Category Archives: Special Topics

Facing and Fighting the Corrupting Power of Leadership

I heard from a fairly young age that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I took from this that power is what corrupts in positions of leadership, and consequently, hubris is the sin that leads to the fall of leaders, including Christian leaders. Now, 28 years into serving or leading in Christian ministries, and ten years as a senior pastor of a large church, I’ve realized that hubris, though a favorite, isn’t the half of it. That’s because power isn’t the only corrupting pathogen native to leadership. This article is a sketch of a slightly wider set of leadership dynamics that tend to corrupt leaders. I offer this in order to prepare ourselves to develop and support leaders who are not overcome by the pathogenic dynamics of leadership. Whether we are ourselves leaders, or we are keeping a supportive vigilance over our brothers and sisters in leadership, we need to develop a spiritual and moral immune system that can continually contain and attack the creeping corruption we will all face until final redemption. Understanding how the natural dynamics of leadership inflame and tempt the flesh produces helpful insights. Further, understanding how they compound each other should give us renewed urgency in our vigilance over our own hearts and supportive compassion for those we encourage.

The enticements of leadership and our core idols:

Tim Keller is one Christian leader who has outlined the core idols of the human heart as:

  1. Power: The desire to use avenues of influence outside the constraints of virtue
  2. Affirmation: The desire for the approval of others that displaces our preeminent desire for God’s approval
  3. Control: The desire to have our plans go smoothly that rebels against the improvisational demands of providence or other legitimate wills
  4. Comfort: A desire for ease and pleasure that avoids stewardship responsibility and creative exertion

These are sometimes coordinated to the personality types of popular (and non-scientific) temperament tests like the DISC, MBTI, or the Enneagram. Some of us are more susceptible to one over others. We treat these like the “idolatry love languages,” with primary and secondary idolatry languages. I wish it were that limited.

In practice, I have found all four idolatries creeping in my heart at different times in my ministry, in different situations, and in different life seasons. To allow myself to focus on one, or even two, would be a mistake. I am even certain that there are more than four, and they are usually connected to a group of root wounds, needs, or confusions that increase the enticement of the idols and harbor their presence in us.

What is it about leadership that seems to propel us into the service of idols such as power, affirmation, control, and comfort? In addition to the temptations that come with leadership, its wearying effects can leave us increasingly vulnerable to corruption when they interact with the pressures and powers of leadership.

Pressures and powers of leadership:

Of course, the pressures and powers of leadership are not discrete; they are compounding. You can face them all at the same time, in the same season, and even in the same decision. 

  1. Authority is intoxicating or disheartening. Leaders have power. This is true and inescapable. We are given authority over a set of resources to discharge in order to accomplish the tasks bound up in our charge. Power is intoxicating for everyone, especially those that want it. It can also be disheartening. No one leads alone, and many people around you can subvert your authority. Authority creates an easy route to intoxication and, conversely, disillusionment.
  2. Responsibility is exhausting. Leaders are given responsibility. They are stewards: they own nothing, but are in charge of everything. The better a leader we become, often the more responsibility that will be entrusted to us. Responsibility matters, and the more seriously you take that trust, the more exhausting its weight becomes. This weight is especially exasperating for those who want ease and comfort.
  3. Disapproval is intimidating and approval is alluring. The more people you lead, the more exposed you are to their adulations, appreciation, complaints, disapproval, and abandonment. Humans long for belonging and security, and so this exposure becomes inherently intimidating. We quickly become able to predict how people will respond to our words and actions, and soon we can calculate the human response to our actions. Disapproval is intimidating, and appreciation is alluring. This is especially true of those who desire affirmation more, those struggling with wounds of insecurity, or those experiencing the isolation from deep friendships that leadership can foster.
  4. Complexity is bewildering. The more advanced our positions of trust, the more complex leadership usually becomes. You may have heard of the “Peter Principle,” that “employees rise to their level of incompetence.” This incompetence is usually a function of complexity. As the problems that leaders face become increasingly complex, problem solving and decision making become increasingly bewildering. There are more “no win” scenarios, and interest groups plainly demand contradictory actions. The bewildering nature of complexity and the anxiety that comes from not being able to find the right answer fast enough is particularly hard for those that desire control, such as highly conscientious types.

What is to be done?

Not everyone should be a leader (or not yet). James 3:1 is quite direct that not every believer should be a teacher. Neither should every believer be a leader. Hebrews 13:17 tells us that elders are those that will have to give account for how they kept watch over souls. The biblical responsibilities and qualifications for leadership (1 Tim. 3, Tit. 1, Acts 20, 1 Pet. 5, etc.) are morally serious and should be considered as such at the beginning of leadership. Leaders must not only count the cost of what they will give up, but also the pathogenic load that our spiritual immune system will have to bear. We should have the constitution to bear that load through our sanctification if we are given a trust of leadership. Do not accept or promote someone into leadership that does not yet have the spiritual constitution for it.

Accountability can’t save you. When Christian leaders fall, we hear people say, “what they needed was accountability.” This response is rooted in our anxiety to feel that the problem of leadership corruption can be “fixed,” so that we can feel safe and at peace. You cannot fix the problem of leadership corruption any more than you can fix the problem of the flu or COVID-19. Linda Stanley, who has worked for many years in church consulting, said the following in a recent email exchange:

“As for accountability, I observed pastors that have put all kinds of safeguards, guardrails, accountability partners, external accountability boards, etc., in place only to hit the wall, burnout, fall from grace, and in a few situations, commit suicide. It wasn’t that they didn’t really try to be accountable. The pressures and demands became too much and they did not allow themselves to admit that and seek help. Some began to “believe their own press” and abused their power and influence. Call it a dysfunction of our society, man’s sin nature, pride, etc. It’s the human condition and it will keep happening.”

I have many forms of accountability in my life: porn-reporting software on my screens, elders that meet with me bi-weekly and ask me very pointed questions, pathways for my staff to circumvent me to the elders if I act wrongly, an extremely vigilant assistant, a wife and children replete with candor. But let’s face it: These only work if I don’t lie. If I cooperate. Their main service is that they alert me to the power of enticements before they become so strong that I’m intoxicated by them. Accountability is helpful. It is no answer to the corrupting effects of leadership

Prioritize sanctification above leadership development. In my seminary days, we flocked to leadership conferences and were told always to be reading at least one leadership book. These books were beneficial—for maybe the first 2,000 pages. Meanwhile, Scripture, church fathers, and men like John Owen and Wesley confronted me with ideas like mortification and holiness that went beyond the positional sanctification familiar to me from my reformed background. I began to realize that I could not let my fear of self-righteousness keep me from the pursuit of righteousness. Only godliness can stand against the flesh and the continual corrupting enticements of leadership (Matt 5:6; 1 Tim 4:8).

Attend to primal wounds. God has seen fit to make humans emotionally complex. Clinical issues often rooted in primal wounds complicate the process of growth and bewilder the Christian pilgrim. I cannot tell you how many people do things they can’t seem to stop, or who do things for reasons they don’t understand. I’ve pastored many, many people that seem to be progressing in godliness, and then they just seem to get stuck, and certain faults seem supremely durable in their constitution. Our neglected soul wounds can create hiding places for the flesh that our conscious selves overlook or ignore. If the church is to be well led, we must help people overcome these wounds in Gospel-faithful ways. This may mean devoting personal or church funds to ensure leaders and ministry staff get the help they need to face issues related to abandonment, trauma, sexual abuse, family dysfunction, unexplained depression, intense anxiety systems, etc. Do it before they do something that will split the church or make the news. This also means looking for and supporting high quality counselors and spiritual directors and not complaining about what they charge.

