Three times a year Israelite families travelled to the temple in Jerusalem for a religious festival (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:23-24; Dt. 16:16). The first of these was the Passover in spring, when they remembered how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. The second was the Harvest Festival in summer (Ex. 23:16), when they thanked God for providing an abundant wheat harvest in Canaan. And the third was the Festival (or feast) of Shelters (or tabernacles) in autumn when they remembered God’s care and provision during the 40-year exodus journey. The purpose of these festivals was to remind them of the story of their deliverance and God’s abundant provision.
The Passover Festival
At the Passover they were to kill and eat a lamb together with unleaven bread (without yeast) and bitter herbs (Num. 9:1-14; Dt. 16:1-8). The symbols were taken from the exodus. In the final plague on the Egyptians, to be protected from the death of the firstborn son, the Israelites had to kill a lamb and put its blood around their front doorframe. The lamb died so they could escape death of the firstborn and escape from Egypt. And because they had to leave in haste, they didn’t have time to add yeast to cause their bread to rise. And yeast is also a symbol of sin. The bitter herbs symbolized their bitter slavery in Egypt (Ex. 1:14). Straight after the death of the Egyptian firstborn, Pharaoh told the Israelites to leave Egypt and they escaped (Ex. 12:31-33). One of the greatest Passover celebrations was when king Hezekiah repaired the temple and resumed re-established sacrifices (2 Chr. 30:26). There was also a great celebration when king Josiah reformed Judah (2 Chr. 35:18-19). Ezekiel taught that the Passover Festival will be celebrated in the Millennial reign of Christ (Ezek. 45:21-24). And “Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover” (Lk. 2:41NIV). (more…)
Foundation of the church
Recently there have been marches and rallies against violence against women, abuse of power and injustice. The ongoing nature of these issues shows that human relationships are flawed, and we can’t repair them. This is a symptom of our rebellion against God. But in Jesus the justice we long for can be found. By having a right relationship with God through Jesus, a new life can be ours. And churches are where we can learn to live with others. Where we can develop healthy human relationships. (more…)
The overall theme of the book of Acts in the Bible is the growth of the early church. And the key verse is “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8NIV). That’s the mission of the church. Believers are to be God’s witnesses.
Expressing Church life in pandemic times
This post comes from Philip Nunn who lives in The Netherlands.
Now we are all concerned about the ‘second wave’. And we are told that other waves may follow. We are also told that once the vaccines arrive life will return to normal. But can these new intrusive vaccines be trusted? We hear that COVID-19 is not unique, that it is only a matter of time before other viruses will follow. We sense fear, also in Christian circles. For some time now governments have been restricting our free movement. Only last year we all thought that such severe restrictions could only happen in totalitarian states and never in our free democracies. We sense frustration and anger, also in Christian circles. Among some Christians I also sense a movement towards a comfortable self-centered existence. (more…)
The COVOD-19 rules in New South Wales, Australia, favor public entertainment above public worship.
From Monday 28 September 2020, entertainment facilities including theatres, cinemas and concert halls across NSW were able to increase capacity up to 50%, to a maximum of 1000. Alternatively, entertainment facilities may allow one person per 4 square meters on the premises, with no maximum capacity.
If a place of public worship has multiple buildings at a single location, each building can have as many people as allowed under the 4 square meter rule, up to a maximum of 100 people or 150 people for a wedding. (more…)
The attacks that took place in New York on September 11, 2001 were rated by most Americans as being the most important historical event in their lifetime. And according to TheRichest.com, the most important historical events that changed the modern world forever are the French Revolution, World War I, the Soviet socialist revolution, World War II, and European colonialism.
Christians believe that the most important event in the world’s history is the death of Jesus Christ. At the Lord’s supper they remember why Christ did what He did.
In 1 Corinthians Paul describes what happened at the last supper where Jesus told His disciples to eat the bread and drink from the cup in remembrance of Him (1 Cor. 11:23-25). Then Paul says,
“For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26NIV). (more…)
If I chose to sleep in, or to watch church online, or listen to a podcast of the sermon, or to catch up on lectures in the Bible College course I’m doing, or to catch up on some other jobs, or was away for the weekend, or to look after visitors, or to go shopping, I wouldn’t have been at church yesterday. But as I didn’t do any of these things, I was able to share this message on the topic of “Why go to church?”.
We will see that going to church on Sunday is a good habit that has many benefits. After all, what’s more important than worshipping God or spending time with God’s people?
Aspects of life
We can picture parts of our lives as a series of widening circles. First there is our individual life, then our family life, followed by our life in the local church and then our life in the rest of our world. We can have relationships in each of these spheres of life, such as a personal relationship with God, relationships with people in our family, in our church, and in the rest of the world. This post addresses the local church and why it’s good for us to go to church.
What is a church?
The first instance of the word “church” in the Bible is when Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Mt. 16:18NIV). As this happened after Peter said that Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah, it means that the church was built on the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. The New Testament uses the Greek word for “church” (ekklesia) 114 times, primarily of the local church, but this passage refers to the whole church rather than the local church. (more…)
Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, DC following allegations of sexual abuse. This is the latest in a series of sex abuse scandals involving leaders in the Roman Catholic Church. So, what does the Bible say about the behavior of Christian leaders?
The letter of 1 Peter in the Bible shows us how God can help us get through hardship, trials and suffering. In chapter 5, it includes instructions to the elders of churches, which would apply to the leaders of any Christian ministry. This passage is written in the context of suffering. It is preceded by a passage on suffering for being a Christian (4:12-19) and is followed by a reminder to have an eternal viewpoint when they are suffering (5:10).
The passage says “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Pt. 5:1-4NIV).
It’s a message to those living between the two advents of Christ. The first was when Christ suffered and the second is when He will come in great glory. We live in this time period.
When churches (and ministries) experience persecution and suffering, it is primarily the responsibility of the leaders to provide help, comfort, strength and guidance. Peter urges them to do this in view of the persecution they were enduring. He supports this by saying that he is also a Christian leader (elder). So he’s speaking from experience. He also saw Christ’s crucifixion at the first advent and he told others about it. And he knew that there will be no more suffering when Christ returns in great power and glory to rule over the earth at the second advent and he told others about it.
The main message was that they were to “be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them” (5:2). Here leaders are likened to shepherds and those they lead are likened to sheep. This is a common biblical metaphor. The shepherd is the dominant leadership metaphor in the Old Testament. As sheep need a shepherd, people need leaders. And Jesus was “the Good Shepherd” (Jn. 10:11).
Peter says to take care of and watch over those you lead like shepherds take care of and watch over their sheep. A shepherd’s care is physical, while a Christian leader’s care is spiritual. Leaders are “shepherds of God’s flock” who do this work for the Good Shepherd. Then he gives them three important characteristics of a Christian leader (or church elder). These are given as three negatives (“not because you must”; “not pursuing dishonest gain “; and “not lording it over those entrusted to you”), each of which is followed by a positive (“but because you are willing”; “but eager to serve”; and “but being examples to the flock”). So Christian leaders are to be:
– willing leaders
– eager leaders, and
– examples to follow.
- A willing leader
The Bible says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be” (5:2). There’s a wrong way and a right way to lead. In this case, not reluctantly or under coercion or compulsion, but voluntarily. This is like Paul’s advice on giving, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). Our attitude is important to God. It’s wrong to lead because there seems to be no alternative or because of exerted pressure.
When Paul was in prison, he sent Onesimus back to his master rather than have Onesimus’ help without the approval of his master; “I did not want to do anything without your (Philemon’s) consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary” (Phile. 14). Paul sought the help of volunteers, not those who had no choice in the matter. Likewise, God wants those who lead Christian ministries to do this voluntarily, and not out of a feeling of obligation or a desire of recognition or status. It’s not just a job to do, but a calling from God.
Nehemiah led the project to restore the walls of Jerusalem after they had been ruined for 150 years. His team faced mockery, attacks, distraction and temptation to sin (Neh. 4:3, 8; 6:10-12). Nehemiah understood that God had appointed him to the task and his sense of purpose invigorated the people to follow his leadership despite incredible opposition. God equips Christian leaders to overcome the challenges and obstacles and complete the tasks He’s given them to do.
- An eager leader
The Bible also says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them— … not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve” (5:2). Not greedily looking for reward or recognition or some other benefit, but eager to serve others. They are “not a lover of money” (1 Ti. 3:3). 83% (5/6) of the warnings to the church about greed and the love of money are addressed to leaders (1 Tim. 3:3, 8; Tit. 1:7, 11; Heb. 13:5; 1 Pt. 5:2). They gladly serve without reward or recognition. They are outwardly focused, not self-focused. They desire to give, not get.
In this verse “eager” means ready, prepared, passionate and enthusiastically willing to lead. They anticipate the needs of the people and gladly initiate action to address these. They are eager to lead in a way that Paul was eager to preach the good news about Jesus to the Romans (Rom. 1:15). And in the way that the Christians in Corinth were eager to help needy believers in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 9:2).
- An example to follow
The Bible says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them— … not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (5:3). Not as a dictator, tyrant or bully with a desire for power and control. Not like a boss who commands, dominates, intimidates, manipulates and coerces his people. Not like the leaders of Israel who “ruled them harshly and brutally” (Ezek. 34:4). They were interested in themselves and not in the welfare of the people. And not like Diotrephes who loved prominence and expelled from the church those he disagreed with (3 Jn. 9-10). Christian leaders must not abuse their authority.
Recently Hun Sen was re-elected to lead Cambodia in a sham election. The leaders of Cambodia’s main opposition were jailed or exiled, and their party was dissolved and was banned from competing in the election. And independent media in Cambodia is largely silenced. So Cambodia is governed by a dictatorship, not a democracy. And its neighbors (Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar) are also governed by repressive regimes.
Instead Christian leaders were to be a model or pattern to follow. Paul told young believers to “set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Ti. 4:12). And he told the Corinthians to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Paul’s example was not to lord it over others (2 Cor. 1:24). Christian leaders are not to drive God’s people, but to lead them by their examples of mature Christian character. The ancient shepherd walked in front of his sheep and called them to follow him. They showed the sheep which direction to walk.
Jesus told His disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man [Jesus]did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:25-28). Christian leaders are to serve and give, not demand and get. It’s self-giving, not self-serving.
“Those entrusted to you” are the people that God has given the leader to lead. God specially assigns people to leaders. They are the leader’s sphere of service. The leader is to manage these people for Jesus Christ who is the Chief Shepherd (1 Pt. 5:4).
Lessons for us
If we are a Christian leader, let’s be willing and eager to care for people and be an example they can follow. This means not abusing others like Cardinal McCarrick is alleged to have done or any other form of abuse.
If we are under the authority of Christian leaders, let’s accept their leadership, accept their care, and follow their example (1 Pt. 5:5).
Written, July 2018
According to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, institutional child sexual abuse has been occurring for generations. Many spoke of having their innocence stolen, their childhood lost, their education and prospective career taken from them and their personal relationships damaged. For many, sexual abuse is a trauma they can never escape. It can affect every aspect of their lives. The Commission found that society’s values and mechanisms which were available to regulate and control aberrant behavior failed.
Because children are vulnerable to abuse, protecting them and promoting their safety is important. We want to keep children safe and ensure their well-being. As a result of the Commission, those leading children must pass a “Working with Children Check”.
We can lead children in the family, in recreational activities and in educational activities. This is a privilege and a responsibility.
Watch your power
Those leading children have positional power, spiritual power and worldview power. Because leaders are responsible for the child’s safety and welfare, these powers need to be respected and controlled.
Teachers and parents have positional power over children. And because of their size and maturity, adults always have power over children. Such leaders have authority because of their position with respect to children which must be exercised with care because children are vulnerable. Misuse of positional power can cause emotional harm to children.
Those leading children can have spiritual power, Their view of God, prayer and the Bible may be evident to the children. Do we give these priority or are they only considered in times of need? Are our spiritual attitudes legalistic, liberal or reasonable? Misuse of this power can cause spiritual harm to children.
I’m doing a course on worldviews like theism, deism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, pantheism, new age, and postmodernism (Sire, 2009). Clearly, everyone has a worldview. Did you know that we can influence the worldview of others, particularly children?
Those leading children influence their worldview. This includes beliefs about God, the universe, humanity, history and morality. Our beliefs and attitudes about these can be contagious. This is important because a child’s mind is receptive and their response to the Bible’s message of salvation can determine their eternal destiny.
But did you know that we can learn lessons from children?
Imitate their trust and humility
Jesus said, “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mk. 10:15; Lk. 18:17NIV). Little children have unwavering trust in their carers. That’s the kind of faith God wants us to have in Him and the message He has given us in the Bible, Let’s cultivate a constant trust in the God of the Bible who created the universe and all that is in it and who provided Jesus to be the source of our eternal life.
