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The last part of Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger is Transformation: Everybody Will Be Changed (Especially the Leader). This is not the same as the Borg, where all will be assimilated.

This is probably the scary part of church transformation: we must change too! Often we think everyone else should change. We tend to minimize our flaws and love for the status quo. This is the section most leaders don’t want to be true, or part of the process of leading people into the unknown.

Bolsinger brings us to Sacagawea. She became part of the expedition when Lewis and Clark hired his husband, a Canadian trapper as a guide. She was Shoshone but was kidnapped by the Hidatsa as a tween. He doesn’t note how she became his wife a few years later. Was she sold to him?

Painting by Edgar Samuel Paxson

Soon Lewis and Clark realized she was the person they needed, and he was not very much help. During the expedition, she was caring for her baby son. Her ability as a translator we incredibly helpful. At one point she discovered she was talking to her own long-lost brother. She survived a fever. She was quick thinking. Her presence help re-assure other native Americans that they were not a war party since no one brings a nursing woman and child into battle.

He goes into this lengthy story to discuss the unexpected leader in uncharted territory. In the transformation unexpected people will rise to the occasion.

One aspect of the changing world is crossing cultural differences. Along for the ride are our biases which cause conflict. Christian leaders are called into a caldron of the cultures of generations, gender, class, education, politics and more. This means there are more voices involved in our conversation. It can lead to uncomfortable situations. There will be more opinions, very different opinions.

Listening becomes increasingly important, and we are often slow to listen (hence James’ admonition). Listening can provide more wisdom as we make decisions. At a key moment of the expedition, for instance, Lewis and Clark allowed Sacagawea and Clark’s slave York vote on what the group should do.

Our past experience is not irrelevant, but it is incomplete. It does challenge the homogeneous principle that used to be at work in many churches, and echoes of is still exist. The church is not simply an affinity group, but encompasses people who are not like you. And that is great.

Uncharted leadership survives and thrives by listening to the ignored voice (Sacagawea), by expanding the table of participation beyond what is imaginable (Sacagawea’s and York’s votes), and by discovering new worlds and seeing what will come (Colter’s exploration of Yellowstone), but mostly, the challenges of uncharted leadership challenge us to keep exploring and become someone completely different from when the journey began.

The End of Our Exploring

The journey can be very discouraging at points. The second winter was discouraging as the diet of elk meat, without seasoning, wore on the men. The joy of discovering the ocean just 6 weeks earlier was gone.

They discovered that North America was much larger than they could have imagined. You would imagine they would want to head home by the shortest possible route, or at least one they knew. Instead they chose to split up for a time to investigate more territory. Lewis went north and Clark south. The goal to was meet up where the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers meet. Off the map, they began to write the maps.

Leadership is risky. It is often lonely. Leaders can’t be ruled by their emotions and need to step out before everyone else. All your questions may not be answered. Trying the untried will raise more questions to be considered.

He speaks here about reframing the questions. We begin to see options where before we used to see dead ends. I’m in one of those spots now. Reframing, according to Bolsinger, is more about emotional capacity than intelligence. Fortunately, a sabbatical increased my emotional capacity which had been close to zero in the previous 6-8 months. I was running on empty.

He provides some examples including:

  • Is the church in decline or is the western, Christendom version of church life on decline?
  • Does declining attendance mean people aren’t interested in God or that people are no longer giving preference to Christian and its traditions?
  • Is the lack of cultural affirmation of Christians at threat to our witness or an opportunity to work together in ways we didn’t need to before?

He shifts to how Christian leaders often confuse their self and their role. I think of Top Gun: Maverick. He didn’t just fly jet fighters, he was a fighter pilot. We can begin to think that way and trap ourselves. To be a healthy functioning, rather than idolatrous, leader we need to keep them separate. When I go home, I am myself. I husband my wife and parent my kids. I don’t pastor or counselor them. My father-in-law used to take the long way home to give himself more time to disconnect from work so he could be a husband and father.

Differentiation is the ability to have a sense of self that is distinct from one’s role, one’s relationships and the family or organizational system we are part of without having to disconnect relationally.

This, Bolsigner argues, is key for personal and spiritual maturity. We get stunted when we can’t differentiate. We can stay with a group during difficult times, even when they blame us for the trouble. You can’t take anything personally. Tom Brady points to the Four Agreements for his success, or at least part of it. The criticism may hurt, but you can’t take them personally. Failure weighs heavily on most leaders (except the narcissists), particularly pastors. The demand of mission and change puts internal and psychological stress on leaders.

Bolsinger tells of how Lewis struggled with depression during the expedition. He would drink too often at times. There were long lapses in his journal. After returning to normal life the darkness of depression became too heavy a burden. He would take his own life. He tells how Clark became more dedicated to building better relationships with the indigenous people, there was a portion of a letter when he spoke of beating York who became too arrogant after the expedition. He struggled to return to “civilization” and the same role. Clark struggled to accept the changes in York that were helpful on the expedition.

Communities are transformed by the transformation of people who then transform their spheres of influence. Transformational leadership is the overlap of adaptive capacity, technical competence and relational congruence.

Focus on how you need to grow in technical competence, relational congruence and adaptive capacity, and especially focus on what you need to leave behind, let go and even let die so your church can become more and more effective at fulfilling its part in God’s mission.

We often have to let go of what we once were, admit what we currently are and pursue what we should be.

This was a very helpful book for me to read at this point in time. It is where I find myself. There are lessons for me to apply, and communicate to our other leaders. It helped me to better understand the lay of the land, the challenges for me and our organization. It would be a helpful read to understand how to engage the challenges presented by our changing/changed culture.

The organization that has inherently valuable relationships also has an instrumentally critical purpose. And holding that tension, leading a Christian organization that is faithful to both mission and family, is indeed a challenge for most of us.”

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Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger is about leading organizations, particularly churches through uncharted territory. With the lack of a map, leadership takes on a very different approach.

In the first review, I covered the first 2 parts of the book. Here I intend to cover the 3rd and 4th parts of the book. Part 3 is Leading off the Map, and part 4 is Relationships and Resistance.

Navigating the “Geography of Reality”

Bolsinger brings us again to the experiences of Lewis and Clark in exploring the Louisiana Purchase and looking for a northwest passage. His dream of an easy water route across the continent was shattered by the sight of the Rocky Mountains. The “geography of hope” was obliterated by the “geography of reality”. Our dreams die a thousand deaths on the rocks of reality.

Adaptive leadership lets go of our hopes (and the status quo), learning along the way and pressing on. “It’s about loss, learning and gaps”. Adaptive leadership addresses the “conflicts in the values people hole, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face.”

It is often competing values that cause a group to get stuck. The leader has to help people see that the values are in conflict and stopping forward progress. Some of the examples he provides is pay raises vs. adding staff, ministering to the “old-timers” vs. reaching out to the unchurched, control & unity vs. collaboration & innovation. This doesn’t mean that neither is valuable, but they can be at loggerheads organizationally. You have to recognize what to lose to let go of one or the others. You want to clarify the decision.

A number of years ago we came to the conclusion that our building was a limiting factor for us. We could expand it. That would require taking on some debt. The congregation had been debt free for a number of years and enjoyed the flexibility it provided. If we didn’t do the project we’ve remain debt free, but our growth would be hindered and even halted. If we took on debt, we lost some financial flexibility and freedom. You couldn’t have both (unless you had a multi-millionaire funding the project, which we certainly did not). We did the expansion. It has not yet worked out the way we wanted, but it didn’t take us long to pay off the debt.

Bolsinger addresses the adaptive capacity, or “the resilience of people and the capacity of systems to engage in problem-defining and problem-solving work in the midst of adaptive pressures and the resulting disequilibrium.” That is a bit of a mouthful. During the time of disequilibrium (expanding the building) we had a decreased capacity to define an solve new problems that emerged. And emerge they did. We had to put in a new sewer line. We discovered that we needed to install a new fire hydrant. These added expenses, and we tried to keep the loan total low. But there was only so much money we could ask people to donate at that time. Capacity was lower.

To do so, there is yet another set of skills to be developed:

  • face the unknown calmly
  • reject the quick fix
  • recruit others in the learning/transformation process to take on the challenge
  • seek new perspectives
  • ask questions to reveal competing values and gaps between values and actions
  • expose deeper issues in a community
  • identify and address resistance and sabotage
  • adapt without sacrificing your integrity as a person and organization
  • help them to make difficult decisions to fulfill their mission in the changing context.

Part of this process is helping the people to see “who we are” or the core ideology. I see this as the DNA of an organization. These are the things we cannot change and continue to exist. This is separate from the things we are able to let go so the mission can continue. You will have to reframe your strategy to continue with your mission. When the culture around you changes, the strategy to reach that culture will have to change too. You don’t change your theology, but you do change how to apply it at times. Your old successful methods of evangelism may not work. You need new methods. Waiting for people to come to you is changing and you have to find ways to go to them.

This requires learning new things. If you don’t you will default to the old methods, again.

When a leader and a people together resist the anxiety that would lead to throwing in the towel or relying on the quick fix, but instead look more deeply- recommitting to core values, reframing strategy and relying on learning- this enables them to gain the just-in-time experience necessary to keep the expedition going.”

My Italian Grandfather Was Killing Me

Italians are known for heart disease. As I looked at the genealogical records of my father’s side of the family (largely Italian) most of them died of heart disease. Bolsinger found the same thing. Processed meats.

Just as your body will flourish when you cooperate with God’s design and wisdom, human organizations will only thrive when they do the same. If have a diet heavy on processed meats doesn’t help you thrive, you need to decrease the processed meats. You may need to up the exercise too.

We need to lead the learning so we lose the bad habits and learn new good ones that will help the organization flourish.

His view of vision is better than most I have heard (or perhaps assumed). Visionary leaders are usually seen as those who see what will be. When we think of vision we think of men like Steve Jobs. Bolsinger focuses on seeing what is clearly, and being able to discern the helpful from unhelpful.

Understanding a congregation is like understanding family dynamics. People have particular relationships with one another that can help or hinder growth in the congregation. You have to see what is hindering the system. You then energize the people toward transformation of the dynamics to accomplish the shared mission even and particularly as the world around changes.

In the second Jumanji movie, each character in the video game had a list of strengths and weaknesses. The leadership needs to unpack the strengths and weaknesses of individual and the congregational dynamic.

Here he talks at length about organizational DNA. These are the essential elements of a congregation and how it interacts with the world around it. It can include the theology of a congregation/denomination (in our case the Westminster Confession of Faith) and posture toward the world (fortress church “defending the truth” or winsomely inviting people to investigate the truth). The key elements, interconnection and purpose of the congregation are aligned the congregation is healthy, but if they aren’t it becomes dysfunctional. For instance, practices that are contrary to the gospel (like ignoring conflict or refusing to resolve it) produce dysfunction that prevents a congregation from fulfilling its mission of reconciliation.

The DNA can function as a magnet which attracts particular people and repels others. Churches formed by schism tend to attract schismatic people. Fortress churches will attract people who are looking for refuge from the world. People wanting to engage the world will soon realize they aren’t wanted, and are often called liberals.

Just as people generally seek self-preservation, so do systems of people. People will resist any change that they see as striking at the DNA.

He talks about non-essential DNA that can be discarded. That doesn’t seem to be DNA. I call these more like habits. People may think they are essential, but they are not. Or perhaps we need to think of them as the wisdom teeth or appendix. They are there, but unnecessary and can be removed when they become problematic. There will be practices and ideas that seem to be part of the identity that must be discarded when they become problematic.

He also talks about creating DNA through experimentation. Sounds like gene-splicing. They may be things to add to a church’s DNA. I would frame this more as new habits to put on.

But churches need to identify what cannot be changed, what ought to be put off and what ought to be put on. He notes that this can provide sufficient conflict to make any leader want to avoid the conversation.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There … Then Do Something

Anxiety-producing problems like declining attendance and/or giving often lead us to look for the quick fix. He encourages us to adapt to fulfill a missional purpose rather than simply plug the leak. Here is differentiates between directional leadership and adaptive leadership. Directional leadership is based on past experiences (a proven track record of success!) and offers advice and direction based on the leaders’ expertise. Adaptive leadership doesn’t have the experience because it is uncharted territory. Before acting there is a time to learn.

In particular he speaks about a cycle of making observations, interpretations of said observation and appropriate interventions. Interpretations should take congregational dynamics into account. Cause and effect are not always closely related in time. There can be a gap between the cause and the effect. A drop in attendance may not be related to the worship service or style of music. Bolsinger learned that his congregation was not good at helping people remain connected during life transitions. As kids age their needs change and the church may not offer what parents think they need. A different staff member may now be in charge. Over time, particular families feel disconnected and leave looking for greener pastures. They may not even be able to express why they feel disconnected.

In this he advocates for protecting minority voices. He relates a story about bombers in WW II. They studied bombers that survived to see how to help more survive. They advocating putting more metal on the areas they took hits. The minority voice pointed out they had survived. They need to know where the planes that didn’t make it back took damage and reinforce those areas. Too often, we listen to the survivors in a church instead of the ones who left, so we have an unbalanced view. The survivors will tell you what you are doing right. The ones who left what you are, in their opinion, doing wrong. Exit interviews can be quite helpful.

This is when you can discuss competing values and the stuckness or tension they create. We’ve had, like many other churches, competing values regarding the music in our worship services. Some wanted us to be more traditional.

Interventions are experimental. Some will fail. Others succeed. Don’t put all your resources in one. Begin modestly, he says. And playfully, which I take to mean not so seriously. It is temporary at first. It may not last. That is okay. But be clear that change will be coming. It will be resisted!

The Mission Trumps!

Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.Heifetz and Linsky

When change happens people will be disappointed. They will experience loss. When experiments fail other people will be disappointed. They were vested in it, or too many experiments have failed. They are experiencing loss and perhaps too much in too short a time span.

Leadership is taking people where they need to go and yet resist going.

Here he sounds a bit like Rick Warren’s purpose-driven church. “The focused, shared, missional purpose of the church or organization will trump every other competing value.” He wants us to evaluate whether or not a program or idea helps fulfill the purpose or is contrary to or indifferent to that purpose. It can sound ruthless, and people may be disappointed. But the goal is the God-given mission of the church, not the preferences or special interests of particular persons.

Institutions like families and churches can accumulate any number of traditions that get in the way of mission (marriage is given in the context of the creation mandate btw). They seek and remain in homeostasis. Change is disruptive and resisted. Ask your spouse to change a routine in the family and see what happens.

Begin with conviction. Conflict will raise the question: what are we here for? Are we committed to the mission? Decisions must be based on the convictions we have. You have to be clear about your convictions. The people have to share the conviction! If they don’t buy in, they will bail or fight to the finish depending on their personality.

A good mission statement will focus conversations that build adaptive functioning. “How does this help us….? What can we do that will help us to ….?” Leaders act on their convictions, and invite others to follow them.

Take a Good Look into the Coffin

People today isolate themselves from death. It seems remote until it hits home. Pastors are trained to help people deal with death. We help the dying and the grieving. We can bring that to dying congregations too. We need to help people let go and grieve.

Acting with conviction, stay calm. The real challenge of leadership is emotional. We can be anxious because failure means big changes for us and our families. The uncertainty of uncharted territory can make us reactive and anxiety-ridden.

Transformational leadership can’t settle for the win-win scenario. It recognizes that change brings us to forced choices. There isn’t as much money, what gets cut? There is only so much time, how does this staff member spend it? We only have so much space, who gets to use it and when? This is where convictions come into play. And this is where the leader needs to be the calmest person in the room.

The leader must learn to continue the process of change while also caring for people’s disappointment. As the leader attends to the system, he can know when to turn down the heat and when to turn it up. What can they tolerate?

One type of heat is urgency. It is the sense that you must act now. False urgency focuses on issues that are not contributing to the mission and transformation. Too often the urgent pushes out the important. We have to put out fires rather than address the real issues and move things forward. We begin to run on the treadmill and grow exhausted.

In two different congregations I have tried to be proactive. And when I have, we got lost in reacting to a number of “urgent” crises. We continually got distracted. And I got exhausted. I need to do a better job of identifying the important and ignoring the urgent. But you have to identify it as something distracting you from mission. The person who leaves in a snit is a big distraction much of the time. The issue isn’t personal, but someone can treat it as personal or get personal to justify their actions. The problem isn’t we disagree on the mix of music, but rather the pastor is trying to ruin the church.

We should neither shield people from reality or fail to call them to share the mission in a way that they are personally responsible, not simply organizational responsible (meaning the leaders do it all).

Anxiety is not a bad thing, in and of itself. It can let us know that there is danger on the horizon. But anxious systems are a bad things. We can be chronically anxious. This often happens when the “threats of the past continue to hold power even though the system is no longer in danger.” This is when we have to stay calm. Our response should be about the issue, not the anxiety of the other people in the room.

He refers to the book Thriving Through Ministry Conflict for the distinction between “blue zone” and “red zone” decisions. Blue zone decisions are focused on effectiveness and rooted in your values. Red zone decisions are highly emotional and reactive. They are focused on “survival, acceptance, competence and control.”

In the past we have made decisions to not hurt the feelings of a member (not the same as principled compromise). I’ve seen others threaten or challenge people. People lose their cool, and serve their idols in the heat of the moment. Strive to be the one who continues to see clearly, or pause until you can. Your calm can be as contagious as their anxiety.

Bolsinger advises pastors to pay attention to the purple, meaning the issues that trigger you so you can’t make good decisions. The conflict begins to be about you, not the mission. Good decisions are about the mission.

Part Four, Relationships and Resistance is not very long but it is very important. Leadership is largely about relationships. Change inevitably involves resistance.

Gus and Hal Go to Church

Bolsinger tells about Gus, who is an amputee and his friend Hal, who is blind. Together they are able to get to church. Gus tells Hall where to go. They work together.

Churches are organic relational systems. It is a system that exists for mission, but can settle for existing for itself. Systems seek homeostasis. When change begins, there will be resistance in order to return to homeostasis. Sometimes, he notes, the people who applaud the vision resist its implementation.

If … leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world, then leadership is always relational.

We are in relationship with people we need to disappoint. We want to be their hero, but at times we will need to disappoint them. When they push back, we are tempted to bail on the transformation. He identifies 6 relationships.

Allies are inside the system and take part in the change process. They have something at stake in the system and the process. He warns us that we can’t assume that your friends will be allies. Sadly, I’ve experienced that. It does create “confusion and hurt feelings”, deeply hurt feelings. Confidants care more about you than the mission. The best ones are outside the system. They provide healthy feedback on you as a leader in the system. They have no investment in the outcome. Their investment is in you.

There will be opponents. These are stakeholders in the organization who risk losing more than they want to if you succeed. They are against the change. It isn’t personal, but it sure looks like it at times. They can try to make it personal with how they attack.

Senior authorities are those in authority over you as you seek to fulfill the mission and make the changes necessary. He advises staying connected to them. This lessens the possibility of sabotage. But you can’t push them to make a stand. You can pass the anxiety and obstacles to them.

Casualties experience “the change most personally and dramatically.” They might lose a place of service (or even a job), responsibility or comfort. They may need to learn new skills to survive and thrive. You need to engage them on this. Don’t pretend they don’t matter.

Dissenters are very important. These are fellow decision makers that disagree with the change. He likens the early dissenters to canaries in the coal mine. In them you’ll see the arguments of others. They will ask the tough questions you need to answer. They aren’t enemies, but they seek problems. Engage them, talk it through. This helps the system to be transparent.

Transformation requires risk-taking born of urgency, leadership, a holding environment that will create enough stability and support in an organizational system to experiment with a big idea...”

While the leader, and others, are trying to lead transformation, others will need to keep doing the necessary work not connected to transformation. He also identified a group that maintains mission. They commit to providing “safety, time, space, protection and resources to the project.” They aren’t necessarily doing the work, but providing those directly engaging in transformation time and space to do that voodoo they must do. The transformation team is the group responsible to carrying out the process. They listen, learn, conduct the experiments and deal with the reality of failure and hope of success. It will be comprised with people with authority and informal influence. They have to buy in and be willing to invest relational capital.

Most pastors have not been trained in organizational relationship skills. We’ve been trained in relating to persons. Leading change isn’t about helping a person change, but a system.

As a transformational leader, you aren’t supposed to do all the work. Give it away to people who desire its success the most. It can be those who complained in the first place. Transfer their energy from complaint to innovation. “You’re right, there is no youth ministry. Want to start one, because we really could use one?” We are also to engage those who are motivated to tackle the challenge.

Stay connected to those who are resisting change to keep influencing the system toward health and life. This is counterintuitive and, yes, dangerous.

Et Tu, Church?

The important thing to remember about the phenomenon of sabotage is that it is a systemic part of leadership- part and parcel of the leadership process. Another way of putting this is that a leader can never assume success because he or she has brough about a change. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful.Edwin Friedman

You can’t change an organization without attempted sabotage. It may come from those closest to you. It may come from those who must benefit from change, but it will come.

Sabotage may come for peace-mongers who can’t endure the anxiety necessary for change. They prefer harmony over health. They want to quiet the complainers rather the hold them accountable. It can often be friendly fire which is exceptionally destablizing. It gets back to having to disappoint your own people. Disappointed, they will turn on you.

Sabotage is the attempt to knock you off course. It is an attempt to derail the mission. We need to respond rather than react to them. We can’t take it personally nor make it personal. They are supporting the status quo, often unconsciously. They are the peace-mongers and risk-avoiders. Unfortunately many of us pastors are just that due to job security. As Richard Pratt used to tell us “2-car garage”. We can lose our faith to keep our jobs. To keep our faith we risk losing our jobs. Most people side with security.

The art of leadership is helping the system override the instinct to self-preservation and replace it with a new organizational instinct to be curious about and open to the terrifying discomfort of asking, Could God be up to something here?

Depersonalize the attack. They are really attacking the change. You will be more likely to stay calm and relationally connected.

He quotes Bob Johansen in calling leaders “tinkerers”. I can identity. I am constantly tinkering. I am habitually discontent. I want things to be better. This really bothers some people because they like the status quo. Change makes them anxious.

Sabotage, he says, tests our resolve and the resilience of the system. Stay calm and on course. Stay in that blue zone. Continue to choose principle over your personal need. This calm courage can be contagious, and he relates a scene from Casablanca. Encourage those who are losing heart. Keep moving forward, but don’t get ahead of your people.

Eons ago we went to Disney for my wife’s birthday. That year you went free on your birthday. Someone at church got me and the kids in for free, with a free stroller (which really came in handy). There was one moment by the concessions when we tried to get through a crowd. I blazed that trail. But I was too far ahead, and the trail would close behind me. She and the kids couldn’t keep up. I had to slow down even though I irrationally wanted them to speed up. They couldn’t.