Be ready to let it go. Many have said that if you can’t walk away from a negotiation, you’ve already lost. Similarly, if you can’t risk losing your place of leadership in order to keep the integrity of your stewardship, you aren’t free. St. Chrysostom wisely warned:

“I have not said that it is a terrible thing to desire the work [of a priest/pastor], but only the authority and the power. And this desire I think one ought to expel from the soul with all possible earnestness, not permitting it at the outset to be possessed by such a feeling, so that one may be able to do everything with freedom. For he who does not desire to be exhibited in possession of this authority, does not fear to be deposed from it, and not fearing this will be able to do everything with the freedom which becomes Christian men: whereas they who fear and tremble lest they should be deposed undergo a bitter servitude, filled with all kinds of evils, and are often compelled to offend against both God and man.”

If you are not ready to walk away or not ready to be deposed, then the one who pays the piper is already picking the tunes. No leadership thrives under this dynamic, especially Christian leadership—and worse than that, the pastorate. Jesus demanded of Peter that he take care of his sheep and feed them. If there comes a time when to feed and protect God’s sheep under our care means to lose our place of leadership, then it is a glorious and blessed thing to be deposed and rejected. And if it happens that God in his good providence allows you to be permanently removed from the position of ministry as a vocation, consider: why is that a sadness? Are you longing for the day when it ends in the glory? When such a responsibility of war is taken from your shoulders because the conflict is finally at an end? If God displaces you now for doing what integrity and godliness demands, why should you be dejected? I train every pastor and intern to prepare their hearts and their financial investments such that they could be kicked out of their position at any time because they choose to keep their integrity and execute their stewardship under the trust of Christ. I am not encouraging foolish brashness; especially among the young, pastors can moralize and create ultimatums over things that they could instead more strategically handle. But being prepared (emotionally and practically) to let go of your place of leadership will produce the freedom and noble spirit that makes one content to be either “consecrated to the dignity or removed from it,” which is an invaluable safeguard against temptation and corruption.

Practice vigilant compassion. Although every leader must face the inner task of leadership with piety and discipline, we cannot neglect that God has put us together for cooperation as well. The more we understand about the weight leaders carry, the corrupting influences they face, and the particular intense enticements endemic to this work, the more we will be both vigilant and supportive, investing in both accountability and rejuvenation. Last summer, Compassion International paid for me to spend four days in rural Nebraska shooting shotguns, going fishing, and sitting around a campfire with eight other pastors of large, growing churches. I didn’t realize how good it was for me until a week later. I went to hunt pheasants and catch walleyes, but I ended up being strengthened, helped, and encouraged by men I had never even met. My family and the elders of our church also support me when I leave for eight days to hunt elk, because they know that I come home a completely different person than when I left, in a good way. Similarly, our church has made it a priority to invest in the health of other church leaders in our community. Examples of this are paying the guide fee for pastors’ fishing trips and sponsoring a pastoral retreat for the African American Council of Churches in our city.

The who and the how

If you’re reading this, it may be because you feel frustrated with yourself or the leaders around you. Maybe you didn’t know the extent and effects of the corrupting powers of leadership. Maybe you thought your dryness, constant anxiety, or lingering depression was simply more evidence of your weakness or wretchedness. In an age when we are disheartened by the reports of one fallen leader after another, we may find ourselves asking, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).

I’m not arguing against accountability, leadership training, or the promotion of young leaders.  Rather, I’m calling for us to return sanctification to its rightful place as our only true hope of improvement, along with a reminder that the crucified and risen Christ is the both the who and the how of the question above. Jesus is the only uncorrupted leader in the history of his Church, and it is by his Spirit, working in the places of groanings too deep for us to even understand, crying out to God for his power to conform us into his son, that we ultimately grow into glorification.

Understanding how leadership tears us down should give us renewed urgency in our vigilance over our hearts and supportive compassion for those we encourage. Let us not take lightly that great underappreciated promise: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6).

Race and Dignity

One of the most foundational pillars of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and teaching was the rightful importance he placed on the inherent dignity of every human person. As I preached in my sermon yesterday, when we fight the wrong war of being on the “right” side, we caricaturize our enemies and lose the dignity and nuance of a real person made in the image of God.

Instead, the war we are called to wage as Christians is one against our indwelling sin, and the death that must happen is the death of hostility (Ephesians 2). This is part of our identity in Christ, and what all Christians have in common with one another. It is the truth that unites us, even as we make every effort to work out the truths of our salvation in developed solidarity. In practice, this looks like each of us doing the loving, good action in word and deed, even when others may misunderstand us, disapprove of us, or even “cancel” us. Presently, the wars that voices in the world call us to engage in are largely wars of self-protection; they will not lead to the ends that Dr. King emboldened us toward. Dr. King lived a life of sacrificial love at tremendous personal cost, even unto death. This is the life our Savior has called us to live, as the author and forerunner of our faith in his own death and in enduring opposition from sinners (Hebrews 12:2-3). Dr. King faced opposition in the context of 1960s segregation. The flavors of injustice are different now, but still must be faced with prudence, so that we engage in the Christian conquest of peace rather than the worldly wars of division.   

As I have watched both Christians and my non-Christian neighbors struggle with questions surrounding racial justice, I have become increasingly less concerned with their ability to think about race than I am concerned about their overall ability to think about everything that is foundational to thinking about race. How does a Christian, or any human, think carefully and helpfully about race and racial justice if one doesn’t understand well the nature of the human person; the nature of moral reasoning; the intricate nature of social and political policymaking; the opportunities and liabilities of human emotions like fear, anger, and empathy; how trying to help people usually hurts them; what means can be employed with justice if we are combating a particular injustice, and so on? My greater concern is that Christians have not employed themselves in the great virtues necessary for a great democracy.

I don’t pretend to know all of the proper answers about racial justice in America. On one level, there may not be any answers. On another, there may be dozens of acceptable answers, depending on the particular question. We could pursue many possible futures and many possible solutions. I am concerned about racial justice, but because I am concerned about racial justice, I am more concerned about the faculties and virtues and wisdom we must possess in order to avoid doing more harm than good. The greatest tragedy a family might suffer is for a mother to give birth with great excitement, effort, and agony, only for the baby to emerge stillborn and the mother to perish. Our great goal in pursuing racial justice is to ensure a flourishing birth, but when it comes to racial justice, the child is most certainly breached. It will take more than outrage, and more than denial to bring forth a new birth of freedom and equality in the company of reconciliation, forgiveness, and solidarity.

It is reasonably likely that we will never achieve the beautiful society of prosperity, justice, and solidarity of which we dream. If what we imagine is a utopia, it will most certainly fail. But that does not mean we cannot achieve a society that is significantly more just than the one we have, and even given the realities of the human condition, I believe that more is possible. Yet to reach this goal, I believe that the Christian church, and much of the American public, will need to be elevated not just in their racial consciousness, but in their spirituality and humanity.