Little children are also humble (Mt. 18:1-4). They are totally dependent on others, particularly their parents. And they imitate their parents. Although little children can be selfish, they don’t have much to be proud about. Jesus said, “anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt. 18:4NLT). And humility is one of the steps of repentance (Jas. 4:6-10). Acknowledging our sinfulness and relying on the God’s spiritual power through Jesus rather than always being self-reliant is an act of humility.
Lessons for us
Let’s respect the privilege and responsibility of leading children by serving them like Jesus served His generation. This includes respecting our positional authority, spiritual power and worldview influence. And imitating their continual faith and humility.
Sire J W (2009) “The universe next door – A basic Worldview Catalogue”, Intervarsity Press.
Written, March 2018
The first aid method in Australia is described as DRSABCD which stands for Danger, Response, Send (for help). Airway, Breathing, Compression (CPR) and Defibrillator. It describes the sequence of assistance given to a person suffering a sudden illness or injury. The first thing to do is to ensure that the area is safe for yourself, others and the patient. Make sure you don’t put yourself in danger when going to the assistance of another person. We need to protect ourself from danger, so we can help the patient. This principle also applies to Christian (or church) leadership. Leaders need to cultivate and protect their spiritual lives, so they can lead others.
In the context of false teachers, Paul told the elders of the church at Ephesus, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28NIV). They were to be mindful of their own spiritual condition. Unless they were living in fellowship with the Lord, they could not expect to be spiritual guides in the church. For example, their minds must be fixed firmly on Jesus Christ (Heb. 12:1-3).
And Paul told Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers (from false teachings) (1 Tim. 4:16). Timothy had to have his own spiritual life in order before he could help others who were being influenced by false teaches. He was to be a godly example to others as he preached and taught from the Bible (1 Tim. 4:7, 12-13). An example of such godly behavior is Paul’s self-control (1 Cor. 10:24-27).
Leaders go ahead of their followers. When I am leading people on a hike in a National Park, I have walked the route before and I walk first to ensure our safety. This may mean clearing obstacles from the path or choosing the best route or warning of hazards. It would be risky to lead from the rear, because it would mean that others would face any dangers before the leader! Clearly, leaders should lead and others should follow.
Prayer and Bible reading
A biblical example of godly leadership is the twelve apostles who led the early church in Jerusalem by overseeing the spiritual teaching and the care of the needy (Acts 6:1-6). When the care of the needy became more onerous, they delegated it to seven men, so the leaders could concentrate on “prayer and the ministry of the word (Bible)” (Acts 6:4). Their core activities were to be prayer and teaching God’s Word. They were to be men of prayer and God’s Word, just like Jesus was a man of prayer and God’s Word. And they were to put God’s Word into practice in their daily lives.
The scout’s motto is to “Be prepared”. This means being ready to deal with the events of life. Similarly, godly leaders can be prepared for spiritual growth by regular prayer and Bible reading.
And there is a minimum daily requirement of vitamins to ensure good health. Similarly, the minimum requirement for godly leadership is a daily prayer calendar (list), a daily Bible reading (like Our Daily Bread), and a weekly Bible study (like exegesis or explanation of a Bible passage).
This is an example for Christian (or church) leaders to follow today as well. The leaders (or elders) set the spiritual tone of a church or group. They need to have their lives in order by being people of prayer and God’s Word. These are core aspects of our spiritual life. That’s where they receive power and guidance. They must faithfully participate in daily prayer and Bible reading. These are the basic resources for shepherding people by feeding, correcting, encouraging and counselling them. And the Bible is the final authority for decision making.
Lessons for us
There are many types of leaders today. Some are good, and some have deficiencies. Let’s use the key resources which God has given us (prayer and His message in the Bible) to be godly leaders. Godly leaders pray regularly. And godly leaders read the Bible regularly.
A godly leader is worth following.
These core characteristics are necessary, but not sufficient for godly leadership. The other desirable characteristics for godly leadership are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9. These relate to a person’s temperament, interpersonal relationships, reputation, spiritual life, family life, and personal habits.
Written, February 2018
They say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee! Does this mean that groups make poor decisions because they incorporate too many conflicting opinions?
Christian churches and ministries are often led by leadership teams. But how should such teams make decisions, particularly when not all members agree? In this blogpost, we will use the example of a group of elders leading a church, but the principles also apply to other groups of Christians. We will see that the best approach to collective decision-making is to seek consensus rather than unanimity or a simple majority.
The Bible teaches that a Christian church should be governed by a group of elders. This is plural leadership by a team that makes decisions for the congregation. In this article we look at some of the biblical principles for making decisions at elders’ meetings. These are collective, corporate decisions; not those made by an individual. It is when the elders seek the best collective decision as to what is Christ’s will for the congregation.
It is important to make every effort to maintain peace and unity among Christians (Rom. 14:19; Eph. 4:3). After all, Jesus died to bring together all of God’s scattered people and make them one (Jn. 11:51-52). Unity among believers was so important to Jesus that it was the subject of His prayer for them during the final hours of His life on earth: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn. 17:20-23NIV).
The Greek word for “one” (hen, Strongs #1520) appears four times in these verses, the last occasion being translated as “complete unity.” Here “one” is a metaphor for union, concord, and unity and the example to follow is the unity that exists between God the Father and God the Son. The same word was used when Christ said “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30).
The reason for this unity is repeated in the above verses: so the people of this world will know that Christ was sent by God. Another reason is so they may know something of God’s great love for humanity. This means that Christ tied His reputation and the credibility of His message to how well His followers display unity and oneness.
Paul also gave reasons for harmony and unity amongst Christians, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:1-4).
Evidently there was a lack of unity amongst the elders at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-17). There were factions within this church. Paul said that there shouldn’t be such divisions or quarrels within a leadership team.
But unity doesn’t mean uniformity; that every elder will have the same opinion. If this was the case, there would be no need for the plurality of elders. Also, plural leadership harnesses the collective experience and wisdom of a group, which is not present in a single person.
Furthermore, unity doesn’t mean that one person makes the decisions and the others all agree. This is more like a dictatorship where one person insists on getting their own way (3 Jn. 9-10). Being unified on an issue means that after debate, discussion and prayer, all the elders can support a certain choice as the best collective decision for the church.
Unity in a leadership team mainly depends on the character of the team members. For example, the Bible gives the godly qualifications required for elders (1 Tim. 3:1-6; Tit. 1:6-9). In decision-making it’s important that elders be sensible, just, trustworthy, and self-controlled and not quarrelsome or quick tempered or overbearing.
Did you know that not making a decision is a decision? In this case, the situation remains the same as it is at present. So, we are choosing to remain the same instead of changing in some way. Such a bias in favour of the status quo can be harmful for a church which is facing ever-changing challenges.
According to the dictionary, consensus means general or widespread agreement. The two main components of decision-making are the process used to form a proposal and the method used to decide whether to implement it or not. The word “consensus” has been used in both of these contexts.
A consensus-oriented process is one in which people work together to reach as much agreement as possible. It is a collaborative and inclusive process in which all the elders should have the opportunity to contribute to drafting the proposal. As extra time can lead to a better proposal, be willing to defer finalizing the proposal to the next elders’ meeting.
A person can give their consent to a proposal that isn’t their first choice. Possible decision-making options include:
– Unanimous agreement (this is the most difficult to achieve)
– Unanimous consent (where the proposal isn’t necessarily their first choice)
– Unanimous agreement minus one or two votes
– Unanimous consent minus one or two votes
– Super majority such as 90%, 80%, 75%, or two-thirds.
– Simple majority. At least 51%.
Three decision-making methods
Some examples of decision-making in the early church are given in the Appendix. The three main methods for making decisions in elders’ meetings are unanimity, majority, and consensus.
In this case, decisions are based on unanimous agreement by all persons. This is the ideal that elders should be working towards. However, this method allows one person to shut down the decision-making process. Not taking an action is a decision. In this case, the decision would be made by one person, and not a plural group. This gives one person too much power. The choice to require unanimous agreement on all decisions allows any individual elder to stop the decision-making process in the elders’ group. So this approach can lead to government by the minority.
In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by a majority of elders. It is government by the majority, not the minority. Although there is biblical precedence for this approach (2 Cor. 5:6), it can also lack unity. For example, if a decision is based on a slim majority, then there is a lack of unity amongst the elders. How can the elders expect the congregation to follow such a decision? A proposal that cannot gain the agreement of all or nearly all the elders is not worthy of the elders’ support. So a super majority is better than a slim majority.
In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by all (unanimity) or most of the elders. Consequently, it avoids the short-comings of the other two methods for making decisions. It is a decision which all or nearly all the elders can support (say at least two-thirds). So it is similar to a super majority where each person agrees to support the decision, even though it may not be their first choice. Note that disagreement by a minority does not have to mean disunity.
Today the complete Word of God gives us a general outline of God’s will. When we need specific guidance in matters not covered in the Word, we can pray and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The elements of decision making at an elders’ meeting include:
– Pray for corporate wisdom. If there is only a simple majority or if someone has serious objections, then there is a need for more prayer.
– Gather and assess information. Good leaders listen to the concerns of all the people involved. Don’t make a decision before you have all the facts (Prov. 18:13, 17). After an allegation was made the Israelites were advised; “you must investigate it thoroughly” (Dt. 13:14). As there are usually at least two sides to every story, it is important to talk to all the parties involved (Josh. 22:13-14; 31-34; Mt. 18:15-17).
– Apply appropriate Biblical principles.
– Discuss options. “After much discussion”, the early church at Jerusalem made a decision on the law of Moses (Acts 15:7, 25).
– Agree on a time frame for the decision. If we put it off indefinitely, then we accept the status quo. But if there is only a simple majority or if someone has serious objections, if possible, the decision could be delayed to the next elders meeting. Similarly for the case where a decision is a greater risk of going against Christ’s will for the congregation than the risk of delay. So patience is required for good decision-making.
– Seek consensus where team members either fully agree or have no serious objections. But if this is not achieved, to do nothing may be making a decision anyhow (status quo). And it seems better to favor the majority and not the minority, provided this doesn’t threaten unity amongst the elders.
Don’t let fear cripple your decision making. Fear of conflict, fear of what others may think and fear of failure must be overcome if we are to make good decisions.
Consensus is preferred because majority rule is better than minority rule and super majority rule is better than simple majority rule. Whereas a requirement for a unanimous agreement gives every member a veto, which is individual decision-making and not collective decision-making.
Let’s use the principles discussed above to make good decisions in our Christian leadership teams. The best approach is to seek consensus rather than unanimity or a simple majority. For example, in elders’ meetings it is best to seek consensus when making decisions. In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by all or most of the elders. It is a decision which all or nearly all the elders can support. This avoids the shortcomings of using the unanimous or majority approaches to decision making.
Appendix – Decision-making in the early church
Some examples of decisions made in the early church are given below.
Matthias chosen to replace Judas
After the resurrection of Jesus and the death of Judas Iscariot, it was necessary to appoint another apostle to be a witness Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1:15-26). The job description for this person would require that they knew what Christ taught so they could teach others. And they must be able to work together with the other apostles to lead the church in Jerusalem. Apparently several men met this requirement, so a decision had to be made as to which one would become the 12th apostle. Then the Bible says; “So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:23-26NIV).
They followed a three step process:
– The apostles nominated two men
– The apostles prayed for the Lord’s will to be revealed
– They cast lots
As this is the Bible’s last mention of casting lots, it’s not prescriptive for the church. It was a method used under the Mosaic covenant, but not under the new covenant.
The casting of lots for decision-making was a custom widely practiced in the ancient Near East. For example, lots were used in Persia in the 5th century BC (Est. 3:7). It seems as though marked pebbles or sticks were drawn from a receptacle into which they had been cast. This use of stones or sticks of wood to make decisions occurred often in Old Testament times (Ex. 28:30; Num. 26:55-56; 27:21; 33:54; 1 Sam. 10:20-21; 1 Chron. 26:13-16; Neh. 11:1; Ps. 22:18; Prov. 16:33; 18:18; Ezek. 21:21; Jon. 1:7). For example, the Urim and the Thummim were used to determine the will of God. Lots were used to reveal God’s selection of someone or something out of several possibilities in cases where a clear choice was not otherwise evident (Prov. 16:33). They provided a just and peaceful settlement of matters between people who might otherwise resort to force.
Deacons chosen at Jerusalem
When a practical need arose in the church at Jerusalem, the apostles said, “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3-4). So the congregation choose seven men who were endorsed by the apostles. But no details are given on the method used for this decision.
