. We are not just remembering those who gave their lives in defense of the Christian faith. We are not just celebrating 500 years history. We are giving thanks for Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins. We no longer need to mask ourselves behind a thin veil of good works. We need not pretend to be anything other than what we are – sinners in need of grace. As believers in Christ, we walk by faith knowing that Scripture declares Jesus died for sins. Today when you remember the Reformation, don’t just be thankful for some list of historical facts. The men and women of the Reformation, who gave their lives so we could practice our faith freely, lived to the glory of God. All of humanity can be saved by grace through faith alone (sola fide) according to the Scriptures (sola scriptura) to the glory of God the Father (soli deo gloria).
A few years ago, our family adopted a puppy. He was rescued from a parking lot in the rain and our kids were desperate for a dog with which to run and play. Once we saw his paws, though, we knew this would not be a small dog for long. But whereas we thought he might grow to reach 50 pounds or so, he’s give us abundantly more than we could have asked or imagined in an 80 pound dog.
Shortly after adopting him, we left him crated at home only to receive a call from our neighbor who explained that our dog—Captain America (we have four boys and only one girl)—was not crated. In fact, he was looking out of the broken blinds in the master bedroom of our house.
When I came home, not only had he broken his crate and gotten into my bedroom. He had apparently pushed the door behind him and become panicked. He destroyed my bedroom—the comforter, the sheets, the pillows, the blinds, and that smell . . .
I still have nightmares involving that smell.
Seriously. As recent as last week.
And as frustrated as I was in that moment—deep down, I knew that he was a big puppy who just wasn’t house-trained yet.
Today, he’s calmed down for the most part and become a reliable protector of my kids. He cannot stand for them to be outside without him. And he guards them like I might. He’s gentle with them and vicious toward any dog (or person) who might dare threaten them.
The puppy who gave me nightmares now gives me confidence when my kids play outside.
The Puppy-Stage of Ministry
Some years ago, when I was in the puppy-stages of ministry, I was invited to serve as a youth pastor at an established church. I was finishing up college and, despite my complete lack of experience or wisdom, I was absolutely certain as to how I wanted to “do” youth ministry.
I never let myself into a room and destroyed it quite like our family puppy had, but I may have given my senior pastor a nightmare or two.
And, in retrospect, I have come to understand that I learned more from the grace and patience he gave me during those early years than I ever understood at the time. I have no doubt that he had moments when he experienced a similar consideration as I did when I encountered our dog in the wasteland that was my bedroom, but his decision to use those moments as opportunities for growth and instruction have had a dramatic influence on my life and ministry.
It’s common among churches to hire ministerial pups as youth pastors. Often, we do so with the understanding that many youth pastors are not “lifers,” in that they don’t plan to retire a youth pastor. Most likely, they’ll cut their teeth in youth ministry before stepping up to the pastorate. As such, it really shouldn’t surprise us when they make a mess, should it?
So, what do you need to do in order to house-train your youth pastor?
Give him opportunities
He’s energetic and hungry. Point him in a good direction and give him opportunities to lead . . . and not only with the youth. Give him opportunities to preach on occasion, even if only on those “special” weekends when you don’t anticipate a large crowd.
Give him events to take the lead on. Use his energies for the sake of the church. It will benefit the church and give him some much-needed interaction with grown ups.
Give him resources
This goes hand-in-hand with opportunities. Give him the resources he needs to succeed. I realize that the money’s tight and that the church is in a budget-crunch. I understand that we all need to “tighten the belt” and make things work. I’m not asking you to go overboard.
But give him what he needs to succeed. And if the number that the budget committee returns with falls short of what he’s been asking, give him some options and suggestions for making every ministry dollar stretch. The pace with which he runs and the ministry he leads has a lot to do with the investment your church makes in him.
Give him coaching
One of the most important investments your church can make in him is through you. Pastor, you have experience in ministry. You have experience with people. You have wisdom to share. Can I just encourage you to coach your youth pastor?
He doesn’t need you to micro-manage him (probably). Doing that will only ensure that you’re overloaded with responsibilities. But he needs someone to chat with on a regular basis and discuss how things are going and what he could/should do differently next time around. You need to be that person.
