Why a Plurality of Elders?

Given that appointing elders in every town was Paul’s primary directive to Titus, it is troublesome that so few of us understand the biblical concept of eldership. In fact, thinking about a church’s elders likely conjures up either wizened old men or cultish organizations governed ruthlessly by a handful of men. As you may have already guessed, the biblical idea of church elders is something else altogether. Thus, I will endeavor here to give a brief explanation of biblical eldership and then a three-pronged argumentation for why I believe in churches being led by a plurality of elders.

WHAT IS A CHURCH ELDER?

Biblically, there are only two official offices within each local church: elders and deacons. That answer may be surprising, given the absence of a pastor. Well, allow me to explain. Titus appears to show that elders and overseers are different words for the same office. Paul first writes, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might… appoint elders in every town as I directed you (v. 5)”. In verse 6, Paul gives a general overview of the qualifications for being an elder. Verse 7 then continues to give more specific qualifications, but this time Paul uses the word overseer.

There is a similar occurrence within Acts 20:17-38. In this text, Paul is returning to Jerusalem in spite of his probable imprisonment upon arriving, so as he passes into a harbor near Ephesus, he calls for the elders of the Ephesian church to speak with him for the last time. These men are clearly called elders of the church in verse 17, but Paul also refers to them as overseers in verse 28. Thus, it is evident that elders and overseers are simply two words for the same role, but what about pastors?

It may surprise some to know that the title of pastor is found only once in the New Testament (Ephesians 4:11); however, the role and activity is certainly present. Pastor means shepherd, so a pastor’s job is shepherding. Pastor’s lead and guide Christ’s flock (the congregation), feeding them the nourishment of God’s Word. Paul uses the verb for shepherding in Acts 20:28 by commanding the overseers to “care for the church of God.” Peter also exhorts church elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you (1 Peter 5:2)”, which is a command that he received from Jesus directly when He said to Peter, “Feed my sheep (John 21:16).” Finally, the verb is used negatively in Jude to refer to selfish shepherds who only care for themselves (Jude 12). Elders (or overseers) are, therefore, called to pastor (or shepherd) the church in which God has placed them.

Pastors, elders, and overseers, as described in the New Testament, are different titles for the same office, and those titles are important. Pastor emphasizes the leader’s role in tending to the church, primarily through teaching them the Scriptures. Elder connotes the maturity and wisdom that must mark the man of God. Overseer indicates the governing leadership that elders must possess in order to guide the church toward effectively making disciples. There is no pastor who is not an elder and overseer as well. Likewise, an elder is simultaneously a pastor and overseer, and an overseer is also a pastor and elder. Though various giftings might make one feel more like a pastor than an elder or overseer, you simply cannot divorce the three titles from one another. Each is essential for healthy leading of the church.

WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?

Elders are pastors, pastors are elders, and overseers are pastors and elders too. Hopefully we now have a better idea of what the Bible means by church elders, especially since elder is used far more frequently than overseer or pastor. Let us, therefore, now address the issue at hand: why does Paul tell Titus to appoint elders (as in plural)?

Most Baptist churches today (which is the immediate context of my discussion) are governed by a three-branch single-pastor system, with deacons and the congregation sharing investments of authority in directing the church. Being led by multiple elders, each of whom has equal authority with the pastor, is an entirely foreign concept. This oligarchical approach is somewhat threatening in comparison to the check-and-balances of the U.S. government-inspired system we commonly use (but we will discuss the three-branch system later). Our authority, however, is based upon the Word of God, and we willingly allow it to dictate how we organize and lead.

I believe that the Bible teaches that local churches are to be governed by elders, meaning more than one of them. The title of elder is used nineteen times in the New Testament in reference to church leaders (beginning in Acts 11:30). Each usage in singular form is specifically about the office in general (1 Tim. 5:19) or a specific elder (1 Peter 5:1); otherwise, it repeatedly refers to the elders of various churches. In Acts 11:30, Paul and Barnabas are sent to the elders of the church in Jerusalem. Acts 14:23 shows Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in every church by prayer and fasting. The first glimpse of the authority of elders is seen in Acts 15, where we find the elders of Jerusalem gathering with the apostles to decide whether Gentiles must be circumcised. In Acts 20:17, Paul meets with the elders of the church in Ephesus one last time. Paul addresses the letter of Philippians to all the believers of the church with special emphasis to the overseers and deacons of the church (Phil. 1:1). In returning to our present text, Paul exhorts Titus to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5). Each city, therefore, possessed multiple elders.

