Wasn’t He Supposed To Wait Tables?


Stephen and Phillip lived in the first century when the Church had it’s beginning.

Generally Stephen is referred to as the first Christian martyr, and yet when you look at the Biblical account of his life, short though the record is, you discover that his position in the church, like Phillip’s, would have falling under the category of “helps.” I suppose the equivalent in my church would have been the now-defunct position of “deacon.”

Stephen was one of the seven men chosen to take care of a group of widows who were not receiving what they needed. When made aware of the problem, the apostles told the Church that they, tasked with teaching the fledgling believers, ought not “neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.”

The plan, then, was for the Church to choose seven men “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.” The apostles would then be free to focus on “prayer and the ministry of the word.”

One of the seven was Philip, and yet somehow he ended up going to Samaria and preaching to crowds. At what must have seemed like the height of that ministry, however, the Spirit of God sent him back to Judea in order to explain Scripture to an Ethiopian traveling back home from Jerusalem.

After he baptized the man, the Spirit of the Lord “snatched” him away and he ended up near the Mediterranean Sea, in Azotus (present day Esdûd), one of the five chief cities of the Philistines, where he picked up his preaching again. On he went from there to Caesarea, proclaiming the gospel in all the cities along the way.

And this was one of those men chosen to serve tables.

Stephen did what Philip was doing, but more so. After Scripture notes that the apostles prayed for the seven chosen to care for the needs of the widows, it next states that Stephen performed “great wonders and signs among the people.”

Hmmm, sounds like more than serving tables.

As if that wasn’t enough, a bunch of Jews, some originally from Greece and some from Asia, began arguing with him. The problem was, they were no match for Stephen’s wisdom, not to mention the Spirit with which he spoke (see Acts 6:10).

In retaliation they persuaded a handful of men to lie and say that Stephen had blasphemed. They also stirred up the people and eventually dragged him before the Sanhedrin.

In front of this group of the most important Jewish leaders of the day, Stephen preached a sermon like few others, to the point that the hearts of those that heard him were pricked. You might say, in today’s parlance, their consciences were seared.

As a result, they attacked him and stoned him to death.

By point of reminder, Stephen was one of the seven chosen to serve tables.

Since when did serving tables become so dangerous?

Well, obviously they didn’t kill Stephen for serving tables. They killed him because he didn’t confine himself to just serving tables.

That’s the issue, I think. In today’s desire for efficiency and clarity and categorizing, we study the spiritual gifts the Bible talks about and we take tests to determine which gift we have. Then we know what our ministry focus should be and we pigeonhole ourselves into a slot.

Not that there isn’t value in discovering our spiritual gifts. But I tend to think today’s Western Christian, myself included, doesn’t think large enough. We think, I’ve got this little greeter job, or this class of seven-year-olds, or this newsletter to create. What if God wants us to preach to crowds even though the job the church has commissioned us for is to work the sound equipment Sunday morning?

Here’s the question: Why should we let our church job define our ministry? Philip didn’t and neither did Stephen, though it cost him his life.

I wonder if today we are too afraid of what preaching boldly would cost. Not our lives, but perhaps our reputation, our job, or peace in our little corner of the world.

Not that we should go out looking for a fight, but I don’t think that’s what Stephen did. Instead, he let the Holy Spirit use him how He wished, whether that meant serving tables or preaching in front of the religious elite, or dying for doing so.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in June 2012.

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Doing Ministry In The Twenty-first Century


New_Spring_Church_Greenville_2Another pastor has been asked to leave his church—a megachurch, no less, so there’s lots of attention to his failings and his firing. I’m referring to Perry Noble, pastor and founder of NewSpring Church in South Carolina, who confessed to an ongoing overuse of alcohol.

Apparently he’s been trying to grow his church to a membership of 100,000, and the stress got to him, such that tension developed in his marriage. He turned to alcohol to alleviate the problems and of course, alcohol became one more problem on its own.

Noble’s statement said: “What we’ve seen the Lord do over the past 16 years has been a modern day miracle. However, in my obsession to do everything possible to reach 100,000 [members] and beyond – it has come at a personal cost in my own life and created a strain on my marriage.” (“Perry Noble enters treatment centre”)

I have to ask, was the church growth he referred to, a modern day miracle or a result of his obsessive activity? I don’t think it can be both. Either God does the work or man’s marketing techniques does the work.

