Archive | June, 2019

A job description for church leaders – Titus 1:5-9, Part 5

21 Jun

Hey church leader, have you ever thought that you go to a lot of meetings? So often in contemporary American church life, church leadership teams (elder boards, sessions, etc) have a lot of meetings. It can leave church leaders wondering if there is more to their role. There is more to their role! Or at least their should be. Meetings are not wrong or bad. In fact, I believe meetings are very important, and can be extremely life-giving. If you don’t believe me, I urge you to read the book Death By Meeting. Meetings are needed to discuss a variety of situations and decide what to do about them. But as we conclude our study of Paul’s teaching about church leaders in Titus 1:5-9, we see in verse 9, that blameless leaders are to do at least three things that will likely not take place in a meeting (though I suspect there will be necessary meetings leading up to them):

  1. Hold fast to the faithful message that was taught to them.
  2. Encourage/Exhort/Console/Beg/Appeal the church with sound doctrine.
  3. Expose the contradictory ones.

We’re going to look at each task, but I first want to point out that it is notable that the leaders do all these things.  Notice that Titus is not doing these things.  Instead, Paul says Titus is to appoint the leaders, and then the leaders will do these things.  You would think Titus is the leader of the churches and thus he would get in there and handle what needs to be handled. 

But Paul said Titus’ primary mission was to raise up leaders who would do the work. We have seen this principle taught time and time again Scripture.  There are to be groups of leaders who are responsible for the church. Not one person, but a group.  Not one pastor.  Not one leader.  But groups of leaders, of which all are involved in leading. 

So what are these leaders to do?  Three things.

First, they hold fast to the faithful message that was taught to them.

They heard this message from Paul and Titus before.  It is the preaching and teaching of the good news of Jesus and what it means to be his follower.  They are to hold to the way of Jesus.  They are not to be influenced by other ways.  Leaders lead by example, by how they live their lives.

Second, they encourage/exhort/console/beg/appeal in sound doctrine. I list all those variations of the word because the word Paul uses is translated by many different English words. By seeing them all you get a richer flavor of what Paul is saying to Titus.

Last week in our series of posts on Titus 1:1-4, we saw that sound doctrine is one of Paul’s main concerns in this letter.  And it is the leaders who are the stronghold of sound doctrine.  They hold to the message, and then they encourage and exhort the rest of the church to do the same.  They are to lead the church in knowing Jesus and being followers of Jesus, even in the midst of a culture that might not care all that much, or that might even make fun of them, or that might even persecute them.  Leaders tow the line. 

Third, they expose the contradictory ones, the ones who are teaching something other than sound doctrine.  They refute them.  They shine the light of truth, exposing the falsehood.  They speak up.  In the next passage Paul is going to address these contradictory ones.  So we’ll talk more about that next week.

For now, we see the role that leaders have.

Are you a leader?  This is your job description.  These are your marching orders. 

Maybe you are not a leader?  This is what you can use as your goal: blamelessness.  Let us be a people who pursue the blamelessness of Jesus, and let us be a church that only selects leaders who have distinguished themselves as blameless.

Non-negotiable qualities of church leaders – Titus 1:5-9, Part 4

20 Jun
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In Titus 1:5-9, Paul says leaders of the church should be blameless. This week we have been looking closely at this passage to see if we can learn what blameless leadership is all about. In today’s post, we see that Paul tells Titus to look for leaders who have demonstrated a number of qualities that are non-negotiable.

First, in verse 6, Paul says that blameless leaders have one wife.  Is he talking about polygamy here?  Did the Romans have multiple wives?  It is highly doubtful, historians tell us, that polygamy occurred much in the Greco-Roman world.  Instead, it seems that Paul is referring to the common practice in which Greek and Roman men would have concubines. Sadly, this wasn’t considered aberrant in their culture.  It was accepted.  Paul says Christians will have a different viewpoint.  They will not have concubines.  Christians will have only one wife. In other words, church leaders’ should have a high view of the sanctity of marriage. Why? Their marriages will have a profound impact on those leaders’ relationship to the church, and vice versa. What this means is that Titus should be looking for leaders who have strong marriages, and who protect their marriages from infidelity.

Next in verse 6, Paul says that blameless leaders of the church will have faithful children.  That’s a tough one because at a certain point, kids who have been raised in a loving home can choose to rebel.  Even if they were raised right, and at no fault of their parents, they might choose to give up the faith.  While grace needs to rule the day here, Paul has something important for parents and kids to consider.  Parents are to parent their kids toward faithfulness, and kids are to choose to be faithful. What you teach your children and how you parent matters.  God doesn’t want leaders who are all about leading in the church but not caring for and leading in their homes.  That is part of being blameless; it’s a lifestyle that you are living, not just a way you behave in one spot.

