Archive | Theology/Bible

Treating young women as sisters in absolute purity

Yesterday, I wrote about how pastors are to relate to different sex and age groups within the congregation. The apostle Paul helps us to think through this in his instruction to young pastor Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:1-2. Here’s the rendering I provided yesterday:

Do not speak harshly to an older man but exhort him as you would a father.
Do not speak harshly to younger men, but exhort them as brothers.
Do not speak harshly to older women, but exhort them as mothers.
Do not speak harshly to younger women, but exhort them as sisters, in all purity.

Everything that we observed yesterday—about treating people with respect and about honoring each member’s age and station in life—carries right over to the pastor’s treatment of younger women. The pastor must not speak harshly to “younger women” but must exhort them with the same respect and honor that he would owe to his own flesh-and-blood sister.

But notice that Paul adds one additional element when it comes to the younger women of the congregation—purity. Paul says Timothy is supposed to treat these young women “as sisters, in all purity.” The word translated as “purity” only occurs two times in all of the New Testament—here and in chapter 1 Timothy 4:12: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” The word indicates moral purity, but its connection with younger women here certainly means that Paul has sexual purity in mind.

It is likely that Paul adds a word about sexual purity because there is a particular pitfall that is all too common—sexual immorality. A pastor who has learned the art of communicating with warmth and compassion can easily find himself in a situation of emotional connection with a woman that he ought not have such a connection with. And so Paul says that there must be no hint of impropriety in his ministry to younger women.

But it is important to notice that Paul places two obligations on Timothy’s relationship to younger women. Timothy must treat them “in all purity” and treat them “as sisters.” Pastors have an obligation to get this balance correct.

On the one hand, he must relate to these young women “in all purity.” That means that he must learn to think about and to talk to these women in ways that neither imply nor intend any sexual possibility. There are certain emotional and physical connections that are only appropriate to marriage. And the faithful pastor must avoid making those connections with women who are not his spouse. He must relate “in all purity.”

On the other hand, the pastor has an obligation to relate to these young women as “sisters.” This means that a pastor must not simply withdraw from relating to the women of his congregation. He may make private efforts to gouge out his own eye or cut off his own hand (Matt. 5:28-30). But the pastor’s quest for personal holiness does not authorize him to cut off the eyes and hands of Jesus (1 Cor. 12:21). And that is what these younger sisters are—members of the body of Christ. A pastor must not simply tune these women out as if they weren’t members of the body of Christ.

A female seminary student once told me a story about a time she said “hello” to a male classmate before class started. His response to her was “I’m married,” and then he turned away. This misses the mark. A pastor must strive for holiness, but he must be careful not to let his striving turn into stiff-arming the younger women of the congregation. How arrogant it is to assume that if a female says “hello” that she is trying to be a home-wrecker. No one should be naïve about the fact that there are promiscuous women in the world that all men need to beware of (see Prov. 5). Likewise, a pastor must be vigilant. But he must also not be so cynical that ordinary conversation with a Christian woman be interpreted as a sexual advance.

What does it communicate to a sister in Christ if a pastor treats her like that? It tells her that his mind is preoccupied with things it ought not be preoccupied with. It also communicates that he thinks her very existence is a threat to holiness. It communicates that he is not thinking of her as a sister “in all purity.”

Sibling relationships help us to remember that it is possible to have a warm brotherly love for a person of the opposite sex that involves no sexual intention or possibility. And that is why Paul presses the familial analogy in this teaching about sexual purity. We all know what it’s like to have female family members—perhaps a mother or a sister or an aunt, etc. And thus we can imagine what it is like to have relationships in which sex is the farthest thing from anyone’s imagination. Paul wants pastors to retrain their minds to think of the younger women in the same way—as family members.

Even though the so-called “Billy Graham Rule” has been much maligned of late, I believe there is great wisdom in it. Every one of us must be vigilant about holiness, and every one of us would do well to develop habits and disciplines that keep our eyes on the path in front of us. A pastor must be exemplary in this regard. He must also be exemplary in relating to all the members of the congregation as family members. This balance is not beyond the realm of possibility. It can be done. Indeed, it must be done. And we must not let worldliness and carnality steal the wholesome vision that the apostle Paul has set before us.

Pastors, don’t be a jerk. Be a shepherd.

The venting of the proverbial spleen seems to be the order of the day from cable news to social media and sometimes even in interpersonal interactions. We like to hear someone who agrees with our views “tell it like it is,” especially if the telling involves a few zingers against people whose views offend us. We thrive on this kind of outrage because it appeals to our sense of self-righteous indignation. It feels oh so good to be oh so right. And there’s nothing quite as satisfying as dressing down “those people” who don’t agree with us.

