Jacob: Wrestling with the Mission of God

In line with His mission to form or create a distinct people for the good of the world, God called Abraham’s grandson Jacob. God has previously called Abraham out of whom, according to God’s promise, a great nation would rise through whom “all people on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12.2-3).

Now, Jacob was very different from his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac, who despite their faults were honorable people. Jacob, on the other hand, was a deceiver and a cheat. Even his name which means “he who grasps the heel of another,” a Hebrew idiom for a cheater. Jacob—so named when he was born because as his firstborn brother was pulled from the womb, he reach out and grabbed his brother’s heel—would certainly live down to his name.

Jacob was a conniver. He swindled his brother out of family birthright, the right to inherit the firstborn son’s portion…for what? A cup of soup. Next cheated his brother Esau out of the family blessing by posing as Esau to his nearly blind father. Jacob was always looking for the advantage—his!

However, one man—his uncle—was able to outmaneuver him. Once when uncle Laban promised Jacob his daughter in marriage, he tricked Jacob into marrying his oldest daughter Leah before he could have the sister he really loved. In the end, Jacob still came out smelling like a rose. He had Laban’s two daughters and all the livestock he had raised and all the wealth he had acquired while in Laban’s hire.

Jacob even tried to get the advantage over God. One night a “man” wrestled with Jacob all night. This angelic wrestler was not able to overpower Jacob and so he outmaneuvered Jacob pulling his hip out of socket. Still Jacob would not release his assailant and Jacob demanded that he would not let him go unless the man first blesses him. At that moment, Jacob was transformed from the “cheater” to the “one who wrestles with God,” which in Hebrew is name Israel. The angel explained that it was “because you have struggled with God and men and have won.”

Jacob’s new name Israel will eventually apply to his descendant who will form the distinct people of God, the nation of Israel, and like their ancestor, they will struggle sometimes in partnership with God and sometimes against God over what it means to join God in his mission.

However, the story of Jacob is still a story of hope. God will work out his Mission with or without us, whether we work with God or against him. However, as the story of Jacob testifies in the end, God will do amazing things with us, through us and for us, if we work with him. By the end of Jacob’s story, he has been reconciled to his brother and he is in covenant relationship with his God. It does not get better than that.

God’s Mission for Abraham: The Undiscovered Country

Henry Blackaby and Claude King point out in their spiritually formative book, Experiencing God (1994), that when “God invites you to work with Him,” you will be led to “a crisis of belief that requires faith and action.” They add to this that you “must make major adjustments in your life to join God in what He is doing.” This crisis of faith hinges on whether you will accept God’s invitation. Will you say “yes” or “no”?

If you accept God’s mission, the authors would remind us, then your life is about to change significantly. The biblical stories bear this out. No one God has ever called was allowed to live life as it had been previously. Think of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Rahab, Deborah, Samson, David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Jesus, His apostles, and Paul, just to name a few. Their lives were radically changed because they accepted God’s call.

Abraham serves as an exemplar for those who would accept God’s call. Abram, as he was known in the early years of his life, was living among this family in the center of civilization among the ancient people of Babylon (known as Sumer by historians). The city of Ur, his hometown, was well-known for its luxury and sophistication. Ur was a someplace. Important people came to live in Ur.

One day the predictability of his life was shattered forever. God called. Abram! Leave your country, your people and your father’s family and go to the land I will show you. But Abraham does not actually get to “own” the land, outside of being buried there. The land, however, was only a part of the package that God had planned for Abraham. The God who called promised: I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

Sounds like a good deal, right? Yet before Abraham’s story is over, he will have to run to Egypt to escape a famine in the good land God promised him, he will nearly lose his wife twice to protect his own life, and his relationship with his nephew Lot will disintegrate. Moreover, attempting to make God’s call work to his benefit, Abraham will seek to adopt his servant; his wife Sarah will seek to speed the process along by offering her servant Hagar to Abraham so they can have a heir; and to top it off, Sarah will laugh at God’s messengers when they promise that she will have a child. You see, when God calls you, you will have to make some radical adjustments.

Nonetheless, in the end, Abraham and Sarah will show that they are committed to God’s plan. Despite Abraham’s missteps and occasional lack of faith, he proves faithful even if it means sacrificing the promised heir—because he learns that the God who calls is also the God who is faithful.

This God has a mission for you. He wants to lead you to the yet undiscovered country.

