English Español 简体中文 Português
9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Biblical Theology and Corporate Worship

Print

What exactly are we doing when we gather as churches for worship? And how do we know what we should be doing in those weekly gatherings?

Naturally, evangelical Christians turn to Scripture for guidance on these questions, but where in Scripture do we look? There’s plenty about worship in the Old Testament—about prayers and sacrifices and choirs and cymbals and much else. But does all that material actually apply to new covenant gatherings of believers?

What we need in order to answer these questions is a biblical theology of worship.[1] Biblical theology is the discipline that helps us trace both the unity and diversity, the continuity and discontinuity, within the sprawling storyline of Scripture.

In this article I’m going to sketch, all too briefly, a biblical theology of corporate worship. Four steps will take us there: (1) gathered worship in the Old Testament; (2) fulfillment in Christ; (3) gathered worship in the New Testament; (4) reading the whole Bible for corporate worship.

1. GATHERED WORSHIP IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

Ever since God’s people were banished from his presence after the fall in Genesis 3, God has been at work gathering them back to himself.[2] So when Israel suffered in chains in Egypt, God rescued them not just so that they would be free from oppression, but so that they would worship him in his presence (Ex. 3:12, 18). God led his people out of Egypt and brought them to his own dwelling place (Ex. 15:13, 17).

Where is that dwelling place? At first, it’s the tabernacle, the elaborate tent in which the priests would offer sacrifices for the people’s sins and impurities. We read in Exodus 29:44–46,

I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.

The goal of the Exodus was that God would dwell among his people, and he does this by means of the holy place (tabernacle) and people (priesthood) he appointed for that purpose.

When God brought Israel out of Egypt, he took them to himself as his people. And the way he confirmed this new relationship with Israel is by cutting a covenant with them, often called the “Mosaic covenant.” In Exodus 19, the Lord reminds the people what he’s done for them in rescuing them from Egypt, and then promises that if they obey the terms of his covenant, they will be his treasured possession (Ex. 19:1–6).

The Lord confirmed this covenant with the people in Exodus 24, and all the laws of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy flesh out the terms of this covenant. All these details specify how God’s people are to live with God and each other within this specific covenant God has made with them.

So the detailed sacrifices and purification rituals described in Leviticus are a means of repairing breaches in covenant fellowship. The cult maintains the covenant.

A handful of times a year all Israelites were commanded to gather together before the Lord at his tabernacle, for the festivals of the Passover, firstfruits, and so on (Lev. 23). Apart from these festivals, the regular offering of sacrifices was carried out by the priests, and individual Israelites came to the tabernacle (and later the temple) only when they needed to offer a specific sacrifice for sin or impurity.  

In other words, for Israel, corporate worship was a special, few-times-a-year occasion. Worship, understood as exclusive devotion to the Lord, was something that Israelites were called to practice around the clock (Deut. 6:13–15). But in the sense of having intimate access to God’s presence, worship was restricted to specific people, places, and times. God dwelled among his people, yes, but that presence was restricted to the tabernacle and guarded by the priests.  

2. FULFILLMENT IN CHRIST

The turning point in the storyline of Scripture is the incarnation of God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. All God’s promises are fulfilled in him (2 Cor. 1:20). All the Old Testament types—the institutions of the priesthood, temple, and kingship, the events of the exodus, exile, and return—find their fulfillment in him. So in order to understand the whole Bible’s theology of worship, we have to understand how Jesus fulfills and transforms the worship of the Mosaic covenant.

Tabernacle, and later the temple, was where God manifested his presence among his people; Jesus fulfills and therefore replaces these old-covenant structures. John tells us that the Word became flesh and—literally—tabernacled among us (John 1:14). Jesus promised, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:20). In other words, Jesus’ body is now the temple, the place where God meets his people, manifests his presence, and deals with their sin (John 2:21–22). That’s why Jesus can say that an hour is coming when true worshipers will no longer need worship in Jerusalem, but will worship in spirit and truth (John 4:21–24).

Jesus fulfills and replaces the earthly temple of Jerusalem. He is now the “place” where true worshipers worship God.[3]

Jesus also fulfills and replaces the entire sacrificial system associated with the Mosaic covenant and its tabernacle and temple. Hebrews tells us that, unlike the priests who had to offer daily sacrifices, Jesus atoned for the people’s sins “once for all when he offered up himself’ (Heb. 7:27). Jesus’ single offering of himself doesn’t just purify the flesh like the old covenant sacrifices, but instead purifies our conscience, renewing us inwardly (Heb. 9:13–14). Because Jesus has perfected his people by a single offering, there is no longer a need or place for the offering of bulls and goats (Heb. 10:1–4, 10, 11–18). 

Jesus fulfills and replaces the Levitical sacrifices. His blood now secures our eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12).

I could go on and on like this. The point is that Jesus’ saving work ushers in a radical shift in how God relates to his people. The new covenant Jesus inaugurates makes the old one—the covenant God made at Sinai, through Moses—obsolete (Heb. 8:6–7, 13). Now, God’s people have their sins forgiven through faith in Jesus’ sacrifice. Now, God’s people experience his gracious presence through faith in Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit. Now, all God’s people have intimate access to God (Heb. 4:16, 10:19–22), not just a small number of priests.

3. GATHERED WORSHIP IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

What does all this mean for gathered worship in the new covenant era? The first thing to note is that the Old Testament’s terms for worship have been applied to the whole lives of believers. In Romans 12:1 Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Now we don’t offer animals as sacrifices but our very selves. The Christian’s whole life is an act of sacrificial service to God.

Or consider Hebrews 13:15: “Through him [that is, Jesus] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” Praise is our sacrifice, and we offer it continually—not just for an hour on Sunday morning. The fruit of lips that acknowledge God’s name includes songs of praise, but much more too: boldly confessing the gospel in public, speaking words of truth and love to others, bringing every word we say under Christ’s dominion.

This means that “worship” isn’t something we mainly do at church on Sunday. Instead, worship should suffuse our entire lives. For the Christian, worship isn’t confined to sacred times and places, because we are united by faith to Christ, the one who is God’s temple, and we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, making us both individually and collectively the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16–17, 6:19; cf. Eph. 2:22).

What then characterizes corporate worship in the new covenant? Reading and preaching Scripture (1 Tim. 4:14); singing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs together (Eph. 5:18–19; Col. 3:16); praying (1 Tim. 2:1–2, 8); celebrating the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 28:19, 1 Cor. 11:17–34); and stirring one another up to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24–25).

One of the most striking things about corporate worship in the new covenant is the persistent focus on building up the whole body. Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). We teach and admonish one another as we sing to the Lord. As we praise God, we build each other up. Paul goes so far as to say that everything in the gathered assembly should be done with a view to building up the body in Christ (1 Cor. 14:26).

What’s unique about the church’s weekly gathering is not that it’s the time when we worship, but that it’s the time when we build each other up by worshiping God together.

Because of the new covenant Christ inaugurated, gathered worship in the new covenant era has a whole different fabric than gathered worship under the old covenant. Instead of a few times a year, gathered worship is now weekly. Instead of meeting at the temple in Jerusalem, believers gather in local churches wherever they live. Instead of God’s presence being restricted to the Holy of Holies and guarded by priests, God now dwells in all of his people by the Spirit, and Christ is present to his people wherever they gather (Matt. 18:20). Instead of performing an elaborate series of sacrifices and offerings, Christians gather to hear the Word, preach the Word, pray the Word, sing the Word, and see the Word in the ordinances. And all of this aims at building up the body in love so that we all attain to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:11–16).  

4. READING THE WHOLE BIBLE FOR CORPORATE WORSHIP

How then to do we look to Scripture to teach us what to do in corporate worship?

First, I think it’s important to affirm that Scripture does in fact teach us what we should do in the church’s regular assemblies. Remember that while all of life is worship, the church’s weekly gathering occupies a special place in the Christian life. All Christians are required to gather with the church (Heb. 10:24–25); church attendance is not optional for the Christian. This means that, effectively, everything a church does in worship becomes a required practice for its members. And Paul urges Christians not to allow any humanly devised regulations or worship practices to be imposed on their consciences (Col. 2:16–23).

I would suggest that these biblical principles add up to what has historically been called the “regulative principle” of worship.[4] That is, in their corporate gatherings, churches must carry out only those practices that are positively prescribed in Scripture, whether by explicit command or normative example. To do anything else would be to compromise Christian freedom. So churches should look to Scripture to tell us how to worship together, and should do only what Scripture tells us to do.

But that raises the question, what exactly does Scripture tell us to do? To put it more precisely, how do we tell what biblical material on worship is normative and binding? To answer this question in full would take a book; here I’ll offer the briefest of sketches.  

