From Embers to a Flame 4

Chapter 7: Revitalization Strategy 5: The Priority of Intercessory Prayer

child-prayingHarry Reeder reminds us that prayer is the oxygen that the flame of renewal needs to ignite the flame of renewal. He notes that the church at Jerusalem, described in Acts 2, was “conceived in a prayer meeting” and “birthed in a sermon.” Chapters 7 and 8 stress the importance of prayer and the preaching of the Word.

The Priority of Prayer. The early church was one that was devoted to prayer. Prayer was so important to the leaders of the church that the office of deacon was instituted so that the apostles could focus on “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6.1-4). Reeder suggests that a lack of prayer is why many churches decline and die:

They may have charismatic leaders or slick programs, but they have become ineffective because the church has stopped praying. On the other hand, any church that commits itself to prayer, no matter how bad things may have become, can be renewed and rebuilt by the power of the Spirit (98).

Trouble in the Early Church. Reeder identifies the prayer of the believers in Acts 4:23-31 as especially applicable to revitalizing the church. The believers had gone from enjoying the favor of the people (Acts 2:47) to being persecuted. And it was in prayer that they found the energy and encouragement to continue with God’s mission, despite opposition.

The Priority of Praise. The believers’ prayer in Acts 4 does not begin with a laundry list of requests. No, it begins, as proper prayers do, by praising the Sovereign Lord. Reeder observes: “By orienting our minds to the greatness of our God, we are then better able to pray according to his will and to have the confidence that this great God can indeed grant our requests” (100). Reeder also observes that this prayer is “permeated by  scripture,” phrases drawn from the Hebrew Bible. Reeder suggests identifying specific scriptures that relate to church revitalization and employing them in prayers, both public and private.

Prayer and Predestination. Reeder, coming from the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition that we share, lingers over verses 27-28, which state that the authorities and the people who rejected and crucified Jesus were doing what God had predestined to take place. (Here the NRSV translation is clearer than the NIV). Often this precipitates the question: Why pray if God has already decided what is going to happen? But the early church found comfort in God’s sovereignty, in the fact that he is Lord, and not the authorities or even the Emperor himself. Reeder correctly observes that these first believers “knew that the same God predestines has also chosen to accomplish his sovereign will through prayer, not apart from it. Put another way, the purpose of prayer is not for us to change the plan of God, but for us to participate in that plan” (101).

Pleading and Petitions. Reeder encourages us to be specific and bold in our requests to God. He suggests that you make a list that “contains all the great things that God could do in and through your church as it is revitalized by the power of the Spirit. Begin praying diligently about every blessing that you can possibly imagine, and then watch as God does more than you can even imagine!”

Prayer Works? Reeder next makes an important point about who works in prayer. Prayer is not a technique, as in the theologically suspect Prayer of Jabez that was popular some years back. Prayer is not a way of manipulating God. Instead of saying “prayer works,” it’s better to say “God works through prayer.” The focus is not on our prayers, as if it’s all up to us, but on the power of God who answers our prayers. Reeder: “God is the change agent, and he has ordained to change things through praying people” (105).

Chapter 8: Revitalization Strategy 6: The Primacy of Preaching

The Ministry of the Word.

“The church in Jerusalem was conceived in a prayer ministry (Acts 1) and birthed in a sermon (Acts 2).” And as mentioned above, the Apostles devoted themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). The word of God in scripture was the foundation of the early church, as the first believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Reeder points out that the latter three activities have their foundation in the ministry of the word: “The apostles’ teaching is the Word proclaimed…their fellowship was the ministry of the Word shared…the breaking of the bread was the ministry of the Word visualized, and…prayer was the ministry of the Word returned” (108). So the whole ministry was rooted in scripture.

Reeder suggests that the letter of 1 Timothy “can be considered and studied as a textbook on this topic [of church revitalization]” and thus it is important to note the Apostle’s emphasis on the ministry of the word in this letter. Reeder’s analysis of the letter is interesting, but definitely slanted toward a certain interpretation. He says that in 1:3-11 Paul instructs Timothy to oppose those who are teaching false doctrines, and that in 2:11-12 “Paul addresses the importance of women’s receiving instruction, rather than giving it to the men in the church” (108). But as I am demonstrating in another series of posts, Paul’s warning is better understood as specific instructions for the women in the Ephesian church who have fallen prey to the very false doctrine Paul mentions at the beginning of the letter and throughout his instructions to Timothy. Ensuring that only men, and not women, teach in the church is not a principle of renewal and revitalization; in fact, one could argue that interpreting I Tim. 2:11-12 as a timeless, universal principle could be a hindrance to renewal and revival. In any case, a reliance on the scriptures resounds through both of Paul’s letters to Timothy.

The Message Preached. Paul places the scripture at the center of the gospel ministry in his instructions to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:14–17, NIV)

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God  may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Reeder analyzes this text and identifies seven aspects of the biblical message that is to be preached in order to revitalize the church:

