Letter to My Future Pastor, Part 1

Don’t have a heart attack. I have no plans to leave my church. But life throws its curve balls now and then and I have learned to be flexible. So if, for some unforeseen reason, I happened to be in the market for a new church or even just a new pastor, here are a couple of things I would look for in the person chosen to lead the flock. In my next post I will talk about two more.

A Pastor Who Teaches All of Scripture

I grew up in a sleepy little suburb of Riverside, California, about halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Church was one of those dull obligations many people felt compelled to fulfill. At Rubidoux United Methodist we sang painfully slow, doing our best not to leave the volunteer piano player in the dust. Every Sunday a small crowd met in a cavernous hall, relic of someone’s overly ambitious dream, snoozing their way through the interminable sermon.

And then, out of nowhere, the Jesus movement hit Riverside running.

Word spread that there was a new game in town. Sunday night church like no church you had ever seen before, taking place every week at All Saints Episcopal, a short drive away across the dry Santa Ana riverbed.

So my brother Jim and I joined Bruce and a couple of others, crossed to the better side of the tracks, and checked out Calvary Chapel Riverside.

The year was 1973.

Hundreds of young people, high school kids like us and hippie holdovers a few years older, jammed tightly into that stone and mortar space, standing and clapping and singing wildly and acapella, “When I get to heaven gonna walk with Jesus, when I get to heaven gonna see his face….”

They sang and sang.

Then came the band. In the early days it was Children of the Day and Debbie Kerner. Later on it was Keith Green and Chuck Girard and Sweet Comfort, the Riverside house band.

Finally Greg Laurie started to preach. Verse by verse, chapter by chapter, right through a whole book of the Bible. Who knew all that interesting, practical, funny stuff was in that dusty old volume? It certainly didn’t seem like the same Bible we got at the Methodist church.

Two hours later it was over. Eyes and ears and hearts wide open, we knew we would never think of church like we used to. Church could be good.

Even the sermon.

Looking back, what made the teaching so great week after week was Calvary Chapel’s fearless determination to teach through the whole Bible. Instead of endless reruns of everyone’s favorite Bible stories and people, David and Daniel and Peter and Paul and the Sermon on the Mount, we were introduced to a wealth of Scripture in a very relevant way. And working through it chapter by chapter gave important context and insight into the passage at hand.

As a Bible teacher I know how scary it is to contemplate preaching through Leviticus or Revelation or 2 Chronicles or Ezekiel. I know it’s hard; it takes training and discipline and study to teach the more challenging parts of Scripture. But the meat, the sustenance, of the Bible is found in its entirety. When we pick and choose only what we think is applicable today, we feed our listeners a limited diet. However nourishing vegetables may be for us, we also need other types of sustenance.

In the same way, we need to be taught from the wealth of God’s word, which is so rich and full and overflowing with insights into the heart of God. Churches regularly encourage people to read the whole Bible, but do we truly help them understand what they read?

So if I were in the market for a new pastor, I would look for someone who will ensure that all of Scripture is taught, who is willing, enthusiastic, and competent to do so himself, or will put together a team who will.

A Pastor Who Sees the Women, Minorities and Singles in the Room

Jim and I lived in Europe for a while early in our marriage. Church shopping was tricky in a different culture with a different language, where you knew no one and all you had to go on was the phone book. No internet help in sizing up your worship experience prospects. Cold turkey in the door based on a line in the yellow pages was about it.

Not interested in the official state churches, we decided to try the independents.

So off we went.

Inside the door of the first church we encountered an underwhelming crowd of seven, all seemingly nearing the end of their lives here on planet earth. Way beyond middle age, the group before us appeared to consist of the truly old. We sang a bit – I mean they sang a bit – and then it was sermon time.

Since my German was mediocre at best and Jim’s was virtually nonexistent, we didn’t follow every word. But I did manage to catch the drift of the message which, surprisingly, was all about lust.

Not that I’m in favor of lust. It’s just that the heavy emphasis, the repeated hammering of the evils of lust, seemed out of place considering the audience. Could lust really be that big a problem with this crowd?