Discerning what biblical teaching on worship takes some finesse, since Scripture nowhere presents us with, for example, a complete, confessedly normative “order of service.” But there are some commands in the New Testament which are pretty plainly binding on all churches. That the churches at Ephesus and Colossae were both commanded to sing (Eph 5:18–19, Col. 3:16), and the Corinthian church is referred to as singing (1 Cor. 14:26), suggests that all churches are supposed to sing. That Paul commanded Timothy to read and preach Scripture in a letter designed to instruct Timothy about how the church is to conduct itself (1 Tim. 3:15, 4:14) suggests that reading and preaching Scripture are God’s will not just for that one church, but for every church.

On the other hand, some commands, like “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16), seem to express a universal principle (“Welcome one another in Christian love”) in a form that may not be culturally universal.

Further, some contextual commands may have broader force, like Paul telling the Corinthians to lay aside money on the first day of the week. That was for a specific offering to the saints in Jerusalem, but all churches are commanded to support their teachers financially (Gal. 6:6), so giving may well have a place in corporate worship.

 So far we’ve just dealt with the New Testament, though. What about the Old? After all, the Old Testament has plenty of commands about worship:

Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! (Ps. 150:3–5)

Does this mean that, in order to be biblical, our church services need to include trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, dancing, strings, pipes, and cymbals? I’d suggest not.

Remember that the Psalms are expressions of worship under the Mosaic covenant, what some New Testament writers refer to as the “old covenant” (Heb. 8:6). Now that the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 has come, the old covenant is obsolete. We are no longer under the Mosaic law (Rom. 7:1–6; Gal. 3:23–26). Therefore, forms of worship tied up with the Mosaic era are not binding on us either. The temple was served by priests, some of whom specialized in liturgical music (1 Chr. 9:33). In fact, these are the ones we see playing the very instruments named in Psalm 150 (2 Chr. 5:12, 13; 9:11). So Psalm 150 is not providing a template for Christian worship; instead, it is invoking a specific form of old covenant worship associated with the temple and the Levitical priesthood.

That doesn’t of itself settle the question of what kind of instrumentation may be appropriate accompaniment for the church’s congregational singing. But it does mean that a simple appeal to Old Testament precedent is out of order, just as much as an appeal to Old Testament precedent can’t legitimize animal sacrifice. This is where many Christian traditions fall short of a biblical theology of worship, by selectively appealing to Old Testament precedent as if certain features of the Levitical priesthood and temple worship carry over into the new covenant age.

Certainly much in the Old Testament informs the manner of our worship. The Psalms teach us to worship with reverence and awe, joy and wonder, gratitude and gladness. But the Old Testament prescribes neither the elements nor the forms of the worship of the new covenant church.

In this sense, the New Testament provides a new constitution for God’s new covenant people, just as much of the Old Testament served as the constitution for God’s people under the old covenant. God has one plan of salvation, and one people he saves, but the way God’s people relate to him radically changed after the coming of Christ and the establishing of the new covenant. 

This is why we need to employ all the tools of biblical theology—putting together the covenants, tracing the links between type and antitype, observing promise and fulfillment, delineating continuities and discontinuities—in order to arrive at a theology of gathered worship. As Christ’s new covenant people, indwelt by promised the Holy Spirit, we worship in Spirit and truth, according to the terms God himself has specified in Scripture.  

Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.

[1] For a biblical theology of worship that has deeply influenced my approach here, see David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992).

[2] For a basic introduction to the storyline of Scripture that uses the theme of God gathering his people as a primary lens, see Christopher Ash, Remaking a Broken World: A Fresh Look at the Bible Storyline (Milton Keynes, UK: Authentic, 2010).

[3] For more on the trajectory of the temple across the whole canon, see G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology 17 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

[4] For brief defenses of the regulative principle, see Jonathan Leeman, “Regulative Like Jazz,” and the first three chapters of Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, ed. Philip Graham Ryken, Derek W. H. Thomas, and J. Ligon Duncan, III (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003). 

Biblical Theology and Liberation

Print

Liberation and justice are popular themes in the public square. And Christians should be interested in such themes. We have been set free, and we know that God is just.

But what does the Bible mean when it talks about being set free? Or pursuing justice?

Some voices in the church have built entire theological paradigms on these themes, applying them to society as a whole. Consider statements such as the following:

…[Christian theology’s] sole reason for existence is to put into ordered speech the meaning of God’s activity in the world, so that the community of the oppressed will recognize that its inner thrust for liberation is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The building of a just society has worth in terms of the Kingdom, or in more current phraseology, to participate in the process of liberation is already, in a certain sense, a salvific work.1

These assertions were made by James Cone and Gustavo Gutierrez, respectively. Both men played influential roles in developing what’s called Liberation Theology in North and South America in the mid-to-late twentieth century. From the social sites of race and class, Cone and Gutierrez constructed theological systems that would eventually be adopted by North American Protestant Christians in predominately African American churches and segments of the Catholic Church in Latin America.

To evaluate and respond to proposals like these, pastors need biblical theology.

After all, liberation theology has been broadened today to fit myriad other causes—from feminism to homosexuality to environmentalism. The aim of this article is not to discuss these contemporary offshoots, but to put an evangelical biblical theology into conversation with liberation theology as one case study for learning how biblical theology protects and strengthens churches in sound doctrine.

WHAT BIBLICAL THEOLOGY HAS TO SAY…

In a general sense, biblical theology is simply theology derived from the Bible. And while this commitment is certainly necessary to arrive at the truth about God, many theological frameworks—including liberation theology—claim biblical origin.

Yet the term “biblical theology” also refers to a way of interpreting the Bible, namely, a way that helps to make sense of the minor narratives that together make a whole-bible narrative. It is concerned with both the big picture and the pixels, particularly how the biblical authors understood the details of those pixels in light of the overall big picture.

So what does biblical theology have to say in response to the claims and aims of liberation theology? I can think of five topics that biblical theology would want to address:

On Systemic Oppression: The Contexts of Liberation Theology

First, biblical theology will express a sympathetic understanding of the social and political contexts in which liberation theology emerged in the Americas. Individuals like Cone and Gutierrez were desperately seeking to demonstrate the relevance of the Bible amidst horrid social and economic realities. Few evangelicals at the time were interested in addressing such things, and many hindered progress in these areas.

The vitriolic nature of Jim Crow racism in the southern United States and the devastating realities of chronic poverty in Latin America caused theological thinkers to forge a system that was both prophetic and public. Unfortunately, as certain issues moved to the center, essentials were forced to the margins.

Biblical theology not only calls us to acknowledge these contexts, but it also helps us rightly assess them. All of the injustices in the world point back to the fall and man’s utter rebellion against God. Racists are racist, for instance, because they are rebels against God. And by pointing to the true source of racism, biblical theology can then trace out the biblical storyline until we find the ultimate remedy is in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christians alone have the sole message that is able to reconcile racists and other rebels to a holy and righteous God.

The mission of the local church, no doubt, is the delivery and spread of this gospel message.

On Sin: The Culprit of Liberation Theology

Liberation theology describes sin not in terms of an individual’s rebellion against a holy and righteous God, but in terms of structural and corporate injustice. And to neglect completely the sins of the individual is an error. On the other hand, one can turn a blind eye to the evidences of structural fallenness, while readily acknowledging the sinfulness of individuals who inhabit those structures.

Biblical theology would encourage balance. The storyline of Scripture locates the origin of sin in the individual human heart, such that Paul can conclude “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But as soon as fallen people begin building civilizations their fallenness will instantiate itself in the institutions that govern society, from the oath of Lamech, to the group decision to build Babel, to imbalanced weights, to iniquitous decrees (Gen. 4:24; 11:4; Deut. 16:19-20; Prov. 16:11; Is. 10:1-2). An unjust law or practice, in other words, is an institutionalized or structural injustice.

The storyline of pre-exilic Israel, furthermore, presents not just a narrative of discrete sinful acts, but an infectious corruption of an entire nation, in part, due to the injustices of its kings and priests, whose sins manifested themselves not just individually but institutionally and structurally—in everything from their treaties with foreign powers, to the practice of bribery, to the exploitation of the orphan and the widow.

To speak then of Christ’s work of fulfilling the law and the prophets is to speak not just of an individual cleansing and rectification, but of an institutional and structural cleansing and rectification. He is not just the righteous individual; he is the true temple. He didn’t just keep the Sabbath; he is the Lord of the Sabbath. He is not just a new Adam, he is a new kingdom and nation and government.

Christians who submit themselves to the government of Christ should therefore be among the first to recognize not just the prevalence of individual sin, but institutional and corporate sin. By considering the governance of Christ, they are trained to discern the nature of a truly just government. Though major failures mark the historic record in this regard, individual Christians should strive to lead the way in opposing not only individual acts of injustice, but institutional injustices. We are to serve as salt and light in a dark world. Still, biblical theology understands that this world will continue to fall short of reflecting God’s glory, precisely because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Furthermore, in liberation theology, sin is described within the binary of oppressed/oppressor. There is no room for attending to universal norms of ethical behavior. Moreover, it seems that those who constitute the oppressed community are incapable of even committing sin.