Paul goes on to tell Titus to look for blameless leaders who see themselves as God’s stewards.  The word he is using here is defined as a household manager.  The leader of a church does not own the church, God does.  Paul says, therefore, that the blameless leader will view the church as God’s work.  None of us should think that we own the church, or that the church is somehow ours. It is God’s. We are simply stewards, managing the church for God.  That means Titus should look to appoint leaders who handle the church like God desires.

After talking about blameless leaders’ various roles and relationships, he talks about their character. Under the general principle of blamelessness, Paul now says that these leaders will be people who avoid five things and attain six things.

The blameless leaders avoids the following five vices.  They are not:

  1. Over-bearing.  This is an arrogance that is the result of self-will and stubbornness.  They think they are so much better than everyone else.  They are always looking down on others, always saying, “I am better.”
  2. Quick-tempered. The person is a bully. 
  3. Addicted to wine. This could be expanded to addiction in any of its many forms.
  4. Violent. This is a person who is ready and willing to pick fights. They are demanding.
  5. Pursuing dishonest gain.  Specifically this word has greed at its core. This person is shamefully greedy. 

As I look at this list of five vices, the word “narcissist” comes to mind. While I don’t believe narcissism encapsulates all that Paul is talking about here, it sure relates to much of the five. What is narcissism? As the Gravity Leadership crew discovers in this fascinating and helpful podcast interview with Chuck DeGroat, narcissism is more than “a person who is in love with themselves.” Narcissists have a strange attraction for many of us, and yet they’ve caused immeasurable damage. After listening to the podcast, I’m convinced Paul would say to Titus, “a church leader must not be a narcissist.”

So what kind of character qualities should Titus be looking for? Paul says that the blameless leader will demonstrates that they are pursuing six virtues (starting in verse 8).  They are:

  1. Hospitable.  This word has a connotation of hospitality particularly to strangers.
  2. Loving what is good.  This person really likes goodness. 
  3. The NIV 84 says the third quality is “self-controlled”, but the word the NIV 84 translates as “disciplined” at the end of the list in verse 8 is better translated “self-controlled.” Granted, they are very much related.  The word here is more about what is prudent.  A person who is sensible, making wise decisions.
  4. Righteous, “upright”. This person does what God requires. Follows God’s ways.  It is more outward.
  5. “Holy”. A person who is growing a heart that is more and more like Jesus. It is more inward. 
  6. Self-controlled. See #3 above. This person is in control of their emotions and choices.

That’s quite a list, isn’t it? It seems like only Jesus would qualify. Years ago I served on a denominational team that was administrating the process of nominating candidates for the role of Bishop. In my denomination, the Bishop is the leader of the whole denomination, and thus we created a list of qualities that we were looking for. We used biblical passages like Titus 1:5-9, and the result had me thinking, “No one fits this. A person would have to be perfect. We’re looking for Jesus, and there was only one Jesus.” But as we discussed earlier in this week’s series, blameless leadership does not equal perfection. You might review that discussion, as the list above could be intimidating. Paul did not intend to give Titus an impossible task, but he does set the bar high.

In conclusion, Paul says, “Titus, look for people who have distinguished themselves using these lists.  Appoint them to be leaders.”

And what will these leaders do?  Paul has a job description for them, which we will look at in the next post.

Can women be leaders in the church? Titus 1:5-9, Part 3

19 Jun
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Can women be leaders in the church? What is your church’s position on this? After establishing blamelessness as the baseline requirement for church leaders, Paul goes on to describe how blameless church leaders handle their lives in Titus 1:6-7. Blameless leaders will have demonstrated four things:

  1. Be a husband
  2. Of one wife
  3. Have faithful children who also cannot be accused of rebellion.
  4. See themselves as God’s stewards.

In parts 3 and 4 of this week’s posts, we’re going to look at each of these four statements.

First he says that blameless leaders are husbands.  The emphasis here is on the male aspect, not so much on the married part.  Paul himself was single, and it is okay for single people to be leaders.  But what about that male emphasis?  So many people through the ages have said, “See, only men can be leaders of the church, as Paul is only talking to the husbands.”  At Faith Church we understand this principle a bit differently.

We believe that Paul was speaking to the cultural situation of his day.  The surrounding culture of the Roman Empire was so thoroughly patriarchal, that Paul argues for male leadership in the church.  Paul also taught that men and women are totally equal in God’s eyes, so he could be accused of being contradictory. I don’t think he is.  Here’s why.

I think the question we should be asking is why he had to bring this issue up so much.  Did you ever think about that?  Paul mentions gender roles in the church repeatedly.  It comes up in 1 Corinthians 11, Ephesians 5, 1 Timothy 2, and here in Titus.  In such a deeply patriarchal culture you wouldn’t think this should be an issue that Paul would need to talk about.  Why? Everyone in the Roman Empire assumed that men would be leaders.  It’s just the way it was in a patriarchal culture.  Why then does Paul bring it up so often with these Christians?