I can’t say for certain, of course. Maybe lust is as big a challenge at 85 as it is at 25. But I doubt it. Jim and I came away feeling like the pastor never saw his audience, that he had his agenda yet never truly saw the people in front of him enough to connect with who they were.

We never went back.

In my world most pastors are white men. Almost all of the preaching I’ve heard has come from white men, most of the pastoring I’ve received has come through white men, most of the church decisions that have affected me have been made by white men, and my future pastor will likely be a white man.

I haven’t been convinced they always see the rest of us.

This is mostly for them.

Or for you, if the shoe fits.

I know you can look out and see the minorities and women and singles in the audience, and you’re probably glad we’re there. I’m aware of that. But I’m not sure you truly “see” us.

Sometimes this shows up in simple ways, like when pastors don’t think to employ illustrations that include various perspectives. Assumptions and illustrations about how life works from a white male married position do not necessarily translate into the experiences of our Latino or Native American or female or Asian or African American or single or Arab American listeners.

Or like when it never occurs to the preacher to talk about a great woman athlete when he needs a sports illustration. It’s usually Tom Brady and LeBron James and Lionel Messi, not Serena Williams or Abby Wambach or Misty May-Treanor.

But a bigger reason I’m not sure you see us is that I don’t hear you talk about the questions we struggle with when we read the Bible.

Like why the heck slavery is treated like it’s normal, why we seem to find ethnic prejudice and war all over the place, why women are overlooked in so many passages and abused in so many others, why marriage is the assumed norm when Paul said being single was preferable.

When you coast past the glaring issues in the text to focus on some spiritual application to our individual lives, you lose us. Not that we don’t need to apply the passage to our spiritual lives. Of course we do. But we need to know that the words are worth listening to before we are ready to embrace them. We can only do this when we are shown the justice and mercy of God that lies behind the injustice and evil found within the text.

The biggest reason I doubt you see us, however, is that you don’t hire us. Well, maybe you do for all those admin roles, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about leadership positions. Until you put us into those on a regular basis, we will doubt your sincerity in wanting us to be an integral part of your church.

A few years ago I was part of a church plant that explicitly stated its desire to be a church for all people, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, single and married, young and old, black and white and brown and educated and uneducated and everything else. It was mostly a dream, however, until we began embracing all those types of people in leadership positions – on the worship team, the staff, the preaching team, the board, the executive team.

Before then it felt as though we were saying:

“We want you to come, but we won’t let you lead.”

You’re welcome. Or unwelcome, as the case may be.

People will believe they can be an integral part of a church when they see people like themselves who already are. Until they do we can say what we want but it will only go so far. The proof is in the doing.

So if I were looking for a new pastor, I would look for someone who is intentional about using varied illustrations like Jesus, the guy who coupled the woman with the lost coin with the father with the lost son (Luke 15), the ten female bridesmaids with the three male servants (Matt. 25), the one praying woman with the two praying men (Luke 18). When it comes to sermon applications and illustrations, I want a pastor who asks himself, “What would Jesus do?”

But most of all I would look for someone who is aware of his or her gender and ethnicity and background based shortcomings and is willing to do something about them. Who goes out of his way to read unmarried and minority and women Bible scholars and writers when he preps a sermon, so that he can address the questions that otherwise might never occur to him. Who gets people on the team who bring a different perspective and then takes the time to listen to them, like Paul, the single Jewish guy who worked alongside the Asian and women and Middle Eastern and married and European and African believers of his day.[1]

That about does it for today. Except that I want to say I believe in you. I mean I believe you’re out there and if, by some unexpected turn of events, I am pastor-less one day, I will find you. Until then I leave you to ponder what kind of pastor you will choose to be.

 

[1] These categories do not necessarily correspond to ours today, since Paul probably would not have encountered people from Northern Europe, East Asia, non-Mediterranean parts of Africa, or the Americas. But Paul recruited male and female coworkers wherever he went, including modern-day Asia Minor (Turkey) and Southern Europe. His Jewish cohorts, of course, were from the Middle East. Apollos, an influential contemporary of Paul, was from Alexandria, on the north coast of Africa. For Paul’s female coworkers, see especially Romans 16 and note the way he commends their work to a greater extent than he does that of his male coworkers there. We need to remember that to the extent possible at the time, Paul embraced leaders of both genders, all ethnicities, and various walks of life.

