Archive for October, 2011

Forming a Christian Family (despite not having all the explicit directions from the Bible that we might like to have)

Our faculty and student small groups used this piece for discussion. We had good conversations, and I hope it can be helpful beyond our campus.

The New Testament does not offer as much direct guidance for family life as we might like. Passages that teach about the life of the church, and how believers are to live in unity with one another, may have as much to tell us about our life as Christian families as those few passages that deal directly and explicitly with family life.

When the New Testament was being written, those who wrote it were preoccupied with the meaning of the gospel, the nature of discipleship, and the welfare of new congregations of believers. The New Testament was written so early in Christian history that the biblical writers may have barely begun to give thought to what it means to have a Christian home and to live as Christian families. That may be why it’s hard to find many passages that deal explicitly and directly with our life as Christian families. The New Testament does confirm certain teachings from the Old Testament, such as reserving sexual relations for marriage. And we find specific guidance now and then, as when Ephesians tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25). However, as a whole, family life was not at the forefront of thought for those who wrote our New Testament. Because of this reality, when we turn our attention to Scripture for the formation of our families as Christian families, we have to exercise extra thoughtfulness.

Yet the truth is that the New Testament does give us plenty of guidance for forming Christian families, if we consider that the Christian home is a place of Christian fellowship and that a Christian family is a small piece of the body of Christ. In a Christian home we carry out our life of discipleship in a very close and personal way with other believers. When we realize these things, we can realize also that passages of Scripture that teach believers to live out the Christian life in fellowship with one another implicitly have much to say about life as a Christian family. Passages that teach believers to grow together as disciples fill the pages of Scripture. While the passages of Scripture that deal explicitly with family life may be limited, passages which teach Christians how to live in unity and grow together in Christ are plentiful.

So, today we are going to look at the passage that may be the poetic height of the apostle Paul’s writing on relationships between believers. It is safe to say that Paul was not thinking about family life or marriage when he wrote 1 Corinthians 13. He was thinking of helping the body of Christ in Corinth to get along with one another, and not harm each other, as they learned to use their spiritual gifts to build up their congregation. However, since Christian families are also small pieces of the body of Christ, what Paul said about love between believers in the body of Christ also speaks depths of wisdom about creating a Christian home.

Questions for Study and Discussion of 1 Corinthians 13

Let’s read 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 for the purpose of what these verses might speak to us regarding Christian family life.

1. In verses 1-3, love is a standard to measure the value and contribution that we add to the church. What would it look like to use these verses as a standard to measure what we as parents, spouses, brothers, sisters, and children offer to our families?

(1 Corinthians 13:1-3 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.)

2. Why might Paul have said in verse 13 that “the greatest of these is love”? Why would he elevate love over hope and faith?

(1 Corinthians 13:13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.)

3. How do verses 4-8a describe love? Can you summarize?

(1 Corinthians 13:4-8  Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.)

4. What do these qualities look like when they’re expressed concretely in family life? And what would be the result if these qualities were present and increasing?

5. Are there parts of Paul’s description of love that were very present as you grew up in your own family as a child? Were there parts that seemed to be lacking?

6. What parts of the description of love are difficult or most challenging for your family now?

7. What habits or practices have you found to be helpful for cultivating love in your family? What ideas can you share that might help other families?

8. How can we pray for one another’s families today?

Refreshment for the Weary

When I noticed everyone was looking exhausted, I used this Bible study with the small group I lead for our first-year students.

Isaiah 40:25-31   25 “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.  26 Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.  27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God”?  28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.  29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.  30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

1.    What does this passage in Isaiah affirm to be true about God?
2.    What do these verses promise for the weary?
3.    What do you tend to put your hope in? What does it mean to put one’s hope in the Lord?

Matthew 11:28-30  28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

1.    In this passage from Matthew, do the people Jesus invites to himself have special qualifications?
2.    What does Jesus promise?
3.    What does Jesus tell us to do?
4.    How might being yoked with Jesus bring rest?
5.    What ideas do you have for how one can come to Jesus, take on his yoke, and learn from him?

Remember: A good night of sleep is not something to feel guilty about. Psalm 127:2b “For he grants sleep to those he loves.”

The Christian Leader’s Life and Ministry

Our theological college’s faculty and staff had a good discussion using this Bible study. Feel free to adapt it to your particular situation.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-12
JMTUC Staff Bible Study

As people who are involved in the training of pastors and leaders for the church, it’s important that we turn to Scripture for perspective on our work. Let’s study 1 Thess. 2:1-12 for insight into being a pastor and Christian leader. In  these verses, the apostle Paul recalls the time in which he was in Thessalonica doing ministry. He speaks of what his ministry required of him. He speaks of his aim, motivation, and practices. Let’s study the passage to see what we can learn from Paul’s example.