I can’t help but contrast Pastor Noble’s obsessive work to grow the size of his church (which apparently is more like a denomination “which claims 30,000 members across 17 cities” [“How Perry Noble’s Alcohol Firing by NewSpring Compares to Other Churches”]) and that of George Müller a hundred and fifty years ago. The latter wasn’t trying for great numbers. He wasn’t obsessive about growing his ministry. He continued building orphan homes as God enabled because the list of children who needed a place continued to grow and grow and grow.

The only thing Pastor Müller worked tirelessly at was prayer. And preaching God’s word. He didn’t care if he was talking to a small group in Australia or a large church in Chicago. He preached, during the last eight or so years of his life when he felt called as an itinerant preacher, to any and all churches that invited him. Further, from the beginning of his work with orphans and with support for various other Christian endeavors, he laid his needs before God and did not publicize them.

Today’s churches seem to have capitulated to the organization and the marketing mechanisms used by corporations. We have boards that oversee churches, made up of pastors from other churches, not from a group of elders within the church body. We want celebrity pastors who Tweet and livestream and do Facebook, all for the purpose of growing the size of the “ministry.”

Gone, it would seem, is dependence on prayer and gone is the centrality of God’s word. Now “ministry” means seminars on addiction and dealing with autism and job loss or infertility or any number of other heartbreaking and difficult situations people might encounter.

Does no one still believe that the Bible is actually relevant to our times and our problems? Why are we so quick to look to the devices the world has manufactured, to cope with our hurts and sins? Why don’t we pay attention to Scripture instead?

In fact, shouldn’t we be so plugged into what the Bible tells us about how we ought to walk and please God, that we don’t find ourselves falling into the pit created by following the world’s way of doing things?

The Church should be like a hospital, I think, for those outside. But for those of us inside? We should be all about healthy habits that keep us from getting sick. What would we think of a hospital that spends the majority of its efforts and resources treating the nurses and doctors who worked there?

Of course Christians fail, we stumble, we fall, and we need people with whom we can confess our sins. We need people who will walk beside us so that we aren’t adding sin to sin. I’m not suggesting the Church should not provide a support system for those who need help. But that’s the thing—prayer, relationships with other Christians, a study of God’s word should be a regular part of our lives, allowing room for the Holy Spirit to work.

Churches need pastors who faithfully preach the word of God, in season and out. We need to hear the full council of God’s word, not just messages from favorite passages, hop, skipping, and jumping through the text based on a topic. That’s the way important passages get skipped. That’s why we don’t address addiction in the church or divorce or premarital sex. There are lots of other topics the church simply lets slide—apparently the marketing strategy says talking about a lot of “old time” topics isn’t appealing to the target audience.

I wonder if God’s heart isn’t broken by us going off on our own to do His work without Him.

Published in: on July 20, 2016 at 6:25 pm  Comments (5)  
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God’s Not The Problem


Peter008I read in Acts recently about Peter and John getting tossed into prison over night because they healed a man in Jesus’s name.

Their response?

Peter preached to those in authority. When they warned them to stop preaching and healing in Jesus’s name, they answered with a clear, bold statement:

But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)

True to their word, they continued to preach Christ and Him crucified. They continued to heal. In fact all the apostles did. Powerful things were happening, and the church was increasing in numbers, to the point that the Jewish leaders became jealous and decided to throw them into prison again.

After consulting, with one another, they decided they’d flog them into obedience.

Of course, they had to re-arrest the apostles because an angel had set them free! But they didn’t go into hiding or leave town. They went right back to the temple and started preaching again.

So once more the Jews hauled them in front of the authorities and confronted them:

“We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

Well, yeah! To be expected since Peter told them they had to obey God rather than men. He repeated it since they apparently hadn’t got it the first time:

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”

After more consultation, the Jewish leaders decided to beat them into obedience. And here’s the point of this post. Steadily the hostility toward the apostles was turning into persecution. And how did they respond?

So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (This and the previous two quotes from Acts 5)

Rejoicing.

Continuing to teach and to preach Jesus as the Christ.

I find their reaction to be in such stark contrast to Christianity in the West. When we face soft discrimination, we’ve started playing the persecution card, as if there aren’t actual martyrs in the world today, dying because they believe in Jesus as their Lord, their Savior. We’ve begun to take the mantle of victim, and as a result we’re pulling back from opportunities to boldly speak the truth in love—the truth that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost.

