Herman Melville's Moby Dick is an intense and rather gothic tale of seaman Ishmael's experience whaling under captain Ahab. It's a well-known story of obsession, revenge, mania, and ruin--the typically edifying material or a great American novel.
As everyone familiar with American literature already knows, the story centers on Ahab's pursuit of the white whale, which is indeed a rather theological beast. The whale is not God; God is an unassailable sovereign throughout the novel, the creator of the land and sky and seas and all that stirs and broods in them, including the leviathan of Ahab's obsession. God not only shapes the course of men's lives, in Moby Dick, but he haunts their profoundly troubled minds--and, according to Ishmael, all people are so troubled or cracked, not just Ahab.
Ahab is Melville's picture of mortal greatness in the world, a man defined by ambition that only he and God seem to know. This is precisely how Melville introduces Ahab. The first we hear about him is from Peleg, a Nantucket Quaker, former whaling captain himself, and now, along with Bildad, majority owner of the Pequod. He describes his captain of choice to Ishmael, the aspiring whaler, like this:
He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn't speak much, but, when he does speak, then you may well listen. Mark ye, be forewarned; Ahab's above the common; Ahab's been in colleges, as well as 'mong the cannibals; been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales; His lance! aye, the keenest and surest that out of all our isle! Oh! He ain't Captain Bildad; no, and he ain't Captain Peleg; he's Ahab, boy; and Ahab of old, thou knowest, was a crowned king!
It's a fantastic description in a book where there is nothing deeper on earth than what lies beneath the waves and no mightier foe to combat than the whales that play in those mysterious deeps.
Ahab is on his own quixotic quest for a kind of greatness that is defined from within him, and it is about much more than wrestling whales or slaying a particularly infamous one in revenge. Like Job, Ahab has a complaint against God; like Jonah, Ahab dares to defy God. Unlike either, however, he refuses to bow before God, even when God turns his fury on him in Moby Dick.
The Disease of Ambition
Like God, Ahab is a mysterious being who "doesn't speak much" but when he does his words are able to upend everything casual and common to men, even the seagoing whaling sort. Neither God nor Ahab is well understood by others yet both haunt and torment the troubled minds of those who encounter them. But Ahab is an ungodly man of demonic dimensions, driven by the very ambition that makes him great and god-like in a most ungodly way.
"Be sure of this, O young ambition," Melville--or Ishmael--warns us just before we first hear of Ahab: "all mortal greatness is but disease."
Ahab's ambition is, for Melville it seems, the defining quality he has in common with the "Ahab of old," the "crowned king." Captain Ahab is an embodiment of the "demonic" sort of ambition that, according to James, upsets the world and is a source of everything vile (3:15). God opposes this kind of ambition and those animated by it--the selfishly ambitious who discover that God, who refuses to bend to our will or reward our arrogance, is their mightiest foe.
The biblical Ahab knew God was against him--could not possibly be for him given his life's ambition--and so does captain Ahab. Not only this, but they both realize their twisted ambition, whatever it may be, will eventually cost them their lives. So Captain Ahab, like king Ahab--and even Satan himself, it seems--gives free rein to this self-destructive disease. Unable to lay hold of God, Melville's Ahab vents the rage of his frustrated passions on the proxy-god that seems to be within reach: The White Whale.
Arrogant, striving, self-serving and self-aggrandizing ambition is demonic. James is quite blunt about this:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice" (James 3:13-16).
Selfish ambition (eritheia) is the opposite of love and meekness; selfish ambition is a kind of passion that insists on its own way in the world and will be met with "wrath and fury" from God (Rom 2:8). It is the disease of greatness, but it is also common to all men. And it must be mortified in the minister of Christ (and everyone else pursuing holiness), or it will be wreaking havoc at home, in the Church, and wherever else he goes.
Yet, not all ambition is demonic. Paul writes to the Romans that he makes it his ambition (philotimeomai) to preach Christ where Christ has not already been named (Rom. 15:20). Paul's ambition, however, is rooted in the particularities of his call to suffer many things for Christ's sake as an apostle to the Gentiles. It is nearly the opposite, in application at least, of eritheia.
