Who should lead the church and how should they function?  This issue has been debated for millennia and centuries ago you may have suffered intense persecution depending on where you stood on this issue.  Along with the debate have come a host of quirky policies such as abstinence from sexual relations for clergy, which was universally accepted beginning in 1139AD (MacCulloch), and whether a church should even have official leaders at all, which is a common question among modern Christians.

Having now pastored at several churches and with the prospect of church-planting in my future, this subject is of paramount importance to me personally.  Beyond just my own interests, however, all Christians should understand the Biblical prescriptions for church leadership.  Should there be elders, a board, deacons, or pastors?  Should they be paid or volunteer?  Are there selection qualifications?  And what about women?  What roles does the Bible allow for them?

First, it is important to articulate exactly what a church is and is not.  Contrary to popular belief, a local church is not merely any place where Christians congregate.  A Christian fraternity or sorority is not a church.  A Christians organization such as Campus Crusade for Christ or YWAM is not a church.  Your youth or college ministry is not a church.  While members of these groups may be part of the Universal Church (Christ’s body), they should not be confused with a local church as observed in the New Testament.  In his book, Vintage Church,” Mark Driscoll provides the following helpful definition of a church:

The local church is a community of regenerated believers who confess Jesus Christ as Lord.  In obedience to Scripture they organize under qualified leadership, gather regularly for preaching and worship, observe the biblical sacraments of baptism and Communion, are unified by the Spirit, are disciplined for holiness, and scatter to fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission as missionaries to the world for God’s glory and their joy. (Driscoll, pp. 38)

Sweet.  Thanks, Mark.  Now on to leadership.

The highest position in any church is Jesus.  Clearly that’s a role that only one person can fill.  I’ve never seen a church job posting that says “seeking to hire a Jesus.”  While this may seem obvious, many churches and Christians struggle with who is in charge and who has highest authority in the church (or their individual lives), forgetting that our first love and allegiance is to Christ our Lord.  What he says, we obey.  So, despite our various cultural pressures and personal presuppositions, we must ultimately submit to Jesus and His word.

After Jesus, it’s the apostles.  They’re all dead and gone to Heaven, but the word preached through them is alive in the Bible.  There are no modern apostles – at least not in the New Testament sense.  So, we submit to Jesus through the teachings of the Apostles (the Bible), and then to our local church leadership.

Elders

The New Testament model for church leadership begins with elders (also called Bishops, Overseers, or Presbyters in the NT).  Elder is an office of the local church congregation reserved for any man who has demonstrated a godly life style according to the qualifications outlined in 1 Timothy and Titus.  The New Testament further exhorts us to have a plurality of eldership (Acts 14:23, 20:17, Titus 1:5, 1 Peter 5:1-2).  That means there is more than one man in charge.  Each local body should have a “plurality,” meaning there should be more than one and probably more than two.  The church should have a team of elders, all of whom share equal authority, though their specific responsibilities may differ to varying degrees.

Elders have the responsibility to govern and pastor the church.  Practically, that means that the elders are in charge of governing, or overseeing, all functions of the local church.  Additionally, all elders must have the ability to preach and teach while their teaching load will vary (1 Tim. 5:17).  At this point many will bring up the topic of “pastors” citing that those are the responsibilities of the individuals who we call pastor.  While our modern churches, my previous experience included, emphasize the position of “pastor,” the New Testament does not speak to this as an authoritative role among the church leadership.  Rather, “pastoring” is a function performed by many, particularly elders and the other defined leadership position of deacon.

Sadly, much confusion abounds in the church today over the role of pastor and elder.  Staff Pastors are viewed as the ones primarily responsible for the tending of God’s flock while elders handle the more pressing matters (at least in many people’s view) of major church decisions like directing the budget, new building campaigns, and reprimanding the youth pastor for not being serious enough.  While I believe that having staff pastors can be very beneficial to local churches, it is critical that these churches not allow the abdication of elder roles and responsibilities, thus contributing to the already confusing issue of church leadership.  There can be overlap of elders and pastors (e.g. the lead pastor is typically an elder) and they can be compensated for their role.

Deacons

At the most basic level, a deacon is a servant.  The first deacons were selected in the books of Acts (chapter 6) to distribute food to the congregation.  Their role is expanded later in the new testament to include caring for the needs of the congregation and other various administrative duties.  Along with the elders, these should be individuals of high moral character and godliness who manage their homes and lives well.

Many churches have deacons but don’t call them deacons.  Treasurers, office administrators, and ministry heads may all be fulfilling the role of deacon at a church.  The New Testament is not altogether clear about exactly what a deacon’s role is, just that the person should serve in some capacity in an officially appointed position as determined by the elders.

Elders and Deacons maintain a high level of responsibility at the local church.  The laity is called to submit to governing authority, which according to the New Testament is the body or board of elders at that local church.  Deacons serve the church as the hands and feet of Christ, meeting needs and handling pressing issues.  For this reason, it is critical that we have qualified individuals serving in these capacities.  Good thing God thought of that.