The Missional Church and God’s Mission

There are quite a bit of misunderstanding about what is meant by the phrase “missional church.” Some emergent church leaders take it as a badge for the founding of non-traditional, anti-institutional church projects.

However, the missional church conversation is not about church planting per se, though it could fuel the planting of new churches. When I speak of missional church, I’m not primarily speaking about any church growth or church planting scheme. I’m not talking about a plan or a scheme at all.

The missional church conversation is primarily a biblical and theological conversation that starts not with the church or our culture, but with the mission of God as revealed in the Bible and then carried out throughout history through God’s gracious guidance of his people, the church.

Through the influence of many voices in this conversation, I have come to summary the mission of God in three steps. From the beginning of the biblical story, God’s mission has always been (1) to call a distinct people (2) to live his life (3) for the sake of the world. This mission is deeply rooted in the nature and character of God and those who join this mission will look increasingly like God.

To call a distinct people. Whether we are in the Old Testament or New, God seeks to call a people to be his own. In the Old Testament, God called the Israelites to live a life distinct in the Ancient Near East. True many of Israel’s practices were similar to the nations around them. However, what was distinct about Israel was their commitment to YHWH and to him alone. In the New Testament, we have a continuation of this story in the distinct life which Jesus lived and which he passed on to his disciples. Thus, the church was born to live out this life until Jesus returns.

To live God’s life. Part of the uniqueness of the Christian life is that at root it is a renunciation of our lives so that we can take upon the life of Christ. With the rhythm of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, our lives participate in the life of God by living, suffering and even dying for the good of others.

For the sake of the world. There are perhaps plenty of Christians who really do want to be part of God’s distinct people and think they want to live God’s way. However, the missing link is often today that we, in line with the culture in which we live, don’t understand that our lives are now dedicated to do good in this world and for this world.

Is Your Church Healthy?

Church bulletin blooper: “Is life killing you? Let the church help.” The church secretary was not intending to say that the church could help kill you. However, there are some settings in which life in the church is harmful to people’s spiritual health.

A church will never attain the status of being perfectly healthy. Churches are full of people and consequently will exhibit the health of it members. As such churches will be more healthy or less healthy on a continuum.

So what are some of the traits of a healthy church. A healthy church will value people and their contribution to the larger good of the church family. These churches value traditions that celebrate people. They are places where people can talk freely, not as if people are walking on eggshells. In these churches people can hear strong messages from others without merely reacting to those messages. In these churches values and explicit expectations are consistent.

However, unhealthy churches are characterized by a grim atmosphere where traditions continue which suppress the human spirit rather than set it free. In these churches there reigns a chaotic value system and implicit expectations new members can only guess at.

When churches find themselves in this state, they have a tendency to avoid outside intervention. It is as if everyone knows something is wrong, but no one but the fringe members have the courage to say so. These situations however will not improve without outside help.

The Mission of God

The Bible is the grand narrative of the mission of God. From beginning to end, God is on a mission to reclaim his creature and even the creative order. We might summarize this mission as: God’s mission is to form a distinct people to live His Life for the sake of the world.

In the Old Testament, God sought to form a “distinct” people from the descendants of Abraham. After promising to form a people from Abraham’s descendants, God will rescue them from Egypt under the leadership of Moses to lead them to the promised land where they are to live a God-kind of life, but not just for their own good but so that the nations around might catch a glimpse of who the true God really is. The Old Testament story is really a sad story, a tragedy even. The nation of Israel never really joins God on His mission, even though God sent prophet after prophet to point the way.

However, God did not give up. He sent his Son to show people how to participate in God’s mission. Jesus gathered around himself disciples who would take up the mission of God after he had ascended to Heaven and sent the Spirit of God to empower them and to guide them. Jesus constituted a distinct people on Pentecost known today as the church. Those who belong to Jesus have accepted the call to join God in his mission.

One constant theme in this story is the notion of sending: God sent Abraham to Canaan, God sent Moses to rescue the Israelites from Egypt, God sent prophets to redirect the nation of Israel, and God sent his Son. His Son, in turn, sent the Holy Spirit to the community of believers gathered at Pentecost. Jesus then sent his disciples to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the outermost reaches of the world. Now it’s our turn accept God’s call to send us.

