Challenges: Serve the Church

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.
START AT THE BEGINNING or check out the PREVIOUS POST.

Not long after reaching that low point I mentioned earlier, I found myself standing on the quad at the seminary looking up at the chapel steeple and pleading with God: “Please let me stay. I came here because you called me to. Please provide a way for me to stay.”

And He did…blessing me far beyond what I asked for or deserved.
He provided a job to meet our needs…and not just a job…a family…a church.

I plan to write more about my church in the coming days, but in this post I want to emphasize just how important the church is to a seminary education. I am absolutely convinced that the only way to rightly navigate your time in seminary is to be an active member of a local church. 

One of the great challenges in seminary is retaining all that you are learning. Information is flying at you so quickly that it’s difficult to file everything away for future use. That’s why you need to use the knowledge God is giving you in the context for which it was created – the local church.

My seminary “exists to glorify God by equipping students to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission.” The knowledge we gain is not for knowledge’s sake. It’s not to pat ourselves on the back. It’s not to win arguments or brag about how much we know. It’s to “serve the church” and “fulfill the Great Commission.”

But so many seminary students are content to simply attend church.

They might object, “My church is so big. It’s hard to find a place to plug in.” But many times this is simply a cover for a misunderstanding of the value of the local church. The local church is given that we might be sanctified and grow together into the image of Christ. 

You won’t learn how to teach or preach until you do it.
You won’t learn how to deal with difficult people and situations until you do it.
You won’t learn how to dream up, plan, and execute programs until you do it.
You won’t learn how to share the gospel or disciple someone until you do it.

And the local church has been given to all of us (not just seminarians!) that we might develop our gifts for the benefit of Christ’s kingdom. In this context, so far as you are open to the wisdom and correction of others, you will discover your strengths and your weaknesses – both personally and ministerially. And, seminarians, you will be able to (humbly!) pass along some of the great things you are learning to those who may never have a chance to sit in a seminary classroom – reinforcing these truths.

Church Music: Content, Unity, & Style

“Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
-Col. 3:16, ESV

My pastor is preaching through Colossians this summer; and he covered chapter 3, verses 12-17 this past Sunday. This triggered some new thoughts in my mind about how we should select songs for our worship services.

My priorities, in order, are: content, unity, and style. 

1. Content
First and foremost, the content of a song needs to be true. The words need to communicate something and that something needs to be biblically accurate. I also believe that that communication needs to balance theological depth with clarity. In other words, I’m still glad to sing “A mighty fortress is our God,” even though no one knows what a bulwark is in anymore; but we need to be careful with overusing songs like this that need translation.

If we’re honest, there is a tendency in the human heart to view archaic things (even archaic language) as sacred simply because it’s archaic (think the KJV-only mindset). We need to resist this urge. Theological depth doesn’t mean we have to talk like Puritans. Every language in every time period has the capacity to communicate clearly and robustly.

[And just so I’m being fair: some also tend to consider me-centered, self-help psychology language in our worship songs to be sacred too.]

Why do I place content first in my priorities?

Because here in Colossians 3:16 the Apostle Paul makes a direct connection between “The word of Christ” and singing. One of the ways in which the word is to dwell richly among us is in our singing.

For this reason, I think one of the best practices in song writing is to paraphrase or summarize specific passages of Scripture. Also, one of the great features of many hymns is the movement from addressing sin or struggle to proclaiming the gospel and future glory (e.g. “It is Well,” “O Great God”).

 

2. Unity.
In the context of Colossians 3, and other similar passages in the New Testament, unity in local church worship is of the utmost importance.

Col. 3:12-14 says, “Put on then…compassionate hearts…bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other…And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Ephesians 5:21 says, “…submitting to one another out of reverence for God.”
And 1 Corinthians 14:26 says, “Let all things be done for building up.”

Unity under content and over style means that each church member exhibits passionate devotion to the truths of God’s word and deference toward the others’ preferences. In a context of obvious diversity, one should find themselves regularly and joyfully thinking: “This song isn’t really ‘my thing,’ but I’m so glad that it ministers to the mind and heart of my brother or sister.” This is what Paul means in Philippians 2 when he says, “…in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (vv. 3-4).

 

3. Style
Every culture in the world has its own unique expressions of worship; and this, so long as it is biblical, is beautiful. It is a picture of the diversity of the kingdom of God, and we should celebrate this diversity.

I don’t think that this means that every church must become as culturally diverse as possible; but, let’s be honest, at this point there seems to be little danger of that. As Lecrae pointed out, “Most segregated time of day is Sunday service / Now what you think that say about the God you worship?”

Truth is, just like we tend to consider archaic or emotional language sacred, we all tend to think of our favorite worship style as sacred. And that’s where the southern American church went wrong 20+ years ago. “Traditional” and “Contemporary” church members alike used their tongues to “bless our Lord and Father, and…curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (Jas. 3:9). They sacrificed unity on the altar of preference.

Yep. For me, this subject always seems to come back around to the regret I feel for what was and what could have been. Instead of gently integrating new styles of music into the church, the young started talking against “the old people;” and instead of being excited about and accepting of new cultural expressions of worship, it was said that we were letting the world’s (or the Devil’s!) music in. And the result looked more like Darwin’s rapid and catastrophic evolution of species than the advancement of the kingdom of God.

