Monday, August 15, 2011

Falling Away from Faith

For the Apostle Paul, nothing was to be considered more dangerous than a false gospel. That’s obvious from his letters. But sadly, for far too many Christians, ancient and modern, being concerned about the vital integrity of the good message about God in His redeeming work has drifted to a less important matter. When that happens, and local churches are not on guard, dangerous and destructive teachings can creep in.

We see it all the time. I’m sure some reading this would roll their eyes (as I probably used to do) and say, he’s at it again. But the fact is that Paul speaks to this grave concern yet again in 1 Timothy 4.1-5, so as we work our way through this letter, we can’t help but see his heart. Deceptive, false teachings are real, and they can cause us to walk away from the faith.

Paul describes the danger and concern with falling away in clear terms. What do we need to be aware of, in order to preserve us from falling away?

1. The certainty of some falling away from faith cannot be taken lightly (v. 1).

Perhaps the scariest part of this brief section is how adamant Paul is. He says it is absolutely certain that some will depart from the Christian beliefs they once held to be true. That ought to cause some pause for every one of us. He says the Spirit “explicitly says” that some “will leave” the faith. It is certain, and therefore it should not be taken lightly—by any of us, since the false teachings are so deceptive. Peter concurs:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. (2 Peter 2.1, HCSB)

2. The subtlety of falling away from faith must be recognized (vv. 2-3).

When people have seared consciences, their hypocrisy and lies don’t matter to them any longer. As such, Paul says they even invite demonic influence. People don’t like to talk about demons these days. It seems outdated. But the danger remains real, and subtle. In fact, part of the primary danger is the subtlety factor. It can happen when we’re not on guard. Also, it doesn’t happen merely in those instances when a biblical teaching is completely disregarded; it can happen when a correct teaching is barely twisted into something else with any mixture of error.

Many believe this example in verses 2-3 may have been a gnostic or pre-gnostic set of teachings that obviously altered God’s plan for marriage and food. It is possible to fall into the trap of false teachings through subtle shifts and exploitations in our weaknesses. See what Peter has to say in agreement:

They will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, and will bring swift destruction on themselves. (2) Many will follow their unrestrained ways, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. (3) In their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. (2 Peter 2.1-3, HCSB)

3. The antidote to falling away from faith must be repetitive (vv. 4-5).

The only realistic way to combat false teaching is to fight it continually. Paul speaks to this particular false teaching with the reminder that both spirit and matter are created by God, who declared them good (which contrasted with basic Gnosticism). He explains that the repetitive, ongoing way to recognize this is through the intake of His word (the Scriptures), and through prayer, both of which are always intended to be continual practices. Again, Peter agrees:

Dear friends, this is now the second letter I’ve written you; in both, I awaken your pure understanding with a reminder, (2) so that you can remember the words previously spoken by the holy prophets, and the commandment of our Lord and Savior given through your apostles. (2 Peter 3.1-2, HCSB)

I used to read these texts and think, Well, it’s not going to happen to me! But the Bible also says, Let him who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10.12). My assumption was foolish. I need to stay in God’s word and in prayer to keep focused on the one, true gospel, through which God is able to keep us from falling (see Jude 24).

Let’s take heed.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Pillar and Pattern of the Truth

My first staff ministry opportunity was to serve as an interim youth pastor. I thought I needed to be cool, but knew that I wasn’t. Among my cool attempts that flopped: the creation of a new ministry theme and logo. I wanted to somehow illustrate the importance of the church being the “pillar and support of the truth,” as Paul calls it, in 1 Timothy 3.15. And what logo did I choose?

A pillar.

Nothing generates enthusiasm, stirs excitement and wells up emotion in young people quite like a pillar.

So I tried. But at least I got the content right: The truth about God in the gospel, as demonstrated through the church, is vitally important to everything that we are and everything that we do as individuals and families in a community of Christian faith.

The picture of the church being the pillar and support (or foundation) of the truth helps us to see the main point of Paul’s letter, and should be understood by churches still today as the central focus of who we are and why we do what we do. We are to be the ones who the broader culture can look to as those who uphold the truth.

In 1 Timothy 3.14-16, Paul explains his reasons for writing this letter, and in the process gives the gospel as the pattern for living.  What does it mean to be the pillar of the truth, and the pattern of the gospel?