Remember, he’s serving a subset of your congregation. You’re the youth’s senior pastor. And the best way you can ensure that they’re receiving the best care and attention they need is by investing and mentoring him.
Will that be a costly investment? Up front, it will. But in the long run, the entire church will benefit.
Give him leaders
A youth ministry without good volunteer leadership is an unhealthy youth ministry. Pastor, you need to take a major role in recruiting leaders for the youth ministry. Don’t send him down to the basement of the church without any strong volunteers. Speak highly of the youth ministry from the pulpit. Tell stories of how God is moving among the teenagers of your church and invite adults to find an avenue for leadership in the youth ministry.
Give him patience
He will do something stupid. He very well may do several things that leave you frustrated and shaking your head. Give him patience. If it’s not a moral deficiency or sin, make it a learning opportunity for him. Allow it to direct your guidance for a bit. He feels the weight and responsibility of ministry and his decisions. Rather than using it as an opportunity for chastisement, help him make better decisions in the future.
Youth pastors are important to the ministry and work of the church. A good youth pastor is hard to find. He’s much easier to raise. But you’ll have to get past the stage where he chews up the furniture and pees on the carpet. And that takes time and perspective.
May God give us eager young ministers of the gospel. And may he give us wisdom and courage to help them grow. And may he give our church’s custodians patience and a good sense of humor.
Southern Baptists as a people are confessionally complementarian. Articles 6 and 18 of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which speak of the church and the family respectively, make this explicit.
VI. The Church
. . . While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture . . .
XVIII. The Family
. . . The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation . . .
Recent cultural events have initiated a number of conversations that have revealed, however, that while Southern Baptists are united in their complementarianism, they are not unified in their views as to what that necessarily entails. Complementarianism, then, appears to be more of a spectrum of views than a singular point of belief. The Danvers Statement, initially published in November 1988 by the CBMW and considered the definitive statement concerning complementarianism, comprises each of the following points along the spectrum.
Two notes need to be acknowledged first, however.
First, it seems appropriate to state at the outset that all complementarians believe that while men and women (male and female) were created equal, they were not created to be identical. Those who refuse to acknowledge this are not complementarians in any sense of the word and at no point on the spectrum. Rather, they are either chauvinists who argue that females are created of lesser value than males, or egalitarians who argue that there is no distinction between males and females in value or role.
Second, though these three positions are listed as points, I want to emphasize that these are points on a spectrum. Some will line up behind each of these points. No doubt, many will agree with one of the positions, but prefer a different term. (I fully accept that as a fact and have learned the most difficult task assigned to the first Adam, apart from protecting his wife, must have been giving names to the animals.) But most importantly, many will find their own positions somewhere in the space between the following positions; that is why I describe this as a spectrum of beliefs and not merely three options.
Those holding to a unrestricted complementarianism (my term, though I have also heard reference to “hard” complementarianism) argue that the admonitions in 1 Timothy 2 are unrestricted in their application. Paul charges men “in every place” to pray with holy hands (v. 8). He instructs that women should be dressed moderately and modestly (v. 9–10), but few interpreters would argue that this instruction is only in place in the church. Verses 11–12 (that “a woman is to learn quietly with full submission” and may not “teach or have authority over a man”), they argue, are then also unrestricted. This position further argues that Paul supported his position with a reference to the creation of Adam and Eve, whose time predates the church (or even the Old Testament congregation). Therefore, they argue, all roles of authority over males are restricted to male headship.
Those holding to what I term general complementarianism argue that Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2, especially verses 11–12 are applicable only in two spheres: marriage and the church. Paul’s reference to Adam and Eve, then, need not be categorically subsumed under the church, but rather exists as reference to the necessity of male headship in the marriage.
They would argue, then, that women are free (and encouraged) to express their leadership gifts in every realm save two: the home and the church. Can a qualified woman, then, serve as President? Yes. Can she serve as CEO? Yes. Can she serve as seminary professor? Yes. And should men submit to her leadership in those venues? Yes.
In the home, however, she is called to submit herself to the authority of her husband’s servant leadership (as unto the Lord) and in the church, she is called to submit herself to the authority of the elders and deacons. Those roles are to be assumed by qualified men in accordance with 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1.