I’m finding so much here, that I can’t keep up and process it all. I’m having to hang on to a few things at a time as I seek to lead us through change.

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In the last few years there have been some titles of Christian book that have been controversial, like The Prodigal God. Here is another entry in the controversial title sweepstakes: The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken (a pen name for reasons that will become apparent later),

The subtitle is A True Story of Faith Resurrected. He is a man who did NGO missions work in Africa and returned hopeless after the debacle that was Somalia and the death of a son. Most of the books is about how God restored his faith.

My wife had heard about this book from an OPC pastor’s wife. She shared it with a few other people, and encouraged me to read it. It finally hit the top of my queue and I began to read it earlier this year. I read it when I could which means it took me over 6 months to read it. Some of my brevity is explained by this fact as the book was not fresh in my mind.

The Book

The book begins with his background story: his youth, conversion, early life as a Christian in college, his marriage. He and his wife ended up in Africa as missionaries in Malawi until he got malaria and had to move to South Africa. He speaks of the racism and hostility that ate at the soul of South Africa. He would often be pulled over for “driving while white.” After 6 years of ministry there, they moved to Kenya to work with Somalian refugees.

In 1992 he visited Somalia, which was ravaged by a civil war. There were no Christians, no Christian witness, no food, no jobs …. practically nothing but guns, bullets, fear and hate. The infrastructure had been abandoned, blow up or wasn’t there in the first place.

From the refugee camps, he began to build a mercy ministry in Mogadishu. Any faith-based organization there was assumed to be Christian, and its workers Christians. The Muslim population was suspicious at the least and at times willing to kill people associated with them. He tells some horrible stories of the things he saw and experienced while in Mogadishu.

I and Somalia against the world; I and my clan against Somalia; I and my family against my clan; I and my brother against my family; and I against my brother.Somali saying

It wasn’t just that Somalia essentially lacked a government, but the West and the UN didn’t seem to have organizational resources to deliver aid. It would be taken by the warlords. Ripken quickly learned to travel with food, water and white linen so he could give the dead a proper Islamic burial. He began to wonder how God could allow such suffering and pain. He saw the human greed, corruption and sin but wondered how it could get so out of control. The evil he witnessed was profound, and it ate at him.

His office in Mogadishu was about a mile from the battle portrayed in Black Hawk Down in which 18 U.S. soldiers and over 700 Somalis lost their lives. He could hear the battle raging for 17 hours.

4 believers who worked in the office had been ambushed and killed. The office received death threats and was told to leave immediately. Even their Muslim security was in danger at points. There was a hit list that was made public by a terrorist group. They feared that killing Westerners would bring foreign armies, but killing the traitorous Somalis who converted or were suspected of converting would put fear in the hearts of the people.

Meanwhile in Nairobi, his 16 year-old son suffered an asthma attack and died in 1996. They returned home mourning his death, feeling like failures having been broken by Somalia.

In the months after returning home they decided to find others whose faith had survived similar experiences. They began with a trip to Russia and former Soviet bloc nations to interview Christians who had survived Communist rule. Many of these people had never told their stories to anyone. He discovered that sometimes stories connected. He heard of amazing things God did: providing for families of the imprisoned, judgment on persecutors and more. But he also learned how many survived prison and torture. God gave them songs, what he calls heart songs. Their faith was sustained and spread by singing these songs of faith.

In home churches, people were recreating the Scriptures through memorization. They also memorized hundreds of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. These memorized passages and songs sustained the house churches, hidden from the government for decades. He also discovered a hope in the resurrection that enabled many of them to face the prospect of death at the hands of the government with joy.

He also visited a Soviet bloc nation that had little persecution of the church. What he found there was disheartening. The church focused on Romans 13, submitting to the government. The government did not perceive them as a threat as a result. The church shrank under the weight of its compromise.

Another nation began the same way: submission and compromise. Eventually they realized they needed to be free to follow Christ. They realized that state’s authority was limited by God’s authority, and they began to live as if they were free. One of the older men he talked to also spoke of similar heart songs. After his release from prison, the churches began to sing them.

He returned home to process what he learned from these interviews, share them with his community of faith and wondered, “what next?”. They developed what they thought were better questions and began to plan trips to closed countries, some communist and some Islamic.

In China, imprisoned pastors teach and encourage one another. It is viewed as going off to seminary. Despite the persecution they face, the house churches continue to grow. He heard stories of healings and other miracles. They didn’t seek persecution, but didn’t live in fear of it either.

You can only grow in persecution what you go into persecution with.

This statement from a persecuted Christian is similar to what Rod Dreher learned interviewing those who survived Soviet persecution. We need to know the Scriptures (and believe them) before persecution comes.

In Muslim countries he heard, as we often do now, of people being led by dreams to places where they can find someone to share the gospel with them. With no ordinary means available to them (there was no church they could visit), God used extraordinary means to get them to the ordinary means.

He shares the story of Pramana. Ripken has no idea how this man found out about him or where he would even be.

It turns out that Pramana traveled twenty-nine hours to find me. He had lived his entire life in a remote, tropical, and rural region of his third-world country. He had never before been on a bus. He had not even traveled on a pave highway. Yet, somehow, he found me in one of his country’s major cities.”

Then he learned that Pramna lived in a people group with no church and 3 Christians. He was a devout Muslim whose marriage was falling apart. His imam apparently also blended in some spiritualism and told him to sacrifice a chicken. On the third day he would get his answer from God. On the third day he heard a voice say “Find Jesus, find the gospel.” He was at a loss. The voice told him to go over the mountain to a particular city, and follow two men that he would see at daybreak. He was to ask them where a particular street was, and then knock on a particular home and ask about Jesus. He did and was dragged into the home and given the gospel by one of those Christians who then gave him the gospel and discipled him for two weeks.

He refers to Ananias going to restore Paul’s sight. But says he was there to instruct Paul. I’m not sure where he got that. This is one of the confusing things Ripken writes. But these are places where people know nothing of Jesus.

When evangelism is illegal, you don’t know if you can trust anyone you may share the gospel with. He notes that we have to do what we’ve been trained to do and leave whether they are converted up to God, and whether you get arrest up to God. But obey God, not men. We are to live by faith, not fear. These people had good reason to fear men (and the government), but they feared God more (like the Egyptian midwives). This mixture of awe and faith that draws us to God instead of running from Him is what leads us to learn the Scriptures and sing songs of faith.

Processing the Book

The book does not always follow chronological order. In the earlier chapters he bounces around some. At times he goes back to earlier events. At times this is clear and others confusing.

His own theological convictions are not expressed or articulated. There is no theological framework. He does speak of providence, but is this in an Arminian sense (general) or Calvinistic (meticulous, including salvation)? There are some head scratchers like the statement about Paul and Ananias. He’s also concerned at times about people being persecuted because of him, as though the real issue wasn’t Jesus. He seems a little fuzzy at times. This is a book, not a stream of consciousness conversation or podcast discussion. Some that that could have been clarified.

This book is an account. He does not try to provide theological analysis of the accounts he will hear from others. He looks for patterns, but is not attempting to discern the truthfulness of any accounts given by others. He assumes the truthfulness of the accounts given in interviews (there is no reason to think they are lying). He’s not debating cessationism and continuationalism. He’s not trying to verify any of these accounts with physical evidence.

Keep in mind, however, the people he interviews in this book are not televangelists seeking to bilk you out of your money with tales of miracles. The people interviewed are people who were or still are in countries where Christians were persecuted. Their circumstances were more like the apostolic times than life here in America. Bibles are not readily available, there is not a basic biblical literacy to draw on, churches (if there are any) are underground and unknown to unbelievers. In contexts without the Scriptures, God may attest to the truthfulness of the message through miracles. This does not mean that people have the gift of healing, as claimed by “signs and wonders” ministries in the West.

This means their experiences or testimony may not fit your theological grid. But neither are they the people you may meet or see on TV with similar sounding claims. They live in what could be characterized as “extraordinary circumstances” by the Westminster Divines since they grew up and lived in a nation with a state church and Christian heritage. These people live(d) in nations dominated by communism or Islam, meaning that any Christian heritage and church has been stamped out, erased and crushed underfoot.

While I rejoice with Ripken about the resurrection of his faith through his excursions and interviews, I still wasn’t sure what the point of the book was. There were a few things that helped people survive, and even thrive, in persecution. But, like any American, I expected a list or something. The summary wasn’t very helpful.

He nearly got to the point in talking with some Chinese Christians. Our prosperity has made us weak. While they consider us blessed because we are free to worship and evangelize, and we have multiple copies of the Bible within reach and they have to tear out pages of the Bible a number of pastors share, they have been blessed with a deeper, more vibrant faith. While he doesn’t say it explicitly (or I missed it) the “insanity” of God is that we grow best under pressure. While we may not face persecution, we can grow in the midst of affliction. While we want the easy road, we see throughout Scripture and history that the church grows best in hardship which includes persecution. It seems crazy to us, but it is true.

The blood of the martyrs is the seedbed of the church.Turtullian and a host of others after him

If your faith is as dead as his was, this is a book worth reading to discover that God is alive and well, and working in ways you can’t understand. He does things in closed countries that He doesn’t do in situations like ours with churches in abundance. It challenges our faith but we see the “lengths” God goes to make the amazing length He went to to redeem us, the sin-bearing death of His Son. In a sense this is similar to Paul’s discussion of “filling up what was lacking in Christ’s sufferings” (Col. 1). Jesus’ suffering (and obedience) was sufficient to save us. Paul suffered to bring that gospel message to people. These testifying miracles of healing and dreams are about bringing that gospel message to people who have no knowledge of Jesus in a society that prohibits belief in Jesus.

It is an encouraging book. It is an interesting read. I assume the truthfulness of these stories. If they aren’t true (if he was like Mike Warnke), it doesn’t affect my life but he will be held accountable for his deceit and for making money off of it. Even so, there are too many stories of God doing similar things in those parts of the world for me to dismiss them. I can leave my cynical and jaded heart at the door because God is growing these hidden churches in ways we can’t figure out. It isn’t a plan for ministry. But it does testify to God’s ability to bring people to faith, and preserve them in the faith, in the most difficult of circumstances. Our God is an awesome God.

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Recently this book was mentioned in other books I was reading, and mentioned by Ray Ortlund, Jr. at a seminar I attended. I figured I probably ought to read it.

That book is The Mark of the Christian by Francis Schaeffer. James Sire has two forwards in the edition I purchased for under $6. It is part of the IVP Classics series. It is a mere 59 pages long and can be read in a few hours, or more slowly. I read it in chunks over the course of 3 or 4 days. It is not hard to understand, though at times you may not want to hear what he’s saying.

It made for some good sabbatical reading, however it is a book that bears reading by anyone serious about following Jesus. The mark Schaeffer has in mind is love, not doctrinal precision, activism, how we dress, or anything else. Love.

In that forward, Sire notes that love for those who didn’t yet believe and those struggling with doubts is something the Schaeffer excelled in.

33 Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so now I tell you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 “I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13 (CSB)

This little book is an exhortation of this passage from John 13. Jesus gives the disciples (and us) a command. He’s given us plenty of commands. What is different about this command is that if we obey it, people will realize we are His disciples. Therefore is serves as an identifying mark.

Schaeffer makes it clear that real Christians can disobey this command. There are times when we don’t look like Christians in the eyes of the watching world. What is supposed to stand out to them, however, is that we love one another. We are to do this, as Jesus has loved us.

He begins with the image of God. People have value and dignity as image bearers. Sadly, we live in a time that devalues human beings through abortion, speciesism, moral relativism and evolutionary theories.

Additionally, all people fit in the category of neighbors who we are to love as we love ourselves. We are to love all people as ourselves, and all Christians as Christ has loved us. It is not one or the other, but both. The particular mark is that we love other disciples in this sacrificial way. Schaeffer brings us to passages like 1 Thessalonians 3:12 which also reveal and preserve this balance in our lives. This love is not something that comes easily or automatically.

This Christ-like love is to be shown to all who stands in the historical-biblical faith, including those who are not in our own branch of the Church. History has too many examples of Christian groups hating and sometimes killing one another.

He then gets into the quality of that love, as I’ve mentioned above. We can’t love one another infinitely, but we can lay down our lives (and our agendas) for our friends. Jesus has just washed the feet of the disciples. If we are to love one another we are going to get our hands wet (or dirty) serving them according to their need as opposed to our preferences.

The church is to be a loving church in a dying culture.”

We do live in a fallen world, and remain sinners. We will not always love one another. Our personal prejudices can get in the way. Our limitations get in the way. We will not love perfectly, completely and in every moment. People may accuse us of being unloving. They might be right (at that moment) or they might be wrong.

There was once a woman who had romantic interest in me. I did not return that interest. She then sent an email to my Presbytery and denominational offices about how I was not a loving person as a result. She defined love as returning her romantic interest. I tried to love her by limiting our contact, but that was “unloving”.

The dying culture around us often argues on the basis of love to justify its sin. It calls us unloving for not approving of their sin. These are false accusations in many cases (some Christians may hate them and not just their sin). But love is supposed to be, as Schaeffer says, the “litmus test” for the world.

Here Jesus is talking about our responsibility as individuals and as groups to so love all other true Christians that the world will have no valid reason for saying that we are not Christians.

He then brings us to John 17 as Jesus prays for the unity of the Church, a oneness that reflects the oneness of the Trinity. This oneness is a manifestation of love. In John 17 Jesus says that by this the world will know that the Father sent the Son. Our unity reveals not simply that we are Christians but that Christ is really God the Son come to save sinners. This is because unity doesn’t exist in this sin-filled world that is subjected to corruption and in bondage to decay apart from the amazing grace of God.

He does note that the Church discerns whether or not we are Christians on the basis of doctrine, what we believe, and a credible profession of faith in that doctrine. The doesn’t evaluate us that way, but by love and its expression in unity.

As an apologist and evangelist, he recognizes that unless we love one another they will not listen to us. Yes, we must give proper answers. Proper answers and love are not opposed to one another. Love must be there for people to listen to our proper answers (this predates Haidts discussion of building better discussions over differences, love opens ears).

That love for one another should cut across all of the boundaries that the world uses to separate people: race, class, gender, cultural practices, regions and more. We love, not because we are the same, but that we have the same love for Christ who came to save sinners like us.

Schaeffer then addresses false forms of unity: organizational, doctrinal/confessional, the mystical unity (a reality, but not what Jesus is talking about since it is not observable). True oneness is something practicable. He mentions the hard task of practicing both his holiness and his love. Purity and love, not one or the other. Neither harshness nor laxness.

This love and holiness is made visible in how we conduct ourselves in community. He focuses on confessing sin against one another, and the forgiveness that should accompany it. We are to be repentant and forgiving people. This renews our fellowship. This pardon is one way we love one another like Jesus has loved us. We show each other mercy and grace instead of being filled with bitterness and holding on to grudges.

To often in our differences, we have been harsh in our words and unforgiving toward them. Many churches have scars from splits. Many denominations are the result of bitter disagreements. To borrow from Ken Sande they may need to “get the log out” and “go and be reconciled” if they want to “glorify God”. Too often we live contra-gospel lives in conflict. Our anger grows, we condemn others and ignore our sinful contributions to the mess. We are not realizing that love covers over a multitude of sins. Where there is no love, there will be no humility and forgiveness.

We call sin “sin”. This is part of the call to holiness. But the gospel moves further than this to include love and forgiveness: restoration and reconciliation. He addresses 1 Corinthians 6 and the willingness to suffer loss instead of going to the court of law with a fellow Christian.

He also addresses the problem of pride in these situations. We want to be right. We want to win the conflict. This sets up the protracted conflict or disagreement.

But we should understand that what we are working for in the midst of our difference is a solution– a solution that will give God the glory that will be true to the Bible, but will exhibit the love of God simultaneously with his holiness.

In a church world filled with conflict and differences, we seemingly have not big conferences on this. Churches in trouble may. But we don’t seem to do proactive work. We don’t really talk about this in seminary.

The world won’t understand our doctrinal differences, or our methodological differences. What they will understand is whether nor not we love each other by how we handle them. That will be visible to the world and should show that that we are His disciples and that the Father has sent the Son to save sinners, of whom we are the worst.

Yes, very short. But Schaeffer says many things that we need to hear and put into practice. Perhaps this bears reading on a regular basis, particularly before important meetings discussing differences. Perhaps we need to regularly pray, “help us to love each other.”

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It has been quite some time since I’ve done a movie review, but I have too much time on my hands these days.

I took 3 of the kids to see Thor: Love and Thunder last weekend. I hadn’t gone to the movies on a Friday night in forever. I usually go on off times so it isn’t busy. It was pretty busy but we got our snacks in time to see the trailers.

I wasn’t really impressed by the trailers. There was nothing that said “You’ve gotta see this!”

Love and Sex

That is about how I felt about this movie. Only the youngest really liked it. As you see ratings on web sites, they are not very good. I am not alone

I loved Ragnorak. It was funny, told an interesting story and had an incredible soundtrack. While this had the same director, there was something off about its overall feel or vibe. The jokes didn’t seem nearly as good as most of them fell flat. The shrieking goats was a nice touch. The music was okay, but The Immigrant Song just plain couldn’t be beat.

I was quite uncomfortable at the palace of the gods as Zeus (played by a rotund Russell Crowe) kept mentioning the orgy. This is the same scene where we saw Thor’s naked butt (or a stunt butt), thankfully after he got back into shape. There seemed to be much more discussion, jokes and allusions to sex and sexuality in this movie. I don’t know why. It is a superhero movie. It should not be a propaganda piece. But as you see Thor’s butt, Zeus and his entourage (and some of the other gods) seem to be admiring what you cannot see. Apparently I will need to discuss penis size with my kids, another of those conversations parents love to have with their kids.

As the movie begins you just have to wonder about Thor and how he looks at Star Lord at times. In my mind I wonder, “Are they going to make him bisexual like Loki?” It is uncomfortable at times. But so was his total self-absorption after he recovered from “fat Thor”.

We got more of the backstory for Valkyrie. Now knowing that her lover died in the battle, her reaction when the blonde is killed in the flashback makes sense. She has lost her “true love” and settles for short romances with other women.

And then there is the story of Korg and his two dads. At the end, he finds another male of his species to make a baby.

That was all disappointing but it seems to be the norm for the MCU these days. It prompted a short discussion in the car on the way home reminding one of my kids that we are still to love those with whom we disagree about these things.


Thor with Stormbreaker

One of the odd parts of the movie was Thor’s “relationship” with his hammers. His original hammer, Mjölnir, reforms to be used by Jane after calling to her. His new hammer, Stormbreaker, is jealous. Thor is double-minded wanting to possess both for himself but trying to appease his new hammer.

If only they called the new hammer Stormbringer, they could use another great song by another British band. Yes, Deep Purple’s Stormbringer. Am I the only one who thinks of these things?

In the course of the movie there are some plot leaps. Thor suddenly discovers powers he didn’t know he had that enable him to magically prevail.

The movie seemed only to be there to set up the next adventure and resolve Thor’s romance with Jane. He (like Valkyrie) had closed off his heart and needed to open it again.


Christian Bale as Gorr

The plot line in terms of conflict revolves around Gorr, played by Christian Bale. We find him and his daughter in a Sahara-like desert on the brink of death. He calls on his god but his daughter still dies. Gorr then finds an oasis where the god is enjoying himself after dispatching a would-be assassin. The god displays no care and love for the people who worship him, including Gorr and his daughter. Gorr picks up the dead person’s sword, named “God Slayer” and slays the god. Empowered by the sword, he begins to hunt down the gods to kill them.

This is deconstruction. He feels his god failed him. In his disappointment and anger, he rejects his faith rather than wondering if god actually made particular promises to break. This is a common theme in deconstruction, at least as I understand it. It begins with disappointment because God doesn’t do what we want Him to do.

When Thor encounters the Greek gods and other gods in their secret hangout, we see none of them is worth worshiping (well, I already knew that). They are like us: self-absorbed, obsessed with sex and food.


In a podcast dealing with Mars Hill it was noted that when most people deconstruct what they are left with provides no opportunity to reconstruct faith since they generally dismiss the Bible.

Gorr’s interactions with Thor shift. While Thor wants to stop Gorr, he also begins to have some pity on Gorr and tries to help him. Gorr’s faith in the gods isn’t restored, but he now has a “faith” in Thor. He entrusts what is most valuable to him into Thor’s hands.

I’m pretty sure this was not written as a tale of deconstruction and reconstruction. It is there, but not intentionally. That is an assumption of mine. Perhaps they did mean to communicate this. Yet, there it is.

As people made in God’s image, truth or at least true ideas leak in unexpectedly.

The gods of the nations are a lie and they are so much like us. But there is one who is different: YHWH who sent His Son to live and die for us. He’s fully human like us, but altogether righteous unlike us. He loves us despite our sin, and rescues us.

Thor really isn’t a Christ-figure, but this puffed up god gets better (Jesus is perfect and always has been). While he doesn’t sacrifice his life, he is willing to sacrifice his future with Jane. He also takes on responsibility for another person. He’s a very flawed Christ-figure but there is a hint of redemption in this movie.

But in the course of the movie Thor is also “redeemed” from his own narcissism. He really isn’t a god that can save, only help. He’s a god who needs help too. He’s not deserving of our faith, unless we need a powerful entity beat up.

So far the next generation of MCU is not very compelling aside from the new Dr. Strange movie which also includes the now obligatory LGBT+ character(s). I don’t know why they are compelled to confuse kids.

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I was about 6 months into my current pastorate when the mid-term elections hit. I had previously provided “voter guides” which sees how candidates measure up to the “Christian position”. Years earlier I’d wondered how you could have a Christian position on nuclear weapons. But I thought it would help people know where candidates stood on issues.

It didn’t take long for the email. My first negative email at the church. This person didn’t appreciate the material, and thought it unduly influenced people to vote a particular way. I could see their point and pulled them from the lobby.

This was the first indication that politics were going to be a problem, or a pastoral minefield, for years to come.

The congregation has come younger adults. I was surprised by some of their views, and some have since changed views. While some of the differences may have been about maturity and life experience, the main issue I realized was the differences in the role of government. Despite these differences, people co-existed well. There didn’t seem to be undue tension or conflict.

Until 2016. We’ve had people leave because we are “too conservative” politically. Others because I wasn’t verbal enough about politics. There were Facebook spats and residual discomfort. It has been a long 6 years. Perhaps I’m trying to keep to many people with divergent views happy but I’m tired of this.

I picked up How Can I Love Church Members with Different Politics? by Jonathan Leeman and Andy Naselli. It is part of the 9Marks series of booklets in the Church Questions series. I was looking for a good booklet to hand out to people. I read it in less than an hour so they get to the point. There are some personal stories in it. It is helpful though it never mentions that we might have different views due to different theologies of government.