Consider this particular passage given to a group of Christians in a very unjust Greco-Roman society that appear to have significant division between the rich and poor in the church:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

(James 1:19-27, NIV)

I want to encourage you to read this passage over the course of a few days. It’s all in there. This is a powerful summary of the kind of spiritual and moral elevation that can happen through the gospel of Christ and that is necessary for godliness both individually and socially. The political conservative, libertarian, and progressive will each favor some portion of it. Everybody will find a line that they might pick out to apply to the present conflict, but very few people would be willing to say all of it. Yet the written word of God holds all of these as both true and critically relevant:

  • You should be quick to listen to other people and slow to speak. Listen to people and empathize with their stories. If necessary, lament with their sorrows. This is a fundamentally human way of loving each other and a necessity for unity, reconciliation, and solidarity.
  • You should be slow to become angry and should recognize that anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Do you see anger around you? Do you see its willingness to flare quickly and recklessly? Anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires—and God desires justice, including racial justice. Anger has some possible benefits, but it has almost no constructive ones. If your goal is righteousness, including racial justice and reconciliation, anger will not and cannot produce it. If you are a believer, you must accept that and learn to discern what to do with anger when you rightly feel it as a signal of injustice, or when you recognize it as a signal of self-righteousness.
  • You need an absolute moral makeover in Christ. You cannot go along with the flow, because evil and moral filth are “so prevalent.” To reject this is arrogance of the worst sort. What we require is the humility to accept the word that was planted in us, the word that can cleanse us from moral filth and from going along with worldliness, but can also save us.
  • It’s no use to talk and not obey the word. We are responsible to obey all of the word of God that we know, and if we say we believe something and then do not act in accordance with that belief, we are succumbing to a certain kind of spiritual illness. We are like a person so forgetful that we can look at the mirror one moment and forget what we look like the next. To know the word of God and disobey it is like having no idea who you are after you just confessed it.
  • The righteous law of God brings freedom. That is, if you want freedom, pursue righteousness in accord with the righteous law of God. This is a freedom from the sin within ourselves and from the sin of sinners who are also changed by that law. Although the primary context here is freedom from the wretchedness of sin and internal spiritual weakness, the idea that the law brings freedom is also applied socially in the Old Testament—righteousness brings liberty.
  • Keeping a tight rein on your tongue is fundamental to truthful religious faith. The failure to control your tongue shows that your claim to be spiritual is self-deception, and your spirituality is worthless. This should be a chilling reminder to everyone in this season.
  • Pure and acceptable faith in God must include “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
    • First, this means that true faith has an irreducible social component. That component specifically includes the physical needs of a society’s poorest members, especially those blamelessly suffering poverty due to misfortune. Those who former religions would have said are suffering because of providence, Christians are to support disproportionately, rejecting the idea that the effects of the curse are the positive providence of God that we can use to judge the people who are suffering. Getting this right is fundamental to true theology, and actually helping those people with their physical needs is an essential part of it.
    • Second, you cannot separate a rejection of worldliness from engagement in social justice. There is an inextricable link between the social responsibilities that come from loving solidarity and our personal moral responsibilities to pursue godliness and reject worldliness. Any self-identified Christian who seeks to use their acts of social service as a way of excusing their sin and worldliness is deceived and lying about their faith. Conversely, anyone who makes great effort towards the disciplines and virtues of personal holiness, but has no recognition of their responsibility to love others in social solidarity—even the widows and orphans that come across their path—is also deceiving themselves, and their faith is worthless.

This is one of the reasons why I love Christian faith. God is no respecter of persons, nor of political movements. He does not favor the rich over the poor, nor the poor over the rich. He will defend the wife against the brutal husband, and he will, with equal seriousness, call out the disgusting behavior of the quarrelsome wife. He will demand that a slave owner treat his slave as a brother, and he will tell a slave not to steal from his master. He will put the weight of justice on the governor, and he will demand that every citizen be easy to govern. He disproportionately supports the poor and disenfranchised, not because they are better, but because they are unheard and need special attention. Yet he does not give them license to act unjustly towards their oppressors. He acts to ensure that they receive justice and that the people of God can live in peaceful harmony.

Our shared humanity and shared salvation in Christ relate us to each other with great equity and equality, regardless of our background, race, cultural identity, gender, or mixture of identifying characteristics. Spiritual equality before God is the basis for our equality before the law. But this same dignity is also the dignity that establishes God’s high expectations of his image bearers. There are no excuses for our behavior; there is only grace and the invitation to a new way. 

Christmastide pastoral letter

Grace and peace to all those who are in Christ.

I commend you on behalf of Christ Jesus for your faithfulness in the work of the gospel in this last year. Although we in Wisconsin did not bear the greater weight of the suffering of 2020, the year was a trial to our faithboth testing it and strengthening it. I thank God for the encouragement of seeing the church respond with unity to issues certain to divide any population acting as mere humans in this world. Disease, dividing walls of racial hostility, economic turmoil, and political divisiveness have made this a trying year for people very used to a blessed flourishing. In each circumstance, the elders of the church have consulted with other wise and experienced believers in order to try to take a faithful step towards obedience to God. Every action was fallible, and from some perspective can be faulted. Yet, the body of Christ has held together in unity, respecting those God has put in authority and seeking not only to weather difficulty, but also to harness opportunities for good.

As a whole, the body of Christ here has become much more generous in 2020. I know that for some of us, we had fewer expenses in 2020 and the same or greater income. But as a whole, many of us have struggled financially, yet the church has still given more generously than any previous year when I have been the pastor. It shows that Christ is in you, welling up in generosity toward the shared human need of your brothers and sisters, rather than simply giving from the overflow of a unique abundance. Christ gave out of his abundance and in recognition of our poverty. Our giving is most like Christ’s when we give in worship toward God, but in real compassion towards our brothers and sisters in Christ and our neighbors in our shared city. You have not only alleviated some of the suffering of our brethren in India and in minority communities here in Madison, but you have also cared for the body of Christ by taking care of those in need within our church. In witnessing this, one can truly say, in the words of 1 Corinthians 12, that when one part of the body hurts, the whole body feels that pain. We have shown others that we are Christ’s disciples. We have built deeper relationships and trust with our minority brethren and other local churches. And we have tried to answer the call toward those who are far outside our gaze but are members of our spiritual family abroad.

We have also seen a significant change in how the church is organized in its worship of Christ and care for his sheep. We expanded our video broadcasting capability while seeking to become more robust in our pastoral and personal ministries to people. We have tried to make things more accessible digitally while making them more personal relationally. This may be a grace from God, who may be forcing us to embrace the best of the opportunities of modern technology while leading us to keep the church’s ministry profoundly humanethat is, fitted to the real nature of human beings. Any humane ministry that is truly spiritual must be deeply relational. Digital worship will never suffice for the full corporate adoration of God, nor can it substitute for the ministry of presence and the encouragement we get from being together. Yet, we should be encouraged that God is both changing and sustaining the ministry of the gospel to his flock, and he has led many people to take on the responsibility of shepherding through small group leadership, making sure Christ’s sheep are both fed and defended.

Brothers and sisters, while we rejoice in these demonstrations of God’s work among us, we cannot forsake our vigilance in seeking to obey everything Jesus has commanded. When God speaks to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, he commends almost all of them. In all but one case, however, he has one thing against them, and that thing is often so severe that it threatens to destroy their witness and spiritual integrity. In light of this, there are three areas in addition to those I noted in my sermon on December 27 (part 1 and part 2) where I believe we require increased vigilance. These should take our attention in our private and public worship, in our spiritual conversations, and in our pursuit of sanctification and godliness.

First, we must be vigilant around the covenant of marriage in each of our relationships and as a whole in the body of Christ. Marriage, as the covenantal formation of a family, is God’s first institution. It is his provision of relational wealth for men and women, the exultation of the complementary relationship between the sexes, and the vehicle of God providing for himself godly offspring. It is meant by God to bless us by supporting our happiness and alleviating loneliness in our creation callings. It is also designed as a crucible in which we are made holy. It requires both emotional devotion and wise discipline in order for it to flourish, especially in times when it is no longer supported by abject human need or the good opinion of society. I’ve seen numerous marriages struggling during this season, and many are not looking for or asking for help until problems and sins are far advanced. It is unwise and unspiritual to allow years of resentment to be piled upon even more difficult problems. Do not wait to seek help for things in your marriage that seem difficult to solve and are ruining your goodwill toward each other. Although marriage is in one sense “easy,” it is easy in the way the yoke of Christ is easy. When it is taken on entirely for what it is, and we submit ourselves entirely to it like an animal submits to the yoke of its master, marriage becomes easy in its simplicity. Clouded by worldliness and choked by human hurt, people experience marriage as anything but easy.