Those espousing restricted complementarianism (similar to that termed “soft” complementarianism) argue that the office of elder and/or senior pastor alone is that which is restricted to male headship. They might argue that the New Testament knows of no office of Sunday School teacher, associate pastoral staff, or age-based minister and, as such, could not have mandated qualifications or restrictions. Rather, that which is made clear by the New Testament is that women are prohibited from the office of elder.
These complementarians would agree with the general complementarian view that wives are to be submitted to their husbands, but every role in the church apart from senior pastor or elder is open to their full participation. According to this view a woman could teach a mixed-gender Sunday School class, serve as an associate pastor or minister of music, or even preach in the worship service of the church as long as she did not aspire or seek the role of senior pastor or elder.
Positions past the extremes of the spectrum
Chauvinism: Though critics of complementarianism may accuse its adherents of being chauvinistic and Chauvinists may even claim to be complementarian, the affirmation of the equality and value of men and women differentiate the two views. Chauvinists are disparaging toward women and seek to derive their authority from a sense of spiritual superiority. Chauvinism is not even a Christian position. If one were to view the spectrum of complementarianism as a plateau, unrestricted complementarianism is situated at the edge, but chauvinism is at the bottom of the adjacent cliff.
Egalitarianism: Egalitarians argue that because God has created men and women equal in value and dignity, there must then be no distinction between them concerning roles and offices of the church. General and genuine equality mandates general and genuine equal opportunity. When, in dialogue with complementarianism, egalitarians are presented with biblical texts inferring different roles in the church and home (1 Tim 2–3, Eph 5), they respond that the contexts of the texts are culturally and/or temporally specific and limited in application. Egalitarianism may certainly be believed by Bible-believing Christians. However, this view is not in accordance with the Southern Baptist Confession of Faith. Again, viewing the spectrum as a plateau, restricted complementarianism is situated at the edge opposite unconditional complementarianism, but egalitarianism is at the bottom of the adjacent cliff.
A Call for Humility in Dialogue
As evangelicals, or more specifically, as Southern Baptists enter into necessary and helpful conversations about complementarianism, it is necessary that we do so in a spirit of humility. Southern Baptists are united in our affirmation that “The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.” Moreover, we are united in affirming, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
In light of our unity, can we not then jettison pejorative accusations of “liberal,” “chauvinist,” “egalitarian,” or “feminist” from these heated discussions? If we are people of the Book, and we are striving to believe, teach, and live in accordance with the Book, should our conversations not resemble fraternal discussion wherein we encourage one another to be further conformed to the text rather than the verbal mudslinging that has become typified by secular politics? Should not our “speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt,” so that our varied responses be appropriate for the conversation and conversation partners (Col 4:6)?
The Message is described by many as a paraphrase, and we who describe it as such are quick to clarify its categorization as a paraphrase and not a translation. In many ways, I wonder if in our concern to protect the words of God, we failed to appreciate that which Peterson sought to provide in The Message—an accurate presentation of the “heart” of the Word of God.
The Story behind The Message
In his description of the events that led up to his paraphrase, he wrote of a time in the early 1980s when a financial downturn sparked heightened anxieties (especially concerning race) among those in the church he pastored and in his community. He recalled the dismay he felt as a pastor who, for twenty years had preached “the good news that Jesus had overcome the world, [defined] their neighbor with Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan, [defended] them against the status quo with Jesus’ story of the cautious servant who buried his talent. [He] had led them in Bible studies that [he] supposed were grounding them in the freedom for which Christ had set [them] free, keeping their feet firmly in, ‘but not of,’ the world around [them] for which Christ died. And here they were, before [his] eyes, paralyzed by fear and ‘anxious for the morrow.”
In light of his realization and as the result of his pastoral concern, Peterson began “plotting a pastoral strategy” to help them understand their identity “as free people in Christ, a people not ‘conformed to the world’ but living robustly and spontaneously in the Spirit.” So, Galatians seemed the right place to begin. After all, Peterson was angry and Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is Paul’s angriest letter.
His plan was simple. He would teach through the book of Galatians in an adult class over the course of a year and then to preach through the same book the next.
His described his goal: “I was going to soak them in Galatians. They were going to have Galatians coming out of their pores. After two years they wouldn’t know whether they were living in Galatia or America. But they were going to know something about freedom, the freedom for which Christ set them free.”