Think of the iceberg principle. There is far more ice under the water than above. You can’t focus on the little bit above the water because the big problem is under water. In terms of politics, we see the differences in candidates or positions chosen. Underneath all that is what you think government is responsible for, the relationship between state and church and who does what.

Leeman and Naselli don’t try to address that. It is a booklet, after all. I’m hoping to handle that in a Sunday School class.

This is more of the quicker fix to calm things down but not resolve the differences. It is about living together in harmony though you disagree.

Why We Feel Skeptical or Angry Toward Fellow Members amid Political Differences

This is where they begin. These differences can hinder fellowship. When we are unable to tolerate those with different opinions, we often go looking for a church more politically (not theologically) aligned. We tend to treat church like a PAC, not a church where we express our love and devotion to Jesus Christ.

One reason they provide is a good one: since we are justified we should care about justice. I guess I’d swap out “regenerated” for justified, but you get the point. Because God is just and we are being remade in His image we should be concerned about justice (Micah 6:8). We differ on what we think is just, and that is pretty serious if we believe the other person is pursuing unjust policies or acting unjustly. Anger is an appropriate response to injustice.

Secondly, we believe our views are right and theirs are wrong. We tend to be self-justifying. None of us sets out to be wrong. We don’t argue for positions we know are wrong. But that doesn’t mean we are actually right.

Due to sin, we struggle with self-righteousness, self-justification and pride. We are finite and can’t fully comprehend any position (we can have true knowledge and understanding but not complete knowledge and understanding). But we argue like we do. As we argue our arguments tend to become more entrenched and more extreme. Not a good combination. It is easy to see why fellowship suffers.

Third, they state that political judgments require wisdom. Usually there is no “thus sayeth the Lord” but we are dealing with how to apply a law or principle. We can assume that differences in that application mean differences in understanding Scripture. Wisdom tries to take consequences into account. Wisdom recognizes that one size doesn’t fit all. We won’t all make the same calculations, in part because we place higher value on different aspects than they do.

Wisdom grows, and you can get more information. One illustration they use is living in Germany in the 1920’s. You couldn’t see what the National Socialist German Workers Party would end up. You might have misgivings, but the evil wasn’t clear until later. It would become clear, and in 1934 the Barmen Declaration by the Confessing Church denounced Nazism.

The point is, life and politics are not static, and with every passing day we need a fresh dose of wisdom because the political landscape keeps changing.

How Can We Love Church Members with Different Politics?

They shift from the “why?” to the “what now?”. They begin with adjusting expectations. Church is an affinity group. It is centered on Jesus, and He calls people from every conceivable background and throws them in a room together to learn about love. That’s the point: learning to love people who aren’t like you, including politically. Bailing robs yourself of the opportunity to love. The gospel takes diversity and creates unity, not uniformity.

What unites them is Jesus, not partisan politics.

We need to recognize what a church is, which means also recognizing what it isn’t. It is not a political party, or arm of one. It is God’s people from every nation tribe, tongue and language. The ethnic, cultural, class, gender and educational differences are not what matters. It is our union with Christ, and therefore one another.

The local church is where enemy tribes start beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Moving further, we are to emphasize what unites us and remember what belongs to Christian freedom. They call the former “whole church issues”, the things we should agree upon to be a church. The are areas of disagreement that fall within the realm of “Christian-freedom issues.” Unless someone is voting for the Nazis in 1934 or later, or an anti-Christian party, there is no cause for church discipline. To vote for a candidate or party is not to approve of all they say, do, or believe.

People can discuss disagreements, but you want to make sure there is light, and not just heat. If you don’t want to discuss them, you should be free to do that. Grant others the same freedoms you want them to give you.

They also want us to recognize the differences between “straight line judgments” and “jagged line judgments”. The first is a straight line between the command of God and the policy. Since we should not steal, I think it is clear that the government should prosecute those who do steal. What is less clear is immigration policy. Yes, we should treat the sojourner fairly and love the alien among us. What some don’t realize is that those categories were a legal status. Not all immigrants would be considered sojourners from a biblical perspective. One can be pro-immigration and still want a legal process that is enforced (btw: we really need to reform ours). You can’t just go from the command to open borders.

Where it is a straight line we can hold our view more firmly. Where there isn’t we should be more cautious and allow others greater freedom to disagree. Sadly, we usually invert these. Where is there a jagged line judgment in view, remember they may have a differently calibrated conscience. You may want to be sure your conscience is properly calibrated by the Word instead of assuming theirs is not. They paraphrase a common sentiment from earlier generations, “Be strict with yourself and generous with them.”

They remind us that the letters of the Apostles, following the lead of Jesus, are not about social commentary and attacks on the government. They aren’t about life in the Empire but the Kingdom of God represented by the Church. We are not to focus on the kingdoms of men.

We do live in them, and should apply our faith to how we participate in cultural activities. We are to be just and advocate for those with less power than us. We just don’t condemn people who focus on other issues.

We are to love those loved by God. I am also reading Schaeffer’s The Mark of the Christian. We are to be known as His disciples by our love for one another. Politics is one area where we struggle with loving others. This command of Jesus should drive how we talk about politics and political differences. Where we fail there should be repentance. And we will fail. But we should strive nonetheless.

The goal of this booklet is not to resolve political differences but to help us love one another. As such, I find this to be another tool in my tool box in addressing the strife caused by political differences. You can never have enough. It cost me $2.50 so it makes an easy handout. I’ve also done a seminar for our people about Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I’ll be teaching on a theology of government from Innes’ book, Christ and the Kingdoms of Men.

It is also a booklet I hope to re-read periodically to remind myself of these things as I deal with my own heart. I have found myself having to consciously refuse to post on current events or comment on other people’s take. This is hard for me. The “justice” vibe runs strong, and I want to speak about what I think are injustices but others think of as justice. We disagree. I am not trying to turtle, but to preserve relationships. Time has shown that my comment(s) won’t change people’s minds. There are many pre-suppositions that can’t be unearthed in that kind of forum.

Read this booklet, not to rebuke others so much as yourself.

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We live in a ruined world.

As Christians we also experience the ruin sin produces in our lives, families and churches. That can result from bad choices, the bad or sinful choices of others, natural evil and circumstances beyond our control. The ruins can affect us emotionally and spiritually. When I lived in a dumpy apartment, I noticed how discouraged I was. Are we just to settle for living in the ruins?

OT scholar Iain Duguid has written a new bible study in the Gospel-Centered Life in the Bible series by New Growth Press. It is Ezra and Nehemiah: Rebuilding What Is Ruined. (WTS Bookstore)

These books of the Bible take place after the return from the Babylonian exile following the Cyrus Edict. Duguid provides a short, helpful timeline for the decline and restoration of Judah at the beginning of this study.

I have appreciated the commentaries and the Gospel in the Old Testament volumes that Duguid has written in the past. I find them to be informative, accessible and to have plenty of appropriate application. I expected something similar with this study of these two books.

I was interested in this study based on the content as well as my experience with Dr. Duguid’s previous volumes. I am looking for a good study for a congregation that is struggling with life in the ruins.

In his Introduction he briefly outlines the struggles of the people of Israel. They needed to be restored to God, not just the land. They needed to be restored to God, not simply rebuild the ruined walls and temple. They needed to learn of God’s steadfast love, and Duguid reminds us that we need to see He steadfast love in light of the cross of Christ. They will be restored to God not by rebuilding the ruins, but by His grace. Then they will rebuild the ruins.

We don’t do this alone. The nation needed to pull together to help one another repent and rebuild. We also need one another. He encourages us to create an environment in which people in the group can openly share sin and struggles: their ruins. The studies are designed to provide opportunities for people to share the ruins of their lives. Some will do this more quickly than others. In other words, be patient with one another (including those who overshare).

In his introductory comments we see hints of the interpretive method he will follow. It isn’t always explicit but he seeks to help us understand the original meaning, how it connects to the gospel and applies it to our similar needs. He also connects the passages to parallel texts and explanatory texts. He’s keeping them in their biblical context. There is no eisegesis here.

Each of the 10 lessons includes the Big Idea summary of the passage, questions for Bible conversation, an article by Iain Duguid, more discussion based on the article, an exercise to be completed during the meeting, wrap up and prayer. They say it will take about an hour. They haven’t met my community group. This format follows some of their topical study guides I have used in our Men’s ministry. We rarely get through a lesson a week. Or 2 sometimes.

I usually walk through the content in my reviews of books. Since this is a study guide I will be focused more on the method here. I want you to do the study for yourself.

The book maintains a gospel-centered approach through the studies. It is about what God does, and what faith in this gracious God produces in us. He provides biblical background as needed. He doesn’t leave you in the dark and prone to go off in unhelpful directions or follow your own inclinations and prejudices.

For instance, Duguid challenges how we view the OT in his first article. It is not about great men, but our Great God. Neither Ezra nor Nehemiah bought the people home. They were not there for the first stage of the rebuild either. God works through a variety of people. We have Ezra a scribe and Nehemiah a man in the administration of the king. Each phase of the rebuilding process encounters opposition. This requires us to depend on God and work together with the recognition that we don’t get it perfectly right. It isn’t a call to be a great leader, but to depend on our great God.

Other articles engage us on worship, persecution, the law of God, leading people in lament over sin, God’s purpose for marriage, why Nehemiah’s request was so dangerous, responding to opposition, the importance of joy, repentance and how fickle we can be. Here he’s getting at the heart of our lives and their mess.

There is much here that should give us hope and encouragement in our circumstances. Our goals aren’t often met. We work hard but achieve far less than we intend. We are in the middle of the story filled with conflict, not the end. God has much He intends to do before that time.

He wants us to see HOW God works in these two books. This prepares us as we seek God to work in our lives.

There are not too many questions. He stays focused and gets us to think of what it would be like to be in their shoes. The discussion of the text has 3. The article produces 2 questions that seek to get at the heart to reveal your need for the gospel.

The exercises help us to think through application of material in the articles in light of our own ruins and joys. They are designed to help you examine the ruined places of your life where the gospel is needed. For instance, the one on worship works through the elements of worship asking you to see where you appreciate what is happening, where you would like to be more aware, and what makes you want to engage in that element of worship. Exercise 7 on Remember the Lord is challenging as it examines different kinds of opposition and our personal weakness and vulnerability.

The guide allots 20 minutes for the exercises. This allows time to be thoughtful about your answers. Some of the exercises have you look at other passages of Scripture. The hope is that you will begin to share those answers with the rest of the group as the lessons go on. There are 2 questions to help guide the sharing of the result of the exercises.

The copy I received includes the Leader’s Notes. He is not trying to provide “the answer” in them. He offers some thoughts and additional background to these books. The notes are not long, they aren’t mini-commentaries. They are helpful, providing good insight. There is also helpful advice for leading at points. For instance, in Lesson 5, he encourages the leaders to not let the discussion devolve into a debate on divorce and remarriage. He does provide some background into the many issues with those marriages. Some of the notes address the exercise or discussion sections.

The study guide is well-thought out. It doesn’t get too lost or distracted in the details. That actually is a weakness of some other study guides we have used. One series we used had passages that were way too large. These lessons strike a good balance. They bring us back to our need for Christ. I look forward to leading a group of people through this study.

(I received a free E-book copy for the purposes of review)

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Sometimes you read a book and wish you had read it years ago. You wonder what life or ministry would have been like if you had read it earlier. Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger is one of those books. But you also have to trust the providence of God and perhaps you weren’t ready to read that book.

The uncharted territory in the subtitle is post-Christian America. In “Christendom” you could be an attractional church. People would look for churches and if you had good preaching, good programs and cared for people you could grow.

Christendom is done, meaning we no longer have a cultural “monopoly” or majority when it comes to faith. Part of this means that the culture war is basically over. Most of society has forsaken the Judeo-Christian worldview and the morality that comes with it. It is awash in expressive individualism and self-actualization, being “true to yourself”. It’s about autonomy.

The mission of the church must necessarily switch to that more like the ancient church. It is often called “missional”, a term he uses frequently in this book. Many conservatives associate this with progressive Christianity though I can’t understand why. Missional isn’t actually a new word, but one which hadn’t been used in a long time.

It refers to the church regaining its sense to mission to go to the nations instead of expecting the nations to come to them.

Here is the rub, as Bosinger indicates, most seminaries in America train pastors as if we still lived in something akin to Christendom. That is beginning to change. For instance, our denominational seminary, Covenant, change the name of the Theology Department to Missional Theology. Some assumed this meant they were not teaching systematic theology anymore. No, they still had required classes in systematics. This was viewed as part of Covenant going progressive instead of seeking to prepare its students for ministry in the world that is, rather than then world that was.

Back to the actual book, which doesn’t address the PCA directly. Tod Bolsinger was a PC(USA) pastor and now is vice president of Fuller Seminary. Yes, not the most conservative institutions. He is what many of us in the PCA would call progressive, at least to some degree. This is not a theology book, so there is no way of knowing how far down that road he is aside from egalitarianism. So let’s weigh the book by what he says, not what we think he believes (because we may be very wrong).

Bolsinger uses the experiences of Lewis and Clark throughout the book. They were looking for the Northwest passage. As he recounts the story, they found the origin of the Missouri River and thought they just had to climb the hill to see the Pacific. Instead they “discovered” the Rocky Mountains. Instead of canoeing, with some occasional portaging, they would have to climb mountains unlike any they had seen east of the Mississippi. They had to lead their team into uncharted territory, they had to adapt.

This is how Bolsinger sees church leadership. We need to adapt as we move into this uncharted territory. He is clear that this doesn’t mean adapting our theology (this should make those of us who are conservatives comfortable). It is about adapting how we lead and fulfill the mission Christ has given the Church to make disciples.

He does focus on the mission of Lewis and Clark and books on leadership and systems. He mentions Scripture at points, but they don’t form the primary source of authority I’d like or hope. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t say true things or helpful things. It is more focused on general revelation than special revelation.

Seminary Didn’t Prepare Me for This

Here he BRIEFLY explains the shift from Christendom in the west and its tolls on pastors. He mentions three friends who “finally got worn down by trying to bring change to a church that was stuck and didn’t know what to do. Their churches were stuck and declining, stuck and clinging to the past, stuck and lurching to quick fixes, trying to find an easy answer for what were clearly bigger challenges.” These three friends all resigned on the same day.

I suspect that many pastors have felt this way. He notes that all three churches blamed the pastor, who was trying to bring changes, for how stuck they felt. Sound familiar?

Pastors, he argues, need a new set of tools which he will lay out in the course of the book. He also lays out his three purposes for the book.

  1. “To reframe this moment … as an opportunity put before us by God for adventure, hope and discovery….
  2. “To recover the calling for the church to be a truly missional movement….
  3. “To discover… the capacity for leadership within us.”

He structures the book around five vital lessons we need to learn to lead in this uncharted territory for the west.

  1. “Understanding uncharted territory. The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you. …
  2. “… No one is going to follow you off the map unless they trust you on the map. … Without demonstrating technical competence on the map, a leader will never be given the chance to lead a true expedition off the map. … Only when a leader is deeply trusted can he or she take people further than they imagined on the mission of God.
  3. “… In uncharted territory, adaptation is everything. … adaptive challenges require learning, facing loss and negotiating the gaps of our values and actions. …
  4. “… You can’t do it alone, but you haven’t succeeded until you’ve survived the sabotage. …
  5. “… Everybody will be changed (especially the leader). … we who have been trained in a Christendom context will never thrive as leaders as long as the majority-world voices around us are silenced.” This means we should learn from those at home in this world.

In his own experience he found himself, or the congregation actually, as a victim of its own success. They had grown greatly in the previous decade and were beginning to reach out more tangibly when the energy left the congregation. A great malaise set in. Their unified vision led to an overly centralized organization. What ends up happening is people begin to think it is their job to support the ministry you undertake. Church life begins to revolve around you. They want to make you look good. They want you to thrive.

The problem is that everything is upside down (but not necessarily on purpose). You are there to make their ministry thrive. You are all there to glorify Christ (which he doesn’t seem to mention much). We have a tendency to build our churches on our pastors. It happens subtly. Sometimes the choices we can make as pastors foster this through unintended consequences.

True leadership learns to adapt to the present realities. This is not easy. I’ve been trying to communicate the reality of the new world we live in. It is a hard sell. People rightly recognize the “wrongness” of society’s direction but wrongly think we can elect our way into a godly, or at least comfortable to us, culture. We seem unwilling to change how we do ministry in light of these changes. That’s because change is hard.

The new Stated Clerk of the PCA addressed this as part of a lesson for the stated clerks of our churches. The generations approach things differently because they grew up in different worlds and therefore see aspects of the world differently, and different solutions to the issues before us. (Sorry for the less-than-stellar quality, it is Covid-quality)

This means that pastors and elders, in particular, need to learn all over again. We need to recognize that we don’t understand the world around us. This is not to say you can’t understand or will never understand, but that you need to learn instead of thinking you are an expert.

Leadership isn’t about authority. It isn’t about management. Leadership, as he will develop later, is about creating culture. Managing stewards culture or what is. Leadership focuses on what can or must be. Both are expressed in actions, relationships and taking responsibility. He too briefly addresses how anxious organizations can process information and fruitfully change. Leaders must have emotional maturity so they don’t take on the anxiety or take resistance personally.

The last few years the resistance has seemed quite personal. As the “change leader” you have a target on your back. Your culture change is the one they are sabotaging. I’ve been stretched, challenged to grow, and wondered if we would ever turn the corner. But enough about me.

Adventure or Die

After the story of realizing the Rockies lay before the Pacific, the author addresses that slow, incremental change has been replaced by a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. He introduces the story of Lesslie Newbigin who returned from the mission field to realize his home had become one while he was gone. He’s also highly dependent on Christopher Wright and Alan Hirsch in thinking about mission.

The missional mindshift, he has discovered, doesn’t actually bring the needed change. You have to realize you need to adapt. He illustrates this from the story of Moneyball. We can’t keep doing the same things. Well, we must still do the essential things: preach the Word, administer the sacraments and exercise discipline. We also need to adapt by going to them instead of expecting them to come to us. We need to do pre-evangelism since most people don’t have elementary understanding of Christianity. We need to see new possibilities.

We don’t adapt our theology but our methodology. We don’t change what we believe, but how we seek to do ministry both outside and inside our four walls. Progressivism changes our theology. Just like there is a right and wrong way to contextualize, there is a right and wrong way to be missional. We should bring our confessional tried and true theology to the changing world in ways appropriate to those changes.

A Leadership Model for Uncharted Territory

He, through Alan Hirsch, brings us back to the early church to discover that leadership model. He contends that local churches are to be extending themselves into the world (from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth). We are a witnessing (and necessarily worshiping) community (see 1 Peter 2). To change the church we must change how we function as leaders.

He argues there needs to be “communal transformation for mission”. We gather and form a people to participate in Christ’s mission. He goes a bit too far by saying “to establish the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”” Christ has established His kingdom. Perhaps this is semantics, but we extend the kingdom He established. He also misapplies that phrase from the Lord’s Prayer. It applies to God’s will being done on earth- obedience among God’s people.

There is another odd statement in the next paragraph. “In Romans 8:29 we read how even the doctrine of election is not focused on our salvation but transformation.” Salvation includes transformation. The doctrine of election is about forming a people He will transform. Again, perhaps it is semantics.

One aspect of “missional” that does trouble me, as expressed here, is the reduction of mission to evangelism. I could be misunderstanding him, but that would because he hasn’t clearly stated it. Our mission, from Mt. 28, is to make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded. We do this as we are going (missional) but we are making disciples, not simply converts.

He does turn to the Abrahamic promise in Genesis 12 to show that we are to be a blessing to the nations (through the ultimate fulfillment of that promise, Jesus) because we are children of Abraham by faith (Gal. 3, though he doesn’t make this connection). Leaders, therefore, are to transform congregations so they can fulfill this mission corporately. How he briefly expresses this is consistent with The Vine Project.

He distinguishes between technical problems and adaptive challenges. “Technical problems are those where the solutions are available to and “within the repertoire” of the community.” It is not trivial, as he says later, but that the solution is at hand within what you already know and do.

“Adaptive challenges, by contrast, are those that “cannot be solved with one’s existing knowledge and skills, requiring people to make a shift in their values, expectations, attitudes or habits of behavior.”” They are systemic issues. It is shifting from canoeing rivers to scaling snowy-topped mountains.

Here is one of the places where he holds the line. We are to adapt “without losing our core identity”. You don’t change who you are but how you go about fulfilling your mission. How you function as a leadership team and congregation changes. It is about new behaviors: people need to begin acting differently because they are in a new culture or society. You can’t move to a new country or cross country without adapting to the new set of circumstances, practices, expectations and customs.

They need more than teaching and preaching from their leaders. They need new behaviors.

I’ve been trying to build a “culture of reconciliation”. Sinners don’t do conflict well. Self included. Conflict is necessary to learn how to reconcile properly. I’ve stated repeatedly that it often goes wrong with the first 2 “g’s”: glorify God and get the log out of your eye. I have to practice that, and have been. Unfortunately your inner law firm seems to think that “go on the attack” is one of the “g’s” of reconciliation. The way of self-denial and cross-bearing in following Jesus is to forsake going on the attack.

So ends part 1 of his book, but not this review. He shifts to the skill set for leading on the map. If you can’t lead there, they won’t trust you when you go into uncharted territory.

Competence and Credibility

President Jefferson chose Lewis to lead the expedition because he trusted him. Lewis had displayed competence and credibility to Jefferson over years of working together.

Pastors must have a technical competence. You have to be able to do the basics of ministry: preaching sermons that are thoughtful and thought-provoking as you rightly divide the Word, provide comfort to the sorrowing, counseling to the confused, run the ship administratively. You need to be a good steward, “faithfully protecting and preserving what is most important” and “faithfully discharging the duties and carrying out the responsibilities that we have been authorized to do.”

Imagine if Lewis and Clark had proven to be inept while canoeing the Missouri. Would those men follow them into the mountains? No way. But they were competent and the men followed them (and a certain indigenous woman lest we forget her).

They had threshold competence (what we usually look for in examining men for ordination). We should also have it. He explicitly includes stewarding the Scriptures and tradition. You have to be clear on what will not change. There also need to be stewardship or competence of “teams and tasks”.

One of the hardest tasks of leadership is identifying new leaders. The choices you make for church officers can make or break you. It is easier said than done. I’ve shifted to a year-long process (after someone has been in the congregation for a year, minimum). You still don’t know them well enough. You can’t anticipate future influences on them that will lead them in different directions. When those things happen how you manage it is what matters. You can’t stop someone from going off the rails, but how you respond personally and publicly matters. Do you try to calm organizational anxiety or ramp it up? Do you go on the attack or seek to help people understand the context (as much as you can without betraying confidences)?

Bolsinger reminds us that we learn by failing. It is a necessary part of learning. Leaders will fail! What do they do when they fail? Do they seek to learn and grow or do they avoid responsibility and blame?

