Keep Standing

by Jared Johnson 

Numbers 16 is sometimes remembered by Bible students as the “Korah’s Rebellion chapter.”  It’s a bit long as Bible chapters go – 50 verses, about 1,300 words in English.  And indeed, the majority of the chapter covers the drama among Moses, Aaron, Korah, Dathan and so on. 

But these are not the only events covered in Numbers 16.  The final few words seem to give a bit of an epilogue.  The main events conclude in verse 40.  In English, we then see a paragraph break, and this phrase right after the superscripted 41 indicating the new verse: “But the very next morning…” 

O my.  Here it goes again.  That all-too-familiar pattern of Israel’s interminable griping reared itself again – the very next morning!  Leadership, so often, can be a thankless task.  And that is precisely what happens in Numbers 16.  

Moses and Aaron faced the very public complaints of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, On, and 250 additional “community leaders” over the course of a couple very stressful days.  “The elders of Israel” are mentioned on one occasion with Moses (verse 25), but there is no mention of Joshua nor anyone else – the chapter has the feel of being very lonely for Moses and Aaron. 

Over 250 highly respected men voiced very public criticisms and complaints about these two.  God very obviously reaffirmed His choice of Moses and Aaron, who simply “left it at that.”  Moses and Aaron let the Divine punishments speak for themselves.  They didn’t punish anyone else in any additional way – what God said and did was the final word on the matter. 

Then verse 41: “…the very next morning the whole community of Israel began muttering…” 

Thankfully, Moses and Aaron set a great example here.  In the face of fresh rancor, how many of us given a similar situation – I know I’d be tempted! – would wearily cry out to God and take Him up on His “do over” offer as He made in verse 21?  “Get away from all these people so that I may instantly destroy them!” 

Not Moses’ nor Aaron’s MO.  They shielded the people in verse 22 (prayer), and again (prayer and action) here at the end of the chapter.  Verses 46-47 record that “Moses said to Aaron, ‘Quick, take an incense burner … purify them and make them right with the Lord…’  Aaron did as Moses told him and ran out among the people.” 
 
Moses and Aaron intervened on behalf of the people they led in situation after situation, just because it was the right thing to do.  Pastor Appreciation Month was far in the future.  No Starbucks gift cards would be showing up in their Tabernacle Office mailboxes the next morning. 

But here’s the verse that really hits me, verse 48: 

He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague stopped. 

I cannot imagine. 

It was a plague.  Death came quickly.  In today’s terms, think Ebola or some other severe hemorrhagic fever or an extreme, rapidly progressing bacterial infection.  A plague, in only minutes or hours, had come into the camp of Israel and the leaders intervened. 

He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague stopped. 

Aaron ran to where he was needed to intervene – he went immediately to the front line between the living and dead.  He undoubtedly saw people expiring before his eyes.  He probably heard people gasp their last – the “death rattle” when fluid fills the throat and bronchial tubes, then the lungs, suffocating the victim.  Whatever this plague was, it’s not unreasonable to think it involved massive bleeding, flesh that looked like it should not, flesh doing what it should not. 
 
And all Aaron had – literally! – was an incense burner and prayer. 

But He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague stopped.  God worked in and through Aaron’s servant-leadership. 

Keep standing, pastor.  Keep standing, elder.  It will often be thankless.  It will be spiritually, relationally, emotionally messy.  It might even be physically messy; modern medicine is a wonder, but that doesn’t mean hospital visits are for the faint of heart. 

Keep standing, shepherd.  Someone will live eternally because you will have chosen to stand with – and in defense of – the living.

“I” Problems

by Rod Nielsen 

My dad, a long-time elder in the Church of Christ in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, sometimes talked with me about situations where one could see “I” problems.  He meant that some people have a problem with their ego.  They make decisions about the church and what the church is doing based on their personal preferences rather than on the Word of God.
 
In my years of being a preaching minister, I have witnessed this again and again.  Well-meaning church members are sometimes critical of the church, what we did or how we did it simply because they did not like it, or we did not do it the way they would have preferred.  While I appreciate that they care about what the church does and how we do it, “because I don’t like it” is not a very good point of reference.
 
M.C. Escher, the artist known for fascinating and bizarre drawings of impossible things, created one drawing he titled “Relativity.”  The drawing depicts a building with stairs going every which way: up, down, left, right, sideways, upside down.  There are people walking on the stairs as if gravity has no effect.  Of course, as a viewer you know this is impossible.  The drawing shows what the world would be like if there were no absolute point of reference.  Turn the page around and around and you cannot find a single point of reference to know which way is up.
 
It is a statement about the impossibility of life without a single point of reference, an absolute up and down or absolute right and wrong.  Our culture has rejected any sense of absolute right and wrong and it has disturbed a sense of moral compass in America.  There are many examples of that which is good being called evil and that which is evil being called good.  It does not work for a people to exist without a consistent moral compass.
 
In our churches we must have a clear and absolute point of reference of what is right and what is wrong.  This is true for individuals and for the congregation.  The Bible does not spell out everything the church must do or how we must do them.  We are free to be creative as we live out our commission to make disciples.
 
So how do we determine what is good and what is bad for the church to do and how the church does it?  That requires careful and prayerful trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  What we must not do is try to accommodate every member’s preference.  This is especially important for the men, Elders, who make portentous decisions for the church.  It is necessary that we do not allow our own “I” problems to become our point of reference.
 
Whenever we are tempted to say, “I like this” or “I don’t like that” we should stop and remove the first-person pronoun and insert “God.”  If we are still at peace when saying, “God likes this” or “God doesn’t like that,” then we are focused on the true point of reference.
 
Our creator God offers us an almost unlimited variety of things to do and methods of doing them.  We are limited by our creativity and the true measure of right and wrong, the Word of God.  Overcome our “I” problems to truly be a Holy Spirit led church.

The “Authority” of Elders Makes me Nervous

by Mark Scott 

Founding Academic Dean of Ozark Christian College, Seth Wilson, said, “If Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18), then how much is left over for you?”  The answer is in the question.  I suppose that is why I get nervous when I hear church folk talk about the “authority” of the elders (or the preacher or the church secretary for that matter).  What is implied in how that word “authority” is used? 
 
The Greek word translated authority is “exousia.”  It occurs 102 times in the New Testament and means “the right to command or the power to act.”  Interestingly enough, it never appears in conjunction with any discussion of the elders (their 17 qualifications or 12 duties).  In fact, the word does not appear at all in 1 or 2 Timothy.  Most people know that the word “office” is not really in the Greek text of 1 Timothy 3:1.  It is supplied (sometimes) by translators.  But the word for “work” is in the Greek of 1 Timothy 3:1.  Maybe that is what an elder has – not an authoritative office but a “good work.”
 
Don’t misunderstand me.  To oversee the church does imply some kind of empowerment by someone.  But elders should use caution when they desire the work of an elder so that they can command and boss people.  Again quoting Brother Seth Wilson, “All of our efforts to control people shows our failure to convert them.”  Some might argue that since the church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20), didn’t the apostles pass the baton of authoritative leadership to the elders?  I do believe in a certain level of plural apostolic succession.  The farther one reads in Acts the more evident it is that the apostles started fading into the background and the local church elders took on the leadership of the church.  Note Acts 21:17-26 for a classic example where the local Jerusalem elders tell the Apostle Paul what to do – and he obeys them. 
 
But, at best, any authority that the elders have is first delegated (see Matthew 10:1 for an example of what Jesus did with the apostles) and is secondly through teaching and persuasion (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Corinthians 5:11).  Loving the people (the latest strong emphasis on eldership coming from Alexander Strauch), equipping the saints, watching their souls, protecting the church from savage wolves, teaching the Bible, and pleading with the people to not be idle, etc. all gain the elders’ spiritual clout with the people so that they will follow the elders (John 21:15-19; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:14). 
 
Some might ask about church discipline, and in those instances it may seem that the elders have to use authority.  But I would ask elders to carefully examine the grammar of Matthew 18:18.  The original NASB had it right, “Whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven…”  In other words, whatever elders (they may be the two or three witnesses referred to in Matthew 18:16, 19-20; see Kurt Aland’s Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, 253 and the quote from Ignatius) exercise in terms of discipline has already been decided by heaven.  They are simply declaring heaven’s will – not their own. 
 
Some years ago someone asked then-President of Ozark Christian College, Don Earl Boatman, where the lines of authority were between his ministry and Brother Seth Wilson’s ministry.  President Boatman’s response was, “We don’t worry about authority, we just emphasize responsibility.”  Elders have leadership, influence, clout, sway, and persuasion.  But perhaps the only authority they have is the authority of their own obedience in following Jesus.

Memory Makers

by Terry Stine 

Forty-four years ago, six men signed my Ordination Certificate.  These were men who had influenced my life, who had disciplined me spiritually and physically as I grew up in the church where they served as elders and spiritual leaders.
 
One man was an executive in the construction industry.  He looked at the church through the eyes of a man who was used to making decisions that initiated change. 
 
Another was a corporate executive who preached when needed and taught classes to Jr. and Sr. high boys.
 
The minister of my home church was also an elder and he encouraged young people to go into ministry.  He took us to Bible college campus activities and gave me opportunities to preach while I was still in high school.
 
I remember how another signer, who as a financial consultant, used his gifts to serve the church.  He helped people in the church in such a soft-hearted way.  Money was a tool for God, not a goal for gain.  He made sure the congregation gave significant scholarships to young men and women who wanted to go to Bible college.
 
The signature of the minister that I was serving under as a new youth minister reminds me of his practical help in my life.  He had been a Bible college professor, started churches, and took time to help me through my first wedding and funeral.  He gave the “charge” for my ordination.
 
Finally, one signer is a long-time friend who grew up in the church with me, and had accepted the call to minister there after he graduated from college.  His life also gives testimony of godly elders who had known us personally, and had invested in our lives.
 
These men took time to exhibit the qualities that Paul wrote to Timothy about in II Timothy 4:2.  They were prepared to correct, admonish, exhort with encouragement and patience, with careful instruction from the Word.
 
They all had worldly skill sets that could have been dominant in their eldership.  Instead, they allowed their spiritual calling as elders to be dominant and allowed their worldly skill sets to be used in secondary ways.  Instead of thinking like COOs, CFOs and CEOs, they were ministering simply as elders.  Most of these men also took night classes at St. Louis Christian College to increase their biblical knowledge to lead as biblical leaders.
 
Jewish elders in the Old Testament were older men and respected for their spiritual wisdom.  They were instrumental for the preservation of life with God in the covenant community.  When Paul appointed elders in the new churches that he planted the purpose was the same.  That is the reason Paul emphasized the qualities that should already be exhibited by those selected to spiritually protect and guide the local congregation.  
 
Paul shared with Timothy and Titus the qualities that elders should exhibit.  These lists of practical actions and attitudes would allow these men to be models of mature Christians in action and thinking.  They were to be memory makers. 

Some of the men who signed my Ordination Certificate have passed away.  Others moved and are in various congregations across the United States.  What they did as elders, how they exhibited the love of Christ through teaching and example, made an impact on me.  My ministry during the past forty-seven years has influenced many people in several countries to accept Christ.  The memories of those who shaped me live on in lives that they personally never knew.
 
What memories are you making as a biblical elder today that will reach around the world and through the years for Christ? 

Collateral Damage

by Jared Johnson 

We have probably all heard the phrase (or used it ourselves) “kick the can down the road.”  It seems, in our society, that the national debt is the topic about which this phrase is typically expressed.

Unsurprisingly, we find an example of this kind of abdication and “not-my-problem” thinking in the pages of the Bible.

In 1 Samuel 15, Saul was ordered to purge the Hebrews’ territory of all Amalekite people.

Leaving aside the intractable issue (for a blog) of “sanctioned genocide,” there is a leadership lesson to be gleaned from the fallout of Saul’s failure in this chapter.

Saul, in his own mind, followed the direction of 1 Sam. 15.3 and attacked.  As he did so, he struck down Amalekites “from Havilah to Shur” (v 7).  Specifics about those two places are debated; we don’t know where exactly they were.  But we know, unequivocally, that Saul and the whole army kept, basically, whatever they felt like (v 9), especially animals.  Saul spared the life of the king, Agag, for whatever reason, despite God’s instruction to the contrary.

Some number of years passed by the time we get to 1 Samuel chapters 28-31.  Sparing a number of the intervening details, David and the entire band of men with him returned home from a military outing and found that … Amalekites had raided their homes and carried off all their wives and kids, along with possessions.  Had Saul carried out the direction to purge the Amalekites, David and crew and their families probably would have been spared the heartache and travail of 1 Samuel chapter 30.

Our tendency, in leadership, to put off a decision or to not definitively complete a task or initiative can – does – have repercussions.  And those repercussions can be outright harmful.  Saul’s ungodly leadership, his sin of omission, directly resulted in the kidnapping of hundreds of women and children and the ransacking and burning of David’s hometown at the time, Ziklag.

Decisions can’t be made with perfect clarity.  And when we make mistakes we need to admit as much and course-correct quickly.  There are usually unintended consequences.  However, there is also, especially from this biblical example, the very real phenomenon of avoidable pain.  Saul was irresponsible.  He deliberately chose personal convenience and preference over God-honoring leadership, and it harmed many people in many ways.

David was, usually, an example worth following.  Saul was not.  Let’s be careful that our chosen paths in leadership aren’t kicking proverbial cans down the road; we don’t want to cause collateral damage.  

Human Sexuality: Anchor and Boundaries

Human Sexuality; Anchor and Boundaries

[Editorial Note: We encourage you to open/read/print the PDF accessible by link just above.  While we have also posted this paper below as “in-line text,” formatting between the PDF and HTML required for this internet page do not carry over consistently.  The content remains largely the same (i.e. charts are missing); formatting retained in the PDF makes reading a bit easier on the eyes.] 

 

Human Sexuality: Anchor and Boundaries

Jared Johnson

I have often heard a saying: “There was a church in Corinth, but there was a whole lot of ‘Corinth’ in the church!” Paul had to push back on the Corinthian church in some significant ways and with some pointed words. History tells us there was a large temple dedicated to Aphrodite – Greek goddess of love, beauty, passion, reproduction, etc. – at Corinth, and according to Greek philosopher and historian Strabo, it employed 1,000 temple prostitutes. The people of Corinth were accustomed to seeing sexuality run amok in their home context. Sexuality of any stripe was so passé that a guy in the church started living with who we can only now assume was his own stepmom; he took his own dad’s wife as his wife! (1 Cor. 5.1; the Greek literally reads something like “so as wife of one of his father has.”)

