Category Archives: Opinion

Should a Parent Attend Their Atheist Daughter's Wedding?

[Note: Questions and Ethics is a monthly series in which Dr. Russell Moore provides insight into how Christians should navigate through life's most challenging moral and ethical issues.]

Dear Dr. Moore,

My daughter is an atheist. She is living with an atheist, and she now plans to marry him. Should I allow my other daughter to be in the wedding as a bridesmaid? Should I support the wedding financially? Should I go to the wedding? I want to honor God, but I still want to be a mom.

Concerned Mom

Dear Concerned Mom,

Q&ELOGO-mainpageI remember several years ago I was serving a church, and I had a lady who came up to me after the service, and she whispered, and she said, "Could you pray for my daughter. She has gone to college, and she has become an atheist." And I said, "Why are you whispering?" And she said, "I don't want anyone to overhear me, because then they will know that I am the mom of that atheist girl." And as I started talking to her it became clear, she thought somehow that that would make people think that she has done something shameful in her own parenting.

That's crazy. We have got to eliminate that within the church. Throughout the Bible, you have family after family after family—it's hard for me to think of a family in the scripture that doesn't have a prodigal somewhere in the family. So we don't say that because a child is going through some rebellion that that means that the parents are deficient. Not at all! And also we need to recognize that parents love their children, and families are to stay together, and we are to maintain those avenues of connection with our children as much as possible and to provide a means for those prodigals to come home. And prodigals do come home. These rebellious times don't always last forever. And sometimes you have someone who is just going through a time of questioning, a time of confusion. Keep those avenues open.

I would also say that I understand why the mom is concerned about this, because the scripture tells us that a believer is not to marry an unbeliever. We should not be unequally yoked, as the Apostle Paul puts it. But that's not what's going on here. Instead you have a professing unbeliever marrying a professing unbeliever. Marriage is something that the scripture tells us is a creation ordinance given to all people; Genesis, chapter 2, "It is for this reason that a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." That's not only true for Christians. That's true for all people. So marriage is a good thing for everybody, including for atheists.

It seems to me that in this situation, you have a couple who are doing the right thing: not living together, but instead committing themselves to one another and marrying. If, Mom, you don't have any other objection to this guy other than his atheism, and if your daughter is an atheist too, I would see this as a creation ordinance, and I would not have one qualm at all in going to that wedding, in having the sister serve as a bridesmaid. I wouldn't have any problem financially contributing to that wedding.

Now, I think it's a different story when it comes to the church officiating the wedding. I wouldn't do the wedding for a couple of atheists. I wouldn't officiate as a pastor, because I think that signifies the accountability of the couple to the church. That couple doesn't have an accountability to the church; they are not under the I Corinthians 5 discipline of the church. But as a civil ordinance, getting married, I would go.

Now, if you have some reason to think that this man is harmful or abusive or dangerous, then no, you put your foot down, and you go to the matt for this. But if your only problem with him is that he's an atheist, I would go. I would be kind, and I would seek to continue to share the gospel with your daughter and with your new son-in-law as time goes on. I would recognize that marriage is a good thing that God has given to all people.

And I also would just really encourage all of those parents out there who are going through a situation with your children—parents of atheist children; parents of agnostic children; parents of children who are going through times of moral rebellion, not just intellectual confusion or questioning or whatever—don't be ashamed of your kids. Don't cut off connection with your kids. Remain in contact. Love your children, and don't be worried about what people are going to think about you. This is not about you; this is about loving the children God has given to you.

Related: You can find more answers to ethical questions and subscribe to the Questions and Ethics podcast on the website of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

'Non-Shepherding' Pastors: Option or Oxymoron?

Are "non-shepherding" pastors ever legitimate? You know, ministers who, due to other commitments (such as preaching) abstain from counseling and visitation and other life-on-life ministry during the week. Apart from perhaps a brief window on Sundays, they're essentially inaccessible.

"It's never okay to have a non-shepherding pastor," J. D. Greear insists, since you "can't separate those roles [shepherd and pastor] God has joined together." Nevertheless, the pastor of North Carolina's 4,000-plus-member The Summit Church admits, this principle will look different according to context.