Barnabas and Saul chosen for missionary work
Paul’s first missionary journey began from Antioch in Syria (Acts 13:1-3). This decision was made when the elders of the church (and maybe the congregation) were engaged in a time of prayer and fasting. They may have been praying about the evangelization of the world. As they prayed the Holy Spirit told them set apart Barnabas and Saul for this missionary work. We are not told how this message came, but it may have been revealed to one of the men who were prophets (Simeon, Lucius, or Manaen). The elders (and congregation) must have agreed as “they placed their hands on them and sent them off”. Likewise, no details are given on the decision-making process used.
Do Gentile believers need to be circumcised?
At the church in Jerusalem, the leadership team (apostles and elders) met in about AD 48 to consider whether to impose circumcision on Gentile believers (Acts 15:1-35). There was “much discussion” on this topic. Peter, Barnabas and Paul spoke. James then made a recommendation that was accepted by the apostles, elders and the whole church. They “all agreed” to send Judas and Silas to Antioch with a letter about their decision (Acts 15:22, 25). The ESV, HCSB and NET call it “unanimous” (the Greek means, having come to one mind”). It seemed to be a consensus agreement (a general agreement) which everyone was willing to accept. This doesn’t mean that everyone fully agreed (unanimity) as evidenced by the ongoing Judaizers objections. This is a good outcome of decision making, but it isn’t always possible. For example:
– When Paul and Barnabas disagreed with regard to John Mark, they went separate ways (Acts 16:36-41). This shows that agreement will not always be reached. But in this case a peaceful outcome was achieved.
– Paul said that it was wrong for a church to be divided over leaders like in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-17). Instead there should be unity.
Dealing with an offender at Corinth
Paul wrote the letter of 1 Corinthians to address problems at the church in Corinth. One of the problems was that the church continued to accept a member who was in an incestuous relationship (1 Cor. 5:1-13). Paul rebuked them for not doing anything about it, and urged them to take action. He told them to expel the man from the church so that he would repent of this ongoing behaviour.
When Paul wrote a follow-up letter, it was evident that the church had obeyed Paul’s instruction to expel the offender (2 Cor. 2:5-8; 7:12). (Note that this passage may refer to someone else who had caused trouble in the church; we can’t be certain. Another possibility is that the offence in 2 Corinthians was a personal attack by the unrepentant incestuous man against Paul and his authority to exercise discipline in the church. And after Paul rebuked them again, the church finally disciplined the offender). Now as the offender had shown genuine sorrow and repentance for his sin, the punishment should be discontinued and he should be restored to fellowship in the local church. In this context, Paul writes,
“The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient” (v. 6NIV).
“For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough” (ESV)
“The punishment inflicted by the majority is sufficient for that person” (HCSB)
“This punishment on such an individual by the majority is enough for him” (NET).
The Greek word pleionon (Strongs #4119) means greater in quantity or quality (Thayer Greek Lexion). The short definition is “more” or “greater”. In 2 Cor. 2:6 it is translated as “majority”, because it means greater in quantity. Paul also uses this Greek word in the same sense in 4:15 (where it means “more and more”) and 9:2 (where is means “most”). This Greek word also occurs in 1 Cor. 9:19 (many); 10:5 (most); 15:6 (most).
The decision by the church to punish the offender had not been unanimous, as it was carried out by the “majority” of the church, not “all” the church. Some may have declined to take part in it because they refused to acknowledge Paul’s authority. But Paul felt that the agreement of the majority had been sufficient to attain the desired objective. Those who had shown disrespect for the apostle must have been the minority.
This suggests that in instances where unanimity isn’t achieved, then it should be majority rule and not minority rule. You may say that in the case of the Israelite spies of Canaan, the majority (10 out of 12) made a bad decision. However, this was because only two of the 12 spies were faithful to the Lord (See the importance of the godly character of team members mentioned above under “Unity”).
Reference Swartley RH (2005) “Eldership in action. Through biblical governance of the church”. Emmaus College Press.
Written, April 2017
Also see: New Testament shepherds
I have collection of vinyl musical records, but no record player because they are obsolete today. Likewise, audio cassette tapes are obsolete. And CDs are heading that way as well! Smart phones have replaced alarms, diaries, low quality cameras, calculators, MP3 players, and GPS devices. These are also obsolete! New technology replaces the old.
Let’s look at the roles of priests in public worship in Old Testament times and whether there are any implications for the New Testament church. We will see that because Christ’s sacrifice atoned for our sin, we no longer need priests. They are obsolete because there is no need for a human mediator between us and God. But all Christians have a joint responsibility to worship and serve the Lord and to bring the good news about Jesus to all the nations of the world.
The Hebrew noun translated “priest” (kohen, Strongs #3548) occurs 750 times in the Old Testament. It is used frequently for men who represented the people before God by offering sacrifices, carrying out rituals and speaking prayers.
Before the Israelite priesthood was instituted, the heads of families functioned as priests by offering sacrifices to God. For example, Noah, Abram, Isaac, Jacob and Job did this (Gen. 8:20; 15:9-10; 26:25; 31:54; Job 1:5).
God’s covenant with Israel provided for two types of priests, individual and national.
The high priest was the head of priestly affairs and the spiritual head of Israel. He had special duties, like entering the Most Holy Place of the temple annually on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). The high priest wore special clothing that symbolized the nature and importance of his office. There was only one high priest at any given time. He was chosen by God (Heb. 5:1, 4). And he represented all the Israelites as he made “atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17NIV).
Priests were male descendants of Aaron, the first high priest (Ex. 28:1 – 29:46). The priests served in the tabernacle and then the temple. Their main function was to offer continual sacrifices to God in order to atone for sin. They were also teachers and judges and wore special clothing. However, this priesthood was never intended to be permanent (Heb. 7:11). In the New Testament we see that Christ completed and superseded the Aaronic priesthood.
Levites were male members of the tribe of Levi. They assisted the priests, sang psalms, kept the temple courts clean, and assisted with sacrifices and teaching. As the priests and Levites worked full-time in the tabernacle and temple, they were supported by the people’s tithes (10% of their income) and by eating some of the sacrifices. So by profession they were priests and Levites; that was their occupation.
Jewish public worship was carried out by priests, who were all male. There were no female priests. Does this have any implications for public worship in church today?
Also, there was a clear separation between the priests and the people in Jewish public worship. Does this have any implications for public worship in church today?
According to the Mosaic covenant, animal sacrifices to God can only be offered to God on altars at the tabernacle or the temple in Jerusalem. As the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 and it hasn’t been rebuilt since then, no Jewish priests have offered sacrifices for the past 1,945 years. This is why there are no individual Jewish priests today.
When Moses was on Mount Sinai God gave him this message for the Israelites, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). Here the nation of Israel is referred to as “priests”, those who serve in the presence of God. This conditional covenant means they could all be priests and all be holy (set apart from other nations).
The Israelites were to constitute God’s kingdom (the people who acknowledged Him as their king) and, like priests, were to be devoted to His service. They were to be “holy” (set apart) to do God’s will (Dt. 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19). In their priestly role, the Israelites were to be channels of God’s grace to the nations, leading to their salvation (Gen. 12:2-3; Is. 49:6; 61:6). In a coming day, the Gentile nations will follow the God of the Jews and there will be peace and security (Zech. 2:11; 3:1-10; 8:20-23). This didn’t happen in Old Testament times because the Jews disobeyed the covenant. However, they will fulfil this role in a coming day when they recognize Christ as the Messiah under the new covenant.
New Testament priests
The Greek noun translated “priest” (hiereus, Strongs #2409) has a similar meaning to kohen in the Old Testament. It’s used in the book of Hebrews for Melchizedek, Jewish priests, and Jesus Christ. But it’s never used in Scripture to describe a sub-group of people within the church. One of the reasons for this is that because of Christ’s sacrificial death there was no longer a need to offer sacrifices for the sins of the congregation. Because “sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary” (Heb. 10:18), the priests that made these sacrifices are also no longer necessary. This is why there were no priests in the New Testament church.
In the book of Hebrews, Jesus is described as a priest who offered a perfect sacrifice for the sins of humanity. He is also a high priest in God’s presence on our behalf. He is a superior high priest to those under the old covenant. The priesthood of Christ completed and superseded the Aaronic priesthood (Co. 2:17; Heb. 5-10).
The fact that the curtain of the temple was torn in two when Christ died symbolized that His death opened new access to God (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). No longer did their access to God depend on a human priest and animal sacrifices. Today all Christians can approach God through Christ (Jn. 14:6; Rom. 5:1-2; Eph. 2:18; Heb. 6:19-20). They can confess their sins directly to God (Mt. 6:12; Lk. 18:13; Acts 2:37-38; 17:30). So, they don’t need a priest as a mediator.
There are no individual priests mentioned in the New Testament church to carry out priestly functions for other Christians. Instead Peter writes, “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pt. 2:5)”; and “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Pt.2:9).
This letter was written to Christians who were scattered throughout Asia Minor (modern Turkey) (1 Pt. 1:1). And these verses are in a section that describes a Christian’s privileges and duties (1 Pt. 1:1 – 2:10).
In these verses, Christians are said to be priests that are both holy and royal. They are “holy” because they serve a holy God (1 Pt. 2:5). The “spiritual sacrifices” they offer are Christian worship and service to God and His purposes. They can offer their bodies (Rom. 12:1), offer money or material goods (Phil. 4:18; Heb. 13:16), offer good works (Heb. 13:16), offer praise (Heb. 13:15), and serve the Lord (Rom. 15:6). For example, Paul called his proclamation of the gospel a “priestly duty” (Rom. 15:15-16).
Christians are also said to be “royal” because they are privileged (1 Pt. 2:9). This term is associated with being “a chosen people”, “a holy nation” and “God’s special possession”, which reminds us of the Jews and Exodus 19:5-6. Through Christ, they had direct access to God. This also implies that Christians should be priests to all nations. Of course this must involve bringing them to Jesus Christ as the high priest. So as Jews were God’s special people in Old Testament times, Christians are God’s special people today. Peter says that our response should be to praise God (1 Pt.2:9).
John also says that Christians have been made a kingdom and priests to serve God the Father (Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). As priests they have free access to God, and offer up the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and of grateful service.
So what happened to the Jewish priests? There are no individual Jewish priests today because there is no Jewish temple.
It’s significant that there were no Christian priests in New Testament times to mediate between God and people, as we find in the Old Testament. Because of Christ’s sacrificial death, there is no longer a need to offer sacrifices for sin. As the role of priests in the Old Testament wasn’t carried over into the church, the fact that they were male has no implications for the gender roles in Christian public worship. Likewise in Christian worship, there is no need for a clear separation between a sub-group (like the priests) and the rest of the people.
What about other roles that were carried out by Jewish priests and Levites?
• They were spiritual leaders. The model for the overall leadership in the New Testament church is a group of male elders (1 Ti. 3:1-7; Ti. 5-9).
• They inherited their role. This was not the case for elders in the New Testament church.
• Their needed to behave appropriately. Likewise for elders in the New Testament church.
• They spoke public prayers. There are no models indicating who did this in the New Testament church.
• They carried out rituals. There are no models indicating who led the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament church. Some baptisms were done by missionaries, such as Philip and Paul.
• They were prominent in public worship and rest of the people were spectators. There are no models for this in the New Testament church.
• They taught. Those with the gift of teaching taught in the New Testament church.
• They judged. Paul says that Christians should resolve civil disputes rather than taking them to court (1 Cor. 6:1-6). Also, a spiritual Christian can help one who has fallen into sin (Gal. 6:1-2). Jesus also gave a process for dealing with a sin (Mt. 18:15-20).
• They wore special clothing. There is no instance of this mentioned in the New Testament church.
• They sang psalms. There is no mention of song leading in the New Testament church.
• They kept the temple courts clean. The New Testament church usually met in people’s homes.
• They were professional. In the New Testament church there was provision for financial support as required for apostles (1 Cor. 9:4-14), elders (1 Ti. 5:17-18), teachers (Gal. 6:6) and missionaries (Phil. 4:4-19). But each of these could also be tent-makers like Paul.
So the only types of Christian “priesthood” in the New Testament are the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ (Heb. 2:17; 3:1), and the priesthood of all believers (1 Pt. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6).
We have seen that the roles of priests in public worship in Old Testament times have no implications for gender roles in church meetings today. Because Christ’s sacrifice atoned for our sin, we no longer need priests. They are obsolete because there is no need for a human mediator between us and God. However, because they are God’s special people, all Christians have a joint responsibility to worship and serve the Lord and to bring the good news about Jesus to all the nations of the world.
Written, December 2015
Someone has commented on keeping the Sabbath day. The comment is given below in italics and my reply in normal type. Here is a link to the post commented on: “I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What does the Bible say about this topic?”
The temple and the Mosaic covenant
The tabernacle/temple together with the offerings and priesthood were an essential part of God’s Mosaic covenant with the Israelites (see Exodus – Deuteronomy). At that time God lived on earth in a building and people could only approach Him via an offering made by a priest. God left the first temple because of their gross sinfulness (Ezek. 8-10). This temple was subsequently destroyed by the Babylonians when the Israelites were driven from their homeland. But a new one was built after the Jewish exile in Babylon (Ezra 3-6). And after this fell into disrepair, a new one was built by King Herod.