  1. We must preach a gospel message. Timothy was taught the scriptures from childhood–but this was before there was such a thing as the New Testament, so the scriptures here are the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. This means that the good news is all though the Bible, and that even when we preach from the Old Testament, we preach the good news of God’s grace, which he demonstrates in the fullness of time by sending his Son, Jesus Christ.
  2. We must preach a Christ-Centered message. (See above).
  3. We must preach a God-Given message. The message we preach should not just be our opinions; rather, we must faithfully study and wrestle with scripture in order to convey what God is saying through his word. In the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, we insist on expository preaching, that is, sticking very close to scripture, explaining it, and applying it.
  4. We must preach a profitable message. Reeder here argues that as long as one is faithfully expositing scripture, it will be profitable. He could say a lot more here. Also about the responsibilities of the listeners to profit from preaching.
  5. We must preach a life-transforming message. The scriptures are useful or profitable for “rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” In other words, preaching must apply the teachings of scripture to everyday life. The gospel is not just preaching about something God has done, but also about the “So now what?” What does this mean for me? How should I seek change in my life? How is God challenging me?
  6. We must preach an equipping message. Here Reeder makes an interesting point that is also controversial: “Our services should be primarily focused on encouraging, strengthening, and training Christians, so that they can then take the gospel to those who need to hear it” (116). The church should “gather to worship and scatter to evangelize,” Reeder says. The risk of focusing on non-believers in worship is that believers become undernourished. They are not being sufficiently discipled, nourished by the meat of the word, when only the most basic message of the gospel (what the Apostle calls “milk,” 1 Cor. 3:2) is being preached. Reeder’s experience in several different congregations led him to the conclusion that “it is not necessary to be seeker-centered to experience numerical growth.” That is different from being seeker-sensitive, that is, being considerate of the presence non-believers in the service.
  7. We must preach a sufficient message. It is the scriptures that will make Timothy “thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Not his rhetorical skill, or his knowledge of the social sciences, or anything else. The Bible is sufficient; God’s word in itself has power to change people’s hearts, when the Holy Spirit softens their hardened defenses.

The Person Preaching. Reeder then expounds on the qualities and habits of a faithful preacher.

  • The person of God lives and speaks in the presence of God. When one steps into the pulpit, one should be very aware of being in the presence of God. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons why I wear the Geneva gown in the pulpit, because it is a reminder to me that the office is a holy one, not to be taken lightly, and because it is a form of dress taken from the university, it reminds me of the Reformed emphasis on teaching the word to God’s people).
  • The person of God lives and speaks in light of the return of Christ. In other words, preachers have the task of calling people to remember that the judgment day is coming, and they will have to give account of themselves, and to whom they belong, to their Creator.
  • The person of God is diligent in preparation. In 2 Timothy 4:2 Paul says: “Preach the word; be prepared [ἐφίστημι–stand ready] in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” The preacher must spend a great deal of time, throughout one’s career and not just in seminary, in the study of the Bible, learning more and more the context of the whole Bible, so as to better bring out and apply the meaning of individual passages.
  • The person of God is determined and patient. Well, I have one of those. Reeder says “many times we have to tell people what they do not want to hear. We must commit ourselves to speaking the words of God, regardless of how we think the people might respond” (122).
  • The person of God is serious about their work. Here Reeder, in my opinion, misses the boat completely, and goes off on a tangent about avoiding too much humor. But when Paul tells Timothy to be “sober minded” (2 Tim. 4:5, ESV), he means mentally disciplined and self-controlled. This is why I don’t use the English Standard Version (ESV), by the way. Where the NIV is often too loose, the ESV too often is wooden and overly literal. This is why pastors also need to learn Greek and Hebrew continue to use those languages in their diligent study of the word.
  • The person of God is focused and purposeful in ministry. Reeder says that pastors need to be more focused on fulfilling God’s purpose in ministry than in being personally fulfilled in ministry. However, Reeder fails to emphasize how those things actually go together and contribute to each other, or how when things go badly, both can be affected.

The Role of Church Officers in the Ministry of the Word. Reeder here emphasizes how office-bearers, and particularly pastors, need time to devote to prayer and the diligent study of the word. Reeder here emphasizes that “elders, deacons, and other leaders in the church must step up to the plate and fulfill their ministry so that the pastor can fulfill his.” He says that most pastors “spend about fifteen hours in preparation for a good sermon, and ten more if they preach a second time that week” (125). I would say at least that much. He concludes by saying: “If you are an elder or a deacon, prayerfully consider how you and your church can make more time available for your pastor to pray and study.”

For part five click here.


Not At All Clear

A Case for the Ordination of Women to the Ministry,
Part 1.

I have made it known in a previous post that I can no longer defend or support with any enthusiasm the practice of barring women from holding the ordained offices of elder and pastor in the church. I also feel that it is crucial for Christian Reformed churches to get past this issue, over twenty years after our Synod made its final decision on the matter (1995), in order for us to speak credibly to the current generation. In other words, I am convinced that continuing to bar women from leadership in the church will harm our witness and growth and our work of making disciples. It’s not that we should cave in to the world’s standards; it’s that people inside and outside of the church can see when our standards have gone awry. And they have gone awry in this case, as I intend to demonstrate. I am convinced that churches that want to grow through evangelism (and not merely attract Christians from other churches) need to move beyond this relic of a past era. Because in reserving ecclesiastical office for men only, we are not clinging to biblical teaching, but to a very human, very culturally conditioned understanding of gender roles.

muscular_christianity_grugerIn recent times, the debate over whether women should be ordained as elders and pastors has been framed, rather badly I think, by the terms egalitarian and complementarian. The term egalitarian means “supporting equality.” It asserts that men and women are equal. Yet most complementarians would agree that women and men are equal, but dispute the assertion that this equality means that women and men have the same roles in the church. However, some (certainly not all) complementarians also seriously undermine the equality of women in ways that are shockingly sexist and misogynist. One sees this particularly in the remarks of John Piper, who asserts that “God has given Christianity a masculine feel,” and that “the fullest flourishing of women and men takes place in churches and families where Christianity has this God-ordained, masculine feel. For the sake of the glory of women, and for the sake of the security and joy of children, God has made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.” Piper asserts that God calls men to take the initiative spiritually, and women come alongside in a supporting role. Throughout this sermon, Piper paints a picture of women as weak, fragile, vulnerable, soft, and in need of protection by brawny, muscular, tough-skinned men, who can valiantly and gallantly teach hard truths like the doctrine of Hell and not burden the delicate ladies with the task of teaching these difficult topics. But this “masculine ministry” is not Biblical teaching; this is the “muscular Christianity” of the Victorian era. It is a view of women and men shaped by the romantic notions of a bygone age. And it is condescending to women. It is also harmful to men, who are made to feel like they have to be tough and strong, and also extroverted in terms of spiritual leadership. It is, to use Martin Luther’s terminology, a kind of theology of glory that leaves little room for suffering and weakness.