We see similar dynamics at play in our contemporary Western culture. We are a sex- and sexuality-soaked society. It has become a topic of increasingly casual conversation. We had a long-running sitcom with “sex” in its title for several years broadcast widely. It is entirely expected and common to see various individuals and companies modify their social media avatars during “pride month” to highlight LGBTIA pride. And that passé attitude societally toward sex has come into our churches. What was utterly unthinkable barely one generation or two ago is now commonplace. Whole denominations as well as independent churches have sidelined sexuality as a non-issue, deeming it unimportant and of no relevance in considering who will minister among the congregation, whom will be married by the pastors, and so on. This statement is not directed at LGBTQIA Christians but is a general observation about congregations in an overall sense. Do we, in church leadership, take serial marriages / serial divorce as seriously as any other sexual sin? What about heterosexual couples who are cohabiting? What about someone struggling with a stronghold of lust and/or a pornographic addiction? Are our standards consistent across the spectrum of sexuality regarding ministerial and volunteer functions in our congregations?

While churches are comprised of people still yearning for God’s perfection to be realized in their lives, we should also stand apart in some ways. Our direct spiritual ancestors were described in the New Testament as “ekklesia” – the gathering of called-out ones. We have been called by God from the world’s darkness to His wonderful light (1 Pet. 2.9). The character of the relationships among the early Christians was so palpably different that the surrounding culture noticed and viewed them with tremendous goodwill (Acts 2.47).   We are all “sinners saved by grace” until we meet our Savior in eternity. And yet, we should also be different; holy, set apart, called-out … “the salt of the earth.”

Core Truth or Peripheral Details?

To begin, consider a contrasting word picture / illustration. Think: anchored versus bounded.

Our family has a dog. As he became a juvenile dog and left behind the “puppy” stage, we discovered he could climb chain-link fences! He’s a big dog, so he could easily get his front paws onto the top rail of the fence; he only needed to “walk” his back feet up the chain links to get onto and over the top rail. While a small puppy, we thought we would manage his behavior by bounding him with a fence. “You can be in this yard and house but not any others.” It did not work. Still, needing to keep him limited to our yard, we had to do something. So we staked him into the middle of the yard on a long (approx. 20-ft), elastic leash. He was still bounded by the fence, but that wasn’t the primary method of keeping him where he needed to be. Rather, we anchored him in the middle of the yard and the leash’s 40-foot diameter allowed movement.

A great many prescriptions and proscriptions in the Christian life follow this principle. There are some boundaries and prohibitions, but instead of focusing on the “shall-nots” – the boundaries – we’re typically encouraged, instead, to focus on the “shalls” – anchors. To illustrate again…

Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew people were told, encouraged, admonished, exhorted, and ordered to not-worship pagan deities. Those encouragements and prohibitions never “stuck” until after Israel and Judah suffered military conquest and exile. The Israelites really, truly were polytheists until roughly 400BC. It was wrong of them to be polytheist, but functionally, they were. From Abraham’s example through Moses’ Law right up to Jeremiah being kidnapped and carried off to Egypt after Babylon’s siege, the “people of God” were consistently crossing the established boundaries of worship and conduct. Only after the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit came in Acts 1 did it become possible to live a life anchored to the character of God Himself. So, to illustrate with bullet points:


Anchor:

  • Worship God (Son/Spirit … Trinity)

 

Boundaries:

  • Don’t worship fertility.
    • So stay away from Baal
    • … and Asherah
    • … and Osiris
    • … and Amun
    • … and Dionysus
    • … and Persephone
    • … and …
  • Don’t worship the sun.
    • So avoid Ra.
    • … and Apollo
    • … and Helios
    • … and Athena for good measure
    • … and…
  • Don’t worship other stuff just because you don’t know what else to do.
    • So don’t child-sacrifice to Molech.
    • … and stay away from Ashtoreth
    • … and …

 

Regarding a great many principles in Scripture, keeping this complementary contrast in mind can be very helpful, and it is true of God’s expectations regarding human sexuality.

It has been far too common for the Church to fixate, even voyeuristically, on the pettiness of boundaries of sexuality while neglecting the anchor.

The anchor is spiritual maturity. Everything in the Christian life gravitates toward the center of becoming more like Jesus. God has put boundaries around us, but we focus on the anchor.

A Terribly Upright Example

“Well, King David did it!”

We all know David was “a man after God’s heart” (based on 1 Samuel 13.14). There are a great many practices we could engage, inspired by David’s example, to pursue greater spiritual health. We should also be quick to recognize there are a great many actions and even attitudes that we should avoid which David himself did if we’re trying to live according to God’s revealed will. While David was “a man after God’s heart,” we should also admit there is a lot of truth in the description that one of my college professors liked to share: “Uriah was a ‘better man’ drunk than David was sober.” Uriah showed incredible faithfulness to his king and peers while literally inebriated, though David had kidnapped and assaulted Bathsheba while completely sober.

An acquaintance was describing to me a new dynamic in his office. One of his coworkers had begun to openly extol his newly-found “freedom” in a polyamorous relationship with a neighbor and his long-time wife. My acquaintance was asking about other biblical precedents and examples of marriages gone well and marriages gone bad. The coworker was defending his actions because David, in his mind, was a great example worth following, even in his complicated marriage relationships.

“King David did it.” David had multiple wives. It’s true. There is no denying, straight from the text, that David – a “man after God’s heart” – accumulated women over the course of his life. So if David was “after God’s heart,” then God’s heart must be polyamorous; for that matter, since David and Jonathan were so incredibly close, I mean, come on – they must have been homosexual partners! By such “logic,” we might also say that Tom and Jerry cartoons accurately represent feline-rodent relations.

We will return to David’s example after first considering the anchor and boundaries.

 

The Anchor: Spiritual Maturity

Whether Matthew 5.48’s “be perfect as your Father is perfect,” Ephesians 4.13’s “we will be mature,” 1 Peter 2.2’s “Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow,” or any number of other references, the expectation of God is clear: we need to grow up, becoming “more and more like [Jesus] as we are changed into his glorious image” (2 Cor. 3.18). This maturing process – in Church circles often referred to as “sanctification” – is accomplished through every aspect of life, including our sexuality.

We begin by asserting and affirming that God’s Living Word is abundantly clear about His expectation regarding our expression of physical, sexual intimacy; we begin with the words of Jesus Himself.

In our wider culture we will often hear the lie that Jesus supposedly didn’t / doesn’t care about our sexual intimacy if it happens to be outside of heterosexual marriage. That simply was not the case. In Matthew 19.1-12, we see a discussion between loophole-seeking Pharisees and Jesus. They assumed that asking Him about divorce would trap Him into giving a “least-bad” answer. But as Jesus so often did, He side-stepped the verbalized question and insisted His listeners pursue God’s better way in all of life, not just in hair-split details.

“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’”  And he said, “‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’  Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”

Matthew 19.4-6

Though the immediate context and question of the legalists here regarded divorce, we can and should look to this statement of the Master regarding sexuality on the whole. Throughout the rest of the Bible, God’s expectation of a covenant relationship between one man and one woman – a marriage – is unequivocal. And here, Jesus entirely affirmed that standard. Irrespective of the immediate and human context of the question, Jesus’ answer here “pulls the conversation up to 36,000 feet.” That is, rather than debate or argue ad-nauseum about the minutiae of the boundaries, Jesus instead tied His hearers back to the anchor. Not minutiae, but core principle. Not boundary-parsing ad-infinitum, but central truth. Come back to the anchor.

Thus saith the Chosen One: “God already told you what He expects: He made male and female, and a guy will leave his parents and unite with his wife.”

Perhaps this reminds us of one of Solomon’s statements, preceding Jesus by 1,000 years:

Let your wife be a fountain of blessing for you. Rejoice in the wife of your youth.

Proverbs 5.18

Jesus’ answer in Matthew 19 quoted Genesis 5.2 and 2.24. (Additionally, Genesis 5.2 echoes Genesis 1.27.) Below are just a handful of other references demonstrating that sexual intimacy, per the biblical witness, belongs in marriage and that marriage is, in God’s eyes, a highly regarded covenant to be greatly respected:

  • Genesis 49.4 Jacob chastised Reuben: “…you defiled my marriage couch.”
  • Exodus 21.10 Command to care well for a first wife if a second wife is taken
  • Hosea Entire book parallels marital faithfulness with worship faithfulness
  • 5.31-32 Jesus’ expectation that we be faithful in marriage.
  • Hebrews 13.4 Another New Covenant (but non-Jesus) command to honor marriage

Heterosexual, life-long, monogamous marriage was the only sexual context ever affirmed throughout the biblical story. To be sure, other types of sexual relationships are described or attested, but one man plus one woman was the only “setup” ever overtly affirmed and condoned by God. Nothing else was affirmed.

Presence in the biblical story is most assuredly not God’s endorsement.

The well-worn saying / rhetorical question is entirely appropriate: “what if marriage is to make us holy, not happy?” The end goal of marriage is not sex, and it is not even reproduction – both are ancillary. The real purpose of marriage is as a spiritual formation path. That is the anchor. In this way, marriage perfectly-reflects, as a complementary mirror-image, singleness and celibacy as Paul knew it when he discussed marriage, singleness, and the Kingdom of God in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 7. Despite its reputation for fixating on marriage and sexuality minutiae, at the core of the issue, the Roman Catholic Church did “get it right” to recognize marriage as a sacrament by the time of the middle ages.

Marriage as spiritual formation is evident in at least these two passages:

Here is another thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, weeping and groaning because he pays no attention to your offerings and doesn’t accept them with pleasure.  You cry out, “Why doesn’t the Lord accept my worship?” I’ll tell you why! Because the Lord witnessed the vows you and your wife made when you were young. But you have been unfaithful to her, though she remained your faithful partner, the wife of your marriage vows.

Didn’t the Lord make you one with your wife? In body and spirit you are his.  And what does he want? Godly children from your union. So guard your heart; remain loyal to the wife of your youth.  “For I hate divorce!” says the Lord, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.”

Malachi 2.13-16

Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer. Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won’t be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control.  I say this as a concession, not as a command.  But I wish everyone were single, just as I am. Yet each person has a special gift from God, of one kind or another.

So I say to those who aren’t married and to widows – it’s better to stay unmarried, just as I am.  But if they can’t control themselves, they should go ahead and marry. It’s better to marry than to burn with lust.

But for those who are married, I have a command that comes not from me, but from the Lord.  A wife must not leave her husband.  But if she does leave him, let her remain single or else be reconciled to him. And the husband must not leave his wife.

1 Corinthians 7.5-11

To look at the Malachi passage, there are a few things to notice. First, let’s be honest about what it is not. Malachi 2.15 is not a divine order to procreate. It is not a tacit endorsement of bearing a multiplicity of children. Only one phrase out of verse 15 overtly mentions children. The broader passage is about impeded worship. And God directly confronts and corrects the hearer: the worshipper wasn’t accepted because he was unfaithful. This passage is not about procreating frequently. It is a direct confrontation against infidelity. Inference can be made that divorce among the intended hearers – the whole nation of Israel (Malachi 1.1) – was rampant. And God, in utterly clear terms, condemned divorce. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.” Faithfulness in a marriage relationship directly affects the quality of our worship. Faithfulness requires God’s sanctifying work in us; spiritual formation occurs in us as we work at remaining faithful and as we continue inviting the Spirit to mold us more closely to the image of Jesus. Fidelity to a spouse is just one way that, as this text plainly says, we “guard our heart.” And “guard your heart” was precisely the phrase used by Solomon in Proverbs 4.23: “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” Fidelity in marriage is one path God uses to conform us more closely to His character. He did not demand that we have dozens of kids. This much is obvious through an adjective that we cannot miss: “godly children.” The Father wants our families to be His; our families worship Him. That is the point of the Malachi passage: our physical, earthly families worship the One, Eternal “family” – that is, Trinity.

Stay close to the anchor.

To consider the 1 Corinthians passage, Paul famously gives two points of direction. One is a command from God / not from Paul (verse 10); the other is a concession from Paul / not commanded by God (verse 6). Most English translations express his “concession” as its own sentence, in between coming together again and wishing that all people were single like he. So we ask: is the concession allowed about what’s before it or what’s after? “I concede you should come back together in sexual intimacy” or “I concede that I wish all people were single like me?” The former seems more likely, but either way, sex was not “a given” in Paul’s worldview. Sexual intimacy, even in marriage, per Paul in 1 Corinthians 7.6, is a concession.

This makes sense in light of another famous concession: “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it is not what God had originally intended” (Matt. 19.8, paralleled in Mark 10.5). Moses allowed divorce, as a concession, but God’s way – faithfulness and no divorce – is better. Paul allowed sexual intimacy, as a concession, but another way – celibacy and singleness for God’s Kingdom – is better. (One might protest that sex is not merely an “allowed concession” since God Himself blessed Adam and Eve and told them to multiply. Put a pin in that thought for the moment; we will address it later.) The second piece of this passage, the command from God, agrees perfectly with the rest of the testimony of Scripture: “a wife must not leave her husband … and the husband must not leave his wife.” Don’t divorce. Still recognizing our hard hearts, Scripture acknowledges we might leave anyway; if we do, per Paul here in verse 11, if a spouse does leave, they should remain single / celibate – or be reconciled.

Sexual intimacy is a concession to the condition of our hearts, “full stop.”

Abdication is easy; faithfulness is hard. Escapism and fantasy are easy; faithfulness is hard. Indulgence and gratification are easy; faithfulness is hard.

Marriage is hard. Celibacy and singleness is hard. And they’re both infinitely worth it.

Divorce, affairs, lust, indulgence, pornography, etc. are all “the easy way out” and readily accessible, but reconciliation with my spouse, patience with my spouse, loving my spouse, dating my spouse, forbearance with my spouse are all much harder. The path of Paul and the path of Jesus Himself – singleness and celibacy for the Kingdom – is just as challenging, if not more so.

But they are what God expects of us.

The biblical center, the anchor, the core truth toward which we must always gravitate is greater conformity to the image of Jesus.

The Boundaries: Anything, Everything, Else

By “any/everything else” in this discussion specifically regarding sexuality, we do, in fact, mean anything sexual besides heterosexual, monogamous marriage is a boundary which God has established, for example:

  • Heterosexual sexual intimacy between unmarried individuals
  • Group sex
  • Fantasy/fantasizing/lust of any kind
  • Self-stimulation – masturbating – and fantasy
  • Homosexual sexual intimacy

Undoubtedly, there are many proverbial rabbit trails down which we could delve in all of the above bullet points. But again, the point of a Christian sexual ethic is less about what’s off-limits than it is about commitment and becoming more spiritually mature and Jesus-like through the refining influence of our closest relationships, whether married or not.