First, we—as the church of the living God—are to uphold and support the truth (v. 15). The Word of God is very clear. Paul writes this letter so that if he can’t see them soon, he wants to go ahead and share with them what he would say in person if he were there: We’re about upholding the truth in society. In a very literal sense, Christian church buildings ought to be able to be seen in the larger community as a place of truth (and love and care). The church can and should be a respite from all the ills in the broader culture. We have to ask ourselves: Does my church look like that?

But of course, it’s not about the building. The regular worship gatherings and smaller group settings can and should serve as an example of the truth for nonbelievers. As the “household” and family of God, as Paul puts it, we have the opportunity to show the truth when we gather. But it’s more than just on Sundays.

How we conduct ourselves shows a pattern of life (v. 15). Precisely because the church is to be the pillar and support of the truth, it needs to be on display in how we as church members live and go about our daily activities. Paul in v. 15 says it matters how we behave and conduct ourselves. So it matters, not just that we as the church are the pillar of the truth; we are to be the pattern of truth.

That pattern of life must be transformed by and then point to the gospel of Jesus Christ (v. 16). People ought to be able to understand more about the truth by how we live out the gospel. Once again the gospel is shown as not merely the path to salvation, but also the way of life after we begin believing, and a pattern to be followed and displayed until God calls us home.

The ultimate pattern of godliness? Jesus. So Paul lays out the “mystery of godliness” that has now been revealed in Jesus, and essentially presents the gospel in a nutshell in one verse (16).

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit,
seen by angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
(1 Timothy 3.16, HCSB)

In this beautiful hymn about Jesus, it is clear from the context that how we conduct ourselves as the church reflects the gospel. But not just the pillar of the truth about how to get us into heaven. As the “mystery of godliness” it is also the pattern of life to be lived.

Wearing a pillar logo might not be too hip, but young and old alike in the church have a far greater privilege: actually being the pillar and pattern of truth.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Respectable Volunteer Leaders

Recently as we continued on Wednesdays to work our way through the biblical letter 1 Timothy, one of the deacons at our church decided to be a little funny. He said that in the qualifications for deacons, they have a little bit of leeway with drinking wine. He was referring to the fact that in 1 Timothy 3.8-13, as contrasted with the section that immediately precedes it concerning overseers/pastors, it says that deacons should not be addicted to, or given over to, “much” wine, rather than outright prohibiting being a drunkard.

Of course, he is joking, and he knows that the Apostle’s main point is that the deacon, and any volunteer leader in the church, must live a life above reproach, as outlined in these sections. Last time we looked at proven character for leadership, but with specific regard to the pastors and elders that God has placed in leadership roles within their churches. In this section, Paul for a brief moment takes a gracious aim at volunteer ministry leaders.

In fact, the clear similarities between the section for pastors and the section for deacons are striking. It is immediately noticeable. The general approach is the same: they are to lead lives of godly character. These leaders described in 1 Timothy 3.8-13 must be respectable people of integrity.

Without superimposing a 20th or 21st century ministry model on Paul, I believe he is speaking with regard to all the volunteer ministry leaders of his day. A very interesting interpretational clarification is necessary regarding verse 11. Paul addresses the “women” by using the Greek general word for women. Many translations have chosen to interpret that Greek word in this context as wives, often without footnoting that the word is actually women. Several Bible commentators note this distinction as well.

It seems odd that Paul would be putting forward a brief set of qualifications for deacons’ wives since he did not do the same for the wives of pastors in the preceding verses. Also, the English possessive word Their (as in, “Their wives”) is not in the Greek manuscript, which further seems to indicate that he is not necessarily referring to deacons’ wives. Finally, the list of qualified widows (to receive support), which he talks about in chapter 5, includes a similar list of character qualities (see 1 Timothy 5.9-10). For these and other reasons, no one can be dogmatic about it referring to deacons’ wives, and therefore it seems best to translate the word as women, instead of interpreting it as wives. (Indeed, Paul does say in verse 12 that deacons should be one-woman men, but the fact that he again uses the word Deacons appears as though he has returned again to the group he addressed in verse 8, thus potentially addressing a different group in verse 11).

So what’s the point? Perhaps Paul realizes that he has already addressed specific male servant-leader roles, and wants to speak to those female servant-leaders in the church also, so that everyone in leadership—paid or volunteer, male or female—needs to understand the weighty responsibility of living a life that models integrity to the rest of the flock.