The opposite term, complementarian, also leaves a lot to be desired. It means that men and women are different yet complementary. Aristophanes, the Greek comedian, tells a story in Plato’s Symposium, about how human beings originally had two heads, and double all the normal body parts, but when these creatures got too prideful, Zeus blasted them in two, and now men and women only feel whole and complete  when they find their (literal) “other half.” I think it is clear that egalitarians can also affirm that women and men are complementary in a general sense. Egalitarians do not want to erase or ignore gender distinctions. But they also, rightly, shy away from making blanket statements about the qualities of women and men, because these are not universal, and experience teaches us this. We should not deal in stereotypes. In fact, one can argue that it is precisely the differences that men and women bring to leadership that makes it crucial to employ the experiences and voices of women in the leadership, pastoral care, and preaching of the church. I can testify that my own preaching voice has been strongly shaped by female pastors, particularly by the homiletical art of Barbara Brown Taylor, and the rhetorical and contextualizing skill of Fleming Rutledge.

Clear and Plain?

I recently heard again the common refrain that the Bible is clear that women should not hold positions of authority in the church; the Bible’s plain teaching is that pastors and elders should be men. This clarity has been highly exaggerated. In fact, the argument is built on a foundation of sand.

The main passage that is cited to bar women from preaching or exercising the office of pastor and elder (as defined in the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions) is 1 Timothy 2:11-15. This is the number one passage that people cite to make the claim that the Bible is so clear and obvious and plain when it prohibits women serving as preachers and elders. But in fact this is one of the most obscure and difficult passages in the entire Bible. It is not at all clear. The passage reads as follows:

1 Timothy 2:11–15 (NIV)

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

So, let’s ask a few obvious questions about this passage.

  1. What does Paul mean when he says “women will be saved through childbearing”? Whatever he means, the one thing he most certainly cannot mean is that…women will be saved through childbearing! Paul often and emphatically teaches that persons are saved by grace through faith. Women are not saved in a different method than men. There are not separate male and female salvation tracks. And what about single women, and women unable to have children: Can they be saved? And what about continuing “in faith, love and holiness with propriety”–is this what saves a person? One’s good works? One’s tranquil and serene lifestyle? Clearly not.
  2. And do we really want to say that women are by nature more susceptible to deception? And that God created women this way? That seems to be the implication of verse 14, or at least that seems to be the meaning if (as complementarians insist) this is a reference to an enduring and unchangeable “creation order.” But if it is, then the Bible really does teach that women are more susceptible to deception, and men less so. But this is false, sexist, and chauvinistic… clearly so. It implies that women are intellectually and morally inferior, and that is theologically unacceptable. Such an assertion impugns God’s character as Creator. Is Paul a sexist? Is God? But in fact, Paul is not referring to some supposed creation order that endures through eternity; he is using an illustration from scripture. Just like Eve was deceived and fell into sin, some women in the Ephesian church have been deceived by false teachers who have been taking advantage of them, and Paul prohibits these women from teaching the false doctrine they have imbibed. Paul does something similar in Galatians 4:24-27, where he takes the story Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar from Genesis and interprets it allegorically, that is, changing the meaning of the literal events to make a spiritual application.
  3. And how far does one take this prohibition of teaching by women? Can women teach Kately Beaty quote.jpgSunday school or catechism or a youth group lesson or lead a Bible study that includes men? Can they teach boys the faith? The preacher Timothy seems to have learned the faith from two important women in his life, his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice (2 Tim. 1:5, 3:14-15). Can a woman study academic theology or biblical studies, and in turn, teach men in a seminary? Like leading Cambridge University theologian Sarah Coakley? Or like theologian Mary Vandenberg and biblical scholars Amanda Benckhuysen and Sarah Schreiber in the Christian Reformed Church’s own denominational seminary? Or my friend Suzanne McDonald at Western Theological Seminary? Or is the fact that these scholars are women teaching men theology an act of disobedience, and dishonoring to God? Can a man read a biblical commentary written by a woman without committing sin? (John Piper, again, is not so sure). Can a woman be the editor of North America’s leading evangelical magazine? Clearly this implies having a role in the spiritual instruction of men. Yet how many of us would object to Katelyn Beaty‘s role as managing editor of Christianity Today? (Especially if you know that she’s a Calvin College alumna!) If there is one thing that’s clear, it’s that we are exceptionally inconsistent in applying this supposed principle.

A Rare and Unclear Term

Another thing that is not entirely plain or clear is the meaning of the word that the NIV translates as “assume authority.” It is the Greek verb αῦθεντεῖν (authentein), and it is what we call a hapax legomenon, a word that appears only once in the New Testament. This means that it is exceedingly difficult to figure out exactly what Paul means by this term, and many scholars have written articles about its possible meanings. The Authorized (King James) Version translates it: “usurp authority” over a man, that is, to seize authority that rightfully belongs to someone else, by illegitimate means. The most common Greek dictionary defines it as: “to have authority, or domineer over someone.” So just restricting ourselves to this range of meaning, the word can convey either that Paul does not permit a woman to have any authority over a man (presumably limited to the sphere of the church, since a mother has authority over her male sons according to God’s law in the fifth commandment), or that Paul is prohibiting women from undermining legitimate authority and presuming to hijack and replace that legitimate authority.

In addition, Paul prohibits women from teaching. But how far does this go? Is it restricted to teaching children? Remember Priscilla and Aquilla, who worked alongside Paul in his ministry? Paul generally names the wife Priscilla first, which is unusual and noteworthy; he calls them his “co-workers” in the ministry of evangelism and planting churches. This wife-husband pair discipled Apollos (the future evangelist) in the Christian faith, that is, they both taught Apollos the way of Christ. We read about this in Acts 18:26–another instance where Priscilla’s name is mentioned first, which I think implies that she took the lead. And to be realistic, we know of couples where the wife is more outgoing and evangelistic than the husband, and more of a student and teacher than her spouse. And we don’t generally object to this, because we know that God gifts persons differently. We know that some people are more introverted, others more extroverted, and this difference crosses gender lines.