Here, biblical theology would again stress the universality of sin (Rom. 3:23; Rom. 5:12). All of humanity—both the oppressed and the oppressor—is guilty of sin. This inherited guilt and corruption has its genesis in the Garden where both innocence and Eden are lost due to idolatrous disobedience (Gen. 3:7, 23).

What this means is that, within the storyline of the Bible, even those deemed victims are yet villains in desperate need of saving grace.

The Bible does not tell a story of good guys vs. bad guys. Instead, it tells the story of one who is good, suffering in the place of a people who are bad and purchasing good for them (2 Cor. 5:21). Human conflict stems from a broken fellowship with God, which all of humanity suffers.  Any theological system that rejects this fact is only deceivingly termed “liberation,” since it confines its adherents to perpetual bondage and, perhaps, eternal damnation.

On Victimization as Interpretive Lens: The Hermeneutic of Liberation Theology

Liberation theology teaches that the Bible must be interpreted from the perspective of the oppressed and the poor. It does this in order to guard against further injustices and to bring to light the suffering of social victims. Indeed, it claims that the Bible exists to reveal God as the liberator of oppressed victims. This liberation is, in many ways, seen as the essence of the salvation message.

But should we utilize the oppressed community or the poor as the interpretive lens through which to read the Bible? A right biblical theology contests that the Bible is not about man, but the God-man, Jesus Christ. The person and work of Christ is the apex of redemptive history. He is the ultimate object and perfecter of justifying faith. Recall that Jesus placed himself at the center of the Old Testament narrative (Lk. 24:27). Thus, a Christ-centered hermeneutic is the key to unlocking the meaning of the Scriptures.

This conviction helps us to focus on the content of the Bible’s grand drama. It is the history of his story, moving from creation, to fall, to redemption, to the consummation. The Bible tells the story of a God who planned from eternity past to secure the salvation of a sinful people by sending and sacrificing his Son.

On the Exodus Narrative: The Overriding Theme of Liberation Theology

For liberation theology—especially black liberation theology—the Exodus account is the central theme around which theology orients. God’s act of liberating his people from Egyptian bondage sets the present-day expectations and agenda for liberation theology.

Applying Exodus’ story of deliverance to the temporal world of nations and politics did not begin in the mid-twentieth century. Black American slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were drawn to the Exodus narrative since it mirrored their plight. The narrative served as proof positive that God was able and willing to deliver a new Israel (black slaves) from a new Egypt (America). Looking farther back, the seventeenth century Puritans who traversed the Atlantic regarded themselves as leaving an Egypt (England) on divine mission, embarking on what one historian called “an errand into the wilderness.” Nevertheless, modern liberation theology was the first to take this narrative and apply it as normative for oppressed communities.

Biblical theology presents several problems with this prescriptive assumption. First, it overlooks the fact that the plagues culminate in the death of the firstborn and the Passover, an act of judgment which fell upon Abraham’s descendants as much as the rest of Egypt. Abraham’s descendants, however, had a way of escape through a substitutionary sacrifice. The Gospels then characterize Christ as our Passover Lamb (e.g., John 1:29). Is the way of our exodus, therefore, not through the atoning sacrifice of this Passover Lamb, instead of, say, through the righting of wrong laws?

Second, liberation theology fails to acknowledge—or, at least, seems to downplay—the covenantal reality in which the Exodus is couched. The Exodus was not merely a political and socio-economic event. Rather, God was keeping a covenantal promise by gathering to himself a covenantal people: “I will take you [Israelites] to be my people, and I will be your God…” (Ex. 6:6). The Old Covenant, then, was fulfilled in the New. And nowhere does Jesus make a new covenant in his blood with the Puritans. Or with black slaves. Or with the disenfranchised of South America. Rather, he offers a new covenant for all who repent and believe in his covenant-accomplishing work.

Third, liberation theology fails to take into account the goal of the Exodus event. God tells Pharaoh, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness” (Ex. 7:16, emphasis added). The goal wasn’t finally political or economic liberation, but becoming a gathering of a God-ruled, obeying, and worshipping people. And yet, we know that the Israelites eventually failed to submit to God’s rule, fail to worship, and failed to obey. Though they are brought out of physical bondage, they remain spiritually bound. Liberation theology, therefore, places its hope in an Exodus that, literally, does not deliver and never did deliver.

Thankfully, the Exodus theme is not confined to the Pentateuch; it has a whole-Bible presence. Israel’s sinful disobedience culminates with Assyrian and Babylonian captivity in the eighth and sixth centuries BC, respectively. Before these captivities, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah speak of a new Exodus, one that will overshadow the former. According to these prophets, this Exodus, when fully realized, would not only include the returning of exiles but an even greater, spiritual deliverance.

Thus, the greatest oversight of liberation theology regarding the Exodus narrative is that it fails to treat the Exodus event as a shadow of the deliverance that Christ brings. As the Bible unfolds, and the New Covenant is enacted, Christ is pictured as a greater Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), a greater Moses (Heb. 3:1-6), and the true Israel (Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15). Simply put, the Exodus is, in its full expression, eternal salvation from sin and damnation, and it can only be found in Christ. A new people of God is being fashioned after his righteousness, not according to an ethnic identity or social status.

On the End of the Age: The Eschatological Error of Liberation Theology

It is difficult to discern what liberation theology teaches about the end times. Just how God will bring this world to its appropriate end is of no immediate concern to liberation theologians. Moreover, the reality of an afterlife is barely discussed. What is important is the here and now, and how oppression, poverty, and injustice can be eradicated today. It argues that theology preoccupied with a better world-to-come stagnates oppressed communities and justifies the status quo. Therefore, liberation theology seeks to disillusion people of their future expectations, and to encourage them to seek those future hopes now.

Though dangerously misguided, there is something of worth that needs to be acknowledged here. Liberation theology offers a fair critique of some in the evangelical community by exposing what can only be regarded as indifference toward injustice, albeit couched in orthodox doctrine.

Nevertheless, the corrective that biblical theology offers is an immensely important one: it affirms the final resurrection and the new creation to come. The biblical witness is filled with a constant refrain of the eternal hope. The biblical covenants culminate in the new covenant in Christ, marked by the indwelling guarantor of the Spirit—the literal down payment of the promised inheritance to be received (Eph. 1:14). And contrary to what liberation theology suggests, the hope of this inheritance encourages both Christ-reflecting endurance (2 Cor. 4:17-18; 1 Pet. 2:21-23) and Christ-exalting efforts (1 Cor. 15:58).

Biblical theology exposes the fact that liberation theology not only over-realizes its eschatology, it misunderstands the end times altogether. The ultimate goal of the Bible’s redemptive drama is not man dwelling amicably and equitably with man. The goal of the drama will be realized and expressed in the exclamation of a loud voice, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21:3). Sadly, the liberation that matters cannot be found in liberation theology.

[1] The quotes at the beginning of this article – as well as the overall teachings of the theological system critiqued – were respectively taken from: James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Fortieth Anniversary Edition (New York: Orbis Books, 2010) and Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 15th Anniversary Edition (New York: Orbis Books, 1988).

Steven Harris is a graduate student at Yale University, focusing on black religion in the African diaspora. A Vanderbilt graduate, he received his master of divinity degree at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has formerly served as assistant pastor for a Kentucky Baptist church. 

What Does "First Among Equals" Mean on an Elder Board

Print

A non-staff elder friend from another church recently emailed me this question:

I need an education on the topic of "first among equals" as it relates to elders. I am struggling at times to find my way. I know that God has me here for a reason, and I know that it will take work to go from years of one man leading, to two men, to three, and so on. I know the challenges of working to change culture. I really want to make sure my understanding and heart are in the right place as I talk with the others...Any tips?

In my experience, this is a question a lot of elder boards wrestle with in one form or another. Maybe it's the relationship between the lead guy and the rest of the board. Maybe it's the relationship between staff and non-staff elders. No matter the situation, I don't think it's accidental that most elder boards do have to work through the subject of their shared authority and how it's distributed among them, as my answer below indicates. Here's the substance of what I said to the brother:

1) The Bible does not make a formal distinction between the lead pastor and the rest of the elders, but instead seems to establish a formal parity (see Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim. 4:14; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1). In my mind, this means he really just has one vote among the elders. He is an equal.

2) However, the Bible also seems to give a special honor to those whose work is preaching and teaching: "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching" (1 Tim. 5:17). In my mind, this means that if a guy (or guys) gives himself over to being the main teacher, he should be accorded an extra measure of leadership and deference. He or they will be "the first" among equals.