Godly ambition does not promote any cult of personality, but selflessly serves Christ and his Church, and seeks no other prize than his glory and what he has promised in the Gospel. Paul's ambition, therefore, drives him to acts of profound and costly self-denial in order to fulfill his mission: To become all things to all people, that he might save some. Paul's ambition--godly ambition--can join John the Baptist in declaring that Christ "must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). Godly ambition, in other words, mortifies selfish ambition.
The Subtlety of Eritheia
I suspect we do a poor job distinguishing between the two types of ambition, or of recognizing the perversity of eritheia. Selfish ambition, at least to a certain degree, is not only an acceptable sin in our culture but a seemingly necessary one for success. It may also be incentivized in a church culture caving to the temptation of elevating a public image of success above qualities like quiet, steady faithfulness in relative obscurity; a work-ethic rooted in giving and helping rather than getting and keeping; a willingness to go without and sacrifice for the good of others.
We cannot esteem worldly success without neglecting godliness and overlooking spiritual maturity. Worldly success is not a bad thing, but it is not to be confused with being above reproach or enjoying a good reputation, and it may indicate little more than selfish ambition (the disease of greatness). In ministers and congregations it may even dress itself in claims of kingdom growth, public witness, administrative acumen, evangelistic fruitfulness, entrepreneurial spirit, and so on. These are all highly desirable objects, but sin can twist each one into a pious-sounding cover for eritheia.
Our hearts are slippery things and may permit many things to pass for godly ambition that on closer inspection belong to the selfish, striving sort that stirs up envy and feeds jealousies, rivalries, and "every vile practice." This is the disease of Ahab and of all human striving after greatness by our own design and measure. It comes from setting and pursuing our own agenda in the world rather than submitting to the Lord and one another in Christ.
We see this striving ambition surface among the Disciples from time to time as they quarreled over greatness. They were disabused of it, it seems, when confronted by the reality of Christ crucified. There is the death of eritheia, the cure for the disease of striving after greatness on our terms. There the ambition of Christ is disclosed, an ambition that exposes and destroys every other ambition in us.
After the cross, the Apostles no longer quarrel about greatness. Neither did they find the message of Christ crucified nor the vessels of his church ill-fitted instruments for the work of the ministry. If we do, then the issue may well be our ambition rather than some wrong-headed piece of polity we are tempted to blame, much less our dim-witted brothers we cannot bend to our will or way of seeing things.
The ordination vow Presbyterian elders take to submit to our brothers in the Lord, like the call of Christ to take up our cross and follow him, is a call to kill the disease of demonic ambition that aspires to be great in the world, even "a crowned king." And there is some urgency to this: If we are not actively killing Ahab within us, then Ahab will surely carry us out to sea and leave us a wreck adrift on the waves of the deep.
Big works of God in this world begin small with ordinary people of God working for the glory of God. Many hands make light work. And many hands accomplish much work. This is how revivals begin, Reformations are launched, churches are established, missions are founded, and cities and countries and the world are changed. The ordinary people of God working for the glory of God.
Every member ministering according to our ability is the calling of the church (Nehemiah 3, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, etc.). Every member! We easily fall into the trap of thinking the work of God is specialized work for those who possess a special calling. Yet, the Scriptures make it clear that all are called to service. We all serve as ministers of the gospel and all have our part to play. In fact, as Paul points out in Ephesians 4, pastors and teachers are simply to "equip the saints for the work of the ministry." We are all to engage in the work. And when we do, mighty things are accomplished.
But as James Montgomery Boice once said, "It is said that today the churches resemble more than anything else a football game played in a large stadium. There are 80,000 spectators in the stands who badly need some exercise, and there are 22 men on the field who badly need a rest."1
Now, some may not have the gifts of others. All cannot be the eye or the ear. Some members remain less visible than others in the body, but none are less important. All are needed--doing their best to labor for the sake of the Kingdom according to their gifts and stage in life.
John Newton wrote a helpful letter along these lines. In his day, George Whitefield was the great celebrated pastor. God used Whitefield mightily and his was a household name. In a letter John Newton wrote to a fellow pastor, he commented:
"One man, like Whitefield, is raised up to preach the gospel with success through a considerable part of the earth. Another is called to the humbler service of sweeping the streets, or cleaning this great minister's shoes...."