So, to come back to the important question: Is Paul’s prohibition against women teaching in the church all that clear? Did he even follow it universally himself? And what grounds are there for restricting this teaching prohibition to the pulpit? If it is in fact a universal principle for all times and places, we may need to rethink women as chairs of committees, women as Sunday School and Catechism teachers, women as mentors and disciplers, and women as youth group leaders who disciple young men. The answer to the question of precisely how to restrict women’s roles will not be found in the Bible. I think that we have traditionally focused on the pulpit and to the offices of the church as a male-only domain because of our very western and male-centered cultural assumptions about the roles of women in society. This would be ironic, because the usual accusation one hears is that advocates for women in the ministry are taking their cues from modern culture and not the Scriptures, but I think the opposite can just as easily be the case. Opponents of women in ministry are just as shaped by cultural assumptions and biases as any other readers of Scripture. In fact, it is precisely because I hold to the Reformed principle of scripture alone (sola scriptura) as the sole authority for church practice and teaching, that I come to a different conclusion when I study the important texts, and especially when I study them in their Biblical and cultural context.

…the usual accusation is that advocates for women in ministry are taking their cues from modern culture and not the Scriptures, but I think the opposite can just as easily be the case. Opponents of women in ministry are just as shaped by cultural assumptions and biases as any other readers of Scripture.

In the next post, I will discuss that biblical and historical context, and hopefully shed some light on this very difficult and obscure text, and perhaps make it less difficult, not so obscure, if not downright clear.





From Embers to a Flame 1

etaf_coverAlong with several other congregations, First Cutlerville Christian Reformed Church is beginning a season of intentional renewal through the Church Renewal Lab. One of the books that we will be reading to help guide us through this process is Harry L. Reeder III’s From Embers to a Flame: How God can Revitalize your Church. I will be providing some highlights from each of the chapters here on this blog. Reeder is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA).

Chapter 1: The Need for Church Revitalization

Reeder begins with some sobering statistics. He says that “over 80% of established American churches are either on a plateau or in decline,” and that every year “3,500-4,000 churches die in this country” (7).

Reeder’s Diagnosis

Reeder diagnoses several “symptoms of a sick church“:

A Focus on Programs. His book, he says, is not about a program, but about “principles that the Lord has designed and will use to bring more life to the body as he chooses to do in his sovereign plan” (9). You can tell that Reeder comes from the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition!

Nostalgia and Tradition. “Dying churches are often living in the past” (10). True dat! Reeder clarifies, helpfully: “The past is important and should be celebrated” but “we need to realize that the pleasant river of nostalgia can swell into a sweeping current that takes the church backward and downward to destruction” (11).

Personality Dependence. Dying churches presume that they need pastoral leader with a very specific kind of personality to experience growth. Often they presume that they need a charismatic extrovert. But Reeder provides several examples of unassuming, introverted pastors who nonetheless pastored growing and vibrant congregations.

A Maintenance Mentality. Dying churches just want to stay alive and pay the bills; but this mentality contributes to the death of a church.

Excuses and a Victim Mindset. Unhealthy churches say “That will never work here because ______” Or: “We already tried that,” and other excuses. These churches assume that external factors keep it from growing, and that the church is a powerless victim in the face of these factors. Reeder emphasizes that “even our weaknesses provide an opportunity for God to work in and through us” (13-14). Remember Paul’s thorn in the flesh! (2 Cor. 12:8-10).

A Bad Reputation in the Community. “The longer a church follows a pattern of decline, the worse its public image and reputation become. The community at large and the neighboring churches form opinions about the church’s condition. The people who do the most damage in this regard are often the ones who have left the church and gone elsewhere” (16). Reeder suggests that leaders regularly ask questions about how their congregation is perceived by other churches and in the community.

Distraction from the Gospel. The worst symptom of an unhealthy, dying church is when “something else has become  more important than living according to the gospel and sharing it with people who need to be saved.”

The Privileges of Church Revitalization

Reeder argues that church revitalization is an important ministry, and that it should not be dismissed in favor of just starting over with a new church plant (though there are times when that is appropriate). He asserts that in most cases a ministry of church revitalization is closer to the heart of our Lord,” the Heart of the Shepherd (18). In addition, The Heart of the Apostle, Paul, was dedicated to the health of churches. Paul “went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:41, cf. Acts 18:23). And Reeder claims that church revitalization can be much more rewarding than church planting, and that established churches have numerous advantages and resources that are not available in a new church plant.

Chapter 2: The Biblical Paradigm for Revitalization

Here Reeder talks about inappropriate models of the church growth, for example, the Hollywood model that assumes the church needs to entertain people, or the Wall Street model that assumes the church needs to market itself and adopt business principles, or the therapeutic model that assumes the church exists to meet people’s emotional needs.

Health and Growth

On the contrary, Reeder argues that if a church is healthy, it will grow–though Reeder says that while growth in numbers will usually accompany church health, that is not always the case. The size of a congregation is not a reliable indicator of health.

Ephesus as a Case Study

The church at Ephesus is an important example of how growth follows health. It was, as Reeder says, one of the four “epicenter” churches along with Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome (30). Paul founded it along with Silas, and Priscilla and her husband Aquila. It was in Ephesus that Priscilla and Aquila discipled Apollos, who became a leading evangelist (Acts 18:24-28). The believers at Ephesus also had a transforming emphasis on the pagan culture around them, when their evangelistic efforts threatened the local cult of the Greek goddess Artemis and the local economy that was dependent upon that cult. When Paul moved on to continue his evangelistic work, he addressed the elders and Ephesus and warned them: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). And that is what happened. By the time Timothy is pastoring the church, Paul has to tell him to “stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer” (I Tim. 1:3). The younger widows in particular were being deceived by false teachers and promoting these false teachings themselves (I Tim. 5:11-15). The church at Ephesus continued to struggle, as we discover from the book of Revelation; there the Lord Jesus rebukes the church because “You have forsaken the love you had at first” (see Rev. 2:1-5).