He has to refer to gender roles so often because of what he already taught them.  Paul was bringing a new radical teaching to their society, that there is new life in Christ, that Jesus had ushered God’s Kingdom into the world, a kingdom where men and women were equal in God’s eyes.  In fact, read Galatians 3, and Paul concludes that in Christ Jesus there is no male or female, but all are one.  In God’s Kingdom there is no patriarchy.  That was earth-shattering stuff for those Greeks and Romans.  The women, of course, embraced it.  It was empowering for them, as it should have been.  There are indications in Paul’s writing that the women were grabbing hold of this new teaching and owning it, to the point of breaking cultural norms like cutting their hair, speaking in public, and so on.  And why not?  God’s Kingdom had come to town and it was a new day. 

Except for one really important matter. The rest of the culture wasn’t buying this new message. Paul knew, to preserve what was being built and being taught, to preserve the church, that these Cretan Christians had to be careful to not lose the main goal and point, which was the mission of God’s Kingdom.  His heart was to establish the church so deeply, that in time it could be an influencer of culture, viably creating a society that reflected Kingdom values of oneness and equality between gender. At this early stage, though, the church was far from ready for that. To preserve that mission, then, Paul taught them that it was going to have to male leadership only. 

But what about a different culture, one that didn’t have patriarchy, a culture where men and women are equal?  Can you think of any cultures trying to be like that?  Any cultures where men and women have equal access and opportunity?  Any culture where the women’s national soccer team, for example, scored more goals in one World Cup game than then men’s soccer team scored in all their games in the previous four World Cups combined?  I think I know a place like that.  In a place like that, we believe that Paul would have taught equality in gender roles in the church.  Because we live in one of those cultures where men and women are equal, we believe it is most faithful have gender equality on our leadership team.

I have great respect for Christians who disagree with our approach. Some of them are pastors in my own denomination. Many biblical scholars and theologians have undertaken projects to provide a rationale for male headship in the church and family. Those scholars have done due diligence, and I understand from Scripture why they disagree with the approach I describe above. I hope we can graciously agree to disagree. I will admit that I do not know for certain if my viewpoint is correct. Of course I think it is correct, but I could very well be wrong.

The one word that should define church leaders – Titus 1:5-9, Part 2

18 Jun
Photo by Nick Abrams on Unsplash

What one word do you think should define church leaders? In part 1 of this week’s posts on Titus 1:5-9, we learned that Paul had sent Titus to the Island of Crete to appoint leaders in the churches there. So what kind of people should Titus be looking for to be leaders of the church?  Paul says these leaders, he calls them “elders,” should have one key word that defines them.  Read Titus 1, verses 6-7, and see if you can find that word.

You see the word Paul repeats there? He uses it like bookends, one time at the start of verse 6, and the other at the end of verse 7.  The word is “blameless.” Some translations use the phrase “above reproach.” What is Paul talking about? Blamelessness is the idea of someone that cannot be accused of anything…because they didn’t do anything wrong.

We’ve started the next presidential election cycle.  How many of you have a sense that it is going to be brutal?  I think it’s about to get really ugly as politicians make accusations against each other.  We have a name for the TV commercials that get nasty: attack ads. 

When Titus is selecting leaders, the he is to look for people that could not be the subject of attack ads.  They are blameless, above reproach, meaning they haven’t done anything wrong. 

When I hear that, I think, “Wait a minute, Paul. Are you saying that leaders in churches should be perfect?”  The only way that someone would be truly blameless or unable to be accused of any wrongdoing, is if they were perfect, right?  And that’s a problem, because no one is perfect! 

I am certainly not perfect.  There are ways that I have misstepped.  In fact, I know our Faith Church Leadership Team members well enough to say that none of them would say they are perfect either.  By saying that, am I disqualifying myself and our leaders?  Is Paul saying that church leaders have to be perfect?  No.  Let me explain.

Blameless leaders aren’t perfect.  If perfection was the standard, no church anywhere would ever have leaders.  But there are Christians who demonstrate blamelessness.  They follow the way of Jesus, they practice the life habits of Jesus, they spend much time with Jesus, and as a result, throughout the course of their lives, they become more and more like Jesus.  Are they perfect? No. They mess up from time to time, but they admit it and they deal with it.  They seek forgiveness, they make things right.    

That is what some have called the pursuit of holiness.  And that pursuit is for every Christian.  Not just leaders. 

You might say, “Well, Paul is talking about leaders, Joel.  Not everybody.” To that I would counter that Paul is saying to Titus, look for the people who have achieved this blamelessness in their lives.  They are not currently leaders.  And they are not necessarily blameless because they thought, “Well I want to be a leader, so I am going to become blameless.”  No, they pursued being blameless because it is the way of Jesus.  Jesus calls all people to this.  This is an expectation for us all. 

As followers of Jesus, we are to pattern our lives after his, we are to do what he did, to live like he did.  It is astounding to read how many times this comes up in the New Testament.  Whenever you’re reading in the New Testament and you come across words like “holiness, righteousness, purity, etc.,” look and see if that writer is referring to a way of living life.  They are likely talking about the way of life that followers of Jesus should live. 