Look at the balance of what Peter said to those standing in judgment over the apostles:

The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

He could have left out the “whom you had put to death” part in order to be less confrontational, but the truth is, part of their job was to expose sin. That’s what Peter did when Ananias and Sapphira pretended to present the church with the entire amount of money from the sale of their land. In truth, they were lying—to the Holy Spirit, Peter said. He called them out, declared their sin publicly, and in that instance, these pretenders paid with their lives on the spot.

Things are different today. Christians, myself included, are very conscious that preaching Christ might offend someone. We don’t even like preaching in church very much any more.

And should we experience ill treatment because of our faith, we’re much more likely to sue than we are to rejoice because we’ve been found worthy to suffer for His name.

What’s more, we’re more likely to say, Why, God, when I’ve been serving you so faithfully? Why are you letting all this suffering happen to me? That’s the approach of the people of Israel when they were leaving Egypt. They didn’t rejoice in the power of God. They didn’t look forward to the promised land. They looked back to the familiar comforts of Egypt and treated God’s prophet and by extension, God Himself, as if He was the One harming them.

News flash! God is not the problem. Suffering is a result of sin. So why are we so quick to blame God, to suggest that we could do a better job running things—from our health and finances to the Presidential elections and dealing with terrorism. We have lost sight of God’s sovereignty and His power.

When we pray, James warns us about asking with wrong motives, more interested in our own pleasures. Jesus said we are to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. Is that what we’re praying for? Or are we praying for peace and comfort in our time, so that we will be safe and can do what we do in peace?

I don’t know about others. I only know my own heart, and I confess, I’m a long way from the response the apostles exhibited. I can say, my heart is willing, but there’s that problem with the flesh! Maybe by the time I have to face some actual persecution, God, by His grace, will have shored up that weakness!

What I DO Like About Church


Church_ServiceI’ve said more than once that I’ve been spoiled. I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life in one Bible-believing church. Without a doubt, the teaching I received there and what I’ve learned from regular time in God’s word are the causes for any spiritual growth in my life. From what my church has done right and also from what it has neglected, I have developed a few items on my “this is what I like” list.

First, Biblical, expository preaching. Many preachers use the Bible as their text. I’ve heard preachers who primarily retell the Biblical passage they’ve chosen, putting it in their own words and perhaps giving it a contemporary slant. I’ve heard other preachers who take the main topic of a text and discuss it, using all kinds of research and examples from literature or history or psychology or whatever. I’ve also heard preachers who take a topic and then find verses in the Bible to support what they want to say about that subject.

None of these are necessarily wrong. They might provide the congregation with helpful knowledge and might facilitate their spiritual growth. But from my thinking, there’s a better way.

A pastor, as I see it, should not pick and choose what parts of the Bible his congregation needs. In reality, we need the entire Bible, even the hard parts. Some hard parts, to be sure, might not seem to yield “good sermon material,” so a pastor needs to decide how to handle those sections of Scripture. I’m thinking, for example, of passages in Numbers discussing the dimensions of the tabernacle or the laws intended for the Jewish people or 1 Chronicles genealogies or even the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and in Luke. There are lessons to be gleaned from each of those, and a pastor may want to address those in a different way than he would a New Testament letter or a study of a book of prophecy or of history.

But the point here is this: expository preaching intends to explain or describe a Biblical passage, going into some depth, and generally working through a section from start to finish.

Expository preaching still uses cross references and still looks into the historical background of the text. But the primary element of expository preaching is to let God say what He said. Consequently we don’t dodge hard verses that say things that don’t square with our theology or that clash with our cultural proclivities. Expository preaching doesn’t chase trends in the church. It doesn’t camp on one topic and hit congregants over the head with the same “thou shalt” week after week after week. The Spirit of God might want to get someone’s attention that way, but the Bible has such variety, written from the perspective of so many different writers, it’s really hard to work through a passage of Scripture and not find something new and diverse.

Second, singing that’s congregation oriented. I’m of the mindset that corporate worship should be different from a concert. Corporate worship is participatory. We should be engaged during sermons, checking the Scriptures to see if the things we’re being taught are true. We should also be engaged in any singing. Yes, there might be times when our engagement is within as it is when we listen to sermons, but I believe in congregational singing. Jesus sang a hymn with His followers the night before He was arrested, so we have His example.