He then said the following:
"I am inclined to think that if you and I were to travel in search of the best Christian in the land, or were qualified to distinguish who deserved the title, it is more than two to one we should not find the person in a pulpit, or any public office of life. Perhaps some old woman at her wheel, or some bed-rid person, hid from the knowledge of the world, in a mud-walled cottage, would strike our attention more than any of the doctors or reverends with whom we are acquainted. Let us not measure men, much less ourselves by gifts or services. One grain of grace is worth abundance of gifts. To be self-abased, to be filled with a spirit of love, and peace, and gentleness; to be dead to the world; to have the heart deeply affected with a sense of the glory and grace of Jesus, to have our will bowed to the will of God; these are great things more valuable, if compared in the balance of the sanctuary, then to be an instrument of converting provinces or a nation."2
I love the line, "Let us not measure men, much less ourselves by gifts or services." It is not what we do for the Lord but what we do with what we have for the Lord that matters. Many of us are consumed with desiring greater gifts, better opportunities, extended time. All the while we neglect what we have been given. We long for much when we struggle with little. Let us simply labor according to the strength and grace the Lord gives us. We need no more or we would possess it. Whatever is before us today, let us tackle it. Whatever gifts we possess today, let us exercise them. Whatever opportunities present themselves today, let us seize them. Let us work hard in our little spheres and see what the Lord does. O, what monumental things the ordinary people of God can do when they simply use what He has given them for the glory of God.
1. James Montgomery Boice, Nehemiah: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005) p. 47
2. John Newton, The Works of the Rev. John Newton (New Haven: Nathan Whiting, 1824) p. 339
Jason Helopoulos is senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, and is the author of A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home (Christian Focus, 2013).
I've tried not to be, but I can't help it...I'm a Baptist. I've read all I could about pedobaptism, I've talked to many friends, I've prayed for wisdom and clarity, and in the end, I've been all the more convinced of Baptist principles (of the 1689 London Baptist Confession variety). The truth is, Reformed Baptists (or Particular Baptists, if you prefer) have far more in common with confessional pedobaptists than we often do with others who identify as Baptist. We share a very similar confessional heritage and an overwhelming percentage of our doctrine is identical. There is no good reason why confessional Baptist and confessional pedobaptist brothers and sisters cannot enjoy intimate ecumenical fellowship with one another.
I have several friends with whom I cannot fellowship. Some of my friends aren't Christians, and others are acquaintances whom I have not had the opportunity to invest much time. Fellowship is only fellowship when friends are committed to a common cause or goal, and it flourishes through our common pursuit of that cause or goal. For the Christian, the shared goal ought to be the glory of God and the proclamation of the gospel. Without a conscious effort to utilize our God-given relationships to achieve such an end, we may have friends, but we don't have fellowship. However, I don't believe true fellowship exists only among those with whom we share complete agreement on every issue. Baptists and Presbyterians can, and should have true fellowship with one another (in addition to other relationships with Christians in other faithful circles).
A lot of reformed believers seem reluctant to use the word ecumenical, and often for good reason. We are confessional for a reason: we don't abide by the namby-pamby spirit of everyone just getting along for the sake of getting along. Our distinctions really do matter. What we believe to be true from Scripture is worth maintaining and standing on. Every Christian's conscience and every church needs to be conformed to the truth as we understand it. It would be wrong to assume that fellowship requires a Baptist to baptize their infants, or a pedobaptist to withhold what they believe to be a sign of the covenant for their children. Our authority is the Bible and we must submit to it lest our actions not proceed from faith (Romans 14:23).
Fences Make Good Neighbors
Anyone living in a neighborhood understands the blessing of a fence. We can have the best neighbors the world has to offer, but without a fence, we can sometimes run into difficulties. Where does one person's property end and the others begin? Who's responsible for the patch of grass between the two, and what happens when one neighbor wants to plant a new tree but we don't know where the property line is? Boundary markers are useful and important, but the distinction between what's mine and what's yours doesn't mean we can't love each other, don't care about what's going on in each other's homes, or won't lend a hand to our neighbor just because their yard isn't ours! It is because we have boundaries that we can be better, more loving neighbors without reason for discrepancy or upset.
