Friday, March 17, 2017

On Women in Ministry

On Women in Ministry

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. - Luke 2:36 ESV

        One of the great debates that continues to vex the church is the question of whether or not it is acceptable, Biblically speaking, for women to serve in ordained ministry. Why are there denominations even within the Presbyterian tradition (e.g., ECO and PCUSA) that do ordain women and others (e.g., PCA, OPC, ARP) that do not? Among Scripture passages frequently cited against women serving in the ministry, probably the most significant are 1 Corinthinans 14:33b-35 ("women should remain silent in the churches"), 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (women are not to teach or have authority over men), and passages in 1 Timothy and Titus calling for a minister to be "the husband of one wife." Not that any of those passages are insignificant or that any of them should be ignored but there is much more to Biblical interpretation than just reading particular verses without considering their context.
        All of us who have been schooled in Historical-Critical methodology learned early on the necessity of considering the history in the text, the history of the text and then balancing particular texts against the overall message of Scripture. In other words, the verses cited above were each dealing with specific issues in specific churches within their own historical contexts and were probably never meant to be understood as laying down the law for all churches in all times and places forevermore. When balancing these texts against the overall message of Scripture the question needs to be considered as to what the Bible in general has to say about women in ministry. Luke 2:36 is just one example where a woman is referred to as a "prophetess." A prophet (or prophetess, as it were) is one who speaks forth the Word of God. In other words, a preacher. Other examples are Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron (Exodus 15:20) and Deborah the prophetess (Judges 4 and 5).   
        So as not to fall into the trap of playing dueling Bible verses we should first concede that there is a Biblical precedent for women serving in ministry (as cited above) and then consider what the Bible has to say in general about the egalitarian nature of ministry. As an aside, it should be noted that the Holiness movement and Pentecostalism were both founded on the preaching of women. Why, we might wonder, were Holiness and Pentecostal churches in the late 19th and early 20th century ordaining women to the preaching ministry when even liberal mainline protestant groups like the Presbyterians and Methodists universally rejecting such a move? As it pertains to the Pentecostal and Holiness groups, they cited primarily Acts 2:17a (and, tangentially, Joel 2:28) which reads, "And it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy..." With that, there are other New Testament passages like, for example Galatians 3:27, 28 ("For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.") which state the fact that in Christ all are equal in the sight of the Lord and that, therefore, categories like race, class and sex that tend to divide people along hierarchical lines no longer apply. Rather than building doctrines in terms of propositional understandings of particular verses taken out of context, the Pentecostals and Holiness churches knew 150 years ago what some of us still have a hard time accepting. Jesus laid the Great Commission on the whole church and not just on those of us of the more masculine persuasion.
        Having been saved, sanctified and called to preach in the Holiness tradition (Church of the Nazarene) the idea of women in ministry has never been a challenge to me. I am thankful that our new denominational home, ECO, also places a high premium on the egalitarian nature of ministry and welcomes the gifts of women as well as men. As to our particular local church, some of our most powerful, gifted and visionary leaders are young ladies, several of whom have yet to celebrate their 40th birthdays. I thank God for them each and every day and shudder at the thought of where our church might be without them. I was reminded of that fact this morning as I was having my devotions and came across the prophetess Anna in Luke 2:36, who was one of the first people in Scripture to recognize and proclaim Jesus as Savior. 

Peace,
Pastor Jeff  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

There Be Giants There

There Be Giants There

And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them. - Numbers 13:33 ESV