There are a few specific Scripture references to address regarding boundaries. But before doing so, we need to first pause a moment and clarify terms. Sexuality has so soaked our culture that nearly any discussion of it breeds conflict. That most assuredly includes the terms we apply to it. There is vigorous debate – putting it mildly – regarding “homosexual Christians” (or other terms like “gay Christian” or “same sex attracted Christian” and others) at present.

The following is reductionist almost in the extreme, but for the sake of trying to strike a balance between clarification and brevity, let’s consider two “sides” – literally – in this debate regarding sexuality for Christians. And to be clear, no, “homosexual Christian” is not an oxymoron (though again, depending on definitions, thus this very brief discussion).

Non-Traditional / Progressive

These are people who profess faith in Jesus and by all metrics and appearances live in the way of Jesus. They worship Him regularly in a corporate setting, commit their resources and abilities to advancing His Name and fame, and study and depend on His Word. And they see nothing biblically wrong with a non-traditional sexual ethic, be it homosexual or otherwise. The Metropolitan Community Church, as a denomination, may be one of the most prominent examples. (See the site mccchurch.org generally and mccchurch.org/mcc-statement-of-faith/ specifically for more information.) A number of years ago author Philip Yancey, in a chapter of his book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, detailed his long friendship with Mel White. White holds a non-traditional sexual ethic; he was a minister with the Metropolitan Community Church for many years, founded a number of LGBT[etc.] non-profit / advocacy groups and wrote numerous books regarding this general topic, and has lived in marriage/partnership with another man for decades. Additionally, Justin Lee founded Gay Christian Network around the turn of the millennium and recently began a new non-profit / advocacy, Nuance Ministries, and also holds a non-traditional sexual ethic. He has also written multiple books regarding sexuality, communities of faith, and the broader Christian church’s acceptance, inclusion, or tolerance (or not) of non-heterosexuality. Matthew Vines, additionally, has a very public presence on social media, has published a number of books and other media, etc.

Traditional / Conservative

These are people who, you might guess, are those who profess faith in Jesus and by all metrics and appearances live in the way of Jesus. They worship Him regularly in a corporate setting, commit their resources and abilities to advancing His Name and fame, and study and depend on His Word. And they see nothing biblically right with a non-traditional sexual ethic. Why even define this viewpoint with the preceding three sentences; is not such a position self-evident to historical, biblical orthodoxy? We state this clearly because this viewpoint includes a great many Christians who describe themselves as “gay,” “lesbian,” “queer,” “same sex attracted” and more. And they live in the way of Jesus as described; in effect, “I know my sexual appetite does not match the Word of God so I will live celibate.” The preceding may be reductionist in the extreme, even “unfair” and that critique is valid. But in effort to be both tolerably brief but bring some clarity, we offer what we can such as it is.

Several years ago, Sam Allberry, an Anglican priest, addressed his Synod with a powerful 3-minute address. Video of it may still be readily found on YouTube and has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Allberry speaks popularly and has taught academically in locales internationally and has written numerous articles and books. We record a transcript of his statement to his Synod below. Dr Wesley Hill teaches Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry (also Anglican tradition) and has, as well, written several books about celibate, gay Christian life. There are myriad other personalities commenting and writing from this perspective and we would encourage our readers to seek out multiple sources of input regarding this perspective. We might simply suggest looking up content of the ReVoice Conference (held in June of both 2018 and 2019).

Allberry’s statement to the Anglican Synod:

Sam Allberry; Oxford; 1-8-3; thank you, Chair; thank you to the bishops for their hard work. I’m sure it was painful for them, but I don’t think you become a bishop for an easy life. [laughter] I am same-sex attracted and have been my entire life. By that I mean that I have sexual, romantic, and deep emotional attractions to people of the same sex. I choose to describe myself this way because sexuality is not a matter of identity for me. And that has become good news. My primary sense of worth and fulfillment as a human being is not contingent on being romantically or sexually fulfilled – and this is liberating. The most fully human and complete person who ever lived was Jesus Christ. He never married. He was never in a romantic relationship, and never had sex. If we say these things are intrinsic to human fulfillment, we are calling our Savior sub-human. I’ve met literally hundreds of Christians in my situation and know of thousands more who are same sex attracted, and who joyfully affirm the traditional understanding of marriage being between a man and a woman, and the only godly context for sex. If you don’t hear from more of us, it is because it is very hard to stand up and describe ourselves in this way. As someone who uses the language of “same-sex attraction,” I have to say that my church has not become a safe place for me. And by “church” I don’t mean my congregation. I mean this Synod – not because of what the report says but because of what has happened since. [Editorial Note: “report” and “since” are not clarified in his remarks.] I was bullied at school for being gay. I now feel I am being bullied at Synod for being same sex attracted …[pause]… and faithful to the teaching of Jesus on marriage. I’m grateful the report reaffirms the traditional doctrine of marriage. I’m concerned that we’re already preparing to pastorally undermine it. So my question to the bishops is not “Will you preserve this doctrine?” It’s: “Do you really believe in it? Is it Good News for the world?” Many of us have found it to be life-giving – as the message and teaching of Jesus always is. Thank you.

Besides vigorous and heated debate about the rightness of a traditional or non-traditional sexual ethic, there is also heated, even vitriolic, argument about terminology. In his statement, Allberry described himself as “same sex attracted.” Other terms include “gay,” “queer” and more. We can and should hold terms loosely. At present, there is even the presence of Christians who describe themselves as “Side A” and “Side B.” Those terms would be included, respectively, in the non-traditional and traditional categories, at least approximately. Their wide use has, in recent years, perhaps muddied the water, but their simple existence as self-describing terms shows how entrenched our disagreement, argument, and intractable disunity has embedded itself in this realm of Christian experience and church leadership. We so often “talk passed each other” and preciously rare are the moments when unity grows rather than division.

The simple fact that our faith, in the Western world, is wholly dependent upon the art of translation of our Scripture should forcibly remind us to be permissive and gracious in our grasp and use of language, from “gay” to “Side B” to “Christian” and beyond. We have all heard sermons extolling the differences among multiple Greek words for ‘love.’ In one context, we embrace and celebrate the nuances, transience, flexibility and even fungibility of language, yet bristle at exactly these attributes in another moment. We can’t nod in hearty agreement on Sunday morning during a sermon but snap at a neighbor, colleague, or family member on Tuesday. We need to stop our knee-jerk reactionism to certain words; we absolutely must stop our reactionary tendencies to emotionally bristle when someone in the church uses a word to describe themselves like “gay,” “queer,” “homosexual,” “same sex attracted,” or others.

Language is always an imperfect tool – yes, always. “The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words” (Rom. 8.26 emphasis added). Mr. Allberry has chosen to describe himself as “same sex attracted” and understands that it “is not a matter of identity for me.” Conversely, others are unable or unwilling to make a statement such as Allberry’s. That’s ok. We have heard the protest “no other label ever gets added to ‘Christian;’ we never talk about ‘alcoholic Christians’ etc., and there is no such thing as a ‘homosexual Christian’ or ‘same sex attracted Christian.’” We will simply conclude this portion of our discussion with this: we know fellow Christians by the fruit of their life, not by semantic labels. Language is an imperfect tool.

A final comment for the sake of clarity before mentioning further Scriptures: our bullet point above of “homosexual sexual intimacy” means just what it says – sex. When “gay,” “same sex attracted” or similar people are excluded from any and all forms of human touch in a local church, we are not being “the hands and feet of Jesus” to that individual. We are quite literally withholding the hands and feet of Jesus! Hand shaking, hugs, and whatever other form of touch would be appropriate for any other person in that congregation is just as valid for this LBG[etc.] brother or sister. Conflating “sexual intimacy” as any form of touch is, frankly, abusive. Refusing any physical contact, even and especially of the everyday and mundane variety like simply shaking a hand, is a deliberate sin of omission that creates relational isolation – the antithesis of what a church body should be. We now turn to specific Bible passages regarding boundaries.

Perhaps one of the most well-known of passages regarding non-heterosexuality is Paul’s condemnation of homosexual sex in Romans 1:

…God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other.  And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men…

Romans 1.26-27

Paul was here echoing an additionally well-known prohibition of Leviticus 18:

Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin.

Leviticus 18.22

Some may protest that, strictly-speaking, this translation is unfaithful to the original Hebrew. We would simply, respectfully, disagree. In its most-literal form, the verse might be expressed “And with a male not will you lie as with a woman it is an abomination.” Paul’s comment in Romans echoes Leviticus. “Shameful things,” “abomination,” and “detestable” are certainly within each others’ “orbits.”

But again, is there room here to accommodate a spectrum of meanings or possibilities, or is this analysis too narrow? Following on the heels of his discussion about the dysfunction and sin of legal disputes between Christians, Paul elaborated and continued his line of thinking with this:

Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people – none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God…                    

1 Corinthians 6.9-10, 11 [partial]

Paul also gives a very famous list in Galatians 5. But just before the famous list of positives, he also cautions us regarding our sinful nature:

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

Galatians 5.19-21

Paul’s descriptions here are not hard-and-fast checklists. He’s elaborating, illustrating, being descriptive and providing additional context for the topics and discussions at hand.

There are other references to notice regarding the boundaries of sexuality, a great many more than have been referenced so far.

  • 17.17 “The king must not take many wives for himself…”
  • 27 four curses equated with various non-marriage sexual encounters
  • Numbers 25.1 “… defiled themselves by having sex with local Moabite women.”
  • 5.27-30 Jesus’ expectations that we refuse to engage in adultery and/or lust.

We don’t think it is arrogant nor far-fetched in any way to claim that the biblical witness demands that heterosexual, monogamous, life-long marriage is the only right, godly, God-affirmed context for sex.

And while it is fully true “all sin is sin,” there is a comment by Paul of which we must take heed.

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself

1 Corinthians 6.18-19

While only two verses are quoted here, the entire passage of verses 12-20 deals on a broader basis with sexual sin. We simply need to acknowledge the reality that Paul was drawing special attention to sexual sin. Anything practiced outside of heterosexual, monogamous, life-long marriage is a clear sin before God and, as Paul wrote here, against one’s own body. Though it is wrong and dysfunctional for a congregation’s leadership to obsess over someone’s sexuality while utterly ignoring someone else’s gluttony or divisiveness, it is appropriate for a church, a congregation, a denomination to set narrow boundaries regarding “allowable sexuality” for its leadership because of Paul’s admonition here. All people are welcome to worship Jesus, and all should be welcome to worship in any congregation.

Because those who hold themselves out as teachers in God’s Kingdom are held to higher standards, this aspect of life can and should be part of said standards for church leaders. The only question for a congregation / denomination is, then, at what “level” of leadership/teaching responsibility are all people allowed to participate in building up the Bride? In what ways are all Jesus-followers welcome to serve the Bride?

To be blunt, consider this thought experiment. You arrive at “your” (we’re holding terms loosely here!) congregation’s building for worship on some Sunday morning. Someone you have never met before is walking in at the same time you are. You introduce yourself and begin conversing. In the course of your discussion, the visitor says he/she is a “gay Christian.” You don’t know if the person holds a progressive or conservative sexual ethic at this point. To what extent would he/she be welcome to participate with the congregation? How do your thoughts at this point differ between a progressive and traditional believer? Again, all people are welcome to worship Jesus and should be welcome to do so in any congregation. Is this person welcome to serve the Body as well? As you get to know each other, could neither, either, or both oversee the spiritual health of the church – that is, serve the Body as an elder? Can neither, either, or both preach? Can neither, either, or both teach a class? Can neither, either, or both prepare and/or distribute communion? Can neither, either, or both be a door greeter, a kid’s or nursery volunteer, a youth or high school volunteer? What about mission trip participation or leading a mission trip?

Above all: why? Answers to these questions, brother in Jesus, must have a significant ratio of “book-chapter-verse” in the word count. In examining brother Allberry’s statement above, what would we find in it that would be disqualifying of him as a Jesus-honoring spiritual example? We must say that we do not find anything disqualifying or unorthodox about his statement. So, bring such questions to your next elders’ meeting. Pray over them over a period of days, weeks, months. Ask your preacher to help you and your colleagues brainstorm through them.

All sin separates us from God. But we also cannot gloss-over Paul’s clear statement: “no other sin so clearly affects the body.” This does not equate to “AIDS was God’s punishment.” Just stop it. “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God…” (James 1.17). Disease and death are not “good and perfect.” Disease, death, and decay come from the curse of sin and influence of Satan. (See John 10.10, Genesis 3, the first third of Romans [esp. chapter 5], and more.) For whatever his Holy Spirit-inspired reasons, Paul pointed out that sexual sin is a violation against our own body. We voluntarily bring this violation of God’s design and intention against and into this “Temple of [His] Holy Spirit.” That is a big deal. To be quite candid, we will not try to speculate or describe precisely how in significant detail, but we do know what Paul told us: it “clearly affects” us in ways that all other sins don’t. Here is the only attempt we will make at elucidating Paul’s warning. Not every sexual encounter outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage results in transmission of venereal disease; not every sexual act has an immunological result. But we do know with certainty that every sexually directed mental act (i.e. lust) does have psychological, neurological results. And whether mere fantasy or physical act, sex is always intensely mental, as well as emotional, physical, and spiritual. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists would tell us that “neurons that fire together wire together.” So whenever we fantasize about whom we should not and/or go further and physically engage with whom we should not, “no other sin so clearly affects the [Temple of the Holy Spirit].” We leave ponderings about further affects outside the scope of this paper.

As we strive to lead the people in our care well both under the example, and toward the example, of Jesus, we need to be aware of the boundaries. Let’s stay as close as possible to the anchor, but we can and should be aware of the boundaries that have been Providentially placed around us.

With all of this in mind, we return to the example of David. What do we do with the overtly ungodly examples (in this aspect of life) of otherwise godly men like David, Jacob, Abraham, and others who did not follow God’s standard?

We’re All Concessions

As noted previously, there are at least two prominent biblical figures who discussed matters of sexuality and couched their assertions in terms of “concession:” Jesus Himself, and Paul.

Jesus said divorce was a concession under the Moses Covenant. Paul said intimacy after a period of abstinence for prayer was a concession. In a very real sense, whether discussing homosexuality, unfaithful heterosexuality, or even simple non-ideal heterosexuality, we are all in a state of concession. Even those who live faithfully with one heterosexual spouse “’til death do us part” fail God’s standard in some way in their sexuality. We do not need to speculate here how that may happen. We concluded the anchor section acknowledging heterosexual intimacy is a concession, but we’ll say it again: it is a concession to the sin-soaked, fallen condition of our hearts, irrespective of whether we crave heterosexual intimacy or homosexual intimacy.  