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Those Disgraceful Preaching Women

Circuit preacher for a day. That’s how I felt a couple of weeks ago, when I filled in for a friend at his two churches. Except that I used a car, not a horse, and it was only two churches, not a circuit.

Two country towns, two small churches, two lovely groups of people. It was a fun experience.

I learned something that day: Methodists (how I was raised) have trespasses, but Presbyterians (where I was filling in) have debts. Which would have been a non-issue if they hadn’t expected me to lead the Lord’s Prayer.

No worries. They were very gracious.

So why did I do it? Why did I agree to preach if it’s disgraceful for a woman to speak in church?

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Cor. 14:34-35)

I used to think this meant women shouldn’t preach. That’s what I was taught. Everyone I knew assumed the speaking Paul prohibited here was preaching, mostly because of how the verse had been translated into English. When we ask, “Who spoke today?” about a church service, everyone including your mother’s uncle knows we mean, “Who preached?”

So we answer “Pastor Joe” or “Brother Earl.” No one gets all goofed up thinking we want to know who talked at church, because that was probably everyone.

Yet that’s exactly what the Greek word used here (laleō) means: “talk.”[1] Just good old-fashioned putting audible sounds to thoughts.

Talking.

A more literal translation of Paul’s words might be:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to talk…

Oh, great. Thanks a lot, Sarah. Now we can’t say anything.

I’ve heard that some people take it that way, passing out little red flags for women to wave at their husbands when they have a question or comment, so they can talk without talking since women can’t talk in church.

But that might be an urban legend for all I know. Most people seem to understand that Paul is not disallowing all woman-talking. That would be weird.

And not what Paul intended.

No, not at all.

Paul assumed that women would speak up at church, that they would pray and prophesy. And praying and prophesying in church includes talking. That’s usually how that works. Paul didn’t want women to be bareheaded when they spoke up, but he did assume as a matter of course that they would, well, talk.

We might even call it speak.

But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. (1 Cor. 11:5)

I had always focused on the limitations in this verse, on the bit about wearing a veil or a ball cap or an Easter bonnet, but the underlying assumption, that women of course would speak up at church, went right over my head covering.[2]

So does this green light on praying and prophesying at church mean it’s okay for a woman to preach?

Well, we need to understand two ideas: what preaching consisted of in the early church, and how prophecy fit into that. Intuitively we understand what preaching is: it’s that (hopefully) inspiring talking we get at church that instructs us, strengthens us, and builds us up. It’s what takes the word of God found in the Bible and, by the Holy Spirit, tells us what God wants us to hear from it today.

But preaching functioned a little differently in the first century. Sandwiched between Paul’s assumption that women would prophesy in church (1 Cor. 11:3) and the infamous ban on women speaking in church (1 Cor. 14:34-35) lies a lot of important information about early church preaching. Things weren’t formalized as they are now, where we tend to put all the preaching responsibility on one person who has made that their life work.

All the same things happened: the instructing, the strengthening, the building up. But it worked a bit differently.

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (1 Cor. 14:26)

The “preaching” part of their church service came through more than one person, in the form of a Spirit-directed conglomeration of various types of “words.” It wasn’t one person standing up there every week telling everyone else how to live the Christian life. It was more like tag-team preaching. Some churches today have recognized the drawbacks of relying on one person to know it all and do it all, and hence have embraced the value of spreading out the preaching among a team.

Very twenty-first century.

Or first century.

All this early church preaching-speaking needed to be done in an orderly and, most importantly, understandable manner. Which is why Paul argued that prophecy was more important than tongues-speaking in church.

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. (1 Cor. 14:1-4)

The type of church-speaking Paul assumed women would be part of, prophecy, was the important kind.

Weird.

One of the problems I had with interpreting Paul’s directions about women prophesying was that I had no idea what prophecy was. At least no first-hand experience, since as far as I knew nobody did that anymore. Prophecy was like Acts 21 where Agabus told Paul he would be bound and handed over to the Gentiles. That sort of foretelling of the future simply didn’t happen today, as far as I could tell.

So I blew it off.