Allow me to briefly raise a possible question: since each city had a plurality of elders, could they not be the collective pastors of different churches within the city? Throughout the New Testament, the only identification used for local churches is their city of location because there was only one church per city. Jerusalem, Rome, Ephesus, Philippi, and all others each had elders for the church that existed in those cities. With multiple congregations coexisting within cities, the logical adaptation of this principle to modern church life is for each church to have its own body of elders. Otherwise, if we wanted a New Testament-minded system, we would need to consider each congregation a piece of one large church per city with each pastor being one of the elders for the city’s church, which, for obvious reasons, would not work very well at least within our social context.

In summary, biblically each church was led, taught, and guided by a group of elders (also called pastors or overseers). There was no one man who led the church with greater authority than the others. Each elder is equal in authority to one another, and together, each reflecting the qualities listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, they lead God’s people toward expanding the kingdom of God through making disciples.

WHAT DOES HISTORY SHOW?

As we enter the second category of arguments, I pray that the biblical case was sufficient for guiding our understanding because submitting ourselves to the God’s Word ought to be the highest priority of the Christian. I hope, then, that I have outlined enough of the Scriptures to display what I believe is the most biblical answer to how a church should be governed: a plurality of elders. If the Scriptures do not persuade us, nothing will. Nevertheless, I will present an historical case for elder plurality, and let us center our historical discussion around answering this question: if having a plurality of elders lead the church is biblical, why do most modern churches not follow this model?

The New Testament gives clear indication that local churches were originally led by multiple elders together. One of the earliest Christian writings outside of Scripture, the Didache, urges churches to “appoint therefore for yourselves bishops [overseers] and deacons worthy of the Lord (15:1)”. In fact, the first notion of a single pastor system does not arrive until later with the writings of Ignatius, who separated the titles of overseers and elders from one another. In his letter to the Trallians, Ignatius writes, “In like manner, let all men reverence the deacons, and the bishop likewise, even as Jesus Christ who is the Son of the Father; and the presbyters [elders] as the council of God, and as the bond of the Apostles. Without these there is no Church (3:1).” Thus, Ignatius developed the idea of one ruling overseer with a council of elders and a body of deacons. It is possible that this concept derived from a misunderstanding of the usage of elders and overseer in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. As both texts are similar in their usage, let us observe Titus for them both. Paul commands Titus to appoint elders (plural) in every town, but in verse 7, Paul lists the qualifications of an overseer (singular). Ignatius and others may have read these verses as suggesting that each church should be governed by one overseer and multiple elders. Even though some people still appeal to this argument today, it seems highly speculative. Given the interchangeableness of the titles in Acts 20, there is no reason to assume that Paul is meaning different things when speaking of elders and overseers. In fact, the clearest reading of the text is to understand that Paul speaks of overseers in the singular because he is describing the position generally. For example, saying that plumbers should be able to fix a pipe gives no indication as to a number of plumbers; it is simply a general statement meant to apply to all plumbers. Similarly, this is Paul’s meaning in Titus 1:7. He speaks of overseers singularly as a generality that pertains to all overseers.

Regardless of the reasoning behind a single-pastor system, it quickly became commonplace among churches. The Catholic establishment of monarchial bishops who rule over churches became the predominate practice, which has led to a plethora of extra-biblical terms and hierarchies such as archbishops, auxiliary bishops, coadjutor bishops, and cardinals. Quite simply, this shift did not arise from nor was it submissive to the Scriptures, and the trend continued until the Reformation.

As Baptists, we will now approach the history of elder plurality within our denomination. In Elders in the Life of the Church, Phil Newton and Matt Schmucker argue wonderfully for a plurality of elders. The first chapter, written by Newton, presents the historical nature of elders and the Baptist denomination. I whole-heartedly suggest reading the book, which for Baptists the first chapter alone is worth its price. Newton explains that while a plurality of elders was never universal among Baptists it was not uncommon. He cites a few influential Baptist speakers in the 1700-1800s that reshaped the system. Isaac Backus and John Leland led the way. “Both men had been shaped by the developing colonial culture’s emphasis on the individual and had relegated the church to a secondary position relative to the individual (30).” The influence of the newly formed United States three-branch government is impossible to miss as, over time, the Baptists created a three-branch system within churches with authority dispersed to a single pastor, a board of deacons, and the congregation.