         Numbers 13 and 14 are sad chapters in the long saga of the people of Israel's journey from slavery in Egypt to the promised land. Although the people had seen the power of the Lord's deliverance first hand many times, again and again they failed to believe and take hold of the promises of God. Finally their journey is almost complete and yet again they fall victim to their own inability to go forth in faith. The Lord had ordered Moses to send spies into the land of Canaan to see the promised land for themselves. The spies returned and reported that, indeed, it was a good land flowing with milk and honey and fruit galore but there was a problem. There were giants in the land. Not only that but the Nephilim were there too.
        These Nephilim were a mysterious race that first appeared in Genesis 6 (v.4), the introduction to the great flood narrative. There we are told that the Nephilim were "the sons of God" who bore children with the daughters of man to create a kind of master race. Whether or not we are to believe that they were literally heavenly, otherworldly beings or merely a race of strong men living in complete rebellion against the will of God for creation is unclear. The text can be read either way. What is also unclear is how they appear here in Numbers 13 after ostensibly having been destroyed in Noah's flood. What is clear is that they are an object of intense and paralyzing fear for the people of Israel, who finally refused to believe once and for all that God was able to make good on His promise to give them this good land. Yet there were two notable exceptions. Caleb, son of Jephunneh and Joshuah the son of Nun refused to be bound by fear and pleaded with the people to trust in the Lord and take possession of the land. Said Caleb, "Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we will able to overcome it (Numbers 13:30 ESV)."
        What follows in chapter 14 is the account of Israel's last great act of rebellion as they grumbled against Moses and Aaron (and, by extension, God) and said, "Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt (Numbers 14:4 ESV)." The Lord had finally had enough of their faithlessness and promised that none of the people who had left Egypt would enter the land except for Joshua and Caleb. Only their little ones would be allowed to see the promised land. The rest of them were sentenced to die in the wilderness. Sad. Hard to believe that people who had witnessed such mighty acts of God as the plagues in Egypt and the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, not to mention manna from heaven and water from a rock, could still find it impossible to believe in the promises of God but there it is. And, lest we be tempted to single the people of Israel out as a particular example of faithlessness, we need to remember that this story is part of our own Holy Scripture and is therefore Word of God for us in the here and now.
        I confess that whenever I read this story I cannot help but be reminded of the many times in my own faith journey when I have fallen victim to my own fear of giants, times when the challenges that lay ahead seemed impossible to overcome. I wonder, dear reader, if you can recall similar times in your journey as well. Could it be that a story like this, more than a historical account of the failure of the people of Israel to live into God's promises, can serve as a metaphor for an experience that is all too common among us as people of faith? All too often, we as individual believers and we as the church go down to defeat because of our paralyzing inability to overcome our fear of the giants in our future, believe wholeheartedly in the promises of God and take action on that belief. Just think how much we could accomplish as a church if we went forth in the spirit of Joshua and Caleb. Or, as the old saying goes, "Little is much when God is in it."

Pastor Jeff

Sunday, January 29, 2017

This is a Test

Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. - Malachi 3:10 ESV

        I have not always been a pastor. In fact, I have followed a few different career paths over the years. In the 1980s I thought I had found my life's work. I had a wonderful career in the graphic arts and was sure I would never change occupations again. I loved my job and looked forward to going to work every day. Little did I know when I embarked upon that career that I would be replaced by desktop computers within a decade. By the early 90s I had gone from living the American dream (big house in the suburbs, two nice new cars and a pocket full of money) to living in a 10x45 mobile home and driving old clunkers that would barely run. It was during that period that I rededicated my life to the Lord.
        Very early in my new faith journey I became convinced of the need to give 10 percent of my income to God. It was a difficult decision as I was still trying to climb out of the hole of financial ruin that I had found myself in after my graphic arts career had come to an end. Yong and I were barely able to put food on the table, much less give ten percent to the church. But tithe we did and we were surprised to discover that it really wasn't all that difficult after all. We were not making very much money so ten percent was not a very large sum. All that was required was for us to make a few adjustments in our spending habits and we soon discovered that living off the 90 was relatively easy.
        I share that story because I am of the opinion that a good many church people are living in what I would call a false equation. On the one hand are those who say, "I can't afford to give my money to the church so I make up for it be giving my time." Certainly, the Lord needs people who are willing to give of their time and energy in sacrificial service to the Kingdom. There is a lot of work to be done and the laborers are few. On the other hand are those who say, "I don't have time to work for the church but I make up for it by giving my money." That too is a false calculation. Of course we appreciate those who are generous in their giving but let's be honest. You cannot buy your way out of serving the Lord with your life.
        The reality is that we have a small number of people in each of those two camps. We have a few people who work extremely hard for the church. They are the ones who can always be counted upon to show up, roll up their sleeves and volunteer their sweat equity to do whatever needs to be done. Without them the church would literally close its doors. We also have a small number of people who are extremely generous in their giving. Some of our folks give more than ten percent of their income to the church. Again, without them the church would have to close its doors. Yet, we continue to be below average in our giving. By that I mean that we give less on average than other Presbyterian congregations of similar size in the Miami Valley. Far less in fact. By our best calculations our people give, on average, just below 3 percent of their income to the church. Considering the above mentioned extremely generous givers that means that a fairly large number of our people give little, if anything, toward the financial needs of the church. So then, a few people are giving all the money and a few people are doing all the work. No wonder we keep just barely limping along. 
        I continue to believe that God has big plans for our church in spite of it all. I would like for you to dream with me for just a moment. Imagine what our church would look like if everyone took God at His Word, stepped out in faith and took Malachi 3:10 seriously. What if we all reported for duty, gave willingly of our time and talents and opened our pocketbooks sacrificially, trusting God to open the windows of Heaven and pour out a blessing? For one thing, we would have more money than we know what to do with. Instead of arguing over how to pay the church's bills we would be arguing over how best to give away all that surplus money. Secondly, we would be wringing our hands trying to figure out how to find jobs for all those people asking what we want them to do next. 
        As absurd as that all might sound it could actually become a reality. I would like to issue the following challenge. I would like to challenge each of you to get on your knees before God and settle the question of whether or not you are doing your best for the Kingdom. If you are convinced you are doing all the Lord requires of you both in terms of giving and service then God bless you. Keep doing it! If not, why not? Here is the challenge. I want every one of you to consider giving ten percent to the Lord for one year. It may seem impossible for some of you but, if so, prayerfully seek the Lord's will for your finances and go where He leads. For those of you who are already in the "extremely generous giver" category, seek the Lord in prayer and ask if you are doing all you can do in terms of devoting your time and talents in service to Kingdom work. If we will all do those two things there is no limit to the impact we can make in our community. 
        Finally, let me remind you of our mission statement. "New Jersey Presbyterian Church lives to preach the good news of Jesus Christ in word and in deed. - Mark 4:3-8" Let's get to it!

In Christ,

Pastor Jeff

Friday, January 27, 2017

Welcome to the Future

        Our church has gone through a number of changes over the past five years or so. Many of them happened in such a gradual way that they were almost imperceptible. Consider, for example, that prior to the fall of 2010 all of our congregational singing was done either from the Presbyterian hymnal or from our little self published supplemental song book. We did display the lyrics on the screen but gradually we moved away from singing from books to the point that today we don't use them at all. Granted, there was a little grumbling along the way but that transition took place for the most part without any undue gnashing of teeth. Now it would be considered a radical change if we suddenly decided to return to singing exclusively from the hymnal. That is just one small example of the many changes that have taken place in our church in recent years. I think we can all agree (whether we think it is for good or for ill) that our church is a much different church than it was a decade ago.
        By now most of you have heard of one of the more painful changes that are underway in our church, namely, the restructuring of the secretary position. Becky Doliboa has served faithfully as our secretary for 20 years, the past 14 of those years on a full time basis. Her service to the church has not been unappreciated. But let us consider how our world has changed in that length of time. First of all, prior to 14 years ago our church had never had a full time secretary as far as I know. Secondly, people communicated much differently 14 years ago than they do today. Smartphones had not yet been invented, there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, most people did not do text messaging and only a small number of church members communicated via e-mail. The primary method of intra-church communication was via the telephone on Becky's desk. Those days are gone. Now, with rare exceptions, the only people that ever call the church office are telemarketers. The rest of us communicate via our computers and smart phones. There is no need to pay someone to be in the church office to answer the telephone.
        Another thing that has changed is the rise of office automation or the so-called paperless office. Whereas in the not so distant past we needed an expensive network copier that functions as a miniature print shop, those days are gone too (which is good news since our copier is now on its last legs and we don't have the money to replace it). Churches on the cutting edge no longer produce church newsletters, opting instead to communicate through their websites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Much less is there a need for paper newsletters that are sent out in the U.S. Mail. Likewise, paper bulletins are going the way of the albatross as well. There is no reason other than nostalgia to burn up reams and reams of paper and the electricity it takes to produce paper bulletins  when all that information is displayed on the Power Point and can be made available online for those with smartphones to access while sitting in the sanctuary (yes, we have wifi in the sanctuary now). 
         So, News From the Pews has been eliminated. The Session has determined that most people don't read it and many of the ones that do tell us they mostly just read my article and go over the financial statements. If that is true there are much more efficient and cost effective ways to communicate that information. Some of our younger elders suggested that my article could very easily be replaced by a blog. The blog has the advantage of being able to be produced at will rather than just once per month. Additionally, it is available to a much wider audience than is a locally produced newsletter. As for the rest of the content in News From the Pews, that is all available somewhere else on the website. And for those who absolutely refuse to join the Information Age, we have bulletin boards in the narthex. But I digress.
        The topic at hand was the secretary position. Over the years, Becky has accumulated an awful lot of tasks that were not what would be considered secretarial or administrative.  Most of the tasks she performs are important ministerial duties that could and should be done by volunteers. In fact, in most other churches of our size that is exactly how those duties get accomplished. So then, as painful as it is to have to make this move, we have asked Becky to begin the process of finding alternative employment and have promised to do our very best not to eliminate her position until she has done so. Meanwhile we are asking her to help us transition away from a full time secretary as we distribute her duties among the congregation. This will accomplish two things. First, it will bring our personnel costs in line with our income, thereby helping us to balance our budget. Second, it will help us to function in a more missional manner (more about that in a future blog post).
        Finally, this is just the beginning of some major changes ahead. I am praying that we will be able to hold together, mindful of the fact that "change" is and always has been a dirty word in church. For those who charge that we are making too many changes too fast and not keeping the congregation in the loop, that is only partially true. Anyone who has been reading our financial statements, for example, should have known that personnel cuts were inevitable unless giving increased (which it hasn't). As for everything else just know this for now. Everything we do as a church is up for evaluation as to whether it does or does not support the mission. This is a vitally important process if our church is to remain viable going forward. We can no longer afford to keep doing things the same old way and expect different results. This is 2017. Welcome to the future.

Peace,

Pastor Jeff