He arrived the next Sunday morning, brewed the coffee, laid out the Bibles, and awaited the arrival of his church members. They trickled in, grabbed their coffee, and opened up to Paul’s Angry Epistle and sat there, smiling sweetly.
The fireworks that Peterson anticipated never lit. They were completely disconnected from Paul’s emotional response in the text. He recalled “frustrating and fuming” to his wife later that afternoon. He thought he might teach them Greek—”if they read it in Greek, those sweet smiles will vanish soon enough. If they read it in Greek, Paul’s somersaulting, cartwheeling, freedom-trumpeting Greek, they’ll get it.”
His wife sweetly smiled and said “I can’t think of a better way to empty out the classroom.”
Peterson understood that a course on Koine Greek wasn’t the solution to his concern. So he took to the task himself. He read Paul’s letter in Greek and sought to translate it in a manner that, while taking some linguistic freedom, accurately communicated Paul’s emotional thrust from Galatians 1. He wrote, “I just wanted them to hear it the way I heard it, the way the Galatians heard it, the way Luther heard it, the way so many men and women through our Christian centuries have heard it and found themselves set free by and for God.”
So the next Sunday, he arrived early again and brewed the coffee. But instead of laying out the Bibles, Peterson provided the first chapter of Galatians in his own words. And his class caught sight of Paul’s emotional response to the false teaching in Galatia. And over the course of the following months, week-after-week, his class gathered and read God’s Word afresh—not in a manner overly concerned with replicating each word in translation, but with communicating God’s heart and pathos as demonstrated in his words.
Peterson went to publish his studies on Galatians in Traveling Light: Modern Meditations on St. Paul’s Letter of Freedom in 1982. Years later, an editor wrote to him, explaining that he had photocopied the translation portions, “taped them together, and [had] been carrying them around ever since, reading them over and over and reading them to [his] friends.” He then encouraged him to translate the entire New Testament.
Thus began his work on The Message.
The Heart behind The Message
It began with a pastor’s concern that his congregation understand God’s Word. It wasn’t enough that they had his Word before their eyes and a pastor willing to teach them. They didn’t connect with God’s heart. Beginning with the Greek (and later, the Hebrew), Peterson carefully translated Scripture to English and then sought to depict New Testament images and metaphors into the twentieth century vernacular.
So, when we describe The Message, let us guard our own hearts from being unnecessarily dismissive. It is not a translation. It was never intended to convey God’s Word alone. It was intended to demonstrate his heart.
And for that, we can be truly thankful for the life of Eugene Peterson.
For as long as I have been a born-again follower of Christ, I can remember witnessing. My pastor took me out witnessing regularly. Usually, I was a wreck. At first, I would fumble the presentation and only get the message out clearly on occasion, but my delivery improved over time and with proper instruction.
Once I had been studying a particular gospel presentation that my pastor had given me in order to help me learn the necessary steps and to give me a method of sharing the entire gospel with another person. I was standing on a front porch, hands sweating from nerves and mouth so dry that I could barely even get out the word, “Hello.” I found myself talking about everything except Jesus. Finally the lady to whom I was presenting the gospel said, “Spit it out; share something!” And with her encouragement, I managed to share the gospel with her and, with the assistance of my pastor, I had the joy of leading her to saving faith in Jesus Christ.
I will never forget the exhilaration of that first soul-winning moment. I watched as the light of God filled her heart and the light of life came appeared in her eyes. That day, my pastor’s prayers and investment resulted in my heart being transformed into the heart of an evangelist. I couldn’t wait to share the gospel with others again and again. And I learned a valuable lesson that day. Don’t wait; share something.
There is always another soul in need of hearing this message. And the message is not especially difficult. But it must include the sinless life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the Son of God. And once you have established that each of us is a sinner separated from God and that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, the rest is simply providing the listener an opportunity to respond to God’s call.
It really is that simple.
Why, then, do we not share the gospel?
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, why then are not all of us sharing this life-saving, eternity-altering message with the lost among us? Is it fear? Is it lack of time? Is it lack of concern? Is it lack of knowledge of the gospel message?
