A Charge to Elders Everywhere

While attending to my normal Wednesday duties here in the office this morning, I had the broadcast of the Presidential Inauguration playing in the background. I am always struck by the simplicity of the presidential oath of office; to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Biden is now the 46th President to be sworn in under this oath, and while each President enters the office with his own agenda for the presidency, each has the same oath, to defend the constitution of the United States of America.

By God’s providence, I happened to be in the midst of my daily Bible reading at the time of the inauguration. Today’s reading had me in Acts 20, Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesians. Much like the oath of office, Paul gives a charge to those who would serve as Elders (overseers) of the Church.

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

Few passages of Scripture serve such a charge to those who have been called by God to minister to His Church as this in Acts 20. The Apostle Paul, setting his sights to Jerusalem, knowing that there he would be arrested and afflicted (20:22), bids farewell to the Christians in Ephesus. He reminds them of his ministry there, how he labored among them to preach and declare the whole counsel of God (20:27), testifying to the gospel of the grace of God (20:24).

Once gone, Paul knew that the Church would face great obstacles. He knew that fierce wolves, false teachers, would come into the flock to deceive and destroy them. He even said that some would rise up from among them, twisting and corrupting their teaching in order to lead disciples away from faithful obedience to Jesus. Knowing such days were coming, how did Paul charge the elders?

  1. They were to pay careful attention to themselves and to the flock. The word here for “attention” means to consider carefully, to examine. Those who are called to oversee the flock must be on guard, carefully watching over them, as a shepherd would. A shepherd keeps watch, making sure that predators don’t get in among the fold, that the sheep don’t stray and fall into danger, and that the flock is well fed. This is the care of the shepherd, the spiritual oversight of the elder. To ensure that the wolves don’t come in to tear the Church apart, that false teaching doesn’t lead them astray, and that the people are continually fed the nourishing words of life.
    But what’s notable here is that the shepherd must carefully examine himself first, before caring for the flock. The shepherd must be fed by the whole counsel, protected by the gospel of God’s grace, lest he become one of the ravenous wolves himself. “Pay careful attention to yourself and to the flock,” Paul says, because if the shepherd is led astray, the sheep have no hope.
  2. Secondly, Paul reminds the elders that is was the Holy Spirit who made them to be overseers. The office of an overseer in the Church is first and foremost an office of Spiritual Care, and those who are called to serve are to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and must rest in the Spirit’s continual provision for ministry. This is not a worldly office, where having the right degree, the necessary personality and skill sets, will bring success. It is, rather, the Spirit who equips and qualifies Elders for their service, and their service will thus be marked by spiritual qualities: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5: . The role of the elder, while one of authority, is ministerial and declarative, that is, any authority we have is in the proclamation of the gospel and calling others to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. We begin the ministry of the elder in the call of the Spirit, and we never advance beyond our need for the Holy Spirit’s continued guidance and provision.
  3. Finally, Paul reminds the elders that they are serving God’s Church, obtained with the precious blood of Christ Jesus our Savior. The Church the overseer serves is not his Church. The pastor may stay 3 years or 30, but it is not his Church. The elder may be been born and raised in the Church, invested hours of service and generous contributions, but the Church is still God’s Church. The Church, the flock, God’s people were purchased with the blood of Christ, who died upon the cross to atone for their sins and to save them from the wrath they deserved under God’s righteous judgment. They have been set apart as His people, His particular possession (Ex 19:5; 1 Pet 2:9), as the bride who is awaiting the bridegroom (Eph 5:27). The overseers do not have ownership of the Church, but are to serve as stewards, caretakers, awaiting the arrival of the groom.

Many Churches, like the one I serve, have elections for their new officers at the beginning of the year. As the President is sworn into office, pledging to protect and defend the constitution of our nation, let us pray that God would grant the President the grace and strength to execute the calling of his office. May we also pray that God would continue to raise up elders who will faithfully and carefully tend to themselves and to God’s Church, led by the Spirit to declare the whole counsel of God through the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.