The Plan

Reeder’s paradigm for a strategic fitness plan, for revitalization, includes ten strategies, organized under the headings Remember, Repent, and Recover the First Things. The remaining chapters of the book will cover these strategies for revitalization:


  • Revitalization Strategy 1: Connect to the Past


  • Revitalization Strategy 2: A Call to Repentance

Recover the First Things

  • Revitalization Strategy 3: Gospel-Driven and Christ-Centered Ministry
  • Revitalization Strategy 4: Personal Gospel Formation
  • Revitalization Strategy 5: The Priority of Intercessory Prayer
  • Revitalization Strategy 6: The Primacy of Preaching
  • Revitalization Strategy 7: Staying on Mission with a Vision
  • Revitalization Strategy 8: Servant Leadership Multiplication
  • Revitalization Strategy 9: Small-Group Discipleship
  • Revitalization Strategy 10: A Great Commitment to the Great Commission

Click here for part two.

Orthodoxy and Submission

There is a theological debate going on in which Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem have proposed an eternal subordination of the Son in the Trinity. In other words, they claim that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father in the Godhead. This is an unorthodox understanding of the relationship of the divine persons of the Godhead, akin to the ancient heresy of Arianism, because it puts the Son in a lesser, subordinate position to the Father. Leading Patristic scholars and Trinitarian experts like Michel Barnes and Lewis Ayres leave no doubt about the fact that these writers are advocating heterodoxy (false doctrine, heresy), or veering toward heresy, or at the very least using very confused language that would lead to heretical formulations regarding the Trinity. Another Trinity expert, Steven Holmes, writes that “Grudem is ready to throw the Nicene faith overboard, if only he can Trinity-295x300keep his ‘complementarianism.’” But the doctrine of the Trinity is not the main reason for this post. It’s the “complementarianism” that moves me to write today. This new and controversial understanding of the Trinity is driven by a theological anthropology (that is, a particular view of humanity) that sees women (not wives but women per se) as subordinate in function to men (not husbands). This hierarchical anthropology is then projected onto the Trinity, in order to bolster the anthropology. That theory of humanity that views women as created by God to submit to male leadership is called complementarianism.  An old friend of mine, an outstanding historical theologian and a complementarian, Carl Trueman, writes of this latest controversy about the Trinity and complementarianism:


“…it is sad that the desire to maintain a biblical view of complementarity has come to be synonymous with advocating not only a very 1950s American view of masculinity but now also this submission-driven teaching on the Trinity. In the long run such a tight pairing of complementarianism with this theology can only do one of two things. It will either turn complementarian evangelicals into Arians or tritheists; or it will cause orthodox believers to abandon complementarianism.”

I agree, except that I see the latter option as not only preferable, but desirable.


Orthodox believers should abandon complementarianism. Not because there is no distinction between male or female. Not because, in a general sense, men and women, husbands and wives, are not “complementary” in many ways. But precisely because they are. Women provide a much-needed complement to men…also in positions of leadership and authority. This is true in a marriage, in a household, in the church, in a business, and in society in general. And the idea that God created women to be subject to men is simply no longer credible. Women are subject to men in the Bible because, as John Calvin taught, God accommodates and adapts the Bible to the time, culture, and conventions of ancient near eastern peoples. That does not mean that God intends women to be perpetually subject to men.


The most important reason why orthodox Christians should seriously reconsider the claims of complementarianism is that it is not as biblically sound as its proponents claim. This post is not about the detailed exegetical and theological arguments to that end, but I will briefly point to Fuller Theological Seminary’s (dated but still valuable) statement on women in ministry, and a compelling exegetical argument by D. Heidebrecht. In sum, as Heidebrecht writes, “Reading 1 Timothy 2:9-15 within its literary context indicates that Paul is not addressing women here simply because they are women.” Carl Trueman once displayed utter disbelief that I could support the ordination of women, but I daresay he has the weaker exegetical argument. I should say that I have many friends and colleagues whom I deeply respect who are complementarians, so don’t take this as an attack. But even that is not the main reason for my post.

John Calvin, like most thinkers in the sixteenth century, did not think women should be pastors, nor, ideally, that should they be rulers. He did, however, argue that God did in fact raise up female rulers as a concession to human sin, and that the authority of female rulers is to be considered legitimate and to be obeyed. Not only that, but Calvin was ashamed and embarrassed by John Knox, who in a misogynist diatribe claimed that it was contrary to God’s will and the order of nature that women should hold positions of authority in government, and that female monarchs were illegitimate and should be overthrown by force of arms. Knox had very specific women in mind: Mary Queen of Scots, and Mary I of England (styled “Bloody Mary,” and not because she invented the drink). But he also claimed that women in general were “weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish.” Calvin saw that Knox was undermining support for the Reformation by Protestant Queens. In fact, Calvin said that Knox was guilty of “thoughtless arrogance” by writing this inflammatory tract. Indeed, Knox ended up shooting himself in the foot and doing irreversible harm to the cause of thoroughgoing Reform in England generally when the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne; she despised him for his he-man woman-hating rhetoric, and extended her disdain to Geneva, to the dismay of Calvin and Theodore Beza. But while I have a compulsion to include Reformation debates in everything, this is not the main reason for this post.

Today’s complementarians would never repeat the vile things that Knox said. But too often, in my reading of many complementarians (and not all of them, mind you), the anti-female bias comes out in a patronizing way. John Piper, for example portrays women as soft and weak and vulnerable, and he even goes so far as to claim that “God made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.” But this is not the Bible; this is John Piper’s projection onto the Bible of his own preferred reality. It seems to me that this is a species of idolatry, a fetishizing of masculinity, and a rather bizarre one at that. In addition, the volume Piper edited with Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, made arguments that I found not only weak, but sometimes downright offensive (for a review of that volume by a person who had a similar assessment, start here.)