Qualifications

The New Testament authors provide very clear qualifications for Elders and Deacons in 1 Timothy and Titus.  These lists should be used in every case when vetting potential elders and deacons.  The lists have some overlap, though the qualifications for Eldership are not surprisingly more stringent than those for deacon as outlined below.

Qualifications for both Deacons & Elders

Church leaders should not simply be those who’ve had success in business or attained a high level of popularity.  They should be godly individuals who’ve demonstrated a history of love and holiness.  Perhaps it’s best simply to allow the Bible to speak for itself.  Paul provides the following list of qualification in 1 Timothy (ch. 3):

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

Deacons have a similar list of qualifications save for one critical area: preaching and teaching.  In both instances, the Bible is advocating for the best among Jesus’ men (and women in the case of deacons) to lead the church.  Elders, therefore, posess the highest level of authority, including the preaching and teaching authority of the church, and can utilize deacons as necessary to fulfill various ministerial needs in the church.

Other Positions

While it is important to note that Elder and Deacon are the only two leadership positions the New Testament speaks of¹, it does not prohibit the establishment of other roles within church polity.  Many churches utilize a variety of position to assist with various functions of the church.  Trustees, administrators, worship leaders, and staff pastors are just some of these extraneous positions of leadership.  These roles should be created by the Elders to assist them with governing the church while it remains clear that the Elders themselves retain ultimate governing authority and preaching responsibility for the church.

What About the Ladies?

Once again, God thought of that, too!  While the Bible maintains the equality of men and women, cultural contexts notwithstanding, it does define each gender’s role within the local church.  Practically speaking, women can serve in any and every capacity within the local church save one: eldership.  In perhaps the most articulate passage on the subject, the Apostle Paul states, “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man (1 Tim. 2:12).”  It’s important to note that this is not a prohibition of women teaching at all.  Rather, the context of the passage suggests that women are simply disallowed to have teaching or governing authority over a man.  As Wayne Grudem states, “it is specifically these functions unique to elders that Paul prohibits for women in the church.” (Grudem, pp. 938)²

In conclusion, churches need leaders.  Good, godly leaders.  While these men and women are not perfect, they are a necessary part of the order of God’s church to advance his kingdom for ages to come.  And, by the way, the Bible never ever ever speaks to celibacy as a requirement or qualification for church leadership.  Thank you, Jesus.

____________________________________

1 I am referring to roles that modern believers can maintain since the roles of Jesus and Apostle are not possible for anyone other than those individuals to have.

2 At this point, if anyone raises any contention against this, I would suggest you return to the first level of church authority as I stated earlier, remembering that Jesus has the highest authority, not you and not me.  Jesus has his plan and it is good.  This is not an issue of worth, but of order.  Indeed, many a qualified woman would otherwise make an outstanding church elder.  However, that is simply not the way our God chose to order his church.

Bibliography:
Driscoll, Mark and Breashers, Gary.  Vintage Church: Timeless Truths and Timely Methods, Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL (2008).
Grudem, Wayne.  Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, Great Brittain and Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI (2000).
MacCulloch, Diarmaid.  The Reformation: A History, Penquin Books, New York, NY (2005).

I’m trying to make my faith personal.  As I prayed and meditated this morning I began to sing a song.  Here are the lyrics:

Your love, oh Lord, reaches to the Heavens; Your faithfulness stretches to the sky
Your righteousness is like a mighty mountain; Your justice flows like the ocean’s tide

As I sang it I realized that I say, sing, and think a lot of things about God but they’re not personal.  What I mean is though I think and believe these things, I rarely put them in a personal context: “God has been faithful to me by…” or “I have seen God’s justice demonstrated by…”

I began to sing this song after reading through a psalm I wrote a while back.  In it, I declare the following:  “I have searched the Scriptures and have found You to be merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  I know this is true, I have read it in the Bible.  But, again, where have I seen these things personally?

I’m not saying they aren’t there because I believe I have experienced all of these attributes of God in a personal way.  What I am saying is that I am beginning to realize how rare it is that I identify occurrences in my life as a manifestation of one of God’s attributes.  Do I believe God is all powerful and sovereign?  Yes.  Do I believe He is at work in ALL things?  Yes.  Then it makes sense that in all things a facet of God’s character is on display.  I have but to open my eyes and look!

I began to think over my recent life to examine where I could identify a Divine attribute at work.  I could think of some, but to my dismay I had a difficult time doing so.  Again, the fault is mine, not the Lord’s.  The problem is that my mind is not trained to process God in this way.  I can know these things intellectually, I can teach them, I can even rightly praise the Lord for them, but the point, I believe, is to go beyond knowing.  Jesus summons us not merely to know, but to abide.

When I think of my friends, I think of what I like about them.  Each has great qualities about them that have been demonstrated to me personally.  This is what draws me into their companionship.  It is the personal displays of love and character that strengthen our bond.