Why was the inner curtain of Herod’s temple torn in two when Jesus died (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45)? This would have shocked the Jews – their most holy place was no longer hidden by the curtain. They would have repaired or replaced the curtain as soon as possible. The writer of Hebrews says that the curtain was a symbol of Christ’s body (Heb. 10:19-20). Because of Christ’s death and because of His High Priestly role, we can “enter the most Holy Place”. We can approach God without the need of a human priest. Soon after this on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came to live in God’s people. So God left the temple and His presence on earth was taken by the Holy Spirit. This temple was subsequently destroyed in AD 70 when the Romans invaded Jerusalem. The torn curtain, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the fact that the temple has not been rebuilt for a period of over 1,900 years indicates a significant change in God’s relationship with mankind.
Consequently, I have divided the comments according to whether they related to Scriptures dealing with events before or after the day of Pentecost.
The commentator advocates keeping the Sabbath today as it was kept when Jesus was on earth about 2,000 years ago.
But the Sabbath day is a sign of the Mosaic covenant given to the Israelites about 3,450 years ago (Ex. 31:13-17). They were to keep it until it was fulfilled when Jesus died. Jesus was a Jew who kept the Mosaic law (which included animal sacrifices, male circumcision and keeping the Sabbath) and taught Jews who were living under the Mosaic law. This period under the law of Moses covers Exodus to John (inclusive) in the Bible.
After the day of Pentecost, there was a new way to approach God. This doesn’t involve Jewish laws like male circumcision (or animal sacrifices and keeping the Sabbath) because Paul wrote against this in Galatians. However, 9 of the ten commandments are repeated in this section of the Bible. But the 4th commandment to keep the Sabbath is not repeated. This significant fact is ignored by those that want to impose Sabbath keeping today.
Unfortunately the commentator doesn’t seem to recognise that the Greek word for “law” (nomos) has several meanings, including God’s teaching for the church in the New Testament. Instead he seems to assume it always means the Torah or God’s teaching in the Pentateuch. Also, he fails to use the context when interpreting a passage from the Bible. This context should be deduced from the surrounding Scriptures and not imposed by the reader by selecting verses elsewhere in Scripture (i.e. “cherry picking”).
Overall, the comment seems to be an example of eisegesis (an interpretation that is imposed on the biblical text by the reader – it comes from the reader’s preconceived ideas) rather than exegesis (an interpretation that is obtained/derived from the biblical text).
Physical and spiritual blessings
The Bible begins and ends with blessings from God; Adam and Eve were blessed by God, as are those who live in view of Christ’s return (Gen. 1:28; Rev. 22:7). In this context, “blessing” means a favour, gift or benefit that brings great joy. I’ve heard it said that God blesses Christians with prosperity. Let’s see what the Bible says on this topic.
We begin by looking at God’s blessings in the Old Testament times, about 3,500 years ago. Before Abram travelled to Canaan, God told him: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:1-3NIV; Acts 7:2).
When Abraham was 99 years of age, God changed his name and told him: “I will bless her (Sarah) and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her” (Gen. 17:1,5,16).
After Abraham showed he was willing to sacrifice his son, God spoke to him again: “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me” (Gen. 22:17-18).
God’s blessings involved Abraham being well known; wealthy; having a son under miraculous circumstances; having many descendants who would have victory over their enemies; and through his offspring all nations on earth will be blessed. These were mainly physical benefits and we know that Abraham was a prosperous man. After finding a wife for Isaac, Abraham’s servant said: “The LORD has blessed my master abundantly, and he has become wealthy. He has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, menservants and maidservants, and camels and donkeys” (Gen. 24:35). Abraham’s descendants also had victory over their enemies when they occupied the land of Canaan, which was a fulfilment of God’s promises to Abraham (Gen. 15:18-21; Josh. 21:43-45).
The Jew’s Blessings
In his final message to the children of Israel, Moses said that they would be blessed if they obeyed God’s laws and cursed if they disobeyed them (Dt. 27-28). “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks. Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out. The LORD will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven. The LORD will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The LORD your God will bless you in the land he is giving you” (Dt. 28:1-8).
The Jew’s blessings that would follow obeying the Old Testament laws involved them having large families; abundant crops, herds and flocks; and victory in battle. Like Abraham, they would be physically prosperous and wealthy (2 Sam. 7:28-29).
The Blessing Of Salvation
Now we will look at God’s blessings for Christians in the early church, which also apply to believers today. This is where we see the fulfilment of one of the promises made to Abraham.
After God used Peter to heal a crippled man, Peter told the Jews living almost 2,000 years ago that the coming of Jesus as the Messiah was predicted in the Old Testament. He said: “(God) said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed’.When God raised up His servant, He sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:25-26).
Here the blessing to all peoples on the earth is shown to have occurred through God’s servant, Jesus Christ, who was a descendant of Abraham (Mt. 1:1-2; Lk. 3:34). Jesus was sent to the Jewish nation and if they had received Him as their Messiah then they would have been blessed by God turning them away from their wicked ways. This blessing of a changed life and a changed future was available if they accepted that Jesus was who he said He was, the Son of God and their promised Messiah.
When Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia, he explained that this blessing extended to non-Jewish people as well: “Abraham ‘believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’. Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:6-9). Also, “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal. 3:14).
Paul quotes from Gen. 15:6 that Abraham was saved because he believed God, not because he was circumcised (v.6). All believers are Abraham’s spiritual children because they believed God (“have faith”), not because they get circumcised (v.7). The fact that Gentiles would be saved from God’s judgement of their sinful ways was alluded to in the Old Testament (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). In fact, Abraham was promised “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 22:18; Acts 3:25). The blessing in this case was salvation that is now available to all nations because of Christ’s death and resurrection. As Abraham was saved by faith in God, today anyone can be saved by faith in Jesus, who is God’s provision for us all.
We see that one of God’s blessings for believers today is the gift of salvation. Christians share this blessing with Abraham as he also had faith in God.
Other blessings that believers receive from God are given in Ephesians 1, where Paul begins with a majestic summary statement: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). The core statement is that God has blessed us. So not only were Adam and Eve and the Old Testament Jews blessed, but each believer is blessed today. We are blessed with God’s favors, gifts and benefits; which have two main characteristics. Firstly they are “spiritual” and “in the heavenly realms” because they involve the invisible spiritual world (2 Cor. 4:18). Did you know that the most important things in our lives are invisible? Secondly they are “in Christ” because everything comes to us through the Lord’s finished work at Calvary. He is not only the source of our salvation, but the source of every spiritual blessing.
Then Paul gives some examples of the spiritual blessings that God has already given believers.
Chosen us: “For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight” (v.4). How? By God and in Christ. When? Before the creation of the world. Why? To be holy and blameless in His sight. What a privilege! Note, the Bible doesn’t say that God chooses some to be damned. Instead, the gospel goes to all and each person is responsible for their response. Once a person becomes a true believer then they can know that they have been especially chosen by God to live for Him.
Adopted us into His family: “In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will—to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves” (v.5-6). In those days the son obtained the family inheritance. This means that all true believers will share in the inheritance that God has prepared for us. This is a privilege and a responsibility, which deserves a response of praise. How? By God and through Jesus Christ.
Forgave our sins and removed our guilt: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us” (v.7). Just like a slave who has been set free, a believer has been liberated from the penalty of sin.
Revealed His grand plan to us: God “made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure, which He purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (v.8-10). Christ will reign and rule over all during the Millennium. We look forward to the kingdom of God; when Jesus’ prayer will be fulfilled, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10).
Chosen us to bring praise and glory to God: “In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of Him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ (Jews), might be for the praise of His glory” (v.11-12). Believers have been chosen so that the Lord will receive praise because of their changed lives and new destiny.
Given us the word of truth: “And you (Gentiles) also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (v.13a). Belief in the good news in the Bible of forgiveness of sins through Jesus is the means of salvation.
Given us the Holy Spirit: When you believed, “you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of His glory” (v.13b-14). As a seal is a mark of ownership, the Holy Spirit is a sign that we belong to God and that we will be kept safe until the rapture when our bodies are redeemed (Eph. 4:30).
Lessons For Us
God’s blessings to Abraham and the Jews in Old Testament times mainly involved physical prosperity. Abraham was also promised that through his offspring all nations on earth will be blessed. The blessing in this case was salvation that has been available to all nations since Christ’s death and resurrection. Christians share this blessing with Abraham as he also had faith in God.
Those who have accepted God’s gift of salvation are not promised material wealth and prosperity, but they receive many spiritual blessings. These favors, gifts and benefits can be a great source of joy and security that overflows with praise and glory to God. They are eternal and not just restricted to our lifetime on earth.
Unfortunately some churches and preachers teach that Christians with enough faith and who donate generously will be blessed with material wealth and prosperity, which is not consistent with what the New Testament teaches on this topic. Do you think that God wants us to be prosperous? No, He wants us to be saved from the penalty of our sins and motivated by our spiritual blessings. Do you think that if we give money to God, God will bless us with more money? Beware of those that seek donations by promising that God will reward you materially. The reward for faithful tithing in the Old Testament was material wealth, whereas the reward for faithful service today is spiritual blessings (Dt. 8:17-20; Mal. 3:10-12). After all, Jesus said we cannot serve both God and money (Mt. 6:24).
Also, beware of those that use the Old Testament or Old Testament characters like Abraham to promote this belief. Instead look at the books of the Bible written to the church and characters like Paul, the godly apostle that God used to establish the church around the Mediterranean Sea, who was not wealthy or prosperous. Paul said that all believers who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted and can expect to suffer (Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 3:12; 1 Pt. 4:12-19). Let’s have discernment and not be deceived by false teachers “who think that godliness is a means to financial gain” (1 Tim. 6:5-10). Instead let’s read Bible verses in their context.
Those who preach a prosperity gospel have the timing wrong. God’s blessings for us will all be fulfilled materially when Jesus Christ returns. That’s when we will prosper. That’s why it’s called a “blessed hope” (Ti. 2:13).
Written, September 2009
“Roll out of bed. Feed the baby. Change her nappy. Load the washing machine. Eat breakfast. Tidy up. Dress two children. Brush their teeth. Brush their hair. Have a shower. Get dressed. Wash the dishes. Hang out the laundry. Feed the baby. Walk to the shops with three kids in tow. Shop. Walk home and unpack the bags. Prepare lunch. Wash children’s faces. Wipe down the table. Read kids some stories. Put them in bed. Feed baby. Change her nappy. Settle baby.”
That’s one mother’s description of her morning – much of her time devoted to her children. With this as an introduction, let’s look at some principles for caring not only for our children, but also for each other, both within the family and within the local church.
Parental Family Care
God’s plan is that all children grow to maturity under the care of their parents. This truth was established in the Garden of Eden when God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and increase in number (Gen. 1:27-28). Genesis 2:23-25 tells us that these parents of the first family were married. As a husband is told to leave his parents and “be united” to his wife, God’s plan is that marriage is a lifetime commitment with a unity (Gen. 2:24; Mt. 19:6). Healthy marriages are important for the development of children to maturity.
A baby is totally dependent on its mother; she is its life-support system. When Paul mentions a mother “caring for her little children,” he is referring to all a mother does for her baby (1 Th. 2:7). Then he says that this is because she loves and cares for her child to the point of being selfsacrificing by putting the interests of her child ahead of her own. She expends energy day and night for her child and is gentle and protective. Their relationship is very close. They spend lots of time together responding to each other.
Paul also says that a father should be “encouraging, comforting and urging” his children along the journey to maturity (1 Th. 2:11-12). A father is like a personal coach helping them face the challenges and disappointments of life, training them in the way they should go and bringing out the best in them. This is done according to the needs of each child. A father needs to know his children well, in order to know when and how to help each one develop.
Clearly, parents have the most influence on the physical, emotional and spiritual development of their children. On the other hand, the children’s responsibility is to obey their parents in the Lord and respect them: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ – which is the first commandment with a promise – ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’ Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:1-4 NIV).
Church Family Care
The Bible views the local church as an extended family. It says we are a family of believers and members of God’s household (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19; 1 Pet. 4:17). Our close relationship is indicated by referring to each other as brother and sister (1 Tim. 5:1-2). After all, God is our common Father and we are His spiritual children (Eph. 3:14-15; 1 Jn. 3:1-2). Let’s look at how we can be a healthy church family by caring for each other.
• Gentle Love
As mentioned before, Paul cared for fellow believers in Thessalonica like a mother cared for her children: “We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Th. 2:7-8). This kind of care was gentle, protective, loving, personal and self-sacrificing. It was based on an ongoing relationship as he shared his life with other Christian brothers and sisters. We need to spend a considerable amount of time with those in our church family in order to know them well and be able to respond appropriately according to their personalities and needs.