Reaching Over Fences
The desire for ecumenical fellowship sometimes exists, but working through it practically may be difficult. How do we foster healthy, ecumenical relationships between churches? In most instances, the most probable avenue is through healthy ecumenical pastoral fellowship. Some of my best pastor friends do not share the same confession of faith with me, but our hearts beat together on most matters. As a result, we've been able to engage in various endeavors together: Preaching at each other's conferences or special events, pulpit swaps, or even joint vacation Bible schools or youth camps. We've even had others join us in some evangelistic efforts in the city. I've benefitted greatly from being able to talk to other pastors face-to-face about members who have left our church to go to theirs or visa-versa. It has been a blessing to be able to share resources and ideas with men who aren't entrenched in my context. Every Lord's Day, I am sure to pray publicly for a church in our network (Reformed Baptist Network) from other states and nations, but I'm also sure to pray for other faithful local churches and their pastors. When God's people can follow a pastor's leadership and shed territorial spirits, there is greater opportunity for unity and less church swapping and accountability avoiding in the entire community.
We should work toward fellowship when we share the common goal of God's glory, even though doctrinal disagreements exist. We know where the line is, so instead of spending our time determining who needs to rake the leaves, we can focus on the things that unite us. With all sincerity and love, we should be able to say to other brothers and sisters in different, yet very similar churches and denominations, "We thank God in all our remembrance of you, always in every prayer for you all making our prayer with joy, because of our fellowship in the gospel of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:3-5). No doubt, there are churches that are only churches in name, but there are others who are deeply committed to the things that matter. We don't need to change what we believe to join together in meaningful ways to bring the gospel to our communities.
Can you and do you give thanks to God for your brothers and sisters in Christ, not just in your local church, but around the world? Throughout your community? Fellowship is not easier outside the local church than it is inside, but it's worth the effort for the sake of God's name, for the health of His church, and for the growth of His people.
Consistent throughout Scripture is the idea that the impossibility of perfection does not loosen its claim on us. God's vision of the bride of Christ, as of a people without spot or blemish, translates to an annoying shortage of loopholes. That means that when someone complains: "Shouldn't we be doing more in evangelism?" One cannot respond, no matter how many church profiles have been filled out, "I'm sorry, that's not in our target marketing zone." Everything is in your target zone. In a sense, every gospel believing church owes a debt to every person in the world, and to transform every facet of life to the glory of Christ.
If you think this is an exaggeration, listen to Paul's description of why God has given an assortment of gifted people among his churches. The point is: "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." (Eph 4:12-13)
Pretty simple, right? All your church needs to do is make sure everyone, everywhere attains the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. With such a lofty goal, one might fear that many churches would throw up their hands and say, 'Who is sufficient for such things?' and start praying for the grace of Christ and the power of His Spirit. Don't worry, it rarely comes to that. Rather, the answer lies in more programs, more committees, more ministries. Once you create a 'unity of the faith committee', a 'knowledge of the Son of God committee', and a 'mature manhood committee', you'll be well on your way.
After we've finished poking holes in our excuses of abdication, and our short-sighted self-sufficiency, where are we left? Church leaders and Christian believers must still wrestle with a calling to be all things to all people, combined with the inadequacy of a programmatic response, which leans toward an ingrown experience of meetings for the sake of meetings. How can the church avoid the freeze of indecisiveness and take meaningful steps toward an impossibly broad calling?
The answer lies, in part, in small groups. The universal actuality of small groups at every church, whatever name they go by, speaks to an inescapable awareness that this must be a vital part of what it means to be the church. Once a church affirms a need for small groups however, their implementation and execution spurs as much diversity as there are churches and denominations. Not only is that right and good, but it confirms the purpose of small group ministry, which is nothing more or less than being the church in at all times, or 'building up the body of Christ.'
Though most iterations of small groups offer some value, the best model comes in the form of same-sex groups of no more than six men or women, who meet weekly. Randy Pope terms this 'life-on-life discipleship'. Perhaps relieving the burden of the church's massive commission through small groups only kicks the can one step farther down the road. Yet it does provide a structure and context, and unleashes localized sovereignty in tackling the charge to all Christians: to make disciples of Christ.