This spirit is destructive wherever it is found, but it is especially destructive when it stands behind a pulpit. Even for preachers, it can be tempting to turn the pulpit into a platform for outrage. When that happens, preaching can become more an expression of a carnal pastor’s irritations than a shepherd’s care for the people of God. This is not to say that preachers must avoid confronting sin. It is to say that whenever you have to confront someone, it matters how you say what you say—even if what you are saying is right.

Paul seems to have had this dynamic in mind in exhorting young pastor Timothy about how he was to address the different people in his congregation. In 1 Timothy 5:1-2, Paul says this:

1 Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.

At first blush, it can be a little confusing to hear Paul forbid Timothy from “rebuking.” Is Paul really saying that pastors must never “rebuke” anyone in the congregation? Doesn’t that contradict what Paul has said elsewhere about the necessity of rebuking false teachers (1 Tim. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:25; Tit. 1:9)? Doesn’t it contradict what the Bible says generally about the goodness of a faithful rebuke (Prov. 17:10; 27:5; 28:23)?

There really is no contradiction, however, as the problem is mainly one of English translation. The word translated as “rebuke” in the ESV probably isn’t strong enough. Rebukes can be life-giving and helpful, but that is not the kind of “rebuke” in view here. The literal sense of the term is to beat something with your fists. It is a term that in certain contexts suggests physical violence. But the word also has a figurative meaning that refers to verbal violence. The NIV’s “speak harshly” captures what Paul is trying to communicate. It is possible to abuse someone with fists. It is also possible to abuse someone with words. And Paul is saying that the pastor is forbidden from verbally assaulting his congregants. A pastor sins when he lords his authority over the flock by berating them (1 Pet. 5:3; cf. Matt. 20:25; Mark 10:42).

If we were to fill in the ellipses, the sense of Paul’s exhortation would go like this:

Do not speak harshly to an older man but exhort him as you would a father.
Do not speak harshly to younger men, but exhort them as brothers.
Do not speak harshly to older women, but exhort them as mothers.
Do not speak harshly to younger women, but exhort them as sisters, in all purity.

In this way, Paul tells Timothy not to obliterate but to conciliate with his words.

The term translated as “encourage” in the ESV usually has the sense of strongly appealing to someone, urging them or exhorting them to do something. Clearly, Paul has in view the manner in which a pastor exhorts his people, and this certainly applies to his teaching and preaching ministry. The term translated as “encourage” also has the added sense of speaking in a conciliatory, friendly manner. Paul wants Timothy to know that even if the pastor must bring a confrontation, he must do it in a way that respects the person he is talking to.

A wise and courageous pastor will always remember the wisdom of Solomon when exhorting his people: “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov. 12:18). A good pastor is not going to use his words like a sword but like a scalpel. A sword and a scalpel are both made for cutting. But a sword is for killing. A scalpel is for healing. Even in confrontation, a pastor’s aim is not to deliver the coup de grâce but to heal.

Some pastors seem to believe that if they aren’t getting through to their people, that means they need to yell louder. But Paul says that a good pastor must not hammer people with his words. Instead, a good pastor will do his ministry with a sensitivity to the different kinds of people that he ministers to. It matters how a pastor treats people. And a pastor must not treat the congregation in an undifferentiated way. He must treat people in a way that respects their age and station of life. A pastor will minister to all different kinds of people in a given congregation, but Paul tells Timothy to treat every one of them like family. And there are appropriate ways to treat family members.

First, Paul says that the Timothy must not speak harshly to “an older man” but exhort him as he would a father. Paul wants Timothy to know that he should avoid talking down to a man who is older than he is. Even if an older man is wrong and needs correction, Timothy must not draw the sword but the scalpel. He needs to speak with the same respect that he would accord to his own father. If a pastor pulls a sword, he may destroy the older man. Or it is just as likely that the older man may draw his sword as well, and the verbal fisticuffs can cause division and get out of hand very quickly. It is always good to remember that “A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1).

Second, Paul says that Timothy must not speak harshly to “younger men” but exhort them as brothers. Addressing younger men is different than addressing older men. Both situations require respect, but it will be expressed in different way. A pastor will not say “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir” to a younger man, but neither will he talk down to them. He must treat younger men like brothers. A man must not draw the sword on his own flesh and blood, and that is what a younger brother is in the body of Christ. A pastor must respect the younger men in a way that is due their age and station. This calls for honestly, truthfulness, and forbearance.