Paul also coached the believers in Thessalonica like a father coaches his children: “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory” (1 Th. 2:11- 12). As discussed above, this kind of care in the local church is needed if we are to encourage and urge each other to grow towards maturity. Personal coaches spend considerable amounts of time with their trainees in order to know them well and be able to motivate them.
God’s plan is for Christians to mature under the care of a local church. Our relationships in the church should be similar to those of a healthy family. When Paul wrote to Timothy, who was probably in his 30s, he said, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). These verses emphasize the importance of our attitude towards each other and the need to treat each other with respect. We should not speak forcefully to those who are older, but instead appeal to them as we would to our father. We should treat our brothers and sisters in the church as if we were in the same family.
Church Family Skills
We have seen that just as families raise children to maturity, churches are to raise believers to maturity. But there are differences between living in a family and living in a church.
Good connections with each other lead to caring relationships. This means making time and finding opportunities in our daily life and in our church life for spurring one another on to develop loving relationships, practice good deeds and encourage each other: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25). Two ways in which this can be done are by joining small groups and by practicing hospitality.
Small groups enable us to connect with others and develop closer relationships with them. It is not enough to just attend a service for a few hours on Sunday; we need to develop personal relationships. Hospitality is sharing a meal with others and getting to know them better. It involves opening our lives to others so they can open their lives to us. This enables others to learn more about us and in turn they will become more confident to share what life is like for them.
Connecting with others involves spending time together and conversing. James wrote that “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (Jas. 1:19). Who speaks the most during our conversations? If we do, then we are probably not listening enough. Let’s listen so we can reflect the person’s feelings and summarize what they are telling us. Then listen again to their response and see if we were right. Don’t assume we know what life is like for them. If we haven’t understood properly, they can correct us. Such active listening is a vital skill in caring for each other.
Don’t ask too many questions; a conversation should not be an interrogation. Don’t ask questions that can be answered with a yes or no, as they limit the conversation. Instead, use open-ended questions like, “What did you do next?” and “How did you feel when that happened?”
Of course, if a Christian brother or sister asks us about our personal life, we should be ready to tell the truth. If we want to care for each other, we should be ready to share with each other. For example, if there are no new prayer needs at a small group meeting, that does not necessarily mean that there are none. It may mean that no one is sharing.
If we connect with others and if we listen attentively when we are with them, then we will come to know what life is like for them. What do we do next? If they are not in a life-threatening situation, avoid the temptation to step in to solve their problems. It’s their life, not ours. It’s better if they learn the life skills needed to solve their own problems. Otherwise, they will always be dependent on others. This is where empathy comes in. Empathy has been likened to walking in someone else’s shoes and seeing life from their perspective: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited” (Rom. 12:15-16).
Empathy is seen in the lives of both Jesus and the apostle Paul. Both openly shared their lives with those to whom they were ministering. They didn’t want people to have to always rely on their assistance. In the church we need to help people to help themselves. We should act like a coach, not like a repair man. A coach trains and encourages others for the task before them, he doesn’t solve the problem for them. Listen to them, and help them see the steps needed to solve their problem.
And if others help us in this way, we need to be willing to accept their empathy and encouragement. Otherwise, they are denied the opportunity of caring for another believer.
Lessons For Us
Let’s thank God for mothers and their devoted care for their families. Let’s encourage fathers to take up their role of loving their wives and coaching their children towards maturity, and let’s teach the next generation of parents through our good example to develop strong lasting marriages. Do we have a lifetime commitment to our spouse, or is our marital relationship threatened when we have difficulties?
We have two families; our physical one and our spiritual one. Parental family care breaks down when the parents are selfcentered, as this leads to fractured families. Likewise, church family care breaks down when its members are self-centered as this leads to fractured churches. Let’s protect against this by following Paul’s advice and developing gentle love for each other like a mother, encouraging each other like a father and respecting each other as members of an extended family. We can do this by developing strategies and skills for connecting, listening and showing empathy to each other.
Published, June 2011
A praising, unified and serving church
The word “church” is the collective name for all true Christians and for those that meet together regularly. It is the theme of the letter of Ephesians. In this article we look at what Ephesians says about God’s plans for the church.
Plans For The Future Era
In Ephesians 1:3-14 Paul describes the spiritual blessings we have through God the Father, the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The phrase “In Christ Jesus” (or a similar one) occurs at least ten times in this passage. Clearly, Christ is the centre of all God’s plans for the church. “In Christ” refers to the spiritual union of Christ with believers, which is symbolised by the metaphor “body of Christ” (Eph. 1:23; 2:26; 4:4,12,16; 5:23, 30). It also describes the believer’s position, but not necessarily their practice.
As God plans to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ, the goal toward which all history is moving is to unite all things in the physical world and the spiritual world under Christ (Eph. 1:10). The Greek word used here means “to sum up”. In a world were things don’t always make sense we can look forward to a time when everything will be brought into a meaningful relationship under the leadership of Christ.
This will happen during the Millennium (“when the times will have reached their fulfilment”), which will be when God’s kingdom will come to earth and when His will “will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10). It will be a time of universal dominion: Christ will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. The one who is now despised by many will be the Lord of all, the object of universal worship; “Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11NIV).
In this coming era, the church will reign with Christ over the whole universe (Eph. 1:18-23; 2:6-7). Although He is far above the rest of creation, because the church is closely related to Him, like the body is joined to the head, and it is seated with Him, it will share His rule over the universe. What a great prospect to look forward to! It’s part of our hope and inheritance.
Three times in this passage Paul praises God for His grand plan for the future (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). likewise, praise should also be our response to God’s great plan for the Lord and for His church
Plans For The Present Era
God’s plan is that people will hear the gospel and believe it to be sealed by the Holy Spirit as a deposit of the inheritance that awaits them (Eph. 1:11-14). Such people are part of His global church and should be a part of a local church. The church is God’s people of all nations (Rev. 5:9) who lived between the day of Pentecost in about 30 AD and the rapture, when all believers are resurrected and transformed to enter heaven. Unless we have accepted God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, we will not share in these plans for the church.
The church is God’s plan for the present era. It was a new category of people, a new humanity, that was made known to Paul by direct revelation from God (Eph. 2:15). God used the Holy Spirit to reveal this new truth about Christ and the church to the New Testament apostles and prophets, such as Paul (Col. 1:26).
The animosity between the Gentiles and the Jews was replaced with loving relationships when they became fellow members of the church with equal access to God (Eph. 2:11-22). This was because, “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). So, in the church, all believers share three things in common. First, they are heirs together (“joint-heirs” in Greek), sharing the same inheritance, being “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). Second, they are members together (“joint-body”), being fellow members of the same body, having equal positions before God in the church. Third, they are sharers together (“joint-sharers”), having the same promises that are the result of Christ’s work of salvation. For example, they share the Holy Spirit and all that is promised in the gospel message.
This is a radical idea. There is no basis for discrimination in the church. What a change from the Old Testament era when the Gentiles were pagans outside the promises that were made to the Jews. Now, all believers of all races and cultures and standings in life share equally in the privileges.
One of God’s purposes is to use the church to teach the angels about His manifold wisdom (Eph. 3:10-11). Although Adam and Eve sinned, God had a plan of salvation. He sent His Son to die, rise from the dead and ascend back to heaven so that sinners from all nations can confess their sin and trust in the saving work of Christ and become members of the church who will be honoured as the bride of Christ throughout eternity. Those who had been rebels were now part of God’s people. Those who were enemies were now partners. What an amazing drama!
Unity In The Church
Paul now shows how God made provisions for those in the church to live and work together in unity (Eph. 4:1-6). Christians are urged to live in accordance with their calling, which is as members of the body of Christ. In the rest of the letter Paul teaches that this means working for unity in the church, purity in our personal lives, harmony in our homes and vigilance against the powers of evil.
He lists four important attitudes and behaviors for the church (Eph. 4:2): be humble, not conceited or arrogant or dictatorial; be gentle, not judgemental or critical; be patient; don’t retaliate when provoked; and bear with one another in love, by accepting those with different convictions. These are Christlike and believers are to follow His example (1 Cor. 11:1).
Then he writes: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). When God created the church He destroyed the rift between the Jews and the Gentiles. All such distinctions were abolished in the church. All Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Nothing can destroy this fact. Nothing can destroy this unity that has been made by God. We can’t create this unity of the shared spiritual life, but we can disturb it. So, we are told to work to keep it by living at peace with one another. We all have different convictions over debatable matters, but these should be overlooked so we can work together in peace for our common good. Of course we should have unity on the essentials of our faith. For the non-essentials there is liberty and we should be able to agree to disagree in a humble, gentle, patient and loving way.
We are to concentrate on the basis of our Christian unity instead of being occupied by our differences (Eph. 4:4-6). Seven reasons are given for this: there is one body, which is comprised of all true believers from Pentecost to the rapture and as a physical body grows from a single cell and every cell shares that original life, every believer shares the spiritual life associated with the Holy Spirit and they share an eternal destiny; there is one Spirit, who indwells all true believers; there is one hope, which is to be with the Lord for eternity and to be like Him (1 Jn. 3:2); there is one Lord, who is the ultimate authority (Phil. 2:9-11); there is one faith to be believed, which is the body of truth in the New Testament (Jude 3); there is one baptism, which could be the baptism of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13) or the water baptism by which believers express their allegiance to Christ; and there is one God, who is the supreme ruler of the universe.
The Lord’s prayer was that believers may be unified in showing the character of God and of Christ (Jn. 17:20-23). This unity is important for the salvation of sinners. Can they see Christ in believers as the Father was seen in Christ? When they see this unity, they have a reason to believe that Jesus was the Son of God and not just a gifted man. The unity of believers can convince unbelievers of the mission of Christ.
Maturity In The Church
Although there is a unity in the church as the body of Christ, there is also diversity. We are all different in some ways and have different gifts and roles to play, like the different parts in a body. The purpose of these gifts is (Eph. 4:12-13): to equip believers for works of service, which means that everyone in the congregation should be trained in some aspects of Christian service; then by serving one another, the church will be built up (spiritual gifts are for the “the common good” and are not to be exercised individualistically, 1 Cor. 12:7); to help maintain our unity; and to produce maturity as God wants us to be grown up, responsible and well-adjusted people. Our standard for maturity is, “How much am I like Jesus Christ?” (Eph. 4:13, 15).
This growth process is to continue until the rapture when (Eph. 4:13): we will reach unity in the faith and in our knowledge of the Lord (our unity is not based on attitudes or feelings but on the truths of scripture which involves the doctrines about Christ and a common understand about God’s Son); and we grow to maturity in our spiritual development (as the perfectly balanced character of Christ).
When these spiritual gifts are operating and the congregation are actively serving the Lord, three dangers are avoided (Eph. 4:14):
- Immaturity – as children need exercise to grow into maturity, believers need to be involved in active service to become mature. Otherwise, they will be as the writer to the Hebrews says, “by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Heb. 5:12). Such people don’t know what they believe and are reliant on others.
- Instability – immature believers tend to be spiritually fickle, they keep moving around to follow the latest novelties.
- Gullibility – immature believers can be deceived by false teachers who use religious words and appear zealous and sincere. Unfortunately they have not studied the Bible well enough to discern good from evil. As Hebrews says, “solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14).
If these characteristics are present, then we are still childish and immature.
Then Paul describes the proper process of growth in the congregation (Eph. 4:15-16). As right doctrine is essential (“speaking the truth”), we need to learn the fundamentals of the Christian faith. As the right attitude is also essential (“speaking the truth in love”), our conversation must always be accompanied with love. This is consistent with the requirement to bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2). In fact love is another important theme of Ephesians where it is mentioned 15 times; more than in any other of Paul’s letters.
As believers are equipped to use their gifts in active service they “will in all things grow up into Him who is the head, that is, Christ”. In every area of their life they will become more like Christ. They will more accurately represent Him before the watching world.
Next we are told that the body grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work (Eph. 4:16). The Lord is the source of this growth; it is “from Him”. After all He said to Peter, “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18) and Paul wrote that it’s only God who brings spiritual growth (1 Cor. 3:5-9). Then the body is said to be “joined and held together by every supporting ligament”. In our human bodies the bones are held together by joints and ligaments and the organs are also attached by ligaments. Each part of our bodies needs to play its particular role, otherwise we are sick or injured. Likewise for the spiritual body of the church. Each member has a particular function to carry out and the church body grows as they carry their role. Otherwise the church is not healthy. God puts believers together in the church so that their different spiritual gifts work together in harmony (1 Cor. 12:18-24). He creates unity from our diversity.