Though God told all of His Creation on multiple occasions to “be fruitful and multiply,” multiplication – through sex – is not going to be part of the ultimate restoration of all things. Sexual intimacy is a temporary concession. In some ways, it can be God-honoring; it is a mysterious reflection of the relationship and intimacy of God with His people, but the fact remains – it’s a concession.

God told His Creation to “be fruitful and multiply” multiple times in Genesis: 1.22, 1.28, 8.17, 9.1 and 9.7. As these references span across the sin of Genesis 3, we can say God’s design for sexual intimacy is, somehow, independent of the Fall and therefore part of the extreme goodness He pronounced in Genesis 1.31. (That goodness and God’s prescription to “be fruitful,” it should be pointed out, were given to the only humans who existed at the time – a heterosexual couple.) However, we also know that sexual intimacy is absent from God’s ultimate purpose and design for Creation once we arrive at His “making everything new” (Rev. 21.5, emphasis added) because Jesus Himself told the boundary-obsessed Pharisees that “when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22.30 paralleled in Mark 12.25). Sexual intimacy was possible and encouraged before the Fall, but we don’t know that it happened until Genesis 4.1 – after the Fall. As such, it has become another tension and paradox in our faith over which God pronounced a blessing yet about which Paul, by the inspiration of the Spirit, only offered a concession. God unequivocally shows us the anchor to which we must hold – “male and female He created them” – yet the only context in which we know it has been practiced is the post-Fall, sin-soaked world. Maranatha.  

Now let’s pull on some of the threads of David’s story that are less well-known. He was “a man after God’s heart,” as we are so quick to say. He was also, we absolutely must admit, broken, flawed, and according to a verse much, much less-often quoted, he was a lousy parent. This verse does not appear until 1 Kings chapter 1 – David’s old age. We first meet David as a young shepherd all the way back in 1 Samuel 16. More than thirty chapters elapse by the time we arrive in 1 Kings 1 – there is a lot of time covered and this is only offered by the biblical writer near the end of David’s life as side commentary during the brewing of another political crisis. In 1 Kings 1, David’s third-oldest child, Adonijah, was attempting to assume the throne without David’s blessing, and in the middle of the story, the writer, as if closing the book he’s writing, turning aside, and looking straight at us, offers this:

Now his father, King David, had never disciplined him at any time, even by asking, “Why are you doing that?” Adonijah had been born next after Absalom, and he was very handsome.

1 Kings 1.6

King David struggled to lead his family and home well. We can and should rightly take comfort in the fact that one of the primary good examples in all of the Bible – the “man after God’s heart” – struggled deeply as a dad. In this sense, we are in good company.

But this also demonstrates why, at least in part, there was so much dysfunction in David’s family. Years before Adonijah’s attempted usurpation, David’s oldest son, Amnon, had raped his half-sister Tamar. That violence only bred more violence in the family over subsequent years. Amnon assaulted Tamar in 2 Samuel chapter 13. David had assaulted Bathsheba, the wife of one of his own “Navy SEALs,” Uriah, in 2 Samuel chapter 11. David’s own failing as a husband and man, coupled with his failure to lead and parent his children, resulted in drastic, terrible consequences which persisted for generations.

Solomon grew up in a royal household full of intrigue and dysfunction. There is no overt evidence that David had deeper conversation with Solomon as we confidently know he did not engage with Adonijah. This lack of parental guidance and involvement had massive ramifications. The dysfunctions that David exhibited, Solomon repeated – and to greater extents. We make this assertion because, in all of the page space devoted to him, we never read of David writing out a copy God’s Law nor reading from it (as directed in Deuteronomy 17.18). There were numerous directives for the future kings of Israel enumerated in Deuteronomy 17 that David did not, by any evidence in our biblical text today, follow.

The king must not build up a large stable of horses for himself or send his people to Egypt to buy horses, for the Lord has told you, ‘You must never return to Egypt.’ The king must not take many wives for himself, because they will turn his heart away from the Lord. And he must not accumulate large amounts of wealth in silver and gold for himself.

When he sits on the throne as king, he must copy for himself this body of instruction on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests.  He must always keep that copy with him and read it daily as long as he lives. That way he will learn to fear the Lord his God by obeying all the terms of these instructions and decrees.  This regular reading will prevent him from becoming proud and acting as if he is above his fellow citizens. It will also prevent him from turning away from these commands in the smallest way. And it will ensure that he and his descendants will reign for many generations in Israel.

Deuteronomy 17.16-20

David wasn’t known for having a large cavalry force. But Solomon was. Why didn’t Solomon know about or heed Deuteronomy 17.16? What a perfect life, leadership, and rulership lesson to pass on from king to prince! Perhaps it was not passed along. David had, at the end of his life, eight wives, one special lady friend who’s named (Abishag) but with whom he was not intimate, so it’s recorded, plus an unspecified number of concubines. Why didn’t Solomon heed Deuteronomy 17.17? Did he not know it? Solomon witnessed the destruction of appetites (especially sexual) running unchecked, but it seems David never conversed with nor cautioned him about that trap. David is not known for opulent wealth as we now remember Solomon. But David directed his personal fortune of 112 tons of gold and 262 tons of silver to the Temple’s construction (1 Chron. 29.4). Never once in all the pages given to David and Solomon do we hear from either of them words like “As the Scriptures say …” or “As the Law requires…” as we frequently do with New Testament writers (specifically Paul, Peter, James, and anonymous Hebrews, besides from the mouth of Jesus). To be fair, those words aren’t recorded in the Old Testament by anyone. But we do see drastic action taken by King Josiah (2 Kings chapter 23) and the priest Ezra (Nehemiah chapters 7 and 8) in light of reading “the Law.” We don’t see such moments with David or Solomon; did they not know Deuteronomy 17.18? We can assert confidently that they did not do what it says.

We want to notice details like this in David’s life because even “men after God’s heart” have deep dysfunctions that are too often glossed over or ignored completely. We’re flawed and we miss the mark – including sexually. But that is not the end of the story. Sexuality is a piece of the whole in our lives with and before God. It is not who we are at our core. We are all God’s children, His creations, bearing His image at our deepest. It is a truth spoken by believer and non-believer alike that all of humanity are God’s kids. But there is an important qualifier to that notion; as His kids we are, we must admit, in one of only two possible states: 1) familiar with Him or 2) estranged from Him.

Sex does not define us; it’s merely one expression of intimacy. And God has reserved it for a husband and wife. It is simply one part of our whole self. Its deep appeal doesn’t mean it’s essential, it simply means that it’s deeply appealing. But like anything else in life that we crave, we need to remember Paul’s caution in Philippians 3.

Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example.  For I have told you often before, and I say it again with tears in my eyes, that there are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ.  They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth.  But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.  He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control.

Philippians 3.17-19 (emphasis added)

When we, at a cultural level, make evolutionary, biological science our god then it is entirely expected and unremarkable that sexual expression becomes paramount in our thinking and supposedly intrinsic to who we are because we need to procreate, spread genes, etc. And such an assumption would apply to both naturally reproductive (i.e. heterosexual) sex and/or variant forms of sexuality. But this worldview is not true; reproduction and natural selection are not our ultimate reality. Sex is not the ultimate purpose or experience for us; it is not intrinsic to humanity.

Similarly, if we make hedonism and pleasure our god, the intensity of sexual pleasure becomes paramount in our thinking and supposedly inherent to “human flourishing.” But it is not.

It is a good and right pleasure to be experienced – in the context and bounds which our Creator gave it. For those who are not living a Kingdom kind of life (1 Cor. 6.9, Gal. 5.21), “their god is their appetite.” I want God to be my God, not my appetite – despite how badly I fail most days. If my appetite, my cravings, were functionally my god, I, personally, would have already been on diabetic medications for some number of years. If my cravings were god, I likely would have maimed myself long ago in a vehicular mishap due to speeding. My appetites are still too large. And yet, I don’t want an appetite of any kind to be my driving motivation, my god, in any area of life – not gastrointestinal, not adrenal, not sexual, not egomaniacal. “Even though ‘I am allowed to do anything,’ I must not become a slave to anything” (1 Cor. 6.12). Anchor: less appetite. Boundaries: mind the sugar, mind the lead foot, mind sexual temptation, mind pride, mind…

Dallas Willard’s extensive and poignant Divine Conspiracy delves deeply into the words of Jesus in Matthew 5-7 and while discussing His words about lust and adultery, Willard includes this:

Intimacy is the mutual mingling of souls … Because we are free beings, intimacy cannot be passive or forced. And because we are extremely finite, it must be exclusive.

Dallas Willard, Divine Conspiracy, Ch. 5 / “The Destructiveness of Fantasized Desire”

In claiming sexual intimacy must be “exclusive,” Willard perfectly echoes Paul’s caution and prohibition in 1 Corinthians 6 about joining oneself to a prostitute (1 Cor. 6.15-17). It can be easy to point a finger at a nameless and faceless them whom we don’t personally know on an individual basis and who we make every effort to avoid: homosexual, transgender, other ethnicity, and so on, but we must acknowledge that not one person has ever “gotten it right” regarding human sexuality save Jesus Himself. We have all missed the mark sexually. Jesus is the only One who has ever lived a perfect life. As we continue practicing daily self-denial and cross-carrying, we will become more like Him, including in our sexuality. We will focus more on our spouse’s needs than our own. We’ll be more concerned with our spouse’s enjoyment and pleasure than our own. We’ll cherish to a greater, deeper extent the beauty of the Image of God in our spouse, not the appeal of mere physical form and a “beauty” that is only skin-deep.

Be anchored. Chase Jesus. There are boundaries – be aware of them – but focus on the anchor.

The World got it Right; It’s not Black-and-White

The World Got it Right; Not Black-and-White 

 

The World got it Right; It’s not Black-and-White

Jared Johnson

 

Think politics.  It’s unsuitable for polite company, but we begin here anyway.  When we say “politics,” one probably defaults to first thinking of Washington, DC.  Capitol Hill, the White House, chambers of the Supreme Court, and more evoke images of influence and power, a place “where things get done” … on some days.  We especially think of the unending bickering, procedural intrigue that stymies some voices in preference to others.  We think of unpleasant shouting matches and strained neck muscles and mouths wide open in full-throated rancor.  But the federal seat of power is not the only place such strains tear at our relational bonds.  From Capitol Hill to state houses, to governors’ mansions, all the way to municipal council chambers and zoning committee meetings, we strive against each other in competition for our view of what’s right and wrong in this world.

Once-and-for-all: Who’s right?

When Robert Mueller, III, gave a short, televised address on May 29, 2019, our nation, and perhaps many around the world, tuned in.  The ensuing conversations between (and around) public figures, politicians, commenters, and even at many kitchen tables were quite animated we’re confident in the immediate days.  For years – some point to the Newt Gingrich Speakership in the mid-90s – our political discourse has been bifurcating, polarizing, and crescendo-ing.  “Filter bubbles” follow us through Google and other online sites, whether we login or not.  (They track our computer’s unique online identifier – our IP Address.)  Google force-feeds us search results that more or less entrench and reinforce our existing beliefs.  Amazon posts products that it assumes we’re more likely to buy.  Such tracking and the related Filter Bubbles are an unmistakable example of Confirmation Bias and Conservatism Bias (not in a political sense) in action.  We look for information that more or less confirms what we already think.  In so doing, we conserve our existing beliefs, not straying far from our established worldview.  Socially and politically, this is deepening. 

One side shouts-down the other: “you’re wrong!”  The other side shouts louder still.  During one of their debates, then-candidate Trump intoned like a broken record at Secretary Clinton a one-word chorus: “WRONG.” 

Why begin with the intractable rancor of politics?  As church coaches, don’t we just talk about things that are good, peaceable?  Why bring up topics that only divide people and cause fights?  Isn’t it wrong to be divisive; Paul even wrote about that in Titus!  Grandma taught us “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”  And if that weren’t enough, mom taught us it isn’t any good to talk about politics or religion in polite company. 

We begin here to illustrate the way in which we label ourselves right and wrong.  We then take aim with vehement rhetoric at each other, stridently fighting over the labels.  This is not written to alienate anyone, but profoundly and truthfully: the world’s claim in recent decades that right and wrong aren’t always black-and-white is, in fact, true.  Sometimes we in the Church claim and cling to the notion that an action, a political vote, a situation, a court case, or some other happening is just wrong and “someone needs to stand up and do something!”  Often, in the church, we end up reacting to such headlines, and our responses instead become overreactions that end up alienating the unsaved people who watch us frenetically chase our proverbial tails.

In this paper we want to, primarily, defend biblical truth.  Secondarily, we want to recognize that sometimes, our effort to clarify and simplify our thinking to others, in fact, does neither. 

Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who’s the rightest of them all?

When we talk about what’s right or wrong in Christian circles we’re often speaking in terms of what we see allowed, encouraged, or commanded in the Bible – what’s right – versus what is forbade or condemned in the Bible – what’s wrong.  This is the foundation on which we must stand.  But foundations are only a base; we can’t stop at the foundation.  We must also look at the large structure standing on that foundation.

We can contend that right and wrong come in at least three distinct, yet overlapping, “types:” what is ethical, what is moral, and what is legal.  At this point, we simply must settle on definitions.

  • Ethical: an action or state of being that is right in and of itself
  • Moral: an action or state of being that is right according to the standards of society
  • Legal: an action or state of being that is right according to legislation or regulation

Readers may disagree with our stated definitions.  For the purpose of this paper, we use these definitions deliberately. 

On one hand, a word’s meaning is determined by its usage.  Conversely, popular usage cannot be the only criterion determining a word’s meaning.  Dictionaries do change, but they do so at a slower pace than culture.  In our own Christian sphere, we are highly accustomed to hearing “Christ” and “lord” frequently, and we typically understand those terms to refer to, respectively, Jesus and God-or-Jesus.  However, if we could somehow capture all of the English spoken across the entire globe on any given day, the most frequent uses of those words would not be the way in which most church leaders hear them.  The vastest majority of the English-speaking world hears and uses “christ” as a curse!  The vast majority of “lord” would probably be references to either “landlords” or pop culture villains – Lord Vader, Lord Voldemort, etc. 

We use the above definitions of ethical, moral, and legal more for their histories and etymologies than for what dictionaries currently describe. 