The tricky part about living a blameless life is that it can be hard to know what that look likes in 2019.  So I would encourage you to think about real world people.  Who do you know that is doing a decent job of living the blameless life?  Ask them how they do it!  Learn from them.  If you are a part of Faith Church, look at our Leadership Team members. All of our Leadership Team members are excellent examples of this.  They’re all humble, so if you ask them about it, they’ll say this sermon makes them think they shouldn’t be on the Leadership Team. But that humility is just more evidence of their blamelessness, and why you should ask them how to live a blameless life. So for all us of followers of Jesus, blamelessness is our goal.  For leaders of church, blamelessness is a requirement.

Appoint or Elect? How should we select leaders in the church? Titus 1:5-9, Part 1

17 Jun

I recently heard the story of a pastor who got in a predicament.  The story goes like this: “A minister parked his car in a no-parking zone in a large city because he was short on time and couldn’t find a space with a meter. Then he put a note under his windshield wiper that read: ‘I have circled the block 10 times. If I don’t park here, I’ll miss my appointment. ‘Forgive us our trespasses’.’ When he returned, he found a citation from a police officer along with this note: ‘I’ve circled this block for 10 years. If I don’t give you a ticket I’ll lose my job. ‘Lead us not into temptation’.”

Maybe you know the feeling.  It is a human condition to be tempted and fall into it.  Yet we followers of Jesus are called to live differently. Therefore in this series of posts on Titus 1:5-9, we’re going to try to answer the question: Is it possible to be blameless?

In this blog series we are reading other people’s mail. Ancient mail, yes, but it’s still mail! Last we looked at the beginning of a letter from one of the earliest Christians, a guy named Paul, who was writing to his friend Titus.  Today we continue studying that letter.  If you’d like, you can read Titus 1:5-9, which will be our focus this week.

Let me review a bit of the background to this letter that we studied last week. We need to remember that Paul invested in Titus, discipling him, helping Titus become a leader in the fledgling Christian movement.  Titus had even traveled with Paul to the Island of Crete, which is right in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.  There they spent time talking with people about Jesus and starting churches in towns across the island.  When I refer to “churches,” don’t think of buildings.  Instead they were groups of people who believed the message of the good news about Jesus, and gathered together.  Think of house churches.  Paul knows there is still much work to be done among these new Christians on Crete, and he has a plan.  Paul’s plan is a mission to send Titus back to Crete with a very specific goal.  I encourage you to pause reading this post, and read Titus 1:5-9 to see if you can discern the mission that Paul has for Titus.

Think about these brand new Christians on Crete. They have no Christian history like most Christians do around the globe in 2019. In America, for example, we are used to centuries and upon centuries of Christianity being the major religion in our nation.  But for the Cretans Paul is writing to, Christianity was totally new.  They had no Bibles to read.  They had no leaders to guide them.  All they had was maybe a few weeks or months with Paul and Titus.  They were far from established. 

And what’s more, they were in Crete.

The Cretans were, well, Cretans.  Peek ahead to verse 12 and we get a taste of why the word “Cretan” is still used today to describe people that are out-of-control.  Their own poet, Epimenedes, said that they were liars, evil brutes and lazy gluttons.  We get the idea that Crete is Mardi Gras all the time.  OK, maybe that is an exaggeration, but life in Crete was wild. Contrast that to the fact that when Paul and Titus were on Crete, they had preached a whole new way of living life.  That new way of living was the way of Jesus.  Paul knows that these very new Christians are in the middle of a Cretan society filled with opportunity for them to turn away from the way of Jesus.  Cretan Christians were going to be faced with difficult life choices.  How could Cretans live the new way of Jesus?  Would they be able to live a new way?  Would they be tempted to live the old Cretan way?  Sure they would.  Paul is very concerned about this.

To make matters worse, there were Christians who were causing lots of trouble in the churches already.  We’re going to talk about them further next week.  For now, look at verse 10, where Paul calls them the “circumcision group”.  Scan through verses 10-12 and you can see how destructive these people were to the church, and Paul is not reserved in his feelings about them. 

Suffice it to say, society and culture in Crete could be tough for the new Christians there, and Paul is rightly concerned.  There is some serious work to be done, or this young church could fall apart. 

What is Paul’s response to this very tricky situation?  He sends in Titus.  Look at verse 5.  He writes that is he is sending Titus to deal with what was left unfinished.  Paul and Titus had started the churches together, got them off the ground, and then had to move on.  So these young churches are in a precarious position, and Paul wants to strengthen them by sending Titus back to them.  Now Paul has a very specific mission for Titus.

See how he describes Titus’ mission in verse 5?  Titus’ main objective is to appoint leaders in every town. This tells us that church leadership is very important to Paul.  He talks about godly leaders in many places in his various letters.  In this week’s posts, then, we are going to study Paul’s teaching about Titus’ mission to appoint leaders in the churches in Crete.