“No longer do I call you servants…but I call you friends.”  -John 15:15

I’m currently reading through former president George W. Bush’s book, Decision Points.  It’s the first presidential autobiography that I’ve ever read, and the first of any kind in a while.  An insightful read, I have learned several lessons thumbing through its pages.

I’ve been overwhelmed at my ignorance of the events that took place during the longest-termed president of my adult life.  I have realized how many times I rushed to judgment over his policies and decisions without knowing the full story.  Like so many Americans, I received my news piecemeal, occasionally catching the daily news or perusing the newspaper.  On a rare occasion, like when I went to the dentist, I may have even read a story from a major news magazine.

The behind-the-scenes look at the events surrounding the major decisions and situations during Bush’s presidency is, in a word, awesome.  He has given us the opportunity to climb inside his head and see the events from his perspective.  I am troubled that I, like so many, draw conclusions on issues that we really know very little about.  We cast our political leaders in such a negative light, and though many are well deserved of their dubious recognition, most have to make tough decisions that a lot of people won’t like.  Politics is dirty business and no one is affected more by it’s venom than the president.  And so, be it one I agree or disagree with, I have gained new respect for the office and the individual who holds it.  I will be slower to rush to ill-informed conclusions and to make judgments on the president’s character without having ample opportunity and information with which to base that judgment on.

Additionally, I’ve been challenged to pay greater attention to news and world events.  Many of the topics and issues discussed in the book are ones with which I am familiar by name only.  I have a general knowledge of many of these topics, but there is so much I didn’t know.  Around the clock cable news is great, but it also has it’s problems.  The fact that the news is always on means that there has to always be a story.  That will often give way to overreaction and misrepresentation.

Finally, I’ve been encouraged to read more biographies!  So much can be learned by observing the world through someone else’s eyes.  I have learned from President Bush’s successes and failures.  Furthermore, I have gained much greater respect for him as a person, and as a former president.  Without reluctance I can say that I greatly admire him and am so thankful that we were blessed to have him as our president for eight tumultuous years.  I believe he served well and I hope that his successors emulate his courage and character and love for our great country.

Suppose you have a daughter with a very serious romantic interest in a certain guy.  This guy is very into in your daughter, seems to like everything about her, and has already taken her out on several dates.  One day, the guy comes to you confessing his love for her and asking your permission for her to move in with him where they can live together forever or at least until they get angry or want something new and are then free to look for a new partner.  At this point, every guy reading this has images of loading the shotgun running through his mind.  No loving father would ever want that for his daughter, yet that is precisely how many Christians treat the local church.

Somewhere along the path of Church history, the modern idea has emerged that it is not necessary for a Christian to become a member of a local body.  Those who hold such ideals may well find a church they enjoy and spend at least the majority of their Sundays there.  They will serve if asked and will bake cookies for church fellowships.  They are good people and good Christians, but they just don’t feel the need to become an “official member.”

This idea is advocated my many Christian leaders today including George Barna, who in his book “Revolution” recognizes several “models of church experience resident in the nation today.”  Just one of these models is the traditional form of congregational church complete with membership, worship services, and women’s ministry.  Barna goes further, however, placing on even ground with the traditional model what he calls “distributed” models of faith.  These are little more than gatherings of Christians where a well-known worship leader plays “extended sets of worship music for audiences who had no prior connection with each other.”  According to this description, one who regularly attends Christian concerts should be considered a faithful church-goer.  Sadly, they likely pay more for concert tickets than they tithe to a local congregation.  While traditional churches can and should learn a lot from his book, on this particular point Barna and others like him who give credence to the transient, non-commital nature of modern Christians do damage to the Biblical model of local church membership.

This begs the question of whether the Bible in fact commands believers to become members of a local congregation.  Yes and no.  What the Bible does not say is any sort of “thou shalt be a member of a local church.”  However, what the Bible does say concerning membership is obvious.  While the word “membership” is not used, it is implied through the ideas of commitment, accountability, submission to spiritual authority, and regular fellowship (breaking bread together) and gatherings for worship and teaching from God’s word (Heb. 13:17; Jam. 5:16; Acts 2:42-47).  Membership at the local church level is the avenue through which the Universal Church continues its advance.  As part of the membership process many local congregations require their pledges to sign a “covenant” or membership agreement.  This covenenant first mandates that members must be Christians.  What sense is there, afterall, in advocating a Christ-like lifestyle to someone who has not even placed faith in Jesus to begin with?  Then, the covenant will have various requirements for faithful service, giving, and being an active part of the church community.

In addition to the covenant requirements, church membership serves other advantages as well.  Membership constructs a basic pathway through which church leaders are recruited, developed, and empowered for service (Acts 6:1-6).  Finally, church membership sets a framework for submission and accountability.  When one joins a church as a member that person is in essence submitting him or herself to the spiritual authorities that the Holy Spirit has placed at that church.  This is critical for matters of church discipline in which the church leaders must lovingly rebuke and restore a member caught in sin (Matt. 18:15-20).  This simply has no effect on someone who has not committed to the local body through membership.  If the Corinthians weren’t members of their local church what right would Paul have had in condemning their lifestyles (1 Cor. 5:4,5)?