3) Putting points 1 and 2 together, the precise relationship between the lead guy and the rest of the elders seems to be intentionally vague. Notice I keep saying “in my mind” and “seems to.” Could it be, in other words, that the Holy Spirit intentionally did not overprescribe what the exact relationship should look like because it may need to differ from context to context? That’s my read. In some situations, the lead guy might have an extra measure of authority and honor. The emphasis will fall upon the first in “first among equals.” In other situations, the lead guy might have less authority, and he will need to rely more upon the parity of elders. The emphasis will fall upon among equals. And the difference between one context and another, I assume, will be dictated by a host of factors: 1) the competencies and spiritual maturity of the lead guy; 2) the competencies and maturity of the other elders; 3) how long he or they’ve been serving; 4) the season of the church's life, and what kind of leadership it needs; and 5) a host of other providential arrangements.

4) To summarize, the answer to your question depends on combining both the revealed wisdom that God gives to all of us in his Word (points 1 and 2), as well as the situation-specific wisdom that he must give to you (in light of point 3), and that you must ask him for. Recall that, in the Bible, particularly in the wisdom literature, wisdom is a kind of skill—the skill of knowing how to live in God’s creation, in the fear of him, amidst the infinite variety of challenges life throws at you. As such, you need to ask him for the skill of knowing how to strike the balance between points 1 and 2 in your particular situation with your particular guys, and that balance might change from season to season. How much easier it would be to have a rule book or a book of case-law that tells you exactly what the lines of formal and informal authority should look like among and between the elders. Instead, the Lord has given us the broad boundaries of the playing field (points 1 and 2 above), and then requires you and me to rely on him entirely in playing the game from day to day. What kind of heart do you need? A trusting, asking, begging, seeking heart.  

I'm grateful for your evident desire for wisdom, and I pray that he would give more of it to both you and me.

Biblical Theology and Shepherding

Print

How would you write a pastor’s job description? Where would you look for models? Maybe you’d ask a few other local churches for theirs and make a few tweaks to reflect your own church’s schedule and programs.

That assumes, of course, that everyone already knows what a pastor is supposed to be and do. But how do we know what a pastor’s fundamental role is?

Certainly we should look to Scripture to tell us what a pastor is. But where in Scripture? We could start with the work implied in elders’ qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Tit. 1:5–10), and carefully consider explicit commands given to church leaders. When we scratch beneath the surface of some of those commands, though, an interesting picture emerges. Consider Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:1–3, both addressed to elders of local churches:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [Gk. poimainein] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd [Gk. poimanate] the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet. 5:1–3)

In both of these passages, the main task of pastoring is summed up with the Greek verb poimaino, the basic meaning of which is “to shepherd,” as in, care for sheep (Luke 17:7; 1 Cor. 9:7). Both Paul in Acts and Peter in 1 Peter sum up the work of pastoring in one word: to shepherd.

In Ephesians 4:11, Paul refers to pastors as “shepherd-teachers,” again demonstrating that the idea of shepherding is basic to the pastoral office. In fact, the English word “pastor” itself comes from the Latin pastor, which means “shepherd.” So shepherding is basic to the word “pastor” and to biblical descriptions of pastoring.

But where do we learn what it means to shepherd? If you have a basic acquaintance with sheep and their needs, then you get the basic gist. Sheep need feeding and tending and guiding and protecting. Pastors do this for their people, transposed into a spiritual key.

SCRIPTURE’S STORY OF SHEPHERDING

But this metaphor takes on a whole new depth when we see how it unfolds throughout the story of Scripture. Ultimately, pastors learn what it means to be a pastor from how God himself shepherds his people.

The Divine Shepherd of the Exodus

Scripture’s story of shepherding begins in earnest when God brings his people up out of Egypt, guides them through the wilderness for forty years, and leads them safely into their own land.[1] Describing the whole period of the exodus and the wilderness, Psalm 77:20 declares, “You led your people like a flock / by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”

Like a shepherd, God was personally present with his people (Ex. 33:15–16). Like a shepherd, God protected his people (Num. 14:7–9; Deut. 23:14). Like a shepherd, God provided for his people. He fed them (Ps. 78:19, 105:40–41). He healed them (Ex. 15:26; Num. 21:8–9).

Like a shepherd, God guided his people to fertile pastures: “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode” (Ex. 15:13). Like a shepherd, God gently, tenderly drew his people along:

I led them with cords of kindness,
     with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,
     and I bent down to them and fed them. (Hos. 11:4)

In all this, God shepherded his people through Moses, the human leader he appointed to shepherd them (Ps. 77:20). And Moses himself asked the Lord for a successor, in order that “the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd” (Num. 27:17).

So the Lord, the divine King of creation, is also the shepherd of his people. And he shepherded them through a human shepherd of his own appointing.

David the Shepherd-King

Hundreds of years later, this pattern continues in the reign of David and his dynasty. The Lord took David from shepherding sheep and made him shepherd of Israel (2 Sam. 5:1–3, 7:8). The psalmist declares,

He chose David his servant
     and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
     to shepherd Jacob his people,
     Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
     and guided them with his skillful hand. (Ps. 78:70–72)

Just as David tenderly nurtured the sheep under his care, so, in the main, he led Israel responsibly and compassionately, shepherding them in integrity and wisdom.

Yet God himself remained the true shepherd of Israel. Israel confessed, “For he is our God, / and we are the people of his pasture, / and the sheep of his hand” (Ps. 95:7). And David, God’s appointed under-shepherd, proclaimed his trust in God’s provision, protection, and guidance in the sublime poetry of Psalm 23.

But not all of Israel’s shepherd-kings led Israel in the green pastures of obedience to the Lord’s Word. Instead, most of them led God’s people into the barren wastelands of idolatry and injustice. So God scattered his flock among the nations as a punishment for their sin (Lev. 26:33; Deut. 4:27, 28:64; 1 Kgs. 14:15).

New Shepherds in the New Exodus

But the same God who scattered his people promised to gather them again. In Jeremiah 23:1–2, the Lord pronounces judgment on Israel’s wicked kings, the shepherds who destroyed and scattered God’s sheep. These shepherds failed to attend to God’s people in care and protection, so God will attend to them in judgment. Not only that, in verses 3–4 God declares,

Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.

The Lord will restore the fortunes of his people, and they will have shepherds who care for them, provide for them, and protect them. How will these shepherds serve God’s people? The parallel passage in Jeremiah 3:15 tells us, “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” The leaders of God’s re-gathered people will lead the people by feeding the people the knowledge and understanding of God’s ways and Word.

Not only that, but God will also raise up one supreme ruler, the heir of David, who will secure the salvation of all of God’s people:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.” (Jer. 23:5–6)

This re-gathering of God’s people, this new exodus back into their land, will outshine even God’s mighty deliverance of his people from Egypt, and will be the deed by which God’s people name and remember him from this time on (vv. 7–8).

So God will gather his people as a faithful shepherd. And God will raise up many faithful shepherds to care for his people. Yet one shepherd-king in particular will save the people and ensure their secure flourishing in God’s place, under God’s rule.

Isaiah 40:11 provides another glimpse of God’s new-exodus act of gathering his sheep himself:

            He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
                 he will gather the lambs in his arms;
            he will carry them in his bosom,
                 and gently lead those that are with young.

Ezekiel 34 paints a more detailed portrait of God’s work as the shepherd who will save his people. The current shepherds of Israel have fed themselves rather than the sheep and failed to heal the sick and seek the straying, so now God’s sheep have been scattered (vv. 1–6). For all this God will judge these wicked shepherds, and will rescue his sheep himself (vv. 7–10). God himself will seek them out, rescue them, gather them into their own land, feed them, and lead them to lie down and rest (vv. 11–14). “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…I will feed them in justice” (vv. 15–16).

Yet God also promises, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (v. 23). So God himself will be their shepherd, but so will his “servant David.” And when God again shepherds his people, they will have peace, blessing, security, abundance, freedom, honor, and the true knowledge of God (vv. 25–31).

Jesus the Good Shepherd

Who is this shepherd whom God sets over his people? Jesus, the good shepherd. Jesus had compassion on the crowds because they were harassed and helpless, sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36). Jesus is the good shepherd who came to give abundant life to God’s sheep (John 10:10), who lays down his life for God’s sheep (v. 11, 15), who knows his own sheep (v. 14), who gathers all his sheep into one flock (v. 16).

The metaphor of God’s people as sheep first took shape to describe Israel in the wilderness: hungry, thirsty, scorched by the sun, not yet at their true home. Transposed into a spiritual key, all this is true of the church in the present age. Like Israel in the wilderness, we have not yet entered God’s rest (Heb. 4:11). We’re threatened not just by hunger and hardship, but opposition and persecution.

Now we are weak and wandering, pressed by hardship. But in Revelation, John catches a glimpse of our final destination:

            They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
                 the sun shall not strike them,
                 nor any scorching heat.
            For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
                 and he will guide them to springs of living water,
            and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev. 7:16–17)

The Lord Jesus is our shepherd, and he is a good shepherd. One day soon, though, he will be our shepherd, and we will never again hunger or hurt.