Third, Paul says that Timothy must not speak harshly to “older women” but exhort them as mothers. A pastor must not treat women who are his senior with careless disregard. He must care for them and speak to them like he would his own mother. The respect required for older men is also called for in relating to older women. But there may be an added dynamic that Paul wishes to accent. A man has a kind of built-in protectiveness when it comes to his own mother. Perhaps Paul is appealing to this sensibility as well and calling pastors to have a sense of protectiveness about the elder women of the congregation.

Paul’s final exhortation relates to the pastor’s treatment of the young women in the congregation. Because Paul adds a requirement of “purity” to this exhortation, we will consider this one in a separate post tomorrow.

Feed my giraffe?

The apostle Paul once gave an exhortation to his disciple Timothy about the job description of a pastor. Among other things, Paul said this: “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 4:6). In context, “putting these things before the brothers” means teaching God’s word to God’s people. And in this case, teaching that word involved a direct confrontation with false teaching.

This means that the main labor of a pastor is to understand and explain what the Bible means. But a faithful pastor can’t leave it there. If he does, it’s just a lecture. A good servant is going to connect the dots for the people. He’s going to tell them not only what the Bible means but also how it applies to their lives.

Some preachers think they are serving their people if they deliver eloquent theological discourses that are long on concept but short on connection to people in the pew. Everything they’re saying is learned and perhaps even true, but it’s going over the congregation’s head. Charles Haddon Spurgeon confronted this problem with a pointed, humorous quip:

Christ said, ‘Feed My sheep. . . . Feed My lambs.’ Some preachers, however, put the food so high that neither lambs nor sheep can reach it. They seem to have read the text, ‘Feed My giraffes.’1

Spurgeon is being light-hearted here, but he is making a serious point. A preacher has the responsibility to “put these things before the brothers” in a way that doctors and plumbers and lawyers and housewives and factory workers can all understand. A preacher’s job is not to complicate simplicity but to simplify complexity. Unfortunately, too many do the opposite. A good servant of Christ Jesus preaches the word in a way that connects to people.

I know that I need to do better here. Perhaps there are some other preachers out there who need this little nudge too.

—–

1 William Williams, Personal Reminiscences of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 2nd ed. (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1895), 145.

It is never right to be angry at God. Ever.

Over the weekend I posted a tweet that proved to be unexpectedly controversial. Well, unexpected to me anyway. I had no idea it would be so provocative simply to say that it is never right to be angry at God. But provocative it was—more so than I ever anticipated. Some readers were downright angry about the tweet. Not all of them were like this, but there were more angry responses than I could count. The objections people raised fell into two broad groups. And I thought it might be worthwhile to offer some brief reflections in answer to both.

1. To those who thought I was saying we should stuff our feelings down and not be honest with God about our pain.

This is not what I said, and it is certainly not what I meant. In fact, I believe just the opposite. Just this last week, I taught on the lament Psalms in my hermeneutics courses. And what I said then is what I always say in my courses. These Psalms teach us to cry out to God with brutal honesty when life hurts us. They make sense of a world in which we suffer real evils and have real tears streaming down our faces. They deal with death, depression, and all the other evils that make us feel undone in this life.

These Psalms teach us how to hope in God in the midst of suffering. They reflect the reality of the human condition in a fallen world where oppression, violence, and death hound the people of God. They reflect the same world that you and I live in where children get cancer, fathers desert their families, and strong men rule and oppress as dictators. They portray the world as it is, not as it should be. They reflect the whole range of human experience and do so with unflinching honesty and hope.

On Wednesday and Thursday, we took a really close look at Psalm 13, in which David’s suffering makes him feel abandoned by God. There is anguish, pathos, and a sense of desperation in David’s cries. This Psalm and many others like it teach us to cry out to God when we feel desperate. They teach us to be honest about just how desperate we feel in those moments. They don’t teach us to stuff our feelings down. On the contrary, they teach us to lay all our cards on the table. They teach us to make our requests known to God so that the peace of God which transcends all understanding might guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-8).

There’s no stuffing down of feeling and emotion. There is authenticity, confession, and hope. And they are for us. They teach us how we should pray.

2. To those who believe that the Bible (especially the Psalms) teaches us that it is right to be angry with God sometimes.

There is not a single psalm that teaches us that it is right to be angry with God. You can look high and low in the Psalms, and you will find no such expression. It’s just not there. What is there is desperation, grief, anxiety, frustration, and lament. But in none of it is there justified anger against God. There is a world of difference between “How long, oh Lord” and “How DARE you, oh Lord?” These Psalms have a great deal of the former and none of the latter.