Room for Mystery

A temptation of our time is to present Christianity as logical and reasonable by the standards of this world. Many years ago Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of theological liberalism, attempted this move in On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultural Despisers (1799). He conceded that science and the Bible were incompatible and argued that “religion” deals with human “affections” and as such was a matter of faith, not fact. Schleiermacher’s work marks a beginning point for the current divide between public facts and private faith. Thus, in our time, politics belongs to the world of facts while religious beliefs live in the realm of private preferences. Neither have defenders of the Christian faith always helped. John Toland, for example, wrote a work called Christianity Not Mysterious (1693). Since the beginning of the Enlightenment, both liberal and conservative writers have attempted to remove mystery from the Bible and from Christian thinking. Oddly, both approaches accept that human logic and science should and can support all truth claims.

Not much has changed in this regard. Liberals still tend to reject anything in the Bible at odds with (the current state of) science and conservatives, using the exact same empirical tools, seeking to show that (what they call “true”) science supports the Christian faith, not realizing that they treat biblical truths as accountable to human logic. Some claims in the Bible cannot be reduced to being reasonable or answerable to the dictates of science or logic! Despite this, Christians should boldly announce these claims even when, by the world’s standard, they are considered foolish to science and contradictory to logic. (I am not arguing that logic and science have no role in how we know, but that reason and logic have limits when it comes to comprehending divine mystery).

The very centre of Christian theology, the incarnation (literally, the enfleshing) of God in the person of Jesus Christ, is one such mystery. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, once labelled the incarnation the “absolute paradox.” This paradox, God becoming human, the creator becoming (in some sense) created, was not, for him, a problem for the intellect to unravel but a mystery for the human spirit to experience and to hold in awe.

Beyond debate, the Bible declares that God became human. This, however, is a logical impossibility as what it means to be God does not line up with what it means to be human. For instance, God is all-powerful; humans are not. Humans can die, and presumably, God cannot. If God could die, then, it would seem that he would cease to be God. The logical contradiction—that God could become human—is what Christians believe. There is no way to prove, in any way science accepts, that Jesus was both human and divine; yet the Christian faith hangs on accepting this very “contradiction.”

To explore this further, the Bible, as most Christians believe, is the word of God. This is a bold claim but also impossible to prove through science or reason. To complicate matters, the Bible is also the product of human authors. At least forty writers over a period of fifteen hundred years composed the contents of the Bible. Additionally, many thousands participated in the formation of the canon and the preservation of the texts in that canon throughout the centuries. Christians believe that the Bible is both a human product and the medium through which God reveals his Son to the world and continues to speak to the church today. Because of this, we revere the Bible as sacred Scripture carrying the very authority of God, and yet study it as a textbook with insights into human history.

This confidence in the human-divine origin of the Bible is not reasonable from a logical or scientific perspective. Christian belief in the incarnation (and the Bible) transcends human logic and the empirical observation of science. Thus, our faith and our thinking must have room for mystery.

This mystery only intensifies when we explore the meaning of the incarnation. Why did God become human? The incarnation is a necessary precondition for the atonement and our subsequent reconciliation with God. We believe, and the Bible teaches, that Jesus, the God-man, gave His life to save humans and bring them back to God. As Christians, we generally accept this so matter-of-factly that we do not reflect on how unreasonable this claim is. We believe the death of one person is sufficient to cover the sins of everyone who has ever lived. If Jesus were just a human, then there is no way He could pay for another’s sins and possibly not his own. Even if Jesus were just a sinless human, then His death might cover one other person—a life for a life. However, because Jesus is God he can cover the sins of the world. Thus, the mystery of our religion is that God took our sins upon himself; He paid the price for human sin. If true, then Christianity is far more mysterious than we usually comprehend.

Yet this is precisely what the Bible teaches: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5.20). The Greek, however, is even stronger: “God made the one not knowing sin [into] sin for us.” This Sinless One not only bore our sins, but He took our sins into Himself, a thought teetering on the edge of nonsense … a mystery.

If that is not enough, Paul, in a seeming slip of tongue, suggests that God himself experienced death in the crucifixion of Jesus when he urged the Ephesian elders to “be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20.28). God’s own blood? This bothered later scribes who altered manuscripts from “church of the God” to “church of the Lord” to avoid the obvious meaning of the text. We might say that these scribes struggled with the mystery of God dying.

Finally, since faith will always have room for mystery, how then should we respond to things we cannot explain? Paul may give us an example here. At the end of his discussion about God’s mysterious ways of dealing with Israel that resulted in an influx of Gentile believers into the church, Paul can only express awe: Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?””For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11.33-36).

Thus, when Paul encountered this mystery, he worshiped. So should we. There remains for us, then, room for mystery. May our strivings be not toward a knowledge that seeks to unravel the mystery, but toward faith that embraces more than science or logic can ever explain.