Allow me to close this section with Newton’s closing words of the chapter:

The past two hundred years have witnessed the demise in elder plurality among Baptists. Pastors have begun to resemble CEOs rather than humble New Testament shepherds. Their staffs are hired for their business skills. And their churches are run like big businesses, requiring the corporate structures of a successful company.

A candid look at polity in churches at large today raises questions regarding our diligence to conform to Scripture. Specifically, how well are Christians in the West doing in being different than the world around them? Are we acting as salt and light in our communities? Are our “family values” appreciably different from our neighbors? Connected to theses questions regarding the holiness of the church are the polity questions: Are our congregations nurtured and disciplined like their New Testament counterparts? Are our membership rolls inflated, and could this be contributing to our worldliness? Are pastors and staff members held accountable to anyone besides themselves? Might the alarming rate of immoral behavior among ministers be connected to the disconnect between church staff and a plurality of godly elders, both lay and staff? To put it plainly, I believe recent experience teaches what Scripture at least implies—that the holiness of a church is tied to its polity, just as faith is tied to order.

Our Baptist forebears sought to anchor their church structures and practices in the teaching of Holy Scripture. These stalwarts did not conform their churches to the popular designs of the day, but applied the truths of Scripture to forge a path for their heirs. In the end, whether or not Baptists historically practiced plural eldership is secondary. The primary focus for church leaders today must be to understand what God’s Word teaches, and then to order their churches accordingly. History merely serves to affirm the veracity of Scripture (36-37).

WHAT IS THE MOST PRACTICAL?

Having now addressed the biblical and historical arguments for and against a plurality of elders, we will next approach the pragmatics behind this governance. Obviously, the biblical case must be of prime importance with us always ready to submit ourselves to the Bible’s instructions, and though secondary to the biblical arguments, reviewing history is helpful in making informed and confident decisions.  With these two in mind, practicalities are also important to consider, and I believe that elder plurality is the most practical form of church governance available. With that being said, here are a few thoughts of pragmatism on multiple elders.

First, it strikes me as odd that many hesitate on a plurality of elders because they fear an abuse of power and authority by the elders. After all, the current model of Baptist churches was created to ward off such mistreatments. The obvious answer though is that if each elder matches the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 the congregation should have little fear that he would abuse his authority. However, if an elder is found to be severely falling short of those standards, Paul gives the actions to take in 1 Timothy 5:19-20. To avoid such scenarios, great care must be taken in ordaining elders to serve the church, which is why Paul goes on to say in verse 22, “Do not be hasty in laying on of hands”. The laying on of hands was the physical action used to signify ordination as an elder or deacon. If elders are wisely chosen, the congregation will be able to confidently trust their leadership, just as a wife trusts her husband to lead her.

Though abuses can (and unfortunately will) happen, the chances and effects of them are decreased with elder plurality, and the reason is accountability. With multiple elders all being equal in position and authority, each elder is more easily accountable to the others. With one person leading the church, accountability is diminished, and for examples, look throughout history books at the bishops during the Middle Ages. Take false doctrine for example. In a single-pastor system, the church is far more susceptible to wavering from the truth if the pastor begins to teach heresy; whereas, if one elder among others begins to believe false teachings, his brothers are able to correct and rebuke him while ensuring that the congregation does not follow after him. In short, elder plurality is not subject to great abuse of authority but actually provides greater accountability in preventing it.

Second, growing up in churches traditional for our time, I quickly became accustomed to the virtual parade of pastors that many congregations experience. The church of my youth saw pastors come, stay for a few years, then move on to another church or ministry. Though each pastor struggled to leave the church in a better place than it was when they arrived, I could not help feeling cheated. Most pastors gave little more than a two week notice of their exit, and without fail the vacuum of leadership undid much of their former work. Thus, each subsequent pastor finds himself building upon a partially demolished structure that may be fortunate enough to have a solid foundation rather than improving upon the work done by the pastor before him. The vacuum of leadership does much damage to even the strongest of congregations, so I have never understood why a pastor would claim to love the flock while not preparing for his absence. After all, love of my wife leads me to have life insurance so that she will be relatively provided for should I die. What plans do pastors have for their flock should the Lord take their life next week? Should pastors not be motivated by love to consider how they might care for the congregation even after they are no longer with them?