"These duties are wed in Scripture," notes Bryan Chapell, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois, and former president of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. He points to Paul's instructive words: "Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well" (1 Thess. 2:8). Like Greear, though, Chapell admits there will be different "gifts" and "degrees of calling" when it comes to shepherding and proclamation.

"It's good to know your own personality so that you'll be able to work against your weaknesses," adds Mike McKinley, pastor of Sterling Park Baptist Church in northern Virginia. As an introvert, he's acutely aware that "books are easier to love than people."

Just because you can't pastor everyone doesn't exempt you from pastoring anyone. Indeed, despite the priority of preaching, you won't be "half the preacher you ought to be if you're not individually involved in people's lives."

Watch the full seven-minute video to hear these pastors discuss generational shifts in expectation, the place of preaching, multiplying leaders, and more.

"Non-Shepherding" Pastors from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Should Every Pastor Get a Sabbatical?

Pastors aren't the only tired ones out there. Churches teem with people who are working demanding jobs that offer no extended periods of paid leave. Are pastoral sabbaticals necessary, then? Are they even fair?

According to Bob Doll, chief equity strategist and senior portfolio manager at Nuveen Asset Management, the answer is yes. "The stresses and strains of dealing with people—with souls—wears you down in a unique way," he observes. Besides, he notes, even some companies in the secular world are starting to use sabbaticals. "They realize that refreshment makes a better employee."

"Pastors need rest of all kinds, not just waiting for 'the big one,'" adds Kelly, pastor of Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque. A strategic rhythm of work and rest, then, is vitally important.

"In the ministry, the unusual is routine," says Phillips, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina. "Experienced ministers know you've got to plan for rest."

Watch the full nine-minute roundtable video to see these leaders—two pastors and a businessman—discuss sabbatical frequency, when work and family lines blur, and more. Later this month, March 14 to 16, Phillips will be speaking at TGC's Southwest regional conference, Clarus, hosted at Kelly's church in Albuquerque.

Sabbatical from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

When Gospel-Loving Churches Undermine Marriage

When sociologists chronicle how the West redefined marriage, they will cite many factors, including progressive social pressure, willing media, and liberal theology. But thoughtful evangelicals shouldn't only point the finger at the outside world.

church-weddingEven among gospel-preaching congregations, we've contributed to the steady erosion of a once-strong institution. And I'm not primarily talking about divorce or the wink-and-nod treatment for cohabitation. Here are three practical but powerful messages we've sent to our young people, the outside world, and to ourselves about how we really think about marriage.

1. Marriage is important, but not as important as immediate stability.

As a pastor, I can't tell you how often I saw fear in the eyes of parents with children in college. But they didn't fear that their good Christian kid would shipwreck his faith in the secular university or that their daughter would get pregnant. 

No, quite often these Christian parents feared that their son or daughter would find a suitable mate, settle down, and get married, while still in college. I once had a nice Christian mom tell me, "I tell my son, every week, 'Don't you go off and get married now. You've got to at least finish graduate school.'"

To be sure, some young men and women just aren't ready to tie the knot. As the father of three daughters, I will make sure the suitors who come to my door (and they will come to my door or they will not be suitors) are mature, spiritually and emotionally. I want to know my daughter isn't marrying a slacker who will live in my basement until he's 35, having mastered every level of Angry Birds.

However, sometimes we treat marriage while young as a plague to be avoided at all costs. We're telling our children, in effect, "All that stuff we say all the time about marriage, it's important. But pay no mind. Really smart people put off marriage until it's convenient." If our kids listen to this kind of advice, we rob them of this blessed, sanctifying tool in the hands of God. These rhythms of life, these cycles of repentance and forgiveness, make them more like Christ.

Yes, some couples should wait. But no one enters marriage perfect or even ready. More often than not we should encourage young couples to get married and watch the inevitable grit and grace of marital intimacy weave a gospel story.

2. Marriage is important, but not as important as our church activities.

Several years ago I attended a wedding at a church in one of the most concentrated areas of the Bible Belt, where traditional marriage still polls well. This couple had come to the altar after a life transformed by God's grace. Their story was one of brokenness, beauty, and redemption in Christ. But you'd think this event was a major disruption to the church calendar.