Adapted from my April 2008 Gospel Herald article by the same name.

No Room for Family

Christian people speak often of family values, the sanctity of marriage and the horrors of broken families. We definitely care a great deal about family, as we should, and the Bible has much to say about family. For instance, Jesus himself taught that God’s ideal for marriage was a man and woman in life-long partnership and that a marriage should only dissolve when a spouse has chosen another’s bed. Moreover, several New Testament writers speak of the commitment a husband and wife should have for one another, and that children and parents should treat one another with appropriate respect. Yet, Jesus placed marriage (and family!) second to following him. Accordingly, marriage and family are important, but they are not our most important commitments as Christians.

One only has to spend a few moments in western Canada to find that family is important in the Churches of Christ; one soon finds out that family is often the glue holding our congregations together. Shortly after moving to Canada, I learned how interconnected church and family were. When we introduce ourselves here, we immediately follow with which family is ours. Because of this, ministers and elders in western Canada also need to be part family counselors. In addition, families are the earthen vessels that pass the gospel from one generation to another. Family ties are one of the strengths of the church in Canada—however, it may also be a serious weakness in participating in God’s mission.

Sociologist Reginald Bibby has done some serious cultural analysis of the state of “Christianity” in Canada. In Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada (2002), he addresses the place of family in the life of Canadian churches. “For all the talk about evangelism,” says Bibby, “groups of all kinds were failing to demonstrate much success in recruiting people outside their own boundaries. Most were growing by adding people who were primarily their own—children and geographically mobile members” (p. 24).

In another place, Bibby asserts that churches in Canada generally grow in two ways: birth and marriage. That is, either we give birth to future members or our children marry people who then also become members. In his earlier work, Unknown Gods: The Ongoing Story of Religion in Canada (1993), he observes that churches in Canada were often “family shrines.” In these churches a few families hold all of decision-making posts, both formal (elders, deacons) and informal (highly respected members). Regarding a congregation he once attended he states, “For all the external signs of engaging in outreach, I increasingly had a great difficulty being convinced that people in my small church really wanted things to change. New people would have upset the organizational applecart” (269).

Some of what Bibby observes rings true for us as well. It is entirely possible that we have so much biological family around us that we do not feel the need to invite new people into our church family. Even if folks try us, they might not find the welcome they seek. I often ask church leaders in workshops I hold, “Whom does your church exclude?” The first response is usually that their congregation is very friendly and welcoming. I quiz deeper, “Would the handicapped find a welcome here?” Most of our older buildings are not up-to-date and so we usually have to admit that a wheelchair-bound visitor would find it difficult to move around. We could ask the same about the blind and the deaf, although most of congregation would probably adapt if they had a member with such needs.

But let’s look even deeper. As the morning service adjourns, do we have room at our families’ tables for those who are not physical family? Do people have to know the same people as you know to be welcomed? Do people have to have attended the same (unnamed) school to be part of the circle? If a visitor really wanted to become a member, could they find a clear way in? If they had leadership potential and desire, could they learn what it would take to be a Sunday school teacher, deacon, or elder in your congregation? Before answering these questions, think about how successful your congregation has been in the past ten years at bringing in new people and assimilating them into the common life of the church. (If this concerns you, see Lyle E. Schaller, Assimilating New Members [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978]).

While Bibby’s research may help us take a hard look at ourselves, we depend ultimately on the teachings of Jesus to place family, church and discipleship in proper perspective. One time, Jesus’ family came to take him away because they believed he was crazy. When his family, which included Mary and his brothers, approached where he was teaching, they sent word to see him. To this Jesus asked the messenger, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Looking around at the rag-tag crowd listening eagerly to his message, Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3.32-35). To feel the sting of this, imagine your son or a significant family member saying something like this about you. Jesus gave preference to his seeking-God’s-will family over his physical family.

However, Jesus has more to say regarding family. Luke records Jesus teaching, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26-27; cf. Matt 10.37-38).

This topic is of personal importance to me. My mother and father were strangers to the people of God. I am a Christian today because a Christian woman invited me to a Vacation Bible School when I was seven years old. I had no physical family in the church and the physical family I had was not able to teach me God’s ways. I was a stranger and the church took me in and gave me a place to belong. Consequently, I have always looked to the church to be my family wherever I have lived. I understood that when I accepted the call to follow Jesus that my present family—my wife, my daughter, and any extended family I have—all come second to my loyalty to Jesus.