I truly believe that if the southern American church had prioritized depth and clarity of content (particularly on the contemporary side) and unity (on both sides) over style in the 90s and early 2000s, our churches would be healthier today and our witness to the world would be much more convincing.

Unfortunately, we can’t go back.
But we can move forward.
And I pray we will, with theologically rich, edifying singing.

Good Devotional Books

Faith is a community project. Christians are called to learn and grow in the community of believers. We are to do this most frequently and faithfully in the context of a commitment to a particular local church – through listening to the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, singing God’s Word corporately, and engaging in relationships with people whom we allow to truly know us and to whom we give permission to correct us and challenge us.

Another amazing thing about the Christian faith, however, is that we can engage in this community project not only with those in our local church but also with believers from all over the world and throughout church history. The perspective of a southeast Asian believer can sometimes shed new light on God’s Word for a southern American like me; and the perspectives of believers like John Wesley and St. Augustine can also open up new worlds of understanding.

The above reason is why I appreciate (some) devotional books. Devotional books attempt to briefly and simply teach and apply God’s Word, and I believe there is a lot of value in this.

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of junk out there. I won’t go on a rant, and I won’t name specific books, but I will encourage you to choose your devos wisely. Don’t pick devos that only intend to “encourage,” being akin to self-help psychotherapy. One of the greatest encouragements a believer can receive is a rebuke from the Word of God. Just like the growth of a child depends on the discipline of her parents, our spiritual growth depends on the discipline of our Heavenly Father. (see Heb. 12:5-11; 2 Tim. 3:14-17).

So my recommendation, for what it’s worth, is to pick devotionals that attempt to unpack and explain and apply the Scriptures. Stay away from devos that attempt to speak for God, and run to devos that acknowledge that God has already spoken for Himself in His Word. And seek to understand His Word with the help of mature and careful believers.

That said, here a few of my recommendations to this end:

1. By God’s Word by Phillip Jensen (2 volumes):
http://www.matthiasmedia.com.au/by-god-s-word

2. My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers:
Website – http://utmost.org/
Purchase – http://www.amazon.com/Utmost-His-Highest-Oswald-Chambers/dp/1572937378?ie=UTF8&keywords=my%20utmost%20for%20his%20highest&qid=1464689075&ref_=sr_1_6&sr=8-6

3. New Morning Mercies by Paul David Tripp:
http://www.paultripp.com/new-morning-mercies

4. Solid Joys by John Piper (FREE mobile app and online):
App – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/john-piper-daily-devotional/id553049864?mt=8
Website – http://solidjoys.desiringgod.org/en

5. Daily Growth by Ken Boa (FREE online):
http://www.kenboa.org/daily-prayer/

This is only a brief list of good options. What are some of your recommendations?

The gospel and gender roles in leadership

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…This is a profound mystery, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church”  -Eph. 5:22-32 ESV

I hope our next President of the United States is a woman. Plain and simple, I think it’s about time that we crossed that milestone as a nation. Of course, more than that, I hope we elect the most well-qualified and wisest candidate. I just hope it’s a lady.

So I need to start out by saying that I have no bias against women in leadership.

But what should a Christian do with the fact that the Bible teaches that men are to be the heads of their households and the local church? 

I’ve wrestled with this question for years. I’ve tried to balance the cultural aspects of passages like 1 Timothy 3, Ephesians 5, and 1 Corinthians 14 with my belief in biblical inerrancy, but I’ve never been able to shake the fact that I believe Paul really does want men to be the leaders in both the home and the church.

Is this because men are always the most qualified? I don’t think so.

Is it because they are more naturally gifted leaders? Probably wrong again.

Was Paul’s teaching given simply to accommodate the male-dominated societies of first century Palestine and Rome? I believe there is good reason to reject this notion as well.

There is in fact something unique about Christian marriage and about the church that require these particular (even if peculiar in our culture) gender roles. The gospel. Christian marriage is a picture of the spiritual union between Christ and His Bride, the church, and in turn a picture of the gospel.

No biblically faithful Christian would ever argue that anyone other than Christ Himself is the Head of the church. There is no egalitarianism in the Christ-church union. The church submits to Christ as her head without ever thinking to herself, “I only wish I had a more important role.” Christ died for her! What else could He do to prove her great worth?!

Not only that, but Christ gave His life as an act of selfless, sacrificial love, the same love that a husband is to have for his wife. There was no thought of insisting on His own way as Jesus was accused falsely, beaten brutally, and mocked bitterly. The witness of the gospel is that the Head of the church consistently suffered loss for the sake of what was eternally best for His Bride. There was not a single shred of oppressive dominance in His love.

Now we could argue for gender-based roles in marriage and the church from other angles, but I believe that this angle helps explain things the most clearly.

In this respect, the roles of husband and wife in Christian marriage and the structure of leadership in the church act very much like baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are all visual pictures of the truths of the gospel.

So if the most qualified candidate for president in 2016 is a lady, I’ll be the first in line to vote for her; but in marriage and in the leadership of the church, I still believe wholeheartedly in the model laid out for us in the New Testament.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.