To honor Christ in this area, the church must be a place that holds unapologetically to the standards of Christ and offers people the compassion of the Son incarnate, our Shepherd Jesus Christ. Jesus had a way of bringing people to the standards of God unapologetically while making them feel invited to their own salvation rather than judged on the basis of their own doom. If we are to be spiritual physicians to the needs of our brothers and sisters, our advocacy for grace and truth in the lives of people who are stumbling must find this character of Christ. Each of us must be someone that a struggler believes will point us back to what is good and will do so with compassion and a desire to help bear our burdens. Sin is sin, but it is also a heavy wretchedness that is hard both to bear and to overcome. I implore you to seek help early and quickly if you are struggling. And if a struggler reaches out to you, use the truth to point them faithfully to the will of Christ, yet do so with the grace that displays practical, long-suffering compassion. Marriage was created to be easy, but nothing is as easy as intended under the curse.

Second, we are in danger of losing our fire for Christ or falling into sin because of the effect of emotional burnout. Unexpected change, suffering, and difficulty will deplete our fortitude and courage. For many, you’re already feeling emotionally dead, spiritually tired, or theologically disinterested in God himself. It is much easier to watch TV, eat more food, or do whatever feels pleasing at the moment. I have written recently on overcoming burnout, but the long and short of it is that we must live lives that are more humane. That is, lives more in line with how God created us as human beings with recognition that we are the spiritual creatures that bear his image. That means that some of our rejuvenation comes from spiritual practices and some from physical ones. We are made for rest, in terms of both sleep and leisure of mind. We are made for meaningful relationships. And we are made to enjoy devoting our hearts to God in worship. The four practices of devotion, rest, enjoyable work, and human relationships of delight are all necessary for the sustaining of human flourishing spiritually, emotionally, and bodily. The apostles affirmed that everyone must work, everyone must rest, everyone must worship, and everyone must fellowship. These all give us meaning in different ways and fulfill us both in our created purpose and in our Savior. In order to embrace discipline that will lead to spiritual thriving, we must devote ourselves to wholesome expressions of these four realms of human activity. If any of them is missing, we will suffer for it. If all are present, we can thrive in very difficult situations over very long periods of timesometimes growing much stronger through difficulty.

Third, as much as we must embrace the disciplines of rest, work, worship, and fellowship, we must also recognize how we must exert ourselves to escape distraction and diversion. Many things in our lives are making us more sensual creatures. Our minds are crowded, cacophonous, and divided. It’s hard to have a silent place inside of us. Our bodies and temperaments are drawn to immediate sensual pleasurefood, romantic intimacy, video games, YouTube, news that makes us mad, frivolous gossip, and many other thoughtless actions that waste time and produce nothing good. Diversions often look like rest, worship, work, and fellowship, but they are either greatly diluted or false versions of each. Winning short video games or getting likes on posts in social media feels like a better worship, since we are the ones who are good and worthwhile. It is a much more glandular experience of affirming the good, except we are that good instead of God, and the good we are celebrating is trivial rather than substantial. Eating junk food mocks the wholesome enjoyment of food and drink as a reward for work. Trivial activities replace meaningful work. And digital interactions are substituted for substantial in-person spiritual fellowship. Christ’s disciples must recognize these diversions for what they are, a sort of froth on the meaningful flow of the river of life. They are its least meaningful and least substantial elements, not just in their physical existence, but also in their moral and theological meaning.

This is all true, even recognizing that Scripture teaches that God has given us everything in this natural world “for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). But even this affirmation of wealth comes after a very pointed exhortation on the dangers of wealth. Enjoying creation without being enslaved by Mammon is a critical distinction that is easily confused when we are spiritually blinded by our own wretchedness. The best way to know whether we are enjoying creation in our leisure and indulgence rather than being enslaved by Mammon is to ask ourselves if we are still doing the wholesome things that flourishing in Christ require. Are we happy and eager to go to church and fellowship with the body of Christ? Do we find times of silence in our soul to concentrate on the single thing that is God himself in prayer? Are we drawn to and do we enjoy fruitful labor in our chosen vocation, in service of our neighbors, and for the common good? Are we happy to include other people in our leisure and indulgences who may enjoy them with us? Will our life be marked as a life of service, or one where we do the minimum for others and spend the maximum amount of time doing as we please? Do we naturally stop to worship and thank God throughout our day? Are our minds well-focused, and quiet enough to think about the things of God and cherish them?

I have great concern for the flock of God in an era of diffuse attention, digital realities, sensual temptations, and general godlessness of mind and action. We live in a time when many truths are twisted while others are partially celebrated. It is a difficult time for having both the mind and heart of Christ. Great wisdom, great devotion, and great discipline will be needed for us to thrive in such times. We should be thankful to God for all of the advances, securities, wealth, and resources of our times. God himself created all the best of science, and every day we seem to be unlocking parts of its promise for human flourishing. And yet, our spiritual poverty seems to be increasing geometrically. We have the opportunity to live in a time of great scientific advancement, and to do so with hearts for the God who created all that science studies, while responding to him in his revelation in Jesus Christ. However, like all generations of Christians, we must do profound battle with the flesh. We must intently and intentionally resist both religious legalism and rampant worldliness. And we must be vigilant of the schemes of devils, never being unaware of the constancy or ruthlessness of their schemes.

Even when the things of this earth are so pleasing and clamor for all of our attention, we must, in the words of the apostle, set our minds on things above, not the things of the earth. In all times, but particularly in our age of distraction, setting our minds on anything beyond human happenings requires the rigorous training of our minds in the school of mental solitude. There, with the Spirit as our teacher, we must put our conscious meditation on the fact that we have been raised with Christ, who is our life, and have been redeemed from an old way of life and death and raised, re-clothed in the identity of righteousness, as Christ’s redeemed, as God’s chosen people and a holy nation. Firmly rooted in these truths, we must take our place as a kingdom of priests and kings, inviting all people to experience God’s reconciliation, to fulfill both the mandate to believe in God’s Christ, and to live out the creation mandate to take dominion over creation for its good.

May God bless you in every way in Christ and make you sensible of his greatness. May he interest you more than Mammon, worldliness, flesh, and sin. May you and the generations under your care find comfort in the care of the great Shepherd who knows, understands and is shaping the future.

Pastoral Letter on Public and Private Fears in a Polarized State

For High Point Church, those interested in the Christian teachings on life under the State, and for those whom are citizens of another kingdom, the City of God.  

Christian Scripture is not only the word of God and a record of his revealing actions; it is also a chronicle of human behavior, demonstrating our nature and propensities in this world. It contains many faithful narratives about human states and people, the tumult and chaos of nations, as well as rare examples of the increase of justice and prosperity. God has given us plenty of teaching on how we can live in virtue and without fear—and thus in freedom—in any state on earth, regardless of its leader and government, or our status in it.  

It should be clear to anyone reading the Bible that progress and liberty are not human universals, but are rare jewels in the annals of human history. No nation has ever been a complete representation of the purposes or will of God. The State is not God’s City, though in his providence he is sovereign over its actions. The church is his kingdom and city, and though there are always wolves in the imperfect church, it is nonetheless Christ’s bride that he is working to perfect.  

The apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 1:9-12 that his prayer for the church is that we would be:  

“[filled] with the knowledge of his will through all wisdom and understanding given by the Spirit, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.” 

The Christian, like his Savior, will consistently find himself an alien in the world, and more so in certain times than in others. It is God’s desire for every believer, in every time and under every state, to understand God’s will so that they can live a life that is pleasing to God. This includes at least committing ourselves to “bearing fruit in every good work” (Col. 1:10), having great endurance and patience, and being able to joyfully give thanks to the Father who has rescued us. 

