To Judge or Not to Judge

Many people claim that the Bible is “full of contradictions” even though they usually can’t cite any of those alleged contradictions. So that isn’t really a thing. But what do we do when the Bible does seem to contradict itself? How do we treat passages that seem to be in tension with other Bible verses?

I hold to a “high view of Scripture” which basically means that I believe that the Bible is inspired by God and, therefore, 100% true, just as it claims. Basic logic tells us that two contradicting propositions both cannot be true; either one is true and the other false, or both are false. Thus, if one passage contradicts another, that would mean that one of those passages (at least) is false. So how do we resolve verses that seem to be in tension?

Take, for example, the text I preached on last Sunday, 1 Corinthians 5:12. That verse says, For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? Don’t miss that last part (which I helpfully bolded for you). Paul is clearly saying you are to judge those in the church. He posed it as a question, but it is a rhetorical one and the meaning is unmistakable.

Now, compare that with Matthew 7:1: Judge not, that you be not judged. And compare it also with 1 Corinthians 4:5:

Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

So do we judge, as per 1 Corinthians 5:12, or don’t we, as per Matthew 7:1 and 1 Corinthians 4:5? Are these verses in contradiction?

That “high view of Scripture” thing forces us to look deeper. Since we believe the Bible is totally true, we can’t settle for the shallow read, and just assume this is one of those many contradictions that the Bible is full of. We have to assume that each of these statements is true. So how do we reconcile Matthew 7:1-2 and 1 Corinthians 4:5 with 1 Corinthians 5:12?

We have to assume that there is a way of judging that Jesus forbids (Matthew 7:1) that is different than the kind of judging that Paul commands (1 Corinthians 5:12) and that Paul also forbids one kind of judging (1 Corinthians 4:5) while commanding another kind (1 Corinthians 5:12). In other words, there must be right ways and wrong ways to judge.

And this one is pretty easy, as apparent contradictions go. It takes only a bit of effort to see that in Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus is forbidding the kind of judgment that is hypocritical – judging others by a measure we wouldn’t want applied to ourselves. And in 1 Corinthians 4:5, it is clearly the attempt to judge someone’s heart and hidden motives that is in view. So we don’t judge hypocritically, and we don’t judge a person’s heart – those kinds of judging are forbidden. And there is a way to judge that is commanded by Paul. And you can see what that is all about by digging into 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. (Note: It is beyond the scope of this post to explain what that judging looks like. However, you can listen to my sermon on that passage by clicking here.)

We should be really thankful for supposed contradictions in the Bible. They force us, if we take the Bible and truth seriously, to go deep with our study. And when we do that, we not only see that the Bible does not, in fact, contradict itself, but that it is sweeter than the honeycomb, and more precious than gold.

Elder, Stop Calling Yourself a Board Member

This post is my plea against the lamentable trend of many church leaderships: elders who call themselves, and are called by the church, “board members”.  And just as bad are the elders collectively being referred to as a board of directors.

This is the language of the corporate world, not the church. Likely, it works fine for corporations and regular non-profit orgs. But for the church, not so much.

Part of the problem is that in borrowing the nomenclature we often borrow much more. Sometimes we borrow the mentality and the actual structures of the corporate world. Thus, there are supposedly elder-led churches that are not elder-led in a truly biblical way. They have a board of directors – the elders – and they have church officers: CEO = pastor, CFO= treasurer, etc. When the whole fish is swallowed, the board views itself primarily as a check and balance to the church officers. The officers do the work (shepherding, ministry of the word, etc.) while the board does the overseeing of the organization (church) and oversight of the officers. When a church is structured like that it looks just like every other non-profit organization out there.

Yet, the Bible presents a far better way. In the Bible, elders are THE shepherds and overseers of the church (Acts 20:28). They are not merely responsible for the organization and for the paid staff of a church, but for the souls of every member of the church (Hebrews 13:17).

A paid elder (aka, a pastor) is one and the same as a non-paid elder, except that he is able and responsible to devote much more of his time to church ministry. In my church, we use the terms vocational and non-vocational elders to distinguish between those who are elders with regular day jobs and those who are paid by the church so that they can serve the church full-time. All of the elders are equally charged with shepherding the flock. They are ALL equally responsible for the church, and responsible to one another, to the congregation and ultimately to the Lord.

If you are a church leader, think about 1 Peter 5:1-4. This is what you are called to as an elder:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

Are you shepherding the flock or delegating that to a paid pastor whom you oversee? Are you exercising spiritual oversight over the flock or only the church officers and the organization? You are called to be a shepherd, not an executive. So please, stop calling yourself a board member and start thinking of yourself as an elder. And churches would do well to drop the board-of-directors lingo and start fresh. If you need a good place to start, consider the New Testament. 😊

See also: Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5, James 5:15.

Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan

In Letters to the Church, Francis Chan tries to accomplish two things. He wants to call out the modern American church for its failings, especially its culture of consumerism. And Chan is proposing what he thinks is a vastly better model: the home church model that he has launched in California.

The book is somewhat autobiographical, tracing Chan’s history from planting a church in Simi Valley, to seeing that church grow into a “megachurch” and then Chan growing dissatisfied with his church, leaving it and taking his family overseas for a short season. His point in sharing that history was to recount how he missed the boat before and how he has now come to understand what church really is or should be.

The value of the book is that it forcefully identifies significant failures in many American churches. That value is tempered, unfortunately, by the overly-sweeping nature of those criticisms. He is aiming this critique at all churches in America. And his criticisms are over-the-top condemning: the church in America is not loving, not a community, does not pray or read the Scriptures, and is full of shallow consumerists. Of course, all of us should hear these criticisms and be warned against these things. But there isn’t an acknowledgment that there are many loving churches in America, full of sincere Christ-followers living life on mission. There are many churches that don’t follow the house church model and yet are, by the grace of God, healthy New Testament churches. Chan doesn’t seem aware of this.

I think the book has 4 serious shortcomings. First, it takes enormous hubris to say You are ALL doing church wrong. We are doing it right, and you should do it like us. Chan doesn’t say it nearly that bluntly, and he throws in humble lingo at many points. And while I don’t question his sincerity, I do think that is the message he is conveying and it takes hubris to convey. I have no doubt that Chan’s house church model/movement is going well, but the church was not rediscovered in America five years ago when he launched We Are the Church. He seems to think otherwise.

Second, Letters to the Church gives a rather short-sighted presentation of what the church is. Chan’s criticisms seem to hover mainly over church gatherings (especially in large churches) because all the members are not, in the gatherings, exercising all their gifts all at once. He fails to note that the gathering is merely one aspect of the church. Surely, he is aware that the church is all of life, and in that 24/7 context, every member is able to exercise his or her gifts, even if a smaller number are able to do that at gatherings.

Third, Letters to the Church gives a grass-is-always-greener view of the local church in other countries. I can’t question Chan’s experiences overseas, but I can say that my own observation after spending many years in other countries is that churches in other countries have problems too. Lots of them. Very similar to, say, the church in America. Many churches in those places have far fewer resources so they might not be tempted towards church-consumerism in the same way, but they still struggle with pride, loving one another, fostering community and protecting unity just as we do.

Fourth, Letters to the Church gives a grass-is-always-greener view of the early church. We should, of course, learn from the early church in many ways (and the apostolic teaching – the Scriptures – is the infallible authority for how to do church). But concerning its example, it is helpful to remember that the early church didn’t always get things right. Read any of Paul’s letters to the churches!!! I’m preaching through 1 Corinthians in my church right now, so that’s the early church I was thinking about as I read Letters to the Church. The early church was in so many ways like the modern church. Full of people, and therefore often full of problems.

In the end, I’m not sure this book will be helpful to the church. The shortcomings outweigh the strengths, in my opinion. And since many Christians will read this book uncritically, it is sure to cause problems in many local churches. This book doesn’t, on the whole, urge people to love their churches. It urges people to be critical and negative. For that reason, I hope it doesn’t gain the traction that I fear it will.

Final Sermon Prep Checklist

As a pastor, I have the joy of preparing sermons to preach every week. That means 15-20 hours for each sermon, studying a passage of Scripture, thinking through how to communicate it, and finally writing a sermon. When I near the finish line of this process, I do one final check. I call it, uncreatively, the Final Sermon Prep Checklist. I basically go through the sermon, point by point and line by line asking the following questions:

  1. Is the main idea of the sermon the main idea of the text?
  2. How does the sermon demonstrate that this is the main idea of the text?
  3. How does the sermon show people how to know that this is the main idea?
  4. In what ways does this sermon exult in Christ and show ties to Christ?
  5. How clear is the gospel in this sermon?
  6. Is there material in the sermon that isn’t necessary? Cut this material.
  7. Is there material in the sermon that points more to the speaker than the Author? Cut this material.
  8. Does the sermon show the congregation how to apply this passage?
  9. Is the application specific enough?
  10. Is the application general enough?

This process has been great for me and has probably saved many sermons from being ineffective and a waste of the hearers’ time.  One of the huge benefits of expository preaching is that the preacher is ALWAYS aiming (or should always be aiming) to put the text before the congregation, and preaching in such a way that the text can be understood, cherished, and applied by God’s people.

To that end, this step has been crucial to my sermon prep process.