I didn’t know that prophecy is simply a message inspired by the Holy Spirit for the audience at hand, and that prophetic preaching is the best preaching. If somebody gets up and preaches, sharing their thoughts on this and their thoughts on that, throwing in a bit of historical background and word studies here and there, that’s fine.

But that kind of preaching is nothing compared to the person who hears and then communicates what God wants to say through a specific passage of Scripture to a specific group of people at a specific point in time.[3] All those Old Testament sermons by those crazy prophets were so compelling because it was clear that Almighty God had spoken.

That’s prophetic preaching. The best preaching.

And Paul assumed women would be part of it. Even, apparently, to the point of instructing their listeners.

Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. (1 Cor. 14:29-31)

“So that everyone may be instructed.” Oh. Instruction comes through prophecy. Encouragement too, and strengthening and comfort and edification. But don’t forget instruction.

Is this saying women can instruct the church? You tell me.

If it’s not preaching, if it’s not instruction, then what does the ban have to do with, what is this disgraceful church talking women must avoid?

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something…. (1 Cor. 14:34-35)

The prohibited speaking had to do with asking questions about what had been said.[4] Maybe they didn’t understand, maybe they didn’t agree, maybe they had so many questions it was all getting out of hand. But the main thing is that it was disgraceful in that culture for a woman to address questions to others with her husband sitting right next to her.

That shamed him.[5]

The solution was to address her questions to her husband after they got home.

If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Cor. 14:35)

First century culture, where the man was the authority and leader of his wife, simply could not handle a woman going around her husband.[6] Twenty-first century culture, in contrast, simply could not handle the public questioning and evaluating of the messages heard in church that the early church practiced.

Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. (1 Cor. 14:29)

When was the last time your church service included a public discussion of the Sunday message, questioning and evaluating and deciding if it was truly of the Spirit, with the preacher sitting right there?

My guess is it’s been awhile.

Why?

Because it’s culturally inappropriate. We save that kind of dialogue for the Monday email tidal wave your pastor loves to hate.

And you thought you hated Mondays.

What’s appropriate in one culture may be inappropriate in another. We don’t have to rigidly apply first century cultural norms to the way we do church today. We don’t have to force a very uncomfortable public evaluation of the Sunday message, ripping righteous Reverend Richard’s heart to shreds as we do. We can accomplish the same goal of maintaining the biblical and Spirit-directed accuracy of what is spoken through other means. We don’t have to commit cultural suicide to apply the Bible today.

And we don’t have to silence women. We don’t have to make them hold their horses or their questions until they get home. We don’t live in a culture that makes the husband responsible for the wife’s education; we think she is responsible for that herself.

Inquiring about something does not embarrass a husband anymore. Well, if she has an attitude it might. But simply asking a question is no longer taboo.

That’s why I did it. That’s why I agreed to preach in those two churches recently. I wouldn’t have done it if I thought it was wrong, if I believed it was against the Bible.

So there you have it.

 

[1] A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, ed. F. W. Danker (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000), 582, lists two meanings for lalēo: 1) to make a sound, sound, give forth sounds, tones; 2) to utter words, talk, speak.

[2] In light of chapter 11 the “talking” of 14:34 cannot include prayer and prophecy. Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, First Letter to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 724.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg states, “And we must recall that one of the forms of Christian prophecy was akin to what we today would call a sermon, delivered by a Spirit-filled preacher convinced he or she was passing along a message from God.” From “A Complementarian Perspective,” in Two Views on Women in Ministry, ed. James R. Beck (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 158.

[4] Alan F. Johnson, 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2004), 274, says “anything more than this is speculation.”  Some argue that women were banned from the evaluation of prophecy, but the distance between verses 29 and 35, plus the fact that “judging” (diakrinō) and “learning” (manthanō) are two very different things, argue against this position. Ciampa & Rosner, First Corinthians, 723, agree that there is “no clear support” for such a view.

[5] The argument from shame indicates that the questioning was culturally inappropriate rather than inherently wrong. See Ciampa & Rosner, First Corinthians,728-9; David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 668; and Terence Paige, “The Social Matrix of Women’s Speech at Corinth: The Context and Meaning of the Command to Silence in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 12 (2002), 223.

[6] See Paige, “Social Matrix,” 227.