The bride and groom paid handsomely for use of the hall—and that's what this venue felt like on the big day, a rented hall. This wedding might as well have been celebrated in a sterile city hall building. And I'm not just talking about the lack of Christian symbols in the décor, but the stunning lack of interest, on the part of the church, to celebrate this wedding. To be fair, this megachurch probably couldn't give every single wedding the type of fanfare that family and friends want.

But on this day, the wedding seemed like a nuisance, a speed bump in the highway of the church's important weekend activities. The wedding party had a hard time finding help getting in the facility, finding the right rooms, and figuring out the sound system. The pastor, to his credit, was kind and helpful and had shepherded this new couple toward this day. But the couple heard a not-so-subtle, contradictory message: "Yes, we are happy you are getting married, but don't do anything to ruin our really awesome big idea we are doing on Sunday so we can draw people into our church so they can hear the gospel."

Few things demonstrate the gospel like weddings! Christian weddings aren't merely secular ceremonies. Each one celebrates God's loving, intentional design for the people he has pursued, rescued, and appointed as future kings and queens of the universe. The intimate union of man and woman before God helps us peer into another world. It's a signpost for another kingdom, a city whose builder and maker is God.

Weddings shouldn't be incidental occasions in the life of God's covenant community. They prompt celebration and worship. The church should gather around this new couple and bear them up by their presence, by their prayers, and by their generous giving.

3. Marriage is either the utopia at the end of your dreams or your worst nightmare.

More than one social commentator has suggested that long before the gay-rights movement, evangelicals undermined marriage by modeling in real life the opposite of what they preached. The problem isn't just no-fault divorce. Sadly, many lifeless marriages resemble business partnerships more than intimate union. No wonder many young people seem so disinterested in marriage. They've never seen marriage modeled well in real life. The intimacy, spark, and love evaporates just when the kids start paying attention. Avoiding the seeming hassle of marriage, young people check out all together.

In correcting this problem we can swing wildly in the opposite direction. We sometimes present marriage as something more than it was meant to be. Hoping to cultivate healthy sexuality, we sell marriage as utopia, the ultimate destination for hopes and dreams and good sex. We set ourselves up for disappointment. Even the most vibrant Christian marriage only offers a foretaste of a far better gift, Christ himself.

Marriage is neither the nightmare some portray it to be, nor is it heaven. Instead, it's a temporary theater where Christ is sanctifying us and working out his glory. Let's not preach the gospel from the pulpit but deny it in our attitude toward marriage.

Tullian Tripp Furman Roundtable

What Not to Say to Someone Who's Suffering

"Job's friends were great counselors," Tullian Tchividjian observes, "until they opened their mouth."

Tchividjian sat down with Paul Tripp and Dave Furman to discuss things you shouldn't to say to a person in pain—many of which they've learned the hard way.

"I've made the mistake of comparing one person's pain to someone else's," recalls Furman, pastor of Redeemer Church of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Though perhaps well intentioned, this approach diminishes the real struggle before your eyes and leaves the person to conclude you "have no idea what I'm going through." Along similar lines, Tripp adds that it's remarkably unhelpful to tell someone, "You will never suffer as much as Jesus did." To the person who suffers this comment sounds like Jesus set the bar so high that no one else's pain matters.

"The mandatory happiness we require inside the church often perpetuates the pain people feel," says Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. "But we have a faith that actually embraces suffering, that looks it square in the face and is realistic about it. The idea that God suffers for us and with us is what sets Christianity apart."

Watch the full seven-minute video to see these pastors discuss blunders they've made, comforting their kids, awkward silence, and more.

Loss from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Rosaria Butterfield

You Are What—and How—You Read

I just returned from a well-known (and well-heeled) Christian college, where roughly 100 demonstrators gathered on the chapel steps to protest my address on the grounds that my testimony was dangerous. Later that day, I sat down with these beloved students, to listen, to learn, and to grieve. Homosexuality is a sin, but so is homophobia; the snarled composition of our own sin and the sin of others weighs heavily on us all. I came away from that meeting realizing—again—how decisively our reading practices shape our worldview. This may seem a quirky observation, but I know too well the world these students inhabit. I recall its contours and crevices, risks and perils, reading lists and hermeneutical allegiances. You see, I'm culpable. The blood is on my hands. The world of LGBTQ activism on college campuses is the world that I helped create. I was unfaltering in fidelity: the umbrella of equality stretching to embrace my lesbian identity, and the world that emerged from it held salvific potential. I bet my life on it, and I lost.

