Monday, July 29, 2013

Duties of Pastor and Congregation

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the duties of the pastor and congregation toward one another:

Q:  What does the Bible say about the relationship between pastors and congregations?  Are there certain duties that they have toward one another? 

Paul describes pastors in 1 Corinthians 4 as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”  This description may seem different to many American Christians, but it is the Biblical job description for pastors.  It makes clear, first, that pastors are not mere employees who must follow the orders given by their congregations, but instead, they work for Christ and are answerable to Him and serve their congregations on His behalf and at His command. 

In this service to Christ as “stewards of the mysteries of God,” their primary task is to deliver God’s grace by preaching, teaching, Baptizing, forgiving sin, and providing the Lord’s Supper.  All of the administrative, organizational, creative, and other tasks we Americans typically associate with a pastor’s work are really secondary to their foremost task of administering the Word and Sacraments according to the Lord’s institution.  The Gospel of Matthew provides a similar description as Jesus tells the disciples, who were the first pastors, “As you are going, make disciples of all nations by Baptizing and by teaching them to keep all that I have instructed you.” 

In return for their pastor’s commitment to devote His life to serving Christ by delivering God’s gifts to the congregation, the New Testament also assigns duties to congregations in relation to their pastor(s): 

Since the pastor’s time is devoted to delivering God’s Word to the congregation, it is necessary that the congregation provide for the needs of the pastor’s family.  By doing so, they not only honor His providing for their needs, but also remove the anxiety of financial pressures which would ultimately distract from his concentration on serving them. 

This principle dates to the New Testament as Paul tells the congregations, “those who preach the Gospel should receive their living from the Gospel,” and “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor,”  even comparing it to the Old Testament command not to muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain. 

Even more, he instructs the Christians to “respect [pastors] who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.  Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work,” and to “obey your leaders and submit to their authority.  They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.  Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

As one who has a high degree of instruction in Scripture, Christian doctrine, and the care of souls, the congregation is commanded to honor and respect their pastor as he fulfills his office and the duties assigned to Him, some of which include making unpopular decisions and enforcing unpopular positions that are commanded by Scripture. 

The pastor is no dictator, though, because both He and the congregation are called to submit together to God and His Word as their highest authority.  The saying that the pastor “must give an account” for His work among the saints emphasizes this responsibility.  They are also to correct one another if they depart from its teachings. 

The Bible describes the relationship between Jesus and the Church as like a husband and wife, and since, when he serves in the office of the ministry, the pastor represents Christ, the relationship between him and the congregation as a whole resembles that of a husband and wife as well, extending Paul’s commands to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 so that the pastor is commanded to love his congregation and the congregation commanded to respect their pastor(s).

Similarly, the relationship between the pastor and individual members of his parish resembles that of a father and his children, which is the reason Pastors are sometimes called Father among several denominations of Christians, including Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox. 

All of these descriptions of the pastor’s relationship to the congregation are given so that the goal Paul describes would be attained—that the pastor’s service would be a joy rather than a burden, and therefore, his ministry would be an advantage rather than a disadvantage to his congregation. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Believe in God or Trust Jesus?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the difference between believing in God and trusting Jesus:

Q:  If a person believes in God, does that make them a Christian, or does it include something more?    

The phrase “believe in God” can be a difficult thing at times.  I think the meaning of this phrase even tends to vary depending on the generation a person comes from.

In the mid-twentieth century, the question, “Do you believe in God?” was synonymous with asking, “Are you a Christian?”  In that era, to be a mainstream American was to be a Christian, and with very few exceptions, such as the Jewish population of New York City, the alternative to Christianity was seen as Atheism.  So, in that context, the question fit the needs of the time in discerning whether one’s conversation partner was a fellow Christian or not.

Today, though, the first response of many people when asked whether they believe in God might be “Which one?”  With the introduction of eastern religions to the American scene by celebrities and popular musicians later in the twentieth century, as well as a shift where immigrants began arriving from Southeast Asia and the Middle East rather than from Europe, many different definitions of god began to reside side-by-side in our country. 

Even though this does not render all of the definitions equally valid, it does mean that one now has to discern which God one is being asked if they believe in, thus complicating the question and necessitating further inquiry before it is possible to answer. 

There is also difficulty regarding the word believe.  Today, this word typically indicates a either the non-factual acceptance of an idea, such as when asked “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” or at least a level of uncertainty about an answer, such as in the reply, “I believe my favorite driver won last night’s race.” 

Instead, the Greek word used in the Bible indicates quite the opposite.  Its definition includes such things as certainty about, reliance on, and trust in the object of belief.  So, speaking Biblically, one does not believe in God the way one believes in the Tooth Fairy or an uncertain recollection of past events.  Instead, one acknowledges God’s existence as factual, reliable, and trustworthy. 

Additionally, even having a proper definition of and certainty about the existence of God does not make one a Christian.  James writes in the New Testament, “You do well to believe there is one God.  Even the demons believe that, but they are terrified!.”  Even believing in one God and knowing who He is does not make one a Christian, since even the demons do that much. 

Believing that God exists makes one a Theist.  Believing that there is only one God makes one a Monotheist, but both fall short of being a Christian.  Instead, what defines a Christian, beyond just acknowledging that God is a Trinity and Jesus is fully God and fully human, is to trust in Jesus to forgive one’s sin and give salvation and eternal life. 

This means complete reliance on Jesus as the one and only way a person can stand in light of God’s judgment.  It includes that one trust that Jesus has both fulfilled God’s law and suffered God’s punishment as a substitute for humanity and that those promises are applied to a person through preaching, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.

These things, beyond merely acknowledging God’s existence, are the definition of what it means to be a Christian, and are what the Bible means when it speaks of believing in God.