The church grows as the congregation feed on the Bible, pray, worship, serve and witness for Christ. This is accompanied by a growth in love. As believers are equipped to use their gifts in active service and they serve and carry out their role in the church, they grow closer to one another in love and unity. In fact, maturity and unity in the church are impossible without love, which brackets these passages (Eph. 4:2, 16).
Lessons For Us
God has definite plans for His church, which we need to take into account when developing the vision and goals for our local church. Christ is the centre of these plans. With respect to the grand plan for the future to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ, we should be a praising church. With respect to His plan for the present, we should be a unified church. Are we working hard to maintain the unity of the Spirit by living in peace with each other, praying for one another, forgiving one another and not holding grudges?
Are we equipping believers for works of service? Are we in active service for the Lord? Are we becoming more like Christ? Are we doing our work in the local church? Are we helping the congregation grow and be built up towards maturity? Are we God’s co-workers; His agents, His subcontractors (1 Cor. 3:9)? Are we honest and loving? Let’s not hinder God’s plans, but work together with Him.
Remember God has put us in the body of Christ where He wants us to be, among the Christians He wants us to be with, because we need them and they need us. As each part of the body accepts this and serves one another, each part is doing what it was designed to do. We need to accept one another and let each carry out their function to ensure a healthy church.
Written, September 2008
Characteristics of a godly congregation
Children are born into families whose goal is to raise them to maturity. As Christians, God has placed believers in a spiritual family which will last forever. Let’s look at some key goals for our spiritual family, the local church.
The Greek word “ekklesia”, which means a “calling out”, is used in the Bible to describe a gathering, meeting or congregation. It has also been translated as a “church” or “assembly”. This word is used in the New Testament to describe Christians in either a global or a local sense. This article focuses on the local church, which is comprised of believers in a particular region who meet together regularly. For example, Paul begins his letters “To the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2 TNIV); “To the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Th. 1:1); “To the churches in Galatia” (Gal. 1:2).
When He was here, the Lord promised “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18). The church began on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s death, when the Holy Spirit indwelt the Lord’s followers (Acts 2). So, don’t look in the Old Testament to learn about the church, because it was unknown in those times.
The Church Revealed to Paul
God used Paul to bring us the most complete revelation about the church by revealing a new truth, which was unknown to previous generations (Eph. 3:2-12). The Greek word for mystery, “musterion” occurs three times in this passage (v.3, 5, 9) and means a secret, which in this case was made known by divine revelation at a time appointed by God. It has been referred to as, “The mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people” (Col. 1:26).
What was this new truth? “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). The church was to be comprised of Jews and Gentiles who followed the Lord. This truth was also revealed by the Holy Spirit to other New Testament apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:5). The gospel message that Christ as the Son of God offered up His life to enable a company of forgiven people to become members of the church was the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20; 1 Cor. 3:11).
Before this time, the world was divided into two classes of people: Jew and Gentile. But Jesus introduced a third class: the Christian church (1 Cor. 10:32). All Christians are equal before God and have equal access to God because the distinctions between people under the Old Testament law have been abolished: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
One of God’s goals is to show the angels His manifold wisdom through the church (Eph. 3:10-11). They see how a loving God triumphed over sin by offering His Son so that sinners of all races and nations could have a heavenly inheritance of eternal life. They see the church as being part of God’s new creation.
Churches in the New Testament
Before He ascended back to heaven, Jesus told the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
On the day of Pentecost, the first church was formed at Jerusalem. Later when the church was persecuted, Christians were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1) and churches were established. Then they travelled to Phoenica, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19) and churches were established. Later Paul in a series of missionary journeys established churches in Galatia (now part of Turkey), Asia (now part of western Turkey; this is where the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 were located); Macedonia (now part of Greece), Achaia (now part of Greece), and a church was established in Rome before Paul was taken there. So, churches were established across the known world around the Mediterranean Sea.
Since that time missionaries have travelled across the earth and churches have been established in all countries.
The believers at Thessalonica became a model to all the believers in Greece (1 Th. 1:7). The reason given by Paul for this was, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Th. 1:6). In the context of seeking the good of others, Paul wrote “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Also, in the context of being kind, compassionate and forgiving, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2). Two characteristics are mentioned here: love and sacrifice. We will look at the topic of “love” shortly. Christ sacrificed His life for us; He gave up His life. That’s an example for the church to follow.
One of the metaphors of the church is a body, with Christ as the head. This illustrates the close connection between Christ and the church. As a head directs its body via the nervous system, the church should be directed by Christ. That’s why an essential goal of the local church is to imitate the Lord. After all, it’s His representative on earth. So, the local church is to be Christlike and godly.
“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). The word “Christian” means “follower of Christ”. Although probably originally used in a derogatory sense, it took over from the term “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22).
So the saying “What would Jesus do?” is a good one when looking at goals for the local church. The best way to find Christ’s example is to see how the apostles wrote about this between Acts and Revelation, because these letters were written to the church. We can also learn from the Gospels, but we need to realise that, although they were written after the day of Pentecost, they record what happened when Jesus came as Messiah to the Jews. They fill the gap between the Old Testament and the church, describing what happened while Christ was on earth before the church commenced.
Faith, Hope and Love
Paul commended the Thessalonians for “your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 1:3). Later he says, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Th. 5:8). They were motivated by faith, love and hope. These are the characteristics of a godly life: dependence on God, love for the Lord and for one another, and the hope of Christ’s return. They are often mentioned together in the New Testament and we will look briefly at each of these.
The Greek word for faith, “pistis”, means a spiritual conviction. It is used in the New Testament to describe: trust, trustworthiness and by metonymy (a figure of speech in which the name of one thing is used for another associated with it), what is trusted (“the faith”). Faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit that accompanies salvation (Gal. 5:22-23).
This word is used to describe living by faith; “… let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:22-24). We trust in God because He gave Christ as our Saviour. He is “faithful”; He keeps His promises. In the case of the believers in Thessalonica, their faith in God became known everywhere (1 Th. 1:8).
This word is also used to describe the truth we trust: “dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (Jude 20-21). Here the faith is the truth of the gospel and the doctrine of the New Testament. The church is built up by studying and obeying the Bible. In the case of the believers in Thessalonica, they shared the gospel with their neighbours and friends—“The Lord’s message rang out from you” (1 Th. 1:8).
The Greek word for hope, “elpis”, means favourable and confident expectation. It is something that is certain, not something that is doubtful.
In the context of waiting eagerly for the resurrection of our bodies, Paul wrote, “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Rom. 8:24-25). Hope accompanies salvation. It involves the future, “what we do not yet have”.
The believers in Thessalonica had “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” and waited “for His Son from heaven” (1 Th. 1:3, 10). Despite severe suffering, they had an attitude of joy. They saw the big picture that God was in control of their circumstances and their eternal destiny was secure. (1 Th. 1:6)
We have the hope of eternal life in heaven. It’s a part of the gospel. This hope is a reason to be faithful and loving: “we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all His people—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard in the true word of the gospel that has come to you” (Col. 1:3-6).
Our hope comes from God: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). “Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pt. 1:21). Because He is the Son God who died for our sin, Christ is our only hope of getting to heaven: “Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1).
As a church we need to be optimistic, not pessimistic. We may experience disappointment and hardships, but God is working towards the time when we will be taken to be with Him in heaven where we will be like the Lord. This will be a great celebration, like a wedding feast where the Lord will be the groom and we will be the bride.
One of the Greek words for love, “agape”, means God’s deep and constant love of sinful humanity (seen in the gift of His Son) that fosters a reverential love in them towards God and a practical love towards others.
In all His actions, God is loving: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). His plan of salvation through Christ was an act of love that should cause us to love one another: “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:9-11).
Love accompanies salvation; it is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22). When we experience the Lord’s amazing love, it causes us to respond by loving Him and others. This love distinguishes Christians who comprise the church. Jesus told His disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35). Also, “He has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another” (1 Jn. 4:21).
In 1 Corinthians 13, “love” is mentioned 7 times in 13 verses and Paul emphasises that everything must be done in a spirit of love. This love is a selfless concern for the welfare of others. It concludes, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”. One of the reasons for this is that love is eternal.
With regard to the church Paul wrote “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:15-16). The truth must be taught in a loving manner if we are to become more Christ-like. Like a human body, the church should develop with time so that it matures and becomes more loving as it carries out its functions.
The Thessalonicans service for God was motivated by love to the Lord; in their “labour prompted by love”, they served “the living and true God” (1 Th. 1:3, 9).
Initially the church in Jerusalem and Judea was Jewish, but then God showed Peter (Acts 10:1-11:18), Paul and Barnabas (Acts 11:19-24) that Gentiles could now also be a part of God’s people. Combining such people with different cultures and traditions together in the church was one of the biggest issues in the early years of the church. Firstly, some Jewish believers went from Judea to Antioch teaching that the male Gentile believers needed to be circumcised as the Jews were in the Old Testament times (Acts 15). Some likeminded Christians in Jerusalem were teaching that the Gentiles were also required to keep the law of Moses. This matter was discussed and resolved amongst the church at Jerusalem who then informed those who had been affected by this controversy.
Paul also told those at Corinth to stop following different leaders because this was divisive, but to have unity instead (1 Cor 1:10-13; 3:1-9). In the letter to the churches at Galatia, he opposed legalism because it divided the church. In Romans he dealt with tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers over eating meat that had been offered to idols and over Jewish festivals (Rom. 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor. 8).
The church in Ephesus was told that the Jewish and Gentile believers were “fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household” (Eph. 2:19). Consequently the hostility between them was to be replaced with peace (Eph. 2:14-18). They were to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3-6). While it takes an effort to promote unity, all these spiritual things we have in common are powerful unifying forces in the church.
Lessons for us
As a congregation are we imitating Christ? What are we willing to give up to follow the Lord’s example? The local church depends on people giving up their time, resources, abilities and energy. When we make corporate decisions we should include the question, “What Would Jesus Do”?
What about the core qualities of faith, hope and love? If our faithfulness is strong, we will witness for Christ. If our hope is strong, we will be encouraging and optimistic about what God is doing. If our love is strong, we will be humble and compassionate.
Are we faithful in studying and obeying the Bible as a congregation? Are we sharing our faith in the gospel message? Are we optimistically looking forward to being with the Lord? Are we joyful to be a part of His new creation? Are we known for our love for one another? Does an attitude of love permeate all we do in word and deed?
If we imitate Christ and strengthen our faith, hope and love, surely we will have unity. Nevertheless, we need to be reminded as a congregation of the many spiritual things which we have in common, and which are more important than our differences.
Let’s be more Christ-like, faithful, hopeful, loving and united and develop these goals to become the congregation that God wants us to be.
Written, November 2007
When the Israelites complained about the lack of food in the wilderness, God sent manna to eat and said that “Each one is to gather as much as they need” (Ex. 16:16 TNIV). The Manna looked like a white seed and tasted like honey wafers (Ex. 16:31). The daily quota was one omer per person, which was about 1.4 kilograms or three pounds. They were told not to keep any of it until the following morning, because by then it would be full of maggots and have an unpleasant odor (Ex. 16:19-20). So, except for the special provision for the Sabbath day, they were not to hoard the manna.
We live in a world where there is much inequality; some have plenty while others live in poverty. In the times of the early Church when there was poverty in Jerusalem, the churches in Greece sent money. When Paul encouraged the church at Corinth to give generously, he said: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little’” (2 Cor. 8:13-15).
Paul linked the principle of Israelites who collected more manna than they needed themselves shared it with those who didn’t have enough, and everyone finished up with enough. The reason that some Christians have more resources in life than others is so that these may be shared with those lacking and all may have their physical, spiritual and emotional needs satisfied.
In order to encourage the Corinthians to give generously, Paul reminded them of the following five truths:
1. Jesus was generous (2 Cor. 8:9; 9:15). The Lord gave up His position of power and honor so that believers could share in His inheritance: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). He’s the one we should imitate (1 Cor. 11:1).
2. Willingness to give is more important than what’s given (2 Cor. 8:12). They had been waiting until they could give more, but Paul said to give now in accordance with what they could afford. Giving should be spontaneous, not pressured or under compulsion, not reluctantly or grudgingly (2 Cor. 8:3-4; 9:5, 7).
3. Give according to your means (2 Cor. 8:11). Giving will not be a burden because God will supply all that you need and ensure that you can give again in the future (2 Cor. 9:8,10). The churches in Macedonia were generous even though they were poor and persecuted (2 Cor. 8:2).
4. Giving will result in spiritual reaping (2 Cor. 9:6-11). Like farmers, if we plant sparingly we will harvest little; if we plant generously, we will harvest generously. And do not forget: God loves a cheerful giver.
5. Giving leads to thanking God (2 Cor. 9:11-12). Giving generously is evidence of our sincere love, and it leads us to thanking God the Father as the source of this love (2 Cor. 9:15). People will praise God for such generosity and they will pray for you (2 Cor. 9:13-14).