Rosaria ButterfieldWhen I started to read the Bible it was to critique it, embarking on a research project on the Religious Right and their hatred against queers, or, at the time, people like me. A neighbor and pastor, Ken Smith, became my friend. He executed the art of dying: turning over the pages of your heart in the shadow of Scripture, giving me a living testimony of the fruit of repentance. He was a good reader—thorough, broad, and committed. Ken taught me that repentance was done unto life, and that abandoning the religion of self-righteousness was step number one. The Holy Spirit equipped me to practice what Ken preached, and one day, my heart started to beat to the tempo of my Lord's heart. A supernatural imposition, to be sure, but it didn't stop there.

I'd believed gender and sexuality were socially constructed and that I was the mistress of my own destiny and desire. Through the lens of experience, this was self-evident. I'd built my whole house on the foundation of "gender trouble" (the title of Judith Butler's book), and then stood by, helpless, as it burned to the ground. But the Bible was getting under my skin. Hours each day I poured over this text, arguing at first, then contemplating, and eventually surrendering. Three principles became insurmountable on my own terms: the trinitarian God's goodness, the trinitarian God's holiness, and the authority of Scripture. And then, Romans 1 nailed me to the cross: "claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man. . . . Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts . . . because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie. . . . For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions" (Rom. 1:22-26).

Homosexuality, then, is not the unpardonable sin, I noticed. It is not the worst of all sins, not for God. It's listed here in the middle of the passage, as one of many parts of this journey that departs from recognizing God as our author. Homosexuality isn't causal, it's consequential. From God's point of view, homosexuality is an identity-rooted ethical outworking of a worldview transgression inherited by all through original sin. It's so original to the identity of she who bears it that it feels like it precedes you; and as a vestige of original sin, it does. We are born this way. But the bottom line hit me between the eyes: homosexuality, whether it feels natural or not, is a sin. God's challenge was clear: do I accept his verdict of my sin at the cross of Christ, or do I argue with him? Do I repent, even of a sin that doesn't feel like a sin but normal, not-bothering-another-soul kind of life, or do I take up Satan's question to Eve ("Did God really say?") and hurl it back in the face of God?

I had taught, studied, read, and lived a different notion of homosexuality, and for the first time in my life, I wondered if I was wrong.

Three Unbiblical Points

As I write and speak today, 14 years have elapsed since my queer activist days. I'm a new creature in Christ, and my testimony is still like iodine on starch. I'm sensitive to three unbiblical points of view Christian communities harbor when they address the issue of Christianity and homosexuality. Everywhere I go, I confront all three.

1. The Freudian position. This position states same-sex attraction is a morally neutral and fixed part of the personal makeup and identity of some, that some are "gay Christians" and others are not. It's true that temptation isn't sin (though what you do with it may be); but that doesn't give us biblical license to create an identity out of a temptation pattern. To do so is a recipe for disaster. This position comes directly from Sigmund Freud, who effectually replaced the soul with sexual identity as the singular defining characteristic of humanity. God wants our whole identities, not partitioned ones.

2. The revisionist heresy. This position declares that the Bible's witness against homosexuality, replete throughout the Old and New Testaments, results from misreadings, mistranslations, and misapplications, and that Scripture doesn't prohibit monogamous homosexual sexual relations, thereby embracing antinomianism and affirming gay marriage.

3. The reparative therapy heresy. This position contends a primary goal of Christianity is to resolve homosexuality through heterosexuality, thus failing to see that repentance and victory over sin are God's gifts and failing to remember that sons and daughters of the King can be full members of Christ's body and still struggle with sexual temptation. This heresy is a modern version of the prosperity gospel. Name it. Claim it. Pray the gay away.

Indeed, if you only read modern (post 19th-century) texts, it would rightly seem these are three viable options, not heresies. But I beg to differ.

Worldview matters. And if we don't reach back before the 19th century, back to the Bible itself, the Westminster divines, and the Puritans, we will limp along, defeated. Yes, the Holy Spirit gives you a heart of flesh and the mind to understand and love the Lord and his Word. But without good reading practices even this redeemed heart grows flabby, weak, shaky, and ill. You cannot lose your salvation, but you can lose everything else.