These are the sort of questions that haunt me as a pastor. I long to care and shepherd the congregation that I am to lead beyond my time with them, whether the Lord takes me elsewhere or to be with Him. Under a single-pastor system, the only solution is for the pastor to establish a meaningful and well-planned transition to his successor. While I think that such transitions are much needed, sometimes they are simply impossible. A plurality of elders is, I believe, a sufficient solution. Though elders are equals, that does not stop a vocational elder from assuming a larger portion of responsibility and work; however, in his absence, the church is not without leadership. The other elders will find themselves with heavier loads and shouldering more responsibility, but the congregation is still being led and loved. Having multiple elders is a pastor’s life insurance for the congregation.

Finally, the third largest practicality for functioning under a plurality of elders is that together the group overcomes the weaknesses of the individuals. If an elder is called to wisely counsel the congregation, provide leading guidance, and administer sound teaching of Scriptures, there is a likeliness that he will excel at one better than the others. Rarely is a pastor ever equally skilled in the three; rather, one or two will be his strength and the others his weakness. Establishing a plural eldership helps to offset the weaknesses of one man. If the vocational elder (the primary preaching pastor) is weak in wise counseling, there will hopefully be at least one other elder who is a stronger counselor than he is. In this way, the diversity of leadership helps to account for a single man’s flaws.

CONCLUSION

Obviously, the thoughts expressed above are far from extensive; however, I pray that they are a sufficient overview and summary of the essence of the issue. Elder plurality is, I believe, the biblical system of church governance. Regardless of cultural or historical tradition, we must ultimately submit ourselves to the Scriptures, trusting that God’s Word will not lead us astray. For more reading on this topic, I have listed several books that are worth consultation.

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Busy Sloth

Finally, the notion of sloth does not merely apply to idleness but also to busyness.

Before discussing busyness, we should note that idleness is a sinful counterfeit of God-glorifying rest.

Rest is worship; idleness is not.

Rest is found in coming to Christ; idleness is found in self-gratifying pursuits.

The same is also true of work and busyness.

Busyness is a sinful counterfeit of God-glorifying work.

Work is worship; busyness is not.

Work is accomplished only when we are working from the knowledge that Jesus worked perfectly in our place.

Busyness is legalism in action.

Busyness is sinful because it is a denial of God’s sovereignty. It is the act of living as if God is not in control and so we must attempt to take life by its reins.

Busyness is a rejection of God, while work is a glorifying act of worship. This means that work and rest are innately bound together, as are busyness and idleness.

Work and rest, as acts of worship, create a cycle of joy and renewal. Busyness and idleness, however, form a cycle of cynicism and decay. And it very much is a cycle.

We busy ourselves in order to prove our worth and value, only to collapse into idleness when we reach the end of our strength and will. We attempt to do everything, only to accomplish nothing. We fill each slot of our calendar in search of desperate productivity, only to waste our lives.

Once again, the problem is worship.

Busyness and idleness do not seek first God’s kingdom (Matthew 6:33); therefore, they are frivolous and trivial actions. They are a striving after the wind, a vanity of vanities. They never rise above this terrestrial plane.

The man of God, however, worships the LORD by submitting even menial tasks to God’s glory and kingdom, and he truly rests by coming to God for relief from the weariness of life. Thus, both his work and his rest are done to the glory of God. They are worshipful, and they are given the value of being holy and set apart for the LORD.

Tony Reinke speaks about this busy laziness as an epidemic of our society:

The slothful zombie may live a very busy life, but he does just enough to get things done, so he can get back to enjoying his comforts. Duties are what he performs, but comfort is what he craves. The zombie lives his routine in a fog, sleepwalking between weekends. Frederick Buechner writes this of the zombie: “Sloth is not to be confused with laziness. A slothful man may be a very busy man. He is a man who goes through the motions, who flies on automatic pilot. Like a man with a bad head cold, he has mostly lost his sense of taste and smell . . . people come and go, but through glazed eyes he hardly notices them. He is letting things run their course. He is getting through his life.” Richard John Neuhaus defines contemporary sloth as “evenings without number obliterated by television, evenings neither of entertainment nor of education, but a narcotic defense against time and duty.” This is sloth at its deadly best: trying to preserve personal comforts through the candy of endless amusements. Sloth is a chronic quest for worldly comfort that compounds boredom — boredom with God, boredom with people, boredom with life. The most common species of slothfulness is “lazy busy” — a full schedule endured in a spiritual haze, begrudging interruptions, resenting needy people, driven by a craving for the next comfort. It is epidemic in our day.