This topic has become important to me for another reason. I now live in this country and I want our churches to grow and to prosper in every way. We all know that we are not growing and I have come to suspect that in some degree we are the problem. The protection and nearness of our families may give us the false illusion that we are doing well, yet all the while church after church is on the verge of closure; as many as four have closed in Saskatchewan since I arrived here in 2003. As these churches die, they often find themselves being mostly members of a single-family group. I know several such families and they are my heroes for keeping the doors open, but they know that if revival is to occur, it must involve those who are not biological family.

I do not write this as a final word, or even as a word of judgment, but as a place to begin a very difficult conversation. I recognize I could be butchering a sacred cow here, but we must be willing to lay this one on the altar if we are serious about following Jesus. I may have overstated my case a bit here or there, but maybe not. Is it possible we are not inviting people into the family of God because we have “enough” family on earth?

Adapted from my May 2008 Gospel Herald article by the same title.

Selectivity of Restorationism

Churches of Christ have understood that their mission is to restore the New Testament Church in the twenty-first century. After all, Churches of Christ are part of the Restoration Movement. However, restorationism as a historical project is, at best, selective.

Because we sought to restore the forms and practices of the early church, we have been especially concerned about the Christian assembly and what we do on the first day of the week. These are valid concerns. However, if it remains our only concern, we miss the needed restoration of Christian living in our times. Even so, we should not apologize for even the provisional and incomplete nature of our mission as any project of restoring the New Testament church is necessarily and always selective and provisional based on our current understanding of the will of God.

Our concern to restore New Testament church life gives us a decided strength against the backdrop of modern evangelicalism. For instance, evangelicalism has only recently given focused attention to the nature of the church while we have given sustained attention to the nature of the church for the last two hundred years. From the beginning of the restoration movement, our earliest leaders, Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, in the United States, and James Black and Joseph Ash, in Canada, were deeply committed to restoring the New Testament church in present times. For them, to restore church practices was the means towards recapturing the apostolic church in its pristine first-century glory. To be sure, the restoration of church practices fit into a much larger program: a restored church would lead to a united church that would lead to the winning of the world for Christ before his return.

In the 1820s, Campbell ran a significant series of articles in his Christian Baptist journal entitled, “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things” where he set forth a program for such a restoration. Most of the articles deal with the restoration of church forms and practices. Only in one article did he take up the restoration of the spirit, or disposition, of the early church. Through this series, Campbell makes the “restoration of the ancient order of things” the mission statement for the fledgling Disciples movement and over time, this slogan became the raison d’être for the Churches of Christ.

However, “restoration” did not belong exclusively to the North America Restoration Movement (called the Stone-Campbell Movement by some scholars to distinguish from other restorationist attempts). It was an essential plank in Protestantism, in general. Church historians have traced the call for restitution (restitutio) in such forerunners of the Reformation as Hus and Wycliffe. Later Luther and his colleague Melancthon made restorationist appeals in their stand against Roman Catholic corruptions. Additionally, restorationist tendencies have been found in the reformatory programs of the Swiss Re-formers, John Calvin, in Geneva, and Ulrich Zwingli, in Zürich. Zwingli, interestingly, promoted a kind of restorationism similar to what Churches of Christ would later promote in North America.

The hope that the New Testament church would be restored fired the imagination of several radical reformers who did not think the magisterial reformers (such as, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox) were thoroughgoing enough. These Anabaptists (as they supported rebaptism for those baptized as infants) sought to restore such elements as congregational autonomy, elder-rule, separation of church and state, and church discipline.

The Puritans, reacting to the Anglican and Reformed churches, attempted a more rigorous type of restorationism. They sought to embody a restitution of the Old and New Testament in their formation of government in the New World. For them, the Old Testament was equal to, if not more important than the New, as precedence for political protocol. This legacy still informs the civic religion of the United States that blends patriotism and evangelical Christianity.