This discussion is not an academic speculation about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We all have skin in the game, and we are all going to suffer. Some people reading this are suffering right now. Some may be feeling that they are hanging on by a very thin thread. The last thing that these sufferers need to hear is that it is right for them to be angry with God. What that tells them is that it is okay to disapprove of God’s character and His ways.

But that is precisely the opposite of what the sufferer needs. And it is the opposite of what the Psalms are leading the sufferer to do. The Psalms are doing their level best to show us that no matter how low we feel, no matter how low we go, God is good and holy and trustworthy in all that He is and in all that He does. The faithful response to affliction is to believe in God’s goodness and faithfulness no matter how bad things get. This is the fight for faith that all of us have to wage when the chips are down.

The Bible commands us to “Be angry, and yet do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). What does this mean but that some anger is good and that some anger is bad? It is good and right to be angry at evil and at sin and at the Devil. It is sinful to be angry at what is good and right and true. And that is why it is never right to be angry at God. He is always good and right and true. To set yourself against God is to set yourself against what is good. No matter how painful and perplexing His ways may seem to us, it is never right for us to be angry at Him. Ever. But it is right for us to tell Him about it when we are.

I have seen people give in to their anger against God, and it shipwrecks their faith. When someone enters into a settled disapproval of God, that is the path of apostasy. It is not the path of healing and faith. If this path is pursued without repentance, it leads to judgment not to comfort. It is not loving or merciful to lead sufferers away from the only good and wise God who alone can bring them the comfort they need. And that is why there is so much at stake in this question and why we need to get this right.  If we love each other, we need to be able to say to one another that it is never right to be angry at God, even though it is always right to tell Him about it when we are.


Postscript: John Piper has two helpful articles on this that I would commend to you:

John Piper, “It is never right to be angry with God”

Anger at sin is good (Mark 3:5), but anger at goodness is sin. That is why it is never right to be angry with God. He is always and only good, no matter how strange and painful his ways with us. Anger toward God signifies that he is bad or weak or cruel or foolish. None of those is true, and all of them dishonor him. Therefore it is never right to be angry at God. When Jonah and Job were angry with God, Jonah was rebuked by God (Jonah 4:9) and Job repented in dust and ashes (Job 42:6).

The second assumption that may cause people to stumble over the statement that it is never right to be angry with God is the assumption that God really does things that ought to make us angry. But, as painful as his providence can be, we should trust that he is good, not get angry with him. That would be like getting angry at the surgeon who cuts us. It might be right if the surgeon slips and makes a mistake. But God never slips.

John Piper, “Is it ever right to be angry at God?”

This is why being angry at God is never right. It is wrong – always wrong – to disapprove of God for what he does and permits. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25). It is arrogant for finite, sinful creatures to disapprove of God for what he does and permits. We may weep over the pain. We may be angry at sin and Satan. But God does only what is right. “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments” (Revelation 16:7).

But many who say it is right to be angry with God really mean it is right to express anger at God. When they hear me say it is wrong to be angry with God, they think I mean “stuff your feelings and be a hypocrite.” That’s not what I mean. I mean it is always wrong to disapprove of God in any of his judgments.

Why our churches need more gray hair

In Titus 2:2, Paul writes to Titus about the older men in his congregation:

“Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness.” –Titus 2:2

These older men are not to be confused with those who hold the office of elder (cf. 1:5). The “older men” are those who literally have advanced age. Paul says that these men must have several exemplary characteristics.

“Sober-minded” translates a term that means “very moderate in the drinking of an alcoholic beverage” (BDAG). Its figurative extension here means “be free fr. every form of mental and spiritual ‘drunkenness’, fr. excess, passion, rashness, confusion” (BDAG). It is a call to be “restrained in conduct, self-controlled, level-headed” (BDAG).

“Dignified” means “worthy of respect/honor, noble, dignified, serious” (BDAG). The dignified person is so self-possessed and in control of his temper and fears that he elicits admiration from those who know him.

“Self-controlled” indicates someone who is “thoughtful, self-controlled” (BDAG). In Aristotle’s ethics, the term indicates “avoidance of extremes and careful consideration for responsible action” (Aristot., EN 3, 15; BDAG). For Aristotle, the “self-controlled” person “is intent on the what, the how, and the when of doing what should be done.”

“Sound” means to be “healthy” or free from sickness. The figurative extension of that meaning here is “correct” or free from error. So “sound” in faith, love, and endurance means that older men have to believe in the right way, love in the right way, and endure in the right way.