Reinke goes on to call sloth “a craving for personal comfort at all costs.”

It is this self-centeredness that kills.

The Sluggard cannot worship God, even when he is busy because he is too focused upon himself.

The call to the slothful, therefore, is not to work harder; rather, the Sluggard must submit both his work and rest to God.

 

Spiritual Sloth

Slothfulness, though, is not merely physical or intellectual. We can also be lazy and idle spiritually.

Spiritual sloth means being slothful to the things of God. Primarily, we see this in our reading of Scripture and prayer, which we tend to devote little (if any) time toward. While we may say that nothing is more important or necessary than hearing from and speaking to God, yet Scripture and prayer tend to be low on our list of priorities.

Douglas Wilson discusses the importance of recognizing our spiritual sloth in his book, The Seven Deadlies:

The sluggard is wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason” (Prov. 26:16). The condition of the contemporary church is exactly this—the result of spiritual sloth. We are wise in our own conceits. Like the church in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14–22), we think we can see, but we are blind. We think we are rich, but we are poor with regard to the things of God. We are impoverished and the worst thing is that we don’t know we are impoverished. We don’t have an understanding that this is our condition. Part of the reason is pressure from the unbelieving culture that is around us and our failure to withstand the pressure. In times of cultural deterioration, pressure is always applied to invert the moral order. Isaiah 5:20 says, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.” The world has always had lazy people, but historically they were always recognized as such. We live in a time when this sluggard-mentality is treated as something that should be praised. In 1950, the average fourteen-year-old kid had a vocabulary of 25,000 words. Today, the average kid has a vocabulary of 10,000 words, four of which appear to be cable, X-Box, Netflix, and dude. But how is this up and coming generation of the ignorati described to us in our public discourse?—street-smart, savvy, irreverent, and refreshing. Industry and diligence are mocked, and the baseball hat on backwards is the mark of a sage. We praise the lazy and exalt the sluggard. We do this even though we know that God mocks the ungodly, the lazy and those who refuse to work for what they desire. This means laziness is a sign of contempt for God.

Spiritual sloth is often found in our inability to wake up in the morning, which is fitting because Solomon directly ties the refusal to rise from bed to the sin of sloth (Proverbs 6:9).

Greg Morse wrote a wonderful article on desiringgod.org called The Great Wall of Cotton: Why We Hit Snooze on God about this very issue. The entire thing is worth reading, but I will cite a portion here to capture his main idea.

We slept in because we had forgotten who bids us to rise. The God we snoozed was puny, uninteresting, unworthy — not the God of the Bible. The God we snoozed seemed so distant, so unaware, so cold. So, we rolled over in our warm beds and resumed sleeping. But the God who summons his people from their slumber is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is worthy of our wakefulness. We rise when friends call. Scramble to attention if our boss rings. And yet, far too often we roll over when our Best Friend, our only Savior, our truest Love knocks on our doors each morning. We provoke our jealous Husband with the scraps of our day, throwing him our spare devotion as stale breadcrumbs are thrown at pigeons in the park. He is God. He deserves our firstfruits, not our microwaved leftovers.  He can ask, “Why do you call me ‘Lord’ and not rise when I bid you? Why do you call me ‘Teacher’ and not sit daily at my feet? Why do you call me ‘Husband’ and not seek my tender embrace?” The burning ones of heaven cannot look at him — none yawn or fall asleep in his presence. The God we draw near to is the God of Revelation 5. As the Lamb ascends his throne, all of heaven screams, “Worthy!” (Revelation 5:9, 12). This scene is not one for sleeping infants or adults. What must this heavenly host think when they peer over the edge of heaven and see us lie in bed, as if dead, before him? This is not the holy deadness that resulted from John meeting with the exalted Christ whose chest shone with a golden sash, eyes burned like flames of fire, and whose voice thundered like the flood of many waters (Revelation 1:12–17). No, they see the deadness of Eutychus who, when Paul preached into the night, sank into a deep sleep, fell from his windowsill, and plummeted to his death (Acts 20:9).  How shocking it must be for heaven to be lost in fierce worship of God, and then to see many of us — his blood-bought people — daily meet him with a tap of a button and a rolling over.

Just as physical sloth tends to create poverty, so spiritual sloth causes spiritual poverty.

Do you give you make time for God?

Do you give the best of yourself and your efforts to God, or as Morse said, do you give Him your microwaved leftovers?