What can we share? Not only our money and our things, but also our time and our spiritual gifts. Let’s imitate God the Father and Jesus Christ, and be generous givers to those less fortunate; this is part of the divine nature. Selfishness, on the other hand, is part of the sinful nature (Gal. 5:19-13; 2 Pet. 1:4).
Published October 2010
The need to be culturally relevant
How can the local church, which originated almost 2,000 years ago, survive in a world of diverse languages, customs and ways of life? In particular, how does the church balance a changeless message in an ever changing culture?
The Church is Multicultural
History shows that Christianity and the church have been multicultural across both time and space. They have survived from the first century to the twenty first century. During this period, Christianity was practised in the Roman Empire, in the feudal hierarchical system of the Middle Ages, in the Reformation of the 1500s, in the revivals of the 1700s and 1800s and in the modern world. These were all radically different cultures with different technology, different languages, different ways of life and different customs. So, the church has adapted to various cultures across history.
Through missionaries, Christianity and the church has spread geographically across the world, first across the Middle East and then around the Mediterranean Sea and across Europe, and finally to colonies across the world as they were visited by European nations. Today, there are churches in virtually every country, although in some places they meet in secret because of persecution. In all these countries there are different cultures with different technology, different languages, different ways of life and different customs. So, the church has adapted to various cultures across the world. Today, it is multicultural.
It was God’s intention that the church be multicultural. On the day the church began, God did a linguistic miracle, so those present could all hear the wonders of God in their native language (Acts 2:1-13) . Christianity was to go to all language groups. As this was a new thing, when Peter was about to visit a Gentile, he was given a vision that taught him that God accepts believers from all nations (Acts 10:35). Peter needed to be retrained to know that God doesn’t have any favourites in the church. So, Christianity was to go to all nations, to all cultures. That’s why before He ascended, the Lord told His followers, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8TNIV). They took Christianity to the ends of their known world and today it has spread across the globe.
Finally, in heaven Jesus will be praised because He “purchased for God members of every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). So, Christianity will go to all tribes, to all language groups, to all nations, to all cultures across the world.
Now we will look at how the church survives in these different cultures. The Bible records the history of the Jewish nation over a period of about 2,000 years. The coming of their Messiah had such an impact that Scripture is divided into two parts: the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament describes what life was like before Christ and the New Testament what it was like after Christ. Let’s see what the Lord said about this change.
The Importance of Wineskins
In Luke 5:33-35 the religious leaders criticized Jesus because His disciples did not fast (go without eating) as was their custom. Jesus gave a reason for not following all the religious customs of that time and He explained it further with a parable: “People do not pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins” (Lk. 5:37-38).
In ancient times goatskins were used to hold wine (1 Sam.1:24). After the animal was skinned, the skin was tanned, the openings were sewn shut, the neck of the goat was used for the spout, and unfermented grape juice was poured in. Afterwards the neck was sewn shut and the fermentation process began. As the fresh grape juice fermented it gave off carbon dioxide which stretched the new leather wineskin (Job 32:18-19). Only a new wineskin would have the capacity to stretch and not break during the process of fermentation. A used wineskin would break because it was already stretched and hardened and was no longer elastic or flexible. It had lost its power to stretch any more and so was no longer an effective container for the wine. Jesus’ hearers knew not to use old skins with new wine.
The wineskin contained the wine and protected it from the outside environment. This is shown schematically in the diagram as three components: the wineskin (represented by a circle); the wine inside the skin and the environment outside the skin.
This parable, which is reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke, illustrated a truth that Jesus was teaching. From the diagram it can be seen that the wineskin is the point of contact between the wine and the world (or the surrounding environment). Old “wine” represented the OT law and old “wineskins” represented the Jewish practices of carrying out the law, both of which are described in the Old Testament. Jesus introduced the “new wine” of the gospel of God’s salvation through the death of Christ as a substitute for us all (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor.3:6). The lesson was that the Jewish practices were too old, weak and rigid for the gospel. They needed to be replaced. The gospel would be destroyed if they tried to express it through the Jewish practices. Because there was a new wine, there needed to be a new wineskin. So, because the gospel was new and different to the Old Testament law, it could not be expressed by the Jewish customs and practices that were related to the law. This problem was faced by the early church in Galatia and other places.
Instead, new Christian practices were required to express Christ’s teachings: “Pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17). The new covenant which Jesus was instituting must bring with it new structures, new forms, new practices; which are those for the church. The application of this illustration to the church era is shown schematically as three components: Christian practices (represented by the circle), Christian principles inside the circle and circumstances outside the circle.
Action is essential for putting the principles into practice. Our practices are important because they are the visible aspect of our faith. For example, Jesus said that people will recognize His disciples if they love one another (Jn. 13:35). Furthermore, James wrote, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” and John wrote “let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (Jas. 2:15-17; 1 Jn. 3:17-18). So genuine faith and love will produce action. The practices are the action part of our faith, when the principles are expressed in an active way in our world.
Next we will look at the wineskins and then the environment outside the skins.
There is an important difference between the “wineskins” of the Old Testament and those of the New Testament. This is a difference between Jewish practices and Christian practices.
The Old Testament has many detailed laws about how the Jews were to behave including: social life; the tent and temple where sacrifices were made to God; the sacrifices; the priests; health regulations; and religious festivals; even down to circumcising male babies. These characterised the Jewish way of life.
But Christ freed us from slavishly following the Old Testament law and its regulations (Gal. 5:1; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14; Heb. 9:10). So detailed regulations are absent from the New Testament, where the emphasis is on principles that can be expressed and practiced in many ways in different cultures. For example, Jesus summarised the law as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37-39).
We need to distinguish between the principles and the practices. Scriptural principles are fixed by Scripture. However, we need to interpret these and sometimes there is more than one interpretation. On the other hand, Christian practices are expressions of divine principles in a particular human situation. They can change according to local circumstances. They are multicultural. They enable the changeless principles to be applied to any culture. This is one of the liberties of the Christian faith.
Having the practices between the principles and the circumstances also reflects our dual citizenship. We live under human government and we serve the Lord of heaven: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mt. 22:21). Our values are heavenly and our impact and service is earthly.
Responding to Circumstances
We now look at how this applied to the early church. In the above parable, Jesus taught that if the principles (wine) changed, then the practices (wineskins) should change. What if there are changes to the circumstances we live in, which are represented by the outside environment in the illustration? Biological organisms respond to changes in their environment, otherwise there is no evidence of life. Likewise, the early church was urged to address the circumstances it faced.
In the first century, local churches in different places faced different circumstances. This is reflected in the topics of the letters that were written to these churches. For example, some of the issues they faced were:
- Corinth: factions, immorality, litigation, disorder, false teaching
- Galatia: legalism
- Ephesus: false teachers, lacked love
- Thessalonica: persecution, misunderstandings about death and the second coming, idleness
- Smyrna: persecution, poverty,
- Thytaria: immorality and idolatry
- Sardis: lacked spiritual life
- Loadicea: material wealth, stagnant.
In all these situations the writer was inspired by God to tell the church how to respond to their particular circumstances. In particular, the elders at Ephesus were told to be alert for false teachers: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). They are told to “keep watch” over themselves and the congregation, to “Be shepherds of the church of God” and to be on their guard for threats to the congregation (Acts 20:28, 31). This means being vigilant and aware of the circumstances that are faced from both within and outside the local church. They were to protect the congregation like a shepherd protected their sheep from predators. So church elders are to be active and responsive to the circumstances being faced, not passive and unresponsive.
Past, Present and Future
Human behavior is influenced by past experiences, present circumstances and goals for the future. This means that the circumstances faced in the local church can relate to the past, the present or the future.
Influences from the past may be traditions handed down from previous times. These are practices that were followed beforehand. Jesus called the religious leaders hypocrites for placing more importance on their traditions than on God’s commands (Mk. 7:1-9; Lk. 6:1-11). They imposed many laws on the common people and treated their traditions as though they were scriptural truths.
Jesus also said, “And none of you, after drinking old wine wants the new, for you say, ‘The old is better’” (Lk. 5:39). This indicates people’s reluctance to replace the old for the new. In context, it meant that the Jews of the first century would find it hard to make the change to accept Christianity. They would be reluctant to give up their traditional Jewish ways and try the gospel. It was probably directed at the Pharisees who questioned Jesus. Given this trait of human nature, today some will be reluctant to accept new practices. There is a tendency to perpetuate long-established practices, but our security should be in the principles, not in the practices.
Influences from the present are current circumstances that demand a response. For example, language, way of life and geographic spread of the congregation. These circumstances change with time because life is dynamic.
Influences from the future may be goals that the local church has agreed to move towards.
The balance between these influences will control the practices within a local church at a given point in time. This is shown schematically in the diagram, where the changeless is shown in blue and the variable is shown in black.
Lessons for us
God has established the local church so that it can function in all cultures across the world. The truths of the gospel and the church should be expressed by the practices of the local church in a manner that takes account of changes in culture, technology, language, way of life and customs. That’s how the church is multicultural.
We need to distinguish between Scriptural principles and Christian practices: principles are fixed, whereas the practices can change and should change when there are significant changes in circumstances. We should know the purpose behind our practices, and periodically consider whether other methods would be more appropriate. A practice shouldn’t be viewed as better only because it is old, or better simply because it is new.
Local churches all face different circumstances. Today we need to be aware of the circumstances we face, including the changing culture of our world. If the local church is to be sustainable, we need to know our circumstances and decide how they affect our expression of the principles. If its practices don’t change, the local church becomes a stagnant and unresponsive subculture that will die out. There is no future for churches that are content with the old and caught up in the traditions and the forms of 50 or 100 years ago. Let’s face it, the world we live in has changed drastically over the last 40 years.
This is a challenge that is faced by all local churches, particularly in times of rapid cultural changes. It’s not enough to be a church that is based on Scripture; there is also a need to be culturally relevant. Our vision should include these two components: Scriptural principles that reflect our Lord and our heavenly citizenship and practices that relate to the physical world we live in. Let’s be a Biblical church that is culturally relevant.
Written, November 2007
See earlier article on scriptural principles and practices:
– Practicing scriptural principles
Like marriage and food, the ability to communicate in song was created by God and “everything God created is good” (1 Tim. 4:3-4 NIV). Everyone can sing, so let’s make sure we make good use of this ability.
Some people can sing solo or harmony, musicians can accompany singing, and some have the ability to write lyrics and to create melodies. Such creativity may be seen as being part of being made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). This form of expression and communication is one of the characteristics of humanity and the Bible shows that in many respects singing distinguishes God’s people.
Let’s consider some biblical principles concerning the purposes and characteristics of spiritual songs, as well as some thoughts on practical aspects of singing for Christians and churches.
To praise the Lord
The need to praise the Lord in song for His goodness is evident throughout the history of mankind – past, present and future. It is one of the main themes of the Bible.
Past: After their miraculous escape from Egypt, the Israelites praised God in song (Ex. 15:1-18). The Old Testament has many examples of the Israelites’ songs of praise, with Psalms, the largest book in the Bible, being their hymnbook. Also, David, one of the major figures of the Old Testament, was a prolific songwriter and a skilled musician.
Present: In the New Testament era and today, joy is to be expressed as songs of praise (Jas. 5:13) and our praise is to “our Lord and Father” (Jas. 3:9). This is the fulfillment of Old Testament promises of non-Jewish people praising the Lord (Rom. 15:8-12). After describing the importance of Christ, the writer of Hebrews urges, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess His name” (Heb. 13:15).
Future: Songs of praise will be offered to Christ and the Father in a time to come (Rev. 5:1-14). This will culminate in “every creature in heaven and on earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
‘To Him who sits on the throne
and to the Lamb be praise and
honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever’” (Rev. 5:13).
To strengthen believers
It is clear from the few references to singing in the New Testament that it is an essential component of the Christian faith. The following verses show that singing is associated with teaching from the Bible and prayer:
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Col. 3:16).
“When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (1 Cor. 14:26).
“I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray so others can understand: I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing so others can understand” (paraphrase of 1 Cor. 14:15).
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).
So, a major purpose of singing is for strengthening the Church. Singing is a means of communication between believers and to the Lord: “Speaking to one another … Sing and make music … to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). Collective singing should promote encouragement of one another, which is the purpose of meeting together (Heb. 10:25).
Singing can be a strong symbol of unity as everyone can participate.
With thanks, from the heart
Songs can be powerful ways of expressing feelings and emotions. They should be used to express thanks and gratitude to God (Eph. 5:20; Col. 3:16). Also, singing is the outcome of happiness and joy. James 5:13 says, “Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” As with all we do, we should sing with enthusiasm (Eph. 6:7).