Ethics we take to be an “ultimate” type of right or wrong – and action or state is right just because of itself.  We can remember Immanual Kant’s Categorical Imperative: an action is right or wrong, for all people, in all situations, for all time.  If lying is wrong, then it is wrong when we get the proverbial question about how clothing looks on our spouse.  If lying is permissible, then go ahead; lie about its fit.  If not, then don’t.  It’s not a joke.  It’s wrong to lie.  If lying is wrong, it also doesn’t mean we must be brutal.  There’s nothing wrong with saying “I know what you’re about to ask, and I’m not going to answer.”  The essence of the categorical imperative is very firm and simple: something is right or it is wrong, “full stop.”  And that is akin to the sense we are describing for ethics here.  As Christians, we stake our ethics solidly in a biblical framework.  Actions and/or status are right or wrong according to God’s standards, and His standards express His eternal, perfect character.  His standards are what they are, and they flow from His perfect, unchanging character.

Morals we describe as right or wrong in society’s eyes because of its etymology, coming to us through Middle English from Latin’s “moralis,” which described what was “customary.”  Customs are crafted and perpetuated by a society.  In a moral sense, then, it might be wrong to lie.  It might not.  It is very common in our 21st-century, Western society to lie for the sake of personal convenience. 

In our setting we often hear morals and ethics conflated.  But there are important distinctions between them.  Legal, of course, is much clearer.  If something is addressed by a legislature’s or an agency’s paperwork, its legality is settled.  At times, politicians, celebrity personalities, or people suffering delusional thinking might think certain legal standards don’t or shouldn’t apply to them, but that doesn’t make the legality any less certain.  Sometimes a law or regulation simply isn’t enforced equitably; “accountability for thee, but not for me.” 

With these definitions in mind, we’ll consider three different scenarios from the Bible that illustrate these nuances of what’s right and what’s wrong.  In what way might it be most important in God’s eyes to be right?  In what ways might it be alright, from biblical example, to “let it slide” and compromise?  Is compromise or rationalization ever acceptable?  We will consider the scenarios first.  Afterward, we explore why such seeming trivialities even matter.

Ethical: Moses and the Complaints

When earlier we wrote that ethics are “ultimate” right/wrong, the following biblical example, among others, should be helpfully illustrative.  Following are the first 9.5 verses from Numbers chapter 14; chapter 13 gives the detailed account of the spies being appointed, traveling through Canaan, and returning.  Famously, as the Sunday School song taught us, “Ten were bad and two were good.”  Note that Joshua and Caleb were not the first of the twelve to speak.  The ten fearful spies immediately spread their fear and told the people there was no way they could go into the land God had appointed over 500 years previously to Abraham.  The opening lines of chapter 14 pick up the story:

Then the whole community began weeping aloud, and they cried all night.  Their voices rose in a great chorus of protest against Moses and Aaron.  “If only we had died in Egypt, or even here in the wilderness!” they complained.  “Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle?  Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder!  Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?”  Then they plotted among themselves, “Let’s choose a new leader and go back to Egypt!”

Then Moses and Aaron fell face down on the ground before the whole community of Israel.  Two of the men who had explored the land, Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, tore their clothing.  They said to all the people of Israel, “The land we traveled through and explored is a wonderful land!  And if the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us safely into that land and give it to us.  It is a rich land flowing with milk and honey.  Do not rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land.  They are only helpless prey to us!  They have no protection, but the Lord is with us!  Don’t be afraid of them!”

But the whole community began to talk about stoning Joshua and Caleb…

Numbers 14.1-10

Rather than Sunday School songs, we need to focus here on the relationship of the people to Moses, and Moses’ leadership priorities.  Enough commentary has been written about the spies, the reports, the forty-year punishment, and so on.  Focusing instead on the narrower aspect of Moses’ relationship to the people and vice-versa illustrates what we are attempting to describe.

Was Moses ethical?

Yes, he was acting ethically here. 

Defining ethics as right in-and-of-itself, we must take God’s own commands as our objective standard.  His character doesn’t change, though ours can – even on a minute-to-minute basis!  And His priorities flow from His perfect character.  Here, with the people of Israel along the edge of Canaan, Moses was still following God’s original directive to him from Exodus 3 (specifically verses 10 and 17).  Moses had led them out of Egypt (Ex. 3.10) and was about to lead them into Canaan (Ex. 3.17).  Moses was in the midst of following God’s way.  He was ethical. 

Was Moses moral?

No, he was not moral here.

The text very plainly shows how completely against Moses and Aaron the people had turned.  As leaders, they were following the will of God, and in this episode the will of the people turned 180° away.  We typically talk of repentance as a good thing, but here, the people had “repented” away from God! 

Additionally, in the etymological sense of “customary,” Moses was also not moral in this instance as the people had lived in Egypt for 430 years; their sense of normal and customary was still thoroughly grounded in Egypt.  They were in-between what had been normal in Egypt and what would yet in the future become normal and customary in the Promised Land.  In this situation, Moses was not acting morally.  That is irrespective of what sense in which we are using the word – “in line with society” or “in line with established custom.”  Whether we say Moses was immoral (going against morals) or amoral (independent/absent from morals), the fact remains, he was not moral.  Their leadership was so thoroughly uncustomary, in fact, that the people wanted to stone Joshua and Caleb, who were advocating for the same viewpoint as Moses and Aaron.

Was Moses legal?

No, he was not legal here. 

We can take one, or both, of two approaches.  As a monarch, Pharaoh was the law of the land in Egypt at the time of Israel’s Exodus, and he’d decreed multiple times they could not leave.  Though Pharaoh changed his mind and ordered the Hebrews to leave (Ex. 12.31), he did change his mind again and pursued them, famously, with hundreds of chariots to and into the Red Sea (chapter 14).  According to the law of the land of Egypt, they should not have left; it was an illegal departure.  Irrespective of Pharaoh’s capriciousness, it was not legal.  That episode alone should give us pause about viewing simple legality with too much importance.

In the second sense, though God had visited Israel on Mount Sinai and extended to them a covenant, they were not yet established in the Promised Land.  It was, again, an in-between state; we would almost say this was an a-legal period for them.  It was not necessarily illegal (as with the laws of Egypt), but a-legal – without legal basis.  Beginning with Exodus 12.25 and concluding with Deuteronomy 27.3, “when you enter the land” is a recurring theme.  Many of the regulations and expectations were not yet applicable while they wandered.  They couldn’t give grain offerings, for example (Leviticus chapter 2), while they had no fields to cultivate.  The covenant hadn’t fully taken effect. 

Scenario Conclusion: Ethical

When Moses and Aaron led Israel, faced the complaints of the people, and remained faithful to God’s expectations, they were (in this and similar instances):

  • Ethical they followed God’s way
  • Immoral they rejected the people’s priorities
  • Illegal they rejected/ignored “the law of the land” of Egypt, (and/or a-legal)

 

 

Moral: Joash’s Altar to Baal

A fascinating scenario unfolds in Judges 6.  The account is very brief; there are few details into which to delve.  But the implications from what we do see in just a few verses are profound.

That night the Lord said to Gideon, “Take the second bull from your father’s herd, the one that is seven years old.  Pull down your father’s altar to Baal, and cut down the Asherah pole standing beside it.  Then build an altar to the Lord your God here on this hilltop sanctuary, laying the stones carefully.  Sacrifice the bull as a burnt offering on the altar, using as fuel the wood of the Asherah pole you cut down.”

So Gideon took ten of his servants and did as the Lord had commanded.  But he did it at night because he was afraid of the other members of his father’s household and the people of the town.

Early the next morning, as the people of the town began to stir, someone discovered that the altar of Baal had been broken down and that the Asherah pole beside it had been cut down.  In their place a new altar had been built, and on it were the remains of the bull that had been sacrificed.  The people said to each other, “Who did this?”  And after asking around and making a careful search, they learned that it was Gideon, the son of Joash.

“Bring out your son,” the men of the town demanded of Joash.  “He must die for destroying the altar of Baal and for cutting down the Asherah pole.”

But Joash shouted to the mob that confronted him, “Why are you defending Baal?  Will you argue his case?  Whoever pleads his case will be put to death by morning!  If Baal truly is a god, let him defend himself and destroy the one who broke down his altar!”

Judges 6.25-31

This exchange happened after God / His angel had first appeared to Gideon, but before the famous episode with the fleece(s).  Rather than focus on the main character of the over-arching story, Gideon, we will give our attention Gideon’s dad, Joash, in this scenario.

Was Joash ethical?

No, Joash was not ethical

By the time of the book of Judges, Israel had been led out of Egypt by Moses, into Canaan and begun taking over much of it through Joshua’s leadership, and they were beginning to settle into life there.  Several Judges had already come and gone by chapter six (Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, and Deborah are explicitly named).  We’re reminded on more than one occasion in the book that “all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” (Judg. 17.6 and 21.25).  Chapter six tells us, overtly, that Joash, father of Gideon, thought it was right to have an altar to Baal, as was the custom of the area – not to the God who revealed Himself to Abraham early in Genesis, again to Moses in Exodus 3, and who then led Israel by cloud and fire for forty years.  The text plainly tells us that this altar dedicated to Baal belonged to Joash.  God demands in no uncertain terms that our worship be directed to Him, the only being worthy of worship in any way.  From Genesis chapter four, in the immediate aftermath of Cain’s murder of Abel, people were “worshiping God by name” (verse 26).  Joash was not doing that.  He was worshiping Baal. 

He was unethical.

Was Joash moral?

Yes, Joash was acting morally.

The “men of the town” wanted to kill Gideon for pulling down the altar.  The text doesn’t indicate it was some lone, random neighbor.  This didn’t upset one particular altar stone mason.  Remember Demetrius’ complaint against Paul in Acts?  He got mad because Paul’s preaching about Jesus slowed the sales of silver idols crafted in Artemis’ image.  Demetrius then spread his disdain, which others picked up on, but that riot began from the discontent of an individual.  Something similar did not happen here.  This whole town overwhelmingly reacted to Gideon in favor of Baal’s altar, and Joash was the owner of said altar.  This altar and Baal worship occurring on/around it was good in the eyes of the town.  They wanted their crops to grow.  They wanted their wives to bear multiple kids.  (Baal was thought a fertility god.)  Joash was acting morally. 

That said, something is odd about his priorities and behavior.  He was the owner and caretaker of the altar to Baal in their town, yet once Gideon pulled it down, Joash defended his son and went against the grain of the morals and customs of his neighbors.  If nothing else, this turning of tables at least shows our near-infinite capacity for hypocrisy.  Joash was not fundamentally different from you or I. 

Was Joash legal?

No, Joash was not acting legally. 

This was blatantly against the covenant recorded by Moses.  Moses had received and explained the covenant on multiple occasions – at least at its initial reception in Exodus and then again as a “farewell address” just ahead of his death late in Deuteronomy.  Joshua had then reminded the people of the covenant, and Joshua carried out Moses’ direction given in Deuteronomy 11. 

Some of the people stood below Mount Gerizim and the rest stood below Mount Ebal.  They then shouted back and forth to each other terms in the covenant that brought blessings or curses.  What Moses commanded in Deuteronomy 11, Joshua did in Joshua 8, after Jericho’s defeat and their entry into the Promised Land. 

Long before Joash’s birth, the Moses Covenant was established as “the law of the land.”  He was acting illegally.

Scenario Conclusion: Moral

When Joash built and/or maintained an altar in the name of Baal:

  • Unethical he was not following God’s way
  • Moral he was doing what his neighbors did/expected/wanted
  • Illegal he rejected/ignored the covenant law of God

Legal: Jezebel Versus Naboth

In one of the more famous episodes of the Old Testament demonstrating the corruption for which the people were exiled, Jezebel (Queen of the northern kingdom, Israel), manipulatively took control of a vineyard and threshing floor near the kingdom’s capital, Samaria. 

… Naboth replied, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance that was passed down by my ancestors.”

So Ahab went home angry and sullen because of Naboth’s answer.  The king went to bed with his face to the wall and refused to eat!

“What’s the matter?” his wife Jezebel asked him.  “What’s made you so upset that you’re not eating?”

“I asked Naboth to sell me his vineyard or trade it, but he refused!” Ahab told her.

“Are you the king of Israel or not?” Jezebel demanded.  “Get up and eat something, and don’t worry about it.  I’ll get you Naboth’s vineyard!”

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, sealed them with his seal, and sent them to the elders and other leaders of the town where Naboth lived.  In her letters she commanded: “Call the citizens together for a time of fasting, and give Naboth a place of honor.  And then seat two scoundrels across from him who will accuse him of cursing God and the king.  Then take him out and stone him to death.”

So the elders and other town leaders followed the instructions Jezebel had written in the letters.  They called for a fast and put Naboth at a prominent place before the people.  Then the two scoundrels came and sat down across from him.  And they accused Naboth before all the people, saying, “He cursed God and the king.”  So he was dragged outside the town and stoned to death.  The town leaders then sent word to Jezebel, “Naboth has been stoned to death.”

When Jezebel heard the news, she said to Ahab, “You know the vineyard Naboth wouldn’t sell you?  Well, you can have it now!  He’s dead!”  So Ahab immediately went down to the vineyard of Naboth to claim it.

1 Kings 21.3-16

Was Jezebel ethical?

Jezebel certainly acted unethically in this situation. 

Perhaps most famously in Proverbs 6.16-19, the seven things God hates are listed as: “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that kill the innocent, a heart that plots evil, feet that race to do wrong, a false witness who pours out lies, a person who sows discord in a family.”  Arguably, Jezebel eagerly practiced all of these; she overtly committed at least two (heart plotting evil; feet racing to do wrong).  She was not following God’s way; she was unethical.

Was Jezebel moral?

Despite the corrupt nature of Israel’s politics and society at the time, Jezebel actually did cross the moral line here as well.  She was immoral. 

We see this in the description she chose to use in writing the letter: “…seat two scoundrels across from him.”  She wrote a letter to the civic “leaders” of Naboth’s hometown and overtly requested them to find dishonest people for this role.  These two were understood by their neighbors as dishonest, as scoundrels (“worthless” in some translations).  This was not merely contrary to God’s way (unethical).  It was less than acceptable even according to the corrupt standards of the time.  The fact that the town elders embraced the devious scheme and actively participated, even despite seeing the king’s [forged] name on those letters, enabling this obvious assault against life and property, is an entirely different – and infuriating – discussion.

Was Jezebel legal?

Perhaps surprisingly, Jezebel was acting legally. 

In manipulating circumstances so her husband could claim Naboth’s vineyard, the basic requirement that more than one individual accuse someone of wrongdoing was met. 

Jezebel incited people to lie on her behalf; she didn’t overtly break the 9th Commandment. 