Intellectual Sloth

Our society may still (generally) value physical labor, but it is increasingly leaving behind intellectual labor. Leigh Bortins, in her book The Core, compares us to the early Americans by stating that “overall, the same percentage of Americans read Common Sense in the late 1770s that watch the Super Bowl today” (p. 29)!

I am convinced that intellectual laziness is not a matter of intelligence but of work. The human mind is capable of far more than we assume, and so is the “common” man. Remember that Jesus chose common men, ordinary laborers, to be the foundation of His church. Peter and John were mere fishermen, but under the power of the Holy Spirit, the religious leaders of their day “perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Of course, both men authored books of Scripture that reveal this boldness to us as well.

We must remember, therefore, that the Bible is not for scholars alone but for every man and woman. The riches of God’s Word are not vaulted to all but the theologian. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek (that is, common Greek), and Christianity has a long, historical precedent of attracting and educating the lower classes of society, both valuing and teaching them.

Teaching all people is crucial to Christianity because we believe that God has revealed Himself to all people through the knowledge of Himself. A relationship with God necessarily demands a knowledge of God. I can have no relationship with someone I do not know. Neither can I divorce loving God from knowing God, and knowing God requires the intellect.

Presidential Debates

The intellectual sloth of our day is made quite evident in politics. Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, uses the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas to accentuate how far cultural literacy has declined. The structure of these debates was for Candidate #1 to deliver an hour long speech, Candidate #2 would then provide an hour and a half rebuttal, and finally Candidate #1 would close with his half-hour counter-rebuttal.

Consider two quotations Postman cites from Lincoln and Douglas in these debates.

At one point during his speech, Douglas was met with a particularly lengthy applause to which he responded:

My friends, silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not to your passions or your enthusiasms (p. 45).

How scandalous that a politician would actively appeal to the judgment, understanding, and consciences of his listeners, instead of merely inciting their passions and enthusiasms.

And here is a sampling of how Lincoln spoke during these debates:

It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour and a half; and I hope, therefore, if there be anything that he has said upon which you would like to hear something from me, but which I omit to comment upon, you will bear in mind that it would be expecting an impossibility for me to cover his whole ground (p. 46).

This kind of language is rarely employed for writing today and certainly not for speaking! Debates can no longer be held in this manner because we are too intellectually lazy to care. We need politics to be mingled with entertainment in order to hold our attention for any significant length of time.

Once more, the problem is NOT intelligence itself. Lincoln and Douglas were speaking to the general public, not society’s intellectuals. The problem is with our expectations and efforts, not our intellectual capacity.

As Christians, if we require that the proclamation of God’s very Word be no longer than half an hour, how can we bear to focus on political discourse for an hour and a half!

Knowing the Word

New English translations of the Bible continue to appear, promising to be translated into more readable language. The problem, however, with our comprehension of the Bible is not with the translations themselves but with how the biblical authors wrote. The letters of the New Testament, for example, are composed of densely-constructed logical arguments, but we wrestle to connect each dot of reasoning because our minds are now used to news-segment-sized nuggets of thought that do not exceed 140 characters. We cannot understand the Bible because we do not give ourselves to learning how to understand it.

Paul, for example, was immensely intelligent, but his letters were not written to the scholastic elite. He wrote to all believers, educated or uneducated, that they might know the truth of the gospel by reading for themselves or having his letters read to them. The God-breathed truth is more than accessible so long as we are willing to work at understanding it.

To be fair, a significant portion of this problem arrives from the expectations of education not being high enough. When people are expected to struggle and/or fail, they tend to do just that. Education, like most of life, both rises and falls on the basis of expectations. Bortins states as much:

Parents have forgotten that a century ago, the average nine-year-old worked hard enough to earn his or her own way in life. I wish every child had a life so blessed with ease that he thought loading the dishes into a dishwasher was hard work, but that is not reality. Parents need to stop believing excuses from poor Johnny that learning is too hard, or that he can’t pay attention, or that practicing penmanship is boring, or that math is repetitive. Tough. Life is repetitive. We are crippling our children’s brains instead of providing the extensive mental exercise they need for normal development. Mental exercise with a core of quality material is comparable to physical exercise with a healthy diet.