Enter John Owen. Thomas Watson. Richard Baxter. Thomas Brooks. Jeremiah Burroughs. William Gurnall. The Puritans. They didn't live in a world more pure than ours, but they helped create one that valued biblical literacy. Owen's work on indwelling sin is the most liberating balm to someone who feels owned by sexual sin. You are what (and how) you read. J. C. Ryle said it takes the whole Bible to make a whole Christian. Why does sin lurk in the minds of believers as a law, demanding to be obeyed? How do we have victory if sin's tentacles go so deep, if Satan knows our names and addresses? We stand on the ordinary means of grace: Scripture reading, prayer, worship, and the sacraments. We embrace the covenant of church membership for real accountability and community, knowing that left to our own devices we'll either be led astray or become a danger to those we love most. We read our Bibles daily and in great chunks. We surround ourselves with a great cloud of witnesses who don't fall prey to the same worldview snares we and our post-19th century cohorts do.

In short, we honor God with our reading diligence. We honor God with our reading sacrifice. If you watch two hours of TV and surf the internet for three, what would happen if you abandoned these habits for reading the Bible and the Puritans? For real. Could the best solution to the sin that enslaves us be just that simple and difficult all at the same time? We create Christian communities that are safe places to struggle because we know sin is also "lurking at [our] door." God tells us that sin's "desire is for you, but you shall have mastery over it" (Gen. 4:7). Sin isn't a matter of knowing better, it isn't (only) a series of bad choices—and if it were, we wouldn't need a Savior, just need a new app on our iPhone.

We also take heart, remembering the identity of our soul and thus rejecting the Freudian ideal that sexual identity competes with the soul. And we encourage other image-bearers to reflect the Original in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, not in the vapid reductionism that claims image-of-God theology means he loves you just way you are, just the way your sin manifests itself. Long hours traveling the road paved by Bible reading, theological study, and a solid grasp on hermeneutical fallacies gets you to a place where as sons and daughters of the King, people tempted in all manner of sin, we echo Owen: "The law grace writes in our hearts must answer to the law written in God's Word." We also take heart, remembering that God faithfully walks this journey with us, that victory over sin comes in two forms: liberty from it and humility regarding its stronghold. But it comes, truly, just as he will.

* * * * *

Editors' note: During The Gospel Coalition Women's Conference, June 27 to 29 in Orlando, Rosaria Butterfield will lead two workshops: "You Are What You Read" and "Homosexuality and the Christian Faith." Visit TGC.org/2014 to find more information on the conference and register.

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The Grueling Glory of Pastoral Ministry

After TGC Arizona's recent regional conference, Paul Tripp sat down with Josh Vincent, pastor of Trinity Bible Church in Phoenix, to discuss themes related to his book Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Crossway) [review | interview]. "Of all the books I've written, I think it's accurate to say I wept my way through this one," Tripp reflects. "To recognize that you actually need the gospel you preach is a wonderfully healthy thing."

Tripp also observes how perilously lonely leadership can be. Since "every pastor is in need of pastoring," it's imperative for leadership teams to cultivate environments of candor and grace. "An elder board can so easily become the logistical board of a religious institution rather than a spiritual community," he says. Carving out time to pray together, then, is one small yet vital way to promote unity and health.

"There's also an underplayed devotional aspect to preaching," Tripp adds. "One of the most powerful things is when your people get to watch you worship your way through your own sermon."

And what about the minister's marriage? "Think about how many ministry wives are dealing with two men—the public man and the private man," he says. "And they know the public man isn't the one they get to have at home." This sad state of affairs may be common, Tripp says, but it's not hopeless.

Watch the full 20-minute video to learn from Tripp about mentoring, delegating, sermon prep, pulpit humor, and more.

Paul Tripp on Ministry from Thomas Daniel Media on Vimeo.

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The Biblical Meaning of Success

Two great lies have been promoted in our culture during the past 20 years.

1. "If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be."

2. "You can be the best in the world."