Writing this epistle from prison, and having been imprisoned unjustly, the apostle does not allow himself to be distracted with political considerations, though he himself is suffering as a political criminal in a corrupt judicial system. Instead, he tells Christians that both collectively and individually the goal is to be pleasing to God, committed to every good work, able to wait on God with endurance and patience, and having joy with a thankful attitude toward God the Father. 

In order to attain to this state of the heart, the Christian cannot give in to weakening frames of the soul: despair, gloom and despondency. Nor can we give into the heated frames of the soul: wrath, vengeance, anger, pride, envy and lust. The fear of meaningful and important temporal things easily steals away the grounding foundation of all the truths of salvation, our eternal hopes, our certainty in God’s oath and promise, and the thankful joy that comes as the fruit of such faith. 

Many sins are produced by the loss of a godly frame in times of abnormal fear. Frames of the soul that have either fallen into despondency or anger, because of our fear or pride, submit to our mind ready excuses for sins of all kinds—all forms of indulgence and intemperance. We can easily, in the state of anger and pride, believe we are holy, just and approved of by God even in doing the things that God has explicitly said that he despises and has commanded us not to commit.  

We make enemies of those who disagree with us and fall into the worst kind of partisanship. We are not faithful to the actual view of our neighbor, and so caricature it in our yard signs, media posts, and conversations. This is bearing false testimony against your neighbor. We refuse to forgive those who we think have committed a wrong—perhaps not realizing that we must forgive another for what we deem a wrong vote as much as we must forgive another for a different wrong action against us. We commit idolatry by elevating the interests of the State over the interests of the family of God, the body and bride of Christ. In further ideological idolatry, we hold fast to our perceptions of who the heroes and the enemies are in our public life, allowing our partisanship to lead to the worst kind of factionalism and tribalism. This leads us not only to abuse our neighbor, but to allow ourselves to hold a hatred for an entire class of people, both real and imagined. This causes us to refuse the virtue of hospitality by allowing ourselves to immediately dislike people that we believe failed to hold a complete orthodoxy in our factional religion.  

Wayward human souls also tend to look to strong leadership in moments of fear and pride. Not waiting on God and trusting him to bring about justice by his own means, we are willing to lie in wait to attack our neighbors in order to support whoever we believe will be the successful leader for our time. By doing so, we cannot help but elevate some of the worst characters, some of the most ruthless men and women, and to make every leadership decision a cataclysmic decision in a “winner takes all” scenario. Such leader and state worship has a horrific and murderous history, especially in the last 100 years—totaling more than 100 million people. And it continues. 

It is common for people to think that this is a tribal problem, and therefore a problem with the other tribe to which we do not belong. But it is not. All of these problems are human problems, and manifest themselves wherever human fear and pride are resident. And they are repented of and somewhat ameliorated, at least for a time, where human beings in humility and faith repent of such idolatries, sins and fears, and choose instead to trust the living God and to follow his Christ.  

It is fashionable at the moment to fear that America is on the brink of being overtaken by “fascism,” and that every person must exert themselves extremely in order to keep such fanaticism from taking hold. The predictable and strange irony of this is that this is precisely how fascism takes hold. Totalitarianism does not emerge from tiny minorities, but by blaming small minorities for the problems of the whole through the voice of a strong man who can rally the majority to his side, usually in a democracy. American Progressives believe that the danger comes from the American Right, recognizing that some fascist regimes were nationalistic in nature, as opposed to communist regimes that were globalist in nature. It is true that when nationalism is defined as a kind of “blood and soil,” and is choosing its membership by race or some other arbitrary standard, that the totalitarian tendency can find its scapegoat and bring on its side a sufficient majority for dictatorship and great injustice. Yet people on the American Right have also observed that every totalitarian regime was also socialist by its very nature. Spain, Italy, Germany, and even the large strain of American fascism during the Progressive era (seen most profoundly in Woodrow Wilson), were all progressivist and socialist by ideology and practice.  

The Christian who understands the nature of the human condition understands that the tendencies towards totalitarianism and injustice reside in the embrace of fear and pride and the rejection of faith and virtue as defined by God. In this state, there is no safety against great horrific outcomes by being on anything like the “Right” or the “Left.” Both visions can become great, and both visions can become specters and wraiths, giving into the worst of their condition, and losing everything good God put in their created nature.  

Advice to Christians about what to do in times like this: 

Some Christians believe that in order to make Christ known to our neighbors, we must capitulate to their political tastes and perceptions. Yet although the apostle Paul said that he becomes “all things to all men, so that by all possible means he may save some,” he did not apply this to sinful tendencies, or views that were contrary to the gospel. You will not find in the ministry of Jesus him capitulating moral standards, especially within worship, virtue and morality, when speaking to people of the world—whatever their political persuasion. His views cannot be characterized as partisan, though sometimes he agreed with one party or another on a particular issue. Instead, his views were consistently seen as otherworldly. People of every faction, from within every partisan group, at some point looked at Jesus with complete bewilderment because he belonged to and spoke of the kingdom that was not of this world—or at least not of this world’s worldliness. 

For the Christian to be faithful to his Christ, and also a faithful witness to his neighbor, it is true that he should not be unlike his neighbor for its own sake, alienating them over the trivial. But nor does it mean that the Christian should lie down the convictions of conscience that she believes is informed by her belief in the gospel. For the thinking and concerned Christian, they will not find a home in either political party in the United States—at least not consistently. 

If we wish to truly be followers of Christ, as well as how he handled the political concerns of his day, we are wrong to see in Christ the consummate progressive, liberal, libertarian, or conservative. He was none of these things consistently. To Jesus, it depended on how any particular progressive, liberal, libertarian or conservative view agreed or disagreed with the otherworldly ethic of the City of God and the will of his Father. On any particular issue, he may agree with one party on an issue, and a different party on another issue—but he would never agree with them all on all issues. And more than anything, he would not be drawn into their idolatry of power. One of the great ironies of the cosmos is that the One with the greatest right and power to coerce all creatures to give fealty and loyalty to himself, came in absolute humility, argued on the basis of truth rather than power, and left choice to the conscience of all men—knowing that the consequences of their choices were dire. He neither stole their rights, nor their destinies, though he died to make the greatest destiny possible for every man and woman. 

Dear brothers and sisters, there are many men and women who seek to stir you up in fear, pride and anger in order that they might have power, notoriety and wealth. To give into fear is always to allow ourselves to be easily manipulated and controlled. The desire for power is exceedingly corrupting. We must reject the calls to fear and hatred of our neighbor, while speaking the truth to each other graciously, according to conscience, and according to the word and will of God. What our nation needs from us most is not our allegiance to the political parties, but an allegiance to temperance and public virtue flowing from the humility and honesty of Christ.  

The essence of faith, in all places and at all times is twofold. It is first to repent of that which is wrong, and to put our faith in the good as it is embodied in Christ. And second, faith is to not give way to fear, but to be willing to trust God and to wait for him. Throughout Scripture, “waiting” for God does not mean passivity and indolence. It means that we will not take into our hands that which is left to God alone—like wrath and revenge, the manipulation of events that cannot be done with virtue, and the like. To wait for God is to do everything we can possibly do for the good that is shown to us in God’s revealed will and then not to try to do more. It is to leave to God what is God’s, and to wait for him to work out whatever he has chosen in his providence to bring to pass. It is to believe that the final reward, our ultimate redemption in glorification, will provide sufficient joy, hope, and endurance to follow Christ who seemed forsaken in the events of this world—especially political ones—and yet who was vindicated and glorified to eternal joy. 