First of all, Paul uses the word “appoint.” It is not a vote.  Titus is to do the choosing.  Titus is making the picks.  It is not up to the Christians in Crete.  This is not a democratic process.  At this juncture it is important to note that this letter was to be read in public to the churches.  Paul wants all the Christians in Crete to know that they don’t get a say in who their leaders will be.  Titus is choosing. 

That means that we don’t need to elect our leaders in our church.  Many American Christians think that we should always vote for leaders in the church, that somehow God works through elections.  I think, though, that we have very good reason to doubt that idea. Yet we Americans especially are use the method of elections in the church.  You won’t, however, find elections and voting in the Bible.  You also don’t find elections and voting condemned in the Bible.  So I think we would do well to approach this with caution and wisdom.  At Faith Church, this teaching from Paul is the foundation for why our Leadership Team selection is not just a vote, but a process where we try hard to only have candidates on the ballot whom we are okay with being on the Leadership Team.  Therefore, when we vote, we’re okay with any result.   

We also need to see that the public reading of this letter to Titus is some accountability for Titus. Why? Because Titus doesn’t get to choose whomever he wants.  Paul goes on to give Titus some very specific guidelines he can use in the choosing process.  And the people listening to the letter will hear these guidelines too.  They will know if Titus is following Paul’s instructions or not based on how Titus makes the selections.  So what kind of people should Titus be looking for to be leaders of the church? Check back in tomorrow, as we begin to look at what Paul has to say about who should be selected to be leaders in the church.

What Christians need: Grace, Peace…and Titus? Titus 1:1-4, Part 5

14 Jun

What do you need? A million bucks? I often daydream about how a million dollars would free up my life. But that’s not really what I need. What do we need? We conclude this week’s blog posts on Titus 1:1-4 today looking at what Christians need.

If you haven’t read the previous four posts, I encourage you to pause reading this one, and jump back to part 1 and start there. The previous posts will set the stage for this one.

Then turn to Titus chapter 1, verse 4, and you’ll see that the author of this letter, Paul, mentions a name: Titus. Who is Titus?  Titus is the guy that PUal is writing to, and in the previous posts we saw that Titus was one of Paul’s most trusted associates in ministry. Paul dispatched Titus to go to the Island of Crete in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, where previously they had traveled and helped establish churches. Titus has a mission to help those churches, a mission that we will learn about much more next week when we study Titus 1:5-9. For now Paul greets Titus in this letter, calling him, “My true son in our common faith.”

Titus was not Paul’s biological son, but instead Paul led him to faith in faith in Jesus.  Paul was his spiritual father.  Fascinating, isn’t it, that we can have sons and daughters in the faith?  Paul had reached out to Titus to help him understand that there is hope in Jesus.

Who is your Paul?  Who is your Titus?

Church attendance across the country is declining.  People are less and less interested in Christ.

What do we do?

Some stats say that 80% of people who are invited to church will say yes, especially if you commit to be there with them, pick them, go out for breakfast, and then go to the worship service together.  But a vibrant relationship with Jesus is about much more than one hour per week at a worship service.  Paul calls Titus a son.  That’s a deep family word that means Paul was deeply invested in Timothy’s life.

Faith Church recently had an excellent Discipleship Training session, and our trainer, Clint led us to conclude that discipleship involves the following: Meet weekly with a few other people to study and apply the Scriptures with the aim of multiplication. Here is what each part of that description looks like.

Meeting weekly – needs at least this frequency to build momentum and relationship

With a few other people – beyond 3-5 people is too large. Also team up and have two leaders. Recommend same gendered groups.

Study & applying the Scriptures – the Bible is essential to disciple-making.

With the aim of multiplication – keep growing and splitting the group.  Initial group can be to study one book of the Bible, and then re-eval.  But have heart to grow.

And what does Paul say to Timothy?  He starts with “Grace and Peace,” a very typical Pauline greeting.  What does Paul mean?  Why does he share this?  Is it just perfunctory?

Grace is defined as “a favorable attitude toward someone or something—‘favor, good will.’ (Louw & Nida).  Paul is saying to Titus, “may you have favor, may you have good will.”

And may you have peace, which is defined as “a set of favorable circumstances involving peace and tranquility.” (Louw & Nida) Sounds very good, right?

Grace and Peace.  We need that. 

Notice that these are not grace and peace from Paul.  Instead Paul says that the grace and peace are from God our Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.

Though Paul calls Titus his son, he properly refers to God as their Father.  Paul is not truly father to Titus.  God is father of them both. 

And from God, from Jesus, there is grace and peace.

Let those words settle on your heart and mind today.  In one sense it was just a customary greeting.  In another sense, there is something deep and important grace and peace.  We need grace and peace from God.

I’m reading the story of Brian Johnson of Bethel Music, and his struggle with anxiety.  He said that it was a struggle for him as a child, but for 15 years he experienced grace and peace, until adult life and ministry got intense, especially as Bethel Music started growing.  The anxiety returned.  Maybe you’ve felt that with work, with raising a family, with finances, with school, with friendships.  There are many pressures in the world.  Do you need grace and peace? 