And that brings me to the main reason for this post. Complementarians are varied in their views, but increasingly, I find the whole complementarian perspective not only mistaken, but also untenable. Not in the sense that it cannot be rationally or exegetically defended, but in the sense that holding to complementarianism in the modern church is harmful to the mission  and witness of the church, and therefore can no longer be held. At its worst, complementarianism leads to extremist statements like those by John Piper that women can’t hold most positions of authority over a man, or even his deeply offensive and frankly bizarre assertion that a pastor can’t read a commentary written by a woman unless he excludes from his mind all traces of her femininity, particularly her dangerous, feminine body. This is misogyny, pure and simple* (see this perceptive article in Christianity Today, as well as this blog post). I am certain John Piper does not intend it as such, but it is in fact a derogatory view of women, and it is thus ungodly, sinful, unholy, and it should be repudiated. Ultimately I judge complementarianism to be based on a simplistic reading of Scripture, but one that claims to be the “simple” and plain reading, uninfluenced by cultural assumptions. This interpretation unwittingly projects older western cultural views of women’s roles onto Pauline texts (and charges that opponents are projecting “feminism” onto the texts), while failing to distinguish incidental historical context (for example, the gender roles assumed in first century Jewish culture) from the invariable intent of Paul’s doctrine. It also minimizes the role that women actually played in Paul’s ministry.

For the complementarians, the tail is wagging the dog. To cite Steve Holmes again:


I reflect, however, that these continually-shifting arguments to defend the same conclusion start to look suspicious: by the time someone has offered four different defences of the same position, one has to wonder whether their commitment is fundamentally to the position, not to faithful theology. Judging by his essay in this book, Grudem is ready to throw the Nicene faith overboard, if only he can keep his ‘complementarianism’; other writers here are less blunt, but the same challenge may be presented. How many particular defences of a position need to be proved false before we may assert that the position itself is obviously false?

Not only my study of scripture and theology, but my pastoral experience, demonstrates to me that complementarianism is “obviously false,” to borrow Holmes’ phrase. Increasingly, this is and will be the perspective of theologians and biblical scholars.


For my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, I think we need to be done once and for all with the unwritten assumption among many conservatives that the really orthodox, really confessionally Reformed people will of course be complementarians. Especially since zealous defenders of a male-only pulpit are now abandoning Nicene Orthodoxy in order to advance their agenda. This agenda is now eroding orthodoxy! Not among all complementarians (witness Carl Trueman as just one of many leading examples), but the link between keeping women in their place and orthodoxy should now be dissolved once and for all. I am orthodox and confessional, and I reject complementarianism. I did so after many years of careful, painstaking study, and much wavering in the early years of my theological education. In fact, I think that complementarianism, apart from being theologically and exegetically flawed, and impossible to practice with any real consistency, is a significant hindrance to our ministry, and particularly our witness to younger generations. It undermines our witness in a society and culture that rightly assumes that women as just as capable and gifted as men, a generation that correctly rejects subordinationist views of women as a relic from the past. Assuming that women take a back seat to men is a residue of our western history of subjugating women–women who only received the right to vote in the United States less than a century ago, and who only were declared “persons” in Canada in 1930, when the Judicial Committee of the Imperial Privy Council overturned the Canadian Supreme Court decision that excluded women from the Senate, deciding that they were not qualified “persons.”


If God’s Word clearly and obviously forbade female leadership in the church (as complementarians insist), I would join them. But it does not. Some two decades ago, Carl Trueman, in exasperation with me, suggested that I was deliberately twisting the Bible to support the ordination of women. I remember that with a smile and don’t hold it against him. I am sure he can defend his own position. But I am doing no such thing. And I am an expert on the history of biblical interpretation, so I know what I am talking about. The only text that can be legitimately employed to argue against women in church leadership,  I Timothy 2:11-15, is not a reference to the created order; it is an illustration–of a kind common in Jewish biblical interpretation–of how certain women in Ephesus were deceived by false teachers. The context of the Pauline letters makes it clear to me that there were women being deceived by false teachers in the church of Ephesus, and that his proscriptions on women teaching and wresting authority (αὐθεντεῖν–a very obscure word) from a man are specific to that context. There is a not a “creation ordinance” that subordinates women to men; that is an assumption and projection of western culture and tradition onto the text. If it were a statement of the enduring created order, one would have to conclude that women are inherently more susceptible to deception (v. 14). Who in good conscience would dare make such a claim? And if this text is clear and obvious, what in the world does Paul mean (v. 15) by saying that women will be saved through bearing children? In fact, this text is very difficult to unravel. It is one of the most obscure texts in the Bible, if not the most obscure. But what it cannot mean is that women are spiritually inferior or inherently more susceptible to deception (which would be a degrading and patently false teaching regarding half the human race). It cannot mean that only Eve became a sinner, since Paul locates the origin of human sin in Adam’s disobedience (Romans 5:12-17–Paul never mentions Eve here); nor can it mean that women are saved through having children, since Paul clearly teaches that salvation comes by grace through faith. And how do these proscriptions jive with Paul’s actual practice of including women as coworkers in his ministry? I have heard many women express the feeling that Paul was down on women–but I would contend, on the contrary, that he was revolutionary when it came to women. In Philippians 4:2-3 the Apostle addresses two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who contended at Paul’s side in the work of the ministry (ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ συνήθλησάν μοι); Paul includes them among his coworkers in the ministry (συνεργῶν μου). It is not likely that Paul would have to urge these two women to resolve whatever dispute they had if they were not persons of influence in the church at Philippi. Priscilla and her husband Aquila are also named as Paul’s coworkers (συνεργοί) in the ministry, Romans 16:3. Not only that, but Paul usually mentions Priscilla’s name first–a very curious reversal of convention, which indicates to me that Priscilla took the lead in the work of the ministry. Who cannot think of examples of women in their local congregation who are more invested in the work of the ministry than their husbands? And some husbands are more invested than their wives. There is no general rule.


