What is the purpose of the Lord's church? Is it to eradicate poverty, disease, social injustice, illiteracy from among men? Is it to bring about a cessation of war and conflict? Is it to campaign for a temptation-free society for Christians to live in?
If the church had as one of its great goals the eradication of disease, the Lord could have easily equipped it to accomplish that goal. Could not the same power that enabled one blind man to see have enabled all blind men to see; that enabled one lame man to walk have enabled all lame people to walk; that cured many people of varied diseases have cured all people of all diseases? And could not this same power have been given to the church in all generations?
If the church has as one of its great goals the eradication of poverty, the Lord could have easily equipped it to accomplish this purpose. After all, He fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes. He similarly fed four thousand on another occasion. Could not He who did these marvelous works have enabled His church in all generations to feed, clothe, and shelter the impoverished masses of the world through miraculous powers?
If the Lord had wanted His church to become a lobbyist group to apply political pressure toward a temptation and persecution-free society in which to live, He would have given instructions in that direction. He did not even lead His church into a direct effort to destroy slavery, but taught the Christian slave to be a better slave and the Christian master to treat his slaves as he would have his heavenly Master treat him (Col. 3:22-4:1).
The church's purpose is to save souls and prepare people for eternity. It holds out to the impoverished the hope of someday walking a street of gold; to the suffering a time when there will be no pain; to the sorrowing a moment when "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes." It tells the tempted and persecuted that there is value in these afflictions, that the testing of their faith is "more precious than of gold," and to rejoice. It tells all to live godly lives in whatever environment they find themselves. It seeks to change people through the power of the gospel, not society through the coercion of legislators. Its weapons "are not carnal, but are mighty through God." Its motivating theme: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"
When local churches become involved in hospital and health clinic work, or when they build schools for the education of their children, or when they see as one of their great missions to provide for the world's poverty, or when they feel obligated to create social upheaval and campaign for human rights, or when they feel called upon to express their views on the government's use of nuclear armaments or whatever, they have a distorted view of the purpose of the church.
The Protection of Guardrails Don Truex
With all of our young people returning to school in recent weeks, I thought it a good time to revisit the lesson with the above title from our Guardrails on the Road of Life series from last year. From the youngest elementary student to the college senior, who you choose as your close and intimate friends will profoundly impact your life.
Paul told the truth when he said, "None of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself" (Romans 14:7). We need friends — good friends — to provide a voice of reason and influence of strength. That is why "two are better than one … If they fall, one will lift up his companion" (Ecclesiastes 4). Our key verse is Proverbs 13:20. It contains a promise, "Walk with the
wise and become wise." And it contains a warning, "A companion of fools suffers harm." Notice carefully — the warning is not, "A companion of fools will become a fool," but "a companion of fools will suffer harm." So for all of us, young and old alike, I want to remind us of the guardrails in friendships that should warn of impending harm.
You hit a guardrail when you realize that your friend's core values are radically different than your own. When it dawns on you that your value system, what you want for your marriage, your finances, your spirituality is different than the direction your friends are traveling — that is a warning sign not to be ignored.
You hit a guardrail when you find yourself trying to defend the wrong behavior of your friends. If you find yourself telling others, "You just don't know them like I do" or "You just don't understand them" — that is a warning not to be ignored.
You hit a guardrail when you feel pressure to compromise. When you feel pressure to accept as right what you have always known to be wrong, to behave in ways you have always considered to be off limits — that is a warning not to be ignored.
You hit a guardrail when you find yourself pretending to be someone other than who you know you are. If your parents or friends are saying to you, "When you are with them you are a different person" — that is a warning not to be ignored.
You hit a guardrail when you hope the people you love and care about the most don't find out where you've been or who you have been with. If you are already formulating a defense of the person or place or situation in case someone does find out, someone does know — that is a warning not to be ignored. A little self-honesty about these matters would go a long way in keeping us from "suffering harm" through this school year and the years to come.