Competence gives us the credibility needed to learn from our mistakes.

Preparing for the Unknown

This chapter is really about building trust.

When I was newly married and we were faced with a decision and we disagreed, I’d say “Don’t you trust me?”. What a moron I was. Of course not! She only knew me for a few years. I need to build her trust in me by my actions, by consistency.

The congregation, and other leaders, need to trust you if you are going to lead them into uncharted territory. You will be asking them to do very hard things, to take big risks. They need to have a high level of confidence in you (and the other elders). They have to “get” why this is happening. They often don’t grasp the “existential crisis” because they still think they live in the country they grew up in.

We have the technology to fix the heart, but not to change it.” Ronald Heifetz

It is trusting relationships that are necessary to sooth the anxious, fearful church. When an elder left like the Baltimore Colts, we had the leadership team gather before the church. We wanted to convey that while that guy didn’t like where he thought we were going, the rest of us were on the same page and working together. We gathered the team to lead them into this unanticipated territory.

Trust is built when you do what you say, when you consistently express your stated values by your actions. Without this trust, the organization falls apart whether it is the leadership team or the congregation. That elder left it was because he lost confidence in me as a leader.

I’m not sure what destroyed that trust, but while it takes time to build it it only takes a moment to destroy it. We don’t always realize when we destroy it, until it is too late. I don’t know what I did to hurt this man, but there was something. When trust is lost, everything is jaded, seen as suspect.

Trust is also built with “meaningful work together”. It is in working together that you move beyond your personal concerns and learn new things. It also tends to develop the kinds of relationships that can endure uncharted territory. As I have learned, this is not a guarantee. Never underestimate the power and pervasiveness of sin (something missing in this book so far). These working friendships and unified fronts help calm anxious organizations.

When a pastor is new to a congregation and developing their trust in him, he has to rest in the trust they have in the rest of the leadership. If they don’t trust the rest of the leadership, he’s in trouble.

For the pastor a missional congregation must first be a trusting and caring congregation, a congregation where there is a healthy culture that creates the context for a congregation to become not only a corps, but also a Corps of Discovery.

And it is to culture that he now turns.

Eating Strategy for Breakfast

There is a statement he attributes to Peter Drucker that I have heard a few times in our presbytery: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Some people substitute vision or mission for strategy, but the point is that culture will prevail.

“The most critical attribute a congregation must have to thrive in uncharted territory is a healthy organizational culture.”

That culture is the often unexpressed dynamics of a group. It is the values, traditions and expectations that are assumed and taken for granted in a congregation. It is how you are expected to behave, it is “the way we do things around here.”

That culture is the DNA of the church (or denomination), which is often set in its birth or shortly thereafter. It tends to reproduce itself in the people, and attracts others with similar cultural value.

For instance, when a church is formed by people leaving a denomination that has gone liberal, they tend to become very defensive. Some of us presbyterians call this the “Reformed fortress”. There is the continual fear that the denomination or congregation will go liberal. There is a suspicion of new methods or terminology (like missional and contextualization).

The problem is that culture is not the same as the aspirations of the group. Culture is what you actually do, how you actually live. It will sabotage the aspirations of culture change. Culture will dominate in times of stress and change.

That culture creation work rests on identifying the gaps between aspired values and actual behavior, and then working with the leaders to bring every aspect of the organization into alignment with the core ideology (core values, mission, primary strategy).

About 5 years ago I knew we needed to change some things, to change our culture. First, we thought and acted like a small church but we wanted to be bigger. We lived on the cheap, and waited until a deacon could get around to fixing something instead of calling a repairman. We loved each other and didn’t expect excellence because we didn’t want to hurt feelings. Second, we had lots of conflict and needed to change how we handled conflict so it was more godly. Third, I identified that we lacked new people joining us so we needed to become more outreach oriented. Fourth, we were struggling to find new leaders and needed to do a better job of discipleship.

Sounds like we didn’t do anything right. We did. I addressed these issues and plans to address them. We’ve been trying to implement them. But teaching people they need to be outward focused doesn’t change the fact they aren’t. They will act the same way until they are convinced that is the way to live.

In other words, I feel like I’ve been fighting the culture of our congregation for years. Man, am I tired. I was called by a search committee that wanted many of these changes. But not everyone shared that opinion. Even those who shared the aspiration often had difficulty changing behaviors.

This is actually pretty common.

The process of change is in being clear and over-communicating it. Someone complained that we’d been talking about reconciliation for 2 years. Yes, because we are trying to create a new culture and that takes time and communication. If we’d arrived, I’d stop talking about it. We were not yet of the same mind, as indicated by our behavior in the face of disagreement.

You also need to embody that change- personally implement it. In the Vine Project you are asked to personally change before you make recommendations about a culture of discipleship (another change we have been trying to make). They have resources for culture change on their website.

Also vital is love. They must know you love them. Just as marital love joyfully produces new life that has some combination of the DNA of the parents, you change the DNA through love. Love precedes the change you want to see.

We only love God because He first loved us. Loving God we want to please God and keep His commandments (in other words, change!). This brings us back to the gospel, though Bolsinger doesn’t explicitly go there.

Despite his reliance on general revelation over special revelation, I found much here that was helpful. Perhaps it was confirming what I’ve been doing. I’m open to that. I agree with his purpose, and think this is where many of us are whether we want to admit it or not. Many fight this process, because they don’t want to change to fulfill the mission Jesus has given us. As a result, some people will not appreciate this book. They want to preserve the status quo. But the world has changed. Yes, there is nothing new under the sun. However, in the west we are declining to a world more like the one the Apostles and early church encountered. They grew up in that world, we didn’t. Many of us don’t understand that world and don’t want to. That means, in part, that we don’t want to reach it. Understanding isn’t the same as affirming or accepting it. Bolsinger is pushing us to adapt to these societal changes.

We’ll see where he goes with all this in the days to come.

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A small book deserves a small review. It shouldn’t be a measure of the value of the book. I just don’t want to replicate the book. And I read most of this before my sabbatical.

The small book in question is A Small Book About Why We Hide by Edward Welch. Yes, it is part of the Small Book series of which I’ve reviewed a few already. I really like this series. I really liked this book.

This book, following the format of the others, has 50 days of “devotionals” which are generally about 3-4 pages and conclude with some questions in Response.

The purpose of this book is found in the subtitle: How Jesus Rescues Us from Insecurity, Regret, Failure and Shame.

We all have voices that tell us we are never enough.”

All of us struggle with these things. Maybe you don’t struggle with insecurity but the others may apply. Because we are sinners who are still made in the image of God, our sins and failures fill us with regret, shame and disappointment. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, we want to hide from God and one another. We wear masks, pretend, and make-believe.

That means people don’t know who we really are- or all of who we are. There are parts we cover up because of our shame. They are like our “unpresentable” parts. We keep them private, sometimes even from our most intimate relationships.

They increase our sense of alienation and isolation. “What if people knew?”

We can’t fix the past. We can’t fix ourselves. The focus is really on how Jesus rescues us through the gospel. It is about how Christ died to bring us back to God. The doctrine of justification, rooted in God’s mercy, enables us to own our sin, bad choices, regrets and more.

This book is largely a pressing of the gospel into the dark corners of our lives. This is why it is good to have short meditations. It can be difficult to think about your insecurities, regrets, failures and shame.

Marie was disappointed

The first part of the book covers Insecurities, the Fear of People, Regrets and Failure. In the course of this he speaks about God’s delight in us, the differences between feelings and faith (speaking truth to our feelings), that we need to love God more than people, and that we need to love people more than we need them.

He addresses the erosive power of disappointment. Anger fades, but disappointment often doesn’t. Welch notes that it is tough to shrug off because forgiveness doesn’t really address the sting. It is easy to transfer that sense of failure from the person in front of you to God.

The good news for us all is that God loves us more than we love Him. He addresses our sonship and our slave mentality. Our weaknesses are exposed, and God still loves us. He doesn’t want us to hide behind masks to guard our idols. He wants us to face them, offer them to Him, and worship Him as the One who rescues us.

Fear and anxiety express our frailty more than our sin.

He also addresses the problem of perfectionism in this context. It often feeds our fear and sense of failure. When we don’t measure up to our standards, we feel like we just plain don’t measure up. We need to see that Jesus alone is perfect, and that He perfectly fulfilled our responsibilities before God.

In bearing the curse for us, Jesus also suffered the rejection of others. Rejected by men, Jesus provides acceptance before God. God also uses our failures to instruct us in a way that success doesn’t allow.

The second part of the books is Shame, Worthlessness and Self-Loathing. It is more about who we view ourselves instead of what we have done. Our failures and sins leave us filled with shame, feeling worthless and often hating ourselves. This is, as he says, something dark. He spends plenty of time talking about Jesus as our High Priest who sacrifices Himself for us and continues to intercede for us.

Shame is the sense that you are the problem, that you are flawed, faulty and filthy. It is not being guilty. It isn’t doing something wrong but being something wrong. It arise from either sinning big or being sinned against. Especially when experiencing sexual trauma, we tend to think we are the problem, that we are worthless and disgusting. Treated like trash, we begin to feel like trash and think we are trash. Jesus alone can remove that feeling of shame that plagues so many of us. He needs to cleanse us and purify us. And He alone can.

Shame separates us from others, especially God’s community. Jesus comes to bring us back to God and God’s community. He lifts our shame by bearing it.

The book ends with Grafting Your Story into God’s Story. It is about seeing yourself as part of or within God’s story. Welch’s goal is essentially to be able to tell your story, identifying themes of fear, failure, shame or self-loathing and how Jesus has rescued you so you can live in a new identity as chosen and dearly loved. It is a form of testimony. We need to see that God’s Story is meant to inform and transform our story.

Welch provides another helpful book. It is bite-sized help. The answers aren’t easy or simplistic. There needs to be a frequent return to the balm of the gospel when these issues arise in our hearts. It would make a good gift to anyone you know who struggles with these issues, which is just about everyone.

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We all seem to get blindsided at times. Life can run over us like a Mack truck without warning.

Carey Nieuwhof was coming off a career highlight when burnout devastated him for months. He never saw it coming.

This is what prompted Nieuwhof to write Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.

Who is Nieuwhof? At the time this was published, he was pastor of a large church near Toronto, Canada. It started as 3 really small and struggling churches. I’ve never heard of the church, Connexus, but that doesn’t surprise me. He notes that it is the largest church in his denomination but I can’t find the denominational info on their website. The statement of faith is very short. Interestingly, the only theologian I recall him mentioning is John Calvin. You wouldn’t guess that by a quick look at their beliefs.

This is to say I know nothing about him. The book is like his church, trying to be accessible to Christians and non-Christians alike. Faith is mentioned in the book. He is writing from an overtly Christian perspective. Yet not so much a focus that non-Christians are put off. This is a blessing and a curse. Your non-Christian friends will not be put off if you give them a copy. There is something akin to an altar call at the end, and some of this solutions refer to God. But the solutions, or paths to overcoming, are not really gospel-centered or oriented. He gets the diagnosis fairly accurate, but doesn’t always provide real medicine. It felt more like band-aids at points. He focuses on what I can do rather than what God has done, and is doing.

I’ve tried to strike a tone in this book that works for those who are skeptical of Christianity and for those who passionately follow Jesus. As a result, this book may end up not feeling Christian enough for those who are Christians and too Christian for those who aren’t. If that’s the case, I may have hit the mark.”

Why was I reading this book on sabbatical? First, I am on sabbatical and I’m in my 50’s. I’ve been struggling with a few of these challenges for the last 5-6 years. One of my wife’s friends mentioned the book to her, so she gave it to me as a Father’s Day gift.

The book has two chapters for each of the 7 challenges. The first speaks about the danger of the challenge and the second provides how to overcome the challenge.

The 7 challenges are: cynicism, compromise, disconnection, irrelevance, pride, burnout and emptiness.

(Image from the NY Times)

His introduction is called Surprise. None of us sets out to experience these challenges but they find us all the same, and in the unlikeliest of moments. He thinks there are warning signs to help us recognize they are on the way. In the first chapter of each section he will try to identify some warning signs. In this, the book is helpful.


Cynicism is the loss of hope. Most of us didn’t start out this way, or want to end up this way. But there we are- thinking the worst will always happen.

I was raised in New England in the 70’s and 80’s. I was raised on disappointment. The Celtics weren’t really big, though dominant, until the 80’s (or so I’m told). Boston was a baseball town, and the Red Sox always found a way to blow it. Bucky Dent. Bill Buckner. Ted Williams hurt in an exhibition game before the World Series. The list goes on. At this point the Patriots were a series of disappointments. The one time they made it to the Superbowl it was against the team I picked to win it all in preseason, da Bears! Same thing the next time, I knew before the season that the Packers would finally prevail.

Heart-break and disappointment take their toll. It isn’t just about sports but romance, lost jobs, friends who turn on you (or try to take your girl). Recessions. Energy crises. The inability of government to learn from the past.

Cynicism is an echo of Ecclesiastes: meaningless, meaningless everything is meaningless. Or futile, without effect. No matter what I do, nothing is going to change in ___________________. It could be work, parenting, or your marriage but cynicism is the loss of hope that God will work for good in your life.

He notes that you begin to project the past onto the future. “She rejected me” becomes women will reject me. You generalize and stop trusting, hoping and believing.

Early in my ministry in Tucson I returned from a few vacations to find new faces, particularly when we needed some new faces. Then began a string of vacations when I’d return to fewer faces. I began to dread vacations thinking that more people would look for a new church while I was away. You can imagine how I’m handling a sabbatical.

He then moves into practical ways to combat cynicism. He does point to the gospel (focusing on the resurrection here) to melt our cynicism.

Our hope isn’t based on an emotion or feeling. It lives in a person who beat death itself and who loves us deeply enough to literally go through hell to rescue us. So what were you discouraged about again? Because hope is anchored in resurrection, it is resilient.”

This is not intended to be an unqualified hope. It is only for those who believe Christ was raised from the dead, and for their salvation. While this is real cure I need to hear, he moves on to speak about curiosity. I guess he forgot that curiosity killed the cat. More seriously, it is a blessing and a curse. It really isn’t a cure unless it is accompanied by faith in the gospel of Jesus which is the real cure.


He begins this chapter with talking about some experiences with guidance that he saw as part of his immaturity as a Christian. God gave clear, specific direction. He doesn’t see this as ordinary or to be expected. It doesn’t mean he is special (like Driscoll implied).

Compromise is a disconnect between who you are and who you know you should be. This means compromise is acting beneath yourself- in terms of who God calls us to be. It happens subtly most of the time. These tiny compromises that result in the ones that end marriages and careers.

In this he discusses the tension between competency and character. To do well you need both. All the character in the world won’t make you a good engineer, salesman, pastor, meteorologist or athlete. There needs to be competency. It is the lack of character that torpedoes your competency.

Some of the signs include a growing gap between the public and private life (are you two different people? hidden and secret sins?). You will begin to hide things, cover up. You won’t follow thru on commitments. You will begin to find ways to justify your bad actions and decisions instead of taking responsibility for them. All of this culminates in just about everything being about you.

Let’s be honest: character development is far more painful than skill development. Working on your character forces you to go into the crags and crevices of your heart. It encourages you to look at your past to forge a better future. It makes you look in the mirror.

He then shifts to deepening or developing your character. He rightfully notes that it happens in the midst of ordinary life, the choices we make each day.

He does offer a very basic gospel message and then brings us to the Sermon on the Mount. He then begins to address the process of sanctification. In many ways it is not a very “theological” approach. He begins with “take responsibility” which is a non-religious way of saying “repent” or “confess”. The next is easier said than done, as Paul addresses in Romans 7, “make your talk match your walk.” He talks about the problem of deceit here, because we are a society steeped in deceit. He notes a study indicating 60% of people like 2-3 times in a 10 minute discussion. He encourages you to “put yourself first when it comes to personal growth”. He briefly addresses the means of grace, personal devotions, where we can see who God is, and who He calls us to be and the grace He provides for us to get there. It isn’t about how much you know (though you need to know truth) but maturity is about love which we see clearly as the fruit of the Spirit.

Competency gets you in the room. Character keeps you in the room.


People feel very alone. One day you wake up and realize that you feel really alone. Your best friends are scattered around the country and we are alone.

We are connected via social media, but struggle to spend time with people in person. We text, but struggle to talk to the person across the table from us. Just yesterday I watched two people at a table in a restaurant, each looking at their phones instead of talking to one another.

Solitude is a gift from God. Isolation is not- it’s a tool of the Enemy.

It is easy to blame technology, like social media. He notes that technology didn’t create this problem though it does amplify it. It is a problem of the heart with roots in Adam’s sin. Sin and shame cause us to put on fig leaves to cover up. We hide. Few people know the real us and we rightfully feel lonely.

Nieuwhof invites us to watch Little House on the Prairie. We’ll see that life was slower. No cars, or planes. No TVs or phones. No internet. There was more space for relationships as you worked together. And more space to get away from people (watch Jeremiah Johnson).

He notes two main symptoms or losses: the loss of conversation and confession. People struggle to carry conversations. People struggle to admit they were wrong. We are very much like the Fonz in this respect. We are disconnected from God (read Genesis 3) and one another (see Genesis 3 again).

He doesn’t settle for “ditch the phone”. He wants us to address the human problem, not simply the technological one. He discusses the reasons for actions versus explanations of action. The first is often a way to avoid responsibility. The second open us up to the possibility of transformation because we begin to understand ourselves and our motivations. He connects this back to curiosity. We can also begin to confess instead of making excuses.

I struggle to provide affirmation. Thankfully I married a woman who doesn’t require much affirmation. I didn’t receive affirmation as a child. I am still uncomfortable with receiving it, and are still learning to offer it. This is not an excuse, but a reality. It is a reality that doesn’t have to define my future. I have kids. They need affirmation. I’m learning to give it.

He invites us to take an interest in others. We value them and ask about them instead of just talking at them. We converse with them. But curiosity leads us to ask questions of them. While he doesn’t bring this up, valuing others and considering their interests reflects Paul’s instruction at the beginning of Philippians 2.

He does invite us to turn off the technology at times- like dinner time. He also invites us to slow down.

We recently drove across the country. We saw it from the car window. We were in a hurry to get where we wanted to be. We had 4 cats in our cars which is not conducive to stopping somewhere for a few hours to explore. While in my wife’s car there was lots of singing, in mine there were ear buds and video games as we shared space but not life. They failed to appreciate my play lists. All they got was a passing glance of the St. Louis Arch, which is disappointing.

A friend has a pontoon boat. He and two of his kids are taking it from West Virginia all the way to the Mississippi River and the gulf. It is not a speed boat (though he races cars). This is an adventure reminiscent of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Despite the loud engine, they are on an adventure, not simply a trip, together.


Most of us feel irrelevant, replaceable. We think we don’t matter. We are obscure and barely make a ripple in the pond.

We had a retired elder who used to ask me if I was getting any calls. He wondered if other churches had heard about me and were reaching out to offer me a better position. I reminded him, regularly, that I was pastor of a small church in the desert. The world doesn’t know I exist, or care that I do. No one was going to pick up the phone to pursue me. No one has.

Irrelevant people eventually lose the ability to communicate meaningfully with the people they care about and to contribute to causes they’re passionate about.

But he’s not talking about our place in the world. Our world changes so fast these days. You can’t keep up with technology. You can’t keep up with pop culture and the news. You slowly slide into irrelevance, losing influence among people.

He invites us into change: regular and radical change. I’m not sure this is the answer, or the best answer.

As a child I was getting a ride home from a basketball game with the parent of a teammate. He asked if I like BTO (Bachmann Turner Overdrive for those not in the know). I felt like an idiot because I didn’t know what he was talking about. I made a vow, so to speak, to be in the know. It’s tough being a know it all- you have to keep up. I eventually gave up. Seminary did me it. It was similar to being in a monastery in that I didn’t have cable, the internet was just for the occasional email and for extended periods of time I didn’t have a radio in my car. So much happened that I was unaware of. It was okay. I survived.

We do need to change. We need to adapt to changes around us. He tells the sad story of Kodak who invented digital photography but soon fell into irrelevance because they were married to developing photos instead of adapting to a society that shares photos digitally.

As a pastor, I need to know what is going on. In particular the questions, longings and commitments of the present, not the past. I have to understand in order to speak to our culture.

He addresses why we don’t change and then what change looks like. There is some discussion between the difference between mission and method. We are supposed to be married to the mission, not the method. The method is a way to fulfill the mission. We change methods to fulfill the mission as our world changes.

Instead of railing against the way things are, they leverage the past and present to make the future better.


“Pride is the mother of all sins.” The Devil’s Advocate quoting lots of theologians

Pride is like bad breath. It is easier to notice in others than yourself. Few of us realize how proud we are. It is why we are so obsessed with ourselves. When we don’t address our pride, it will destroy the relationships we value. It will drive division, greed, jealousy and strife. It will stifle kindness, compassion, patience and other virtues.

He posits pride in insecurity. Not buying it. It is about self-exaltation. It was one of the motives for Adam and Eve’s sin. Pride is the mother of many sins. It is an inflated sense of self and our importance, not a deflated sense. Here, I think he takes us in the wrong direction. We can have both pockets of insecurity and pockets of pride. I know I am insecure about some things, but prideful (at times) about others. I don’t agree that insecurity is the source of pride.

I began listening to one of his podcasts the other day and he made a comment about no books in the last 30 years on a subject that made me say, “Really? I can think of three books on that topic off the top of my head.” Another pastor commented to me that he has some “huh?” moments in most podcasts. There are some here, and this is one of them.

Yes, we compare ourselves to others but usually to people and in areas where we come out better. We can’t celebrate the successes of others because we think we would have done better. Insecure people push out other gifts people because they hate feeling like they don’t measure up. Pride doesn’t give them the opportunity as we cling to it all ourselves. Pride does make us controlling.

As he describes pride, he’s more on point. We do think we are better than others in some ways. We talk down to them and/or think little of them because of this. We are also judgmental, exerting moral superiority or a critical spirit. Pride leads us to be unaccountable to others. “Why should I be subject to THEM?” This will inevitably isolate us.

He then shifts to the habits of the humble. I’m not sure humility kills pride. Humility is the virtue opposite of the the vice called pride. He, in my opinion, misses the gospel opportunity. We can humble ourselves or be humbled by God. We usually don’t do the first until we’ve begun to experience the latter. Humiliation is out of our hands but in the providence of God is due to our circumstances, or at the hands of another. Humiliation is an act or process, not a state of mind. It is what happens to you, but it may not actually result in humility (thinking less of yourself and yourself less).