Matt Queen, a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor has said, “If you know enough of the gospel to be saved; then you know enough of the gospel to share it.” Every Christian came to exercise a saving faith in Jesus Christ because the gospel message was shared with them clearly and an opportunity to make a decision to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord was given to them. In fact, I have serious questions about the sincerity of one’s faith in Christ Jesus if they never share their faith with the lost around them.
In my experience, to deny one something they need so desperately is cruelty, not kindness. Why, then, would we take comfort denying others an opportunity to hear the life-saving message of the gospel?
I plead with local churches to offer evangelism training in and for their churches. Pastors, model evangelism to their congregants by sharing stories of your evangelism encounters from the pulpit regularly. God forbid that the reason our churches aren’t sharing the gospel outside the walls of the church is because our pastors aren’t sharing the gospel outside of the pulpit.
Not everyone has believed our message. Not everyone will. This is not reason for discouragement, however. Many have and many will. And presenting the gospel message to others is an enrichment exercise for a Christian. As the message is presented, God engraves the gospel upon a Christian’s heart every time they share.
In my last post, I promised to offer an evangelism tool that I’ve found helpful in keeping me pursuing the lost. It’s called 3-1-6. Here’s how it works.
Ask the Father to impress 3 people on your heart who you believe need the gift of salvation. Write their names down. Pray for them 1 time a day for 6 days, asking the Lord to give you an opportunity to share the gospel message of Jesus Christ with them in that week. I have found that when I pray earnestly and ask God to honor this prayer, I have been empowered with God’s love and affection for those precious souls and many more times than not, been given that opportunity.
And when you pray that prayer and the Lord grants you the honor of sharing the hope of Christ with them, don’t hesitate. Remember those words that shocked me into action that day: “Spit it out; share something!”
Remember when you first learned to swim? As a father of five, I’ve spent my share of time at the pool beckoning my children to jump in. I would re-assure them each time. “Jump in! Daddy’s got you. I won’t let anything happen.” And, eventually (and sometimes after much coercion) they would jump in. And like most fathers do, depending on the child, his temperament, and/or his capability, I would challenge them differently.
In my Christian walk, I’ve found that particular portrait—a loving father calling his child to jump in and trust him—to be very meaningful. In many ways, I see so much of my relationship with my heavenly Father in that light.
But much in the same way that my sons express their frustration that I treat one of their brothers (or their sister) differently than I do them, in my own moments of difficulty, I find that the Lord tends to treat his children differently as well.
For some, he never lets their heads go underwater. He calls them and they jump as best they can, reaching out for him and he catches them. Then, they splash the water and complain a little because the water got in their eyes and their goggles didn’t stay up.
For others, however, he does that thing where we jump in and swim and swim and he just keeps backing up!, all-the-while saying, “You’ve got this, champ! Just keep kicking.” But he doesn’t ever actually reach out and grab us until we’ve swallowed half of the pool and have begun to sink to the bottom.
I’ve seen the Lord handle other brothers and sisters in Christ like I might handle my younger boys. There’s never a doubt that they are safe and secure in his hands. Even when they hit the water, their splash is tempered by his catch.
My experience, however, has been much more like the second example. When he says “jump,” it doesn’t take me long to get airborne. But as my arms grow weary from swimming and I can’t kick my legs hard enough to remain afloat, I find myself reaching out with sheer desperation. And then, without warning, at just the right moment, he steps in and takes hold of me.
And each time I think of my experience in that light, a few points come to mind.
However you may envision the future—however you may think the Lord is going to respond to your faith—whether you believe he’s going to catch you before you even touch the water or if you think he’s going to keep back up—if he calls you to jump, the only proper response is to get off of the ground.
We have all had those moments when we have known with complete certainty that God has called us to something that required his intervention to succeed. It may have been a ministry initiative. It may have been a church revitalization effort. It may have been as simple as a gospel encounter. When he calls us to jump, our task is not to calculate the distance and wind speed. Our task is simple—get airborne.
Once you take that initial step of faith and dive in, he may catch you. And in that moment, you experience the wonderful sense of his care. But he might not catch you immediately. He might allow you to hit the water—even to go under for a brief moment—and you might surface looking for his hands.
Start swimming. Look for his face and move in that direction. The Christian life was never intended to be “easy like Sunday morning.” Paul described it as labor—even describing his own work as a struggle. Concluding his letter to the churches in Galatia, he encouraged them to “not grow weary” in their striving (Gal 6:9). Contrary to what some may believe, effort is not at odds with grace.