These lies have been accepted and promoted by many Christians as well as non-Christians. Success, defined as being the master of one's own destiny, has become an idol. Tim Keller in his book Counterfeit Gods describes the idol in these words:

More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are God. . . . To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you. You are supreme.

20111211Thankfully, Scripture gives us a strong antidote to misguided ideas of success. Through Jesus' Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) we learn that the kingdom of heaven is like a man going on a long journey. Before he leaves, he gives his three servants different amounts of money, denominated by talents. To the first servant, the man gives five talents; to the second, two talents; and to the last, one talent—each according to his ability.

Upon his return, the master asks what they did with the money. The first and second servants have doubled their investments and receive their master's praise. The third servant, however, has safeguarded the money but done nothing to increase it. As a result, he is condemned by the master for his inactivity.

The Parable of the Talents teaches us five important things about the biblical meaning of success.

First, this parable teaches us that success is a product of our work.

In the opening chapter of Genesis, we find the cultural mandate in which God commands Adam to work by stewarding and growing the resources he has been given. This mandate was meant not only for Adam and Eve, but also for us.

As Christians, we have a mission that our Lord expects us to accomplish right now. We are called to steward all we have been given while we wait for our Savior's return.

John Calvin defined the talents as gifts from God in the form of a person's calling and natural ability. Alister McGrath, in an article on the topic of calling, suggests that for Calvin:

The idea of a calling or vocation is first and foremost about being called by God, to serve him within his world. Work was thus seen as an activity by which Christians could deepen their faith. . . . To do anything for God, and to do it well, was the fundamental hallmark of authentic Christian faith.

The Parable of the Talents teaches that biblical success is working diligently here and now. The servant with five talents was industrious, for he "went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more" (Matthew 25:16). He used all the talents that his master gave him—without hesitation—to produce the expected return.

Second, the Parable of the Talents teaches that God gives us everything we need to do what he has called us to do.

The New Testament talent is likely a large sum of money, maybe even as much as a million dollars in today's currency. We are tempted to feel sorry for the servant who received only one talent, but in reality, he received as much as a million dollars from the master and buried it in his backyard. Is it any wonder the master was so upset?

The master in the Parable of the Talents expected his servants to do more than passively preserve what had been entrusted to them, for he told the lazy servant, "You ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest" (Matthew 25:27). Similarly, God expects us to generate a return by using our talents toward productive ends. Like the servants in the parable, God has given us more than enough to accomplish this charge. It's up to us to use the talents wisely.

Third, the Parable of the Talents teaches that we are not all created equal.

The most overlooked part of the story is the second half of verse 15: "each according to his ability." The master understood that the one-talent servant was not capable of producing as much as the five-talent servant. We want to protest the unfairness. Yet we know this differing ability is true from experience. Diversity is woven into the fabric of creation.

But even though we're not created equal in regard to talents, we still see equality in the Parable of the Talents and in God's economy. It takes just as much work for the five-talent servant to produce five more talents as it does for the two-talent servant to produce two more talents. This is why the reward given to each by the master is the same. He tells each of his faithful servants the same thing: "Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much" (Matthew 25:23). The master measures success by degree of effort, as should we.

Fourth, the Parable of the Talents teaches that we work for the master, not our own selfish purposes.

The money given to the servants does not belong to them. They do not keep the money they earn with the master's capital. The servants only steward the master's investment, and the master measures the quality of their stewardship.

We should maximize the use of our talents not for our own selfish purposes, but to honor God. He cares about our attitude, the motivation in our hearts.

Finally, the Parable of the Talents shows that we will be held accountable.

The Parable of the Talents is not about salvation or works-righteousness, but about how we use our work to fulfill our earthly calling.

The unfaithful steward in this parable didn't so much waste the master's money; he wasted an opportunity. As a result, he was judged wicked and lazy. One day we will be held responsible for what we do for God with what he has given us.

So how should we define the biblical meaning of success?

The answer is almost counterintuitive; when we work for God in everything we do, including our vocational callings, we truly find the purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction that we all desperately seek.

We work at the pleasure of the Lord, driven by our love of God. Our only desire should be to hear him say, "Well done my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Master."

When Staff and Lay Elders Collide

When it comes to church leadership, the New Testament pattern is clear: a plurality of elders shepherding a flock entrusted to their care. Some of them, such as the senior pastor, often serve as paid, full-time staff at the church. But many others may not. They have "regular" full-time jobs outside the church.