One might argue that while fornication is condemned in the Bible, not becoming a member of a local congregation is not.  In that I agree.  However, in lieu of a mandate that Matrimony be commemorated through official ceremony, it is possible to believe that two people can in fact make a life-long commitment to one another, leaving their family and starting a new one of their own without going through any sort of official procession.  In that case, the couple could seek permission from the parents, make a verbal life-long commitment in the presence of witnesses who would hold them accountable, and create a new loving family of their own.  But doesn’t that sound a lot like a marriage ceremony (without all the tradition)?  Likewise, couldn’t a Christian commit to faithfully serve and give to a local body, submitting to the spiritual authority in place, and seek opportunities to regularly participate in community?  Of course!  But doesn’t that sound a lot like membership?  And once you arrive at that point is taking a class and signing a paper really going to be a point of contention for you?

“Membership” may not be a title you particularly care for.  Fine.  But the process and meaning are what you should value.  If you have been reluctant to join a church, check your heart and ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate you as to why.  Most of our apprehensions stem from a fear of commitment or unwillingness to submit to spiritual authority.  Like so many “live-in” boyfriends and girlfriends, we don’t want to be tied down to one place, maintaining our freedom to leave if we ever feel the need to.  Be weary of masquerading your pride as a deeper spiritual insight into what it looks like to serve God.  Find a church and commit to it.  You may not get a card and save money like at some grocery store, but it will make a world of difference in your life and in the church who needs a member like you.

So many times in our lives God brings in just the right people at the right time.  I could also add just for the right amount of time.  I love to read.  One series that has particularly captured my attention are the Legend of Drizzt books by R. A. Salvatore.  Drizzt, the main character, epitomizes those individuals who think and love deeply.  He is not your run-of-the-mill individual who’s life is characterized by little more than the daily grind and simple pleasures.  He endeavors to understand life (at least what he can), his greatest battles are inward, yet his greatest joys come alongside his loyal companions.

One thing I love about the books are the different friends Drizzt makes along the way.  These are deep friendships forged in trial and sealed by mutual appreciation for life and meaning.  As is often the case in real life, however, the close companionship doesn’t last.  Not because the relationship becomes estranged, but because due to some life circumstance the friends must go their separate ways.

I can’t help but relate to Drizzt’s character.  As I reflect on my life I recall similar friendships I’ve had with guys who became really close.  We shared life together.  We had fun, to be sure, but we also shared our pains and struggles.  We talked about our dreams and revealed our passions.  I have had many good friends over the years, yet I can only classify a select few who were “closer than a brother”. (Prov. 18:24 ESV).  I love these guys still, and we both know that there is always the potential that the relationship could be picked up were it was left off.  Even if it wasn’t, however, we will always remember the grand times we shared.

It isn’t often that you get to be so close to someone.  The vicissitudes of life carry us like a wild river and we have but to hold on to our raft, doing our best not to get knocked over.  Perhaps that is one reason why those moments of close comradere are so memorable, their abbreviated nature heightening the longing for the next opportunity.  Sadly for me, many of my closest friends are spread literally all over the world.  The men I have come to call my best friends can’t be reached with a jovial drive down the road.  While I always hold out hope that I will see them soon, I know the reality is that even if I did it would once again be short lived.

I began this post commenting on the divine activity concerning these relationships.  God looked at Adam and recognized that it is not good for man to be alone.  We were created for relationship.  Beyond that, even, we were created for intimate companionship.  While most succumb to having acquaintance and shallow companions replace the transcendence of intimacy, there are those who identify the great value of someone you can knit your soul with (1 Sam. 18:1 ESV).  Gratitude for said relationships can never be repaid.  It doesn’t have to be.

Still, to all the guys who became more than friends, I say thank you.  Your investment and influence in my life can never be fully articulated.  I am a better man because of the time spent with you and my greatest hope is that I might have enhanced your life in kind.  I know there will be more and to friends past and yet to come I say, “May God be gracious to [you] and bless [you] and make His face to shine upon [you].” (Ps. 67:1 ESV)

Here’s the third writing assignment I had to complete for my Hermeneutics course. The prof posed the following question and I have included my response below

4. Offer a definition of the terms “presuppositions” and “preunderstandings.” How can we test these things to see if they are adequate or appropriate? What can be done to change preunderstandings? List some of the presuppositions or preunderstandings from your own life that may inform your reading of Scripture. From what sources do these things originate? How does a person’s intellectual and spiritual history (i.e., education and religious instruction) influence the interpretation of texts? In what way then is objectivity possible in the interpretation of Scripture?