Even in your striving, he still watches over you.
Trust him in the air and trust him in the water
When calls us to jump out toward him and our feet leave the deck, it demonstrates our faith. When we hit the water and he seems to be backing away, our swimming once again demonstrates our faith. In either scenario, our heavenly Father is watching over us.
But, lest we forget, fathers do not call children to jump out to them for the sake of catching them, or even for the sake of not catching them and watching them struggle in the water. Two reasons come to mind:
To teach children to swim.
To teach children to trust.
Today, you may find yourself at the edge of the pool and you know beyond a doubt that he is calling you to jump. Stop running the calculations in your mind. If he’s calling, jump.
You may find yourself airborne in this very moment. He’s called you to do something and you’ve taken the first steps of obedience. You’ve leapt into the air. Trust that he’s going to catch you.
Or, you may be swimming at this very moment. Your eyes have grown wide because you still don’t sense his hands. Your heart has begun to race because, in that brief moment of panic, you begin to think your trust may have been misplaced.
At just the right time, he’ll grab you. And he’ll lift you up. And all your effort—all your striving—all your labor—will have been worth it because you’ll be safe and secure in his hands.
I remember sitting in the auditorium among a few hundred other college students who had surrendered to the ministry. The professor onstage told us to look around—to the people next to us. He wasn’t trying to dissuade us from our calling, but told us that the statistics said that 3 out of 4 of us would not retire in the ministry.
I remember the faces of the guys around me.
I remember discussing with them how unbelievable those numbers were—how surely we would be the exception.
And then, over the course of years, I saw friend-after-friend walk away from the ministry. Some lasted years; some less. Many of them still play important roles in their churches, but they’re not serving in full-time, vocational ministry as they had once committed themselves. (And while there’s an entire post to be written concerning the positive manner in which they continue to serve in a number of capacities, this is not that post.) They had made an initial commitment, but for whatever reason, were unable to fulfill that calling.
In light of the number of pastors and ministers stepping away from pulpits around the nation due to moral failures (and before you fire off that email, I am not equating one leaving the ministry with a moral failure), it seems reasonable to believe those statistics have only worsened.
But, in a sense, I think this is the result of only surrendering to the ministry once.
Hear me out. However difficult it may be to make that initial decision—however much wrestling was involved in your call to the ministry—that was the easy part. Whether you left a lucrative role in the business world or stepped into ministry fresh out of college, the decision to lay down your desires and embrace God’s calling for your life was the easy part.
The Scale of Small Decisions
Big decisions are often like that. Deciding to be something or do something begins with that initial move, but the hardest part comes with the hundreds of smaller, daily decisions that follow.
This is why every January millions upon millions make the commitment to lose weight. Having worked at a gym, I can tell you that January is unlike any other month in the fitness industry. People join the gym in droves, waiting lines form behind treadmills, every aerobics and spin class is filled to capacity. But those crowds dissipate in the weeks to follow and disappear within a month. Why? Because the initial decision is so much easier than the daily decision.
It’s one thing to surrender to the ministry; it’s quite another to re-surrender to the ministry every day—to wake up each Monday and, despite the events of the previous day, make the decision to continue serving this particular flock in this particular place.
But that daily-discipline—that habitual laying down of your will, of crucifying your flesh (Gal 5:13), that taking up your cross every day (Lk 9:23)—is necessary for enduring in our calling.
Each time I hear that another pastor has stepped away from the ministry and every time that I learn of another moral failure, I grieve. But I’m not foolish enough to believe that their departure began on the day the announcement was made. Their departure from the service of the Lord took place over the course of many days, one after another, during which they refused to surrender themselves and give themselves over to their calling.
I don’t know what you’re facing in ministry at this moment in time. I don’t know what struggles or difficulties—what hurts or pains—you might be facing. But my encouragement is to find someone to talk to. It can be another pastor or a trusted friend, but talk to someone; share your struggles. Because just as our church members often put off seeking help until they’re well-down the path of sin, many of us do the same with our hurts.
Find someone who will help you surrender to the ministry again . . . and again . . . and again until you hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”