More to the point, I am finding it increasingly difficult to minister in a context where women are not allowed to lead and to preach the Word. I find myself losing patience with the practice of excluding women, though I certainly think that a diversity of views should and must be tolerated. But the complementarian side can no longer have veto power. The implicit threat of people leaving if a congregation makes a change holds a congregation hostage, sometimes creating an atmosphere where the issue can never be discussed openly. Nor is this matter a confessional issue that would be grounds for leaving the church or fomenting a schism, as happened  in the 1990s. You may not prefer to have a woman serve as an elder in your congregation, but it is not grounds for leaving or protest. The Christian Reformed Church, through careful study over many years, has amply demonstrated that there is a solid biblical-theological argument for women to serve in all offices of the church. Our seminary trains women as pastors and church leaders, and approves women as candidates for the ministry. Personally, I am getting to old to fight this battle again and again, and to listen powerlessly while women in my congregation ask me how their church could continue to exclude them from leadership in the Body of Christ. The issue became much more pointed when my own daughter looked at me with disbelief and asked how the church could have such a policy. But God does not exclude them, contrary to an older exegesis that assumed a subordinate role for women. True complementarity excludes subordination. Not only that, at my age, I do not thing I would be willing to entertain a future call to a church or ministry that does not support women in ministry, or at least allow women to serve as officebearers and to preach. Churches that exclude women from the office of deacon, moreover, have absolutely no grounds for doing so apart from tradition, and by doing so, signal that they are a church of the past, not the future. Actually, I think Christian Reformed Churches that exclude women from the office of elder also send that same signal. And, finally, it is my firm conviction that, if our churches continue to insist on this gender qualification for leadership in the church will needlessly lose all credibility with younger generations. If we lose credibility because we are preaching the gospel, that is one thing (as when the Athenians laughed at Paul over the resurrection); but younger generations are right to see that our exclusion of women is not integral to the gospel. And this will be all the more evident when it comes to the much more difficult topic of how Christians and the church should relate to homosexuals and other persons with sexual differences in a Christian and pastoral manner.


 Carl Trueman wrote that the latest Trinitarian heterodoxy may have the unintended consequence of causing “orthodox believers to abandon complementarianism.” I would hope so. We need to abandon it.



Experimental Ministry

What if we could try something new in ministry without being committed to it long-term, just to see how it works? Well, who says we can’t? At last fall’s Leadership Training Event Amy Schenkel, from Monroe Community Church, spoke on the topic, “Experiment Your Way to Change.” She defined an experiment as “short-term, intentional plans that help a congregation live into a new behavior.” It’s a way of risking something new, but with very little risk. If it works, it might or might not become a permanent ministry. If it doesn’t work, no big deal. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Thinking of a new practice as a temporary experiment can relieve anxiety and help churches to implement change with less stress and worry.

For example, Hillside Church here in Cutlerville tried an experiment called “The Cars of our Life.” People from the congregation took pictures (with permission) of interesting cars in their neighborhood. This led to conversations with unchurched members in their community. Monroe Community Church had a scavenger hunt in their downtown area, which was well received by the downtown community.

Amy explained what goes into making a good ministry experiment:

  1. A good ministry experiment addresses an issue or problem that we don’t really know how to solve. For example: What do we do about declining attendance in our PM services?
  2. A good ministry experiment takes place over a short period of time. There is more willingness to try new things if there is not a long-term, locked-in commitment.
  3. A good ministry experiment is simple and requires few resources.
  4. A good ministry experiment recognizes that there is some risk involved, but it is not a great amount of risk because it is short-term and does not require many resources.
  5. A good ministry experiment is creative. We have creative people in our congregation with good ideas; don’t be afraid to share them. They are appreciated, even if we don’t end up implementing them.
  6. A good ministry experiment can be measured and evaluated. We can reflect on it and see how well it worked, or didn’t work, or how it could be tweaked.

There are a number of areas where I could see us trying this out at First Cutlerville. These are just some brainstorming ideas; there are plenty of creative people in our congregation, and I’m sure you can come up with more ideas as well.

  1. We could have small groups that focus on a very particular study or activity, which only meet for a limited time.
  2. We could apply this to our worship planning. Persons could volunteer to help plan worship services for a season (for example, Lent through Easter).
  3. Our deacons could suggest a short-term service project or opportunity in which church members can participate.
  4. We could apply this to our ongoing reflections on the evening service. What are some other options we could try on a temporary, experimental basis? Could we try something different for the summer months?
  5. We have our Women of the Cloth, who meet regularly. What about other activity-centered groups, or even single events, that create fellowship and could also be missional if we invite our neighbors. I’m thinking “People of the Shooting Range,” 🙂 but there are many other possibilities.

Think about it, and let your creativity run wild. Let’s experiment our way into the future that God has in store for us, and I trust that the Holy Spirit will bless our experiments, even when they don’t work out. Even when it doesn’t work, it’s not a waste of time. Like a scientist in the laboratory, we can learn just as much from experiments that don’t work as from those that do.

(First Cutlerville CRC Focus, Spring 2015)

The Marks of a Missional Church

In the last Focus I introduced the term “Missional.” It describes a church (or other community) that is intentionally outreach-oriented. To be missional is to be intentional about connecting with people in your community, in your neighborhood, who may have very little exposure to the Christian faith, and very knowledge of the Bible, and perhaps none at all. A missional church is one that recognizes that the church exists entirely to put into practice the mission of God in the world, namely, to make disciples. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, identifies six main characteristics of a missional church in an online video that I recommend. He goes deeper into these themes in his book Center Church, a textbook for urban church planters. His points apply just as much to a suburban church, though in some ways, suburban ministry might be even more challenging, because people tend to be isolated from each other. Here are Keller’s six marks, which I am examining in more depth in our Sunday evening teaching services:

1. A Missional Church Knows the Idols of the Culture. In other words, a missional church is aware of what it’s up against. And a missional church understands that the world’s leading idols (sex, money, and power, according to Keller) are not just problems for unchurched people. Believers bow the knee to these idols as well, just as the Israelites were tempted to worship Baal on the side. And so, as closet idolaters, we should sympathize with our neighbors, not just judge them.