SHEPHERDING LIKE THE CHIEF SHEPHERD

So what does this story say to the church’s shepherds? Jesus’ famous words to Peter point us in the right direction. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him; three times Peter replied “yes”; three times Jesus charged Peter to care for his sheep (Jn. 21:15–17). John’s Gospel uses two different Greek words for “tend” or “feed” in this passage, but they mean the same thing. Both refer to the comprehensive care shepherds show sheep: feeding, tending, guiding, protecting. And that is exactly the kind of care pastors are to give their people.

Pastors are to feed their people with the Word, exhorting them in sound doctrine (Tit. 1:9–10), proclaiming to them the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Pastors are to guard their people against false doctrine and those who would lead them astray (Acts 20:29–31). Pastors are to lead their people by providing a godly example (Heb. 13:7), equipping them for ministry (Eph. 4:12), and wisely directing the affairs of the church (1 Tim. 5:17). Pastors are to care for their people by tenderly providing whatever counsel, help, and encouragement they need.

In a word, pastors care. They don’t just care about their people, they care for them. They know them. They seek them out. They give their people what their souls need, even when the people themselves don’t know or want what they most need.

In all this, pastors image God the Father. Paul exhorts church leaders, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14). That kind of person-by-person care is exactly what God promises to do for his people when he pledges to seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and feed them all in justice (Ezek. 34:16).  

And pastors image our Lord Jesus Christ, who shepherd the people of God before any pastor, and shepherds them throughout the course of every pastor’s ministry, and will shepherd them after every pastor’s ministry ends. That’s why Peter calls Jesus the “chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4). Jesus is the heir God raised up for David; he is the one true Shepherd-King of God’s people. Yet Jesus’ shepherding ministry doesn’t rule out human shepherds—instead it equips and empowers them.

Pastor, have you ever considered that your own ministry to your local church participates in the fulfillment of prophecy? Remember that God promised to set many shepherds over his people when he set his supreme Shepherd over them (Jer. 23:4, 5). These shepherds would feed God’s people with knowledge and understanding (Jer. 3:15).

How well do your priorities in ministry match those of the divine shepherd? How well do you know your sheep’s spiritual needs? How much time and effort do you devote to meeting those needs one by one? Are you more concerned about how many new bodies enter the building or about how their souls are fainting or flourishing?

Are you vigilant against threats to your people’s soundness in the faith? Or do you leave your sheep easy prey for false teachers by failing to equip them with a deep grasp of biblical doctrine?

Do you know which of your sheep are flourishing and which are malnourished? Which are spiritually strong and which are sick? Which are safely in the fold and which are wandering into the wilderness?

If you want a refresher on your job description as a pastor, consider how God has shepherded his people throughout the story of Scripture. Marvel as his gentle care and powerful protection. Learn from his patient attention to his people’s diverse needs. Be amazed at the depths of God’s tender compassion, that the one who holds galaxies in his hand also stoops down and picks up those sheep who are too weak to walk. And pray that, by his grace and in the power of his Spirit, God would make you a shepherd after his own heart.

Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.

[1] Throughout this section I draw on the exegesis of Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds after My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible, New Studies in Biblical Theology 20 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006). 

Counseling: Where Biblical Theology Hits the Street

Print

What is the connection between biblical theology and counseling in the local church? Perhaps at first glance you might say, not much!

Why? When you hear “biblical theology,” you tend to think of overarching categories such as creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. You think in terms of major biblical themes such as sin, suffering, exodus, sacrifice, law, kingdom, and exile, and how they develop in Scripture over the course of redemptive history. When you hear “counseling,” what comes to mind are topics such as interpersonal ministry, conversation, discipleship, personal struggles, and crisis. You see specific names and faces.

Biblical theology, as edifying and important as it is, can seem a bit abstract compared to the concrete, flesh-and-blood realities of life on the street this side of glory. But I would argue the two are intimately related. Their interrelationship provides the foundation to carry out a truthful, wise, and contextually relevant counseling ministry in the church.

The great biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos said, “All that God disclosed of Himself has come in response to the practical religious needs of His people as these emerged in the course of history.”[1] This means the Scriptures come to us jam-packed with relevance for problems in living. The Bible not only gives us biblical theology, but is in fact, practical theology.[2] Scripture and life are intertwined!

What is the best way to highlight their interconnection in one-on-one ministry situations?

I find the concept of narrative or story particularly useful. This is true whether we are reading Scripture or “reading” (listening to and seeking to understand) people. We must read the Bible as one true story centering on the coming of Jesus Christ and his renewing rule. All bits and pieces of Scripture fit into that larger narrative.[3] But to apply Scripture to our contemporary lives we must also discern how the bits and pieces of the stories of people’s lives cohere, or don’t cohere, with the biblical drama.

A way to speak of the storied quality of human life is to affirm that all people ask and answer four foundational questions about the nature of life, whether consciously or not:

  1. Where are we? What is the nature of the world in which we live?
  2. Who are we? What is the essential nature of human beings?
  3. What’s wrong? Why is the world—and my life—in such a mess?
  4. What’s the remedy? How can these problems be solved?[4]

These questions—and how we answer them—form the narrative backbone of our lives. They shape the way we interpret life events, from the mundane to the horrific. They shape our view of ourselves and others. They shape our vision of what constitutes a meaningful life, even a meaningful moment. They shape our beliefs, emotions, and decisions every day. Everybody has an overarching story he or she lives moment by moment. Everybody is a meaning maker with categories for making sense of life. The question is this: what story, what narrative, will we use to see our world and interpret our lives?

And this is where biblical theology hits the street! The unfolding biblical narrative given to us in Genesis to Revelation answers the preceding questions and orients us toward true reality if we have ears to hear.

Where are we? In God’s good world. (Gen. 1-2).

Who are we? God’s image-bearers, created to bear his likeness, bringing his good and wise rule to the ends of the earth (Gen. 1:26-27).

What’s wrong? We have chosen to live autonomously, by story lines of our own creation. We have exchanged the worship of the Creator for worship of created things (Gen. 3; Rom. 1:25).

What’s the remedy? Redemption, initiated in Israel’s history and completed by Jesus Christ, who “comes to make his blessings flow / far as the curse is found.”

Every time you yell at your kids, or assume the worst about someone, or cut someone off in traffic in your rush to the office, or escape to internet pornography you show what you’re living for in that moment. You show the self-absorbed story lines that have captured you.

Counseling ministry helps others recognize the aberrant plot lines by which they are living and seeks to reconnect them, by the Spirit’s enablement, to the life-giving story of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus helped the discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus understand how the details of the Old Testament pointed to him, we help others understand where the details of their lives point. We celebrate when they are in line with the gospel story. We gently correct and restore when they are out of line with the gospel story.

The Bible is not meant to be studied apart from its application to life, and counseling is not meant to be practiced apart from its foundation in the story of Scripture. In this way biblical theology and counseling are inexorably linked.

Michael Emlet is a faculty member and counselor at CCEF and a member of City Church (PCA) in Philadelphia. This article is adapted from CrossTalk: Where Life and Scripture Meet (New Growth Press, 2009) with the kind permission of the publisher.

[1] Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1948; reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 9.

[2] David Powlison, “Counsel Ephesians,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 17:2 (1999).

[3] See how Jesus sums up the focus of the Hebrew Scriptures in Luke 24:44-47.

[4] Brian Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1984), 35.

Biblical Theology and the Sexuality Crisis

Print

Western society is currently experiencing what can only be described as a moral revolution. Our society’s moral code and collective ethical evaluation on a particular issue has undergone not small adjustments but a complete reversal. That which was once condemned is now celebrated, and the refusal to celebrate is now condemned.

What makes the current moral and sexual revolution so different from previous moral revolutions is that it is taking place at an utterly unprecedented velocity. Previous generations experienced moral revolutions over decades, even centuries. This current revolution is happening at warp speed.

As the church responds to this revolution, we must remember that current debates on sexuality present to the church a crisis that is irreducibly and inescapably theological. This crisis is tantamount to the type of theological crisis that Gnosticism presented to the early church or that Pelagianism presented to the church in the time of Augustine. In other words, the crisis of sexuality challenges the church’s understanding of the gospel, sin, salvation, and sanctification. Advocates of the new sexuality demand a complete rewriting of Scripture’s metanarrative, a complete reordering of theology, and a fundamental change to how we think about the church’s ministry.

IS “TRANSGENDER” IN THE CONCORDANCE?

Proof-texting is the first reflex of conservative Protestants seeking a strategy of theological retrieval and restatement. This hermeneutical reflex comes naturally to evangelical Christians because we believe the Bible to be the inerrant and infallible word of God. We understand that, as B.B. Warfield said, “When Scripture speaks, God speaks.” I should make clear that this reflex is not entirely wrong, but it’s not entirely right either. It’s not entirely wrong because certain Scriptures (that is, “proof texts”) speak to specific issues in a direct and identifiable way.