She arranged circumstances such that Naboth was killed; she didn’t, herself, “strike and kill [him] with a piece of iron” (Num. 35.16). 

She ensured a property auction took place so Ahab could get the vineyard; she didn’t, herself, “move a boundary marker” to seize it (Deut. 19.14 and 27.17). 

All these actions were addressed in the Moses Covenant Law, but from arm’s length, Jezebel could just plausibly say “I didn’t do it” and, at least in her own self-justifying thinking, walk away, supposedly innocent.  We might forget that we are reading this account of her nefariousness from, in a literary sense, an omniscient viewpoint; Ahab was unaware she was the lynchpin of the story, and the town elders were unaware of her ultimate goal.  She told Ahab “eat something and I’ll get it for you.”  She told, under a forged signature, the town elders to hold a fast and place the scoundrels strategically.  Once Naboth was killed, she found out and told Ahab “o hey, hun, that vineyard is available by the way.”  Interesting that she wrote the letter in Ahab’s name and sealed it with his ring, yet the elders informed her after the dastardly doings. 

We also want to pause a moment and introduce another concept; we might term it a “sub-category.”  There are actions and states, in our current context, that are not criminal; that is, “improper” rather than outright illegal.  A speeding or parking ticket is a familiar example.  They result from our actions as drivers that, legally, are not allowed, but that are also not a felony nor misdemeanor.  To circle back to the social discord and political vitriol that opened this discussion, we point out that a foreigner’s undocumented, “unlawful” presence in the USA is a civil violation, not criminal.  (That decision was made in 2012 by the Supreme Court; the cited US code “imposes criminal and civil penalties on employers … but only civil penalties on aliens… [pg. 3].)[1]  “Illegal immigration” is a misnomer; as the saying goes, “it’s not really a thing.”  Indeed, there is no such thing as “illegal immigration,” despite the term’s incessant usage in our social discourse.  We mention this to point out these are not meaningless trivialities.  What is ethical in God’s eyes, what is moral in our neighbors’ eyes, and what is legal where we live confronts even the hottest hot-button issues in our lives and culture. 

But the discussion continues.  This is not the end of the story.

Scenario Conclusion: Legal

When Jezebel arranged to get Naboth’s vineyard for Ahab:

  • Unethical she was not following God’s way
  • Immoral she enlisted the help of the very basest people, “scoundrels”
  • Legal she “ticked the boxes” to have Naboth killed, but with plausible deniability

 

Implications: So What?

Why does any of this matter?  These contrasts, similarities, differences, and subtleties matter for one simple reason: God expects us to be sensitive to all of them

The default, and frankly, simplistic, answer to “just do what the Bible says” or “just follow God” response we have to our changing and increasingly hostile world is inadequate.  A flippant, dismissive attitude does not help us build bridges between our lost culture and our Good Father.

It’s a part of our human nature to want to be “right.”  But being “right” can take multiple shapes, as the above scenarios help to illustrate.  What kind of “right” – ethical, moral, or legal – should we be as God followers?  We should be all three.  Following is a list of several examples of each, from Scripture, in which God explicitly expects us to do “right” according to His standards and/or even others’ standards.  The following are not the same Scriptures as above.  

Reference(s) Scripture “Category”
Gen. 4.3-7 When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord.  Abel also brought a gift – the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock.  The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected.

“Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected?  You will be accepted if you do what is right…

Ethical
Lev. 11.45 For I, the Lord, am the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt, that I might be your God.  Therefore, you must be holy because I am holy. Ethical
Lev. 20.26 You must be holy because I, the Lord, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own. Ethical
Matt. 5.48 But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. Ethical
1 Pet. 1.15-16 You must be holy because I, the Lord, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own.  For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.” Ethical
Gen. 34.30 …Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have ruined me!  You’ve made me stink among all the people of this land…” Moral
Jer. 29.7 And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile.  …its welfare will determine your welfare. Moral
Acts 2.47 [Believers were] praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. Moral
Rom 12.17-18 Never pay back evil with more evil.  Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable.  Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Moral
1 Cor. 8.9 2 Cor. 6.3 We live in such a way that no one will stumble because of us, and no one will find fault with our ministry. // But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble. Moral
Gen. 27.7-9 Then Abraham bowed low before the Hittites and said, “Since you are willing to help me in this way, be so kind as to ask Ephron son of Zohar to let me buy his cave at Machpelah, down at the end of his field.  I will pay the full price in the presence of witnesses, so I will have a permanent burial place for my family.” Legal
Neh. 2.20 The God of heaven will help us succeed. We, his servants, will start rebuilding this wall. But you have no share, legal right, or historic claim in Jerusalem. Legal
Esther 8.7-8 Then King Xerxes said to Queen Esther and Mordecai the Jew, “I have given Esther the property of Haman, and he has been impaled on a pole because he tried to destroy the Jews.  Now go ahead and send a message to the Jews in the king’s name, telling them whatever you want, and seal it with the king’s signet ring.  But remember that whatever has already been written in the king’s name and sealed with his signet ring can never be revoked.” Legal
Rom. 13.5-6 So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.  Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons… Legal
1 Tim 2.1-2 …Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them.  Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. Legal

 

We see in the “ethical” references ways/reasons that we should be and act simply because it is what God expects.  God told Cain to do right, and from the very beginning of the Moses Covenant right through to 1 Peter, God expects us to be “holy” – mature, set-apart, His. 

In the “moral” references we see the clear expectation of God that we, His followers, “go along / get along” in whatever way we can.  Jacob was most worried about being perceived as a “bad neighbor,” though Simeon and Levi had engaged in the arguably “more-right” action of avenging their sister’s assault.  In Romans 12, “everyone” – not only fellow Christians – should see that we are honorable.  The early Church lived in such a way that outsiders were glad to think of them with “goodwill” (Acts 2.47).  Getting along with non-believing neighbors and living in a way that they deem “right” is also expected of us by God. 

In the “legal” references we also see God’s expectation that we live within the parameters of the society in which we find ourselves.  Abraham deferred to the Hittite elders’ influence in buying the burial cave at Machpelah.  Esther and Mordecai didn’t ignore or usurp the legal regime of the Persian/Median Empire; they worked within it.  Nehemiah challenged the “squatters’ rights” mentality of Sanballat, Tobiah, et. al. upon his arrival in Jerusalem.  The decree of the emperor had made him the legal governor of the territory (see his retrospective comment in ch 5 v 14).  He knew those papers appointing him were important; the king had made the effort to decide on his governorship and record that decision, so Nehemiah was going to honor that.  With letters to various provincial governors regarding provisions for the journey and rebuilding, Nehemiah was trying to accomplish his God-ordained (ethical) task with as much proper paperwork (legal) as possible.  Both Paul and Peter, then, round-out our sample, also admonishing us to do what is right and proper and upstanding regarding civil authorities. 

Application: Being Right isn’t the Goal

We too often think being right is important – in a discussion, an argument, a political contest, in a leadership decision regarding “our” church – and that our amount of rightness determines the outcome.  We obsess over being right in our assessment of the challenge.  We may even seek out – perhaps desperately – the most-right advice about tackling said challenge.  If we seek outside counsel, we then wonder whether the advice-giver’s thinking about the situation is right and then ponder whether the advice offered is the right approach to take. 

God has told us to do what is right.  That should not be minimized.  But doing what is right in all of these scenarios ultimately expresses our willingness, as God-followers, to submit.  We deliberately end the previous sentence with “submit” and not with a limiting, qualifying clause.  Being right is less about our assessment or action than it is about our attitude or posture.

How Does Submission = Right?

Let’s go back to our three case studies: Moses, Joash, and Jezebel.

Moses was in the right ethically because he’d already committed in his heart, mind and soul to lead the people of Israel as God had directed him – he’d submitted to God’s authority and when a test came, Moses remained committed to that earlier decision.  Joash was in the right morally at least insofar as he had submitted to his neighbors.  Jezebel was in the right legally insofar as she’d submitted to following procedures laid out by Moses centuries before her.  Joash’s and Jezebel’s rightness in an ethical sense was lacking, but that is a different discussion.

The people in our three main examples were all submitted to an authority in some form or another.  Similarly, the chart just above displays willing submission.  The recurring directive to “be holy because God is holy” demands that we live His way; if we’re called-out, called-apart, set apart, etc. then we’ll be living in the way God has prescribed.  For ancient Israel, that was a heeding of a specific set of sacrificial parameters, behavioral guidelines, directives for husbanding the land, clothing stipulations, cleanliness and much more.  Now in the New Covenant, we’re still expected to be set apart and living God’s way; that still includes the way we treat each other, generosity toward people and God, having a humble and contrite heart, and much more.  Morally – the way we interact with our culture – involves a degree of submission.  Very few Christians in the US advocate for a political system besides one centered on the Constitution; to advocate otherwise would, in fact, be immoral.  In this way, we submit to our neighbors’ political inclinations – at least in a general sense.  When we use turn signals, manage our speed, heed traffic lights, and so on, we have submitted to the various legal requirements of operating motor vehicles. 

Being right is inherently tied to submission. 

And here we get to the core of the issue.  Have we set our life’s standard merely at “ticking boxes” so we don’t get in trouble in a legal sense while letting our moral or even ethical character rot?  What’s most important in life?  Are we most concerned with doing things our way and only worrying about what we can get away with?  Do we hold our fellow church leaders to minimalist standards; do we rationalize-away situations with statements like “Well, I guess it’s not wrong, but…”?  Do we split all the proverbial hairs?  As Jesus once put it “…you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law … You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!” (Matt. 23.23-24). 

Doing things God’s way above all, while keeping an understanding and peaceable disposition toward our neighbors, trying to go-along/get-along with all the civic authorities requires our willingness to submit to others – both to God and fellow people.  And that will only be our disposition if we have a humble attitude, confident in the wisdom of living God’s way.  

God knows what He is doing.  Outcomes are not up to us.  We just need to follow and trust the results to Him.  God never promised we would be successful; He called us to be faithful.  The rightness of our decision-making process, of the outside consultant’s thinking, of our understanding of a problem or of our general approach to it, of our theology, of our political or social convictions … they pale compared to our attitude of humility and posture of submission. 

Peter asked Jesus, “What about him, Lord?”

Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?  As for you, follow me.”  So the rumor spread among the community of believers that this disciple wouldn’t die.  But that isn’t what Jesus said…

John 21.21-23

As for you, follow Me.

Yes, we do want to do and be and believe what is right in God’s eyes.  We can’t speak for you, but we would also, additionally, in conjunction with that, rather get along with our neighbors and “be at peace” (Rom. 12.18) with them, versus picking fights.  And we certainly prefer living in a geography whose political/civil stipulations make it easier to cooperate with civic authorities, rather than be resistant against them.

But being “in the right” in any of these ways is not nearly as important to the Father as having the right posture (i.e., submission) and having the right attitude (i.e., humility).  Divisiveness is not a God-honoring character trait.  Korah and hundreds of others died in Numbers 16 because they were so stubbornly divisive.  On the other end of the Bible, Paul directed Titus not to put up with people who exhibit a consistently divisive attitude (Titus 3.9-11).  “I’m right, you’re wrong” is not the first filter through which we live life in way of Jesus.  If we really are His followers and insist on having such a “me-first” attitude, finding fault with others’ thinking or speech or actions, we must first locate “book-chapter-verse” when Jesus set the example to us that He was interested in being right.  But He was not.  Such a moment is not recorded in Scripture. Jesus served.  He humbled Himself.  He relinquished control of situation after situation.  He submitted to God’s plan in prayer on the night He was arrested.  He submitted to requests for healing – leprosy, blindness, deformities.  He submitted to some parents’ request to bless their young kids.  He even submitted to the priorities of a hurting crowd rather than tend to His own hurting heart in the aftermath of John the Baptist’s execution (Matt. 14.13-14). 

Submitting to the capriciousness of Nebuchadnezzar, then Darius, then Belshazzar – all of whom were blatantly, overtly ungodly at different times – may not seem at first glance to be God-honoring.  But we know God sustained Daniel through it all.  Daniel submitted.  God blessed him.  Submission is a dirty word to our supposedly American independent streak.  Really, it’s just an assault on the deep-seated pride of our human nature.  God has shown and told us to submit to Him, to our neighbors and to civic authorities.  At times, those 2nd and 3rd ways can run counter to God’s way, but they are unusual times.  Causing tension with neighbors and civil disobedience are the exception. 

Submission, additionally and to be clear, is not obeisance nor acquiescence to any particular person.  We all mutually submit to each other “out of reverence for [Jesus]” (Eph. 5.21).  We have one head, and it is no mere man nor woman.  Being that we started this missive with politics, we should say plainly that abject deference to any one human figure, especially in a political sense, is merely another expression of our broken tendency to gravitate to who is most-right – in our own flawed estimation.  We see political correctness operating in both the political right and left.  Submission and humility as modeled and embodied by Jesus was not the grotesque fealty we see in politicians’ and pundits’ rationalized hero-worship.  On more than one occasion, and yet, not every occasion, Jesus Himself demonstrated no patience for certain agendas.  While Daniel submitted to the legal, political authority of three corrupt and mercurial kings, he also did not compromise his ultimate submission to God and his humility before those kings.  Daniel went to the lions’ den, but he engaged in no mental or verbal gymnastics justifying the law that condemned him; “O hail Darius!  God Himself has anointed you as His chosen king and instrument and I know this law is just what God wanted you to decree!”  Not what the text says. 

At that time some Pharisees said to him, “Get away from here if you want to live!  Herod Antipas wants to kill you!”  Jesus replied, “Go tell that fox …

Luke 6.31-32

Ultimately, our deliberate cultivation of a humble attitude and willingness to submit to fellow Christians and beyond is what God honors, not our rightness.  Hundreds of times throughout the Bible, we are reminded that God alone is right.  We make it a fancy church word and usually say “righteous,” but it simply means that God is right, He has all rightness in Himself.  God does expect us to reflect Him.  But it is through Jesus that God shares His rightness and makes us right before Him – but that’s a direct and inseparable result of Jesus’ work on our behalf.  We are not right; Jesus is.  Our fixation on being right does not reflect the perfect character of either the Father or Son.  Our dependence, though, upon Him does.  He is the vine; we are the branches.  He wants us to embrace submission and humility, not “I know I’m right.”

Jesus was right because He submitted to God’s way.  And He submitted to God’s plan for our redemption because He was humble before God His Father, even though He was God! 

Next time we feel compelled to be right or compel someone else to be right, we might instead think about how we are refusing to submit or how we can cultivate a more humble attitude.

Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights.  A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people.  Gently instruct those who oppose the truth.  Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth.  Then they will come to their senses and escape from the devil’s trap.  For they have been held captive by him to do whatever he wants.

2 Timothy 2.23-26

“Who’s right?”  Such a question and the insistence on probing for its definitive answer is, indeed, a “foolish, ignorant argument that only starts a fight.” 

In the upside-down values of God’s Kingdom, He told us to serve, not to be served.  He expects us to lose our lives to find life in Him.  He told us to sit at the foot of the table, not the head.  He told us the greatest in His eyes is the one who serves at the lowest, deepest, greatest extent.  His strength only perfects when we are utterly spent, pitifully weak. 

Submitting, telling someone else “you are right,” is right.  Only God can accomplish such a paradox in His upside-down way.  There are a great many paradoxes and tensions with which our Father expects us to live until He restores everything to His way (Rev. 21.5).  Our values, our assumptions, our defaults are not His.

The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.  This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see.

Psalm 118.22-23, Matthew 21.42, Mark 12.10, Luke 20.17, Acts 4.11, 1 Peter 2.7

The ability to relinquish our rightness and defer to someone else’s rightness requires humility – and Jesus set the perfect example to us.  “As for you, follow me.”  Jesus invited us; in His perfectly gentle way, told us, to follow Him.  And His way is humility.

Paul gave exquisite insight into that humility in Philippians 2.  

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.  Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.  When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.  Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2.6-11

The King of the Universe and beyond was willingly born in human flesh as a slave.  May we be awestruck every time we read Paul’s words.  God never told us to be right.  But He has told us – and shown us! – to submit and be humble.  As for us, we follow in Jesus’ way.

I can think of no better way to conclude this discussion than to simply quote a prayer that first appeared in print in the late 19th century. [2] [3] [4]  (It has been attributed to St. Francis and to Rafael del Val, but these first printings from 1867 and 1880 make no such citation; the original pray-er or author is perhaps, even appropriately, lost to history.) 


O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.

 

From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being approved, deliver me, Jesus.

 

From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being despised, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being rebuked, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being criticized, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, Jesus.

 

That others may be loved more than I,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That in the opinion of the world others may increase and I may decrease,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be chosen and I set aside,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

 

May it be in the Name of Jesus.  Amen.

[1] https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/11-182.pdf accessed 2019-July-2

[2] https://archive.org/details/TheFerventAdorer/page/n263 accessed 2019-July 3

[3] https://archive.org/details/littlemanualofno00sylv/page/132 accessed 2019-July-3

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Litany_of_humility accessed 2019-July-3

“To the Servants:” A Paper on Deacons

To The Servants… A Paper on Deacons 

[Editorial Note: We encourage you to open/read/print the PDF via the link just above.  While the paper appears below in “inline text,” several elements of the formatting display differently in this internet window than they do in the PDF.  In particular, the HTML version cannot render the Greek font used in the PDF, the Greek word is key in this discussion.]

“To the Servants:” A Paper on Deacons

Jared Johnson

First Things First: The Word Itself

“Deacon” is a borrowed English word.  To be very specific, it is a transliteration of the Greek word deakon (and various other forms) that was common in the first century. 

Translation is the action of conveying meaning from one language into another.  Doing so requires one person to have proficiency in at least two languages.  Typically, translation requires one to be familiar with multiple “pieces of a puzzle” in the two languages: alphabetical characters, different phonemes, competence in thinking with and using a different grammar structure, etc.  Translating from English to Spanish is slightly easier than English to, say, Mandarin Chinese.  English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, and other languages all generally use a Latin alphabet.  Translating English to Russian, Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese, Cambodian, etc. requires a deeper skill set because the alphabets, syntax and even emphasis on inflection (that is, when pronunciation subtleties change a word’s meaning) differ between origin and target language so radically.  Translation conveys meaning between languages. 

Transliteration is the action of conveying the sounds of one language to another; the sound of a word in one language is, in effect, written in the characters of a new language.  This is what happened with the adoption in English of the Greek word “deakon.”  The sounds uttered by a first-century Greek speaker when they read the Greek letters delta-epsilon-alpha-kappa-omicron-nu gave us our English “deacon;” the two are very similar audibly.  Meaning was not conveyed.  Only sound was conveyed.  

When a Greek speaker said deakon, they were conveying the idea of “service,” “servant,” etc.  That’s really what this discussion comes down to: “deacons” serve.  

There are approximately 100 occurrences of deakon and its various forms (i.e. prefixes/suffixes, as a verb, as a noun) in the New Testament.  We will not deal with each reference in-depth as there are too many for such a paper.  Find a list of most of the references along with a short explanatory note as an appendix at the end of this paper.

For a quick comparison, we here quote a few phrases in which this Greek word appears, but we have flipped our typical English expression.  (If, in the published New Living Translation, “deacon” is rendered, we instead quote the phrase below with “servant” and vice-versa.) 

Matt. 23.11 The greatest among you must be a deacon.
1 Cor. 3.5 …who is Apollos?  Who is Paul?  … only God’s deacons through whom you believed…
Phil. 1.1 This letter is from Paul and Timothy, deacons of Christ Jesus.
Col. 1.7 …from Epaphras, our beloved co-worker.  He is Christ’s faithful deacon …
1 Tim. 3.8 In the same way, servants must be well-respected and have integrity. 

We do not mis-quote these verses for the sake of muddying the water, dear reader, but to clarify.  Remember, each of these five passages use the very same Greek word.  The renditions above seem odd only because of our cultural, habitual use and abuse of the transliteration deacon.  A “deacon” is merely a servant.  We have wrongly made it into an office or title in the contemporary church. 

Second: Qualifications

Just as Paul had underlying expectations of overseers/elders for the local congregation, he also had qualifying expectations of servants.   Here we quote, as nearly as possible, a word-for-word translation of the original Greek from 1 Timothy 3.8-13.  We have bracketed and grayed the four instances of deakon (or a form of it) in this text. 

vs 8      [Servants], likewise, must be dignified, not double-tongued, not to much wine being given, not greedy of dishonest gain,

vs 9      holding to the mystery of the faith with clear conscience. 

vs 10    Also these, now let them be tested first; then [let them serve], being blameless. 

vs 11    Women, likewise, must be dignified, not slanderers, clear-minded, faithful in all things. 

vs 12    [Servants] let be of one woman husbands, their children well-managing and their own households. 

vs 13    Those for well [having served] a standing for themselves good acquired and great confidence in faith that is in Anointed One Jesus.

In a strong reflection of Paul’s expectations of elders laid out in 1 Tim. 3.1-7, servants need to be examples worth following to the congregation.  Jesus Himself told us to “do as I have done to you” just after He washed the feet of the twelve (John 13.15).  He led by example and we should be doing likewise in His Church.  First, we must say that someone serving the church is, by definition, present with the church.  It should go without saying, but in this 21st century as church attendance is averaging 1.7 times per month or less in the USA, it must be said.  Whether wintering out-of-state, traveling for work/business often or with sports leagues, etc., those who are absent for a significant portion of the year are probably not examples to the congregation worth following.  If a person is overseeing or serving (i.e. elder or deacon), would we point a new believer to such a person and say “do what they’re doing” if they are absent ten, twenty, thirty Sundays per year?

As an example, servants are people of integrity, respected, not driven or controlled by external things like money or alcohol, and committed to the Christian faith without reservation.  Verse 10’s “blameless” is a key theme in Paul’s estimation of church leaders, both for servants and for overseers.  To be clear, the centrality of blamelessness in Paul’s evaluation of church leaders comes back to the litmus test of leading by example – is this person an example to our congregation who’s worth following?

We also would be remiss if we did not address gender as it relates to the role of servants.  There is no limitation on servants being men only or women only.  In the passage above, Paul uses masculine indicators in Greek.  Paul, additionally, says that a servant must be “a one-woman husband,” as he stipulated for elders in 1 Timothy 3.2.  On the one hand, this would preclude women from serving as servants.  On the other hand, in an often-cited phrase in the gender-roles-in-church debate, Paul referred to Phoebe in Romans 16.1 as “a [servant] of the church.”  Yes, deakon.  Therefore, on the face of it, an elder is “a one-woman man,” and a deacon is “a one-woman man.”  However, we have a countering statement from Paul in Romans 16.1 regarding servants.  We never have such a countering statement from Paul regarding overseers.  With Phoebe serving the church well, we apply that to our churches also; servants, deakonoV, are men and women who fit the description of 1 Timothy 3: people of integrity, honest, an example, faithful in their marriage and family relationships, with households that evidence an orderly and godly life.  What seems a bit awkward in English in verses 11 and 12 – “women” – is indeed responsibly translated as “wives.”  Throughout the New Testament, the Greek word for “woman” is used when the context plainly means someone’s wife; there was no other word used.

A final word about those who should be considered for a servant role.  Please notice what Paul did not write in verse 13: “Those who do well as [servants] will be rewarded with a promotion to elder.”  Not what the text says, yet one would be forgiven for thinking it an unwritten rule in most churches.  A deacon/servant is not an “elder-in-training” nor “junior elder” nor “elder lite.”  Viewing deacons as such inherently mis-identifies those who should be servants.  When we start from the wrong so-called Square One, we’re bound to miss the mark at every subsequent stage.  In the contemporary church we too often default to thinking in organizational hierarchies and flow charts; that elders report to the preacher and deacons report to elders, or some such nonsense.  Overseers, well … they oversee the spiritual condition of the church and set the tone for her spiritual formation.  Servants – we’re not trying to be insulting here – they serve.

Third: Role

Let’s look at the very first moment the Church instituted this somewhat special role of servant for insights about how it functions.  If deacon/servant isn’t an office or title, what then?  The opening verses of Acts 6 get us on the right track.  We again replace the rendered English words below; in this passage, we have used “deaconing” simply for grammatical fit though it isn’t a word.

But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent.  The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily [deaconing] of food.

So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers.  They said, “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not [deaconing] a food program.  And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom.  We will give them this responsibility.  Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and [deaconing] the word.”

Acts 6.1-4

From Acts 2 through 5, the roles in the Church were simply: Apostles and everyone else.  In Acts 6, that changed. This was the first structural change that the Church underwent as she started becoming “one body with many parts” (Rom. 12.5, 1 Cor. 12.12).  The first role in the Church filled by deacons/servants was, in effect, Benevolence Ministry Leader. 

Not only were Lead Servants appointed to ensure adequate response to the needs of the benevolence ministry, but the Apostles, then, were freed to continue “deaconing” the Word to the people of the Church.  Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas served food, and the Apostles served teaching.  Both are service-oriented tasks, positions, roles. 

In one sense, we are all deacons in the Body, serving each other.  On the other hand, it is worth noting that in vetting and appointing these seven in the way that they did, the Apostles took some steps worth mimicking.  By vetting, laying on hands and praying for these seven appointees, the Apostles were showing the Church these men had the authority and responsibility to carry out the new benevolence ministry.  People knew that if a new widow moved to town and became part of the growing Church, one of these seven would need to be told, not Peter, Bartholomew, etc.  These seven were the designated leaders – hands laid-on and prayed-over – and leaders lead by setting the right example, doing what their role requires, unhesitant to roll up proverbial sleeves and be in the trenches, ministering. 

The first deacons led a burgeoning benevolence ministry.  A servant might lead any number of ministry types or needs today, depending on the congregation’s ministry priorities and context.  A deacon might lead and oversee a church’s provision of a post-funeral meal and follow-up meal/food deliveries in the days following someone’s passing.  This is just one facet or sub-type of ministry that could fall under a church’s benevolent outreach.  A deacon/servant might be the key leader of kids’ ministry in a congregation.  One role often overlooked for leadership by a deacon is in offering collection, counting, and deposit.  Congregations cannot put all the financial responsibility of a congregation on one set of shoulders.  A volunteer, a servant, might be the best way for a congregation to introduce non-staff accountability into the process.  If a staff person always delivers the deposit to the bank on Monday morning, a deacon might be the point person for the offering’s counting on Sunday.  Every stage of the collection, counting, and deposit should have multiple parties involved for transparency and accountability, but all or part of the Sunday morning logistics being primarily under the oversight of a volunteer might be a highly helpful step that can protect staff from “appearances of evil” and accusation, (if staff are currently doing too much in this realm).  A servant might oversee a sports outreach to the congregation’s neighborhood.  The possibilities are myriad.

One last thought in this realm of the role filled by a deacon.  It is the word of choice (deakon) for Paul as he discussed spiritual gifts in both Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12; that is, he is, in effect, saying “if your gift is serving others, deacon well” (Rom. 12.7).

Fourth: Adjustments

Finally, there are a number of adjustments we should make in ourselves and in our congregations regarding the concept of servants/deacons.

We need to, internally, adjust our thinking.  Rather than officer of the church to whom we must defer, a deacon is simply the example that I, as a fellow volunteer in my church, should follow in a specific context.  In my own home congregation, we have worship hours at 9:15, 11:00 and 4:30 on Sundays.  When I volunteer in the nursery, Annette is the primary example for me to follow if I’m in the toddlers’ room at 4:30 (which I, personally, typically am).  If I volunteer in the morning at 11 (which is infrequent but I have), Jeff is the primary example to follow.  At those different times, they are the people who lead the room.  They’re typically the ones who start the songs and are willing to look goofy doing nursery-rhyme motions to simplistic music.  But the toddlers love it.  I have watched those kids engage with these servant-leaders in ways they simply do not when other faces are in front.  Jeff and Annette are the first to get their fingers marked-up when it’s time to do crayons or stamps for the craft/picture time.  As often as not, if a kid needs a diaper, they’re the first to notice and proactively just do it.  They lead in those contexts with great moral authority.  Because they lead their ministry contexts so proactively, Joanna (the paid staff nursery director) and Allison (the paid staff kids’ director) can give their attention to other matters on Sundays.  No vote was needed.  No motions.  No mourning among the kids when, after three years (or whatever other arbitrary number) they’re required to abruptly move on.  Over previous years, Jeff and Annette (and many others) have simply shown up, willing to help, and then proven themselves trustworthy in serving those ministry needs.  Their names and faces don’t appear anywhere on the church’s site with accompanying title, but they are indeed “deaconing well” the ministry our congregation has for toddlers. 