Why small groups are hard
Small groups are the hardest things in the world. This is so for two reasons. First, because they are supposed to do everything. Secondly, they require relationships.
Not a single element of 'church'--with the possible exception of sacraments--drops out between Sunday morning gathered worship, and your Tuesday night small group. And yet it's hard to imagine two linked experiences, which share the same ultimate goal and values, feeling more different. That's why the complement of these two ministries, corporate worship and small groups, when healthy, compose virtually the entire body of church life. It's also why the ceiling for the small group's mission climbs to a spectacular, even unattainable height - the call is to do it all.
Take the three basic categories of a church's mission to see how small groups fulfill these in distinction to corporate worship:
Small groups are the hardest thing in the world because, when done properly, they strip away the veneer of 'playing church', and press us to, as James says, to "not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves, do what it says." (James 1:22)
The evolution from hearing to doing comes on account of the second scourge of small groups: other people. Small groups, presume the presence--or at least the development of--real relationships. There's the rub. If the promise and potential of small groups sound too good to be true, that's because what has been glossed over is the actual messy spadework of building spiritual friendships, which will have to take up ninety percent of your time. As soon as someone can condense and systematize the process of spiritual friendship formation, we won't need anymore books, blogs, or conferences on discipleship.
In the meantime, however, these rare monuments of spiritual friendship are built, rather than discovered. Brick by brick: through transparency, weakness, repentance, grace, dependency on Christ, and refreshment in the gospel. Small group members cannot feel content to function as a shared interest group, a mutual admiration society, a social club, a learning lab, or merely a refuge to unburden. That's the challenge. All of those are good pieces, or fringe benefits, but each by itself falls short of the best: to grow collectively more and more into the image of Christ. Or to put it in C.S. Lewis terms, when it comes to small groups: 'We are too easily satisfied.'
A good small group requires people you're comfortable with getting uncomfortable with one another. We all have to grow in giving ourselves freely and without defensiveness, and also receiving feedback with humility, grace, and compassion. That's why small groups are the hardest thing in the world: we have to want the good that comes through the hard.
Why small groups are easy
Imagine your church published one of those handy little instructional pamphlets titled: "So you want to be a small group leader?" The packet sits with its topical comrades of vocational advice and hobby-building, such as: 'Mastering the art of real-estate' and 'Maintaining mindfulness through Chinese Checkers'. When you open the pamphlet, you are greeted by images of the small group leader amidst his daily tasks: saving souls, visiting the sick, caring for orphans, revealing fresh Biblical insights, leaping tall buildings, rebuking the Scribes and Pharisees, restoring a broken marriage, throwing a killer party, mentoring each member one on one, and then praying for them all throughout the day.
You may begin to wonder, not only if you're cut out for small group leadership, but whether or not Jack and Diane's Tuesday evening prayer and fellowship with ice cream and decaf coffee is meeting as many of your needs as it should. Such is the dual blessing-curse of leadership idolatry, which we might claim as the unique property of 21st century American evangelicalism. Of course that's not the case:
Isaiah 30:1-3 "Ah, stubborn children...who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation."
We are always prone to set up leaders, whether in the church or in the world, as demi-gods, as Jesus-icons. Such misplaced hopes always end in disillusionment and frustration, for both leader and follower. The more we cling to human power instead of the God who saves, the more we set ourselves up for humiliation when he/she fails.
We set up a glass ceiling of leadership which seems impossibly high from underneath, and then when someone magically pops up on the other side, the temptation is for them to hoist themselves up by raising the ceiling still higher. We want more small group or ministry leaders, but then we wonder when no one signs up for a job description that sounds like bench pressing small vehicles.
In reality, small groups are easy. At least, they should be easy. John Butler describes the work of a small group as: 'representing the practical application of a church's beliefs.' Acts 2:42 describes what was happening in early small groups or house churches in similar terms: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." Turns out that the small group formula of: Bible, prayer, and snacks may not need quite as much reconstructive surgery as we think.
As referred to earlier, in examining the challenges of small groups, it takes effort to elevate a small group meeting from mere Bible study or hang out time to genuine fellowship-koinonia. However, that challenge mainly takes the shape of developing a culture of authenticity, not how many commentaries the leader consults each week. Our reformed culture tends to make the error of equating leadership fitness with one's ability to recite creeds and catechisms.