 

Sloth: the overlooked sin

Go to the ant, O sluggard;
consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief,
officer, or ruler,
she prepares her bread in summer
and gathers her food in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man.
(Proverbs 6:6-11 ESV)

Here Solomon speaks to the Sluggard, the slothful person who refuses to work. He calls his attention to the ant, demanding that he learn from her. Without an overseer looking over her shoulder, the ant gathers food and works diligently. The Sluggard, on the other hand, is pictured as sleeping the day away. He creates excuses in verse 10, saying that it is only a little sleep, only a little rest. But poverty will befall him like a robber.

The application of these verses is near infinite, and I find the sin of sloth to be deceptively prevalent in both my life and the society at large. I will, therefore, do my best to make sense of my scattered thoughts regarding this sin.

Let’s address two questions: 1) What is sloth? and 2) Why is it a big deal?

First, the sin of sloth is the refusal to do God-glorifying work. Adam was given work in Eden (Genesis 1:28), so work is not a byproduct of sin. Work is difficult and does not always bear fruit because of sin, but God designed us for the activity of work. By denying work, the Sluggard is, thus, denying his role as an image-bearer of God. We should never denigrate the sinfulness of sloth by assuming that it is merely laziness. No, it is, at heart, a rejection of God’s designed order for creation.

Second, because sloth rejects the godliness of work, slothfulness is problem of worship. We worship God whenever we joyfully embrace what He has ordained for and commanded of us. We withhold worship whenever we disobey God’s commands and designs. Paul displays the importance of this in his warning and exhortation to the Thessalonians:

2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 | Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

The Thessalonians were wrestling against the sin of sloth (or idleness). Many in the church were refusing to work (likely waiting for Christ’s return). Paul, therefore, gives them the command if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. He even encourages them to keep away from those who refuse to obey this command (thereby issuing church discipline).

Sloth is, therefore, not a sin that can be overlooked or taken lightly. But its sinfulness is subtle rather than overt, which makes it easily ignored while we focus on “more important” sins. Yet sin is sin, and all sin is a rebellion against God. My intent over the three following posts is to provide clarity on three areas where sloth is prevalent in the U.S. culture. These forms of sloth will be as follows: intellectual sloth, spiritual sloth, and busy sloth.

A Dialogue

God: I gave you my very Word. Why did you not meditate on it day and night (Psalm 1:2)?

Man: I definitely would have, but you see, I was far too busy.

God: Yet you most days watched multiple hours of television. You gave 9 years of your life to it.

Man: Perhaps, but that was my leisure time. I was so weary and exhausted from life. I think I deserved some rest.

God: You sought rest in vain. Did I not tell you where to find true rest (Matthew 11:28)?

Do You Love the Church?

The church is terribly important in the Bible.

After all, it is called the body and bride of Christ. For most men, their wife and their own body come pretty high up on their list of priorities, and I believe the Bible uses those metaphors for that very reason.

Today, even many otherwise theologically sound believers want to neglect the importance of the church. Of course, they would rarely ever say this exactly. But often when they speak, it becomes clear that they nearly always speak about the universal church instead of the local church.

Don’t get me wrong, the idea of the universal church is important. I love reading about church history, specifically because I know that in Christ I am reading about my brothers and sisters. The universal church, that transcends time and space, is a glorious truth.

The local church is no less glorious, but it often doesn’t feel like it.

It’s invigorating to read about Ambrose of Milan defiantly refusing to sway his conscience at the Roman Emperor’s command. But it’s less invigorating to sit through a business meeting talking about what the new paint color of nursery’s walls should be.

Our emotions are stirred when we read stories of miraculous conversions from missionaries we support. But they are significantly less stirred when we listen to an older member tell us the same story about their grandchild for the ninth time.

Passion is ignited when reading Calvin’s Institutes or Spurgeon’s sermons. But it’s difficult to find such passion when we learn that a beloved family is leaving to join another church because they dislike the new leader’s style of worship.

The local church looks less glorious than the universal church, but the universal church is composed of regular, sinful people, just like the local church. We see the universal church as more exciting because the stories that travel across time and oceans are typically the worthwhile ones. And if we hear stories of Christians in sin, we can simply dismiss those them as not being a part of the real church. That’s far easier than looking contrition in the face and walking with a brother or sister through the bumpy road of repentance and reconciliation.

Although we get much benefit from the writings and lives of Christianity’s theologians, almost all of them devoted themselves primarily to serving their church. They were pastors, deacons, and members of local churches before they were ever giants to the church universal.

The local church is not perfect, but she is the bride and body of Christ.

Bear with her.

Cherish her.

Lover her.


This quick post was inspired by this video of Paul Washer.

You really should watch it.

Like right now.