2. A Missional Church has to Contextualize and Speak in the Language of the Culture. A missional church needs to know the culture well, and also love and respect people outside the church subculture. To “contextualize” means to translate the gospel into terms that our unchurched neighbors can understand. (In doing so, by the way, we also come to better understanding of our faith and our God.) It means knowing about what people are reading, what shows they watch, what movies are popular. It doesn’t necessarily mean you should watch Game of Thrones, which seems to glorify the idols of our culture (I have never seen it, but the show is notorious for its explicit content and brutality). But it doesn’t hurt to know what the show is about (getting ahead by any means necessary), and that it is wildly popular.

3. A Missional Church Equips Believers to Live their Faith in a Secular Culture. Instead of being a fortress to protect ourselves and our children from the world, a missional church views itself as a training ground for incursions into the world with the message of the gospel. For example, I believe good Christian schools can help equip our children and youth to be missional; but there have been times when people experienced them as a way to protect our children from the outside world (the fortress mentality). And even as we promote and support Christian schools, we must respect families who choose public education and not treat them as second class.

4. A Missional Church has a Reputation for Being Both a Contrast and a Servant Community. This is important. We should critique what’s wrong with our culture, but not in a self-righteous or arrogant way that disrespects people or comes off as judgmental. People will listen when we show that we care about them, when we act as their servants, and not as judges.

5. A Missional Church Conducts its Events Deliberately Expecting and Speaking as if Non-Believers are Present. Ok, maybe not council meetings, but most of our activities. We can’t assume our neighbors know the stories of the Bible. We can’t assume that people believe in God or an afterlife the way that was more common just a generation ago. And we should try to avoid churchy jargon that unchurched people don’t understand (and probably our kids don’t, either). And avoid simplistic clichés, like “God has a reason for everything.” That might be true in some sense, but we often cannot see any plan or purpose in our times of pain. Or: “God will never give you anything you can’t handle.” Try telling that to someone suffering from extreme anxiety, or recovering from a nervous breakdown. On second thought, don’t!

6. A Missional Church Practices Unity on the Local Level as Much as Possible. If the main message that comes through in our church life is how other Christian are wrong, and if we act as if we represent the only legitimate form of the Christian faith, that’s a bad witness. Working together with churches and Christian faith traditions is a great witness. That does not mean that we fail to teach, treasure, defend, and even celebrate our own tradition, our own denomination, our own congregation. Older evangelism strategies encouraged our churches to downplay the Christian Reformed part and try to be more like non-denominational churches. That’s a game we lose just by playing, because, frankly, we stink at being non-denominational. It’s not who we are. Tim Keller does not hide his denominational ties (Presbyterian Church in America), and that didn’t stop his church from growing to 5200 members. He does not downplay what is distinctive about the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition of Christianity. It does mean that we shed the older attitude that we are the only true church. It means openness to learning from and being enriched by other Christian traditions in the one, holy, catholic (universal) church, and working together in matters of common concern, such as supporting the local food bank. One of my favorite events in the small town of Barrhead, Alberta, was our ecumenical Advent service, which included the local clergy, choirs, and music groups of the various churches. It was a visible manifestation of our unity, and it had a great impact on many people in the community.
(First Cutlerville CRC Focus, September 2014)

On Being a Missional Church

First Cutlerville CRC Focus article, June 2015

“Missional” is a fairly new term for describing a church that is intentionally outreach-oriented. The term is new; the idea is as old as the church—even older, if you go back to Abraham’s calling in Genesis 12. My family was evangelized into a missional church long before the term was fashionable. But not every congregation is outreach-oriented. Some are much more inwardly-focused. That kind of church can be very comfortable, as long as you’re not a visitor, or someone new to the congregation. That kind of congregation can be supportive; it can have good fellowship, solid preaching, and attractive programs. It might even have a nice outreach statement on paper. But an inward focus not what it means to be church.

Ultimately, an inward-focused church will not grow. It may grow in the short term, but not from evangelism. Growth will largely come from people switching churches based on their preferences. But members will also leave when things change, because the most important thing has become: Does the worship experience fit my needs? It is a consumer approach to church.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, knows what it means to be genuinely missional. He planted a congregation in the most gospel-resistant part of the nation’s largest city, in Manhattan. It’s now a multi-site congregation with over 5,000 members. But it’s rather different from most mega-churches. It is confessionally Reformed. The worship employs liturgy and readings. The sermons are deep and doctrinal. The music is mostly classical, with some services that use jazz or contemporary worship songs.

Worship style is not what makes a church missional. Style varies and changes with time. What is more important is being intentional about outreach. A church that makes it their number one priority to reach people with the message of hope and new life in Christ, and embodying that good news in concrete ways—and a church where that is more important than whether I feel comfortable or feel I get all my needs met—that is a missional church.

Tim Keller ministers in a very secular and skeptical context. But in reality, our context here to the southwest of Grand Rapids is heading in the same direction. We can no longer assume that people believe in God or an afterlife. We cannot presume that people will take the Bible as God’s Word. But Keller reminds us that it’s not all about making a rational argument for the existence of God, or the reliability of the Bible. He emphasizes that we have to show that Christianity makes emotional sense before we can talk about it making rational sense. (By the way, Tim Keller has written an excellent book about how the Christian faith makes sense, entitled, The Reason for God). In other words, we have to show people that the gospel really changes us in order for people to take seriously the claim that the gospel can change their lives. We can show that the good news of Jesus makes “emotional sense” by our hospitality, by our welcoming embrace of our neighbors, by our willingness to tolerate unsanctified language and undisciplined children, by our commitment to persons and families that are deeply broken, and often chronically broken.

Tim Keller talks about six characteristics of a missional church. Stay tuned…I will talk about those six features in the next edition of the Focus!