My Response…

As objective as we may be (or think we are) each brings his or her own collection of preconceived ideas and experiences that, even unwittingly, we filter our study of the Scriptures through. These presuppositions and preunderstandings shape and influence the way we approach the text, how we understand the text, and ultimately how we interpret. As Scott Duval and Daniel Hays put it, preunderstanding “refers to all of our preconceived notions and understandings that we bring to the text,” that we have developed before ever approaching it for study (Duvall, 89). These can be both subconscious and conscious understandings, and they are just as much a part of us as our own distinct personalities are. Presuppositions, however, lie more so in the realm of conscious intention or belief, though they too can be subconscious preconceptions as well. Presuppositions are those underlying assumptions we bring to the text that are necessary for a proper understanding, and, therefore, proper interpretation. Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard point out the necessity of having good presuppositions as interpreters arguing “we must discover, state, and consciously adopt those assumptions we agree with and can defend” (Klein, 143).

Are these presuppositions and preunderstandings, then, good or bad? Should we employ them to our advantage or avoid them, seeking a more objective approach to understanding Scripture? The succinct answer is…yes. Both presuppositions and preunderstandings can be advantageous in our approach to the bible. For example, it is good and necessary for one to engage in a study of the scriptures with the presuppositions that the Bible is God’s authoritative word to us, inerrant in its original forms, trustworthy and true, and is not contradictory, but rather is a unified harmonious text with a central theme. Furthermore, as Mark Driscoll rightly argues, we likewise should have the presupposition that “the God who is the hero of the true story of Scripture is Jesus Christ” (Driscoll, 43).

Preunderstandings, on the other hand, can be beneficial, though often we should make every attempt to leave many of them at the proverbial door. Since we are so radically removed from the context within which the original books of the bible were written, our understanding of what they communicate is dirtied by the hubris of our preunderstandings. Duvall and Hays point out the inherent dangers here, offering helpful tips to avoid those things which preclude us from an accurate interpretation. Bringing to the text a prefabricated theological agenda, allowing our familiarity with a text to dictate all future understanding of it, and being influenced in our study by the extant culture we were brought up in are some of the traps a good interpreter must avoid (Duvall, 89-90).

Fortunately, these preunderstandings are not so ingrained as to be impenetrable to change. Indeed as Klein puts it, among the responsibilities of the consummate interpreter one “is not to simply identify and take into account our preunderstandings but also to adjust or revise them” (Klein, 158). First, a Christian must submit him or herself to the authority of Scripture and not the other way around. We must allow our lives (and therefore our preunderstandings) to be interpreted by Scripture which involves yielding to its authority whenever a conflict arises. Furthermore, it is essential to be involved in and interpret in light of Christian community. The Apostle Paul’s directive to Timothy to entrust the truth of Scripture to faithful men who can likewise teach others (2 Tim. 2:2) underscores this very point. A third method of altering our preunderstandings is to regularly be engaged in what Klein calls the “hermeneutical spiral” (Klein, 166). That is, as we continue to study the Biblical text its message should affect and alter our preunderstandings in a repetitive manner bringing about a progressive spiral of development in them. In this way, he goes on to say, our ability to interpret more correctly is enhanced.

As I approach the Scriptures, I do so with the presuppositions that all of it is authoritative, inerrant, and trustworthy. Whenever I come across one of those particular passages that leaves me dumbfounded as to its meaning or seemingly contradicts some other part of scripture, I can be confident that it is not the Bible that is lacking but rather my own want of knowledge or skill that has prevented me from elucidating the quagmire.

Additionally, the preunderstandings of my theological persuasion, church and denominational experiential variance, and my pastoral perspective influence my reading of Scripture. I will approach the bible with a very high view of God’s sovereignty and mankind’s utter depravity, for example. I have been involved range of denominations, which have all contributed to how I approach it as well. For example, for a long while I read Acts 2 through the lens of a Pentecostal preunderstanding of subsequent Holy Spirit baptism, and, until recently, argued for that interpretation emphatically. And as pastor, I study the bible trying to find the “shepherding” angle to a particular text, though it may not necessarily be there.

Someone may argue at this point that it is impossible to approach the Bible with pure and unadulterated objectivity, to which I would heartily agree. Total objectivity is impossible for any reader of any literary work as it is impossible to completely shake all of one’s presuppositions and preunderstandings. Duvall encourages us at this point that “total objectivity is not our goal,” and later adds, “we want objectivity within the framework of evangelical presuppositions” (Duvall, 95). We are people of faith driven by a devotion to our Lord and fervent passion to know Him. Therefore, we rightly bring appropriate presuppositions, and even preunderstandings at times, into our practice of interpreting the Scriptures. That is not to say, however, that we seek some meaning not inherent in the text out of our own presuppositional agenda. Rather, we understand that “meaning found in the text alone provides [the] foundation” for which we can discover what God wants to say to us in our own context from His Holy Word (Klein, 153).

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3 rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 18.

William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2004)

Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010)

The Following is a post I submitted in response to a question posed by my Hermeneutics professor.  Enjoy…
3. Throughout the history of the Bible allegorical methods have been employed as a means to discover a “hidden meaning” in the text. Outline the use of allegorical approaches and discuss the benefits and pitfalls of utilizing such an approach to interpret Scripture today.