The gospel miss is that he ends this with being honest with God. This is the starting place! Recognizing He is the Creator and we the finite creature is the beginning of humility. Recognizing He is the Perfect God who saves flawed sinners like us is the beginning of humility. These are the grounds of humility. You can make yourself or save yourself. You can’t change yourself. Humble yourself and receive grace. What he describes as steps to humility are actually the fruits of humility.

As we see this, we begin to see the need for the gratitude Nieuwhof mentions. Gratitude is impossible with pride because I deserve these things I have. Humility sees that I don’t deserve them but have received them (He gives us the ability to work and earn, Dt. 8). When we are humble we will learn from others. Arrogant people refuse to learn, ask questions or ask for help because they think they know more or better than others.

We do need to honestly confess our pride to God. The Spirit teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness, like pride. So when the prideful thoughts emerge in my mind I think, “No!”. I refuse to entertain those vain thoughts, and confess them as my prideful heart speaking. It’s amazing how often we need to say “No!” to ourselves, which is humbling.

Burn Out

He describes burn out like falling off a cliff. You seem fine and then you are in free fall. It is complicated as the result of accumulated fatigue. No one thing does us in, and no one thing can be fixed. A river has many tributaries that feed it, and blocking one doesn’t stop the river from flowing.

The last 5 or so years have been very hard. Conflict, lack of growth despite hard work, family trials including the death of my mother after a long illness, my dog died, the reality of Covid shutdowns, anxiety and nonsensical mandates, decision fatigue, uncertainty, crazy election cycles, supply shortages, inflation …. Fatigue has accumulated for me, and just about everyone. There are no reserves left. People are burned out, traumatized and in free fall.

Burn out is more than fatigue. Work can tire you out but you are restored by a good night’s sleep. Burn out is more. It is joined by depression which lies to us about both the present and the future. Depressions lies can be deadly, and Nieuwhof admits hearing those lies. During Covid an number of pastors committed suicide. They listened to the dark lies of depression.

He doesn’t quite give the DSM definition of depression but hits the key observable issues: lack of passion/interest, diminished responses, relationships are draining, cynicism, dissatisfaction, lack of concentration. He misses being irritable. But we begin to self-medicate to take the pain away (that can take a variety of forms: alcohol, TV, video games, porn, food…). Ordinary sleep and rest don’t seem to recharge the battery (because you are over-drained).

He’s honest about his burnout in all of this, and speaks about how he addressed it. He needed the help of his wife, friends, fellow church leaders and more. Once again God is option 2, not 1. Perhaps I am nit picking, but He’s the only One who isn’t burned out these days. God should be our first refuge, but not our only one. Yes, we need to tell someone (especially if we are suicidal). It’s hard to tell people you are on empty because you generally can’t get off the treadmill anyway, just like George Jetson. This is hard for men because we are responsible for everyone else. I should have taken my sabbatical 7 years ago. While I’m thankful for the time I have, it isn’t nearly enough because I am that drained. Thankfully churches are beginning to stress the need for sabbaticals and put them into the official terms of a call to pastors and staff.

You do need a circle of people as well. I’m thankful for the groups I’m in as I seek better self-care. I’m developing more relationships with peers who get the realities of our vocation. I have breakfast each month with other pastors in my denomination. I’d been seeing a counselor. I’ve been sharing some of this with our elders.

My sabbatical was mostly about rest, not study. My reading was focused on feeding my soul. Or just plain fun. No deep theology. No leadership stuff until the 3rd month. I took hikes. Watched movies and series with the kids. Took daily walks with my wife. I told the elders not to tell me about stuff unless someone died or the building burned down.

He advises not making big decisions, like a job change, unless you are getting counsel from others aware of your situation. Take time to grieve, which is likely the hardest part for men. I can’t seem to cry when I should. It comes out when I shouldn’t and I have to press it down. Grieve the people who have died, moved or left in an angry huff. Grieve not only what you lost but what the church lost (in my context) and the family.

When we do take care of ourselves, our pace will be slower. We will stop expecting too much from ourselves. Hopefully people will “get it” and not expect you to continue doing 100-yard dashes. They may extend you the mercy they extend themselves. Or maybe they aren’t extending themselves any mercy.


After winning, I think, his third Superbowl Tom Brady wondered aloud “Is there all there is?”. Sadly, he decided it pretty much is and remains driven to win well into his 40’s and will 7 rings despite having a super-model wife and kids.

Most of us get there. We work hard and the trappings of our success, however small they may be, don’t satisfy. That’s because we weren’t made for them.

It isn’t just about money and luxuries. Nieuwhof talks about gaining power, knowledge and pleasure. They leave us empty as well. You might feel stuffed after an incredible meal, but give it a few hours and you will want more food. You may collect stamps, cars or music, but you will always want more shortly after your latest addition.

Food is the drug of choice for many Christians.

Idols demand from us but they cannot satisfy. They demand work and sacrifice. But the pay off, if there is one at all, is fleeting. Like addicts we begin the cycle yet again.

He points us to the Kingdom of God to supplant the kingdom of me. He doesn’t mention Thomas Chalmers but he is trying to offer the purifying power of a new affection to people.

Selfishness breaks up marriages, destroys relationships between parents and children, ruins friendships, and in the workplace makes you a leader no one wants to follow.

My niece worked at a Ben & Jerry’s this summer. I hadn’t had any of their ice cream in many years. On the wall were their mission statements. I’d think their mission statements were to make affordable and delicious ice cream I can afford. I am a fool. Their mission statements (yes, plural) are about human rights, economic justice and environmentalism (yet they still use milk which comes from cows which are the primary source of methane in the atmosphere). I’m just in there to buy ice cream on a hot day. My niece is there to get money for school, not “change the world.” It’s ice cream for the love of Pete!

But we do need to live for something more. They have given themselves to humanism and environmentalism as causes. They can’t satisfy for we can’t stamp out racism, classism, oppression etc. We can’t fix the environment. Going green has its own ways of devastating the environment, and it is really expensive.

The kingdom of God is the only cause that can satisfy. In the present God enables me to treat people with love and respect regardless of race, age, class or gender, to help those less fortunate than me, and to be wiser regarding stewardship of this world and its resources. But in the “not yet” of the kingdom, there will be sin no more. We will no longer pollute. There will be no decay and destruction. God will satisfy us with Himself.

Calvin Meets Hobbes

In his conclusion he turns to John Calvin, interestingly. He quotes from the Institutes: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.” It took him a few pages to continue the quote to include that “without the knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self”, but he got there. These bodies of knowledge are intertwined. The non-Christian will struggle to understand themselves unless they know God. The Christian will struggle to know God if they don’t know themselves, since we are made in God’s image.

Nieuwhof goes there to briefly discuss self-awareness as part of emotional intelligence. We impact others, and should be aware of that, and how we impact others. We should know our weaknesses and strengths. If we are self-aware, these challenges shouldn’t hit us out of the blue. We will recognize their approach and begin to address them.

My Conclusion

This is a very readable, approachable book. Since his audience isn’t necessarily religious or Christian, there is not too much. There is little to no religious jargon. He succeeds in his goal that is quoted above.

There is some Bible, but not much. This is mostly a general revelation book. I was surprised he mentioned Calvin because he really hadn’t mentioned any Christian leaders of the past. His mention of Andy Stanley scored no points in my book (gifted communicator who undermines people’s faith with some of his theological errors, in my opinion).

There is some gospel, but it doesn’t seem to be at the heart of the book though it is the ultimate answer for most of these challenges. As a result, I was a little frustrated just like he apparently wanted me. But I’m not sure why he didn’t want to consistently offer the best medicine for what ails people.

It was helpful. There are good things here. But I thought too much of the advice was disconnected from faith- and I guess I just see things differently than Carey in that regard.

I’m reminded of a review I wrote for the Newsboys’ Love, Liberty, Disco album for Christian Bookseller. The music was infectious as always. It sang of God’s love in a very generic way. Scripture consistently points us to the cross. There was little, to no, cross in that album and I said that. I’m not sure if they read the review, but there was more in the next album.

I guess that’s how I think about this book. I like it, but…

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I don’t know how this book ended up on my book shelf. Perhaps it was a give-away from a previous General Assembly. I spent time reading it over a cigar today while smoking some pork butt and wish I had read it years earlier. It is only 60 pages long. I have to trust God’s providence in the timing of reading the book.

I thought it was a book on men’s ministry. I wanted to improve how I minister to our men and thought it would make great sabbatical reading. It is about far more than men’s ministry, and it was a great book to read on my sabbatical.

The book in question is With Him: A Biblical Model of Discipleship for Men by Ken Smith. While there are plenty of Ken Smiths in the world, this is the Ken Smith who befriended Rosaria Butterfield, led her to Christ and discipled her. As you read her books, you can see the influence of this book in how she goes about ministry.

Ken’s book is nothing new or novel. It is quite old as a matter of fact. It is material he learned initially from Dawson Trotman and then from LeRoy Eims while LeRoy and his family lived with Ken before he was married. It is a principle practiced by Jesus, and by others in the Old Testament that Ken points out in his book.

Discipleship is relational. It takes place most effectively in a relational context. While his focus is on men, it applies to women as well. He mentions this at the beginning.

Smith had been watching his denomination shrink. They had biblical doctrine but they were not making an impact. Perhaps this situation sounds familiar to you. It does to me.

And because I was with him (Eims), I could both observe and also participate with him in his ministry as he reached other men for Christ.

The “With Him” Theory

The idea of apprenticeship or internship seems to have fallen by the wayside. Trotman (who founded The Navigators)would keep asking “Where’s your man?”. He wanted to know who you were discipling. As a pastor we teach lots of people (and that is an essential aspect of discipleship), but we don’t often spend as much time as we should in one-on-one discipleship, and in TRAINING people by bringing them with us so they learn how to apply truth and communicate it to other people in evangelism and discipleship.

His focus is on men (again, not to neglect women) because of the biblical pattern we see. Smith points us to Noah who involved his sons in the great project to deliver humanity (in part) from the flood. They worked with Noah to build the ark, and they (and not Noah) would be fruitful and multiply to fill the earth with God’s image once again. We see in Hebrews 11 that, “By faith Noah, after he was warned about what was not yet seen and motivated by godly fear, built an ark to deliver his family.”

Moses had a young man he trained, who was with him all the time, who would take Moses’ place and lead the people into the promised land: Joshua. King David’s army was led by the men who were with him in the wilderness seeking refuge from King Saul. They learned about leadership from their time with David. Elijah didn’t simply anoint Elisha to replace him but Elisha left everything to be with Elijah before taking up his mantle as the prophet of God to the northern kingdom.

Jesus, of course, did the same thing with His disciples. They left all to be with Him. They didn’t just learn how to interpret the Bible for Jesus, but how to care for people and communicate the gospel in word and deed as they followed Him around Galilee and Judea. They learned in the context of gospel ministry.

Men are important because studies indicate that when you win the men, you generally gain the family. The household principle we see in the OT, and in Acts, is biblical. There are many books about the problem of father absence which results in poverty, sons involved in crime and violence, and not learning how to be a man who cares for his wife and kids. Men, in God’s economy, are important to disciple due to their incredible impact for good or ill on generations.

The principles here are applicable to women, in keeping with Titus 2. Personal ministry among women is best done by women in conjunction with the foundational public ministry of the Word. Faithful women finding faithful women to teach how to follow Jesus and serve His people. Where are their women?

He is encouraging you to be with your mentor to learn not only good theology but how to conduct yourself with people in the process. Ministry is caught, not simply taught.

I am thankful for the men (Bob Grosso and Jim Beattie) who invited me into their lives by inviting me into their homes to watch their marriages and parenting. They taught me Scripture, but they lived as Christians in front of me as we worked on roofs and other parts of homes.

I’m thankful for Tom Shoger for the hours with him as an intern. He didn’t just give me projects to do, but brought we with him. We plunged toilets in the church facility. After discovering me sleeping on the floor of the office one morning (it was a 45 minute drive from where I lived), I began to sleep in a spare bedroom getting to know his wife and 2 youngest kids in the process. He shocked me when he told me one day that he was praying that God would make some people miserable. But he explained that he wanted them to learn that their disobedience to God was a big problem. He was exercising a form of discipline intended to bring repentance and renewed faith.

It was being with them that mattered in the long run. I didn’t just need a book, I needed to see and do with them. It opens doors for questions, like “Why do you want them to be miserable?”. It opened doors for them to see where I was lacking and needed further instruction.

It’s a simple concept. From the perspective of Christian discipleship, we do not minister alone. We imitate Jesus and take another or others with us.

This is what is so lacking in so many of our churches. With busy schedules this can be hard to do, but we should work to find a way.

As I prepared for my sabbatical, one of our members passed away leaving a wife in a memory-care unit. Family was thousands of miles away. I need to regularly visit. While I was on sabbatical, I wanted her cared for: regular visits, reading her the Scriptures (she loves to hear God’s Word), and praying for her. I brought an elder with me to see what I do so he could meaningfully visit her in my absence.

I should make a more concerted effort to bring others when I do hospital visits, at times letting them take the lead. I’ve done this. I’ve brought an elder to bring communion (and the Word) to someone dying of cancer at home. I’ve brought elders to help me find and reclaim erring members. I should see this as the norm, not the exception.

Finding Men

Smith begins with prayer, as Jesus told us. We are to ask the Lord of the Harvest for more laborers. Then he watches for men. He looks for men ready to deny themselves by altering schedules to be with other men in learning how to follow Jesus. He, as Paul told Timothy, looks for faithful men: men to act on what they are learning. Those faithful men are to then pass on the faith and life to another generation of men. They will reproduce themselves in others as disciples.

You then come alongside them. In his experience, many men are looking for this. They need to know we are calling them to spiritual action. We need to be proactive in this. There will some men who prefer to remain on the sidelines, but brings our ministry to them to the question of “Why do you prefer to remain on the periphery when Jesus calls you to join Him in this process?”

Many men have not experienced this. Many pastors as well. I am fortunate. So many feel ill-equipped to do this. Smith notes that men are like big boys, you need to get them alone to get to know them. Too often our vision for ministry does not include involving the men in ministry, something I’ve been working on doing more consistently. Another book I began to read today shared something similar. Pastors are not to do the work of ministry but equip others (men and women) to do the work of ministry. Our role is to help them thrive in ministry, not control it or keep it all for ourselves. This means we have to train them, bringing them with us and giving them opportunity.

In all this we are combating culture when focuses on man-time as a selfish endeavor. They are content to golf and fish (certainly ministry can happen as we do them IF we bring men along to talk). We invite them to hike, fish or golf with us. This builds relationships with them, and provides time to talk about life and faith. But we also need to include times of training.

Many may be reluctant due to their idols: comfort, pleasure, money etc. We can use this as part of our diagnosis. Men are full of pride, and seek self-reliance. They hide due to sin and shame. The gospel calls them to repent and believe, and that includes confess their sins to someone else so you can pray together. We are to offer them gospel hope, not condemnation.

Smith shares prior struggles with this principle, or rather the lack of it implementation. Too many churches struggle because they reduce discipleship to programs and information transfer. It includes that, but is not limited to that. People need to be engaged personally with the gospel in terms of their sins and struggles and who to live out their union and identity in Christ. Seminaries tend to focus on the public ministry of the gospel, not the personal ministry of the gospel.

Applying the “With Him” Principle

We want to train Christians to think biblically, to eat solid food, and obey everything Jesus has commanded us. Doctrine is the “what” of ministry, and the principle is the “how”. As Ken Smith notes this is “common sense” but is so rarely practiced.

We should be teaching people God’s truth. We aren’t simply spending time with people, but there is time for instruction. We teach them to study the Bible and to pray. We encourage them to then teach others. We are to be looking for disciples regularly.

Covid ruined so much. Prior to Covid I was discipling a new Christian. It has been hard to re-connect in the last year. It was good for me, not just for him.

Applying it involves living as a faithful example. You have to strive to apply the teaching of Scripture yourself. Lack of character ruins competency. Sometimes it only takes a moment, sadly. Your faithfulness over months or years can be ruined by a rash moment. This means you also live by the gospel, and own your failure. You need to be a trusted person as well.

A faithful man in terms of the Christian faith is a man who is totally committed to follow Christ’s call on his life for as long as he lives.

Applying it involves friendship. Older generations of seminary training discouraged this. Jesus certainly didn’t. Yes, it means you can get hurt, deeply. How can you teach people to love one another when you refuse to love them? Camaraderie is part of the process: meals together, catching a game, hanging out as a family.

The goal is maturity in Christ. We help them to feed themselves from Scripture, to obey the Scriptures, to pray and living in loving fellowship with fellow Christians in church. We train them to serve others in church.

As the author noted, this is not rocket science. This book is a helpful reminder, however. It serves as a great give away in conjunction with The Vine Project and its emphasis on a culture of discipleship. It is similar to The Master Plan of Evangelism without all the guilt and connotations with the “Shepherding movement” and abusive discipleship (a cult I stumbled upon/into for a short time as a new Christian used it). It can serve as a call to the leaders of ministry to begin to reproduce themselves. It can serve as a call for the church to regain its sense of mission, according to Jesus.

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Sabbatical reading can offer some difficult choices. I was encouraged not to focus on doctrine. I chose a few books for “personal development”, books that may be the means for growth in Christ rather than better understanding a doctrinal conflict.

One book I chose was Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way Up Is Down by Christopher A. Hutchinson. It is an important topic, though there are not many books written on this subject. Perhaps no one wants to pretend to be an expert on the subject. Hutchinson is a PCA pastor, and doesn’t try to present himself as humble. He doesn’t pride himself on his humility, but very much sees himself as a work in progress.

In his presentation of the material, he introduces humility in the first 3 chapters and then as 3 sections rooted in the triad of faith, hope and love: humility found, embraced and applied, respectively. The largest section is the final section, humility applied. It is a good, logical presentation that reflects our heritage.

The book begins with a forward by David Wells who ponders why books on Christian virtues are so rare today. We no longer live, he says, in a moral world. There are no goals, only choices. In a non-moral world there are no virtues. Christians exist in a world in which Jesus has come because we are immoral and wicked in order to forgive our guilt and sin. Jesus, the perfect Man, has come to restore the image of God in His people. He, among other things, makes us moral or virtuous. Apart from Christ, and our union with Him, we cannot become virtuous. We cannot stop thinking about ourselves (either our greatness or our failures). We are self-absorbed and He comes to free us to think greatly about God.

Humility Introduced

Each chapter begins with a quote from Scripture, and one from a person from the past. Hutchinson is rooted in both Scripture and history. They are his primary and secondary sources, not personal experience. He uses the latter to illustrate his points at times.

He begins with a lament of sorts wondering whatever happened to humility. Ours is a culture that doesn’t appreciate, foster and approve of humility. Ours is a culture focused on pride as the gospel has been eclipsed by secularism and pluralism.

Even in the Church, pride has displaced humility. The mainstream church takes pride in its progress, its tolerance of worldliness, and activism. The conservative church takes pride in it growth, purity and morality. It fails to recognize its worldly pride as evidenced by “marketing” bigger and better. The focus is on success, not character.

Hutchinson is not kind to the conservative church. Not as an enemy, but as one of us. He sees that we’ve been squeezed into the world’s mold with our mission statements, glossy brochures and self-promotion. Too many churches want a pastor with a “prove track record of success”. Normal men need not apply!

Christians often become self-focused, wondering whether they are doing enough for God.

He then discusses the Lure of False Humility. We tend to settle for band-aids over surgery. The road to humility is long, and often painful. The flesh resists all movements toward godliness, and humility is not exception. Proud Brother Ass (as Francis of Assisi called the flesh) brays loudly at any movement toward humility.

Hutchinson honors our Christian heritage by placing pride at the center of sin, as spawning a multitude of sins in our lives. Pride even moves us toward false humility. Pride likes to hide among other virtues, corrupting them. Pride is like bad breath: what you notice in others is imperceptible to one’s self.

In all this he exposes me: self-deprecation, is not humility. It is one of the places humility hides.

Having exposed pride for two chapters, he moves to advocating for humility. He sees humility as fundamental, characteristic of the whole Christian life. Calvin viewed self-denial this way, and the two are inter-related. You can’t really have one without the other. They are supposed to define us and guide our decisions.

Humility Found- Faith

Humility, he argues, is an important element of saving faith. The gospel humbles us by exposing not only our sinfulness but our inability to resolve that problem on our own. The gap between God and ourselves is great. Greater than we realize.

The contrite have sinned greatly and know it. The lowly in spirit are oppressed by their personal guilt and need of a savior. These are precisely the people with whom God comes to dwell and upon whose doors He knocks.

He turns to the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Pharisees were similar to many evangelicals: Bible-believing, evangelizing, moral people. The Publican, or tax-collector was quite worldly. He thought of self only, and collaborated with Rome to make a living. They didn’t take their heritage, including their religious one, seriously. The Pharisee was thankful he wasn’t like the Publican. The Publican humbled himself as the sinner and asked for mercy.

Jesus evaluates these prayers in terms of self-exaltation and humility. He rejects the prayer of the Pharisee, and notes that the humbled Publican will be exalted. The humble receive grace (God opposes the proud), and will be exalted on the last day.

He then moves to Ephesians 2 to show how salvation is a gift, and no cause for boasting. We see similar ideas in Romans and Galatians. Since it is by faith, there is no room to boast. Since we are chosen to believe, we can’t even boast over our better choice. The utter graciousness of our salvation is meant to foster humility. Hutchinson brings us to 1 Corinthians 1 to again establish this point. It is because of Him that we are in Christ. If we are to boast, it is in the Lord and not ourselves. 

We can see the influence of Sonship as he concludes this chapter:

As believers truly grow in Christ, the more the gap will appear between God’s holiness and their sinfulness- a gap the cross always fills.

He then takes us the connection between Humility and Truth. Humility recognizes the reality of truth, but also that one may not know all of the truth at a given point in time. Postmodernism makes truth unknowable. Christianity rejects this false humility. We can know truth, but not comprehensively. We seek truth upon which to chart the course of life through our decisions. In faith we believe Truth, and in repentance we turn away from the lies we believed.

Humility, recognizing our limitations, has a healthy distrust of oneself. We seek verification and good counsel. This distrust is born of the reality of the noetic effect of sin, that my reasoning is imperfect as well as limited in scope. I have blind spots as well as sinful predispositions. I need God and others to help me see, and reason, more clearly.

As Christians we hold forth truth humbly, not arrogantly. We recognize, or should, that we only know truth because God revealed it to us and helped us understand it. We may have thought upon these things, but God has granted understanding (2 Tim. 2:7). Graeme Goldsworthy addresses much of this in his book Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics.

Hutchinson also notes that we can embrace mystery (not to avoid thinking) and allow others to disagree with us. Mystery refers to the things we can’t know unless God reveals them. The secret things do belong to God (Dt. 29:29). We affirm that not all doctrines and passages are as clear as we want them to be. There will be earnest disagreements. Some doctrines, being less clear, should be held less dogmatically. For many years I argued for credobaptism, dogmatically. I now argue for paedobaptism, but do recognize that unless God’s opens someone’s eyes, they just won’t see it. They want proof texts for an argument, as Sinclair Ferguson says, of good and necessary consequence.