Once we adjust our thinking internally we can then adjust, as concurrently described just above, the understanding our congregation has toward servants and their function within the Body.  Especially for a new ministry, a congregation’s leadership – pastors, elders, etc. – can and should make much of a new outreach effort, setting aside time during corporate worship to pray, lay hands, and commission a new servant to a new work.  What was described just above regarding nursery is the very, we might say, “lightest” description of a deacon’s place and work.  If someone would start a volunteer sports outreach, for example, welcoming informal gatherings for pickup basketball or soccer in the church’s side yard, and numbers of additional people keep coming, the congregation may want to make that a resourced, formalized ministry under the church leadership’s oversight.  At that point, vetting as a servant is warranted, just as the seven were in Acts 6.3-6.  Perhaps over an additional year or two, that volunteer position would become a part-time paid position, perhaps even full-time. 

If we adjust our own thinking and adjust how servants serve in a congregation, it will require that we adjust how such people are noticed, vetted, and selected.  This might even require that we adjust the bylaws of our congregation. 

We should also adjust our expectations of how, whom, and for how long deacons fulfill their servants’ role.  Life circumstances change, and we can (and should) be very liberal in our understanding of the comings and goings of such servants.  Acts 6.3: “So, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom.  We will give them this responsibility, for a period of up to but not exceeding three (3) years, notwithstanding concurrent overlapping terms of service coinciding with the chairmanship…”  No!  Not what the text says!  In the past, a certain ministry colleague was frequently heard to say, “In God’s economy, the resources are always available.”  That includes people.  We should not beleaguer our congregation’s servants with multiple pages of quasi-legal language stipulating some things about their volunteerism but prohibiting other things and so on. 

Now a final word about adjusting the question “Do you have deacon training material?”. 

Every congregation is unique; that is to be expected in the living entity that is the Church.  Focusing on elders, e2 would not put together materials for all servants in myriad congregations nationwide.  Rather, pastors and elders can serve their servants by creating training venues and opportunities, in whatever ways that might be appropriate in each congregation.  Servants need to be further equipped in their own areas of service.  The servant-leaders of a church – pastors and elders – who are closest to the situation are in a great position to facilitate training.  They don’t need to be subject-matter experts, pastors/elders don’t need to be the trainers, but rather craft an environment in which training is part of the regular rhythm among the church’s teams. 

The one item we would encourage is this: avoid requiring that deacons participate in all the church’s business meetings.  That’s not their role – as expressed in Acts, at least.  Nor would it preclude, of course, a servant or servants from meeting with the church’s finance team, or meeting with the elders, etc., whenever appropriate. 

Ultimately, when asked, “do you have deacon training material,” we would reply:

In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well.  So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you.  If your gift is serving others, [deacon] them well.  If you are a teacher, teach well.  If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging.  If it is giving, give generously.  If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously.  And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.

Romans 12.6-8

Just … do it.

APPENDIX: Table of Deakon References

The following are many of the references to the various forms of the Greek word deakon and related forms.  Same-verse references of the same type (i.e. multiple nouns in one verse) have been deleted but instances of one verse having both a noun and verb were retained.  The references below correspond to the Strong’s Concordance reference numbers 1247, 1248, and 1249.  Primary source: http://www.interlinearbible.org 

  1. Verb Matt. 4:11
  2. Verb Matt. 8:15
  3. Noun Matt. 20:26
  4. Verb Matt. 20:28
  5. Noun Matt. 22:13
  6. Noun Matt. 23:11
  7. Verb Matt. 25:44
  8. Verb Matt. 27:55
  9. Verb Mk. 1:13
  10. Verb Mk. 1:31
  11. Noun Mk. 9:35
  12. Noun Mk. 10:43
  13. Verb Mk. 10:45
  14. Verb Mk. 15:41
  15. Verb Lk. 4:39
  16. Verb Lk. 8:3
  17. Verb Lk. 10:40
  18. Noun Lk. 10:40
  19. Verb Lk. 12:37
  20. Verb Lk. 17:8
  21. Verb Lk. 22:26
  22. Verb Lk. 22:27
  23. Noun Jn. 2:5
  24. Noun Jn. 2:9
  25. Verb Jn. 12:2
  26. Noun Jn. 12:26
  27. Verb Jn. 12:26
  28. Noun Ac. 1:17
  29. Noun Ac. 1:25
  30. Noun Ac. 6:1
  31. Verb Ac. 6:2
  32. Noun Ac. 6:4
  33. Noun Ac. 11:29
  34. Noun Ac. 12:25
  35. Verb Ac. 19:22
  36. Noun Ac. 20:24
  37. Noun Ac. 21:19
  38. Noun Rom. 11:13
  39. Noun Rom. 12:7
  40. Noun Rom. 13:4
  41. Verb Rom. 15:25
  42. Noun Rom. 15:31
  43. Noun Rom. 15:8
  44. Noun Rom. 16:1
  45. Noun 1 Cor. 3:5
  46. Noun 1 Cor. 12:5
  47. Noun 1 Cor. 16:15
  48. Verb 2 Cor. 3:3
  49. Noun 2 Cor. 3:6
  50. Noun 2 Cor. 3:7
  51. Noun 2 Cor. 3:8
  52. Noun 2 Cor. 3:9
  53. Noun 2 Cor. 4:1
  54. Noun 2 Cor. 5:18
  55. Noun 2 Cor. 6:3
  56. Noun 2 Cor. 6:4
  57. Verb 2 Cor. 8:19
  58. Verb 2 Cor. 8:20
  59. Noun 2 Cor. 8:4
  60. Noun 2 Cor. 9:1
  61. Noun 2 Cor. 9:12
  62. Noun 2 Cor. 9:13
  63. Noun 2 Cor. 11:8
  64. Noun 2 Cor. 11:15
  65. Noun 2 Cor. 11:23
  66. Noun Gal. 2:17
  67. Noun Eph. 3:7
  68. Noun Eph. 4:12
  69. Noun Eph. 6:21
  70. Noun Phil. 1:1
  71. Noun Col. 1:23
  72. Noun Col. 1:25
  73. Noun Col. 1:7
  74. Noun Col. 4:7
  75. Noun Col. 4:17
  76. Noun 1 Tim. 1:12
  77. Verb 1 Tim. 3:10
  78. Noun 1 Tim. 3:8
  79. Noun 1 Tim. 3:12
  80. Verb 1 Tim. 3:13
  81. Noun 1 Tim. 4:6
  82. Verb 2 Tim. 1:18
  83. Noun 2 Tim. 4:5
  84. Noun 2 Tim. 4:11
  85. Verb Phlm. v13
  86. Noun Heb. 1:14
  87. Verb Heb. 6:10
  88. Verb 1 Pet. 1:12
  89. Verb 1 Pet. 4:10
  90. Verb 1 Pet. 4:11
  91. Noun Rev. 2:19

Road Trip

by Jeff Stone 

Do you remember when, as a child, your school would load up the students onto buses and go visit a museum or some other destination of educational value?  The location change from the familiar classroom setting seemed to stir excitement and generate fresh learning.  Just as that experience energized your class, a road trip can accomplish the same synergy for your elders.
 
Periodically, our team of elders leaves our familiar conference room and takes our meeting time together on the road.  We’ve gone to conferences, men’s events, visited Bible colleges, supported area revivals, and have concluded that different surroundings stimulate new perspectives.  Often while en route, we enjoy a meal together and the conversation riding together while in the vehicles is most productive.  Perhaps the greatest value we’ve discovered from taking a road trip is simply the value of spending time together as a team.
 
The elders at my previous church in Dublin, Ohio received a prayer request from a new Christian man, deeply concerned about his sister’s diagnosis of an aggressive cancer.  Not content simply to add her to the prayer list, we piled into two cars after a work day, drove 2 ½ hours to where she lived, and prayed fervently with her and her husband.  Twelve years later, Tracy is still living and she, her husband, and her brother remain eternally grateful to those elders who went on a prayer road trip.
 
The Bright elders had learned of a faithful minister who was abruptly let go from the church he served in a far-away state.  We prayed for him in our elders’ meeting and collected a love offering of $300 to provide some assistance to his family.  We continued to pray for God to provide him a new place to do ministry.  We rejoiced when God relocated him to our state, to a church within an hour from where our epicenter of intercessory prayer had occurred.  After he settled into his new role, we went on an elders’ road trip to attend on a Sunday morning where he was leading worship, after which he was able to meet and personally express his thanks to some brothers who had helped to “hold his arms up” (Exodus 17:9-13).
 
More recently, the elders at Bright went on a road trip to attend Gary Johnson’s final service as the Lead Minister at Indian Creek.  Gary has been an e2 coach to our church and we wanted to be there to support and encourage him as he completed thirty years at the Creek and would begin the next day to pour his total efforts into the global impact of e2.  We were blessed by worshiping together as a team and were nourished by the entire service.  Spending those hours traveling and worshiping together with each other was enriching to all of us.
 
Do you see the solid benefits that await your team of elders when you begin to add this dimension to your meetings and experience the advantages of periodically taking road trips together?  Let me challenge you to try to incorporate a road trip into your team’s plan in the very near future.  The variety will break the mundane “Meeting Merry Go Round” and unleash God’s Spirit to work through your elders via some new opportunities.
 
I’d love to hear about a road trip that your elders have taken!  Happy Highways!

40-Day Prayer Calendar for Pastor Search

Full-color PDF to download and print:

Pastoral Search Calendar 

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Viewable on this page: 

A 40-Day Prayer Calendar for a Pastoral Search
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
  Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6
Day’s Reading: Proverbs 3:5-7 Revelation 2:1-7 Ephesians 4:1-6 John 15:1-8 John 15:9-15 John 15:16-17
Prayer for/that: …our congregation to trust the Spirit’s leading; that our leaders, especially, would listen for Him and trust His prompting. …our congregation to return to her first love, Jesus; that our leadership would hear from Him clearly during the search. …our congregation to continue in unity and peace; our leaders would strongly sense among themthe unity that only Jesus can bring. …our congregation and leaders to always abide in Jesus & bear much fruit to God’s glory during this “in-between” time. …the people of our congregation to remain in Jesus’ love for and with each other; that we and our new pastor would be bound together by Him. …this interim season of ministry to continue bearing spiritual fruit glorifying God; that our leaders would see answered prayers in their  lives.
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Day 7 Day 8 Day 9 Day 10 Day 11 Day 12 Day 13
Psalm 139:23-24 Ephesians 6:10-11 2 Timothy 2:1-2 James 1:5-8 Colossians 1:9-12 Ephesians 6:18 Acts 2:41-42
…our leaders’ hearts would be pure while working through this search process; that our future pastor’s heart and life would be pure before God. …we would understand searching for a pastor is primarily spiritual, therefore spiritual attacks will come; for God’s protection while we search. …our future pastor & family to be strengthened by God’s grace; that our future pastor would be a spiritual example worth following. …our leaders to seek and experience God’s wisdom while reviewing resumes and contacting candidates. …our future pastor be convicted it’s God’s will to make a ministry transition; that God would be glorified by ALL – by us, by candidates, by people “left behind.” …we would pray in the Spirit and not just from our own agendas; that we would persevere and be alert to God’s answers to our prayer. …our congregation would reflect the 1st church’s health in discipling, prayer, ministry, worship, fellowship, and witnessing.
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Day 14 Day 15 Day 16 Day 17 Day 18 Day 19 Day 20
Revelation 3:14-22 John 13:34-35 Ephesians 3:20-21 Psalm 51:10-12 2 Timothy 4:1-5 Hebrews 13:17 Joshua 1:9
…we would all fight spiritual apathy, we would continually repent of lukewarm spirituality, and pursue both God and the lost with zeal like Jesus. …our leaders to be obedient to Jesus’ command to love each other; that His love would be seen in us by the lost and watching world. …the power of Jesus to be known in and through this church body and that all the fame, credit, glory would be His through this search process. …each person in leadership would stay close to Jesus, hearts cleaned by Him; that our new pastor also have a clean heart before God. …our new pastor to faithfully share the Word of God and the love of God. …our new pastor to faithfully lead & love the people of this body and of the Church; that we rise up with new leadership & serve alongside. …our leaders to be strengthened by God and sense overwhelmingly His presence and guidance.
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Day 21 Day 22 Day 23 Day 24 Day 25 Day 26 Day 27
Revelation 3:1-6 James 4:1-12 John 17:20-23 2 Timothy 2:15 Jeremiah 33:3 2 Kings 6:14-17 Colossians 3:12-17
…us to hold firmly to the message of Jesus; that our congregation would be full of the life of the Spirit & enabled to pursue God’s vision for us. …we would always humble ourselves before God; that He would bring revival to us as we draw near to Him. …unity in our body so the world will hear the Good News of Jesus through us; that our leaders would remain united in decision-making. …a pastor who rightly handles and teaches the Word, and our search team as they look for such a leader. …us to feel a deep and urgent drive to pray for God’s will to be done in our search and for God’s vision for our church to be realized. …we would see as only God can enable; that our steps would be directed by God; that we would have His protection. …our congregation to grow in love toward each other; that any broken relationships in the church would be reconciled.
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Day 28 Day 29 Day 30 Day 31 Day 32 Day 33 Day 34
Revelation 3:7-13 Romans 12:12 Hebrews 10:19-25 1 Peter 5:1-4 1 Peter 5:5-7 1 Peter 5:8-9 Ephesians 5:15-16
…God to open doors for us and that we would see such open doors; that we would persevere and non-believers would see God’s love on and in us. …we would be confident in the hope God gives, patient when we encounter hurdles in the search, and faithful in prayer as a body. …we remain committed to biblical worship; that our leaders would boldly go to into God’s presence in worship, seeking wisdom. …our future pastor to lead people in God-honoring, biblical ways; that our future pastor’s walk with Jesus would not falter. …deep respect, an attitude of serving and great mutual humility between our congregation and future  pastor. …our congregation would be alert to the activity of the [one & only] enemy and pray for other congregations engaged in pastoral searches. …our leaders’ meetings would be Spirit-directed, time spent effectively & efficiently; that God would reveal His will to our new pastor.
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Day 35 Day 36 Day 37 Day 38 Day 39 Day 40  
1 Timothy 3:1-7 Ephesians 1:15-23 Philippians 2:1-11 Galatians 6:9 Isaiah 55:6-9 Matthew 28:18-20  
…our new pastor would exhibit the character of Jesus in public & private; the new pastor’s family would have God’s favor as they transition here. …our new pastor to grow in the wisdom & knowledge of Jesus; that our church would look to Jesus alone as the Head of His body. …Jesus’ attitude of humility & serving soaks into us all – leaders, people, pastor – both during and after the search. …our leaders would not be weary in their work because we know and see God’s hand in answered prayers and the “harvest” that only He gives. …we would continue seeking God diligently and trust that He alone is bringing together our body and our future pastor. …our congregation always embrace our Great Commission; that our future pastor will be such a leader, doing the Great Commission, an example that we eagerly follow.