The quest to find a “deeper” or “hidden” meaning behind the text of Scripture has long been the aim of many interpreters.  These individuals view the text of scripture as allegory, believing there is more to it than the text itself.  The earliest form of allegorical interpretation derived from Hellenistic Judaism which was rooted in the platonic philosophy popular of that day. [1]  The Alexandrian Jewish thinker, Philo, for example believed that, like a human, a Bible passage has a body (literal meaning) and a soul (allegorical meaning). [2]  When a certain passage ” said anything unworthy of God; contained insoluble difficulty, unusual grammar, or unique rhetoric; or involved an obvious allegorical expression, Philo would suggest that an allegorical interpretation was apropos. [3]
During the patristic period of A.D. 100-590, the Allegorical method of interpretation was revived with such individuals as Clement of Alexandria who held that  scripture has a twofold meaning:  literalspiritual. [4] Clement placed greater emphasis on the hidden, spiritual sense than the more literal one.  Origen would later expand on this adding a third element, the “moral” meaning, suggesting that ethical principles could be derived from an allegorical understanding of certain passages.  Alternately, nearly two centuries later, Cyril of Alexandria and Theodore of Mopsuestia both rejected the allegorical method preferring “a more grammatically based approach.”  [5]  A defining element to this time period were the numerous church councils held to articulate orthodox doctrine in light of various heresies that had arises at the time.  Interestingly, one rarely finds that the doctrinal outcomes of these councils relied heavily on allegorical interpretation, giving greater weight to a more literal interpretation as well as those traditional views passed down through church tradition.
Amidst a dearth of intellectual activity, the Middle Ages greatly emphasized the allegorical approach where the method was championed until a renewed emphasis on the study of the original Greek & Hebrew languages led to the Reformation and expanded methods of interpretation.  Since that period, allegory, while remaining a valid method of interpretation, has taken a back seat to other, more objective approaches among orthodox Christians.  Still, many modern interpreters place greater emphasis on the allegorical method like many of their predecessors once did.

While an allegorical approach’s strengths are that it can help one to uncover  mysteries of spiritual reality and the nature of God as well as make Biblical ideas applicable to contemporary culture, it’s greatest weakness is in its subjectivity and therefore its adherents should proceed with a great deal of trepidation.  In How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth , Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart rightly argue that “the true meaning of the Biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken.”  [6]  Representative ideas derived from seemingly symbolic texts in the Bible are not the stuff doctrine should be built on and certainly not what will enable a Christian to, as Dr. Allan Moseley puts it, “know the Bible and understand its philosophical implications and practical applications” necessary to refute heresy. [7]  Allegorical interpretation has its place, but it is certainly not in prominence over other, more objective, methods.


[1]  W illiam W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2004),  25.
[2] Ibid, 26
[3] Ibid, 26.
[4 ]Ibid, 38.
[5] Ibid, 39.
[6] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3 rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 30.
[7] N. Allan Moseley, Thinking Against the Grain: Developing a Biblical Worldview in a Culture of Myths (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2003), 34.

The following is a post I submitted in response to the below question posed by my hermeneutics professor…
4. Consider the history of biblical interpretation and choose one time period and one person whose method offers the most promise for attaining a clear interpretation of Scripture today. Be sure to identify the person and the method with special focus on how that method aids a modern interpreter in understanding Scripture .

The rich history of Biblical Interpretation offers no shortage of great individuals who shaped and developed the methods by which we interpret the Scriptures today.  Perhaps the greatest contribution made was by Augustine, who provided the necessary framework and matrices through which an interpreter ought to approach the scriptures.  Augustine built on the principal that a “text’s literal or historical meaning ought to determine its ‘real meaning,'” [1]  foreshadowing the modern orthodox view that the goal of good interpretation is to discover the “plain meaning of the text.”  [2]  His timing could not have been more impeccable.  Building on (and in some ways in contrast to) a rich tradition of apostolic succession, Athanasius’ festal letter of A.D. 367, and subsequent church councils brought, for the most part, the New Testament canon to an “official close.” [3]  Proper interpretative techniques could not have come sooner.

Additionally, while Augustine left open the possibility for allegorical interpretation, he rightly imposed guidelines to guard against subjective excess.  When an unclear text leaves an interpreter wanting, Augustine suggested the interpreter consult first other, clearer passages of scripture.  Then, one should consult the “rule of faith,” or the traditional interpretation, and finally the interpreter should consider the context within which the text falls to determine which of the previous two interpretations best explain the passage. [4]  Sadly, many pastors and laypersons today have an “what it means to me” approach to the Bible.  While not altogether flawed as one is entirely capable of deducing a fitting and Biblically sound principle using this approach, those individuals would do well to guard against wrong interpretation and its inherent dangers by applying Augustine’s timeless principles to their interpretative method.