Senior ministers Ryan Kelly and Rick Phillips talked with lay leader Bob Doll about the conflicts that sometimes arise between staff and lay elders. "Some tension is inevitable," admits Kelly, pastor of Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque. "It requires patience on the part of the staff elders to bring the others up to speed and understanding on the part of lay elders that much has gone on."

Doll, chief equity strategist and senior portfolio manager at Nuveen Asset Management, points to inadequate vision-casting, poor communication, murky lines of responsibility, and conflict avoidance as factors that typically yield problems. Additionally, according to Phillips, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, "It's important to ensure non-staff elders aren't viewed or treated as mere rubber stampers, an applause audience for the staff."

Watch the full eight-minute video to see these leaders discuss lay elders with demanding jobs, the cesspool of sinners, losing votes, and more. Next month Phillips will be speaking at TGC's southwest regional conference, Clarus, hosted at Kelly's church in Albuquerque.

When Staff Elders and Lay Elders Collide from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

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Dear Donald Miller

You don't know me, but I've been a fan of your book Blue Like Jazz since I read it a few years ago. It draws from a worldview perspective I do not share, but taken on its own terms, it's a work of art. I mean that.

I don't have the exact quote, but Emerson said somewhere that great writers hold up a mirror to the world around them and say, "Here you are." Blue Like Jazz holds up this mirror for the Gen X segment of 1980s and 90s evangelicalism—my own peer group. We grew up with one foot in the world of seeker-sensitive worship services and another foot in the world of MTV, shopping malls, and sitcom laugh tracks. We eventually discovered how much the first world borrowed from the second to keep us coming back. This realization in turn led us to be skeptical toward the whole Christian program, as if Jesus were just one more product. Many of us therefore left the faith, while those of us who remained insisted on something more real, more authentic, from our Christian spirituality. Often, this search led us outside the boundaries of conventional churches.

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All that to say, reading your book was like walking up to a painting that captures the spirit of the age, only this painting captured my own. Thank you.

From that shared starting point, my life and spirituality traveled down a road—a way out of the inauthenticity—that's very different from yours. And here is where I have wanted to strike up a conversation with you ever since reading the book. Yes, that means pushing back a bit, but perhaps you can do the same with me.

Your recent blog post, "I Don't Worship God by Singing. I Connect With Him Elsewhere.," reminded me of all this background. In addition to saying you "don't connect with God by singing," you also say "I don't learn much about God hearing a sermon" since "a traditional lecture is not for everybody." And you admit that you don't attend church often since "church is all around us."

The worldview and spirituality here resembles what I found in Blue Like Jazz. But now we're not talking about a piece of art. We're talking about how a Christian chooses to live. And, as I said, the path I've taken from those early days of angst and displacement, neither at home in the world nor in the American evangelical church, has turned in a very different direction. Instead of moving away from the traditional forms of institutional Christianity, I've moved toward them. My way out was deeper in.

I'm now an elder in a church with hour-long sermons, several long prayers, lots of singing, membership classes and interviews and meetings. We talk about repentance, practice church discipline, and use phrases like "submitting to the elders." In fact, Don, it gets worse. I've written about these things. I've advocated for them. I've drunk the Kool-Aid and then filled a tray of Dixie cups to hand out.

No, we must not mistake these structures for authentic Christian living and love. But I do believe they are both the food that gives life to the body, as well as the skeleton that holds the organs and muscles in place. And I believe they are biblical, by which I mean prescriptive for all Christians in all times and places, albeit with circumstantial adjustments.

Spiritual life comes by hearing, seeing, and submitting, typically in that order. We hear God's Word preached, sung, prayed, and counseled. We see it lived out in the lives of fellow Christians and leaders. And we submit ourselves to the Word and these fellow sinners, with all their faults and eccentricities, in a local congregation. As my own pastor has put it, we admit that we are not the world expert on ourselves, but need one another and his Word in order to see ourselves clearly and to follow Christ. Life in the midst of Word-centered, accountability-giving fellowship, he has said, is like throwing paint on the invisible man. Wow! I didn't know I looked like that.