Finally, brothers and sisters, do not lose hope. Do not give in to fear. Do not allow anger to be an excuse for intemperance. Rejoice in the Lord, and put no hope in princes, governors or presidents. Yet pray for governors, presidents, and other governmental entities on all occasions. Act conscientiously in your public work according to your best understanding of what will work toward human flourishing and is in the will of God. And then put your trust in God, and wait for him. Do good, live in his joy with thankfulness, and know that if we live under the derision of the earthly city, we will be pleasing in the eyes of the One who is working redemption for his heavenly City. We have been redeemed and will be redeemed, so let us now, like Jesus our Christ, spend ourselves in every work of redemption our hand finds. Do not grow weary brothers and sisters, night must always give way. 

Grace and peace,  

Pastor Nic Gibson 

Pastoral letter on gathering as the church in the COVID-19 pandemic

To the High Point Church family, in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, 

For 2000 years, pastors have written to the congregations they serve with spiritual advice, commands and encouragement in times of need. This was not only true of the apostles, but also church fathers and bishops, like St. Athanasius. Martin Luther wrote to European Christians in the 16th century an essay entitled “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” It is still worth reading.  

The current pandemic may not be as deadly as some of the ancient plagues, but it is deadly for some, and this may not be the last pandemic that we face in our lifetime. Many Christians recognize the big picture in relationship to faith in Christ when facing disease. In life or death, we belong to Christ. Jesus has called us to live in faith, not fear. But we are also told that faith is not the same as foolishness. Faith and wisdom are never opposed to each other, and yet both are opposed to cowardice. Christians generally understand that we are to live in the divine triumvirate of faith, hope and love, that we should serve our neighbors, believe that God is ultimately in control of all things (even suffering), and that we should act with wisdom in our daily choices. Much can be said about these basic and fundamental Christian truths. 

However, the church can easily become divided in a situation like this—over questions of conscience and wisdom. For example, is it religious persecution for the government to say we cannot have our normal gatherings? Does worshiping with a virtual source count as worship? If the church opens, should everyone have the conviction that they should attend? Should we be deferential and obedient to the government in their regulations? 

In this letter, I will focus on three important parts of the Bible’s teaching and outline our plan for gathering again so that we can move forward in the coming weeks not only in wisdom and faith, but in unity.

First, the Bible teaches in many places that every Christian is called to be an active, covenantal and familial participant in a concrete local church whenever possible. Christians should seek to form a local church when one is not present, and this can only be neglected in extreme circumstances—for example, if you are the only Christian in 100 square miles in rural North Korea. However, does it follow that we must meet every week on Sunday in a particularly marked church building, as is our ancient custom? Scripture seems to teach that the earliest Christians probably met on “the first day” of the week, which is presumably our Sunday. 

Three scriptures seem to state this. Acts 20:7 says that people gathered together for a meeting that lasted until the next day, and that this meeting was “on the first day of the week.” But though the reference tells us when the meeting happened, it doesn’t tell us that this was a normative time for the church to meet. In 1 Corinthians 16:2, people are told to set aside a financial gift “on the first day of every week.” This is so that no time will be used to collect money when Paul arrives to carry the church’s gift to Jerusalem. It does not include any normative command about when worship should take place, or why. In Revelation 1:10, the apostle John says, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet…” Here, presumably the first day of the week is simply referred to as the Lord’s day—as though the concept was already established, and everyone would know what he meant. However, in the case of Acts 20:7, since Jews counted days from evening to evening, that meeting would have been on Saturday night over to Sunday morning. In fact, it’s likely that most Christian churches met on Saturday night after the Sabbath had concluded—the Sabbath spanning from Friday evening to sundown on Saturday evening. 

We are also told precious little in Scripture about exactly what should happen in our worship services, or exactly when we should meet. Early in the book of Acts, people are meeting in the temple to hear the apostles teaching, and are meeting “day by day” in people’s homes. As the New Testament moves forward, no prescription is given for a day of worship, a time of worship, the frequency of meetings, how many people make up a meeting, and so forth. Instead, these things are left up to the prudential wisdom of Christians, while we are given general commandments about what should be included in our worship, what should be our goals, what faith and godliness looks like and that we should do these things “often.”

This leads to the most specific verse that focuses on the times and frequencies of our meeting, Hebrews 10:25. It says, “let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The most literal contention here is the command to “not give up meeting together.” In the context of the pandemic, this command has led some Christians to believe churches should simply continue their previous meeting schedule in obedience to this command. Other believers have claimed that this quotation does not apply to extenuating circumstances in which our health could be at risk. However, Hebrews makes clear that these Christians are worshiping in the context of intense persecution, which includes the “plundering of their possessions.” In addition to having their private property taken, the apostle also includes an entire chapter on the suffering of God’s martyrs in Hebrews chapter 11. This is no doubt included because of the severity of the suffering he expected the Hebrews to face, which clearly could include profound personal suffering, even martyrdom. So, we should not too easily dismiss our earnest Christian brother or sister who believes that this verse says that we should not stop meeting together in our normal way even in the worst possible circumstances, including during a pandemic. 

Conversely, extreme circumstances are also the context for the Biblical command to obey those in civil authority. In Romans 13, the apostle Paul tells us to obey the government in absolute language, as instituted by God.  

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. Romans 13:1 – 2 

This was the case even though Nero was emperor, and their current government was murdering Christians. 1 Peter 2:12 – 15 tells us to obey every authority instituted in our society, whether on the federal or local level. The purpose of this is not only that authority is in itself a good, bringing order out of chaos, but that we are to “silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” Presumably, this means the ignorant talk that because we are citizens of heaven, we are no longer under the practical jurisdictions of men. This is not the case. In 1 Timothy 2:1 – 2 we are commanded to pray for all those in authority. This is meant to help them see that they can leave us alone to live in peace and quiet. The result should be that godliness would thrive among us, and that people would see its beauty and turn to God who wants “all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” So, not only are we instructed to obey authority because it is ordained by God, but because it is also integral to the reputation of God’s truth in our city. Obeying authority is critical to living honorably and deserving a good name, and consequently, adorning God’s name in the minds of our societal neighbors.  

This does not mean that there are no exceptions to the rule. Peter and John disobey the Jewish rulers when they are commanded not to speak about Jesus and his salvation.  

But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard. Acts 4:19 – 20  

The Hebrew midwives are blessed by God for disobeying Pharaoh’s orders to kill Jewish boys as they were born because they “feared God.” They knew that to obey the king they would directly disobey God, the greater and true king. Therefore, our duty to obey right authorities is foundational, but does admit our disobedience when such a command requires us to disobey a direct command of God. We could also note the disobedience of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were also all commended by God. 

So, the question we must answer with good conscience is: Are we disobeying the general commands of worship and fellowship given to Christians and the local church by worshiping only according to what our government allows during a pandemic?  

This requires us to take stock of the minimum actions that amount to worship and fellowship as outlined in the Scriptures. First, there is no direct command as to the day we must meet, nor the time. We are told to “not stop meeting together.” This must mean that meetings should be frequent. The purpose of these meetings in Hebrews 10:25 is to “encourage one another” toward perseverance until the return of Jesus. This meeting has no minimum number so long as it is plural. Two or three might suffice. The church is commanded to read Scripture publicly, submit to the shepherding of elders, hear the word preached, worship in song and prayer, fulfill the “one another” commands, baptize new believers, celebrate the Lord’s supper, exert church discipline, and spread the gospel as the work of making disciples of all nations.  