Let’s use these questions to open up the passage of Scripture and guide our discussion:

1. In verses 1-2, what does Paul say that his ministry required of him? What experiences did it make him pass through? (For background, see Acts 16:19-24 and Phil 1:29-30.) What character trait did it take?

2. In verses 3-8, what does Paul say were his aims and motivation? What does he say was not his aim or motivation? Why might Paul have emphasized whom he sought to please?

3. Does ministry today require the same character traits, aim, and motivation as did Paul’s ministry, or does it require something different? What tends to happen when these traits and aims are present, and what tends to happen when they are absent? Why does one’s motivation for ministry matter?

4. What does Paul say were and weren’t his practices and techniques in ministry? What similes (symbolic language) does Paul use to describe his manner of ministry, and what can we learn from these? Which of these practices might help us as people who train pastors?

5. Finally, in light of today’s passage and discussion, how can we pray for one another, for our students, and the church in Africa? 

NOTE: If you want to go into much deeper detail in the study of 1 Thessalonians, I recommend the writings of Abraham Malherbe.

“You give them something to eat”

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”  Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”  “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Bring them here to me,” he said.
– Matthew 14:15-18

Last week I discussed this passage with our first-year seminary students. I asked them how the disciples might have felt when Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.” I expected my students to say that the disciples felt confused, mystified, overwhelmed, challenged. But one Zambian student responded, “They were probably afraid they’d lose the little bit they had.”

That spoke to me. It spoke to me because it seems true, and it spoke to me because I realized my students’ own experiences (in this case, of hunger) help them to see things in Scripture that I overlook. It helped me see yet again that when I study Scripture with them, I see more than I would on my own.

My student’s comment also spoke to me because I have often felt something similar in my own experience of ministry. When God has put new opportunities and responsibilities before me, I haven’t only felt challenged and mystified (how will I measure up?). I’ve been fearful of losing something precious, something I already feel short on. Unlike my students, it’s never been food that I feel short on. Opportunities to minister frighten me because I think I might lose other things that are precious to me – like the little bit of time and energy that I have, and which I hold dear, or my sense of control in life, which I hold very dear. I fear that if I say yes to certain opportunities in ministry, as Jesus called his disciples to do in this passage, I will lose control of my time, my energy, my relationships, and my personal space. This was as true when I was an associate pastor in California as it has been during my ministry in Africa.

Jesus must have known his words would frighten his disciples, yet he spoke them anyway. By speaking those words, he opened an opportunity that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. Over five thousand hungry people experienced the abundance of God, and the disciples learned something about trusting Jesus when the temptation was to fear losing the little they had.

Jesus’ command, “You give them something to eat,” can take on a lot of different shapes, depending on who we are, our situation in life, and how the Holy Spirit is nudging us. Hearing Jesus might make us afraid of losing the little that we have. On the other hand, following through on his command might also open the chance to see more of Jesus than we’ve ever seen before. And it might allow us, as it did the original disciples, to be part of something that’s truly amazing.

The Image of a Pastor and Christian Leader

Our faculty had a good discussion about this Bible study I wrote, so I thought I would share it.

Justo Mwale Theological University College

Faculty Bible Study 

READING: 2 Cor 10:1; 10:10; 11:2-6; 11:20; 12:7-10; 12:19; 13:4-5

INTRODUCTION

When I was getting started in ministry, I watched the Christian leaders around me very closely. I was trying to learn from their example and figure out my ideal image of a Christian leader.

It’s likely that many of our students are doing the same, searching with their eyes and hearts for an image to follow, an image of what kind of pastor, preacher, and leader they will become. Naturally they look at the leaders and pastors around them and ones that appear on TV and the radio. A problem is that the media only allows us to see a public image, which tends to promote the preacher as a successful, larger-than-life personality. We don’t get a view of the pastor as a real human being, weaknesses included.

As people who train pastors, it’s important that we faculty members be aware of our own image and expectations of a pastor. Does our image only allow for strength and success?

OUR TEXT AND ITS CONTEXT

In our passage, Paul faces an attack. His opponents say his appearance is “lowly” and “weak” when he’s among the Corinthians, even if he comes across as strong in his letters. The Corinthian church isn’t sure Paul measures up to their preferred image of a teacher and leader. It is curious that Paul does not respond by saying, “Appearances don’t matter.” Instead, he spends most of 2 Corinthians 10-13 explaining his manner of ministry. Instead of denying that he has weaknesses, he rejects the idea that his weak personal presence does not suit his position and authority. In fact, he gives his weakness a basis in his own experience with the Lord (12:7-10) and in the weakness (crucifixion) of Christ (13:4).