Sadly much of the fragmentation of Protestantism in North America has been done in the name of some form of restorationism. Even the most heretical religious leaders sometimes claimed a restorationist platform. For example, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, preached and envisioned a restoration of the church that included apostolic power. One twist in Stone-Campbell history was when Sidney Rigdon led his Disciples congregation en masse into the Mormon Church because Rigdon believed Smith offered a more convincing vision of the restored church. Again, rather uncomfortably Rigdon’s association with the Disciples of Christ is partly responsible for the full name of the Mormon Church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Though, for Campbell, the restoration of the true church did not require the restoration of apostolic power, since he, like many of his heirs today, believed that the apostolic periods and the miracles belonged exclusively to the first century. Not everyone in the Stone-Campbell movement, then or now, agreed with Campbell on the cessation of miracles. For example, William Kinkade, an early associate of Barton W. Stone, passionately disagreed with Campbell on the issue of apostolic power and miracles. In his Bible Doctrine (1829), Kinkade responded to Campbell in chapter playfully entitled, “The Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things.” As to be expected, he actually defends the continuation of the miraculous with the same logic Campbell had used to disprove their continuation. From the beginning of the Restoration Movement, people have had competing visions as to what restoration actually entails.

Others like John Wesley, deeply influenced by this reading of post-apostolic church leaders, longed for the restitution of the spirituality of the early church in their day. Before Wesley started the Methodist church in the United States, he sought to recapture the spiritual intensity of the early Christians through his holy clubs, something akin to our small groups today.

When spiritual lethargy overtook Methodism, the Holiness movement grew out of it in the nineteenth century. The Holiness movement wanted to restore the church’s spiritual and moral life. But it too gradually grew cold and lifeless and so the modern Pentecostal movement, in its place, sought to recover apostolic experience of healing and speaking in tongues. These believers sought to recover the experience of the New Testament church. More recent charismatic movements, and such new churches as the Vineyard, are still seeking what they believed was lost in the fallen church(es) of Christendom.

•••••••••

So as we look into the history of Protestantism we see that many different people and groups have tried to capture something of the meaning of “restoration.” What we learn from history is that no one does it right and each group tends to choose its own self-chosen identity markers. What also seems to be true is that cycles of excitement are replaced with times of dryness to be then sparked again as people catch the dream of restoring the New Testament Church afresh.

However, we, the Churches of Christ, do differ from other groups in a significant way. Restoration was not one of our themes, it is our theme. Restorationism shapes the core of our being. Yet, the unpleasant and unwanted byproducts of our attempts at restorationism have been pride and prejudice, division and separation. A real danger of any project of restoration is that restorationists can come to believe that their way is the only way to restore the true church and that no one can do it better. Worse yet some will even come to believe that their efforts at purifying the church have re-established the True Church of the New Testament in its pristine glory. Perhaps, to guard against this, we should embark on a restoration of the humility of Christ—I don’t know of a group yet that has taken that up as their platform.

Essentially, as shown in this brief historical sketch, there are three major kinds of restitution or restoration: ethical, experiential, or ecclesiological. There may be other ways to categorize these, but in the main, any attempt to restore the church will fit one of these broad types. No group to date —including us, the Churches of Christ—has been able to concentrate on all three at once, but have tended to focus on one of these to the exclusions of the others.

An ethical restorationist would seek to restore the Christian life to what we believe the New Testament requires. Because of our sometimes-myopic attention to what we do in the assembly, we have not always stressed that correct church practices must be coupled with the highest ethical standards rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus. The New Testament plainly gives substantial attention to this area of our existence and common life. The direct result of our baptism is that we live new lives. Our reception of the Holy Spirit causes us to produce the fruit of the Spirit. Living more ethically may well be the most important kind of restoration we could undertake today.

Experiential restoration implies there is a need to recapture the experience and power of the early church. While this can be taken to an extreme, there is a need to recapture the kind of spiritual authority the apostles had. This is not to supplant their unique role, but to walk in the same spirit of boldness they had. People in our churches long to experience the power of the gospel but do not really expect to find it at our assemblies. This accounts for a great deal of the apathy church leaders face every week. We have people leaving us every year in search of the power of God they cannot seem to find among us. If we have the same Spirit as the early church, why do we walk so weakly and deal with difficult situations so timidly? Why can we not successfully discipline wayward members?

Of course, restoring every church practice to its pristine New Testament quality would not guarantee that people’s hearts would be more devoted to God. More would still be required than the simple restoration of the forms and practices of the early church. I believe we have come to a time when our guiding principles (more assumed than articulated in most places) need some reassessment and our project of restoring the New Testament church is in need of some serious course adjustments. Someone called insanity doing the same things over and over yet expecting different results.

Is there still a role for restoration of church practices and forms—the kind we have tried to practice for the past two hundred years? I believe so, but this venture is going to need a much broader base than it has been. The mere restoration of church practices is empty if unaccompanied by ethical and experiential restoration.