There are, however, obvious limitations to this type of theological method—what I like to call the “concordance reflex.” What happens when you are wrestling with a theological issue for which no corresponding word appears in the concordance? Many of the most important theological issues cannot be reduced to merely finding relevant words and their corresponding verses in a concordance. Try looking up “transgender” in your concordance. How about “lesbian”? Or “in vitro fertilization”? They’re certainly not in the back of my Bible.

It’s not that Scripture is insufficient. The problem is not a failure of Scripture but a failure of our approach to Scripture. The concordance approach to theology produces a flat Bible without context, covenant, or master-narrative—three hermeneutical foundations that are essential to understand Scripture rightly.

A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF THE BODY

Biblical theology is absolutely indispensable for the church to craft an appropriate response to the current sexual crisis. The church must learn to read Scripture according to its context, embedded in its master-narrative, and progressively revealed along covenantal lines. We must learn to interpret each theological issue through Scripture’s metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Specifically, evangelicals need a theology of the body that is anchored in the Bible’s own unfolding drama of redemption.

Creation

Genesis 1:26–28 indicates that God made man—unlike the rest of creation—in his own image. This passage also demonstrates that God’s purpose for humanity was an embodied existence. Genesis 2:7 highlights this point as well. God makes man out of the dust and then breathes into him the breath of life. This indicates that we were a body before we were a person. The body, as it turns out, is not incidental to our personhood. Adam and Eve are given the commission to multiply and subdue the earth. Their bodies allow them, by God’s creation and his sovereign plan, to fulfill that task of image-bearing.

The Genesis narrative also suggests that the body comes with needs. Adam would be hungry, so God gave him the fruit of the garden. These needs are an expression embedded within the created order that Adam is finite, dependent, and derived.

Further, Adam would have a need for companionship, so God gave him a wife, Eve. Both Adam and Eve were to fulfill the mandate to multiply and fill the earth with God’s image-bearers by a proper use of the bodily reproductive ability with which they were created. Coupled with this is the bodily pleasure each would experience as the two became one flesh—that is, one body.

The Genesis narrative also demonstrates that gender is part of the goodness of God’s creation. Gender is not merely a sociological construct forced upon human beings who otherwise could negotiate any number of permutations.

But Genesis teaches us that gender is created by God for our good and his glory. Gender is intended for human flourishing and is assigned by the Creator’s determination—just as he determined when, where, and that we should exist.

In sum, God created his image as an embodied person. As embodied, we are given the gift and stewardship of sexuality from God himself. We are constructed in a way that testifies to God’s purposes in this.

Genesis also frames this entire discussion in a covenantal perspective. Human reproduction is not merely in order to propagate the race. Instead, reproduction highlights the fact that Adam and Eve were to multiply in order to fill the earth with the glory of God as reflected by his image bearers.

Fall

The fall, the second movement in redemptive history, corrupts God’s good gift of the body. The entrance of sin brings mortality to the body. In terms of sexuality, the Fall subverts God’s good plans for sexual complementarity. Eve’s desire is to rule over her husband (Gen. 3:16). Adam’s leadership will be harsh (3:17-19). Eve will experience pain in childbearing (3:16).

The narratives that follow demonstrate the development of aberrant sexual practices, from polygamy to rape, which Scripture addresses with remarkable candor. These Genesis accounts are followed by the giving of the Law which is intended to curb aberrant sexual behavior. It regulates sexuality and expressions of gender and makes clear pronouncements on sexual morals, cross-dressing, marriage, divorce, and host of other bodily and sexual matters.

The Old Testament also connects sexual sin to idolatry. Orgiastic worship, temple prostitution, and other horrible distortions of God’s good gift of the body are all seen as part and parcel of idolatrous worship. The same connection is made by Paul in Romans 1. Having “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom 1:22), and having “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25), men and women exchange their natural relations with one another (Rom 1:26-27).

Redemption

With regard to redemption, we must note that one of the most important aspects of our redemption is that it came by way of a Savior with a body. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14; cf. Phil. 2:5-11). Human redemption is accomplished by the Son of God incarnate—who remains incarnate eternally.

Paul indicates that this salvation includes not merely our souls but also our bodies. Romans 6:12 speaks of sin that reigns in our “mortal bodies”—which implies the hope of future bodily redemption. Romans 8:23 indicates part of our eschatological hope is the “redemption of our bodies.” Even now, in our life of sanctification we are commanded to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God in worship (Rom. 12:2). Further, Paul describes the redeemed body as a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19) and clearly we must understand sanctification as having effects upon the body.

Sexual ethics in the New Testament, as in the Old Testament, regulate our expressions of gender and sexuality. Porneia, sexual immorality of any kind, is categorically condemned by Jesus and the apostles. Likewise, Paul clearly indicates to the church at Corinth that sexual sin—sins committed in the body (1 Cor. 6:18)—are what bring the church and the gospel into disrepute because they proclaim to a watching world that the gospel has been to no effect (1 Cor. 5-6).

New Creation

Finally, we reach the fourth and final act of the drama of redemption—new creation. In 1 Corinthians 15:42-57, Paul directs us not only to the resurrection of our own bodies in the new creation but to the fact that Christ’s bodily resurrection is the promise and power for that future hope. Our resurrection will be the experience of eternal glory in the body. This body will be a transformed, consummated continuation of our present embodied existence in the same way that Jesus’ body is the same body he had on earth, yet utterly glorified.

The new creation will not simply be a reset of the garden. It will be better than Eden. As Calvin noted, in the new creation we will know God not only as Creator but as Redeemer—and that redemption includes our bodies. We will reign with Christ in bodily form, as he also is the embodied and reigning cosmic Lord.

In terms of our sexuality, while gender will remain in the new creation, sexual activity will not. It is not that sex is nullified in the resurrection; rather, it is fulfilled. The eschatological marriage supper of the Lamb, to which marriage and sexuality point, will finally arrive. No longer will there be any need to fill the earth with image-bearers as was the case in Genesis 1. Instead, the earth will be filled with knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

THE INDISPENSABILITY OF BIBLICAL THEOLOGY

The sexuality crisis has demonstrated the failure of theological method on the part of many pastors. The “concordance reflex” simply cannot accomplish the type of rigorous theological thinking needed in pulpits today. Pastors and churches must learn the indispensability of biblical theology and must practice reading Scripture according to its own internal logic—the logic of a story that moves from creation to new creation. The hermeneutical task before us is great, but it is also indispensable for faithful evangelical engagement with the culture.

R. Albert Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Biblical Theology: Engine for Gospel Proclamation

Print

Can expository preaching be consistently evangelistic?

Preachers sometimes shy away from expositing books of the Bible because they suspect that approach is good for teaching theology to mature Christians, but bad for helping unbelievers understand the gospel.  

This concern grows when pastors contemplate preaching an Old Testament book. How could a study of the life of Abraham or a series in Haggai make the gospel clear, Sunday after Sunday?  Do we simply slap an evangelistic trailer onto the end of the sermon? “For our non-Christian friends here today, I’d like to end this message about Abraham’s circumcision by telling you about how you can receive the free gift of eternal life.” Cue the altar call.

There is another, more organic way to proclaim the gospel faithfully Sunday after Sunday, even from the Old Testament. It’s by employing biblical theology.

THE BIG STORY

What is biblical theology?  We might define it as the study of the Bible’s overall storyline. Together, the 66 books of the Bible tell a single narrative of God’s mission to save a people and establish a kingdom for his glory through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament sets the stage for and leads us to Jesus. The Gospels reveal him and his work. The rest of the New Testament unfolds the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection, all the way until God fully accomplishes his mission. The more we grasp this overarching plot, the more we can see how our preaching text relates to the gospel.

Preaching a passage of Scripture with an awareness of biblical theology is like having “court sense” in basketball. Good basketball players don’t just focus on dribbling the ball to the hoop. They are aware of the location of their teammates and defenders on the court as well as the flow of play. Similarly, good exposition doesn’t merely provide a running commentary on the verses at hand. It also has a court sense of what else is going on before and after the text, and how it all relates to overall progression of God’s big story.

BIBLICAL THEOLOGY IN ACTION

Let’s look at a few biblical theology strategies we might use to relate our particular passage to the main story of the Bible, the gospel story. You might think of these strategies as possible paths that take us from our text to the gospel, like optional routes on a smart phone map app that guide you from your current location to the desired destination.

1. Promise and Fulfillment

We start with the most simple and direct route to the gospel. In promise and fulfillment, the text you’re studying contains a prophecy or promise that is explicitly fulfilled in some aspect of the gospel. Promise and fulfillment is the low-hanging fruit of biblical theology: easy to see and grasp.

So if you’re preaching Micah’s prophecy about a ruler coming out of Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2), you can easily invite the congregation to turn to Matthew 2:6 to see how it is fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. Or if you do decide to exposit the life of Abraham, you should at some point connect God’s promises to bless Abraham’s offspring or “seed” (Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; 24:7) to their fulfillment in Jesus (Gal. 3:16).