Most scholars who interpret these chapters say that Paul is preoccupied with defending himself and fighting his opponents, but he gives us clues that he is also trying to teach the Corinthians something about the gospel and the Christian life. Paul himself says: “Do you think that all this time we have been defending ourselves to you? Before God we speak in Christ. Everything, beloved, is for building you up” (12:19). Paul speaks about himself for the sake of his pastoral task, to build up the Corinthians.

Paul thinks that the Corinthian church has a problem with misplaced confidence in human strength (10:7, 10, 12). The Corinthians reject weakness, including Paul’s unimpressive appearance. Paul is concerned about where his opponents place their confidence and about the effect this has on the Corinthian church. He sees a different Jesus, Spirit, and gospel behind their actions. Paul takes his cue to boast from his opponents, but he turns boasting on its head by concentrating on weakness, thus challenging the Corinthians’ ideals. Paul is saying of his critics’ standards: “I can boast in those ways, too, but I do not.” He states: “I will boast of things that demonstrate my weakness” (11:30). As he talks about himself, he emphasizes his vulnerability as he carries out his ministry.

In 12:7-10, Paul tells the story of the thorn. Instead of removing the thorn of weakness in response to Paul’s repeated prayer (12:8), the Lord replies that his grace is sufficient for him (12:9). In Paul’s narration of the Lord’s answer, and his own reaction to it, we can identify numerous clues indicating that Paul wishes to teach the Corinthians an approach to power and weakness.

1)      Even before the account of Christ’s words, the reality that it is Christ the Lord speaking (very rare in Paul’s letters) sets these words apart for the Corinthians’ reflection.

2)      Paul uses the term “he said” in the perfect tense, the only time he uses this word in the Greek tense that indicates a completed action with continuing significance. The result of Christ’s words is of lasting significance.

3)      When Paul presents Christ’s words, the first half of the saying, “My grace is sufficient for you,” is made on the basis of a broad, general principle: “For power is perfected in weakness.”

4)      Paul does not identify the nature of the thorn, leaving it to remain general in its application. Perhaps Paul does not name the thorn so that more of the believers can appropriate its message in their own lives.

5)      Similarly, Paul keeps the list of afflictions in 12:10 general: he is content in weaknesses, hardships, and calamities. Such experiences are not unique to apostles. We see a similar list of sufferings in 1 Cor 4:10-13, where the call to imitate Paul follows the list.

6)      Finally, Paul’s use of the phrase “for the sake of Christ” in 12:10 explains why he is glad to endure hardships. Hardships provide points of entry to Christ’s power. His use of the phrase reminds us of Phil 3:8, 10, where suffering is a means toward the knowledge of Christ and the experience of fellowship with him.

In 12:7-10, by presenting a personal illustration instead of only defending himself, Paul is able both to answer his opposition and teach the Corinthians. Christ’s reply to Paul, and the apostle’s response, establishes an example for holding weakness and power together in Christian life and ministry. Situations of weakness open believers’ lives to the power of Christ. Such circumstances are times when Christ’s power may enter and become manifest: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” The Corinthians can learn through Paul’s situation to anticipate God’s presence and power in the midst of weakness. Therefore they don’t need to be ashamed of weakness or hide its reality.

Paul is concerned that his opponents are distorting the Christian life and its connection with Christ crucified and raised. His adversaries’ boasting has led the Corinthians to put confidence in human strength and in the absence of weakness. Paul models for the Corinthians the way to true strength: by the path of the cross, through weakness. 2 Cor. 13:4 states: “For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him…” Paul presents a model of participation in the crucified and risen Christ. Just as the cross and resurrection go together, Paul maintains that power and weakness must go together, even though this brings him into conflict with the cultural ideal that says a strong public presence is a fundamental precondition for a leader and teacher.

Paul’s personal example illustrates that Christian life and leadership are not matters of moving beyond weakness. Experiences of vulnerability are not aberrations from an ideal; they grant access to the grace and power of Christ. If Paul can win the Corinthians to this truth, the recognition of it will authenticate Paul’s authority, undermine the boasts of his opponents, and secure the congregation’s relationship with Christ and the gospel.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1. What images of pastors and leaders do we see in Christian media? What images do our students have of a successful pastor? Do these images allow a pastor to experience weaknesses like sickness, opposition, and financial hardship?

2. Do the images mentioned above serve what we are attempting to do at this college? Do they detract from what we are trying to accomplish?

3. Can 2 Corinthians 10-13, especially 12:7-10, offer guidance for how we define what a pastor should be like?

4. What images and ideals are we placing before our students? What are our hopes for them? And what do we expect of and for ourselves?

Dustin W. Ellington