We have built a house that many now find empty, lifeless, even soulless. There are signs that the foundation of our house is cracking and attempts to shore up that foundation only seem to amplify the problems. Why do we think we can somehow build a superstructure and so impress God by the soundness of our work? The focus on restoring church practices has produced exclusion and endless wrangling among our churches. Jesus died for a more significant reason than for us to get all of our practices right. The prophets give testimony that correct practices without the right spirit and experience of God is empty and something God does not want. The prophetic voice still resounds, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Shepherds Without Blemish

In his instruction to the missionary (or apostolic delegate) to the island of Crete, Paul informed Titus to appoint elders in every city. The foremost quality for these leaders is that they be “blameless” (Paul uses two different words for “blameless in 1 Tim. and Titus; cf. the same word applied to deacons in 1 Tim. 3.10 and synonym “above reproach” in 1 Tim. 3.2, 5.7, and 6.14; and yet another synonym, “of good reputation” in Onosander’s The General, ca. AD 45. This last work describes of what makes a good Roman general; several of the terms used by Paul occur there).

What then does “blamelessness” mean in the context of church leadership? A sketch of context of the letter to Titus provides the background for why Paul sought this particular quality in an elder.

A. The Literary Context of the Letter to Titus.*
Paul states his purpose for writing the letter in 1.5, where the he (re)assigns Titus two tasks: (1) to set unfinished things in order and (2) to appoint leaders in every city. The rest of the first chapter elaborates on the second of these tasks. In 1.6-9, Paul enumerates the qualities needed for leadership in Crete. The last quality in v. 9, “to refute those who contradict,” prepares the reader for Paul’s assessment of Cretan society.

The populace of Crete lacked moral character, which the apostle supports by quoting Epimenides, a Cretan poet, who lived in the sixth century BC. Additionally Titus must deal with “those of the circumcision” (see Acts 10:45 and 11:2; cf. also Col. 10, 11),” a Jewish element, exploiting the church by “ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach,” and making a profit in the process (v. 12). The severity of the situation in Crete should not be minimized; it is the seriousness of the situation in Crete that called this letter into being, and forms the backdrop for understanding the qualities required of elders.

In chapter two, the apostle expands on the first of the two tasks (“to straighten out what was left unfinished”) mentioned in 1.5. In 2.1 Paul encourages Titus to teach “what is in accord with healthy teaching.” What “healthy teaching” (a better translation of the traditional “sound doctrine”) entails follows. In 2.2, Titus is to teach the older men, in v. 3, the older women, who themselves are to teach the younger women (vv. 4, 5). Why is Titus not to teach the younger women? The text gives no direct reason, but if homes are being disrupted and the reputation of the Christian community is at stake, the suggestion is appropriate. In this way, Titus will model “blamelessness.”

Titus is to teach the young men (vv. 6ff.) and slaves (vv. 9, 10). The ethical behavior sought for each group finds its biblical foundation in the appearance of God in Christ (vv. 11-14). The single goal of these ethical demands are strategically placed in the “so that” clauses of vv. 5, 8, and 10:

v. 5 … so that no one will malign the word of God.
v. 8 … so that those who oppose may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.
v. 10 … so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive (NIV).

The common denominator here is that these ethical instructions are to have a profound effect on those outside the church—it has to do with, what we call today, public relations and image. Again this backdrop shapes Paul’s understanding of “blameless.”

Before explaining the relationship between the church and Cretan society, Paul reminds Titus (v. 15) of what he has already stated in 2.1, though ending with a surprising exhortation, “Do not let anyone despise you.” Again, this is a clue into the Titus’ situation: Paul anticipates opposition for Titus as he does for elders (see Tit. 1.9).

In 3.1 and 2 Paul continues his ethical exhortation, but the focus now shifts from relationships within the household and church to relationship of the church to society. In 3.3-8, almost as a reminder that Titus must continue to have compassion on Cretan society, Paul recalls that they too were once outside of fellowship with God, but now God had changed this when he save them, implying that he could do the same for depraved Cretans. The apostle finally returns to the problems described in 1.10-16, telling Titus to avoid such things (3.9-11). Final greetings fill 3.12-15, but in v. 14 we see that the apostle could not dislodge from his mind the gravity of the moral problems in Crete.

B. The Meaning and Use of “Blameless”
This brief overview invites a couple of observations regarding the word “blameless” and its function in Titus. The ethical state of the inhabitants of Crete is the opposite for what Paul is looking for in leaders for the church. This may suggest to Titus that finding good leaders may be difficult in that mission field—but also critical.