In addition to giving us obvious ways to get to the gospel, promise and fulfillment also shows us how the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament in light of the gospel. The more we learn to read the Bible through apostles’ interpretive lenses, the better we will get to the gospel from other texts, even those without an explicit fulfillment in Jesus.

2. Typology

Typology is like promise and fulfillment, except rather than a verbal prophecy being fulfilled in Jesus, we see events, institutions, or persons that foreshadow Jesus and the gospel. You might think of typology as a non-verbal prophecy.

Take the temple in Jerusalem for example. It played a central role in the Old Testament as the place of God’s saving and ruling presence among his people. But it ultimately pointed forward to Jesus. Jesus shocked the crowds when he stood in the temple and said, “Destroy this sanctuary, and I will raise it up in three days” (John 2:19). They thought he meant the literal building, but “he was speaking about the sanctuary of his body” (v. 21). Like the temple, Jesus was, and is, the physical presence of God among his people to save and reign. That’s also why the apostles repeatedly identified the church, those who are in Christ, as the temple of the Spirit (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:16-17; Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:5).

In light of this, let’s say you’re expositing Psalm 122, which communicates the joy of going up into God’s temple in Jerusalem: “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (v. 1). You can employ the temple typology to help people, even unchurched people, see the greater joy of going to Jesus by faith.

The New Testament is full of such types of Jesus and his work. The apostles saw Jesus as the last Adam, the true Passover lamb, the new Moses, the once-for-all sacrifice of atonement, the great high priest, the anointed king (Messiah) from David’s lineage, true Israel, and more. These well-traveled routes can faithfully take you from many places in Scripture to Jesus and his saving work.

3. Themes

I’m using the word “themes” to describe recurring motifs or images in the biblical

storyline that don’t point directly to Jesus the way typology does. And yet these themes or motifs are integrally connected to the gospel and can help us locate our text in the unfolding biblical story.

A classic biblical theme is creation. The Bible begins with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  God brought order out of chaos, made Adam and Eve in his image, and commanded them to rule over creation and fill it with their offspring, all for God’s glory. Tragically, Adam and Eve failed their calling and rebelled against God.

But God had a plan to redeem his creation. Throughout the Old Testament we see repeated creation “reboots,” events where God graciously begins again with his people, and the new beginning is described with creation imagery and language. These creation reboots include Noah and his family after the flood, Israel’s exodus from Egypt and entrance into the promised land, Solomon’s establishment of an Edenic kingdom, and even the Israelites returning from Babylonian captivity. Yet in each of these instances the reboot failed. Humanity rebelled. Adam choked again and again. Would any of these Adamic recasts ever get it right?

Yes. The last Adam, Jesus Christ, did the will of the Father perfectly. Jesus’ resurrection and the salvation of his people launched the true new creation. And it continues to grow today. Jesus sent his saved people out to subdue the earth and fill it with sons and daughters of God through the gospel message. And someday this work will culminate in a new heavens and earth, far greater and more glorious than the original.

Can you see how being able to trace the creation motif provides a framework for organically moving from many texts to the key turning point of the new creation, the death and resurrection of Jesus? 

There are many other thematic threads that weave together in the biblical storyline, like the covenants, the Exodus, the day of the Lord, and the kingdom of God.

4. Ethical Teaching

But what if you’re trying to preach through Proverbs or the Ten Commandments? What if you were really crazy and tried do expository evangelism from Leviticus? It seems those kinds of passages are better for teaching the “do’s” and “don’ts” of mature Christian living rather than showing unsaved people what Jesus has done so that they could become Christians.

Again, biblical theology maps a way from law to gospel. We can read specific moral commandments within the flow of the Bible's storyline in at least three ways. First, the Bible’s laws and ethics lead us to Jesus by showing us our sin and need of a savior. As has often been said, God’s commandments act like a mirror to confront us with our moral deformity. As we read Israel’s history of chronic moral collapse, we see humanity’s story, and our own. “For no one will be justified in his sight by the works of the law, because the knowledge of sin comes through the law” (Rom. 3:20).

Second, the Bible’s moral commands point us to Jesus as the one who perfectly kept them. He didn’t come to destroy the law of God but to fulfill it in every way (Matt. 5:17). All of God’s other sons (Adam, Israel, Israel’s kings) were prodigals; Jesus alone pleased the Father. And so the ethical commandments of the Bible ultimately reveal the character of Jesus himself.

Third, through reliance on the power of Jesus’ resurrection and his Spirit in us, we can now keep God’s laws as obedient sons and daughters. Jesus rescued us from the power of sin “in order that the law’s requirement would be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4).

So imagine you’re preaching Proverbs 11:17: “A kind man benefits himself, but a cruel man brings disaster on himself.” By following the contours of biblical theology you won’t merely give a 30 minute message on how to be more kind. You might also show how we fail at kindness and excel at cruelty in subtle ways. You will point people to Jesus’ embodiment of kindness, especially in giving his life for sinners. And finally, you will connect that kind grace of Jesus to ourselves as the fuel for our own transformation through the Holy Spirit.

5. Puzzle-Solution

When we begin to sense the flow of biblical theology, we will also see how the gospel often solves Old Testament puzzles. How would God fulfill his promises to David once Judah had gone into exile and there was no king in Jerusalem? If the temple sacrifices took away sin, then why did God judge Israel? The Old Testament often speaks of God's blessings on the righteous and judgment on the wicked. So why do we see the opposite?

We could say more here, but for now suffice to say that when you encounter a biblical conundrum, consider how the gospel of Jesus might resolve the mystery. Like a great novel, the Old Testaments sets up plot tensions that the hero, Jesus, resolves.

“YOU ARE HERE”

When we use biblical theology to practice this kind of gospel-conscious exposition, something exciting happens for unbelievers. Not only are they confronted by their sin, introduced to Jesus, and called to repentance and faith week after week. They also begin to locate themselves within the historical flow of God’s work. The gospel isn’t merely a metaphor or idea that they are free to use or discard if it “works for them.”  Rather, the story of Jesus is a historical force rooted in the past, continuing in the present, and dominating eternity. The God who acted in the biblical world is acting in their world too, because it is the same world, the same history, the same story.   

Jeramie Rinne is the senior pastor of South Shore Baptist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts, and the author of Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus (Crossway, 2014).

Eight Longings for a Culture of Evangelism

Print

I tend to see much of the Christian walk as “just Jesus and me.” I often need a reality check to remind me I’m not the Lone Ranger and Jesus is not my Tonto.

I need others. I need brothers and sisters to encourage me. I need good examples of love and fellowship to follow. I need others to teach me and point out my blind spots. Just as I need others to remind me of the good news of God’s reconciliation, I need others to link arms with and share that good news together.

When it comes to evangelism, we don’t have to go it alone. We can and should evangelize together.

Evangelism is a team sport. This is why I love the little reddish book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus by Mack Stiles. Mack reminds us that as much as evangelism is a part of personal obedience to Christ, it is also a responsibility of the church to evangelize together.

With warm encouragement and a contagious passion for the lost, Mack expresses his longing to see churches where evangelism is celebrated and practiced as a community. Chapter 2 is structured around a series of these longings for our churches’ cultures of evangelism. Here’s a sampling:

I long to share my faith in the context of a church that understands what I’m doing and is pulling with me.

I long to be with Christians who remember that people are image-bearers. I long to be with Christians who remember people’s separation from God. Most of all, I long for a culture that remembers what people can become through the gospel.

I long for a culture of evangelism that is risky in the sense that we’re confronting culture. Mostly that means disregarding what people think of us.

I long for a church where neighboring atheists and non-Christians see fellow atheists and non-Christians coming to faith—an indication that we’re part of a risk-taking culture of evangelism.

I long for a church where the Christians are so in love with Jesus that when they go about the regular time of worship, they become an image of the gospel.

I long for a church that disarms with love, not entertainment, and lives out countercultural confidence in the power of the gospel.

I long for a church where the greatest celebrations happen over those who share their faith, and the heroes are those who risk their reputations to evangelize.

I long for a church that understands the dangers of entertainment and sees it for what it is: a lion crouching at the evangelical door, ready to devour us. We need a culture of evangelism that never sacrifices to the idolatry of entertainment, but serves up the rich fare found in the gospel of Christ.

Do you long to see such a culture of evangelism in your church? Have you ever considered how evangelism is a team sport? Or are you like me and find yourself playing with toy pistols pretending to be the Lone Ranger?

You don’t have to be a pastor or church leader to long for these things; you just need to be amazed by the beauty of Christ and love him, the lost, and his church. Maybe you can join me and use this list as a prayer guide for our churches and our hearts.

Get your copy of Evangelism by J. Mack Stiles here.  