Discipleship is a function of humility as well. In order to learn, one must humbly admit there are things one does not know, or know how to do. Discipleship places oneself under the yoke of another, Jesus and one who is more mature in Christ. Jesus alone is the Master. All mere humans who seek to disciple should also be disciples since they have not arrived.

Discipleship is pursuing humility (among other things). It is the tone and a primary goal. We cannot seek to become like Christ without becoming humble because Jesus was meek and yet humbled Himself in the Incarnation and death on the cross (Phil. 2:3-11). He notes that Paul speaks of this daily dying in places like Gal. 2:20; Phil. 3:7, 10; 1 Cor. 15:30-32 and others. This downward trajectory differs from person to person. It looks different based on your calling and vocation. But down we go through self-denial, loss, affliction and failure. We both choose to humble ourselves and find ourselves humbled.

In this section Hutchinson BRIEFLY discusses Christ’s humiliation in terms of His office: the economic Trinity as opposed to ontological Trinity. This is an important distinction to make. Jesus submits to the Father as Mediator for our salvation as well as our example. Though He fulfills three glorious offices, He humbles Himself as the He becomes subject, sacrifice and servant for us and our salvation. First the cross and then the crown; suffering and then glory. 

Humility Embraced- Hope

Faith is humbling since you only receive, not earn. It is the beginning of the path to consistent humility. Hutchinson continues with the connection between humility and hope. He begins with our humility toward ourselves.

In this chapter I saw “forthwith” for the first time. This is a word used primarily in Blue Bloods.

Better than that is the discussion of humbling yourself instead of giving yourself honor (he looks at Luke 14 and 18). Humble people are not seeking to advance themselves. This makes job interviews quite the challenge as you are supposed to “sell yourself” rather than provide honest assessments of yourself. This is why many who get the job aren’t actually good at the job, just getting the job. Many who are good at the job aren’t good at getting the job, because they aren’t good at selling themselves.

He returns to Genesis 3 to discuss the role of pride in the fall of Adam and Eve. Pride, as well as death, entered the human race and curses us all. Only Jesus, the Second Adam, can reverse the curse through His humility and then make us personally humble in sanctification.

Pride is the doppelganger that is only uncovered by great spiritual effort and discernment.

Pride hides in virtues. It often masquerades as virtue. He quotes Thomas Watson who said, “Better the sin that humbles me, than the duty that makes me proud.” This is a hard concept for many to grasp, and I see many PCA pastors who haven’t grasped it yet. At least it seems that way when they speak of particular sins, as though God isn’t using them to humble the sinner. Maybe they aren’t used to being humbled by their on-going sin problems.

We need to do hard work to ferret it out, confess it and turn away from it. This means, in a sense, judging ourselves. We are not condemning ourselves, but owning up to the pride that seeks to ruin us (and others). We also give thanks for all good things instead of taking credit for all good things. We don’t fight pride alone, but God’s Spirit is at work in us to expose our pride, point us to Jesus to see God’s mercy, repent and walk in newness of life. We live as fully forgiven failures, the pardoned prideful and at the same time just and sinners. This is part of the wonder of the gospel. Jesus is patient with us on the road to humility, more patient that we are with ourselves and others.

Hutchinson then shifts to eschatology and the city to come. His focus on eschatology is not millennial positions but glorification. We don’t arrive in this life, but have hope and recognize God’s gracious rewards for the holiness infused during sanctification (see Westminster Larger Catechism #77). Our impatience often lies with forgetting this future orientation. We seek what Luther called a theology of glory rather than the theology of the cross.

WLC Q. 77. Wherein do justification and sanctification differ?
A. Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputes the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification his Spirit infuses grace, and enables to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: the one doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.

When we fail to keep our eyes on the city to come (see Heb. 11) we begin to focus on this life for our hopes, and this often opens the door to Christian nationalism as a form of idolatrous patriotism (an unbalanced, immoderate form of patriotism). He wrote this years before the 2020 elections. Hutchison relates the shift in Richard Baxter’s orientation after the restoration of Charles II as king of England and subsequent persecution of Puritans. As Peter declares, we are strangers and aliens in this world, sojourners and exiles. Our citizenship is in heaven, and the city that matters is the one whose Builder and Architect is God. Affliction, suffering and persecution drive this message home to us. God providentially brings them into our lives to humble us, and to wean us from this earthly life.

He returns again to sin and weakness humbling us, but also leading us to depend on God’s power. The humble aren’t bereft of power, but of their own. Like Paul, they boast in their weakness that the power of God may empower them. Humility keeps us from trusting in the present so we begin to hope for the new earth and the new Jerusalem whose glory is the Lord and the Lamb.

He then shifts to humility towards others. He begins with a quote from Richard Sibbes which ends with “The best of men are severe to themselves, tender over others.” He encourages us to follow the example of Jesus to serve one another in menial tasks. These gain us no glory, but meet real needs. We consider the interests of others (Phil. 2) and defer to others. This can be frustrating at times. When a group of people continually defer to one another, you’ll never pick a restaurant. I know this from personal experience. I’m usually the one who breaks first and picks a place so we can eat- but feel (false?) guilt because I wasn’t trying to get my will over theirs. This is particularly frustrating when I’m trying to be a “good host” to visitors from other cities. Of course some people really don’t care about where they eat, but I love good food and like to have local fare, not franchises, when I visit a city.

We are also to forsake glorying in successes. The disciples were tempted to rejoice when demons obeyed them, and when the sick were healed. We have similar temptations when the plan becomes reality. We are to rejoice, instead, that our names are in the Book of Life (due to God’s gracious work, not meritorious works). We should speak to bless, not simply to be heard. We are to remember that we’ve been forgiven much and begin to forgive much. We are to be more grieved by our sins than angered by the sins of others against us.

He sort of returns to the menial but encouraging us to care for the needy. More than care, but invite them (and their messiness) into our lives. This is so taxing at times. Small congregations can be consumed with a few needy people. And yet, humility reminds us that we are not to focus on the influential and rich that we might gain advantage, but to help the needy as a picture of the gospel (James 2). He was rich but emptied Himself to make us rich and now invites us to do the same.

Humility doesn’t eliminate class and station. Humility leads us to not glory in our class or station (or despair in our lack of them). Focusing on the present can lead us to think we are to restructure society, overturn these distinctions, but that will not be accomplished until Jesus returns. It will be accomplished by Jesus, not us. Yet we can already stop oppressing others instead of going with the status quo. The gospel changes how we relate to one another, and those outside the church, but it isn’t a massive societal reconstruction or reform (yet).

Humility accepts one’s station in life, knowing that in God’s sight, social status in this life is far secondary to the matters that will last into eternity. … We can look to those above us and try to impress them or we can look to those under our care and try to do right by them.”

Humility Applied- Love

This is the longest section of the book, and for good reason. He wants to unpack humility’s effect on us in the now in love toward God and one another. He begins in our life together which too often is an assembly of egos. The path to humility goes through the local church where we have to learn humility to live together in the bond of peace. Paul speaks of the church as Christ’s body and each of us as members of it. Unity flows out of union with Christ and one another, but is maintained by a humility that says I need you as much as you need me. There is no place for individualism, self-reliance, power-plays, factions and other works of the flesh driven by pride. Church membership challenges the flesh and continually points us to love.

In the church that humility includes a submission to the means of grace: Word, sacrament and prayer. We are dependent on these means of grace. Humility recognizes this and embraces them. In extreme cases we are called to humbly submit to church discipline with repentance and faith.

One thing he overlooks here is our vows as members (and officers) to submit to the government of the church (not just in discipline cases) (and in the case of officers their brothers). There is a place for protest, complaint and appeal in the PCA government but our default posture is to be submission unless sinful. This is hard, and the immature seek to run when they don’t get their way- even if officers.

He then moves to humility in leadership, not towards leadership. Church officers are to be mature men and therefore growing in humility. They are not exempt from humility but are to be characterized by it. So many problems in leadership are traced back to pride. Elders that can work together are exercising humility.

Prideful leaders will cultivate prideful church bodies.”

He spends a great deal of time here in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians who were characterized by pride and the resulting divisions. Godly leaders are like Timothy and Epaphroditus who consider the interests of others and risked their own lives for others (Paul uses them as examples of men following Christ’s example in Philippians 2). He also brings in Sosthenes, a synagogue leader in Ephesus who came to faith and was beaten by the rioting crowd in the place of Paul. He was likely the same man who Paul mentions as writing to the Corinthians with him. Paul and Sostenes suffered together and served together. This is a model of church leadership.

A humble church enforces a plurality of leaders and insists that its leaders submit to one another.

He then moves to the connection between truth, humility and unity. Unity requires both truth AND humility. Unity is preceded by love, a love that considers the interests of other rather than the self-seeking pride that destroys churches every day.

He addresses the ways the church as sought unity over time (via Francis Schaefer): organization, a state church, uniformity of worship, comprehensive creeds/confessions, minimalist confessions (no creed by Christ), political causes, heroes or culture. Each of these has been tried and found wanted for a variety of reasons.

In our denomination, some think that our common confession should produce unity. It helps. But we differ as to what is essential and what is secondary at times. We disagree on the application of our common doctrine at points. In our pride we think that anyone who believes what we do will also do as we do, worship as we worship, and build a culture like our culture. This is pride. Humility recognizes that I am not perfect and my applications of our theology are not the only ways to apply it, or the best in other circumstances. Humility gives others the freedom to disagree on many (not all) applications of common doctrine. We rip each other apart because we confuse uniformity with unity.

Hutchinson digs into Ephesians 4 at this point. Our unity is accomplished in Christ, but Paul tells them (and us) to maintain our unity. The Spirit creates the bond, and provides the fruit of humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness to do so. In this he uses Packer’s distinctions by the Puritans of trunk doctrines, branch doctrines and twig doctrines. Some, unfortunately, seem to treat all doctrines are trunk doctrines. Unity is fostered by agreement on trunk & branch doctrines, and humility and bearing with the differences over twig doctrines. Humility is mindful that we all have doctrinal error, and don’t know which errors. The more important a doctrine, the more clear it is in Scripture. Humility recognizes that the twigs are least clear and offers more charity over differences. Some of these differences have to do with maturity requiring patience for others to mature.

In conflict, humility is also important to owning your portion of the blame-pie. It is also important to forgiving others as you recognize your own sins and need for forgiveness.

He then turns his attention to afflictions and church image. He points to need for humility in evangelism so we aren’t talking down to people. Scribes and Pharisees had a merit-based religion (earning grace) and so were judgmental toward those who were clearly sinners. When we are humble, we recognize that we too need grace and will not outlive our need for it.

He also brings us to 1 Cor. 9 in that we become like them to win them, rather than demanding they become like us to be won. We preach and live grace. Hutchinson notes that in this text there is no companion with to weak, as with Jew and Gentile. We don’t become strong to win the strong. The sin that keeps the strong from faith is pride. We invite them to own their weakness before God.

Humility is valued by God in worship and piety. He draws near to the humble, those who are contrite and tremble at His Word. Humility is focused on the inner man, and not the external, ritual and superficial. True worship and piety begin in humble hearts that love and fear God.

As he addresses culture, he warns us against engaging in the culture war. He is not arguing for antinomianism. He is recognizing that God’s people are called to be holy, and unbelievers are called to believe- not simply practice biblical morality. Fighting the war alienates people, not on the basis of the gospel, but public morality and political intervention. This doesn’t mean you don’t vote, and vote for candidates that affirm more biblical values than the other, but that you use the methods of evangelism to win hearts than the methods of politics to gain power and influence.

The last chapter in this section is Turning Factories into Gardens. He’s speaking primarily of how the Church goes about her business. We are not a factory creating disciples according to a blueprint. We are like farmers or gardeners who nurture plants. He argues for smaller churches that plant churches rather than building megachurches and multi-site churches.

Hutchinson covers lots of territory in this book. This necessarily means that he is brief, not exhaustive, or this would be as think as Baxter’s Christian Directory. He maintains a great blend of Scripture, history/heritage and personal experience. He does take the topic of humility in different directions than other authors on the subject. As a result, this makes a good addition to your collection of books on humility. You do have books on humility, right?

In reading this, your pride will be unearthed at times. There will be opportunities to repent. He does bring us back to the gospel frequently. He needs to, or exposure of our pride will be as dangerous to us as the pride itself. Humility will see that our only hope is Christ and that He is willing to receive us, always and forever. It is about how great He is, not how great, or evil, we are.

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America is at a very strange place these days. As we come into the 4th of July and Independence Day we find the polarization means that there are some who hate our country, and some that unquestionable love our country. How is a Christian supposed to think about the nation in which they live?

I was asked to speak at our family 4th weekend and turned back to a text a preached on in 2015. While I found the sermon on our website I couldn’t find my notes on my computer. So, I decided to “wing it”.

The text is Jeremiah 29, and my aim wasn’t to be exhaustive but to address what Jeremiah said and how it applies to us upon whom the ends of the ages have come in Christ (1 Cor. 10:11). God wasn’t addressing us directly, but provides and example and instruction for us about His faithfulness and our responsibility in similar circumstances.

The Problem of Place

“This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining exiled elders, the priests, the prophets, and all the people Nebuchadnezzar had deported from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, the queen mother, the court officials, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metalsmiths had left Jerusalem. He sent the letter with Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The letter stated: …” (CSB)

Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem after the horrific siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchanezzar. The royal family, elders, wealthy and craftspeople were deported to Babylon. The useful people were taken away but the farmers, shepherds and others deemed unimportant were left in the land. Jeremiah was among them.

He sent a letter to the leaders and people Nebuchadnezzar had deported. He wants them to know how to live as exiles apart from Jerusalem, God’s promises and the temple for worship. They are not where they want to be. They likely feel forgotten by God. They are in a land that is very different, filled with temples to foreign gods, a ruthless people who weird and even wicked customs. They would likely be tempted to despair, to give up.

Pursue Shalom

This is what the LORD of Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Find wives for yourselves, and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the LORD on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive.” (CSB)

People in that place and time would have seen the defeat of Jerusalem and Judah to include the defeat of YHWH by the gods of Babylon (see 2 Kings 19:12 for an example). But YHWH speaks as the LORD of Armies. He was not defeated by is all-powerful. To make it clear, twice He says “the city I have deported you to”. We see the doctrine of concurrence. Both Nebuchadnezzar and YHWH deported them there, but for very different reasons.

God did this as a fulfillment of the covenant curse for persistent, unrepentant disobedience (Dt. 28:64). God said He’d do it, and was faithful to His word when Judah was unfaithful. They were not in Babylon by accident. They were there by God’s purpose and intention.

They were not to be filled with despair but to build, plant, marry and multiply in this strange land. Life as normal was supposed to continue, or resume since it ceased during the siege and deportation. Get back to living, Judah. Don’t want until you return to Jerusalem to live again!

I’m sure they were tempted to live for revenge. Perhaps form a resistance movement, a terrorist group to force their way back to Judea or to bring down this oppressive, ruthless regime.

But God said to pursue or seek the well-being of Babylon. Babylon! Well-being or shalom! Not its destruction, but its prosperity and peace. They likely felt like Jonah when he was told to go to Nineveh, a citadel city of Babylon. He, and they, did not want God to have mercy and compassion on their enemy. They didn’t want to pray for God to bless them! They wanted to open the Psalter to the imprecatory psalms and pray for God to judge and curse Babylon. God’s purpose is the opposite: blessing.

Perhaps it was these prayers that was behind the mostly peaceful transfer of power as the Medes and Persians quietly invaded Babylon and took over. The people were not devastated, just the Babylonian rulers.

Pursue Patiently

For this is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says: “Don’t let your prophets who are among you and your diviners deceive you, and don’t listen to the dreams you elicit from them, for they are prophesying falsely to you in my name. I have not sent them.” This is the Lord’s declaration. (CSB)

Just as the false prophets had wrongly declared a victory for Judah over Babylon, the false prophets were now predicting a quick return to Judea. Having been deceived before, don’t be deceived again. The LORD is disavowing these wicked men claiming to speak in His name.

10 For this is what the Lord says: “When seventy years for Babylon are complete, I will attend to you and will confirm my promise concerning you to restore you to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your well-being, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. 12 You will call to me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and places where I banished you”—this is the Lord’s declaration. “I will restore you to the place from which I deported you.” (CSB)

God’s good plan and intention is to bring them back on 70 years. He will prosper them in Babylon, they will seek Him and He will bring them back. This is also a fulfillment of God’s promises in Dt. 30-1-10. It will come to pass in about 70 years, 2 generations, rather than in the immediate future.

In Daniel 9, as the 70 years are coming to an end it doesn’t seem like it is going to happen. Daniel receives a clarifying vision. Judah was not yet seeking God with all their heart. It would soon be accomplished in the Cyrus Edict after the Babylonian Empire had fallen.

They were to live by faith in this foreign land! God’s promised sanctions had been fulfilled. They were to trust that His promised deliverance would happen as well. But in the present they were to live, build, plant, and pray for the shalom of Babylon.

That’s great but we aren’t Israel and we aren’t in Babylon. Right?

The Adjustment

Israel, representing God’s kingdom, was scattered among the nations. The kingdom wasn’t identified with those other countries, and Israel was no longer a country. This anticipated the New Covenant Community, the Assembly, the Church as representing the kingdom of God scattered among the nations, and not identified with any of them.

This should remove the temptation to Christian nationalism. The interests of the kingdom are not the same as the interests of the kingdom. We live in both, and often they are at odds with one another.

Peter called us “elect exiles” in 1 Peter 1:1. He returns to this idea of sojourners and exiles to frame how Christians were to think of one another. Paul reminded the Philippians that the citizenship that really mattered was their heavenly citizenship.

We have been saved by the blood of Christ and spread in particular nations. You have been placed where you are by the will and purpose of God. We are at odds with the world’s values, mores and purposes.

Jesus, in whom the kingdom had drawn near, lived in the Roman empire which had conquered most of the known world. It too was oppressive. Jesus didn’t rail against Rome. Surely people like Simon the Zealot and the Pharisees would have loved a sermon like that. But He didn’t.

Neither did the disciples. Paul and Peter argued that we should submit to and obey the authorities God has placed above us, unless they command us to disobey God. We see this in Acts when they were prohibited from preaching Christ. They needed to obey God, not man, and were willing to suffer the consequences time and again.

In America, abortion is permitted. It is a wicked practice and should exist. Christians are not permitted to get an abortion because it is legal. In China, an abortion can be commanded. Here the Christian must obey God, not the state. These are different situations. An unjust law doesn’t mean you have the right to rebel, unless you are forced to obey a command contrary to God’s revealed will.

The Revelation

The Revelation reveals the Dragon, that great Serpent that deceived Eve, as the great opponent of the saints. He makes war on them. He does this through the Beasts. The Dragon is a counterfeit Father, the Beast from the Sea a counterfeit Son and the Beast of the Earth a counterfeit Spirit who works so people obey the Beast from the Sea. Government has a beastly quality, forcing the obedience of the people and persecuting the faithful people of God.

Here we also see Babylon, particularly the Whore of Babylon, representing a counterfeit church focused on material prosperity that seeks to seduce the true people of God.

As exiles, we live in nations representing the Beasts and the Whore. We live in Babylon! If we refuse her advances, we will likely experience the persecution of the Beast.

It is hard for us to view where we live as the Beast or Babylon. Yet, it is true.

People have a tendency toward polarization. Some hate their country, in this case America. Some idolize it.

On the left we see people who see only the sins of America (and they are many): slavery, genocide, capitalism run amok. For instance, the Democratic Party of the county I live in is having a “F-ck the Fourth” celebration. And they are not along. All they see what is wrong with America and hate it. They are blinded to what is good, and only (apparently)see the good and not the evil of other nations. Which nation “knows how to act”? None, just spend 15 minutes and you’ll dig up their genocides, relationship with chattel slavery, oppression and more.

Don’t worry, some of the right hate America because of abortion and the movement toward socialism. Hatred for one’s country isn’t only from one side.

When you focus on in the sin in a relationship, like marriage, it goes toxic and won’t last long. Even the good is distorted by your animosity.

Others idealize and idolize their country. It commits no wrong.

Help from Lewis and Keller

How can we get out of this polarization? In The Four Loves C.S. Lewis discusses love of country, patriotism. Keller builds on this in his book on Jonah. An honest love of country admits it successes and failures. It loves the good of your country and hates the bad. It wants better for your country, but isn’t trying to destroy it.

This is possible for us as Christians in a way that it isn’t for secularists. We believe in forgiveness, not simply retribution. We believe God can redeem and change a society (to a degree) and that “burning down the house” isn’t the only answer. We saw that the French Revolution replaced one oppressive government with another. There is no earthly utopia. We must await the coming of the New Earth at the return of Christ for the kind of society we all long for. The gospel means our hopes aren’t for earthly societies which enables us to love them despite, not because of, their sin.

How to Live as Elect Exiles

It has taken us awhile, but let’s get back to Jeremiah 29.

Pray for shalom in America (or whatever country you live in). Shalom comes in reconciliation with God, and one another. This means praying for renewal among Christians and repentance among the unbelievers. Their changes hearts will bring a measure of change.

Preach for shalom in America (or whatever country you live in). God will use the ordinary means of preaching to bring shalom. Our preaching should not so focus on sin that we offer no hope for salvation. It should not so focus on hope that none recognize the need due to sin. We must articulate God’s good creation of the universe, man’s rebellion in sin which brings the curse, God’s work of redemption in Christ and the coming consummation where the curse is removed, the wicked judged and the righteous (by faith in Christ) vindicated.

Practice humble, honest love with neighbors. Don’t ignored differences but don’t demonize either. Love your neighbor who doesn’t share you worldview, mores or values. Show them that disagreement isn’t hatred by positively loving them. Recognize the positive traits of your neighbor and not just their sins. Give them a glimpse of God’s mercy in Christ by your neighborliness and friendship.

Don’t opt out of life in the hopes of the near return of Jesus like so many cults have and do. Build, plant, marry and multiply. Don’t withdraw from society but engage it in a loving fashion. Pursue its shalom!

Recognize your country’s need for Christ, AND that Christ will be merciful to those who repent. Pray for it, not against it.

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Considering Unity

I have been studying Jesus’ high priestly prayer this month. Earlier I focused on the hatred of the world toward Jesus and those who believe in Him, remaining in Him and His Word. Jesus doesn’t necessarily say how we are to treat the world in this prayer, but we see elsewhere that we are to seek peace and love those who call themselves our enemies.

What of our relationship to one another?