In synopsis, a small group has one chief objective each time it meets: take a living faith in Jesus, and apply that to life. Or if that's too long, you can simplify it to one word: apply. Apply. And then apply some more. The Holy Spirit bears the ultimate responsibility for doing this work in a believer's life, which happens through Sunday morning worship, as well as in all the other individually received means of grace. However, small groups can offer a context to receive this grace of transforming application in a more direct and wholistic manner than anywhere else, as members open up their lives, complete with sorrows, joys, struggles, and hopes. We grow in giving and receiving the trust, love, and Biblical counsel which incarnates how we receive Christ himself.
If we comprehend this objective of applying faith to life, the whole dynamic of a small group changes. No longer is the goal to extract an obscure nugget of Biblical truth or to make a new friend. The dominant question during preparation or discussion time should be: how does 'x truth' about Jesus and his grace meet me where I am today? How does God's word reshape my actions and perspective within this particular desire, success, or failure? Though it's far more desirable to shape our needs to God's Word, rather than searching to find God's prescription for our needs, the latter approach, if executed faithfully will still lead us to Christ and His grace. In fact, if your group accomplishes nothing except to read a psalm, openly share meaningful prayer requests, and then pray, you'll still be ahead of ninety percent of the pack. None of these exercises requires anything but a willingness to open our lives to God and other believers.
1. Van Til, C. The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008).
One of the benefits of having young children while being a pastor is that it affords you the opportunity to get plugged into the local school system. When we first met with someone who worked at the school, we told them the name of our church. Their immediate response was, "Oh we used to go there! It's a great church! But...there just weren't enough teens for my kids to have friends." I also heard this from another person who had visited our congregation.
When I shared this with a friend of mine, he told me that he has had similar experiences. He noted that he had followed up with two families who had visited the church he pastors; but, that they ultimately decided to go elsewhere. Their reasoning was the same. The sound preaching of the Word was there--and that was the most important thing for them--but there just weren't enough young couples their age with whom they could connect.
As I was relaying these two episodes to a mentor, who is himself a retired pastor, he wistfully looked to the corner of the room and mused to himself, "You know, if every family that complained we didn't have a big enough youth group had just stuck around we'd have had the biggest youth group in town!" If I didn't laugh, I would have cried.
There are a lot of things that people look for in a church. Those things can be superficial (e.g. "the building needs to be beautiful"). They can be substantial (e.g. "The Word needs to be preached faithfully"). Others are understandable (e.g. "I want people my age with whom I can connect"). Often the things for which visitors are looking are things that lie outside of their control. For instance, a visitor may like certain things about a local church but cannot change the pastor's preaching. But, when visitors leave a church because of its composition (e.g. young, old, racial or otherwise) they are giving up on a church because of one aspect of the life of the church that they actually have the ability to do something about.
What amazing things would happen in local churches all over our nation if people attended solely for the sound ministry of the Word of God and then contributed their time, talents, and treasures to help make the church what it could be in other areas that are secondary, tertiary, preferential or understandable. What if, instead of seeing the church that isn't there, we saw the church that is there?
One of the things that the Apostle John sets out for us in the book of Revelation is how Jesus views seven churches. He views some as faithful but small (Rev. 2:9). He views some as needing to repent over serious issues (2:16). There is one church that Jesus sees as having a great reputation and seeming healthy on the surface, but which He explains is actually dead deep down (3:1). This last church in particular shows us that first impressions are often deceptive. If someone had shown up at the church of Sardis they would have said, "This church is respectable. They have a good reputation. They look good. And wow, check out that youth group. Sure, they're a little spiritually sleepy (3:3), but you know, every church has its problems."
When we consider the seven church that Jesus addresses in the book of Revelation, we find that He takes issue with almost all of them; and yet, He doesn't simply walk away from any of them. When it comes to the secondary issues, what if we all started seeing the church that Jesus sees? What if we all said, "You know, the church isn't what it should be or could be...yet; but, maybe the Lord will use me with my time, talents, and treasures to make it a place that can meet the needs of the saints? Instead of seeing the church as a place where people serve me, what if we all started to see the church that Jesus sees-a place beloved by Him (that may not be where it should be yet) and in which God may use me to build it up?