Poor Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea. How often do we read their urgent pleas to God’s people, and think to ourselves, “It sure was good of those folks to make the prophets’ lives so weary and difficult …” Why does such a thought never cross our minds? We quickly recognize that the prophets’ weary groaning and continual pleading for God’s people to return to the Lord demonstrated how disobedient they had become. They were in spiritual peril. So why is that important to me now? I’ve always been struck by the Hebrew writer’s footnote of encouragement to Christians in 13:17, to obey and follow their leaders. “Obey them,” he writes, “so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” In other words, the writer tells Christians that submission and obedience to those who lead is not only good for the leaders, but it’s also good for the followers. It indicates that they are, in fact, doing what good followers do, not just for their shepherds, but also for the Chief Shepherd. Think of it another way. How was it good for the Pharisees to be the continuous object of Jesus’ corrective teaching? What did it say for their spiritual lives? The disobedience and disposition of the Jews of the first century did not bring Jesus joy. Instead, it burdened His heart deeply (Matthew 23:37–38). Who of us would like our name to be inserted in one of His, “Woe to you, ___________,” warnings? Who in their right mind would read a stinging rebuke from Jesus and say, “I sure wish I’d lived like that so He would talk that way about me!” How would I benefit if my conduct caused my Shepherd to reprove me so? For the same reasons, the Hebrew writer instructs Christians to obey their leaders in the local church. “Obey your leaders,” he says, “and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” Christians aren’t left to guess about their role and relationship with elders in the local church. The sheep are charged to follow their shepherds, and according to the Hebrew writer, it is for their own good. My Specific Responsibility In addition to the straightforward words in Hebrews 13, Paul instructs the church in Thessalonica about the very same thing (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13): “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.” Taken together, these two passages offer five verbs (or verb phrases) to define how Christians must respond to their elders: Obey. Submit. Respect. Esteem. Live peacefully. Here are practical ways I can do all of those things. Obey The same Greek word used here is also used in James 3:3, when James explains that we put bits into horses’ mouths to make them “obey” us. Consequently, my obligation to my shepherds is to do as they instruct in the Lord: Stop when they say stop; turn when they say turn; go when they say go. I should trust that they want what is best for my spiritual health. When they teach, correct or train me in righteousness, I should heed their counsel. When they rebuke me for conduct that threatens my soul, I should repent. When they want to talk to me, I should make myself available, and when they try to contact me, I should return their calls. I ignore those charged with guarding my soul to my own peril. Submit In matters of doctrine, I submit to Christ. In matters of judgment, I submit to the elders in the local church. Submission to elders does not mean that I yield so long as I agree, at which point we part company. That’s not submission, that’s agreement followed by rebellion. Instead, submission means I surrender my will to that of my shepherds, and yield to them. Unfortunately, some Christians don’t want to submit. They question the motives of leadership, and are suspicious and critical. They should take warning (1 Timothy 5:19). Others simply refuse to let go of their opinion. In both cases, such Christians plant seeds of discord by their words and conduct, and endanger their own souls. Submission means I accept scriptural decisions of judgment (meeting times, order of worship, Bible class materials, who’s the preacher, discipline issues, etc., ad infinitum) without grumbling and complaining (Philippians 2:4). It is one thing to lend a word of advice to the elders; it is quite another to criticize them to everyone else. Respect This word (1 Thessalonians 5:12) is variously translated “respect” (NIV, ESV), “know” (KJV, ASV), “recognize” (NKJV) and “appreciate” (NASB). The idea is that I become familiar with my elders, observe their way of life, get to know them and understand their needs. At the same time, they will learn to know me and be better able to help me spiritually. As we draw closer together, I can be encouraged by their example and learn to imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7). Such spiritual intimacy creates an environment where I will not hesitate to seek their help, whether I am struggling physically or spiritually (James 5:14–16). It requires me to spend time and share, but the rewarding benefits can be eternal. Esteem In 1 Thessalonians 5:12, Paul says the brethren should esteem their leaders “very highly in love” for their work’s sake.” I can do that by ensuring that the elders’ needs are met (1 Timothy 5:17), by regularly lifting them up in prayer and telling them how grateful I am for their labor. I can give them a word of encouragement, send them a note of support and periodically remind them how I appreciate their work for my spiritual wellbeing. In our congregation, the parents of our elementary-age children held a banquet at a local community center for the elders, their wives, and the widows. The children dressed up and served the guests their meals, and not only learned a wonderful lesson about service, but thrilled the guests of honor. It was a powerfully sweet and loving gesture. Thoughtfulness can energize a weary shepherd. Live Peacefully It is my responsibility as a Christian to live in peace and unity with everyone (Hebrews 12:14), including my brethren, and I owe that obligation to my elders, as well as to God (1 Thessalonians 5:12; 2 Corinthians 13:11). That means I must submit to others out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21) and strive for unity in the church (4:3). I should not be the one to create discord, but must exert every possible effort to keep the peace (Romans 12:18). Consequently, I must avoid backbiting and disputes, learn to thicken my skin and have a forgiving spirit. Tranquility among brethren allows the gospel to thrive and makes the shepherds’ jobs easier. As sheep, we must obey our leaders, submit to their authority, respect, appreciate and imitate their faith, honor them and esteem them for their work in the Lord, and live in peace with one another. Those are the hallmarks the Lord has prescribed for the sheep to make their shepherds’ work a joy instead of a grinding burden. May we strive to lift our shepherds and glorify our God.