Consider who the disciples were. We have fishermen. John’s family may have been fairly successful, not just getting by based on some hints in the gospels. We have a tax collector who was wealthy, and was seen as facilitating and furthering Roman rule over the region and the Jewish people. We have a Zealot who wanted to end that Roman rule. In terms of personality we see Peter being quite bold and impetuous. Philip seems more timid and uncertain, slow to believe.

We see men of similar faith but very different backgrounds, economic status, political views and personalities. Without Jesus keeping it all together it seems like this will quickly fragment. As the gospel goes from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria and the ends of the earth, it will only get more complicated and tenuous.

20 “I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. 21 May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. 22 I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. 23 I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me. John 17

In His prayer, Jesus has shifted to “those who believe in me through their word” referring to the disciples. He is addressing the growing body of believers.

In the span of these few verses He prays for their unity three times. It is of utmost important to Jesus. He wants the Father to unite them, not simply they themselves. We don’t necessarily want unity (the works of the flesh include dissensions, factions, strife and envy- Gal. 5- which all work against unity).

Our unity is like the unity of the Godhead. It is a spiritual reality accomplished by the Spirit. Father and Son mutually indwell one another (something we can’t quite understand but affirm).

The purpose of our unity expressed here is that the world would know the Father sent Jesus and loves His disciples. It has a testimonial value in a world that sees the world thru differences, dividing people by the differences and hating those who are different.

In the US we are currently focused on differences in race, class, politics and more. We divide and fight. The works of the flesh are fully evident.

Protests & Counter-Protests (LA Times)

Imagine what happens when people who remain in Jesus and His Word are united, dwelling together in unity, despite their differences of gender, race, class, politics etc.? They see the spiritual reality of the communion of saints. They see evidence of the power of the gospel!

One metaphor Paul uses to express this reality is that of the body. Christ is always the head, but we are individual members of the body and therefore one another. Each cell has the same DNA, but has a different function and therefore concern. A blood cell is very different in function than an optical cell. What affects one may not directly affect the other.

Paul doesn’t break it down to the cell, but different parts: hands, eyes etc. The point remains- all are united into ONE BODY and work together under the leadership of the Head to accomplish the purposes Christ has in mind. In a healthy body, each part responds to (submits) to the voluntary and involuntary impulses sent from the head through the central nervous system. In a healthy body, the different parts are not at war with one another as if they have an autoimmune disease.

The different experiences, backgrounds and concerns are all to be brought together in Christ.

Male and female are not to battle one another in the Church, but are to recognize all we share together in Christ, our common roles and our differing roles.

Slave and free (different economic classes and stations) are not to battle one another in the Church, but are to recognize all we share together in Christ, our common roles and differing responsibilities. One’s wealth does not grant them spiritual power in the Church. The poor, who may be rich in faith, may have positions of great responsibility and be officers.

Jew and Greek (ethnic and racial differences) are not to battle one another in the Church for superiority. They are to recognize that we have a common inheritance in Christ and have both common roles and differing roles (not based on those differences but gifts from the Spirit). Power and position in the Church are not granted on the basis of race or ethnicity. Acceptance in the Church is not based on race or ethnicity but on Christ to whom we are united!

Tax collectors and zealots (political differences) are not to battle one another in the Church either. People from both parties (in our very imperfect system here) are Christians, but may connect more with concerns raised in one party (or candidate for the more independent voter). That should not mean they fully embrace every aspect of a platform. We can also differ on how to address problems like poverty and abortion while still recognizing them as problems. Acceptance in the Church should not be based on political affiliation, but on Christ to whom both are united!

Yes, living this way is hard. Maintaining the bond of peace in the Spirit (Eph. 4:3) is difficult precisely because flesh and Spirit are in conflict in us individually and corporately.

  1. Remember that ALL of us are brought together in Christ because of Christ’s work for us, not because we are good, righteous, wise and have it all together. We all stand or kneel at the foot of the Cross. We are all accepted in Christ, not on the basis of our race, politics, gender or social class.
  2. Remember humility. None of us is perfect and has all the answers. None of us is the authority. We all have blind spots and prejudices. We need another another to see the fuller picture. Don’t exalt yourself over those who are different from you, but realize you are members each of one another and therefore need one another.
  3. Remember that true disciples also are marked by self-denial. We are cross-carriers! We are to forsake our self-will to submit to Christ’s will, and that will includes loving our brothers and sisters who have different opinions. We don’t demand our way but follow the example of Jesus who submitted as a slave even to the point of death (Phil. 2).
  4. Remember that the Spirit is at work in you to apply Christ’s cross to your sinful desires and desires that you make more important than unity in Christ. The fruit of the Spirit protects unity. Pray for the Spirit to bear them in greater measure so that you are not the source of disunity. Seek to be changed rather than demand that others change.
  5. Remember that God is patient with us as we work our salvation with fear and trembling because He’s at work in us. This means He’s also patient with them as they do the same. Be patient with one another as God works out these differences. Guard unity with patience and gentleness.

As we remember these things, I think we will experience more of the unity God gives us, and will show ourselves to be God’s people. We will be proof that the Father sent the Son and that God can love sinners like us.

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Jesus said it, but we have a hard time believing it. Even as Christians we have a hard time believing many things Jesus says.

18 “If the world hates you, understand that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you. John 15 (CSB)

14 I have given them your word. The world hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. John 17 (CSB)

Too often we are surprised when we draw the ire of the world. It is happening again with the reversal of Roe v. Wade. The arguments given were constitutional, not religious but conservative Christians, who have protested, lobbied and voted for year, are seen as the culprit.

Vandalism in Winter Haven, FL

The world hates us when we do not bend to their will. The world hates us when we stand with God against foolish and deadly notions. The world hates us because they hate God whose Word we are standing on in opposition to worldly foolishness.

God is the One who opens the womb of particular people so they are pregnant. He gives this gift even when we misuse the gift of sex (which He also invented). From our perspective pregnancy may be planned or unplanned, intentional or accidental, desired or undesirable. But from His perspective He ordained that particular sperm and egg to connect and form a new person. He knits us together in the womb, even with the flaws needed that we would seek and know Him.

God is the One who gives eternal life too, and that life is found only in His Son Jesus. I didn’t come up with this. But Jesus did say “no one comes to the Father except thru Me” (John 14). It angers people who want their own religion with the rules they like. It angers people who are under the delusion they are “good enough” without Jesus.

God is the One who made man male and female. He created two genders, not 3 or 40. He also bestowed a gender on each person. As part of the general curse due to Adam’s sin, some are born intersex. It isn’t punishment for their particular sins, or those of their parents. It is that Adam’s sin affected us physically as well as spiritually. This should cause us to call out to be made whole and right, not matter what genetic issues we have. But to affirm God’s creation regarding gender draws the hatred of the world.

God is the One who made marriage a permanent one flesh union between a man and a woman. He instituted marriage to be a picture of the union between Christ and the Church. It provides help for each partner, pleasure in knowing one another in many ways, and the best way to raise children produced by that union (or adoption).

The world hates that we affirm God’s plan for marriage. They reject God’s purposes for marriage (now it is self-actualization and lasts only as long as both parties want it to last. It also rejects God’s instruction on who can be married.

God is the One who gave us the gift of sex as a bonding agent for that permanent, one flesh union. Biologically, chemicals are released that bond you to the other person. It’s brain chemistry, put there by God. But the world works against God’s desire by making sex only about pleasure. We bond and break that bond eventually becoming unable to bond as intended.

In so doing, God prohibits many sexual practices the world embraces in increasing measure that corrupt sex and its purposes in God’s economy.

The world is in rebellion against its Creator. It wants to throws off what it perceives as chains but which really are bonds of love to protect us from ourselves. His law is a reflection of His character, which we as people made in His image were intended to share. People unknowingly become enslaved to sin, and the faulty thinking needed to justify it.

It should come as no surprise when they hate all who stand with God, and against them. We aren’t saying we are perfect. We break God’s law too! But Christianity includes the call to humble oneself to be instructed by God regarding good and evil, instead of seeking to know it apart from God as Adam and Eve tried to do. Christianity includes self-denial as we learn to submit to God instead of ourselves and our desires.

The world doesn’t understand when we forsake greed, drunkenness, deceit and cheating. The world hates us when we don’t join them in promoting all manner of sexual sins, abortion to cover the mess apart from repentance, and its growing confusion over what a person is.

Don’t be surprised. Don’t be disheartened. Don’t be dissuaded.

Remember that ultimately it is God they hate. Ultimately it is God who stands in the way of their “self-actualization”. It is God they are mad at, but we are present. They strike at us to strike Him. It isn’t about us. They want to crucify Him again.

Here are some more unpopular words of Jesus that clarify what is going on:

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. 14 How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it. Matthew 7 (CSB)

Be careful which road you take. Friendship with the world is hatred of God (1 John 2). This refers to worldly values, not having friends who don’t share your values. We can and should love people who aren’t Christians. We just don’t want to share in their sin. But they may not love us back. Live at peace with them, seek to overcome evil with good. But also recognize you still need to be transformed in the renewing of your minds so you aren’t squeezed into the pattern of the world (Rom. 12).

Fear not, as they hated Him so they will hate you. Don’t hate them back! To borrow a title from a book, love them into the Light!

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I first read The Bruised Reed at the end of 2007. Cornerstone Community Church had closed and I was reeling. Like Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ I found it a good balm to my soul.

It is 2022, and after 5 years of difficult ministry I find myself on sabbatical and turning again to Richard Sibbes and The Bruised Reed. My previous review was very short. Uncharacteristically short. This is probably reflective of the condition of my soul at the time. The book itself is short (my edition is 128 pages), and the 16 chapters aren’t long as a result. This makes for more meditative reading.

The book is Sibbes’ reflection on Isaiah 42 and the beginning of the Servant Psalms. Jesus would apply this to Himself and His ministry in Matthew 12. While the sentences are longer than usual today, Sibbes is one of the easier Puritans to read.

“This is my servant; I strengthen him,
this is my chosen one; I delight in him.
I have put my Spirit on him;
he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not cry out or shout
or make his voice heard in the streets.
He will not break a bruised reed,
and he will not put out a smoldering wick;
he will faithfully bring justice. Isaiah 42

The Reed and the Bruising

Sibbes begins with Christ’s calling to provide the proper context for this passage and his book. He develops this in Trinitarian fashion to help us see that in Christ God is for us though we may be struggling with sin, temptation or affliction. In Christ we have a Mediator who gently carries out His ministry to the elect leading to their conversion, and afterwards.

Yes, we are often bruised and smoldering leading up to our conversion. And we are often bruised reeds and smoldering wicks after our conversion as well. To be bruised is to be in some misery: sin, temptation or affliction. To be smoldering is to be overcome with fears and doubts.

Jesus does not abandon us to our misery or our fears & doubts. Jesus does not destroy us, but gently ministers to us to restore us and reinvigorate faith.

Ministry is not easy. While a real sinner who really sins, some of the accusations made against me amaze me. Ministry can be undermined in the eyes of others, and yourself. Betrayal, fear of betrayal, loss of joy and so much more, can be overwhelming.

This is not simply true for pastors. Everyone experiences betrayal of various kinds. We all struggle with temptations that keep returning. We can doubt God could love such wicked failures such as ourselves. The ministry of Jesus matters. We will all find ourselves as bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. He doesn’t break us. He doesn’t put us out. He came to heal and restore.

Bruising humbles us and exalts Christ. At first we can be focused on our pain and fear. But the ministry of the gospel turns our eyes back to Jesus. We see our weakness and folly, and His greatness and mercy. We learn, as Sibbes says, that we are not oaks but reeds: fragile and weak.

Christ Will Not Break the Bruised Reed

Part of Jesus’ ministry to bruised reeds and smoldering wicks is interceding for them as their Great High Priest. He is the Great Physician who works to heal us. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah does not use His strength against us, but for us.

Sibbes applies this, encouraging us to seek God’s mercy for He shows Himself merciful in Christ. While Christ may wound, it is as a surgeon to restore health rather than to destroy us. These bruises are signs of His love, not His hatred. He bruises that we may see our sin and turn to Him for relief.

Jesus is making war on our sin and hard-heartedness. We need to remember that He was bruised for our transgressions. He creates a holy despair in us that only He can remove in His gospel.

“Christ’s sheep are weak sheep, and lacking in some thing or other; he therefore applies himself to the necessities of every sheep.”

The Smoking Flax

He sounds like Newton (whom he predates)in briefly discussing the several stages in Christian experience. Grace often has small beginnings and we should not despise those small beginnings. Sibbes returns to humility and humbling ourselves.

Grace is mingled with corruption in our lives. Our corruption is not removed at conversion, but at glorification. Until then, the Christian experiences both grace and corruption. At times we are focused on God’s grace in our lives, and at other times our corruption. When we focus on the later we experience those doubts and fears characteristic of smoking flax. We think we have no grace, and no part in Christ.

Christ Will Not Quench the Smoking Flax

Sibbes uses a number of biblical illustrations to remind us that corruption does not erase grace. Jesus supports and cares for the smoking flax, or smouldering wick. He bears with the many imperfections of His saints. This is good news for us.

Here Sibbes reminds me of 1 Thessalonians 5, the text I may one day use for a DMin dissertation on the heart of pastoral ministry.

14 And we exhort you, brothers and sisters: warn those who are idle, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 1 Thessalonians 5

The smouldering wick is discouraged and weak. Such a person does not need warning or rebuke (the word for admonishment is used). We must be careful to address people properly. Jesus does this, and all things, perfectly. He comforts and helps as needed. He doesn’t rebuke the smoking flax.

“Where Christ shows his gracious power in weakness, he does it by letting men understand themselves so far as to breed humility, and magnify God’s love to such as they are. .. Christ refuses none for weakness of parts, that none should be discouraged, but accepts none for greatness, that none should be lifted up with that which of so little reckoning with God.”

Jesus is so not like us!

Jesus uses timely words to make us better.

The Spirit of Mercy Should Move Us

His mercy leads us to repentance, according to Paul (and the Westminster Confession of Faith). True faith apprehends God’s mercy toward us displayed in Christ’s cross. Mercy draws us near to God. Mercy humbles us further.

Sibbes warns against taking up Satan’s ministry against yourself (or others, I add). To not use timely, appropriate words is to accuse the brethren or yourself instead of comforting and encouraging. Perhaps it has happened to you, it has happened to me. You are honest with another about your fear & doubts, and instead of praying with and for you they begin to accuse and chide. You plunge deeper into darkness because they hide the mercy of God from you, expressing judgment and condemnation.

We can take up these accusations ourselves. We can join the accusing chorus. Been there, done that. These accusations are like thorns in your side, growing infected.

We need to recall, as Sibbes reminds us, that the Church is a hospital. While we may not all suffer the same symptoms, we all have a spiritual disease.

Marks of the Smoking Flax

“Those who are given to quarreling with themselves always lack comfort, and through their infirmities they are prone to feed on bitter things as will most nourish that disease which troubles them.”

Sibbes answers this with talk of the double transfer. The law breaks bruised reeds and quenches smoking flax, but the gospel protects and nourishes them. Sibbes speaks of the Spirit’s secret operations that we don’t recognize in the present, but which sustain us.

Here he discusses how to distinguish the presence of the heavenly fire (grace) and the carnal man who is lost in their sins.

Help for the Weak

He begins with the temptations that hinder receiving comfort from Christ. One is lacking assurance, forgetting that even our best actions continue to smell of smoke. Weakness of body can lead us to forget God’s grace. In a paragraph similar to William Still, he speaks as well of Satan’s attacks with out of character, and grievous, temptations. And there are the persistent temptations that arise from our sinful corruption. He reminds us that we can only see these sinful desires because we are in the light (partakers of grace), but we often think it means we have no grace.

The carnal man is not troubled by his corruption. Those who have received grace are troubled. They are humbled. They are in the place of grace. God is not opposing them, as they fear (1 Peter 5:5).

Sibbes encourages us to continue with duty despite our weakness and fear. God is not expecting us to wait for the “perfect moment” or full strength. We are to obey when the opportunity arises, rather than let our weakness win the day.

“Let us not be cruel to ourselves when Christ is thus gracious.”

He explores this more fully in Duties and Discouragements. He provides gospel advice for overcoming discouragements.

“Suffering beings discouragements, because of our impatience. … But if God brings us into the trial he will be with us in the trial, and at length bring us out, more refined. We shall lose nothing but dross.”

In this he does address the problem of our sin which can rob us of a sense of our justification. Not our justification, but the sense or feeling we are justified. We continue to struggle with sin, of this Sibbes is clear. Such struggle is discouraging, but it is not a sign of gracelessness! He perfects His power in these weaknesses. He covers over our infirmities and the sins that flow from them. These struggles drives us deeper into Christ when we grasp the gospel. Satan is the one who whispers that we should hide or run from Christ for they are signs He is angry with us.

Believe Christ, Not Satan

Here is the call to believe Christ as His speaks in the gospel. To receive comfort and help, listen to Christ and stop listening to the Accuser. He speaks here of what Ferguson calls a legal spirit, which views God as hard and immovable. He speaks here of what Ortlund speaks of in Gentle and Lowly.

Jesus may seem to be our enemy, but only that He might show us greater mercy. Sibbes points to Joseph pretending to be his brothers’ adversary, knowing that he is and will be gracious to them.

“Satan, as he slanders Christ to us, so he slanders us to ourselves.”

Run, therefore, to Christ. Stop your ears lest you hear the satanic call and crash upon the rocks of law and condemnation instead of resting in the meadows of mercy and streams of grace Jesus provides.

Quench Not the Spirit

Sibbes speaks of both the false despair, and false hope, of Christ’s mercy. False despair forgets Christ’s mercy despite faith in Christ. At times it can resist His mercy, thinking oneself unworthy of it (which is the point). False hope presumes on His mercy without actually having faith in Christ.

He encourages us to make use of the ordinary means of grace, and believe the message of grace. He advocates communion or fellowship with other Christians, prayer, the preaching of the Word, and exercising grace.

“Infirmities are a ground of humility, not a plea for negligence, nor an encouragement to presumption.”

Pride leads people to despise these means of grace as mean. They are the means by which Christ descends to meet us in mercy.

The final section of the book addresses Christ’s victory through establishing His judgment in the heart. Sibbes brings out the establishment of Christ’s judgment. He will ultimately prevail over our corruptions. It begins by the judgment of sin in our hearts. We recognize our sin as sinful, repent and seek redress in Christ alone. The Spirit fights with the contrary desires of the flesh. The Spirit changes our desires over time. He also grants us holy affections.

His government in us is gentle as He brings us into submission. It is the resistant rebels that He will crush with His iron scepter. He gives “us grace to fight, and to subdue in some measure our base affections.” Christ’s pardon leads us to obedience. We receive not only justification but also sanctification from Christ (Calvin’s double grace). He gives us love for Himself to motivate and guide us. We serve voluntarily (Ps. 110).

Jesus also gives us wisdom. He provides the heavenly light we need. He governs us by this wisdom in our hearts.

In Grace Shall Reign he addresses why the enemy so often seems victorious. We overcome by suffering, not by avoiding suffering. It is Christ, whose pattern we follow, who triumphed over sin through suffering. God works “by contraries”. We are foiled that we may later overcome. Our roots grow deeper when shaken by the wind. Our weakness is revealed and we look to Christ for help. Grace, he notes, conquers us so that we then conquer our corruption by grace. Sibbes repeatedly reminds us that this victory is not easy nor early. He returns to the means of grace to sustain us in the battle against sin and corruption. But Christ shall triumph, publicly.

“We are reeds shaken with every wind. We shake at the very noise and thought of poverty, disgrace or losses. We give in immediately. We have no power over our eyes, tongues, thoughts or affections, but let sin pass in and out.”

Christ triumphs by exposing our weakness, revealing our dependence and coming as our strong support. Our victory comes through conflict. We should expect opposition. The flesh opposes the work of the Spirit. Each move toward holiness is opposed. Our victory comes only in Christ.

Yes, this book can feel a bit repetitive but sermons are frequently repetitive. Scripture often repeats the most important things. Sibbes follows suit. Sibbes also keeps bringing us back to Christ. This is why the Doctor found it so helpful. This is why The Bruised Reed is a balm to the soul. If you are in misery and tossed by doubts and fears, I’d suggest this book. One of my friends who’s a counselor recommends it often. This is helpful for better understanding how to minister to people as well- applying Christ’s ministry to them.

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Like many churches, we struggled as a church in having people return to corporate worship. We were not exclusively doing live stream for long. We continue to live stream. Many of our people were back soon after we resumed corporate worship after about 6 weeks. Some stayed away for over a year. Then in July/August 2021 we had a number of members come down with Covid and resumed live stream only for 3 weeks so we wouldn’t spread it in our worship service. As a result, some of those same families stayed away for longer than the 3 weeks.

Like many other churches, we took advantage of Crossway’s offer of free copies of Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ is Essential by Collin Hansen & Johnathan Leeman. This book was prompted by the above problem, but seeks to speak more generally about the essential place of the church in our lives, and the importance of corporate worship (but not just that).

“Even before the threat of deadly contagion, the church looked increasingly strange in an age when neighbors rarely gather for things like intimate discussion, quiet learning, and enthusiastic singing-“

One issue they bring up in the introduction is the impact of social media. They note that we seemed to like each other more before social media became fashionable. We learned others have very strong opinions we disagreed with, and that made being together more difficult. We have struggled to learn to overlook and forgive. Too many have put these views over the mutual commitment to Christ and left for congregations of like-minded people. The bond of peace is not preserved by the Spirit and humility but broken by division.

For these reasons and more this is a needed book. They do say some very good things as they work through why and how the Church is essential. I appreciate the desire to be brief. I am more likely, however, to recommend Devoted to God’s Church by Sinclair Ferguson.

What Is a Church?

Leeman begins the book with a chapter on the Church. He begins with some autobiography. As a young man he benefited at times from the local church, but it wasn’t essential to him. He found himself at Capital Baptist which seemed quite counter-cultural to him, particularly in the area around the nation’s capital which is captivated by politics.

“… your understanding of what the church is will shape your life and your living.”

He discusses that the church is a gospel community (formed by and testifying to the gospel). This is much needed for the unbelieving world. They need to see transformed communities, not simply individuals, since they see communities divided by non-essential doctrines, Covid responses and politics.

This gospel community is a manifestation of God’s kingdom. We are God’s temple.

Returning to some biographical data, you see the interesting nature of their polity. He notes that the congregation voted to receive him as a member. As a pastor, I find it difficult at times despite our small size, to really know people to determine the authenticity of their profession of faith. Our Session (elders) approve or deny membership, not the congregation. My point? They voted for a guy that only a few people knew with any depth. This is important because he notes that he “had one foot in and one foot out for the first year.” He was struggling with being an autonomous individual, but God continued to work in him. The congregation didn’t know this, but voted him in.