All men share in the common experience of being image bearers of God, in having descended from the same first parents, of being fallen in the same federal representative and in needing the same salvation in Christ. However, no two people have exactly the same experiences or conditionings in their lives. Even siblings who have grown up in the same home--who have experienced the same love and the same sinful dysfunctions of their parents--have many different life experiences. This fact is profoundly intriguing when we consider the way in which our unique God-ordained personalities and our unique God-ordained circumstances intersect. However, it can also be a profoundly dangerous thing when one seeks to use uniquely painful experiences in order to hide our sin. It is this danger to which I wish to focus our attention.
We are all masters at latching onto any and every excuse in order to dismiss our sinful actions and words. Like our first parents, we are natural born experts at blame shifting, covering ourselves and downplaying the severity of our sin when it comes to light. One of the most sophisticated ways that we can excuse our sin is by hiding behind the painful experiences of our lives. It is actually quite easy to adopt the persona of a victim. We have all--at some time or another--been the object of unjust actions or words. Accordingly, all of us have an ample supply of experiences with which we can play the victim card.
This problem is often compounded by the fact that God has commanded His people to bear one another's burdens. It is one of the greatest of all Christian virtues to sympathize and empathize with those who have suffered (physically, sexually or emotionally). When someone begins to share their burdens in the context of the church, they inevitably draw the attention of deeply compassionate church members. They immediately identify those who could give them the attention for which their hearts have longed. Love for approbation and affection then leads such a person to nurture his or her sin struggles by constantly linking them to past experiences of suffering. One of the evidences that this has happened is that he or she will talk about these struggles ad nauseam. No amount of friendship or counseling ever helps. Rather than experiencing growth in grace, they paralyze themselves by nurturing self-pity. Instead of going to the Scriptures and to Christ, they form an unhealthy dependency on others.
When we find ourselves in a situation in which we are seeking to help someone who is playing the victim card, we must remind them that Jesus also had painful experiences. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus wasn't particularly physically attractive (Is. 53:2). The Evangelists constantly draw our attention to the fact that he was ridiculed by His brothers (John 7:3-5), mocked by his fellow church members (Matt. 9:24), forsaken by his disciples (Matt. 26:31; 56), falsely accused by powerful government officials (Luke 23:6-12) and crucified with criminals (Mark 15:27-28). As a boy, Jesus was most likely scorned by His friends on account of the fact that his mother conceived out of wedlock--though she was a virgin (John 8:41). We can be sure that Jesus had many other painful childhood experiences. Yet, he never adopted a victim mentality. Jesus never played the victim card. He never allowed his past circumstances keep him from pressing on in order to accomplish the will of His Father in Heaven.
The writer of Hebrews brings the experiences of Christ to the forefront of the secret of Christian growth in grace when he tells us that Jesus "was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15). On account of that, he can sympathize with us in our weaknesses. We have a great High Priest who was touched with the feelings of our infirmities. This is what qualifies Jesus to be the perfect helper in our time of weakness. No one will sympathize with us like Jesus. No one has power to change us but Jesus. Jesus became the man of sorrows in order to help His people in their time of sorrow. He never allows us to live in our sin, and never turns His back on us when we come to Him for grace and mercy to help in time of need (4:16).
While God calls us to be compassionate and sympathetic toward those who come to us with their burdens, we must also ask whether we are helping them or not. We may actually be enabling others to hide their sin behind their painful past experiences. At the end of the day, our job is to point others to Scripture and to the Savior who is revealed in Scripture. We must resist the snare of putting ourselves in the place of the Redeemer in the name of "being there" for those who are hurting. Our job is to point others to the only one who is able to give both us and them the grace that we need to change.
Effective Strategy? Biblical Mandate? Both!