Singing is also a consequence of being filled with the Spirit. Christians are instructed to “sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). So songs and music are associated with the “heart” which is used in Scripture for the emotional part of our lives.
Paul and Silas are an example of Christians whose songs reflected the joy and hope within, rather than the external circumstances. After being falsely accused by the crowd, severely flogged, thrown into prison and their feet put in stocks, they prayed and sang praises to God in the middle of the night (Acts 16:20-25). They also illustrate how we can sing at any time of the day and in any situation.
Our singing should be readily understandable by those present (1 Cor. 14:15). Like speech, singing should be intelligent in the sense of being meaningful, not intellectual and not in a foreign language (1 Cor. 14:9).
Spiritual songs differ from psalms in that they are composed by Christians rather than being direct quotations from the Bible. The Scriptures, which were completed some 1,900 years ago, should not be added to or changed in any way (Rev. 22:18-19). They contain divine principles to guide us. In order to understand these principles, the Bible has been translated into various languages. So, the language can change, but not the principles.
Songs, on the other hand, are expressions of Christian faith that reflect the language, tunes, circumstances and culture of their origin. When language changes and as new experiences and new circumstances arise, the Holy Spirit causes new songs to be written. For example, the faithful will sing a “new song” in heaven (Rev. 5:9). These changes with time usually come about as believers, filled with the Spirit, create new songs (Eph. 5:18-19). In fact, the term “new song” occurs nine times in the Bible.
New songs should flow from significant events in the lives of Christians. For example, Moses (Ex. 15:1-19), Deborah and Barak (Jud. 15), David (2 Sam. 22:2-51), Mary (Lk. 1:46-55) and Zechariah (Lk. 1:67-79) were inspired to create spiritual songs. The latter two are poems, which were probably also sung.
The diversity of spiritual songs is indicated in the Book of Psalms where some songs are collective and some are individual. They also vary in content from praise, thanksgiving and instruction to personal experience, history and laments.
With musical accompaniment?
It is interesting that little is said regarding musical accompaniment to singing in the New Testament. This is similar to other topics, such as church buildings and other Christian practices. Why the difference, when compared to the greater detail in the Old Testament? I believe it is because the New Testament concentrates on the essentials of the faith, which are to be expressed in various cultures throughout the world over a period of at least 2,000 years. It applies to every community, language and nation (Rev. 5:9), whereas the Old Testament mainly addressed one nation. Many practical details are not mentioned in the New Testament as these can vary according to circumstances and cultures.
The first mention of musicians in the Bible is associated with a generation that also pioneered livestock farming and metal toolmaking (Gen. 4:20-22). One implication of this is that music meets an important human need, as does agriculture and industry.
Three verbs are used in the Greek text of the New Testament to denote singing, namely, ado, psallo and humneo1. Psallo originally meant to play a stringed instrument. This word seems to refer to the melody or tune of a song in Ephesians 5:19; “sing (ado) and make music (psallo) in your heart to the Lord.” This supports the fact that the melody or tune is an integral part of a song.
Similarly, three nouns are used in the New Testament to describe what is sung: psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Psalms (or psalmos in Greek), used in 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, were songs sung to musical accompaniment of voice, harp or other instrument2.
Of course, accompaniment is not essential to singing – and would have been difficult in times of persecution – but neither is it prohibited. Paul and Silas would have sung without it in prison, and this may be why psallo is not used in Acts 16:25, but is in Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 5:19 and James 5:13.
Any musical accompaniment is to assist singing, with the singing being the primary purpose and the accompaniment secondary. So, while singing is essential to the Christian faith, musical accompaniment is optional.
We need to be careful to avoid putting limitations in areas when they are not clearly given in the Scriptures. Musical accompaniment to singing is such a case3. Whether it is used or not, and the type of instruments used depend on circumstances, traditions and culture. Christians should have the wisdom to know what is appropriate.
The Lord desires expressions of thanks and praise sung from the heart with understanding that strengthens the faith of believers. However we sing, whether with or without accompaniment, our singing should meet these goals.
Now let’s consider some practical aspects of the role of singing in our lives. Failure to sing with understanding and failure to include new songs can hinder our singing and thereby affect our praise to the Lord and the strength of our church.
It should be noted that God accepts all languages and cultures, with none being more acceptable to Him today than others. Consider, for example, a situation where missionaries are living in another culture. The songs from their homeland would be foreign to the local people. Obviously, Christianity should not be considered a foreign faith, and indigenous people should be encouraged to read the Scriptures in their local language and sing Christian songs in that language, with culturally relevant tunes and perhaps accompaniment. In Zaire, when the local language was used instead of French, it was reported that “this seemed to give more liberty in taking part and much joy singing in their own language”.
Of course, living languages also change over the course of time. For example, English has changed significantly over the past 100 years. Under these circumstances, new songs are required from time to time, in order for there to be a balance between traditional songs and more contemporary songs. Churches should have a process for incorporating contemporary songs. Otherwise, they are in danger of wrongly elevating traditional songs to the status of the Scriptures. This was the problem of the Pharisees who treated their traditions as though they were divine principles.
Are we ready to accept new songs and allow others in our church to have the opportunity of singing songs that are significant to them, including songs in everyday language and with contemporary tunes?
Do we have a vision of the role of songs of praise in our church? Are we willing to evaluate our attitudes and practices and endeavor to improve in this area of our Christian lives?
As with other talents, singing, musical ability, song writing and composing should be used for the “common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Have these been neglected in your gathering? Hopefully this article will encourage you.
Let’s sing to praise the Lord; to express thanks, gratitude, happiness and joy; to strengthen the Church; and to encourage one another. Let’s sing with understanding and let’s encourage a balance between new and traditional songs.
1. W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, 1970.
2. See Vine; R. Young, Analytical Concordance of the Bible, 1939; J. H. Strong, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, Baker, 1992.
3. Church buildings would be another.
Published, March 1997 (Scripture quotations updated March 2015)
Before the resurrection, James, the brother of Jesus, didn’t believe that Christ was divine, but he believed afterwards (Mt. 13:55; Jn. 7:5; Acts 1:14). The fact that the resurrected Lord appeared to James may have been instrumental in his conversion (1 Cor. 15:7). Some study Bibles and Bible dictionaries state that James became the head of the Jewish Christian church at Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13-21; 21:18; Gal. 2:9-12). Let’s look at what the bible says.
When Peter escaped from prison he went to Mary’s house, where some were praying for his release. He told them how the Lord had brought him out of prison. Then he requested that they give the news to James and other believers (Acts 12:16-17). When Paul visited Jerusalem after his conversion, the only apostles he saw were Peter and James (Gal. 1:18-19). During a later visit to Jerusalem, a meeting was arranged with James and all the elders (Acts 21:18). Paul referred to James, Peter and John as pillars of the church at Jerusalem (Gal. 2:9). Paul also said that when he was in Antioch, Peter stopped eating with Gentiles after some people came from James in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:12). But their claim to represent James was not true (Acts 15:24).
The topic of whether the Gentiles must be circumcised to be saved was discussed among the apostles and elders of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:12-21). After much discussion, Peter made a statement and afterwards James summed up the situation and supported it with a quotation from Amos 9:11-12. The church agreed with James and implemented his recommendation. Also, it has been pointed put that on this occasion the issue was brought to “the apostles and elders” and not to James and the resultant letter was written on behalf of “the apostles and elders” and not James (Acts 15:2, 23) (comment by Mike Hosey, August 2013).
Clearly, James was prominent among the elders of the church at Jerusalem, as was Peter prominent among the apostles. It is important to distinguish between “offices” and “gifts.” The two main offices in New Testament churches were those of “elders” and “deacons” (1 Tim. 3:1-13). All elders must be able to teach and shepherd the flock as pastors, but each will have spiritual gifts to varying degrees (1 Tim. 3:2; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). Prominent elders, whose work in preaching and teaching precludes employment to support their families, are worthy of “double honor” or financial support (1 Tim. 5:17-18).
However, there is no evidence that James had any rank or title above the other elders. They were not his subordinates. They were not his staff or his assistants. He wasn’t the church’s “senior” pastor. There is no biblical evidence that proves that James was the head of the church at Jerusalem.
This finding is consistent with the pattern of shared leadership in New Testament churches. It seems as though the believers at Jerusalem were led first by the apostles, and then elders were added to the leadership team (Acts 6:2; 11:30; 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4). In fact, Peter and John referred to themselves as elders (1 Pet. 5:1; 2 Jn. 1; 3 Jn. 1). Judas (Barsabbas) and Silas were other elders in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:22).
I am not aware of any example of a prominent leader at any church mentioned in the New Testament, except for Diotrephes who wanted “preeminence” and was described as doing evil (3 Jn. 9-11). For example, there were five prophets and teachers, which would have comprised the eldership team, at Antioch – Barnabas, Simeon (called Niger), Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen and Saul (Acts 13:1). Teams of elders also led the churches in Lystra, Iconium, Pisidian Antioch, Perga, Ephesus, Philippi and Crete (Acts 14:21-24; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; Tit. 1:5).
Other instances of shared leadership in the New Testament include the fact that Jesus trained 12 apostles to establish the Church, and seven men (the precursors of deacons) were appointed to care for the needs of the Jewish widows (Acts 6:1-6). In fact, there is no evidence in Scripture of a hierarchy of authority among the apostles, the church elders or the church deacons. There is no evidence in Scripture of senior pastors of churches. Instead the New Testament pattern is always shared leadership.
Published, April 2011
A Father’s Day message
This Father’s Day, let’s look at three examples of fathers – in the Godhead, the family and the Church.
Father In Heaven
God is everyone’s Father because He created humanity in His image (Gen. 1:26-27). But not all are His children: Jesus told unbelievers that their father was the devil: “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire” (Jn. 8:44 NIV).
Believers have been adopted as sons into God’s family: “God sent His Son … to redeem … that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts … who calls out ‘Abba, Father.’ … Since you are a son, God has made you also an heir” (Gal. 4:4-7; Rom. 8:15,23; 9:4). Believers are God’s spiritual children. He provides their needs, guides their lives, and offers them a wonderful inheritance. His presence and promises bring strength and security.
Believers are to depend on God like children depend on their parents. That’s why they call Him “Abba, Father.” The English equivalent for “Abba” is “Dad.” It expresses the close personal relationship between believers and their heavenly Father. In New Testament times servants were forbidden to use this word when addressing the head of the household, as it was reserved for family members. Jesus used the same word “Abba” when He prayed to His Father in the garden of Gethsemane (Mk. 14:36).
Believers should respect and revere their heavenly Father and obey His commands (1 Pet. 2:17; 1 Jn. 5:3). He should also be the object of their prayers, praise and thanksgiving (Eph. 5:20; Eph. 3:14-19; 1 Pet. 1:3).
Fathers In The Family
A father is a provider and leader for those in his household. The Bible says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). This describes a father’s role in the family – to train, instruct, discipline and correct his children. He is to be their coach, but not treat them in such a way as to cause anger or discouragement (Col. 3:21). The training should be “of the Lord,” which means in accordance with God’s will as it is revealed in the Bible. Earthly fathers should be models of the heavenly Father.
Children should honor and respect their parents and obey them “in the Lord.” This means obeying them in all matters that are in accordance with God’s will (Eph. 6:1-2; 1 Tim. 3:4). This is important because their relationship with their earthly father can influence their relationship with their heavenly Father.
Fathers In The Church
During a missionary journey to the city of Thessalonica, Paul, Silas and Timothy preached, taught, and established a church. After leaving, Paul wrote them a letter that said, “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory” (1 Th. 2:10-12). They set an example for leadership in the local church by caring for the congregation as “a father deals with his own children.” This involved encouraging, comforting and urging them to live lives worthy of God. They were coaches and mentors of the congregation.
They also established elders to continue this work after they left (1 Th. 5:12-14). The elders were told to do four things. First, they were to “warn those who are idle.” Some had stopped working and were busy bodies. They needed to be warned to get back to work and stop being lazy and living off charity. Second, they were to “encourage the timid.” Those who were shy, introverted or afraid needed friends to bring them out of their shell. Third, they were also to “help the weak.” Those weak in the faith needed support and reminders of God’s power. Finally, they were to “be patient with everyone.” They were not to get angry or irritated when provoked, but be sympathetic and accept those with different convictions on debatable matters.
Elders should also be models of the heavenly Father in the local church. The congregation should respect them, “hold them in the highest regard in love” and obey them (Heb. 13:17).
Fathers And Children
We are all children, and some of us are fathers. As children of God, in the family and in the church, the Bible says we should respect our fathers and hold them in highest regard, valuing our close relationship with them. They help us grow physically, emotionally and spiritually. Those who are fathers are to be like coaches and mentors in the family and in the church. May we all respect and serve each other faithfully in accordance with these biblical principles.