“As for you, son of man, your people are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.’ My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.
“When all this comes true—and it surely will—then they will know that a prophet has been among them.” (Ezekiel 33:30-33)
The church I’ve described in these posts was no oil painting to look at. We met for 3-4 years on the second and third floor of a small-town downtown building from the early 20th century. It was old enough to have plaster walls painted with semi-gloss paint that accentuated every undulation, hairline crack and ridge the plasterers missed at 4:45 p.m. just before the Memorial Day weekend.
For that matter, neither were the ministers. I’ve said previously these men were gifted and I meant that sincerely. Let me explain.
David was the youngest son of Jesse, Gideon was, in his own words, from “the weakest clan in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (Jud 6:15), and Moses claimed he spoke “with faltering lips” (Ex 6:30), hardly the best candidate to address Pharaoh since staffs could be transformed into snakes but not teleprompters apparently.
The pastors and overseer of the group of three churches were previously a carpenter, a lawn mowing contractor, service manager of his father-in-law’s glass company and a plumber, respectively. “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:27), an important detail Paul included in his letter to the spiritually gifted church at Corinth.
Of course, there’s nothing foolish about a plumber when water is an inch deep on your basement floor from a leaky water heater. But to make one into a church-planter and prophet looks foolish. Sort of like choosing half a dozen Galilean fishermen to be included among your apostles. There were plenty of Pharisees, Sadducees and members of the Sanhedrin with résumés on Indeed.com that never got the call.
One of the reasons is that the unlikely vessel magnifies the Giver of the ministry gifts (see Eph 4:11-13). The operation of their gift is all the more remarkable for who is displaying it.
Remember Peter and John before the Sanhedrin? “When they [the Sanhedrin] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). The focus was right where it belonged.
In fact, eventually, I became the least unlikely minister in the church because of my education. My gift is teaching, and it was given me in the same way and by the same Giver that all the others received theirs. God is not a respecter of persons.
But I was a B.A. in English from the Johns Hopkins University (’79), closer to the conventional talent pool than fisherman or tax collector. The reason I was late to the party was because my understanding of wisdom was defective until I learned “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7). That was a life-changing revelation.
I had the opportunity to teach weekly for several months in 1988-89, if memory serves for getting the years right. I didn’t buy Teacher’s Guides for the latest Christian blockbuster book to come up with content. I didn’t have to. When I prayed in the morning, the Spirit of God poured revelation and wisdom into my head as fast as I could write it down.
I want to stress something—or reiterate what I’ve been saying about gifts—there was (and is) nothing extraordinary about me that that should happen. I might as well take credit for getting wet when I walk off the porch in a thunderstorm. I cannot summon up wisdom at will. Yes, there is a wisdom acquired from years of obedience, but what I’m describing is a sovereign act of the Holy Spirit, period.
People complimented me on what I taught, week after week. For me, it was very exhilarating, one of the highest highs I’ve experienced in 44 years as a believer. I didn’t want it to end.
But then the overseeing pastor came to our church and announced that the evangelist/initial pastor would be going on sabbatical. Not much was said then about why that was happening. But the overseer’s ministry in the word was very powerful and highly sought after. Everyone respected him, me included.
And then, as part of this transition, I was sidelined as well. I didn’t think about it too much at the time. I had a good run, and I looked forward in anticipation to what new things might be happening next, good things I was sure.
But just before I stepped aside, the Lord spoke to me out of the passage at the top of this post. I didn’t get it right away, but later it made perfect (if troubling) sense. I was “nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.”
Hard to put that at the top of your C.V. There’s enough spectator Christianity to go around without adding another franchise.
At some point—I can’t remember when, though it was after being ostracized from the fellowship—it occurred to me to wonder just who I was teaching if the people were treating what I did like a performance, like watching Tom Cruise, Eric Clapton or the Washington Nationals (virtually of course).
And the answer was . . . me.
As I’ve related in other posts, there is a lot about gifts, ministries, rivalries and divisions in the letters to the church in Corinth. I spent several sessions back then teaching on various aspects of this. They proved to be prescient, but again, for me. With the exception of a couple of people who later did not turn on me, I was preparing primarily myself for the later deluge without being fully aware of how important these teachings were for the situation as it unfolded.
It started one Sunday afternoon when I had the overseer and his family over for lunch in my apartment. After we’d eaten, we eventually settled into more serious conversation. And then he buttonholed me:
Are you with Bob [the first pastor, now on sabbatical], or with us?
Initially, I didn’t understand what he was asking, or why. All I heard was spiritual dissonance. As it later came into focus, this was a loyalty test, and it implied that the previous pastor had gone horribly wrong and the man in front of me was here to set it right. And this was an either/or, not a both/and, choice.
I don’t even remember how I answered him. But I remember thinking this: “Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul’ [or you, the overseer] and another, ‘I follow Apollos’ [or Bob, the former pastor], are you not mere human beings?” (1 Cor 3:4)
The reason I highlight those words is because he was comparing two gifted men, not two rival franchises like McDonald’s and Burger King (are they still rivals?) that have to compete to be successful.
And the ministry gifts belong to the entire church for its edification. “So let no one boast in men [or choose ministries based on which is “better”]. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas” (1 Cor 3:21-22). They’re intended to work in harmony to build up the church, not organize a “battle of the bands” to crown a new favorite.
Later, I realized how a “Spirit-filled” church could be like a slice of history from China’s Cultural Revolution. Yesterday’s champion of the proletariat gets supplanted by a new champion, who rewrites history to turn the former champion into just another capitalist running dog. Down comes one set of posters, up goes another (good for business if you’re a poster installer, I suppose).
That’s how you cement loyalty. That’s how you consolidate followings, which Paul saw as rending the fabric of the local church, not building it up or ending the to-and-fro drift from one scheming minister to another. By now this should be giving you a sense of how a pastor can become Nebuchadnezzar.
When I proved insufficiently pliable and loyal to the new pastor, the grapevine hummed with the news of my perfidy. (And I chose that word carefully; this was scandalous to everyone who knew me and its plainly diabolical origin was duly repeated.) After a few awkward encounters with church members scuttling into the next aisle in the grocery store to avoid me or giving me looks that would strip wallpaper, I simply left the church.
There’s more to the story—some of it tragic, some of it a testimony of how Jesus builds his church in spite of the church that professes to be his rather than collaborating with him. Please come back for the next installment.