Augustine’s most significant contribution to hermeneutics, however, was his emphasis on what he considered to be the purpose of interpretation, namely that interpretation “aims to lead readers to love God and other people.” [5]  It is this foundation that shapes the modern interpreter’s understanding that good interpretation promotes healthy devotional application and transformational teaching. [6]  Since the words of Scripture posses all we need for salvation and to “perfectly” trust and obey God , we must rely on sound interpretive principles not only for good doctrine, but to understand how it is we are supposed to love, serve, and obey God and likewise love & serve His People.  [7]  Augustine helpfully provides an approach that even the most unlearned Bible reader can follow to gain healthy understanding of the Scriptures’ various texts.

[1] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2004), 41.

[2]  Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3 rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 18.

[3] Ibid, 112.

[4] Ibid, 41.

[5] Ibid, 41.

[6]  Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart,  How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth,rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 29.

[7] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Leicester, Great Britain: Inter-Varsity Press; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000), 127.

Every 1st and 3rd Thursday we host a small group at our house.  It’s mostly young families from our church.  I love our group.  There is such an eagerness to learn, discuss, and grow together.  Last Thursday was certainly no exception, though the conversation took an interesting turn.

We were discussing what it means to be lukewarm and Jesus’ rebuke of the church at Laodicea in the book of Revelation.  You know, the one where Jesus says if you are neither hot nor cold but lukewarm that he will spit you out of his mouth?  Yeah, that one.  As we discussed our respective answers to a question on the implications of being lukewarm, the topic of eternal security came up.  “Can you lose your salvation?” or so goes the question.

A few of us shared our respective views, though no common consensus was made.  At least I don’t think so.  I thought, therefore, that I would take some e-space to summarize the two views, where I side, and why.  As a disclaimer, let me say this should not be a point of contention among believers.  Regardless of where you side concerning this particular theological issue, both sides love Jesus dearly and desperately want to see people ushered into His Kingdom.  As well, both would agree that we ought to walk by faith in the grace of our great God.  At this point many will leave the debate altogether, concluding that since it’s a nonessential, we ought not even bother.  That’s okay, too.  For the rest of us, buckle up…

Eternal Security:  The two views

Common verses used by those who claim a Christian cannot lose his salvation: (all verses are from the ESV)

Romans 8:35, 37-39 –   Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:5 – We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Ephesians 1:13-14 – In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Hebrews 10:14 – For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

Common verses used by those who claim a Christian can lose his salvation: (all verses are from the ESV)

John 14:5-6- I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

Hebrews 6:4-6 – For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

A Summary of The Two Views:

You either believe in the Perseverance of the Saints, also called “once saved always saved,” or you believe in the Perseverance of Some Saints.  Each of these two positions are a facet of a greater theological debate between what’s called Calvinism and it’s opposing view, Arminianism, though we will not go into these further with this blog.  Generally speaking, those who hold to the position of Perseverance of the Saints are denominations like the Southern Baptists and Presbyterians, organizations such as The Resurgence and Sovereign Grace, and individual speakers and authors such as John Piper, Billy Graham, Mark Driscoll, and Matt Chandler.  The opposing view, Perseverance of Some Saints, is one held by denominations like Methodists, Nazarenes, and the Assemblies of God, organizations such as Christ for the Nations and the Foursquare Church, and individual speakers and authors such as Jack Hayford, Greg Laurie, T. D. Jakes, and Chuck Smith.

The basic idea behind the debate is whether those who “fall away” from the faith were ever truly saved or not.  If an individual makes a profession of faith and shows all the signs of being born again then backslides into sin and ultimately rejects God, what happens to him?  Is it possible for those are are truly saved to “lose their salvation,” and, were they to remain in their state of apostasy, ultimately go to hell?  Those who believe in the Perseverance of the Saints would argue that a person who truly is born again will never fall away, but rather that our Gracious God will continue to sanctify them through to the end and though genuine Christians may experience seasons of backsliding, ultimately all who are saved will stay saved and will certainly end up in Heaven.  Those who believe you can lose your salvation would say that it is possible for an individual to fall into such great sin as to ultimately reject God and His salvation and therefore, though they were once saved, will spend eternity in Hell.  It is important to point out that both sides agree that a born-again believer ought not to sin, nor should he avoid sin simply to avoid losing salvation, but rather should pursue Jesus in love, dying to self and being transformed into the image and likeness of Christ (Galatians 2:20).

Where I Side & Why

The Bible more Clearly Teaches Perseverance of ALL Saints:

Despite a number of verses that seem to suggest the contrary, it seems the more clear teaching of scripture is that those who are saved will persevere to the end.  By sheer volume, the verses that imply that you cannot lose your salvation are greater than those that would imply the opposite.  If indeed we are saved by grace, through faith as a gift, and not by works as Ephesians 2:7-9 declares, then it seems it would follow that if you cannot work yourself into salvation, you can neither work yourself out of it.