Can we do this using almost entirely virtual tools while confined in households? I believe the answer is yes, at least for some period of time. At some point, virtual meetings are not sufficient for the human soul, and people who do not gather are scattered. This is why house church movements are so difficult to cultivate. Gathering in a large church makes it much easier to gather people. Yet, large churches are not necessary for us to be the body of Christ. Not having them in operation makes it harder and less convenient. But we are not precluded from worshiping, praying, or doing any of the works and worship we are commanded to do under these restrictions.  

What we must face is that this takes discipline and maturity. We have to organize ourselves. We have to check in on people. We have to exhort and encourage one another. We must do for free and out of love what is fitting for those God has made brothers and sisters, those he has made “one body.” We must be a people who can be the body of Christ without a building and without a budget. For this is what we may be one day not only in a pandemic, and what many of the Body of Christ are now in various places around the world.  

We should be cognizant of our rights in a free society governed by laws, that should apply to everyone the same, rather than by men, who will do as they please. However, the Biblical examples argue for justice on the basis of truth while in a posture of obedience to the government, except for in the most extreme circumstances. So, Christians can speak against government policies and use rights of speech, petition and assembly to change policies and advocate for their rights, as well as the rights of others. Some have done this. 

This leads to two concluding areas of action once we begin gathering again, and eventually, reopen our building doors. 

First, all Christians must respect the earnest conscience of others acting in faith who are trying to obey Christ. Most human decisions are not right and wrong in themselves. They are prudential decisions: decisions made on the principles of wisdom, utilizing our best perceptions of what is happening. We make prudential decisions by weighing the voices of many virtues and varied commands of God. Our varied perceptions and conceptualizations are imperfect and may lead people of the same convictions and faith to very different decisions concerning how we should act. In such circumstances, love must press for unity in the Body of Christ by respecting and accommodating the consciences of others. There are limits to this principle, but only express and explicit commands of God fence in the earnest conscience. In Romans 14, an example of where this principle is expounded, one of the differences of opinion about which we are not to judge each other is how we esteem the significance of certain days. In the context of the passage, these are probably festival days of the Old Testament. But this is a disagreement about the times and places of worship, and the apostle says we should not judge each other over these things. We should not allow the disunity to fester among us that comes from despising those who are conservative or judging those who have a more liberal conscience. For this to work, both groups must seek the truth in Christ, search the scriptures, and stay in fellowship with each other. 

Practically, as we roll out the reopening of church services, we will not all agree on how this should be done. Some believe we were wrong to ever close services. Others have asked to be present at services already. Some have informed us we should not open for some time. Others have said they will not come for some time, but affirm the church reopening if that is what the elders decide. I have been encouraged by the humility and the earnestness to honor Jesus that I have encountered among people who are acting in opposite ways. I believe this can please the Lord if we can also love and accept one another, even while debating with one another in humility and honest discourse. Jesus demands that we find unity even in the midst of giving others freedom of conscience in many matters. 

Concerning the reopening of the church, our plan needs to be fluid. The county has made clear that it reserved the right to move back and forth in levels of openness and quarantine, depending on infection rates and other indicators. So, for the foreseeable future, we will continue to at least live stream one service of worship each Sunday. This will remain the case until we communicate the next phase of reopening. Since we have started live streaming, some have attended worship much more regularly. Pray for God to use this time to draw many people deeper into the covenantal community of the church. 

The second step, which we have not yet reached, is to meet in groups of ten or fewer to worship together along with the streamed worship services. Moving to small group meetings for worship allows us to meet together to encourage one another in persevering faith and good works. This is an adequate means of fellowship and personal contact that treats people as fully human in their spiritual and social needs. We will communicate with you once we are either legally or conscientiously able to meet in this way.  

Though the public order says we should use virtual means in every way possible, we cannot neglect personally meeting with a small group of people any longer than is absolutely necessary. Gathering in small groups that are connected to virtual worship allows us to meet the basic necessities of Christian worship in the present moment, while minimizing risks of infection to ourselves and our neighbors. These small groups should be no more than ten people and should be the same people every week. This way, if someone is infected, we will know fairly easily who has been in contact with that person and who will need to quarantine themselves. Also, make sure the ten you choose is not exclusive of those that will get left out. Structure those you invite to include friends, as well as those that need a friend, because Jesus told us to invite all the people that couldn’t do anything for us (Luke 14:12 – 14).

Hopefully, fairly soon, things will move more back to normal, and we will be able to reopen Sunday services as normal. Right now, though churches can meet at 25% occupancy, there are many onerous requirements for those meetings, and so we will not gather in our church building until further notice. For High Point Church, even 25% capacity makes controlling the spread of disease difficult, especially in our space. 25% capacity in our sanctuary alone is more than 200 people. These actions are in line with the advice of numerous health care workers that we have consulted in the last week.  

Finally, do not tell yourself this will all be over soon. We have no idea what the next months, or the next year, will bring. If you plan for an end to the difficulties, your resolve will break when hardships extend. Choose to trust God in each moment, and plan for the future only long enough to do your duty and have hope that God will use you for some eternal good that circumstances can neither steal nor spoil. Find your happiness in God and in people (who last forever), in present graces (like sunshine), and in pursuing godliness. Life’s greatest joys do not come by changes in trials, and most wholesome routes of meaning are expanded in hardship, not contracted. You do not have fewer eternal opportunities in these days; you have more—regardless of what happens to our bank accounts or our health. Even when our bodies are wasting away, we can be renewed inwardly day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). Let us give to everyone what duty owes them: first to God, and then to our governing authorities, to the fellowship of believers, in generosity to the poor and to our not yet believing neighbors.   

Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love (Ephesians 6:24).

Imitators and Examples: Conversion and Worship

Imitation unto thriving perseverance. 

Imitation is the foundation of human learning. Imitating Jesus means imitating his examples.  

1 Thessalonians 1:6-7   6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.  7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 

What imitations should we find exemplary?  

Joel Salatin Quote-ish: “We don’t need veterinarians very much and we don’t use antibiotics on any of our animals. That’s because we select our genetic lines for survival. Our chickens are the children of previous generations of survivors living in natural conditions. So we always have robust and healthy livestock.” 

Purpose of 1 Thessalonians is assurance unto “thriving perseverance.”  

So, imitate those thriving unto perseverance.  

Like chickens: not all growth is created equal. You get some choice in the genetics of your spiritual life—who becomes your spiritual fathers and mothers. You aren’t limited to two. But you need to chose for thriving perseverance. Not by gifting, or following, or who sounds cool, or who acts passionate, or any other affectation. Jesus said to judge trees by their fruit, and the fruit of joyful perseverance is among the most important. 

But you can ask: How do I break that down? In some ways I can’t know who will persevere until it’s over. How does that help me now? Can I see more than trajectory right now? What can I look for that makes persevering and thriving in the faith likely?  

First, track record DOES matter. Someone who has trusted Jesus for 30 years through tests and changes is a better bet than someone else.  

But how do I even assess a strong track record or a good trajectory in the faith?  

1 Thessalonians talks about these.  Paul makes them the object of how he offers them assurance: 

  • The things the Thessalonians are doing well 
  • That they imitated faithfully in Paul, Silas and Timothy 

These things are what we should imitate, and these things display evidence of grace in our faith. They show our faith is real, assurance is warranted, and that we have everything we need to thrive and persevere. 

There are 4 things in this passage that lead to perseverance 

  1. Conversion: a cataclysmic change of belief and allegiance 
  1. Worship: seeing the worth of God in proportion to pain, and everything else. 
  1. Discipleship: the humility to identify and imitate the godliness of good examples 
  1. Mission and witness: authentic word and faith goes forth and goes everywhere 

We’ll just look at the first 2 today.  

1. Conversion: we imitate those Jesus has persuaded

1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 “…They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,  10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead– Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” 


1 Thessalonians 1:3  3 We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Conversion is unpopular because the concept is confused.  