SDG

The One In Which I Wade Into Political Waters

At the beginning of the 117th Congress, U.S. Rep. (and reverend) Emmanuel Cleaver (D. MO), offered a “prayer” of invocation. The news cycle gave a lot of attention to this prayer, because he ended it by famously saying, “Amen, and a-woman.” You’ve no doubt seen many remarks on this, which is nothing more than empty pandering to the social concern du jour. The English word “amen” is a carryover from the Hebrew which means “certainly,” or “let it be so.” There is no gender tied to the “men” of amen, so uttering this is nothing short of silly. My guess is that this was a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the business of the day in Congress. Later that day, the House proposed rules changes for general neutral terms; “chairman” will become “chair”; terms for familial relationships such as “mother, father, daughter, son, sister and brother” will be replaced with terms such as “parent, child and sibling.”

While I do not wish to engage in any kind of personal attack on Representative Cleaver, I do think it is fair to examine his prayer for what it is. 

For one thing, if you are praying in a public setting, and your are trying to make a point to the people hearing the prayer, and being cute in the prayer, you’ve stopped praying to God, and you’ve started talking to the people. As a pastor, I regularly pray with and for others, expressing the needs of the people before God. But the purpose of prayer is to entreat before our Sovereign God the needs and cares of our hearts, and to seek from Him the provision of our daily bread – not score political points or say something that will make the headlines. Cleaver had to know that his pun would be all that the people would hear, and he chose to include it in his prayer anyway. Every session of Congress opens with prayer, very seldom does it make the news cycle. This was an attention getter – and the prayer got what it sought – attention. 

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he began by saying, “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:5-6).

To be perfectly honest, however, I gave up on the “prayer” long before he said, “a-woman.” I couldn’t get past how he addressed the mediator of his prayer. Rep. Cleaver is a ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, so he’s certainly been trained in Biblical studies and theology. How then can he end his prayer, asking all that he did in the “name of the monotheistic god, Brahma, and God known by many names by many different faiths”?

I understand the difficulty of praying in an ecumenical, inter-faith, setting. You cannot assume, when praying in a large setting, that all who are praying share your faith. But if you’ve been asked to pray, you haven’t been asked to lay aside your faith for the sake of others. This mealy-mouthed, pan-theistic address at the conclusion of his prayer should never have been uttered from the mouth of a follower of Christ.

I know as a Methodist Cleaver doesn’t subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, but the Confession does instruct us in our prayers. “Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of his Spirit, according to his will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue” (WCF XXI 3). In John 14:13-14 Jesus says, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” A Christian prays in the name of Christ, for in Him is our only hope of being heard.

  • When he says “monotheistic god” one must assume Cleaver is speaking of the God of the Bible, but also including the religions of the Jews and Muslims. The point has been made numerous times so I’ll say this succinctly, Christians, Jews, and Muslims do not worship the same God. Christians affirm that Jesus is the Son of God, the eternal 2nd person of the Trinity, who took on flesh and died for our trespasses, and was raised on the 3rd day for our justification. If you deny the Son, you deny the Father as well (1 John 2:23).
  • “Brahma” is the Hindu god of creation, their chief among a pantheon of gods.
  • And the “god known by many names by many different faiths…” is a catch-all for any that he couldn’t name.

This bothers me more than some silly “a-woman” phrase at the end of this pious posturing before the people.  Essentially, Cleaver, an ordained minister of the sacraments of Jesus Christ, standing in the great tradition of John and Charles Wesley, offers a prayer for the Congress to any god who will listen, while careful not to mention the only God who hears. Three days after the prayer, thousands stormed Capital Hill and several broke into the chambers and office of Congress, disrupting the democratic process of certifying the presidential election. These thugs, criminals, and hooligans were acting like godless hordes, and they should be held responsible. But when those who are called to pray for the people cannot shine a clear light for the people to see, how can the people help but stumble in the darkness.

Lord have mercy. Let us pray.

SDG