"Open Membership" for Baptists? No Such Thing

Print

The Gospel Coalition serves the Christian community by allowing saints who have different views on matters of polity to come together to discuss those matters. Polity is a difficult topic but an important one, so it’s good that we have a chance to think through those differences.

On Friday TGC posted Pastor Bill Kynes’ defense of what he calls a “small b” Baptist position, meaning, his church practices believer’s baptism, but they “also receive as members believers who have been baptized as infants.” He does this for the sake of “humility,” “charity,” and the “theology” of what baptism is. Theologically, he argues that baptism is an objective, subjective, and social sign (an excellent description, I think). And the believer who was baptized as an infant already had the objective and social components in place; and their adult subjective belief, somehow, applies retroactively to what happened to them as infants. In other words, the individual did not mean that act of sprinkling as a subjective declaration of faith then, but they mean it that way now.  So that counts. Ultimately, then, whether or not we regard the infant baptism as a baptism for the believer is “a matter of personal conscience.”

I have not personally met Bill, but he is a faithful pastor of a church in the same metropolitan area as my own. He is friends with our congregation, and we pray for him and his church regularly. Praise God for his gospel ministry!

But here are two points of push back, aimed at anyone who claims to be a Baptist yet who maintains an “open membership” view.

1) You’re not actually a Baptist, but a Paedobaptist. There’s a lesson here from a U. S. Senate candidate named Abraham Lincoln. In 1858, the other candidate, Stephen Douglass, tried to adopt a position of neutrality toward slavery by leaving the matter of slavery to the consciences of each state. Lincoln responded that only a man “who does not see anything wrong in slavery” can claim to leave it to state’s consciences. After all, “no man can logically [leave it to the states] who does see a wrong in it.”

Others have pointed to this debate to characterize the double-mindedness of the pro-choice position: you cannot claim to be opposed to abortion and yet be pro-choice. You can only be pro-choice if you’re convinced abortion is okay.

The same problem besets any baptist—big or small “b”—who practices open membership: you cannot really claim to be pro-believer’s baptism and yet accept both kinds of baptisms. Either Jesus is Lord or he’s not, and either he commanded baptism for believers or he didn’t. You can only practice or accept both kinds if you’ve told yourself that paedobaptism is essentially okay. And that, I dare say, makes someone a paedobaptist, just like a pro-choicer is actually pro-abortion (even if they don’t practice abortion), and someone who claims to be neutral on slavery is actually pro-slavery (even if they don’t have slaves).

Now, please, please, please don’t say I’m saying paedobaptism is like abortion or slavery!!! I’m not. It’s just that the high stakes involved with abortion and slavery provide us with a clarity of vision concerning the poor logic of these “open” positions. But pick an issue with lower stakes and the logic is not so obvious to us. Yet I’m arguing that the logic is the same.

2) There is no objective or social without the subjective. Bill’s argument, however, is a bit more unique than the typical open membership view among Baptists. He allows for a time delay in which the subjective catches up with the objective and social.

The trouble, of course, is that the church’s social work of affirming the person’s profession of faith doesn’t mean anything if the infant wasn’t actually professing anything. The church cannot affirm what wasn’t there. (I'm aware the covenantal argument for paedobaptism are more complex than this paragraph implies. Again, I'm speaking here to "baptist" brothers and sisters who claim to share "baptist" assumptions about the nature and meaning of the sacrament.)

By the same token, the infant baptism wasn’t really an objective sign of being united with Christ either, because the infant wasn’t actually united with Christ. One could have written the words “I am a Christian!” with a magic marker on the belly of the infant, too. That would have been an “objective” sign. But it would have been a false and meaningless sign. Should the infant than grow up and profess faith at age 20, would we look at a photo of the infant with the magic marker on his belly and say, “Those words are true”? That would be strange, indeed.

Bottom line, the objective, subjective, and social are distinct elements in baptism, to be sure, but they are inseparable elements. What do we call objective symbols without the subjective realities behind them? Falsehoods. 

So here's my sincere encouragement to my fellow baptist brothers and sisters: consider whether your church's practice is, at bottom, actually baptistic in nature. After all, it's possible for any of us to be confessionally one thing yet functionally something else.

And, finally, aren’t “humility,” “charity,” and “theology” finally best shown simply through obedience to Jesus?

For more on this topic, stay tuned for Bobby Jamieson’s excellent forthcoming book, Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership (B&H, 2015).

Stretching the Pastor’s Imagination

Print

In a recent piece I made a case that imagination is an important and perhaps neglected tool in the church reform toolkit. On one level, imagination is simply applying faith to thinking. You may not see how your church could ever embody anything like biblical health, but God is the God of the impossible.

Which means that pastoral ministry is the art of the impossible. Which means that many pastors could afford to stretch and strengthen their imaginations. But how?

IMAGINATION TRAINING FOR PASTORS

In this piece I’ll offer a few suggestions for stretching and strengthening pastors’ imaginations. They won’t apply to all pastors equally, but I hope these will be broadly useful.

There’s more to say about pastoring and the imagination than I’ll say here. For instance, Cornelius Plantinga’s book Reading for Preaching makes a good case for how literature can enrich a pastor’s view of life and language. I’m more focused here on expanding a pastor’s ecclesial imagination—his intuitive sense of what is and isn’t possible in the church. Without further delay:

1. Read the Bible.

Yes, pastor, I know you’re the one saying this to your people all the time, but you need to hear it too. And remember that the God you meet in Scripture is the God who rules your life and your church.

What kinds of things does this God do? He speaks the universe into existence with a word. He causes an ancient, barren woman to conceive. He squeezes his people between the sea and slaughter and then splits open the deep. He sends thirty thousand soldiers home so he can win a battle with three hundred.

Over and over again God backs his people up against the impossible to show that he alone can save, and he will. He alone can win our battles, and he will. He alone can raise the dead, and he will. As Paul learned by painful experience, God does this by design, to teach us to rely not on ourselves but on God’s death-defeating power (2 Cor. 1:8–10).

Let the Bible draw for you the massive, mighty shape of what God can accomplish by his Word and Spirit. Let Scripture train in you the reflex, “I can’t, but he can.” Let Scripture condition your imagination to respond to human impossibility with, “Let’s see what God can do.”   

2. Pray.

Pray whenever you come up against something you want to make happen but can’t. Pray for the hard-hearted husband to repent of denigrating his wife. Pray for the stubborn seeker who has no reason left not to believe but still won’t. Pray that loyalty to God’s Word would uproot and displace loyalty to unbiblical traditions.

When you can’t do anything, the one thing you can do is pray. And the more you pray, the more you’ll remember that God is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think.  

3. Make friends with other pastors.

My prayer is that more and more pastors would open themselves up to the possibility that God’s Word dictates a way of doing church that bursts the bounds set by our current culture of consumerist authenticity. So if you can, make friends with pastors from other cultures. Christians in other cultures operate under their own social givens, but those givens will differ enough from yours to show you that another way of life than the American dream is possible. More importantly, they show you that another way of doing church is possible.  

Second, make friends with pastors whose strengths complement yours. If you’re a red-blooded ecclesiology hound who’s deeply committed to getting church right, be sure to befriend the missional pastor across town who’s equipping his people to share the gospel and serve the community in bold, daring ways. If you’re deeply burdened that Christians recapture a radical passion for Christ, befriend the sixty-year-old pastor who’s kept the flame burning thirty years longer than you.

C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Every real friendship is a sort of secession, even a rebellion….In each knot of Friends there is a sectional ‘public opinion’ which fortifies its members against the public opinion of the community in general. Each therefore is a pocket of potential resistance.”

So forge friendships that will resist the foolish constraints of unbelief. Make friends who will help your thinking take full account of the immeasurable greatness of God’s power. Make friends who will push you and prod you into obeying God’s Word wherever it leads.  

4. Hop into history.

I can think of few better ways to fuel pastoral imagination than reading church history. Read biographies of extraordinary ministers like Lloyd-Jones and Whitefield. Read forensic accounts of how evangelicalism got to be the way it is, like Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism and Evangelicalism Divided.

Read historical ecclesiology, too, to discover how Christians in other times and places did church. Superb primary sources include Polity and Iain Murray’s The Reformation of the Church. These two are a steep hike but worth the sweat. Or let a skilled historian take you inside the lives of churches in another era, like Greg Wills in Democratic Religion or Geoffrey Nuttall in Visible Saints.

Ask what Christians used to know that we’ve forgotten. Ask not just what they did but why, and how they argued their views from Scripture. Let dead pastors and churches disciple you, just like living ones have.

I’ve often heard Mark Dever respond to the charge “But who actually agrees with you!?” by saying something like, “I know I’m in the majority—if you count everyone who’s come before.” Just as with living friendships, making friends with dead Christians can show you that you’re not crazy for breaking off from the pack. So let the history of God’s dealings with his church remind you that the present moment does not have a monopoly on the possible.

And that’s just the point: no one has a monopoly on the possible except God, the one for whom nothing is impossible.