In sum, Paul says that older men must be those who do not panic in the face of a challenge. They do not get angry when provoked. They do not fear in the face of a threat. The older men are to be as solid as an oak. They are to be the kind of men to whom people look when something is broken and no one knows how to fix it. They are the kind of men who are sought out for their wisdom and ability to speak truth into very difficult situations.

They are exemplary in faith and in love for wife and children and church and neighbor. They face trials with perseverance and courage. They are the kind of men that you want your son to grow up and be like.

Churches desperately need their older men to exemplify being sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Churches need an army of laymen who believe well, love well, and suffer well. And churches need them because these older men are the pace-setters for the rest of the church. It is not an accident that Paul begins with the older men. He begins with them because he intends for the old guys to be leading out in these things in the church and in their homes.

Proverbs 20:29 says that “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair.” This verse means that young men are not noted for their great and profound wisdom into life. The main contribution of young men is their ability to serve others with their physical strength and vigor. That means that the young men ought to be trying to out-serve one another in ways that involve their physical ability. When someone needs help moving, they show up. When there is a workday at the church, the young men need to be there with their able-bodied eagerness.

But as the years accumulate strength diminishes. And as strength diminishes, guess what begins to accumulate? Experience and wisdom. And gray hair represents the accumulation of wisdom and sensibleness about life and about what needs to be done. And this is an old man’s splendor and contribution to his neighbor. And it is supposed to be his contribution to the body of Christ. The church needs her older men to be what God has called them to be. They should live life in such a way that evokes admiration and respect. They do not need to be great orators. They do not need to write books on theology. They simply need to be godly. They need to be able to pour themselves out to their family and others who need their steadiness and wisdom.

The world’s point of view on the relationship between gray hair and wisdom is upside down. The world absolutely idolizes youth. So much so, that the order of the day is to suppress the appearance of age—to try to stay and look as young as you can for as long as you can because the essence of the good life is for those who are youthful, vigorous, and beautiful. And the world caters to the tastes and opinions of the young because they are the most coveted consumer demographic.

The world puts the old people on the shelf and the young people on the podium. But it really should be the other way around. Every believer should aspire to the crown of splendor—to the honor that is due to those who have learned to live well and faithfully to what God has called them. So this word to the old, therefore, is a word to all of us.

Princeton Seminary rescinds award to Tim Keller: What does it mean?

Princeton Theological Seminary was recently embroiled in controversy over its decision to give the Kuyper Award to Pastor Tim Keller. The award is supposed to go to a “scholar or community leader whose outstanding contribution to their chosen sphere reflects the ideas and values characteristic of the Neo-Calvinist vision of religious engagement in matters of social, political and cultural significance” (source).

As an accomplished pastor and missiologist, Keller certainly meets that description. So why the controversy? Members of the Princeton Seminary community and constituency believe that Keller has disqualified himself from receiving this award. So earlier today under pressure from these groups, the President of Princeton Seminary rescinded the award. Here’s how the president explained his decision: Continue Reading →

Top Ten Memories of OneDay 2000

Sarah Zylstra has a really fun piece over at The Gospel Coalition about John Piper’s famous “seashell” sermon from the 2000 Passion Conference called “OneDay.” I was at OneDay, and I had a great time recounting my memories of that event in a brief interview with Sarah several weeks ago. Of course there was a lot that we talked about that did not make it into the article. For that reason, I thought would briefly jot down some of those thoughts here. So here are my top ten memorable memories of the memorable occasion known as OneDay 2000. Continue Reading →

Are You a Scoffer?

Yesterday, we learned from Psalm 1:1-2 that “blessedness” is “happiness.” If you want to be a happy person, you have to avoid being like the wicked, the sinners, and the scoffers (v. 1). The root of blessedness—indeed of true happiness—is knowing God through His word (v. 2).

There is one other item that we need to look at from verse one—the word translated as “scoffers.” Perhaps it is not too difficult to comprehend what David means by “the wicked” and “the sinners,” for in both cases he is talking about law-breakers. But what is a scoffer, and how do we avoid sitting in his seat? We can answer both questions by looking at how the Bible describes the scoffer. Continue Reading →

Where does happiness come from?

Sometimes English translations of Psalm 1:1-2 conceal the real point of the text. I have in mind the words that are commonly translated as “blessed” and “delight.” Take the NASB for example:

1 How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates day and night.

The NASB has not mistranslated these two terms. It in fact tracks right along with many other major English versions (e.g., ESV, NIV, RSV). The problem is not translation, but tradition. Continue Reading →

Cheap grace is no grace at all

In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes in vivid terms what he means by cheap grace:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church…

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins… In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.
Continue Reading →

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