Stephen’s portrait of church leadership

Stoning of Stephen

The Stoning of Stephen, Annibale Carracci (1603-04)

The church had a problem at the beginning of Acts 6. They were all Jews, of course, but most of them were native to the area. Jews had moved all over the Roman Empire and had established synagogues in every major Greek city.

A number of those Jews eventually moved back to Jerusalem. They spoke Greek, but not the local Aramaic.

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Raising Ebenezer

Ebenezer“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” has been a favorite American hymn for about 200 years. The second verse notoriously starts, “Here I raise mine Ebenezer.” I say notoriously, because it has been generations since large numbers of church goers have understood the meaning of “Ebenezer.” It’s a stone of remembrance, set up by the judge and prophet Samuel on an occasion well worth remembering.

Humiliating loss

When Samuel was a child, two worthless priests under judgment from God decided to take the ark of the covenant into battle with the Philistines. Since they had no relationship with God and no regard for him, they must have regarded the ark as some kind of magic box that would turn the tide of battle.… Read the rest

Happy birthday, universal church!

Pentecost / Josef Ignaz Mildorfer, 1750s

This past Sunday was Pentecost. It coincides with an ancient Hebrew festival, but the events of Acts 2 on a particular Pentecost right after Jesus rose from the dead marks the birthday of the church. Alas, the church is divided into various Orthodox, Coptic, Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal denominations, but we all have but one birthday.

“They,” probably the same 120 believers mentioned in Acts 1:15, gathered together in one place, and most certainly not for the first time. This group probably amounts to the first messianic synagogue. On Pentecost, Jesus baptized them with the Holy Spirit as he had promised.… Read the rest

What do you expect from Jesus?

Some people go to church week after week and often leave vaguely unsatisfied. Some people, when a famous preacher rents a stadium or coliseum, will drive many miles to attend the meeting. Does everyone leave happy and satisfied? Is that even the point?

What do we want from a church service or other similar gathering? Is what we want the same thing Jesus wants to offer?

Feeding of the 5000

The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (ca. 1413)

Jesus hadn’t intended to minister to a crowd.

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The Bride of Christ: Dead to Mr. Law


We must count ourselves dead to sin. That’s well known. The church is ultimately the bride of  Christ. That’s well known, too. Less well known is that we must also count ourselves dead to the law. In fact, my Sunday school class had trouble wrapping their minds around that concept. They couldn’t conceive of eliminating the moral principles of the law from the Christian life. That’s not quite what Paul meant.

Elsewhere, Paul wrote, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13). Indeed, in two different chapters (Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28), the Mosaic covenant lays out exactly the blessings that come from obeying the law and then takes about three times as much space laying out all the evil that comes from breaking it.… Read the rest

The church: sons of God


So in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:26-29.

As I wrote last time, ” Attempting to emasculate the language of our hymns, prayers, and Bible translation does not make our worship more inclusive. It merely hides and obscures profound imagery that could lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our relationship to God.… Read the rest

God is our husband


Over the past several decades, the church has become embarrassed over the fact that almost exclusively male imagery—and exclusively masculine pronouns—have always been used to refer to God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). In our day and age, how are women supposed to relate to male deity at every turn? The same way men ought to relate: God is our husband. In Scriptural imagery, God is masculine to the extent that all of creation is feminine to him. God is male to the extent that all creation is female to him. Rewriting hymns and traditional prayers and retranslating the Bible into gender-neutral forms does not broaden our understanding of God.… Read the rest

New life on both sides of the grave


Christians look forward to the resurrection of the dead, as promised through Jesus’ own resurrection. What about the resurrection of the living? How many of us go through life doing the same things, including making the same mistakes, over and over? Someone has observed that a rut is nothing but a coffin with the ends knocked out. Just as there is new life after physical death, so is there new life after stagnation. Lazarus died physically, but we can take his death and rising from death as a metaphor for reawakening to new life after a period of spiritual slumber.

When Lazarus became deathly ill, his sisters sent for Jesus.… Read the rest

The church: the household of God

“. . . if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, NIV).

Probably the first thing that comes to mind when we think of the church as “God’s household” is that Christians are God’s family. After all, household means the people who live in a house, and in our society, that’s usually a family. Indeed, God has adopted all believers into his family. But to gain a deeper understanding of Paul’s meaning, I would like to propose a different way of looking at it, not to replace the notion of the household of God as God’s family, but to enrich it.… Read the rest

Church unity in little choices

Methodist churches get their ministers by appointment from a bishop. After every annual conference, lots of congregations get a new minister. For all you Methodist readers who still have the same staff you had before, if your senior pastor has been appointed to his or her seventh year, chances are better than even that you will have a new one this time next year. Not everyone will be happy with the new minister. Some folks will wind up leaving that congregation.

Many other Protestant denominations call their own pastors. Changes of pastorates  occur at less predictable intervals. They can be very messy if a bare majority of the church wants to dismiss a pastor.… Read the rest