Paul reminds Titus that grace and peace are rooted in God our Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.  Brian Johnson says that for him, in the moment of panic and anxiety, that is when God became real.  I sense Paul would say the same thing.  Jesus is the truth, and in Christ alone we have the source of grace and peace.  Turn to him in prayer, in his Word, not alone, with others (with your Titus!). Turn to Jesus, the source of grace and peace.

False Ideas Christians Believe About…Church

14 Jun

How many of you watched the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle just about a year ago?  Do you remember the preacher?  It was an American, Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church.  I remember listening to that sermon thinking to myself, “Wow, that guy just brought an astounding message.”  But in the days that followed, people accused him of “watering down the message.” 

With this post, I conclude this series with the topic of church and ministry, and the first one is “we should never water down the message.”

What is watering down?  When you water down something, it is usually a drink like coffee or juice, and you are diluting it, not allowing it to have full strength. 

Sometimes people say a similar phrase: “We should never sugar-coat the message.” Sugar-coating is when you take something that maybe doesn’t taste so good and you add sugar to it.  Like Mary Poppins sang, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” 

So how do these figures of speech relate to the Bible? We preachers and teachers can water down or sugar coat passages in the Bible.  

Was Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding an instance of watering down the message?  Think about the audience he was preaching to.  First of all, the audience in attendance at the wedding itself was filled with royals, celebrities, politicians and nobles from across the globe.  Then there was the world-wide broadcast audience that one report said numbered 1.9 billion.  Let me ask you, if you were responsible to give that sermon at that wedding, to that audience, what in the world would you preach?  Curry’s sermon was 13 minutes, and riveting.  His topic, very appropriately for a wedding was…can you guess?  Love.

He said phrases like: “Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way — when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive! … When love is the way, poverty will become history.”

He quoted 1st John talking about God as the source of love.  He mentioned Jesus’ teaching that the greatest commands are to love God and love others.

He read an old black spiritual: “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” One of the stanzas actually says: “If you cannot preach like Peter and you cannot pray like Paul, you just tell the love of Jesus how he died to save us all.” Curry explained, “Oh that’s the balm in Gilead. This way of love is the way of life.  Jesus died to save us all. He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He wasn’t getting anything out of it. He gave up his life, he sacrificed his life for the good of the others, for the good of the other, for the well-being of the world. For us, that’s what love is.” 

He said all that at the royal wedding!  I was cheering, weeping, thinking to myself, “I bet there are a whole lot of people who just heard about Jesus in a way they hadn’t ever heard before.  I bet there are a whole lot of people in that massive audience who could be thinking, “That’s different from the Christianity I hear about, I want to give this Jesus guy another look.”

Well, Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding stole the show, if that is possible at a royal wedding, and the commentators later that day and in the days to follow were talking about it nonstop, amazed.  When is the last time a sermon about Jesus made the news and was the talk of the talk shows? 

Yet at the same time, some Christians accused Curry of watering down the Gospel.  When I heard that, I had to do a double-take.  There’s no way.  Watering it down?  I thought, if I have a chance to preach a royal wedding to almost two billion people, I hope I would preach the exact sermon Curry did. 

So how could someone say that Curry watered down the Gospel? 

One word: repent.  He didn’t use the word “repent.”  And he didn’t.  I verified it.  I downloaded the sermon transcript, and I even used Control-F to check the document, so I didn’t miss the word “repent”.  No mention of repentance. 

We Christians definitely believe that repentance is fundamental to the content of the message of the Good News of Jesus.  Jesus himself said it many times. In Mark 1:15, what might be the earliest record of Jesus’ first teaching, we read, “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”  Paul also included the idea of repentance in his preaching of the good news.  Read Paul’s sermon to the people in Athens in Acts 17, and in verse 30 Paul preached that “God declares that all people everywhere should repent.”  So was Curry watering down the Gospel by not including repentance?

In our day and age there is a trend of preaching that focuses on affirmation, and those kinds of preachers can be accused of watering down the message.  People love encouraging messages.  We live in a difficult and anxiety-ridden world, and people want hope and a reminder that God is faithful and that in him we can find strength for living.  I get that.  There are loads of place where the Bible does teach that.  But the Bible also teaches a whole lot more. 

What is not right is when a preacher teaches a section of the Bible that is confrontational or has some accountability, and by what they say in their sermon you’d never know it.  Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the Word of God is so good, so creative, so important, that as a preacher I need to do my best to get out of the way and let it speak.  I don’t think I can get out of the way 100%.  We all bring ourselves to the text, meaning that we cannot fully divorce ourselves from our personalities, viewpoints, life experiences and cultural assumptions when we are interpreting the text.

But I hope that while I have preached through my unique filter, I have not gotten in the way of the Word of God. My goal is to avoid sugar-coating or watering down. Instead, in every sermon I preach, I want to let the Word of God speak.