Paul says we are to teach and admonition one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16). That idea leads to a second point of emphasis: the purpose of the congregation-oriented music is that we might have doctrine reinforced. Yes, singing should also be for worship, but again this is a corporate activity, so we as a congregation should do this together—praising God for who He is, for what He’s done, for the beauty of His person, for the perfection of His plan, for His creation. In other words, praise should be focused on God, not on how I feel about God.

A third point here is that congregational singing should actually be intended for a congregation, not for a small group or soloist. So I really like congregational music when I don’t have to change keys to keep on singing or to stay quiet until the music comes back into my range.

What else do I like about church? I like groups of people from our church working to serve others. We once had a vibrant ministry to prisons. I don’t hear about that any more, but maybe we still do it. We also used to participate in a program that provided prisoners gifts for their children at Christmas time. I like missions and short term mission opportunities. I like various activities and services for the poor and needy. Big churches, of course, can offer more varied ways of serving, but I like whatever effort a church makes to serve at home or abroad.

Along with that, though, I like to see people speaking out boldly about Jesus Christ. Anyone can do a good deed. I think it’s important for others to know we love and go and work and serve because Jesus first loved us. We’re not trying to earn church brownie points or, worse, heaven brownie points.

One last area I’ll mention today. I like churches that take care of one another. Churches are filled with people, and God designed us to pray for one another and to help one another and to comfort one another and to serve one another. In short, I like churches with people who develop relationships with one another—not always easy to do in big metropolitan areas in the fast pace of today’s society. But all the more necessary because of the disconnect we can easily feel away from family.

God identifies His Church using a variety of metaphors. One is that we are His children, which makes us all brothers and sisters. That’s something vital I think the church must not lose. No one needs another bureaucratic entity in our lives just because. But we need the church, mostly because we ARE the Church. We need to be with like-minded people, not so that we can settle, but so that we can be empowered to go out and serve and preach and love those around us.

Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:1-8)

Published in: on May 5, 2016 at 6:10 pm  Comments (9)  
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Church And Edification


St-Damase-Eglise_churchA primary function of the assembly of the Church is to edify believers. But what does “edification” mean? The basic definition is “the act of building or building up.” In relation to the church, the meaning expands a bit: “the act of one who promotes another’s growth in Christian wisdom, piety, happiness, holiness” (Strong’s Lexicon).

So when Christians gather together, one of our primary functions is to promote the spiritual growth of others.

Paul said this to the believers in Corinth:

When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. (1 Cor. 14:26a-33)

I understand that some people believe speaking in tongues, interpreting them, and prophesying were gifts that have ceased, but setting aside that controversial aspect of this passage, there are some very clear principles. The main point seems to be this: When you assemble as the Church, everything should be done for the purpose of edification.

In the book of Romans, Paul talks about edification in a different context, but he uses it in juxtaposition with pleasing our neighbor and doing good for him instead of pleasing ourselves.

I’ve heard a number of sermons about church not being about me “getting something out of it,” but about giving. I understand that, especially in light of this idea that all is to be done for edification. That means my participation is to be done for the edification of others. I’m not sure non-participation can be edifying to others.

At the same time, however, what did Paul mean when he said, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment”? Isn’t the idea of “passing judgment” connected with determining the truthfulness and the value of what was spoken? In other words, we who listen need to do so actively, testing the spirits, judging whether we’re being taught aright.

We aren’t to judge whether the speaker was entertaining, however. We’re to judge whether what he said exhorted us to godly living, to following Christ more consistently, more correctly.

There’s one way a preacher can be sure to exhort the Church: preach the gospel—that is, the good news about Jesus Christ. The story of Jesus begins in Genesis and continues throughout the entire Bible to the last verse in the book of Revelation.

It’s the story of God’s reconciliation with fallen humans and how the restored relationship with God turns our lives right-side up. When a preacher opens God’s word and explains it more fully, he is giving the Church the exhortation we need.

Honestly, we don’t need a pep talk. We don’t need pats on the back. And we don’t need to be accused or condemned. The Holy Spirit can incite and encourage and convict of sin, all through the teaching of God’s word.

I guess there’s a fine line between a pastor’s manipulative prodding and his faithful instruction and exhortation. I guess that’s why I believe in expository preaching.

When a pastor is working his way through a book of the Bible, he addresses the topics that the next passage up brings. A pastor who teaches topically, on the other hand, may never get to some very needed subjects, while he may brow-beat his congregation with the topics he thinks they most need to hear.