We should expect this to be true of all critical areas of knowing God. The flesh, the world and devils will attack every concept and premise God reveals. This will usually take the form of confusion—a muddying of the logical waters around an important concept. 

People tend to feel that conversion amounts to closing one’s mind rather than simply changing one’s mind.  

But being willing and able to change your mind is the very definition of not having a closed mind. But if conversion is never warranted—then we are by definition closed minded.  

Conversion is the opposite of bigotry.  

  • Conversion: the proper change of mind as a response to being persuaded of a warranted truth. 
  • Bigotry: The resistance to changing one’s prejudice, even after expose to evidence that warrants persuasion. 
  • Bigot: “Obstinate or intolerant devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices.” (Merriam-Webster) 
  • You can’t categorically be against both conversion and bigotry.  

Conversion is the full change of mind and heart from idols, death and wrath, to the Living God, the saving Son, and hope in his return and vindication.  

Gospel content/doctrine: faith in the content of the gospel—the news of the events of God’s work to save us.

  • The God of the Bible is the living and true God.
  • All other gods are idols—gods of our makings (false), and dead (without the life we ascribe to them).
  • Jesus is the Son of God, who has died for our sins, and who has promised the hope of his return that we are waiting for—rather than giving up.  
  • God the Father showed this to be true by raising Jesus from the dead. 
  • This Jesus is our rescue from the final judgment of God. 

Full change: a full and decisive total change of mind.

  • Involves repentance and faith 
  • Repentance: rejection of unbelief, sin, and cynicism toward God 
  • Faith: Living belief, embracing love, and seeing hope

Conversion is thought unnecessary—though it is absolutely necessary. 

An example: New versus nice

  • “World Weavers”: “immerses people in different faith traditions for a month for a small fee.” People can experience “Buddhism for a month,” “Muslim for a month,” or “Rasta Roots Spiritual Tradition.” 
  • Michael Lawrence: “There is no need to become a true believer. Rather religions help people become better, nicer people, and any religion will do the trick. This assumption…is why so many people in the west have abandoned religion altogether. If the point is simply to be a better person today than I was yesterday, then why do I need any religion at all?”  
  • You could substitute “nice” for “health” or “wellbeing”.

The concept of Christian conversion is that we must be made new, because we are not good. 

  • John 3: “you must be born again/born of the Spirit.” 
  • 2 Corinthians 5: “a new creation” 
  • Ezekiel: dry bones come alive, heart of stone to heart of flesh 
  • Romans 6: dead and raised into a new life 
  • Titus 3:5: “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit”

Imitating Jesus’ examples means imitating their sound conversion

There is no imitation of Christ without this transformation of mind and allegiance. Conversion is not small minded, or unnecessary. It is the noble recognition that we have gone the wrong way, rejected our Creator, and that we need to correct our course, repent of our self-righteous bigotries about the universe, and come to his Savior for rescue and to restore our identity. 

It is beautiful and good—and it is categorically worth imitating. Especially when done in the mist of palpable opposition and affliction.  

2. Worship: we imitate those who rightly value the gospel

Conversion leads to worship—because it leads to joy and away from idols.

Conversion naturally leads to a sense of proportion in value—seeing our hope in God as a fountain of joy, increasingly overshadowing the afflictions of the world and the curse. 

To God from idols: devotion is personified. We relate to what we believe, hold commitments like relationships, want them to do things for us, and are mastered by them. 

1 Thessalonians 1:9-10  They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,  10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead– Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. 

Joy over affliction: Joy is the wide universal and sadness the narrow particular.

G.K. Chesterton on the Dogma of Joy: “The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live. Yet, according to the apparent estate of man as seen by the pagan or the agnostic, this primary need of human nature can never be fulfilled. Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted, it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity. This is what I call being born upside down. The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstasies, while his brain is in the abyss. To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is a small and pitiful stillness like the prompt stillness in a sick-room. We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.”  

1 Thessalonians 1:6   6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 

2 Corinthians 4:16-18   16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 

Romans 8:17-18   17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs– heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.  18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 

Worship: Worship is essentially our joy in God expressed to God. 

  • Expressed: thankfulness, pursuit of godliness, obedience, adoration—prayer, singing, discourse, etc. All expressions of joy in the worth of God.  
  • Joy in God’s goodness and beauty: is its vitality. 
  • It is especially helpful as testimony of the worth of God when in the presence of suffering and affliction.  
  • Such worship shows how Christ’s work is more valuable. It also comes with the gifts of calling, justification, transformation, family, and glory.  

Joy: This creates a sense of emotional proportion in which the gain in Christ overwhelms the cost of all the curse and sin. This joy is divinely empowered—“of Holy Spirit.” 

This is something we imitate from inspiring examples.  

  • Paul and Silas had just been persecuted for the faith in Philippi—and still told them about it (1 Thessalonians 2:2).
  • The churches in Judea (2:14).
  • Jesus was killed, and so were the prophets (2:15).
  • Jesus did it “for the joy set before him…endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2).  

All these imitators of Jesus cared more about God than what would happen to them—and were willing to bear scorn for faithfulness.

Paul and Silas getting flogged in Lydia (Acts 16) 

Paul and Silas had done an exorcism and healed a woman, and God let that good deed be answered by personal attack, getting arrested, getting whipped, not having their wounds cleaned in a time when infection killed you, getting thrown in jail, and getting chained in very uncomfortable foot stocks (like terrible criminals and escape risks) in a cell with no windows (inner cell) where it was probably pitch black.  

What were they doing in the middle of the night? Well, inner stone cells have great acoustics. 

Acts 16:25-28   25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.  26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose.  27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped.  28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” 

Why did Isaac Watts and William Cowper write so many hymns? To fight for joy through the dark night of depression. They wrote hymns because they knew the joy was in the doctrine—the truths and promises of Christ. That God was the fountain head of all human joy—even joys in this world.  

The joy of God—in him and in what he does—leads back to a wholesome love of the created world without the poison of worldliness.  

Cowper says of an oak tree he saw one day:  

“Could a mind, imbued with truth from heaven, created thing adore, I might with reverence kneel, and worship thee.” 

“So fancy dreams. Disprove it, if ye can, ye reasoners broad awake, whose busy search of argument, employed too oft amiss, Sifts half the pleasures of short life away.” 

It also caused him to see morally through one of the more difficult moral issues of his time that most men were blind to: his poems against slavery—also quoted by MLK.

The purpose: thriving spiritual endurance through encouragement about assurance, rooted in present faith. 

  • Faith that works—has moving energy 
  • Love that labors—that is sacrificial and self-forgetful in its activity 
  • Hope inspiring endurance—that our joy dwarfs our afflictions because of the clarity and certainty of our hope

The emphasis here isn’t on how hard our faith hope and love works, but on the operation of God in our conscience and willingness to imitate the examples he gives us. 

Christians call this “evidence of grace,” and it is the basis of our assurance.  

Before we are saved, the question is “Have you been converted by repentance and faith to belong to Christ and be his imitator/disciple?”

But what about after? How do we know our faith isn’t false? Delusional?  

Answer: The evidence of grace. Is what God does operating in us?  

1 Thessalonians 1:4-5 NIV 4 For we know, brothers and sistersloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.   

 Becoming imitators and examples 

People are struggling with what perseverance and growth are right now—while we feel pretty stuck.  

It takes humility to be an open imitator. It takes embracing responsibility to be an example.  

We all have to ask ourselves whether our faith does work, whether there is a labor to our love, or whether our hope makes us steadfast.  

The point of this book it to encourage us to perseverance. Not by driving us on like slaves, but by celebrating not only God’s worth (adoration), but also affirming that what God is doing in us is worth celebrating (affirmation).