Likewise, take a look at the following passages and see if you can discern the theme:

Romans 16:17-18: “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.  For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.”

1 Thessalonians 2:3-6: “For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.”

2 Timothy 4:2-4: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

Paul is clearly saying, “Don’t water it down. Say what it says.”  If it is an encouraging passage, I want you to hear the encouragement.  If it is a confrontational passage, I want you to be confronted.  If it is a passage about the Gospel, I want you to know the Gospel of Jesus.  If it is poetry, I should be talking about how to interpret poetry.  If it is theology, we should be talking about the ideas the author conveys.  And on and on it goes.  Let the Word speak.

To that end, I invite and welcome you to be like the Bereans.  In Acts 17:10, Paul was on one of his missionary journeys, preaching and trying to start new churches in the Roman Empire, and here is what we read:

“As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.”

We need to know the real thing, we need to study the Word, like the Bereans.  Do not check your brain at the door, do not just wholesale buy into what I am saying.  Fact check me!  And if you find I was wrong, please talk with me about it.  I welcome those conversations.  There have been times when I got it wrong.  There will likely be more.  So I need to hear from you.  I need to be teachable too.

I say all this to emphasize the idea that we should not water down the message, which is exactly what the idea of fact-checking is all about.  Could it be said, then, that this phrase “we shouldn’t water down the message” is a good one?  I think it is a good one.  But as with all these phrases we have been fact-checking in this series, there might be an exception to the rule, or another way to look it. 

Let me ask you this: What are times when it might be right or helpful to water down the message?  I would say in the sense I’ve already described, “never,” but I would like to suggest at least two occasions when it might seem like we’re watering down the message, but we’re actually not. 

First, there are times when we update the method, staying faithful to the message. 

Sometimes we have used one particular method to convey one particular message for so long, that we tend to equate the message with the method.  For example, when Faith Church was considering stopping Vacation Bible School a few years ago, there was concern about this.  We had done VBS for so long that it seemed wrong to stop VBS.  Why?  Well, VBS was a method of sharing the message.  But it needed to be considered: are there other ways to share the message?  Do we have to use VBS?  Of course there are other ways.  And thus we have Good News Club at Smoketown Elementary, which is actually more than double the amount of days that we have VBS. 14 per year, versus 6 during VBS.  And then we have Summer Lunch Club, which is 27 days in the summer, which is 5x more than VBS.  By canceling VBS and adding Summer Lunch, we changed the method, but we kept the message, and in fact, increased the amount of time we were interacting with the community.  I would submit to you that we made the right choice. 

The second occasion when it might seem like we’re watering down the message, but we’re actually not, is when we consider the audience.  The royal wedding is a great illustration of this.  Jesus certainly interacted differently with different audiences, and he didn’t preach repentance in every occasion.  So what was Bishop Curry’s occasion?  A wedding!  Thus he talked about love, as is very appropriate at a wedding.

But does the fact that he didn’t mention repentance mean he watered down the Gospel?  I can’t answer that question for you.  It’s an opinion.  I remain in agreement with what I said before, that given the same chance, I would hope I would preach the same sermon, and that means not mentioning repentance.  In so doing, I don’t think I would be watering down the message one bit.  Again, the audience matters, how we talk to a close friend, a stranger, a family member at Christmas dinner means we should check our audience before we talk about the Jesus who loves them.

My conclusion is that there are definitely preachers who water down the message, and we should be like the Bereans and search the word to see if preachers are staying true to the teaching of Jesus and his followers. But do so with humility and grace.  We Christians can be so harsh, so accusatory.  Let us instead be known for our gentleness, our kindness, our love. There is definitely a need to preach repentance, but when we do, let’s do so with love.

And when we live like that, perhaps we will be seen as a healthy church.  And that goes to our next phrase:

We are growing because two families from across the road just joined our church.

There is a lot of talk among Christians about what is a growing church.  We Americans love to talk about organizations growing.  In our culture, to be seen as successful, you have to grow, and growth is almost always defined about more people involved and more money coming in. 

So is church just about numbers?  Or is there more to it?  Can a church be growing numerically, but at the same time be growing less healthy?

Let me say that a large church can be a very healthy church, and a small church can be a very unhealthy church.

But the opposite could also be true.  A church that is increasing in numbers could be getting less healthy.  Just as a church that is decreasing in numbers could be getting more healthy.

So how should we evaluate the health of a church? Let me recommend some ways:

First, look at how a church spends its money.  Our budget.  What should our budget include? 

  • The people who approve the budget should be giving to support the budget.
  • The budget should be very outreach oriented.
  • The church should be paying its bills in a timely fashion.
  • The church should be good to our employees, generous to our community, supporting mercy and justice locally and around the world, as well as supporting church-planting, missionaries. 