In any case, the overall admonition for these men and women is to live lives that are worthy of respect (vv. 8 and 11). Every other qualification falls under this general banner. Just as there are tests for pastors (see vv. 4-7), these volunteer leaders are to be tested first, and then they can serve as deacons and leaders. Finally, he refers to the lasting legacy that deacons and volunteer leaders acquire when they pursue godliness and serve with humility as His leaders in His church.

On every level, in every way, integrity matters.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Proven Character for Leadership

After taking quite a hiatus from publishing notes on a series I have previously taught and that I am teaching now on Wednesday evenings at my church, I wanted to return to these posts on the biblical letter known as 1 Timothy. You can find the first several parts of the series here.

Sadly, even a mention of the topic of pastoral integrity can conjure up mental pictures of all the prominent pastors we know of who have fallen in ministry. We remember them because they were placed on a proverbial pedestal, implicitly or explicitly stating that they were men of character worth following. Pastors aren’t supposed to be superhuman, as some seem to think, but they are to be pursuing God and godly character in such a way that their progress is evident to everyone. Notice how the Apostle Paul describes Timothy’s proven character to the Philippians:

Now I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon so that I also may be encouraged when I hear news about you. (20) For I have no one else like-minded who will genuinely care about your interests; (21) all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. (22) But you know his proven character, because he has served with me in the gospel ministry like a son with a father. (Philippians 2.19-22, HCSB, emphasis added)

After talking about God’s purposeful, ordered design for church gatherings and the life of the church, now in 1 Timothy 3.1-7, Paul speaks about the qualifications of those who would lead and teach the church. What types of prerequisites are placed on church leaders? The men who would oversee the church must first have done these things.

Proven Personal Integrity (1 Timothy 3.1-3)

He begins by affirming that if someone senses an ongoing deep longing to serve as an overseer (pastor), his desires are good and noble. But he must live out his stated desires by proving his character. The apostle gives a list of qualifications for serving as an overseer. The pastor must practice these qualities, he says. We won’t detail the list here, but a brief look will show Paul’s heart.

The pastor must be above reproach. He must be a one-woman man. He must have the character and integrity that anyone would expect of a pastor. But perhaps what is most striking about this list is that every trait except one is actually expected of every follower of Jesus. The only unique prerequisite listed is that he must be able to teach. In other words, every believer should pursue godliness to the degree that he or she has proven progress in character. But the pastoral overseer must not only demonstrate these traits, he must also be able to teach adequately if he is to lead a church.

Modeled Family Leadership (vv. 4-5)

In many ways, a spiritually healthy church is like a big family. And the reverse is true. In many ways, a spiritually healthy family is like a little church. This principle runs as a subtheme throughout 1 Timothy. As I mentioned in the last 1 Timothy post, when it’s done well, male leadership in the church is simply an extension of what’s taking place in the home.

As such, the home is not so much a pastor-dad’s proving ground for leadership ability as it is his primary place of ministry. He simply must be a good husband and father. He is to lead and minister (that is, serve) effectively in both the home and church, and he is disqualified from church leadership if he can’t be a servant-leader at home.

Shown Spiritual Maturity (v. 6)

New believers and those immature in their faith have not proven their character and are not ready, yet, to be an overseer or pastor. Paul’s concern is basic, and obvious: Immature believers are perhaps especially susceptible to pride, which can bring them down just like it did for Satan. So in order to serve as a leader in the church, a man must not be too new in his understanding of the gospel, or of God Himself.

Earned Public Respect (v. 7)

The final qualification that Paul mentions here is that the church leader must have a good reputation in the public eye. His integrity must begin at home, proceed into his church, and extend out into the larger community. Even if his family and church love him, if a pastor has not demonstrated a keen appreciation for how he comes across to nonbelievers or the general public, he is not fit for leadership. Paul doesn’t mince words: he says to neglect this idea is to risk falling into a trap of Satan and into disgrace. Certainly a pastor’s real evaluation comes from God and he should live for an audience of One (see 1 Corinthians 4.3-4). However, while not being driven by public opinion, a pastor should care about how he represents God in view of an outside community that is watching. If he doesn’t, he’s not qualified to lead in the first place.

God certainly cares about the character of the men who would lead His church. To ignore His requirements concerning proven character is to follow a recipe for disaster. It is out of His love that He places such requirements: for the glory of His name, the good of His church, and the hope of the larger community.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]