The word itself comes from the Hellenistic legal arena. It does not occur in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT current in the first century, (outside of 3 Macc. 5.20) and does not therefore reflect the sacrificial language of the OT regarding animals that were to be without blemish, though the thought is similar. It literally means “un-accused” and “indicates one whose character and conduct has not been called into question, or one who is free from accusation.” (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, 2nd ed. [Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth, 1988], 171. Währisch offers, “The other adjectives used in this context indicate that the meaning is beyond reproach, in the ordinary sense of common respectability. Thus in addition to qualifications of a spiritual nature, ordinary standards of decency are made into a preconditions of office in the church, for the sake of the church’s good name in the world.” (Colin Brown, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 3 [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978], s.v. article by H. Währisch).

In Titus, “blameless” occurs at the top of the list of qualifications or qualities Paul required in church leaders and seems to be the premier quality explained by those that follow in the list. V. 7 offers a theological rationale: the elder serves as God’s steward, God’s household manager. As such, he, and the other elders, represents God. They serve as God’s ambassadors to the church and the world (see v. 9).

C. Implications for Leadership Today
“Blameless”-ness is closely related to integrity. J. Robert Clinton defines integrity as “that uncompromising adherence to a code of moral, artistic, and other values that reveals itself in sincerity, honesty, and candor and avoids deception and artificiality.” (J. Robert Clinton, The Making of a Leader: Recognizing the Lessons and Stages of Leadership Development [Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988], 58.) However, integrity is an internal quality while “blameless” has an external quality about it. It is what others think of an elder. There can be no charge brought against him, not just in his “public” life, but in his private as well. It is concern with not just what the church sees, but what the world sees. “Blameless” gets its force vis-à-vis the world—they cannot bring a charge against God’s household manager!

* The material in this section is adapted from my article, “Titus 2.5—Must Women Stay at Home?” in Carroll D. Osburn, Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, Vol. 1 (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1993), 367-77.

Husband of One Wife

What is the meaning of “husband of one wife” in 1 Tim. 3:2?

“Husband of one wife” is the KJV and ASV rendering of the Greek phrase mias gunaikos andra, literally “man of one woman.” (You may have heard some say that literally, it is “one-woman man,” woodenly following Greek word order, “woman” is in the genitive case, which means it should be translated “of (one) woman,” thus “man of one woman”).

Besides 1 Tim. 3:2, the phrase occurs in Tit. 1:6 and 1 Tim. 3:12 applied to deacons. The reverse “woman of one man” shows up as a quality required of a “true” widow (1 Tim. 5:9). From this survey, we know that Paul saw “husband of one wife” as a fitting quality for elders and deacons, and that the reverse “wife of one husband “could apply to widows. Therefore, one’s mate could have died and the qualification still be satisfied.

The commentaries offer the following four options:

(1) Elders must be married. This, however, goes against that when reversed (“wife of one husband”), it can describe a widow.

(2) It prohibits polygamy. Though polygamy is wrong, this was probably not the intent of the quality. Besides, polygamy was rare in Graeco-Roman society and when the reversed quality is applied to widows this interpretation fails completely.

(3) It prohibits second marriages. This understanding has more going for it. It works with widows as well. There is even inscriptional evidence praising women married only once who remained faithful to that marriage after the death of their partners (See Gordon D Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, New International Biblical Commentary [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1984], 80). This view would prohibit marriage after the death of one’s spouse (and, remarriage after divorce).

Though defensible, this interpretation ignores what happens when applied to widows. For example, if a woman’s husband dies while she is young and she marries again (per Paul’s instructions in I Tim. 5:14), and then her second husbands dies, she cannot qualify, despite her need, to be a “true” widow, thus, a rightful recipient of support from the church. So in following the apostle’s recommendation while young (to get married again), she has disqualified herself when old. I don’t think this was what Paul was setting up.

(4) It enjoins marital fidelity to his wife. What this view demands is that an elder lead an exemplary married life, i.e., that he is faithful to his one wife “in a culture in which marital infidelity was common and at times assumed” (Fee, ibid.).

Though #3 and #4 are possible, I lean in the direction of #4 as best in line with what the apostle had in mind. Paul’s concern in the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) is to set in place good leadership to protect the church from false teachers, who were disrupting the Christian household by scorning marriage (1 Timothy 4:3; 3:4-5, Tit. 1:11, et. al.).