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WANTED: Under-rowers on a Battle Ship!

Without question, the Church is a paradox: messy, earthy, and sinful, while at the same time holy, gifted, and united. Of course, we shouldn't be surprised by this, because the Church is simply a composite of paradoxical people: sinful and yet holy all wrapped up in one life lived under the banner of Jesus Christ. And as this is true for each one of us, it is also true of church leaders--sinners saved by grace and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

In 1 Corinthians 4:1, the Apostle Paul refers to himself and other church leaders as "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." The word translated “servant” is not the usual diakonos (where we get our English word "deacon") but hyperetes, which originally denoted those who row in the lower tier of an ancient Greek warship. When you look at church leaders today is that what you see? Do you see rowers in the belly of a warship, or do you see captains standing up top yelling out orders?

Indeed, there is a need for captains to guide, direct, and lead. But that leadership should always come from the heart of a rower. Pastors, elders, and other church leaders are "underlings," "under-rowers," and "subordinates" (Revised Standard Version). Foundational for all church leaders is that we are in daily submission to Christ, which should bring us both comfort and challenge.

Here’s the comfort: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself" (1 Corinthians 4:3). Paul goes on and writes, “My conscience is clear” (verse 4, NIV). The comfort comes in knowing that when we have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and we are accountable to Him as His servants--His under-rowers--what other people say about us, or how they judge us, means nothing compared to the Lord who judges us (verses 4-7). Criticism can hurt, but our ultimate judge is the Lord! This tells us what to do with anonymous letters! They can be hurtful, but if the writer lacks the courage to share his or her identity, then we shouldn’t take the message too seriously. There was a preacher by the name of Joseph Parker who stood up to preach one day and a lady actually threw a piece of paper at him. He picked it up and read it, and it only had one word on it: “Fool!” Parker began his sermon by saying, “I have received many anonymous letters in my life, but they have always had a text without a signature. Today is the first time I’ve received a signature without a text!”

So, there’s comfort when we’re an underling, because we’re just doing our job, and we rejoice in the gift of serving Christ. But there’s also challenge, because we will be judged by the Lord (verse 4). And so we don’t grow slack or careless. When you pull back the curtain of the church, sometimes it’s mediocrity you see. People are complacent. Staff and leaders are just going through the motion. But our time is limited, and our marching orders are clear. Church leaders are to be under-rowers on a battle ship not a cruise ship! We’re at war with the enemy, Satan, and his legion of demons! This is spiritual warfare, and we all have a part to play in the advancement of the Kingdom of God! So, the call we receive from the Lord Jesus Christ is not a call of status and prestige but of humility and service. May we all aspire to live out that call through the power of the Holy Spirit. 


Paul's Conflict Resolution System

I really don't like controversies. I know some people who love to debate, but I'm not one of them. It's not that I always try to avoid conflict, and there are times I'll jump into the fray and try to make my point. But I've been around long enough to learn that most people don't change their minds based on arguments but on persuasion.

I was thinking about this when I read the Apostle Paul's words to Timothy: "Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness" (2 Timothy 2:23-25a).

Paul's words are quite remarkable considering they are coming from someone who didn't shy away from a good fight. In Galatians 2:11 we read that Paul opposed Peter to his face, "because he stood condemned." To those who were turning to a "different gospel," Paul wrote, "Let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8-9). Paul warned Timothy to stay away from "Alexander the coppersmith" who did him great harm (2 Timothy 4:14). Paul stood his ground and overcame that great conflict by the strength of the Lord, so that he "was rescued from the lion's mouth" (v. 17). And yet elsewhere Paul exhorted early believers not to get worked up over those who were trying to discredit him by proclaiming Christ "out of selfish ambition" (Philippians 1:17). His only goal was to see Christ proclaimed "whether in pretense or in truth" (v. 18).

When someone tries to pick a fight with you, what do you do? How do you respond? Do you jump right in with your comebacks? Do you get into defense mode and try to win the fight? Or do you avoid the fight altogether?

We learn a great deal from the way Paul responded to conflict, and how he instructed Timothy to deal with quarrelsome people.

First, is the issue about the core or about the peripheral? Paul never yielded if the issue was the core of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But Paul also recognized that some people get caught up in "foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels" (Titus 3:9), and it's not even worth engaging them in debate. As Paul wrote, "They are unprofitable and worthless" (v. 9).

Second, is the issue about you or about Jesus? When people attacked Paul, but they continued to preach Christ, he let it go (Philippians 1:18). But if they began teaching a "different doctrine" and "wandered away into vain discussion" (1 Timothy 1:3, 6), he warned that they should be rebuked sharply (Titus 1:13).

Third, is the issue going to help build up the body of Christ or tear it down? In Paul's conflict with Peter, it resulted in greater unity among church leaders and the edification of the church. However, those who followed Hymenaeus and Alexander in their dispute with Paul were tearing down the body of Christ, and Paul wrote that he "handed them over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Timothy 1:20).

In all of this, we are instructed to be kind to everyone, patiently endure evil, and correct our opponents with gentleness (2 Timothy 2:24-25a). This is where I struggle. It's hard to be kind to those with whom I disagree. It's difficult to be patient and gentle. When someone is in "attack mode," I feel my blood pressure rise, and I too easily start to fire back with my quips, verbal defenses, and rhetoric. I need to remember that my goal is not to "win" but to edify, serve, and help people open their hearts to the One who can "grant them repentance" that they might be led "to a knowledge of the truth" and be freed "from the snare of the devil" (2 Timothy 2:25b-26).

We would all do well if we followed the admonition found in Titus 3, "to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people" (v. 2). And in case we need to be reminded as to why, Paul added, "For we ourselves were once foolish" (v. 3). At some point in your life, someone was gentle with you, and now you have the opportunity to pass it forward. 

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