Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Care for the church of God

Someone in eldership (effective or acknowledged) or responsibility in ministry says something very wrong about the gospel of God's grace. Or perhaps we, not thinking much of our responsibility in ministry, say something wrong. When questioned, it they (or we) may reply with thoughts such as this:
Well I don't really believe such & such that you implied from what I said. Perhaps it wasn't phrased well - I just mean [vaguely rephrased]. It was just a personal reflection with an approach which was undoubtably different from what we're used to, but nothing more. I could have said it like such & such to be less polemical. But at least it was good to push people to think, because look, people are reacting and that's good. In any case it wasn't a theological summary.
Or perhaps we might say, "I just share my personal reflection, what I've felt God's been teaching me. At least that makes people think. I'm no theologian."

And what's the harm in that? It comes in pulpits, books, editorials, chatting from day to day, websites and blogs. "Some people had a problem with what I said the other day; but at least I got people thinking." What strikes me as so sad in this is an attitude deeper than finding it hard in sinful pride to say, "I was wrong." What is so sad is the pitiful view of God's church, his word which forms his church and thus the ministry of the word of God.

One doesn't have to be an elder to feel the force of the commission of love and truth given in the words of Paul to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:
Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
In as much as each of us is a member of the church of God, this ministry is a challenge. Even for those of us not elders, surely our ministry within the church should not be at odds with this and more so for those who have a specific responsibility.

The minister is accountable to God
"I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God." As Paul declares himself innocent of their blood, he uses the analogy given by God to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 33):
So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.
And so Paul was innocent because he had not held back from declaring to them the whole counsel of God. It's easy to shrink back. It's easy to avoid declaring the whole counsel of God even if we say some unpopular bits, or our aims seem good. But as a watchman is accountable for the life of the people, so one in a position of effective or acknowledged eldership is accountable for the life of the people. For those of us not in eldership, surely we cannot ignore this either. Would that this would weigh upon us more.

The ministry is commissioned by God
"...the Holy Spirit has made you overseers..." Paul reminds the elders that it was not they who had applied for eldership. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit had made them overseers. In many of our ministries, those with eldership responsibility do apply, especially in organisations run as extensions of the local churches rather than in one local church. Yet the point remains: God made them overseers. They cannot define their ministry as they like. We cannot define whatever our ministry is as we like. We cannot in our ministry be constrained by custom, fancy, culture or personal preference. God gives and God defines.

The ministry is defined by God
"Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock,... to care for the church of God..." We cannot afford inattention. "To care for the church..." - oh that God would give us a deeper love for his church, so that we could not but help care for her, to such an extent that we never let our attention slip from how we might care for her. "Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock" - "declaring to you the whole counsel of God": how much higher is this in love than 'pushing people to think' and admitting 'not a theological summary' to escape us. That we might pay such careful attention to themselves and to all the flock, caring for the church of God, that we never let our personal reflection depart from God's word, so that we may be sure of always edifying others in the flock. In this there is much to be said on 'pay careful attention to yourselves' first, but Baxter has already said it.

The church is God's
"...to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood." The other people to whom we minister, the body in which we minister, belongs to God. If we have any responsibility in that body - and we all do, elder or not - then we must remember that it is relative to this: that body of people with whom we talk, whom we serve, belongs to God. He bought it with the precious blood of his one and only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. How could we but be careful - careful with the most full attention - to care for that people?

A Christian who ministers to their brothers with goals less than these is not Christian in their ministry. For a fuller description, we need only look at 1 Thessalonians chs 2-3. Summary quotes: "For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy." "For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?"

May our attitude to the church of God never be as light as to dismiss careless words. May our prayer for the church be rather with that of Paul for the Thessalonian Christians:
Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

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