At Faith Church over the last three years, we’ve been having a huge financial focus on our building. There is a time for that.  It is a healthy thing to care for the building so it can be used for God’s Kingdom.  We don’t want to let it crumble, and we praise God for how he provided for our capital campaign. 

But let’s not ever get building-focused.  A healthy church is focused outwardly, and we should be able to see that clearly in our budget, by how we spend God’s money. 

Next, a healthy church will follow Jesus’ teaching in John 13:33, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”  How do we evaluate that?  Love is subjective.  But it definitely means reaching out to one another for deep, healthy accountable relationships.

This means will we demonstrate unity, not uniformity.  A healthy church will be varied.  Think different.  Look different.  And even believe different.  But still love one another. 

Faith Church is quite a varied bunch.  Except in one way.  We are so different in our ages, politics, interests, genders, but we are not yet very diverse in our ethnicity.  I would love for us to become more healthy, and that means becoming more diverse.

Next a healthy church cannot be a pastor-centered church, but needs to be a 1 Corinthians 12, “all are part of the body” approach.  If the EC Church would yank me out the church, Faith Church should be fine. The church should not be fully dependent on one person.

That means we need healthy spiritually mature leaders like we read about in places like Acts 6 and Ephesians 4, leaders who are fulfilling their biblical role.  At Faith Church we strive hard to follow God’s Word, as our Leadership Team fills the role the New Testament writers call “elders,” and our Serve Teams fill the role described as “deacons.”

Next, a healthy church is a Praying church.  I love how we pray together on Sunday mornings.  Faith Church family, I would encourage you to make Wednesday evening prayer meeting a priority.  Can I give you a loving push in that area?  I am always amazed at how many people come out on Wednesday evenings when we hold Family Night meals and programs, but not nearly that many come to prayer meeting. 

Also, a healthy church is a church that reaches out, sharing the good news of Jesus in both word and deed.  Jesus and his followers taught us that the message of the good news has content and we should share that content.  Jesus and his followers also taught and demonstrated for us that good news is communicated through deeds as well.  In other words we need to have a balanced approach to sharing the good news in both word and deed.  And we share Jesus both individually and corporately.  We as individuals should be passionately concerned about reaching our family and friends in both word and deed.  We also work together as a church family in projects like Summer Lunch Club and Good News Club, to name a few.  I’m excited that Faith Church is leading the Summer Lunch Club location at Forney Park, as that will get us outside the building! 

Also a healthy church should be concerned about our community, with both a focus on mercy and justice, as we read in Micah 6:8 “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  Do you remember the difference between mercy and justice?  Remember the babies in the water story?  Imagine having a picnic in a park next to a river, and someone starts yelling “There’s a baby floating in the water!”  Like the story of Moses in the Bible.  Someone would jump in and rescue that baby, right?  That’s mercy.  To jump in and help alleviate an immediate need.  But what if they spotted another baby, and another and another, and the babies just kept coming?  We would stop what we are doing and immediately help rescue babies!  We would be merciful.  What if the babies just kept coming, though?  We would set up a baby rescue station, and staff it 24/7, which would take donations, volunteers, and coordination.  We’d have to set up a baby rescue organization.  That’s CVCCS in our community, when it comes to the issue of people struggling with poverty.  CVCCS has become a rather large organization, sharing God’s love and mercy to those in need through its food bank, clothing bank and many programs.  It is wonderful, and we need to support it, and we do, which I am so thankful for.

But there is another very important question here: Why are there babies in the water?  How are they getting there?  And so we start going upstream to find the source of the problem, and we work to stop it.  That’s justice.  Justice is harder work, I think, than mercy.  Justice is more difficult to see, more difficult to address. But a healthy church does both mercy and justice.  So think about those in our community in need.  We need to be asking the question, “Why are they hungry?”  Or for those struggling with homelessness, why?  Or for those struggling with finances, why?  What is the root?  Those struggling with drugs and alcohol, why?  What is causing this?  Now we’re entering the territory of justice and it is much harder to address these difficulties. But we need to do that work too. 

Next we also have a global concern for mercy and justice.  We should be learning about and supporting our missionaries, our sister churches in places like India, Nepal, Japan, Mexico and Liberia.  We should be learning about injustice around the world and participating in bringing God’s justice to a broken world, just as our missionaries and sister churches proclaim good news in Jesus and start new churches and fight injustice around them.

Finally, a healthy church is a Disciple-making church.  There is often confusion about discipleship and outreach, where people equate the two. We need to be disciples who make disciples. 

As we conclude this series, we’ve talked about so many phrases or ideas that we shouldn’t say.  So what should we say?  The magazine Sojourners, which we have in the church lobby, has an article called “10 Things Christians Should Say,” and I think it is quite important that finish this series on that positive note!

  • I’m sorry.
  • How can I help?
  • I don’t know.
  • I could be wrong.
  • What do you think?
  • I love you.
  • Tell me more.
  • That just stinks.
  • Let’s give it a try.
  • Or say nothing at all.

Do you need to start saying any of these phrases?