Still, what Paul said to the Corinthian church makes it clear that edification is really the responsibility of all of us. We aren’t to assemble ourselves together and then behave selfishly. It’s not about me; it’s about us.

Of course church is also about worship. That’s another one of the main functions of our gathering. But I think corporate worship is different from private worship. The Corinthian passage seems to say as much.

Paul tells those believers that some of them needed to exercise self-control—a nice way to say, shut up and sit down, it’s someone else’s turn to talk. They were not to talk over one another. They were to listen to each other so they could learn from one another. They weren’t to be in their own private world of ecstatic worship that ignored everyone else. When they were together, they were to do what would edify others.

I’m thinking that a part of worship in many evangelical churches might be leaning toward the “private” instead of the “corporate” when it comes to worship. Of course, I’m not in other people’s churches, so I don’t really know. But churches seem to fall into trends. I don’t know if worship leaders and pastors are watching videos and copying each other or going to conferences or what, but it does seem as if there’s a lot of keeping up with the Joneses. And Sometimes I think the Joneses just might be heading off to left field.

I’d rather see a church follow the instruction of Scripture instead of the latest fad.

Published in: on January 11, 2016 at 6:46 pm  Comments (8)  
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Wasn’t He Suppose To Wait Tables?


Generally Stephen is referred to as the first Christian martyr and yet when you look at the Biblical account of his life, short though it is, you discover that his position in the church was one of “helps.” I suppose the equivalent in my church would be “deacon.”

Stephen was one of the seven men chosen to take care of a group of widows who were not receiving what they needed. When made aware of the problem, the apostles told the Church that they ought not “neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.”

The plan, then, was for the Church to choose seven men “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.” The apostles would then be free to focus on “prayer and the ministry of the word.”

One of the seven was Philip, and yet somehow he ended up going to Samaria and preaching to crowds. At what must have seemed like the height of that ministry, however, the Spirit of God sent him back to Judea in order to explain Scripture to an Ethiopian traveling back home from Jerusalem.

After he baptized the man, the Spirit of the Lord “snatched” him away and he ended up near the Mediterranean Sea, in Azotus (present day Esdûd), one of the five chief cities of the Philistines, where he picked up his preaching again. On he went from there to Caesarea, proclaiming the gospel in all the cities along the way.

And this was one of those men chosen to serve tables.

Stephen did what Philip was doing, but more so. After Scripture notes that the apostles prayed for the seven chosen to care for the needs of the widows, it next states that Stephen performed “great wonders and signs among the people.”

Hmmm, sounds like more than serving tables.

As if that wasn’t enough, a bunch of Jews, some originally from Greece and some from Asia, began arguing with him. The problem was, they were no match for Stephen’s wisdom, not to mention the Spirit with which he spoke (see Acts 6:10).

In retaliation they persuaded a handful of men to lie and say that Stephen had blasphemed. They also stirred up the people and eventually dragged him before the Sanhedrin.

In front of this group of the most important Jewish leaders of the day, Stephen preached a sermon like few others, to the point that the hearts of those that heard him were pricked. You might say, in today’s parlance, their consciences were seared.

As a result, they attacked him and stoned him to death.

By point of reminder, Stephen was one of the seven chosen to serve tables.

Since when did serving tables become so dangerous?

Well, obviously they didn’t kill Stephen for serving tables. They killed him because he didn’t confine himself to just serving tables.

That’s the issue, I think. In today’s desire for efficiency and clarity and categorizing, we study the spiritual gifts the Bible talks about and we take tests to determine which gift we have. Then we know what our ministry focus should be and we pigeonhole ourselves into a slot.

Not that there isn’t value in discovering our spiritual gifts. But I tend to think today’s Western Christian, myself included, doesn’t think large enough. We think, I’ve got this little greeter job, or this class of seven-year-olds, or this newsletter to create. What if God wants us to preach to crowds even though the job the church has commissioned us for is to work the sound equipment Sunday morning?

Here’s the question: Why should we let our church job define our ministry? Philip didn’t and neither did Stephen, though it cost him his life.

I wonder if today we are too afraid of what preaching boldly would cost. Not our lives, but perhaps our reputation, our job, or peace in our little corner of the world.

Not that we should go out looking for a fight, but I don’t think that’s what Stephen did. Instead, he let the Holy Spirit use him how He wished, whether that meant serving tables or preaching in front of the religious elite, or dying for doing so.

Published in: on June 21, 2012 at 5:56 pm  Comments (2)  
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