Pick just one word out of the Bible—say, patience. I will not know how wonderfully patient God is, and how impatient I am, until I close my mouth and listen to a fellow believer open the Bible and say, "God is patient." And then ask, "How patient were you this week with your wife and kids?" And finally tell me, "Consider God's patience for you in Christ!"

Even then, this word patient will remain a little abstract. So on Sunday morning I look across the pew at Tom, who I know is being treated unfairly at work. But there he is, belting out at the top of his lungs, "When through fiery trials, thy pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient, shall be thy supply." The next day I ask Tom how he's doing, and he tells me how he's praying for his colleagues and inviting them to dinner. That's what Jesus' patience looks like: Tom waiting on the Lord—forgiving, praying, and singing with joy.

I need Tom, and I need every other member. I need the honorable parts of the body and the dishonorable parts. I can't say to the hand or foot, "I don't need you." I need all of them, the weak and strong, the winsome and irksome. And we all need the Word—in sermon, song, and prayer—guiding us. So we gather weekly to listen. Then we scatter to look, love, and help each other live.

I'm glad you connect with God in your work, as you wrote. Your comment reminded me to be more prayerful in my work. But shouldn't connecting with God in work be the "output"? Don't we need the "input" of Word-centered fellowship, so that we truly "connect" with him and not subtly spiritualized regurgitations of the world's influence on us?

Speaking of connection, the main thing that struck me about your article were the words connect and intimacy. They occur over and over, and seem to be the measure and goal of your spirituality. And how life-giving both are!

But if we're brainstorming on a whiteboard, we need to jot down a few more words to get the full biblical picture, words like submission, obedience, love, and worship. Jesus says that anyone who loves him will obey his teaching (John 14:23). He says that claiming to love God but failing to love our brothers makes us liars (1 John 4:20). He says the world will know we are Christians if we lay down our lives for other Christians just like Jesus laid down his life for us (John 13:34-45).

And here's where the rubber meets the road: I don't know how we can say we love and belong to the church without loving and belonging to a church. Or saying we want to connect with God, but we won't listen to God's Word for only 45 minutes out of all the minutes in a week. Ultimately, it's like claiming we're righteous in Christ, but not bothering to "put on" that righteousness with how we live.

Let me say it again: Our love and unity with the church should manifest itself in a church. Our listening to God means listening to his Word—spoken and sung.

Bottom line, Don, I've always appreciated much about your diagnosis of the contemporary evangelical church. But I don't understand your prescription. Since you're obviously a thoughtful person, I hope you will receive my challenge as a sign of respect, which I mean it to be.

Best regards to you.

********

P.S. Just saw your reply to a number of critics, posted around the same time as my letter. Again, some diagnoses I agree with, like, churches over-programatize. But you keep saying no one's church looks like the church in Acts?! Many churches I know do. People gather to hear the teaching of the apostles. And they scatter to enjoy fellowship and hospitality and care for one another's needs. They baptize as a way of declaring who belongs to "their number." And they exercise discipline when a professor lives falsely (okay, here I'm borrowing from the epistles, unless you count Peter's responses to Ananias, Sephira, or Simon as discipline).

In other words, Don, the main thing I want to highlight in response to both of your posts is the difference between what you call "community" and what the Bible calls the "church." Jesus actually gave authority to those local assemblies called churches (Matt. 16:13-20; 18:15-20). The assembly is not just a fellowship, but an accountability fellowship. It's not just a group of believers at the park; it preaches the gospel and possesses the keys of the kingdom for binding and loosing through the ordinances. It declares who does and does not belong to the kingdom. It exercises oversight. And exercising such affirmation and oversight meaningfully means gathering regularly and getting involved in one another's lives.

Your idea of community, to my ears, honestly, sounds more American and Romantic (as in the -ism of the 19th century) than biblical. All authority remains with the individual to pick and choose, come and go, owing some of the obligations of love, perhaps, but always on one's own terms, happy to stay as long as the experience "completes me" and my sense of self.

Last thought, friend: I do think you're overplaying the "people have different learning styles" card. You've read Hebrews. Talk about tough trudging, right? But it's a sermon! And you know the original hearers didn't have as much education as most Americans. But for some reason the Holy Spirit thought it was adequate for everyone.

Best to you.