Additionally, my view on the issue is greatly influenced by my high view of God’s grace, as well as His work in what is called Justification and Sanctification.  God’s grace is an unmerited act of salvation towards those who place their faith in Christ for salvation.  Paul describes it well in the first chapter of Ephesians by putting it this way: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. (v. 7-8)”  This grace leads to an understanding of Justification: that God, upon faith in Christ, instantly and for all time made us completely righteous.  Hebrews 10:14 makes it clear that we have been “perfected for all time,” and a look at the first 10 chapters of Romans explains it further where Paul uses the word 9 times.  Simply put, Justification means that you are legally declared righteous and free of any wrongdoing.  This is what Jesus meant when, with His dying breath, proclaimed “It is finished!” which more literally means “Paid in full” since as a result of his death on the cross the debt we owed on account of our sin (past, present, & future) was paid by His sacrificial act.

If justification is an imputed righteousness whereby God declares and makes us righteous before Him, sanctification is the process that follows whereby he continually imparts righteousness to us by making us more like Jesus everyday.  Perhaps no passage sums this up better than Philippians 2:12-13, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”  Though we are called to work out our own salvation – a volitional choice to pursue Christlikeness – we are told that in fact it is ultimately God’s work according to His will that brings us into conformity to His character.

Perhaps the final proverbial nail in the coffin (at least it is for me) is the promise laid out in Ephesians 1 (listed above).  The Holy Spirit plays many a role in the life of the believer.  He regenerates us, sanctifies us, and gifts and empowers us for ministry.  His role is most fully realized, however, in that he is a “seal” and “guarantee” of our inheritance.  It doesn’t get much clearer than that.  GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT guarantees that we will receive eternal life until it is fully realized in Heaven.  And why?  To the praise of HIS glory!  I hear a lot of guarantees on commercials, and wonder whether I should believe them.  With God, there’s not a money back option.  He just guarantees it and if you have put faith in Him than you know he can be trusted at his word!

A Better Interpretation of the “other” verses:

“But what about those other verses you mentioned?  They sure sound like you can lose your salvation to me!”  Agreed.  But a more thorough look at them will show the contrary to be true.  At the risk of writing a book rather than a blog, I’ll make my response to these brief and leave it up to further dialogue via the comments section or face-to-face interaction for more details.  First, lets deal with the vine and branches passage found in John.  While it would seem like the “branches” is an exclusive reference to Christians only, the verse does not actually necessitate that understanding.  If in fact Jesus was trying to make the case that those who are genuinely saved and thus abide in Him will be glorified (go to Heaven) while those who merely have the appearance of salvation, but do not abide and are therefore “cut off,” then it would be difficult for Him to use any other analogy than to say that all are somehow connected to himself, the true vine.  This verse can easily be interpreted in light of the more clearer passages of scripture (Ephesians 1:13-14, et al) so that you can see how Jesus is using the analogy to encourage a true faith that clings to Jesus in love, and not a false faith by one merely trying to escape Hell and who has outward signs of salvation only.

The Hebrews passage would likewise be a tricky one indeed, were it not for the context within which it is written.  Those who often quote this passage to suggest a Christian can lose his salvation often fail to consider the verses immediately following.

“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.” (Hebrews 6:7-8)

The agricultural analogy illustrates how God’s truths fall upon all who hear the gospel.  However, only some of the land will produce a good crop (genuine believers) while others will not (false brothers/believers).  All of us have surely known those in the church who, while they demonstrate all of the otuward signs of salvation, are eventually revealed to be mere fakers who were never saved at all.  I have personally known a number of people who have professed to this reality claiming that they played the part of a Christian for some ulterior motive, though never truly surrendered their life to Christ.  Some of those, upon realizing it, repented and gave their life to Jesus while others, sadly, are still in a state of resistance to anything Christian.  These people could easily be described by the details of Hebrews 6:4-6 in that they while experienced all of the goodness of the gospel – it’s power and it’s blessings – they never fully where changed by it and only experienced it’s life changing power in as much as they were associated with believers without having ever actually become one.

This has been an ongoing debate for centuries and will likely continue.  It is important to always keep in mind that no matter what theological team you find yourself on, we all love Jesus, love one another, and are compelled to proclaim the gospel to all people for their good and God’s glory.  The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you all!

I first heard this hymn in a song years ago and was reminded of it today.  It’s offered as a prayer not for smooth, easy life, but for us to be able to rejoice and endure hardship with Christ by our side.  I hope you are blessed by it.  You can download a cool version of this in song form from itunes by Eden’s Bridge.

Father, hear the prayer we offer:
not for ease that prayer shall be,
but for strength, that we may ever
live our lives courageously.

Not for ever in green pastures
do we ask our way to be;
but the steep and rugged pathway
may we tread rejoicingly.

Not forever by still waters
would we idly rest and stay;
but would smite the living fountains
from the rocks along our way.

Be our strength in hours of weakness,
in our wanderings be our Guide;
through endeavor, failure, danger,
Savior, be thou at our side.