In 1980 a young Pastor, fresh from seminary, arriving at his first pastorate encountered some startling realities. Thinking he was informed as to the condition of the church, he soon learned just how uninformed he was. When you get "onsite" you soon gain "insight." Church attendance had diminished from over 1,000 to an average of 55. There were no children's Sunday School classes because there were no children. The average age in the congregation exceeded 70 and its past had become glorified nostalgia. On his first Sunday, the service ended at the expected 12:00 hour. As he and his wife made their way to the lobby. Amazingly, in spite of the infirmities of age, the congregation had exited and rapidly emptied the parking lot. The church attendance box for the week had been checked and they were ready to move on. There were no sounds of fellowship from lingering crowds only an empty sanctuary and parking lot within five minutes of the benediction. He went outside to try and speak to the departing congregation before and found himself embarrassingly locked out of the church building by the equally rapid exit of the part-time church janitor. After breaking into his own church to obtain his Bible and car keys, the pastor and his wife looked at each other with the sudden realization of just how enormous this pastoral challenge would be. But, there was more to come.
While all other churches in the area had monthly accounts at the local office supply store he soon learned his church was excluded and designated as "cash only" due to past payment delays. The first Session meeting revealed that not all of the elders had a personal saving relationship with Christ. They seemed to be well-meaning but did not "know the Lord." Of the two elders who exhibited some spiritual maturity, one was transferred within three months and the other died of leukemia. The church had not met its budget in years. Perhaps the most startling event was a phone call from one of the previous nine pastors revealing a tumultuous past. This pastor, while graciously welcoming the new pastor to his charge asked a strange and probing question. "Did you pray before you accepted this call?" After answering "yes" the obvious question was, "Why did you ask?" The answer was stunning. He informed the new pastor that he believed the church "had the mark of Satan upon it."
He then began to share the "horror stories" of what had happened to the previous pastors. All of which was not encouraging for a new pastor in his first pastorate. So what do you do?
While grateful for his seminary education he realized he was unprepared for this moment. But thankfully his seminary preparation had been framed by a relentless commitment to the inerrancy and the sufficiency of God's Word. So to his study and to the Scripture he went. I can verify all of the above since I was this young Pastor. So how would God's sufficient Word (which cannot be broken) instruct me to respond?
Here was a church in decline and its demise imminent. It could be said one flu season would put the church out of business. The Presbytery's counsel was to sell the property and use the proceeds to plant another church. Yet the neighborhood was full of unreached people. The daily vandalizing of the church revealed two factors. One, the neighborhood viewed the church as a derelict unused building. Two, there were people to be reached. Could this church be revitalized? The Word of God was clear that I must preach and pray for revival but only the Lord could bring it. But I soon discovered a Biblical roadmap from Christ as to how pastors can lead a church back to spiritual vitality? Here is how that happened.
As mentioned, this took place in 1980, a year which also witnessed the rise and proliferation of "church growth" publications. Clearly, these resources were of interest to me and I devoured them. In doing so a few things became obvious. First, the writers of these publications were intelligently insightful and well-meaning. Second, most of the proposed remedies were "best practices" drawn from psychological, sociological and demographic ministry analysis. Of course, all of the recommended practices were "checked out" against the Scripture to make sure that no Biblical truths were being violated. Yet, few were actually derived from the Scripture. They were commended with the assurance that they would produce "statistical church growth" which surfaced another concern. While the Bible, in the book of Acts, records "statistical growth" in the church there is no indication that the leadership focused their ministry philosophy upon statistical church growth. The clear evidence is that 1st century church leaders focused on the spiritual vitality and health of the church with "statistical growth" recorded as a consequence of the apostolic ministry, not the objective of their ministry.
Furthermore, in my study, I was intrigued by the recorded expansion of the Kingdom of God through the church and the strategy employed by the Apostle in the Book of Acts.
First, the Gospel of the Kingdom proclaimed in Jerusalem by the Apostles established the church of Jerusalem (Acts 1-8). Then the Kingdom powerfully expanded as promised by the Lord to Judea and Samaria resulting in the church at Antioch (Acts 9-12). This eventually expanded the Kingdom to the world through another key church at Ephesus (Acts 13-28). At each step of the ever-expanding Kingdom through vibrant and healthy churches, statistical growth was a result of Gospel vitality furthered through the effective ministry of Gospel-healthy leaders and churches.
In Acts 13 Saul (soon the Apostle Paul) along with Barnabas are sent by the Church at Antioch on the first missionary journey. They employed a four-fold Gospel ministry strategy expanding the Kingdom to city after city. This recorded strategy was: