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The Art of Dissection and High School Biology

If I ever had any aspirations of going into the field of medicine, High School Biology class dashed them to the wind. Now, mind you, I attended a little Public High School in rural Harford County, Maryland and so “state-of-the-art” was little more than a series of spelling words for us. Nevertheless, we had biology class and in biology class, we dissected dead animals.

Mind you, we didn’t get to dissect anything exotic. Our teacher was a fisherman by avocation and so most of what we dissected related to that hobby: worms, crawfish, small fish, etc… Needless to say, for a teenage boy having grown up in the Boy Scouts, dissecting critters like this was not a huge draw.

What made things worse was the fact that those were the days when pretty much every boy carried some sort of knife in his pocket to school, but the School Board did not trust us with scalpels to do the dissections. Instead, we were assigned this little, rounded scissors — kind of like what we had used for crafts back in Kindergarten — to dissect these animals. 

I don’t know what the School Board members were thinking (probably about liability), but if you are unsure as to the results we got, Kindergarten shears do not serve the budding biologist well in this task. I remember looking at all of the diagrams in our biology book, depicting what we were supposed to be seeing and all I remember ever seeing was mush. There is a rule of thumb principle in this — imprecise tools in the hands of a novice does not yield precision in any meaningful sense of the word. 

So, why the recollection about High School Biology? In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul gives us one of the great analogies of the church — that of the body of Christ. Not all are eyes or hands but both eyes and hands are needed. You know the language. Yet, often, when pastors and theologians handle this idea and apply it to the church, I think that they handle it much like we handled dissection with Kindergarten shears. They make a mess and the body of Christ ends up looking like all the same stuff: mush.

Let me offer an example. In many denominations, if someone is identified as having a call to serve on the missions field or perhaps to go and plant a new church for the denomination, they are sent out to start raising money. True, the benefit to that model is that by the time the man is in the field, he has developed a large network of churches and Christians to help pray for and support his work — though most often, those churches and Christians are not anywhere near the field in which the man is working. Furthermore, it makes the assumption that the calling to be an evangelist brings with it the gift of being a fund-raiser. And the two do not necessarily go hand in glove.

A better model would be to say that if the church identifies a man as having the calling to serve as an evangelist, the church should send him and let him commit fully to said work while assigning the task to others in the body (who have a gift for and love of fund-raising) the task of making sure the evangelist’s financial needs are met. Different parts of the body have different roles, tasks, and giftings so that the whole body can function effectively.

It is true that we are fed by one Spirit and that we have one head in Christ Jesus. And so, there are some things that the whole body shares in common — a circulatory system and a nervous system, for example. Thus, there are things that the whole body does together. We gather for public worship, we commit time to prayer, and we study our Bibles. But, when it comes to the good works that we are called to do, we are most effective doing those works for which God has designed us. Not everyone is called to teach, but we need teachers. Not everyone is called to labor in mercy ministry, but we need those who do. Not everyone is called to organize events, but if we are going to put on an event of sorts, we need people to organize them. Not everyone is called to raise funds for projects, but we need people who raise funds. Not everyone is called to be at every mid-week prayer meeting, but they are good and healthy for the body (think of them like a vitamin tablet!). And, when you assume that every believer should be involved in every area of the work of the church (as many do), then you are making mush of the body with those kindergarten shears once again — rather than seeing the beauty of God’s design in the elegant complexity of the body.

Here’s the trick though. Each part of the body needs to be committed to a common end and each part of the body needs to trust the other parts of the body to act and work in the way in which they were designed. Just as in the human body, parts do not act autonomously, so too, all is meant to work under the headship of Christ that is expressed through the teaching of the Word of God and is moderated by the oversight of the Elders. Yet, the hand can do best what the hand was made to do and the other parts likewise. 

And so, leadership in the body is not simply a matter of maintaining systems (your body can be physically healthy but your person can still remain utterly unproductive). Leadership is about equipping hands to be hands and eyes to be eyes and knees to be knees — and then letting those parts function at their full capacity (getting out of their way) so that the body as a whole can achieve its God-given mission of making disciples of the nations and being a buttress and pillar of the truth. 

Now, part of Paul’s analogy is the principle that when one part of the body is hurting or in need, then other parts compensate. I stand amazed, for example, at people who have learned to do with their feet what most of us commonly do with our hands, and vice versa. Having had a stroke several years back where my left hand no longer wanted to work right, I had to learn to compensate and then to retrain my brain to make my hand work like it was supposed to do. And thus, in the church, sometimes we step out of our normal areas to assist the whole body in its time of need, but that too, only happens when the body is committed to a common end. 

And so, we have a choice, as we look at the church, the body of Christ, we can lump all of the gifts together, dissecting the body with kindergarten shears (and ending up with a gooey mess) or you can expose the elegant diversity of God’s design for the church, celebrating the diverse gifts while knowing that all of those gifts came from one Spirit who calls us to serve to one end — the building of Christ’s kingdom. 

The Vine’s Rejection!

“And the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my new wine, which is joy to God and men, and shall I go to dominate the trees?’” (Judges 9:13)

And thus, the “New King Search Committee” has received their third rejection. On one level, we might be tempted to feel sorry for these trees, working hard to find a candidate but no one wants to do so. At the same time, we ought to see this as a mark of God’s grace, restraining the people from sin for a season. How often, when God holds us back from what we wish to do, we see that as a frustration, yet how often it is a gift of God’s restraint…we just cannot see it at that point in time.

Do you see the irony of the contrast here? The trees are seeking to meet what they perceive as their immediate need and the vine is looking at the long-term ramifications of this act. How so? He speaks of the sacrifice of his new wine, but it is new wine that replenishes the stock-pile of old wine. So, unlike the fruit of the Olive or the Fig, for the fruit of the grapevine to be genuinely valuable, it must age for five, ten, or twenty years.

How often, in our churches, leadership finds itself stuck in the challenges of the immediate rather than forward planning for the life of the church decades from now. Obviously there are changes that we cannot predict, but wisdom seeks to both prepare for the lean years and come out stronger and more focused from the challenges the body faces. This cannot be done unless the leadership is prayerfully evaluating their direction and vision. That cannot be done without the wisdom of the vine that recognizes the long term ramifications of meeting the short-term-perceived-need of these bully trees (how often church leaders miss that reality).

When Leaders Lead

“With the leaders wholly dedicated in Israel, the people volunteered; bless Yahweh!”

(Judges 5:2)

The first part of this verse is cryptic and is the subject of a good deal of debate. The word in question is oårDp (para’) and it is used twice (back to back) at the beginning of this verse, initially as an infinitive construct of the verb and then as a noun. The common meaning of the term is “to let go” or “to neglect” (see Exodus 32:25; Numbers 5:18; 6:5; Ezekiel 44:20; Proverbs 4:15), and it is most commonly found in connection with hair being allowed to hang loose and in an unkempt way. It is an odd way to begin this song of praise. When the Hebrews translated this into Greek, though, they chose to use the term a¡rcw (archo), which means to govern, which adds an additional level of curiosity to the text.

The argument is that this is a figure of speech that the Hebrew translators were rendering into Greek…that to allow one’s hair to hang loose (as a man) is a reference to being wholly committed to a plan of action. The Nazirites, in Old Testament law, took a vow which set them apart from the rest of society as being wholly committed to God. Part of their vow was to allow their hair to grow out and be uncut (see Numbers 6:1-21 for the rules of the Nazirite). Thus, for one to be “let go” in terms of their hair, was to have been fully committed, in this case, to leading (something that the men of Israel had been remiss in doing) — hence the translation in the Greek Septuagint, that the “leaders lead” (a translation that our English translations have chosen to follow).

The practical application is simply that we are in much the same boat. We have leaders, but the majority of them (it seems) don’t lead, but serve themselves. And then, people wonder why the people of the nation do not follow the lead of the leaders. When leaders lead in a Godly way — an office of service — then people will rally and follow. This applies to the church as well. How often it is that leadership is more or less a meaningless title and those elected to lead Christ’s church sit back and allow people to do “whatever seems right in their own eyes”! How often leaders assume that the pastor will just do everything…(He’s the one that gets paid, after all!). How often strong individuals or influential families tend to lead and do so to suit their own agendas. How often pastors, even, use the church for their own agendas, not for the glory of Christ! How often our churches seem like the majority of the churches given letters in Revelation 2 and 3, filled with problems and rebuke!

When the leaders lead…when those whom God has called to lead, lead in a way that is wholly dedicated to the design and plan of God…when they lead sacrificially and to the glory of Christ, then God’s people will follow. And when God’s people follow God’s leaders, He changes the world around them. The primary testimony of the church’s failure in America to have leaders lead in this way is seen in the fact that we have lost the “culture war” (though I am not entirely sure that the church even really engaged in the war in a Biblical way in the first place).

This verse ends with the words, “bless Yahweh!” They become a kind of refrain that is repeated throughout, but the principle is clear…when God’s people live for God’s glory and faithfully do what God has set before them, then we bless our God. May we do so.

Personal Holiness of Church Leaders

“And when Joshua sent the people off, the Sons of Israel each went to his own inheritance to possess the land. And the people served Yahweh all the days of Joshua and all of the days of the Elders who lived days beyond Joshua, who had seen all of the great works that Yahweh had done in Israel.”

(Judges 2:6-7)

One of the themes that often puzzles people about the Bible is how often the spirituality of the body’s leadership is reflected in the spirituality (or lack thereof) of the people. Why don’t we see a body of god-fearing people when you have a bad king? Why do the people honor God when there is a revival in the life of the king?

The 19th century Scottish preacher, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, used to say, “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.” What he understood is that people normally follow the lead of their shepherd. And whether we see that in the Elders and Kings of Israel or the pastors and councils of churches, the pattern remains unchanged through history. Even in civil life in America, our healthiest times as a nation (when it came to spiritual matters) have always been when we have had godly leaders.

On a more local level, this trend should send a clear message to all of us who serve as ministers of the Gospel and in church leadership. How are we maintaining our souls? Are we being diligent to make our calling and election more sure (2 Peter 1:10)? It is too easy to get caught up in the busyness of the week and of the responsibilities to prepare church budgets and to set in place church guidelines; we need to be reminded to make this our greatest task — how will we care for our souls? For if we do not care for our own souls, how will we care for the souls of others?

And thus, history echoes the lesson we are learning in these verses. And, if we do not want that history repeated in our churches or in our communities, we need to encourage those who shepherd us to feed their souls as well as our own. That takes time, but in the scope of eternity, it is a worthwhile investment.

A Military Model

“I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always and every prayer of mine for all of you, making prayer with gladness because of your fellowship in the Gospel from the first day until now.”

(Philippians 1:3-5)

In the military, there is something that they refer to as a “Tooth-to-Tail Ratio (T3R).” This is a measurement of the ratio between combat troops who are fighting on the front lines and the support personnel. While this ratio has varied between different wars and at different points in history, the idea that if someone is going to be on the front lines that they need people who can support them, is a practical one that dates even back to Roman times.

As Christians in the west, we often struggle to think of the church according to military terms. Things seem to be at peace and we have relative freedom to worship in the way we wish. At the same time, our real enemy is not flesh and blood. Our enemy is found in the spiritual forces of evil that are at work in this world and if we are going to tell ourselves that such forces are not at work in the west, we are deceiving ourselves and hiding our heads from reality. Indeed, those forces may be more visible in the oppression that Christians face elsewhere, but Satan is indeed at work in our lives, tempting us with sin and placing stumbling blocks in our midst while at the same time, twisting and warping the culture in such a way that people around us celebrate death and Satan rather than celebrating life and God. Whether we like it or not, the church is a church at war.

And since we are at war, it is useful to remember once again that soldiers on the front lines need teams to support them. How then does this apply? First of all, in many cases our missionaries are on the front lines…and not just our missionaries on other continents, but local missionaries in our communities that focus on reaching the poor, addicts, or perhaps a hard-to-reach group of people. Yet, let’s not stop there. The primary task of church leadership is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. That means the saints (all the saints) are given a job to do. Those who are still at work or in the community are again on the front lines in a sense and the job of the church leadership is to make sure that they have the tools they need to lead Bible Studies or evangelize co-workers, family members, and people in the community. Many of our older members may not feel that they are engaged on the front lines any longer (though often a nursing home is a great field for evangelism!), but here they are given the wonderfully blessed task of committing time to prayer for specific believers and teams of people who are on the front lines as it were — not to mention for the wisdom and equipping work of the church leadership. Our children, who are being prepared for the front lines can also be taught to pray for those in the church as well. Done well, in a multi-generational church, this creates a huge pool of “support personnel” for those on the front lines.

As Paul is reflecting on the Philippians, he recognizes how significant their support has been to his ministry and that recognition causes him to celebrate and to thank God for the gift of those who have assisted him in ministry through their financial gifts, through their presence, and through their prayers. That said, I wonder how often, when we face trials on the front lines of spiritual battle, we recognize that we have a large group behind us, strengthening and supporting us with their prayers and sometimes even, with their resources. As a pastor, I am truly grateful not only for the commitment of my people to supporting my family so that I can focus my attention on equipping the body for ministry as a full-time vocation. Having been bi-vocational before and having many pastor-friends who are bi-vocational, this is a privilege I do not take for granted. In addition, I am thankful that the leadership of my congregation also recognizes that while my ministry begins on the hill here in New Sewickley Township, PA, it does not end on the hill here, but through technology, can extend to other places in the world through blogs, books, and other forms of communication. And indeed, I make my prayers with gladness for the support personnel that stand behind me in prayer and provision. Let us all not think of ourselves as lone-believers on the battlefield, but as members of a larger body — a network of believers brought together as a church to do a task: make disciples and tear down the powers of Satan in our world. We are a people at war, let us not forget that.

Laban or Abraham; Managers or Leaders?

“And Rebekah had a brother and his name was Laban. Laban ran to the man which was standing by the spring. Thus it was when he saw the nose-ring and the bracelets over the hands of his sister and when he heard the words of Rebekah his sister saying, “This is what the man said to me,” he went out to the man and behold, he was standing by the camels by the spring.”

(Genesis 24:29-30)

 

The temptation might be to see these two verses as somewhat redundant, the second just giving more detail than the first. Some have even gone as far as to suggest two sources are being combined here by a later editor, but such misses the point of what the author is seeking to do. One must remember that the audience would largely have heard these stories told orally and that this story is meant to be a dramatic one. Here too we are at the climax of the story when Eliezer has finally found and identified Rebekah and we are excitedly waiting to find out what might happen next. In addition, we are being introduced to Laban, who will once again become a major character in the life of God’s chosen people for it is to Laban that Isaac’s son, Jacob, will go to find a wife. So, as the story is told, all of these things are being combined together with narrative style to build tension and to give a taste of what is to come.

Thus, when we read the second verse, we should not see it as redundant but as a dramatic foretaste of the character of Laban. We are told that Laban ran to the man who was standing by the spring, but as Moses is writing this account many years later, he also wants to give us insight as to why Laban is running to meet this man. And the “why” begins with the fact that Laban has seen the wealth with which Rebekah so casually returns. It will not be until Isaac’s son encounters Laban that we see the extent of the man’s greed and conniving ways, but here we are given clear enough indication that money and personal gain is a focal point of his life, hence what some perceive as repetition.

Sadly, Laban is not all too different than many professing Christians. How often people take the mindset of, “what will this do for me?”, rather than “how can I serve you?” How often churches also fall into this trap, focusing on their own personal agendas rather than on the glory of Christ and on His greater kingdom. How often do we find one church helping to pay off the mortgage of another in the community? How often do we find one group within a church saying, “let’s work together to see your goals realized before we see our own goals met.” How often we have agendas and not goals, ideas but no vision? All too often we act more like Laban than like Abraham or even like Eliezer.

It is said that in church leadership what we usually get is managers, people who labor to maintain the status quo, keep people happy and content, and seek to make sure that the financial obligations of the church are met. Yet, leadership is not management. Anyone can manage; few can lead because leadership takes vision and direction and means walking forward and challenging people to follow. Management means keeping expectations consistent where leadership demands that the bar of expectations be raised and then reached for. Management will raise up Labans into authority; Leadership calls for Abrahams. The question is which will it be? Labans lead to churches, segments of churches, and people that are self-serving and who will protect their assets; Abrahams lead to churches and people who walk forward in faith no matter what the cost. Which looks more like the church that Christ has called us to be?