Who Can Belong to a Church?

Collin Hansen addresses the issue of who can be a member. He brings is family background into this as well. His family expected you to go, but not participate wholeheartedly. His answer to the question that entitles this chapter is one you would expect from a Baptist: baptized Christians. He notes the differences in meaning between himself and paedobaptists like myself. There really isn’t any discussion of the difference between the visible and invisible church that structures this conversation. He puts off more discussion of baptism until later.

This discussion of a “regenerate church” however neglects (I think) that distinction between the visible/invisible church. Regeneration is essential to be part of the invisible church. We cannot, unfortunately, accurately discern regeneration in others so the visible church is populated by both the regenerate and some unregenerate people. We do try to discern whether people are making a “valid” or sufficient profession of faith. In all of this I wonder how much New Covenant Theology is influencing him without him explicitly stating it. It is good to lay your presuppositions on the table.

Calling people to faith in Christ is important- it’s the essential message of the church. While stating there is no intrinsic value to attending church, one should wonder how they will believe (ordinarily) if they stop attending? Yes, they could recall a message heard before, or talk with a friend who clarifies the gospel. There does seem to be a slight discounting of the ordinary means of grace.

Thor and Loki Don’t Always Get Along

In addition to receiving a new father in adoption, he stresses that we receive new siblings. Loving them, coming from such different backgrounds, can be even more difficult than loving natural siblings. But the gospel is there to help us forgive and cherish one another.

Do We Really Need to Gather?

Leeman takes the next chapter on the necessity of corporate worship. He notes the groups of people are powerful. We see this in protests and political rallies. They are important for “what that group becomes by gathering.” He’s getting at the idea that worship is formative, and we need to be formed into the likeness of Christ. One of the Father’s main means for this is corporate worship.

The church, or assembly, is the gathered people of God. The church can’t be a church if it doesn’t gather. One of the problems of the Mosaic Covenant seems to be the people were only required to gather for the set festivals. Worship was centered in the tabernacle and then the temple. Worship has been “de-centralized” in the New Covenant. It is about Christ, not a unique place, so we are able to gather regularly to worship. Weekly worship is the pattern established for our well-being.

“The point is that attending church is what Christians do. It demonstrates that the Spirit of Christ is in us, and therefore we desire to be with Christ’s people.”

Here he gets into the hurdle of Covid-19. Love and sin are intensely relational. To not gather is to miss the point of love. It is hard to love another apart from gathering together. As he notes, Christianity is “more than just an information transfer.” It is the relational application of that information by faith.

The Enlightenment fostered individualism, and America has put this problem on steroids. We struggle to recognize the corporate nature of Christianity, in part because of the grammar of English. We fail to see that many of the times Paul uses “you” it is plural. We reduce Christianity to me and Jesus as a result. Our gatherings are meant to be a prelude to the heavenly and eternal gathering.

Why Are Preaching and Teaching Central?

Some people wonder why the pastor gets to address them claiming to speak for God. The sermon should be driven by Scripture (understanding and applying it) so that we hear from God together. “We’re shaped together as a people there.” The Word is the basis and limit of a sermon. But it is the Word for the community, not simply for personal but corporate application.

We are to listen, examine, believe and apply what is true. Disciples of Christ, we also begin to teach or disciple others. We counsel, encourage and instruct in a more specific way, applying the general messages we’ve heard to more particular circumstances.

You can find excellent expositors online. But they won’t sit down over a meal or drink with you to talk it through. This is the value of the ordinary preacher in an ordinary church. He should be faithful. But he should also be available. Over time you are shaped by the people you listen to: so character, not simply skill, matters.

Is Joining Actually Necessary?

Leeman begins with the experience of needing to visit an embassy while traveling overseas because his passport expired. He didn’t become a citizen because he was there, but received access to his rights as a citizen there.

Church membership is about being recognized as a citizen of heaven and receiving the earthly benefits you are entitled to. You don’t have that when you don’t join a church. Or at least all of them. Churches don’t “make” you Christians, but are called to recognize you as Christians based on evidence of the Spirit’s work.

This brings him to the “keys of the church” and ordinances (what many of us call sacraments). Baptism is about entrance into the church (though we disagree on whether or not children should be baptized since disagree on the nature of the sign and seal), and the Table is about remaining in the church. It is an opportunity to reaffirm that we need Jesus and He owns us.

Membership is about our commitment to one another because of our commitment to Christ. One issue I had here was in the sentence “I’m asking them to take responsibility for my Christian walk.” Perhaps it is semantics, but I can say “share responsibility”. It isn’t the church’s fault that I go astray unless they neglect their responsibilities.

“Church membership offers the safety of the sheep pen, where Christ is shepherd.”

You can be saved apart from church membership. But it is important for growth and maturity. We need others, and they need us, to grow. So membership is more than a status. Like citizenship it comes with rights AND responsibilities. The first denomination I was in stressed the latter, while the current one stresses the former. Our consumer mindset focuses on rights not responsibilities. When those “needs” are not being met, people forsake their responsibilities and vows made. We need to keep both in view.

Is Church Discipline Really Loving?

What happens when we violate our vows? Churches are supposed to exercise discipline on members who refuse to repent of false doctrine or sinful living. It is an attempt to protect the glory of Christ by protecting the body from sin, and seeking to restore the sinner. The church, and its leaders, are to instruct and correct.

When we put someone out of communion, we are declaring that they are unrepentant and in danger of condemnation. That person is not “shunned”, but are free to attend worship but not free to take the Table. In extreme cases, like abuse, they may be prohibited from attending a particular church.

Where there is mercy and forgiveness people are encouraged to repent. Where there is a harsh, unbending culture, people usually hide their sin. People can quickly tell if their church is a safe place to struggle with sin or if they need to pretend.

While we do not judge the person (“they are going to hell”) we do judge actions as right or wrong, sinful or righteous. It is unloving to allow a person to go down the wrong road. Love warns of danger, and that is what discipline is intended to do. In the church, the mob doesn’t rule. The law of God reveals sin that needs to be confessed.

How Do I Love Members that Are Different?

This is one of the best and most important chapters of the book. Particularly in our day. The early church dealt with conflict between ethnic groups, social classes and genders, just like we do. As a new humanity made up of people from every tribe, tongue and nationality; of men and women, slave and free, rich and poor, young and old there are many differences in priorities, preferences, and personalities.

Part of the problem is that people like to be around people just like them: affinity groups. Like hangs with like. Some people try to build churches on this principle (homogeneous church plants). Churches that had diversity moving into 2016 have been torn by social factors as people seek others who see the world like they do. Collin Hansen reminds us that “we need to rediscover the church as the fellowship of differents.” Affinity isn’t the same as love. Love also embraces differences rather than clinging to similarities.

He looks at the diverse group of people Jesus gathered as the inner circle of disciples: fishermen, a tax collector, a political zealot. There were probably some interesting debates around that table during dinner. Jesus also attracted a variety of “sinners”.

“These tax collectors and sinners would not have shared fellowship apart from Jesus. They did not have much in common, except the rejection of the Pharisees.”

In our culture we are often encouraged to celebrate diversity in a way that prioritizes “differences in ethnicity, nationality, gender, and, increasingly, sexual orientation.” Those who don’t quite fit the diversity or prioritize it are then excluded. In some cultures (or subcultures) they celebrate uniformity. You see this in nations with one political party, caste systems or a national religion that tolerates no rivals. In both cases, Hansen notes, community is built by exclusion. They tolerate only certain kinds of differences.

The Church is intended to be a wide variety of people united in Christ. He is the unifying factor: not race, class, gender, political views or sports allegiances. Jesus invites us into the discomfort of disagreement. The Church is meant to be filled with people who don’t normally associate together. This is one reason why the Church was seen as threatening to Rome. It subverted a culture founded on social power/class.

“Politics and pandemic have stressed many congregations past the breaking point. It might be easier to look for a church where everyone thinks, votes and sins the same way you do. It’s better for your spiritual growth, however, to hunker down in a fellowship of differents.

How Do We Love Outsiders?

Having discussed our need to love one another, Hansen shifts to the love of the outsider or non-Christian. He gets into how churches view their relationship to unbelievers. Some see corporate worship for evangelism. This did not originate with Bill Hybels. The Southern Baptist church seems to be the original seeker sensitive church. Sunday night was for discipleship, and when the Table is often celebrated. Some use a missional model where the church prepares people to reach out by meeting tangible needs. In many Pentecostal and charismatic churches, the focus is on healing, making life better. The last general category he lists is the church as a dispensary of grace. This could be in the Roman Catholic model of dispensing grace through sacraments. In Reformed circles it is dispensed by the gospel preached and believed.

He shifts to the Great Commission. I am NOT disagreeing with the Great Commission, but how he interprets the great commissions. The main verb in this sentence is to “make disciples” (we agree that we aren’t just making “believers”). The two participles explain what it looks like: baptizing them and teaching them to obey all Jesus has commanded.

The reason the disciples baptized new believers is that they were new disciples. Baptism is the beginning of discipleship. He focuses on “new believers”, ignoring the missionary context of those baptisms in Acts.

We do agree that the task of the church is making disciples. We are to relate to them as people needing to be discipled in Christ instead of worldliness. We need to realize that the world is constantly discipling people. Leeman notes that “it takes twice the amount of time to make the same amount of progress in discipleship today as a decade ago.” This, despite the greater access to sermons, podcasts, blogs and books. We need more in-person discipleship.

Who Leads?

Leeman addresses church leadership in the next chapter. The last few years have eroded trust in leaders as many feel the weight of conflicting messages, false news, overreach and more. One thing he mentions to help rebuild trust is to be clear about the pastor’s job description. He focuses on the pastor’s role of building people up and equipping them to fulfill their job description. He puts it this way:

Elders’ job + members’ job = Jesus’s discipleship program

Equipping the people includes teaching and providing a godly example. One man can’t do all of this, and he points to the plurality of elders that is part of a healthy, biblical church. The non-vocational elders provide examples of faith in the workplace and retirement. They provide examples of mature men and the office is open to other men who mature.

When trustworthy men are chosen, the people still need to be willing to trust. The message of questioning or resisting is a big part of our society, and this ungodly attitude has infected the church. Trust is important for the well-being of a congregation, and the time apart due to Covid, and choices made in crises, have eroded trust. When a coach loses a locker room, it is pretty much over for him. Pastors and elders can work together to win the congregation back.

“Trust is the oil that allows the engine of Jesus’s discipleship program to operate. Without it, gears grind to a halt. … A church that cannot gather and that has low reserves of trust is like a car with an engine that is running low on oil.”

Leaders, good ones who follow Jesus’ plan, are calling people to grow and change. People shouldn’t look for a church that simply affirms them and their beliefs. In the midst of that, conflict is bound to happen. Leeman suggests that at times parting ways can be good, if people realize they may be part of the problem and the instruction of others may help them grow and reconcile. They don’t have to be under your leadership, but they should be under someone’s who they will listen to.

He then gets to the role of deacons. They aren’t comparable to the elders. Their role is different. It is important to care for the physical needs too. Lack of care there also leads to disunity, as the early church learned in Acts 6. Deacons provide an example of faithful service to God’s people.


They share two stories of real people. The first couple are former missionaries who are struggling in their marriage. No one at their big church knows. They are not connected. They think they are mature, but instead they are proud.

They may need to move closer to they can be involved: be known and know others.

Jazmine was sexually abused by a stepfather, and then in foster homes. Her marriage was difficult as she found it difficult to trust. She did seek help from her church. She grew and her marriage got better. She invested herself in her church, unlike the first couple.

We have to engage, not just expect.

They don’t encourage you to shop for a better church, but invest in the one you are in (unless it is abusive or heretical). The drift likely began before the pandemic or partisanship. It likely began as you withdrew. People are generally, due to the flesh, looking not for how they can serve but get their needs met. This means that “loyalty lasts only so long as the church continues to meet your needs.” Jesus talked about self-denial, not self-fulfillment. Self-denial, humility and considering the interests of others foster unity and growth. Just show up. Just get to know people and serve them (and allow them to serve you). Church will become more of what you need.

“You don’t get the church you want, but something better.”

As I noted early on, this is a good book. It says a number of good and important things. There are some theological presuppositions that should have been expressed. Those presuppositions may drive some of the disagreements (minor) I have with the book.

I hope it fulfills the goals of the authors. I hope that it motivates people to return to church, and invest in that church. It is good as far as it goes. I just wish it went further.

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You saw the title of this post, and likely wondered, “what in the world is the Dorean Principle?”. I wondered what the principle was as well.

A clue comes in the subtitle to Conley Owens’ book: A Biblical Response to the Commercialization of Christianity.

Owens is concerned about commercialization raises some valid questions and concerns. It just took me awhile as I read it to get a clearer picture of what those concerns were. Perhaps the Introduction threw me off.

“Christian book sales climb into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Parachurch ministries amass sizable revenues, with organizations like Cru surpassing $600 million. Seminaries collect tuition upwards of $60,000 for a standard degree, with loan payments leaving many pastors financially shackled for years. … Certainly, money fuels the work of ministry, and the worker is worthy of his wages (1 Tim. 5:18), but at what point does the financial enterprise go to far?” (pp. 1)

There is some sense in which tossing Cru in there throws us off the scent of the real problem he’s raising. Most of what Cru does seems to follow the Dorean Principle. At least as I understand his explanation of the principle. I will get back to Cru later.

Cutting to the chase: I think he raises some valuable questions that need to be thought through but I’m not convinced by all of his arguments nor share all his conclusions. It is a book, and subject, worth wrestling with. There are some exegetical issues as well as concerns for application.

The Dorean Principle

The principle is basically the difference between reciprocity and co-labor. Reciprocity is defined as paying money to gain access to the gospel via preaching. Paul, for instance, refused to receive payment from the Corinthians while the “super-apostles” requested payment from them. Paul viewed them as “selling the gospel”.

Co-labor is when you receive money from Christians to make the gospel available to other people. It is not fee for services. It is funding the effort to reach other people.

“The apostle never receives money from those he is converting. However, as we have already noted, Paul willingly receives money from his churches when the context does not indicate that they intend to repay him for his ministry or for their conversion.” pp. 76

The Dorean Principle: In the context of gospel proclamation, accepting support as anything other than an act of colabor compromises the sincerity of ministry.” pp. 10

Exegetical Questions

Owens explores a number of passages in a number of chapters to make his point. These include a number of tensions he uncovers that continue to flesh out his principle (immediacy vs. indirection, difficulty vs. obligation, freedom vs. duty etc.). What was interesting to me was that he waited until page 104 to “define the gospel”.

At times I struggled with aspects of his exegetical foundation. For instance, Jesus’ instruction to the disciples He sent was prescriptive for them, but was it meant to be prescriptive for all to follow, and for every trip? Does it hold for those who are evangelizing, or those engaging in any type of gospel ministry?

I see this issue in a number of texts he used. They were in the context of missions and evangelism (this is the same issue with many NT accounts of baptism) but are extended beyond that context to fit all. Proper hermeneutical principles keep the context in mind so you don’t arrive at faulty conclusions and applications.

He spends time in Corinthians. Paul was planting a church in Corinth, and chose not to receive any money from them like many of the rhetorical teachers of his day. Yes, Paul did not want money to come between the Corinthians and the gospel. That is a good principle. It is a more defensible position than never receiving money from those you currently serve. Later he will discuss why pastors will be able to receive money from congregations but it seems like looking for loopholes to me. But I get ahead of myself.

If I buy a book by Sinclair Ferguson, it is a form of gospel ministry to me. But I am buying the book because I am already a Christian. I am not being kept from hearing the gospel for my conversion if I don’t have the money to buy it. As a Christian (and pastor) I may buy a copy and give it away to unbelieving friends. Money is not necessarily keeping them from hearing the gospel. I’m not convinced that Sinclair Ferguson is being insincere (a term he uses for the ministry of the super-apostles) in his ministry because his books are sold. I don’t view this a peddling the word of God. I see it as recognizing that he worked hard, and publishing the book costs money for all the people who worked on it as well as the materials involved. I think he’s worthy of his wages. I am free to buy or not buy the book.

In his chapter The Greed of Wolves Owens makes greed co-terminus with false teacher. I “wrongly” hold to the typical view which sees overlap between greed and false teachers as the Bible uses the term (pp. 64). Some false teachers, for instance, distort the gospel to present a different gospel because of the fear of man (see Galatians 1). It isn’t about money. The Pharisees were condemned not only for their greed, but also their false conception of grace (merited by works), exalting their tradition over God’s law and more. In one of the texts he uses they seek pride of place/position but that is glossed over.

Those who seek to get rich off the gospel (a right gospel but greedy heart) are to distinguished from those preach a false gospel “sincerely”, and those who preach a false gospel to get rich. I find more categories at work than Owens appears to since the human heart is deceptive and complex. This is an example, however, of the black and white, either/or, thinking in this book that ignores the reality of both/and and that people have mixed motives and fall prey to the deceitfulness of sin. For instance, “pragmatism” can sometimes be prudence rather than doing something just because it works.

Applying the Principle

What Owens is grappling with is the difficulty of living in a world not imagined by the human authors of the Bible and that the divine Author didn’t reveal to them. It makes application of a first century principle difficult at points. He tries to work through some of these issues, but I found his applications quite literal. He seems to stick to the letter of the principle rather than the spirit of the principle.

Church members, for instance, give to the church because they support its ministry. Part of that money may go to the pastor (and staff), but it is indirect, is not compulsory, and also supports those ministries from which the person gets no benefit. Designated giving to only ministries you directly benefit from would be reciprocity. In my opinion, designated giving should be reserved for mercy (we have a deacons’ fund) or projects. The pastor should not receive money directly from congregants each Sunday. They are giving to the church, not simply the pastor.

Churches should avoid fee for services when it comes to aspects of gospel ministry: funerals, baptisms, weddings etc. He approves honorariums since they are neither required nor set fees. Personally, I don’t talk about money for those ministry opportunities. I see them as gospel opportunities. I’m not doing them “for the money”.

As an example of selling the gospel, he mentions that Redeemer charges $1,600 for the entire archive of Tim Keller’s sermons. Since they are now digitized, I agree that this seems a bit much. Many of his sermons are offered freely, which he doesn’t mention. It would seem better to offer all of them freely since there really isn’t an expense to digitized copies, unlike the printed collections of sermons sold in Spurgeon’s days and that you can get today as well.

When I was converted there were cassette tapes (most churches had a tape ministry and asked for money to cover costs), and Ligonier (among others) used VHS. By the time I worked for Ligonier they were beginning to use CDs and DVDs as the tapes were phasing out. Now CDs and DVDs are phasing out for digital downloads. Ministry is slow to catch up with technology. And we are slower to ask the questions we need to ask. A ministry like Ligonier does need to pay the people who work there to plan conferences, publish Tabletalk, produce the radio show etc. In addition to fundraising (co-labor!) there is a cost for products. Again, I’m not convinced this is peddling the gospel.

Cru may have revenue of millions of dollars, but that is not from selling the gospel. That is primarily a result of campus workers and office workers raising support to do their gospel work. This is co-labor. They aren’t charging students money. When I was a student, I took part in a volleyball fundraiser to send students to conferences. More co-labor. I didn’t pay for the conference I attended.

Cru HQ

The sheer size of Cru and its administration creates that big number. A question he doesn’t ask but perhaps should is about the size of parachurch ministries that are not under any ecclesiastical authority. He does note a number of issues with parachurch ministries in the 12th chapter. They are outside of the regulation of the church, though they often have boards rather than elders. In this chapter he fails to distinguish the raising of funds for the poor in Jerusalem from ordinary giving (1 Cor. 16:1-2).

He brings up some churches that charge money to attend special services. Or receive services like counseling (I’m not sure I’d consider that peddling the gospel though not disconnected from the gospel). Self-publishing and digitized books can greatly reduce costs and make it easier to not charge people for copies. I, however, don’t like digitized book since I write in books. Not all royalties go to the author, however. I was looking at a commentary and all the royalties for the series go to the Langham Partnership established by John Stott.

Some congregations support “artists or scholars in residence” (for instance Gary Thomas, Matt Papa among others). They are supported, at least in part, by the congregation to enable them to produce books and music for the benefit of the church and Church.

Owens, on page 110, does acknowledge that some who adopt “compromised practices” are true teachers. He finds it unwise and unnecessary to boycott true teachers who have such compromised practices. He was unclear about whether or not he support circumventing paywall. He quotes Jesus in Mt. 17:25-27 regarding the temple tax as nuanced. “However, for the sake of peace, it is often best to bear such burdens” doesn’t seem like a clear call to avoid illicit (illegal) downloads.

He addresses the growth of crowdfunding. When there are perks at donation levels, Owens is uncomfortable with the move toward reciprocity. He also addresses seminaries and issues regarding copyrights.

There are some interesting ideas here. Richard Pratt, for instance, has long been critical of the common seminary model. Third Millennium raises support to fund education for people in other countries without access to seminaries.

What makes me uncomfortable, however, is over-analysis, or perhaps I should say straining after gnats. It is easy to become legalistic and Pharisaical in trying to avoid commercialism of the gospel. There can be a fine line between wisdom and being over-scrupulous. I’m not sure where that is and if Owens crossed it.

For example, they talk about conferences like the recent Together for the Gospel. Sub in Ligonier, Catalyst, Gospel Coalition or any number of them. Tickets, according to the Dorean Principle should reflect only expenses incurred to have the conference, not to cover fees for speakers (or honorariums). I’m not sure why this is a problem since it is an indirect payment, made to (presumably) sincere people and it is not mandatory since I don’t need to go to hear the gospel. It seems to be focused on practices instead of people (are they greedy and asking for too much compensation, are they teaching false doctrine- the questions that have to do with character and qualifications for office). Instead we are looking at business practices because, unfortunately, there are commercial realities in life under the sun.

The book has merit, but I don’t’t buy it hook, line and sinker. It is clear that the church needs to think more about the impact of money on ministry and ministry models. This is a first step. Hopefully it won’t be the last. I just don’t want us to spend so much time on this that we aren’t actually communicating the gospel.

BTW: Conley Owens sent me a free copy of the book for me to review. It is offered free for Kindle on Amazon and you can get a free pdf download on the website so he’s putting his convictions into practice.

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The Westminster Shorter Catechism describes the work of the priest this way:

Question 25: How does Christ execute the office of a priest?
Answer: Christ executes the office of a priest, in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God, and in making continual intercession for us.

In my Maundy Thursday Service, I preached from Romans 8 on Christ’s priestly sacrifice on the cross.

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For Palm Sunday we looked at Psalm 110, the great revelation of Jesus as David’s Lord and a priest in the order of Melchizedek.

The sermon begins around the 17 minute mark.

Thursday and Sunday we’ll look at the work of Jesus as priest in Romans 8:31-39.

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